Deconstructing Psalms

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[As part of our Lenten journey, some of us at That Reformed Blog are blogging through the Lectionary. One of today’s readings is Psalm 19.]

 

God has been speaking since before time.

Long before the invention of writing (about 3200 BC in Sumer and Egypt, 1200 BC in China, and 600 BC in Mesoamerica[i]) God’s Word was being broadcast throughout the cosmos. As John the Apostle reports in his Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1) And yes, people heard and understood God’s word; through nature, through creation, and through oral tradition.

When King David wrote Psalm 19, he made the point that nature itself declares the glory of God. It isn’t just that we can see evidence of God in creation, but that creation itself speaks – creation communicates! Creation itself tells us what we need to know about God!

As the Psalmist says (v.1-4):

 

               The heavens are telling of the glory of God;

And the skies are declaring the work of His hands.

Day after day they pour forth speech,

And night after night they reveal knowledge.

There is no speech, nor are there words;

Their voice is not heard.

[Yet] Their voice has gone out through all the earth,

And their utterances to the end of the world![ii]

 

What do we learn about God from the wisdom of the heavens and the skies? That God loves to do things up big, with unimaginable sizes and distances between galaxies; and if one galaxy is good, then a billion of them are even better! That God is the ultimate artist, painting the sky each morning and each evening with colors that are too beautiful and vibrant to name. That God loves variety! Exactly how many different types of planets are there? That God loves order – placing each star and planet in a particular orbit, and yet still causing a Nautilus mollusk to grow its shell with mathematical precision.

 

Billions of years ago God spoke the cosmos into being, and then set everything in motion, according to God’s laws; or what we generally think of as the laws of Nature, the laws of Physics, the laws of Thermodynamics and the bizarre laws of Quantum Physics.

 

Again, we see this reflected in Psalm 19 (v.7-10):

 

               The law of the LORD is perfect, restoring the soul;

The testimony of the LORD is sure, giving wisdom to the simple.

The precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart;

The commandments of the LORD are radiant, enlightening the eyes.

The fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever;

The judgments of the LORD are true; they are righteous altogether.

They are more desirable than gold, yes, much more than fine gold;

Sweeter also than honey and the drippings of the honeycomb.

 

Since God’s laws, like gravity and the speed of light, have been evident and obvious since the beginning of time[iii] (Paul mentions this in Romans 1:19-20) humanity must have learned about them through some other means. Ancient people were adept at ‘reading’ nature. Early Polynesian explorers memorized the cycles of the stars, and used them for navigation, long before people left written records. The seasons, the law of gravity, the cycles of life –all invented by God –  were carefully studied by humans who formed societies and used these laws to their own advantage. God’s laws may not have been written down, but they were clearly understood.

 

We 21st century humans have a bias toward the written word, which is unfortunate. We have gotten it into our heads that if something was not recorded in writing, it isn’t relevant. We assume the event could not possibly have happened the way it is explained, or we assume the event did not happen at all!

 

For example, a recent Gallup poll found that 4 in 10 Americans believe that the earth is only about 10,000 years old[iv], and was created in six 24-hour periods, because “that is what is written in Genesis.” And yet the geologic, fossil and DNA evidence has proven that the earth is about 4.5 billion years old, and even the Americas were inhabited by humans as far back as 14,500 BC[v] – thousands of years before writing came along!  Surely the languages and cultures of the indigenous people of Australia, Asia and the Americas didn’t simply drop out of the sky a few hundred years ago. The fact that there wasn’t a written record of those cultures (or that they weren’t mentioned in the Bible) doesn’t make them any less important, or less real.

 

Please don’t misunderstand me. I love the Bible and hold a very high view of scripture. I interpret scripture with a historical-contextual approach, but I also understand that the Bible is a library of books; poetry, history, memoir, and letters; written during particular time periods, by human beings, living in particular cultures. Genesis, for example, is not a science textbook, nor is it meant to be read that way. I believe the Bible was inspired, but I don’t think the Bible was dictated by God and written down, word for word.

 

And here, the Psalmist gives us a warning (v. 11-13):

 

                              Moreover, by them Your servant is warned;

In keeping them [God’s laws] there is great reward.

Who can discern their [the servant’s] errors? Acquit me of my hidden faults.

Also keep back Your servant from presumptuous sins; Let them not rule over me;

Then I will be complete. And I shall be acquitted of great transgression.

 

Amazing, isn’t it. We are warned of becoming too proud, too ‘know-it-all-ish,’ as humans. We are warned that we must be mindful of God’s laws at all times, and that we cannot see our own errors. We all have blind spots; like placing all our faith on a literal reading of an ancient creation myth, or believing that God is using the AIDS virus to punish LGBTQ people[vi]. And sometimes our blind spots cause us to sin presumptuously (ie: the Crusades, discrimination, the list goes on). It’s scary how accurate these verses are! Clearly the psalmist was familiar with psychology even before it was a thing.

