Study for Wednesday 3rd June
Psalm 42 – Praying our fragility
Verse 1: The poet is not satisfied to describe the deer in the dry place’s longing as a longing for water; it is a longing for “flowing water.” He conjures up the image of a crystal-clear mountain stream with sweet water – obviously not something foreign to the deer. It might be a reference to the headwaters of the Jordan. As a description of the longing for God he intuitively takes something highly desirable as metaphor.
Verse 2: “the face of God” is a Hebrew way of speaking of the presence of God.
Verse 3: The enemies’ taunts in this verse and in verse 9 has led to a long tradition of reading the psalm either as one set in the time of the Babylonian exile when or in the time shortly after the exile, when the Jewish nation were at the mercy of the surrounding nations.
Verse 4 and 5: Note how the poet combines the past, the present and the future. He remembers a time of joy in the presence of God, then focuses on the present experience of the absence of God, and then casts his focus forward to the future. Remembering past experiences with God enables him to be hopeful about the future, even while he remains resolutely realistic about his present predicament.
Verse 7: “Deep calls to deep” is a poetic description of being overwhelmed by wave after wave in the dreaded sea. In Hebrew poetry the sea was given mythical meaning of a collection of all we dread as humans.
We all know Saint Augustine’s famous prayer: “You have made us for yourself, Lord. Our hearts find no rest until they find their rest in you.” Augustine’s prayer springs from the knowledge that our most basic desire is a desire for God. When we find ourselves in times where God feels distant or even absent all of life tends to shrivel and dry. Meaning is hard to come by.
This experience can be caused by personal crisis. We can all remember times when it seemed as if our lives were falling apart. Especially if protracted these times tend to insert a feeling of being godforsaken.
Many Christians, though, speak of times of spiritual dryness when God seems absent even though there is no discernible crisis that precipitated the experience. This has been called “the dark night of the soul” since its definitive description by Saint John of the Cross. It can be a bewildering experience, feeling as if one is losing your faith. Yet, as many wise Christian guides have pointed out in the past, it is most often a sign that God is moving you to a new phase in your relationship with him. The advice given for believers who find themselves in this fragile time is to do exactly what the poet in Psalm 42 does. Remind yourself of touchstone experiences in the past and allow them to colour your present predicament with hope for the future. And, above all, speak to God about this. Tell him, as the poet does, how you long for him. If your own words dry up, use prayers like Psalm 42 as your personal prayers. Don’t feel guilty as if this is you failing to be faithful to God. Rather engage in the constructive self-talk we find in the psalm: “Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.”
Robert Louis Stevenson tells of a time when, as a little boy, he watched a man lighting the streetlamps outside their home. He called out, “Mother, mother, come look! Someone is poking holes into the darkness!” This is what Psalm 42 does when we are in a time where God feels distant. Our faith is fragile. We need prayers like this to poke holes in our darkness when they arrive.
Digging deeper: Some questions to ponder
- Psalm 42 uses the powerful image of thirst for our longing for God. In which ways is thirst like experiencing God as distant?
- What could lead to experiencing God as distant?
- In verse 2 the poet describes his longing for God as a longing for “the living God.” What does this description of God convey to you?
- In 2 Cor 5:7 Paul states, “…for we walk by faith, not by sight.” How does this apply to the faith of the poet in this Psalm? What practical help does this offer in times when we feel disconnected from God?
- Psalm 42 can be prayed in any season of faith and not only in times of distress. Our deep need for the presence of God is never fully satisfied; we always want more. Therefore, we can pray the psalm as it is, even if you do not currently feel far from God or as if God has forgotten you. You might even insert a few phrases of your own after the passages of lament, where you thank God for his presence now and ask him to remind you or these times of closeness if you should ever lose the awareness of his presence.
- It is interesting to note that only the first verse is addressed to God. The rest is self-talk in the presence God. This does not make it less of a prayer than the first verse. Yet it could be a good practice to end the prayer by repeating verse 1.
- If you are presently in a difficult time, praying the psalm might offer you an opportunity to speak to God about this – either by elaborating at certain points while praying the psalm or after praying it as it is written down.
