Translation of the third book of psalms (73-89) with comment
To the choirmaster, tune: Yeduthun. An Asaph psalm.
My voice to God: I cry in distress;
My voice to God: he will turn to me.
In the day of my distress, I look to the Lord;
At night my hand is reached out with no respite;
My soul will not be comforted.
When I remember God, I moan;
When I meditate, my spirit droops.
You keep my eyelids from closing;
I am so troubled that I cannot talk.
I imagine the old days, keep ancient years in mind,
At night I recall songs of derision;
I speak in my heart and my spirit asks,
“Will the Lord forever spit us out
Will he never be fond of us again?
Is his lovingkindness lost completely?
Are his promises postponed for all time?
Has God forgotten his grace?
In his anger has he cut off compassion?”
And I say, “This is my sadness:
That the right hand of the Most High has failed.”
your way through the swelling waters
“I will remember the deeds of Yah
Yes, I will remember your marvels of times past.
Your paths O God are holy;
What god is as great as God?
You are the God who works wonders
Making known your might among nations.
With your arm you ransomed your people
The children of Jacob and Joseph.
The waters saw you, God, the waters saw you and trembled,
The very deeps were disquieted,
The clouds poured out water, the skies gave voice,
Your flashes of lightning flickered.
The voice of thunder was in your chariot wheels;
Lightnings lit up the earth, which shuddered and shook.
Your path was through the sea,
Your way through the swelling waters
And your footprints were not perceived.
You led your people like a flock
By means of Moses and Aaron.”
The psalm is written out of the experience of exile and a sense of God’s abandonment of Israel. The psalmist cannot understand his/ her present experience in the light of the story of God; no explanation is available, and the psalmist does not struggle to invent one. Instead of simply bowing to God’s will, or simply abandoning faith, the psalmist does something wonderful by stating the contradiction as vividly as possible, first the sense of abandonment, then the memory of faith, without any resolution.
The beginning is very vivid, just “my voice to God” Even taking account of the fact that Hebrew has no verb “to be” providing a connection between subject and predicate, so that these words may mean, “my voice is to God” the phrase is unusually stark. Perhaps we can see it as a declaration of the psalm’s purpose, that the psalmist will turn to God with his honest doubts, in the hope that God will turn to him and his people.
The sense of abandonment is feelingly described: the psalmist makes a strenuous effort to get answers from God, his “hand is stretched out with no respite” because no answering hand clasps it. God’s silence disturbs him so much that he cannot close his eyelids for sleep. The memory of past faith only reminds him of the taunts of the enemy (“Now sing us one of the songs of Zion, Psalm 137) He is forced to ask if the qualities of God defined in his faith are illusions: lovingkindness, promises, grace and compassion, are all meaningless. God has spat out (the Hebrew verb “zanach” can have this meaning) his people. He sums up by stating clearly that God’s power, his right hand, has failed.
“Yah” is one of the old names for God, especially associated with his warrior nature, in creation and in history. In this case the miracle of the Red Sea is merged with images of the creator’s victory over the forces of chaos, symbolised as the waters of the great deep. The rescue of Israel from slavery had been one with his rescue of the earth from chaos. In the midst of all the cosmic images the mystery of God is quietly preserved by the line, ” and your footprints were not perceived.” And that is followed by the bathos of the conclusion, that it was nevertheless by “means of” (literally by the hand of) mere human beings, Moses and Aaron, that God was able to shepherd his flock, Israel.
Maybe this ending contains a hint of a way forward from the perplexity of exile: God can only work through people.