Psalm 55: A Poem of Betrayal

The scriptures in general often emphasize facets of the story outside our attention, drawing theological pictures that don’t immediately appear to us when we come to them with a different set of theological questions. The phenomenon occurs in the gospels as well as the other parts of scripture, and perhaps it’s particularly poignant in the story of Jesus’s death. Our approach to the story has been so thoroughly conditioned that it’s too easy for us to enter the passion narratives with heavy expectations of the kind of things we’ll find there, and thus miss points that the story itself is giving us.

One such undervalued facet of the story is Jesus’s experience of betrayal and abandonment. The gospel narratives explore the theme thoroughly—I worked on Mark’s depiction in the sermon on the video below, but the theme exists in the other three gospels as well.

The custom in our church is to open each week’s worship with a Psalm, and for me the choice for this week was simple: Psalm 55. The Psalms capture human experiences and emotions, and demonstrate what it means to lay those experiences before God. Psalm 55 captures beautifully the anguish of betrayal, which is a profoundly common (universal?) human experience.

The poem opens with a cry to God, expressing the poet’s distress over “the noise of the enemy”, and the “clamor of the wicked”, and then elaborates:

My heart is in anguish within me,
    the terrors of death have fallen upon me.
Fear and trembling come upon me,
    and horror overwhelms me.
And I say, “O that I had wings like a dove!
    I would fly away and be at rest;
truly, I would flee far away;
    I would lodge in the wilderness;
I would hurry to find a shelter for myself
    from the raging wind and tempest.
(Psalm 55:4-8, NRSV)

Having described the anguish in terms many other Psalms might use, this Psalm then plays its twist: the enemies are actually the poet’s friends.

It is not enemies who taunt me—
    I could bear that;
it is not adversaries who deal insolently with me—
    I could hide from them.
But it is you, my equal,
    my companion, my familiar friend,
with whom I kept pleasant company;
    we walked in the house of God with the throng.
(Psalm 55:12-14, NRSV)

The psalmist begins to call for God’s response before further describing the experience of betrayal:

My companion laid hands on a friend
    and violated a covenant with me
with speech smoother than butter,
    but with a heart set on war;
with words that were softer than oil,
    but in fact were drawn swords.
(Psalm 55:20-21, NRSV)

The cries for help and the poet’s statements of trusting the Lord in the face of distress are similar to what we find in other laments throughout the Psalms. However, this one’s way of evoking empathy from the reader (or worshipper) is by the dramatic unfolding of a painful reality—it is indeed our friends who can hurt us in the deepest way possible. This psalm hold that card and then slaps it down on the table with the authority of experience, and all those who hear it can only wince and grieve alongside of the one who has tasted bitter betrayal.

How might we respond to such a psalm? With empathy for the betrayed for sure, but also I think a deeper commitment to be faithful friends who avoid dealing out this kind of bitterness to others. There is, after all a beautiful reality on display even in the bitter sadness—we experience betrayal only because friendship and faithfulness really do matter to us. The depth of our anguish and sorrow reveals our capacity to love and the role of companionship and community in a full human life. It is the shadow side of something we deeply value—even if we don’t know how to do it right. So in its own way, a Psalm like this with its tragic experience of betrayal is leading us to a more careful, vibrant experience of community, full of the sort of friendship that marks a flourishing humanity.

The Psalm also provides its own way forward, the laying of such a naked human experience before God. It is a raw prayer of pain, but also holding a latent hope that such wrongs will be made right. If the psalmist’s prayers are a bit too vindictive for us, we can at least laud the poet’s trust in the Lord to avenge the harm rather than taking vengeance personally.

Psalm 2 and Power

Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
Be warned, O rulers of the earth.

Serve the LORD with fear,
with trembling kiss his feet,

Or he will be angry, and you will perish in the way,
for his wrath is quickly kindled.

Happy are all who take refuge in him.

Psalm 2 is one of the royal psalms (2, 18, 20, 21, 45, 72, 89, 93, 110, 132, 144)  and as such celebrates the partnership between God and the Davidic king. The king becomes an instrument of God’s rule over the earth, not unlike the prototypical humans of Genesis 1, and is given the task of enforcing God’s will among the nations, bending the rebellious forces to submission before the Lord. All of this is a reflection of the divine sanctioning of the king’s power.

And yet, being good poetry, the Psalms also carries a subversive note as well. It calls out to the kings of the other nations to “be warned” and to “be  wise”, calling them to serve the Lord in the realization of their subordination to God’s own power.

