Psalms

Words, Words, Words

(Transfiguration A    Psalm 2)

What a way to start the day:

Serve the LORD with fear, with trembling kiss his feet, or he will be angry, and you will perish in the way; for his wrath is quickly kindled.  (Psalm 2:11a)

If you're a person, as I am at the moment, giving some thought to how to serve the Lord, and still working off the childhood lessons that God will condemn you for making a "mistake" instead of loving and forgiving you, these kinds of words will likely only add to your concerns. If you grew up hearing unattached verses from Psalms, or hearing them in the common culture, you may wonder how the Old Testament God connects at all to the loving God we believe we have in Jesus.

Last night I dreamed I was working with a group of women who were looking for a song for a worship gathering, and I suggested "His Eye is on the Sparrow." More precisely, I suggested "God's eye is on the sparrow," although looking at it this morning I realize the original version was about Jesus rather than the first person of the Trinity, so it doesn't bother me to sing "his" after all.

Why should I feel discouraged, why should the shadows come,
Why should my heart be lonely, and long for heaven and home,
When Jesus is my portion? My constant friend is He:
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

Refrain

I sing because I’m happy,
I sing because I’m free,
For His eye is on the sparrow,
And I know He watches me.

I know God watches me. It sounds so comforting rather than fear-inspiring, as in the Psalm. But that partial verse is not the complete story, just the sort of thing that is easily taken out of context and misunderstood.

On the way to dinner last night, my husband and 12-year-old daughter joined me in a conversation about words and how we hear them, how important the circumstances are to understanding what is really meant. My husband, other than a brief time building failed constructions out of Popsicle sticks at the nearby Congregational Church, grew up unchurched. His minimal religious education supplemented only by working in industrial circumstances populated largely by fundamentalists, he came to understand Christianity only through his own reading and through the filters applied by non-believers of his acquaintance.  He sometimes asks me how I can preach from a book filled with cruel actions and terrible desires, and in those conversations he nearly always mentions the Psalms.

"What about that Psalm where they ask God to dash the babies' heads against the stones?"

This was a new one for my daughter.

"That's horrible! Why would anyone say such a thing?" she exclaimed.

And instead of trying to brush it off as just one thing, or something I don't agree with, making excuses for or distancing myself from my holy texts, I answered her, both of them really, this way:

The Psalms express the feelings of real people: their joys, their sorrows, their anguish and their anger, too. Someone prayed for the worst possible thing to happen to his or her enemy, and that was it. And it's a reminder to us that humanity doesn't change as much as we might like to think over the millenniums.

I've wandered away from Psalm 2. It speaks of a time when God will bring forth a leader other than the earthly princes. It tells those in power they had better regard God with awe, which does contain its element of fear at times.

And it does end on a note of comfort, in the back half of verse 11:

Happy are all who take refuge in him.

It's a good reminder to all of us not to swallow the words whole and the quotations partial.

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