Psalm 149 – Praise and Punishment

Church stained glass windows sword dividing

Praise the Lord!
Sing to the Lord a new song,
his praise in the assembly of the faithful.
Let Israel be glad in its Maker;
let the children of Zion rejoice in their King.
Let them praise his name with dancing,
making melody to him with tambourine and lyre.
For the Lord takes pleasure in his people;
he adorns the humble with victory.
Let the faithful exult in glory;
let them sing for joy on their couches.
Let the high praises of God be in their throats
and two-edged swords in their hands,
to execute vengeance on the nations
and punishment on the peoples,
to bind their kings with fetters
and their nobles with chains of iron,
to execute on them the judgment decreed.
This is glory for all his faithful ones.
Praise the Lord! (NRSV)

The initial question that arises with me is this: Is this a psalm of praise to the Lord, or an imprecatory psalm encouraging the punishment of the wicked? Well, perhaps the obvious answer is “yes.” I suppose what I am really struggling with is that out of all the one-hundred fifty psalms in the psalter, only this one has this unique combination of vocal praise and punishing action.

The psalm begins much like many psalms of praise but takes the unexpected turn of a call to a war-like operation to execute vengeance on enemies. I freely admit that I do not know quite what to make of this strange amalgam. I wonder along with the venerable Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann who said, “One cannot tell whether this is a responsibility to fend off oppressors or a temptation to gather imperial power.”

Perhaps my wrestling with this psalm is really the struggle with history itself. The Holy Scriptures do not shy away from the realism of its times and often offers historical events and human attitudes with unvarnished narratives. The Bible, and especially the psalmist, will not let us sanitize the past as some idyllic bygone era of divine drama to be envied. Instead, we receive the liberation of God’s people with all its harsh truth.

So, it could be that is why I also loathe seeing some mass market crosses which look ornately beautiful, as if Christ’s death was some pleasant affair. Deliverance from sin, death, and hell came at an awful price. Jesus absorbed all the foulness and degradation of a tortuous ignoble death. In other words, he was a bloody mess, publicly displayed for all to jeer at and be repulsed by.

What is more, for the Christian, perhaps the sagest approach to today’s psalm is unabashedly choosing to view it through Christocentric lenses. Christ is the strong man who has bound the ruler of this dark world with iron chains and secured our liberation from a hellish existence. And the Lord will return, the nations of the earth will be judged, and the faithful will reign with Christ forever.

Even if I read a bit too much into the psalm by interpreting it Christologically, it still leaves the intention of the imprecation open as to its true nature. In other words, the psalm simply does not tell us the trajectory of the curse which comes out of the praise. We are left to wonder in what kind of direction it goes. The Christian tradition of reading psalms and seeing Jesus in them might be our best guide.

Whichever way we choose to examine this unique psalm, the thing which we do know is that it unequivocally stands as a defiance of the nations and peoples of the earth who oppose the living God. Resistance to injustice, unrighteousness, and evil is encouraged by this psalm. The only ruler of this earth who has absolute power is God; and, anyone or any group which attempts to gain and grab such power for themselves is to be resisted. For the harsh reality of living on this created yet fallen earth is that violent and insolent people still desire total control and will do just about anything to get it and keep it.

Almighty and sovereign God, we, your people, ask in the Name of your most precious Son, Jesus Christ, our risen and ascended Lord, to look upon the good desires of your humble servants, and stretch forth the right hand of your power to be our defense against evil in all its insidious forms. And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.

Psalm 8 – The Majesty of It All

MilkyWay
The Milky Way

O Lord, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!

You have set your glory above the heavens.
Out of the mouths of babes and infants
you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
to silence the enemy and the avenger.

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?

Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honor.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,
all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

O Lord, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth! (NRSV)

This little psalm grounds us by dealing with ultimate questions of existence: Who am I?  Why do I exist?  What is the purpose of my life?

The answers to those questions are supremely important because we can lose sight of who we are and why we exist. If we were to peel back the layers of any random person’s life, we may find a deep sense of not belonging, of being in profound touch with their own mortality, and of having a disconnected sense of their personal role in the world. Many people have lost their original purpose of being a person and belonging to the human family in a way that makes a significant contribution to the world.

