Psalm 1

Psalm 1 is known as a "Wisdom Psalm." That is a categorization given to it by later interpreters not necessarily one it claims for itself. Even so, Psalms 1, 37, 73, and 128 resemble the Wisdom literature like Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs.

The principle difference between the wickedness and righteousness within Psalm 1 is the approach each takes to instruction. The righteous embrace God's instruction; the wicked reject it. The Psalm begins with a beatitude (a statement about what it means to be "Blessed" or "Happy"). The beatitude describes the blessed righteousness as a three-part distancing ones self from wickedness. J. Clinton McCann of the The New Interpreter's Bible volume IV explains that the terms used in Psalm 1:1 get progressively more specific. "The wicked" is a general term for ungodly people. "Sinners" has the more specific meaning of those who miss the mark of meeting God's expectations. "The scoffers" are those who willfully reject instruction. This should not be confused with anti-intellectuals who can be problematic in their own right. The scoffers are those who regard faith instruction and consideration of God's commands as irrelevant or negligible. By contrast, the blessed/happy delight in God's law and meditate. Deep reflection on God's instruction marks the blessed; resistance to God's instruction marks the wicked.

The Psalm uses contrasting biological similes to describe the happy and the wicked. The reflective and teachable blessed one is like a great tree receiving sufficient nutrients from the river to also provide fruit to others. The Psalmist searches for the biological antithesis to the stable, rooted, and fruitful blessed one and finds this polar opposite in the chaff–the unusable husks of grain plants that are separated from the usable grain through the winnowing process. The wicked are light-weight. They are the barrier between the hungry and the foodstuff.

Verses 5-6 do not exactly parallel vs. 1 but there is some similarity between them. In verse , the blessed do not walk, stand, sit as the wicked do. The wicked do not stand (day of judgment), sit (in the assembly), and their walk "way" is destined to perish.

Acts 7

Stephen’s speech before the council is the longest and arguably most important speech in the book of Acts. The book of Acts tells the story of the Apostles and the earliest followers of Jesus following Jesus’s death, resurrection and ascension.   The Christians were a movement within First Century Judaism. The tensions between Christians and the rest of Judaism became intense enough that the two broke from each other. However, Luke composed Stephen’s speech in order to relate how the growing divide created moments of discipline and then ultimate rejection.

The speech itself deserves greater attention than I can give it today. It retells Israel’s history much like other passages of scripture (Deuteronomy 26:5-10; Psalm 78; Psalm 105; Psalm 106; Psalm 136; Nehemiah 9:6-31; 2 Kings 17:7-23).   He describes the story of Abraham (Acts 7:2-8), the story of Joseph (Acts 7:9-16), the story of Moses (Acts 7:17-43), the people after Moses (Acts 7:44-50). It concludes with an accusation that the people (who were about to stone Stephen to death) had resisted the guidance of the Holy Spirit just as their ancestors had.

One difficulty with interpreting this speech for modern Christian readers is how to interpret an accusatory speech directed toward the Jews without becoming accusatory ourselves. It’s important for us to remember that all of the recitals of Jewish history are made by Jews and for Jews. When someone from within a group chastises the group, it’s prophetic. When someone from outside a group chastises a group, it’s too often just bigotry. The point of Stephen’s speech is that if we review our history, we see that God has been continually active in our past and we have been too frequently resistant to God’s Spirit at work.

 

Psalm 136

How do we reconcile faith in a loving God when we have stories of God accomplishing God’s will through violence?  Psalm 136 is an historical Psalm.  It remembers creation (Psalm 136:4-9), the Exodus (Psalm 136:10-20) and the conquest (Psalm 136:21-22) and concludes with a benediction of reversal (Psalm 136:23-26).  Each line of this prayer is punctuated with the refrain, “his steadfast love endures forever.” It uses this refrain even as it describes moments of intense violence.  God took the lives of the first-born in Egypt, God’s love endures forever.”  These ideas seem incompatible.

It is difficult to know what to do with Psalm 136.  The Exodus is the central event in the biblical narrative of the Old Testament.  The Psalms focus on the Exodus to encourage people throughout multiple generations of displacement and oppression.  At the same time, it seems somehow incongruent to speak of God’s eternally enduring love in the same sentence with the declaration that God took the lives of the firstborn in Egypt.  Is it right to give thanks for the deliverance?  Absolutely!  But do we really want to celebrate the high price that was paid?  I don’t know.

On the plus side, the Psalm emphasizes that God’s love happens in particular moments and specific contexts.  It reminds us that love is not sentimental feeling.  It is real acts on behalf of the beloved.  Still if it were me, my refrain would be closer to—“sometimes God’s way looks uglier than we’d like.”  But the Psalmist isn’t squeamish.  If God has acted, it is a reason to celebrate.  So, the Psalmist simply proclaims about this act what the Psalmist has said about others—God’s love endures forever.

