Wednesday, July 31, 2013

A Little Something Extra...Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Power of Baptism

St. Paul reminds us today of the power of Baptism. Listen once more to what he says in Colossians 2:12-14.

Brothers and sisters:
You were buried with Him in baptism,
in which you were also raised with Him
through faith in the power of God,
who raised Him from the dead.
And even when you were dead
in transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh,
He brought you to life along with Him,
having forgiven us all our transgressions;
obliterating the bond against us, with its legal claims,
which was opposed to us,
He also removed it from our midst, nailing it to the cross.

According to this passage, in the sacrament of Baptism, we are buried with Christ and then raised up with Him. We dip down into water, symbolically participating in Jesus' death, thereby dying to our old way of life and to the original sin inherited from our first parents. Then we rise up from the water in a new birth, symbolically participating in Jesus' resurrection. We are now new creatures in Christ. We who were once dead in sin now live in Him. 

Baptism, then, is a sacrament of forgiveness. When we are baptized, our original sin and any personal sins we have committed are washed away. We are clean and white, right with God, with others, and with ourselves. How can this happen? Jesus Christ, Paul reminds us, has removed the bond of our debts from us. He nailed our sins to the cross. He brought us forgiveness. Baptism allows us to access that forgiveness easily and thoroughly. 

To continue our reflection on Baptism, let's turn to the Catechism, #1213-#1284. “Holy Baptism,” the Catechism begins, “is the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit..., and the door which gives access to the other sacraments.” In Baptism, we are “freed from sin and reborn” as children of God. Further, “we become members of Christ, are incorporated into the Church and made sharers in her mission...” (#1213). Baptism, then, initiates us into the life of the Holy Trinity and into the Body of Christ, which is the Church. 

Quoting St. Gregory of Nazianzus, the Catechism continues, “Baptism is God's most beautiful and magnificent gift....We call it gift, grace, anointing, enlightenment, garment of immortality, bath of rebirth, seal, and most precious gift. It is called gift because it is conferred on those who bring nothing of their own; grace since it is given even to the guilty; Baptism because sin is buried in the water; anointing for it is priestly and royal as are those who are anointed; enlightenment because it radiates light; clothing since it veils our shame; bath because it washes; and seal as it is our guard and the sign of God's Lordship” (#1216).

In Baptism, we receive God's sanctifying grace, which His very divine presence in our souls, a presence that saves us, that makes us His children and heirs, that transforms us into members of Christ and temples of the Holy Spirit, that allows us to live in the Kingdom of God here and now in anticipation of the fullness of that Kingdom in Heaven (see #1265-66). Further, Baptism seals us with an “indelible spiritual mark,” indicating that we belong to Christ. As the Catechism says, “No sin can erase this mark, even if sin prevents Baptism from bearing the fruits of salvation” (#1272). Christians may lose sanctifying grace, and thereby salvation, through mortal sin, but we will never lose the mark of our Baptism. 

Sometimes our Protestant brothers and sisters will say that Baptism is merely a public announcement of a salvation that has already taken place internally. Catholics do not agree. For us, Baptism is so much more. It is the sacrament of salvation, given to us by God as a sure means of entering into His sanctifying grace. The Church, following Jesus, affirms the necessity of Baptism for salvation but also recognizes that God is “not bound by His sacraments” (#1257). In ways that only He knows, He can bring salvation and eternal life even to the unbaptized. Catholics, however, recognize the great gift and power of Baptism and hurry to accept it for ourselves and our children, inviting God into our souls as He graciously invites us into His Heaven.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Notes on the Psalms – Psalm 62

Psalm 62 is a persuasive psalm. The psalmist, David according to the inscription, chooses a position, supports it with evidence, and makes a recommendation. Let's look at each of these actions. 