We live on a big planet, and that causes some people to feel quite small and wonder how they fit in. Gaping at such a large universe we may ask along with psalmist, “What are humans that you are mindful of them?”  This question forms the center of the psalm.  Hebrew poetry is typically arranged to have the front and the end of the poem point to the middle as its focus. So then, the psalmist purposely wrote this psalm so we would consider the great question of what God thinks of humanity within the scope of this exceptionally large universe.

To put this largeness in perspective, if the Milky Way galaxy were the size of the entire continent of North America, our solar system would fit in a coffee cup. Even now, two Voyager spacecraft are hurtling toward the edge of the solar system at a rate of 100,000 miles per hour. For thirty-five years they have been speeding away from Earth, having traveled 9 billion miles. When engineers beam a command to the spacecraft at the speed of light, it takes over 13 hours to arrive. Yet this vast neighborhood of our sun—in truth, the size of a coffee cup—fits along with several hundred billion other stars and their planets in the Milky Way, one of perhaps 100 billion such galaxies in the universe. To send a light-speed message to the edge of that universe would take 15 billion years.

Moraine Lake, Canada
Moraine Lake in Alberta, Canada

Out of the billions of galaxies in the universe, what is planet Earth that God should care about it?  Even on our planet there are billions of creatures. Yet, out of all those bugs, animals, fish, and birds, God has a special relationship with us, humanity, and cares for us deeply. God has even entrusted us with the responsibility to care for creation.  We are the only creatures who have the charge to steward all that God has created.  To put it another way, we, as people created in the image of God, have a job that is befitting of royalty, and it is more than a duty – it is a delight.

Furthermore, it is a godly and spiritual thing to engage in good creation care, whether it is properly feeding and caring for a pet, properly attending to relationships with grace and civility, or playing a crucial role in responsible land use.  Whatever it may be within this vast created world, God has entrusted to us this expansive Earth we live upon.  Literally everything in all creation is under our stewardship.

Out of all the creatures on earth, only people have been given the task of caring for every other created thing.  Only we as people have the self-awareness and perspective of the world which is needed to govern the world.  So, then, we can only find our true purpose and belonging in the stewardship of creation.  Care-giving is at the heart of being a person.

The glitch to this, and why so many lose their way, is that the world is still living under a curse due to the original fall of humanity into sin.  When we allow other dominions to supersede God’s dominion, then we have major problems.  When the power of money, or the significance of a position or job title, or the ability to do certain tasks is our basic identity and place of belonging, then we will likely succumb to anxiety. Other dominions cannot help us find our true God-given majesty as people created in God’s image.  Living any other way than being a proper steward of the world is beneath us because we have inherent dignity as God’s vice-regents over creation.

“There is no such thing as a small thing – only small things done with big love.” –Mother Teresa

That sentiment perfectly captures the vision of the psalmist – that all people are crowned with glory and honor and rule with God to do all the small things of life with a love that comes from our Creator.

Going forward, we have the possibilities of engaging in good stewardship of all that God has given us.  We can use our words in ways that care for others and build them up, rather than saying uncaring things which are not helpful.  We have the chance to be attentive to all the little things of life, whether gardening, building a bird house, working with diligence and care at our jobs, or keeping our community clean and its citizens healthy and happy, it is all important and has a significant place.

Let us, then, continually improve what we do, no matter what it is, so that it befits us as God’s people crowned with honor.  May this topsy-turvy year become one of joy and contentment, knowing the majesty we share with God as humans in his wondrous world.

Creator God, you make all things and weave them together in an intricate tapestry of life. Teach us to respect the fragile balance of life and to care for all the gifts of your creation. Guide by your wisdom those who have power and authority, that, by the decisions they make, life may be cherished, and a good and fruitful Earth may continue to show your glory and sing your praises. Almighty God, you have called us to tend and keep the garden of your creation. Give us wisdom and reverence for all your plants and animals who share this planet with us and whose lives make possible our own. Help us to remember that they too love the sweetness of life and join with us in giving you praise. Amen.

Psalm 104:24-35 – Listening to Creation

creation beauty

O Lord, how manifold are your works! 
    In wisdom have you made them all; 
    the earth is full of your creatures. 
Here is the sea, great and wide, 
    which teems with creatures innumerable, 
    living things both small and great. 
There go the ships, 
    and Leviathan, which you formed to play in it.  

