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.

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