Tag Archives: psalms

The Sunday Excursus

On Sundays I’ve been taking a little break from the Alphabet series. I’ve heard from some readers who mentioned that they appreciate the series very much. Thanks! But I’m pretty sure we can all use a small break on a weekly basis.

This week’s rabbit-trail takes us past some graffiti/urban art that I particularly like. I was thinking about why I like this wall so much as the subway went past it this morning, then as I walked from the subway station toward the parking lot next to the wall. It hit me on the station platform. I see the glory of God reflected in this wall, particularly the two parts of the wall shown here:

Keele Stn both

Really? I hear you saying. The Glory of God? C’mon. Yes, the Glory of God.  I’m pretty sure that is not what the artist’s intended, but that is, I think, what I particularly like about them. The bottom one has a cubist feel to it. Here is a closer shot:

cubist grafPart of that glory thing might come from the smokey thing that ties together parts of the wall. I’ve avoided showing the large old man with a beard and a book also on this wall lest you think that he represents God to me. No. He does not. But this part of the wall next to the Keele Station parking lot reflects this:

Psalm 104

Lord my God, you are very great;
you are clothed with splendor and majesty.

The Lord wraps himself in light as with a garment;
he stretches out the heavens like a tent
    and lays the beams of his upper chambers on their waters.
He makes the clouds his chariot
and rides on the wings of the wind.
He makes winds his messengers,
flames of fire his servants.

31 May the glory of the Lord endure forever;
may the Lord rejoice in his works—
32 he who looks at the earth, and it trembles,
who touches the mountains, and they smoke.

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St. Athanasius on the Psalms

I’ve just finished On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius, translated by a sister of the CSMV and introduced by her correspondent and friend C.S. Lewis. I talked about Lewis’s introduction during Christmas, and mentioned how reading his reflections on old books in that introduction influenced my reading resolutions for this year. Added to the end of On the Incarnation is an appendix containing a translation of a letter written by St. Athanasius to someone called Marcellinus on reading and interpreting the Psalms. It is great.

I am interested in the history of interpretation of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, so reading this appendix on the Psalter was almost better than the theological discourse on the incarnation. Both pieces of writing have their own charm and particular appeal. I preach the Psalms whenever I get a chance, so reading about their interpretation always fascinates me. This morning I heard an excellent exposition of Psalm 139 in the middle of a sermon on our identity in Christ. Then this afternoon I read St. Athanasius on interpreting the Psalms. The combination made my day.

I will post again on publishers and textbooks, but that’ll come tomorrow. Watch this space.

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multi-platform, multi-books, too much multi-ing?

Today I did a quick count of the number of (fiction) books I’ve got on the go at the moment. There are four. One is an E-book, another is an audio book, there’s a library hardcover, and a used book-shop paperback. Three of the four are mysteries, and the fourth is an interesting surreal novel mostly about New York City in winter. I think I can give you a plot as-I-understand-it synopsis for each. I wonder how many books I can have on the go at once, and whether multi-reading, especially across delivery systems, will just make my life more spinny than ever.

I’ve also got at least two non-fiction books on the go, meaning I’ve read from them in the last week and I intend to finish them.

Hmm. I think I might be a bit rootless in my reading right now, more like tumbleweed instead of a firmly planted tree (think Psalm 1). I’m not sure why I ended up with six active books, usually I keep it to two or three. Maybe the multi-media thing contributed to me not realizing how many I’ve got in the air.

How many books do you have on the go at once? How many is too many in your experience?

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Preaching the Old Testament

For the second post in a row, I’m sending you off to read a little Books & Culture. Go read that review linked in the previous sentence. Done? That was Lauren Winner’s review of Fleming Rutledge’s book of Old Testament sermons called And God Spoke to Abraham. Since it came out, I’ve been receiving that book into stock regularly at the theological bookshop where I work. Every time it comes across my desk I think about buying it. I haven’t yet. There are other collections of Rutledge’s sermons I’d like to get first. I’ve been eyeing The Bible and the New York Times for some time.

Back to Winner’s review of Rutledge. It amazed me that Winner admitted to defaulting to the gospel reading when she preaches. Of course, loads of people do this, but I didn’t expect that Winner would. It made me smile to think she’s only preached once from the Psalms — and I used a section of her Girl Meets God to justify preaching a sermon on Psalm 103 on Pentecost last year. Oh the irony.

