That’s Not How Any of This Works!

There’s a brilliantly funny commercial showing an “offline over-sharer.”  She’s created a wall of photos–quite literally a wall with photos taped to it.  And she’s showing them to her two friends.  When she makes a claim about how quickly she saved money on her car insurance, one of her friends claims to have saved more in half the time.  The first lady then “unfriends” the person who argued with her causing her unfriended friend to say, “That’s not how this works; that’s not how any of this works.”

It plays on our implicit assumptions that rules get set up and people are supposed to follow them.  Of course, the rules change–as evidenced by the women’s literal interpretations of “posting to your wall” and “unfriending” friends.  Claiming “that’s not how it works” implies that somewhere along the line an agreement was made that things were to work a certain way.  In a much more complete and serious sense, the Bible calls these enduring agreements about how things are to work between God and God’s people–and between them people themselves–covenants.  A covenant is a formal agreement.

Psalm 50 assumes covenantal language and agreements.  The Psalm comes in two parts.  The first part consists of Psalm 50:1-15.  Here the covenant concerns the covenant people have made within the context of ritual sacrifice and worship (Psalm 50:5).  God puts the sacrificial system in perspective reminding the people that God God’s self does not need to eat and if God did, God would consume one of the millions of creatures God has made.  The sacrifice covenant depends on a grateful spirit–there needs to be an alignment of  attitude and practice (Psalm 50:14).  This is the covenant of sacrifice.

The second part of the Psalm–Psalm 50:16-23–becomes more accusatory.  Here, the wicked are called to account.  Psalm 50:16 connects the two parts as God questions the right of the wicked to participate in the worship life.  Having rejected God’s truth with their behavior, they have forfeited their integrity to participate in worship.

They are guilty of four specific sins:

(1) an unwillingness to heed God’s instruction (Psalm 50:17), (2) theft (Psalm 50:18a), (3) adultery (Psalm 50:18b), and (4) slander (Psalm 50:19-21).   Each of these sins is a violated covenant.  The resistance to learning and instruction violates the covenant a person has with one’s self and God.  Theft violates the covenant to respect one’s neighbor.  Adultery violates the covenant of marriage.  Slander violates the covenant we make with truth.  While we may find the harsh tone of Psalm 50:22 uncomfortable, indeed those who tear up these covenants–with God, self, neighbor, family and truth–will find their lives torn apart by the inevitable consequences.  Psalm 50 is a divine, “That’s not how it works; that not how any of this works.”


A Penitential Psalm

From at least the writings of St. Augustine, Christians have identified certain Psalms as “penitential psalms.”  Since the 6th century, seven psalms have been classified as penitential psalms:

Psalm 6
Psalm 32
Psalm 38
Psalm 51
Psalm 102
Psalm 130
Psalm 143

Penitential psalms acknowledge either personal or collective sin.  They lament the consequences of the sin.  They pray for God’s healing and restoration. However, Psalm 6, the first of the penitential Psalms, does not actually offer a word of confession or repentance.

It begins with a petition that God not rebuke or discipline harshly.  This initial statement about God’s wrath is what places Psalm 6 within the group of penitential psalms. Clearly the Psalmist was experiencing distress.  If we take the distress literally, it’s physical distress: bones ache (Psalm 6:2), death may be imminent (Psalm 6:5), tears and fatigue are felt (Psalm 6:7).  These symptoms may also be metaphors of the experience of sin.  The Psalmist understood circumstances of suffering to derive from God’s judgment.  While I do not believe God sends physical illness as a punishment for sin, I do believe that sin has consequences–often physical consequences.  I also know that suffering can reorient people to focus on God.  The journey of repentance does indeed begin as the penitent move God back to the center of their lives.

The psalm resolves with a word about evil doers.  One could imagine that David–as he suffered some sort of illness–might have experienced treacherous people circling him in his weakness.  They might have waited like vultures for his life to fail so that they could swoop in and feast on the carcasses.  As healing–whether it was physical or spiritual or both–took place, the Psalmist finds the strength to rebuke them.  If penitence begins with putting God in the center of one’s life and intentionally spending time with God, the next step may be for the penitent to disassociate with people who contribute to sins.  Some people are simply toxic and repentance often requires getting away from them.

