My assignment tonight is “The Character of God in the Psalms.” Which is a little like speaking on the subject, “Everything That’s Wrong with the Detroit Tigers.” Where would you start? Where would you end? Pitching, defense, hitting, minor leagues, coaching? This assignment is daunting.
Still, I’m up to the challenge. Ready? God is Yahweh, El Shaddai, Elohim, a mighty tower, a rock, a fortress. Our God is a stronghold, a sure defense. The Lord of Hosts is a horn of salvation. The Lord is our light, a warrior, a king, a shepherd, a mother, a vinedresser. God is an avenger and a healer. A protector, creator, destroyer. The Lord is lawgiver and judge, a forger of weapons and their destroyer. Our God is a shelter in the storm. God is the storm. God is a place of peace and rest, and God is the disorienting whirlwind. Any questions?
I hope you noticed two things from this quick tour of images of God in the Psalms. The picture we have is rich and diverse. Simply listing images, however, leaves us still a long way from knowing the nature of God in the Psalms. But I also want you to notice that the images are so varied, and sometimes so at odds with one another, that it makes you wonder if the psalmists are speaking of the same God. We have a very difficult task tonight, defining the nature of God in the Psalms.
Let’s listen for a more modest point of reference by reading from Psalm 89.
I will sing of your steadfast love, O Lord, forever;
with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations
I declare that your steadfast love is established forever;
your faithfulness is as firm as the heavens. . . .
The heavens are yours, the Earth also is yours;
The world, and all that is in it—you have founded them.
(Psalm 89:1-2, 10)
O Lord, we seek you through the pages of the Psalms. We trust that in the myriad of images available, you will make yourself known. Amen.
The Strange Church Service
I recently attended an unusual worship service that bothered me to the point that I got up and walked out. Want to hear about it?
The service began as the presider stood and said, “I want to remind you, as we begin our worship today, that we have come to feast on the word of God. If we want to live fruitful lives, if we want to be like trees planted by streams of water, then we will meditate day and night on the word of the Lord.” And I thought, “That’s pretty good.” It warmed my Campbellite heart to begin with an emphasis on the word of God.
Next, the presider said, “I also want to remind you today that we are a people of prayer. We live our lives unceasingly before God in prayer. When we lie down at night, we offer our lives in prayer to God; and as we rise in the morning, we seek him in prayer. No matter what circumstances we encounter in life, we are a people who pray.” Again, I thought, “Not bad. Everyone can be reminded that their prayer life is not what it ought to be, myself included.” So far, so good.
But then it got weird. Our presider said, “What should we pray about today?” A man stood up in the center of the room (this doesn’t happen where I go to church) and said, “I have an enemy who is out to get me. Now if I’m in the wrong, then I want God to deal severely with me. But I’m pretty sure my enemy is the problem. He has treated me unjustly. So I expect God to deal severely with him, to launch a flaming arrow right at the guy. Let’s pray about that.” I thought to myself, “I’ve never heard anything like this in church before.” But the congregation, seemingly not fazed at all by this prayer request, responded, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases.”
Then another person stood and named his request: “I want to praise God for his faithfulness today. I was trapped in death’s snare, but God reached out and rescued me, blessed be his name.” And the congregation said, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases.” Which was better than the first prayer request. But how does this guy know that it was God who rescued him? Before my mind could sort out all the theological problems with this request, a woman stood and said, “God has forgotten me. I am in pain day and night and he’s hiding from me. He is ignoring me. I think we ought to pray until we get his attention.” I wondered, “What kind of church have I stumbled into?” I mean, we pray for healing, but we don’t often blame God for illness or charge him with neglect. But the congregation responded on cue. “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases.” It went on like this for a while. It had me pining for the good old days of two songs and a prayer. Get this. At one point a man stood and said, “I think we should praise God, because after all, who are we that he is mindful of us and yet has made us a little lower than the angels.” And immediately this other guy stood up right on top of him and said, “Indeed, who are we that the Lord is mindful of us? He has made us nothing but dust.” Now, where I go to church we usually wait until we get to the foyer to have conflict. Not here. Right in the middle of the service they fight about what it means for God to be mindful of humans. Or whether or not God should smite our enemies or turn our weapons into plowshares. And the congregation just keeps responding, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases.”
Finally, the straw came that broke the camel’s back. This young hippie type stood and announced, “I think we need to remind God of what his business is in the world. The poor are being oppressed, and he’s doing nothing about it. And the rich are flouting their ill-gotten wealth, mocking God. I think it’s time somebody reminded God what his business is in this world.” I had had enough! Who talks like this in worship? So, I got up and left. Who is God to these people that they dare to address him like this? I don’t think I’ll ever worship with the Psalms again.
