Probing the Psalms Further

In my last blog we noticed that David’s prayers are more passionate and insistent because of the tension and injustice he felt and that this is very instructive for us. The mere act of spending our grief in full measure before the LORD can sometimes take us to that mysterious place where we taste the sweetness of the future while still living in the painful present. This is confirmed by Paul’s exhortation to the Philippians 4:6-7…”Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, shall guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
The confidence sections teach us to be boldly honest in our approach to God. Let us spend our grief at God’s feet, for our cries mobilise all of heaven to invade earth. After God has heard David’s plea in heaven, He would faithfully bring about David’s deliverance on earth in a manner as surprising and unexpected as the king’s original distress. Completing his vow to God, David would compose a psalm of thanksgiving or praise. Thanksgiving was for specific answers to prayer. Praise was about the character of God and David gives voice to praise with such passion! Why? Because it grew out of the depths of his sorrow and so it was hard-won! Lament increases our capacity for praise and gives it an authenticity that rings true into the very heavens.

For Thy loving-kindness is great to the heavens,
And Thy truth to the clouds
Be exalted above the heavens, O God
Let Thy glory be above all the earth.
– Psalm 57:10-11

It is almost impossible for David to express his thanks. What God had done and how He did it was nothing short of impossible. The act of salvation went so far beyond David’s original categories that he could not measure it in human terms. One of the word’s David used to describe this awe is the Hebrew term – wonder. It describes something extraordinary, marvellous, and surprising that only God could have done it. Forty-one times we find this word in the Psalms. David’s passionate delight is to recount the glory of God in the presence of His people, this is the completion of his vows and his life’s purpose:

I shall pay my vows to the LORD,
Oh may it be in the presence of all His people.
So I will sing praise to Thy name forever,
That I may pay my vows day by day
…Psalm 116:14 – 61:8

So awesome is the act of God’s deliverance that David has trouble finding language adequate to describe it. So he employs the evocative language of metaphor. Metaphors by their very nature cannot be reduced to just one meaning. Their ambiguity often opens up whole worlds of imagination and expands our vision beyond belief. Following a decade of being hounded by Saul in the wilderness, David is finally crowned king. He describes his deliverance from Saul in incredible language in Psalm 18:9-16.

He bowed the heavens also,
and came down With thick darkness under His feet.
And He rode upon a cherub and flew;
And He sped upon the wings of the wind.
He made darkness His hiding place,
His canopy around Him, Darkness of waters, thick clouds of the skies.
From the brightness before Him passed His thick clouds, Hailstones and coals of fire.
The LORD also thundered in the heavens,
And the Most High uttered His voice, Hailstones and coals of fire.
And He sent out His arrows, and scattered them,
And lightning flashes in abundance, and routed them.
Then the channels of water appeared,
And the foundations of the world were laid bare
At Thy rebuke, O LORD,
At the blast of the breath of Thy nostrils.
He sent from on high, He took me;
He drew me out of many waters.

Metaphor is the only language capable of describing what happened to David. Through the piling up of mind-boggling metaphors he reshapes all the imagery of Israel’s Exodus and meeting with God at Mt. Sinai as his own experience. As we recount David’s praise with him we are privileged to enter into a world much larger than our own. Not only is David’s language in praise larger than life, so are his emotions. He does not hold back. There is something inherently boisterous – disruptive – even disordered about Israel’s praise. It appears as if it has nothing to do with passive, pious, reverence. A good example of this is in 2 Samuel 6. David’s dream of a lifetime was occurring right before his very eyes. God was coming home to be the centre of His people. David takes off his royal garments and dons a linen ephod, the clothing of a priest. Rather than the kind inviting God to bless his royal party, the king takes the role of a priest to serve at God’s party. This subtle shift of role changes everything. Now the once tentative celebration takes off in exuberance and unadulterated joy. David is so caught up with joy that he dances with abandon like a teenager. This is the kind of unadulterated praise which the disciples gave to Jesus upon His entry to Jerusalem. Yet in both cases, onlookers considered it to be inappropriate and shameful. Jesus censored their rebuke by saying…”I tell you, if these become silent, the stones will cry out!” Bold audacious praise has the final word, as Psalm 150 concludes:

Praise Him with timbrel and dancing
Praise Him with stringed instruments and pipe
Praise Him with loud cymbals
Praise Him with resounding cymbals
Let everything that has breath praise the LORD
Praise the LORD!

As the psalmist makes his journey through lament to praise, he becomes reoriented with a new outlook on life. As his theology expands, he is able to embrace the reality of his past within the new framework. Sometimes a redefinition of old terms occurs. For example, Psalm 73 gives us a wonderful look this process, as Asaph redefines the term ‘good.’ In Old Testament theology – ‘good’ was defined as prosperity or fertility given to someone because of their obedience to God. This is what Asaph learned from a child and he opens his psalm with that expression of faith.

Surely God is good to Israel, To those who are pure in heart! (Psalm 73:1)
But it didn’t take long before his life came into direct conflict with his beliefs:

But as for me, my feet came close to stumbling
My steps had almost slipped
For I was envious of the arrogant
As I saw the prosperity of the wicked
 (Psalm 73:2-3)

Asaph had obeyed, yet the wicked received what was ‘good.’ He takes great time to detail the pain this caused him, but then he makes a journey to the temple and in the journey came a new understanding.

When I pondered to understand this
It was troublesome in my sight
Until I came into the sanctuary of God
Then I perceived their end
 (Psalm 17:16-17)

The ‘good’ of the wicked is only temporary. Though the psalmist lost what was ‘good’ in the process he gained God and that was so much better that he redefines this as the primary ‘good’ in life.

But as for me, the nearness of God is my good  (Psalm 73:28)

Yet we grasp very little of this incredible discovery when we merely sing: “God is so good!” The life of faith is lived amidst these extremities of lament and praise. It is a place where we as human beings are constantly vulnerable and dependent on the one hand, yet filled with awe and wonder on the other. Don’t ever think that the life of faith is manageable and routine. Truly, what a journey it is from the impoverished pits to the pinnacle of praise!

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