David's position is very clear. He will rely on God alone for his help and salvation. He begins the psalm with this strong statement: “For God alone my soul waits in silence; from Him comes my salvation.” As usual, the Hebrew words give us some insight into the depths of this first verse. The Hebrew word for “waits in silence” is dûmı̂yâh. It suggests a quiet trust, a repose. David is not agitated. He is not afraid that God will let him down. He is simply waiting for God, and only God, to come to him. When God comes, He will bring salvation for David. The Hebrew word for “salvation” is yeshû‛âh. Yeshuah. Joshua. Jesus. David could not have known about Jesus, of course. For him, salvation, yeshû‛âh, meant deliverance from his enemies, victory, and prosperity. But as Christians, we automatically think of our Savior when we see this Hebrew word, which becomes a kind of prophecy whenever it is used in the Old Testament (for the Holy Spirit Who inspired the Scriptures certainly knew what was to come). 

David elaborates on his position in verse 2: “He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall never be shaken.” David knows where to turn for security: only to God. God is a rock for him, the One who is solid, never changing, secure. He is David's salvation, yeshû‛âh, again. He is a fortress, in Hebrew miśgâb, a high place where David can seek refuge and security. If David turns to God alone, he will not be shaken. He will not slip or stagger or totter. He will not fall or give way. He will remain immoveable in his immoveable God. While David does not say so, he is almost certainly basing this statement on his past experience. God has held him securely in the past. He has been his strength and brought him victory. David is positive that He will continue to do so in the future.

Such security cannot be found elsewhere. David makes that clear in verses 3 and 4. He addresses his enemies in verse three, asking them, “How long will you assail a person, will you batter your victim, all of you, as you would a leaning wall, a tottering fence?” These are violent enemies. The Hebrew word for “batter” is râtsach. It actually refers to murder. His enemies are slamming against their weak victim as they would attempt to destroy a leaning wall or a tottering fence. What they do not realize is that their victim may appear weak but is actually clinging to a Rock that can never be moved. 

David continues, speaking to his first audience again rather than to his enemies directly, “Their only plan is to bring down a person of prominence. They take pleasure in falsehood; they bless with their mouths, but inwardly they curse.” These are smooth people. They put on a good show with their blessings and flattery, but underneath, they are bent on destroying their victim. The Hebrew word for “bring down” is nâdach, which can mean overthrow, cast out, or drive away. These scheming men want their victim's power, for he is a man of excellence and dignity, of high rank (Hebrew śe'êth). 

Who is this victim? Most likely, David is referring to himself here. He is under some threat from people very close to him. This psalm may even have been written before his son Absalom seized power by treachery and exiled his father from Jerusalem. David feels what is coming. He cannot trust those around him, but he can and does rely on God alone for his security.

David reiterates his point in verses 5, 6, and 7. He repeats his assertion from verse 1: “For God alone my soul waits in silence...” While the English translation is the same, the Hebrew word for “waits in silence” is different. In verse 5, it is dâmam, and it has a greater range of meanings than the word dûmı̂yâh in verse 1. The Hebrew dâmam still refers to a silent waiting, but it can also mean “to be astonished” or “to perish.” David seems to be saying that he will wait quietly for God even unto death, no matter what happens. Why? He continues: “...for my hope is from Him.” The Hebrew word for hope is tiqvâh. It literally means “cord.” David is tied to God, bound to Him, so he has hope. He expects great things. He can repeat with confidence that God alone is his rock and salvation, his fortress. He will not be shaken. 

In verse 7, David adds to his description of God, further supporting his position: “On God rests my deliverance and my honor; my mighty rock, my refuge is in God.” In God, David finds deliverance, in Hebrew yesha‛ (safety, salvation, welfare, rescue, victory). In God, David finds honor, in Hebrew kâbôd (glory, reputation, dignity). In God, David finds his rock, in Hebrew ‛ôz (might, strength, power). In God, David finds his refuge, in Hebrew machăseh (shelter, hope, trust). Only God can give him all these things. Only in God is David truly secure. 

David has now expressed his position, namely, that only in God will people find their help and salvation. He has also supported it with evidence. Now, in verse 8, he makes a recommendation: “Trust in Him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before Him; God is a refuge for us.” David wants others to realize what he already has grasped and to act accordingly. The Hebrew word for “trust” is bâṭach, which means to confidently turn to for refuge. People must trust in God always, pouring out their hearts to Him. They are to give their entire selves to God, right down to their deepest core. Then they, too, will understand that God is their refuge.

