Monday, July 21, 2014

Real World: Psalter Edition

O Lord, how many are my foes!
Many are rising against me;
many are saying to me,
“There is no help for you in God.”

But you, O Lord, are a shield around me,
my glory, and the one who lifts up my head.
I cry aloud to the Lord,
and he answers me from his holy hill.

I lie down and sleep;
I wake again, for the Lord sustains me.
I am not afraid of ten thousands of people
who have set themselves against me all around.

Rise up, O Lord!
Deliver me, O my God!
For you strike all my enemies on the cheek;
you break the teeth of the wicked.
Deliverance belongs to the Lord;
may your blessing be on your people!
Psalm 3

Reflection – This is perhaps not a psalm that most of us would gravitate towards as a personal favorite, not one that we would have framed on our walls in a cross-stitch pattern or printed on a backdrop of flowers or rainbows.

We do tend to do that with the psalms, though, don’t we? Domesticate them, that is. Pick out the little verses and bits that have some lovely poetic cadence or striking image and hang those up all over the place, or share on our Facebook walls, and so forth. This is not such a bad thing to do—there is certainly no shortage of genuinely beautiful, consoling, joyous verses in the book of psalms.

But if that’s all we know of the psalms, then we don’t know the psalms, really. And if that’s all we know of the psalms we could well conclude that the psalms are just nice flowery religious poetry—shepherds and rocks and joy coming with the dawn and all that stuff. Nice, but not much to do with my life.

Well, Psalm 3 is a good place to start to broaden out the psalms from that limited experience of them. Psalm 3 is, as they say on MTV, where the psalms stop being nice and start being real—Real World: Psalter Edition. We have foes rising against the psalmist, tens of thousands of them, people getting slapped in the face and their teeth broken, by God no less.

The superscription of this psalm ascribes it to David, during the rebellion of his son Absalom. If we take that as part of the psalm, then, we have here a cry of anguish, fear, and deep sorrow and betrayal, a family falling apart in division and hatred, a man wondering where it all went wrong and crying out to God for help in the most bitter and horrific of situations.

It doesn’t get much more real than that. And no, it doesn’t make for a very nice little cross-stitched pattern hung up on a wall, nor do these sentiments go well against a backdrop of a sunset or a cute puppy or LOLcat. Can I has anguish and heartbreak?

But in the midst of all this, shot right through the bitterness and pain, is sheer and utter faith. The Lord is a shield, glory, the lifter up of his head, his vindicator. And in this, he can sleep—the great image of trusting abandonment in these early psalms especially. The child sleeping in his father’s arms, even while the battle rages all around.

The battle rages upon his awaking, with God fighting on his behalf, and the psalm ends, as almost all such psalms do, with a ringing affirmation of the eventual victory and deliverance that will come from Him. So no, this psalm will probably never rank among anyone’s favorite psalm, never be the go-to psalm for troubled souls looking for consolation and relief.

But it’s a real psalm, a psalm coming out of a real situation of deep anguish. And we can pray this psalm, even if we are not in anything like such a situation (as I, for example, am currently not in anything approaching this). We can pray it for the suffering people in Ukraine, in Israel, in Nigeria. We can pray it for all the refugee children streaming into the United States from Central America, passing from desperate poverty through terrible danger into an uncertain future.

We can pray such psalms for and with all these people and all people who are in distress and heartache, in intercession and in a spirit of compassionate care and love. It is a real psalm, set in the real world, and it pulls us (like it or not) into that very aspect of the real world that we don’t much like and would rather not inhabit.

But that’s the psalms for you – they are not written as a soothing syrup or a anesthetic for the world’s pain, but to enter the world’s pain and pray in faith from the heart of it. And it is that prayer of faith, and that alone, that brings the deliverance of God to our sin ravaged, war ravaged, pain ravaged world.