< August 14, 2011 >

Commentary on Psalm 67:1-7

 

A Liturgy of Blessing

As the twice-repeated refrain (verses 3, 5) indicates, Psalm 67 is a song meant for public worship.

We can imagine a worship leader or choir singing the body of the psalm, with the congregation or a larger choir intoning the refrain:

May God be gracious to us and bless us
and make his face to shine upon us,
that your way may be known upon earth,
your saving power among all nations.

Let the peoples praise you, O God;
let all the peoples praise you.

Let the nations be glad and sing for joy,
for you judge the peoples with equity
and guide the nations upon earth.

Let the peoples praise you, O God;
let all the peoples praise you.

The earth has yielded its increase;
God, our God, has blessed us.
May God continue to bless us;
let all the ends of the earth revere him.

The theme of the psalm is blessing. The psalm begins with a request for blessing. The words of the Aaronic benediction normally close worship services:"The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace" (Numbers 6:24-26). Here, those words are slightly tweaked and are used to open the psalm: "May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us." 

Blessing: God's Gracious Activity 

The theological category of blessing is one of the most important in the Old Testament--a theme that is often underappreciated in protestant theology. The great theologian Claus Westermann contrasted two general aspects of God's merciful action towards humanity: God's saving activity and God's blessing activity.1 For good reason, protestant Old Testament theology has strongly emphasized God's saving activity--forgiving sin, rescuing from oppression, saving from death and the like. But the Old Testament consistently speaks of another sphere of God's mercy: the blessing activity of God--fruitful harvests, fertility, health, prosperity, and the like. Psalm 67 majors in an area in which the church has often minored--the longing request for God's blessing.

Like God's saving activity, God's blessing activity is available by grace alone. This is true in two senses. First, even though some blessing is made available through the law (and thus it may appear that blessing is conditional and comes as a result of works righteousness), the law itself is sheer gift--not something that was earned by Israel, but an unexpected, breathtaking, welcome gift of grace.

The law was bestowed as a gracious gift in order that life might thrive--as a sign that God has drawn near to the covenant people. As Moses says in Deuteronomy 4:7-8, "What other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him? And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?"  

Second, God's blessing is by grace alone because God blesses whom God chooses, when God chooses, for the reasons God chooses. God's blessings are gracious, surprising, unexpected gifts. This is clear throughout the biblical narrative. One need think only of Sarah. God announces to Abraham in Genesis 17 that, "I will bless her and will surely give her a son by you" (verse 16). Abraham then laughs at God and counter-offers, "O that Ishmael might live in your sight" (verse 18). God does answer Abraham's prayer and blesses Ishmael, too. But God goes Abraham one better and saves the most surprising blessing for Sarah. A free gift of grace. Or, one might think of Mary. The unsuspected maiden whom all generations now called, "Blessed."

Blessing: Already and Still

In Psalm 67, the poet begins by asking for God's blessing in verse 1 and requests God's continued blessing in verse 7: "May God continue to bless us." But the poet also stands in the people's midst and announces God's blessing: "The earth has yielded its increase; God, our God, has blessed us" (verse 6). And this is often the role of the public, Christian leader: to ask the Lord to bless and even at the same time to remind God's people of how much God has already done. 

In Psalm 67, the poet has the fruits of harvest in mind: "the earth has yielded its increase." The bounty of nature is not a bad place to start--the image of trees bearing fruit, fields yielding grain, and pastures teeming with livestock communicate blessing even today, when so little of the population is in direct contact with farming. But other images can be added:  the beauty of nature, the birth of a new generation, the existence of good government and public servants, the love of parents and friends, good health and good medical care, music and joy. One could keep going. 

Why must the Christian leader remind people of God's blessings? Because it is easy to forget. Recently, as I left a baseball stadium on an absolutely beautiful day, I heard one young man mumble to his friend, "What has God ever done for me?" The implication seemed to be both that God hadn't done anything and that everything the young man had in life was the result of his own hard work. It is good--even necessary--for the Christian leader to stand in front of the assembly and remind us of all our blessings. And it necessary--even good--for the Christian leader to stand in front of God and ask for the Lord's continued to blessings.  God has blessed us richly. And we rely on God's continued blessings.

Blessing:  Foundation of God's Mission

But the psalm has one more important lesson to teach about God's blessing activity--God blesses for the sake of mission. Indeed, God's blessing is the foundation of mission. Within the psalm, it is clear that the ultimate purpose of God's blessing is mission: "that your way be known on earth, your saving power among all nations" (verse 2). So that the peoples and nations might praise God.

This emphasis in the psalm is also the basis of Israel's identity. According to Genesis 12, the reason that God elected Israel in the first place was for the purpose of mission--that Israel would itself be a means of grace. God chose Abraham and Sarah and promised them descendants and also promised that "you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you. . . and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (verses 2b-3). 

The message is repeated in Exodus 19, when God renewed the covenant with the descendants of Abraham whom he had just rescued from Egypt. The Lord said, "you shall be a priestly kingdom and a holy nation" (verse 6). And what did the priest to do, other than be the channel of divine blessing? Israel was not chosen for its own sake, but was chosen for the sake of mission. And Israel was not blessed either because of who it was or for its own benefit. Israel was blessed so that all the families of the earth may be blessed through it.

When we pray with Psalm 67 that "God continue to bless us" or when we end the end of the worship service with the wish that "the Lord's face shine upon you," we do so for the sake of God's mission. In order that through God's people, all of the world might experience God's saving help.


1See Westermann, Elements of Old Testament Theology (Atlanta: John Knox, 1982).