Saturday, October 31, 2015

Psalm 81

Psalm 81 begins with a rousing summons to worship in full voice: "Sing aloud ... shout for joy ... Raise a song ..." (vv. 1-2a), and with all manner of instruments: the tambourine, the lyre, and the trumpet (vv. 2-3). All of this joyful praise is, of course, to be directed to "God our strength, ... to the God of Jacob" (v. 1), who has called for such resounding worship in statute, ordinance, and decree (vv. 4-5).  
            Two features of this introduction are particularly noteworthy. First, this threefold stipulation or ordination of worship, if it was encoded at Sinai, was divinely decreed in advance, that is, when the Lord "went out over the land of Egypt" (v. 5); this is the very worship of which Moses spoke to Pharaoh, and which Pharaoh long opposed. In other words, to the extent that Sinai is the scene of unsurpassed glory, it is clear that it is but the culmination of a "divine service" that began with a call to worship that was issued while Israel was still in captivity! 
            Second, the reference to the sounding of the trumpet is a double reference. The blowing of the trumpet was prescribed for every new moon or month, and a special feast was established for doing so at Rosh Hashana, the "head" of every new year. The trumpet was not always sounded, however, at the full moon; thus this double reference suggests that the first day of the fall Festival of Booths—the fifteenth of the month—is in view (Deut 16:13-15; Lev 23:23-44, esp. v. 24), though the tenth day, the Day of Atonement, is more explicitly a day on which the trumpet blast is to be "sounded throughout the land" (Lev 25:9). In short, where the Torah is concerned, the occasion for this double sounding of the trumpet at the new moon and again at the full moon is ambiguous and even mysterious.
            Adding to the mystery, the psalmist now testifies that he has heard a heretofore unknown voice (v. 5b), indeed, a voice that repeatedly complains of not being heard or heeded (vv. 8, 11, 13). The voice identifies itself first by the kindly deeds the speaker has done—granting relief and liberation from the burden of slavery—in response to the people's cry of distress (vv. 6-7). Yes, the unheard voice belongs to One who hears and responds to the voice of the people! Further compounding the mysterious nature of the speaker, the voice declares: "I answered you in the secret place of thunder"" (v. 7b), an apparent reference to Sinai; and adds: "I tested you at the waters of Meribah" (v. 7c). This is new! For elsewhere, the Lord identifies Meribah as they place where:

"your ancestors tested me,
   and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work" (Psalm 95:9).

But here it is clear that the true examiner was the Lord. That the mysterious speaker is indeed the Lord is clear enough from v. 10, where the voice identifies himself as such, but not without first reiterating the chief commandment: "There shall be no strange god among you; you shall not bow down to a foreign god" (v. 9). But with the theophany comes both the reminder of the Lord's deliverance of Israel from Egypt and the promise of divine, parental provision: "Open your mouth wide and I will fill it" (v. 10b).
            The Lord goes on to record what happens when his people neither listen nor submit: he allows them to go their own way, following their own "stubborn hearts, ... their own counsels" (vv. 11-12). Such a path will surely lead back into some form of oppression, slavery, or even destruction. But the Lord — with a heartrending expression of charitable longing — promises his people, if they will only listen to him and walk in his ways (v. 13), relief from their enemies and plentiful and delicious sustenance: "I would feed you with the finest of wheat, and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you" (v. 16).
            Preachers should know that such promises neither support nor discredit so-called "prosperity theology." Properly speaking, they belong to covenant theology, which insists on making clear the terms of the God's promises, which (much as we would like them to be) are not unconditional: both the dreadful consequences of forsaking, and the delightful benefits of hearing and heeding, the unheard voice of the loving and liberating Lord.

§

RCL makes infrequent use of selections from Psalm 81 as follows:

81:1-10 — Year B: Epiphany 9/Proper 4/Ordinary 9 [complementary]
81:1, 10-16 — Year C: Proper 17/Ordinary 22 [semi-continuous]

It is included in Year D owing to its thematic associations with Psalm 95, the irregularity with which Epiphany 9 occurs in Year B, and the nine verses omitted from the semi-continuous selection in Year C. 

