Psalm 86 – Theology Proper

Psalm 86 by Ann Williams

Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me,
    for I am poor and needy.
Preserve my life, for I am devoted to you;
    save your servant who trusts in you.
You are my God; be gracious to me, O Lord,
    for to you do I cry all day long.
Gladden the soul of your servant,
    for to you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving,
    abounding in steadfast love to all who call on you.
Give ear, O Lord, to my prayer;
    listen to my cry of supplication.
In the day of my trouble I call on you,
    for you will answer me.

There is none like you among the gods, O Lord,
    nor are there any works like yours.
All the nations you have made shall come
    and bow down before you, O Lord,
    and shall glorify your name.
For you are great and do wondrous things;
    you alone are God.
Teach me your way, O Lord,
    that I may walk in your truth;
    give me an undivided heart to revere your name.
I give thanks to you, O Lord my God, with my whole heart,
    and I will glorify your name forever.
For great is your steadfast love toward me;
    you have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol.

O God, the insolent rise up against me;
    a band of ruffians seeks my life,
    and they do not set you before them.
But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious,
    slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.
Turn to me and be gracious to me;
    give your strength to your servant;
    save the child of your serving girl.
Show me a sign of your favor,
    so that those who hate me may see it and be put to shame,
    because you, Lord, have helped me and comforted me. (NRSV)

Today’s psalm is a prayer of David, asking God for help against enemies. David was a guy who knew what it was like to have evil men hate him and pursue taking his life through no fault of his own. I am not sure about your experiences with such people. Although I have never faced adversity to such a degree as David, I do know something about people who, to put it bluntly, just flat-out hate my guts. It feels awful, and it can be terribly draining emotionally and spiritually. Having disrespectful and rude people talk behind your back (and sometimes even to your face) is in direct contrast to who God is.

God is described by David as merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and faithful. Whereas insolent people objectify others and seek their own selfish agendas, God always acts in accord with a basic character of love and grace. Based upon the nature of God, we can choose to cry out, just like David did, to show us a sign of God’s favor. We can pray for God to provide us with some tangible communication of divine love in ways we can understand so that we can be helped and receive the kind of comfort we need through our adversity.

Psalm 86, chalk art by Scottish pastor and artist John Stuart, 2009

Be assured that with such a God, our pleas, cries, and tears will be noticed, affirmed, and answered. We can trust the sovereign Lord of all creation to address the insolence and injustice that exists around us and toward us.

All of this gets down to our view of God, our theological understanding of the basic Divine nature and purpose.  For some people, God is up there, somewhere, like some white-bearded old guy who is aloof to what is going on down here – there is neither anything personal nor personable about him, at all. For others, God is a force which binds all things together. In this theology, God exists, but you are never quite sure how to connect – it is like a crapshoot trying to get in touch with him.  For yet others, God is perpetually perturbed about something; he has a bee in his bonnet, and it is apparently our job to figure out what he is so sullen and upset about all the time so that we can appease him in some way.

However, the psalmist, David, sees God in wholly other ways than this. For David, God is personal, knowable, and reachable. David thought about God in ways which transcend either gendered or personality-type categories. Note the descriptions David provided: a willingness to forgive; an abiding, consistent, and steadfast presence of divine love; always having the time and desire to listen; possessing the power and ability to provide help and protection; being kind and merciful; not being easily angered; and extending needed comfort and consolation.

Now this is a God you can sink your teeth into – attentive, engaged, and anything but upset all the time. This is the reason why David has confidence to ask for deliverance, direction, and delight. Such a God is like a caring grandmother who seeks to always love and serve, and not a crotchety old curmudgeon who always seems bothered by everyone and everything.

If your theology, your view of God, cannot support and bear the weight of life’s hardest circumstances, then you need a different view of God! I invite you to see the God of David. Theology proper discerns the being, attributes, and works of God as fundamentally faithful and loving. This God has both the ability and the will to meet and satisfy your life’s greatest needs.

Great God of David, you are above all things and beside all things and with all things. You are uniquely positioned and powerful to walk with me through all the situations of my life. Thank you for sending the Son of David to make real your promises to me.  Amen.

Psalm 69:1-5, 30-36 – The Praise of Suffering

Psalm 69 by Japanese painter Makoto Fujimura

Save me, God,
    because the waters have reached my neck!
I have sunk into deep mud.
    My feet cannot touch the bottom!
I have entered deep water;
    the flood has swept me up.
I am tired of crying.
    My throat is hoarse.
    My eyes are exhausted with waiting for my God.

