Monday, July 7, 2014

The God of the Battle

Why do the nations conspire,
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the Lord and his anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds asunder,
and cast their cords from us.”

He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord has them in derision.
Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
and terrify them in his fury, saying,
“I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.”

I will tell of the decree of the Lord:
He said to me, “You are my son;
today I have begotten you.
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possession.
You shall break them with a rod of iron,
and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”

Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
be warned, O rulers of the earth.
Serve the Lord with fear,
with trembling kiss his feet,
or he will be angry, and you will perish in the way;
for his wrath is quickly kindled.

Happy are all who take refuge in him.
Psalm 2
Reflection – Instalment number two of the Monday Psalter and we are brought up sharply against a reality we will meet again and again in the psalms. Namely, the reality of conflict, violence, battle. The psalms were not written, nor prayed, in a world with much room at all for pacifism, but rather in a world that was in a state of near-constant war and strife. This was a simple fact of life in the Ancient Near East, and the psalms are chock-full of all the rage, the fighting, the tensions and divisions, the fear and loathing of a world at war with itself.

We might think that God is serenely above it all, completely removed from the battle. Or that God is scornfully looking at all the parties to the conflict and telling them all to knock it off, like an exasperated dad on a long road trip to his squabbling children.

That is not the picture given in this psalm, nor in the psalms in general. We have here a God who is 
party to the conflict, who is right down on the battlefield with us, taking sides and taking names. What are we to make of this? If we pray this psalm with full hearts and voices, are we back in this kind of mentality, repulsive to many of us, where we triumphantly declare ourselves the good guys, the ‘other guys’ the bad guys, and ask God to bless us and curse them without a trace of doubt or ambiguity?

The key to this psalm, and this will be a key that unlocks much of the psalter for us, is the whole business of the Lord’s anointed and ‘You are my son, today I have begotten you,’ and all of that. A Christian praying this psalm cannot pray this without it being about Jesus and his coming as man, the Son of God. 

And so the whole conflict is utterly transformed. No longer is it the Assyrians or the Midianites; now it is the world, the flesh, and the devil. No longer are the weapons swords and arrows, but the Cross of Christ, prayer and fasting, sacrificial love. No longer is victory us standing over the corpses of our enemies, but rather us standing over the corpses of our selfish, petty selves, raised up to new life in Christ.

There is still much conflict, tension, hostility, anger in our world. And some of it—increasingly, quite a lot of it—is directed against the cause of Christ, against the Church of Christ which is the Catholic Church. But the Christian praying this psalm, the Christian living in this world, can never get drawn into that battle, not entirely.

Rather, our battle is not with flesh and blood but with powers and principalities, our standard around which we rally is the great commandment of love, our captain is Jesus Christ, and our weaponry are the precepts of the Gospel—prayer, fasting, mercy, forgiveness—which we are to put into practice with all the strength and energy we possess.

It is this battle, and this battle alone, that will smash up all the powers that oppose God in the world, and will bring all men and women into that reverent submission to God in Christ that we know is the true and lasting happiness of all humanity. And that’s the spirit in which we pray Psalm 2, and all the battle psalms of the psalter.