Monday, August 29, 2011

Psalm 47

“Sing praises to God...sing praises to our King.”—Psalm 47:6-7


1 "I Clap your hands, all you peoples;
shout to God with loud songs of joy.
2 For the LORD, the Most High, is awesome,
a great king over all the earth.
3 He subdued peoples under us,
and nations under our feet.
4 He chose our heritage for us,
the pride of Jacob whom he loves. Selah
5 God has gone up with a shout,
the LORD with the sound of a trumpet.
6 Sing praises to God, sing praises;
sing praises to our King, sing praises.
7 For God is the king of all the earth;
sing praises with a psalm.
8 God is king over the nations;
God sits on his holy throne.
9 The princes of the peoples gather as the people of the God of Abraham. For the shields of the earth
belong to God; he is highly exalted.

Imagine the opening of a youth conference with over six thousand youth and adults in attendance. Lots of energy in the hall: rollicking music, vibrant energizers, and fervent prayers. At the appointed time, the preacher reads the Scripture. But before he can begin his sermon the young people began to shout and clap spontaneously in response to the good news he had just read and in anticipation of what he might say. This is similar to what the people are doing in Ps. 47.

Although many of us may have strong traditional ideas about what is appropriate during a worship service, surely there are fitting times to clap, sing, and shout to God during our Sunday worship. We have known God's mighty acts; recounting these acts helps us remember who we are and how to live in hope. We remember and rejoice that God is the great sovereign of all the earth. God's kingdom is not limited to a single region or country. God is king of all the earth. God has authority and power over all human rulers and leaders no matter how great or powerful they may seem to be. We praise God for caring for us. Our ancestors in faith were once slaves in Egypt; we were slaves in Egypt. God delivered us from that horrible existence. God gave us a home and a reason for living. God taught us how to live together through the giving of Torah.

We rejoice because God loves the world. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of our ancestors, loves the entire creation. God has called us to make known the love of God for the world and to invite others to the broad feasting table in God's kingdom.
We have many reasons to sing, clap, and shout praises to God.

Psalm 47, a song of celebration, opens with a summons to gather and praise God. The people clap their hands. They sing songs loudly and with great joy. The psalm declares that God has gone up with a shout. The Hebrew word 'ala (v. 5; "has gone up") suggests a religious ceremony in which the Ark of the Covenant would have been carried in procession. According to 2 Sam. 6:15, "David and all the house of Israel brought up (ma'alim) the ark of the LORD with shouting, and with the sound of the trumpet." Thus proclaims the psalmist, God now sits on a throne. (The cherubim on the top of the covenant box were thought to have served as God's throne.) God has climbed the dais to a place of authority and is ready to rule. Yahweh is king!

Our faith calls us to see and honor God as the ruler of all nations and not just as the benefactor of one country or region. In its earliest days, ancient Israel had no human king; it was a theocracy; that is, the people of God knew no king other than Yahweh. Several psalms proclaim "The Lord (Yahweh) is king" (see Ps. 96—99). The prophets spoke of God as king of the earth (Jer. 10:6-10). Jesus proclaimed God's reign as a present reality: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news" (Mark 1:15). Jesus demonstrated, much to the disappointment of his followers, that the kingdom of God is not restricted to geographic, ideological, or political boundaries: God's reign includes all the nations of the world, and all who would enter God's kingdom must repent of the notion that God loves one nation or one people over another.

Most of us in the U.S. probably would be uncomfortable with the idea of monarchy as a form of governance. If we describe the president or another elected official as "acting like a king" it is not a compliment. The United States celebrates representative democracy and necessary checks and balances every four years. The election and inauguration of an American president reminds us all that ours is a society built in part on the rejection of monarchy. We tend to associate the concept of a king with either a despotic dictator or a ceremonial figurehead. It's not a favorable concept or something to celebrate. We have no experience of a great king. If we were to find ourselves participating in a ceremony honoring the enthronement of a king, then something would have gone terribly wrong in our land.
However, while most are uncomfortable with the idea of a human monarchy, we are more than comfortable with the notion of God's kingship. We find this same love-hate relationship with monarchy in the Old Testament. Like the religions of its neighbors, Israel proclaimed its God, Yahweh, as "king." However, unlike its neighbors, ancient Israel had no human king. For a few centuries after the time of Joshua, the twelve tribes were organized as an amphictyony, or a loosely connected confederacy with no central government. During times of conflict, God appointed judges, military leaders, from the tribes to stave off threats from enemy combatants. In times of relative peace, tribal leaders were responsible for their particular segments of Israel's population. Yet, not everyone appreciated the confederacy. Some called for a more unified state, with a king to rule all of Israel. First Samuel 7:3—8:22 tells us that the people desired a king so that Israel would be like other nations. The text tells us that in this way Israel rejected Yahweh as its king.

