Background Have you ever stood at the ocean’s edge or looked up at a mountain or the stars when you are far away from the city lights? It is that sort of moment that the Psalmist is feeling in the middle of Psalm 8. All this wonder… and then there is us. I also think this is where Psalm 8 begins to have unique connections to our times. There is that phrase “mindful of them” that is replaced in some versions with “thinking of them” or “thinking on them”. But in our days, the term “mindful” is making a comeback with books and mental exercises and even phone apps increase our “mindfulness”. In modern parlance, this means being present thoughtfully in the moment, with those you are with and with awareness of the gifts of that moment and that place. That God would be mindful of us, that we are part of his consciousness in this moment, even given the grandeur of the oceans, mountains and stars is amazing.
Reading Psalms 8:3-4 When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established;4 what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals[a] that you care for them?
Reflection: Let’s be honest, there are times that humanity isn’t so impressive. We can look out at what we are doing and wonder at the stupidity, cruelty and wastefulness that is part of who humans can be. Of course, there is also the wonder of great art and music, selfless sacrifice and community engagement as well as the acts of kindness and love that marks as humans as well. What does God think of it all? In our own lives, we are a microcosm of this greater humanity, mixes of good days and bad, of apathy and love. This Psalmist sings this Psalm to remind us that God is mindful of you, all that you are in this moment and for better and worse, he cares for you.
Background As poems, the Psalms often use vivid imagery that praise creation. But this week’s Psalm about creation is unusual in that is isn’t seeking to praise and understand God through his creation (I’ll pick one of those for next week), but to see how we fit into it all. Like the two creation stories at the beginning of the bible, this Psalm isn’t about how or what, but who. Who created everything, who are we to this grand creator and who are we to his creation?
Reading Psalm 8: 1- 2 Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory in the heavens. 2 Through the praise of children and infants you have established a stronghold against your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger.
Reflection. It is hard to choose just one thing even from just two verses- The Lord is our Lord- we belong to him and him to us. What a marvelous beginning! The glory and majesty in earth and heaven- Lord of all and still ours. Little old us, we belong. The second verse is one that I’ve seen discussions on. Is it that praise, or honoring God is enough to protect even the weakest of us, or that out of the mouths of babes comes truth, or even that when we come to God with faith and praise as children do, then we are doing it right and protected by his grace? Whenever you gain insight from the Psalms, then that is a “right” way to think of it, so what does it mean to you? All together it begins the journey of this Psalm with contrast between the amazing largeness and power of God and the small fragileness of us. Yet we are connected. God made you. God made me. He wanted us! Sometimes we need to strip the rest of it away and remember that.
Background. At the end of Psalm 103 we finish its journey from the individual to the community to all of creation. The Psalmist sees us as part of an increasing complexity of existence because we are loved by God and part of his creation. But this isn’t just a passive belonging, but an active choice to join in the choir of creation singing God’s praises and to join God’s work force bringing his will to life. It isn’t as much an individual relationship with God, but a joining with all that is God and from God and that is what is eternal.
Reading Psalm 103:19-22 The Lord has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all. Bless the Lord, O you his angels, you mighty ones who do his bidding, obedient to his spoken word. Bless the Lord, all his hosts, his ministers that do his will. Bless the Lord, all his works, in all places of his dominion. Bless the Lord, O my soul.
Reflection We are told that Jesus is our personal savior, that he would have sacrificed himself just for us. We can think of eternal life as a continued existence as an individual loved by God. But in the time of Psalms, this idea of continued individual existence wasn’t common and God’s promise was for the community. Imagine for a moment that you were not given a promise of eternal-life, of salvation from death- would you still follow God? Would your day to day actions as a Christian change? I don’t ask this for the purpose of devaluing the unbreakable permanent individual relationship with God that is inherent in the Christian faith! But only for the opportunity to appreciate the additional foundation of our connection to God as a community here and now. This is a gift the Psalms can give us.
Background The central part of Psalm 103 could be summed up as God is a tender merciful God. Sometimes we think that the people of the Old Testament viewed God as an angry vengeful God, and there are parts that do support that. However, the Old Testament view of God is multifaceted. This tender side of God is present throughout the stories as well. Here, the Psalmist reminds us that God’s compassion and forgiveness beyond anything we owed. Two other background points. First, some versions will use the term to “fear” God, but it is important to read that as respect and honor. It is an awe of God above anything else that centers the Jewish faith. Second, remembering what I wrote yesterday, the Psalmist isn’t talking about personal salvation per say, but of salvation of the community. It is the community that continues, not the individual, and thus the individual as part of that community becomes part of that everlasting promise of God. It may be hard for us as an individualist culture to relate to this group philosophy, but there is something to be learned in trying.