I preach the Psalms quite a lot — in fact, the Psalter is my default book to preach from, not the gospels. Why? you might ask. As always, I’m happy to tell you. Most Psalms are neat single-sermon-sized packages. They are complete in themselves, so there isn’t a lot of exegetical work to figure out if you’ve got an appropriately complete section of Scripture to preach from. Most often, I preach single sermons scattered through the year. If I have a few Sundays in a row, I might do a mini-series, but for a single Sunday, a Psalm is nice and complete and tidy. I also like the challenge of preaching from poetry. I like the dense structure of Hebrew poetry. I like unpacking the way the words are put together. I like seeing the layers of meaning.

It felt a little experimental the first time I preached a Psalm. Now I wonder if I’m turning there too often. There’s such variety in the Psalter though! I certainly haven’t begun to preach what is possible there. I have been jumping around a bit randomly though — which is one of the benefits of preaching in church that doesn’t use the lectionary. I’m thinking about trying to be more systematic in preaching the Psalter, but I’m not sure I want to start with Psalm 2 (I’ve done a sermon on Psalm 1 already) and march on through as opportunity arises. Maybe I’ll take a peek at the lectionary for some direction about which Psalm to choose when I preach next month. That has some sort of system to it.

(In case you are interested, here’s one of my Psalm sermons.)

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Penitential Psalms 7: Psalm 143

Psalm 143 is a penitential psalm, a David-psalm that comes just before the set of hallelujah psalms that end the Psalter. Both the final two penitential psalms are placed in a context of praise and worship. Repentance is part of the worship of God. Psalm 143 contains wisdom-related words and phrase such as “teach”and “way.” At least two of the penitential psalms have this sort of wisdom language. Psalm 32 is the other place I noticed the language in this series.

The contrast between the penitent’s spirit and God’s Spirit in Psalm 143 is interesting. The penitent’s spirit grows faint and fails. The penitent asks that God’s good Spirit lead him or her on level ground. This is paralleled with the penitent’s request for God’s teaching. God’s Spirit is thus linked with the wisdom language of the psalm.

In the end the penitent asks God to save his or her life for the sake of the Name. “For your name’s sake, LORD, preserve my life.” The preservation of the penitent’s life would bring honour to the Name of God. The penitent’s plea for mercy was based on the name of the Lord. For Christians, our plea for mercy is based on the name of Jesus.

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Penitential Psalms 6: Psalm 130

Psalm 130 is a song of ascent, one of a cluster found in Psalms 120-134. Ascent songs are festival songs, songs for pilgrims to sing on the way to the Temple in Jerusalem. This cluster of Psalms are mostly about worship and celebration, but it does make sense for a penitential Psalm to be in the group. Why? Because people going up to celebrate a festival at the Temple would probably need to confess their sins in order to celebrate before the Lord. Confession restores good relations with God for a proper celebration. This is a helpful reminder during Lent. We are heading toward a huge celebration at Easter, the biggest celebration of the Christian year. Before this great feast, we have a season of repentance. We acknowledge our sins. We do what is required on our end to stay in a proper relationship with God, realizing that Easter celebrates what God in Christ did to reconcile us to God.

Over the last few weeks I’ve had the opportunity to talk theology with people learning about baptism and leadership. These conversations have reminded me what fun it is to teach, particularly motivated students, eager to learn, eager to grow in faith. It is a happy reminder.

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Bones and the Penitential Psalms

Over the last five posts on five of the penitential psalms (Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, and 102) I noted that the penitent’s bones kept showing up. I wondered what this was all about. I’ve done some digging around in Hebrew Lexicons and in Theological Wordbooks, so here is a preliminary report.

Psalm 6 parallels the penitent’s bones with the penitent’s soul:

2 Have mercy on me, LORD, for I am faint;
heal me, LORD, for my bones are in agony.
3 My soul is in deep anguish.
How long, LORD, how long?

The parallel structure is more obvious in Hebrew where verse 2 starts with Because my bones are in agony… and verse three begins and my soul is in agony. The soul and the bones are with the same verb and begin the two verses.

Psalm 32 has the penitent’s bones wasting away:

3 When I kept silent,
my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.

Other translations say “my body” instead of “my bones” but it is the same Hebrew word as for bones in Psalm 6, ‘etsem. The word is used to symbolize the whole of a person, not just their bones. Some translators must think that is the use here in Psalm 32, though I’m not sure that is clear from the context.

Psalm 38 parallels bones with body:

3 Because of your wrath there is no health in my body;
there is no soundness in my bones because of my sin.

The parallels with soul and body Psalm 6 and 38 make it seem like the penitent’s bones can stand for the whole body or the physical substance of the person in some way.

In Psalm 51 the penitent’s bones were crushed:

8 Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones you have crushed rejoice.

One of the theological wordbooks I consulted indicated that “bones” might stand for the core physical and psychological being of a person. That might be the case here. The penitent says his or her whole self is crushed, but that crushed self may yet rejoice.

