Psalm 146 manuscript

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[A sermon I wrote for our Psalm series at International Christian Fellowship,, given 10/23/16.  This was one of those weeks when what I wrote and what I preached were significantly different.]

I may offend some people this week. For the people who say, “Well, you offend me every time you preach,” I’m sorry. That is not my intention. It’s a gift, just not one I’m able to return. But this week, we’re going to talk about a sensitive subject. Honestly, I think we should preach about this more—it’s central to Scripture and, as we’ll see, deeply reflects God’s heart, but it’s hard because most of us struggle with either not wanting to sound self-righteous, being all too aware of how we fail in this area or, paradoxically, both.

So what is “it,” you say—or I hope you say, cause that means you’re paying attention. Listen to the Psalm and see if you can tell.

Psalm 146

Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord, O my soul!

I will praise the Lord as long as I live;

I will sing praises to my God all my life long.

Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals in whom there is no help. (Heb. Teshua, literally salvation)

When their breath departs, they return to the earth;

on that very day their plans perish.

Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,

whose hope is in the Lord their God,

who made heaven and earth,

the sea, and all that is in them,

who keeps faith forever;

who executes justice for the oppressed,

who gives food to the hungry.

The Lord sets the prisoners free;

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 strangers;

he upholds the orphans and the widow,

but the way of the wicked he will bring to ruin.

The Lord will reign forever,

your God, O Zion, for all generations.

Praise the Lord!

Here is Psalm 146 in The Message translation:

Hallelujah!

Oh my soul, praise God!

All my life long I’ll praise God,

singing songs to my God as long as I live.

Don’t put your life in the hands of experts

who know nothing of life, of salvation life.

Mere humans don’t have what it takes,

when they die, their projects die with them.

Instead, get your help from the God of Jacob,

put your hope in God and know real blessing!

God made sky and soil,

sea and all the fish in it.

He always does what he says–

he defends the wronged,

he feeds the hungry.

God frees prisoners–

he gives sight to the blind,

he lifts up the fallen.

God loves good people, protects strangers,

takes the side of orphans and widows,

but makes short work of the wicked.

God’s in charge—always.

Zion’s God is God for good!

Hallelujah!

We pray the Psalms. We can take most Scripture and turn it into prayers—there are probably some passages that would not make very good prayers, but generally, praying the words of the Bible is a good idea, because it gives God the opportunity to make His Word shape our hearts. If you pray I Corinthians 13 over and over, and believe, even a little bit, that God will work in you, you will become more loving. That will really happen. We’re not going through the motions here; God is alive and he changes us. The very thought that you want to be more loving, that you would desire in the least to become more loving and would even consider reading a passage on love daily means that God is working in your heart. We’re not naturally patient and kind or tend to seek the other person’s way instead of our own. If you want to be more of that, make this prayer a habit, a daily seeking God through his Word. It’s not going through the motions, it’s the act of coming before God and letting these words he inspired, letting this message that resembles him, resonate in our souls and take root there, which is how God’s Holy Spirit works in us. In fact, when you’ve spent enough time with God, the question becomes not “Do I believe God will work in me in this way,” because we know he will, but “Do I want God to work in me in this way?” If you pray for God to help you love your enemies, God will help you love your enemies. Loving your enemies can feel like weakness, it can cost you the opportunity to get revenge and hold bitterness and even fight back. When we pray God’s Word, it’s a serious question, not a rhetorical one, if we want to be transformed to be more like Jesus.

So we come today to Psalm 146. We’ve talked about how there are different categories of psalms and how the Psalms are our prayer book. If we follow God long enough, likely everything in the Psalms will eventually reflect our experience, how we’re feeling, what we’re going through. But we pray God’s Word not simply because it reflects and helps express what we’re saying to God, but also because it helps shape who we are and what we hope to say to God. The Psalms remind us of the truth, restore our perspective, and challenge us to live in the world that we know, by faith, is real, rather than the world that our physical senses report but which is often so misleading.

Psalm 146 begins with rejoicing.

Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord, O my soul!

Several of the psalmists like to address their own souls. It’s an interesting conceit (“conceit” means literary device, by the way, not “conceited,”) kind of like when you give yourself a pep talk in the mirror. “Praise the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, praise his Holy Name.” It’s a calling of one’s self to rise up in praise. It’s also fascinating, in terms of consciously addressing our souls as an aspect of ourselves. In Psalm 34, David asks, “Why are you downcast, O, my soul? Why so disturbed within me?” It’s also a great way to talk to yourself without sounding crazy. Although honestly, I guess these days that might still sound a little nuts. Sometimes when I’m playing a sport and the game isn’t going well or I don’t think I’m performing up to my expectations, I’ll go off and have a little chat with my soul, see if I can get us–my soul and I–back up to acceptable.