Reading Psalm 103:6-18
Focus Verses 11-13 For as high as the heavens are above the earth so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him.
We often hear of God referred to as Father, but father can be a loaded term depending on your personal experiences and our society. God is as much a Mother as a Father, but given the different roles of mothers in that time, that analogy isn’t used as much in the Psalms. Although it is used as in Psalm 36 and then quoted by Christ in Matthew 23. So it would help if we try and remove the human parenting issues, and think of a more divine parent. If you described a perfect parent- all the good things about a parent- and then looked at that list- is it a description of God?
Psalm 103 is one of those that feels familiar because we have heard it’s language in our music and prayers Yet if we look at the wording and think about it, it is a bit strange. The first 5 verses are below (I couldn’t pick just one). The term soul at the time of the Psalms doesn’t mean what we think of now as an everlasting part of us. At that time the soul meant the complete us, like the next phrase says. Not just our physical life, or possessions but everything we are. I also read in my study Bible that life after death wasn’t a component of Judaism at the time of the Psalms either, although it is later. The “pit” is being cast off from God to despair and loss: being separated from God and thus all that is good. The very first word “Bless” is also strange as blessings are something we usually get or ask from God. We can also be a blessing to someone else, or be blessed by someone else. Some versions translate this as “praise” which is probably closer to the mark, but does that miss something? Can you bless the Lord? We can certainly praise God and see blessings we receive from God. We can say bless you meaning thank you- an honoring of gifts. That may be all the Psalmist meant. But can we mean more? In this day, can we do something for God that is a blessing for him too?
Reading Psalm 103:1-5 (Below)
As with many of the Psalms, you really should read this out loud. Imagine being so full of joy and connection that you shout it out. You can probably imagine pretty easily singing it as part of a powerful choir, or with your own limited voice in the privacy of your car. But also, it could be whispered quietly to yourself- so that just you and God hear those words. There is power in words to create feelings and touch the spirit, even if you were unsure the word to start with. Say this out loud and what do you hear?
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and all that is within me,
bless his holy name.
2 Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and do not forget all his benefits—
3 who forgives all your iniquity,
who heals all your diseases,
4 who redeems your life from the Pit,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
5 who satisfies you with good as long as you live
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
The middle of Psalm 22 recalls suffering that have been likened to Jesus’ crucifixion, although the verse 16 interpreted as piercing of the hands and feet is a more recent Christian interpretation of unclear ancient Hebrew that has been interpreted in the Jewish bible as well as others as withered hands and feet. But we don’t need to force parallel details to draw the important comparison of someone being ridiculed and tortured by people who not only disrespect him, but disrespected his God or that God even cares about him. Importantly, the Psalm doesn’t stop there! Starting in verse 22 the Psalmist switches to praise as they are rescued by God. So, if Jesus pointed to this Psalm on the cross, he also was leading us to see that despair isn’t the end of the story and that God will, and did, come through.
Reading Psalm 22:6-31
Reflection: 22:24 For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one;he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.
The sudden change from the personal cry for help and the third person praise for God’s help is confusing, until we see the last line “They will proclaim his righteousness, declaring to a people yet unborn: He has done it!” The Psalmist sees their job as setting to words the story of the redeeming God. Turning to God, even in the midst of defeat and despair, was vindicated by God’s mercy and deliverance. Is this relevant in our more mundane lives of daily struggles? We hope never to feel as low as this Psalmist did, but the daily struggles and worries can wear us down. This Psalm says that it is during these times that we have to double down in our relationship with God- complaining and crying if necessary, but also remembering to praise all the wonders of God and that our faith will be rewarded with God’s love and support.
Background Along with the shepherd of Psalm 23, Psalm 22 is perhaps the most interpreted by Christian’s as being about Christ. The Psalmist didn’t mean it that way and was speaking from the depths of personal despair or perhaps reflecting on the trials of King David (or if David wrote it maybe both- we don’t really know for sure). Isaiah 53 is also added with Psalm 22 as the prophetic story of Jesus’ suffering to come. On the cross, Jesus says the first line of Psalm 22 in Hebrew “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Some wonder if that just meant just that- Jesus stating that God had abandoned him to his enemies to do their worst. But others think this was also a teachable moment- referring us to the whole Psalm 22 and the idea that this was all happening for a reason as foretold. In any case, prophetic or personal- this Psalm is a moving plea to God in times of trouble, but also a praise Psalm- tossing back on forth in dynamic struggle in relationship to God.