Psalm 102 shows the penitent in deep distress:

3 For my days vanish like smoke;
my bones burn like glowing embers.
4 My heart is blighted and withered like grass;
I forget to eat my food.
5 In my distress I groan aloud
and am reduced to skin and bones.

The penitent’s “skin and bones” is a reference to loss of substance from forgetting to eat. The burning bones are something else, though, and don’t appear to tie into the previous patterns of referencing the penitent’s whole being.

Any thoughts on the whole bone thing? I think that the metaphorical use of bones to stand for the whole physical and psychological substance of a person makes good sense in most of these cases — but the burning bones in Psalm 102 is a different story.

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Penitential Psalms 5: Psalm 102

Psalm 102 is the fifth penitential psalm with a reference to bones. I plan to do a bit more digging and reflection on bones in Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, and 102 later this week. For today, some other notes on Psalm 102.

In Psalm 102, the penitent turns from crying to God for help and describing his/her own situation to a reflection on God’s timeless qualities. The penitent’s days are like grass, but God is enthroned forever. Even the heavens and the earth will perish – but God will remain. The penitent looks forward to God’s redemption for future generations as well as salvation in the present from the penitent’s situation.

Again there is a strong connection between the spiritual & physical state of the penitent. God is the one who brings relief both to the penitent’s spirit and body. The relief of spirit and body are connected, as the affliction of spirit and body are connected.

It is difficult for me to do more with this Psalm today as the words in it on the brevity of life strike particularly close to home. A couple of days ago my pastor, friend, and respected elder sister in faith died, cut off in the midst of her years. Yet God provides hope for the future, for rebuilding as this Psalm puts it. We look for the resurrection of the dead.

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Penitential Psalms 4: Psalm 51

Psalm 51 has an interesting header. It doesn’t only tell us that the Psalm is a David-psalm, but associates it with a notorious episode in David’s life: “When the prophet Nathan came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba.” This little note makes this penitential psalm rather famous. Possibly infamous. Sections of this particular Psalm are often quoted “Create in me a clean heart, Oh God,” is one bit that is well-known. I wonder if the Psalm would be as often quoted if it were not associated with an infamous moment in the life of King David? We’ll never know will we.

One friend of mine told me that she found this Psalm hard to relate to as it was so strongly connected with a particularly male sin. She wondered whether she could make use of the confession modelled in it. I’d never thought of this. I’d heard the Psalm preached as a model of confession, but hadn’t thought that it might exclude women from confessing because of the particular association. I see how that might be the case. I don’t feel excluded by it, rather use it with my own particular failings in mind. It seems that asking God for a clean heart is a good prayer no matter what our particular sinful acts might be.

I noted yesterday that bones are mentioned in 5/7 of the penitential Psalms. Bones are here too — the penitent asks God that his formerly crushed bones rejoice. I’m still digging around on the whole bones thing. It might take a bit, but something will come of it.

Yesterday I said that I was struck by the connection of physical health/healing with sin and repentance. Just to clarify — I don’t think that all physical illnesses are a direct result of sin, rather, I think that the spiritual and physical are connected much more strongly than we sometimes think they are.

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Penitential Psalms 3: Psalm 38

Psalm 38 also has bones in it! There is definitely something going on. I checked ahead and 5/7 of the penitential Psalms I listed feature some mention of bones — and all the same Hebrew word too, I checked that. I’ve got to do a bit more digging, but there definitely appears to be some kind of connection between the penitent’s bones and repentance.

In Psalm 38, the penitent appears to get no relief from his (or her) suffering. The Psalm ends with a plea for God to come quickly to help. In the previous two penitential Psalms, relief appeared by the end of the Psalm, or, in the case of Psalm 32, relief appeared before the Psalm was even written. But in Ps 38, no relief appears. This lack of relief doesn’t stop the penitent from praying to God and asking for relief. This is a Psalm is twice as long as the previous two penitential psalms. The penitent describes his (or her) sufferings in some detail. The physical health of the penitent seems to be connected with the person’s sin. Of course, this could be descriptive language of a spiritual illness — and some of the afflictions are clearly metaphorical — “I have become like the deaf” or “like a mute,” or “your arrows have pierced me.” I’m not sure that the illness is all spiritual, however. The penitent Psalmist has mentioned health and healing in connection with repentance before in Psalm 6. Plus we have the repeated mention of the bones of the penitent. While this is all possibly metaphorical, I’m not completely convinced it is entirely metaphorical. Sin appears to influence physical health. Confession seems to bring healing.

More things that make you go hmmm.

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