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Posts Tagged ‘What the psalms say about’

In the last post, I dealt briefly with how God’s role as Creator and Sovereign impacts how the psalmist reacts to good or bad occurrences in his own life**. Now, I want to examine how the psalms portray God’s role as Covenant Keeper and Deliverer and those roles play out in different “life” contexts.

The psalms that focus on God the Covenant Keeper often have an eye on the past. Psalm 136 (the “his steadfast love endures forever” psalm) begins by praising God for his goodness and sovereignty (over both divine and human rulers). The psalm then moves to describe his past acts in creation, deliverance from Egyptian bondage, and victory over the kings of Canaan. All these acts demonstrate that his חסד, a term often associated with covenant faithfulness, endures forever.  The psalmist employs this phrase as a drummer would bang on a drum.  The phrase resonates with every reflection on past faithfulness. The psalmist brings all these past acts forward into his own time in the next section of the psalm:

It is he who remembered us in our low estate
his steadfast love endures forever
and rescued us from our foes
his steadfast love endures forever
he who gives food to all flesh
his steadfast love endures forever

That very same God who remembered his covenant in the past remembers it now. The psalm itself is a call to remembrance – after all, people often forget before God does. In response to this memory of God’s faithfulness, the people are to worship God continually. With every beat of the drum (His steadfast love endures forever), give thanks to the God of heaven, now and forever.

God as Covenant Keeper also comes up in several lament psalms as well. The psalmist celebrates God’s faithfulness to his covenant to such a great extent that the lament part often takes us by surprise. Psalm 44 is a good example. The psalm begins with, “We have heard with your ears what you have done” and begins to describe all the great victories that God had won for Israel. In response to God’s great acts of faithfulness, the people boasted in God not in their abilities. The psalm then turns downward to describe their current condition: “But You have rejected and humiliated us.” Their enemies trample them down. They suffer evil continually. The fault, they maintain, is not their own: “All this has happened to us, but we have not forgotten You or betrayed Your covenant.” Contrary to what God had promised to do for the faithful, God seems to have left them to their enemies. Yet, worshipers cry out for Yahweh to save Israel because of his steadfast love (חסד). They maintain that God is still the covenant keeper despite their feeling of abandonment! They found their hope for the future not in the present but in the past. No present situation diminishes God’s role as the One Who Keeps His Covenant.

Lastly, we should give some attention to God’s role as Redeemer. God’s strength is demonstrated by his acts in Creation and the successful execution of his will in this world. His faithfulness is demonstrated by the work he did on his people’s behalf in the past and present. These truths about God motivate the psalmists’ bold requests for help from Yahweh and establish their confidence in his salvation. Psalm 62 begins with:

I am at rest in God alone;
my salvation comes from Him.
He alone is my rock and my salvation,
my stronghold; I will never be shaken.

The psalmist asserts that his salvation comes from God alone.  No need to beg for mercy from the rich and power. No need to sacrifice to any other gods. God alone is sufficient. God will move on behalf of the faithful and cannot be stopped. Not all psalms are like psalm 61 in their expression of such confidence. Yet, even the ones that seem to end so bleakly, they always maintain hope for salvation in some way. Psalm 89 is a punch in the gut but still calls for Yahweh to remember them and manages to finish with: “May the LORD be praised forever. Amen and Amen.” If anyone has hope, may they hope in God. He alone is able to save even when our present is in ruin.

While the picture I have presented about God’s attributes in the psalms has come no where close to exhausting the material of the psalms, I hope that the picture I have presented is enough to begin to understand the attitude the psalms demand from people who make use of them in worship (whether by reading, praying, or singing).  The psalms are beautiful. The writers were masters of imagery and parallelism. They give expression to a great range of human emotion and experience. What I think makes the psalms majestic, however, is the fact that each psalm expresses the wonderful truth that such a great God would bend his ear to hear the cry of his people and answer.

**NOTE: I do not intend to limit the meaning of the psalms to a single writer. The poets and editors of the psalms intended that all people who sang these psalms as a part of their worship. In a more limited sense, the worshiper would understand meaning of the psalms in the light of their everyday life as well. Psalms 25 and 51 are examples of individualistic psalms which move from the individual to the corporate confession and praise in a couple of lines at the end of each psalm. These moves transform an individualistic prayer into an expression of corporate hope making these songs even more appropriate for use in worship and prayer. We would do best to remember this feature of the psalms when interpreting and applying them. The psalmists’ reflections on the character and roles of God embody not only their own cares and concerns but also those of the people who would sing and pray them in worship. In this way, they bend our twisted minds and attitudes back into proper shape: humans living as humans were made to live.

