Scripture: Psalm 144
*Note: about a month ago I asked on social media for feedback on Proverbs/Psalms that people loved or struggled with. Aaron Fuller (some of you may remember him - he preached here once last year and is a military chaplain) mentioned today’s reading. He said it was especially interesting in light of Veteran’s Day. So, this sermon is for you, Aaron - he will be tagged on Facebook. :)
Who here likes pro/con lists? I love a good pro/con list - if you’re having trouble making a decision or which way to go in a debate. Even though sometimes an item on one side or the other can sway you and weigh heavier.
Well, I did a pro/con list (of sorts) for today’s Psalm. I wasn’t going to try voting it out of the Bible or even whether to preach it - but to just kinda make sense of what sat well with me in it and what didn’t sit well with me in it.
So, today’s pro/con list:
The “con” side:
1. It’s actually a Scripture selection that is NOT included in the lectionary - that 3 year cycle of suggested Scripture readings made in the mid-1900s. I’m always interested in those selections that are NOT included because I think “maybe the church leaders did a pro/con list as well and they decided ‘nope, not this one!’” So, without it being in the lectionary, that already sends up a flag that it was felt to be unimportant.
And, quite honestly, from a sermon prep standpoint, that means there is a lot less commentary available on it as well to do research.
I do enjoy, though, knowing which Scriptures were not included in the lectionary because it makes me feel like we’re studying beyond what previous church leaders felt important. So, maybe not such a strong “con.”
2. This Psalm has in it the effects of what I will call Psalmist Whiplash. Kathryn Matthews (Sermon Seeds, ucc.org) says it well that “As so often happens in the Psalms, we’re going along and everything is lovely, and suddenly the talk turns to God destroying people.”
It’s so true! The Psalms can go from one moment of praising all of God’s beauty and then - BAM! - praying for people to be crushed against rocks.
For instance, just a few Psalms before this one, in Psalm 138&139, the author speaks of how lovely it is that God knows his every thought and cares so deeply for humans.
“I give you thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart;
before the gods I sing your praise;
I bow down toward your holy temple
and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness;
For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.”
AND THEN a few short verses later...
...O that you would kill the wicked, O God,
and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me—
Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?
I hate them with perfect hatred;
Let burning coals fall on them!
Let them be flung into pits, no more to rise!
It’s like a roller coaster of thought and emotion. Which, I guess, is really how our lives go as well, right? Too often we think we must feel/think/believe one way and that’s all we’re allowed. For instance, we fall into a trap when we think we can’t be both joyful and sad at the same time. We can absolutely be both... joyful to accept a job, and sad to leave the current one.
Huh...In some ways, maybe this whiplash can be a pro, too, showing us how complex life experiences can be.
3. I don’t like the use of the phrase “set me free...from the hand of aliens, whose mouths speak lies, and whose right hands are false.”
I don’t like it because I know that many readers will use this statement as a way of defending their decision to push people who are outside of their circle even further to the margins...readers may use this verse as a defense of their exclusionary actions of people they simply don’t understand, which I do not believe reflect the teachings of Jesus.
This is certainly one of those moments where context, context, context matters! The people David are referring to here are the Philistines - a nearby nation of people who aggressively sought to destroy David and his kingdom. Interesting fact: Goliath, of the notorious “David & Goliath” story, was a Philistine. According to Biblical narrative, David - then a young man - took down Goliath. So, I’m sure that piece of history didn’t help David’s case with the Philistines.
David was praying here for safety from a people who were coming after him with swords, planning to pillage his kingdom and kill their families and much more. I’d probably pray for deliverance and safety from that, as well!
I guess after fleshing out the context of it all, this point isn’t so much of a “con” when properly understood.
4. The last “con” upon an initial reading of this Psalm is that it makes me wonder “Does God take sides, particularly in cases of war?”
