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Sunday, May 28, 2017

Let God Arise – Psalm 68

Psalm 68 is fascinating. I’m dubious of those people who say that they love the psalms because they are soooo comforting or soooo uplifting. I’m never quite sure which psalms those people are reading. The psalms are gritty, earthy, and dark; the psalms, even the ‘nice’ ones are often unpolished and unrefined. But, as I said, Psalm 68 is fascinating to me because it remains almost completely unintelligible.

Now this isn’t something that we’re supposed to say – especially from the pulpit. But if we read Psalm 68 carefully and honestly, without a filter of pious sentimentality, we will have to admit that it is difficult. Go ahead and read it in a couple of different translations and compare them. Most translations present their finished work without any indication of the difficulty, ambiguity, and oddity that rests just beneath the surface of their words.

But Psalm 68, as refined and polished as we might like it to be, resists our attempts to understand it. It is an “anarchic poem” (Dahood 133). It is “textually and exegetically, the most difficult and obscure of all the psalms” (Dahood 133). There is little agreement among scholars about the author, source, date of composition, or purpose of this melody (Poteat 354). Or perhaps of this medley. It is sometimes suggested that Psalm 68 should not be read a single unified work, but as a collection of songs and fragments of songs from various periods and authors arranged for us now as a haphazard hymnal (Taylor 353).

The meter of the stanzas of Psalm 68 shifts almost as frequently as the imagery, which is to say constantly. The psalm is a long sequence of non-sequiturs. Take for example verses 12 – 14: the kings of enemy armies flee from the presence of God, the women at home divide the spoil and booty of war – while they sit in the sheep pen. Then there’s something about doves with wings of silver and pinions of green-gold, and snow falling on Mount Zalmon - which might be something clever about white snow on a black mountain as “Zalmon” means “Dark One.” (Dahood 142).

But what does that mean? What’s going on here?

There are images of God in psalm 68 that will seem cruel and strange in our modern ears. In verses 21 – 22 he is seen smashing the skulls of his enemies, crushing their “hairy crowns.” The people of God are comforted and told that they will bathe their feet in the blood of their enemies and that their dogs will lap up the blood of their foes (23). And yet this violent, vindictive, warrior God is balanced in verse 31 where God is called upon to “scatter the peoples who delight in wars!” (JPS)

Now - as strange as Psalm 68 is (and it must be maintained that it is strange – at least to us so far removed from its composition) we can make some sense of it, at least a little. There are a few themes that reappear again and again amongst its ever shifting panoply of non-sequiturs and mixed metaphors.

The Psalm, over and over again, remembers the dramatic events of the Israelite exodus from slavery in Egypt.  The Egyptians are the stubborn rebels forever entombed in the barren wastelands (6). They are the “Beasts of the Reeds” (30) – think of them as vicious crocodiles lurking in the marshlands of Egypt waiting to snap at the passing Israelites.  And from Egypt (and her southern allies in Ethiopia) will come nobles stretching out their hands full of tribute for God (31).

As unwieldy and foreign as Psalm 68 is to us, we can understand it (somewhat) as a melodic celebration of the way God rescued the people of Israel from the hands and chains of their Egyptian oppressors. It is a jubilant expression of praise for a powerful and frightening God. (A God who is so frightening, by the way, that the sky itself breaks out in nervous sweat at the sight of him (8).)

It is a celebration of a God who is concerned for the poor and the lowly, a God who looks after the prisoners and gives the lonely a home (6), a God who is a father to the orphan and a defender of the widow (5). This is not a God of rich and powerful. This is not the God of the great and mighty. Those were gods of Egypt. The Egyptians were the people with wealth and power and prestige and honor. But the God celebrated in this psalm is not impressed or threatened by the greatness of Egypt or the strength of the Egyptian army or the number of Egyptian chariots. The Rider of the Heavens (32), the Rider of the Clouds (4) celebrated in Psalm 68 concerns himself with the poor and downtrodden; he is the God of losers and rejects, the God of the forgotten and the overlooked. 

Psalm 68 is fascinating - not because it is a polished piece of poetry to be read by the pious and sentimental, but because it is an outrageous, over the top, wild and exuberant expression of praise for a powerful and extravagant God. If Psalm 68 remains somewhat incomprehensible to us, perhaps that should be a reminder to us that the God of our faith is not one to be completely reduced, systematized, pragmatized; the God we follow is shocking, dangerous, untamed. Perhaps we should never become comfortable in our faith.

Let God arise. Let God lead us out of oppression. Let God lead us through deserts and wild places. Let the enemies of God (who may not be our enemies…) flee before him. Let them melt like wax, drift like smoke. Let the kingdoms of the earth bring their praise and their tribute to him. He is awesome in his holy place. He gives strength to his people. He gives victory and valor to his people (Dahood 132). Let God arise, and though we don't completely understand it, let us arise and say, “Blessed be God.”

Dahood, Mitchell. Psalm II 51 – 100.  Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc. 1968. Print.

Hebrew – English Tanakh. Philadelphia, PA: The Jewish Publication Society. 1999. Print.

Poteat, Edwin McNeil “Psalms: Exposition” The Interpreter’s Bible Volume IV. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press. 1955. Print.

Taylor, William R “Psalms: Exegesis” The Interpreter’s Bible Volume IV. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press. 1955. Print. 

Friday, May 26, 2017

Biblical Limericks: Sweaty Sky

To see the Lord is awesome, you bet,
even nature by fear is beset.
The wind stops its bluster,
the heavens get flustered -
the sky sees God and breaks out in sweat.

