Posts Tagged 'Lamentation'

Psalm 77: Remember!

The final project for my class on the Psalms this past fall was a research paper on the theme of human and divine remembrance in Psalm 77. The paper was long and unwieldy, not particularly suitable for a blog post. But I did want to extract a few of the key themes from my study of Psalm 77, which constitute the thoughts below. Enjoy!

Claus Westermann writes that the Lord’s saving acts always involve a verbal exchange or dialogue between God and man, including “both the cry of man in distress and the response of praise which the saved make to God.” Nowhere is this dialogue more readily apparent in Scripture than in the Book of Psalms. Lament, supplication, confession, intercession, statements of trust, thanksgiving, and praise each weave their way through the songs of the Psalter, molding the hearts of believers to comprehend and follow the gospel pattern of anticipation and fulfillment. In particular, Psalm 77 is a poignant expression of the tension between the promises of God and man’s seemingly hopeless crises.

At least two primary themes within Psalm 77 should be considered: the effect of the psalmist’s questions and the effect of remembering the Lord’s mighty deeds. When the psalmist asks whether God has “forgotten to be gracious” (v. 9), is he speaking out of despair or out of hope? Interpreters differ on this question. Some take the psalmist’s reflection as despairing, concluding that the present looks even more bleak since God’s promises seem to have ended. Others, however, suggest that the psalmist is more incredulous: Surely God has not forgotten; therefore his mercy will surely return. Some even conclude that Psalm 77 leaves these questions to “hang unanswered” so that they can be carefully considered by each individual reader and singer.

Second, what about the “unseen footprints” referenced in v. 19 among the listing of God’s mighty deeds for his people? Almost certainly the event in view is the crossing of the Red Sea as recounted in Exodus 14, a miraculous occasion to which the people of Israel often turned in times of questioning (cf. Pss. 78, 106, 114). Most simply, the metaphor of unseen footprints may suggest the Israelites’ belief that the Lord went through the sea with them, so that his footprints, like theirs, were covered by the waters when they returned to their normal place. Nevertheless, the comment still seems unexpected here, especially since the evident purpose of the historical recollection has been to call attention to the Lord’s very obvious ways of delivering his people (writhing waters, pouring clouds, audible thunder, visible lightning, and palpable earthquakes). The rhetorical effect of the “unseen footprints” is anticlimactic at best, especially when followed by the pastoral image of the people being led like a flock (v. 20).

Kraus notes based on this phrase that “all the creative miracles of Israel’s God bear the mark of concealment,” again a paradoxical remark given the very revealed character of the natural phenomena just described. But he elaborates: “Being near ‘without footprints’—without the visible proofs of his coming—that is God’s way of dealing with his people.” The Lord’s holiness may be displayed through his mighty acts in view of all the nations, as suggested by vv. 14-18, yet it also takes shape in the mysterious “other-ness” which veils him from human view.

But is it possible that v. 19 delves even deeper in its intent? At least three other interpretations are possible. First, this statement provides a ray of hope that the Lord may indeed be working within his people’s present distress as well, albeit with unseen footprints. His provident protection endures through times of affliction, even when it cannot be perceived as such. Second, the phrase may suggest a sinful forgetfulness on the part of God’s people, one which refuses to take note of his footprints even in miraculous occurrences like the crossing of the Red Sea or the providing of manna. Finally, even for the faithful, the description of the Lord’s deeds as “unseen” acknowledges that the perception of his presence originates in a human vantage point. Although Psalm 77 stops far short of explicitly stating this as such, an undercurrent of hope weaves its way through this section of the psalm: Perhaps the problem lies in the singer’s ability to see rather than in God’s ability to act.

