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20 May 2015

Joining God in Jubilant Songs of Joy (Pfingsten / Pentecost)

Psalm 104

"A simple joy arises when we become present with the reality of our lives and return home to our bodies."

When I came to practice one fine Summer afternoon, everything started off as usual. I opened the door and went upstairs to the organ loft. I switched on the organ, put on my organ shoes, got my music ready and sat down on the organ bench.

I started playing, and it occurred to me that in this heat and humidity I might not be able to stay all that long. Just when I mumbled, "How can I focus when sweat runs down my face!", I heard a noise.

Somewhere left of me, something was hopping around. First I wondered whether it was a burglar, but the noise was too small for that. I thought the noise might be from a rabbit or a squirrel. 

Since I couldn't see anything from the organ bench, I got off of it and took a look. Well, there was no rabbit and no squirrel – just a small little sparrow. He quietly looked at me as he hopped back and forth.

I thought, “The poor bird has gotten caught and wants to get out.” I went and opened the windows so that the sparrow could have his freedom back.

But the sparrow didn't move from where he sat. I got up and shook my head, saying to myself, “Well, let me start playing, perhaps he will find his way to freedom if I leave him alone.” Then I realized that I couldn't “just” start playing, because the sparrow had sat down on the pedal keys.

When my foot came close to him, he just hopped over one or two keys. When I began playing with both feet, he flew into the air and sat down – but of all places, he sat down next to me on the organ bench. 

Even though I was somewhat speechless in the midst of all this, I felt honored by the fact that the sparrow had decided to stay rather than to fly away. It was a remarkable situation. I tried playing, but was distracted by my unexpected audience -- of one bird.

I thought: birds aren't usually this trusting, unless they are tamed or ill somehow. I looked to my right, and the sparrow was still sitting right next to me on the bench. I looked into the little eyes of my guest and mumbled, “I will never play the way you birds can sing.” But his eyes seemed encouraging, as if to say, “Come on, play for me, I've come to listen to you.” 

So I took out the hymnal and opened it to one of the hymns I had come to practice. Then I began playing and focused, and the sparrow flew up and disappeared somewhere in the nave of the church. But he kept on coming back, as though he was truly tame and used to human beings.

He'd sit on my music for a while, then on the organ bench, then on the pedal keys, then on my ball cap. I discovered that his presence “gave wings” to me and my playing. I completely forgot about the humidity and the heat.

The experience with “my” sparrow flooded me with awe – this little bird had chosen to spend an hour with me! 

As I played like I hadn't in a long while, I realized that the little bird helped me find a new key: I played in the key of jubilant joy.

Jubilant joy is the theme of Psalm 104.

Call to Praise (V. 1a)
1a Praise the Lord, O my soul! 

God and the Heavens (VV. 1b–4)
1b O Lord my God, you are very great; / with splendor and majesty you have clothed yourself, 2 Wrapping on light like a mantle, /
stretching out the heavens like a curtain, 3 The one who secures the rafters of his upper floor on the waters, / who makes the clouds his chariot, / who moves about on the wings of the wind, 4 Who makes the winds his messengers, / burning flames his ministers.

God and the Waters (VV. 5–10)
5 Establishing earth upon its foundations— / it shall not slip, forever and ever— 6 You spread the deep over it like a garment / waters stood over mountains. 7 They fled before your rebuke, / before the sound of your thunder they took flight— 8 With mountains arising, valleys receding— / to the place that you had established for them. 9 You set a boundary that they cannot pass, / so that they cannot again cover the earth. 10 You, who release springs to become streams, / between the hills they run.

God and Creation (VV. 11–23)
11 They provide water for every living being of the field. / The wild donkeys satisfy their thirst. 12 The birds of the heavens dwell by them; / they give voice from among the foliage. 13 You, who provide water for the mountains from his upper floor, / from the fruit of your works, the earth is satisfied. 14 You, who make the grass grow for cattle, / and plants for humanity to till— / In order to bring forth food from the earth, 15 and wine to bring joy to human hearts; / In order to make faces shine with oil / and food to sustain human hearts. 16 The trees of the Lord are satisfied; / the cedars of Lebanon, which he planted, 17 Where birds make their nests, / the stork has her home in the juniper trees. 18 The high mountains are for wild goats. / The rocks are a refuge for badgers. 19 He made the moon for appointed times; / the sun knows its setting time. 20 You bring on darkness and it becomes night; / all the living beings of the forest stir. 21 The lions roar for their prey, / seeking their food from God. 22 The sun rises and they gather themselves. / They lie down in their dens. 23 Human beings go out to their work, / to their labor until evening comes.

God and Diversity (VV. 24–30)
24 How diverse are your works, O Lord! / You have made them all with wisdom. / The earth is filled with your possessions. 25 There is the sea, great and wide of measure! / With things too many to number, / living beings, small and great. 26 There ships move about, / Leviathan—this one you have formed to delight in him. 27 All of them look to you / to give them their food in due season. 28 You give it to them and they gather it; / you open your hand, they are satisfied with good. 29 You hide your face and they are terrified; / you withdraw their breath and they die, / and they return to their dust. 30 You send your spirit and they are created, / and the face of the earth is renewed.

