This blog continues my translation of Psalms 42-72 with brief commentary.
To the choir leader, with stringed instruments. For David.
Listen to my outcry, God,
Pay attention to my prayer!
From the world’s end I cry to you
when my heart is low.
Lead me back to the Rock that is beyond me;
for you are my refuge,
a high tower against the enemy.
Let me tarry in your tent forever!
Let me hide in the covert of your wings!
For you, God, have accepted my promises;
You have granted me the heritage
of those who reverence your name.
Add days to the days of the king;
Let his years be age upon age;
May he dwell forever in God’s presence;
May your faithful love preserve him!
So I will sing praise to your name forever
and keep my promises, day after day.
This short psalm, with its sudden additional prayer for the king, requires explanation. The author is at a distance from his country, and especially from the Temple on the Rock of Zion. For some reason, personal or political, he is not free to return either permanently of on pilgrimage. Perhaps he has been deported along with others in BCE 598 after the defeat of Israel by the Babylonians but before the destruction of the temple. The reference to the “promises” and the “heritage” may indicate that the author is a Levite, with special duties in the temple cult. If so, his prayer for the king is much needed, for either it was Jehoiakim whom the Babylonians had captured, or the young Zedekiah, whom they had made a puppet king in his place.
The presence of God is associated with the temple, and although the psalmist can pray to God, he prays to be in the place where God dwells. The longing of the exiled person for God, “Lead me back to the Rock that is beyond me” has found an echo in the hearts of other exiles down the centuries, including some whose exile is spiritual rather than geographical. The “tent” is the temple, where the bird of God has made a nest for her children.
The centrality of the temple in the faith of the psalms feels strange to Presbyterians like me, brought up without any sacred places, for whom the presence of God is personal or communal but never merely local. The notion that God has linked his/her faithful love to a building and its festivals seems strange to me, but also attractive, as the “holy presence” is quite objective: it can be experienced in the temple sacrifices and worship, rather than as something the individual believer is meant to experience in everyday reality. But as the temple was destroyed in BCE 586, rebuilt in BCE 520 and then again by Herod the Great, before its final destruction in CE 70 by the Romans, Jewish faith has had to adjust at different times to the absence of the holy place, which has led them to a theology of God’s absence as well as his presence. The language of temple devotion, however, survives in all eras, and particularly through the psalms, finds a place in Christian worship also.
The prayer for the king is interesting in that it does not use abstract language for continuity, but specifies days and years. Perhaps this reflects the danger that threatens the king; nothing can be taken for granted, so God is asked to add day to day and age to age. This mood of faithful caution is also expressed by the psalmist who will keep her/his (priestly?) promises, day after day.
The language used in this prayer for the king is similar to that used of the messianic king in Psalms 72 and 89. When there is no longer any actual king, language appropriate for royalty can be transferred to the One who is to come.