In this Psalm, it paints a picture of God being on David’s side - on the Israelites’ side. Does that mean God wasn’t on the side of the Philistines? In this personification of God, can the Lord support a side but not show favoritism? There are multiple verses in the Christian Scriptures which say God does not show partiality - no favoritism. But is that the same as supporting one “side” over the other?
I imagine it’s a bit like a parent with two children - of course you don’t have a favorite! - but perhaps there is one child who’s stance is wiser than another.
It’s a really good question to ask in order to flesh out your beliefs. Particularly on this weekend where our country recognizes the service of our military veterans, it’s important that we acknowledge the complexity of a nation’s military and war.
AND I believe this is where that lesson of humility from Proverbs last week makes a huge difference. We learn from the Proverbs that the greatest practice of wisdom is humility - recognizing that we are not innately better than another human being - recognizing that we may not always make the wisest decisions.
AND we can certainly believe in what Jesus has taught us in order to live wise and loving lives - and we can fight for that.
AND we can be very grateful for people who have stepped into this complexity of the military and served in the various branches.
Like I said….it’s a good topic to wrestle with….so, maybe not so much a “con” again.
The “pro” side:
1. The humility shown by David. This is a wonderful example of a leader, a KING, acknowledging that he is not the end-all, be-all. How easy it would be for David to act haughtily, yet he acknowledges God as his rock and states, “O Lord, what are human beings that you regard them, or mortals that you think of them? They are like a breath; their days are like a passing shadow.” For leaders of any level - leaders of a household or leaders of a country - it’s so important to show humility and acknowledge that there is still yet a greater leader than them.
2. I loved learning that the Hebrew word translated here as “rock” is actually translated in other parts of Scripture as “steadfast love.” I really like the imagery of love being the rock that we lean upon.
The Scripture essentially says “Blessed be the Lord, my steadfast love and my fortress…” I imagine that, if we were to remember that the rock which we rest upon is a rock of love, many of our daily interactions would be more productive.
For instance, so many of you here are teachers or doctors or generally people who serve other people. I’m sure you know the difference it makes when you react to that difficult child or difficult customer in love as opposed to reacting out of frustration.
3.David’s faith is being placed solely in God - not physical buildings for safety. Even if David is trusting that God will protect him while he is in a physical fortress, the foundation of his faith is in God - not the brick and mortar (or whatever materials they used)
David doesn’t show panic in this situation, either, because of his faith in God! That rock of steadfast love!
Is David going to stay inside the fortress as opposed to standing out in a field yelling “come and get me, Philistines”?! Yes, of course!. And within that physical stronghold, he is going to put his trust in a Divine force that can protect him in ways he may not understand.
4. Last pro: this Psalm is an illustration of a bridge of faith! If you pull from your memory back in July & August, we covered portions of the book of Hebrews. In that series, we talked about faith being a bridge - a bridge that covers lessons of the past to the present day to hopes for the future. That is what is happening in this Psalm.
David acknowledges God’s goodness in the past, prays for protection against present opposing forces, rejoices in assurance of victory, and asks that future generations be provided for. (Matthew Henry’s Commentary)
No big shock here that my “pro” list is going to outweigh the “con” list on this Psalm, because all my “cons” turned out to be “pros” in some way!
The truth is that we can take away some great wisdom here:
Know that our lives are complicated and we can feel a range of emotions/desires at once.
Are you possibly denying one emotion over another simply because they seem to be at odds?
Put our trust in and letting our rock be God’s steadfast love.
Where in your life do you need to lean upon God’s steadfast love?
Use humility in leadership & recognize that there is still a higher power.
In what areas are you in leadership? Do you recognize that you aren’t the highest power in that arena?
Look to God, that Divine higher power in this world, for guidance in all things.
What do you need guidance with in your life?
See that bridge of faith between the past, present, and future
How can you apply past experiences of God to the present day so that you act toward what you hope for the future?
We may not be in the same situation as David found himself in. However, we can give thanks for that and then learn from his writings. I think the “pros” win here.