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Some Questions

April 24, 2017

“Some Questions” Psalm 16 © 4.23.17 Easter 2A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

When I was a pastor in Alabama, there was a young elder in the church named Gary. Invariably, in a Sunday school class or Bible study, Gary would raise his hand at some point and say “I have a question.” I knew Gary was a sincere and good man, who was genuinely interested in both the subject matter and truth in general, so his queries were not attempts to sidetrack the conversation or intimidate or embarrass me or anyone else. For that reason I welcomed his asking.

This morning I propose to follow Gary’s example and say to the psalmist: “I have a question!” Actually, several questions. So, here goes.

First, what in the world is a miktam? That’s the heading given the psalm by the editors of the book: “a miktam of David.” The phrase is verse zero in Hebrew. Nobody really seems to know how to translate the word. One possibility is “inscription.” Another is “special psalm.” Yet another is “a literary or musical term.” So let’s go with that for a moment. I have some possibilities for you. Since we aren’t sure what the word means, my ideas are as good as anybody’s, right? Maybe it’s a “song for harp, kazoo, and orchestra.” Or “for accompaniment by eight string classical guitar.” Or how about “psalm for jazz quartet”?

OK. I’m being a little silly. Let’s get serious now. My first real question for this poet is “What are you so afraid of”? A recurring motif or theme runs through this piece, which is not surprising given that it’s a song. Over and over again, depending on the translation, we hear the words safe, safety, safely, protect, fear, rest, secure, refuge, not shaken. The poem shares the concern about safety with its sister miktam psalms, 56-60, which makes me think miktam may really mean something like “psalm for a time of crisis” or “cry for help.”

There are clues here about what the poet is facing. By the way, the editors assigned a bunch of psalms to David, as a king who loved music, but we need not be bound by a title that was not original to the scripture. The poet could be David, but he could also be anyone on the run from enemies who want to kill him. He’s perhaps seeking asylum in the Temple or maybe in one of the sanctuary cities where one could go to escape those wanting to exact revenge. We might also take “refuge” not quite so literally and hear him longing for some place to get away from pain or annoyance or chaos. That commercial currently running where the kindergarten teacher is trying to find the right hotel or resort to unwind from her noisy days with rambunctious kids comes to mind.

Whoever he may be and whatever he needs refuge from, one thing I think the psalmist fears is that he will give in to the worship of other gods, that he will backslide from what may be new-found devotion and zeal. He seems to have the fervor, fierce loyalty, and naïveté of a new convert. But we can’t be sure. Some of the lines in this psalm are as notoriously hard to translate as “miktam.” Not all versions agree on whether he says that the holy ones in the land are noble and are his delight, as we heard, or that he is actually condemning the priests and followers of other deities. The text can read: “As for the pagan priests who are in the land and the nobles in whom all delight, I said: ‘The sorrows of those who run after other gods will increase….’” Another possibility is: “Now as for the ‘holy ones’ in the land, the ‘magnificent ones’ that I was so happy about: let their suffering increase because they hurried after a different god.”

We’ll return to that thought in a moment. For now, we should notice how the pressure of culture to conform to what everybody else believed and to act as expected was just as strong long ago as it is now, maybe stronger. And if you lived in a place that did not support implicitly or explicitly the worship of Yahweh or even one god whatever the name, then your devotion and loyalty really were choices. Conscious decisions. An expression of your sense of calling by this one true God.

Clearly this writer has that sort of choice, and every day he confirms it, and it’s confirmed. He looks around and sees that this God to whom he is exclusively loyal is doing some great things in his life. In fact, this poet can’t imagine existence apart from Yahweh. Who else will give him the refuge he needs? The strength to resist the cultural pressures and stand fast in his determination to be true to the only One who’s true? Who else has promised a bright future, a “delightful inheritance”? (There’s another translation problem. One version says “I have a lovely home” [CEB].) The poet chooses to see reality through the lens of his fierce devotion to Yahweh, and everything fits into the plan the Lord has for him.

The other gods who get their names regularly on the cover of Deities Today and a new statue dedicated every other week just don’t do it for the poet. He’s not going to hang out with their worshippers; it’s only the people of God who give him delight, if we accept the standard reading. He’s convinced, and I would say against the evidence, that worshippers of idols and those who promote and benefit from such devotion will have sorrow. By the way, that’s a kind of side question I have for this writer. I want to say “Oh, yeah? When? I’d like to know, because I don’t see it. In fact, just the opposite: the people of God grieve and weep, and those who follow false gods prosper and gain power. The strong prey on the weak, the vulnerable are victims of the violent and those without any moral compass, truth is trampled, children go homeless and hungry and hurting.” Anyone with a realistic view of the world can see it. The wicked win again and again, while people of good will and character lose their battles against evil and even their lives in the process, while the righteous struggle and question and wonder where God is and why he doesn’t do something.

