Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 13, 2017
Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45b Commentary
Psalm 105 is a history psalm. To be more specific, it is what German biblical scholars once called Heilsgeshichte, salvation history. It recalls the five stages at the beginning of the story of God’s redemption of Israel, from the promise of the Land to the possession of the Land. Of course, as the long and powerful introduction to that story shows, it is Heilsgeschichte with a purpose. One scholar finds ten imperatives in the first 6 verses. This is history re-told in order to move God’s people to remember what God has done, testify to the nations about God’s actions in history, and praise God for his wonderful deeds.
It’s a good Psalm for us to consider in late summer, in the midst of Ordinary Time. Here’s why. Some scholars think that Psalm 105 was used in conjunction with one or more of Israel’s great annual festivals. Someone, presumably a Levite, recited the Psalm at the Feast of Tabernacles (or Booths) or at the Feast of Weeks (or Pentecost). We are far away from any of the major Feasts of the Christian year, but this festive Psalm reminds us of the importance of celebration even in the dog days of August. We are too much like the Israelites in Psalm 106 (the non-identical twin of Psalm 105). While Psalm 105 calls us to remember, Psalm 106 confesses that we all too often forget. So as the days of summer drag on, let’s use Psalm 105 as an opportunity to remember, testify, and praise God for the wonderful deeds he has done for us.
Though you wouldn’t know it from the reading assigned to us today by the Revised Common Lectionary, the emphasis of Psalm 105 is on covenant history, the interaction between a faithful God who always keeps his promises and his inconstant people who often forget God. Verses 6-11, and especially 8-11, are explicit. “He remembers his covenant forever….” The “wonders he has done, his miracles, and the judgments he pronounced” are all covenantal miracles, things done in history as fulfillment of the promises Yahweh made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In all the circumstances of our lives and throughout history, we must remember this about the character of the God we worship: he always remembers his covenant, even if we forget.
Many scholars believe that Psalm 105 was written in post-Exilic times. Israel had forgotten God for a long time in multiple ways, so God had sent them into exile. During that long time away from the Promised Land, Israel wondered if God had forgotten them, if the covenant had been broken once and for all. Then Yahweh brought them back to the Land, one more miracle in a long line of them. Now, here they are, back in the land, but as verse 12 says of an earlier time in Israel’s history, they were “few in number, few indeed, and strangers in it….”
The nations saw what had happened to them and scoffed at the claim that Yahweh was the Lord of all the earth. Why, he couldn’t even keep his little flock safe from the big bad wolf. Thus, Psalm 105 opens with a call not only to praise the Lord for his wonders, but also with a challenge to testify to the nations. Indeed, “give thanks to the Lord” is literally “testify/make known,” and “call on his name” is, better, “cry about his name.” Psalm 105 calls upon Israel to “make known among the nations what he has done… tell of his wonderful acts.” Yes, Israel must remember and celebrate what God has done for his covenant people, but Israel must also remember that the covenant is for the blessing of the nations (Genesis 12:3). Here is an evangelistic thrust long before Jesus sent his disciples to all the nations of the world.
Psalm 105 focuses not on the return from Exile (though that was its probable provenance), but on the events that gained Israel entrance to the Promised Land in the first place. As I said before, it traces the five stages of Israel’s early Heilsgeschichte. It begins with the promise of the Land in the days of the Patriarchs when they were “few in number, few indeed, and strangers in the land, [wandering] from nation to nation….” During that time, Yahweh “allowed no one to oppress them.” Psalm 105 ends its recitation of salvation history with Israel receiving that Promised Land; “he gave them the lands of the nations (the various people groups in Canaan), and they fell heir to what others had toiled for….” This brief survey of Israel’s history is a powerful way of saying, “He did it once. He can do it again. Indeed, he will, because he remembers his covenant forever.”
Our reading for today focuses on stage three of that historical journey to the Promised Land, the part where Egypt suffered famine and Joseph rose to power there. The way I’ve just put that is not at all how our Psalm puts it. These things didn’t just happen accidentally as a result of meteorological or social forces. Psalm 105 emphasizes that these things were the doing of Yahweh. “He called down a famine on the land… and he sent a man before them….” On the level of macro-history and micro-lives, God is active. Yahweh intervenes in history.