Friday, October 30, 2015

Psalm 106:(1) 7-18, 24-28 (43-48)

In the psalter there are a handful of longer psalms that not only offer prayer and praise (or, in this case, confession) to God, but also constitute a history lesson of sorts, taking in large expanses of the Old Testament with a panoramic view. As suggested in Year D, the preacher should not be put off by the comparative length of these psalms (78, 105, and 106), but instead recognize how condensed they are compared to the vast material they summarize, and leverage them accordingly as teaching tools.
            Psalm 106 is one of these psalms, a short portion of which (106:1-6, 19-23) is used in RCL [Proper 23/Ordinary 28, Year A]. That lection consists of the opening Hallelujah, a call to thankful worship of the Lord (v. 1), an expression of wonder at God's mighty acts (v. 2), a promise of blessing  for the righteous (v. 3), an individual petition for favor rooted in the sure conviction that the Lord will bless and deliver his people (vv. 4-5), a (truncated!) confession of sin, and a recollection of Israel's idolatry in the incident of the golden calf (vv. 19-23). The latter section ends on a hopeful note, however, as it recalls how thLord relented from destroying them when Moses "stood in the breach" to intercede for them (v. 23).
            The therapeutic power and the reforming potential of the psalm appears in the temporally or historically inclusive form in which the confession is introduced: "Both we and our ancestors have sinned; we have committed iniquity, have done wickedly" (v. 6). Unfortunately, by limiting the subsequent reading to the most familiar and famous case of idolatry, the effect of that repetitious confession is lost, along with the sense in which this psalm reminds the reader of "the perversity and obtuseness of the people" [New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha, NRSV; OT p. 766]. Indeed, the threefold confession of v. 6 — in which one can almost hear a collective beating of the breast in grief and remorse — is matched with a similar pattern of repeated lapses on the part of the people, interspersed with reminders that the Lord continued to deliver them. That structure, which is even more apparent ad symmetrical in the following psalm (107), the lesson it has to convey, the light it has to cast forward on the ways in which "we" in our day  have also sinner, and the redemptive power of this confessional psalm — all of this is lost when it is carved up into shorter pieces. Hence, this commentary itself should serve as a confession of one of Year D's errata. Ideally, the psalm should be left in tact, especially since it would appear we still have some matters that we have not confessed for some time.
            What other sins, besides the golden calf, does this psalm confess?

(v.7a) — a failure to consider the Lord's wonders in Egypt;
(v. 7b) — failure to "remember the abundance of (his) steadfast love";
(vv. 7c-12) — rebellion at the Red Sea;
(v. 13) — forgetfulness and impatience;
(vv. 14-15) — testing God to serve the people's "wanton craving" (cf. Num 11:4-6, 31-35);
(vv. 16-18) — the pseudo-egalitarian rebellion of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram (Num 16);
(vv. 24-27) — general rebellion in refusing to enter the promised land (Num 14);
(vv. 28-31) — sexual rebellion involving the Baal of Peor;
(vv. 32-33) — complaint about a lack of water at Meribah of Kadesh;
(vv. 34-39) — failure to destroy the pagan nations and their idols, in lieu of which they came to imitate the pagans in practicing child sacrifice.

After this litany of Israel's apostasies, the psalm concludes with (1) a general confession of circumstances — oppression and subjection by their enemies — that met Israel when they provoked the Lord to anger (vv. 40-42); (2) a reminder of how the Lord continually responded to the cries of Israel with merciful deliverance, compassion, and steadfast love, ... and with regard for his covenant (vv. 43-46); and finally, (3) a petition for salvation from among the pagans, a promise, a blessing, and a call to worship (vv. 47-48).
            Thus ends Book IV of the Psalms, with a penitential tour-de-force framed within doxological Hallelujahs; a bracing reminder, both in content and structure, that thoroughgoing confession is not a precursor to worship; it is worship; that is, confession is essentially of a piece with adoration itself, the humbling counterpart to the exaltation of the covenant-making Lord who is ever merciful, even in his anger, and ever faithful, even when we are not (2Tim 3:13).