But David does not stop with his recommendation. He reminds his audience once again that they will find such protection nowhere else. People are fleeting, he argues in verse 9. The lowly and the prominent alike are “lighter than a breath” in the overall scheme of things. They cannot provide the protection and salvation found in God. Riches cannot do so either, whether they are gained justly or unjustly. “[D]o not set your heart on them,” David warns his listeners. 

In conclusion, David once again recognizes God's power (Hebrew ‛ôz) and steadfast love (Hebrew chêsêd – mercy, kindness, favor) and reminds his readers that God repays all people “according to their work.” In other words, human beings have a choice. They can choose to put their trust in God and turn to Him for protection, salvation, help, and love or they can choose to put their trust in other human beings or in material riches and lose out on God's protection, salvation, help, and love. David knows his choice. He has stated it clearly, supported it with evidence, and recommended to all people to choose God, their rock and their salvation.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

A Little Something Extra...Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Today's second reading, Colossians 1:24-28, might seem a bit shocking at first. St. Paul tells us that he is "filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ" in his own flesh. What is lacking in the afflictions of Christ? What could possibly be lacking? Jesus, the divine Son of God, is perfect. His suffering was perfect. This salvation He won for us is perfect. The forgiveness of sins that He brings is perfect. How in the world could anything be lacking?

Yet Paul says that by his sufferings he is filling up a gap, something that is missing, and he is doing so on behalf of the Church. 

That missing thing is the distribution of God's grace and of the salvation of Christ to all people. Many people have never heard the Gospel. Others have received it only partially and don't fully understand it. Others have been misinformed by poor teaching. Still others have rejected the teachings of Christ and risk eternal damnation. Even committed, devout Christians sometimes lose their intimacy with God through sin and negligence and need a fresh outpouring of grace. For all these people, Paul offers his own suffering that God's Word might be complete in them, that it might reach its fullness in their lives and lift them up to a close relationship with God and eventually to Heaven.

This whole process is called subjective redemption. Let's define the term by contrast first. Objective redemption refers to the redemption won for us by Christ. This is a grace, a gift from God. Jesus died on the cross to obtain this redemption. We do nothing to earn it; our job is to accept it through a living faith. Subjective redemption, on the other hand, refers to the distribution of the saving grace won for us by Christ. Here's where we come in. Through our prayers and the sufferings we patiently offer to God, we can help distribute divine grace to those around us or even to people we don't know. God lets us help. He wants us to ask Him to shower His grace on others. He wants us to offer up our trials and struggles that other people might benefit from them. He doesn't need our prayers or sufferings, of course, but He wants us to participate and take an active role in spreading redemption throughout the world. 

Therefore, like Paul, we fill up in our own flesh, in our suffering and prayers, what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, that missing link of distributing God's saving grace through the entire world, to every person. We know the "mystery hidden from the ages and from generations," for it has been made manifest to us through the Gospel. God has made known to us the "the riches of the glory" of Christ. Our job is to proclaim those riches to others and to allow God to use us to help bring His children to the perfection of Heaven.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

A Little Something Extra...Fifteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

In Our Hearts

In today's First Reading from Deuteronomy, we hear part of Moses' farewell instructions to the Israelites. He is about to die, and he knows it, so he wants to give the people some good, sound advice, advice that applies just as much to us as it did to them. Listen again to what he says.

“If only you would heed the voice of the LORD, your God,
and keep His commandments and statutes
that are written in this book of the law,
when you return to the LORD, your God,
with all your heart and all your soul.

“For this command that I enjoin on you today
is not too mysterious and remote for you.
It is not up in the sky, that you should say,
‘Who will go up in the sky to get it for us
and tell us of it, that we may carry it out?’
Nor is it across the sea, that you should say,
‘Who will cross the sea to get it for us
and tell us of it, that we may carry it out?’
No, it is something very near to you,
already in your mouths and in your hearts;
you have only to carry it out.” 

