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.
MEDICINS SANS FRONTIERES ACCUSES USA OF WAR CRIME IN KUNDUZ
A prayer for the King
May God hear you on the day of trouble
May the name of Jacob’s God defend you
May he send you help from his holy place
And reinforce you from Zion hill.
May God remember all your grain offerings
And savour your burnt sacrifices.
May he give to you as your heart desires
And grant success to your designs.
We will shout for joy at your victory
And set up banners in the name of our God
The Lord will confirm all your requests.
Yes now I know the Lord supports his chosen one
He hears him from his holy heaven
His right hand is his strong salvation.
They call for chariots or cavalry
But we will call on our Lord God’s name;
They sank to their knees and lay down
But we rose up and are standing firm.
Lord, give victory to the king!
And hear us when we call to you.
(translated by emmock 2015)
Scholars call this a “Royal Psalm” but I am not sure of that such a thing exists: it is a prayer for an anointed king in whom the people have put their hope of national victory. It is appropriate enough to the time of King David but just as much to the time of the Maccabee rebellion against the Greeks. It is Messianic in the sense that this king is anointed (Mashiach) and is seen as God’s agent.
The assumption of the prayer is that divine assistance against powerful enemies comes from the Sanctuary, the Temple, which is the earthly mirror of heaven, transmitting the power of the holy “name” which stands for the character of God as revealed to Israel and cherished by her. The help given is not mythical, as if God would use his almighty power in a human conflict, but it is real because it gives confidence to his people.
God will, the psalmist hopes, remember the faithfulness of his anointed one in the duties of the temple cult, and will treat him accordingly. God after all is not on earth and relies on his people to manage his business in the world; but this means that his people expect Him to play His part. The people promise to celebrate God’s name as the one who has brought victory in war. The verb “to set up banners” is very rare, and gives us the same image as the Song of Songs which depicts the beautiful woman as being “terrible as an army with banners”.
The turning point of the psalm is at “Yes now I know”. How does the psalmist know? Only through the petition which has been made on the king’s behalf; only through the trust of the people in their God. The assurance comes in advance of the fact and enables the king to defend the people against their more powerful enemy. The care of God is focused on his chosen one, the king anointed to rule in God’s place. He has God’s particular affection so that God is happy to act through him. In this role the king is only a representative of the whole people.
The depiction of the enemy is very specific: they….trust in the armaments of the time while the psalmist and his people trust….in the character of their God. Yes, the king will lead the people in battle, they are not pacifists, but neither are they the sort of people who levy their citizens to pay for more sophisticated weaponry. This small and relatively weak nation finds courage to maintain its identity and anticipates the fall of its enemies. Its faith declares its victory before the battle has begun. The past tenses “sank, lay, rose,” are a vision of the future.
I belong to a nation which has overwhelmingly voted for a government that will get rid of the UK nuclear weapons system “Trident” which is billeted on our land. If we ever become independent we will be a very small nation in comparison with the great powers of this world. We could find in this psalm a vision that encourages us to recognise where real strength is to be found: “they sank to their knees and lay down/ but we rose up and are standing firm.”
The political hope which is invested in the figure of the Messiah should not be abandoned by Christian believers because Jesus was not interested in ruling or defending by violent means. Rather in every political situation we should find a way of asserting that the Lord supports his chosen one and that the Lamb is at the heart of the throne.
It is clear to me that the psalm might more justly be sung today by Palestinians than by the state of Israel.