Two Views of One History

I have already looked at Psalm 105 and Psalm 106.  However, this week I’m looking at recitals of history.  At times, the Psalmist as well as other biblical writers felt that it served the purposes of the people and God to remind them of the history they share.  These histories are not journalistic.  Like all storytelling in scripture, it is meant to express faith.  Psalm 105 and Psalm 106 cover much of the same history, but they tell the story in different ways.  Old Testament theologian James A. Sanders suggested that there are ways to read any text in gospel-like ways–good news of God’s benevolent acts on behalf of God’s people. And the same text can be read as prophetic—a confrontation of the culture or people.   Here’s just two examples from these two Psalms where this capacity is on display. 

Then Israel came to Egypt; Jacob lived as an alien in the land of Ham. And the Lord made his people very fruitful, and made them stronger than their foes, whose hearts he then turned to hate his people, to deal craftily with his servants.” (Psalm 105:23–25, NRSV)

Our ancestors, when they were in Egypt, did not consider your wonderful works; they did not remember the abundance of your steadfast love, but rebelled against the Most High at the Red Sea.” (Psalm 106:7, NRSV)

 “Then Israel came to Egypt; Jacob lived as an alien in the land of Ham. And the Lord made his people very fruitful, and made them stronger than their foes, whose hearts he then turned to hate his people, to deal craftily with his servants.” (Psalm 105:23–25, NRSV)

Our ancestors, when they were in Egypt, did not consider your wonderful works; they did not remember the abundance of your steadfast love, but rebelled against the Most High at the Red Sea.” (Psalm 106:7, NRSV)

The same events read in very different ways.  We can all be guilty of shielding our eyes from wrong doing and placating guilty feelings.  The Psalmist invites us to see the balance in the telling of our shared history. 

 

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.

My Father the Wandering Aramean

I have never known hunger.  I have always lived in a house with adequate food.  My father made sure of that.  He had not been so fortunate.  He had known hunger and food insecurity most of his life until he joined the Navy.  Poverty is not a part of my biography, but it is a part of my history.  Knowing and internalizing that history makes it harder for me to turn a blind eye to poverty I encounter.  It has also embedded within me certain assumptions about what ought to happen in the face of poverty.  Namely, I assume the ideal situation is one in which the poor–like my father–manage to develop out of poverty through the assistance of others, wise governmental policies (like the GI Bill), sacrifice, education, and long-term employment.  Yes, I know that’s not always possible, but it is the embedded assumption I make.  All other realities push up against that basic narrative. I am interested in the ways people’s internalization of their history shapes their view of the world. 

The Bible retells broad patches of history in a few places: Deuteronomy 26:5-10; Psalms 78, 105, 106, 136; and Acts 7:1-53 (Stephen’s Speech).  I’m sure there are other places that do similar recitations of history and if you know of any, I’d be grateful if you’d remind me of them.  I’m interested in how these functions theologically, ethically, liturgically, and psychologically.

Deuteronomy is the last book of Torah–the last of the five books of Moses.  Within the story line, God had led the people of Israel (the descendants of Jacob) out of the slavery in Egypt and into the Promised Land.  They wandered in the desert 40 under Moses’s leadership.  The people were about to cross over into the land of their inheritance led by Joshua.  Moses would die before reaching that place with them.  Deuteronomy is presented as Moses’s final speech to the people.  It includes reminders of the legal codes which they are to follow–Deuteronomy 12-26.   Deuteronomy concludes the legal prescriptions of the book.

In Deuteronomy 26, Moses explained to the people how they were to make their offering of “first fruits.”  They were to bring to their priest the first fruits and first recite the history that begins, “My father was a wandering Aramean.”  Biographically, this would not have been accurate.  The gift-giver would be making reference to Jacob.  But they internalized this history by saying “my father.”  Scholars who read Hebrew (I don’t, sadly) say that the word translated “wandering” in both the NIV and NRSV implies more than just on-going journey.  It emphasizes vulnerability and poverty.  The gift-giver had land, could stay in one place long enough to reap a harvest, and would come to a stable sanctuary and their remember things had not always been that way.  It also retells the experience of mistreatment they experienced at the hands of the Egyptians (Deuteronomy 26:6).  God had acted to deliver and provide the land.