Moses first tells us to listen to the voice of God. Where do we, as Christians, hear this voice? We hear God's voice in the Scriptures, which are the inspired Word of God written for us. We hear His voice speaking through the Church, which is guided by the Holy Spirit. We hear His voice in the liturgy and the sacraments, in which we receive His grace and His indwelling presence. We hear His voice in the depths of our hearts, where our conscience whispers God's message to us. 

Moses then reminds us to keep God's commandments and statutes. When God tells us to do or not to do something, we must obey. He knows us far better than we know ourselves, and every commandment or statute He gives us is for our own good. We might think that such rules take away our freedom and prevent us from finding fulfillment, but actually, the opposite is true. God's commandments and statutes allow us to experience true freedom, which is the freedom to be holy and to develop an intimate relationship with God. 

Third, Moses challenges us to return to the Lord, our God, with all our heart and all our soul. We have all walked away from God at some point in our lives. We have all sinned, and we all continue to sin, for we are human and weak. But God is waiting with open arms to welcome us back whenever we repent and turn to Him. We must, however, be sure to return to Him with our whole being, heart and soul. God wants all of us, every part of our lives, every thought, every word, every action. Everything should be directed to Him for His glory and in His love.

How will we be able to listen to God's voice, keep His commandments, and return to Him heart and soul? Moses assures us that such things are not too mysterious or too remote for us. We already know what to do and how to do it. We don't have to go searching up in the sky or across the sea to figure things out. We just have to look inside ourselves. God has written His law on our hearts. It's part of our very nature, part of who we are as His creatures, made in His image. Because of our sin and weakness, we often need help to discern and understand that law inscribed deep within, but it is there nonetheless. We are designed to hear God, to obey God, and to turn to God. It's part of who we are. He made us for Himself. Our job is to pay attention, to clear out all the interior cobwebs and noise that block our inner eyes and ears from seeing and hearing what is right in front of us and then to act on what we find deep down inside. As Moses says, what God wants “is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts; you have only to carry it out.” Amen.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Notes on the Psalms – Psalm 61

In only eight verses, Psalm 61 packs a powerful punch of meaning. We'll examine this psalm through five different lenses to try to unpack its various layers and interpretations.

We'll being with the language and structure of the psalm, its literary level of meaning. It begins with a plea: “Hear my cry, O God; listen to my prayer.” The Hebrew words of this verse are strong. The word for “hear” is shâma‛, which implies an active hearing followed by a favorable response. The psalmist is not merely asking God to listen to him; he desires God to hear and reply. The word for “cry” is rinnâh. It denotes a shrill sound that rings out in joy or grief. The word for “listen” is qâshab. It is a plea for attention, for regard, for notice. The psalmist desires God to turn toward him like a father turns toward his pleading child. The word for “prayer” is tǝphillâh, which can refer to a supplication, an intercession, or even a hymn. 

The next verse describes the psalmist's current situation: “From the end of the earth I call to You, when my heart is faint.” He is far from home, somewhere beyond the boundaries of safety and comfort. He feels as though he stands in the most remote of places, at the very end of the earth, apart from all he knows and loves and perhaps even away from God. His heart is faint. The Hebrew word for “faint” is more descriptive than its translation suggests. It is ‛âṭaph, and it means overwhelmed, languishing, shrouded in darkness, swooning, and failing. The psalmist feels like he is losing himself in his separation from his home and his God. He calls out (Hebrew qârâ' - to utter a loud sound, to summon, to cry for help) to God with two specific requests.

The first request appears in the second half of verse 2: “Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for You are my refuge, a strong tower against the enemy.” The psalmist is seeking a high place, a stronghold, somewhere far above his enemies where he will be safe from their grasp. This refuge, however, is not a physical place; it is God. God must be the psalmist's shelter, his place of protection from danger, his tower of defense and security, his safe zone. The psalmist wants to hide in God as in an impenetrable fortress.

