Tag Archives: Psalms

Psalm 127

A song of ascent of Solomon

I find this a difficult Psalm. 

Within the boundaries of a traditional religious culture it appears to offer assurance and promise. It says, “ God will grant you security and peace. Through the gift of children you will be blessed in your old age.”  

First, some reflections on the different parts of the psalm.

  • Perhaps it is the way the psalm begins with the idea of building a house that makes the connection with Solomon in the Psalm’s title. Solomon who is remembered as the wise king who built the great temple and extended the power of the nation. There is a strong element in the tradition, however, of not relying on your own strength, but trusting instead on the steadfast loving-kindness of God. The history of the Israelites was nearly always precarious, sitting between two great powerful empires. The Egyptians to the southeast and the Babylonian/Assyrian empire to the northwest. Prophets often warned against playing power politics and thinking this would keep the nation safe. They spoke instead of being faithful to God, caring for neighbours and pursuing justice for the poor. This was the only guarantee of God’s favour. 
  • The second part of the psalm expresses the tradition of the value of family and children. There is an inbuilt assumption of the father being the head of the household, and the value of ‘sons’. The reverse, of course, is the prejudice against those women who could not have children, and the lesser regard for daughters. It always seems to be the woman’s fault! The patriarchy of past cultures still lingers in many places. Often the contribution of women is hidden, and the place of women demeaned. And so the scriptures need to be read with eyes that see beyond this particular cultural feature. 
  • It helps to know when there is a reference to the ‘gate’, that this was the traditional place for seeking and finding justice. It was the place to take a dispute and have it judged. Of course the powerful could corrupt even this place of justice,  nor was the King above temptation to use force to gain his own ends. But there were often those who would stand up for the poor and confront even the most powerful, like Nathan speaking to King David. 

In thinking about this psalm, it helps me to remember that we can learn from the Bible without having to assume that it is always right. So the warning that working hard will not lead to contentment or happiness can be accepted without going to the extreme of thinking that there is nothing we can do except rely on divine favour.  

Perhaps the other lesson I take from this psalm, is that it is for pilgrimage, or journeying. It is not the last and final word. As we travel on we find new insights, see deeper into the truth and have to be ready to change our understanding and behaviour. Sometimes we have to wrestle with the scriptures and hope that what we gain is truth.

Terry Oakley 29.3.2020

Psalm 100

This is a song of joy. A celebration of all that is good and wonderful. It is a hymn of praise to be sung not just by people, but by the whole earth, all that is.  There are times when we are filled with joy and want to celebrate together. This psalm expresses that experience. One version of this psalm begins with the word, Jubilate, which means to show or feel great joy, to exult, to celebrate.

The psalm comes from a people whose history was filled with tragedy. It has stories of slavey and exile, of persecution and occupation by alien forces. Many psalms reflect this hard and painful history. But this poem is one which remembers the good times, the assurance of blessing and grace that comes from a deep sense of identity as a special people. It may have been a song to sing in gratitude.  It reminds me of the phrase from the Desiderata, ‘you are a child of the universe, no less than the trees or the stars’. Everyone, every living thing, the whole cosmos is part of something wonderful and amazing. 

In Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths this song would be an invitation to sing praise to ‘God’.  But in Jewish tradition the name of the divine would not be spoken, so when reading the scriptures the reader would substitute another word. The letters which represents the divine name are sometimes shown as YHWH. This is often spoken as Adonai, or in English hymns as Jehovah. In many versions of the Bible it is written as LORD, always in capital letters. Perhaps this helps us to avoid thinking that we can know the divine. ‘God’ cannot be captured by a word or a place, but always is more than we can comprehend. 

For British Quakers singing in worship is not very common. Nearly always worship is a silent expectant waiting, and no words are necessary.  But, sometimes someone is moved to speak, and now and again someone will sing. Quakers value each person’s experience, so even if the words or songs do not seems relevant to your own present circumstances the ministry is accepted. And it is likely that not everyone will feel the urge to shout for joy at the same time. We come to worship with our own peculiar needs and hopes. But a song of joy can bring light and love into our hearts. 

There have been many versions of the psalm and many different tunes used to sing it. One old favourite is the Scottish Psalter version, “All people that on earth do dwell”, sung to the tune ’Old Hundredth’.  A more modern version is “Jubilate Deo”

Some Quakers prefer not to use the word ‘God’ at all, because of the different ways it is understood. For them and others I offer this version of the psalm. 

Shout for joy all the earth.
In wonder, be glad.
Gather with songs of joy.
We are children of the universe, one people.
So unite in giving thanks, and join in celebration.
At the heart of the universe there is goodness and love
which will never end. 

The Old Song Book

In the forty days of preparation for Easter, the season of Lent starting on 26th February, Churches Together are going to be looking at the old songs of the Bible, the Psalms. There are 150 Psalms collected in the Book of that name and others scattered through the Bible. They have been inspiring and comforting people for thousands of years. They have often been turned into songs or hymns. Some of them are full  of thanksgiving and praise like Psalm 100. ‘Shout for joy!’, or in a traditional hymn version, ‘All people that on earth do dwell, sing!’or a modern version, ‘Jubilate, everybody!’. 

Some are comforting, expressing trust in God, and often were sung at funerals, such as the 23rd Psalm, ‘The Lord is my shepherd; I’ll not want.’ This particular psalm shows clearly a common style of poetry, that of parallelism. The same idea is expressed in two ways, one after the other. ‘He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters.’

Some psalms were used on special occasions, for festivals and processions. There is a series of them, 120-134,  called ‘songs of ascent’ which were probably sung as people approached the temple. Typical is, ‘I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord!” (Psalm 122). All of these are hopeful, and one of my favourite verses is ‘How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!’(133).

Not all are cheerful. Many ask searching questions, and express pain and despair. One feature, not always appreciated, is that there is often a turning point part way through the Psalm, when for example, a complaint becomes an avowal of trust. Psalm 13 is a good example. It begins, 

How long will you hide your face from me? How long, O Lord?
Will you forget me forever? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?

Then it ends, with,

But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.

Writing psalms did not stop when the contents of Bible as we know it were finally agreed. Songs and hymns continue to be composed, expressing the whole range of human emotions. In fact you could write your own psalm, expressing your own faith whatever it is. Or find a song that expresses your feelings and let it fill you with joy, or longing, or be a way of shouting your frustration. Perhaps each week you could choose a Psalm or song to help you look forward. The Psalms are not just for the past but also for the present.