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Psalm 125: You Enfold Your People

I am in the middle of preparing a sermon on Psalm 125 for this Sunday. Psalm 125 is part of the Psalms of Ascent, songs that the Israelites would sing on their yearly pilgrimages to Jerusalem for the holy festivals. It is a psalm that celebrates the God who “surrounds” his people, the God in whom security and goodness are found. Just as the mountains wrap around the city of Jerusalem, giving it security and strength, so the Lord is all around his people. It is a Psalm of confidence, security, and hope.

I’ve been re-reading Eugene Peterson’s A Long Obedience in the Same Direction this week—a book devoted to the Psalms of Ascent as a means of spiritual formation (and, interestingly, a book whose title is taken from a passage in Friedrich Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil that mocks the idea of obedience as little more than a form of “bondage of the spirit,” slavery, and stupidity). Peterson notes that we are not a people particularly prone to feelings of security and confidence. Doubt, depression, uncertainty, anxiety—these, we are familiar with.  These are our near-constant companions. But not confident security. Here’s what Peterson has to say about Psalm 125:

The person of faith is described in this psalm as one who “cannot be moved, but abides forever.” But I am moved. I am full of faith one day and empty with doubt the next. I wake up one morning full of vitality, rejoicing in the sun; the next day I am gray and dismal, faltering and moody. “Cannot be moved”—nothing could be less true of me. I can be moved by nearly anything: sadness, joy, success, failure. I’m a thermometer and go up and down with the weather….

All the persons of faith I know are sinners, doubters, uneven performers. We are secure not because we are sure of ourselves but because we trust that God is sure of us. The opening phrase of the psalm is “those who trust in the LORD”—not those who trust in their performance, in their morals, in their righteousness, in their health, in their pastor, in their doctor, in their president, in their economy, in their nation—“those who trust in the LORD.” Those who decide that God is for us and will make us whole eternally.

In truth, we probably aren’t that much different from the ancient Israelites who sang this psalm. If ever there was a group of “uneven performers,” it was Israel. Their confidence in God often seemed to be a fairly fragile and precarious thing. Their prophets were constantly haranguing them for their lack of fidelity to YHWH. Like us, the lure of other gods and other promises often proved too tempting for Israel to resist. Perhaps, like us, their singing of this song was both descriptive and prescriptive. It described a confidence and a security that had been experienced and was real, but it also provided a reminder of their high calling in bleaker and darker times. Perhaps, they sang this song as both a reflection of their experience and as an antidote to their anxiety and infidelity.

I’ve been continuing to read Pamela Greenberg’s The Complete Psalms over these last few months. At times, her translations leave me scratching my head, but there are times where I really like how she renders a psalm. Here is her interpretation of Psalm 125:

Those who trust you, God, are like Mount Zion—
which does not crumble, but continues forever.
Jerusalem—mountains wrap around it,
just as you enfold your people
from now until the end of time.
For the Creator does not let a group of the wrongful
rest in the land of the righteous,
so hands of the righteous
are not tempted toward harm.  
Provide goodness, God, for those who are good,
and give to the steadfast their heart’s content—
but for those who grow increasingly twisted,
let them walk in their tumultuous deeds. 
Peace be to those who struggle with God.

Regardless of our doubts and anxieties and fears, or even our security and confidence for that matter, God enfolds his people. He is the on in whom we live, move, and have our being. Both now and forevermore.

24 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    Did Peterson give a reference to or do you otherwise know the paragraph (or aphorism) number in which that phrase appears in Beyond Good and Evil?

    June 24, 2010
    • Section 188.

      June 24, 2010
    • Ken #

      Thank you for the reference.

      In this section of Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche is suggesting that “long obedience in the same direction” has produced much of great value in the world including, ironically, freedom. It strikes me as concurrence with Hegel. It strikes me as part of the discussion of the relationship between modernity and Christianity, or humanity, nature and God, that has taken place over hundreds of years.

      In the sentence in which he used the expression “bondage of the spirit” he refers to this metaphor, as well as “long obedience…” and other metaphors, as a discipline, something ironically important even in a society that values freedom, as the way the “European spirit has attained its strength, its rem0rseless curiosity and subtle nobility.”

      I hear in this section an appreciation of Europe’s Christianity for having produced an enlightened, scientific, politically free and democratic Europe even though, as we know, he did not believe Christianity would would go on forever after the loss of belief, is a doubt he shared with many others including Kant and Hegel. Nietzsche is in discussion with the writings of these modern philosophers, among others, in this section.

      I wonder how Peterson has used this metaphor and if he builds on Nietzsche’s theme in this section.

