For every psalm that stands out in some way or that is well-known for some reason, there are probably three or four psalms that are not very familiar and that frankly kind of all blend into one another. Most Jews and Christians know Psalms 23 and 100 well. Psalm 46 is a regular go-to poem during times of tumult. Psalm 51 is the classic prayer of confession even as Psalms 136 and 150 are great anthems of worship and praise. And there are a smattering of other familiar psalms (or at least portions of some psalms are well known) like Psalm 137 or Psalms 27 and 42.
But there are a lot of psalms that few even devout believers would know if you just fired off a random psalm number to them (Quick: What’s in Psalm 17?) even as there are many psalms whose words of praise or lament sound an awful lot like any number of other psalms with which we are also only casually familiar. A lot of them more or less run together in our minds.
Psalm 65 seems mostly like that. It’s a lovely song and prayer. But it is definitely one of those psalms that could almost be interchangeable with a few others. What may make this psalm stand out just a bit, however, is the lyric poetry of its closing verses. Here the psalmist veers in the Gerard Manley Hopkins direction with depictions of God’s taking care to dot meadows with sheep even as God uses the divine fingers to trace out nice straight furrows in the soil, tenderly leveling the ridges of each row and then “softening” them with just the right amount of moisture. Here God is Farmer as Artisan, giving the kind of detail to each furrow in the field that a potter in her studio might give to sculpting the handle and spout just so on a clay water jug, using her fingers to pinch the clay exactly into the shape she desires. (When my Dad sees fields in springtime after the farmer had traced out all the rows in straight lines that stretched to the horizon, he says “There’s nothing like seeing a finely fitted field!”)
Of course, the portrait at the end of Psalm 65 represents a good year. But in this time of global climate change where some regions are receiving way too much moisture and other, once-lush regions are drying out into desert-scapes of cracked earth and withered crops, one realizes that Psalm 65 is aspirational as much as it represents someone’s rhapsody at the conclusion of a truly verdant year. In our world right now, Psalm 65 would need only a nudge or two in a certain direction to morph rather suddenly into a psalm of lament, a pleading with God to bring those softening rain showers onto parched furrows that are hardening up by the hour under a blazing sun in the sky.
There are many in this world who could not plausibly take Psalm 65 to their lips just now and then really mean it when they recite these words. Such lyric sentiments of overflowing wagons of produce might just stick in some people’s throats right now like some errant chicken bone. So how might one try to preach on a singularly happy and sunny psalms like this one given the dynamics we know of in the wider world if not also the dynamics right inside any given congregation as well?
Very pastorally is the short answer. But as we have noted of late with some of the other psalms assigned by the Revised Common Lectionary, the pastoral recognition that Psalm 65’s upbeat conclusion may not describe everyone’s life right now need not eclipse the other way to preach these words in a difficult season: with hope.
The poetic imagery of God as agrarian artisan that we just noted from Psalm 65’s closing verses sometimes accurately describes what happens in this world. But more than that, this depiction represents also God’s dearest desires for this world. This IS how God wants it to go every season and in all places. Who knows why it does not always happen. Who knows why some years it seems to happen less often in fewer places than it actually does happen anywhere. There is cause for lament and holy puzzlement in all that. Yes, but with good reason we also know God wants something else.
In some religions—including not a few faiths from the Ancient Near East from which the Israelite faith also emerged—when things went south in life, people would shrug and as much as say, “Well, what did you expect? The gods are angry. That’s just the way they are wired. Zeus has always got fresh lightning bolts in his quiver, ready to hurl them down on our heads. Marduk is just capricious, fickle. If the sun god Re has not shined well on us, it’s because we hacked him off, did not appease his native anger enough with this or that sacrifice of one of our children or something. So goes. As flies to wanton boys . . .”
But not so with Israel’s God Yahweh. Anger is not this God’s default mood. And though the Bible is not shy to show God doling out punishments when it’s warranted, the sense of it is mostly that old line some of our parents uttered when punishing us children: This hurts me more than it hurts you. Granted, when you are the one being grounded for a month, it does not seem like the hurt is flowing mostly to the parent imposing the restriction but except for monster parents who delight in abuse, good parents do feel wounded when they have to make a child unhappy.
Psalm 65 does not represent every person’s life at every moment. Things do not always end up as lyric as the poetry of the closing verses would indicate. Then again, all of us in romantic relationships and marriages know that the same love poetry that so nicely captures many of our moments together as lovers sometimes fits other circumstances in certain other seasons not one little bit. But if the true love and commitment of romance really is accurately expressed by such poetry a lot of the time, then that love is still the core foundation that endures during other more touchy and stressful seasons when we cannot quite get ourselves to recite our favorite love poem.
The God of Israel is like that. God so wants the end of Psalm 65 to be true. All the time. And that means that at the end of the cosmic day, that’s the way it’s going to be too. And that is hope.
I compared the poet of Psalm 65 to Gerard Manley Hopkins, especially images of plotted landscapes and such:
Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 12, 2020
Psalm 65: (1-8), 9-13 Commentary