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We spent the past week in Psalm 23. Any new insights from people in the Psalms project?

My earliest memory of the Psalms, even of all Scripture, is learning Psalm 24 in Daily Vacation Bible School [DVBS] held in the back room of the Anglican Church in my hometown of Wawanesa, MB. I remember enthusiastically repeating the call and response form of the Psalm.  “Who is this king of Glory? The Lord strong and mighty.” I also remember wondering and imagining how gates could have heads, “Lift up your heads, oh ye gates!” I guess as a six year old I did not yet understand metaphors. The Psalms still invite us to experience them rather then exegete them. What is your experience?

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We read the Psalms at the family dinner table. After reading Psalm 22 for a few days our daughter remarked, “Finally!” as we got to the last stanza. Although the lament of 22 is appropriate for Lent, our reading schedule will now find us in 23 for a few days. Because this psalm is so familiar we will take it one line or verse at a time; hopefully we might see some things we have not seen before.

The myth that David wrote the psalms while sitting on a hill strumming his harp while the sheep are sleeping on a starlit night probably comes from the fact that Psalm 23 is the most familiar psalm of them all. It does deal with the imagery of a shepherd and sheep but it is actually one of the few mentions of this in the psalms. I will say more about authorship of the psalms in a later post but this week while we slowly make our way through Psalm 23 I would like to talk about our cultural distance from the origins of the Book of Psalms.

Before we get to the shepherd and the sheep, we need to recognize that the worldview of the psalmists is very different from our own. Basically, they viewed the world like a giant snow globe with the sky as the dome and the earth as a flat pancake held up by pillars. [See Psalm 104:1-5. This is why Copernicus and Galileo were heretics—they theorized that the Bible was wrong in the way it described the world. Today of course we accept their theory and most of us don’t use the Psalms or any part of the Bible as a science text book.] The ancient Hebrews also had no view of the afterlife; when people died they went to SHEOL which was literally the underworld often translated “the grave” in English translations. Any references in the Psalms that seem to speak about the afterlife [e.g. 73:24] can be attributed to readers and translators reading their modern Christian theology back into this ancient literature. The resurrection and the afterlife did not emerge as a common belief among the Jews until the third to second century BCE. We could mention a few other things such as the lack of a belief in Satan as a personality which also came later. And the frequent mention of enemies in the Psalms refer to actual physical enemies, not the spiritualized version we usually have. It is important to understand this cultural distance when we read the Psalms so that we experience the Psalms for what they are: endearing and enduring poetry that expresses the cries of humanity in their relation to God.

And then there are the sheep and the shepherds we encounter in the Psalm 23. In our urban western society we know absolutely nothing about the primary image used in this psalm unless you happened to live and work on a sheep ranch, then you might have a few clues. To those who used this Psalm in worship in the ancient middle-east the scenes of the Psalm would have been very familiar. The best resource I know of to help us understand the imagery of this beloved psalm is Phillip Keller’s book, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23. Ironically, some of the theological language of this book is dated [published in 1970] but I think he can still help us to understand the world of shepherds and sheep which underlies this beloved psalm. Perhaps a brief excerpt from the book might help to rekindle our imaginations as we read the psalm this week. Here Keller is reflecting on the opening line: “The LORD is my shepherd.”

It is no accident that God has chosen to call us sheep. The behaviour of sheep and human beings is similar in many ways. Our mass mind (or mob instincts), our fears and timidity, our stubbornness and stupidity, our perverse habits are all parallels of profound importance.

Yet despite these adverse characteristics [God] chooses us, buys us, calls us by name, makes us [God’s] own, and delights in caring for us.

In fact, Psalm 23 might well be called “David’s Hymn of Praise to Divine Diligence.” For the entire poem goes on to recount the manner in which the Good Shepherd spares no pains for the welfare of the sheep.

 

Jesus cried out with the words of Psalm 22:1 as he hung on the cross. Sometimes this has been used as a proof text for backing up the penal substitutionary view of the atonement. The Psalmist was not here prophesying that the Father would turn his back on his Son in divine wrath against the world’s sin he was carrying. No! God’s love [HESED] is steadfast, eternal, and unconditional—that is the central and oft repeated [The word HESED is used 125 times in the Psalms] message about the character of God in the Psalms and indeed in all of Scripture [See Romans 8:38-39]. God never turns the divine back on any part of creation and not on God’s own self. There was no conflict within the godhead; Jesus is praying a psalm.

The psalmist is feeling abandoned by God and this psalm was used by generations of suffering people who were crying out in the midst of their hour of need. Jesus was a Jew who knew his psalms well and his utterance of this psalm continues the usage of the Psalms as the prayers of God’s people. Jesus was crying out in his own hour of need along with his fellow sufferers before and after him. There is no theology of atonement here; there is simply a spirituality of the need to cry out to God when we are feeling abandoned and alone in our suffering. The nature of suffering is that we feel alone and want to be heard; the nature of healing is that it happens within the balm of a community of sufferers. The fact that God in flesh also cried out with the words of this psalm makes it all the more powerful a prayer.