More numerous than the hairs on my head
    are those who hate me for no reason.
My treacherous enemies,
    those who would destroy me, are countless.
    Must I now give back
    what I did not steal in the first place?
God, you know my foolishness;
    my wrongdoings are not hidden from you….

I will praise God’s name with song;
    I will magnify him with thanks
    because that is more pleasing to the Lord than an ox,
    more pleasing than a young bull with full horns and hooves.
Let the afflicted see it and be glad!
    You who seek God—
    let your hearts beat strong again
    because the Lord listens to the needy
        and does not despise his captives.

Let heaven and earth praise God,
    the oceans too, and all that moves within them!
God will most certainly save Zion
    and will rebuild Judah’s cities
    so that God’s servants can live there and possess it.
The offspring of God’s servants will inherit Zion,
    and those who love God’s name will dwell there. (CEB)

As the Church’s and the Christian’s prayer book, the psalms offer a way to come to God when our feelings and emotions have us not knowing how to pray, at all.  If you are depressed because of people who would like to see you fail or are out to get you, then this is the psalm for you to pray!

When you are voiceless, the psalter can voice it for you. When you are unable to put your thoughts into words, the Scripture can word it for you. Two of the great attributes of God are divine power and love, which means that the Lord is more than able to do something about your situation, and it will always be done in a loving way.  Know today that God hears you and is working on a response to your lament – even if it is not in your own words but the words of Holy Scripture.

Psalm 69 by Austrian artist Ernst Fuchs, 1960

God will come through in God’s own good time. However, you can still praise the Lord right now, smack in the middle of your dilemma. David, the author of today’s psalm, chose to praise God, even though he did not get an immediate answer to his prayers. Perhaps God is more concerned to change us before changing our circumstances.

We need a solid theology of suffering. And that biblical psalms give it to us. I know of no one who wakes in the morning, sits on the edge of their bed, and says, “Gee, I want to suffer today and feel lots of emotional and spiritual pain.” No, we want happiness and joy, not agony and hardship. Yet suffering has much to teach us and the Lord is rarely quick to snatch us from its lessons. The hardship of personal suffering teaches us faith and dependence upon God, as well as leading us to ask for help from others so that we are lovingly supported.

“The way you look at things is the most powerful force in shaping your life.”

john o’donohue

Tribulations in life are common to all people without exception. The issue is whether we will submit to its hard-knock education, or not – whether we will become better people, or bitter. The Irish teacher and poet, John O’Donohue, penned a poem entitled, “For Suffering,” concerning the blessing of hard things:

May you be blessed in the holy names of those

Who, without knowing it,

Help to carry and lighten your pain.

May you know serenity

When you are called

To enter the house of suffering.

May a window of light always surprise you.

May you be granted the wisdom

To avoid false resistance;

When suffering knocks on the door of your life,

May you glimpse its eventual gifts.

May you be able to receive the fruits of suffering.

May memory bless and protect you

With the hard-earned light of past travail;

To remind you that you have survived before

And though the darkness is now deep,

You will soon see approaching light.

May the grace of time heal your wounds.

May you know that though the storm may rage,

Not a hair of your head will be harmed.

To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blesings (Doubleday, 2008)

We have all likely at times felt the anguish of the psalmist – being so overwhelmed that it feels like we are drowning. The feeling is compounded exponentially when behind the sense of trying to keep our heads above water there are people who do not like us – maybe even hate us, to the point of undermining our work every chance they get.  It is in such circumstances we might experience sleepless nights hoping that somehow and someway God will show up.

The typical modus operandi for some within adverse situations is the age-old route of complaining and wishing things were different. Yet neither griping about our problems nor dishing out slander and gossip toward others is a healthy way of dealing with adversity. Just the opposite response is the proper path to the bone-crushing feeling of opposition: to praise God’s name with a song and magnify the Lord with thanksgiving. 

The reason the believer can engage in adoring God during trouble is not some Jedi-type mind trick to make us think more positively. Instead, the basis for praise is in knowing God. It is God who ultimately will deal with the wicked; it is the Lord who will bend to listen to our lament when times are hard. 

Thanking God for answers to prayer in advance of them being answered is a biblical thing to do. Having a faith robust enough to see ahead toward hope can bring love to a loveless situation, and usher in praise before the divine deed of deliverance is even accomplished.

