Category: psalms

Psalm 22: A Surprising Lenten Study

Last Wednesday night I led the meditation for our community Lenten “meal and meditation” service. I chose Psalm 22 from the lectionary for the previous Sunday, but used the entire psalm rather than just the last portion. Here’s the study — 

Psalm 22: A Lenten Study

During the Lenten season, Psalm 22 provides a wonderful narrative of the movement from despair to hope. This psalm is particularly appropriate for the Lenten-to-Easter season because Jesus quotes the first portion of verse one while he hangs on the cross (Mark 15:34 and Matthew 27:46).

But, there might be more to Jesus’ quotation of this psalm than his lament over God’s abandonment. There might be something there both surprising and encouraging.

David, the psalmist to whom this song is attributed, begins in the depths of loneliness and despair in verses 1-2:

1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Why are you so far from saving me,

   so far from my cries of anguish?

2 My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,

   by night, but I find no rest.

Here is the cry of one who feels utterly abandoned, and yet knows that his God is still somewhere within hearing. One commentator suggested that verse one is a contradiction, expressing abject abandonment by God, while at the same time addressing God as “my God.” Walter Brueggemann notes that this is classic lament — a cry from the heart in the midst of turmoil and loneliness.

However, in verses 3- 5, the psalmist begins to recount God’s history with Israel. Perhaps the psalmist thinks that by reminding God that in the past, Israel has a history of crying out to God and then being saved by God, that this history will move God to action this time.

3 Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;

   you are the one Israel praises.

4 In you our ancestors put their trust;

   they trusted and you delivered them.

5 To you they cried out and were saved;

   in you they trusted and were not put to shame.

The psalmist speaks of God “enthroned” and as the “one Israel praises.” The psalmist’s ancestors “trusted and you delivered them,” he argues. Then, using parallelism, he repeats his argument that Israel “cried out and were saved; in you they trusted and were not put to shame.” In other words, the psalmist is saying, “I’m standing in the tradition of those before me, who cried out to you, and whom you then acted to save.” This passage exemplifies the Old Testament tradition of “contending with God” — which sounds much more respectful than arguing with God. Nonetheless, that is what is happening.

In verses 6-8, the psalmist reiterates not only his abandonment, but the ill-treatment and abuse he suffers at the hands of those who mock him and his God:

6 But I am a worm and not a man,

   scorned by everyone, despised by the people.

7 All who see me mock me;

   they hurl insults, shaking their heads.

8 “He trusts in the Lord,” they say,

   “let the Lord rescue him.

Let him deliver him,

   since he delights in him.”

Of course, these words and phrases are echoed in the New Testament crucifixion of Jesus in Matthew 27:27-44. Jesus is scorned, mocked, despised, and ridiculed, along with his God’s reputation.

We don’t know exactly what difficulty David was experiencing when he wrote this psalm, but somehow these descriptions in Psalm 22 become prophetic indications of how Jesus will be treated. This is the lived personal experience of both David and Jesus.

In the midst of describing the insults he is enduring, David reminds God of their personal relationship. It’s not enough for God to be reminded that God has acted on Israel’s behalf in the past (v3-5). The psalmist now reminds God that:

9 Yet you brought me out of the womb;

   you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast.

10 From birth I was cast on you;

   from my mother’s womb you have been my God.

This is not an appeal to the general history of the nation of Israel, but a personal account of God’s action and David’s response. David says that God was instrumental in his birth — “Yet you brought me out of the womb.” But, God also created the circumstances for David to trust in God — “you made me trust in you,” David says, as if to further obligate God to help him in his present distress.

Again, David restates verse 9 in verse 10 by saying, “From birth I was cast on you; from my mother’s womb you have been my God.” This connection involves God’s presence and power before, during, and after David’s physical birth. This is David’s claim to God’s response.

In verses 11-18, David asks for God’s near presence — “Do not be far from me,” he pleads. David equates God’s proximity to him as the assurance of God’s action for him.

Then, as evidence of why David needs God, he details the threats surrounding him, and the weakened condition he is experiencing:

11 Do not be far from me,

   for trouble is near

   and there is no one to help.

12 Many bulls surround me;

   strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.

