I’ve never been in a fistfight. One time I got into a tussle with my brother and shoved him into a pine bush (which I almost immediately regretted), but I’ve never thrown a real, honest-to-goodness, let’s-hurt-someone punch. David, on the other hand, has been in battles. He’s used a sling to kill lions and bears and a huge Philistine warrior; he’s picked up a sword and fought people who want to kill him. Dude wasn’t just a king and a musician, he was also a soldier. So, you know, psalms like Psalm 140 are a little foreign to me.
My family calls this the “birthday psalm.” Growing up, on my brother’s and my birthdays, my dad would read it to us. Why is it so apt for the anniversary of one’s birth? Because its central theme is “God made me.”
King David’s back today with another psalm of thanksgiving. Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether you’re looking at a psalm of simple orientation or new orientation, and for me, this is one of those psalms.
From 2002 to 2004, I attended St. John’s College in Annapolis. Every student, among other things, had to take freshman chorus: we all had to learn to sing. One of the songs we sung was an arrangement of the first verse of Psalm 137: “By the waters of Babylon, we sat down and wept, when we remembered thee, O Zion.” This version, performed by Ensemble Sottovoce and written by Philip Hayes (1737-1797), is the arrangement I’m familiar with, but my Youtube-combing turned up several other versions, including one by Don “American Pie” Mclean, one from Saint Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary Choir that uses a traditional Eastern Orthodox melody, and this performance by Trinity Church of England High School, which is absolutely haunting and would not be out of place in a Metroid game. As we’ve seen, the texts of the psalms are ripe for musical adaptation, and Psalm 137 is no exception.
Psalm 136 picks up Psalm 118’s repetition of the phrase “His lovingkindness is everlasting” in its opening verses and takes it to its logical conclusion: repeating it throughout the whole song. The result is a call-and-response worship song that is sure to get the whole ancient Hebrew congregation bouncing. It inspired the song “Forever,” written by Chris Tomlin and performed by Michael W. Smith on his 2001 album Worship. “Forever” repeats the line “His love endures forever” throughout the verses, but while it focuses on God’s faithfulness, power, and compassion for humankind in general, Psalm 136 is specifically a song from Israel’s history about Israel’s history.
Psalm 135 isn’t exactly a brief history of the universe, but that’s the closest I can think of to a one-sentence summary of it. Going by Brueggemann’s classifications, it’s generally considered a psalm of new orientation, but I personally am inclined to read it as simple orientation. It’s a call to praise founded on conviction that God is good, and the only hint of having passed through disorientation (vv.8-11, recollection of Israel’s struggles against Pharaoh and various pagan kings) is a historical footnote, a distant memory at most. Moreover, it’s equal parts assertion of God’s supremacy, litany of Israelite history, and indictment of idolatry. If it evades encapsulation into a single summary with a single theme, then we can roll with that.
How are you sleeping these days? Lately I’ve been waking up too early and having trouble going back to sleep. I think the experience of perturbed sleep is common to man: we all have times when the demands of life interrupt the regularity of our sleep. I have a lot of respect for people whose jobs require them to keep odd hours, working at night and sleeping when the sun comes up. You know: police officers, night janitors, the third shift of the Levitical priesthood.