E100 Psalms and Proverbs

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Sermon Date: 
25 Nov 2012
Bible Base: 
Psalm 13 Matt 26: 36-46
Preacher: 

David Jeans

Well we are nearly halfway! Today we are looking at the 9th week of E100 readings which are about Psalms and Proverbs. Next week we look at the Prophets, and then we are into the more familiar territory of the New Testament for a couple of weeks before we break off for Christmas! That may give you some time to catch up!!!
I’m going to focus mainly this morning on the Psalms, but I will say a little bit about the Proverbs as well.
The first thing to notice is that we are looking at a different sort of writing this week. Up to now we have been looking at a mixture of history and law. Genesis to 2 Kings as a whole is a sort of ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ for the people of God, the Jews in exile in Babylon. It tells them about their own history and particularly about their relationship with God. It tells them about the one true God who created everything , who rescued them from slavery in Egypt and who wants to use them to bless the whole world. It tells them too in the sections we call law about how God wants them to live as individuals and as a nation. And it tells them again and again about their failure to follow God and of God’s amazing continuing forgiveness. As a couple of our Eucharistic Prayers (Communion prayers) put it:
‘Though we chose the path of rebellion you would not abandon your own’ and ‘As a mother tenderly gathers her children, you embraced a people as your own. When they turned away and rebelled your love remained steadfast.’ As we will see next week, even in the exile there were words of hope from God through the prophets.
Psalms and Proverbs are neither history or law. Psalms are worship and we will major on those this morning. Proverbs are part of what in the trade we call Wisdom literature, in which the writers wrestle with questions about living as the people of God.
Proverbs is full of down to earth common sense (often laced with humour). ‘The sluggard buries his hand in the dish and will not even bring it back to his mouth’ ‘Better to live in a corner of the housetop than to in a house shared with a quarrelsome wife’. ‘Better is a dinner of herbs where love is than a fattened ox and hatred with it’.
For Proverbs wisdom is practical – wisdom is not about knowing lots of facts, it is about knowing how to live – and the fear (respect) of the Lord is the beginning of such wisdom.
But we need to recognise that there are several Wisdom books in the Bible. Proverbs presents on the whole a simple view of life – follow God’s way and you will be OK; follow a wicked way and you will come a cropper. But that view is tempered in the Bible by its inclusion of books like Job and Ecclesiastes. In Job bad things happen to a good person (Job) and the book wrestles with this. Job’s so-called friends trot out orthodox platitudes – you Job have come a cropper so you must have sinned. Job refuses to go along with that and at the end of the book God is much more on Job’s side that on the side of his orthodox friends. In Ecclesiastes there is an almost cynical realism that you cannot predict where bad things will happen, and we will all die in the end. The pessimism of Ecclesiastes needs the naive optimism of Proverbs, but Proverbs needs the realism of Ecclesiastes. Both need the central place of relationship with God that is at the heart of the book of Job. And both need the NT message of resurrection and victory over death. Our wisdom needs to be taught by the whole Bible and not just by odd verses.
Back to the Psalms. It was said by one of the early church fathers (Athanasius I think) that whereas most scripture speaks to us, the Psalms speak for us. (Repeat). The Psalms place in scripture is a bit like the Lord’s Prayer in Jesus’ teaching. ‘Lord, teach us to pray’ asked the disciples – and instead of delivering a lecture on the nature of prayer, Jesus gave them and us a model prayer.
 
In the same way the Psalms are models of praise, prayer and worship. These are examples of praise, prayer and worship that illustrate prayers that God accepts and hears. They are teaching about how to pray; they teach us about our relationship with God as individuals and as a church, and how we are to express that relationship. As John Goldingay puts it in his commentary on the Psalms here are 150 examples of things one can say to God. And ultimately, the Psalms are about trusting and praising God in the REAL world, rather than in a pretend world where everything is always nice.
 
And at this point I need to say something important. As you will probably know, I love the New Zealand Prayer Book. It says about the Psalms:-
‘The wide appeal of the psalms rest on their ability to give words to some of our deepest feelings in the face of life’s experiences. Whether for joy, worship and exaltation, or degradation and rejection, or hope, faith, love, anger or despair, the psalms contain verses that express such moods.....in them we can find words to match many of our moods and express them before God.’
And that is brilliant. But they do something I totally disagree with – they leave out verses which they think are not suitable for use in the corporate worship of the church.
 
