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11 March 2015

Chesed and Chokmah (Lätare / Lent 4)

Psalm 107

It was in my first congregation, in the South Bronx. One day the parsonage was broken into; the thieves had broken a hole into the wall, taken everything that was of any value, and left through the front door which they left wide open, with the lights turned on. 

That night we temporarily boarded up the hole. The next day I came back from a hospital visit, and found the boarded-up hole opened again. That week, the parsonage was not broken into two or three, but four times. Every night before I went to sleep, I made sure I had my iron pipe sitting under the bed.

I had no other place to go at the time, and fear started to wear me out. Then, one of the last nights in the week, I came home, and the house had been broken into for the fifth time. 

I couldn't take it any more. I called some Manhattan friends, and asked whether I could spend the night in their house; they said I could but they wouldn't be home until late that night. I would have to wait around until they could pick me up. I packed and decided that I wouldn't wait in the house. 

I took my stuff and walked over to the church. I needed a sanctuary, quite literally. I sat down and cried. I screamed at God, and I said, "I can't take this any more, God. I've had it!"

And as I kept crying, as I begged for God to answer but heard nothing, not a thing, it was as though a big bulldozer came and pushed away everything I lived for; my dreams, my hopes, my future, even the next day — all disappeared in the despair of that night. I couldn't think beyond this night, and I heard myself saying words I never thought I would say. "There is no sense to life any more." And I kept crying.

Do you know what it is like to hope against hope, what it is like to hope anyway, to hope just because you remember the goodness and love of God?  I did remember God as I was sitting in that Bronx sanctuary. And that sure was not an act of my will or a result of reasoning or reflection. 

I was still crying; but through the haze of my tears I looked and saw the piano and the red hymnals on top, ... and I remembered bits and pieces of a Christmas hymn by Johann Sebastian Bach (Ich steh an deiner Krippen hier = Besides the Manger Here I Stand), a hymn that I had been drawn to as a child because its minor key was so haunting.

I sat down at the piano, opened the hymnal and played the tune.  I started to sing the old words by Paul Gerhardt:

"Ich lag in tiefster Todesnacht, / du warest meine Sonne".

When deepest night of death I faced, / you, Child, became my sunshine.*

As I sat there singing, I re-membered what had become dis-membered: I connected with the fact that even the ugliest and deadliest clouds of my childhood had been conquered by the sun of God's love.  Life came back to me. I hoped against hope.

Going through tough times and finding your way back to trusting God, that's the major theme of Psalm 107.

Call to give Thanks to God (VV 1-3)
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, / and his loyal love endures! 2 Let those delivered by the Lord speak out, / those whom he delivered from the power of the enemy, 3 and gathered from foreign lands, / from east and west, / from north and south. 

Thanksgiving for Food and Water: 
"People from the East" (VV 4-9)
4 They wandered through the wilderness on a desert road; / they found no city in which to live. 5 They were hungry and thirsty /  they fainted from exhaustion. 6 They cried out to the Lord in their distress / he delivered them from their troubles. 7 He led them on a level road, / that they might find a city in which to live. 8 Let them give thanks to the Lord for his loyal love, / and for the amazing things he has done for people! 9 For he has satisfied those who thirst, / and those who hunger he has filled with food. 

Thanksgiving for Setting Prisoners Free: 
"People from the East" (VV 10-16)
10 They sat in utter darkness, / bound in painful iron chains, 11 because they had rebelled against God’s commands, / and rejected the instructions of the sovereign king. 12 So he used suffering to humble them; / they stumbled and no one helped them up. 13 They cried out to the Lord in their distress / he delivered them from their troubles. 14 He brought them out of the utter darkness, / and tore off their shackles. 15 Let them give thanks to the Lord for his loyal love, / and for the amazing things he has done for people! 16 For he shattered the bronze gates, / and hacked through the iron bars.

Thanksgiving for Healing the Sick:
"People from the North" (VV 17-22)
17 They acted like fools in their rebellious ways, / and suffered because of their sins. 18 They lost their appetite for all food, / and they drew near the gates of death. 19 They cried out to the Lord in their distress / he delivered them from their troubles. 20 He sent them an assuring word and healed them / he rescued them from the pits where they were trapped. 21 Let them give thanks to the Lord for his loyal love, / and for the amazing things he has done for people! 22 Let them present thank offerings, / and loudly proclaim what he has done! 