Introduction to 6 studies of the Psalms: Taking God seriously, taking life seriously
Welcome to Canongate Kirk’s Bible studies of the Psalms. We will be looking at 6 Psalms – mostly old favourites.
An interesting track record
The Psalms have had an important role in the history of the Christian church. To this day they structure of prayer in monastic communities. The communal prayer in monasteries is done by singing the Psalms, covering the whole of the Psalter before starting a new cycle. In the past some traditions even prayed through the whole of the Psalter every week! The Psalms have also played an important part in the liturgy of churches from the start. It has been common practice for faith communities to sing and pray the Psalms whenever they meet for worship.
The Psalms also have a long history as a resource in private devotions. In the middle ages, when Bibles were kept away from lay Christians for fear of heresy, one exception was made – the Psalms. Many Christians had their own handwritten copy of the Psalms as a treasured personal prayer book. It was widely perceived as the Bible of the laity. Since the advent of the printing press the use of the Psalms for private devotions became even more common.
The Psalter was central to the spiritual life of the Reformation and, right from the beginning, especially in Reformed liturgy. Martin Luther’s field of speciality was the Old Testament and his favourite part of the Old Testament was (you guessed it) the Psalms. He knew them by heart in the original. In his German Bible translation, it seems that he did not even refer to a printed text, but did the translation from memory! For many ages it was not uncommon for monks to be able to recite the whole of the Psalms without any recourse to the written text. John Calvin promoted the Psalms for congregational singing and, since then, the Psalms have even been established as the only congregational singing allowed in some Reformed churches.
Why have the Psalms been given such a central place in Christian worship? I would venture to state that this due to our urge to respond to God when feeling spoken to by him. When we attempt to put our true response into words we always come up short in our ability to express what we feel we ought to articulate. The Psalms remedy this situation. There is a psalm for every occasion, for every state we might find ourselves in. John Calvin describes the Psalms as “an anatomy of every part of the human soul.”
Add to this that the Psalms are presented as models for our informal prayers. Christians have constantly been surprised to find permission to express even extremely negative thoughts and emotions in some of the psalms. In this fashion the healing impact of prayer has been unlocked, since we are encouraged to appear before God “warts and all”, hiding nothing and working through negative emotions such as anger (even anger directed at God), self-deprecation, guilt, and shame. Laying these negative emotions at the feet of God is done in the Psalms in ways that bring healing and that draw us closer to God instead of separating us from him.
Some inside information
You don’t need to know the information that follows, but it does give us a broader appreciation of the meaning of many or the Psalms. If it does not interest you, by all means skip this section and carry on with the next.
Psalms 1 and 2 act as an introduction into the Psalms. The express the two basic practical beliefs of God’s children: Only in doing God’s will does life flourish (Psalm 1) and only with God is true security to be found (Psalm 2). The problem then is this: How do we pray when we seek a meaningful life by doing God’s will and by seeking refuge in God and it does not work out? The rest of the Psalms are prayers that reflect the ebb and flow of life where the godless sometimes seem to be better off and where we often feel threatened by things beyond our control. They help us to celebrate the seasons when things work out according to these two tenets of faith, and they also help us to hold fast to them when our very faith in God is threatened.
The Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann has a very useful little scheme with which to understand the relation of individual psalms to these seasons of our lives. He states that there are three main types of psalms, viewed in terms of the seasons in our lives:
- Psalms of orientation. These are Psalms that fit in best in times when our lives run smoothly and there is order and coherence. Praying these Psalms prevent us from taking these seasons for granted and turns us towards God in worshipful gratitude. The faith expressed in these Psalms leave no room for doubt. They display absolute certitude.
- Psalms of disorientation. These Psalms are prayed when life falls apart. Some gently question the state of affairs, but many others display desperation and even despair. Others display anger at enemies and even at God! Yet they are given to us as ways to face up to the rawness of life in ways that keep us engaged with God. Only then can we work through our emotions and gain the perspective and inner coherence to face these realities constructively and not lose our faith.
