Psalm 57 seems almost like two separate psalms spliced together (Note v.1-4,6 and then 5,7-11). Two contrasting themes seem to confront each other: the psalmist crying out to God in the midst of vividly described enemies, and then words of singing, music, and praise for God’s love. Only the latter is typically associated with Pentecost. Say the word “Pentecost” and people will usually think of speaking in tongues, hands raised while singing contemporary praise choruses, and perhaps things like being slain in the Spirit, miraculous healings, holy laughter, etc. Only the first actually happened on Pentecost. Unfortunately, the stereotypes of the Pentecostal tradition and denominations have provided a very narrow view of what it means to be “Pentecostal.”

If we check out the original Pentecost story in Acts 2 we note the question: “What does this all mean?” (v.12) in response to the manifestations of wind, fire, and many languages described in v.1-11. Peter answers the question by quoting the prophet Joel. His main point was that this Pentecost event was the beginning of the church, the dawning of a new age of the Spirit. Old barriers and walls that once stifled and restricted the Spirit were now broken down. The barriers of gender, age, and social status would be erased in the new age of the Spirit. How has the church done on this for the past two thousand years?

Our spiritual ancestors of the Anabaptist movement gave their lives in defence of this teaching. For all to be priests, by opening up the interpretation of the Bible and the voice of the Spirit to every person… that threatened the power structures of their day. “What kind of chaos will ensue if all people can hear and speak God’s words?! Our whole church structure and social system will be upset. Let’s shut’em up!” the people in power said, and killed them. (Perhaps this is where the other part of Psalm 57 comes in—the voices of the persecuted crying out to God for vindication.) Are we (established churches, Mennonite or otherwise) the persecutors who are quieting the dissenting voices today? Are we listening for God’s voice in the voices of the marginalized?

God’s love is not only for the insiders (see the continuing story in Acts 8 and 10 where the barriers of sexuality and ethnicity are also broken down). Psalm 57:9 provides the theme song of Pentecost. “I will praise you, Lord, among the nations; I will sing of you among the peoples.”

 

 

 

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This post is really about the authorship of the Psalms using Psalm 51 as an example but I can’t help but connect the story about King David’s sexual assault of Bathsheba to the present circumstances on our continent where numerous powerful men, not unlike David, are being confronted for their acts of sexual assault. Perhaps this psalm could be a template for a response?

Psalm 51, and more than a hundred other Psalms, have some editorial lines under the number. These lines include one or more of the following: reference to an author/s, musical notations and directions, and sometimes a brief story, usually from the life of David.

All the psalms come out of the worshiping community of ancient Israel. Authorship was not a significant issue then as it is today in the age of copyrights. Rather than authors, we could more accurately call them liturgical traditions. The names were attached to give the psalm some credibility and context. “Psalm of David” could mean “written for David”, “connected to David” or “in the tradition of David”. The brief references to events in David’s life do not necessarily mean that David wrote them during or after that event; rather, the brief historical note gives the psalm some context and keeps the stories of David alive for future generations. There is no doubt that David wrote some psalms but probably not all 73 with his name attached.

David was a gifted worship leader, composer, singer, musician, and lyricist: his harp playing soothed King Saul’s manic depression [1 Sam.16:14f], he was a vigorous dancer [2 Sam.6:14f], his laments spoke for the entire nation [2 Sam.1:17f, 3:33f], he was revered as an anointed prophet [2 Sam.23:1f], he was even said to have made musical instruments [2 Chron.7:6], he was the leader and appointer of all the worship leaders and even subsequent generations saw him as being the primary conductor [2Chron.25:6]. This is why so many psalms have his name attached.

There are numerous other liturgical traditions in the book of Psalms: the sons of Korah, Asaph, Solomon, Ethan/Jeduthun, Moses, and Heman. And it is quite likely that just as there were female prophets there were women who played instruments, led worship, and wrote some of the Psalms [68:25; 2 Sam.19:35]. Miriam, Hannah, and Deborah all wrote psalms that are not included in the 150 but are elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible.

Psalm 51 is then not just a psalm that we can imagine David reciting after he was sorry for his sin of sexual assault but it is a psalm that was and is relevant anytime worshipers confess their sins.

 

Two weeks ago I was stabbed in the gut four times by my surgeon. Thankfully I did not feel a thing until anaesthetic wore off later that day! I have been in recovery mode since then with orders to “Be still!” It struck me as I read Psalm 46 today that the “Be still!” that is often used for entering a meditative and contemplative state is also an emphatic command rather than a voluntary spiritual practice in a serene retreat setting. God says “Be still!” in the midst of tumult and violence so cataclysmic that the figurative mountains are falling into the sea. In the midst of this God is a refuge. This proclamation of peace is from the same God who created the world with a simple word and now bids that wars cease. Oh that the warring world might hear–or me in my own daily frenzy.

 

I previously posted in regards to Walter Brueggemann’s threefold spirituality of the Psalms. Orientation psalms are those that display creation order and justice—the way God created life to be. All people have an orientation to how life should be and disorientation, calamity, suffering and death are also universal human experiences. Disorientation psalms are those that cry out because reality does not match our orientation. Life includes violence, pain, broken relationships, and injustice; this is inevitable. We cannot insulate ourselves from these. However, many people stay in the midst of disorientation. They give up. That is hopelessness.

