Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord,
the people he chose for his inheritance.
From heaven the Lord looks down
and sees all mankind;
from his dwelling place he watches
all who live on earth—
he who forms the hearts of all,
who considers everything they do.
No king is saved by the size of his army;
no warrior escapes by his great strength.
A horse is a vain hope for deliverance;
despite all its great strength it cannot save.
But the eyes of the Lord are on those who fear him,
on those whose hope is in his unfailing love,
to deliver them from death
and keep them alive in famine.
We wait in hope for the Lord;
he is our help and our shield.
In him our hearts rejoice,
for we trust in his holy name.
May your unfailing love be with us, Lord,
even as we put our hope in you. (NIV)
This psalm is a wonderful example of how scripture works.
First of all, it is poetry, so the writer isn’t looking to be literal. The writer is using figures of speech to describe the indescribable. Second of all, it is absolutely couched in the culture of its author. Third, the meaning still comes through to us, even if we do have to ‘translate’ back in time and across cultures.
Let’s go into each of these in a little more depth. The psalms are all poetry. They don’t rhyme (especially in translation) and they don’t have a meter, but they do have a certain rhythm. More often than not, Hebrew poetry uses a device where each concept is stated twice. It is said one way in the first line then another in the second. Sometimes this is completely obvious, like here:
No king is saved by the size of his army;
no warrior escapes by his great strength. (Psalm 33:16, NIV)
The king and the warrior are parallels here and the comparison of the size of the army of the king and the strength of the warrior are irrelevant because their victory or defeat is determined by God. The point is, we are not to rely on our own strength or skill, but to look to God for everything. A theme that is often tied to that, especially by the prophets, is that Israel’s faithfulness (or lack thereof) is a significant factor in whether God grants victory or defeat. Victory is a reward of faithfulness. Faithlessness will bring about the loss of God’s favor and support, and so defeat is the result. This is a hard concept because we all know very faithful people who don’t get their victory. And we all know that some people who have acted despicably have enjoyed great gain. But remember, this is poetry. God is not ‘all or nothing.’ God is all mercy and grace. That matters.
In addition to that, God isn’t made in our image. We are made in God’s image. That doesn’t mean God has a body like ours. God’s body is us (and by us, I mean the whole creation, not just the people) and once again, that is imagery. God cannot be confined to a place or a time. God is beyond both. We know God doesn’t have a dwelling place. If anywhere it is in our hearts… in the hearts of each and every one of us. God doesn’t have eyes, but God sees. God doesn’t have hands and feet to walk around on earth, but God is everywhere at once, aware of all at once. We cannot describe that or relate to it except through human language, which by nature is limiting. God isn’t limited by our inability to describe God or by our limited ways of understanding God. We KNOW we don’t have a complete picture of God, but we act as if we do. So keep in mind that God is far more than we can ever understand or grasp.
And that brings me to our second point. The psalmist is speaking for God, but the psalmist is also a creature of his culture. He cannot fathom a world where horses are no longer the strength of an army. That one is pretty easy for us to ‘translate’ into modern terms. God’s people have to understand their strength is not in the army, whether it uses horses and spears or tanks and mortars. One that is a little more subtle is the worldview of the psalmist. The psalmist believed that the land was in the middle and the sky was a dome over the earth with heaven as the place beyond the dome. Under the earth was Sheol, the place of the dead. The waters were the place of chaos around the edges. The stars were pinpricks in the dome where the light of heaven shone through. God was in heaven, beyond the dome. On earth, however, God dwelt in the temple (once it was built) and before that in the tabernacle, also known as the ark of the covenant. They didn’t think of God as being everywhere, like we do today. They could not imagine that Earth is one tiny planet in a huge universe that is one tiny portion of the whole; one of many universes. It is almost unimaginable to me! Their small view of the world is much more manageable! But that is just the thing… God is greater than all of it and is absolutely unmanageable. That’s where we get into trouble; when we think we can call the shots and ‘manage’ God. We cannot even manage our lives! It is a hard lesson, for both us and for the ancients… we have to let go and let God.
Even though this psalm was written long before Jesus walked the earth, it still has relevance for us. God’s love and attention isn’t limited to one people in one time and place, but through Jesus’ life and ministry, we know God’s purpose, that the Jews would be a light for all nations, a way for all the world to come to know God, has been fulfilled. Scripture ‘works’ because the Holy Spirit speaks to us in our day and time, using these ancient words as a starting point. God is revealed to us through them, through the lens of their lives and work.
So here is my paraphrase of this psalm for this time and this day…
Blessed are the people who are redeemed by God,
who are the subjects of God’s mercy.
From both very near and very far away,
God sees all there is to see. God knows all there is to know.
The very God who formed us knows us inside out,
God knows everything we do.
There is no power but God to save us.
No human power is up to the task.
Military might is not our security,
despite its frightening power, it cannot save us.
Unfailing love is the greatest power.
God’s love is our only hope.
Only the Divine has the power to save us.
All we have comes from God.
And so we live each day trusting in God
who is the source of our hope.
We rejoice in you no matter what,
for you give our lives meaning; you have given us your name.
May your unfailing love never be taken from us
and we’ll put our hope in you forever.
Blessings to you,
Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.