2nd Sunday after Pentecost
June 5, 2016
Psalm 1 You can click on this link to open the Psalm in Oremus Bible Browser.
From the earliest written record of the Bible, there have been Psalms: poetry, song, prayers that have sustained God’s people in their public and private life. “Because psalms are the poetry of faith, they are not meant to be studied……The prayers of the psalter are meant to be prayed. The songs of the Psalter are meant to be sung. The lessons of the Psalter are meant to be lived. The angry psalms are meant to be shouted. The meditations are meant to be meditated upon,” say Rolf and Karl Jacobson, in their text about Psalms. Giving the example of the 23rd Psalm, they say it is not meant to teach you about trust, it is an expression of trust. When you pray the psalm, it does not merely describe how the pray-er feels, the person who prays it comes to trust.
In our time studying the Psalms, we will learn some important things about the structure of psalms and some historical context for them, and about different kinds of psalms, but only with the goal of opening up the psalms as a resource for prayer and meditation on who God is for us. We will think about how the psalms have informed God’s people of both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. But before we start, I want to just take a moment to challenge you to let the Psalms just speak as they will to you, not necessarily having to parse them too closely to wring every iota of meaning from them. To let them speak, you may have to read some more than once, and even to live with some for awhile.
In his “Introduction to Poetry,” Poet Billy Collins gives us this:
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
Billy Collins, ”Introduction to Poetry”. The Apple That Astonished Paris (Fayetteville AR, University of Arkansas Press 1988), 58.
So we will waterski across the surface and press an ear to the hive of some examples of psalms, talk a bit about what makes them work, both structurally and as prayer, and turn you loose, I hope, to make reading and praying the psalms a rich experience for you in the future.
Ready for some teaching?
First of all, a word about the structure of Hebrew Poetry: What’s the first thing we look for in the classic poetry we know? Rhyme or rhythm, right? Hebrew poetry does not rhyme, it repeats. It’s called parallelism. Sometimes in two lines that repeat the same idea.
Psalm 8: What are human beings that you are mindful of them
mortals that you care for them. (verse 4)
Psalm 108: I will give thanks to you, O LORD, among the peoples,
I will sing praises to you among the nations. (verse 3)
Or sometimes in three lines that repeat an idea, as in Psalm 1:
Happy is the man who has not walked in the wicked’s counsel
nor in the way of offenders has stood,
nor in the session of scoffers has sat.
Often the repeat is the opposite of the first line, and every now and then, they don’t really line up much at all. But the more you look for parallels as you read, the more kinds of parallels you will find: verses that echo each other, whole psalms that fit together as a pair that echo similar or opposite ideas. The more you read psalms for prayer and meditation, the more you will find those echoes.
The other important part of Psalms to pay attention to is metaphor. In psalms God is a Rock, a Light, Shepherd, a Hiding Place. Does that mean that we are sheep, trees, or worms? No. Not at all. The freshness of the metaphors in psalms is one of – perhaps THE – most important contact we have with them and their most outstanding characteristic. They engage the imagination in a way that more descriptive language simply cannot. In metaphor one thing is represented as something else. “The LORD is my Shepherd,” in a few words describes God’s trustworthiness, the discomfort of someone who feels vulnerable, and the availability of God to be near in distress. But there is more: metaphors are based on one’s familiar surroundings. In ancient Israel, a Shepherd was a metaphor for a King, but even in Jesus’ time, that had changed, as shepherds were a kind of homeless people. It doesn’t have the same ring for us either, unless we understand the meaning of the metaphor for the people who composed these psalms.
For desert people, the images of watered gardens, flowing streams, rocks, and mountains have real resonance. Perhaps more resonance than we would give them, so part of our work in using psalms is to let ourselves be transported by the deep meanings of the symbols that those metaphors suggest, not only to us, but to think also of the people from whose context they come.
So as we begin our study of psalms and the various kinds of relationships with God that are represented in these ancient poems and prayers and songs, we begin with Psalm 1, regarded as ‘an introduction to the book of Psalms.” It begins the whole of the book with an extended metaphor that invites you into the imagination of what it looks like to live within the Word of God. In this poem, the Word of God is likened to a stream that flows in all seasons and the reader of God’s wisdom is like a tree, transplanted to the edge of that stream so that God’s Word can nourish it; that its leaves never die, and the tree always bears fruit. This psalm has a strong either/or character, contrasting the one who lives nourished by God’s word with ‘the wicked,’ who dry up and fly away like chaff at the harvest, or dry leaves in the Fall.
As an introduction to the entire collection of Psalms, this one suggests that those who dwell in the works to follow are drinking deeply of the wisdom of God’s Word as experienced by God’s people in all phases of life. They will thrive even in the hardest times, because they are being fed by the Water of Life. God’s Law is the Hebrew word Torah. We tend to think of it literally as the Ten Commandments and all the rules of Leviticus. Not so! Torah includes the first five books of the Bible – the ‘books of Moses.’ that include all the stories of our ancestors in faith, the salvation story of the Jews – the Exodus, the travels in the wilderness and laws that gave the Israelites their ethnic identity, and served as a witness to the care their God took of them. “And on his teaching he murmurs day and night.” The way to study God’s Word is to murmur it to yourself, growl it, as it were, as a way of branding it in your memory forever.
The other important metaphor in Psalm 1 is that of the Way. There is the way of the just (God’s people) and the way of the wicked (those who don’t know God’s Word or follow its teaching). So there are two paths, two ways. Such a familiar image, – metaphor, not only in Psalms.
Listen to Robert Frost:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
and sorry I could not travel both
and be one traveler, long I stood
and looked down one as far as I could
to where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
and having perhaps the better claim,
because it was grassy and wanted wear….
I shall be telling this with a sigh
somewhere ages and ages hence:
two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
and that has made all the difference.
In this psalm, the way of the righteous and the way of the wicked are laid out side by side, and we are invited to gaze down both ways. So the way of the wicked may look the easiest path, and it will certainly be the most populated, suggests the psalmist. Perhaps the way of the righteous looks lonely at first, but the promise is that the LORD guards those on that path. God watches over God’s people, those who travel God’s way. Not so, the wicked, says the psalmist, they are on their own, on a path that leads to destruction.
So, says the Psalmist, you are about to embark on a path, filled with images and promises. As you travel that path there are riches you will find that will sustain you in your walk through life. As you walk, there is great wisdom from the experience of God’s people who have walked the path before you. On this path you will meet a God who is always with you, guarding you, providing the nourishment you need to thrive in every season. Venture forward into the realm of God’s Word and wisdom, says the Psalmist. Come walk with me. Amen.