Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 1, 2015
Psalm 146 Commentary
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
This psalm marks the beginning of the end of God’s peoples’ songbook. It’s one of five doxologies that offer resounding praise to the Lord. It’s appropriate the psalmist should end this way. After all, she sees praise as a lifelong vocation and privilege. After all, Psalm 146’s poet twice vows to praise the Lord throughout her life. Perhaps that’s because she recognizes that praise is something God’s children can still do long after they can do little else. It’s stunning to hear elderly saints sing hymns or recite psalms long after they’ve forgotten virtually everything else.
Yet while the refrain “Praise the Lord” brackets it, Psalm 146 is more than just a song of praise. In it the poet, after all, combines praise to the Lord with a call to also trust the Lord whom he praises. And while we may think of those two activities as somewhat disconnected, Old Testament scholar Raymond Van Leeuwen suggests that part of the psalmist’s praise is such instruction in the nature of trust.
Psalm 146 basically begins with negative instruction. After all, the poet calls God’s sons and daughters not to trust in human beings. They can’t, after all, really save anyone. What’s more, when people, even powerful politicians die, they eventually return to the dust from which God created them. Even such leaders’ grandest plans and schemes largely die right with them.
That’s a theme on which it’s very appropriate for God’s children to reflect, perhaps especially during political campaigns that often characterize North American Octobers and Novembers. It offers opportunities for those who preach and teach Psalm 146 to reflect on the nature of politics and leadership. Some Westerners tend to invest a great deal of both hope and trust in political and other leaders. When those “princes” disappoint us, we tend to completely reject them (or simply vote them out of office).
By contrast, the psalmist is very realistic about human leaders’ limitations. She doesn’t seem suggest that leaders are somehow unnecessary or useless. She’s simply warning worshipers against investing trust in them for any kind of salvation. The poet appears to remind them, as James Mays notes, “Hope based on what dies is doomed to disappoint.” In fact, the poet may even have Israel’s royalty in mind as she writes this psalm. After all, her kings and other leaders proved unable to protect Israel from danger.
As James Mays points out, the psalms often contrast people and God as a way of combating fears of human threats. Here, however, the poet contrasts God and human rulers as a way of directing worshipers’ trust to its only proper Object, the “God of Jacob.” Of course, as one worshiper has noted, that’s somewhat counter-intuitive in the 21st century west. After all, we tend to trust only what we can see, smell, touch, feel, hear or somehow prove. We are, in other words, very materialist. Yet this psalm calls worshipers to trust in a God whose existence we can neither experience with our senses nor prove.
The poet describes the God in whom he calls worshipers to trust in a number of ways. There’s a covenantal emphasis in his description of “the God of Jacob.” There’s also a personal note to the poet’s reference to the “Lord [his] God.” What’s more, there’s also a cosmic scope to the poet’s descriptions of the Lord. He refers to God as “the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea and everything in them.” On top of all that, the poet also speaks of the Lord as the One who “remains faithful forever.” So the God in whom the psalmist invites worshipers to trust not only makes everything that is created; God also cares for everything God creates. God doesn’t abandon what God creates; God faithfully cares for God’s creatures and creation.
This praiseworthy God is both the source of worshipers’ help and the object of our hope. So those who trust in the Lord are what verse 5, echoing Psalm 1’s introductory teaching, calls “blessed,” perhaps better understood as “happy.” In fact, other things link Psalms 1 and 2, among the psalter’s introductory psalms, to 146, among its final psalms. All three, after all, instruct. What’s more, each deals with allegiance to God in the face of competing individual and political claims.
Psalm 146 is very realistic about life on this side of the new creation and, thus, the need for God’s faithful care. It, after all, refers to numerous forms that human misery can take. This psalm, in fact, speaks several times of misery that others inflict, alluding to hunger, oppression and even imprisonment.
One worshiper suggests that those who preach and teach Psalm 146 might invite worshipers to imagine composing a poetic description of God’s response to misery. Would it imitate Psalm 146’s concerns? After all, western citizens of the 21st century by and large, at least at this point in time, have plenty of access to food. We have medical technology that can deal with many forms of blindness. So all of us are tempted to focus on God’s ability to meet our wants rather than needs.
Perhaps that’s because many of God’s western children find ourselves not on society’s margins, as many of those alluded to in Psalm 146 find themselves, but at its heart. Clearly this psalm directs worshipers’ attention to vulnerable people whom we’re naturally tempted to ignore. It points us to those who are oppressed, hungry, imprisoned and blinded, not just physically but also spiritually.
Psalm 146 describes the Lord as One who lifts up those who are bowed down and loves the righteous. This God watches over those whom others not only are tempted to ignore, but also are tempted to exploit. In the psalmist’s context, after all, aliens, orphans and widows had few means with which to protect and provide for themselves. The psalmist insists that God, however, is a reliable source of help for such vulnerable people who consider the Lord their “help” and who put their “hope” in the Lord. God’s help is, in fact, in ways reminiscent of Jesus’ earthly ministry, always timely and appropriate. It, after all, heals damage done to human creatures.
Psalm 146’s theology has profound implications for human ethics. We naturally want someone else, including various “princes,” to do all those things for the needy that this Psalm insists God does. While worshipers may argue about the extent to which government should care for such vulnerable people, it implies that we dare not ignore our own personal and ecclesiastical responsibilities toward them.
Psalm 146 ends with an emphasis on the Creator and Caretaker God’s eternal nature. This God “remains faithful forever,” “reigns forever” and reigns “for all generations.” This serves to highlight the contrast between the trustworthy Lord and the mortal rulers whom we’re tempted to trust. “Princes” and other rulers, after all, eventually die. The Lord, on the other hand, reigns forever, for all generations.
This week’s Lectionary pairs Psalm 146 with Ruth 1’s account of a world of hungry people, widows and orphans who are aliens. It describes the outsider Ruth who chooses to trust not in human rulers, but in the God of Jacob. By doing so she enters both God and David’s family from whom Jesus, who ministered to people on society’s margins, eventually comes.
The Lectionary also pairs Psalm 146 with Mark 12:38-44. It’s the gospel account of Jesus’ condemnation of religious leaders who seem pious but “devour” the kinds of marginalized people about whom God so passionately cares. There Jesus also praises the widow who, sustained by the Lord, responds by giving everything she has to the Lord’s work.
It’s not just modern “princes” who are “mortal” (3). Their “plans” (4) are also in a sense “mortal.” After all, they too usually die right along with the leaders who make them.
Declassified documents show that U.S. President John F. Kennedy planned, in 1963, to withdraw 1,000 American soldiers who’d been stationed in Vietnam. They also suggest that he intended to withdraw the remaining 16,000 soldiers there after the 1964 election. Because he feared it would draw sharp criticism from his political opponents, Kennedy kept those plans secret.
However, an assassin’s bullet put an end to those plans. Plans to completely withdraw American soldiers from Vietnam died with President Kennedy. In fact, the Vietnam War bloomed into a bloody conflict that took 58,000 American soldiers’ lives as well as those of millions of Vietnamese people.
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