- Psalms of new orientation. These are Psalms prayed at the other side of suffering and trouble. They display joy and gratitude and awed reverence for God who delivered them from their troubles. The have survived with their faith intact. They can say that God is good with total conviction. This is not a cheap confession, but a hard-won verdict.
The Psalms are divided into five books, each concluding with a similar passage of praise at the end of the final psalm in the book. After the introductory Psalms (1-2), the five books consist of Psalms 3-41 (Book 1), 42-72 (Book 2), 73-89 (Book 3), 90-106 (Book 4), and 107-145 (Book 5). Then, after the five books, we find five praise songs (Psalms 146-150), placed at the end as representative of the five books of psalms. They are a kind of summary. The striking thing is this: They are five praise songs while the lament and anger in the books they pretend to summarise is dominant – much more prominent than the praise. This presents us with an important perspective when reading these difficult psalms: The person praying them has not finished praying yet! The issues that led to these hash and woeful words have not found their resolution yet… but they will! There is a movement in the whole of the Psalter and in every individual prayer in the Psalms towards praise. When we get to the end of the Psalms, we can confirm the truth of the faith expressed in the first two Psalms. Truly, life is good when we live in accordance with God’s words. Truly we are safe when we find our refuge in God.
Praying the Psalms
There are three basic prayers that we always need: “Help!”, “Thank you”, and “Wow!” This is a good foundation for prayer, but we need to deepen our prayer life if our faith is to deepen. This is where the Psalms are vital. The Psalms are in the first instance prayers. After so many generations of God’s children praying them, it would be apt to describe them as well-worn paths to God. We are setting out to study six of them in the following weeks, but if we stop short of praying them, we will not receive their full benefit. I would go as far as saying that you only really understand the Psalms after you have prayed them. No amount of close reading or theological study can get you deeper into the spark of a psalm than praying it as your own, personal prayer will. When you do that you notice things that have gone unnoticed before. A phrase or a word would suddenly light up and become an exact expression of what has been hovering unspoken beneath the surface of your consciousness for a long time.
There are many ways to pray the Psalms as a personal discipline. Simply reading them slowly and with attention as your own prayer (as we do in church) works well. Some people even personalise them by changing the third person address to the first person, where necessary. Psalm 90 would then be changed from “Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations” to “Lord, you have been my dwelling place in all generations”. It might feel a bit contrived at first, but soon becomes second nature. In Psalms like Psalm 23 this does not need to be done, since it is already written in the first person. It is also recommended to stop when a phrase or word strikes you when praying a psalm. You can, then, merely stay with it and savour it for a while. You could also start a conversation with God, discussing your response to the phrase. After giving proper attention to this, you can then return to the psalm and pray it through to the end.
One last remark needs to be made. The Psalms, comprehensive as they are, are not to be taken up as the only prayers we should pray. They function as a way of “priming the pump.” Having grown up on a farm, I often saw my father or one of the labourers priming a pump in our irrigation system to get it going. Since a pump cannot suck air, they would pour some water into it before switching it on. Once it had a column of water to push forward, it would effortlessly continue gushing the water it took from the irrigation canal. The Psalms get us started with the intention to enable us, in time, to express ourselves fully before God in prayer in our own words and in ways that give unique expression to our lives before God.
The following psalms will receive our attention in the coming weeks.
Study 1: Psalm 1 – Praying our rootedness
Study 2: Psalm 42 – Praying our suffering
Study 3: Psalm 23 – Praying our security
Study 4: Psalm 51 – Praying our failure
Study 5: Psalm 90 – Praying our fragility
Study 6: Psalm 147 – Praying our joy
Study for Wednesday 27th May 2020
Psalm 1 – Praying our rootedness
Verse 1: “Happy…” is not a particularly good translation of the Hebrew word used at the start of Psalm 1. The Hebrew word has a much stronger meaning, incorporating a cluster of possible translations like “fortunate”, “lucky”, “blissful”, “prosperous”. Maybe the best translation is “blessed”, since it conveys the source of the happiness referred to here (God) and, by doing that, gives us a sense of the superlative. The poet is speaking of the kind of happiness that surpasses anything we can gain for ourselves.
