Monday, August 31, 2009

Psalms 90-100

Wait, What?

I still have a Bible project? And I'm still in the Psalms? Sigh....

The good news is, I've finally made it to Psalm 100! ...and the bad news is, there's 150 Psalms. Well, onward! The strategem today is just to identify the main point of each Psalm -- this batch consists for the most part of thematically unified chapters -- and give you a short soundbite that captures the mood. Ready? Let's go!

Psalm 90

This is another Psalm on a topic that is always surprising to me, how much the world as created by God kind of sucks. The tone isn't complaint, but resigned acceptance of the limitations of human life, and the harshness of God:

7 We are consumed by your anger
and terrified by your indignation.
...and then you die, as lain out in this famous passage:

9 All our days pass away under your wrath;
we finish our years with a moan.
10 The length of our days is seventy years—
or eighty, if we have the strength;
yet their span is but trouble and sorrow,
for they quickly pass, and we fly away.
There is just this one upbeat, uplifting passage to break the gloom, toward the end of the Psalm:

14 Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love,
that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days.
Otherwise, this is a hard-bitten, that's-just-the-way-it-is sort of Psalm. Psalm noir, as it were.

Psalm 91

A far more optimistic Psalm than its immediate predecessor, #91 is on the popular theme of how God will protect and shield his worshippers.

9 If you make the Most High your dwelling—
even the LORD, who is my refuge-
10 then no harm will befall you,
no disaster will come near your tent.
11 For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways;
12 they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.
These assurances always seem a little problematic in a prayer or a religious song. After all, does God really provide complete physical protection for all his believers? Well, ask any saint.

Psalm 92

This one is a straightforward song of celebration, an upbeat celebration of greatness of God and the greatness of worshipping God.

5 How great are your works, O LORD,
how profound your thoughts!
The second half continues in the same mood, but reintroduces the theme of material benefit for believers:

12 The righteous will flourish like a palm tree,
they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon

Psalm 93

A short piece, five verses long with a loopy, repetitive quality, you can just imagine this one as a a slow number in a minor key. It is on the theme of the mightiness of God.

4 Mightier than the thunder of the great waters,
mightier than the breakers of the sea—
the LORD on high is mighty.
Psalm 94

The 94th Psalm is, by contrast, a long and rather blunt recitation on the theme of God's vengeance. It complains of the actions of the evildoers, and predicts their punishment by God, rooting God on in the process:

1 O LORD, the God who avenges,
O God who avenges, shine forth.
2 Rise up, O Judge of the earth;
pay back to the proud what they deserve.
Psalm 95

The 95th starts out as a call to worship God and ends with a sort of monologue by God to the Israelites. It is hard to tell exactly where one morphs into the other, but I think it's somewhere in here:

7 for he is our God
and we are the people of his pasture,
the flock under his care.
Today, if you hear his voice,
8 do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah,
as you did that day at Massah in the desert,
9 where your fathers tested and tried me,
though they had seen what I did.
At and before verse 7, God is "he"; at and after verse 9, God seems to be "I."

Psalm 96

A fairly ecstatic song of praise, with a bit of a prosylatizing edge to it:

3 Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvelous deeds among all peoples.
4 For great is the LORD and most worthy of praise;
he is to be feared above all gods.
You don't often see calls in the Old Testament for believers to spread their faith, but this seems to be a bit of an exception.

Psalm 97

Another straightforward song of praise.

5 The mountains melt like wax before the LORD,
before the Lord of all the earth.
6 The heavens proclaim his righteousness,
and all the peoples see his glory.

Psalm 98

This is one of a great many Psalms that starts along the lines of Sing to the Lord a new song, which is kind of ironic seeing as how they are all now old, old, old songs. Of course, every song is a new song when it's being written, but the phrase happens often enough so that one wonders if it has any particular meaning in this context.

This is, in any event, another song of religious celebration, specifically religious celebration through music.
4 Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth,
burst into jubilant song with music;
5 make music to the LORD with the harp,
with the harp and the sound of singing,
6 with trumpets and the blast of the ram's horn—
shout for joy before the LORD, the King.
Psalm 99

A song of praise and thanksgiving -- we seem to have uncovered a rich vein of them here -- this time with references to earlier Old Testament history.
5 Exalt the LORD our God
and worship at his footstool;
he is holy.
6 Moses and Aaron were among his priests,
Samuel was among those who called on his name;
they called on the LORD
and he answered them.
Psalm 100

And Psalm 100, finally, an uncomplicated thanksgiving Psalm that simply exhorts the reader to get happy and praise God:

4 Enter his gates with thanksgiving
and his courts with praise;
give thanks to him and praise his name.

And with that, we're 2/3 through the Psalms.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Psalms 83-89: Eighties Songs

Psalm 83

This is a solid example of a Psalm about enemies and about smiting enemies. The first eight verses talk about and list the foes that have it in for God's people, and the last ten verse exhort God to punish them and punish them good.

