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.
BABILA, SYRIA, DESTROYED BY RUSSIAN MISSILES
How long my Lord
Will you forget me altogether?
Will you hide your face from me?
Will I have trouble in my soul
Sorrow in my heart all day?
will my enemy triumph over me?
and answer me my Lord!
Give my eyes light
Lest I sleep the sleep of death
Lest my enemy say,
I have overcome him
Lest my opponents
dance at my defeat!
But I have put my trust
In your steadfast love
And I will dance
When you rescue me.
I will sing to my Lord
because he has cherished me.
(translation by emmock 2015)
This is a strong psalm, succinct and definite in its complaint to God. Its repeated use of the cry “How long?” which comes from the experience of the prophets, is powerful. My Spanish bible comments that “God’s time and human time are different”. Well, yes, and that’s just the problem: “a thousand ages in thy sight/ are like an evening gone” is a hard saying for those whose lives are limited by age and death. The psalmist wants God to know that human beings are mortal and can’t wait for ever for God’s justice.
The appeal in the first verses is like that of a disregarded courtier to neglectful king. The psalm accuses God of “hiding his face”, which in the language of the court means paying no attention to his case. God’s neglect means a) that the petitioner is grieved and b) that his enemy can continue to oppress him. The petitioner dares to cry out to his Lord with an imperative verb, “Look now” risking a stern rebuke but communicating his urgent need. If the Lord does nothing then the enemy will win and the petitioner’s other foes will celebrate his defeat with dancing.
The climax of the psalm however is not God’s answer, or God’s rescue, but a quiet statement of the petitioner’s trust. He has put his trust In his Lord’s “chesed”, that is, his loving kindness or steadfast love. The verb is in the perfect tense; this trust has already been put in God. And because of this past commitment, the petitioner is able to assert that he “will dance” when God rescues him. The commitment made to God enables the petitioner to expect a joyful future.
But it does not deny the urgent petition which has been made; rather it is the reason the petition can be made at all. In the face of his own suffering and God’s silence, we realise that it is the petitioner’s trust that leads him to excuse God by addressing him as a ruler who may have a lot on his plate. The quiet trust of the petitioner gives life to the common image of God as a king and to use it as a means of getting attention: “God, if you’re really like a king, could you understand that it’s time you listened to me?”
The last lines are carefully constructed. The petitioner will (now and in the future) sing to God, because God has cared for him (by what He has already done). God’s record of care for this petitioner and his people Israel enables worship now, even in the midst of danger.
It’s a wonderful psalm which exists also in a wonderful version by John Bell and Graham Maule, song 14 in “When Grief is raw” Songs for times of sorrow and bereavement. Wild Goose Publications.