Indeed, this call, though posed to the nations, is also before the king who sits in Jerusalem as well. God’s own king is only blessed (or “happy”), when he has taken refuge in the Lord. The form of the beatitude (“Blessed is the man who…”) helps pair the Psalm with the one before it, and Psalm 1 marks out the road that leads to blessing as sharply forked between those who take the path of the “wicked” and those whose attention is given to God’s instruction. the point of all this is that even the king of Judah, who has received power from God in partnership with God, must use that power in accordance with God’s own wisdom. Any power that fails to do this is doomed to “perish” as both of these first two psalms attest (Psalm 1:6, 2:11).

The second psalm, then, does indeed affirm the power of the king, but places that power in a theological context, one which will take on particular ethical flavors in others Psalms as it becomes clear what God expects the king in Jerusalem to do—preserve justice and righteousness. It is this sort of context that enriches the Psalm’s messianic flavor—the Psalm was read by the early church as containing the seed idea of the messiah as a Son of God who will become the true king. We should not miss though, that it also contains a word about what kind of king that messiah would be—one who is not only empowered by God, but who is attentive to God’s way as well.

Those who see their lives as joined to such a messiah, receive here not just an affirmation, but a call to faithfulness as people following God’s way in the world.

Joseph and Jacob’s Story

Your story is not just your storyA few years ago we were getting ready to have VBS and we asked Dr. John Fortner to come and help prep our adults with a theological understanding of the story we were going to work on—the Joseph narrative. One of the best insights for me that came out of that story was how the Joseph story really fits into the larger narrative of the patriarchs, and particularly into the story of Jacob.

For most of Jacob’s life, he is an absolute control freak, scheming for control over virtually everyone in his life. He lies cheats and steals his way to the top. Even though God appears to him, and promises to be with him, he seems to believe that life would be much better if he (Jacob) were in control, and he consistently resists God’s initiative.

Now, I think most people would see and agree with that. Unfortunately, we tend to atomize the text—we separate out the stories of the Bible into individual tales, and lose the intergenerational narrative that Genesis (and the rest of scripture) is telling.  When we do that we lose some insights—for instance, the significance of the Joseph saga.

The Joseph saga is not just about how things worked out for Joseph. It’s about how things worked out for Jacob. It’s about how things worked out for God’s people.  See, the Joseph story is really just a long stretch within the story of Jacob—it’s the definitive blow to Jacob’s mentality that he is in charge. He can’t manipulate God. He can’t micromanage the promise of God. It seems like he’s in control until Joseph (he thinks) dies. That concept completely rocks Jacob’s world, and since he’s not in control, he basically gives up on life and waits to die. He seems to think God has abandoned him.

However, after he learns Joseph is alive, Jacob has another theophany, where God appears to him, reassures him that he is still with him, after all this time. Jacob turns loose of all the control, and it seems to me like he actually reinterprets his life through that insight.  Now he can (for the first time!) tell Joseph about the promise of God. (Joseph will later tell the rest of the brothers.) Now he can refer to God as the one who “has been my shepherd all my life to this day.” Jacob can finally affirm the promise of God and the continual working of God, even in light of his own impending death! Reading Genesis 48 with this insight has been a powerful adjustment to the way I’ve read the Joseph saga before, and indeed the way I see my own life.

Think about the deeper lesson here about reading the scriptures: Anytime we read a text, we need to remember to pull back and see it from a perspective of the broader story of the mission of God. Each story is unique and important on its own terms, but becomes even more incredible when viewed in terms of a longer context. Reading a text like the Joseph saga with a missional perspective allows us to pick up different layers of what’s happening in the moment of the text as well as how that text contributes to (or complicates) the larger story of God and the world.

It’s not just Joseph’s story. It’s not even Jacob’s story. It certainly isn’t simply my story. These are all moments in God’s story.

It's not just Joseph's story. It's not even Jacob's story. It isn't my story. These are moments in God's story. Click To Tweet

 

 

Overlooking the Plain of Sodom—Advocates of Righteousness and Justice

Over
The Bible’s story hinges on what God wants to do and what God can do with Abraham’s descendants—and neither is particularly clear in the early chapters of the saga. God and Abraham seem to both be feeling their way through the new relationship, and I’m beginning to take more seriously the language of Abraham as God’s friend—it’s kind of easy to read the story almost like Abram and God are pals, traveling around together just for the sake of it.