...pursue them with your tempest and terrify them with your storm.
Cover their faces with shame so that men will seek your name, O Lord.
May they ever be ashamed and dismayed; may they perish in disgrace.
The idea that God should lay into enemies of his followers with especial harshness in order to make a big impression is a very common one in the Bible; we've seen it at least since the Plagues of Egypt, which Exodus says were orchestrated by God in order for a chance to showcase his power. It is always a disappointing thing to read about a God whom you hope will be less about vengeance, hate, and destruction and more about mercy, goodwill, and loving thy

Now Psalm 83 is a Psalm, a song of praise, and there is no indication in the text that it aspires to predicting the future. Indeed, it is pretty self-evidentally a plea to God for support in a local crisis of the moment. This has however not stopped Biblical prophecy nutters from getting all excited about the enemy nations listed in Verses 6-8. A web search reveals several discussions of "prophecy in Psalm 83," illustrated with maps like this:

Well, the Bible is abundant with cryptic detail, and if you want to use it as a magic fortune-telling book there is enough material to keep you chasing your own tail indefinitely. It is an abuse of both the text and of your own intellect, but I suppose it keeps you off the street.

Psalm 84

This Psalm is about the "dwelling place" of God, which immediately resonates with ideas of heaven. But I don't think the house of God here is anything but the Temple in Jerusalem. Blessed are those who dwell in your house; they are ever praising you, reads Verse 4, and it's hard to take that as anything but a metaphorical way of talking about the community of believers. But I think it's quite literal, and is referring to the priesthood which actually lived and worked in the temple and indeed was always praising Him. The clue is in the next three lines, which talks about pilgrims comes through the Baca Valley to "appear... before God in Zion"; this is almost certainly referring to the annual pilgrimages that believers were supposed to make in order to make their most important sacrifices at the one temple.

Psalm 85

The Psalms since Psalm 73 have tended to be much more individual coherent and unified than the "Psalms of David" that preceded them, and this one is another example. It is again on a common theme: the idea that God punishes a lack of faithfulness by withdrawing his favor and his favors from his people. Apparently written during a dark time, it asks for forgiveness as of an angry spouse:
will you be angry with us forever?
Will you prolong your anger through all generations?
Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?
As before, we see an element here of bargaining with God -- if he overdoes his withdrawal of favors, than people will lose interest in him and it will cost him the worship he has become accustomed to. However, later in the Psalm it's implied that righteousness is supposed to come first.
The Lord will indeed give what is good, and our land will yield its harvest.
Righteousness goes before him and prepares the way for his steps.
In other words, you aren't supposed to wait and see what God offers, and then worship accordingly; you are supposed to start worshipping, and if you do that will please God and he will provide for you.

Psalm 86

Now THIS is kind of interesting: Psalm 86 is so ecstatic in it's praise of God, and has such a ring of paranoia in its sudden invocation of mysterious enemies -- The arrogant are attacking me, O God; a band of ruthless men seeks my life (14) -- that I thought "uh oh, this really breaks down the division I've noticed between the Psalms of David and the post-David Psalms." But then I noticed up at the top that Psalm 86 is, indeed, a "Psalm of David." Spiritually blissed out, paranoid, brazenly asking for divine favors like some guys bum cigarettes -- that's David for ya all right. The Chapters of Psalms said to have been written by David may or may not have actually been written by the possibly fictitious king, but they certainly seem to have been written by someone with a distinctive set of concerns.

Psalm 87

A short Psalm about how much God loves Jerusalem: the Lord loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob. There's a list of surrounding countries that will submit to Jerusalem, and lots of famous people are going to be born there. After Solomon, this song would obviously appeal more to the Judeans (who controlled Jerusalem and its local region) than the remaining Kingdom of Israel (who controlled everything else).

Psalm 88

The theme of despair is all over the Book of Psalms, and it runs through all 18 verses of this chapter. The singer addresses God, reminding God that he prays continually for help and comfort but receives only sickness, trouble, and humiliation. Why, O Lord, he asks, in a fairly common Psalms lament, do you reject me and hide your face from me? (14) Often times, these kinds of passages end on a positive note, with an indication that God has come through in the end or with a solumn determination to redouble one's faith, but not this time. You have taken my companions and loved ones from me; the darkness is my closest friend. (18)

In Verses 10 through 12, the Psalmist reasons with God in an interesting way. In a heavily paraphrased form, the argument goes "It won't do you any good to let me die young; dead people can't praise you or tell people how great you are." This shows that the Israelites thought of God as needing, or at least wanting, their praise and acclaim for reasons of His own; again we see the idea that to a certain extent, they can bargain with Him because He NEEDS them. It is also further evidence for the notion that the Israelites did not believe in a significant life after death.

People who make inspirational images are way too selective in the scripture they choose to illustrate. Wouldn't this image be so much more challenging, bracing, and thought-provoking with the text You have taken my companions and loved ones from me; the darkness is my closest friend?

Psalm 89

A very long Psalm, number 89 begins with 18 Verses of praise addressed to God, telling him how powerful, awe-inspiring, and righteous he is. After that, there is a recounting of God's covenenant with David that lasts another 19 Verses.

Then, a surprising detour: the next eight lines talk about how God then borke his covenant with David, and how without God's protection the kingdom has been subject to humiliation, plunder, and the scorn of its enemies. A final seven Verses plead with God to resume his support and love, to make things better for his people. Essentially, it is a plea for mercy, although there is a subtle reprise of the idea that God is being silly to let his people experience so much trouble, since they can't be praising him if they are always getting killed off.

Whoops, that's the end of "BOOK III" of the Book of Psalms.

NEXT TIME: The first half of "BOOK IV" of the Book of Psalms.

This Week's Text: Psalms 83-89