The second request offers a new twist: “Let me abide in Your tent forever, find refuge under the shelter of Your wings.” The psalmist wants to make his home with God (abide in His tent) forever, not just in times of danger and insecurity but always (in Hebrew ‛ôlâm, which literally means to the vanishing point of time). He craves God's protection and care, yearning to hide under the cover of God's wings like a baby bird tucks itself away beneath its mother's feathers. The word “tent” also strongly points to worship, for “tent” can also mean “tabernacle,” and God's Tabernacle, built by Moses on God's design and order, was Israel's center of worship until the Temple was erected in the reign of King Solomon. With that in mind, the psalmist may be longing to return to his usual, public worship of God in the Tabernacle (or Temple depending on the context). Far from home as he is, he is currently isolated from formal worship, and he would greatly feel its absence and his own distance from the Tabernacle, which was the dwelling place of God on earth. 

To recap, the psalmist is asking for defense from his enemies with God as his stronghold, but he is also requesting the comfort and security of an everlasting home with God and of familiar, necessary worship in God's house.

Verse 5 begins with the transition word “for” (Hebrew kı̂y), which indicates a causal relationship. The psalmist can ask for defense and security, and he can find refuge under God's wings because God has heard his vows and given him “the heritage of those who fear Your name.” The psalmist has made a covenant with God. At God's invitation, he has sworn a covenant oath that has created a bond of self-giving love between him and God. He is now part of God's family, an heir with a place in God's household. That's why he can be confident that God will hear him, for God has heard him (shâma‛) in the past. He has taken his position among those who fear and revere God, and he trusts that God will respond to him.

The psalmist follows this reminder with another specific prayer: “Prolong the life of the king; may his years endure to all generations! May he be enthroned forever before God; appoint steadfast love and faithfulness to watch over him!” The specific meaning of this request depends on the psalm's context, but generally, the psalmist is praying for a heritage for Israel's king. He is asking that the king's dynasty last forever, that the king and his descendants may rule forever in God's will, guided and protected by God's love (Hebrew chêsêd – also mercy, goodness, kindness, faithfulness, pity) and faithfulness (Hebrew 'emeth – also stability, certainty, truth). This is to be a Godly dynasty. There is also a hint in verse 7 of prayer that king himself may abide in God's eternal dwelling (the Hebrew word for “enthroned,” yâshab, can mean to remain or settle). The Jewish concept of the afterlife was still developing at this point, and Jesus had not yet opened the gates of Heaven, but perhaps the Holy Spirit was pointing ahead to the Heavenly homeland to come.

In the last verse, the psalmist turns to praise: “So I will always sing praises to Your Name, as I pay my vows day after day.” The Hebrew word for “sing praises” is zâmar, which indicates joyful, musical celebration. The psalmist knows what God has done and will do for him. He trusts that God will answer his prayers, so he promises his continual and eternal praise. He also says that he will pay his vows each day. He will live out his covenant oath. He will act as God's child, obeying God's laws, honoring his Father, and keeping the relationship strong through prayer. He will uphold his end of the bond of self-giving love he has made with God.

Now let's turn our attention to the context of Psalm 61. The psalm's inscription indicates that it is “of David,” and many scholars maintain that David wrote this psalm while in exile after being betrayed by his son Absalom. This interpretation could easily be supported by the text. The psalmist says that he calls on God “[f]rom the ends of the earth.” He is far from God's “tent” or tabernacle. He is threatened by rebellion and desperately needs refuge from his enemies, security he will only find in God. In his current danger, he prays for the prolongation of the “life of the king.” He may be praying for himself here, especially with his focus on abiding forever before God in His “steadfast love and faithfulness.” He might, however, be praying for the new “king,” Absalom. David never stopped loving his rebellious son. He even begged his followers to spare Absalom's life and make sure he was not harmed. Perhaps David thought that Absalom's usurpation was God's will. In such a case, he would certainly have prayed to God for his son's success and protection, focusing especially on a request that the new king rule before God and be guided by God's love and truth. David himself promises to praise God and live out the covenant no matter what his status in the world.

