Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 9, 2023
Psalm 145:8-14 Commentary
The Lectionary carves out for us the middle third of this psalm and so although there are multiple (albeit overall related) themes in this poem, we will focus on verse 8 and how it sets the tone for the verses before us. “The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love.” The verses that follow are a small litany of praise and thanks to God but you get the feeling that those lines continue to center on the divine characteristics detailed in verse 8.
One of the oldest caricatures in the world is the one that led to one of the earliest heresies of the church; namely, Marcionism and the idea that the God of the Old Testament is a different God than the one Jesus calls “Father” in the New Testament. The caricature part of it all is in the idea that the Old Testament God identified as Yahweh is just generally an angry, Zeus-like figure more interested in tossing thunderbolts around than being anyone’s loving Father.
Of course, there is no denying that in the Old Testament God does punish his people in some interesting ways. We have stories of God’s sending snakes into the camp of Israel, of the ground opening up to swallow the impious, of a man getting zapped dead for having done no more than trying to steady the Ark of the Covenant when it looked like it was about to slip clean off the ox cart carrying the thing. God is said to send enemies to attack Israel and causes Israel to lose battles on account of things like one lone man having broken the rule about not keeping any spoils from a previous battle. And of course the entire people of Israel get the ultimate punishment for covenant failures when God sends the lot of them into Babylonian exile for seven or so decades.
It is all bracing stuff and though in the New Testament we bump into stories like Ananias and Sapphira dropping dead for having lied to the Holy Spirit and although the Book of Revelation contains no small amount of apocalyptic scenarios of God’s judging the earth and routing all his enemies, the God and Father Jesus talks about definitely seems to snort less fire from his nostrils than what we more frequently see in the Old Testament.
True enough. And yet, Psalm 145:8 is one of many Old Testament passages that swoons over the gracious compassion and mercy of the God who is in fact said to be very slow to anger. It does not say God never gets angry. It is a possibility. Now and again it becomes a reality. It is however not this God’s core. It is not this God’s default setting. In fact, anger faces long odds since it has mountains of gracious compassion and mercy to overcome first.
Indeed, the last two words in Hebrew of Psalm 145:8 tell the real story. God is described as being gadol chesed. Some translations render this “rich in love” or “abounding in love.” It literally means something like “great lovingkindness.” Because if you have read much of the sermon commentaries here on the CEP website, then you know that the Hebrew word chesed is a tough one to translate. It is so radiant with and redolent of good things no one English word (and I imagine no one word in any language) can quite capture it all. As noted before, love, grace, mercy, kindness, lovingkindness are all translation candidates as is most anything that leans in the direction of somebody who dearly wants to not let unhappy or difficult things get in the way of good relationships.
Someone with gadol chesed is forever on the lookout for ways to get around those things that happen in life that can damage relationships, cause hurt, or even those things that are genuinely representative of bad behavior, cruel and cutting words, acts of betrayal, and more. Deep down we all pine for shalom. We want to get along with one another and with God. God wants that too and although a firm and even occasionally a punitive response may be needed to address deep and longstanding abuse of creation or of creatures or of human beings made in God’s image, that is the last resort of a God abounding in kindness and grace.
God’s own determination to let this be his defining characteristic goes back to the story of the Flood. It’s a terrible story whose true horrors usually get papered over through our charming efforts to make it a tale fit for children with all those cute arks stuffed full of giraffes and elephants and zebras and such. But that is no children’s tale. God is never said to have become angry in those chapters, however. Instead he is grieved. God is sad. God thinks in his grief that maybe he has to start over with one man named Noah.
But when it is all over, God says “Never again.” The grief that led to the deluge will from that time forward give way to the grace that will lead God to find a new way to start over. The new way won’t be punishment but rather will come through the One who will eventually be revealed to be the Son of God who will take the punishment borne of grief onto himself so that no one else will ever have to bear it again.
When that man named Jesus cries out from the cross, “It is accomplished!” it was in a way a cry that descended directly from Psalm 145’s declaration that this is a God of gadol chesed, of great lovingkindness, of utter grace. How great? The crucified Savior’s lifeless body impaled on a spit of wood is the answer. God’s gracious compassion is that great.
We sometimes say of a person who is highly patient and very slow to get upset (much less angry) that this person “has a long fuse.” Most of us know what a fuse is. If we have ever lit a firecracker or set off some other firework, then we know about fuses and we also know that anything you light that has a short fuse is something to throw away from you the moment the cigarette lighter ignites the fuse.
It’s an interesting image. Anything that has a fuse, after all, has the capacity to explode. Why else would the thing have a fuse in the first place? But people with long fuses are usually people who are very patient, who are prone to be kind, who want to see things work out for the better in any given situation and who therefore do not want to blow up in someone’s face in ways that nine times out of ten only serves to make matters worse. In that case all of that patience and kindness and graciousness becomes basically that person’s fuse. What burns on down the line before an explosion might come is the grace and the kindness of this person’s character. And of course when there really is a long fuse, there is plenty of time to put it out. Even a hissing fuse with that spark-emitting flame working down the line can be put out if need be—just having a lit fuse does not mean any explosion is inevitable.
God, Psalm 145 and so many other Bible passages say, has a very long fuse and most of the time, even if it gets lit, the odds are the explosion will never happen. There’s just too much gadol chesed to burn through first.
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