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I have been away for two weeks, traveling from BC to Manitoba and back. Thanks for all your comments while I was away. I’ll confess that I read Psalms 79-83 in one reading to catch up. It seemed to me that they continued a similar theme to 78. Most of these psalms are a communal cry of “save us from our enemies” perhaps encapsulated by the repeated refrain of Psalm 80:3,7,19 and appropriately ending with a statement that Yahweh is the ruler over all the earth [83:18].

This theme of national oppression was difficult to relate to as I was traveling across western Canada experiencing the varied beauty of our geography the past few weeks. The theme of rescue from enemies is also difficult to relate to as we spent time with family members and friends who love us and care for us. Either I have to take a sneak peek at 84 and 85 which are much more positive pilgrim psalms or put myself into the shoes of someone else who is experiencing oppression. My first thought was of the two refugee families from Iraq that people in our church are sponsoring. They have spent years in refugee camps and now finally they are making the long journey to Canada. I’m sure they have prayed a few of the lines from these psalms over the past few years.

Psalm 84 better encapsulates my experience of the past few weeks. The dwelling place referred to here is probably the temple but I know very few people who would not say that they experience God more out in nature than anywhere else. God dwells in creation. I saw God in the vibrant green and pink fireweed contrasted with the blackened burned trees. I saw God in the majestic mountains and the grinding glaciers. I felt God in the wind waving the long grasses of the prairies. I experienced God’s presence and love in our families and friends.

Psalm 84 and 85 often go together as they are called “pilgrim psalms” and that too has been my theme as I traveled through provinces I have previously lived and spent time with people who have helped me on my journey of life.

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Psalm 78 recalls various events in the history of the people of Israel and reminds the hearers of the lessons they can learn from these. It is interesting that the reading of this psalm over the next week or so will include the national holidays of both Canada and the USA.

Most readers of the Bible will have observed how the narrative in the Bible about God’s work with humanity expands from individuals, to a nation, to all people. The purpose always was that “all people on earth will be blessed” [Genesis 12:3] never that God chose an individual or nation for its own specialness or that some have a special destiny. Individuals and nations have often forgotten this and have become prideful, arrogant, and narrow-minded—thinking that somehow they are the only ones God wants to bless. A central prophetic call in both testaments is to widen this perspective [e.g. Jonah, Romans].

Following ancient Israel, both Canada and the USA have had this idea of manifest destiny during their history—and some leaders perhaps still think so—that God has somehow specially chosen them as a nation for a special role in the world. Even the creation of the modern state of Israel by western “Christendom nations” is an example of the misguided view that God favours some individuals and nations over others. All nations are subject to the same divine justice. There is no nation more special than another and no individual more special than another in God’s view.

All of us have lessons we can learn from history. So, as we read about the lessons from the history of ancient Israel while celebrating the modern nations of Canada and the USA, what lessons emerge from the history of our own nations? How do the lessons from the history of Israel still speak to us today?

 

Psalm 73 explores one of the classic philosophical questions: Why do the wicked prosper? Why do good people suffer? This is injustice and it is part of the human psyche to desire fairness. What do you think of how the writer of Psalm 73 responds to the problem?

Note: Although Christians sometimes read traditional views of heaven [as a reward for good people] and hell [as punishment for the wicked] into this psalm, the ancient Israelites did not have a concept of the afterlife such as this. Everyone simply went to SHEOL, the grave or place of the dead.

Yesterday was Aboriginal Day in Canada. Perhaps indigenous people are asking this question more poignantly than anyone. The conquerors of their land are enjoying prosperity while they are languishing in poverty on reservations. This is injustice.

Yesterday [June 19] in 1865, slaves from Galveston, Texas, became the last to know of their newfound freedom. Union soldiers finally reached this city and read aloud Abraham Lincoln’s famous Emancipation Proclamation, which had declared two and a half years earlier that all American slaves had been freed, although for many their bondage continued.

Psalm 72 is an appropriate psalm for this occasion. A wonderful blessing on a leader who defends the needy, delivers the afflicted and brings prosperity to the land. Perhaps this prayer is more pleasant to pray than the previous post!

