Sometimes in the psalms, you feel that the worshipper is crying into the abyss. “How long, O Lord?” is a familiar refrain in the laments. The psalmist longs to detect some sign of God’s presence but he not to be found. “Surely you are a god who hides himself” laments the prophet. Deus absconditus Luther calls him. And when he does come, it is often as One unknown, still elusive as if protecting his own hiddenness from the human tendency to capture and contain. Yahweh the God of Israel is not a being who will be grasped hold of and held, the Hebrew scriptures insist. Or as C. S. Lewis puts it, Aslan is not a tame lion.
But in this psalm we find the paradoxes of God’s character set before us. It is one of the most vivid in the book. Here, announces the opening line, he is known for his name is great in Israel. Surely this is a god who reveals himself, whose splendour is manifest for all the world to see. He is known! Yet he retains his mystery, safeguards his own wildness if you like. He will not be subject to our human whims or to the rituals and ceremonies we devise in his honour. This God will do whatever pleases him. No wonder he inspires fear in the kings of the earth! as the psalm says in the last line. When the divine theophany blazes out in front of you, you are wise to be afraid, as Moses knew when the bush burned before him and he found himself treading holy ground.
The psalm is one of a number of Zion hymns that celebrate the city of David that God has chosen as his abode. Here in his temple is where God has freely chosen to reside and manifest his presence. It’s the focus of his activity in judgment and salvation. As in Solomon’s prayer of dedication as we saw yesterday, it’s the place towards which the people pray in their thankfulness and distress, and from where the Lord answers with a dramatic display of power and might. There he broke the flashing arrows, the shield, the sword and the weapons of war. “You silence the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves, the tumult of the peoples” said yesterday’s psalm (65) which also began with Zion. Or as another Zion psalm puts it, the better-known Psalm 46, “He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire.” The thought is not that God is a reconciler who brings enemies together in peace, rather that he is stronger than any mortal power and will defend his holy place against every force that threatens, and with it, the people who live around it.
This is the logic of the rest of our psalm. Glorious are you, more majestic than the everlasting mountains. Majesty means strength in this text. It goes on to tell how the enemy is defeated: at thy rebuke, O God of Jacob, both rider and horse lay stunned. And in the light of this dazzling demonstration of divine glory, the psalm ends on a note of reverent worship. But you indeed are awesome! Who can stand before you when once your anger is aroused? From the heavens you uttered judgment; the earth feared and was still. This seems to me to be the right way to read Psalm 46, “Be still, then, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.” I don't think it's inner peacefulness and calm that it means. The theme of God’s exaltation over his enemies suggests the stilling of the storms of chaos and rebelliousness, the reverent silence of awe that you keep in the presence of the Almighty which is also how today’s psalm sees it. The earth feared, and was still - and with it, all creatures who know their place before the mighty Creator. No doubt the stilling of our wayward hearts and teeming minds is part of this, but the psalmist’s sights are set far beyond what is inward and personal to us.
The psalm maintains this vigorous tone to the end. Human wrath serves only to praise you. The futility of mortal rebelliousness is a familiar theme in the Psalms as we are seeing. As we saw yesterday, it's likened to the chaotic floods that are subdued by the power of God in the creation. Here, the image is daringly turned round to affirm that even wicked and demonic powers unwittingly praise God because human rebellion merely leads to a demonstration of God’s deliverance, for which thanks are due. If even dumb stones cry out to God’s praise, how much more the energies of mortals, rebellious or submissive. And what follows praise is the offering of the promise of faithfulness. Make vows to the Lord your God, and perform them; let all who are around him bring gifts to the One who is awesome. The response to this awesome epiphany, these mighty acts of God who makes himself known to us in the cloud and the fire, can only be that we are brought into obedience and pledge our lives to him unreservedly, so that we fear and honour and love his holy name.