Two Hymnals: Two Images of God
How does one do theology from a hymnal?
When I was a teenager, I attended the stately old University Church of Christ in Abilene, Texas. We sang hymns each week from “Old Blue.” You know “Old Blue”? Otherwise known as Great Songs of the Church. Let me say that again with the proper emphasis – GREAT Songs of the Church. Average songs need not apply; only the great songs of the church are found in this collection. This is not to say that all the songs are equally great. It is still necessary to divide “Old Blue” into gospel songs (which are not quite as lofty in their ambition or accomplishment) and hymns (the highest achievement in songs for worship). The editor provided us a very explicit rationale for the selection of these great songs. The standards followed were truth and soundness, then strength and clarity, poetic beauty and lyric quality: “The music wedded to the words and fit to wing them to the heart.” Here’s my favorite sentence from the editor’s preface: “Resort to common syncopated rhythms or other low unspiritual devices of our day could not be tolerated.” We had no unspiritual syncopated rhythms in the University Church of Christ. We sang great songs of the church, like so many stained-glass-shape notes in the air. Who is God in these songs? God is high and majestic. The Lord is exalted and lifted up. These songs are not soiled by the common things of life. Instead, they lead us into the rarified air of the presence of God.
But I didn’t always attend the University Church of Christ. Other churches I attended had more modest hymnic ambitions. We sang from the hymnal Songs of the Church. Not “great songs” – just plain old Songs of the Church. This hymnal came in a variety of colors. You could buy green or blue or red or gold. We possessed an assortment of colors, I assume to match our lovely carpet. Nothing fancy about these hymnals.
This songbook specialized in those “low, unspiritual syncopated songs.” Every Sunday we sang the Stamps-Baxter tunes – “Where Could I Go But to the Lord?,” “The New Song,” and “Paradise Valley” – songs that common folk could sing. And we had a common songleader to lead them. He wasn’t theologically driven as he picked songs form week to week. His ideas of arranging songs around a theme was to choose ones that ended in odd numbers and then to sing only the even verses. Or to choose songs that mentioned human anatomy. So one week we might have songs about feet and hands, the next week, a song about hearts or heads. You get the idea.
And who is God in these songs? Here, we don’t have the exalted theology of “Old Blue.” In fact, some songs barely refer to God at all. “If the skies above you are gray, you are feeling so blue. If your cares and burdens seem great all the whole day through. There’s a silver lining that shines in the heavenly land. Look by faith and see it my friend. Trust in his promises grand. Sing and be happy.” Or, “I’ve got a mansion, just over the hilltop.” We sang a lot of songs about Heaven that were only peripherally about God. We sang them, not to draw us deeper into life, but to help us forget about our lives and all the trouble we have here on Earth. “Farther along we’ll know all about it.” “Won’t it be wonderful there?”
Two very different hymnals. Two very different pictures of God.
God in the Psalms: Viewed from All of Human Life
Who is God in the Psalms – Israel’s hymnal? This is a hymnal very different from both “Old Blue” and Songs of the Church. Israel’s hymnbook is obsessed with God. God is an actor in nearly every Psalm, which makes it very different from Songs of the Church. But the Psalms are also nearly equally obsessed with what it is to be human. Common human predicaments and emotions are fully on display in the Psalms, unlike in the very restrained “Old Blue.” In fact, it’s this second obsession – with what it is to be human – that accounts for the multitude of images of God we listed at the beginning of the sermon.
The Psalms aren’t systematic theology. In other words, it’s not as if somebody sat down and said, “I want to write a hymn that captures with precision the character of God.” These hymns are theology in the moment – God viewed from the human side. God viewed through our joy. God viewed through our grief and sometimes through the disorientation of our despair. These hymns come unvarnished. The psalmists feel no need to cover their words with stained glass. The unrestrained quality of speech in the Psalms produces an impressive variety of images of God, images that sometimes clash with and are hard to reconcile to one another. So the question of God in relation to the Psalms might be, What view of God encourages this kind of diversity? Asked another way, Who is God that he would authorize a hymnal like this?
Let’s go back to Psalm 89 and notice verse 11; “The heavens are yours; the Earth also is yours. The world and all that is in it – you have founded them.” The faith of the psalmist begins with the belief that the only reference point for anything in life is God. Unlike other accounts of reality that depict creation as a struggle between competing gods, the Old Testament declares, “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” (Deuteronomy 6:4) All things find their source in Yahweh and ultimately serve his purposes in the world. Think of the highest angel, and God is greater. Think of the greatest superpower you can think of, and God is greater. Go to the heights; go to the depths; go to the north; go to the south – God is there and responsible for it all. And here’s the point: If God is responsible for it all, if all of life is accountable to God, then all of life is fair game in worship. Both the heights and the depths.
