Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 22, 2015
Psalm 132:1-18 Commentary
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
This psalm may seem about as relevant to 21st century worshipers as a repair manual for a Model T or instructions for preserving papyrus. It, after all, focuses on David, who has been dead for a long time, and Zion, which no longer has the kind of meaning it did for the psalmist. In fact, no human ruler or office shares David’s unique relationship with the Lord. What’s more, there is no geographic location that mimics Zion’s.
As a result, candidly, Psalm 132 may not be a particularly great “stand-alone” psalm on which to preach or teach. Yet it’s a psalm to which preachers and teachers do well to pay attention. After all, it’s not just that it’s part of the church’s Psalter. Modern worshipers may also need help appropriating it for themselves.
In Psalm 132 the poet begs God to be gracious to David’s unnamed descendant who is king. God had promised David that one of his descendants would always sit on Israel’s throne. So this psalm is the poet’s plea for God to keep that promise. That, in itself, makes this psalm a relevant one even in the 21st century. We, after all, rely no less on God’s faithfulness to God’s promises than David and his descendants did.
However, the poet’s reminder that God’s covenant with David was a conditional one makes this not only a plea for God’s help, but also a kind of reminder to David’s descendants to remain as faithful to the Lord as their ancestor David was. So this psalm also had a didactic function. It served to remind Israel’s kings to keep God’s covenant and obey God’s statutes.
Yet as verses 17-18 also point out, God’s covenant with David rests finally not on Jesse’s son’s descendants’ faithfulness, but on God’s faithfulness. So this psalm also offers those who preach and teach it an opportunity to reflect with hearers on the nature of God’s covenant with us. We confess, after all, that while we are not naturally faithful, God is persistently faithful. Thankfully, then, God’s covenant with us rests not on our faithfulness, but God’s.
Psalm 132 speaks a great deal of “remembrance.” It begins with the poet’s plea to God to remember David and his tribulations. Though God finally told him “no,” that king had relentlessly sought to build a “house” for the Lord. However, the poet also fills this psalm with her own remembrances. She recalls, after all, a time (whose exact date and circumstance is somewhat mysterious) when Israel vowed to worship in Zion and begged God to come to that place (6-9).
In the context of that remembrance the poet recalls a plea for God to clothe God’s priests in “righteousness.” The priests who were the poet’s contemporaries wore familiar and distinctive clothing. Here, however, the poet recalls a plea for God to “dress” those religious leaders in godliness and holiness. It’s a prayer that’s just as relevant today as it was in the psalmist’s day. God’s children, including religious leaders, still long for God to clothe us in Christ Jesus, in the “garments” of things like love, kindness, forgiveness and mercy.
Verses 13-18, which the Revised Common Lectionary only adds in parentheses as an option for further reading, contain a further remembrance. They recall God’s choice of Zion as God’s dwelling place. While David was anxious to make Jerusalem/Zion God’s “home” on earth, God retained the freedom to make God’s own choice of an earthly home. God’s choice of such a home depended, after all, not on David or any other human’s determination, but on God’s faithfulness.
Even here, however, we have reminders of God’ faithfulness. After all, while God refused David’s offer to build the Lord an earthly home, God promised Jesse’s son that one of his sons would, in fact, build that home. Solomon does, in fact, complete and dedicate the temple his father had longed to build for the Lord. Yet while God lavishly gifted Solomon, Solomon also proved to be unfaithful, unable to keep God’s covenant and statutes.
So Israel’s prophets always looked beyond Israel’s flawed human kings to a greater King. Christians believe that God finally fulfilled that longing by sending David’s “son,” his descendant Jesus Christ. God raised him from the dead and to God’s right hand from which Christ now reigns over all the kings of the earth.
So how might those who preach and teach Psalm 132 use it as the Lectionary suggests on Christ the King Sunday? Perhaps as an invitation to worshipers to consider the nature of authority today. After all, even Christians remain tempted to invest almost messianic hopes in our leaders. Whether politically conservative or progressive, God’s children always seem tempted to look to human rulers for the kind of reign and kingdom that only God can accomplish in Jesus Christ.
Perhaps Psalm 132 might also serve as a good invitation to reconsider Jesus’ teaching us to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” That petition is, after all, God’s adoptive children’s plea for God to rule over us through David’s son Jesus Christ in such a way that our lives increasingly reflect our submission to God’s will. We remember that part of our own submission to that rule involves responding to God’s grace with an obedient faith that includes keeping God’s “covenant” and “statutes” (12).
However, Psalm 132 also invites worshipers to reflect on God’s new “dwelling place,” the new Zion. After all, God no longer identifies God’s presence with one exclusive geographical location or building. God lives in and with not just the Church of Jesus Christ, but also God’s children, now and always, by the Holy Spirit. Now it’s even fair to say that the new “Zion” is, in a sense, those in whom God graciously lives by the Holy Spirit.
Those who preach and teach Psalm 132 might open an exploration of it by asking what holiday North Americans recently celebrated. At least some will recognize Americans just celebrated what they now call Veteran’s Day. American pastors and teachers may then want to ask what that holiday used to be called. Answering that probably won’t be so difficult for Canadians (as well as other citizens of the British Commonwealth) who already call November 11 “Remembrance Day.”
Yet it might be worth asking just what we remember on Veterans/Remembrance Day. A few people may not be able to recall that we remember the November 11, 1918 armistice that ended World War I. That forgetfulness might even serve as a way of reminding all of us how difficult it sometimes is for people to “remember” (cf. Psalm 132:1).
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