Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 16, 2017
Psalm 65: (1-8), 9-13 Commentary
In my last church, we used Psalm 65:9-13 as the Old Testament reading for every Thanksgiving Day worship service. Its description of harvest bounty fit the time of year so well, and its ascription of praise to God for that bounty fit the theme of our national Day of Thanksgiving. But this harvest Psalm is also a great song for this Sunday in the middle of summer, as nature is growing so fast you can almost hear it move. As I read Psalm 65, I hear that famous song from the old musical “Porgy and Bess.” “Summer time and the living is easy.”
Our reading for today (verses 9-13) sounds like little more than a lovely nature poem, but it is much more. That’s the problem with cutting it off from the first part of the Psalm. If we read it in the context of verses 1-8, we’ll discover that it is not so much about the goodness of nature, as about the goodness of God. Particularly, the point of Psalm 65 is that our God hears and answers prayer. In Psalm 65, that is the essence of God’s goodness. “O you who hear prayer, to you all men will come (verse 2)…. You answer us with awesome deeds of righteousness, O God our Savior, the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas (verse 5)…. ” We enjoy the goodness of God’s creation in green summer and at golden harvest because God hears our prayers.
This is an important corrective to a purely hedonistic enjoyment of “the lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer” and the relentlessly secular focus on the richness of life in our North American celebrations of Thanksgiving Day. James Luther Mays says it very well. “This Psalm directs attention first of all to God, away from any preoccupation with secular good fortune. It insists that thanksgiving is a theological work whose subject is God, not ourselves. It is an antidote to self-satisfaction and self-congratulation.”
The emphasis on God’s answers to our prayers may give us a clue about the Sitz im Leben of the Psalm’s composition. Some scholars think it was written and used at the beginning of the growing season, while others believe it was always a harvest Psalm used at the annual fall festival celebrating the ingathering of the crops.
But Robert Davidson looks at the various movements in the entire Psalm and suggests that it was written in a situation like the one described in I Kings 8:33-36. The people’s sin against God had led to a crisis. Their sin was punished by a drought. The people needed forgiveness more than anything else. The people look to God for such pardon, and for rain. In Psalm 65 the long awaited rains have come and the people gather in the temple to praise God for his awesome deeds.
After a time when life was all bad for God’s people, now “it’s all good.” Verse 4 talks about “the good things of your house,” but then the Psalm praises God for more good things than the Temple. It begins with praising God for the fact that “it’s all good” between us and God. After a time “when we were overwhelmed by sins, you forgave our transgressions.”
The word “forgave” there is a Hebrew word that means to make atonement by covering sin with blood. The Hebrews offered bloody sacrifices of atonement, but, as Hebrews 10:4 says, the blood of bulls and goats could never gain the forgiveness of sins. Those sacrifices were the human side of atonement, the Old Testament way of expressing repentance and faith. The divine side was to cover those sins with the blood of Christ, says Hebrews 9:11-14.
As a result of such atonement, God’s sinful and once separated people now have access to God. “Blessed are those you choose and bring near to live in your courts. We are filled with the good things of your house.” By God’s grace, through the atonement God provides, we can now enjoy all the blessings that come with being in the very presence of God. Forgiveness enables us to enjoy full communion with God. “It’s all good.”
Second, “it’s all good” between us and the nations. At least I think that is the point of verses 5-8. David uses the language of chaos and creation to describe what God has done in making peace between Israel and the nations. The God who formed the mountains by his power and stilled the roaring seas with his strength has stilled “the turmoil of the nations (verse 7).” Think of how Psalm 46 talks about the quaking of the mountains and surging of the seas in the context of God’s work among the nations.
By his awesome deeds of righteousness, God our Savior has not only reconciled us to himself, but has also reconciled hostile peoples to each other. So, God is called “the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the seas….” Those “living far away fear your wonders,” those signs of your power (think of the Ten Plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, and the conquest of Canaan).
And even as reconciliation with God brings happiness to God’s people, the reconciliation of the warring human race brings joy to all humanity; “where morning dawns and evening fades you call forth songs of joy.” By God’s awesome deeds among the nations, “it’s all good.”
