Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 26, 2019
Psalm 67 Commentary
It can be a little hard to know how to read Psalm 67. On the face of it, this is a pretty simple Hebrew poem. It’s short. It is upbeat for the most part. It aims squarely at the praise of the one true God of Israel.
Yet there are some interesting angles one could take in interpreting this. The psalm opens with a riff on the Aaronic Benediction from Numbers 6: the poet asks God to make his face to shine upon the people. The psalm is bookended with yet another final request for God to bless his people. But in both cases the reason is listed as being—in large part anyway—so that God may be known among the other nations, so that God will become renowned throughout the rest of the earth. Viewed a certain way, this could sound a little like, “Dear God, bless me because, you know, it will be good for YOU.”
This could begin to sound like your going to your rich uncle and saying, “Uncle Jerry, I would like to get a load of cash from you because after you give it to me, a lot of other people are going to think you are such a swell guy!” Oh yes, yes, this transaction will not hurt you at all but the motivation you would be proffering deflects attention from whatever you get out of the bargain and suggests it will be Uncle Jerry who will benefit even more. The circle of appreciation for Uncle Jerry will widen. “So go ahead, Uncle, lay it on me generously. It will be good for your reputation!”
Needless to say, this could yield a very cynical view of a poem like Psalm 67. And if we did take this tack with most anyone else in the world, not a few people would be rather suspicious of our true motivation. But this is not the only place in the Bible where something like this comes up in terms of Israel’s relationship with Yahweh. In fact, there is a little-known passage in Ezekiel 36 that displays some of these same dynamics, albeit from the divine side of things.
In Ezekiel 36 God tells Israel that he is going to restore her fortunes. After duly punishing the people for their apostasy and syncretism and everything else, God will once again help them. But in a curious twist God repeats several times in that prophetic passage, “But don’t think I am doing this because you deserve it or because I am first off interested in helping you out. I am doing this for ME! I, your Lord and God, am trying to salvage my own reputation here among the nations because at the end of the day what you have done in your sinfulness was drag MY name through the mud!”
So what is going on here? In Ezekiel 36 God says he will perform some saving acts for his own sake. In Psalm 67 the psalmist asks God to bless them so that his own divine reputation among the nations will be enhanced. Is there anything about this facet to God’s relationship to Israel that is relevant to the church today? What are we to make of this somewhat transactional aspect of the covenantal relationship between God and his people? Is it the case that even in God’s eyes his own reputation is more important than his love for his people and their welfare?
Let’s admit that we mostly do not think along these lines. We seldom pray for God to heal someone or deliver us from some bad circumstance or in some other way to bless us but then root out appeal or request in the notion “Because if you do this, O God, it will make you look better. Never you mind if it benefits me, let’s focus on what this will do for your reputation!” It might even feel oddly disingenuous were we to pray this way.
Maybe this is due in part because we seldom acknowledge about our relationship with God what we know to be true in pretty much the rest of our lives: relationships are complicated. Once you bind yourself to another person in some way—whether by getting married or deciding to have a child or signing a contract of some kind—suddenly a whole web of things comes into existence. You will spend the rest of your life—or however long a given relationship lasts—negotiating all kinds of cross-currents and bumps along the way as well as a welter of emotions.
It was no different for God once he decided to create a cosmos of other creatures. And then once things went sour in that relationship—again, relationships are complex—he further made himself vulnerable to the vicissitudes of relations by entering into a covenant with Abram and then with all Israel through which he intended eventually to do what also Psalm 67 points to: bless all the nations of the earth. God even “cut a covenant” with Abraham eventually in that odd scene in which the presence of God passes between the two halves of a cleaved animal carcass, a symbol that God was saying that if his covenant failed for any reason, God himself would take the heat and die as a result. But can God die? Well . . . cf. Golgotha.
Relationships are complicated. And for God and Israel, there was a tug-of-war between God’s lavishing blessings on Israel because he really did love his people and wanted to see them flourish AND the fact that God had indeed bound up a good bit of his divine reputation with how things turned out with Israel. It was both. God was enthroned on the praises of Israel but at the same time Israel needed to be faithful to God so they could be a showcase display window of divine grace. When Israel behaved badly, therefore, it was as much—if not more—God’s Name they were besmirching as their own reputation.
We forget this in the Church today. If something bad happens in our congregation, our first thought is seldom “Oh no! Think of what others will think of Jesus now that we screwed up!” No, we tend to worry about our own reputation, whether we will lose members, whether financial giving will take a hit. Worrying about Christ’s reputation among others on account of our actions is a little ways down our list of concerns more often than not.
Whether we would ever be comfortable asking God for this or that blessing on account of how it would benefit God, the fact is that we are bound up in a relationship with our God in Christ. We are supposed to witness to the world as a result of God’s having blessed us so richly. And we are supposed to see the connection the psalmist saw: how we respond to God’s blessings and how God is viewed by the wider world depends on us and in the complex give-and-take of our relationship with Almighty God.
The disciples were startled on that night in the upper room to hear Jesus say “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” What became more startling still after Pentecost was a further, related truth: if the world sees the Father at all, it will be through what they see in now us. Psalm 67 may seem at first to be a rather left-handed way to remind us of that truth, but it is a truth worth savoring and pondering and maybe even fretting over a bit more than we typically do.
In the movie As Good As It Gets, actress Helen Hunt plays Carol Connelly, a waitress at a small New York City restaurant. But the main thing we soon learn about Carol is that she is a single mother of a young boy, Spencer, who has been seriously ill with a chronic breathing difficulty almost since birth. Carol’s life is consumed with caring for Spencer, and sometimes doing so takes her away from her job at the restaurant. Meanwhile, one of Carol’s regular breakfast customers is an utterly unpleasant man named Melvin Udall, played by Jack Nicholson. Melvin is a well-known author. But he also has obsessive-compulsive disorder. However, few people who know him can generate much compassion for him seeing as Melvin has a personality that resembles curdled milk.
Through a series of events, however, Melvin finds out about Carol’s son and so arranges to have her meet with a very expensive doctor. Melvin takes care of all the expenses and what’s more, the doctor finally puts Spencer on the road to long-term health. Carol is overjoyed to the point of not even being able to find the words with which to say thank-you to this unlikely hero in her life. But at one point she asks Melvin directly, “Why did you do this for us?” Melvin replies, in essence, by saying, “I didn’t do it for you. I did it for me. I wanted you to be able to come back to work so you could wait on me.” Carol responds, “You got any idea how creepy that sounds?” But that really was Melvin’s motivation—he arranged things so Carol would not be absent from the restaurant so often. His obsessive-compulsive nature meant he needed things to stay the same every day, including Carol’s being his waitress and not someone else.
I don’t know if any of you have ever had something like that in your life. But if you ever did run across someone who did something nice for you but only, as it turns out, for some ulterior motive related to his or her own self, I’d imagine you would find words of gratitude sticking in your throat. You’d still be thrilled to have received some good thing. But the notion that your own benefit was not really the motivating factor behind it would very likely strike you as, well, to use Carol’s words, a little “creepy.”
We see this dynamic in the Bible occasionally. God does something good for Israel but then says it was a much for his own sake and for his reputation among the nations as for Israel itself. At other times we see this in a place like Psalm 67 where Israel asks God to bless them on account of his doing so will benefit the divine reputation among the other nations of the earth who might then rise up to praise God, too.
Of course, in the movie, it turns out that Melvin loves Carol very deeply. Life is complicated as were Melvin’s motivations in helping Carol. But at the end of the day it had been about love all along. It is, of course, no different in the end with God.
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