Saturday, July 21, 2012

Psalm 86

For my weekly quiet time this week, I will blog about Psalm 86.  I have four items.

1.  The date of this Psalm is difficult to ascertain.  On the one hand, some have posited that Psalm 86 is late because it brings together into an artistic tapestry different traditions that made their way into the Hebrew Bible.  It appears to draw from other Psalms, as well as the description of God's attributes in Numbers 14:18 and other passages.  On the other hand, some say that the Psalm cannot be too late, for it acknowledges the existence of other gods, whereas monotheism was arguably characteristic of later theology (i.e., in Second Isaiah, which was exilic).  But Psalm 86 still has a universalistic impulse, for it forecasts that all nations, which God made, will worship the LORD.  That shows that it may be late, but not too late, for one can argue that earlier theology in the Hebrew Bible tended to believe that it was acceptable for other nations to worship their own gods (Deuteronomy 32:8-9; Judges 11:24).  Or perhaps this Psalm indeed is late, and it believes that the gods of the other nations exist but are not as powerful or worthy of worship as the God of Israel.  I Corinthians 12:10, after all, regards the gods to whom the pagans sacrifice to be demons, which indicates that there was a notion as late as New Testament times that the pagan gods were real.

2.  Psalm 86 is by someone who identified himself as poor and needy.  The Psalm could be for an individual who is suffering, a king who feels especially vulnerable to domestic enemies, or the nation of Israel, which was the victim of foreign empires before, during, and after the exile.  I read an article by W. Eugene March, "Psalm 86: When Love Is Not Enough", which appeared in the Spring 1990 Austin Seminary Bulletin.   This article focused on the Psalmist's status as poor and needy.  The following passage especially stood out to me:

"The issue is the adequacy of God's steadfast love. Is God's love enough? What is God's love to the homeless or the hopeless? Does the gospel sound the same to the powerless as to the powerful? The issue is that life as it is experienced radically challenges the testimony that God's steadfast love is even pertinent, let alone sufficient. What can God's steadfast love mean for the marginalized? For the voiceless? For all those who not only can't make the system 'work' for them but in fact are 'worked over' in the course of life? The issue is one of theodicy: can there be divine love if there is apparently no justice? These questions are profound and difficult. Obviously, they will not be answered in the course of any one essay. But we in the church must attend to them nonetheless. But how? Where to begin?"

I found this to be a provocative passage for a variety of reasons: because it highlighted that it's difficult for some people to work the system in their favor, which shows (to me) why it's important for there to be advocacy groups; because it raises the question of how we can believe in a God who provides when there are so many people who lack; etc.  I wonder, though, if people who actually are the victims of poverty and injustice have as much difficulty believing in God, as do those who observe their problems from the outside.  I'm sure that there are plenty of victims who do have such difficulty, but I've also met homeless people and poor people who affirm to me their belief that God does provide.  I'm emphatically not saying this to make the point that their suffering is not all that bad and that outsiders believe their problems are worse than they actually are.  When people die of malnutrition, that is horrible, and there's no way to get around that.  But hope can be a powerful thing for people who look like they should have no reason to hope.

3.  Psalm 86:11 states (in the King James Version): "Teach me thy way, O Lord; I will walk in thy truth: unite my heart to fear thy name."  Marvin Tate has some interesting thoughts on this verse in his Word commentary on Psalms 51-100:

"A reverent and obedient response to God involves a 'united heart' (i.e., 'mind' or 'will') toward God (Jer 32:39-41; Ezek 11:19-20).  The uncentered and divided will toward Yahweh is destructive (cf. Ps 12:3; 1 QH 4.14; James 1:8; 4:8).  There is a unity in Yahweh himself (a 'oneness') which is complemented by a 'oneness' in his people's response to him (cf. Deut 6:4-5; 10:12; Eph 4:1-6)...According to the Letter of James, 'the double-minded man, unstable in all his ways' will not receive anything from prayer.  Such people must purify their hearts and cleanse their hands if they are to draw near to God (James 4:8)."