In this sense, the activity of remembering is a corrective exercise which tunes the spiritual eyes to glimpse the Lord’s redemptive work more clearly. Remembering and forgetting thus emerge as dichotomous focal points of Psalm 77 which surprise the reader with their rhetorical implications. While the psalm begins with a complaint that God has forgotten his steadfast love, by its end an unexpected reversal has become apparent: perhaps it is not the Lord but the psalmist that has forgotten. Years of affliction and a national culture of unbelief have dimmed the singer’s spiritual eyesight, leaving him uncertain of the form or presence of Yahweh in his dark situation. But by recounting the mighty deeds of the Lord—a story he has only heard rather than seen—the psalmist is able to restore his confidence that the steadfast love displayed in the exodus from Egypt will continue to be displayed, even if subtly and imperceptibly, into the future. Such a conclusion is possible because God’s faculty of remembering is inextricably bound up in his covenant with Abraham—because he is “not a human being, that he should change his mind” (Numbers 23:19). The psalmist takes comfort: God remembers!

Augustine suggests that the same lack of faith that prevented the Israelites from perceiving God’s footprints through the Red Sea also prevented the disciples from understanding Jesus’ miraculous walking on the water in Matthew 14. At the same time, Christ’s response to Peter’s doubt exhibited above all his immeasurable compassion even toward the forgetful: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matt. 14:31). How comforting it is to imagine Christ speaking the same words to every sincere but doubting believer who, like the psalmist, questions the continuing validity of God’s promises. If the Psalms are any indication, the Lord in fact encourages his people to cry out to him in lament during times of great distress, pleading for him as the great Shepherd to right all of earth’s wrongs.

The apostle Paul wrote that “whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4). The hope provided by Psalm 77 is that the Lord both knows and lovingly responds to our forgetfulness. What a mercy it is that despite this spiritual amnesia, he gently and lovingly guides us by his Word to places where we can pause and reflect on his steadfast love. In the various situations of human life, forgetting is all too possible. The danger is twofold: forgetting past mercies in light of present affliction, or forgetting past afflictions in light of present mercies. Yet in the dark valleys of life’s path, in the times when we fail to see Christ’s footprints, Psalm 77 remains a gentle and wise guide, teaching us slowly but surely to remember the unfailing love of the Lord, so that when deliverance comes we may be sure to “forget not all his benefits” (Psalm 103:2).

–MRK

For bibliographic references, see the full paper.

The Safest Place in the World

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Times Square Ball

Sixty miles from my house is a flagpole with a giant illuminated ball suspended at its top. It looks kind of gaudy, and no one is really sure why it’s there. But we do know that at 11:59 pm it will slowly descend 70 feet until it reaches the ground at the stroke of midnight, ringing in the start of 2016.

Oh, and right now a crowd of about a million people is packed on the streets waiting for this climactic event. That’s a small number compared to the estimated billion people who will watch the event from their TV’s, laptops, and smartphones.

This is one New Year’s tradition, and it’s the one we New Yorkers typically think of first. But there’s a much older January 1 custom: the singing of “Auld Lang Syne.” This beloved Scottish ballad is a call to remembrance, asking, “Should auld [old] acquaintance be forgot,/and never brought to mind?”

Ironically, few people remember “Auld Lang Syne” itself nowadays. In fact, earlier tonight NPR published a blurb lamenting the song’s decline in recent years. Ruth Perry, a professor from MIT, is quoted as saying:

People have to learn to sing together again. I think it’s important. I really do. Because it’s bonding. Because it’s community-making. Because we don’t have enough such glue in our culture. It would be good to revive that which there is. It’s very good for people to feel that they’re part of something bigger than themselves.

I can’t help but mourn the fact that our New Year’s celebrations, as raucous as they may be, seem to be missing this “cultural glue.” We still “celebrate,” but don’t always remember for what—just like we’re “thankful,” but not sure to whom. And celebration is hard in an age of terror; the same news report I referenced earlier also mentioned that security forces in Times Square are in the thousands. Only in the presence of a massive corps of heavily armed policemen can NYC Mayor Bill DeBlasio assert that the city tonight is “the safest place in the world.”

DeBlasio may be good at denial, but judging by the international news headlines in the past few days, we’re scared. We’ve been scared for a long time. And scared people don’t sing.

Or do they?

What put the plaintive tones of “Auld Lang Syne” back in my ear was a blog post I read earlier today over at GentleReformation.org. There Reformed Presbyterian minister Nathan Eshelman called my attention to another set of words sung to the same tune: the words of Psalm 77.

Forever will the Lord cast off, show favor never more?
His steadfast love forever cease? His promise come no more?
Has God forgotten all His grace? Has his compassion gone?
Or can it be His mercies all, He has in wrath withdrawn?

