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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Jesus and the Psalms

At evensong in Lent we are offering short reflections on the Psalms. In the Hebrew text, both of tonight’s psalms, 61 and 62, are attributed to David. We should not read too much into this. However, it may preserve an ancient memory of how the psalms had a close relationship with kings of Israel as songs that depicted them in many aspects of royal life: coronation, wise leadership, facing the threats of invasion or famine, leading in battle and knowing either defeat or victory. If we put the psalms on to the lips of the Israelite king, we shall not be far wrong.

Psalm 61 clearly has a royal character with its prayer to ‘prolong the life of the king’ so that his throne will be protected by God. This is a lament in which the king is seeking a bigger defence than any army or fortification can provide. He looks for a place of safety in ‘the rock that is higher than I’, ‘a refuge, a strong tower against the enemy’. We don’t know what has induced this sense of helplessness: it may be the onset of war, or the imagery may be a metaphor for some other threat he faces. But there is no mistaking the ‘certainty of hearing’: he already knows that God has heard his plea, and at the end, looks forward to a good outcome for which he will thankfully be able to praise God.
The second psalm is so close to the first in tone and imagery that I see it as another song of the king. The rock of salvation, the trusted fortress is there again in contrast with the unstable tottering wall on which you lean at your peril. ‘On God rests my deliverance and my honour; my mighty rock, my refuge is in God.’ So this psalm is like the 23rd, ‘the Lord is my shepherd’, a restful song of confidence in God. It is the answer to the lament of Psalm 61: God has indeed heard, and has done all that the king had hoped for. For this is his character: not only power but steadfast love belong to God, says the psalm, God’s covenant loyalty to his people especially as they are held in the person of the king.

It’s natural as we read the psalms to place ourselves within them and make their prayers our own. But before we do this, we might reflect on a very ancient way of reading the psalms which harks back to the idea that it is the king’s voice we are hearing. I mean thinking of the psalms as the songs and prayers of Jesus himself, for in the gospels, he quotes the psalms, and they are quoted of him, more than any other book of the Hebrew Bible. This is especially true of the passion accounts we read during Holy Week. So if we try to hear the voice of Jesus in this afternoon’s two psalms, what do we find?

On Palm Sunday, we recall how Jesus comes into his city as the king who is hailed as ‘the son of David’. We know that he is destined to die there, and also to be raised from death. So let us think of this pair of psalms as songs of the dying and rising king. In the first psalm he yearns to know that God has not abandoned him, in the spirit of St Luke who has Jesus pray trustingly, ‘into your hands I commit my spirit’. In the second, he finds deliverance from death, knowing that his victory comes from the one who has been with him all along. And if we read them in this paschal, death-and-resurrection way, they remind us how we walk the via dolorosa with Jesus, are crucified with him, are buried with him in baptism, and are raised with him to newness of life. In Christ there is a new creation. So we tell our own story of how God has indeed proved to be our steadfast rock, the one who is higher than we are, to whom we can safely entrust our lives for time and for eternity.

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