I think that all of us have divided hearts in some capacity.  There are Christians who say, "We all sin, but you can tell that someone is a true believer if she hates her sin and does not want to do it", but I find this statement to be problematic, for why would a person sin if he or she did not want to do so, on some level?  So everyone wants to sin, and I'm sure there are plenty who both want to sin and also desire to be free from sin, which means that their desires are in conflict.  But how much does a person have to hate sin before she can assure herself that she is truly a Christian or that God will hear and answer her prayers?

Personally, at this stage of my spiritual journey, I don't play that kind of game.  I mean, what exactly is the point?  Rather, I come before God just as I am, with all of my flaws, and I leave the ball in God's court when it comes to whether or not God will hear and answer my prayer.  At the same time, I agree with Tate that wholeness and a centered life should be part of the equation.  An important aspect of my spiritual life is my belief that God does want to make me into a better person----more loving, kind, and at peace, and less harsh and impatient.  I view that as a destination, but I also view it as something that can be immediately applicable to my life, as I ask God each day to give me the strength to be good.  I don't believe that I have to be good in order to have a relationship with God, but I do maintain that being good is an important part of a spiritual life.

In Psalm 86, we do see the Psalmist's desire that God will unify his heart, and perhaps the Psalmist desired that because he felt that him becoming good would incline God to save him from his enemies.  At the same time, there are other elements of Psalm 86: God's mercy, faithfulness, and forgiveness, as well as the idea that God must teach the Psalmist, which (to me) implies that goodness is not something that one immediately attains but is a journey in which God teaches us.  Maybe the Psalmist's point is that he's not just praying to God so that he can be physically safe from his enemies, but that he also desires to be good and to walk in God's ways.

4.  Psalm 86:16 states: "O turn unto me, and have mercy upon me; give thy strength unto thy servant, and save the son of thine handmaid."

Some make a big deal about the Psalmist calling himself the son of God's handmaid.  Jimmy Swaggart regards the handmaid as the virgin Mary, but what I want to highlight is what the Orthodox Jewish Artscroll commentary says in describing Rashi's interpretation:

"One must relate to God not only as an acquired servant, who may harbor some residual feelings of independence, but as a slave born into servitude, who is completely devoted to his master."  Some make the point that the slave born into slavery is more a part of the household than a slave who is bought.  And then there are those who contend that there really is no great significance in the Psalmist's reference to himself as a son of God's handmaid, for that is simply parallel to "thy servant" in the verse (cp. Psalm 116:16).

Personally-speaking, I would like some degree of independence.  I like what John MacArthur wrote (if my memory is correct) about identifying the will of God: we fulfill the instructions that God laid out for us, and (in other areas) we do what we want.  The implication seems to be that God has given us a degree of freedom and latitude.

But I can see value in being a servant of God----one who works to make this world as God would like it to be, which entails loving people, especially those in hard situations.  That gives life meaning, and it's also vital for the people who need help.  At a school that I attended, there was a debate about whether we work for God or with God.  I think that debate is pointless and meaningless (though there were conservatives who preferred "for God" because that implied that we were under God's authority).  In my opinion, what's important is doing our part to help this world to be more in accordance with God's standard of justice, love, and righteousness.

But do we do so as servants?  There appears to be a degree of complexity about this in the Bible.  Jesus in John 15:15 says that he calls his disciples friends rather than servants, for servants do not know what their master is doing.  At the same time, Jesus likens his followers to servants in such passages as Luke 17:10 and Luke 12:47-48.  Paul in Romans 8:15 affirms that the spirit has made us sons of God rather than servants who fear.  (UPDATE: Many translations, though, say that the point of Romans 8:15 is that we are not servants TO fear.)  But Paul did not hesitate to identify himself as a servant of Jesus Christ.  Maybe the idea is that we're servants, and yet we're more than that.  Essentially, we're God's children, with a job to do.

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