If you ask me, I’d say the singer of these words sounds scared, to say the least. He sees terror all around him, and worst of all, he feels God’s absence. Perhaps, he fears, God has forgotten.

That’s a thought that should make us flee Manhattan, turn off the TV, cancel the ball drop—because if God has forgotten, why should we welcome another year? Another year of disease, shootings, famines, earthquakes, fires, terror? Is the “something bigger than ourselves” just one absurd catastrophe? It would be far more fitting to watch the midnight countdown in slack-jawed horror.

But that’s not where the psalmist leaves us. The setting goes on (sing along, if you know the tune):

Then I replied, Such questions show my own infirmity.
The firm right hand of Him Most High through years must changeless be.
The LORD’s deeds I remember will, your works of old recall.
I’ll ponder all which you have done and weigh your wonders all.

God has not forgotten, says the psalmist. And neither should we. God’s right hand—and he who sits at his right hand, Jesus Christ—continue to rule the world unhindered. His promises to his people will be fulfilled. This is guaranteed for the future because it is demonstrated throughout the past. And the hinge point of this divine plan for history is revealed in redemption:

O God most holy is your way; what god is like our God?
O God of miracles, your strength, you have made known abroad.
You have redeemed your people all, the power of your arm shown.
Your people sons of Jacob are, and Joseph is your own.

–from The Book of Psalms for Singing, Psalm 77

For the Christian, then, New Year’s Eve should be an opportunity neither to celebrate in absurdity nor to quail in fear at the terror that surrounds us. For us it should be a milestone, a rest stop at which to check whether our trust and comfort are secure in the Rock that followed them through the wilderness, and that Rock was Christ.

Have you taken refuge in that Savior’s shelter? If so, you are in the safest place in the world. And you can sing.

Happy New Year.

–MRK

By Times_Square_Ball_2010.jpg: Susan Serra, CKD from Long Island, USA derivative work: Sealle [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

August’s Psalm of the Month: 77

The eighth installment in URC Psalmody’s Introduction to the URC/OPC Psalm Proposal

"I will walk in the strength of the LORD God"

Forever will the Lord reject
And never show His grace?
Has He withdrawn His steadfast love
And turned from me His face?

While lines like “O God, most holy are Your ways” may call to mind the blue Psalter Hymnal’s settings of Psalm 77 (#145-147), the version of this psalm that appears in the URC/OPC Psalm Proposal is much more recent, originating in the 2003 Scottish psalter Sing Psalms. The deep pain and earnest questioning of Psalm 77 are reinforced by the plaintive tune RESIGNATION, a traditional American folk melody harmonized here by Dale Grotenhuis. Although it does not appear in either the blue Psalter Hymnal or the revised Trinity Hymnal, the tune may be somewhat familiar in connection with Isaac Watts’s paraphrase of Psalm 23, “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need.”

As you sing Psalm 77, notice how the inflection of the text coincides with the rise and fall of the musical line. Special attention should be given to the climax of the psalm in the middle of the third stanza: “Forever has his promise failed? Is God no longer kind?” In contrast, note the quiet assurance that accompanies the affirmations of God’s loving acts in stanzas 6 and 7, and share in the psalmist’s journey from crisis to comfort.

Suggested stanzas:

  • 8/2: stanzas 1-3
  • 8/9: stanzas 3-5
  • 8/16: stanzas 5,6
  • 8/23: stanzas 6,7
  • 8/30: all

Source: Psalm 77 in Sing Psalms

Digging Deeper

Themes for Studying Psalm 77

  • Remembering and moaning (vv. 1-3)
  • Remembering and doubting (vv. 4-9)
  • Remembering and searching (vv. 10-12)
  • Remembering and resting (vv. 13-20)

Seeing Christ in Psalm 77

Especially in the 400 “silent years” between the last Old Testament prophecies and the birth of Jesus, the Jews could well wonder whether God’s promises to Israel were “at an end for all time” (v. 8). With rampant idolatry and harsh persecution pressing in, believers would have seen a stark contrast between his “wonders of old” for them (v. 11) and his current silence. Jesus’ birth was the first “good news” (Luke 2:10) to God’s people after this time of dispersion and affliction. And what good news it was: the same Christ who led his people like a flock in the hands of Moses and Aaron (v. 20) would himself come as the Good Shepherd, from whose hand no sheep can be snatched (John 10).