Seriously, though, it means calling to oneself in the full depths of who you are, the opposite of going through the motions and just saying words.

Remembering that this prayer is poetry, put to music, repetition makes sense.

I will praise the Lord as long as I live;

I will sing praises to my God all my life long.

The Psalmists, like nearly nevery poet, use repetition for emphasis and to bring out specifics. In this case, the same thought is repeated twice, the only difference being that the Psalmist specifies,–I will sing praised to my God, accentuating the form of worship—singing—and that God is not an impersonal deity, but my God, the God with whom I have an intimate relationship.

Psalm 146 basically has two ideas that flow together: Don’t and do.

Do NOT put your trust in princes, which in the writer’s context would be those in power, those who rule and wield authority. Don’t have your confidence, your security, in the people who appear, in the physical world, to be running the show. That’s not where your trust belongs. Not only in princes, in rulers, Presidents or politicians or even leaders or bosses, but in mortals, period. Sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. People made from dust and God’s breath, which is all people.

When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.”

Of course we trust people, we trust our spouses and our friends–but don’t put your trust in them, i.e. don’t have your hopes for your life and well-being in people who are in charge, but, as Eugene Peterson, the translator of the Message, puts it, “Don’t put your life in the hands of experts who know nothing of life, of salvation life.”

Why not? Well, clearly they don’t have the understanding or values that you have, if they know nothing of salvation life, and that is the way you live by. But also, because though they might seem so powerful, their power is very limited: “When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.”

Here come the Do’s—Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God.

Many people, then and now, place their hopes for happiness, for success, for good happening in the world, on people instead of in God. But that is false hope. This is real hope, because unlike those whose breath will depart, who will die and whose bodies will go back to being dust, whose big plans and campaign promises and loud claims will all just be gone, God, the one true God, the God who made a covenant with Abraham, who appeared to Jacob, delivered his people from slavery in Egypt and provided for them—this God is faithful. [Ex. 3:6 God of Ab, Is & Jac] “God of Jacob” used more in the Psalms than anywhere else. His plans do not end at anyone’s death. In fact, the death of Jesus, far from being the end of God’s plans, led to his resurrection and the fulfillment of his plan for atonement and salvation. That’s the difference between putting our trust in a mortal and putting our trust in God. Seems obvious when you put it that way.

Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever, who executes justice for the oppressed, who gives food to the hungry. Do trust in God who created everything, God who is faithful.

We transition here—at least it feels like a transition to us—from God the all-powerful, God the creator of heaven and earth, God who chose the Israelites and who is eternally faithful, to God who brings about justice for those suffering injustice.

Deepening the contrast between the ageless undying God and time-bound mortals the psalm proclaims the blessedness (or “happiness”) of those for whom Israel’s God is their help. This help, ezer, is the specialty of God. Throughout the Hebrew Bible God, not mortals, is the primary source of this help — one of the very few exceptions is the help the first woman in the garden is to provide her partner.”*

Now we’re going to look at all the things God does for which the author praises Him:

1), God does justice for the oppressed (v 7). Biblical Hebrew has many words that mean “to oppress,” at least twelve different words signaling a variety of kinds of oppression. This oppression, ashuqim, is primarily financial. It is characterized as defrauding one’s neighbor in Leviticus 6:2-4 and withholding wages in Deuteronomy 24:14.

  • 2), God is the one who gives food to the hungry (v 7).

  • 3), God sets the prisoners free (v 7).

  • 4), God opens the eyes of the blind (v 8).

  • 5), God lifts up those who are bowed down (v 8).

  • 6), God loves the righteous (v 8).

  • 7), God watches over the strangers (v 9). Strangers here are resident aliens, immigrants. This Psalm, though we don’t know the author, was almost certainly written after Israel’s return from captivity in Babylon. Imagine how the Israelites feel now about this characteristic of God. God had commanded them, repeatedly, to watch over the stranger, the immigrant, coming into their lands. God watched over and protected them when they were forced to be strangers. This may be a celebration of rebuilding Jerusalem—“look how God watched over us when we were strangers and returned us home!” When you have had the experience personally, compassion for others’ suffering comes much more easily.