Psalm 68: 8

Working from Mitchell Dahood's  translation:

The earth quaked and the heavens sprinkled
at the sight of God...

"Just as a person breaks out into a sweat at the sight of an unexpected caller, so the heavens drip with rain when God appears in a theophany " (138)

Dahood, Mitchell. Psalms II 51 - 100: Introduction, Translation, and Notes. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. 1968. Print.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The First Shall Be Last

Mr. President, please re-read (or read for the first time, perhaps) Luke 13: 22 - 30. You need it.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Background Images for Everyone - Week 21 - 2017

Here ya' go - this week's free, background image. It's yours to use at home, at work, at school, at church, wherever you like. I only ask that you share it freely, and that you tell others you found it here.

If you're interested in knowing the details, these irises are growing along the fence between my backyard and my neighbor's yard.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Rocket One to Triangulum!

It took thirteen years for Voyager 2 to travel from earth to the outer reaches of our little solar system. We learned about Voyager 2 back in George Hale Jr High. Thirteen years, the entire span of my life. It took what would have been the entirety of my life to that point for that unmanned interstellar record player to travel the smallest fraction of what ROCKET TEAM ONE crossed in six short weeks. But I really don’t mean to disparage that noble craft. It was brave to set out into such huge distances even at such a slow speed. Especially at such slow speed. It was an action of hope to launch that probe into the void.

And Voyager 2 carried Blind Willie Johnson into space. Imagine that: Blind Willie Johnson out among the stars. Blind Willie Johnson, who couldn’t see the stars, was being carried (or at least his music was) into the ethereal silence of interstellar space. Glorious.

The Triangulum Galaxy is approximately 3 Million Light Years from Earth within the constellation Triangulum. It is one of the most distant objects that can be seen from Earth by the naked human eye. It was discovered in the 1600s by an Italian astronomer named Giovanni Battista Hodierna. He described it as “a cloud-like nebulosity near the Triangle on either side.” It’s a pinwheel shaped galaxy, smaller than the Milky Way.

The constellation Triangulum was mentioned in an ancient Babylonian star compendium, the MUL.APIN. The Babylonian astrologers called it the “Plough Star.” They said that the angry goddess Ishtar, spurned in her romantic and sexual advances, went to her father, Anu, to demand that he create a Bull of Heaven (Taurus) to kill the hero Gilgamesh. Anu obliged her vengeful notions and created this bull for her, and it is this bull that pulls the Plough Star across the heavens.

Why did the generals at NASA choose Triangulum as the destination? Why not something closer? Why not another solar system within our own galaxy?

According to some conspiratists on the net, that galaxy was chosen based on designs found in the hieroglyphics on the walls of the great pyramids of Giza. Triangulum – pyramids are made of triangles – the connection is obvious, right? According to these tinfoil-hatters, the central star-shaft of the great pyramid points toward the Triangulum galaxy, and that this was the home of the alien race that visited Egypt in 10,500 BC.

Crazy, right? Those shafts point towards Orion, not Triangulum. The fact that the three major pyramids at Giza replicate the position of the three stars in Orion’s Belt should have been an obvious clue that the shaft is oriented towards Orion, not Triangulum. The Great Pyramid at Giza is interesting – but not for the reasons those nutters suggest.

A similar proposition was made for the arrangement of the megaliths at Stonehenge, but there’s even less support for this crackpot theory. Still another conspiracism suggests that Triangulum was marked in top-secret star charts found in the wreckage of a crashed alien vehicle as a strategic location, both rich in resources and important in controlling interstellar movement.

Perhaps their choice of Triangulum was predicated on the fact that the largest observed black hole is found in the Triangulum galaxy. Discovered in 2007 and known as M33 X-7, this black hole has 15.7 times the mass of our sun. The military value of that black star is incalculable.

So why did they pick Triangulum? Why not something closer? Why not, perhaps, the system of seven planets found orbiting the star Trappist-1, three of which were in that “Goldilocks” habitable zone around that Red Dwarf star having the potential for liquid water – and was only 40 short light years from earth? (And 40 light years is still over 235 trillion miles…) Or any of the other hundreds of exo-planets discovered by long range telescopes? Why did they pick Triangulum as their destination of choice? Who can say? Maybe it seemed like a good idea at the time? 

Dark was the night, and cold the ground
on which the Lord was laid;
His sweat like drops of blood ran down;
in agony He prayed.

“Father, remove this bitter cup,
if such Thy sacred will;
if not, content to drink it up
Thy pleasure I fulfill."

Dark and cold is the space through which the Voyager probes and ROCKET TEAM ONE traveled. Why do we venture out into such cold, dark distances? Why do we risk mortal agony and death to travel into the void? Who can say? It just seems like a good idea. We are restless wanderers, always wondering if the next stop will be better than the one before.

And we’re being told (by some of those same egghead scientists who objected to the impossibility of ROCKET TEAM ONE’s trip) that the universe is nothing more than an elaborate hologram projected into sentient consciousness by some unknown agency. If this is true then we are brains in a vat and life is but a dream, a dream within a dream. But maybe that’s why we can travel the 3 Million Light Years to Triangulum in less than six weeks – because those 3 Million Light Years are an illusion. Triangulum is an illusion. Earth is an illusion. There is nothing there. There is nothing here. There is no here nor there. It’s all Dark Energy, and we are left alone in the dark, like blind musicians to sing for hope and comfort against the terror and agony of a cold, lonely night.

The views, comments, statements and opinions expressed on this Web site do not necessarily represent the official position of The Salvation Army.


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