Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Present

When you have a present in front of you ready to be opened, the first thing you do with it is remove the wrapping paper. Then you take the present out of the box and remove the inner packaging. If you are an organized person, you use the box to hold the wrapping and packaging with a view to getting them into the recycling. In other words, the present is the important part that you keep, and the other stuff you throw away.

The present in front of us is the Psalms. A book containing the whole collection of these 150 poems is called a Psalter. In this case, don't throw away the box or the wrapping material. The outer wrapping and the inner packaging are both important to understanding each of the poems. And in each psalm, there is tissue paper stored with the words and phrases. Hear the rustle of the paper as you mutter the words of the psalm. Though the packaging and wrapping are not the essence of the present, they do from their shape reveal the mind of the One who is the present.

In a word, the Psalms in their sequence reveal a story. It is your story and mine. So much is shared between us in joy and sorrow. These things were written for our learning. We will move from the negative to praise, from exile to consolation. In all these things we will learn from the One who teaches humanity knowledge. These words were written to form us together into a people who know mercy.

Here is the opening negative word – listen for what is repeated: Happy the person, who does not walk in the advice of the wicked, and in the way of sinners does not stand, and in the seat of the scornful does not sit. Here is the final invitation – listen to its joy: All the breath-bearing, praise Yah. Hallelu Yah. Between these two verses, Psalm 1:1, and Psalm 150:6 you will find a complete story, creation, redemption, exile, consolation, sin, forgiveness, anger, and joy.

The Psalms, collectively known as Tehillim, or praises, are partitioned into five books. Book 1 begins with Psalm 1 and ends with Psalm 41. Book 2 begins with Psalm 42 and ends with Psalm 72. Book 3 begins with Psalm 73 and ends with Psalm 89. Books 2 and 3 contain many great laments, both personal and collective. Book four runs from Psalms 90 to 106. And so Book 5 begins at Psalm 107 and ends at Psalm 150. Each book ends with a verse of praise. Book 5 builds praise into a great crescendo. It ends with five psalms of praise following a psalm that is called a praise of David, Psalm 145.

In Books 1 and 5, there are eight special poems that are children’s games. They are alphabet poems, though they are a little more complex than A is for Apple. In Book 1, the four poems are all broken. First are Psalms 9 and 10, a single alphabetic poem but spread over two Psalms with seven missing letters. Then comes Psalm 25 (two missing letters). Then Psalm 34 (one missing letter), and finally Psalm 37 (two missing letters). Psalm 37 is named the wicked acrostic since the word for wicked occurs 14 times in that poem. In Book 5, the four acrostics are Psalms 111, 112, 119, and 145. Each of these alphabetic poems is perfect. There is no letter out of place.

You can just begin to see that this present comes in a complex box with five different compartments. The first and last compartment have these 9 poems constructed in this obvious special form of the child’s game. The second and third compartment are filled with laments over various difficulties in the history of Israel. The fourth compartment begins with a prayer of Moses and reveals a consolation and ultimate establishment of the work to be done: And let the pleasure of the Lord our God be upon us, and the deeds of our hands establish upon us, and the deeds of our hands establish. And consider the fourth verse of Psalm 106: remember me YHWH[1] in the acceptance of your people, visit me in your salvation.

But the box is yet more complex. In the first and last books, each alphabetic poem celebrates the psalm that immediately precedes it. So the first of these acrostics, Psalms 9 and 10, celebrates Psalm 8: YHWH our Lord ,how majestic your name in all the earth. Psalm 8 presents joy in the child of humanity: you make it a little less than God and with glory and honour you crown it. And in Book 5, the last of the acrostics, Psalm 145, celebrates Psalm 144. And this psalm mirrors Psalm 8 with a touch of humour. In Psalm 8, For I see your heavens, that your fingers make, moon and stars, which you have established; and In Psalm 144: Blessed is YHWH my rock, the teacher of my hands to close combat, my fingers to war. These two psalms contain the only use of the word fingers in the Psalms. Psalm 144 also presents the child of humanity, but this time with a different touch, what is this humanity that you know it, a mortal child that you devised it; humanity is like futility, its days as a shadow passing away.

Similarly, Psalm 25 celebrates Psalm 24, gates, lift up your heads, and be lifted up, doors everlasting, and the king of glory will come in. And Psalm 119 celebrates Psalm 118, Open to me the gates of righteousness. I will go into them; I will give thanks to Yah. This is the gate of YHWH. Righteous ones will go into it. Psalm 34 celebrates the first mention of the new song in Psalm 33. Psalm 37 celebrates the oracle that is Psalm 36. And Psalms 111 and 112 celebrate the only other oracle in the Psalms, Psalm 110. These sixteen Psalms are like a great set of eight pillars holding up the tent of this book of praises.