  • 8), God upholds the orphan and the widow (v 9). Remember, in this time in history, women often had no means of supporting themselves. Paying work was not available to them, so if they lost their husband, they also lost their means of survival, as we see in the book of Ruth. “Orphans” in this case might even be those with a mother who has no way to feed her children, in addition to those with no parents. “Throughout the scriptures the ill-treatment of widows and their children is a mark of depravity, injustice and oppression.” But God defends and provides for them.*

  • 9, God brings the way of the wicked to ruin (v 9).

What does it mean for God to “keep faith forever?” If I “keep faith with you,” that means I have proven worthy of your faith in me, I have kept my promises, I have upheld my part. God keeps faith forever. How? According to Psalm 146, He created us and everything. Then he keeps faith by doing this:

He executes justice for the oppressed,

He gives food to the hungry.

The Lord sets the prisoners free;

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 strangers;

he upholds the orphans and the widow,

but the way of the wicked he will bring to ruin.

For the Psalmist, that’s what it means for God to keep faith forever. He is for the oppressed. He is their advocate, their defense, their deliverer, their salvation. He gives them freedom. He lifts them up. He gives them sight when they are blind. He upholds widows and orphans. He watches over the strangers. Strangers means foreigners, immigrants, non-natives.

Listen again to this list, and tell me where else you find a very similar list in Scripture:

justice for the oppressed,

gives food to the hungry.

The Lord sets the prisoners free;

opens the eyes of the blind.

lifts up those who are bowed down;

loves the righteous.

The Lord watches over the strangers;

he upholds the orphans and the widow,

There are a lot of right answers. Scripture has, by a conservative estimate, over 2,000 verses on people in poverty, how God sees them and how we treat them. Luke 4, the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, has a list just like this. Isaiah 61, which Jesus reads in the synagogue in Luke four, has a list just like this (makes sense, huh?). Matthew 25, in which Jesus describes the judgment before God and how people have loved him by loving those in need or failed to love him by refusing to love those in need, has a list very much like this.

I’m going to say some obvious things, and then a few that maybe aren’t so obvious.

First, this is God’s work in the World. If we believe the Psalmist, who here is making absolute claims about the character of God—in fact, acting on those claims to worship God for these characteristics—then this is who God is. Period. God specifically cares about the oppressed. One aspect of God’s faithfulness is his caring for people in these situations, whoever they are.

Second, these are things for which we should praise God. God gives justice to the oppressed—praise Him! God feeds hungry children—Hallelujah! These are glorious things God is doing, literally things that bring God glory.

Third, our trust is never to be in people, in the sense the Psalmist uses here. We know our salvation comes from God. Our help comes from God. That means even though we need to rely on other people, the ultimate source of our help will always be God. Here’s how I understand this: we rely on people, we lean on them, but we always remember that they are sinful and fallible like we are. They are never our ultimate hope. Ever. We never imagine that the leaders of our country, any country, will save us. How could they? They’re just people. Likewise in our relationships, with our co-workers and supervisors and supervisees, when we have our heart’s trust, our faith, in God, then we know we can give grace to our friends and employees and bosses when they fail—which they will. It’s been a process in my life not to give too much power to people, not to have my happiness and well-being depend on whether this or that person thinks well of me. They may think poorly of me because I have failed or because they lack grace, and either way, though that may hurt, it’s not the end of my world. My world ends and begins with God. So does yours. That frees us to have healthy relationships.

This is a psalm of rejoicing in what God does, in what he has done and will do, how he is faithful. He is faithful to bring the way of the wicked to ruin, perhaps not as quickly as we would hope but he will do it. He is faithful to lift up those who are bowed down and give justice to those who have been cheated, taken advantage of, robbed, swindled. That will happen. This is a certainty and we praise God in this knowledge, we praise God in faith that he will accomplish all these things.

If you are against the people that God is defending in this Psalm, you are on the wrong side. You want to be on God’s side. God always sides with the oppressed. Jesus revealed the character of God and stood with the weak, the outcasts, the defiled, demon-possessed, he made friends of drunkards and prostitutes and people whose title in society, according to the more law-abiding, was “sinner.” If we read through this list and find that, for any reason—politics, personal preference, profit, property values, our biases and discrimination—we line up with the oppressors against the oppressed, we need to change sides. Now. The question is not whether God is on our side, it is always and only are we on God’s side? There really is no other question. If we’re offended by that, then the offense needs to wake us up.