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Psalm 95

This psalm unfolds in a clear two-part structure. The first part is a call to worship (vv. 1-7a); the second a prophetic warning (vv. 7b-11).
            By virtue of the call to worship, it clearly belongs in the collection of hymns (Psalms 96–98) that predominate in the RCL during the Christmas propers (I–III), and it rings with the same pastoral tones and imagery of thanksgiving that we find in Psalm 100. Two clusters of imperatives summon the people to come, sing, and make a joyful noise (vv. 1-2); come, worship, bow down, and kneel (v. 6); with theological rationales attached to each group of invitations. In the first series of invitations the Lord is named "the rock of our salvation" (v. 1), while its attendant rationales testify to his greatness as God, his sovereign superiority "above all gods," his dominion over "the depths of the earth," "the heights of the mountains," "the sea" and "the dry land." His possession of these is attested by virtue of his having "made" and "formed" them (vv. 3-5). The second verb cluster is supported with the simple assertion that "he is our God," after which the Lord's role as shepherd is inferred by virtue of how "we" are characterized: "We are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand." Such simultaneously pastoral and kingly imagery — which remains ever surprising in such close, even synonymous relation — is prominent throughout the Old Testament, from the Torah, to the prophets, to the Psalms. Indeed, it is so familiar we risk losing sight of its otherworldly, or at least counter-cultural oddity if we take for granted the protective and providential nature of governance.
            The latter section of this psalm, however, introduces significant discord; here, the harmonious liturgical encounter between the sovereign Shepherd and the ovine assembly, if you will, is interrupted by a dreadful, painful memory that is reconstituted as a warning. A plaintive, subjunctive cry to the people to "listen to his voice" (v. 7b) is contrasted with their costly and all-too-consistent stubbornness, euphemistically characterized as a hardening of the heart (v. 8a).
            The incident or incidents in question concern two such battles of will between Yahweh and Israel during the wilderness sojourn: the first at Meribah (Exod 17:1-7), the second at Massa (Num 20:1-13), both involving the people's complaints regarding a lack of water and both involving water coming forth from a rock when Moses strikes it with his staff.  The first instance occurs at Rephidim, before the giving of the law. There Moses renames the place with both designations: Massah and Meribah, for the people had "quarreled and tested" the Lord.  The second instance occurs much later, after the law, after the failure of the spies to encourage the people to enter the land, after the death of Miriam, and just prior to the death of Aaron. As similar as this account is to that earlier testing, it is some forty years later, which undoubtedly accounts for the subsequent reference to that interval (v. 10). In other words, even though the earlier incident occurs at a place Moses calls by both names (Meribah and Massah), the latter (at Meribah of Kadesh) serves to surround or "bookend" the entire wilderness period, suggesting that Israel's nature, as a generation, had not been episodically stubborn, but consistently so. That may be hard to reconcile with other texts that show, e.g., Israel giving with grateful and joyful abundance for the construction of the tabernacle (Exod 35:20–36:7), but it does seem to be the viewpoint of the psalm at hand. In other words, the incidents at Massah and Meribah serve as parentheses around the forty years in which Israel, by this account, did nothing but test and complain against the Lord, ultimately meeting with his angry oath that they should die in the wilderness and not enter the promised land (v. 11).
            Two points are particularly important. First, the heard-hearted stubbornness of the people is repeatedly characterized as inexplicable: "though they had seen my work" (v. 9); "they do not regard my ways" (v. 10b). In other words, their continual testing of the Lord, or "putting (him) to the proof" (v. 9a), was rooted in a failure of memory, and a failure of memory of otherwise very memorable and mighty things at that!
            Second, the missteps of Moses and Aaron at Meribah are not singled out here, though Numbers 20 seems designed to explain their particular failure, not that of the people themselves, to enter the promised land.
            The most difficult and challenging part of the psalm is but a single word: "loathed" (v. 10), which cannot be properly understood apart from its partner or parallel phrase, which clearly places this divine complaint within the framework of the covenant. The phrase, "For forty years," modifies both verbs: "I loathed ... and said," but it is clearly that which the Lord observed in what he said that became the grounds for the former: "They are a people whose hearts go astray and they do not regard my ways" (v. 10). In other words, the Lord did not by any means set out to loathe his people; rather, the people's continual disregard for the Lord invited his loathing. If we object: such loathing is not in God's nature, that is entirely correct. But it is a reality within the terms of the covenant, properly understood; that is, not stripped of its downside for the sake of a naively positivist or purely optimistic theology. It is, in short, the curse for the which the straying people opted. The fault lies not with the Lord; rather, it is startlingly symptomatic of the essential reciprocity that lies at the heart of "covenant."

§

Psalm 95 is included as an optional lection in Year D, not because it is excluded from RCL—the whole psalm is recommended in Lent 3 and the less problematic opening section for Christ the King, both in Year A—but by virtue of its connections to the epistle lections for the Second and Third Sundays of Advent (Heb 3–4); as well as the Old Testament lections for Second Advent (Numbers 12 and 20) and a brief passage from Psalm 106:32-33 that I neglected to included in Year D (neither does it appear in RCL). Where the epistle is concerned, and by extension the gospel lection, the main point of comparison is the superiority of the ministry of Jesus to that of Moses, and for that matter, Aaron, Miriam, and John the Baptist, who was heir to the priestly vocation, but stood apart from it, and (according to Jesus) excelled "those born of women" (Luke 7:28).

Thursday, October 22, 2015