Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 25, 2016
Psalm 146 Commentary
The book of Psalms ends as life should, with a flurry of ever-increasing praise to the God who has given us life and breathe and all things. Psalm 146 is the first of five Psalms that begin and end with the familiar Hebrew words hallelu yah, “Praise Yahweh.” But in between the summons to praise in Psalm 146 is a piece of Torah, instruction, that is important for our congregations in the politically charged atmosphere of the American elections. It’s a good example of that familiar saying so disheartening to us preachers, namely, that people learn more theology from their music than from our sermons.
Before we get to that election year theology, however, there are some important things to note in the call to praise in verses 1-2. Notice that after the general call to praise, the Psalmist appeals to himself to join the praise. All honest preachers and listeners know the importance of such a self-summons. Given the shape of the world today, praise does not spring naturally to our lips. It takes some discipline based on solid faith to praise God in the midst of all the blood and sorrow of this veil of tears. We must summon praise deliberately.
Further, the Psalmist’s vow to praise God “as long as I live” is a bold promise. Yes, we can express bursts of praise when things go well, even compose long symphonies of praise during the happy chapters of life, but it will take a great deal of faith to sing praise to God all the days of life. Only someone who knows and believes the instruction that follows in Psalm 146 can make and keep such a vow.
The first piece of instruction answers the deep existential question that troubles everyone. Whom can you trust in this world? In America, folks on the left and the right and in the middle are asking who is more trustworthy, Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. The great majority of people (nearly 2/3 of the entire American electorate) are saying, neither. They both lie too much, people say. Psalm 146 enters the fray by saying, in effect, don’t trust either one. “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortal man who cannot save.”
Now, it is important to note that the Psalmist does not base his advice on the moral character of our “princes.” So we don’t have to take sides in the political debate as we preach on this Psalm. In fact, to do so would cause our people to take sides and miss the deep messages the Psalm has for us. We should carefully point them to the fact that the Psalmist’s skepticism about human leaders is based not on their fallibility, but on their mortality. They all die and all their promises and plans die with them.
This is not to say that human leaders are unnecessary or not useful. After all, says Paul in Romans 13, God chooses to rule us through them. So, our “princes” matter, for some things, in the short term. The problem with them, says verse 3, is that they “cannot save.” That’s the problem with investing so much in the political process. Ultimately, these leaders cannot do the main thing we need. They cannot save, either for eternity or for time, as verses 7-9 will so poetically show. They cannot save the oppressed, the hungry, the prisoners, the sick, the alien. The problems they address in their campaigns and in their terms of office will long outlive them. They cannot save us. No wonder the political process leaves so many people deeply disappointed and unhappy. That doesn’t mean we should forget about finding good leaders. It only means, as Raymond Van Leeuwen put it, “Humans are only secondary or tertiary agents in a cosmic drama of death and life, whose ultimate outcome lies solely in the hands of God.”
That is the great instruction point in Psalm 146. The only one you can trust to save is God. The Psalmist makes that point with an extended contrast between “princes” and Yahweh. Princes are mortals who cannot save, who return to the ground, whose plans come to nothing. Yahweh is the God who has entered into unbreakable covenant with Jacob and his seed, who has made everything in the universe, who remains faithful and true through all the changes in our lives, who takes care of the helpless, who loves the righteous and frustrates the ways of the wicked, who reigns forever.
The Psalmist introduces God with an upbeat word, blessed, asher in Hebrew. The word is perhaps best translated “happy.” Happy is the person who looks to this God for help and places her hope in him. Our princes promise to “make America great again” or to “keep America great.” When they win, the band often plays, “Happy days are here again.” But, in fact, says Psalm 146, our only hope for happiness in this world and the next lies with the God so beautifully described in the coming verses.
The campaign managers and staff in our elections work hard to show that the character and the actions of their candidates are worthy of our trust and our vote. That’s exactly what the Psalmist does in verses 6-9. The Beatitude of verse 5 is followed by “5 poetic measures with hymnic particles as predicates” in verses 6-7a: “the God of Jacob (a covenantal reference), the Maker of [everything in the universe], who remains faithful forever, who upholds the cause of the oppressed, and who gives food to the hungry.”
These 5 are followed by another 5, in which the name of Yahweh is repeated like a drumbeat: “Yahweh sets prisoners free, Yahweh gives sight to the blind, Yahweh lifts up those who are bowed down, Yahweh loves the righteous, and Yahweh watches over the marginalized but frustrates the ways of the wicked.” In both his character and his actions, our God is able to save, and does.
So, however much we may get involved in the political process (whether in government or church or school board or country club or social action groups), Psalm 146 tells in no uncertain terms that only this God can deliver the happiness we crave. So, don’t put your trust in princes, but in Yahweh who is our help and our hope. That’s the first great word of Torah from Psalm 146.