Some scholars argue that Psalm 61 was not written by David at all but by an unknown Jewish exile in Babylon even though the psalm's inscription clearly reads “A Psalm of David.” Certainly, however, the psalm would have had great meaning for a person in exile far from his homeland. The exiled person would feel as though he was living at “the end of the earth.” He would be unable to worship God in the Temple yet long to find refuge in the familiar experience of Jewish sacrifice and prayer. Under the thumb of his captors, he would pray for God's protection, for a high place to which he could escape and a strong tower in which he could find defense. He would certainly pray for his king, also carried away into Babylonian captivity. King Zedikiah would have needed all the prayers he could get. After refusing to cooperate with Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, Zedikiah was forced to watch his sons slain before his eyes before being blinded. The psalmist himself recognizes that he is still in a covenant with God no matter where he is living, and he vows to sing God's praises and live out his covenant oath even in exile.

Psalm 61 can also be read with a Messianic meaning. The Jews were constantly hoping and praying for God's promised Messiah, who would come from David's line, rescue Israel from foreign domination, and intensify the reign of God. Scholars have sometimes seen a prayer for the Messiah in verses 6 and 7. The Messiah would be the true king of Israel, a king who would reign before God forever in steadfast love and faithfulness. His rule would indeed endure for all generations. This was the dream of the Jews, their greatest prayer, their highest desire. God would fulfill His promise in a way greater than any of their dreams, prayers, or desires, for the Messiah is none other than Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Finally, Christians can find great meaning in Psalm 61. We, too, cry to God from the ends of the earth that He may hear our prayer when our hearts are fainting and overwhelmed by the troubles and trials we face in this world. We run to God for protection, praying that He may be a strong tower for us, a high place, a refuge, where we can climb up above our enemies, both worldly and spiritual, and be safe. We, too, have made a covenant with God in Jesus Christ. We, too, have a heritage as members of God's family. We, too, long to worship Him in the way He desires and find our shelter in the shadow of His wings. We, too, pray that the reign of our King, Jesus Christ, will last forever in love and truth. We, too, must always sing praise to God and live out our covenant vows day by day. Indeed, Psalm 61 is a short but comprehensive summary of Christian life, a life of everlasting, intimate relationship with God.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

A Little Something Extra...Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Varieties of Joy

Today's readings are linked together by the thread of joy. Each Scripture passage presents several different varieties of joy, culminating in the last verse of the Gospel, which describes the highest joy of all.

First Reading – Isaiah 66:10-14

1. The joy of a homeland – The Jews had experienced exile, and therefore, they knew what it meant to have a home. Jerusalem was more than just their physical habitation, however; it was also their place of encounter with God, Whose dwelling was the Temple. 

2. The joy of God's motherly love – God loves us even more than a mother loves her children. He carries us, comforts us, nourishes us, and cares for us.

3. The joy of prosperity – Humans naturally enjoy the good things of this world, for they are gifts from God. 

4. The joy of God's power – God is in control. He knows us, and He has a plan for our lives. He wants us to flourish under His guidance.

Psalm 66

5. The joy of praising God – The most joyful thing we can do is praise God, Who is all-good, all-loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing. Our joy should flow out to Him in worship, which opens us up to receive even more joy, flowing back from Him. 

6. The joy of the wonderful works of God – God does great things for His people. As we study salvation history by reading the Bible, learn about the history of the Church and the lives of the saints, and reflect on our own experiences, we can see God at work, loving, building, guiding, testing, polishing, and saving His people.

7. The joy of God's response to our prayers – God always hears us, and He always responds. We may not like His response, but He never ignores us.

Second Reading – Galatians 6:14-18

8. The joy of the cross – Jesus died on the cross that we may live with Him forever in Heaven. We take joy in His cross and in our own crosses when we join them to His.

9. The joy of being a new creation – When we were baptized, we became new creatures in Christ. God's presence, His sanctifying grace, has filled into our souls. We have been made new, recreated by God's great love.

10. The joy of peace, mercy, and grace – God's peace, mercy, and grace surround us and fill our hearts when we open ourselves to Him. God is always ready to forgive our sins, sooth our fears, and draw us close to Him.

