I have recently completed a reading of The Revelation and have begun a new series which will look at the Psalms, or at least the first book of them, that is Psalms 1-41. I am even less of an expert in Hebrew than I am in Greek, but I will study the Hebrew and usually give the reader my own translation of the Psalm for the day. The Psalms collected in the Hebrew bible were written over a period of perhaps 800 years, and are difficult to date. Probably none of them were written by King David and their true authors are unknown. They were used in the worship of the second temple in Jerusalem and have been used in most traditions of Christian worship, including that of the Church of Scotland, in which they were versified into such international favourites as “The Lord’s my shepherd” and “All people that on earth do dwell”. They are poetic songs and should be appreciated as such. They are also not free of prejudice, (they hardly mention women) and inappropriate emotions (they ask God to smash the faces of enemies). In other words, they speak my sinful language.
MEXICAN FISHERMAN NEARER JUSTICE FROM BP FOR POLLUTION
God is my refuge!
How then can you tell me
“Take flight to your hillside
Like a bird.
For look! The evildoer bends his bow
He readies the arrow on the string
So that from a dark corner
He can shoot at honest people.
If the leaders are toppled
What can a good man do”?
The Lord is in his holy temple!
The Lord’s throne is in heaven!
His eyes perceive
His gaze examines
The human race.
The Lord examines
the just and the unjust;
His heart hates
Those who love violence;
Upon the evildoers
he shall rain down calamity
sulphurous fires and hurricanes.
That will be the cup they drink.
For the just God loves just dealing;
His smile is for honest people.
(Translated Emmock 2015)
This is a beautiful, brief and passionate psalm. The psalmist imagines a sensible friend telling him to find a place of security like a rock pigeon in its cliff, away from the assaults of people without conscience. It’s difficult to find the right English vocabulary for the “wicked” and the “upright” of the psalms. In effect the “wicked” would probably be called criminals today, whether or not their “killings” are to be taken literally, (as I think they should be in this psalm) or as metaphors for crooked business or political deals (as in some other psalms). These are people who have the means and the connections to prey on “honest people” (the phrase I often use to translate Hebrew, “yashar”, upright.) In a corrupt society anyone who stands for justice is putting themselves at risk. Even in relatively law-abiding societies such people can be persecuted (In the UK persistent advocates of justice are likely to be on the books of the State Security Services); while in utterly lawless regimes, as in Eritreia, their lives are likely to be short. Probably the psalmist’s society was somewhere between these two examples. At any rate, his imagined friend thinks the best thing a wise man can do is to hide.
The psalmist insists that he needs no refuge other than God, who is present in the temple which honours his name and on his throne in heaven, from where he rules the earth. But of course a question has been raised about the effectiveness of his rule. Is not more like an absentee landowner who prefers to live somewhere more civilised, and neglects his distant estates? The psalmist is aware of this question and is precise about what God does:
- God perceives and examines. The psalmist refers to God’s eyes and eyelids being directed upon humanity. Those who think God is blindfolded (see Psalm 10) are mistaken. He sees all and examines it- that is, he tests people and their actions by his wisdom.
- God hates violent people. The depth of God’s hate is emphasised by the phrase “his soul hates..” I have translated “his heart hates,” but it really means that God hates them with his very life.
- God will punish evildoers as once he punished the evil cities of the plain, Sodom and Gomorrah. How and when this punishment will take place is not mentioned. The psalmist regards it as certain.
- God will favour the honest people. He will “turn his face towards them” -words that describes a king’s favour. Again the time and place of this favour in unspecified. The psalmist regards it as certain.
We may feel he doesn’t quite give a convincing reply to his cautious friend. As far as God’s actions are concerned, two of them happen “in heaven” and the other two have no date or place. That doesn’t seem all that much to set against the imminent violence of evildoers. But they are a statement of the psalmist’s faith; their force consists in placing the possibility of God in the midst of accepted realities, in such a way as to encourage honest people and put some doubt in the minds of their persecutors. The modest assurance of this psalm works like the word “perhaps” in the Hasidic story of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak:
Once there was a learned man, a man who prided himself on his education, and who boasted of being modern and enlightened. He made a practice of going from one rabbi to another to debate with them about their faith and refute all their claims and arguments, which he considered hopelessly old-fashioned.
Finally he came to Levi Yitzhak, the rabbi of Berdichev, hoping to prove him wrong, as well. When he entered the rabbi’s room, he saw him pacing back and forth, a book in his hand, immersed in ecstatic thought. The rabbi took no notice of his visitor. But after a while the rabbi stopped, looked into the man’s eyes and said, “Perhaps it is true after all!”
The man was shaken; he could not speak. Then Rabbi Levi Yitzhak spoke gently to his guest: “My son, the great Torah scholars with whom you argued wasted their words on you. After you left them, you only laughed at what they had said. They could not place God on the table before you, they could not show you God’s reality, and neither can I. But think, my son. Just think! Perhaps it is true. Perhaps it is true after all.”
The enlightened man made the utmost effort to reply, but the terrible “perhaps” beat on his ears again and again, and he departed in silence.
The poetry of this and may other psalms is meant to utter a persistent “perhaps.”