Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 11, 2019
Psalm 33:12-22 Commentary
Suppose you are a person who is very leery of civil religion, of the possible idolatry that can come when people equate a given nation with God’s kingdom. Well, in that case, Psalm 33:12a might give you pause, or it might flat out trouble you a bit. “Blessed is the nation whose God is Yahweh.” That sounds rather like a blanket statement, like something that certain people in American history have quoted to prop up the idea of the United States as a shining city on a hill, singularly chosen by God among all the peoples of the earth. It sounds like the kind of verse people could invoke to drape flags over the cross, to post Ten Commandments in public school classrooms and courthouses, to make this a “Christian Nation” to the exclusion of people from other faiths. It also runs the risk of saying that if a given nation makes God its Lord, then that same God will bless and baptize every action that nation takes.
Is that what Psalm 33 is up to? Almost certainly not. Because of course Psalm 33:12b immediately goes on to indicate that we are talking about ancient Israel here, about the people specially elected by God to become his beachhead in saving the whole world. Remember that Hebrew poetry does not depend on meter or rhyme schemes. Rather the foundation of Hebrew poetry is parallelism. Lines parallel each other with the second line reinforcing (or sometimes providing contrast to) the first line. As such, very often the second of the two lines also sheds retrospective light back onto the first. In this case, the “nation” that is being singled out for blessing in 12a is clearly Israel as this is indicated as such in 12b. This is not a verse about any random nation. To take this out of context and apply it to any modern day nation state would therefore, constitute bad hermeneutics.
Nevertheless, this latter portion of Psalm 33 is setting forth the marching orders for Israel and—when not applied in a political way—still has resonance for those of us who are now members of the New Israel that just is the Church of Jesus Christ. The psalm is directing the people to wholesale dependence on God alone. Without God’s help and support, large armies and outward military might of any kind would not do Israel any good. It may be that Israel still needed an earthly king and that as such a king needed an army. But to put ultimate trust in those things—to allow that to be the bottom line of your security in life—was to miss the larger picture.
Psalm 33 points to a kind of balancing act, a veritable tightrope walk that all believers to this day face. On the one hand, we know it would be foolish to conclude that so long as we trust in God for all good things, we need not do anything ourselves. Why try to get a good education? Why try to hone skills that can land you a good job? Why take out insurance on your house? Why work so hard all the time? Kick back, put your eyes on God, trust him and all will be well.
It reminds me of a story most of us have heard in one version or another. A man finds himself in dire straits: floodwaters are rising all around his home. He cries to God for help as he moves from his home’s first floor to the second. He cries again as he flees to the attic and then all the way out to his rooftop. But then someone comes by in a boat and offers to take the man but the man says, “God will take care of me!” A helicopter comes by and lowers a ladder but the man refuses. “God will take care of me!” Later as the floodwaters begin to carry him to his death, the man cries “Why did you not help me, God?” and hears the divine reply from the heavens, “I sent you a boat and a helicopter, what more did you expect?”
Clearly that is not what trusting God above all else means. But the balancing act / tightrope walk gets tricky when you do indeed work hard to make a living for yourself, when you pursue all prudent measures to make your house safe from burglars, when you take out insurance policies and build up a 401k retirement portfolio. Because then it is so easy to fixate on only those outward things that you do fail to see the spiritual connection that if God is not your ultimate security—if God is not in and through and under and behind all of that outward activity and such—then it is all finally futile, fragile, and one day fruitless.
It also reminds me of some musicians I have seen. Go up to a skilled violinist to compliment him on a stunning performance of some challenging Bach sonatas and you might find it off-putting to have him point to the sky and say “It’s not me. It’s ALL God! Don’t compliment me please!” It might be equally offensive to have him say, “Yes, I know. I am truly great, aren’t I?” Surely there is some middle ground here.
Yes, a Christian artist is right to locate God as the ultimate source of his musical gifts. But the violinist still had to do his part too to nurture those gifts, to hone and refine them through a lifetime of practice and discipline. So maybe it’s both all God and all artist—both are proper targets of words of gratitude and praise. The artist cannot do much without God’s gifting but God cannot do much to make a good violinist out of a highly lazy person even if some core gifts are also present.
Psalm 33 is right: our ultimate hope and security come from God. We are foolish if we do not acknowledge this and celebrate it every day. At the same time, we would be foolish to not see how God works through the ordinary things of life too and through our efforts and such. It is so easy to fall off this tightrope to the right or to the left. One of the Holy Spirit’s jobs in our lives is to help us keep our balance.
When the famed cellist Pablo Casals was around 90 years old, he still practiced the cello for hours each day. By that age and after his storied musical career, Casals surely had nothing left to prove. So one day someone asked him “Why do you still practice so much?” “Because,” Casals replied, “I think I’m getting a little better.”
A great gift is no excuse to not also work hard. And for believers, faith and trust in a great God are no excuse to not also recognize that we still have much to do in our lives to cooperate with God’s care and protection of us. Don’t put your trust in earthly things but don’t fail to shore up things on earth either.
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