In the second part of the prayer  when providing the first fruits, the gift-giver would declare the purpose of the first-fruits saying, “I have removed from my house the sacred portion and have given it to the Levite (priestly-class), the alien, the  fatherless and the widow” (Deuteronomy 26:13).  In other words, they give the first fruits to offer care to those in their present context most resemble the internalized history–the faithful ones who cried out to the Lord (Deuteronomy 26:7 = the Priestly Levites), the vulnerable and destitute (Deuteronomy 26:5=fatherless and widows) and the Aliens  (those living in what is to them a foreign land the way the Israelites lived in Egypt Deuteronomy 26:6).  By using “we” and “me” language when remembering their history, the people cultivated empathy for those who may be less fortunate than they at that moment but on equal footing through the internalized history.  The past also served as a road map of where these narratives were headed and how they should unfold.

Repentance

A church unwilling to call itself to repentance must resign as a church.  A church's ministry begins and ends with God's decision to reconcile us to God's self.

The majority of Psalm 106 retells the story of the wilderness wandering with a focus on people's sinful activity.  Background exposition for this Psalm would include

Psalm 106:13-15 relates to Number 11:4-6–The people grumbled for food.
Psalm 106:16-18 relates to Numbers 16–the rebellion of Levites.
Psalm 106:19-26 relates to Exodus 32–the creation of the golden calf
Psalm 106:10-11 relates to Numbers 11
Psalm 106:30 relates to Number 25–the Story of Phineas
Psalm 106:32-33 relates to Numbers 20–the giving of water from the rock as a response to the people's grumbling at Massah and Meribah.

Note: The story of the Water from a rock is used as an example of God's warning and an example of God's power and benevolence

Warning Benevolence
Numbers 20:24
Deuteronomy 9:22
Psalm 78:15-16, 20-22
Psalm 95:8
Psalm 106:32
Deuteronomy 8:15, 18
Psalm 75:15-16
Psalm 105:41
Psalm 114:8
Isaiah 48:21

The Psalmist remembers these events as a way of reminding the people of their sin.  Psalm 106 has much to teach us about how to talk about sin.

Sin as "We" instead of "You" or "They"
The Psalmist makes this confession, "Both we and our ancestors have sinned;  we have committed iniquity, have done wickedly" (Psalm 106:6).  While much of the Psalm focuses on the past times when  people sinned, the basic premise is that the past sinful behaviors are prologue to the present.  We can learn a lot from this Psalm. We live in a culture that's been saturated with positive self-esteem language and micro-aggression language so much that we can point a finger at others and call them to account for their misdeeds, but we dare not see ourselves as sinful.  This absence of self-reflection and confession of sin leads to enormous moral blind spots. Psalm 106 is similar in disposition to Isaiah 6:5, "I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips."

Sin Against the Backdrop of God's Grace
In Romans, the Apostle Paul spent the first three chapters establishing the universal sinfulness of all people and then proclaims the good news of God's grace.  Psalm 103-106 reverses that trajectory.  Psalm 103 is a celebration of God's grace.  Psalm 104 is a declaration of God's creative sustenance.  Psalm 105 tells the story of Israel's history with an emphasis on God's goodness and blessing toward them along the way. Psalm 106 also begins with an affirmation of God's grace.  "God's love endures forever" (Psalm 106:1).     God showed kindnesses (Psalm 106:7).  Only after this reflection on God's grace, sustenance, and blessing does the Psalter turn toward the emphasis on sin.  The effect is two-fold.  On the one hand, it raises the stakes on the severity of  their sin.  It says, we have sinned in spite of what God has done and continues to do for us.  Yet, it also reassures us that although we have sinned, God has been faithful to forgive and show grace.  Today, when the topic of sin does emerge we can forget that the acknowledgement of sin, assurance of forgiveness and repentance operate in the shadow of God's grace.

The Sins were Theological as well as Ethical
When we think of sins today, I suspect most people think of more and ethical mistakes–excessive drinking, laziness, explosive anger, bigotry and sexism, lust, pornography, etc.  Today, we rarely hear about sins of irreverence.  We accept that people's worship attendance habits have "changed" rather than saying we've allowed our reverence for the Lord and our attention to faithful worship to wane.  We celebrate the sacrilegious as proof of our superior democracy rather than lamenting the fact that people's opinion of God revealed in Christ has stooped to a degraded level.  The sins detailed in Psalm 106 have to do with spiritual and theological failures.  A failure to remember (Psalm 106:7).  A failure to accept God's guidance (Psalm 106:13).  Idolatry (Psalm 106:19; 28).  Distrust in God (Psalm 106:24).   These sins against God are coupled with their sins against others.  Envy (Psalm 106:16-19).  Acculturation (Psalm 106:35).  And Child sacrifice (Psalm 1636-39).

Repentance begins with acknowledgement.  We have sinned just like our ancestors did.  We have sinned despite God's goodness.  We have sinned not just with acts of aggression toward others but neglect of God's divinity.  May we confess and repent with the awareness that God's grace had already been given to us.