Clean hands, pure heart

“Clean hands and a pure heart,” describes a life that is committed to God’s sovereignty inside and out.  Psalm 24 is often described as a liturgical entrance Psalm.  Like Psalm 15, we can imagine that this Psalm was used as worshipers gathered together.  It could be associated with the story recounted in 2 Samuel 6.  There King David brings the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem.  He is terrified of the Ark’s power and so it takes him awhile to move it into a tent he had established as the Ark’s sanctuary.  In the end, it is brought forward into the worship space with joy.  It could also be associated with a time after Solomon, David’s son, had built the temple.  It may also be associated with the Second Temple period–after Ezra/Nehemiah re-established the Temple in Jerusalem.

Psalm 24 begins and ends with a declaration of God’s glory.  In Psalm 24:1-2, God is affirmed as the creator of the world.  God subdues the waters–a symbol of chaos for Ancient Near Eastern people–and creates both the land and all of the inhabitants.  It concludes in Psalm 24:7-10 with the refrain, “Lift up your heads, you mighty gates.”  And doubly affirms that the Lord is the mighty one, strong in battle.  So Psalm 24 begins and ends with an affirmation of God’s sovereignty.

In the heart of the Psalm (Psalm 24:3-6) the Psalm describes what is expected of the one who enters the presence of God.  Clean hands describes more than ritual cleanliness.  It is a symbol of ethical rightness.  A pure heart similarly describes someone who has the right attitude.  The righteous worshiper of the Lord does not participate in idolatry.  This one does not trust in nothingness.  And this one is blessed by God.  As with other Psalms of this kind, one question I have is whether these are entrance requirements or the effect that being in the presence of God in worship has on a person. Certainly the purity of our hearts is made more pure through worship and our attention to our own conduct and lives more focused through our participation in the congregation.

Who May Enter

Psalm 15 is often categorized as a liturgical Psalm.  One can imagine that people coming to worship in the temple or one of its predecessors might stand at the temple entrance and say, “Lord, who may dwell in your tent? Who may live on your holy hill?”  And they would hear an answer from the doorkeepers of the temple about the character expected of those who worship the Lord.  The NIV uses the word “sanctuary” while the NRSV uses “tent.”  Yet, in the Exodus experience the Tabernacle was a Tent.  So, it seems probably that this could have been used to enter a worship space.

We might imagine that the checklist of items necessary to gain entrance would include elements defined by worship.  Appropriate sacrifice–check.  Worship clothing and attire–check.   Songbook–check.  Voter registration card . . . .  Yet, notice that the expectations are ethical rather than liturgical.  Psalm 15:2-3 include an ethic of speech.  The righteous speak the truth and do not slander or slur others.  It’s reminiscent of James’s instructions concerning the tongue (James 3:1-12).  Psalm 15:4 suggests an attitude of righteousness and a commitment to integrity.  The sanctuary dwellers “keep their oaths even when it hurts.”  The Psalm includes with economic integrity–lending without usury (charging extraordinary interest toward people with little or no means to pay) and refusing to accept bribes.  The end result is not a promise of sanctuary entrance, but a life of stability.  “The one who does these things will never be shaken” (Psalm 15:5c).

I believe God accepts everyone.  I struggle with texts like this that suggest that a person has to earn entrance into a worship space through good behavior.  I’m much more comfortable with the “come as you are” approach to worship.  Yet, I also believe that being in worship should have a lifestyle effect on a person.  Worship is intentional time with God.  As we encounter God’s character in our worship, we adopt God’s character in our lives.  God is all the things described in this Psalm–blameless, truthful, respectful, decent, generous, and scrupulous.  As we enter into worship, we make ourselves vulnerable to the character of God and pray that God might change us in the process.

Grandparents’ Psalm

Psalm 128 is a Song of Ascents.  The superscriptions for Psalms 120-134 identify them as such.  These superscriptions are in the Hebrew text.  The assumption is that this Psalm collection included the songs the Jewish people would sing as they made their way to Jerusalem for the pilgrimage festivals (Passover, Pentecost, and Feast of Tabernacles).

A classification given by interpreters is that Psalm 128 is a wisdom Psalm like Psalm 1, 37, and 73.  Psalm 19, 111, and 112 might also be classified as wisdom Psalms.  A Wisdom Psalm discusses the path to a blessed life.  It resembles Proverbs and Ecclesiastes (possibly Job) in its theology, approach to truth, and rhetorical structure.

