Praise the Lord, O my soul:
while I live will I praise the Lord;
as long as I have any being,
I will sing praises to my God.
2 Put not your trust in princes,
nor in any human power,
for there is no help in them.
3 When their breath goes forth, they return to the earth;
on that day all their thoughts perish.
4 Happy are those who have the God of Jacob for their help,
whose hope is in the Lord their God;
5 Who made heaven and earth,
the sea and all that is in them;
who keeps his promise for ever;
6 Who gives justice to those that suffer wrong
and bread to those who hunger.
7 The Lord looses those that are bound;
the Lord opens the eyes of the blind;
8 The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
the Lord loves the righteous;
9 The Lord watches over the stranger in the land;
he upholds the orphan and widow;
but the way of the wicked he turns upside down.
10 The Lord shall reign for ever,
your God, O Zion, throughout all generations.
To say that context matters when we read the Bible is not to say a new or startling thing. Often when we speak about context, we mean our need as modern people to understand, as best we can, the situation of the original audience. What were their concerns? What were their lives like? What were the cultural assumptions of their time? This is a good practice, we should think about those things.
We should also think about our concerns, our lives and our cultural assumption as well. What do we bring to the reading?
The importance of being aware of my context and how it affects me was brought home when I recently re read Psalm 146. This year, 2012, is an election year in the United States and one of the major topics of, well let’s just call it discussion, is the role of government in the lives of citizens and the role of individual responsibility. Being in the midst of a campaign season colored my initial reaction to this Psalm.
I read ” Put not your trust in princes, nor in any human power, for there is no help in them.” or as the Book of Common Prayer puts it “Put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of the earth.”
And then a few verses later, ” Who [God] gives justice to those that suffer wrong and bread to those who hunger. The Lord looses those that are bound; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind; The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous; The Lord watches over the stranger in the land; he upholds the orphan and widow; but the way of the wicked he turns upside down.”
The thought came unbidden, and almost automatically, here’s the argument against government entitlement programs. Don’t trust rulers to take care of individual needs. God takes care of people, not governments.
Now, if you actually know me, in person,you are surprised that I would have that thought.
I was surprised I had that thought.
And that thought is a small example of the power of context. The culture we live in, whether we agree with some of what it advocates or not, affects us. The messages of our society unavoidably get into our heads.
So was my first unbidden thought a correct interpretation? To assess whether or not this understanding of the text is viable we should pay attention to context, again. But this time to the context of the ancient near east. Our western culture separates government from religion and our western culture tends to emphasize the freedom and responsibility of the individual over the needs of the group.
The ancient world thought differently. (I’m not necessarily arguing that one view is superior to the other, just that there are two different views in play here.) Rulers were divine or semi divine figures. Gods and if not gods, specially chosen representatives of the gods, who enacted the will of the gods.
This psalm is about recognizing and trusting the one true God. Don’t trust those who claim divinity or divine favor for themselves. They are simply human. Trust the “God of Jacob”, trust the one true God, the one who has been known to you throughout history. Trust the God who has always provided for you as a community, as a people. Trust the God who has fed you and freed you- all of you together. Trust the God whose loving kindness you are to embody- to enact- to live.
This psalm is not about the proper activities of church and state- who does what for whom. That is a modern concern that ought not to be read into this psalm. This psalm is a declaration of where our allegiance should be, something both ancient and modern people need to be reminded of. Our allegiance should be with the God of Jacob. And this psalm tells us, so we won’t forget, what sort of God the God of Jacob is. The God of Jacob is the one who sets prisoners free, gives food to the hungry, justice to the oppressed. Because to give the God of Jacob our allegiance means that God’s concerns are our concerns.
This psalm isn’t about politics and governments. This psalm declares where our allegiance ought to lie. And this past week, this psalm served as a reminder to me to read carefully and thoughtfully. This psalm reminded me that I am not immune to the forces of the culture in which I live. I can’t help but be affected by the world around me. Just like the first audience of Psalm 146, I need to be reminded, “Happy are those who have the God of Jacob for their help, whose hope is in the Lord their God”.
Common Worship texts are available at http://www.cofe.anglican.org/worship/liturgy/commonworship/