Third Sunday after Epiphany (Year B)

Psalm 62 has elements of a Psalm of praise, thanksgiving, lament, and wisdom.

January 25, 2009

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Commentary on Psalm 62:5-12

Psalm 62 has elements of a Psalm of praise, thanksgiving, lament, and wisdom.

But it also lacks elements of each of these. Thus, I consider it a mixed-genre Psalm. In its outline, it is divided into three parts, which the occurrence of the word ‘selah’ does.

Who wrote the Psalm and when is impossible to say. Jeduthun, mentioned in the superscription (cf. 1 Chronicles 16:41-42), is more likely the forebear of a liturgical family credited with authoring specific melodies used to chant the Psalms.

The first strophe is essential to a proper understanding of Psalm 62.  True, the utter reliance on God voiced in verses 1-2 is virtually repeated in verses 5-6. The first word of the Psalm, translated variously as yes, yea, or truly, occurs six times, helping to tie the whole together. After seeking for other avenues to a safe foundation in life, this Psalmist has come to a remarkable conclusion: only Israel’s God, not any other, is utterly reliable.

Various words are used to describe this conclusion: salvation, rock, fortress, hope, help, shelter, refuge, power, grace. This person puts his mouth and his words where his heart and soul are. But it may not always have been so. Verses 3-4 make abundantly clear that, in the past, his friends, colleagues, or family members were also trusted and relied upon. Just what undermined this relationship is not stated. But it was a lesson not to be forgotten.

Why these folks turned on the Psalmist we do not know, but they did it in a devious way, pretending still to be friendly and supportive. The poet was caught off-guard and was devastated. Thus, if we cut out verses 3-4, which our lectionary suggests, we are left without a clue as to what led the author to the remarkable faith statements in the rest of the Psalm. Now, no one can reach him to destroy him. Once he may have been like a building about to collapse, which anyone could demolish. Not anymore!

Strophe two (verses 5-8) begins as did strophe one, with powerful words of confidence in God. It surely is remarkable, given the tenor of verses 3-4. God will not go behind one’s back, destroying those who rely upon him. In the final analysis all strength and power come, not from nourishment or physical exercise, but from God. We may need to reassure our souls of this repeatedly! Perhaps the poet, using the law of asylum, has experienced this personally by fleeing to the sanctuary and hanging onto the horns of the altar. In any case, the author is not vengeful or angry (verse 7), only at peace. Accordingly, this peace becomes the basis of a call to others to share in this great discovery (verse 8). In the ancient world a plethora of gods was available for help in time of need. But only the God of Israel’s assembled congregation is their refuge. So, says the author, do what I did: pray and call for help. You too will then become as confident as I am. Here we reach the high point of strophe two, if not of the whole Psalm. Remember this insight when troubles come, as they surely will.

Strophe three (verses 9-12) does not begin as the previous two did. Instead of reflecting the negative experience depicted in strophe one, the author now evaluates all humans as unable to provide security. Compared to God, humans are nothing. Even those who have amassed a fortune and those who exercise power cannot be relied upon. These are illusions which may quickly disappear. Further, how was this wealth or power accumulated? No doubt at someone else’s expense. Like the Wisdom Literature, these verses remind and warn those who rely on such things to beware.

God has often spoken of such matters (verse 11, cf. the Prophets). But not all have heeded. Thus, once again the people are told and God (verse 12) is finally addressed. Praise is not just advised for others, but given to the Faithful One, the gracious God of Israel. For centuries this was the central message of the Temple worship services. Sacred history, too, interpreted the past and present as the arena where God was active on their behalf.

All of us need friends, family, and community to rely on. But sometimes they let us down, hopefully not as absolutely as the Psalmist experienced. It can be disillusioning. One may be tempted to lash out, to give up hope. Here is a text which shows the way out of such a predicament. There is someone whom we can rely upon completely. Our Lord is reliable when others fail us. It may also be our IRA’s, or investments, which prove to be less than secure. What we have laid aside for the future may have eroded considerably. We lose confidence in capitalism, in CEOs. But should we also lose faith in God?

From experience and the Bible, we learn that this world and the people in it are unreliable. Yet our experience and the Bible also testify that God is a secure foundation upon whom to build. The sermon should be personal testimony to the congregation, as this Psalm is. It should  include God’s promises to us, as well as talk about God. Confident witness is not narrow-minded bigotry. People need help in living in the real world.

The last two lines, depending upon the translation, may be a problem for evangelical Christians. Are we rewarded according to our deeds? This author is not speaking about the afterlife or eternal salvation which we know is given by grace alone. Jesus Christ did die for our sins. That makes the witness of this Psalm even more profound.