Another way to understand the Psalm is using Walter Brueggemann’s description of Psalms as Psalms of orientation, disorientation and reorientation.  Psalms of orientation have a sense that life is as it should be.  Disorientation Psalms reveal the hardship and lament of life.  They are the laments.  Psalms of reorientation reveal a continued awareness of hardship and pain but they also sense that change has occurred such that a new place of hope and stability has been achieved (consider Psalm 73).

Psalm 128 is a Psalm of orientation.  It states in polite and succinct ways the Psalmist’s belief that the life of the ones who follow God’s way will be blessed with material and vocational prosperity (Psalm 128:1-2) and with a blessed family life (Psalm 128:3-4).  That part of the Psalm seems to connect to Psalm 127.  And it concludes with a simple affirmation of God’s goodness.  I tend to resist Psalms of Orientation.  I resist the easy promises that God will act in predictable ways. I resist the idea that God can be viewed in mechanistic ways–you behave correctly and God will do good things for you (really? seriously?).  I almost skipped the Psalm.  On my first and second reading of it, I was bored by the time I had gotten to Psalm 128:6.  And then I saw it.

“May you live to see your children’s children.”   At 46 I still consider myself too young to become a grandfather–grindaddy–but, My daughter is at the stage in her life now where we were when she was born.  She’s been married a year, she’s finished college, and she’s pregnant. I am reminded that for the ancients, 46 would have been an old man.  There were no guarantees that a person would live long enough to “see their children’s children.”  In truth, there are no guarantees for us.  I am more aware now than I was when my daughter was born of just how precious life is.  It cannot be taken for granted. Still, I feel confident that I will see my children’s children.

Yet as I go back and read Psalm 128 in light of becoming grandfather, this is what I see.  “Blessed are all who fear the Lord, who walk in God’s ways” (Psalm 128:1).  In a few months, I become a part of the larger family that will teach young lives what it means to worship the Lord and live in reverent relationship with God.  “You will eat the fruit of your labor . . .” .  We do not now live in a world where goodness is guaranteed the blessings of reward.  The wicked thrive and the good suffer.  Without grandchildren that fact is simply something I lament.  Now, I see it as that which I must confess and from which I must repent.  My grandchildren will be born into a world that I helped create.  If indeed the world into which they are born is unjust and if it rewards the unrighteous, at least part of the blame belongs on me.  Rereading the orientation of the Psalm renews my commitment to helping shape the kind of world that will provide stability for them, blessing for them, and renewal.  I need to work for the kind of world where I can confidently prayer over my grandchildren, “May the Lord bless you from Zion all the days of your life.”  Amen

Traffic Ticket Wisdom

I had gone to the north side of Amarillo to buy a water pump for a car.  A family had broken down in the parking lot of the church I was serving.  I frequently dealt with the people who came in for help.  Somehow we had the resources this time to purchase a needed auto part for a family who couldn’t otherwise afford repair.  I went over a very steep overpass on my way back to church.  A police officer was sitting at the bottom of the overpass.  Between gravity and my sense of urgency, I exceeded the speed limit.  I received a ticket.  The prayers I prayed on my way back to the church were what you might expect.  “Lord, here I was doing good–doing your will–helping the least of these.  Why?  Why?  Am I persecuted thus?  To be given a traffic violation while being the Samaritan who did not pass by on the other side.”  OK, maybe I’m exaggerating.  It did happen 25 years ago.  I thought of that when I read Psalm 73:13-14, “Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure; in vain have I washed my hands in innocence./All day long I have been plagued; I have been punished every morning.”  Full Disclosure:  I was sent on the errand by my boss (minister of administration); I used the church’s money; I was on church time.  It wasn’t a “pure” errand of compassion that I was on.  Nonetheless, I felt as though God should prevent bad things from happening to me because I was doing good deeds.  It wasn’t the first time those thoughts went through my head; it wouldn’t be the last.

Psalm 73 is a wisdom Psalm.  In many ways it is the prequel to Psalm 37Psalm 73 admits doubt and frustration in times when the wicked thrive and the good suffer.  Psalm 37 admonishes people not to fret when the wicked thrive and the good suffer.  Psalm 73 provides a more detailed examination of the wicked.  They do not struggle physically (Psalm 73:4), they are not burdened like other people (Psalm 73:5), they are proud (Psalm 73:6a) and violent (Psalm 73:6b).  These wicked people violate the law to love God and love others.  Instead they plan evil deeds for others (Psalm 73:7) and they scoff at God (Psalm 73:8-9).  And if all that weren’t bad enough, the wicked win popularity contests (Psalm 73:10-11).

