Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 16, 2020
Psalm 67 Commentary
If you read Psalm 67 a certain way, it could look like some example of “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” or “One hand washes the other.” The poem begins with an echo of the great Aaronic benediction from Numbers 6 with reference being made to God’s face shining on people. And it will conclude with a similar call for God to bless God’s people. In between in this fairly short psalm are calls for all the nations and all the peoples everywhere to praise the one true God of Israel.
But in both of the places where God’s blessing is sought, this is immediately followed up by something the equivalent of “And then the earth will see how great you are, O God!” In other words, “You bless us and, you know, we’ll prove to be a blessing to also YOU and so your blessing us will be a real boost for also you, dear God.”
It’s not clear from the psalm how this is meant to be understood. Did it mean that just by becoming a shining showcase of divine favor, other nations would look at Israel and conclude, “Hey, we want what they have!”? Or was this meant more along the lines of Israel’s responding to being blessed by then going out and telling the nations how great God is. If the former, that makes a certain amount of sense. If the latter possibility, well that could start to look almost borderline manipulative along the “You scratch my back . . .” line I quoted above. It sounds like a scene from some mafia movie where a powerful mobster intimidates someone by saying, “If you be good to me, well then, y’know, I’ll be good to you. Capiche?” (It helps if you picture Robert DeNiro saying this!)
Or maybe it’s both and yet without the second possibility necessarily needing to be associated with some kind of manipulation or untoward bargaining with God. After all, God’s relationship with Israel was a covenantal relationship. It was already a kind of bargain, an agreement. God says “I will take care of you as my special people so long as you hold up your end of the covenant and act like a chosen people.” And the people essentially say back to God what Jacob said after his dream of a ladder going up to heaven, “If you come through on all your promises, then I will worship you.”
Of course, eventually Jacob would find out—and later the nation of Israel would find out—that the whole relationship is founded on grace alone. Eventually God first keeps his promise to Abram of generating an entire nation out of Abraham and Sarah’s meager offspring of one child and only then—and after rescuing them from Egyptian slavery—does God issue the Ten Commandments and all the rest of his laws. Salvation came first, rules on how to live as a redeemed people came second. God did not first give a set of laws and then say “Once you achieve a certain level of obedience and adherence to all this, I will consider making you my people.” No, God creates the nation, saves the nation, and only then does God tell them what their end of the bargain ought to look like from then on out. It begins in grace. The rest is all a grateful response to grace.
In the long run, sadly enough, Israel did a miserable job on their end of the deal. Hence the exile to Babylon eventually. And in the longest run God concludes that he is going to have to keep BOTH ends of the covenant himself if this is ever going to work and so the Son of God becomes a human being in whom would be fulfilled what Israel never managed to do themselves.
In any event, the point is that all along the kind of reciprocity we see in Psalm 67 was part of the biblical narrative. God blesses Israel (and Israel seeks the shining face of God’s blessing) and Israel in turn lives as a distinctive people who act like they are aware that a Holy God is dwelling in their very midst. And both of those things in turn were to become a witness to the nations. God’s big Blessing issued in many smaller blessings and the whole package transformed Israel into a living billboard promoting the goodness of Yahweh, the one true God of the cosmos.
Were we to feel a bit uneasy about the “You scratch my back . . .” possible way of reading Psalm 67, in the end there is no reason to feel that way. Because at bottom what this all signals is God’s deep desire to have a true relationship with humanity. That desire was first expressed when God built a Garden in which to fellowship with Adam and Eve. No sooner did that get fractured and God kept promising to find a way to bring about a reunion. It started with a Tabernacle tent in the wilderness and then proceeded to a Temple in Jerusalem and ultimately God’s reunion with humanity climaxed when the Word of God was made flesh. And the Spirit of that Word made flesh then turned each and every believer into a walking, talking Temple of the Holy Spirit, into mini-intersection points of God with humanity.
So the whole “You bless us and we’ll bless you and tell others about you” aspect of Psalm 67 is finally about just one thing: Love.
Many of us are so used to the phrase “May the Lord’s face shine upon you” from the most famous benediction in the Bible that we maybe have lost touch with why this desire was so meaningful to ancient people like the Israelites. And that is in part because many of us really don’t know just how dark this world can get at night and how frightening the dark was to people in history. We live in a world that has the luxury of worrying about “light pollution.” Most of our cities are so well-illuminated even in the dead of a moonless night that the upward shining light has been known to disorient migrating flocks of birds. And, of course, our houses are well-lit day and night. Even without a nightlight, many of our homes can only get so dark at night given the presence of streetlights and such.
But ancient people knew how dark it can get when there was nothing shining in the sky. The dark is scary. And so a desire to have God’s face “shine” on God’s people was in part a desire never to feel afraid, never to feel alone, never to feel lost in the murky darkness that descends on this world every night and in which all of us spend half of our lives. “The people living in darkness have seen a great light” the prophet Isaiah famously wrote. But you have to BE a people who knows what it’s like to live in grave darkness in the first place to know why the light of God’s face is such good news.
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