A few years ago the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship produced a new hymnal based on the Psalms. Its title is “Psalms for All Seasons.” The title is apt because as most of us know, the Hebrew Psalter is a collection of varied prayers that matches life’s many and varied seasons. As C.S. Lewis and others have noted, for a prayer book like the Psalter to be of any use, it could not contain poems that all tracked ever and only on one theme. If we had 150 psalms and they were all psalms of praise, we would have nothing to pray during times of lament and sorrow. And, of course, vice-versa: 150 prayers of lament would provide nothing for seasons of great joy. And so forth and so on in terms of prayers of confession, prayers of thanksgiving, prayers of an imprecatory nature, etc.
Where on the spectrum of life would something like Psalm 97 fit? Well, I guess one would have to conclude this poem reflects a pretty happy season of life. Maybe one could go so far as to say it fit a pretty optimistic period. It is, of course, a good thing that Psalm 97 gets balanced by plenty of other psalms that admit that many times it is difficult to see the ongoing triumph of God’s justice, that many times it is hard to explain why the wicked prosper so well even as the righteous seem to fall ever farther behind.
Because Psalm 97 presents what could be called a kind of “Best Case Scenario” on multiple fronts. In addition to praising God for his majesty, might, and splendor, this psalm also claims that all those divine qualities are on ready display all the time. In fact, no one could fail to see them on a regular basis. What’s more, anyone who even tries to worship anything other than the one true God of Israel comes to swift ruination and shame. The righteous meanwhile bask in the warm glow of God’s light all the time and no matter where they go. It’s as though the divine spotlight follows them around the way in a theater the spotlight stays on the lead actor in a play no matter where he goes on the stage.
It’s just kind of sunshine and roses all the time for the followers of Israel’s God and doom and misery for any who even attempt to go down other paths.
Probably there are days now and then when we feel this way about God and about our faith. But lots of the time we would have to admit that the world looks a little darker, the path of faith a bit more perilous, the fate of good people a bit more gloomy (and the fate of nasty people a bit more bright) than all that. So what do we make of Psalm 97 and others like it that seem to put blinkers on to avoid seeing what the rest of us see altogether too easily as many days as not? Is this just the Optimist’s Psalm? And how might this square with something like Psalm 39 which—if you look it up—could be seen as very nearly the mirror image of Psalm 97?
Again, there is a reason the Hebrew Psalter contains both Psalms 39 and 97. The Psalter is no haphazard collection. These psalms were carefully selected and edited precisely with the goal of generating a prayer book that offered something for everyone (and something for every season through which most people travel now and again). So in addition to fitting a particularly happy and blessed stretch in a person’s life, maybe Psalm 97 is also meant to point us to truths that—whether or not we can see them in action on any given day—in the longest possible run will be true because on some level of another they simply MUST be finally true for our faith to have anything going for it.
There may be a myriad of reasons why in this world things go the way they do. As Job’s friends proved in the Book of Job, proffering neat and tidy explanations for the way the world works just doesn’t cut it—not practically and not in the eyes of God himself. We prefer having life neatly folded and squared at the corners but it just isn’t true a lot of the time. We like Precious Moments figurines emblazoned with pithy slogans of sweet piety and counted-cross stitch wall hangings that enliven our living rooms with Bible verses that talk about or promise all manner of sunny things. But such things are too easily shipwrecked on the shoals of any given day’s news headlines or happenings right within our own families.
Of course, the temptation is to seize on life’s harsher realities and let them start to have the final word. We are tempted to use cases of childhood cancers and atrocities like the Holocaust as defeaters for any hint of optimism or hope that someone might proffer. Cynicism is always knocking on the front doors of our hearts, ready to make us curdle into despair or sneer at the idea that someday justice really will triumph after all. Next thing you know, you start rolling your eyes over people who like to sing songs with titles like “Awesome God” or who quote Bible verses about our being more than conquerors in Christ.
That won’t do. Because if it may be true that Christians are not supposed to be optimists per se, it is certainly also true that neither are we to be thoroughgoing pessimists. If we should not want to skip lightly past anyone’s genuine sorrow or suffering, neither do we want such sorrow or suffering to knock the stuffing out of the hope that believers in Jesus have every right to possess and nurture.
So perhaps we take Psalm 97 as a kind of best case scenario kind of poem but also as a sterling reminder that at the end of God’s cosmic day, we believe that the best case scenarios will obtain for every person and creature in God’s New Creation. We won’t get there quickly or easily or simply—even the very Son of God had to die a horrible death to put us on this trajectory. We don’t get to the vision sketched in Psalm 97 without noticing that planted squarely in the path that leads to all this glory and triumph is a horrid symbol of Roman capital punishment.
Yet this is our vision in the end. This is our truth. God is majestic and glorious and all who oppose this God will eventually melt away. There is a light of love and grace and justice that shines at the bright center of the universe and if some days—many days—that light seems to be eclipsed by a thousand contrary events and circumstances, even so as John reminds us in John 1, the light shines (present tense) in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it much less put the light out.
Maybe there are days when something like Psalm 97 and its sunny optimistic-like vision grates against our sensibilities. Maybe there are days when we read this and want to respond with an eye-rolling “Oh, puh-leaze!” reaction. But maybe those are exactly the same days to grab a hold of this poem with both hands and take its final vision for God’s shalom seriously. It will happen because it must happen or our hope in Christ really is empty. Those are the times to do our level best to heed the psalm’s final admonition: Rejoice in the Lord and praise his holy name.
The writer and theologian Lewis B. Smedes once wrote that when you get right down to it, every single one of us deep down longs for a day when we get noticed, when the Hallelujah Chorus gets sung for us, when a spotlight shines on one of our accomplishments and the plaudits of our peers and family and friends rush our way like some happy torrent of refreshing water. We want things to work out and deep down we want good things to come our way, to be noticed. What’s more, Smedes went on to note, people who deny that about themselves are often a little nasty (in addition to being more than a little self-deceived). It’s not that desiring a moment in the spotlight makes us vain or unduly egotistical. This is not something only the sinfully proud could ever desire for themselves. There is something normal about it, especially for people who deep down also believe in fairness and justice and a world that can see the truth about things clearly.
Psalm 97 reflects something of all this, too. It’s not that the light of goodness always shines on the righteous for now. But it should. And some day our fondest desire and belief is that it will.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 2, 2019
Psalm 97 Commentary