Verse 2 “…their delight”. The poet is not referring to mere rule-keeping. He is referring to those who have discovered obedience to the law to lead to true joy.
“…meditate…”. A rare Hebrew word is used here, that is used metaphorically in two telling ways in the Old Testament. It is once used for the contented cooing sound of a dove and elsewhere for the purring sound a lion makes when gnawing a meaty bone. Both these metaphorical uses provide us with a sense of distracted enjoyment.
Verse 4 The picture this verse intends to conjure up is that of a winnowing floor – usually a level space on a hill, where wind is more likely to occur. Here wheat was strewn and beaten, and then tossed up in the air with winnowing forks so that the chaff can be blown away, while the wheat drops to the floor to be gathered when all of the chaff has been gotten rid of.
Psalm 1 has many striking aspects. The most striking is the way it depicts life in obedience to the law of God as pure joy. In fact, it does not even use the word “obedience”. It speaks of “delight”! Once one gets a taste of a life in accordance with the will of God it becomes such a joy that obedience is the most natural and obvious course. The law becomes much more than a set of rules to obey. It becomes something to ruminate on with deep pleasure.
Psalms 1 and 2 express the two basic practical beliefs of those who worship God: the belief that true happiness and human flourishing can only be found in obedience to God’s will (Psalm 1) and the belief that true security can only be found in God (Psalm 2). This faith is not mere abstract beliefs but are supposed to be the foundation of a life as a child of God. It is easy to express one’s faith in terms like those used in Ps 1 and 2, but these beliefs are often put to test when one puts them into practice. It sometimes seems that the godless flourish at the expense of the god-fearing. The rest of the Psalms are in conversation with God when these two tenets of faith are put to the test in real life. The hard-won verdict in the Psalms is that these two statements of faith remain true, even at the limits of our endurance. We are always to be compared to trees planted by streams of water; the wicked are always to be compared to chaff blown away by the wind.
There is a wonderful traditional interpretation of the metaphor of the tree planted by a stream. All indications are that Psalm 1 was composed during the Babylonian exile. The exiles had not only lost their land, possessions and freedom; the destruction of the temple left them feeling godforsaken. Some of them were forced to work the fields watered by the irrigation system fed by the Euphrates river. The areas where the irrigation canals led were hot and arid and treeless. And so, the Babylonians had trees dug up on the riverbanks and planted next to the irrigation canals to provide shade for the foremen. At first the trees wilted when taken away from their water-rich environment on the riverbanks. But then they discovered the clay canals at their feet and started flourishing again.
Israel had been ripped up by their roots from the land God had promised to their forefathers, the land where the presence of God was like a broad river providing and protecting day by day. Now they were planted out here in the barren and hot semi-desert of Babylon. And then they made the discovery: Even here the water of God’s nourishing presence ran at their feet – the same water they had drunk in their own country! And Israel flourished again…
Digging deeper: Some questions to ponder
- If you ask people in our time what would make someone really, really happy? What would their answer be? What is Psalm 1’s alternative view?
- In our time, who are the wicked, the sinners, the scoffers whose advice and influence we should be careful of? What do they imagine would make them happy?
- Ponder on the kind of believer described for us in the first two verses of the psalm. Which person or persons have you had the good fortune to know who exemplified this? What made you pick this person?
- Which elements of a happy life do you find symbolised in the image of the tree? Which of those elements in the description do you discover in your own life?
- The last two verses in the psalm presents us with the reason why the children of God flourish, while the wicked do not. What course does this recommend for our lives?
The psalm is more like a confession of faith that a prayer. One could pray it as a confession of faith, ending with a simple prayer like, “Lord, this I believe. Draw me even further into this way of living. Amen.”
An alternative would be to read the psalm slowly and thoughtfully and then to pray your response to it. You might respond to the psalm by confessing the extent to which you seek joy in the things the world advertises as the answer our needs and by asking to be more like the tree planted by a stream. The prayer need not be long or eloquent, but it needs to be truthful.