Gospel – Luke 10:1-12, 17-20

11. The joy of spreading the Gospel – We are all called to spread the Good News in word and deed. No matter what our place in the world, we can be ministers of the Kingdom of God, allowing Christ to shine through us in our love for others.

12. The joy of simplicity – The seventy-two disciplines Jesus sent out carried no money or provisions. They lived simply, focusing on Christ and the mission He gave them, without the distractions of too many possessions. They stayed where they were invited, ate what was set before them, and filled their hosts' homes with peace. 

13. The joy of the Kingdom of God – God rules. God reigns. When we live in His Kingdom, we begin to experience Heaven on earth, for we feel His healing touch and receive His uplifting grace.

14. The joy of Heaven – This is the highest joy of all, an eternity face-to-face with God, basking in His love. No wonder Jesus tells His disciplines, “...rejoice because your names are written in Heaven.” 

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Notes on the Psalms – Psalm 60

Psalm 60 is the last of David's “Miktam” psalms. Further research into the Hebrew word “Miktam” has revealed a variety of potential meanings. In the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament), "Miktam" is translated "stelographia," which means something like "pillar inscription." Various rabbis have noted that "Miktam" is derived from the Hebrew word "kethem," meaning "gold." Some scholars wonder, therefore, if perhaps these six "Miktam" psalms had at some point been inscribed in gold and displayed prominently in the Temple. Other scholars, focusing on the value of gold, emphasize that these are "golden psalms," which are "artistic in form and choice in contents" (New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia). B.D. Eerdmans, on the other hand, thinks that “Miktam” might refer to covering the lips in secrecy and wonders if these psalms were originally silent prayers that David could not pray out loud because of his situation. Still other scholars wonder if "Miktam" was originally "Miktab," a word found in Isaiah 38:9 that means simply "writing" or "song" or "poem." Even if that is the case, the word's variation was probably intentional in order to provide it a new and deeper meaning and give the six “Miktam” psalms a special emphasis. 

As with most of the other “Miktam” psalms, the instruction/inscription of Psalm 60 offers a specific context: “To the leader: according to the Lily of the Covenant. A Miktam of David; for instruction; when he struggled with Aramnaharaim and with Aramzobah, and when Joab on his return killed twelve thousand Edomites in the Valley of Salt.” By this time, David was already the King of Israel. Saul was dead. David had subdued his internal enemies. His reign over the twelve tribes of Israel was secure, but the surrounding Gentiles were nervous about David's power. They could see his strength and authority, and they didn't like it. They felt threatened, so they went on the offensive and attacked on several fronts. These battles are described in 2 Samuel 8, 1 Chronicles 18, and 1 Kings 11. While David struggled against enemies from modern-day Syria in the north (Aramzobah) and from the west (Aramnaharaim), the Edomites, Moabites, and Ammonites attacked Judah from the south. In the midst of this chaos, in the face of this dangerous situation and the potential destruction of Israel, David wrote Psalm 60, expressing both his intense distress and his relentless trust in God.

Before we examine the psalm, let's take a look at two more elements in the inscription. First, the psalm is labeled “according to the Lily of the Covenant.” This is probably a musical notation indicating that the psalm is to be sung to the tune of “Lily of the Covenant.” It is interesting, however, that the word “covenant” is used here. Could David be reminding himself that God does indeed have a covenant with His people Israel, a covenant that lasts forever even when times are tough and destruction seem imminent? Second, the psalm is also labeled “for instruction” or, in Hebrew, lâmad. This is a psalm that is meant to offer a lesson to the Israelites and to every generation to follow. What is that lesson? Let's explore the psalm.

Verses 1-3 set the scene. Israel is in trouble, attacked by the Gentiles on all sides. Victory seems uncertain, perhaps even impossible. Defeat and ruin loom. David cries out, “O God, You have rejected us, broken our defenses; You have been angry...” He continues, “You have caused the land to quake; You have torn it open...” And further, “You have made Your people suffer hard things; You have given us wine to drink that made us reel.” David feels abandoned by God. The people are suffering and scattered, terrified and broken, staggering about like drunken men, unable to function. The very earth shakes beneath them, either literally or figuratively. Life is falling apart for Israel. God seems absent, or worse, hostile. The situation is dire. 