Applying Psalm 77

  • Why did the psalmist moan when he remembered God (v. 3)?
  • Have you ever doubted whether God’s promises still apply to you (v. 8)?
  • Where does the psalmist turn for comfort (vv. 10,11)? How can you obtain the same comfort?
  • How do the terrifying events of vv. 16-19 reveal God’s steadfast love?
  • Why does Psalm 77 end so suddenly (v. 20)? How does this closing statement summarize the psalmist’s comfort?

The psalmist continued to set God before his view, wisely supporting his faith by the reflection that God, who never changes his love or his nature, can do nothing but in due time show mercy to his servants. Let us also learn to open our eyes to behold the works of God. They may seem insignificant by reason of the dimness of our eyes and the inadequacy of our perception, but if we examine them attentively, they will ravish us with admiration.

—paraphrased from Calvin’s commentary on Psalm 77:12

 

Michael Kearney
West Sayville URC
Long Island, New York

(A PDF version of this post, formatted as a bulletin insert, is available here.)

July’s Psalm of the Month: 54

The seventh installment in URC Psalmody’s Introduction to the URC/OPC Psalm Proposal

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See how God has been my helper,
How my Lord sustains my soul:
To my foes He pays back evil—
In Your truth destroy them all!

Does it seem strange to sing Psalm 54? This song of lament and imprecation, calling down God’s judgment on the psalmist’s enemies, may feel out of place on Christian lips. However, as this month’s study aims to show, Psalm 54 is both a song of comfort and a battle cry for faithful believers in a faithless world.

In the Psalm Proposal, the minor key and rolling triplets of the Welsh tune EBENEZER (TON-Y-BOTEL) capture the turmoil of this psalm’s spiritual battlefield as well as the psalmist’s passionate prayer. The text of this setting, drawn from the Book of Psalms for Singing, is a literal and straightforward versification. Sing Psalm 54 not vengefully but confidently, recognizing that a righteous God sits on the throne.

Suggested stanzas: All

Source: Psalm 54B in The Book of Psalms for Singing and The Book of Psalms for Worship, Psalm 54 in the Trinity Psalter

Tune only: Blue Psalter Hymnal 360, Revised Trinity Hymnal 283, 535

Digging Deeper

Themes for Studying Psalm 54

  • A cry for help (vv. 1,2)
  • The treachery of strangers (v. 3)
  • The trustworthiness of God (vv. 4,5)
  • A response of thanksgiving (vv. 6,7)

Seeing Christ in Psalm 54

The occasion for this psalm was David’s betrayal to Saul by the Ziphites, foreigners to whom he had fled for protection. Christ, too, “endured from sinners such hostility against himself” (Hebrews 12:3). In fact, Jesus quoted a line from a similar psalm, Psalm 41, in reference to his betrayal by Judas (see John 13:18). Psalm 54 alludes not only to Jesus’ innocent punishment at the hands of “ruthless men” (v. 3) but also to the colossal battle between God and the devil. Like the psalmist, we can give thanks that God’s victory is certain.

But there is encouragement in Psalm 54 for us, 21st-century followers of Christ, as well. Although suffering is an expected part of the Christian walk, we confidently await the return of Jesus when we will be “delivered from every trouble” (v. 7). After warning believers about their “adversary the devil,” the apostle Peter concludes his first letter with a comforting doxology that reinforces the psalmist’s closing words: “And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen” (I Peter 5:10,11).

Applying Psalm 54

  • Why does David pray to be saved by God’s name (v. 1)? What attributes does God’s name express (cf. Heidelberg Catechism LD 47)?
  • What enemies do you face (v. 7, cf. Catechism LD 52)? How do they seek to take your life (v. 3)?
  • How can God’s punishment be a sign of his faithfulness (v. 5)?
  • Is it wrong to pray for vengeance on one’s enemies?

