Psalm 30

Joy in the morning

Very happy joyous song, with a series of images of bad turning to good, of times of feeling deserted by the Lord turning to generous blessing and favour.

Starts with a personal section, maybe it was an illness or a dangerous situation that ended: Lifted, healed, rescued from dead, spared from the pit.

Then preachin’ it: encouraging “you people” to praise the same love of God, expressed generally: A moment of anger followed by a lifetime of favour, weeping at night followed by joy in the morning.  

Then a longer and more specific personal section focuses in on the emotional guts of the psalm, not being able to find God.  

My general bible understanding wants to rebel against this.  My learned response God is faithful and will never desert us.  The image of God hiding his face implies he was always there, but he allowed bad stuff to happen.  Its a picture for the old issue of “why does God allow suffering?”.  

David understands that intellectualised response, and he says he had it too. He talks about the great feeling of security when he felt blessed by God, on the holy mountain, ie: in his presence, and how that was unshakeable… except then it did get shaken, and he was dismayed, because bad stuff happened, and God didn’t fix it straight away.  So it felt like God was hiding from him.  Message: its going to happen, as humans we will feel deserted by God, once the tenth thing in a row has gone wrong.

David’s response is one of his great confident prayers where he virtually hectors and dares God.  The deal is if God deserts him how can he bare witness to his greatness?  Like “hey God, its in your own interest to save me here, it’ll be a good look for you…” Its a great testament to David’s strong faithfulness despite his period of human dismay.  His prayer is “this is not right, no way, I deserve better than his, you promised!”  

And it worked out, another series of general joyous transformation images conclude the song: wailing turned to dancing, sackcloth to joy, and David will praise God, singing from the heart forever.
There is still bad stuff in the world, and its not going to be pleasant no matter how much we tell ourselves otherwise, but be patient, in the long run God’s blessing to us will far outweigh the suffering we experience.

Psalm 29

The voice of god.

What a voice!  It’s huge, the creator voice. People say they can’t believe Jesus and the gospels, because how could he turn water into wine or raise the dead?  By speaking with this voice.

Fave images from a great series: Lebanon skipping like a calf, the oaks whirling, the forests stripped bare, flashing fire and thunder on the waters. An eternal throne over the flood.
Ends with a prayer, that he will lend his people this strength, and bless them with peace.  David is very good at endings, what a perfect last word. Lord, bless me with peace.

Psalm 28

The miracle of asking God to set your mind right.

This psalm reminds me of what an earthly view of God’s punishment and blessing people in the old testament had.

David seemed to have a healthy view of the afterlife, psalm 23 after all “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.. I will dwell in God’s house forever”.

But here he seems rather uncomfortably to be saying that if God does not bring down, and stop building up, the wicked he will be treating David as if he was dead.

The Jews didn’t have just our concept of hell, they had the pit, the grave, which David refers to as a place where God is silent.  It’s not eternal punishment as such, it’s nowhere land.

In the second half of the psalm, he strikes a more positive note, praising god for delivering on his request to bring down the successful wicked people.

Did he break between writing the first and second halves of the psalm?  During which time god smote the wicked?  I’d like to think God’s answer came to David as he wrote, and is intended to come as we sing.

The punishment of the wicked is a life spent without regard for the world of the lord, trusting only in themselves: they’ll never have the richness of knowing where the good stuff comes from, or knowing the protecting love of God.

David exalts in god, the rock, his strength, his shield, and that is the help God sends. Verse 7 is the key.

The Lord is my strength and my shield;
   in him my heart trusts;
so I am helped, and my heart exults,
   and with my song I give thanks to him.

Psalms show how Christian songs, time spent meditating on or talking about God, is a reset, a prioritising, a way on earth of experiencing strength in god and victory.

Assuming David did have a healthy understanding of the afterlife, his songs are deliberately not like the classic slave songs, always longing for it. They are songs of victory right here, right now.  By humbly waiting for and listening to and remembering God’s goodness.

Psalm 27

With God on our side vs. being on God’s side

God’s goodness is like a rock to David.  It is the most concrete thing in his life, despite constant and very tangible threats all around.