Reading Psalm 22:1-5 (see below)
Reflection. Forget for a moment all the baggage of this Psalm and Jesus and think about you and your relationship to God. If you have felt like this- at least a little bit- when and where? Maybe it is in a hospital corridor, or at hostile meeting, staring at a pile of bills or feeling weakened by illness. For me it is in the wee hours of the morning as I wake up worried. In the day, I can push worries aside with busyness, but I wake and the quiet desperation is heard. What do we do when we feel this way? What do we turn to? I play solitaire on my phone. But the Psalmist had a more powerful answer- turning to God in prayer and talking through the pain, but also remembering their long relationship with God. This is the underlying lesson and gift of all the Psalms- take it to God and trust he will answer.
Background. The last verse of Psalm 23 is a ringing statement of faith! “Surely” the Psalmist writes. Goodness and mercy- some versions read goodness and love, but both reflect back to the central concept of God’s caring for us. This rare imagery of God as a shepherd has resonated with Jews and Christians for thousands of years. As we read on in the Psalms about the awesome and frightening power of God, we need to remember that this is part of that story as well. It provides a balance and, like the blind men and the elephant, gives us another piece of God to touch.
Reading Psalm 23:6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
Reflection. Who is the Psalmist talking to? This Psalm is not addressed to God as a prayer- or to others- there are no “you”s in here. Obviously, the Psalmist meant for this to be read by others, but when you read it is referring to “me” and “I”. Perhaps this is overthinking it, but could this be something meant to be said to yourself, a confirmation and statement of belief? Even when it may be more of a hope than a faith, it is a statement of our dearest wish from our God. Try reading it out loud so you hear the words spoken by you for you.
Background I was reading about the Hebrew version of Psalm 23 (www.theisraelbible) drawn to the intriguing title “Since when do sheep sit at a table?” It isn’t unusual to have a poet use more than one analogy for the same thing, but in the second part of Psalm 23, it can be argued that there is an analogy for a different thing. Sheep are passively receiving the care of the shepherd. But in today’s reading there is at transition from us being sheep protected by God, to sitting at a table. The table is prepared “before” our enemies using a Hebrew word “in front of” with the connotation of opposition- as in to stand before a Judge or to stand up before your enemies. And the word translated as “anointed” is not the Hebrew word for anointed used elsewhere, but more of a cleansing or healing. So one way to think of this is that we have matured from a from passive role with God to being prepared and given all we need and to stand before our enemies- to go to battle for God.
Reading Psalm 23:4-5 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Reflection. Remember, we can have different perspectives on the Psalms without being wrong. How do you see this part of the Psalm? Does it resonate with you as being a peace and protected? At rest and comforted? Or do you see it as being promised that we have been given all we need, and more, to go forth and bring God’s will? What seems like a bigger truth in your life- or does it change?
Background. Go with me on this- it winds but there is a point….What is the point of the words of the Psalms? Certainly, to communicate meaning, but is that all? Words also have a music, an ability to evoke feelings beyond the meaning. Particularly for the Psalms that were poetry and often even word puzzles-like acrostics. But most of us will never hear them as written. We don’t hear the carefully chosen words, often chosen for their sound as well as their meaning. Maybe I can find a reading of the Psalms in old Hebrew listen to in class, but the sound will still be disconnected from the connotations of the words. Other poet scholars have tried to translate the meaning and the poetry into Greek and from there Latin and from there English, like some poetry form of the game “telephone” still hoping that the writer’s voice can be heard. There have been some misconceptions and confusions added which we will talk about examples later, but perhaps they just are a different version of a new truth. Robert Frost once was asked what he meant in the poem “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” and he said that he wrote it, it was our job to figure out what it means. We bring to the Psalms our own internal connection to the Holy Spirit- each finding our own truth that can be different and not wrong. Together we get a richer view of the Word.
Reading Psalm 23: 1-3 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul; He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.
Reflection This is the first part of the Psalm 23 about being cared for and following the Lord. I use the familiar King James version here because we are used to this modern interpretation (1000s of years and two languages removed from the original). Tomorrow we will see how looking at the Hebrew can help us see something we may have missed in the English. But I do love the way this sounds and the meaning shines. Yet think also about the words- what do they mean to you? What do you hear and feel. Lorna in our class sent me something today about the use of want here that I think makes this point, and perhaps encourages us all to “unpack” the language. She said “I shall not WANT…”Want” is a synonym of “lack.” Saying “I shall not want” is similar to saying “I shall not lack” or “I shall not be in need” or “I shall not be lacking anything.” As an exercise- pick for yourself any word in these three verses and “unpack” it- what are the meanings that strike you?