David did not direct his prayers randomly into the air, but offered them in the exercise of a living faith.…It is as if he points his finger directly to that God who stood at his side to defend him. Is this not an amazing illustration of the power with which faith can surmount all obstacles, and glance, in a moment, from the depths of despair to the very throne of God? He was a fugitive amongst the dens of the earth…he was pressed down to the very mouth of the grave…he was trembling in the momentary expectation of being destroyed; and how can he possibly triumph in the certain hope that Divine help will soon be extended to him?…Even in the complete absence of all human defenders, David asserts that the help of God would abundantly compensate for all.

—paraphrased from Calvin’s commentary on Psalm 54:4

Michael Kearney
West Sayville URC
Long Island, New York

(A PDF version of this post, formatted as a bulletin insert, is available here.)

April’s Psalm of the Month: 71

The fourth installment in URC Psalmody’s Introduction to the URC/OPC Psalm Proposal

Spring at West Sayville Reformed Bible Church

Upon You I have leaned from birth,
You’ve guarded all my days;
You took me from my mother’s womb.
I’ll give you constant praise.

Although the twenty-four verses of Psalm 71 form a relatively long text to set to music, the themes of this prayer for deliverance are so interwoven that splitting it into multiple settings would be detrimental. This versification strikes a good balance, offering a compact yet thorough treatment of the psalm. The Psalter Hymnal Committees paired their own new versification of Psalm 71 with Frederick C. Maker’s 1881 tune ST. CHRISTOPHER, most often associated with the hymn “Beneath the Cross of Jesus.”

To avoid losing focus amidst the eight stanzas of this setting, try to identify and bring out patterns, themes, and contrasts in the text as you sing. Offset the plaintive cries of stanzas 2-4 with the confident praise of stz. 5. Give special attention to the words of the enemies at the beginning of stanza 4. Place your breaths at special points in the text for emphasis: for example, at the close of the eighth stanza, consider “Who sought to do me hurt,” (breathe) “O Lord, I’ll magnify Your name.” Reflect on your own experience of God’s faithfulness in both your youth and your old age (stz. 6), and sing Psalm 71 not just as a prayer for help but also as a song of triumph.

Suggested stanzas:

  • 4/5: stanzas 1,2
  • 4/12: stanzas 3-5
  • 4/19: stanzas 6-8
  • 4/26: all

Source: New versification by the OPC and URCNA Psalter Hymnal Committees

Tune only: Blue Psalter Hymnal 353, Revised Trinity Hymnal 251

Digging Deeper

Themes for Studying Psalm 71

  • Present affliction (vv. 1-13) vs. anticipated praise (vv. 14-24)
  • Accusations of God’s distance (v. 11) vs. assurance of God’s nearness (vv. 1-3)
  • The cruel hand of enemies (v. 4) vs. the loving hand of God (vv. 3, 20, 21, 24)
  • The self-confident speech of the wicked (v. 10) vs. the trustful words of the godly one (vv. 15, 16, 18, 22-24)
  • Leaning on God in both youth (vv. 5, 6, 17) and old age (vv. 9, 18)

Seeing Christ in Psalm 71

As he hung on the cross, the words of Psalm 71:10,11 (“For my enemies speak concerning me . . .”) were true in all their desolate horror for Jesus. “There was none to deliver him,” because he had willingly delivered himself over to death in order to redeem us. In the words of one of our Lord’s Supper formularies, “He was once forsaken by God that we might forever be accepted by Him.” Because he has so mercifully saved us, we can rest assured that God will never “cast us off in the time of old age” (v. 9).

Applying Psalm 71

  • Psalm 71 has been called “The Prayer of the Aged Believer” (cf. vv. 9, 18). How does it apply to believers in other stages of life as well?
  • How can suffering in your own life be a “portent” (an evil sign) to others (v. 7)? How can filling your mouth with God’s praise (v. 8) change their perspective?
  • Why does the psalmist ask to be supported in his old age (v. 18)? Do you possess the same motivation?
  • Why does God allow you to “see many troubles and calamities” (v. 20)?

Michael Kearney
West Sayville URC
Long Island, New York

(A PDF version of this post, formatted as a bulletin insert, is available here.)


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