These all look to you, 
    to give them their food in due season. 
When you give it to them, they gather it up; 
    when you open your hand, they are filled with good things. 
When you hide your face, they are dismayed; 
    when you take away their breath, they die 
    and return to their dust. 
When you send forth your Spirit, they are created, 
    and you renew the face of the ground. 

May the glory of the Lord endure forever; 
    may the Lord rejoice in his works, 
who looks on the earth and it trembles, 
    who touches the mountains and they smoke! 
I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; 
    I will sing praise to my God while I have being. 
May my meditation be pleasing to him, 
    for I rejoice in the Lord. 
Let sinners be consumed from the earth, 
    and let the wicked be no more! 
Bless the Lord, O my soul! 
Praise the Lord! (ESV) 

The earth is a complex ecosystemalive and teeming with all kinds of creatures and exuberant nature. All of creation knows and depends on its Creator. The earth bears its Creator’s fascination. The world is wonderfully intricateits vast natural systems working in sync to flourish across the earth. All creation lives with confidence in God’s sustaining grace. Humanity, along with the rest of creation, is to sing and praise the God who has made life possible by means of his powerful Spirit. 

This same Spirit which worked in creation, animates all creatures, and has left the imprint of God’s likeness on humans, is the very same Spirit which came upon the little band of believers at Pentecost, as well as being the very same Spirit which is given to you and me as followers of Jesus. Just as we listen to the ancient voices of Holy Scripture lift up the name of Jesus; and, just as we listen for the Holy Spirit to guide us in the name of Jesus Christ, so we are to listen to the voice of creation praise God. 

In a society expectant of all things fast – fast food, fast cars, fast service, fast everything – there is something profoundly spiritual about slowing down to listen to God’s Spirit speaking through God’s creation. Even though it is a hard circumstance, recent implementations of sheltering in place and quarantines can equally be a gift to us. It affords the opportunity to slow down and listen.  

Today when you eat your meals, I invite you to take the time to chew slowly, thanking God in a rhythm of praise which is connected to the gratitude of each bite. Connect with the reality that eating comes from the earth’s generosity. When walking the dog, do it slowly, listening to the sounds of creation around you. Hear the wind blowing, the trees swaying, the water rushing, the birds singing. They all give praise and adoration to the God who is pleased to fill creation with his glory. 

The lack of listening, the refusal to truly hear, was with Adam and Eve at the fall of humanity. Ever since, people have been tainted with spiritual deafness. Opening to the sounds of creation can reopen us to our divine image, which has never been lost – perhaps just buried so deep within that we are many times not in touch with it. Listening to creation also enables us to hear how it groans under humanity’s poor stewardship of the earth. The whole of creation is always singing; it is just a matter of whether we are listening, or not. 

When spending time in nature, ask yourself: How is God’s glory and love reflected in what he has made? In what way is your hope renewed or your heart stirred in response? How might I be a proper and faithful steward of this earth around me? Do I feel a connection with the land? Why, or why not? 

sunrise prayer

Every morning for generations, the Native American Iroquois people have greeted the dawn with thanksgiving. 

“It is an honor to be a human being and to have been invited into the circle of Creation,” they say to the Creator. Beginning with the grass and the trees, the Iroquois express gratitude for the other plants, the water, the wind, the sun, the moon, and the stars.  

I myself have also found a deep connection with God in his creation in the morning. Greeting the Creator as well as the oak trees and lilac bushes near my home give me the ability to frame my upcoming day with awareness. As I am present and mindful to creation, so I find myself more present and aware to the people who need my focused attention. 

Sadly, there are people who have never known the joy of walking barefoot through the grass; the wonder of staring into the night sky full of stars; and, silence to hear the voice of God. There are whole segments of our global family who have never had clean water or enough to eat. There are people who have lost their very identity because of exploitation of resources and greed. So, we need to connect with creation. We must discern that our connection with created things fosters a stronger and deeper connection to our fellow humanity. 

For when we observe the beauty in all things, we train ourselves to see the beauty in others. And where there is beauty, there is appreciation, gratefulness, and compassionate care. God speaks to us through his creation. Nature is our teacher. Let’s make sure and treat her with the respect and care she deserves. 

He Qi St Francis
St. Francis talking to the birds. By artist He Qi

Most High, all powerful, good Lord,
Yours are the praises, the glory, the honor,
and all blessing. 

To You alone, Most High, does all creation belong. 

Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures,
especially through Brother Sun,
bringing us the day and giving us light.
He is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Most High, he bears your likeness. 

