Friday, November 1, 2013

Psalm 144

If the laudate psalms (145–50) may be considered a concluding "hallelujah" chorus, Psalm 144 will be better appreciated because of, rather than despite, its composite nature, that is, its habit of borrowing most of its material from other psalms.

The first two verses come directly from Psalm 18:2, 34 and 39. The psalmist blesses the LORD for the security he enjoys under divine protection. The particular selection of verses represents an interesting weave of the LORD's active and passive intervention. Actively, the LORD "trains" the psalmist's hands and fingers for combat (v. 1); he "subdues" people (v. 2); he is also described by the psalmist as "my deliverer" (v. 2a). By contrast, as the psalmist's rock, fortress, stronghold, and shield, the LORD provides strength, but if these nouns were to be restated verbally they would take the passive mood, for they connote something immoveable, able to absorb without flinching, ward off, and render ineffectual any hostile actions by the psalmist's enemies.

Despite that assurance, however, the psalm takes a philosophical turn and reiterates the doxological wonder of Psalm 8: "O LORD, what are human beings that you regard them, or mortals that you think of them?" (Psalm 144:3; cf. 8:4) Another quotation marks the fleeting vulnerability of human life: "They are like a breath; their days are like a passing shadow" (39:11). These reflections would seem to be those of one engrossed in battle, but in a brief moment of respite, in a foxhole (so to speak), surrounded by danger and death.

As if to confirm this is no mere theological exercise, but a situation of great need, the following lines, which draw heavily from Psalm 18:9 and 14 (as well as 104:32), convert the verbs from indicative to imperative. Where David has previously lauded the LORD because, "He bowed the heavens and came down; ... sent out his arrows" and "routed" his enemies (18:9, 14), here he implores the LORD to "bow the heavens and come down," "send ... and rout" (144:5–6). Likewise, "Stretch out your hand from on high; set me free and rescue me from the mighty waters" (144:7), amounts to a retooling of the indicative memory of Psalm 18:16–17 into an imperative petition for the immediate intervention of the LORD. Thus, the strains of reprise would seem to transport the reader into the thick of the battle in which the psalmist first uttered his plea. They are like summary flashbacks leading up to the Psalter's climax. And yet, as liturgical material, this pliable updating of verb tenses invites and even urges continual reiteration.

At this point, the psalm begins to rely less on borrowed material and ventures its own fresh strains. A plea for rescue from a flood (of enemies) sets up a new refrain: "rescue me from the mighty waters" (v. 7), and later, "from the cruel sword" (v. 11), "from the hands of aliens, whose mouths speak lies and whose right hands are false" (vv. 7–8, 11).

The closing section of this psalm is also largely new material; it would seem the battle (or the psalmist's recollection thereof) is over and the prospect of peace, prosperity, and even repopulation lie before the people of the LORD. Blessings are invoked (v. 12) over sons and daughters alike (cf. Psalm 128:3); for the filling of barns "with produce of every kind," and for the multiplication of flocks and herds by the "tends of thousands" (144:13-14a). Further blessing is invoked for the security and integrity of the nation, with neither "breach," nor "exile" (i.e., no one taken captive), nor "cry of distress in our streets" (v. 14).

A final beatitude concludes the psalm, a double blessing on the people that recalls that of Psalm 33:12; more importantly, it announces the blessedness of the people under the covenant that frames the entire Old Testament as heritage and promise, even from Yahweh's election of the tiny nation that set them apart from the other nations and their gods. "Happy are the people to whom such blessings fall; happy are the people whose God is the LORD" (144:15).

To summarize, the selection of this psalm for the Fourth Sunday of Advent serves as a reprise of Psalm 18, with which the season of Advent begins, and a recapitulation of many of its royal (Davidic) overtones. It is particularly remarkable for the fact that, though almost certainly a later composition than Psalm 18 and the other psalms on which it draws, it takes past indicative memories of Yahweh's saving acts and reiterates them as imperative petitions, thereby exemplifying—whether as flashbacks to an historical present tense or as forward-looking hope—precisely the sort of ongoing expectation of the LORD's coming down that should characterize Christian worship in anticipation of the second Advent of the Messiah.

What makes this psalm even more fitting and delightful at this liturgical and historical juncture (on the cusp of Christmas and at the outset of the twenty-first century) is its unique material: the blessing of children, barns, and animals, and the declaration that the people who worship this God are uniquely happy. It is a vision of safe streets, secure homes, peaceful cities, abundant harvest, plenteous storehouses, a people in harmony with God and with one another. Many years later, Zechariah would likewise articulate just such a vision of the Messianic age: "Old men and old women shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of their great age. And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets" (Zechariah 8:4-6). Perhaps with the reading, praying, singing, and preaching of this psalm, with particular focus on its vocative "Come down!" and its visionary benediction, we may see the prophet's vision begin to materialize in our time. 

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