With the advent of the monarchy and the anointing of King Saul, Israel, a covenant people from its birth, became a nation, a secular state. David's rule came to be known as the "golden age" of Israel; and during the reign of David's son, Solomon, Israel experienced a time of political, economic, military, and international success. From the perspective of those who opposed the monarchy, though, this was a time when the people were subjected to tyranny. Solomon's wives and other international alliances introduced pagan worship practices to Israel; shrines were set up to worship other gods. The writer of 1 and 2 Kings makes it clear: Israel and Judah's rulers, with few exceptions, did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, leading the people into idolatry and away from God.

While we may assume the truth of God's universal reign, the declaration that Yahweh is king over all the earth was an audacious claim in that era! Israel's neighbors understood that the gods had certain regional or national alliances. Yahweh was the God of Israel, Baal and Asherah, the male and female gods of Canaan, Marduk, the chief god of Babylon, Chemosh, Moab's god, and so on. Israel made the bold claim that Yahweh was king of the earth and "the LORD, the Most High" (Ps. 47:2; translation of the Hebrew YHWH elyori). El Elyon ("God Most High") was the chief Canaanite deity. Scholars believe that Israel borrowed this designation to refer to Yahweh. (See also Ps. 97:9.) Imagine how Israel's neighbors must have responded to this claim of Yahweh's universal rule! How arrogant they must have considered the people of Yahweh; and how foolish Israel must have seemed when Yahweh apparently turned against Israel in its conflicts with its neighbors, most notably Babylon.

Of course, "the Lord is king" is a tenet of faith and not self-evident. Nations war with one another, suggesting that if there is a God, rulers and leaders flout the call to embrace God's peace with no apparent consequences. By faith we know that we live in the "already," and the "not yet" of the kingdom of God. We hope and pray that God's kingdom will come in its fullness, a time in God's future when peace and justice will be the rule for all. Psalm 47 gives us a glimpse of this eschatological hope, the "end of time" restoration of the whole world according to the reign and rule of God. The language of all the earth becoming a part of the people of God (first expressed in God's call to Abraham and echoed in Isaiah and elsewhere) is a hope that all people will come to worship and serve God as ruler of all the earth.

Psalm 47 is an appointed reading for the Christian observance of the day of ascension (see Acts 1}. Jesus Christ did not come to sit on an earthly throne, but ascended to the heavenly throne where he is at the right hand of God, the seat of power and authority. The reign of God was proclaimed in Jesus' coming (Mark 1:15), and is now revealed in fullness through the resurrection of Jesus and God's triumph over death. Thus, the reign of God has begun. We are called to proclaim it.
How can we resist the temptation to hold different people and nations, denominations and religions, at enmity one with the others? If we feel we can do nothing but pray, then let us pray:,
Great and mighty God,
we praise you that Christ has ascended
to rule at your right hand.
We rejoice before the throne of his power and peace,
for he has put down tyrannies that would destroy us,
and unmasked idols claiming our allegiance.
We thank you that he alone is Lord of our lives.
By your Spirit,
give us freedom to love with his love,
and to embrace the world with his compassion.
Accept the offering of our lives,
that we may obey your commands to serve
in the name and for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Above prayer from Book of Common Worship (Louisville: Westminster John/Knox Press, 1993), p. 335.

What key events of faith do you or your congregation remember? How do you honor the memories?
What can we do to help each other remember who God is and who we are as a part of God's people?
What does today's passage have to say to a world in which the behavior of countries often seems governed by narrow national interests?

God, we are forgetful creatures. We thank you that you love us in spite of our forgetfulness. And we thank you for the reminders like Ps. 47. Help us to remember who you are and who we are as a part of your people. Amen.

Compiled from The Present Word and Congregational Ministries Publishing is not liable for for the content of this Bible Study and Blog.

From The Present Word © 2011 Congregational Ministries Publishing. Used by permission.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Psalm 46:1-7
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. —Psalm 46:1

1 God is our refuge and strength, a present help in trouble.
2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should
change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
3 though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult. Selah
4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of
God, the holy habitation of the Most High.
5 God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.
6 The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
7 The LORD of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah

When we sing Martin Luther's hymn "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" as part of our worship services, those who may normally mumble their way through the hymns sing out boldly and with gusto. The combination of a powerful and uplifting tune along with lines like "A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing," "on earth is not his equal," and "He must win the battle" inspire us to sing and make a joyful noise. When our voices join together and we sing those words we may be assured that God will prevail over any and all adversaries. Martin Luther was inspired by Ps. 46 when he wrote his famous hymn. Generations of God's people have turned to this psalm for comfort. The words are ancient but they touch universal human emotions and situations. "God is with us" expresses an enduring confession of faith for God's people, especially during critical times. We read these words at challenging and painful moments in our lives. The words remind us of who God is and the nature of our relationship with God. They also serve to remind us of why we trust God when it seems as if the world is falling apart. These words give us comfort in the midst of difficult times.

