What’s the shortest song you can think of? Two of my favorite bands, Five Iron Frenzy and They Might Be Giants, have no shortage of short songs. Here’s one. Here’s another. And these short songs tend to be goofy ditties with nonsensical lyrics poking fun at their own brevity, but what happens when a short song takes itself and its subject matter entirely seriously? Psalm 117 happens, that’s what.
In junior high, my dad introduced me to Archimedes’ spiral, or the “goat on a rope.” If you take a compass and draw a line where the distance of your pencil from the center point equals the angle between your compass and the x-axis, you get this line. Or to put it in mathematical terms, it’s the polar coordinate equation r = θ. My dad told me that life is like Archimedes’ spiral: as you live and grow, you keep coming back to similar points in your life, but further out on the spiral. Say you’ve read a psalm before, and then you read it again. The second time around, you’re reading it on a more distant loop on the spiral. It’s a new experience–but it’s similar to the old one.
If the central question of modern theology is “What is the nature of God?” then the central question of theology in the ancient Near East was “Which gods should we worship?” In ancient cultures, towns would commonly adopt a patron deity, and there were no shortage of choices. Just take a look at Wikipedia’s list of Mesopotamian deities. And people would commonly fashion sculptures of their deities as part of their worship: they’d make idols.
I tend to forget how good The Prince of Egypt is. One of the things I like best about it is how it conveys a sense of scale. The monuments of Egypt are big. The crowds of Hebrew slaves are big. The Red Sea is big, and it’s a big event when God parts it. But without modern animation technology, how would you have conveyed the magnitude of the Exodus? If you were anything like the author of Psalm 114, you would have written a song.
Once upon a time, a psalmist made a bet to see how many different ways he could say “Praise the name of the Lord.” He lost the bet, though, because he gave up halfway through, and that’s how we got Psalm 113. No, not really, but I have to write an introduction somehow.
Sometimes the psalm summarizes itself for you. Consider the opening lines of today’s psalm: “How blessed is the man who fears the Lord, who greatly delights in His commandments!” (112:1). The rest of the psalm is basically a litany of blessings for the man who fears the Lord. He receives a well-established family tree, material wealth, a good legacy, victory over his adversaries, and more. But let’s zero in on a verse in the middle of the psalm, characterizing this man of many blessings. The man is merciful–and a creditor.
Like yesterday’s, today’s psalm also has a verse that you may recognize from elsewhere. The line “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (111:10) is better known as Proverbs 9:10, and I could rehash discussions of to what extent “fear” means simple respect and awe, or contrast human wisdom with “the wisdom that comes from heaven” (James 3:17). But I know you guys, and you’ve probably heard those points to absolute death. So let’s try to discover something new here.