For example those of a certain age will know Psalm 137 – By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept (you remember Boney M ?). But the last verse of that Psalm says ‘Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against a rock’. Now I would agree that I would not want to sing that in church. But the inclusion of verses like that in the psalms does not give us permission to agree with it – it is not the Word of the Lord in terms of being a true statement – but it is the Word of the Lord in giving us permission to express to God our real feelings even if they involve such hatred. It’s not OK to carry out such violence; it’s not OK to want such things to happen; but it is OK to let your real feelings and emotions to be expressed to God. That is how the Psalms are God’s Word to us – you can say even that to God.
 
So let us look at the Psalm we have read this morning – Psalm 13. I chose this psalm because it embodies a central characteristic of many of the Psalms, and a characteristic that we often miss out in our own individual prayer and in our corporate prayer and worship. It begins with a moan. Vv 1 and 2. Those who study the psalms call this sort of prayer a PROTEST or a LAMENT. But a moan says it quite well too, though perhaps not strongly enough.
Sometimes at 10.45 we encourage the congregation to speak out words of praise thanking God for what He has done for us. We might struggle with the idea of speaking out words of Lament protesting at what God has NOT done for us. But that is what this Psalm does. And remember, it is included in the Word of God as an example of the sort of prayers that God accepts and that we can pray. It is OK to pray this sort of prayer. It is what Mary and Martha say to Jesus after the death of Lazarus – Lord if you had been here, he would not have died. (Which Jesus dies not rebuke them for). It is what Jesus himself gets close to in Gethsemane and certainly does on the Cross –My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
 
This psalm (and many psalms like it) tell us that it’s OK to be real with God. And more than that, they tell us that if we do not have as part of our journey through difficult times a time of protest and lament having a real moan at God we will find it hard to end up in a position of trust and praise.
 
So we move into verses 3 and 4; after telling God how he is feeling, the Psalmist asks God to answer him. Notice two things here – he moves from calling God Lord to calling God Lord MY GOD. Goldingay comments about how the prayer addresses God: ‘In vv 1-2 it is an aggressive, confrontational ‘Lord’. That perhaps frees him to pray ‘ Lord, my God’. And that in turn makes possible the commitment ‘I will sing to the Lord’ in verse 6. As the pray-er moves into relationship language, he/she puts pressure on God to remember his promises, and also enables him or herself to progress in the journey towards trust and praise.
 
Secondly, notice how much more time is spent on telling God how he is feeling, than on telling God what to do. Goldingay comments:
‘The balance between protest or expression of pain, and plea or request, is the reverse of that which characterises Christian prayer. Christians are reticent about telling God things that God presumably knows, though they are then oddly unrestrained about itemising what God should do even though they recognise that God could work this out. Prayer psalms suggest that the aim of prayer is to get God to decide to take action rather than persisting in inaction. They imply that if God can be provoked to act, God can be left to work out precisely what to do......They urge God to listen, instead of ignoring or abandoning, to deliver the (pray-er), and to act against the people who are causing the pray-er trouble, in order to put right a world that is out of kilter.’
 
So the Psalmist begins with protest – what’s happening and how he feels about it. He moves on to plea – God do something. In many of the Psalms the plea is followed by the Psalmist reminding himself about who God is, God’s commitment to his people, and examples of what God has done in the past to deliver his people. That is left out here, but it’s probably going on internally and it’s never a bad thing to remind ourselves of who God is, of His commitment to us as our God and of what he has done for us (especially in the work of Christ).
 
He goes on in verse 5 But – I have trusted in God. Goldingay again comments that there is in many of the psalms an internal argument between lament and hope (expressed out loud in psalms like psalm 42); the pray-er lives with a tension between the questioning of vv 1-2, the pleading of vv 3-4 and the expectation of vv 5-6. He says that the psalms suggests ‘the state in which hope despairs, and yet despair hopes’. And even the protests of vv 1-2 and the pleas of vv 3-4 come out of the relationship of trust which verses 5 and 6 end up with.
 
The trust involved in this psalm is not I suspect a quiet relaxed trusting in God which we sometimes enjoy. It is rather a trust that results in insistent  questioning of God, that asks why God is ignoring us in our need, and urgently presses God to give us attention and brighten our eyes with action.
Such a sort of trust is not a backsliding sort of trust – it is a real trust rooted in our relationship with God, a trust of one who wrestles with God. It’s the sort of trust that Jesus had in Gethsemane, and it’s the mature sort of faith and trust that we need in our own journeys with God. And it’s the sort of mature faith and trust that leads us to praise God in the midst of difficulty as well as in the good times.