Biblical theologians tell us that the Old Testament reveals significant tension between two expressions of God's covenant with Israel: the Mosaic covenant and the Davidic covenant. God's covenant with Israel as given through Moses emphasizes key themes of salvation history: liberation from slavery; the land of promise; laws and codes for behavior; and ritual processes and purity. It is a conditional covenant. That is, God says, "If you follow my command, then I will dwell with you."

In contrast, the Davidic covenant emphasizes Jerusalem, the Temple, and the monarchy as undisputed evidence of God's favor. It is an unconditional covenant. God promises to dwell in Jerusalem; Zion becomes a cosmic gateway to the presence of God. The promise includes a ruler—one like David, from David's family tree, will sit on the throne in Jerusalem forever. This feature of the Davidic covenant will eventually develop into the hope for a Messiah.

Following the reigns of David and Solomon, the kingdom split in two: Israel or Ephraim (Northern Kingdom); and Judah (Southern Kingdom). The north fell to the Assyrians in the eighth century B.C. In 701, Sennacherib, the king of Assyria, turned his attention farther south, surrounding Jerusalem with several hundred thousand soldiers. In desperation, Hezekiah, king of Judah, sent for the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah proclaimed that Jerusalem would not fall to the Assyrians. Amazingly, 185,000 Assyrian soldiers dropped dead one night. The Assyrian army retreated; Jerusalem was spared. (See 2 Kings 18:13—19:37; 2 Chron. 32:9-22; and Isa. 36—37 for the story.)

Those who propagated the Davidic covenant and the belief that Jerusalem was indestructible because it was God's home felt vindicated in their belief. However, the prophets warned the people about putting too much faith and confidence in Jerusalem and its Temple. Jeremiah, an adherent of Mosaic covenantal theology, said:

Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive word's: "This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD." For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever (Jer. 7:3-7).

Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians in the sixth century B.C. The people of Judah were deported to Babylon. Jeremiah's words rang true, for the people ignored God's commandments to worship rightly and to establish a just society. Even so, God did not abandon them in Babylon. God was at work renewing the relationship with the people during exile, preparing them for their return home seventy years later.

Psalm 46 is one of the songs of Zion, the city of God— Jerusalem. In sure and certain tones, the psalm claims the protection of God over Jerusalem, as if the author and the city have endured difficult times.
God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns. The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge, (vs. 5-7)
"God will help it when the morning dawns" (v. 5b) may be an allusion to the withdrawal of Sennacherib's forces following the night when scores of his troops died. Yet, how are we to claim the truth of Ps. 46 without also falling prey to the false confidence engendered by the unconditional nature of Davidic theology?

One way to read the psalm without fear of misplaced devotion is to think of "the city of God" as beyond any specific geographic location. The poetry of the psalm gives us license to apply "city of God" to any time or place where the people of God live out their lives in obedience to God. The care and authority of God is not limited to any one location or to any one era of history. God is our refuge and ever-present help in any place and at any time. That might help us avoid the problem of glorifying Zion. We do not glorify Zion in and of itself, but as the place where God is known and worshiped. Jerusalem is not our refuge; God is. Jerusalem, by its faithful worship and obedience, draws the nations of the world to the holy mountain so that the true God of the universe is worshiped and served (see Isa. 59, 60).

God is our refuge. God is our strength. God is our help in times of trouble. God is not just an occasional help but is readily found. The psalm gives a straightforward description of the nature of the relationship between God and God's people. God is like a fortress, a safe place where those who would do you harm cannot reach you. Psalm 46 does not offer a theoretical exploration of God's nature. This is not idle speculation. Trouble is a part of life. The people of God experience grief, pain, and hard times. God has not abandoned us; the psalm celebrates the presence of God in the midst of those bad things. God is our refuge and safety.

The people of God can expect difficult times to be a part of their lives. Problems can feel like earthquakes sometimes: Financial stability, like the ground below us, breaks apart. Medical problems threaten to drown us like the raging seas during a tsunami. All people experience "earthquakes" that no geologist can measure. But the psalm assures us that God is with us in the midst of these "earthquakes."
Psalm 46 is prayed at funerals and before serious medical procedures. We pray these words because we find comfort in them, as have believers through the ages. The psalm does not declare that the people of God are privileged to live lives without suffering and pain or hard times. All sorts of troubles, and illnesses, and eventual death are realities for all people. The people of God must face these things. But God does not abandon us in the midst of pain, suffering, or any other "earthquake" we may be facing. God is present with us. God is our refuge. God is our source of strength.

How are we to square the seeming message of Ps. 46 with the death or destruction of those who are faithful?
Why do you think that the people of God are not "immune" from difficult times?
What does it mean to trust God in times of economic or political turmoil?
How might people's faith guide their responses to global terrorist threats?

O God, our refuge, we thank you for your promise to be with us in the midst of all kinds of turmoil. Thank you for sustaining us in our darkest times. Help us not to forget you during the good times. Amen.

Compiled from The Present Word and Congregational Ministries Publishing is not liable for for the content of this Bible Study and Blog.

From The Present Word © 2011 Congregational Ministries Publishing. Used by permission.