A gift? Or was it stolen?

A Reflection on Psalm 105.37-end by Canon Rob
September 24th, The Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity

On 13th August, the psalm set for the Eucharist was 105, verses 1 – 10. The title of the Reflection was “Remembering what God has done.” Today we reflect upon verses 37 – 45 of the same psalm: verses which, to be honest, make me very uncomfortable, hence the title I have given to this Reflection. Psalm 105, especially from verse 23, is about the period during the Exodus when the Israelites, led by Moses, were eventually freed from years of cruelty and slavery in Egypt. [You can read about this in the Book of Exodus from Chapter 5.] The verses 23-36 of Psalm 105 include some of the account – especially about the plagues which God sent upon the Egyptians. There is no doubt that the Exodus was a huge, totally life-changing, event in the history of the Jewish people. However, as we reflect upon the verses set in today’s psalm, we do so against the backdrop of the continuing unrest in Israel/Palestine and the war in Ukraine following it’s invasion. Putting it bluntly, both are the result of ‘land-grabbing,’ something, like other nations in the past, we were guilty of. Another reason for my discomfort on reflecting upon Psalm 105!

Verse 44 is the one I find most difficult. “He [God] gave them [God’s chosen people] the lands of the nations and they took possession of the fruit of their toil.” Even given the terrible suffering that the people had gone through during their years as slaves in Egypt, together with God’s promise to free them and lead them to a new land which they could call their own, I struggle with what seems to be nothing short of a nationalism which leaves no place for justice. I’m reading a novel set during “The Troubles” in Ireland and reminded of the “land grabbing” that country suffered in the past too. [See also verse 11 where God says, “To you I will give the land of Canaan to be the portion of your inheritance.”]

Looking more closely at the psalm, the Oxford Bible Commentary, like others, points out that the psalm varies in some important respects from the account in the Book of Exodus [see above]. For example, the number and order of the plagues and – more importantly – any reference to the Israelites at Sinai. [See Exodus 19f.] There, we read, God calls Moses to climb the mountain and meet Him there so that Moses can receive the Ten Commandments. Has the author of today’s psalm omitted any reference to the covenant mediated by Moses because that includes punishment for disobeying God’s laws? The psalm, quite naturally, is a hymn of praise and thanksgiving for all that God has done for His people. But where is the humanity? Where are the moral and religious laws which we find in the Book of Exodus Chapter 22 verse 16f? Were God’s people really being cruel as were those who held them in Egypt and as today we see in Ukraine and Israel/Palestine and other parts of the world which are in turmoil? Are we, after all, no different from our forebears? As I reflect upon all this, I am reminded of some words spoken by a nun, Mother Francis Dominica, who visited Lincoln Theological college whilst I was there: “When I pray for peace in the world, I need to remember that peace begins with me!”

Psalm 105 is, then, a hymn of praise. But it also conveys a sense of relief on the part of the Egyptians. In verse 37 we read, “Egypt was glad at their departing, for dread had fallen upon them.” After years of anguish and pain felt by those they kept as slaves, it is now the turn of the Egyptians to suffer. As the plagues became more severe, above all ending in the deaths of their first born children [see verse 36], life became unbearable for them and in Exodus 13 verse 17 we read it was at this point that “…the king of Egypt let the people go…” God’s people were free at last, but at what cost?

Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me;
let there be peace on earth, the peace that was meant to be.
(Jill Jackson,1955)

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A Great Celebration? Not entirely

A Reflection on Psalm 149 by Canon Rob
September 10th, The Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity

As the Book of Psalms, the hymn book of the Jewish people, comes to an end, the theme is giving praise to God, celebrating His goodness. It is as if those who compiled the book wanted to end on a high! As I have said before, the great thing about the psalms is that they express every emotion common to all human beings. In them we find tragedy and sorrow, wonder and joy and the whole range between. Today’s psalm is full of joy but, unlike Psalm 150 say, it has a “twist in its tail.” It begins with rejoicing but the tone changes completely in the last four verses. We are taken from music and dancing to vengeance! God is praised because He has won for His people a great victory. Yet the war is not over. Verses 5 and 6 sum up the situation very well. “Let the faithful be joyful in glory; let them rejoice in their ranks. With the praises of God in their mouths and a two-edged sword in their ranks.” (Note the change in the font denoting a change in tone.) The two-edged sword is to be used “to execute vengeance on the nations.” [Verse 6b] From reading about the two World Wars, it is clear that there were victories and set backs as, perhaps, there are in all wars – including that in Ukraine. The same seems to be true here.

As with all the psalms, we can’t be sure what battle the author has in mind when he wrote Psalm 149. However, as you reflect upon the words, note in verse 4 that “the Lord has pleasure in his people.” Then in verse 7 punishment is to be “on the peoples.” Here we see the distinction between the people of God, with whom God is pleased this time, and the “peoples” who are clearly the enemy. The “peoples” are those who do not acknowledge the One, True God and who will face judgement. [See verse 9]. The prophet Isaiah spoke of this. In Chapter 61, we read words which Jesus quoted to describe his mission and ministry: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me…” [See Luke 4.18-19] However, he ends his speech the line before Isaiah describes “…a day of vengeance of our God.” [Isaiah 61.2a in the New English Bible.]

The writer of the psalm believes that God will punish the enemy, the peoples, now, but several commentators suggest that the judgement upon them which he writes about will take place sometime in the future. Although we often come across the contrast between God’s “faithful servants” [see verses 9] and “the nations” [see verse 7], something which is unusual in the psalms is the clear link between the present and future which we find in Psalm 149. Could the psalmist have in mind the coming of the Messiah, the One from God, who will destroy all enemies and free His people for all time? As always we need to be careful that we don’t read into the scriptures what isn’t there. However, it is possible and Christians reflecting on this psalm do so believing that Jesus Christ is that Messiah who will, as we say in the Creed, “come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.”

Judgement isn’t confined to the Old Testament although I recall conversations about how the New Testament focuses more on God’s Love rather than His anger which we find very much in the Old. Several of Jesus’ parables allude to God’s judgement. [See that of the Sheep and Goats in Matthew 25.31-46.] St Paul, in his First Letter to the Corinthians [6.1-3] suggests that God’s people will be involved in judging the world: something which the author of today’s psalm may have had in mind when he wrote verse 5. “Let the faithful be joyful in glory; let them rejoice in their ranks,” As we reflect on these words of pride, we do well to recall with humility our membership of God’s family.

May the mind of Christ my Saviour live in me from day to day,
by his love and pow’r controlling all I do and say.
[Hymn 447, Complete Anglican Hymns Old and New]

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