13 Roaring lions that tear their prey

   open their mouths wide against me.

14 I am poured out like water,

   and all my bones are out of joint.

My heart has turned to wax;

   it has melted within me.

15 My mouth is dried up like a potsherd,

   and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth;

   you lay me in the dust of death.

16 Dogs surround me,

   a pack of villains encircles me;

   they pierce my hands and my feet.

17 All my bones are on display;

   people stare and gloat over me.

18 They divide my clothes among them

   and cast lots for my garment.

 

Bulls, lions, and dogs are incredibly strong and ferocious adversaries. These predatory images are metaphors for the real threats to David’s existence, and also reminiscent of similar threats faced by other Old Testament heroes.

Along with these descriptions of predatory threats, David describes his physical condition in verses 14-15 and 17. Being “poured out like water” could mean that his strength is ebbing and he is almost empty of reserves. Bones out of joint, heart melting, mouth dried up to the point of his tongue sticking to the roof of his mouth, and being laid in the dust of death, are all indicators of the low level to which he has sunk physically and spiritually.

Again, in these verses there are prophetic echoes of the treatment and condition of Jesus as described in the crucifixion scenes. Jesus’ thirst on the cross; his exposure to both the elements and the stares of onlookers; his humiliation as bystanders gloat about his fate; and, the scene where those who witness his suffering not only do nothing to intervene, but cast lots for his clothes are horrifying.

In verses 19-21, David again requests that God “not be far from me.” As David asks for God’s intervention, he again details the threats against him and asks God specifically to meet those threats. He asks, “Deliver me from the sword…the power of the dogs…the mouth of lions…the horns of wild oxen.” The implication is that God can defeat all of these threats, and David uses pleading petitions for God to “come…deliver…rescue…save” him from these impending calamities.

19 But you, Lord, do not be far from me.

   You are my strength; come quickly to help me.

20 Deliver me from the sword,

   my precious life from the power of the dogs.

21 Rescue me from the mouth of the lions;

   save me from the horns of the wild oxen.

Suddenly, the scene and tone shift dramatically beginning in verse 22. David is no longer alone, but in the presence of “my people” and “the assembly.” Perhaps this means a worship setting, possibly the Tabernacle. Not only does a worship setting imply that people are with David, but that God is also present, just as David has requested.

Because God is present, the tone of the psalm also shifts from lament to praise.

22 I will declare your name to my people;

   in the assembly I will praise you.

23 You who fear the Lord, praise him!

   All you descendants of Jacob, honor him!

   Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!

24 For he has not despised or scorned

   the suffering of the afflicted one;

he has not hidden his face from him

   but has listened to his cry for help.

 25 From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly;

   before those who fear you I will fulfill my vows.

26 The poor will eat and be satisfied;

   those who seek the Lord will praise him—

   may your hearts live forever!

27 All the ends of the earth

   will remember and turn to the Lord,

and all the families of the nations

   will bow down before him,

28 for dominion belongs to the Lord

   and he rules over the nations.

29 All the rich of the earth will feast and worship;

   all who go down to the dust will kneel before him—

   those who cannot keep themselves alive.

30 Posterity will serve him;

   future generations will be told about the Lord.

31 They will proclaim his righteousness,

   declaring to a people yet unborn:

   He has done it!

David, to an ever-widening audience, sings the praises of God. He begins first with his people — perhaps his family and those closest to him — “I will declare your name to my people,” he says. Then, the circle widens to the “assembly” which is typically thought to be those assembled at the Temple for high holy days.

Then, the circle expands to include the descendants of Jacob, reiterated as the descendants of Israel — Jacob’s name having been changed to Israel. Verse 27 expands the circle to “the ends of the earth” and “all the families of nations.” Further, in verse 29, “All the rich” and even the dead — “all who go down to the dust.” All people in every circumstance from the best off (rich) to the worst off (the dead) will kneel before God!

But there is another aspect to these final verses 22-31. Previously, David recalled both God’s action in the nation’s history and his own person story. Here, however, he shifts from past tense to present to future tense. David says,

“For he has not despised or scorned

   the suffering of the afflicted one;

he has not hidden his face from him

   but has listened to his cry for help.”

