Sixth Sunday of Easter

As we had occasion to observe in relation to Psalm 148, last week’s psalm, Israel’s songs of praise regularly invite an expansive congregation to praise God.

Gustav Klimt, Nine Drawings for the Execution of a Frieze
Gustav Klimt, Nine Drawings for the Execution of a Frieze..., MAK (Museum of Applied Arts), Vienna. Image by Kotomi_ via Flickr licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

May 9, 2010

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Commentary on Psalm 67

As we had occasion to observe in relation to Psalm 148, last week’s psalm, Israel’s songs of praise regularly invite an expansive congregation to praise God.

Whereas last week’s essay explored the ecological implications of inviting a universe-encompassing congregation to praise God, this essay focuses more narrowly on the human community. Note, however, that while our focus has narrowed, it is still extraordinarily expansive. Psalm 67 invites to praise God no less a congregation than “the nations” and “all the peoples” (verses 3-5)!

While such an invitation is the norm for Israel’s songs of praise, it is still remarkable. In the case of Psalm 67, this world-encompassing invitation is emphasized by the structure of the poem. Verses 3 and 5 are identical, and the repetition itself provides emphasis. Furthermore, in the way that Psalm 67 is often laid out poetically (see NRSV), verses 3 and 5 conclude the first two sections of the psalm, a positioning that offers further emphasis on the expansive invitation to “all the peoples.”

While this construal of the structure of Psalm 67 make sense, it is also possible to discern a chiastic arrangement of the poem, as follows:

A   verses 1-2 blessing and the nations
  B verse 3 refrain
      C verse 4 central invitation and focus on God’s just
        and equitable guidance
  B’ verse 5 refrain
A’ verses 6-7 blessing and “all the ends of the earth”

In this view, the poet has constructed a chiasm that focuses attention upon the central verse 4, which is enveloped by the two identical invitations in verses 3 and 5. Thus, all the invitations to the “peoples” and “nations” occur in verses 3-5, which are enveloped by the affirmations in verses 1-2, 6-7 that God has blessed “us” — that is, Israel. Structurally speaking, then, the people who have been blessed by God now surround the peoples and nations with blessing. The strong implication is that the praise of God that is invited from the peoples and nations is predicated upon Israel’s sharing the blessing with the world.

The central verse 4 reinforces this interpretive direction, especially when verse 4bc is translated as follows: “for you establish justice (among) the peoples with equity and guide the nations upon earth.” Establishing justice, which in Scripture is the responsibility of both human and divine monarchs (see Psalms 72 and 82, and Ezekiel 34:1-16), involves the meeting of basic human needs, especially the provision of food (see verse 6a, especially NRSV “increase,” which NIV translates as “harvest;” see also Leviticus 26:4). In short, God wills and works toward life for the world, by way of the agency of the people that God has blessed with food.

In fact, verses 1-2 have already indicated this direction. Echoing the Aaronic Benediction in Numbers 6:22-27, verses 1-2 suggest that God’s blessing of the people will not stop with the people themselves. Rather, God’s “saving power” (NRSV) or “salvation” (NIV) will be experienced “among the nations.” In its fundamental sense, “salvation” means life. Again, God wills and works toward life for the whole world.

At this point, Psalm 67 articulates a message that reverberates throughout the canon. In particular, the emphasis on blessing (verses 1, 6-7) recalls Genesis 12:1-3. To be sure, Abraham, Sarah, and their descendants are promised a blessing, but they are also to serve as agents of blessing for “all the families of the earth” (Genesis 12:3). Elsewhere in the Old Testament, the scope of God’s concern is similarly world-encompassing (see Exodus 9:16; Psalm 22:27-28); God pursues justice among all the nations and peoples (see Isaiah 2:4), whom God claims as God’s own (see Isaiah 19:23-25; Psalm 87); and God’s people are agents of God’s world-embracing work (see Isa 42:5-9; 49:5-6).

In the New Testament, the apostle Paul cites Genesis 12:3 as foundational support for his mission of sharing the gospel with the whole world and opening the church to the Gentiles/nations (see Galatians 3:6-8). The final chapter of the Bible, Revelation 22 (one of the lessons for the day), envisions nothing short of the eventual “healing of the nations” (verse 2).

It is with good reason, therefore, that Theodore Mascarenhas interprets Psalm 67 in terms of mission. As he concludes:

       The psalmist [in Psalm 67] has used material
       available to him like the Aaronic Blessing
       but has so remodeled it as to make it
       missionary minded. Retaining all the
       theological import that the blessing carries,
       he has instilled in it the Abrahamic hope
       and has portrayed Israel as a blessing to the
       nations…Receiving God’s blessing, it [Israel]
       becomes a blessing to the peoples because it
       teaches them by life and worship how to be
       participants in the blessing.1

To read and hear Psalm 67 during the season of Easter is to be reminded that the resurrection of Jesus constitutes a call to mission. Not coincidentally, the risen Christ sent his disciples to “all nations” (Matthew 28:19; Luke 24:47). The point is not simply conversion, although sharing the good news may result in conversion in some cases. The real point is to exemplify the blessing of life that we know and experience — that is, we are called, as Israel was called in Psalm 67, to share the blessing with all peoples and nations. This includes sharing the “increase” or “harvest” that God provides. Blessing the world, working toward the life that God wills for all peoples and nations, will mean sharing our food and the other material resources that are necessary to sustain and nurture life.

This call to mission is timely indeed. The contemporary world is characterized by growing extremes of wealth and poverty. While people in the United States routinely eat too much, there are a billion people, maybe more, who suffer from hunger and malnutrition. Everyday, 30,000 children die of hunger-related causes. For those of us who have clearly experienced the earth’s “increase,” the call is to share the blessing.

Then too, our contemporary world is characterized by ongoing racial, ethnic, national, and religious bigotry and strife. Psalm 67 and its vision of a divinely-willed blessing for all peoples and nations may encourage us, in the words of Cain Hope Felder, to “engage the new challenge to recapture the ancient biblical vision of racial and ethnic plurality as shaped by the Bible’s own universalism.”2 So be it!

1 Theodore Mascarenhas, The Missionary Function of Israel in Psalms 67, 96, and 117 (Dallas: University Press of America, 2005), 120-121.
2 Cain Hope Felder, Stony the Road We Trod: African American Biblical Interpretation, ed. Cain Hope Felder (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991), ix.