This is not one of my favorite psalms. It glorifies the beauty, talent, and skill of the king. It’s a propaganda piece. The impulse behind it is the impulse of patriotism, love of country.
I almost didn’t comment on it but chose to in order to note just that: this is a very human feeling, in a very human book.
Often times, because of how very much we can experience the Sacred in the pages of Scripture, we forget it was written by very flawed, limited human beings. What we read are human words, human experiences. At times Scripture does speak pearls of Sacred wisdom, but always as filtered through the experience of flawed women and men like you and me, through their own images, imaginations, and ideas.
I can’t relate with certain parts of Scripture, like this psalm. Early on in my Christian life I wondered if this meant I was somehow less spiritual than folks who seemed to always get something deep and profound out of their prayer and Bible study time. Now I know it is because sometimes the ideas, feelings, and concepts are foreign to me. They reflect human experiences I’ve not had, or even at times ideas I disagree with.
I grew up in a democracy, in a place with a strong streak of freedom and individualism. So I can’t imagine fawning over a king. It doesn’t seem at all holy, especially after meditating on
Philippians 2, where we read of the kenotic God, who self empties Her or Himself by taking in the form of a human. The God whose way of reigning is through humble service to the least of these. The God who does not dictate but like a shepherd guides the way, wooing all creation to the omega point of the reconciliation of all things and universal love. A God willing to die a humiliating death at our hands to demonstrate to us the commitment She or He has for embracing all creation in love, and we ourselves. So my Christian experience of this God calls into questions psalms that praise the great mighty human king or queen.
I think it is good and important to recognize the Scriptures are not all equal. Some give a clearer picture of the Sacred. But some are intensely human. I do not believe in any divine right of kings, which this psalm seems to suggest. I do not believe the same Loving One Jesus reveals ever called anyone to commit genocide or slaughter children. I do not think this God will reject as doomed and damned people of other faiths or no faiths at all. This is the case even though I know Scriptures that could be quoted from my Bible expressing each of these sentiments. I instead notice the words of Hebrews 1 – “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. 3 The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word”. To me this suggests that ultimately God has spoken in every land and people through human voices, prophets. And as Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 7 of his own writings that became Scripture, their words can only be a mixture of their ideas and God’s message. We don’t get a direct word for word account of what God has said in Scripture. And sometimes they get it wrong, mixing in their own prejudice, passions, and hopes in with the very message of the Sacred. The only true, unmediated representation of God fully given for Christians at least is the life of the Christ, who comes to us in the life of Jesus. Ultimately his life, teaching, example, and ongoing presence are the lens through which Christians are called to sort out what of the Hebrew Scripture and New Testament are just human opinions and which carry a living, ongoing message today. This is why in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 Jesus pointed to teachings of the Scriptures then already gathered together and said of those literal words “you have heard that it was said, but now I tell you”.
Even this process is not simple. Jesus wrote no books. He did not record Youtube videos. We do not have audio tapes of his words nor video tapes of his sayings. We don’t even have hand-written notes by Scribes who followed him around. And clearly the records of his life and words are not word for word accounts, otherwise the 4 Gospels would completely agree on every detail. The general message and image of Jesus shared by the 4 Gospels in Scripture is basically the same but each Gospel diverges just a bit in how he is remembered, what he is said to have done, and how he is said to have lived. Outside holy Scripture, other Gospels exist which likewise paint a similar picture of Jesus to our Bible’s image, but they too interpret his life a bit differently. We do not get a pure, diluted picture of Jesus.
I think this is in part to force us to search, to question, to think for ourselves. The Jesus we are called to let guide our reading of Scripture is not just an earthly man who walked the dusty streets of Palestine and went away. Rather, Christians all attest in some way something called resurrection occurred for Jesus. We don’t all understand it the same, with some more literal and more figurative explanations out there, but at its heart resurrection means somehow Jesus continues to be a living presence, now as the Christ who fills all people, all creation, and all of life with His presence.
Not having one uniform picture of Jesus in Scripture calls us to look at Scripture’s portrayal of Jesus not as a fixed once-for-all time picture, but one that points beyond itself to the living presence of the Christ all around us, in our experiences, our relationships, our trials and joys, in all of Nature about us, in our selves, and even in the lives of people of faiths very different than our own and no faith at all. The outline of the earthly Jesus gives us a profile of Jesus, like an artist’s rendering of a missing person on the back of a milk box, we can use to look for this face of Christ all about us. Wherever we see the pattern of life, love, service, compassion, that Jesus lived moving within our life, our world, others, we can know the living Christ it points to is at work. We can feel the call to deeper life.
As we experience that living Christ and learn to see the Christ pattern of life, we can begin to sort which Scriptures point us on that path and which, at least at this point in our lives, don’t. We can also begin to evaluate our own lives.
I said that this text is one I have a hard time seeing Christ in, glorifying Kingship, monarchy, and power. Yet I happily sing “God Bless America”, put a hand on my heart and pledge allegiance to the flag. Perhaps this psalm calls me to call that into question. How much of that is just no worse or better than this psalm? Perhaps I can give the psalmist some grace, and realize love of country is expressed in many ways and just a part of the human experience.
Yet also perhaps if I let I can let that similarity force me to dig deeper. For I am stuck on how this idolizing of king and country leads people down the wrong path in history – to glorifying war, genocide, trampling of the rights of the poor. I feel I am so much better here. But are there not ways America, my own country, may take advantage of people’s patriotism to inspire wars that are unjust, systems of power that oppress the least of these, economic practices that lift up the 1 % at the expense of the poor?
Perhaps my “God bless America” is not much different than this Psalmist’s prayer, but ought to be. Perhaps Christ is present in this text, putting up a mirror to me. All the things I dislike about this text exist in different ways in my world. My refusal to recognize how much like me the Psalmist is, allows me to fail to recognize my own failings. Read in this way Christ invites me to a deeper love of country, one willing to love it enough to be critical of aspects of our shared life together which go against the way of Christ. Recognizing this text as a reflection of shared traits I have with the author as an ordinary human being unlocks it to be a powerful mirror to the light of truth.
Perhaps this is a message Christ intends by letting his followers communicate his words to us for him, imperfectly with a mixture of their own errors, prejudices, and mistakes. Perhaps we are too quick to say that the human is not Divine. God comes to us not as an Angel, an Alien, or a Beast of the field in Christianity as God but as a fully human life. Perhaps in accepting our humanity, with its strengths and foibles – and accepting the humanity of others – we can begin to connect as human beings in ways that show the light. For if the human life of Jesus can be a dwelling place of God that sheds light on our paths, that means any human life and every human life can be if we put aside our masks and truly be real with ourselves and others.
Let’s go down that holy road together.
And I sure ain’t whistling Dixie
Your progressive redneck preacher,