Saturday, January 26, 2013

Psalm 113

For my weekly quiet time this week, I'll blog about Psalm 113.

According to Psalm 113, God dwells above the nations and even above the heavens, yet God looks at what is going on below Him in heaven and on earth.  And God is not a passive observer, as far as the Psalmist in Psalm 113 is concerned, for God lifts up the poor and seats them with princes and gives children to women who are barren.

Patrick Miller in the HarperCollins Study Bible states that "the song stands in a line of tradition with 1 Sam 2.1-10; Lk 1.46-55."  I Samuel 2:1-10 is Hannah's song of praise after God answered her prayer for a son, a prayer that she prayed when she was barren.  And Luke 1:46-55 is the Magnificat, which Mary sang when she was pregnant with Jesus.  Hannah's song is about how God lifts up the hungry and the poor and gives the barren woman seven children.  And Luke 1:46-55 is likewise about God elevating the lowly and the hungry.

Psalm 113 is similar to Hannah's song and the Magnificat in its theme of God exalting the lowly.  But Psalm 113 is also different from Hannah's song and the Magnificat, for Hannah's song and the Magnificat are not just about the exaltation of the lowly, but also the debasement of the well-off.  I Samuel 2:5, for instance, says that those who were full have hired themselves out in an attempt to get bread, and that the woman who had lots of children has become feeble.  Luke 1:51 affirms that God has scattered the proud, Luke 1:52 says that God has cast the mighty from their seats, and Luke 1:53 states that God has sent the rich away empty.  Psalm 113, by contrast, is thoroughly positive in that it focuses on God's elevation of the lowly, while it does not mention God's debasement of the mighty.

Of course, Psalm 113 is part of a unit called the Hallel or the Egyptian Hallel, which consists of Psalms 113-118.  Many Jews sing the Hallel during the Passover.  Was Psalm 113 originally written to be part of the larger Hallel unit?  And does the larger Hallel unit focus primarily on God's elevation of the lowly, or does it also include the notion that God will debase the mighty?  As I glance at the Hallel unit, most of what I see is positive.  Psalm 118:10-11 affirms that the Psalmist cut down the adversarial nations who were surrounding him, but, overall, the Hallel focuses on God's deliverance of people.  That's my impression, based on my quick scanning of the Hallel.

But I'd like to play a little bit with the theme of thanking God for blessing us, rather than praising God for casting down the mighty.  Whenever I am told that I should pray for my enemies and ask that God give them the things that I desire for myself (i.e., health, economic provision, etc.), I am very hesitant, for I don't want for God to bless my enemies.  But I should want for God to bless both of us, not for me to be blessed while my enemies are cursed, or for my enemies to be blessed while I have to struggle.  I'd like to think that there are plenty of God's blessings to go around!  Of course, Psalm 113 does not even mention the Psalmist's enemies, but rather focuses on God's elevation of the lowly.  The reason that people tell me to pray for my enemies is that they believe that this could cure my resentment, and the curing of resentment does not appear to be a theme in Psalm 113.  But Psalm 113 is still a Psalm that focuses on the positive----on God's goodness and how far God has brought people who once were in the dumps, and now no longer are.  Such a positive attitude is something I should strive for.  At the very least, I should appreciate and enjoy what God gives me, rather than looking at my enemies to see how they are doing.  But a state of spiritual advancement beyond that is for me to pray that God will bless my enemies with the blessings that I desire for myself (meaning that the prayer is for God to bless both of us).

But is there a place for the attitude of Hannah and Mary in the Magnificat, of wishing for the downfall of those who are mighty?  I would say "yes" and "no".  I'd say "yes" because Hannah and Mary were probably talking (at least in part) about the oppression of Israel at the hands of the mighty.  Hannah, perhaps, was expressing her hope that God would use her son Samuel to deliver Israel from her oppressors, such as the Philistines, and that is what happened (I Samuel 7:13).  And Mary had Messianic expectations regarding her son Jesus, that in Jesus rested the deliverance of Israel from those who afflicted her.  It is right to desire the end of oppression, which humiliates people, dehumanizes them, or reduces them to poverty.

I'd say "no", albeit with some hesitation, if Hannah were glorifying the woman with lots of children becoming feeble because she did not care for her husband's other wife, Peninnah, who had lots of children and mocked Hannah when Hannah was barren.  If Hannah in I Samuel 2:5 is hoping that God will make Peninnah feeble, then such a sentiment is certainly understandable and human on Hannah's part.  But there is an attitude that is spiritually advanced beyond that: to have compassion for Peninnah and to forgive her.  Peninnah may have mocked Hannah because Peninnah was jealous that their husband loved Hannah more than he loved her (Peninnah).  Hannah perhaps should have sympathized more with Peninnah's predicament, or she should have forgiven Peninnah.  But I realize that this was probably easier said than done, since it's easy for one to talk about forgiveness, but it's harder to extend it to those with whom one comes into contact.

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