PSALM 89–A MEDITATION FOR ADVENT FOUR

The last Sunday of Advent for 2014 is upon us.  What more can we say other than “marana tha” — ‘Our Lord has come’, and, equally true, ‘Come, O Lord.’  PicsArt

There are many interesting things in this Psalm that are skipped in the assigned lectionary reading.  A brief sampling would have to include:

  • Verse 6 and its boasting of how much greater Yahweh is than the other gods in the sky
  • Implications of divine righteousness and justice in verse 14
  • The face of Yahweh as possibly the sun in verse 15
  • The glaring proclamation of the Davidic king as the firstborn, even though King David was not the firstborn (but Jesus was)
  • A startling jump between 37 and 38 which moves from affirmation of election to the reality of rejection
  • The renounced covenant of verse 39
  • A laundry list of accusations against Yahweh as the bringer of evil from 39-52 and then the contrasting doxology of 52

None of this, however, is in our assigned text reading for the last Sunday in Advent, which is verses 1-4, and 19-26.

A Maskil of Ethan the Ezrahite. [1] I will sing of the steadfast love of the LORD, forever; with my mouth I will make known your faithfulness to all generations. [2] For I said, “Steadfast love will be built up forever; in the heavens you will establish your faithfulness.” [3] You have said, “I have made a covenant with my chosen one; I have sworn to David my servant: [4] ‘I will establish your offspring forever, and build your throne for all generations.’” Selah

Let’s take these four verses together, although they are loaded with a lot of action.  We’ll start with Ethan in the superscription.  Different people take these differently.  I don’t really ascribe to them the level of authority of scripture, but they are interesting.  Ethan was known to King Solomon, according to 1 Kings 4:31, as a wise man.  If Ethan was the author of this psalm, then it has to be composed before Solomon’s reign, which means it can’t be after the exile.  I find this unlikely.  I find it very unlikely.  The themes of the psalm are too royal/messianic to reflect that early.  It is far more likely that it was composed late–at, around, or after 587 B.C. when the Davidic king was deposed and the covenant seemed broken (v. 39).  Some may argue that the psalm is prophetic, which is possible, but if so it would rob the immediacy and humanity of the plea.  I think it was put in the “file” so to speak of psalms that were composed in the style of Ethan or the school of Ethan rather than Ethan himself.

As to the content of these verses we should note two themes.  The first is the psalmists commitment to praise Yahweh forever because of his covenant.  We don’t know as we start reading the psalm that this commitment is a painful one.  It is only in the back part of the psalm (38-52) that we know he lives in a time when the whole world has fallen apart, the covenant is in shambles.  To offer praise and theological affirmation in the midst of great pain is the definition of spiritual strength and power.

The second theme is that of the future generations.  We find this two-fold.  The first is the psalmists promise to proclaim Yahweh’s covenantal love.  In the Hebrew of the MT it is hesed, but eleos in the LXX (Greek)–which is curious because they don’t really mean the same.  I normally side with the LXX, but here I think I go with hesed because it fits the covenant motif of the psalm.  Teaching the next generation is one of the goals of this psalm.  The second generational aspect is on the Davidic generations in verse 4.  To Judah in exile this would be hard to swallow.  From this side of history, we can see the fulfillment in the future generation that was Messiah Jesus.

[19] Of old you spoke in a vision to your godly one, and said: “I have granted help to one who is mighty; I have exalted one chosen from the people.

The old vision is a reference to 2 Samuel 7:11-17.  These verses can easily be understood as a restatement of that promise which God made to David through Samuel.  What I find interesting is the phrasing “to one who is mighty” and “chosen from the people” calls for the mental image of the judges rather than the monarchy.  Curious choice of vocabulary for those in exile.

[20] I have found David, my servant; with my holy oil I have anointed him, [21] so that my hand shall be established with him; my arm also shall strengthen him. [22] The enemy shall not outwit him; the wicked shall not humble him. [23] I will crush his foes before him and strike down those who hate him. [24] My faithfulness and my steadfast love shall be with him, and in my name shall his horn be exalted. [25] I will set his hand on the sea and his right hand on the rivers. [26] He shall cry to me, ‘You are my Father, my God, and the Rock of my salvation.’

This is the restatement of the Davidic covenant which we mentioned earlier.  Two things stand out.  The writer knows the whole time he writes this that the king of Judah was not strengthened by Yahweh when the Babylonians came, that the king was outwitted, that Judah was humbled by the wicked, that it was Judah who was crushed, that his horn was crushed.  The closest analogy I can come to is to imagine a future world in the United States that is run by a dictator, under military police, and all civil liberties have been suspended.  In the midst of that world imagine someone citing, publicly, the Pledge of Allegiance, “with liberty, and justice for all.”  Either that person is hoping that someday things will be put to rights, or that person is being cruelly ironic.  The same is true of this passage.  Either the psalmist is holding out hope for the future, or he is being cruelly ironic.

This is where I think that the lectionary division is unhelpful.  These verses say more in context than they do alone.  Most of us do not live in a perfect world where everything is ideal.  We live in some kind of exile–spiritual exile, medical exile, separational exile, economic exile and so many other things which change our perceptions.  The tension between being hopefully or cruelly ironic is the difference between being bitter or faithful.  I need to hear someone else like this student of Ethan’s go through the same thing so long ago.