There are a number of levels at which we can read this psalm. At its root there no doubt lies the memory of some act of deliverance for which the people of Judah gave thanks and elaborated with extravagant poetic imagery in the way they told the story. Such an event could have been the crisis at the end of the eighth century when in 701 BCE the superpower Assyria invaded Jerusalem which only narrowly escaped from a terrible siege. (Indeed, the Septuagint Greek translation of this psalm makes this very connection in its title concerning the Assyrian.) The line when God rose up to establish judgment, to save all the oppressed of the earth attests to the helplessness of tiny Judah in the face of this mighty assault by Sennacherib. (In the British Museum you can see in the Assyrian Galleries amazing palace reliefs from Iraq from this period when the empire was at its strongest and peoples across the ancient near east feared for their survival. But the prophet Isaiah promised that Yahweh would deliver the city and its temple from the invader, and Zion was indeed preserved – for a while – until the next invasion by the Babylonians a century later. And then it fell, never to rise again. And great was the fall of it.)
But I think it’s very likely that the proper life setting of this psalm is the temple cult. We need to imagine a great festival, perhaps the annual autumn celebration of new year and covenant-renewal that I suggested was also the setting of yesterday’s Psalm 65. At such celebrations the ritual would enact the revelation of God’s presence in glory through words, images, symbols, music and ritual movement. In this, the king had a key part to play as God’s anointed vicegerent or representative over the people with a priestly role towards them. I suppose it’s tempting for those of us of a catholic persuasion to imagine that the Jerusalem Temple was a place of advanced ceremonial. In fact, I don’t think it’s a matter of conjecture. The form-critical study of the Psalms, once upon a time under the rubric of “myth and ritual”, uncovers an unexpectedly elaborate liturgy that far exceeded in its symbolic power anything we are familiar with in Anglican or Catholic worship even in the heyday of old-fashioned ritualism.
It’s impossible to reconstruct in detail what this liturgy would have looked like, though psalms like 24 (an entrance rite on the threshold of the sanctuary), 50 (a ceremony of covenant making) and 118 and 132 (royal processions into the sanctuary) offer clues. But what we can do with confidence is to say that at the core of Israelite worship was the dramatization of the fundamental realities of the relationship with God. I’m thinking of the defining memory of deliverance at the Exodus, the signs and wonders of the wilderness journey, the giving of the law, the making of the covenant and the entrance (or the promise of it) into the promised land. All of these feature prominently in the psalms in ways that are anamnesis, that relive the past in the present and actualize it for succeeding generations so that they can say, this is our story.
We can touch the ways in which those present at these ceremonies responded, how they felt as they were drawn into these powerful, life-changing liturgical dramas. In this, our psalm is rich in insights. I’ve already mentioned many of them. One group of words would include awe, reverence, fear in the presence of this Mysterium Tremens et Fascinans as Rudolph Otto’s great book The Idea of the Holy helped us to name it. When God manifests himself, when you are in the presence of the Holy, you reverence the time and the place in the way Moses did at the bush, as I’ve already said. Another group would be praise, gratitude, gladness, celebration, joy. In the psalms, when God acts as judge and deliverer, the whole creation is called upon to join in the song of joyful thanksgiving. And a third catena of ideas would include submission, promise, resolve, vow, offering, obedience, gift. I'm reminded of the Victorian architect of Truro Cathedral John Loughborough Pearson who said that a church building ought to bring us to ur knees. Its majesty should enable us to know our place in God’s scheme of things. This is the message of Psalm 76. It makes worshippers of us. God’s mighty works call for an act of our own, not simply to be reminded but to be responsive and find our lives changed as a result.
So this psalm invites us to interrogate our own investment in the liturgy and the way we respond to it as participants in worship. I can remember what a penny-dropping moment it was when someone explained to me how the divine liturgy is meant to be an event that transforms us. I then read Peter Brooke’s great classic on the theatre, The Empty Space and understood how this is the aim of all dramatic performance – to touch lives and change them. The tragedy was, he said, that so much theatre had lost its power to do this. It wasn’t difficult to transfer the insight to liturgy. Brooke more than hints at this in his chapter on “holy theatre”. He says that one of the problems is the low level of investment in theatre by those charged with delivering, whether it is directors, architects or the actors themselves. But although their commitment to theatre is a necessary condition, it is not sufficient for it to touch people’s lives. For that, there has to be the expectation of the audience and its willingness to become involved in the drama. Translate into the life of our church and draw the obvious conclusion.