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon
and the stars, in heaven you formed them
clear and precious and beautiful. 

Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Wind,
and through the air, cloudy and serene,
and every kind of weather through which
You give sustenance to Your creatures. 

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Water.
She is very useful, humble, precious, and pure. 

Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom you light the night. He is beautiful
and playful and robust and strong. 

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Mother Earth.
She sustains us and governs us; she produces
varied fruits with colored flowers and herbs. 

Blessed are those who endure in peace
for by You, Most High, they shall be crowned. 

Praised be You, my Lord,
through our Sister Bodily Death,
from whom no living person can escape. 

Woe to those who die in sin.
Blessed are those whom death will
find in Your most holy will,
for the second death shall do them no harm. 

Let all creation praise and bless my Lord,
and give Him thanks
and serve Him with great humility. Amen. 

–A Prayer from St. Francis of Assisi 

Psalm 66:8-20 – Celebrate

Red Wing Blackbird

Let the whole world bless our God
and loudly sing his praises.

Our lives are in his hands,
and he keeps our feet from stumbling.
You have tested us, O God;
you have purified us like silver.
You captured us in your net
and laid the burden of slavery on our backs.
Then you put a leader over us.
We went through fire and flood,
but you brought us to a place of great abundance.

Now I come to your Temple with burnt offerings
to fulfill the vows I made to you—
yes, the sacred vows that I made
when I was in deep trouble.
That is why I am sacrificing burnt offerings to you—
the best of my rams as a pleasing aroma,
and a sacrifice of bulls and male goats.

Come and listen, all you who fear God,
and I will tell you what he did for me.
For I cried out to him for help,
praising him as I spoke.
If I had not confessed the sin in my heart,
the Lord would not have listened.
But God did listen!
He paid attention to my prayer.
Praise God, who did not ignore my prayer
or withdraw his unfailing love from me. (NLT)

Those of us who utilize the Revised Common Lectionary Daily Readings are familiar with having a psalm each day. In addition, the same psalm is repeated three consecutive days, following the pattern of Thursday, Friday, and Saturday readings preparing for Sunday – and Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday readings reflecting on Sunday. The Psalter has a prominent place in the readings because it is viewed as the Church’s Prayer Book.

Within the book of Psalms, we have the full range of human experience and emotion. Much like athletes in weight training putting in their reps (repetitions) so the Christian is to use the weighty Psalms with repeated use for spiritual growth and development. Prayer and praise along with lamentation and celebration are necessary equipment for the strengthening of faith and a healthy Christian life.

Today’s psalm is a song of thanksgiving for the community of worshipers approaching the temple and offering their sacrifices to God. Together as the people of God they proclaim what God has done for them. Through hardship and difficulty, they have realized abundance and joy. Personal witness and testimony are given to the congregation for answered prayer so that all may rejoice together in God’s steadfast and unfailing love.

Expressing celebration is important. Without it, our spirits are famished and find it difficult to be patient and persevere. With celebration, our spiritual muscles flex with joy and are in shape for the trials and tribulations which lie ahead. Corporate affirmation and personal appreciation are meant to work together in a grand profession of faith in God’s good guidance and help.

“Come and listen and I will tell you what God did for me,” benefits both the individual and the group. If all we ever hear and experience is hardship, our faith muscle will be overused and give out. We need stories to celebrate. We have got to hear testimonies of God’s enduring love.

So, what has God done for you? What celebrations do we have today? Are you willing to share your story? Both the smallest and biggest of celebrations are appropriate, along with everything in between.

While writing this at my desk, a majestic male red-wing blackbird perched himself on the bush in front of the window. Being only a few feet from him, I could see his feathers in detail and his glorious preening for the benefit of the females. On a grander scale, I participated today in celebrating the discharge of a COVID-19 patient from the hospital. With the long hallway lined on both sides with hospital staff, the patient left to a thunderous applause of front-line workers needing to express good news as much as the patient needed to receive it. “Let the whole world bless our God and loudly sing his praises.”

May the Lord grant you the answers you seek. May you express those answers with thanksgiving and celebration to others.

Almighty God, who through your only-begotten Son Jesus Christ has overcome death and opened to us the gate of everlasting life: grant that, as by your grace going before us you put into our minds good desires, so by your continual help we may bring them to good effect; through Jesus Christ our risen Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.