Uber confident start. The lord is:

  • light (bringing clarity, direction, guidance)
  • salvation (bringing deliverance from enemies and fear as well as forgiveness) and
  • stronghold of life … source, protector of the soul’s existence

So he has nothing to fear and repeats that three times, which makes you think those he was addressing had plenty to fear.  Enemies will fail, stay confident, he says.  It is a psalm of confidence. Its like the St Crispians Day speech in Henry V.. a stirring rally by a leader, except the call is to rely on God’s strength not their own.

Til now it has seemed like a military psalm, but the next section seems to broaden it out because he talks about being in the tent, the tabernacle, in the presence of God and being kept safe there and being raised up above his enemies. He will be exalted above them by sacrificing to God and singing about him.  No doubt singing this very Psalm.  

As a literal military strategy, hiding in a tent and singing is unlikely to work.  He’s pushing this way past a “god is on our side” prayer before a battle in war… locking in God’s support to a human endeavour.  When he speaks of the one thing he wants god to give him: time gazing upon God’s beauty and seeking him, it is more like a love affair with God.  He doesn’t want God to lend support to his fight, he wants God’s will to supplant the fight.

He is following his heart, seeking God above all others, he asks God not to forsake him, confident that even his mum and dad would do that before God did.  The foes are identified as more than military… they are spreaders of malice and false witness.
Strong end focusses in on the theme succinctly: he is confident of the triumph of God’s goodness, so he will wait for him.  How many bad decisions do we make because of impatience with God?

Psalm 26

Being certain of your own goodness.

David provides a picture of a truly good man that God will vindicate. It will be someone who is blameless, leading a life of unfaltering trust in God. Blamelessness is mindfullness and dependence on God’s character of unfailing love and trustworthiness.  So rarely can you catch the psalmists bragging to God about their goodness… when you really look at it, they are calling God to act on his promise of grace.  The form is of self justification, the substance winds up being a bold claim on justification by faith.

Then he lists some specific negatives and positives of his goodness: not being one of the hypocrites, evildoers, deceivers or wicked.  Instead he washes his hands in innocence, praises God and proclaims gods wonderful deeds, and loves the place where god’s glory dwells.  The nature of being a good man is acknowledgement of God. Maybe the deceptions and hypocricies of the wicked are in essence a refusal to acknowledge God?  

Still it hard not to think “no you haven’t” when David says he has led a blameless life.  In Psalm 51 he will deliver a painful plea for deliverance from his own sin. We know of his huge sins from the histories of his life, the bible makes no secret of it.
He has that arrogance that Christians are often accused of, the certainty of forgiveness. Great final image, the King stands on level ground, praising God along right in the middle of “the great congregation”.  His specialness is his relationship with God: God’s glory, not his own elevation.

Psalm 25

When “Waiting” is not just passing time.

Its a deliverance song like so many of them, but the emphasis very much on the writers relationship with God and the writers internal desire to have God transform him. The enemies make an appearance but they are not the emotional focus. The psalm should be called “deeper and deeper into god” because it takes each thought about God as a starting point for further expanded thoughts on the goodness of God.

1-3 has the familiar “I’m the worthy one, smight the unworthy” form.  But the kingdom heartedness and the relative temperance of the language already subverts the revenge cliché with shafts of grace. The worthiness comes from trusting God and waiting for God, two very passive “good” qualities, which set up the gracious theme.  And the evil trait of the enemies is “wanton treachery”, a depersonalised slight that is a crime against God’s revelation most of all. He calls for justice in shaming: may the proper people be ashamed. It’s a justice with the advancement of God’s kingdom at heart, and not a harsh justice.  

Then the revenge theme is left alone altogether for a few verses with a section that expands on the idea of waiting for God as a personal spiritual journey.

“Waiting” is understanding God’s mind, his paths, being led by truth and learning from it.

He expresses regret over past sins, appealing to God’s character of solid love and mercy, generally and also specifically to him. It’s all God. He doesn’t even suggest “I’ll be good, so treat me right”. It’s all “you are good”. All we can give God is acknowledgement.

He expands further on the goodness and teaching of God. God leads, shows his path, we are sinners he forgives, the humble will learn goodness and see the godly way forward.

He speaks again of his great guilt, and the need to fear God. Fearing God is to trust his guidance, friendship and providence,  keep your eyes on him even when you’re feet are stuck in a net.

This last image for me introduces an unexpected note of urgency into the song.  Until now the enemies have be vague. Does the writer mean to say that all the while he’s been expanding and expanding on God’s mercy, it’s been an emergency?