 Joyful God and Joyful Psalmist (VV. 31–35b)
31 May the glory of the Lord be forever; / may the Lord rejoice in his works. 32 The one who takes notice of the earth and it trembles, / he touches the mountains and they smoke. 33 I will sing for the Lord while I live; I will make music for my God while I remain. 34 May my prayer be pleasing to him, / even as I rejoice in the Lord. 35 May sinners vanish from the earth, / and may the wicked be no more.

Call to Praise (V. 35c–d)
35c Praise the Lord, O my soul! / Praise the Lord! (NICOT)

The subject matter of this joy-filled psalm, recited by our Jewish sisters and brothers in its entirety every day during morning services,  is closely related both to the first Genesis creation narrative and to older accounts of creation from the Ancient Near East, both Mesopotamian and Egyptian. In particular, the Egyptian Great Hymn to the Aten (14th century BC) is frequently cited as a predecessor.  

Elizabeth Webb summarizes, "Psalm 104 is like the poetry of Genesis 1 set to music, singing the wondrous order that God has brought forth."

Throughout this sung story of creation, the Psalmist emphasizes the interdependence of God’s creatures; she "traces the springs ... as they run among the hills, as they give drink to the wild and lonely creatures of the wilderness, as they nourish the boughs, on which sing the birds, the grass, on which feed the cattle, the herb, the corn, the olive tree, the vine, which fill man's mouth, cheer his heart, and make his face to shine" (from an old commentary).

German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder remarked, "It is worth studying the Hebrew language for ten years in order to read Psalm 104 in the original".

The first time a word for joy shows up in the Hebrew text is in V. 15.

וְיַ֤יִן יְשַׂמַּ֬ח לְֽבַב־אֱנ֗וֹשׁ
wə·ya·yin yə·śam·maḥ lə·bab- ’ĕ·nō·wōš
... and wine to bring joy to human hearts.

The verb שָׂמַח (samach) is from a primitive root meaning to cheer, to give joy to, to give happiness, or to gladden, but also to rejoice.

The word samach is related to the Ugaritic shmh - "to be glad, rejoice", the Arabic shamaha - "was high, was proud" and the Akkadian shamahu (samahu) - "to sprout, flourish". With its original meaning "to sprout, spring up, grow", it is similar to the English word "elated" (meaning both "happy" and "lifted up").

The next two occurrences of "joy" in the Hebrew text (both are employing שָׂמַח) are intriguing as the second is a direct response to the first.

V. 31b
יִשְׂמַ֖ח יְהוָ֣ה בְּמַעֲשָֽׂיו
yiś·maḥ Yah·weh bə·ma·‘ă·śāw
may the Lord rejoice in his works ...

V. 34b
אָ֝נֹכִ֗י אֶשְׂמַ֥ח בַּיהוָֽה
’ā·nō·kî  ’eś·maḥ  bə·Yah·weh
... even as I rejoice in the Lord.

One of the most remarkable statements in Psalm 104 comes in V. 31b. The Psalmist talks about God's joy -- the joy God experiences when looking at this world -- and in doing so she adds some emotional force to the rather unemotional statement made throughout the creation story, "and God saw that it was good".

God is rejoicing.  God sings a song of joy. God is exuberant in having fun with his handiwork ... one place that this is made clear is V. 26b: Leviathan—this one you have formed to delight in him. God is making a pet out of Leviathan, known all over Scripture as a terrifying monster.

Did you know that our God is a singing God, a God who sings of his love for creation, for you and me?This is a powerful antidote to use with those around us who emphasize a god that's vengeful and punishing.

A verse from the prophet Zephaniah belongs into this context.  In Chapter 3 we read:

V. 17b
יָשִׂ֨ישׂ‘ עָלַ֜יִךְ בְּשִׂמְחָ֗ה
yā·śîś ‘ā·la·yiḵ bə·śim·ḥāh
He takes great delight in you;

יַחֲרִישׁ֙ בְּאַ֣הֲבָת֔וֹ
ya·ḥă·rîš bə·’a·hă·ḇā·ṯōw
he renews you by his love;

יָגִ֥יל עָלַ֖יִךְ בְּרִנָּֽה
yā·ḡîl ‘ā·la·yiḵ bə·rin·nāh
he shouts for joy over you.

The Zephaniah verse contains several of the Hebrew words used for joy:  not only שִׂמְחָה (simchah, the noun that's derived from שָׂמַח; “joy,” “mirth,” or “gladness”), but also שׂוּשׂ (sus;  “to exult or display joy”), גִּיל (gil, “to rejoice, be glad”) and רָנַן (ranan; giving "a ring out" or "shout out for joy”).

The picture painted in Zephaniah 3 is full of tenderness and compassion. God holds his daughter Jerusalem and sings joyfully in her presence.

Just as a loving parent cradles a child and sings to her or him out of love, so God’s song over God's people is born of his great love.

Our God sings? you ask.
Indeed. Our God sings.

My friends, "the God whose look causes the earth to tremble, whose touch causes mountains to smoke", is made manifest not in acts of power and might, but in shouts and songs of tender joy.

As the Singing God of V. 31 is joined by the Singing Psalmist in V. 34, it is "a thing both good and meet" for us to join them in singing jubilant songs of joy.


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