Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Interlude: The Psalms

Dear Reader and Fellow Rethinker,

I appreciate your patience with this series of posts -- I do not know how many will be a part of the whole or even if I will "finish". In many ways, I hope that I do not, for that would call for another rethinking: I am not infallible and I must be allowed to disagree with myself. In some ways, this Arabian process is one of self-discovery -- but not in the sense of "self-actualization" but rather the sense of "it is no longer 'I' who lives, but the Messiah who lives within me". This process changes me, brings me to repentance, and is conforming me to an image of the Messianic Other. It is uncomfortable, and (as a friend tells me) dangerous considering some of the ties I have in the Christian world. But it is something that must be done and has been pressing on me for years.

Which brings me to the Psalms. My religious tradition uses only Psalms in corporate worship. It is one of the things that led me to embrace the tradition and which has caused this rethinking: in many ways that tradition is being consumed in the gnostic modernism that I described earlier, I do not wish it to be. The Psalms can be an antidote to that tendency.

The Psalms are, really, God's song-book. Whether or not a Church tradition makes use of them says much about that tradition. Many "evangelical" traditions forswear them or relegate them to "personal devotion", if that. The vapidity of much modern Church music does not need to be recited here, instead I would like to examine some of the positive aspects of the Psalms.

The Psalms connect the Messiah's Body and Bride with its past. This is a collection of works that span around a half-millennium in time, from the foundation of the Kingdom to the initial return from exile and speak of the common hopes of Israel. If the full restoration of Israel is important in understanding the New Testament, then the Psalms are indispensible: the themes of forgiveness, restoration, vindication, triumph, and God's royal sovereignty pervade the poems and songs. In that light, it is important, though, to recognize that even though we sing these songs and they do have modern applicability, they are Israel's songs. Those of us who are Gentiles in the faith must see them in their proper historical and eschatological light before we just take them as our own. When we sing of vindication over enemies, let us remember that God has done this in the death and resurrection of the Messiah. When imprecations are sung, let us remember that the Messiah is the conquerer and that the enemy may not be the Romans or the Taliban or whoever, but "the last enemy that shall be defeated is death". When return from exile is longed for, let us remember the book of Acts and our responsibilities towards the historically called Israel "according to the flesh", for the "gifts and calling of God are irrevocable".

The Psalms emphasize the community that God has called, not just the lone individual. We are called by the Messiah not to be individual brides, as if Jesus were some cosmic polygamist, but to be a part of -- to participate in -- his one Bride, the Church, made up of Israel and righteous Gentiles together praising God. Even those songs that are spoken from an individual point of view are often the king singing, giving them an undeniable Messianic cast. Those of Asaph often express the individual longing to be back in the community, amongst the throng of worshippers (such as Psalm 42/43). The individual finds meaning and purpose in the midst of this worshipping community, who share songs and history, who are called into being, not by themselves, but by the Shepherd.

The Psalms remind us that not everything is well, that there remains mighty acts of God for us to participate in, pray for, worship God for, and so on. There is exile still, there is sin, there are enemies, death still reigns over much of the world. But the Messiah has conquered and is conquering through that worshipping community. If man fell into sin by his selfish idolatry, what is true salvation but the restoration of worship and koinonia between man and his Creator? All is not well, but the Messiah reigns (Psalm 2) and the troubled history of Israel (Psalm 105-106) has brought the mighty act of God on the cross of Jesus of Nazareth to bear on the whole world.

The Psalms remind us that we know God, not by idle speculation or theological dogma, but through His acts in history to restore, redeem, and recreate. God is a revealer, but He does so through acting in history, especially through His chosen ("salvation is from the Jews"), culminating in their representative and our Lord, Jesus the Messiah. Christian knowledge is not esoteric, not far off, not the exclusive provenance of the priestly caste (regardless of ecclesial nomenclature), but the common property of His people and knowable by all who would investigate these things which "were not done in a corner".

The Psalms tell us that even though the public works of God are available to all -- Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free -- they ultimately lead us to recognize the Creator's great unfathomability: "how unsearchable are your works". God acts, we can understand, but let us not think that we have exclusive or exhaustive knowledge of God's doings or plans: "the secret things are God's, but the revealed things are our and our children's".

The Psalms, in other words, form important cornerstones for Christian worship and keep us grounded in the full history of God's mission in the world: Abraham to Israel through Moses to David past the exile to the Messiah and the ingathering of the Gentiles, of which many of us are. In the great words of the Psalmists: Praise Yah!

1 comment:

Jenny Elaine said...

Russ, this is one of the most succinct, all-encompassing, objective (rather than the all too common defensive!), treatment of Psalm-singing I have read. I appreciated it. Kudos.