      I have found two books, in addition to Taylor’s A Secular Age, that deal with the great discussion of modernity and its relationship with Christianity found in philosophy over the last half millenium or so, including the theme Nietzsche addressed here. One is The Theological Origins of Modernity by Gillespie and the other is The Stillborn God by Lilla. (The title of the latter is a metaphor for the short life of 19th century liberal theology.) They are both well worth reading and both are easier to read than Taylor’s longer work. They are important contemporary voices, along with Taylor, in the discussion about where we are today and how we got here, and like Taylor they have spent many years closely reading the works written over the last five hundred years.

      June 25, 2010
      • Yes, there is certainly an “ironic appreciation” in the passage the quote is lifted out of. I suppose the extent to which we read the quote or the entire passage in the broader context of Nietzsche’s thought will affect just how appreciative we think he is of “a long obedience in the same direction.” He quite clearly is not of the opinion that this long obedience toward a goal that “was always settled beforehand” is something to be gratefully acknowledged and lived according to (which is what Peterson does, from within a Christian framework). It may be that stupidity is a necessary “condition of life and development,” but it certainly seems to be one that Nietzsche has no intentions of aligning himself with. It is not worthy of the heroic individual.

        Thanks for the reading recommendations. I have read Lilla’s book, but not Gillespie’s. Another one for the list…

        June 25, 2010
      • Ken #

        Nietzsche’s appreciation of the long obedience is like that of Kant and Hegel, not Peterson. Certainly, Nietzsche chose a different way from Peterson’s. So have Lilla, Gillespie and Taylor and the philosophers whose works they discuss.

        As for me, I enjoy the discussion summarized by Lilla, Gillespie and Taylor, of which Nietzsche was part, more than I enjoy Peterson. That is not to say that I enjoy and admire the Psalms, or love God therein, any less than Peterson. In Gillespie’s assessment, the discussion he summarizes goes to the heart of what is at stake in theology and politics and faith and hope in modernity. Although they express it differently, Lilla and Taylor support the same assessment. I agree.

        June 25, 2010
      • I enjoy the approach of Lilla & co. as well as the approach of Peterson. Both contribute important things. The problem with Lilla’s approach (and others), at least as I see it, is that they are often long on (usually very good) description but short on prescription. They can spin a masterful tale of how we have arrived where we are in history, but they have little to offer when it comes to the “so now what?” question.

        That is why I appreciate people like Peterson who have the courage to say “here is where we are and this is what it means and this is what we ought to do.” I realize that claims to offer anything resembling a singular meaning or interpretation of complex phenomena is viewed with suspicion or outright hostility these days, but part of me likes the fact that he unapologetically advocates for a long obedience in a specific direction.

        June 25, 2010
      • Of course, there is an inverse problem that I should have mentioned as well—being long on prescription and short on description! Of course there is plenty of that out there in the Christian world—people eager to tell us what to do, despite demonstrating virtually no historical or philosophical understanding whatsoever. I certainly am not advocating that! Peterson is not one of these people, which is among the reasons I like him :).

        June 25, 2010
      • Ken #

        I think something like the prescription of Richard Rorty, pragmatism, makes sense politically in a way that is consistent with what Lilla calls the great separation.

        I think we have many theological options in modernity. I think it is important to avoid those options that involve political theologies for the reasons offered in Lilla’s book. I have no quarrel with Peterson, and even while his option is not my preference, I concur that “long obedience in the same direction,” in the way Nietzsche used that metaphor, has been and remains a good thing. No artist of any kind, as Nietzsche knew, could ever disagree.

        June 25, 2010
      • What is “Peterson’s option” that you do not prefer? How is the way Nietzsche uses the metaphor any different than the way Peterson is using it? I’m not sure what, in the passage I quoted above, you would be reacting against… Is it just an impression of Peterson in general?

        What kind of “long obedience” would be appropriate, in your view? Obedience in the “direction” of pragmatism?

        June 25, 2010
      • Ken #

        Just a general impression.

        I don’t know how Peterson’s uses the metaphor. I am not reacting against anything in the quote.

        I think the “long obedience” of the western tradition has been and is good.

        Pragmatism is just a way to deal with uncertainties in a secular, liberal democracy. It is a way to make decisions without political theology. I am think here specifically of Rorty’s pragmatism as an example.

        In my last posting, and yours, I thought we were pretty close together on this, even though we differ, perhaps, in some details.

        June 25, 2010
      • We probably are fairly close together, although I think the details we may differ on are significant. Philosophical pragmatism may be a good way to deal with uncertainties in a secular liberal democracy, but I’m not sure it has the power to inspire and motivate and heal and provide hope and meaning and to give shape to life that “long obediences” in other directions do.

        I have only read bits of Rorty, to be fair, but I don’t think a historical “long obedience” in that direction would have inspired even ironic appreciation from Nietzsche.

        June 25, 2010
      • Ken #

        I agree with all you have written in this last entry. My own thinking now is this: for the sake of peace our politics in the west need to be secular, or as Lilla put it, based on political philosophy rather than on political theology. It is in the political realm that I favor Rorty’s approach.