It’s verse 15, for me is the defining image of the song.  Reminds me of judee sills ” ridge rider”, his eyes on the horizon and his boots on the ground “

He then prays the prayer I would have prayed straight away in an emergency ” help, I’m all alone and things are terrible – many violent people hate me – deliver me!” Even so, his own struggle with godliness is more in the foreground than the immediate external threats.

How rich it is when he returns to his theme to conclude “may integrity and uprightness  preserve me as I wait for you.”

He then prays that the whole of Israel will be delivered in the same way.
How true it is that when you feel pressured and panicky, and desperate for gods guidance, what seems like external issues is so often actually an internal struggle not to trust God. You pray for guidance like a shaft of wisdom to beam down and mcgyuver a specfic problem, but God’s answer is to be still and contemplate his goodness.

Psalm 24

I think I may have read or maybe just guessed this psalm is a going-to-the-temple chant. I think of it as a bit like those marching chants in u.s. war movies “I don’t know but I’ve been told” or cheerleader cheers and/or protest call and answers: “What do we want?” “When do we want it? “.

It’s about purity and meeting God. Climbing the hill, excited anticipation. Open the big door, the mighty, the true God is coming. Who is he? Mighty. Who is good enough to meet him? Gotta be pure of heart and have clean hands. “blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” Jesus said.

I’d love to write a wild chant for singing this psalm. Like bootylicious, godilicious or something.

Writing with tears today however, for the daughter of a friend, a beautiful strong girl in her early 20s. She’s asked us to pray for her, and she’s not someone for whom prayer has ever been an option before, but she’s rapidly losing her daughter to a completely baffling condition.  Pray for rikki, pray for Lisa.

Psalm 23

Legendary psalm of comfort. The comfort flows from the central metaphor of the lord being a shepherd. The beautiful calm of an animal that is safe and has material needs looked after is extended quickly for us to our souls.

That phrase “refreshes my soul” puts words to a feeling that humans crave and means human society can’t seem to leave spirituality alone. That sense of a contented soul is probably one of the most underrated benefits of Christian belief. It’s so naggingly un-concrete it drives atheists mad.

You can trust the lords advice. If he says don’t lie and put others first, you can do it confident that it’s going to work out, even when the reverse seems like the only thing that will fix the situation. No more crooked webs to weave! And we don’t have to fear death.

It’s about the simplicity of being loved and having someone greater than you look after your needs. Our psychological dread and moral complexity comes from feeling like shepherdless sheep, weak and alone, trying to carve safety and order out of chaos. Having god to trust unburdens us of layers of complexity, and makes us OK with our vulnerability and mortality. The psychological and philosophical power of the metaphor is harnessed with such economy.

No wonder this psalm is so powerful. Form follows function. It’s a simple psalm about simplicity. And with each calm pastoral phrase it precisely knocks down our deepest existential fears like nine pins one after another.

I’m not the only one who thinks the feast is a clanger. I don’t feel like food is sweeter if my enemies watch me eat it and go hungry, it sounds just awkward. It sounds like crude triumphalism or schadenfreude and quite out of character with the god who in humble human form on earth told us to love our enemies and turn the other cheek before giving up his life for us.

But the truth is we are chosen for abundant blessing. We’re anointed, which is like a special relaxing welcoming treat for a guest, and a signifier of priesthood and kingship, and our cup overflows. We live our lives with this fact. Despite and during the apparent success of our enemies, a place of honour in God’s kingdom is prepared for us.

Should we punish ourselves with survivor guilt? We certainly should never feel too much like the victim, just as Jesus didn’t. In fact, it’s because of God’s ridiculous grace that we can indeed love our enemies and turn the other cheek. The worst, the very worst they can do to us is make us suffer temporary pain before despatching us to be with our creator. How much worse it is for them, cut off from the author of life. So it’s not triumphalism I suppose, it’s perspective.

The rest of the psalm is like cream in our coffee. Goodness, mercy eternal rest in God’s presence.  Thank you, thank you father for your gift of grace. May I use it wisely.

It do still stand by what I said back in psalm 20. Perhaps these aren’t designed to go together, but they do make a good set: two guidance psalms, one wishing it in advance like a benediction, the other quietly celebrating it as an ever present comfort; sandwiching a victory song and a disaster cry. Next we go to meet him on the holy hill.