Like Psalm 1 and Psalm 37, Psalm 73 returns to a place of asserting that ultimately the wicked perish and the good thrive.  The Psalmist comes to understand that reward may not always be material or physical.  It is spiritual. It comes in the abiding knowledge of God’s presence.  The Psalmist prays, “Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand” (Psalm 73:23).  And then later, “My flesh and my heart may fail; but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Psalm 73:26).  So, while my faithfulness didn’t get me out of a ticket; defensive driving was a remarkably spiritual experience.

When the Wicked Seem to Thrive

Kesha is not the kind of singer I normally think of when I am reading and interpreting scripture.  However, in the Summer of 2017 she came out with an album entitled, “Rainbow.”  WARNING FOR MY MORE PURITAN FRIENDS:  The music has all the F-words and explicit lyrics you’d expect from a pop artist.  That said, I think it is a compelling set of songs.  The single that’s is being played on the radio right now is “Praying.”  The bulk of the Song is a very typical–I succeeded despite all your abuse–in-your-face Song.  Clearly someone (and if you know much about Kesha’s life experiences it’s several ones) has hurt her badly.  In the face of a person who has tried to oppress/suppress her she self-asserts and succeeds.  It’s the chorus and conclusion I find interesting.  She sings

“I hope you’re somewhere prayin’, prayin’
I hope your soul is changin’, changin’
I hope you find your peace
Falling on your knees, prayin'”

At the end of the song she says, “Some say, in life, you’re gonna get what you give/But some things only God can forgive.”

I thought about this song as I read Psalm 37Psalm 37 is a Wisdom Psalm.  It resembles the Job in its outlook and contemplation of why good things happen to bad people and vice versa.  It resembles Proverbs in the way it offers succinct and paternalistic advice.  It describes how a person should respond to the apparent success of the wicked.  Like Psalm 1 it  contrasts the wicked and righteous.  It is a sober assessment of the present–where the evil seem to thrive–and a hopeful look at the future–where the righteous inherit the land.  Ultimately, it is an affirmation of faith that the God we serve is a God who redeems and a God who restores.

Gardner Taylor once said in an interview of Christianity Today, “God is out to get back what belongs to him.”  My friend and mentor Doug Skinner quotes this statement often.  Once I heard him say words to the effect, “My 55 years as a Christian convince me this is right.  My 30 years as a pastor convince me, the world will not give it up without a fight.”  So how do we respond to the fight?  How do we respond when the wicked thrive–Trust that the way of the wicked will not ultimately success.  “Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him and God will make your righteousness shine like the dawn, the justice of your cause like the noonday sun. Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for God” (Psalm 37:5-7).

I do wonder, though, if there’s something about praying for the wicked?  Praying that they are praying.  Praying that they are changing.  Praying that they encounter the grace of God who forgives.


The Wisdom of Remembering Past Mistakes

The Psalm 78 begins more as a wisdom psalm than a historical Psalm.  Psalm 78:1-11 has a call to listen, grasp the truth being disclosed and pass this wisdom to the future.  The upbeat beginning initially leads a reader to believe that proverbial truth (translated as "parables" in Psalm 78:2) will be coming.  Instead, the Psalmist offers an accusation of the Northern part of the Kingdom which gets called Ephraim at times and Israel at other times and had its religious center at Shiloh.  The historical part of the Psalm involves two recitals of Exodus history, declarations of God's willingness to forgive despite people's unfaithfulness and ultimately a justification of God's selection of David and the Southern Kingdom as the place for God's favor to rest.  Psalm 78 covers more of Israel and Judah's history than any of the other historical Psalms (Psalm 105, Psalm 106, Psalm 136).  It just doesn't cover it in sequence.

The first recital of their history begins in Psalm 78:12 and stretches to Psalm 78:31.  It recounts the Exodus experience. There is reference to the gift of manna.  When God rescued the descendants of Jacob (the Israelites) from Egypt, God led them through the desert miraculously providing food–manna for them to eat (Exodus 16:21).  God also brought water from a rock so that they could drink (Numbers 11:16-34).  Consistently through this time, the Psalm makes reference to people's sin and resistance to God's leadership.  The first recital of history is followed by a more general statement of God's forgiveness in spite of people's sinfulness and insincerity (Psalm 78:35-37).