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When we begin to try to understand the psalms, we should first meditate on how they describe God. God is, after all, the psalmists’ primary subject of adoration and addressee in prayer. These psalms were written not only to proclaim these characteristics but were written on the basis of these characteristics. The psalmist doesn’t write, “How long have You forgotten me forever?” unless he has some concept of God’s faithfulness in mind. I plan to focus on four aspects of God’s character as represented in the psalms: God as Creator, God as Sovereign, God as Covenant Keeper, and God as Deliverer. I couldn’t begin to enumerate all the ways the psalms describe God. I can’t even do justice to the four I plan to focus on. I do believe that these four allow us to understand the content of many of the psalms and allow us to delve into each topic more fully.

The psalms that focus on God as creator do so to demonstrate his power over the heavens and the earth and their respective inhabitants. Many of these psalms usually state the reality Yahweh’s creative acts in order to state the reality of something else. For example, Psalm 146 says that, Yahweh who is maker of heaven  is the same God who “executes justice for the oppressed.” God is not so distant from his creation that he doesn’t hear the cry of the humble and afflicted. His role as Creator demonstrates that he is capable of helping them. Psalm 104 talks about God as a caring creator who crafted the world and continues to attend to the needs of his creation including purging the world of evil doers. The Creator does not act capriciously; he built and rules the world with wisdom. Other psalms reference God’s role as creator as an example of his ability to save his people from their current situation. Using the language of ancient myths, the author of Psalm 74 cries out for deliverance from the God who divided the waters and crushed the Leviathan. Yahweh can defeat his enemy with ease, why couldn’t he defeat mine?

One of the difficulties in describing God as Sovereign is that it seems to be a bit of a catch all for all the other categories. I think I can justify the difference between God as Creator, who possesses the right to rule by creating all things, and God as Sovereign, who continues to exercise his right to rule over his realm. Psalm 24 declares at the outset, “The earth is the LORD’s and its fullness, the world and everyone who lives in it.”  In the psalm, the one who approaches Yahweh, the king, as one often does to seek favor, must be righteous.  This demand in itself is strange to our democratic mindset. The psalm glorifies obedience to the supreme ruler. We, however,  celebrate the rule of the people as the ideal form government (and perhaps among human governments, democratic rule is). The Sovereign King blesses and mediates justice to those who serve him faithfully. Isn’t that what we seek in a democratic government anyway? Psalm 24 ends with a description of God as the King of Glory commanding a large host attempting to make a triumphant entry through the gates of the city. The psalm urges those gates to let him in and let him rule.

What we see in the first two categories is a God who by the very fact of creation demonstrates his power over everything in the world. Everything he does is wise and good, and he does exactly what he wants. The Creator possesses the right to rule over his creation as he sees fit. Yahweh does exercise his right to rule. He is not capricious. He rules with perfect justice. While these facts are enough to demand absolute obedience and continuous praise from the entire world, how are we to trust him? The last two categories should help answer that question.

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In the fall, I will be teaching a series on how the psalms address certain issues we face in today’s world. As of right now, I decided to call the series “What the psalms say about…” I would like to say a thing or two about the topics I would like to cover and the method I think I will be using to address the topics.

Some topics will address questions we face in our day-to-day life. How do the psalms address religious pluralism, and how should that inform our mindset when addressing those questions in our culture? What do the psalms  say about evil in the world? How does the psalmist bring his complaint to God? What do the psalms say about social justice? Why do the psalms seem to speak so little about that topic when it is so important to love your neighbor as yourself?

Some topics will address faith issues. What does the psalmist say about God in particular situations (e.g. praise, thankfulness, suffering, etc.). What do the psalms say about faith, and why is it important to place that faith in Yahweh? As an aside, the faith issue is actually an important hermeneutical key for understanding the psalms. What do the psalms say about prayer? Do the psalms inform us how to pray? Can we pray the imprecatory psalms?

These are broad topics that will be tough to handle without a serious study of one of the larger bodies of literature in the Bible. The psalms were written from a variety of perspectives and situations. For the most part, the perspectives and situations encapsulated by the psalms are not the same types that we face today – no psalm was written with the modern day issue of the problem of evil in mind. Some topics require many psalms while others may require one. Thirteen weeks is an impossible period to go into a lot of depth, so we will have strategic in what psalms we choose to teach which topic.

The main issue with reading the psalms is understanding how the psalms speak to us today. How different are we from what the psalmists? How we deal with the historical background, literary devices, subtitles, and canonical layout can all inform how we read the psalms. On top of that, the psalms require a specific kind of reader – a reader who places faith in the sovereign God. Our perspective and questions are not their perspective or questions exactly, yet the psalms were written for our benefit. We must continue to read the psalms. By reading the psalms we encounter the sovereign, covenant-keeping Creator who is also our friend. Through the psalms God transforms us. They transform the way we think about God and his world. They sanctify our minds and our actions. Through the Holy Spirit, they make us faithful members of God’s community.

 

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