Israel’s religion (and the Christian religion that is its fulfillment) is not first of all a set of ideas or a list of laws or a pattern of practices (though it has given rise to exalted philosophy and includes life affirming laws and teaches spiritual disciplines that shape community and individual). It is first of all the true story of what God has done in history. God “called down famine.” And God “sent a man.”
This claim raises all kinds of questions, scientific questions about the closed universe of cause and effect and theological questions about God’s role in natural disasters, questions of theodicy. But we must not let the questions silence the biblical claim that God gets so deeply involved in human life that he interrupts, intervenes, even becomes incarnate in history. It is better to wrestle with the mystery of divine involvement than agonize over the meaninglessness of a universe that is godless. God’s incarnate entry into human history is the central claim of biblical religion.
Verses 16-22 are, of course, a masterfully brief re-telling of the long and wonderful story of Joseph in Genesis 37-50. Having irritated his brothers into a murderous jealousy, Joseph was “sold as a slave” into Egypt. While we have no record in Genesis of Joseph being put in shackles and irons, that wording serves the purposes of the Psalmist. To demonstrate how completely God can redeem his people, the Psalmist says in verse 22 that God put the now released Joseph in a position where he could instruct the princes of Egypt as he pleased. The Hebrew of that verse has the sense of “bind or govern.” He whose neck had been shackled was given authority to bind Pharaoh’s princes. The one who had been a slave now taught the wisest counsellors of Pharaoh. “Remember the wonders he has done (verse 5)….” Note that God, the covenant Lord of Israel, is the Actor in all these historical events. This is the world according to the Bible.
This is the lesson we need to preach right here in the middle of Ordinary Time. The nations do now know that Yahweh is the star of the story. And those of us who do know often forget as we are overwhelmed by the news cycle. No wonder we struggle to “glory in his holy name….” Our hearts do not rejoice, because we are not seeking his face in the turmoil of history. We are fixated on the faces of Trump and Putin and Kim, not to mention the faces of the little people who make up our daily world. We do not “look to the Lord and his strength.” Psalm 105 can help us “remember the wonders he has done, his miracles, and the judgments he has pronounced.”
You could do a five part series on Psalm 105, tracing those five stages of God’s intervention in the story of God’s first people. That would be a welcome alternative to the narrative that plays 24 hours a day on cable news. In a world where campaign promises are unashamedly broken, where weapons treaties are virtually meaningless, where the words of international leaders cannot be trusted, and where marital vows and business contracts evaporate under the pressure of sad necessity, let us preach the faithfulness of God who “remembers his covenant forever.”
Let’s be sure to preach Christ as the great fulfillment of that covenant. Our reading from verses 16-22 give us a perfect opportunity to do that. Like Joseph, Jesus came into a God-starved world that had been ordered by God (in the fullness of time). God sent a man. Though he had been the Lord of the universe, he became a servant, was mistreated, and even killed by wicked and jealous humans. All of this was a fulfillment of God’s ancient promises; “what he foretold came to pass….” After he was mistreated, he was raised from the dead and elevated to a place at God’s right hand, where all nations are under his authority. The God who intervenes in history was actually incarnated in history for us and for our salvation. Joseph is a type of Christ. His career in the time of Egypt’s famine gave history a foretaste of Christ’s ministry as the Bread of Life.
In some scholarly circles, it is accepted wisdom that the Greeks were the first historians, the first human beings to see a thread connecting the events of our lives, to discern a plot in the randomness of it all, to tell the story of human affairs. Yes, there were stories before those first Greek historians, mythical meta-narratives that helped give meaning to existence. But the Greeks were the first to tell the story from a secular perspective. Like their efforts to create a scientific account of the physical world that left the gods out of the picture, their historical accounts were secular. So, goes the academic argument, they were the first real historians.
Readers of the Bible will want to argue with that claim, because centuries before the first Greek histories there was a Hebrew history. But, contrary to those early groundbreaking Greek accounts, the Hebrews claimed divine involvement in human events, not as a mythical attempt to give meaning to the meaningless cycle of human endeavors, but as a true to life, honest to God account of what the One True God did in human history.
Contrary to the godless stories that fill the air waves all day long, the biblical story is all about God. To keep our minds, to live by faith, to face the future with hope, we must tell ourselves and our children that Great Story about the God who remembers his eternal covenant through all the stories of our lives.
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