Commentary on Psalm 67
The oldest scraps of Bible archeologists have ever found are little scrolls of thinly hammered out silver, with Numbers 6:24-26 scratched onto the surface: “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.” The larger one is a mere three and a half inches by one inch and both of them, found on the outskirts of ancient Jerusalem, are dated to the eighth or seventh century BCE (making them nearly three thousand years old!). Were these amulets, worn like charms? Were they placed into the grave of a loved one?
Whoever first wrote or fashioned Psalm 67 knew this blessing well, as did every worshiper who ever came to Jerusalem at one of the high festivals. Notice the pronoun shift. “May the Lord be gracious to you” expands to “May the Lord be gracious to us.” You, yes, me too, and the others standing around also. How lovely—and a stretch for us, perhaps like the Grinch’s heart growing three sizes. Our culture asks “Be gracious to me.” To get out of the idolatry of me, to care enough for the other, we move to “Be gracious to you.” Even better then is to join hands and together ask “Be gracious to us.”
But it’s not us versus them in this Psalm! The Psalmist, and those who sang it, and sing it, may well hear echoes of God’s call to Abraham in Genesis 12. God promises to bless Abraham, and then to use him to bless others, all nations in fact. Our Psalm soars upward, then gazes down over all the earth and invokes God’s blessing on us, a big, comprehensive us. I don’t hoard God’s blessing, and we in our church can’t shrink God down to the entity who blesses us but not others.
Pronouns continue to matter: in verse 6 worshippers address “our” God. Isn’t this like the prayer Jesus taught us? “Our” Father? It’s not ours, in a possessive sense, like ours but not theirs. The “our” reaches out and embraces others, the strangers, the people who pray differently and in distant places, maybe even those who have forgotten to pray or never pray. God is that big, yet that personal. God’s grace is as lavish as the mind-boggling scope and diversity of creation, as steady as the broad sweep of God’s work through history, as tender as a single person knowing God. It’s not “that” God, but “our” God. Stanley Hauerwas has often mused he doesn’t need a “personal savior,” like a personal tailor or trainer, as he’s happy to have the same savior as everybody else. God is personal, and everybody else’s too.
Psalm 67 clearly seems to be something the Israelites sang when the harvest came in. God’s relationship to things that grow is intriguing. Edible plants grow not only for us but all over God’s good earth. If we say a blessing before a meal, we aren’t assuming God floated the dinner down onto our tables. God’s in the whole process, creating a fertile earth, farmers sowing seed, weeding, harvesting, processing, canning, transportation to the store, the clerk checking you out, hands cooking. The harvest begins with human labor but continues when the farmer is asleep, akin to God’s vigilant care for us on the Sabbath.
But then some people have plenty of food and more, wasting much. If we offer thanks to God, isn’t the implication that it’s all God’s? And it’s for all the people? The old Haitian proverb says “God gives but God doesn’t share.” This is how the harvest blessings of the Psalm find their way to all the people named in the Psalm, and it’s the only chance God has of actually being praised by all the people. It’s hard for those who have little to nothing to get swept up in praising the Lord or believing God’s face shines on them too.
Verse 4 won’t let us wriggle out of God’s loving grasp—thinking of God’s warm fuzzy love no matter what. God has other tools than simply love, or love is experienced differently depending on where you are with respect to God. Judgment is a thing with our God. It’s not God flipping inside out to a different mood. There are conditions to love. Love arouses a holy, responsible life. Getting out of sync with God is to knuckle under the judgment that really is inviting love.
The Psalm is thanks-giving. And simultaneously it is a blessing, just like Numbers 6:24. In biblical times, people knew the power of words, they knew how to bless, to call down the most precious, priceless realities on somebody else. Nearing death, Isaac blessed his sons. Jacob placed two of his grandsons on his knees, laid hands on them and uttered a long prayer over them. The Psalms are chock-full of blessings. The Israelites believed some very real divine energy was passed from person to person, simply by speaking. Words have power; they package love across space and time. Maybe the preacher blesses the people. Maybe we encourage them to go out and bless others.
Since this blessing is something we share, with others and God, it could be worth noticing that the Hebrew preposition in verse 2, “shine upon us,” literally means “shine with us.” We shine. Together. And the light spreads. Such joy.