One last thing before I wrap this up.  Look closely at verse 25.  The Davidic monarch as a seagoing power?  I don’t think this refers to a Hebrew navy, because I’m not really aware of a great seafaring tradition for Israel or Judah.  I suspect rather this verse reflects the Hebrew fear of the sea–something attested to in quite a bit of scholarship.  The Davidic king is promised by God to be a master of the mysterious sea as symbolic of controlling all of the unknown forces in the cosmos.  Of course, the New Testament student will immediately recall that our Lord walked on the sea as well as calmed its chaos.

Thanks for spending some time during this Advent season with me meditating on these Psalms.  I hope and pray you have a wonderful Christmas.

PSALM 85–A MEDITATION FOR ADVENT TWO

A key theme for the second Sunday of Advent is peace.  Jesus is our peace, and God’s plan is all about peace–for the individual, for the family, for the church, for the entire world.  Is this peace promised in the Bible spiritual, or is it political?  The answer is yes.  Those who seek peace in only the spiritual things of life but deny sociological, economic, and political peace are missing the plan God has for all people.  Likewise, those who neglect the spiritual peace of true enlightenment in Christ Jesus, the presence of the Holy Spirit, and the knowledge of an eternal purpose only to clamor for everyone to start beating their swords into ploughshares will always have a missing element in life; they will always feel like something isn’t quite right.  IMG_0105

As with most lectionary readings, the text skips around a bit, omitting verses 3-7, which is too bad.  These skipped verses reflect that the pslamist and the people have been delivered by the Lord in the past, but now they are need again for a second rescue.  Because of that, I place this psalm’s date as sometime after the return from exile, perhaps in the time period of Nehemiah and Ezra.

[1] LORD, you were favorable to your land;
you restored the fortunes of Jacob.
[2] You forgave the iniquity of your people;
you covered all their sin. Selah

Take note of the parallelism.  It is a common Hebrew poetic device.  Verse one says the same thing twice.  It is not two different points, it is the same thing, restated.  Likewise, verse two.  To be favorable to the land is the same thing as restoring fortunes, and to forgive iniquity is the same thing as covering sins.  Too often preachers and exegetes will attempt to wrangle too much from parallelism, thus rendering the text neutered if its original, and powerful meaning.

Here the meaning is clear.  There is a linkage between the act of restoration in the land and the forgiveness of sin.

[8] Let me hear what God the LORD will speak,
for he will speak peace to his people, to his saints;
but let them not turn back to folly.

Not condemnation, not judgment, not fear, not rules, not law, not an unending video loop of all our transgressions played out for everyone to see (Romans 8:1), none of these things are what the Lord wants to speak to us about.  He will speak peace.

[9] Surely his salvation is near to those who fear him,
that glory may dwell in our land.

Salvation is not near to all, just those who fear him.  Also note the link between salvation and glory.  Who is the glory for?  The second line here is fascinating.  Glory certainly refers to the Hebrew idea that when the Lord comes to rescue, he will be present in the land and his glory, the glory that settled on the tabernacle, the temple, and which left in the sad days of Ezekiel–will return to the land.  I do not diminish that concept one iota.  However, if someone sits with this text for a moment and feels the pull of the psalmist’s words, I think he or she will feel that part of that glory is for the people of God.  A borrowed glory to be sure, but glory for the saints none the less.

[10] Steadfast love and faithfulness meet;
righteousness and peace kiss each other.

This is one of my favorite images in all of the Bible.  This might be a chiasm.  I can’t prove it, but it sure looks like one to me.  Stead fast love, which is covenantal divine love crosses over to match with peace while faithfulness and righteousness are fairly easily recognized as near cognates.

The kiss is a beautiful thought.  It is not a romantic kiss, but more a kiss of greeting.  Some have scorned translating the word here as ‘kiss’ and instead prefer the idea of ‘linking arms.’  Whichever one you take they are both signs of friendship and trust, the sign of blessing which the Lord has for his people.  Greet one another with a holy (Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 13:12) kiss–the kiss of “shalom” as the peace of God.

But now I must digress.  For the past week I have seen the opposite of peace played out in Ferguson and New York as people hurt.  Why is there a lack of peace?  Because we are not righteousness.  We are not faithful.  We do not keep our promises.  We do not meet one another on friendly terms (kiss).  Justice is the byproduct of righteousness and love.  We lack justice because we lack the moral and spiritual power that makes justice a possibility.

[11] Faithfulness springs up from the ground,
and righteousness looks down from the sky.
[12] Yes, the LORD will give what is good,
and our land will yield its increase.
[13] Righteousness will go before him
and make his footsteps a way.

The Psalm finishes with another image.  It moves from a lovely kiss to an agricultural vision.  Faithfulness is now seen as a crop growing, while righteousness is rain and sunshine that makes the growth possible.  From this arrangement, the Lord blesses the harvest and makes it bountiful.  What a poetic view of life.  Taken at face value, we are being taught here that righteousness–a right view of society, law, faith, family–righteousness is the nurturing agent from which faithful people grow.  The opposite is probably true.  Unrighteousness nurtures faithlessness.