This Psalm describes who God is. If we want to become like God, if we want to be transformed into the image of Jesus, which is the life of a Christian, then this is who we seek to be, too. Following God, taking up our cross and following Jesus, means doing these things. I’m not talking about legalism here, I don’t mean that you need to make a checklist and be certain that by the end of next week, you have freed one prisoner (guilty or not), lifted up one bowed down, loved one righteous (which might be hard to find), lifted up one widow and one orphan—okay, check. I’m alright with God.

Neither am I talking about debating US or Nicaraguan policy. What we think about social programs or how many people we correct on Facebook is not the issue. Today, I am just talking about how we know God and what we do in response.

Our God, the God of Jacob, the God who loves us personally and intimately, even former scumbags like Jacob, whom God redeemed and transformed, this same God who knows us all better than we can even grasp, he calls us to know Him, as well. To love God we draw near him and his heart becomes our heart. His Spirit dwells with our spirit. Our thoughts start to resemble his thoughts more—Paul writes in I Corinthians that “we have the mind of Christ.” And we become the people who care about these, about justice for people who are living in poverty or are oppressed or suffering. We praise God and say, “Me, too!” There are a million different ways for us to be part of God’s work. I know many of us are. But I think it’s crucial to say, this is not optional. This is not one of the many diversions we might pursue as disciples of Jesus. This is central. Because again, this is who God is. This is God’s character. This is God’s glory.

Please listen carefully to what I say next, because I think it’s crucial for our understanding of obeying God, but it can also be misunderstood. We care for people in need and seek justice for the oppressed, and the suffering because that’s what God does. Yes, we do it because we care about the people who are suffering—but what happens when we decide that we don’t really like the people who are suffering around us? What happens when we’re trying to love our neighbors and our neighbors piss us off because they are dishonest or repulse us because they smell bad or act vulgar? What happens when we start thinking they aren’t really worthy of our help? That they’re lazy and don’t deserve it?

Scripture says shockingly little about whether the people in need are worthy of our help. That just isn’t a measure the Bible uses. Judging how others behave in need, when we ourselves are not in need, is like judging how people act when drowning, when we are standing on the shore. “Wow, you’re just wild and hysterical and totally out of control.” Yeah—they’re drowning. They can’t breathe. As a pastor friend of mine said, lost sheep behave badly—cuz they’re lost. They freak out.

Because this is true, our first and central motivation to love our neighbor as ourself is that God says to and God does it. He loves in the way we’re supposed to love. Jesus came and loved and died for a bunch of unworthy, undeserving people. This room is full of them. Thank God, praise God he did that. Hallelujah that he didn’t decide if we were working hard enough to earn his help or had the right motives in asking for that help. We weren’t, and we didn’t, and he died knowing that. The change comes after, not before.

Getting personal for a moment, I deeply believe that loving people in need, like so many things in our lives of following Jesus, is a matter of small steps in the right direction. If I look at my situation—I live in a poor barrio and am always surrounded by people suffering dire poverty—I’m not doing enough, because there is always more I could do. But the measure is faithfulness, not perfection, and being willing to obey what God tells us to do. This is not a competition—in fact, it’s a cooperation. How do we, as the body of Christ, reflect the image of God to the world by loving people in need?

Praying the Psalms means rejoicing in who God is and what God has done. God is the one who does all these things. We join God in his work because he has loved us enough to make us partners with him—that’s what being part of the Kingdom of God means, being subjects of the King who join in what matters to him. If you walk out of here feeling guilty, I have failed, and I do not want to do that to you. God delights in us, I know that. I hope you know that. We are learning to delight in God, to adore him for who he is and what he does, not just for us but for everyone. We can’t always see that justice is happening for the suffering and the oppressed—or for us, frankly—but by faith, God is doing these things. And God has both the big picture and eternity to work with. Some injustices may only be righted in the day when every knee bows to God and every single person speaks their recognition that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God. That will be a good day. Maybe a little daunting, but I’m looking forward to it. Ready, even. Come, Lord Jesus.

At the end of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, Jesus says something shocking–”Be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” Now how are we going to do that? Well, the obvious answer is only with God’s help. But as I study Scripture and read what Biblical scholars say, a much better translation for Matthew 7:? is “Be merciful, as your Heavenly Father is merciful.” First, striking that “perfect” and “merciful” could be interchangeable words, or related enough that you might choose one or the other. Second, that’s what Jesus tells us to be: merciful, as our heavenly father is merciful. Mercy triumphs over justice, James writes. Our God, who is all powerful, uses that power to show mercy. Hallelejuh, and may we become more like Him. Amen.

*Insights and Hebrew help gleaned from this commentary.

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