Psalm 40 is an example of a third theme: “new orientation” spirituality. The possibility of new orientation only comes after having come through the valley of disorientation because on the other side there is a brand new perspective. It is “new orientation” not “reorientation.” There is no return to the original stable orientation. There is no going back to the good old days, even though we may long for it in the midst of disorientation. There is also nothing we can do to bring on a new orientation; rather, it is a surprise. New orientation is always the work of God. Each time we experience new orientation we are grateful. New orientation psalms are recognized by frequent thanksgiving.

Even if it is not automatic that we move toward new orientation, we are not left hopeless. The key to new orientation is a posture of openness to God’s work in our lives which involves the process of theological reflection. This is slow work that involves the classic spiritual practices.

My theory is that we go through these movements numerous times in our lives: sometimes daily and sometimes they are measured in decades or longer seasons of life. And I think that over time a once “new orientation” can become a stable expected status quo orientation and the cycle repeats again.

 

Has anyone else felt uncomfortable with all of the binary language of Psalm 37? “The righteous get rewarded and the wicked get punished; I and my people are righteous and God is on our side; my enemies are completely wicked, they torment me and I wish God would destroy them for it…” etc. This kind of psalm must have inspired Christendom Christians throughout history to consider themselves superior to all other people, calling them wicked, and then doing God’s work by killing them Jesus’ name.

Obviously anyone in their right mind today would identify themselves as righteous rather than wicked and yet as a pacifist Christian the seemingly arrogant attitude displayed in the psalm makes it hard for me to count myself among them. I also don’t really want to identify myself as one of the wicked. So what’s left other than to wonder what a poem like this—and there are many others—is doing in the Psalter? How do I read a psalm like this in the spirit of Jesus who turned the righteous/wicked spectrum upside-down?

A few things help me out. First of all, this is a Wisdom Psalm similar in style to the Book of Proverbs. Proverbs often appear in contrasting “binary” statements which are not meant to be taken as literal advice or reality. Secondly, this is an orientation psalm that speaks of the way things are supposed to work in the world. Human beings are oriented toward justice. Justice—albeit different definitions—is a universal value. Righteousness should be rewarded, wickedness should be eradicated, or at least corrected. A third perspective is that we must understand that the psalms were the cries of an oppressed people, very different from the perspective of Christendom Christians who are feeling persecuted as they lose their grip on political power. I still feel a bit uncomfortable though. How do you read/hear this psalm?

Although I listed many of the events in the Christian calendar in the Psalms reading schedule, I did not make any attempt to coordinate them with particular psalms. During this past week I had the thought that I should have tried harder to do this. What does Easter, the height of the Christian calendar, have to do with a wisdom psalm which we focused on during the latter part of Lent and the first weeks of the Easter season?

Today, a phrase from our reading in Psalm 37 struck me as appropriate for a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus: “The power of wickedness shall be broken” [v.17a]. Indeed, Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection three days later has broken the power of wickedness. The principalities and powers that nailed Jesus to the cross were defeated by the sacrifice of love and the power of the resurrection. The myth of redemptive violence that has ruled much of human history was proven to be a foolish fraud by the cross and the resurrection. The resurrection—indeed, the entirety of the Gospel story of Jesus—teaches us that the greatest power in the universe is not death and destruction or the fear of it; it is the power of love and life.

Yes, when I hear the rhetoric from leaders of the world these days I am often overwhelmed and depressed by the power of wickedness in our world. But today the line in this psalm and the events of Easter remind me that this power has been broken. “Walking in the resurrection” is sometimes still a struggle and a long and winding road. But today I have hope that God’s steadfast love will uphold us.

Knows he and loves the good man’s ways,

And guards him on till endless days :

O’er such, no cloud shall peril bring,

And famine sees them feast and sing.

 

Like smoke that o’er the altar fumes,

Where bleeds the lamb, and bleeding burns,

So time the hoarding wretch consumes,

While love’s free gift in wealth returns :

 

Most strong to curse, most kind to bless,

God leads the just, and gives success ;

And though they fall, they yet shall stand,

And smiling trust th’ Almighty hand.

 

Ne’er, while from youth to age I trod,

For all that path was mine to tread,

Saw I the righteous left of God,

Or his lorn offspring beg for bread :

 

O’er bounteous heads all favour glows ;

Down to their seed the blessing flows ;

And if from ill thy footstep cease,

Forever shall thy house be peace.

 

Peace dwells in ev’ry righteous home ;

For God’s strong shield his saints defends :

His light is there when troubles foam ;

On, e’en to death its gleam descends :

 

Quell’d by his storms, th’ ungodly line,

Like blasted branches, -with’ring pine,

While, on the land by promise bless’d,

The upright feet have glorious rest.

 

Rich words distils the good man’s voice ;

There truth and honey’d wisdom glide :

The Lord’s pure law is all his choice,

His patient footsteps never slide :

 

Silent, the wicked watch his way,

And fain would rise to seize and slay;

God saves him from their ambush’d pow’r,

And saves in judgment’s stormier hour.

 

Trust thou the Lord and his command ;

So, when the bold transgressor dies,

Thou, lifted in thine own fair land,

Shalt see, as saw my wond’ring eyes :

 

Upward I saw him spread his fruit,

And fix below his stately root;

I pass’d, and all the scene was bare ;

I look’d, nor one poor leaf was there.

 

Watch thou the path, where walks the just;

Peace hovers o’er his holy end ;

While, mid the mass of common dust,

The haughty seed their ruins blend :

 

Yet not his arm deliv’rance brings ;

His hope to God’s strong succour clings ;

And as he hopes, so God shall give,

And, safe from foes, his soul shall live.