Total Pageviews

08 February 2015

"Will the Defendant Please Rise!" (Estomihi / Transfiguration)

Psalm 50

My organ teacher, while rehearsing with his student orchestra at Hofstra, encountered a young violinist who kept making the same mistake over and over again. Since there didn't seem to be any hope that she might self-correct any time soon, the next time she made the mistake, he stopped the orchestra and said, "What you're playing is not in the music. You're doing it wrong."

She responded with tears in her eyes, "But by saying that, you are hurting my feelings." As he explained that her grade would depend on how well she played, not on how hurt she felt, the student continued to feel shocked and insulted, telling her conductor that "wasn't nice" and that he was being "harsh".

We live in an era when knowing right from wrong has fallen out of favor. There is the unspoken expectation that we should be allowed to make "choices", and that because these choices are "personal" no one should have the right to criticize them.

In contrast, watch the proliferation of judges on television, figures adored and admired for doing what many avoid for fear of being offensive: telling right from wrong, and assigning certain consequences to those who do wrong.

Enter Psalm 50. Although this psalm was assigned to Transfiguration Sunday for the appearance of God (theophany) in fire and storm, complementing the transfiguration story, as a whole it is set up as a court session, with God as the judge.

1 El, God, the Lord speaks, / and summons the earth to come from the east and west. 2 From Zion, the most beautiful of all places, / God comes in splendor. 3 Our God approaches and is not silent / consuming fire goes ahead of him / and all around him a storm rages. 4 He summons the heavens above, / as well as the earth / so that he might judge his people. 5 He says: “Assemble my covenant people before me, / those who ratified a covenant with me by sacrifice!” 6 The heavens declare his fairness, / for God is judge. (Selah)

7 He says: “Listen my people! I am speaking! / Listen Israel! I am accusing you! I am God, your God!  8 I am not condemning you because of your sacrifices, / or because of your burnt sacrifices that you continually offer me.  9 I do not need to take a bull from your household / or goats from your sheepfolds. 10 For every wild animal in the forest belongs to me, / as well as the cattle that graze on a thousand hills. 11 I keep track of a every bird in the hills, / and the insects of the field are mine. 12 Even if I were hungry, I would not tell you, / for the world and all it contains belong to me. 13 Do I eat the flesh of bulls? / Do I drink the blood of goats? 14 Present to God thank-offering! / Repay your vows to the sovereign One! 15 Pray to me when you are in trouble! / I will deliver you / and you will honor me!”

16 God says this to the evildoer: / “How can you declare my commands, and talk about my covenant? 17 For you hate instruction / and reject my words. 18 When you see a thief, you join him / you associate with men who are unfaithful to their wives. 19 You do damage with words, / and use your tongue to deceive. 20 You plot against your brother / you slander your own brother. 21 When you did these things, I was silent, / so you thought I was exactly like you. / But now I will condemn you / and state my case against you!

22 Carefully consider this, you who forget* God! / Otherwise I will rip you to shreds / and no one will be able to rescue you. 23 Whoever presents a thank-offering honors me, / to whoever obeys my commands / I will reveal my power to deliver.”

Unlike in more typical psalms, where God often becomes a saving presence for the praying person in the midst of her struggle, here God comes to judge. "El God, the Lord speaks ... our God approaches and is not silent ... he summons the heavens above, as well as the earth, so that he might judge his people". The courtroom is ready. "In this awesome moment," says scholar Walter Brueggemann, "the severe, dangerous God of the [Sinai] tradition moves in on Israel."

The main charge is that the same people who God counted as "my covenant people" (v. 5) have become the שֹׁכְחֵ֣י אֱל֑וֹהַּ ("you that forget God"), the "ones who suffer from God-forgetfulness". How have they become "God-forgetful"? They worship God without assurance of salvation (V. 7-13), and they celebrate the Law of God without obeying it (V. 16-22).

An "act of liturgical imagination" (Brueggemann), Psalm 50 takes a speech of God as would be typical for any of the prophetic books and integrates it into the world of the psalms. God who comes from Zion to judge his people comes in the clothing of the God of Sinai, yet frightening as that is ("I will rip you to shreds and no one will be able to rescue you"), the psalm doesn't mean to condemn; rather, it beckons the People of God to come home.

The charges against the people are designed to lead the audience to the theological core of the psalm: "Present to God thank-offering! Repay your vows to the sovereign One! ... Whoever presents a thank-offering honors me; to whoever obeys my commands I will reveal my power to deliver." (V. 14.23)

*This is the only place where I don't follow the NET translation, which chose "reject".

No comments:

Post a Comment