        If you and I have differences on theology, I think they mainly stem from our backgrounds. I grew up with liberal protestantism as expressed in the contemporary reformed tradition and still think about God through that paradigm. My impression is that you grew up in a different paradigm and still think about God through that paradigm. At the same time, I imagine that we grew up in worlds that are quite similar in their secularity.

        I think that your theology is not especially political, although possibly more so than mine. Before seminary I worried about the political theology of the right that I saw depicted on television. In seminary and in my ministry roles in the PCUSA I learned to be just as worried about the political theology of the left – they were just as frightening as the right. So now, I am quite sympathetic to the value of the “great separation” of which Lilla wrote, even while like you, I cannot imagine a long obedience worth the time without God.

        June 25, 2010
      • Ken #

        I looked at the website of the organization mobilizing the protests in Toronto. They think of themselves as advocates of economic and environmental justice. They also appear to think of themselves as Christians. This is an example of the scary side of the long obedience, the side of which Lilla wrote.

        This is the ideology I encountered in the PCUSA, in its governing body and in its seminary. They believed they were fighting evil and believed they had God on their side in the battle.

        June 27, 2010
      • I don’t doubt there are some who would link their motivation for their actions in Toronto to Christianity. I also don’t doubt that there are many whose motivations are wholly secular, and who would enthusiastically subscribe to the “great divide” Lilla speaks of.

        It’s shameful behaviour, whatever the motivation.

        June 27, 2010
      • Ken #

        Their actions are compatible with political theology, liberation theology, but not with the great separation of politics and theology that Lilla describes. The great separation is related to liberalism in politics, a liberalism disdained by the anti-globalists and Christian advocates of liberation theology. Gillespie makes this point (and Lilla too, I think,) and it is a view emphatically held within the Christian ranks of liberation theology. I heard it expressed repeatedly in seminary and in the governing body of the PCUSA. Christianity owns this terror, even though most Christians do not embrace it.

        June 28, 2010
      • James #

        While I agree that there may possibly have been professing Christians among the destructive anarchists in Toronto, and while you have knowledge of liberal Christianity that I don’t have- the statement that “Christianity owns this terror” is stretching a correlation beyond its limits. Christians have behaved like brutes but that does mean each of those actions is “owned” by Christianity. It certainly is not owned by the Christianity I profess.

        June 28, 2010
      • Ken #

        James, not owned by yours, okay, but owned by many others including the one in which I served. The Christians who hold the anti-globalization ideology of the protest organizers in Toronto believe they are doing God’s work and believe they are orthodox in their beliefs. They believe the true Christianity is theirs. They believe they stand for justice. They believe people who oppose them are evil. They like to remember that the Romans crucified Jesus for sedition and they believe they are imitating him. They believe they are the living gospel.

        June 29, 2010
      • James #

        I know that this conversation is gone but I came across a great Hericlitus quote that is probably the true source of this idea of a “Long Obedience In The Same Direction.” It is “Good character is not formed in a week or a month. It is created little by little, day by day. Protracted and patient effort is needed to develop good character.”
        Nietzsche, of course loved the pre-Socratic philosophers, and Hericlitus particularly. As one of those many Christians [Anabaptists etc] who also links his philosophical roots Hericlitus and Stocism I feel a need to make sure that Nietzsche is not given credit for a great idea that he merely hijacked.. I will not begrudge Nietzsche the credit for turning the phrase. That certainly was his genius and probably is why the egotistical bully that truly characterizes him is overlooked so consistently. Ah, but I digress 🙂

        July 3, 2010
  2. James #

    I think, Ken, that whatever people believe, we need to challenge it if it is false. Small groups like the anarchists in Toronto [or the larger group of liberals you are acquainted with] can claim anything they like- that does not make their claim valid. I don’t believe I am speaking for a minority of Christians when I refuse to accept that Christianity “owns” the actions of a group just because they claims they are the living gospel. So far what I have heard points to an invalid claim.

    June 29, 2010
    • Out of curiosity, what is the method or criteria that determines one group or groups beliefs false and another true?

      June 29, 2010
      • James #

        The one that I am using is logical coherence and factual accuracy, Tyler. Obviously that test doesn’t address faith and belief but in my view the above discussion is about an extensively documented historical phenomenon. Make sense?

        June 30, 2010
      • James #

        BTW, Tyler. I have been doing a little Nietzsche rereading and someday we can have a simulating discussion about what it is appropriate to blame him for 🙂

        June 30, 2010
      • I would enjoy that!

        Arguably, the only thing one can blame him for is being an astute observer! 😉

        aka : “philosophy with a sledge hamer”

        June 30, 2010
      • James #

        He won’t get off that easy 🙂

        June 30, 2010

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