Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 29, 2019
Psalm 146 Commentary
When I read Psalm 146 to prepare this article, the thought occurred to me, “Didn’t I just do this psalm recently?” It took me a minute but then I realized why I thought that: the bottom line and final verses of this poem are nearly identical (in sentiment if not in actual words) to last week’s Psalm lection of Psalm 113. Last week’s selection also talked about God who, though high and mighty, regularly takes care of widows and orphans and poor people and tends to justice and brings about good things for the most vulnerable people. (And last week I reflected on how to deal with such sunny-side-up, non-nuanced promises in a world where we know things don’t typically work out so well for the poor and such.)
So if we were to pick up on that part of Psalm 146—and if we preached on Psalm 113 just a week or so ago—we would quickly find that we’re repeating ourselves. So if you did not preach on Psalm 113 recently but want to pick up on the latter verses of Psalm 146, then please visit our Sermon Commentary Archive and look up what I wrote about that aspect of Psalm 113. If you want to take a different tack with Psalm 146, then read on!
Psalm 146 is, of course, one of the final poems in the Hebrew Psalter and is part and parcel of the revving up we get as the whole Book crescendos in a climax of praise. And there is no doubting that Psalm 146 is a song of tremendous praise. But that does not mean it has no time to teach a key lesson along the way. The first lesson that gets taught here reflects a tension that ran straight through the history of Israel. It goes back to the days of Samuel when the people began to agitate to get a king for themselves the same as all the other nations had.
Samuel was scandalized by the request. They already had a king: it was the Lord their God Yahweh! The people’s request for an earthly, human king felt to Samuel like a slap in God’s face. What’s more, Samuel tried to dissuade the people by saying that the problem with kings is that sooner or later the power always goes to their heads and they will tax you and mistreat you and just maybe make your life miserable. But the people persisted and in a somewhat surprise move, God himself tells Samuel to let it be. God would go along with it, he’d even tell Samuel where to go to find the first king.
I have always found it curious that God ostensibly tapped a man who would in the end prove to be a singular disaster. Saul may have had some noble qualities but he was also mentally unwell, could turn into a coward now and again, and was not averse to dabbling in necromancy and the darker elements of the spiritual realm. The kingdom is finally torn away from him and then we get David, of course. But I sometimes wonder: did God purposely choose Saul as a way to say to the people “Be careful what you wish for?” I mean, God had to see a lot of that—all of that?—coming.
In any event, the advent of a monarchy in Israel set up a history-long tension thereafter: in whom would the people place their ultimate trust and hopes? With the distraction of all those kings—the great ones like David and Solomon and the horrible ones like Ahab and Amon—could the people stay focused on God as their ultimate King and their final hope? The answer is that it was often tough to stay focused on God. The closer-to-hand help of a king with a good army seemed a safer bet and was in any event easier to see. Such a king was concrete, a visible reality. “If the king is strong, we’ll be fine, we’ll be safe, we’ll be prosperous. Long live the king!”
Thus in addition to praising Yahweh as the sovereign God of heaven and earth, Psalm 146 very early on gives a solemn admonition: do not put your trust in princes, in mere men, in mortals. They will die one day same as everybody else. There is a set and finite limit on what they can accomplish or on how many of their best-laid political programs they can carry out. What’s more, those dead kings cannot help you after they die and they surely cannot help when you die. The better bet is to put your trust in God alone because there is no limit, temporally or otherwise, to what God can and will accomplish.
Do you want to help set a secure future for your children and grandchildren? Well, even if King “X” does a great job and you are fully on board with his programs and policies, guess what? By the time your grandkids are adults, King “X” will be dead. But not God! God alone can secure things for Israel throughout all generations. Yes, perhaps God will use people, including kings and princes, to get his work done now and then, here and there. But God is the only sure through-line for all history and for however long history unfolds into the future too.
We are not really sure when the Psalms were composed but there is evidence they existed for a long time and were a key part of Israel’s worship. Many of the Psalms are attributed to David and even if he did not actually write every poem ascribed to him in the superscriptions in Psalms, he surely wrote some. Maybe even Psalm 146 was written and sung already during the reigns of David and Solomon. If so, it was probably more of a hard sell to get people really to embrace this poem. It’s one thing to tell people not to put their trust in princes when the king is a train wreck of a human being. But when the king is adored by all and is by all outward appearances a triumph of a monarch . . . well, then people might respond to “Put not your trust in princes” by saying, “Why not?!”
But Psalm 146 is not calibrating its theology to the relative success or failure of any given monarch. It is proclaiming a truth that endures over and above and beyond the ups and downs and the unpredictable vicissitudes of politics at any given moment. This psalm aims to celebrate the eternal Creator God who endures with goodness and mercy throughout all generations and forevermore. In fact, it is probably a psalm we all need to take to heart precisely in those times when we feel we have reason for high confidence in our leaders. Because those are the moments we are most tempted by the very political idolatry Psalm 146 warns against.
In the late summer of 2019 there was a brief dust-up when a Christian leader said something about President Trump along the lines of his being the “chosen one.” The President himself later tweeted something along those same lines even as not a few Christian in the U.S. regard this President as uniquely chosen by God, that his very election was a miracle orchestrated by God.
Whatever one makes of all that, the fact is this happens with frequency in all nations and in also the history of the United States. How many did not see Franklin D. Roosevelt as a kind of savior figure who would rescue people from the Great Depression? Abraham Lincoln was similarly regarded even though he did his best always to deflect to the guidance of providence and of the one true sovereign God. More recently millions invested all their hopes in Barack Obama, believing he would somehow be a transformative figure who would change the whole tenor of the U.S.
Inevitably many feel let down eventually by any given leader. None is perfect, few live up to the hype and hope that got invested in them. Barack Obama campaigned on “Hope and Change” but four years after his election, things had not unfolded in every good way many had thought would happen. So in 2012 when Vice-President candidate Sarah Palin mocked all that and wondered how all that “hopey-changey” stuff had worked out, people were offended but also chagrined: there was a glimmer of truth in what she said.
We are the most tempted to displace our ultimate hope in God when we latch onto leaders who embody everything we wish were true. And while we are right to support and help leaders who have the right goals, it’s a challenge to do that while not for one moment forgetting there is only One who is our true hope and that One will never let us down—not now, not ever.
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