< January 22, 2012 >

Commentary on Psalm 62:5-12

 

Retain the Refrain!

The psalm selection for the third Sunday after Epiphany is 62:5-12. As is often the case, the worship leader is faced with the choice of reading the entire psalm or of going with only the selected verses. In favor of reading the entire psalm is the repetition in verses 1 and 5 of the refrain.

Notice the refrain (and notice that there is a slight variation in the second clause of the refrain):

1For God alone my soul waits in silence;
from him comes my salvation.

2He alone is my rock and my salvation,
my fortress; I shall never be shaken.

5 For God alone my soul waits in silence,1
for my hope is from him.

6 He alone is my rock and my salvation,
my fortress; I shall not be shaken.

If one opts to read only the selected verses, one misses the repetition -- and thus the emphasis -- of the refrain. So the suggestion here is to retain the refrain. However, the worship leader who goes with only the second half of the psalm can still focus on the trust expressed in these verses.

So what is this psalm? It is one part trust and one part instruction. As for the part that is "trust," this keynote is evident in the refrain (noted above, verses 1, 5) as well as in the closing expression of confidence, which confesses "that power belongs to God, and steadfast love belongs to you, O Lord."

Throughout the poem, vocabulary typical of the psalms of trust is used. God is a "refuge" (verses 7. 8; compare Psalm 46:1, 7, 11); the psalmist "waits" in silence (verses 1, 5; compare Psalm 22:2); the psalmist says "I shall not be shaken" (verse 2; compare Psalm 16:8 and 121:3). As for the part of the psalm that is "instruction," the psalm is mainly addressed to other humans beings -- "How long will you assail a person" (verse 3), "trust in him at all times, O people" (verse 8), and "if riches increase, do not set your heard on them" (verse 10), and so on.

Putting the elements of "trust" and "instruction" together, Psalm 62 is a poem of "instruction about trust." The psalm is an instructional meditation that offers to teach something about the life of faith (the life of trust).

Learning a Lot from a Little Particle -- 'ak

That great master of the malapropism, Yogi Berra, is reputed once to have quipped, "You can observe a lot, just by watching." When it comes to Psalm 62, the careful reader might observe a very small Hebrew word -- which seems to occur quite a lot in this short poem. Such a reader might notice that the Hebrew word 'ak occurs six times in this short poem.

For comparison sake, the term occurs only 24 times in the entire Psalter -- and in each case, the term begins a sentence -- which means that 25 percent of the occurrences of the word occur in this short poem. The term carries both a restrictive meaning -- "only" or "alone" -- as well as an asserverative meaning -- "truly" or "indeed."2 The poem plays on the dual meaning of term to make a theological point. Here are the six sentences that begin with the term:

verse 1      For God alone ('ak) my soul waits in silence. . .
verse 2      He alone ('ak) is my rock and my salvation. . .
verse 4      Their only ('ak) plan is to bring down a person of prominence. . .
verse 5      For God alone ('ak) my soul waits in silence. . .
verse 6      He alone ('ak) is my rock and my salvation. . .
verse 9      Those of low estate are but ('ak) a breath. . .

In the translation above, the New Revised Standard Version always takes the term restrictively, meaning always either "only," "alone," or "but." One could also take the term asseveratively at each point -- always translating it with "indeed" or "yes" (so the TNIV and also Goldingay).
 
More likely is the approach that mixes translations -- sometimes asseveratively ("indeed") and sometimes restrictively ("alone"). The truth is that in Hebrew the term most likely has a sense of double-entendre -- at each point it means carries both senses of the term. To wait for God alone means to wait on God indeed! To truly hope in God means that one must hope only in God!

And that is the big faith-lesson conveyed by this small particle in this short psalm. The life of faith (the "way of trust in the Lord") carries both restrictive and asseverative qualifications. To trust in the Lord, according to the Israel's scriptures, means to trust in the Lord alone. As the Great Shema puts it, "Hear O Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is one."

Meaning, we have one God -- and only one God. But, moreover, to have only one God is to know exactly, precisely, definitively to whom we entrust our lives -- to God indeed! Those who follow Abraham and Sarah's God are spared the confusion of those who either worship many gods -- whom shall we trust in this matter? -- or of those who trust no gods -- in what shall I trust? Those who follow Abraham and Sarah's God trust in God alone, and in God indeed.

Preaching the Psalm -- Playing with the Poetry

Now that the theological foundation of this psalm has been explored, a few thoughts on preaching this marvelous poem. Play with the poetry! Play in the poetry! Enter into the rich imagery for God -- my rock, my salvation, my refuge, my fortress. Also note the rich imagery for human beings. At times when we feel oppressed by others, we feel like "a leaning wall, a tottering fence." But whom are we fearing? Other humans, who oppress us, who are, after all, "but a breath . . . in the balances they go up; they are lighter than a breath." The image here is quite literally playing with how much a breath ways on a set of ancient balances. When weighed against God -- "my rock" and "my fortress" -- all human beings are essentially weightless.

Notice how the psalm critiques the things that we humans can give our ultimate allegiance to (other than God). It was Luther who noted that whatever one fears, loves, or trusts the most -- that is one's God. Jesus, similarly, suggested that where our heart is matters most. The psalm speaks negatively to setting one's heart on riches. If we pursue riches, we make them our god. And they cannot deliver. The psalm also warns against fearing the enemies, who oppress. It is strange to realize if we fear the enemy who oppresses, in some fashion we are acknowledging them as God. To worship the Lord is to be freed from serving any human enemy.

The Promise

One last comment: Sermons about trusting God can get rather preachy (in the negative sense) rather quickly. In order to preach about trust, the preacher must at some point move beyond instruction in how to live the life of faith (lecture) and move to the promise (to the thing that inspires faith). The psalmist knows that the only thing that can produce faith is a promise. And, in fact, the psalmist knows that behind the type of faith that the psalmist commends in this poem, lies a promise:

            "Power belongs to God."
            "Steadfast love belongs to you, O Lord."

If you preach on this psalm, remember that it is this promise that really matters.


1I am following here the emendation of the NRSV, which understands this clause as parallel to verse 1b. NIV, NJPS retain the feminine singular imperative pointing of the verb "be silent," thus reading: "Yes, my soul, find rest in God" (so NIV).
2See Goldingay, Psalms 42-89 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007) 245.