There are of course moments when something else shines through all of the odd episodes of Abraham’s story. The narrative reaches outside of itself and shows itself to be more than a story about one man’s weird relationship with God. In these moments, the Abraham saga becomes a critical piece in the story of God and Creation. One such moment takes place in Genesis 18.

Here is a well-worn story of Abraham bargaining with God, negotiating on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah, or at least on behalf of his kin who live there. I won’t retrace the story here, because I want to focus in on one particular facet of the episode—the terms of the negotiation. We’ll pick up with God’s internal monologue (dialogue?) regarding whether or not he’ll let Abraham in on what’s about to happen:

 The Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, 18 seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? 19 No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.”

Here God opens up, just a smidge, about the long-term plan for Abraham and his descendants. They are to become a great nation which will bless the world, (just as God promised Abram in Genesis 12. But also, catch the important added note here:  What kind of nation will they be? What does God want to become the characteristic mark of Abraham’s children?  They are to be a people who keep the way of the Lord by “doing righteousness and justice”. Continue reading “Overlooking the Plain of Sodom—Advocates of Righteousness and Justice”

The Broken Earth in Genesis 1-6

Tonight, in my class on the Torah, we wrapped up by observing the tight connection between the moral responsibility of humanity, the human descent into wickedness, and the effect on the earth itself in chapters 3-6. Hearing the church’s common conversations, you could get the impression that the problem with the “fall” is simply the rift human sin and pride creates between people and God.  In reality though, the consequences of humanity’s fall is multifaceted. For instance, as demonstrated in the Cain and Abel story (and the Lamech one that follows), relationships between humans break down due to sin and violence, and we may easily observe the conflict that arises between the sexes on the heels of the tragic episode in the garden.

One of the too often ignored facets of the human fall is the curse that it brings on the earth itself. Although God’s initial directives to humanity were to “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it”, as the story plays out, it’s as if the earth itself suffers the sin of humanity in the early chapters of Genesis. Read chapters 3-6 with a ready eye, and you’ll see the motif show up repeatedly. It’s in the original garden fallout scene, and the language that contains the motif in the Cain and Abel saga is some of the richest in the Old Testament:

Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go out to the field.”[b] And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” 10 And the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!11 And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12 When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” 13 Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is greater than I can bear! 14 Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me.” 15 Then the Lord said to him, “Not so![c] Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.” And the Lord put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him. 16 Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord, and settled in the land of Nod,[d] east of Eden. (Gen 4:8-16, NRSV)

See how the motif functions here? It begins simply enough, with “the field” being the site for the murder. But as the story develops, the ground or soil is almost a character in the story, bearing testimony against Cain, even cursing Cain. Cain’s punishment involves being hidden from the face of God, and social exclusion as well, but note that this layer of being driven away from the soil itself seems to be Cain’s most agonizing consequence.

The motif continues to develop in the early chapters of Genesis, perhaps culminating in the flood saga. In the build up to the Flood story, Noah is introduced by a reference to the curse upon the land: “[Lamech] named him Noah, saying, “Out of the ground that the Lord has cursed this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the toil of our hands.”(Gen 5:29, NRSV)  In the next chapter, God’s actions in the Flood are repeatedly attributed to God’s observation of how the wickedness and violence of humanity has corrupted the earth:

11 Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. 12 And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth. 13 And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth.                             (Gen 6:11-13, NRSV)

On the other side of the Flood, the focus shifts a bit, returning to the original command to “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth…”. God returns to the project of filling the earth with rich human life, scattering humanity across the world. This eventually leads to the strategy of blessing the scattered peoples of the world through the people of Abraham, but that’s a subject for another day. For today, it is enough to not how tightly God’s purposes for the earth were connected with God’s purposes for humanity. Perhaps this shouldn’t be that surprising, unless we have forgotten that God indeed made the man (hebrew ‘Adam’) from the dust of the ground (hebrew ‘Adamah’), and that we are connected to the earth through our work until the moment that we are returned to the ground. “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Gen 3:19, NRSV). given this, how could our sin result in anything but estrangement from the very earth which is our perpetual context?

Preaching on Power

I am super-stoked about preaching this weekend. It’s about power, which underlies so much of the world, but of which we speak so inadequately about. Here is some of the design work that goes with the sermon.

Sometimes the sermon comes easier than others. This week’s had to go through a lot of wrestling, but in the end, after a lot of listening and struggle, I’m extremely excited to share it with the church.

“They sow the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind.”