So like yesterday’s psalm, this one urges me to live eucharistically, practise doxology as a way of life. It helps to form me as a liturgical celebrant but even more as a member of the worshipping assembly. I was fortunate enough to preside at and attend worship in three cathedrals day in, day out for thirty years. I became familiar, perhaps too familiar for my own good, with “the beauty of holiness”. Now that I find myself sitting next to my wife in the nave of a village church, my assumptions about the “performance” are necessarily very different. But I am trying to learn that my expectations of a divine event happening in the liturgy should be just the same. I need to invest in the liturgy and by trying to practice a that reverent stillness the psalm talks about: to listen more and speak less, not only to see or even discern but to reflect and more than that, to contemplate – these ought to be part of the normal habitus of the worshipper. And if only I could emulate our psalmist whose reverence for the awesome holy name and presence of the Almighty is so eloquent and moving, it would transform my experience of the Sunday morning eucharist. And maybe not just mine.
So we have the glowing memory of a great event, and the eye of a contemplative worshipper. But there’s a final dimension to this psalm that we should consider. And this is the eschatological aspect of it, reading it as a promise of the future that God will bring in his time. There is a long tradition of understanding psalms like 76 to point not only to the truth of yesterday or today but to project it into tomorrow. That isn’t at all to rule out the dimensions of past event and present reality, but it is to orientate the text to the future as if to say, it’s in the day that God comes to complete his work, to reign as Lord and bring the world into submission under his feet that the glorious vision these words express are finally and completely fulfilled.
We are used to handling texts in this future-oriented way. Among the best known psalms are those called royal psalms that speak about Israel’s human king. “You are my son, today I have begotten you” says Psalm 2; and we feel no awkwardness about seeing a depiction of a messianic image, Jesus the Son of God, the anointed Christ in both his first and last comings. Typology has to be used carefully, but the New Testament offers plenty of precedents. So here, we can see how Israel’s future hope was formed and shaped out of her ancient and precious memories. When Jesus took these words upon his lips, as he must have done, what went through his mind? Something like his first homily in the synagogue at Nazareth, “today these words are fulfilled in your hearing?” Or in his own vocation, maybe, the vocation to proclaim the kingdom of God, announce its advent breaking through into human history and the lives of mortal men and women? And if this was his call, then it is ours too, for it's the basis of Christian hope. As it was then and is now, will be in the future, only to perfection when the last enemy has been overcome and God is all in all and we know as we are known.
So this is a psalm to sing on Ascension Day or Christ the King, for it celebrates the final victory of God’s judgment and love over all things. It looks forward to the day when sorrow and sighing shall flee away. It anticipates, not least in the liturgy as if it were now, the reign of God and ultimate banishing of all that is evil and unreconciled and wrong in our world. And in particular, it answers the sighs and dreams and hopes and longings of the victim, the voiceless and the poor, “how long O Lord, how long?” It does this by setting forth a marvellous promise enfolded in those words I’ve already quoted towards the end of the psalm, when God arose to establish judgment, to save all the oppressed of the earth.
I’ve said all my life as a preacher that what the gospel brings humanity as its supreme gift is promise and hope. In a world that looks hopeless, when so many find themselves victims of the indifferent forces of nature or the unending cruelty of other human beings, when it is tempting to despair because God has abandoned us, here is a song to put us back together again and give us hope once more. Yes, he is a God who hides himself, as we said at the beginning, but not for ever, and not for long. If we have eyes to see, we glimpse the signs that his kingdom is coming. If we have ears to hear, we sense the word of comfort that whispers, “all shall be well”. And if we have hearts to dream, we can already imagine ourselves inhabiting that glorious kingdom where
Faith will vanish into sight;
Hope be emptied in delight:
Love in heaven will shine more bright.
Hope be emptied in delight:
Love in heaven will shine more bright.
For as the gospel shows us, it is love that is the truest and most final expression of God’s glory and God’s love. Amor vincit omnia, love conquers all things. So we pray Therefore give us love. And soon, we dare to hope, love’s dream, and love’s work will become love’s reality, world without end.
So in our retreat reflections today, and in the light of what we know of power-and-glory-as-love, we might like to ask ourselves where and when we have seen God manifest himself in the past and where we expect to see him in the future. And also, how we look for transfiguration in the present moment: in the creation, in the liturgy, in our encounters with humanity, in the mystery of our own selves, and in our life together.