No longer pleading with God to act, David now proclaims that God has not done as the crowds did to him — God “has not despised or scorned” him. In addition, God “has not hidden his face, but has listened to his cry for help.”

Typically, the Bible links God’s presence and hearing with God’s acting. So, if God is present, then God acts. If God hears, then God acts. If God’s “face” is turned toward the petitioner, then that is a sign of God’s favor and action. God’s attention, in other words, means that God is acting.

But, there is a future component to God’s response as well. The poor will eat and be satisfied

…all the ends of the earth will turn to the Lord

…all the families of nations will bow down to him

…all the rich will feast and worship (feasting being a part of a holy day)

…all the dead will kneel before him

…posterity will serve him

…future generations will be told about him

And what will the future generations be told about God? He has done it!

In other words, God has saved David, his people, and his creation, again!

Now, imagine the crucifixion scene with me one more time: Jesus is hanging on the cross and has been for several hours. His strength is failing, his bodily systems are shutting down. He’s thirsty, wounded, bleeding.

But before he dies, Jesus quotes the first verse of Psalm 22, in Aramaic, his native language — “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Of course, through the history of Christianity, those words have been interpreted as God’s abandonment of Christ as he bears the sins of the world.

But what if Jesus is really trying to communicate a message to those nearby, and to us today? What if all Jesus can manage is to utter the first words of Psalm 22, but he knows how that psalm ends? It’s like when someone utters the first part of a famous saying or song, and without thinking you fill in the rest of it. Suppose I said, “A stitch in time…” Those familiar with the maxims of Ben Franklin would add, “…saves nine.”

Or if I started singing, “O say can you see…” and immediately you and other Americans would know I was singing The Star-spangled Banner, our national anthem.

Jesus knows Psalm 22. His hearers know Psalm 22. So, perhaps by just beginning to utter this psalm, which says so much prophetically about Jesus, he knows that some will understand. Jesus knows that while Psalm 22 begins in lament, it ends in praise and rejoicing.

Suppose Jesus is trying to encourage his disciples, his mother, and those who are standing at the foot of the cross by reminding them of the meaning of the whole psalm.

Suppose Jesus is saying, “I’ve cried out to God for help, and things look bleak now. But God has always saved his people, and he will do so again. God has always responded. Like David, God has known me since before I was born and called me to this work. And, like David, God will come near, listen, and act. And, when this is all over, we will all know that God did it!”

Read Psalm 22 with that idea in mind. If you do, you might just hear the psalm’s lament, repeated by Jesus on the cross, as the beginning line of the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Quite an appropriate and encouraging passage for this lenten season.

 

Sermon: God Present With Us

I have posted the podcast of this sermon I preached last Sunday from Psalm 23, titled “God Present With Us.” If you prefer to read it, here’s the manuscript. The Twenty-third Psalm continues to be a rich source of inspiration and guidance, as fresh as it was when King David penned its words.

God Present With Us

Psalm 23 KJV

1 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

My Brief Career as a Shepherd

I’ve had three experiences in my lifetime of trying to herd animals from one place to another. The first was when I was about 10 years old and staying with my mother’s relatives in south Georgia. My grandfather owned a lot of land in south Georgia, and he did a variety of different things. He owned stands of pine trees from which he harvested the sap for turpentine. He had hogs and chickens, and a family garden, but the main thing he did was raise cattle. And he raised cattle that won several prizes. I remember seeing photographs of his prize-winning bulls on the wall in his office at the farm.

One afternoon on my visit, my cousin and I were supposed to go open the gate for the cows to move from one part of the pasture to another part. But, to do so they had to cross the sandy road that ran through his farm. That road is paved today, but when I was 10 it was unpaved sand and would develop what looked and felt like “washboard” type ruts. But despite the washboard effect, the folks who traveled on that road drove fast. I mean really fast!

You can see where this is going, can’t you? So, my cousin, Terry, and I open the gate, and the cows are doing what cows do — walking slowly in single file from the pasture, across the road, to the other pasture. All this is going pretty well, until we hear the rumble of a car tearing down the sandy road. So, we did what all 10 year old boys do — we panicked and started flapping our arms and shouting at the cows and running behind them to move them off the road.

