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

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