Saving God, thank you for your deliverance!  I give you praise for loving me through sending your Son, the Lord Jesus, to this earthly realm so that I might experience salvation from sin, death, and hell. By Christ’s authority, in the power of the Holy Spirit given to me, I resist the enemy’s attempts to seize control of my life.  I belong to you, holy God. Amen.

Psalm 79 – Unbearable Pain

The nations have come into your inheritance, God!
    They’ve defiled your holy temple.
    They’ve made Jerusalem a bunch of ruins.
They’ve left your servants’ bodies
    as food for the birds;
    they’ve left the flesh of your faithful
    to the wild animals of the earth.
They’ve poured out the blood of the faithful
    like water all around Jerusalem,
    and there’s no one left to bury them.
We’ve become a joke to our neighbors,
    nothing but objects of ridicule
    and disapproval to those around us.

How long will you rage, Lord? Forever?
    How long will your anger burn like fire?
Pour out your wrath on the nations
        who don’t know you,
    on the kingdoms
        that haven’t called on your name.
They’ve devoured Jacob
    and demolished his pasture.
Don’t remember the iniquities of past generations;
    let your compassion hurry to meet us
    because we’ve been brought so low.
God of our salvation, help us
    for the glory of your name!
Deliver us and cover our sins
    for the sake of your name!
Why should the nations say,
    “Where’s their God now?”
Let vengeance for the spilled blood of your servants
    be known among the nations before our very eyes!
    Let the prisoners’ groaning reach you.
With your powerful arm
    spare those who are destined to die.
Pay back our neighbors seven times over,
    right where it hurts,
    for the insults they used on you, Lord.
We are, after all, your people
    and the sheep of your very own pasture.
We will give you thanks forever;
    we will proclaim your praises
    from one generation to the next. (CEB)

The setting behind today’s Psalm is the destruction of the temple and a conquering army who proudly gloats over their victory. This is a prayer, an angry cry for God to step in and act on behalf of the humiliated people. The psalm is more than a simple plea for help; it is a deeply passionate appeal. As a child of the 1960’s, my phrase for the psalmist’s entreaty is, “God, stick it to the man!”

There is no polite knock at the side door of God’s house in the face of such evil. This is a pounding on the front door with the demand for God to do something about this terrible trouble. For the psalmist, the incongruence between who God is and what has happened to God’s people is inconceivable and unacceptable. To profane God’s temple is to profane God; and to kill and maim God’s people is to flip the middle finger at God. The psalmist is beside himself and overwhelmed with emotion.

There is something very instructive here that we ought not miss. When we have been brutalized, victimized, and/or demoralized, we just want someone, especially the Lord we serve, to take notice and feel what we are feeling. Never underestimate the power of empathy and solidarity. To feel alone and bereft of help is an awful feeling.

Perhaps the psalmist’s prayer offends some sensibilities. I wonder, for those who find the language difficult, have ever had a daughter raped or a house destroyed by fire or seen a person killed without mercy in front of their own eyes. Methinks they have not. The feelings of helpless despair and sheer anger defy human words. These are not casual affronts but malicious destructions of property and people.

We need someone to affirm the raw ruthlessness of it all, to have some understanding of the impossible place we are in with such wanton cruelty. When our very support is ripped from our lives, the madness within is too much to bear. Who will rescue us from this body of death?

God is big enough to handle our rage and our hurt. The Lord is available and hears our desperate voice of prayer. Yet, God is not always going to directly and immediately answer on the terms we stipulate. God acts out of God’s own providence and justice, and not from our expectations. And that is a good thing, not a bad thing.

God sees, knows, and feels with us. The realization of this enables us to recenter and reorient ourselves around faith, hope, and love. New life is never a gift in a vacuum; it comes out of agonizing struggle in reckoning with the existing evil.

So, when someone goes through a hellish experience, we are to exercise our capacity to listen and witness the horrible spiritual pain of the person. Healing hurts: it is not a pleasant affair. We are to hang in there and walk alongside another in their hour of need, even when their vitriol seems over the top to us. For only in telling our story to another will any of us find relief and renewed hope.

The psalms permit us to use language appropriate to what has happened to us. They also allow us to move beyond the venom to the God who restores broken lives.