In the midst of his laments, however, David prays. “[N]ow restore us!” he calls to God. The Hebrew construction here might also indicate God's turning back to Israel. Pay attention, God, David cries. Listen! Turn around! See our danger! Come back to us! Lift Your heavy hand! Remove these perils from us! In the next verse, he asks God to “repair the cracks” in the land, for it is tottering, about to fall. This might be literal (if there was indeed an earthquake in addition to the war) or figurative (Israel itself is broken and about to tumble). Only God can heal the land. Only He can make things right. 

In verse 4, David grasps some hope. “You have set up a banner for those who fear You, to rally to it out of bowshot.” Israel's battle flag is God. He is the One Whom the defenders of Israel will rally around for safety and encouragement. The Hebrew words are actually somewhat ambiguous here. Another possible translation of the verse reads “Thou hast given a banner to them that fear Thee, that it may be displayed because of the truth” (KJV). The truth is that God has made a covenant with Israel. He may allow hardships for a while, but He will come to rescue His people, defend them from their enemies, and give them victory.

Indeed, in the next verse, David prays, “Give victory with Your right hand and answer us, so that those whom You love may be rescued.” David has faith in God's love even in the worst of circumstances. He can notice the signs of hope, the action of God, and pray for the victory that he trusts God to bring. God loves His people, even when His people cannot see evidence of that love. Even in the midst of danger and trial and fear and distress, God loves His people. He has a purpose for them. He knows what they need. He sometimes allows the hurt, but He will always rescue them in the end. David trusts in this. 

David knows what God has promised, and he even quotes God in verses 6-8. God says that He will rejoice as He divides up the Canaanite lands from Shechem, a primary town in the west, to the valley of Succoth in the east. The Hebrew word for “divide” is châlaq, which also means to distribute or apportion. These were the lands that God promised to Abraham so many years before. God again vows to joyfully distribute them to His people Israel that they may settle peacefully in the “Promised Land” they had longed for over so many years. God assures David that Gilead and Manasseh belong to Him, that Ephraim is His helmet and Judah is His scepter. These are all territories of Israel. God is in control over them, and He will use them to claim His victory even in the face of danger. Notice here, too, that God says that Judah is His scepter. The Hebrew word, châqaq, can also mean lawgiver or governor. King David was of the house of Judah, and so was Jesus Christ. Judah is indeed the ruling house of Israel, both temporally and eternally. God also indicates what He will do to Israels enemies, Moab, Edom, and Philistia. He will make Moab His washbasin. This is an extreme statement of contempt; Moab will be completely subjected to Israel by God's power. On Edom, God will hurl His shoe. In other words, He will make Edom a slave, also subject to Israel. Finally, God will triumph over Philistia. This is a promise made by God in His holiness. He will not go back on His word. 

Even knowing this, David asks, “Who will bring me to the fortified city? Who will lead me to Edom? Have You not rejected us, O God?” David has heard God's promises. He knows what God intends to do. But in the midst of his situation, he wonders; he questions; he longs for reassurance. With his enemies surrounding him on all sides and defeat seeming imminent, he feels like God has rejected His people. He feels like he is floating without a leader, without support, without God. “You do not go out, O God, with our armies,” he complains. Where are You, God?

Yet even in the midst of His questions, David trusts God. First he prays that God grant them help against this foe that is attacking from all sides. He recognizes that “human help is worthless.” Only God can save Israel. The situation is far beyond what men can cope with on their own. Divine intervention is necessary, and David believes that it will come. “With God we shall do valiantly;” he concludes, “it is He Who will tread down our foes.” With God's power, David's army will be brave and strong. They will face the enemy with valor even when victory seems hopeless, and in the end, God will come through for them. He will trample their enemies underfoot. God will take action. God will defend His people. God will gain victory for them. 

And God did. David and his men defeated their attackers on every front, not through their own strength but through God's. Israel's enemies were not only driven back; they were destroyed. Israel was again at peace. David's trust in God was rewarded. God had saved His people.