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10 June 2015

Weary Skeptics Welcome (2.So.n.Trin. / Pentecost 3)

Psalm 92



There was once a woman who had heard of the Fruit of Heaven. She coveted it.

She asked a certain dervish, who was known as Sabar:  'How can I find this fruit, so that I may attain to immediate knowledge?'

'You would best be advised to study with me', said the dervish. 'But if you will not do so, you will have to travel resolutely and at times restlessly throughout the world.'
     
She left him and found another, Arif the Wise One, and then found Hakim, the Sage, then Majzup the Mad, then Alim the Scientist, and on and on.      

She passed thirty years in her search. Finally she came to a garden. There stood the Tree of Heaven, and from its branches hung the bright Fruit of Heaven.

Standing beside the Tree was Sabar, the dervish she had begun her search with.        

'Why did you no tell me when we first met that you were the Custodian of the Fruit of Heaven?' she asked him.

'Because you would not then have believed me. Besides, the Tree produces fruit only once in thirty years and thirty days'.

The woman in the story above has a strong desire to get the Fruit of Heaven, but finds herself searching for thirty years until the joyful moment when she "gets it".  Joy is the theme of Psalm 92.



Praising God (VV. 1–5)
1 It is good to give thanks to the Lord, / to make music to your name, O Most High; 2 to declare in the morning your hesed, / and your faithfulness in the night 3 upon a harp and upon a stringed instrument, / upon the melody of a harp.  4 For you, O Lord, cause me to rejoice in your deeds; / in the works of your hands I shout for joy!  5 How great is your work, O Lord; / how deep are your thoughts.

Victory Over the Wicked (VV. 6–11)
6 A stupid one does not know, / a fool cannot understand this;  7 though the wicked grow like grass and all the evildoers bloom, / they will be destroyed forever. 8 You are on high forever, O Lord. 9 For surely your enemies, O Lord, / surely your enemies, O Lord, will perish; / all evildoers will be scattered. 10 You have raised my horn like that of a wild ox; / you anoint me fresh oil. 11 My eyes have looked (in triumph) on my enemies; / As evil ones rise against me, my ears hear ——.

God’s Care for the Righteous (VV. 12–15)
12 The righteous bloom like a palm tree; / and like a cedar in Lebanon they grow. 13 They are planted in the house of the Lord; / in the courts of our God, they vigorously bloom. 14 They still bear fruit in old age; / they are full and green; 15 proclaiming that the Lord is upright, / my Rock, and there is no wrongdoing in him.  (NICOT)


The first time I encountered Psalm 92 was when we learned Rolf Schweizer's jazzy 1966 tune in children's choir; the text is straight from Martin Luther's translation, which, after all its many revisions, still (and ingeniously) gives the Hebrew word ט֗וֹב (tov, good) a culinary twist by rendering it as "köstlich" (delicious or tasty):

Das ist ein köstlich Ding, dem Herren danken und lobsingen deinem Namen,
das ist ein köstlich Ding, dem Herren danken und lobsingen deinem Namen, du Höchster.

The Psalmist clearly tries to inspire us to joy ... and she insists that this joy is appropriately expressed not just occasionally, but at all times:

Des Morgens deine Gnade und des Nachts deine Wahrheit verkündigen
auf den zehn Saiten und Psalter, mit Spielen auf der Harfe.


In Hebrew, V. 2 looks like this:

לְהַגִּ֣יד בַּבֹּ֣קֶר חַסְֽדֶּ֑ךָ
lə·hag·gîd  bab·bō·qer ḥas·de·kā;
to declare in the morning your hesed

וֶ֝אֱמֽוּנָתְךָ֗ בַּלֵּילֽוֹת
we·’ĕ·mū·nā·tə·kā, bal·lê·lō·wt
and your faithfulness in the night

Once again, chesed is found  in a prominent place; this time it isn't combined with emeth (truth, see my last post) but another word that, like emeth, is derived from the Verb אָמַן (aman, believe); that word is אֱמוּנָה (emunah, faith, steadfastness, fidelity, firmness).

The Psalmist begins by saying that it is "delicious" to thank God and to proclaim God's lovingkindness and faithfulness, and to do so morning and night.

Thanking God at all times. That sounds good, but ... we all know those days and weeks and months when life is tough, when we drag ourselves out of bed in the morning, run through our day as best as we can and then fall into bed at night, only to start the whole thing over a few hours later. My whole last week has felt that way.

Were there moments of joy and thanksgiving in that week now past? Yes, but they were few and far between.

After the week I've had, the words of the Psalmist (about how giving thanks is "delicious") seem odd and shrill somehow, as if from another world.

As I immersed myself into this psalm, I realized that it belongs to a cluster (90-92) meant to respond to "the theological crisis posed by the exile" (Walter Brueggemann). That suggests that the Psalmist is quite familiar with skeptical reactions like my own; Psalm 92 in all its boisterous joy is a response to those who were bone-weary (tired to their bones), not only physically but also emotionally and spiritually.

How does the Psalmist deal with a weary skeptic like me? She invites me to sing with her!

She sings a song of God's chesed and emunah, a song about God's saving deeds; reluctantly I begin to follow her. She grabs my hand and starts dancing ahead of me (V. 4):

 כִּ֤י שִׂמַּחְתַּ֣נִי יְהוָ֣ה בְּפָעֳלֶ֑ךָ
kî śim·maḥ·ta·nî Yah·weh
bə·pā·‘o·le·kā;
For you, O Lord, cause me to rejoice in your deeds

בְּֽמַעֲשֵׂ֖י יָדֶ֣יךָ אֲרַנֵּֽן
bə·ma·‘ă·śê yā·de·kā ’ă·ran·nên
... in the works of your hands I shout for joy!

But even as she drags me into her dance, I am still hesitant, saying to her, "But the history of salvation is history. It was way back when God walked our mothers and fathers through the Red Sea; it isn't now!"

The Psalmist says, "Then and now matters little to God. Time's a human thing." She adds, "Now come, stubborn one", even as she walks me past the first part of the psalm.

As I mumble that her psalm, like many others, uses the contrast between wicked and righteous, she says, "Get out of your head, you need your heart for this". She keeps pulling at me until she makes a sudden stop, at the eighth verse.

"Here we are," she says, "this is the center of my psalm, and it is the answer to many of your questions. It is the reason for the joy of which I sing.  Use your heart, and really listen."

V. 8
וְאַתָּ֥ה מָר֗וֹם לְעֹלָ֥ם יְהֹוָה
wə·’at·tāh mā·rō·wm,
lə·‘ō·lām Yah·weh
You are on high
forever, O Lord.

"You see," says the Psalmist, "in the midst of our national catastrophe we discovered that God is not a local god as we had thought; we found him to be quite mobile: the God of the Universe. When we were dragged into exile, he was right there; not knowing that he was mobile, we were afraid he had abandoned us."

"He is God for all people, for every place, for every time", she says.  As I shrug, she grins and says, "I think it's time you drop your scowl and realize that God is everywhere you are, even when you feel lost in your various exiles." Then she says, "And now you need to sing my song with me:  The righteous bloom like a palm tree; / and like a cedar in Lebanon they grow." (V. 12)


Stephen Mitchell chose to change metaphors in his rendition of Verse 13: 

"[The Righteous] are planted in the dark soil of God, and their leaves keep turning to his light."  

I love the sound of that. My friends, may our lives be so: that we keep turning our leaves to the light, always remembering that we are planted in the dark soil of God!

And when, some time soon on your journey, you get bone-weary and don't quite know just where God has gone, remember the old line, "'Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, And grace will lead me home".

Weary Skeptics Are Welcome.





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