Cows, being the skittish creatures they are, responded to two wild-eyed 10 year old boys flapping their arms and shouting by also panicking. Now when cows panic, they break ranks and run every which way. And, that’s exactly what they did. Mostly they ran into the woods. So now we had a big problem. How do you get cows to come out of the woods into which they have just fled?

After calling the cows, which we had no idea how to do, and the cows had no idea what we were doing, we gave up. Slowly we made our way to the house to tell my uncle that the cows were in the woods. I had visions of him rounding up all the farm hands, cranking up all the tractors, and putting a full-scale cow rescue plan into effect.

So, sheepishly we explained what happened. My uncle just looked at us like we were the most worthless two city boys he had ever seen. Which we were. On the farm at least. Then he said, “Well, I guess we’ll just have to wait for the cows to come back home.” Who knew cows would come back of their own accord? And, of course, that’s exactly what happened.

My other two experiences of herding involved goats and chickens, and those went a little better, although I am glad that there is no video of my doing either one of those chores.

A Beautiful Poem from an Amazing Life

All of that brings us to our text for today, the Twenty-third Psalm. Psalm 23 undoubtedly is the most familiar and most beloved psalm among all 150 psalms. That’s why I chose the King James’ Version today. We love this psalm because it is beautiful poetry in its own right. But, it is also a reassuring psalm, which is why it is often read at funerals.

This wonderful work is attributed to King David. Of course you remember that David himself had been a shepherd boy. Now a grown man, and responsible for the united nations of both Israel and Judah, David has faced a lot of difficulty throughout his life.

We don’t know at what point in David’s life this psalm was written. It might have been when David had been anointed king while the increasingly unstable Saul was still king. Saul had a love-hate relationship with David. Saul’s jealousy of David, and Saul’s declining mental state set the stage for Saul to attempt to kill David on more than one occasion.

But, after Saul passes off the scene, David continues to have his own set of problems. His adulterous affair with Bathsheba, and his murder of her husband, Uriah, mark the lowest point in David’s life. But God brings David through this valley and back into faithful relationship with God.

Maybe David writes this poem when his own son Absalom is trying to overthrow him. David’s forces are victorious in defeating Absalom’s forces, but Absalom is killed in the battle, and David mourns for this lost son.

We don’t know when David wrote this psalm, but I think it was later in his life. I believe that David is reflecting on his life, and the extraordinary events that brought him from being a shepherd boy, to being the greatest king the Jewish people had ever, or would ever, know.

God as the Shepherd-King

David begins this poem simply and directly:

“The Lord is my shepherd….”

The “Lord” is the name for God that Jews in the Old Testament period used instead of the unspeakable name of God, YHWH. “Lord” is also an acknowledgement of one who is superior and in charge, one to whom everyone one else bows down. Also, in the ancient world, kings were often also referred to as “shepherd” of their people because the king’s responsibility was to protect and provide for his subjects. All of those ideas are present in David’s simple, yet profound confession, “The Lord is my shepherd.”

I grew up in church, and the only translation available to us then was the King James’ Version. So, when I memorized scripture, I memorized the King James’ Version of whatever passage we were working on. That was true of this psalm as well. But, sometimes when you’re a kid, you get things mixed up. So, when I memorized, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want” I thought that meant that David didn’t want God to be his shepherd. Which I thought was puzzling, but there it was. I’m not sure at what point that got cleared up for me, but I eventually understood that David meant, “I don’t want (lack) for anything.”

The idea that with God as his shepherd David had all he needed is one of the central themes of this psalm. But, David doesn’t leave that idea without explanation.

“He maketh me lie down in green pastures, he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul; he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.”

With these examples, David is telling us what exactly God does for him. The good shepherd finds good food, calm water, and safe paths for his sheep. That’s everything a sheep needs — food, water, and safety. In addition, the shepherd revives the tired sheep, perhaps through the comforting provision of his presence.

God’s Presence and Provision

However, David isn’t finished describing this good shepherd yet. David says, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.”

