Musings on Scripture

– and what isn’t always said

28th May 2017

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

Psalm 6839-father2fatherless

To the leader. Of David. A Psalm. A Song.
1Let God rise up, let His enemies be scattered;
     let those who hate Him flee before Him.
2As smoke is driven away, so drive them away;
     as wax melts before the fire,
     let the wicked perish before God.
3But let the righteous be joyful;
     let them exult before God;
     let them be jubilant with joy.
4Sing to God, sing praises to his name;
     lift up a song to Him who rides upon the clouds—
     His name is the Lord—
     be exultant before Him.
5Father of orphans and protector of widows
     is God in His holy habitation.
6God gives the desolate a home to live in;
     He leads out the prisoners to prosperity,
     but the rebellious live in a parched land.
7O God, when you went out before your people,
     when you marched through the wilderness,

Selah

8the earth quaked, the heavens poured down rain
     before God, the God of Sinai,
     before God, the God of Israel.
9Rain in abundance, O God, you showered abroad;
     you restored your heritage when it languished;
10your flock found a dwelling in it;
     in your goodness, O God, you provided for the needy.
32Sing to God, O kingdoms of the earth;
     sing praises to the Lord,

Selah

33O rider in the heavens, the ancient heavens;
     listen, He sends out His voice, His mighty voice.
34Ascribe power to God,
     whose majesty is over Israel;
     and whose power is in the skies.
35Awesome is God in His sanctuary,
     the God of Israel;
     He gives power and strength to His people.

Text © The New Revised Standard Version (English version), alt, used with permission.


Several years ago I had the pleasure of recording a talk entitled “Utterly Avoided Psalms” and given by John Bell. We heard about psalms, or parts of psalms, which are never included in the liturgy you’ll attend on a Sunday morning, or Saturday evening, and why we try to avoid them. There are, of course, often good reasons for missing out some verses of scripture. For example, how would we, in a relatively civilised world, interpret “happy is he who seizes your babes and dashes them against a rock”? [Ps 137:9, REB]. Psalm 68 poses some other problems, and many scholars believe that it is the hardest of the psalms to understand. It’s no wonder, then, that we avoid parts of it, because if scholars cannot understand its meaning how are we unscholarly people going to understand it?

The psalms formed the hymn book of the day, so it’s not surprising that there is a note at the head of this one, indicating that the version we are about to read was written for the leader – effectively the conductor of a choir – and will give indications about how to sing this song. Our styles of music have changed significantly across the intervening centuries and across cultures, so Western ears may not feel that this is a song they would like to hear, but that’s what it is. Oh, to hear this sung properly to Anglican chants!

If we read through much of the psalm, and even restricting ourselves to the portion set for the Sunday after Ascension, we can quickly pick up on the military thinking. In the context of a dangerous and violent world order, and well before Christ taught us a better way to deal with those with whom we disagree, the hope was that God would make the enemies scatter and flee in the face of the Jewish army. Such was the faith of these people that they would willingly attribute to God responsibility for victory over an enemy, especially where the opposing forces would flee or give up any challenge. Unlike in today’s world, where there is international agreement that prisoners of war are supposed to be treated humanely and not tortured or killed for the sake of reducing their number, or scaring the remaining forces, it was common for those who had been beaten in a battle to be killed anyway. Thus the wicked – read ‘them’ – ‘perish before God,’ while the righteous – read ‘we’ – are joyful.

Translating the theme into our world today, and taking away the military implications, we might think of those who oppose the Christian message as being ‘them’ and those who try to promote it as ‘us’. That then raises the question of who is better, or more in tune with God’s word, so it’s important that we ask ourselves if we are claiming the high moral ground when we should be conceding that it doesn’t belong to us. When we try to overcome ‘evil’ forces on our own – and that’s oh so easy – we are denying God the opportunity to act according to His will, and we may be getting in the way of that will. Gamaliel’s address to the Sanhedrin [Acts 5:36-39] echoes this thought. Do we want to fight with God, or against Him? The psalmist, of course, is encouraging the people to trust God, and give credence where it is due. If they win, God has won the battle for them; if they lose, then they weren’t fighting for God anyway.

When you have that sort of conviction in your faith you will always sing praises to God, you will give thanks that He is father to the fatherless and mother to the motherless, a provider of needs for the needy. I’ve been through times when I haven’t known where the money is coming from to pay that week’s bills, but God has always provided – though I wish the mighty creator wouldn’t be master of brinksmanship! Do we tend to hand a problem over to God for a solution and then try to solve it ourselves? If anyone dare say “No” I suggest that confession should be the next step.

Verses 7 and 8 together have one thought, but there is an interruption with “Selah”, a word which defies translation and which is frequently printed in italics because it has a habit of stopping the flow. One theory I heard of a number of years ago was that it is equivalent to saying “Amen”, but unless it comes as an interjection from the congregation, when a cantor is singing the psalm, it could hardly be that when it happens mid-thought, as here. Another theory, mentioned in The Jewish Encyclopedia and supported by the comment at the head of the psalm, is that it is akin to musical notation suggesting a change in the arrangement, such as the introduction of a new instrument, or an instrumental interlude – as often happens in songs even today. If that’s the case, then reading “Selah” would be like saying “the introduce trumpets apples are good” instead of saying “the apples are good” while trumpets are introduced to the accompanying music. With that thought, it’s probably best not to verbalise the word. For these verses, ignoring the “Selah” also allows us to read the complete sentence and make sense of it.

God provides where there is need – but not necessarily on our time scale. Where the Hebrew people were, on their journey to the Promised Land, they had rain in abundance, and thus food; and they had shelter. The world was restored to what God had intended, but only because the people stopped trying to solve the problem themselves and called on God to help. Many parts of the world are now getting much less rain than before, resulting in crop failure, famine, and more. Are we listening to what God is saying to us to solve that problem, or are we continuing to rape the earth in the belief that we can solve it ourselves?

The first of the verses which have been omitted from this selection is interesting, but I will just leave the thought of the Lord speaking, and the women with the Good News being the mighty host. Let your feedback flow.

So we come to the last of the verses in this reading, and a clear emphasis on praising God and attributing to God all the power and strength that befits the Mighty Creator. This is where, if we were singing the psalm to an Anglican chant, we would change the chant from one with military overtones to one of out-and-out praise. Here the ‘selah’ might be an Amen thrown in by members of the congregation, in similar fashion to some of us clapping a rhythm in some modern liturgical songs. Having shown what God can do for us we turn to the praise, and lay it on thickly – I wish! There was a saying attributed to St Augustine, but more recently challenged as being by Pope Gregory, who gave us the Gregorian Chant, that goes “the one who sings prays twice.” The motto of the Royal School of Church Music is “psallam spiritu et mente”, which translates as “sing with spirit and understanding.” If we read the words of a psalm with no consideration for sentence structure then we mouth empty words; if we say the psalm with meaning we pray once; but when we sing it we pray twice. I know which I’d prefer.

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