Psalm 22

A problem shared is a problem solved.

If you took yesterday’s psalm (21) as a picture of God’s design for a blessed life, then today’s is a mistake. Because today god has deserted the writer, which wouldn’t happen if trusting in God was universally rewarded with wealth and power.

It starts with the quote Jesus made so disturbingly from the cross. My God, my God why have you forsaken me? But if yesterday’s wasn’t too be read as a rule of entitlement to blessing, equally today’s isn’t really an expression of any doubt in the existence of God, it’s more of a wake up call for God. Its a cry of pain and a massive “what’s going on?” “Where the hell are you?”

Father, you know me, all the moments of my life, help me to acknowledge you in them all

Is not a momentary thing either. He calls out by day and night.

Then this uniquely psalmy thing of God shaming. It starts out like flattery “you are enthroned, we have praised you, you heard us rescued us. I was born straight from the womb into your arms. So why am I a worm? What must people think? They know you are the one I trust, and see how you have let me down!”

It’s a very bold way of speaking to god, almost sarcastic “what a great creator you are, you made me a worm. Way to go God!” But it’s not sarcasm, it’s desperation. He’s totally stuffed, every which way, as depicted with a stunning series of “desperate straights” images, and there is no one to help him. It’s a plea “please don’t be far”.

The dire straights images include obvious pre-figuring of the cross, which in the full course if revelation is God’s ultimate answer to the ‘shaming’. When we say to god “you have no idea how hard it is” he can always say “yes I do!”

The time shifts abruptly to praise. There is no sense that the psalmist waited to be saved to shift tone, something like “see the wolves all around me are gone!” Now I will praise God in the assembly!

Also there is no sense of a deal with God “if you save me, then I’ll give you praise, tit for tat”.

It seems to be a straight emotional/spiritual journey. It’s a bit like the very act of crying out to god has reminded him that God is faithful and that he trusts God. It reminds me of conversations with my wife, she highlights all the worst aspects of problems we are having. Catastrophising. And afterwards, we have swapped roles: I have gone from feeling good to being burdened with the problems. And she has gone from miserable to positive about the future, because the magnitude of the problem has been shared and acknowledged.

The psalmists enthusiasm for God’s saving greatness goes spacey and grand: all nations, all generations. There are the Jesus pre-figurings again. The sheer limitlessness of his faith in the saving power of God’s grace puts the problems into perspective. It seemed really bad when his heart turned to wax and melted and his bones were all out of joint as he was poured out like water to dry like dust as the lions prepared to rip his corpse apart. And nothing objectively has changed, he’s just changed focus from venting about his very real problems to remembering “just a minute, this is God I’m talking to”. From self obsession to god obsession. That’s why a problem shared is a problem solved. The final phrase is perfect,a full stop of rest for his circling brain. “And God has done it”.

Psalm 21

Definitely reads like a sequel to yesterday’s psalm. 20: may he give you the desire of your heart 21: you have granted him his hearts desire. Etc. It is a celebration of thanks because the battle are won and the victories are over. He is enjoying a pinnacle of success and attributing it to god.

Its very simple, and it screws me up because it is so simple. I’ve grown up wary of prosperity doctrine, which pretty much teaches “trust God and you’ll have earthly riches”. It doesn’t work that way.

The old testament has a fairly shadowy theology of the afterlife, and they tended to think that way too, after all, their promised land was literally a land.

Something more theologically challenging is going in in psalms however, it’s just not normative. By saying “god blessed me with wealth and success, hooray”, is not necessarily saying god should or necessarily will bless you that way, simply that he has. A key is in the opening verse: “the king rejoices in your strength, how great is his joy in the victories you give”, it is a sing of gratitude and acknowledgment of blessing, not a rule of entitlement or expectation.

They are enjoying the moment. It’s a sort of spiritual mindfulness, of speaking to god in the present tense, always with immediacy. “God answered me, hooray, God has abandoned me, woe is me”.

They are the cries of a life lived moment to moment in relationship with god.

And it is incredibly important to do that. The world’s wealth and power remain concentrated in a few. I think that if they attributed their success to god in a way that involved moment to moment dialogue throughout their lives, it would have a dramatic effect on how they handled that responsibility.

Father its sometimes incomprehensible that you would be that involved. How? Why? Give me the faithfulness to treat you as my constant companion.