If that is part of the box that contains this present, what is the inner wrapping like? Each psalm has its own individual tissue paper, and many pairs of psalms also are packaged together. For example, if we look at repeated words, Psalm 145 has the word all repeated 17 times. It is like a drum beat in the poem. Or if we look at Psalms 1 and 2 together, we find seven key words joining these two psalms together. Psalm 2 uses five of the words in Psalm 1 in the same sequence, sit – day – gives – judge – perish. Who is seated in Psalm 2 and what is the dangerous seat in Psalm 1? What is the common time period shared between the two psalms? Who gives in Psalm 2 to whom and what is the subject of gives in Psalm 1? Who judges and what perishes? In addition, the word way is used after this sequence in Psalm 2 but before the sequence in Psalm 1. Way and happy are an overall frame for the two poems.

You can see that we cannot throw out this material. The poems are packaged with the words themselves, teaching us by means of their own patterns. When you read a psalm, look for these patterns.

That was the red tissue paper, but there is also white, green, blue, yellow and other colours of tissue paper packaging the words. What! More packaging – when do we get to the present itself? The present itself is invisible, but definitely still present. And the present will be known by presence itself, your presence to it, and its presence to you. The packaged tissue of words is exquisitely formed because the present is itself exquisite. All your senses will be needed and action too. No part can be omitted.

There are 150 starting places, some small, some large. Psalm 78 is the longest single poem at 72 verses. Psalm 119 is longer, but it can also be seen as 22 short eight-verse poems. Psalm 76:4 contains the words that are at the centre of the praises. They are a suitable hope: there he shatters the fire-brands of bow shield and sword and battle. Selah.

But let’s pick up a lesser known part of the gift, a psalm not often studied, but important because it deals with the tongue, our tongue. How well do we control what we say? Here is Psalm 52.
For the leader, An insight of David: In comes Doeg the Edomite and he makes it clear to Saul saying to him, David goes to the house of Ahimelech.
Why do you boast in evil, O valiant one? The reproof of God is all the day long.
Calamities your tongue devises, like a honed razor that acts with deceit.
You love evil over good, falsehood over a matter of righteousness. Selah.
You love to swallow up all sorts of things, tongue of deceit.
But God will overcome you in perpetuity, he will take hold of you and pluck you from your tent and root you out of the land of the living. Selah.
And the-many righteous will see and fear and they will laugh at him: So this is the valiant one who did not set up God as his strength but trusted in the abundance of his riches and strengthened himself in his own calamity.
But I am like an olive tree, green in the house of God. I trust in God’s reproof now and for ever. I will thank you forever, for you have acted and I await your name for it is good, made clear to those under your mercy.
This poem is in Book 2. Notice that it does not use the personal name of God, YHWH, but just the word for God (Elohim). Psalms 42 to 86, that is most of Books 2 and 3, use Elohim more often than YHWH. This is yet another aspect of the packaging, a set of Psalms with a differing style.

Notice the repeated words in bold in this angry psalm. David is escaping from Saul, and Doeg squeals on him. Not a nice usage of the tongue. I wondered if David as much as calls Doeg a reproof of God. But it is not so complicated. I have rendered the word for loving-kindness almost as its opposite. It is true, however, that reproof, if we listen, is also loving-kindness. There is a real standard to behaviour in the people of God. We cannot simply snitch on others just because we think the boss (in this case, the disturbed Saul) is going to reward us. Not only is it bad for us, but given that we belong to God’s people, it doesn’t do much for God’s reputation either. Notice also who makes evidence clear to whom: Doeg makes his evidence clear to Saul and God makes the goodness of his name (reputation) clear to those who are under his mercy.

Repeated commonly used words also show us a connection between Psalms 52 and Psalm 51. The word for come and go appears twice at the beginning of Psalm 51 when Nathan the prophet came to David as he had come to Bathsheva, and twice in the beginning of Psalm 52. One could say that these Psalms, being juxtaposed, recognize both David’s sin and Doeg’s sin. Both these persons are in need of correction and covenant mercy. For more on the tongue see Psalm 12, YHWH will cut off all lips divided ... tongue speaking greatness, who said with our tongue we will prevail; our lips are ours; who is Lord to us! And Psalm 15, the one who will dwell on the holy hill is one who does not slander with his tongue. The tongue is a theme throughout the Psalms. In Book 5, Psalm 120, the first of the 15 Psalms of Ascent asks YHWH for deliverance from a false tongue, and then poses a question to the tongue: what gives with you or what next with you deceitful tongue? Psalm 141 is the last of the prayers in this theme, asking YHWH to: set a guard on my mouth; preserve the gateway of my lips.

This sentence from Psalm 141 reveals another piece of the internal packaging of a psalm verse. Notice how the two parts of the verse say the same thing in different words. This is an example of a synonymous parallel. One can also have an antithetical parallel where one phrase is contrasted with another. For example in Psalm 30: for a moment is in his anger, lives are in his acceptance; in the evening weeping stops over, but of the morning, a shout of joy. The parallels may be sequential in form a-b, a-b as above or opposite  a-b, b-a. They may even contain more than two elements, such as in the first verse of Psalm 1 a three by three parallel, or the next to last verse of Psalm 3: for you strike all my enemies on the cheek, the teeth of the wicked you break. This is in the form a-b-c, c-b-a.

[1] Y-H-W-H is the personal name of the God of Israel.