Third, “it’s all good” between us and nature. Though human sin led to thorns and thistles and the sweat of our brows, God’s gracious goodness has brought overflowing bounty to his creation. As you preach on verses 9-13 be sure to note how overwhelmingly David attributes the goodness of “mother earth” to God. It’s not a separately existing ecosystem; it is all a gift of God. He cares for the land and waters it. The rain that has come is his gift, flowing from “the streams of God.” The forces of nature are not independent. They are God’s way of bringing life to the world. “You crown the year with your bounty.”
Life is so good, in fact, that creation itself, the desert and the meadows, the hills and the valleys, and everything in them “shout for joy and sing.” By God’s blessings upon his creation, “it’s all good.”
What a lovely Psalm! To use Brueggemann’s categories, it is a simple Psalm of Orientation. All is well. Joy flows freely. Faith is easy. It’s all good. Or, if Davidson is right about the provenance of the Psalm, it is a Psalm of Re-Orientation. After a very bad time, it’s all good now. God has heard our prayers uttered in distress, and now life is all good. We can preach Psalm 65 to a happy people as a simple call to praise.
The problem with Psalm 65 is that life is not all good. As I write this, the world if filled with people whose sin has separated from God. They don’t know forgiveness. They don’t enjoy the blessings of God’s presence. They don’t have a clue who the Christ is. And the nations are not in harmony. From the Middle East to the Far East and from Russia to America, the nations are in turmoil. My own nation is in constant turmoil internally. And nature has run amok, as the seemingly intractable Western drought was replaced by rain and flooding of almost biblical proportions. The earth shakes and the winds blow. As the weather changes dramatically, crops are in jeopardy. In my own little life I need both hands to count the dear friends whose lives have been devastated by nature gone rogue. It’s not all good, not by a long shot.
So how do we preach Psalm 65 in the real world? Perhaps we can read it eschatologically. Maybe this is a picture of the goodness that is coming in the new heaven and the new earth. Note the future tense in verses 1 (“to you our vows will be fulfilled”) and 2 (“to you all men will come”). The opening words of verse 1 may point in this future direction, though they are notoriously hard to interpret. The NIV translates it, “Praise awaits you, O God, in Zion,” which could be read as a future reference. That praise is waiting for the fulfillment of the vision painted in the following words. It lies silent, waiting to be uttered when “it’s all good.” But another translation says that “praise is fitting, is due” because of what God has done for us.
These little hints suggest that we could preach Psalm 65 as yet another example of the “already but not yet” of God’s kingdom. We are reconciled to God through Christ, but God’s work is not done because many have not yet heard of Christ. God has begun the work of reconciling the nations to each other, having broken down the dividing wall of hostility that divided Jew and Gentile. But God’s work is not done, because the peacemakers are outnumbered by the warriors. God does bless his creation with bounty, but there is much work to be done in the spheres of agriculture and medicine and conservation before all will experience the goodness of life. God has done awesome deeds, but we are still waiting for the new heaven and the new earth in which righteousness dwells (II Peter 3:13).
We can sing this song of praise today, because God does hear prayer. It’s not all good yet, but “you answer us with awesome deeds of righteousness, O God our Savior, the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest sea.” Whatever else Psalm 65 is, it is a Psalm of hope, because God hears and answers our prayers. “If this is not true, then the whole biblical tradition collapses like a pack of cards, and most of the Psalms [and our prayers] are an exercise in self-delusion.” (Robert Davidson) The Psalm assures us that our hope is sure. “O you who hear prayer, to you all will come.”
My grandson was frantic. He was sleeping over at our house, but he couldn’t fall asleep. It was nearing midnight, and he was afraid he would lie awake all night. Many of us know that problem. My wife said, “Let’s pray about it.” And he said, “It doesn’t work. I’ve tried that, and it doesn’t work.” It’s not just 10 year olds battling insomnia; it’s 80 year olds fighting cancer and 40 year olds living with marital problem and teenagers dealing with sexual temptation. It’s all of us at one time or another. We pray and pray, and it doesn’t work. A sermon on Psalm 65 would address that existential problem head on.
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