< June 14, 2009 >

Commentary on Psalm 92:1-4, 12-15

 

The two portions of Psalm 92 chosen by the lectionary each offer interesting possibilities for interpretation and connection to the life of the church, and interpreters may find it useful to focus on one or the other.

However, there is also much to be gained by addressing the Psalm as a whole.

Verses 1-4
The opening verses of the text assert that the praise of the Lord is a positive good. This may seem self-evident, but it is worthwhile to reflect on further.

Far too often the worship of the church is carried out as if it were solely a matter of obligation. Perhaps you've been a part of a congregation in which the hymns are merely endured, in which the liturgy is something to be slogged through on the way to coffee hour, or in which the prayers of the church are more or less a sleep-inducing drone. For these congregations, the claim "it is good to give thanks to the Lord, to sing praises to your name, O Most High!" (Psalm 92:1) can come as a much-needed shock to the system.

The claim here is that the worship of God's people springs forth from the deep gladness brought on by a recognition of God's mighty and manifold works. Praise that is rooted in this ground will be lively and flourishing.

Verses 12-15
These closing verses offer the rich image of the righteous person as a tree. At one level, the symbolism is fairly straightforward. Trees are symbolic of enduring life and fertility. They are long-lived, in contrast to the grasses and plants of the field. Fittingly then, this text declares that those who are right with God will enjoy a similar long and fruitful life.

The interpreter should not fail, however, to notice that the trees described by the Psalmist do not spring up just anywhere: "They are planted in the house of the Lord; they flourish in the courts of our God" (Psalm 92:13).

These long-lived, fruitful trees are planted and cultivated. They are deliberately placed, nourished, and protected. Because of this care, they are able to flourish.

This observation leads to many possible avenues of exposition, touching on the sovereignty of God (who plants where he wills), God's providence (who else is the source of water, nourishment, and protection?), or, finally, on the reasons for lively praise as recommended in the beginning of the Psalm.

Ultimately, it is because God does such things for God's people that they ought to praise God with glad enthusiasm.

Psalm 92 as a whole
The above-mentioned segments that focus on praise and God's providential care for the righteous are parts of a larger movement that runs throughout the Psalm.

As noted, the praise called for in verses 1-4 is based on the works of God. In the middle segment, the reader learns which aspect of God's many works the Psalmist has in mind.

First, the reality is acknowledged that the wicked -- those who oppose God, who do not give him praise and honor, and who prey upon his people -- often seem to prosper. It should not be difficult for any congregation to draw connections here to their own observations and experiences. The question then arises, "If this is so, what grounds have we for praise?"

The answer, the central reality of the Psalm, comes quickly.

The prosperity of the wicked is like that of the grass: short-lived and ephemeral, without endurance. By contrast, the sovereign rule of God is eternal: "you, O Lord, are on high forever" (Psalm 92:8).

This is the pivot point, on which the Psalm and the questions it raises both turn. Because God reigns eternally, it is a given that eventually, all opposing God's reign will be expunged. The enemies of God (and, not incidentally, of the Psalmist) will certainly not prevail, just as the grass will certainly wither and die once its season is over.

Such a reminder of God's enduring rule, and its inevitable consequences for the wicked, adds depth and context to the Psalm's closing observations about the righteous. The tree-like endurance and long, fruitful life they will enjoy under God's providence stands in contrast to the cheap and flimsy present prosperity of the wicked, just as the mighty cedars of Lebanon stand in contrast to a clump of grass.

Clearly, these verses carry a strong eschatological dimension. The present prosperity of the wicked is much easier to see than the promised flourishing of the righteous.

Were it not for the fundamental conviction at the center of the Psalm, the message might well fail to engage people in the midst of crisis, whether economic, political, familial, or otherwise. But that conviction stands, literally and figuratively, at the center of everything for Psalm 92: the Lord reigns on high forever.

All praise in the present and all confidence in the future depend upon it.