You’d think you were reading Amos or Jeremiah. According to Abraham Heschel, Israel’s prophets are those whose ‘life and soul are at stake in what they say about the mystery of God’s relation to humanity. We think of them as some of the most disturbed and disturbing people who ever lived and yet they are also the ones whose image is our refuge in distress and whose voice and vision sustain or faith. But here, in the Psalms. These are the values Israel ignored...
Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord, O my soul!
I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God all my life long.
Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.
Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God,
who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever;
who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets the prisoners free;
the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.
The Lord will reign forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the Lord!
How many Psalms are there? One hundred and fifty. How many of you have paid any attention to how the Rosary is used by many devout Catholic women, holding it in their hands as they pray? Originally, and not so much anymore, there’s a huge connection. The rosary dates back to the ninth century when Irish Monks would recite and chant the 150 Psalms as a major part of their worship. People living near the monasteries were drawn to this beautiful devotion and they were eager to join in. The rosary was an attempt to help them move through the whole Psalter. That explains the circle of fifty beads and the beads that remind you on which course you are on. But because the Psalms were very hard to memorize people were encouraged to simply pray over and over the same simple prayer Jesus had taught his followers: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Amen.” Later, while keeping the structure, it was modified to solidify many different goals within a mostly illiterate culture including the establishing the ‘Apostle’s Creed” which didn’t show up until about the year 710 a standard point of reference and the special role of Mary and her subsequent veneration.
I was trying to imagine where my mind might be, following the tradition of the Irish monks, by the time I reached the 146 Psalm, near the conclusion of the third round of fifty. Would the phrasing that repeats itself throughout the Psalms have grown sterile and cold? This Psalm alone starts with four “praise the Lord” s. In another Psalm the phrase repeats a dozen times. Blessed or Happy is another repeatable. Over twenty times the Psalmist warns us to not put our trust in man but in God.
I dissected this Psalm, wanting to see what was here that might, for one already half asleep from the repetitions already read, stir a new thought. The Psalmist says “Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob…” I wondered, why not Moses or Aaron, Abraham or Isaac? Jacob, himself schemed to steal his brother’s birthright and his father’s blessing that was intended for his brother. Fleeing for his life he was deceived into marrying the sister of the love of his life and then each of their maidservants resulting in the twelve tribes that had become captive in Egypt and formed the basis of the people now led by David. But long before that, with his family Jacob returns to the home he had fled and had to reconcile with his brother. Again, fearful for his life, he sent his wives, sons, and possessions across the river, and was alone with God. That night, he wrestled with a man until the break of day. As the dawn broke, Jacob demanded a blessing from the man, and the “man” revealed himself as an angel. He blessed Jacob and gave him the name “Israel” meaning “the one who wrestled with God”. I guess the answer to my question, why Jacob? Is that you don’t get to choose your family.
But it’s not about Jacob at all. It’s about this God with whom Jacob wrestled. What the Psalmist says about that God is quite informative:
First, David says that this is who “made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them;” This isn’t any local god who has oversight over a territory, a people or a nation. You can’t imagine a God greater than the one who created everything. No wonder he advises those who sing his song to not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. Because unlike God, “when their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.” So “Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God…”
The next thing the Psalmist tells us about the God of Jacob is that he: “…keeps faith forever.” You can trust God. Of course the issue isn’t God’s faithfulness, it’s our`s.
But there is more: this is a God who:
- … executes justice for the oppressed;
- … gives food to the hungry.
- …sets the prisoners free;
- … opens the eyes of the blind.
- … lifts up those who are bowed down;
- … loves the righteous.
- … watches over the strangers;
- … upholds the orphan and the widow,
Looking through this list should certainly challenge contemporary culture.
You’d think you were reading Amos or Jeremiah. According to Abraham Heschel, Israel’s prophets are those whose ‘life and soul are at stake in what they say about the mystery of God’s relation to humanity. We think of them as some of the most disturbed and disturbing people who ever lived and yet they are also the ones whose image is our refuge in distress and whose voice and vision sustain or faith. But here, in the Psalms. These are the values Israel ignored that caused their being taken into Babylonian captivity. That’s the last of these short phrases – “but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin”.
Trying to put a date on when the Psalms were written is a lost cause. It’s a song book that accumulated hymns that became favorites in meetings for worship. And these pieces were composed over a thousand years of Israel’s history.
The good news is that “The Lord will reign forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the Lord!”
That’s a creedal statement, a statement of belief that should be a guiding principle. If the Lord reigns forever – for all generations – that means God’s reign is a current reality. To turn the Psalm around, to follow the way of the wicked brings us to ruin. And what’s the alternative? To live into what this greatest of all Gods sees as important. To execute justice for the oppressed; give food to the hungry; set prisoners free; open the eyes of the blind; lift up those who are bowed down; love the righteous (and I’ve got to tell you some are pretty difficult to love); watch over the strangers; uphold the orphan and the widow. That’s quite a challenge when most of us just try to keep our heads down so as to not get into an argument over religion or politics. I think this Psalm is a challenge us to stand up and be counted for the values that God holds dear.