All is well in today’s psalm. The psalmist is glad to praise God with songs and stringed instruments, the wicked are brought to justice, and the righteous prosper while thanking God through worship. Going by Brueggemann’s classification scheme, with which by this time you are certainly well-acquainted, this is a psalm of orientation. As the saying goes, God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world.
Yesterday God was a mom. Today God is still a mom, but he is also a bird. A bird made out of rocks.
I remember a time in college when a friend volunteered to open the Christian Fellowship meeting with a prayer. The first words out of his mouth? “Our Mother, who art in Heaven.” It was like he’d dropped a bomb into the circle; even with my eyes closed, I could feel something shift in the room. After he finished praying, another member of the group quickly threw out a few conciliatory words about how God’s name “El Shaddai” referred to the Hebrew term for “breast,” but I remember thinking that God was masculine, not feminine, and that my friend’s invocation had been misled at best, possibly even out of line. I congratulated us on being such a charitable group to not require perfect theology from our “baby Christians.” Big pat on the back for us, right?
It’s your birthday. You come home to your dark house, and just as you’d expect, as soon as you turn on the lights, everyone jumps out and yells, “Surprise!” Except it’s not your friends. It’s strangers, and they strip you naked and beat you with baseball bats. They leave, and from your new vantage point on the floor, you suddenly notice: there actually is a birthday cake on the counter. That’s Psalm 89.
This stupid psalm is resisting introduction. I’m about to ask “Have you ever thought you were going to die?” and recount the time I got stuck upside-down in a pool floatie as a toddler or the time the family Saturn got hit by a semi truck when I was eleven, but then I realize: this psalm is about an extended period of being on the edge of the grave. It’s not about watching your life flash before your eyes in a moment. So then I’m about to ask “Have you ever wished you could die?” and talk about lying in the upstairs hallway overwhelmed by pain on the third day of having chicken pox when I was eight, but then I realize: the author of the psalm wants God to rescue him from his perpetually near-death state. He has no desire to die. So here’s the question: have you ever gone through a time in your life where, day after day, you felt like the living dead?
I have no idea what I’m going to say about this one. It’s only seven verses long, but I got to the end and immediately asked myself, “What did I even read?” To all appearances, it’s just the psalmist saying that some people are from Philistia or Tyre or Ethiopia or what have you, but other people are from Zion, where God himself takes the census. The NASB’s summary header reads, “The Privileges of Citizenship in Zion.” I guess that’s what it’s about? Maybe I can make some sense of this thing with a commentary.
Are you afflicted and needy? Then has David got some good news for you: God is good, and ready to forgive, and abundant in lovingkindness to all who call upon him (5). In Psalm 86, David freely intermingles petition and praise in an intimate prayer. He addresses his words to God, but he was kind enough to put them to song and share them with future generations, such as us.
Here we have a psalm that takes us through all three of Walter Brueggemann’s stages of experience, from orientation to disorientation to new orientation. Psalm 85, a psalm of the sons of Korah, begins by recalling God’s past forgiveness toward Israel, then asks God for mercy concerning its present sinful state, and finally looks toward a future where God saves his people and blesses their land.
If you ever attended a contemporary-style church worship service in the late 90s, some lines from this psalm will probably seem familiar to you. That’s because Matt Redman drew on it for inspiration in his 1995 song “Better Is One Day,” which was subsequently covered by Chris Tomlin, Kutless, and the ubiquitous Hillsong United. “How lovely are Your dwelling places, O Lord of hosts! My soul longed and even yearned for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God” (1-2). Sound familiar? Matt Redman’s song, much like this psalm that inspired it, is a worship song about wanting to go worship.
Testerday we saw Asaph urging God to act against oppressors within Israel, and today he urges God to act against oppressors without. Israel’s enemies are getting on that noise. They have Gone Loud.