I suspect the psalmist would insist that even if such is my experience, it’s not been his. And maybe he would define “sorrow” not as troubles like financial ruin or loss of your loved one or the tears of sensitive people who long for justice. Instead, it’s being apart from the true God, who gives life, and every day without worshipping him multiplies the pain. In their running after other gods, one day pagans will trip and fall and as they’re lying there helpless and hurting, they will come to themselves and say “What have I been doing? Baal isn’t reaching down to pick me up. Dagon isn’t standing by my side to help me. Astarte isn’t giving me what I need. Maybe that guy I thought was an idiot for worshipping Yahweh was right after all.”

So, if the psalmist is afraid of giving in to pressure of the idolatrous culture, he seems to have that one licked. But there’s a greater fear implicit in this psalm. It’s the terror of being left alone, being lost, and ultimately, completely abandoned. We can understand that. Let me ask the adults here: did you ever get separated from mom or dad in a big store as a child and stand bewildered and weeping until they found you? It’s a horrible feeling. Or what about the aged parent, now almost totally unable to care for himself or herself, who longs for the assurance that you are there to help when evening falls, and nothing is clear, not even whether and when it’s time to go to bed or who you are. Or you’re on a trip in some unfamiliar state or country, and you miss a crucial turn, and suddenly you’re in the middle of nowhere with a bad cell signal and without a clue how to get back to the main road. You frantically consult the map or the GPS, wishing some local guide would come along to show the way. Or somebody promises to help you with a big project at school or work, then never shows up, just leaves you to figure things out for yourself.

Abandonment. It’s a heartless word in the sense I’m using it here. To be utterly without hope of rescue. Adrift on a trackless sea. Forsaken. Desolate, as in Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And to be abandoned to Sheol, the Pit, Slime Central, where there was darkness and not even God, it was believed, was present! Sheol was where all the dead went. Not hell, but not heaven either. The land, the realm, the dimension of shadows, where there was no awareness, no passing of time, no anything at all. The scholar James Luther Mays says: “Death in the thought world of the psalms is not only the polar opposite of life, the loss of one’s own vital existence. It is also the loss of the presence of God and the pleasures of that presence. It is God that is lost in death” (Psalms: 87).

How often have we cried out that God has fled, left us to our own devices in this world? Be honest now. It’s OK. Don’t you feel, as I often do, that God has given up on humanity, and just said “Do what you want. I’m through talking and teaching and sending prophets and martyrs.” Has he withdrawn his Spirit, other than giving us breath? Has he given us up to our lust for domination and violence and inflicting pain and misery? Are we on our own when we face sickness and despair and grief? I said not too long ago that sometimes the absence of God is an expression of his love. But other times, well, there’s no explanation at all that I can see.

But here, too, the psalmist does not let fear get the upper hand. There is confidence in his reflections that is nothing short of extraordinary. It operates against the evidence, day and night, waking and sleeping, alone and in the presence of God’s people and in the world where other gods claim sovereignty. It’s good for yesterday, today, and tomorrow. It’s confirmed in the ancient tradition and in new insights gained in an evening’s meditation. It is because of, indeed, it is the presence and the help of God, who keeps and delights in his own, gives them gifts beyond deserving or imagining, and delivers them even from death. “You do not give me up…you show me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”

So, having heard his faith-filled exclamations, here is my next to the last question for the psalmist: “How can we, how can I, have your confidence in our world where so often God seems absent and the death-dealing forces arrayed against God and his Son so often deform and destroy human life?” No doubt he would counsel me and all of us to seek and enjoy the supportive company of God’s people. What is true for cancer patients or smokers wanting to quit or alcoholics staying sober or children of alcoholics dealing with co-dependence or people watching their weight and on and on is true for those struggling with faith. We support each other with honest conversations about our doubts and questions, even as we find encouragement and answers in sharing. We’re reminded that others are there to shoulder our burdens as we do theirs, and that in living every day, there is always something, some little something, to rejoice in. And within and beyond such community, even in our private times, we keep our eyes on the divine Guide, our minds in his Word, and our hearts focused on all the good things he constantly provides if we will but see them and acknowledge them. As the beloved hymn puts it: “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face,” never step out of the “light of his glory and grace.”

Now we come to the final question. It’s simply this: “Psalmist, do you know what a gift you have given me, and all God’s people?” Your vulnerability and your exuberance are both in short supply so often. But you encourage us to put those feelings of fear and concern out there, down on paper or spoken aloud, for others to hear and share and find help and hope in. You don’t hold back the tears or the shouts of joy. You invite us to devote body, soul, and spirit to the praise of the God who gives life abundant, pleasures forevermore. As Peter is reported to have said in his Pentecost sermon, this is the God who did not leave his Holy One Jesus in the clutches of death, but raised him up and exalted him. And in so doing, has shown us, once and for all, that nothing in life or in death can separate us from the love of God. For Christ is risen. Alleluia!

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