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Grow under the direction of the Most High

Psalterby Robert MacDonald

The question in my last post was ‘how do we know?’ It’s a multi-edged question since I have not included a direct object for the verb know? In my original context, you might think it was ‘how do we know that we are not mad’ as the Roman governor, Festus, said of Paul. And I noted that the Hebrew for mad is the same letters as the Hebrew for taste. These words are homonyms in Hebrew. They take part in the word games that the Hebrew poets played as they lament, ponder, and celebrate their history in the love of the instruction of Yahweh, their God.
Knowledge is a subjective thing. We are the subject, and it is our knowledge that we are thinking of, and our growth. But how do we know what constitutes maturing rather than degeneration? We all think about knowledge, but as Paul in 1 Corinthians reminds us, knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Maturing, surely, is being built up, rather than being puffed up.
David begins the Psalms (Psalm 3:1) with great concern about his troubles: Lord, how multiplied are my straits. Many arise over me. David has many troubles. The Psalms begin with the narrow place that David finds himself in. He continues in verse 2: Many say of me, There is no salvation for him in God. Selah.
So think about this. No salvation. Has that accusation ever been said against you? Do you even imagine it yourself at times? Look at this from two points of view: On the one hand, we have the authority of the situation we are in. For David, it is according to this psalm, a situation with respect to his son, Absalom, whom he loved. In Paul’s situation as we have been considering in the closing chapters of Acts, it is his submission to the Roman system and his appeal to the emperor. And for us, we have our own immersion in our own culture, whether it be right or left, rich or poor, liberal or conservative, reader or scholar, and so on. On the other hand, we have the ultimate appeal to God. For David, note how the psalm speaks of his salvation, his safety, as ‘in’ God. Paul also writes of his own faith that is ‘in’ Christ.
And as for us, what must we be called ‘out of’ in order to be ‘in’ the salvation of God? There is no easy answer to this question. We may be fortunate or unfortunate in where we are born, but it is not our salvation. We have a lifetime of maturing – and perhaps generations – of putting aside the narrowness, the straits, that we are in, and in learning to love the enemies that we have constructed in our thoughts. And how do we know we are being matured by God, by Christ, by the Lord, by the Most High? A close reading of the Psalms will ground our faith in the God and Father of Jesus, the Anointed (Christ), because the Most High himself will be our teacher.
So from How do we know, we come to a new question: How do we grow? It is work to grow and it involves all of us. One of the things I note in my book on the Psalms, Seeing the Psalter, is that these poems have a purpose as a whole. And this is what it is in a few words. The poems have been consciously put together in sequence so that they might form a community of the merciful who have learned mercy through their covenant with God. This God knows how to ‘read’ these poems into us to show us how to accept mercy and to, in turn, be merciful. In doing so, the same Lord of Hosts will form us in the image of his child Jesus. And not only us, but everyone that we come in contact with, the whole body of our social fabric.
And as to how we know that the direction is building us up. We will know because the same God through us will deal with the case of the poor, and the judgment of the needy (Psalm 140:12).

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  1. One of the great values of your book, in my view as editor, is that you have paid attention to the arrangement of the Psalter. There are many phases to the production of scripture: the experience of the people who write, their developing understanding of their relationship with God, the writing itself, the use of that material in a community, it’s recognition as of value to the community over time and space, it’s collection into a book (or scroll), and its collection into the collection we call the Bible, and then its function as part of that overall Bible.
    We can choose to look at any stage, and we will benefit from our connections. But as the writer has a reason for writing, so the collector has a reason for collecting, and we can study that as well. What is the purpose of the collection?
    I will note also that my wife likes your book not for all these details, but rather for the translation. She really enjoys reading your translations. She doesn’t spend time with the charts. 🙂

  2. Thank for your words Henry. The text of the Psalms themselves is paramount for our hearing and formation. The charts by themselves are only somewhat useful. Interesting patterns, but taken in combination with the text, for example, take a copy of the psalm and mark it up with coloured pencil; join the words and think about how the poet wrote and you will see the text as a consequence. This is what makes a difference to our reading. Here I follow directly the advice of Jonathan Magonet and his little book A Rabbi Reads the Psalms. But in contrast to him, I have particularly distinguished the objective repeating words rather than the more subjective rhyming ideas – though both are important and will stand out for us as we read with sufficient slowness and ‘under invisible instruction’ to take these historical poems together into our own experience.

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