The second has to do with the kind of help Yahweh gives. An overly political reader might think that verses 7-9 read like the platform of the Democratic Party with its emphasis on social justice. But don’t let your sermon go there. This is not a political platform; it is the agenda of the God of the Bible. Over and over again, the Old Testament uses the word in verse 7, mishpat in Hebrew, which means justice. The God of Israel is concerned with justice. Yahweh makes things right.
The words used to outline God’s pursuit of justice can be interpreted individually and corporately, physically and spiritually. God is concerned not merely with individuals, but with groups, not merely with spiritual needs, but with physical as well. Conversely, God is not only concerned with social justice, but also with personal morality, not only with helping the poor and needy, but also with taking care of the righteous and frustrating the ways of the wicked. In other words, neither Republicans nor Democrats (nor Green Party nor Libertarian nor Communist) can claim that theirs is the party that serves God best. Indeed, the warning about not trusting mortals should alert us to the fact that party platforms and political programs are not the secret of justice in this world. Only God can bring this comprehensive justice. It is up to us to align ourselves with God, not to try to show that God is on our side.
Some alert listeners may notice that this business of “the righteous and the wicked” seems out of place in the list of justice issues. Psalm 146 has been talking about God’s care for the marginalized and the helpless. That is certainly what many people think of today when they talk about social justice. Then Psalm 146 introduces this language that seems more like old fashioned talk about judgment. And, indeed, it is. God doesn’t just care about those on the edges of society because of racial discrimination, economic favoritism, or social exclusion. He also cares about those who are oppressed because of their commitment to God, that is, the righteous. Psalm 146 promises them that God not only loves them, but will also frustrate the wicked who oppress them. This is an important word to Christians who feel increasing pressure from the forces of secularism in our society.
I’ll close this explanation of the second word of Torah in Psalm 146 with these helpful words from James Luther Mays. “’Righteous and wicked’ doesn’t seem to be in the same category as the others here, but part of God’s help is keeping the moral order of the universe. In a world where right and wrong have no meaningful place in the order of the universe, nothing at all can be trusted.” And the main concern of Psalm 146 is whom we can trust. So, thank God that God cares about the righteous over against the wicked. We can trust God to take care of those who serve him.
The third important instruction in this Psalm of praise is not so obvious, until we ask the question, where and when do we see God doing the things Psalm 146 assures us God does. I mean, we live in a world filled with oppression and injustice, where the hungry go unfed and the sick die and the aliens wander homeless and the righteous are persecuted. God seems to be missing in action. Are these lovely words of Psalm 146 empty promises like those made by politicians running for office?
We find the answer to those agonizing questions when we notice how directly the words of verses 7-9 foreshadow the ministry of Jesus Christ. Jesus launched his ministry in his home town of Nazareth by reading the words of Isaiah 61:1,2, which almost exactly parallel Psalm 146. Then he said, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus ministry of healing and exorcism was not incidental to his saving work. It was both revelatory and redemptive.
John the Baptist had proclaimed Jesus to be “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” But when Jesus’ ministry took a different direction than John had anticipated, he sent word to Jesus asking if he really was the Expected One. Jesus replied in Matthew 11:4-6 by pointing to the kind of ministry we hear predicated of Yahweh in Psalm 146:6-9. Earlier Matthew summed up Jesus ministry of healing in Matthew 8:16 and 17, where he connected that physical healing to the spiritual forgiveness of sin by quoting Isaiah 53:4. In other words, God did the work of justice described in Psalm 146 through the life and death of Jesus.
Jesus is our help and our hope. Don’t leave Psalm 146 until you have proclaimed that Christ-centered message. And don’t leave this Psalm until you have called on the Body of Christ to continue his ministry of healing and compassion and social justice and disciple making. God’s agenda in Psalm 146 and in Jesus’ ministry throughout his life and in his death must be our agenda.
In our sermon on this Psalm, we must be careful not to be partisan in our call for justice and mercy. This is not about being Democratic or Republican. It is about being Christ-ones. It may be that governmental action is the best way to address some of these issues. Or it may be that private effort is most effective. Or it may be that the church as an organization must take a more active role in bringing the concerns of God to the public square. Don’t prescribe a particular political program.
Preach the Good News that God is concerned with justice in all its dimensions. And point to Christ as the One who is bringing the Kingdom of justice and peace to this world. Do your people a great favor and preach Psalm 146 this Sunday, so that they get some relief from the constant political blather, some hope and help and happiness, as they face the grim choices of Election Day.
Americans like to keep track of their Presidents by number. George Washington was, of course, Number 1. President George H.W. Bush was Number 41, while his son, W, was known as Number 43. President Obama is 44 and either Trump or Clinton will be Number 45. We need such numbers to keep track of the ever-changing political scene. God needs no number, because “the Lord reigns forever… for all generations.” Presidents rise and fall, succeed and fail, but our God is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
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