Lord Jesus Christ, by your patience in suffering you hallowed earthly pain and gave us the example of obedience to your Father’ will: Be near me in my time of weakness and pain; sustain me by your grace, that my strength and courage may not fail; heal me according to you will; and help me always to believe that what happens to me here is of little account if you hold me in eternal life, my Lord and my God. As the Lord Jesus cried out on the cross, I cry out to you in pain, O God my Creator. Do not forsake me. Grant me relief from this suffering and preserve me in peace, through Jesus Christ my Savior, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19 – Longing for the Lord

The Hand of God by Korean artist Yongsung Kim

Please listen, O Shepherd of Israel,
    you who lead Joseph’s descendants like a flock.
O God, enthroned above the cherubim,
    display your radiant glory
    to Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh.
Show us your mighty power.
    Come to rescue us!

Turn us again to yourself, O God.
    Make your face shine down upon us.
    Only then will we be saved.
O Lord God of Heaven’s Armies,
    how long will you be angry with our prayers?
You have fed us with sorrow
    and made us drink tears by the bucketful.
You have made us the scorn of neighboring nations.
    Our enemies treat us as a joke.

Turn us again to yourself, O God of Heaven’s Armies.
    Make your face shine down upon us.
    Only then will we be saved….

Strengthen the man you love,
    the son of your choice.
Then we will never abandon you again.
    Revive us so we can call on your name once more.

Turn us again to yourself, O Lord God of Heaven’s Armies.
    Make your face shine down upon us.
    Only then will we be saved. (NLT)

Let us continually keep in mind that the psalms are quite Jewish. Yes, I often refer to the psalms as the Church’s Prayer Book and unabashedly see them through Christian eyes. Yet, the psalter, at its core, are prayers and songs of the Jewish experience.

The deep longings and yearnings of the Jewish people within a constant stream of hardship, difficulty, and persecution give voice to all humanity. In other words, the bearing of the Jewish soul as the people of God is the crying out on behalf of us all.

The Jews know a thing or two about lament. Today’s psalm is a lament, a prayer, longing for God to come and restore Israel, to no longer look upon them with anger.  The people knew in their exposed vulnerability that they needed God.  It is the Lord who would come to save and bring a revitalized nation.

Amid awful circumstances and emotional pain, it can be hard to focus with concentrated prayer. The Jews also help us here because they crafted and arranged the psalms in such a way as to enable and foster recall and memory. So, where many of us Gentiles can be rather more like pagans babbling on in our distress, the Jewish psalms offer us the ability of short, succinct, and staccato prayers. Early Christians called them “breath prayers.” 

Throughout the day we can utter “Stir up your power, O God; come to save us.”  The intention of saying it repeatedly in a day is not to get God’s attention because we already have it. No, the purpose is to connect us with Divine resources for deliverance. The purpose is to be in constant touch and continual communion with the One who can ultimately restore, renew, revitalize, and reform the world with justice and righteousness.  It is to be longing for the flourishing of the earth and its inhabitants again, and to enjoy walking with God in the garden of fellowship, peace, and goodwill. It is to be restored.

Restoration is a beautiful thing. I rarely watch makeover shows on television, but if I am channel surfing and catch an old house which seems best suited for the wrecking ball getting restored to its original charm and beauty, I am hooked.  We as people seem to resonate deeply with things being repaired and rejuvenated to looking brand new again.

Again, the Jewish people go before us, through the psalms, with the vision to see the old become new. Whereas some may get lost in the drab discouragement of a gray and dreary environment, forgetting the original shine of how things once were, Asaph, the consummate Jewish song leader, guided the people in remembering how God’s people enjoyed the covenant and the promises of God.  But over time the relationship was not maintained and cared for; the people gradually slid into disrepair.  Centuries of neglect brought a situation where it seemed the only recourse was to do away with the people and begin again.

I certainly do not want to make God angry. I would much rather learn my lesson from the Jewish experience throughout the millennia and enjoy Divine favor. I would also like this old fallen world to be restored to her original beauty. So, we must come to God – not once – but again and again, over, and over. Like the hammer of perseverance, pounding nail after nail, so we must offer our prayers morning, noon, and night, day after day, crying out to God with the great cry of the Jewish people:  “Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved!”

Merciful God of all nations bring restoration to our lives, our families, our faith communities, our workplaces, our human institutions, our neighborhoods, and our shared world. Send your Holy Spirit so that we might enjoy seasons of blessing again.  Restore, renew, revive, and rejuvenate our disordered love.  May your face shine upon us once again through the mighty name of Jesus.  Amen.