I read today in The Oakland Press, your local newspaper, an article on Mother Teresa. Her expressions of faith sound very much like the Psalms. She says, “I am told God lives in me. And yet the reality of darkness and emptiness and coldness is so great that nothing touches my soul.” In another diary entry she writes, “I want God, with all the power of my soul, and yet between us there is this terrible separation., Heaven from every side is closed.” Another entry: “I feel just that terrible pain of loss, of God not wanting me, of God not being, of God not really existing.” These words are the kind Israel sets to music and sings in the temple, because Israel is convinced that all of life is connected to God, even the seemingly God-forsaken parts.
If you believe that everything is God’s, as Mother Teresa seems to, then you can’t take only the good portions of life and say, “this stuff belongs to God, but this stuff over here – the doubt, the pain, the grief – doesn’t.” If all praise is due God, then so is all complaint, and all grief, and all celebration, and all doubt.
Dangerous and Fully Human in Worship: What Will God Think?
Look, I know that this sounds, well dangerous. Is this really acceptable speech for worship? After all, our perspectives are so limited. What if we say things in our grief or our failure, or even in our success and joy, that don’t correspond with who God really is? What if we cross some kind of line in how we talk about God? What if we’re wrong?
Which brings us to another characteristic of God mentioned in Psalm 89. His steadfast love endures forever. God is in this thing for the long haul. Yahweh is not going to abandon the work of redeeming his creation, even if his people don’t fully comprehend him. Sometimes we have this image of an easily offended God who is just waiting for an excuse to turn his back on the story. But God is persistently faithful, and not offended by our humanity. God knows that we are finite and limited, and welcomes us into God’s presence just as we are. God will not go away! You might, but God won’t. The steadfast love of the Lord endures forever!
The Psalms allow God’s people to explore the full range of what it means to be human. Our hymnals look so limited in comparison. I notice that we have one of the newer hymnals in the pews tonight. It contains a lot of great songs of praise and quite a few about our Heavenly hope. But it offers to God such a limited range of human experience. Where are the laments? The complaints? There is precious little by way of confession. Human experience is expressed only in very generic terms. Where is the grit? the real stuff of life? Too often our hymnals, thin as they are in range of experience, sing too easily of Heaven in an effort to take our minds off the very trouble of life that God longs to enter. The Psalms will have none of that.
Sometimes our worship leads me to think we share Homer Simpson’s view of God. In one episode of The Simpsons, Homer says, “I may not know much about God, but I have to say we’ve built a really nice cage for him.” Here’s the deal. When we limit the range of human expression in our worship, we limit who God can be among us. We build a cage for God with our stained-glass language. When we bring only part of our lives to worship, we limit our awareness of God’s involvement in other aspects of life. The paradox of worship, borne out in the Psalms, is that the greater the expression of our humanity, the greater awareness we have of God. The more we confess, the greater the experience of God’s mercy. The more vulnerable and helpless we are, the greater God’s movement in our midst is perceived. The more limited and finite we are, the greater our appreciation of God. God’s steadfast love never ceases.
Staying to the End of Worship
We’ve got to think long and hard about worship in relation to the Psalms. A greater appreciation for the character of God in the Psalms would demand more honest expression from us in worship. Israel’s bold freedom in worship flows from the twin convictions that God is ultimately responsible for all of life and that God’s steadfast love endures forever. If we took those notions more seriously, our worship would be changed forever. Our transformed worship would both take our humanity more seriously and allow greater room for an awareness of the almighty God in our lives.
In this way, the Psalms prepare us to receive Christ. Like the Psalms, Jesus holds together both the human and divine. At the cross he holds together a full range of human experience: suffering and joy, life and death, sin and righteousness. All things are being gathered up in Christ for the glory of God. From whom, and through whom, and to whom are all things. Glory be to God in the church! The Psalms prepare us for the encounter with God that is ours in Jesus. And at the cross we say with the congregation gathered in the Psalms, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases.”
Now, looking back on the day I worshiped with the Psalms, I wish I had stayed to the end. Because this is how worship in the Psalms ends: with cascading hallelujahs. Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, praise the Lord, praise the Lord! Because when all of life can be acknowledged in the presence of God, something wonderful happens: God’s people come to know God, and to love God, and to trust God.
It is time to sing the hallelujahs (Psalm 150):
Praise the Lord!
Praise God in his sanctuary;
praise him in his mighty firmament!
Praise him for his mighty deeds;
praise him according to his surpassing greatness!
Praise him with trumpet sound;
praise him with lute and harp!
Praise him with tambourine and dance.
praise him with strings and pipe!
Praise him with clanging cymbals;
praise him with loud clashing cymbals!
Let everything that breaths praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord!