Actually the Right Asaph – Nehemiah 12 [Totally Hip Gratitude]

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Today’s Passage: Nehemiah 12

Good news, everyone. You remember Thursday’s tangent of identifying various Asaphs and not really talking about thankfulness at all? Today that tangent pays off. What a serendipitous development!

For behold: Nehemiah 12, amidst its mentions of thanksgiving, also mentions the Psalmist Asaph. As Nehemiah and the Jerusalem Tabernacle Choir sing worship songs, the account observes: “For in the days of David and Asaph, in ancient times, there were leaders of the singers, songs of praise and hymns of thanksgiving to God” (46). Our boy Mattaniah from chapter 11, the great grandson of a different Asaph, performs in the spirit of Asaph the Psalmist after all! As it turns out, according to Nehemiah’s report, gratitude is a signature of Asaph’s music. Let’s take a look back at some of Asaph’s psalms for a few rounds of everyone’s favorite game, “Find the Thankfulness.”

And by “a few,” I mean two. For in all Asaph’s psalms (50 and 73-83), the word “thank” only appears twice.

It first appears in the opening verse of Psalm 75. Leading the song, Asaph declares: “We give thanks to You, O God, we give thanks, for Your name is near; men declare Your wondrous works” (Psalm 75:1). And evidently, when God’s name is near, proud people get brought down. The rest of the psalm details God’s opposition to arrogance, and his “wondrous works” must refer to his acts as Judge over humanity. The statement “[God] puts down one and exalts another” (Psalm 75:7) might conceivably apply to Nehemiah’s day, as after the humbling experience of the Babylonian Exile, the Hebrews are returning to Jerusalem and rebuilding the city’s wall. On the whole, though, the connection of this particular psalm to the scene in Nehemiah, in both tone and content, is tangential at best.

So, on to the next instance of thanks. Asaph concludes Psalm 79 with the lines, “So we Your people and the sheep of Your pasture will give thanks to You forever; to all generations we will tell of Your praise” (Psalm 79:13). This psalm is likely one with which Nehemiah and his contemporaries could directly identify; the NASB aptly describes it as “A Lament over the Destruction of Jerusalem.” But if Asaph was a contemporary of King David, living in the Golden Age of Israel, when would have have seen any sort of defiling of the temple by foreign nations? I am inclined to conclude that not all of the Psalms of Asaph were written by that Asaph. As I noted before, we live and we learn.

There may only be two explicit references to thanks in the Psalms of Asaph, but like we saw in the Torah, gratitude is often implicit in these songs. Take Psalm 78, for instance, where a major point is to remember God’s goodness where Israel repeatedly forgot it. It’s reasonable to infer that Asaph is grateful that God did such things for his ancestors as “divid[ing] the sea and caus[ing] them to pass through” (Psalm 78:13) or “split[ting] the rocks in the wilderness and [giving] them abundant drink like the ocean depths” (78:15). Or how about the part where God, “being compassionate, forgave their iniquity and did not destroy them” (78:38)? I expect Asaph was thankful for God’s mercy–as was Nehemiah.

And on that note, at least for the moment, it’s time to put a lid on the Asaph leg of our study on gratitude. That’s what we do around here: we put lids on legs. On Monday we return to the minor prophets with Haggai! It is certain to be an exciting time.

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