The Reverend Dr Nicholas Sagovsky Canon Theologian
Sunday, 17th August 2008
(1) From start to finish the psalm we heard this morning, Psalm 92, is one of praise: ‘It is a good thing to give thanks unto the Lord: and to sing praises unto thy Name, O most Highest’. There are a number of clues which point to this being a psalm for singing in the temple, probably at a festival: the mention of praise ‘early in the morning’ and ‘in the night season’; the musical instruments, the lute and the lyre; talk of ‘the courts of the house of our God’. The psalmist wants to praise God in the temple because of who God is and what he has done: ‘O Lord, how glorious are thy works: thy thoughts are very deep.’
Throughout the psalm there is one big contrast: between the righteous person who wants to praise God and the unrighteous person, the fool who doesn’t understand why God should be praised at all. The wicked may for the time being be ‘as green as grass’, but, like the grass which withers up in the heat of the midday sun, they will be destroyed. The righteous flourish like the palm tree, which never loses its leaves; like the famous cedar trees of Lebanon, which grow to a huge size and give welcome shade under their thick canopy. The righteous, says the psalmist, are like trees that are planted in the very courtyards of the temple. Even in old age they will be fruitful. As one modern translation puts it, ‘they will be full of sap and green’ (I like that better than, they ‘shall be fat and well-liking’ - though that is probably true of many of us as well!). It is for the righteous to show how true the Lord is ‘and that there is no unrighteousness in him’.
When we say or sing this psalm, we get a glimpse of the way God was praised in the Second Temple, and a glimpse of the way Jews praise him today. God is praised for his loving-kindness, his truth, and his righteousness. The person who roots their life in God is like the king himself who is anointed with oil as a sign of God’s blessing. You could sum up the whole theme of the psalm in the famous words of Psalm 23: ‘Thou hast anointed my head with oil, and my cup shall be full. But thy loving-kindness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.’
(2) We can imagine Jesus reflecting on this psalm and making it his own. At several places in the gospels we are told how he went up to Jerusalem to be in the temple at the time of the great feast. But there is one way in which it is hard to see what Jesus would have made of it – when the psalmist says, ‘For lo, thine enemies, O Lord, lo, thine enemies shall perish: and all the workers of wickedness shall be destroyed.’ Clearly, when this was originally written it was about the literal destruction of the human enemies of the psalmist – who may well have been David. Prayer for the destruction of enemies comes frequently in the psalms. But Jesus taught us to love our enemies, and to pray for those who persecute us. There is an important point here, which can help us to read the psalms in a truly Christian manner. When the psalms were written, the psalmist was talking about real, human enemies. He often curses them or proclaims their defeat. But Jesus died praying for his enemies ‘Father forgive them for they know not what they do.’ Throughout his life, he did have human enemies, but in the Gospels his fight with evil is depicted as a fight with spiritual enemies, with the devil and with demons. When he spent forty days in the wilderness, his battle – which set the course for his whole ministry – was a battle with the Evil One. His death on the cross was the culmination of this continuing struggle to overcome evil with good. We may not talk much about ‘the Devil’ and ‘demons’ today – and it is a good thing to be very careful about such language - but if the psalms are to be prayed in the spirit of Jesus, I believe we have to see the enemies that are talked about as the spiritual enemies which every Christian has to face: the forces of evil which fight against the forces of God; the ‘enemies’ Paul talks about when he says, ‘For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (Eph 6:12).’ These are the enemies which Jesus fought against all his life, and which in the end he defeated. But they have not finally gone away. In the century after that of Two Great World Wars, after the Holocaust and the dropping of the atomic bomb, after the Killing Fields of Cambodia, the Cultural Revolution and the genocide in Rwanda, it is hard to say that the forces of evil do not exist, or that this is not an appropriate way of talking about the human condition. And yet in all these situations we have seen the righteous, who have stood out against evil and drawn strength from even deeper springs of goodness. Jesus, by dying with words of peace and forgiveness, showed himself to be one of them. Where the psalmist prayed for the downfall of his enemies, Jesus, I guess, prayed for the downfall of evil, and we should do so too. In fact we do, every time we pray to God, ‘Thy will be done’, and then, ‘Do not bring us to the time of trial but deliver us from evil’.
(3) We can pray this psalm both as members of the church and individually. When we pray it as members of the church, we can certainly pray, ‘For lo, thine enemies, O Lord, lo, thine enemies shall perish: and all the workers of wickedness shall be destroyed’ whilst at the same time remembering that those who persecute the church can always turn right round, like Saul, and become Christians themselves. What we want is for the persecution of the church and for the ungodliness and wickedness that wrecks people’s lives to end; not for the persecutors, the ungodly and the wicked (whoever they may be – and we have to be very careful to let God judge that in the end) to be destroyed. The Church exists so that anybody, no matter who they are or what they have done, can turn and find God’s salvation.
Most of us would probably say we do not have personal experience of the worst kinds of evil, of persecution, or the schemes of personal enemies. But there is much we can hold onto in this psalm and make our own: that it’s good to give thanks to God and to praise him; that God gladdens our heart through all the wonderful things he has made and done; that there are always going to be people who don’t understand what this joy and rootedness in God is all about; that the person who has been baptized is like someone who has been anointed with oil (anointing is much more frequently used in baptism these days) as a sign of God’s blessing; that in the end we won’t sink completely under the weight of evil in the world; that God will support us throughout our lives and, hopefully, into a fruitful old age. From start to finish, it is God who does these things, and as we say the psalm over thoughtfully we can share in its spirit of thankfulness for all the wonderful things he does in your life and in mine.
So let us say together:
It is a good thing to give thanks unto the Lord : and to sing praises unto thy Name, O most Highest;
2. To tell of thy loving-kindness early in the morning : and of thy truth in the night-season;
3. Upon an instrument of ten strings, and upon the lute : upon a loud instrument, and upon the harp.
4. For thou, Lord, hast made me glad through thy works : and I will rejoice in giving praise for the operations of thy hands.
5. O Lord, how glorious are thy works : thy thoughts are very deep.
6. An unwise man doth not well consider this : and a fool doth not understand it.
7. When the ungodly are green as the grass, and when all the workers of wickedness do flourish : then shall they be destroyed for ever; but thou, Lord, art the most Highest for evermore.
8. For lo, thine enemies, O Lord, lo, thine enemies shall perish : and all the workers of wickedness shall be destroyed.
9. But mine horn shall be exalted like the horn of an unicorn : for I am anointed with fresh oil.
10. Mine eye also shall see his lust of mine enemies : and mine ear shall hear his desire of the wicked that arise up against me.
11. The righteous shall flourish like a palm-tree : and shall spread abroad like a cedar in Libanus.
12. Such as are planted in the house of the Lord : shall flourish in the courts of the house of our God.
13. They also shall bring forth more fruit in their age : and shall be fat and well-liking.
14. That they may shew how true the Lord my strength is : and that there is no unrighteousness in him.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son : and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be: world without end. Amen