As I read Psalm 19 I was reminded of my Introduction to Theology class I took almost 40 years ago at Steinbach Bible College. They told us that verses 1-6 were about “general revelation” available to all people through creation and verses 7-14 were about “special revelation” through the Law or the Scriptures which were seen as the higher form of revelation. I remember thinking at the time that this was an impressive observation by my professor but today as I read the psalm it seemed somewhat banal. Perhaps my memory was actually a hindrance to my hearing the psalm anew today since I already knew what it said. What was your experience with Psalm 19 or any other psalm you are reading this week?

 

It is an understatement to say that Psalm 18 is full of metaphors. The Psalms are poetry and poetry is marked by the ample use of metaphors. Metaphors are about relating one thing to another, a direct comparisons between unlike objects. Thinking metaphorically means making a comparison between two dissimilar things, one of which is better known than the other, and using the better known one as a way of speaking about the lesser known. In the case of Psalm 18, God is the lesser known and rock, horn, fire, thunder, etc. are the common objects and experiences of the hearers. Eugene Peterson says, “Metaphor uses the language of sense experience to lead us into the world of the unseen: faith, guilt, mind, God. The visible and invisible, put asunder by sin, are joined by metaphor.”

Language, especially language about God, can become idolatrous. Idolatry is the opposite of metaphor. Peterson continues: “An idol starts with a mystery and fashions it into something that can be measured; a metaphor begins with something common and lets it expand into immeasurable glory.” Theologians come up with statements and big words about God [e.g. omnipotent, omniscient, immutable, etc.] that become enshrined in creeds and “statements of faith” that border on idolatry. Psalm 18, and other psalms, do the opposite. Wild and wonderful metaphors open our imaginations to think about what God is like and they help us to experience God. Metaphors are not words used to restrict our experiences or someone else’s—“This is what God is like. This is how you are to experience God”—but the metaphorical language of the Psalms opens us up to the mysteries of divine work in our lives.

 

Psalm 12 is the second of seven short psalms contrasting the wicked oppressors and the righteous oppressed, from the perspective of the oppressed. As an educated, white, middle class, middle aged, North American male I have a hard time identifying with this voice. A few years ago I read the book, Reading the Bible with the Damned by Bob Ekblad that helped me to begin to read the Bible with a different lens. The Psalms are the cry of the oppressed and when I read them from this perspective I get closer to hearing them in their historical context and I gain a new perspective for hearing and speaking them today.

Today is the 493rd anniversary of an act of resistance against the oppressive Christian establishment of the day in central Europe. A group of people baptized each other in an upper room as a sign of their break from the system, hence the name “Anabaptist” which means to re-baptize. It was not so much the act of pouring water on heads that got them on death row; it was the resistance against the powers that were in place. Read Psalm 12+ from the perspective of these young women and men.

A few days ago was the first anniversary of the massive women’s marches in Washington, DC and around the world that were an act of resistance against the presidential inauguration of a man who has oppressed the poor with his global financial empire and abused individual women on the way. A few individual men have been called out lately for their sexual abuse of women but the oppressive systems are still in place. Read Psalm 12+ from the perspective of the women who have been abused.

This past Monday was Martin Luther King Jr. Day. He was instrumental in bringing to the fore the plight of African American citizens who have been oppressed for the entire history of the country. First of all brought as slaves and then treated as second class citizens for generations, blaming them for crimes just because of the colour of their skin. Read Psalm 12+ from the perspective of these people.

Post your reflections as you read the Psalms this week from the perspective of the marginalized.

 

Psalm 8 is another orientation psalm. Note that it is deliberately ordered in a number of ways:

  1. It is bookended by the same lines: “Yahweh, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”
  2. The whole thing is directed at Yahweh the Creator, which is actually rare in the Psalms.
  3. The contrast between the words used for human beings in v.4: ENOS = mere mortals, BENADAM = children of earth and the royal language used for them in v.5 and v.6: a little lower than God, heavenly beings… crowned with glory, rulers with everything under their feet, etc.
  4. The animals in v.6-8 are in reverse order from what they are in Genesis 1:20-25, which is also a well-ordered creation poem.

The primary question of Psalm 8 is: “What are human beings?” The Psalm replies to the question with a very high view of humanity: “We are like God” [v.5], which is very much like Genesis 1:26, “We are made in God’s image.” Humans are dignified because of our affiliation with God. In this Psalm we are more closely related to God than to the animals. We are given the mandate to rule over animals and to take care of them and their habitat.

At the same time we need to note that we are created beings, children of earth [v.4] who are made of dirt [Genesis 2:7] and that what is said about the dignity and dominion of human beings is framed by the praise of God [v.1,9]. Human beings only have delegated authority over creation; we are caretakers or stewards. God is still the primary ruler who has delegated management to the human race. This has often been forgotten by humans in the history of the world.

Both Genesis 1 and Psalm 8 are beautiful poems about the order of God and how God has oriented creation toward order. Human beings are part of this order and also invited to cultivate and care for the order of creation. The disorder and “groaning” [Romans 8:22] of creation should concern us. Respect for creation and creation care become part of our worship of God.