The second recital of history begins in Psalm 78:48.  Both recitals of the history begin with the reminder that people forgot (Psalm 78:11) or did not remember (Psalm 78:42).  The second recital remembers the plagues that were sent (Exodus 7-12).  Toward the end, there is a reference to the capture of the Ark of the Covenant by the Philistines (1 Samuel 4-5).  The Ark had been kept at Shiloh in the Northern kingdom.  The loss of the Ark becomes the reason for the Northern Kingdom's rejection and the selection of David and the Southern Kingdom as the priority.

Ultimately this Psalm is designed to bolster the leadership of David and the superiority of Judah. It's a leftover from a fight that has long since grown cold.  A couple of points of application stand out to me.  First, is that the sin most frequently pointed to is that the people failed to believe that God's power in the present could match what God had done in the past.  It convicts me to think of how quickly I lose confidence that God can accomplish through me what God demands of me.  Second, I am struck with the way the reminder of people's sinfulness and mistakes fit within their national identity.  In truth, this recital of history is meant to make one part of the Kingdom look bad (the Northern part) and the other part of the Kingdom look good (David and the Southern part of the Kingdom).  Nevertheless, much of this is shared history that the Psalm recounts.  To me, it seems that when people today speak of our past sins and mistakes, that person gets labeled unpatriotic.  I've been to a lot of Fourth of July parades, I've never seen a float labeled, "Catastrophic Moral Blunders of Our Past."  This Psalm regards the reminder of past sins as the way to strengthen future generations and pass wisdom from one generation to the next.

Overflowing Psalm

My house has flooded a few times.  We are lower than our neighbors so significant downpours have come in the back door or over the foundation several times.  The word “overflowing” is not necessarily a pleasant one to me.  Yet, Psalm 104’s overflowing is beautiful and exuberant.  Psalms can overflow with  theological claims, natural observations and points of connections to the rest of scripture.  All of these are found in Psalm 104.

Theological Claims:
First, the central claim of the Psalm is that the Lord is the creator and sustainer of all that is.  It is especially concerned with the creation and sustenance of life.  The God of scripture, in contrast to mythology present in the Ancient Near East, is presented as a God who forms creation with order, wisdom, and grace.  The Babylonian creation myth known as Enuma Elish talks about creation as the remains of Tiamat who have a conflict with Marduk–the supreme god for the Babylonian pantheon.   In the Gilgamesh Epic--another Mesopotamian creation myth, humanity comes from a lover’s quarrel.  In Atrahasis, an Akkadian epic, people are created to serve the needs of a lazy group of gods.  The language of the biblical creation narrative in Genesis 1-3 draws on these Ancient Near Eastern texts.  However, the Biblical God is (a) singular–Judaism and Christianity and Islam are monotheistic; (b) benevolent as Psalm 104 affirms God is good; (c) compassionate.  Notice how God is described as the One who gives grass to the cattle, trees for the birds, crags for the badgers (“coneys”), prey for the lions and work for humanity.

Another important theological claim of Psalm 104 is that God creates through God’s Spirit.  The Nicene creed speaks of the Holy Spirit as the giver of life (Psalm 104:30).

Natural Observations
Second, natural observations abound in Psalm 104.  The Psalm observes the movement of water to the lower places, the way oil makes faces shine, the habitations of birds and animals, the relationship of the moon to seasonal.  The Psalmist presents creation as a varied and dynamic context through which God’s praise rings out.

Scripture References
Finally, Psalm 104 connects to other passages of scripture.  The openings and closing (Psalm 104:1 and Psalm 104:35) connect to the preceding hymn’s opening and closing (Psalm 103:1 and Psalm 103:22).  Psalm 104:5-9 suggests the experience of the flood in the Noah story–especially compare Psalm 104:9 with Genesis 9:15.  The affirmation that God made the world “in wisdom” (Psalm 104:24) relates to Proverbs 8:22-31 where wisdom is personified in a female character through whom God creates.  Finally, the closing petition, “May my meditation be pleasing to him, for I rejoice in the Lord” (Psalm 104:34) resembles the closing to Psalm 19–also a creation Psalm–“May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.”

In Psalm 104 these overlapping theological claims, observations and connections to other biblical material are not set forth in an orderly treatise.  Rather they flow–much like the water that runs through the Psalm itself.  They swirl and blend and turn.  It’s a beautiful reminder that in our own faith and thought ideas are not as simply divided into categories as we might sometimes wish for them to be.  The swirl together.