Trivial details: This psalm is the only one “of Solomon” and was probably written for his coronation ceremony or some occasion celebrating his reign. Verse 20 says that this concludes the prayers of David. The editors got this wrong as 108, etc. are also psalms of David. We have also come to the midpoint of the Book of Psalms and the end of Book 3 as we come to the midpoint of the “Psalms in a Year” project.

The separation of church and state is official veneer in North America. And in Canada especially, faith is assumed to be a private sphere that should not interfere in the public sphere of politics. I believe that it is impossible to separate these two. Psalm 68, as with many psalms, mixes the two quite liberally. I do not understand all the imagery in the psalm nor the political contexts and religious worldview of the time. One thing is clear to me: the two are intertwined.

The problem is not that faith or religion interferes or taints public policy whilst a-theistic secularism objectively guides it. So-called secularism is also faith in some thing. The problem is not the mixing of the two. The problem is the mix of bad religion and bad politics. The world is rife with the combination of these from my armchair vantage point. The most obvious example in the world today is the dictator who runs his country and the world from his twitter account and plays charades with another dictator using state-sponsored giant airplanes and nights in luxury resorts as their props while their most vulnerable citizens are shot in schools and starved in the streets.

“May God arise… God, you provided for the poor… kings and armies flee in haste… the Almighty scattered the kings in the land… God chooses to reign… Surely God will crush the heads of his enemies… Summon your power, God; show us your strength, as you have done before… rebuke the herd of bulls among the calves of the nations… scatter the nations who delight in war.” [excerpts from Psalm 68] Should we be praying this today? I shudder.

 

Praising God in the Psalms is often conditional on God rescuing the people from enemies or calamity. In the midst of predicament people cry out to God making vows that they will praise God if they are vindicated. If suffering continues God must be punishing them for something. God saves them and God is proclaimed as powerful and wonderful. Psalm 66 repeats this common theme.

This perspective seems kind of simplistic to modern readers, including me. But then again, am I really that different? It’s pretty easy to sing songs of praise when things are going well. Today was a beautiful late spring day, flowers are blooming, the garden is growing, fresh strawberries are plentiful, and school is almost out… life is good. Praise God! It reminds me again that the Psalms are not prescriptive but descriptive. Most of us are happy when circumstances are pleasant and sad when things don’t go our way but maybe we should not read divine causality and/or blame into every circumstance.

 

Have you noticed any repeated themes in your psalm reading thus far? One of the benefits of reading the entire book from beginning to end is the possibility of noticing these. Psalm 63 reminded me of one theme I had encountered before.

What does it mean to desire God? What does it mean to seek God [v.1]? How do I see God and behold divine power [v.2]? How is God’s love better than life [v.3]? Do I simply show my desires by singing and raising my hands [v.4]? How does God satisfy me [v.5]?

Psalm 63 is one of more than a few psalms that metaphorically describe human desire for the divine [e.g. 27, 42]. In this case desiring God is compared to thirsting for drink in a desert and hungering for food in a famine. But hunger and thirst are tangible cravings that are satisfied with bread I can smell, and taste, and touch—and water that literally is life. Those of us who believe in the existence of a transcendent divine being have no trouble saying that this divine being is also the sustenance of life, that in God we live and move and have our being, that seeking some thing or some one beyond us is part of what makes us human. Desiring God is part of being IMAGO DEI; we are made in the image of God and part of that image means we desire to be in relationship with our Creator.

Popular songs also depict this search for God. One of the most well-known and loved songs in my young adulthood was “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”. I remember opening a sermon on Psalm 27 with the lines of this song when I candidated for my first youth pastor job in 1988 [I got the job!]. The sermon was all about longing for God. We also had choruses based on Psalm 63, 42, 27 that expressed this desire for God. I sang with passion and longing but now that I am older and sometimes more skeptical; I wonder, what was I longing for? Was it related to my search for meaning and belonging as a young adult? What does it mean to desire God now that my life and relationships are more stable?