Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Psalm interpretation can sometimes feel like swimming against a swiftly flowing mountain stream.

July 29, 2012

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Commentary on Psalm 145:10-18

Psalm interpretation can sometimes feel like swimming against a swiftly flowing mountain stream.

The experience can seem at times like a numbing experience of futility.  With each arm stroke forward the current carries you somewhere else and it can seem as if you are going nowhere or at best going backward.  Reading Psalm 145 may seem easy at first and rather straightforward.

Yet, the longer we swim against the currents that exist in these 21 verses, the more arduous the journey might become.  Simple answers rarely suffice as they carry us downstream toward our destination of discernment.  The hope of discovering something about the will of God, or the nature of human life lived in alignment with God’s will, or learning something about the presence of God in the ordinary circumstances of life may seem elusive and the harder we strike the water the more it seems we are either in concert with where we first began or have been taken somewhere we never planned to go.

The sheer magnitude and force of God’s presence, God’s activity in the cosmos, world, and in human experience is more than the human mind can fully comprehend or discern.  Yet we can know something.  Maybe that is part of the power of the Word of God as articulated in the Psalms.  They carry a capacity to disrupt our thinking if we allow their turgid waters to envelope and carry us along in their currents.

Perhaps interpretation of the Psalms isn’t really a linear exercise or a task to be completed quickly.  Maybe engaging the Psalms is an invitation to exercise contemplation — let the water carry us where it will, rather than swimming against the current.  To be carried by the flood, tossed about by the waves, and finding rest in eddies may be as important as rational, systematic engagement while we consider our next moves.  Maybe the Psalm provides an invitation to stop trying to figure things out so clearly or precisely and somehow let the textual waters envelope and inspire.  Maybe it is an opportunity for giving our rational capacity for constricting ideas, concepts, and theological reflection over to the movements, tugs, and gentle prods that a Psalm can provide.

In the introduction to the book, Teaching with Fire: Poetry That Sustains the Courage to Teach, Parker J. Palmer and Tom Vander Ark claim that “…poetry has the capacity to empower us when all these other forces — [finance, federal policy, forms of governance, and other real-world sources of power] — fail.  Far from being a mere grace note in a sometimes heartless world, poetry can contribute in at least ways to personal and social transformation: By helping us remember what it means to be human, by giving us the courage to walk a path with a heart, and by inspiring us to take collective action toward meaning social change.”1

What might the Psalmist say about power, what it means to be human, courage, social transformation, and the activity of God in the world?  Psalm 145 unleashes in a flourish of winged words theological reflections about the activity of God in the world, dimensions of the scope of God’s powers, and bird’s eye views of relational contours between the people of God and God.  It is an invitation to theological reflection about the presence of God in ordinary time — in the present.

What does it mean to contemporary people of faith to go about daily activity mindful of the abiding presence of God?  What might it mean for ecclesial bodies to reflect not on the things that are no longer done, or cannot be done, but on what God might be doing at present?  How might congregational worship be transformed by a greater recognition of the presence of God in spaces set aside for worship and in meeting rooms where deliberations can sometimes be heated and hot?  How might the drudgery of work be transformed into spaces where the actions of God might be discerned?

Psalm 145 is often called a psalm of praise to God.  True.  The words “praise,” “extol,” and “exalt” are threaded through it.  But it seems that the Psalm could also serve as a poetic theological flourish about the attributes of God. In a way it is a reminder to the people of God who the God is that they praise, extol, and exalt.  The people of God are involved in a life giving relationship with a God who is great beyond measure, a mighty actor on the cosmological and human stage, a wonder worker and an active agent in the world, good to all, righteous and faithful in all things, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, compassionate toward all, everlasting and ever God above and for all, and intimately concerned with the wellbeing of people in whatever circumstance they may find themselves.

This is no ordinary entity about whom the Psalmist writes.  Human words will always fail to define God fully and poetry can be invoked as a means toward exploding tight categories of human forging that would try to confine or manacle God in minute details.  It is as if the poet Psalmist is trying to break through human language to somehow communicate a theology rooted in history and human experience.  Description fails to provide a complete picture, yet poetry can provide glimpses and snippets of the divine.

Maybe what the Psalmist’s words suggest is not that dissimilar from seeing something and trying to describe it to someone who might be blind.  What does the color blue mean to one who has never seen it?  What are the contours of a bird in flight as it wings from field to fencerow?  How can the movement be described?  Each bird has its own flight patterns and each carries a different blur of action in flight.  The reality of the color or of the birds feathers in flight are certain as sure as one sense can discern it through the wonder of eyesight — and are invisible to those who cannot.

So the praise that gushes forth from the psalmist is for what is seen and unseen.  It is for what can be known and what lies somewhere outside of the realm of human rational or perceptive knowing.  The God who is — is both known and unknowable.  The psalmist through poetry strains toward touching a reality that exists beyond human grasp or complete definition, yet has been, is being, and will be experienced by people in some way, shape, or form.  Recognition of the presence and activity of God invokes praise from all that lives.

In verses 10-18 hearers/readers of the Psalm are invited to consider God’s book of revelation in God’s artistic work.  Creation itself speaks with its own choral and multi-hued tones of God’s activity in providing life and environments where life might flourish.  In poetic reflection the Psalmist’s words are as true for the robin or earthworm as they are for human beings.

All that lives is an act of God’s grace.  All that is sustained in the moments of life is an act of God’s abiding presence.  All that has capacity to croak, caw, screech, bark, or even tumble forth words knows something of God’s care and concern.  From the smallest insect to the greatest blue whale there is a witness to God’s creative and sustaining grace.  There is great hope in these verses on which to cling in the difficult times and places of life.  God is eternal and so is God’s grace for all.
Praise, blessing, and exaltation comingle in the Psalm 145.  Like three streams converging to make a wider and stronger river so also is the confluence hard to miss.  Hebrew words aella (praise), abrke (bless), and rum (exalt) orient the hearer toward another perspective of being.   Human response to the activity of God breaks open like a flower to the effects of sun and water.  It cannot be easily stopped.  It must be spoken.

1Intrator, Sam M. and Megan Scribner, eds. Teaching with Fire: Poetry That Sustains the Courage to Teach. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 2003, xviii.