 

 

 

Make Know God’s Deed

Doug Skinner writes a weekly blog I try to read.  On July 31, 2017, he wrote a post comparing Karl Barth and John Killinger and baseball.  On the one hand, Barth represented the faith in God’s singular authority and strength to bring God’s own kingdom.  John Killinger by contrast saw that salvation compels us to work. To understand how baseball fits into the mix, you’ll have to read the post.

Killinger’s words sound familiar to me.  His observation about Barth’s perspective confronted me.  He wrote, “We do not ‘build the Kingdom’ Karl Barth insisted, the Kingdom can only come to us, and clearly this is part of the Biblical witness about the Kingdom. In fact, I would argue that it is the part of the Biblical witness that is most noticeably absent from most of the conversations that I hearing in my part of the church these days” (emphasis mine).  I can freely admit that if one were to read the sermons I preach in any given year, they would hear a number of ways I believe the world could be made more godly through our efforts, but not necessarily hear a message of unrelenting faith in the God who wills and will accomplish God’s good purposes in the world.

Evidence of my inability to speak about God’s activity comes from my struggle with Psalm 105Psalm 105 recounts the history of the Hebrew people.  And I know that Psalm 106 will recount the same thing.  It will tell the same history.  The difference between Psalm 105 and Psalm 106 is that Psalm 105 speaks of God’s activity.  Psalm 106 chastises the people for their sins.  I am much more at home in Psalm 106.  It’s easier for me to hear a sermon about how I’m a screw up than to hear a sermon about God’s capacity to build.

The Psalm tells the stories of Abraham, Jacob, Joseph and Moses and the Exodus.  Only with each line, the main character isn’t the main character.  Rather in each of these moments in history, God is the central actor.  God confirmed (Psalm 105:10); God called down famine and sent a man before the Israelites (Psalm 105:16-17).  God raise Joseph up (Psalm 105:21).  The Lord made God’s people numerous (Psalm 105:24).  God sent Moses (Psalm 105:26).  God sent the curses (Psalm 105:28-36). And God delivered people from Egypt and brought them into the Palestine (Psalm 105:37-41).  God accomplished it all.   The Psalm begins with a call to storytelling—“Give thanks to the Lord, call upon God’s name.  Make known God’s deeds among the peoples” (Psalm 105:1).  Indeed.

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.

 

Don’t Forget God’s Benefits

Dr. James Flaming was my childhood pastor until I was about 12.  I don’t remember a lot of what he said.  I do remember that he often began worship quoting Psalm 103, “Bless the Lord, O My soul and all that is within me bless God’s holy name.  Bless the Lord, O my soul and forget not all his benefits.”  Psalm 103, 104, 105 and 106 are fairly lengthy Psalms that go into detail about the work of God.   In Psalm 103, God’s acts of forgiveness are named.

The Psalm seems to be a reflection on Exodus 34:6-7, “The Lord, the Lord,, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to the thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.  Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.”   The Psalmist cites the story of Moses and the people in Psalm 103:7 and then quotes Exodus 34:7 in Psalm 103:8.  As the Psalmist affirms God’s blessing to the children of the righteous (Psalm 103:17), the Psalmist stops short of naming the punishment that befall the children as the result of the father’s disobedience.  This doesn’t negate God’s justice, but like the original creed-like formula in Exodus 34:6-7, the Psalm emphasizes God’s grace above God’s judgment.   Biblical Scholar James Sanders once wrote: “The Bible is full of unrecorded hermeneutics recoverable by use of a triangle of interrelationship of ancient traditions or texts repeated in particular historical context of the believing community by use of certain hermeneutics” (From Sacred Story to Sacred Text, p. 71).  This reflection focuses on God’s grace–after all, “God does not treat us as our sins deserve.”

Do not Forget God’s Benefits
So, it helps to name all the benefits of the Lord’s activities.

  1. The Lord liberates (Psalm 103:6)
  2. The Lord reveals (Psalm 103:7)
  3. The Lord cares (Psalm 103:8)
  4. The Lord is patient (Psalm 103:8)
  5. The Lord removes our transgressions (Psalm 103:12)

The explicit naming of God’s benefits to us help us to see what is the priority from the perspective of biblical faith.  It takes our eyes off of the problems and toward the good news.  Being explicit in this manner, reverses our tendency to count our woes.  Annette Simmons wrote, “If we were to judge by the stories most people tell on a daily basis we would conclude that they are stressed-out, misunderstood victims here to survive red tape and stupid decisions” (Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins, p. 23).  Our witness is most effective when it is filled with thanksgiving of what the Lord has done.

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