Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 9, 2018
Psalm 125 Commentary
Digging Into the Text:
Psalm 125 is one of that small collection in the book of Psalms called “Songs of Ascent” (120-134). Most scholars agree that this is most likely a group of songs or chants used by pilgrims going up (ascent} to Jerusalem for one of the three great pilgrimage feasts– Jerusalem, Mount Zion, and the blessing of Israel. One can imagine the pilgrims as they come into sight of the city singing:
As the mountains surround Jerusalem,
so the Lord surrounds his people
both now and forevermore.
The metaphorical image of mountains and hills is very common in the Psalms generally. Psalm 120, another of the Songs of Ascent is probably the best known:
I lift up my eyes to the mountains—
where does my help come from?
Mountains suggest agelessness and protection, as though the mountains and hills surrounding Jerusalem are like arms wrapped around God’s people.
The whole Bible is replete with this way of using physical objects to describe the relationship of God and his people. In the ancient and medieval world, the physical universe God created had a kind of sacramental power, that is, they are like windows that open up to to the reality of God. In the modern and post-modern world, we tend not to do that kind of sacramental thinking. The world of material objects is separate from what we call spiritual reality. The physical world us the place of reality, while the “spiritual world” is a realm of shadowy unreality.
This Psalm, and, in fact, the whole Bible and Christian tradition does not allow for this split. Created matter, the material universe is as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it, “charged with the grandeur of God.” The mountains around Jerusalem are not just known by their geological elements, they are seen as arms of protection around Jerusalem. The geological aspect isn’t real and the other unreal. Both are real in the classic sacramental view of reality because God is the creator and anything and everything that God created has the capacity to reveal God’s truth. (I am using the word sacramental rather than sacrament to make a distinction between physical things that God specifically designates as sacraments, bread, wine, and water, and the capacity of all physical reality to open our eyes to the Creator.)
We do not know when this Psalm was composed, but verse 3 suggests a time of tyrannical rule, perhaps by an occupying power.
3 The scepter of the wicked will not remain
over the land allotted to the righteous,
for then the righteous might use
their hands to do evil.
The text suggests that the problems with evil, tyranny, and injustice, are not only that it they are wrong in themselves, but that it has dire consequences in the whole society. When tyranny triumphs it has the double effect of tempting the righteous to act accordingly. It dilutes the moral and spiritual strength of everyone, even the righteous.
In the U.S. we live in a moment in which corruption and dishonesty seem pervasive and they threaten the very foundation of our society and its institutions. We would do well to listen to the Psalm’s warning and prayer. Corruption breeds corruption, dishonesty debases the truth for all of us, anger sparks anger in return. We Christians need to be careful not to become what we are against. Our prayer can echo the psalm, “Lord, let not wickedness, tyranny, and lies continue, lest we be drawn into the same sins in our opposition to them.”
The Psalm’s call for God to “do good to those who are good,” and, at the same time to “banish the evildoers” signals an aspect of the Psalms in general with which we are not always comfortable. It calls on God to reward the righteous” among whom we like to count ourselves, while thwarting and even destroying the wicked. How does this square with Jesus call to pray for our enemies?
The perennial test of faith happens when we see the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer. When evil triumphs and goodness is on the run. That doesn’t make sense to us. If God is ruling from heaven, how can God allow such a travesty to happen. It’s a conundrum addressed throughout the Psalms.
Here the Psalmist invites the community to pray that God not allow that to happen. Let righteousness abound, let goodness pay off, while wickedness is thwarted at every step. Notice that here, as elsewhere in the Psalms, there’s a boldness in the way they address God. While we tend to hang back and give God the benefit of the doubt (“God knows best, after all), the Psalms are replete with complaints and demands for God to do what is right.
Immediately after that prayer for God to act with justice and truth, the psalm abruptly closes with a benediction. “Peace be upon Israel.” The only answer to the constant challenge of injustice and evil in the world is trust. “Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion.” There’s a rock-like stability to their lives because, despite appearances to the contrary, they are surrounded by the arms of God, as Jerusalem us surrounded by solid strong mountains.
Preaching the Text
1). I have made rather explicit reference to the current political crisis in the U.S., a move that might seem dangerous to some preachers as being too political. Yet, what good is our preaching the Word of God if it has nothing to say to our current situation in life. The warning of the Psalm is that in times when injustice and wrong the cause of right can be corrupted, and we can easily take on the evil tactics of the evils we abhor. To use Thomas Paine’s memorable line, “these are times that try men’s souls.” Living in times of moral and political corruption should make us all the more careful to guard our souls and strengthen our spiritual disciplines. This is not a call for Christians to withdraw from the moral battlefield, but to be very careful about how we engage in the battle, lest the righteous “use their hands to do evil.”
2). In 1944, just months before he was hanged by the Nazis for being an enemy of of the Reich, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote this hymn which could be a meditation on Psalm 125.
By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered,
And confidently waiting, come what may,
We know that God is with us night and morning
And never fails to greet us each new day.
Yet is this heart by its old foe tormented,
Still evil days bring burdens hard to bear;
O give our frightened souls the sure salvation
For which, O Lord, You taught us to prepare.
And when this cup You give is filled to brimming
With bitter suffering, hard to understand,
We take it thankfully and without trembling,
Out of so good and so beloved a hand.
Yet when again in this same world You give us
The joy we had, the brightness of Your sun,
We shall remember all the days we lived through,
And our whole life shall then be Yours alone.
(translated by Fred Pratt Green, 1972)
About this hymn, Carol Bechtel writes, “That such a confession of faith could emanate from a prison cell is at once inspiring and astonishing. Yet, close examination reveals that it is not just a confession of faith but also a prayer for faith’s preservation.
3). Using this benediction may be a powerful way to tie the themes of the Psalm into the closing of the service
As the mountains surround Jerusalem,
So the Lord surrounds his people
From this time and forevermore.
And the blessing of God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit
be with you now and forever.
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