 

And lastly, this psalm ends in a prayer. It is a familiar prayer to everyone who has ever stepped into a pulpit to preach the Word of God (v.14):

 

                              Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart

Be acceptable in Your sight,

O LORD, my rock and my Redeemer.

 

We must study and speak God’s word – and God’s law – with humility and reverence, precisely because the very heavens and skies declare the glory of the Lord and the work of His hands! Mere humans are no match for that.

 

________________________________________________________

 

[i] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_writing

[ii] All Scripture: New American Standard Bible: 1995 update. (1995). (Ps 19). LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation.

[iii] http://www.everystudent.com/wires/organized.html

[iv] http://www.livescience.com/46123-many-americans-creationists.html

[v] http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/10/141023-paleo-indians-migration-pucuncho-basin-andes-south-america-archaeology

[vi] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/02/28/aids-hiv-gods-punishment_n_4876381.html

 

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4 thoughts on “Deconstructing Psalms

  1. Thank you, Susan! You just helped me figure out the last bits of Sunday’s sermon. God is on display in all these grand and glorious wonders, but God somehow glories in the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts.

  2. Hello Susan! Thank you for this post. It is one of my favorite contemplative pieces on the blog in some time. I mean no disrespect to the great group of authors, just a salute to you. I appreciate your mystic spirit, the wide lens with which you view God’s activity in the world, in nature, in other cultures and their traditions. I also appreciate that you never shy away from the cultural or church zeitgeist and voice your support of our LGBTQ siblings, empowerment of women, etc. I appreciated the link to the (horrendous but eye opening) story about the AIDS survey.

    I do struggle with something though. Keep in mind I am a bit of a contemplative and mystic too. So I agree with you (and David) that a sense of the Divine permeates through nature. But here is my struggle: what about tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes, mental illness that turns tragically violent, sexual deviance that is inexplicable??? It feels like God’s absence is also palpable. And it doesn’t seem fair to lay the blame on a pair of primordial parents in a literal reading of an ancient creation myth (nice turn of a phrase there btw). Neither does it seem just to me even to blame all of this tragedy and suffering on on a traditional “metaphorical reading” of “the fall” we sin so we suffer.

    My only explanation (and I am not sure it is adequate or even that an adequate one exists) is that there really is evil in this world. Not like a little red beast with horns or a “fallen angel” (a stretch of a couple of texts if ever there was). But real evil opposed to the purposes of God and the flourishing of humans and the cosmos: like things visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; powers and principalities.

    But I don’t know? It seems like most protestants – evangelical or progressive – don’t talk about this much anymore. And in Reformed circles we focus so much on God’s sovereignty that too often we see evil as just part of the plan.

    Sorry for the long comment. I am not trying to highjack your beautiful post with my own existential struggle with theodicy. Like I thought I was “over that” a few years ago. But I guess I never will be. All of the questions are probably rhetorical – me thinking aloud in a space where it feels safe to do so. But as always, I would appreciate your feedback.

    • Ah, Wayne. If only we had all the answers, yes?

      Thank you for interacting with this topic, and for your complimentary comments. I so appreciate that A: someone actually reads our humble blog, and B: that you got what I was trying to say. 🙂

      You know, as trite as it sounds, I think this is why God is God, and we are not. Natural disasters are just that – disasters caused by natural phenomena. Earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes, etc. happen with alarming regularity, and the human cost is tragic and in many cases, mind-boggling; but I cannot bring myself to “blame” God, or conclude that they are punishments meted out by God in anger at our sin or stupidity. I think they just happen. Most natural disasters are caused by natural forces, obeying natural laws. It certainly doesn’t mean we have to like it, but it also doesn’t mean we are entitled to know WHY.

      Jesus himself commented on this in John 9 when he healed the man who was blind from birth. The blindness wasn’t caused by the man’s own sin, or the sins of his parents, but it happened so that God’s glory could be seen through the man’s life. (Whatever that means!) Similarly, Jesus claimed that the 18 people who died when a tower fell on them were no more sinful than anyone else – these things just happen.

      That said, I do agree with you that there IS evil in the world. I can come up with no other explanation for things like child pornography, ethnic cleansing, mass murder, or gang rape. I’m sure there is a lot going on in the spiritual realm that we are completely unaware of – those “things invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; powers and principalities.” After all, the Evil One’s greatest accomplishment was convincing the world that he doesn’t really exist, right?

      I’m sure that the things that break my heart, break God’s heart as well. I don’t think evil is “part of God’s plan” but I do believe that God can – and does – redeem all of it, somehow. I don’t need to know HOW. I just know that God is sovereign, and evil does exist. To me, one doesn’t necessarily cancel out the other.

      I don’t know if that helped, but thanks for bringing it up! Always fun to stretch the theological muscles in a different way, now and then!

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