Thanksgiving of the Mariners:
"People from the South" (VV 23-32)
23 Some traveled on the sea in ships, / and carried cargo over the vast waters. 24 They witnessed the acts of the Lord,  / his amazing feats on the deep water. 25 He gave the order for a windstorm, / and it stirred up the waves of the sea. 26 They reached up to the sky, / then dropped into the depths. / The sailors’ strength left them because the danger was so great. 27 They swayed and staggered like a drunk, / and all their skill proved ineffective. 28 They cried out to the Lord in their distress / he delivered them from their troubles. 29 He calmed the storm, / and the waves grew silent. 30 The sailors rejoiced because the waves grew quiet, / and he led them to the harbor they desired. 31 Let them give thanks to the Lord for his loyal love, / and for the amazing things he has done for people! 32 Let them exalt him in the assembly of the people! / Let them praise him in the place where the leaders preside! 

God Controls Nature (VV 33-38)
33 He turned streams into a desert, / springs of water into arid land, 34 and a fruitful land into a barren place, / because of the sin of its inhabitants. 35 As for his people, he turned a desert into a pool of water, / and a dry land into springs of water. 36 He allowed the hungry to settle there, / and they established a city in which to live. 37 They cultivated fields, / and planted vineyards, / which yielded a harvest of fruit. 38 He blessed them so that they became very numerous. / He would not allow their cattle to decrease in number.

God Delivers the Needy (VV 39-43) 
39 As for their enemies, they decreased in number and were beaten down, / because of painful distress and suffering. 40 He would pour contempt upon princes, / and he made them wander in a wasteland with no road. 41 Yet he protected the needy from oppression, / and cared for his families like a flock of sheep. 42 When the godly see this, they rejoice, / and every sinner shuts his mouth. 43 Whoever is wise, let him take note of these things! / Let them consider the Lord’s acts of loyal love!

Imagine a Festival of Thanksgiving at the Jerusalem Temple. Biblical scholars suggest that Psalm 107 might have been used at (and perhaps written for) such a festival.

Like the piers of a mighty bridge, the first and the last verse hold together the "span" of this "super-sized" psalm of thanksgiving.  The key word in VV 1 and 43 is chesed. As I said in another post a few weeks ago, the word חֶ֫סֶד (chesed) denotes loyal devotion, faithful love and steadfast passion.  While the word can describe anyone's "unfailing, faithful covenant love", here it talks of God's faithfulness.

VV 1-3 instructs the People of God to give thanks for the fact that God in his amazing love gathers people from all directions: "from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south".

Using a kind of liturgical formula language that utilizes frequent repetition the Psalmist then provides four vignettes in VV 4-32.  We are told of wanderers rescued from the desert, of prisoners set free, of ill people healed, and of sailors ("mariners") saved from shipwreck. It is possible that each vignette represents one of the directions mentioned in the introduction (see my section headings in the psalm above).

The remaining two parts talk of the actions of God in creation and toward those who are poor and needy.  Each part portrays God as both, punishing the wicked ones who don't care for God's chesed, and saving those who have prevailed in it.

Because it ties back into my story at the beginning I want to mention one more key word.  It shows up for the first time in V 27 and then reappears in V 43, the second "pier". That word is חָכְמָה (chokmah), often simply translated as "wisdom".

Michael Fox defines chokmah as “a high degree of knowledge and skill in any domain" and thus displays the fact that the Hebrew term encompasses so much more than its English counterpart “wisdom”.

When in V 27 we are told the mariners are at their wit's end, the word chokmah reveals the passage's connection with wisdom:

חָ֝כְמָתָ֗ם תִּתְבַּלָּֽע׃
(ḥā·kə·mā·tām tit·bal·lā‘)

This is a more literal (and much more powerful) translation: "Their wisdom was suddenly swallowed up". That's exactly how I felt in that Bronx sanctuary.

In V 43 we see chokmah tied together with chesed.

... מִי־ חָכָ֥ם וְיִשְׁמָר־ אֵ֑לֶּה
(mî- ḥākām wə·yiš·mār-’êl·leh)

"Whoever is wise, let him take note of these things! / Let them consider the Lord’s acts of loyal love!"

* my own translation, in blank verse.

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