David acknowledges that despite the shepherd’s provision of food, water, and safety, there are times of difficulty and danger — “the valley of the shadow of death.” In this image, one can see the herd as it makes its way through a narrow canyon with the valley walls looming on either side. Predators, both animal and human, lurked in the caves and behind rocks in that kind of terrain. Sheep were easy prey and David knew well that the shepherd had to protect his sheep. David had told King Saul that when a lion or bear tried to take one of his sheep, David had fought the lion or bear and killed it. David knew the dangers present in the valley of the shadow of death.

The comforting presence of the shepherd’s rod and staff give reassurance to the sheep. The rod was used to guide the sheep; and, the staff, with its crooked head, was used to rescue sheep in difficulty. David knew that God both guided and rescued his people because David had been on the receiving end of God’s direction and compassion himself.

In verse 5, the scene shifts from the outdoor pasture setting to a banquet scene. David says, “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies; thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.”

Here God has prepared a banquet, and it is an extravagant and luxurious event. A properly set table, and the anointing of the guests’ heads with oil, along with the abundance of food and drink were all hallmarks of an elaborate feast — a feast fit for a king.

The fact that this extravagant, luxurious feast takes place when David is surrounded by his enemies is further assurance of God’s protection and provision. This feast is the opposite of what a king surrounded by enemies would normally do. The fact that God sets this feast for David reminds David that God not only provides more than he needs, but that God protects David as well.

The Surprising Finish

With all this talk of enemies, the valley of the shadow of death, and evil, David obviously thinks someone is out to get him. But, here the psalm finishes with a wonderful surprise.

While David thought that malevolent forces were out to kill him, he discovers God’s goodness and mercy is really pursuing him. Enemies may be following David, but so is God. And God is pursuing David with more goodness and mercy than David can ever imagine. Have you ever bought something in a store, and then walked out leaving your purchase behind, only to hear behind you the clerk running to catch up to you? That’s the idea here, I think. God pursues us with goodness and mercy. All we have to do is stop and turn around to receive it.

But, that’s not all. Not only is God pursuing us with goodness and mercy, there’s a new place for us to live, too. Remember, this is the King David who built himself a fine palace. A really nice palace apparently. For some time, scholars had speculated that David might have been more legend than fact. The thinking was that David was really a minor warlord, and Jerusalem a sleepy village when he was king.

However, in 2006, Eliat Mazar, an Israeli archaeologist, published an article in Biblical Archaeology Review with the title, “Did I Find King David’s Palace?” We don’t have time for a full explanation, but the gist of it is that Mazar expanded on the work of previous archaeologists, and using the Bible as a source, unearthed a massive building site situated exactly where the Bible locates the palace of King David.

So, my point is that David had a huge, and probably luxurious palace in which to live. But, where does David want to live forever? Not in his palace, but in the “house of the Lord.” Remember, David built his palace before the permanent Temple gets built by his son Solomon. So, David is saying “I had rather live in the Tent of the Lord than in my own palace.” Why? Because God was thought to be present in the Tabernacle.

But Wait There’s More

Have you seen those TV ads which offer to sell you a set of Ginsu knives for the low, low price of whatever? Just as you are about to decide you don’t need any Ginsu knives, the narrator excitedly tells you, “But wait, there’s more!”

And that’s what happens with our story of the Twenty-third Psalm. Because there is more. In John’s Gospel, chapter 10, Jesus says,

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” John 10:11

Then, he continues in verse 14 —

“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me…and I lay down my life for the sheep.”

Of course, Jesus knew the story of David and he knew the Twenty-third Psalm. And it is no accident or coincidence that Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd.

For us this means that the same God who was present to protect and provide for King David, is present with us today. And just like David, the Good Shepherd is present in the valley and on the mountain top; in the midst of danger and in times of joy.

The story of the Bible is God present with God’s people. The Twenty-third Psalm reminds us that our Shepherd-King, Jesus, protects, provides, and pursues us with his goodness and mercy, and we will indeed dwell in his presence forever. Amen.

 

Podcast: God Present With Us

king-david-shepherd-boy-380

Here’s the podcast of the sermon I preached last Sunday from Psalm 23, titled “God Present With Us.” The Twenty-third Psalm perhaps is the most well-known and beloved Psalm, and its message remains one of God’s protection and provision. Here’s the audio —