Background. Roland Murphy ( Jerome Biblical Commentary ) says this is a prophetic psalm recited on the occasion of Succoth, the Feast of Booths (Tabernacles), a 7 day celebration lived in temporary shelters that commemorated the trek of the Hebrews through Sinai when they lived in makeshift huts. The “prophesy” is the voice of Yahweh announcing the first commandment ― the contract ― and the warning of doom if the people abandon it. The Feast also served as a harvest festival. It was announced with the blowing of the Shofar, the sheep horn trumpet also used at other festivals. The “basket” refers to what was used for carrying clay bricks, the Hebrews’ daily labor as slaves in Egypt.
Reflection. We remember with joy when our ancestors in the service of LIFE “heard a voice they had not known” and trusting that voice they threw off their slavery and became a people. Truly a moment to celebrate, because it began the great trek in response to LIFE in the tradition that formed us. It was an early event in the millennial groping that all traditions have pursued in the search for the face of LIFE. But we have come to learn with increasing certainty that the face of LIFE is our own face. Each of us, one by one, are the mirrors and agents of that in which “we live and move and have our being” … for “we are its offspring”and together we form a new people.
Paradoxically, it turns out that it is also the path to our liberation and ultimate happiness. We become a people dedicated to LIFE ― a nation of those who trust the voice whose footprints are never seen. Our fidelity to that vision reflects the clarity with which we see the path that we must walk ― a path of justice, compassion, forgiveness and generosity. We are all we’ve got in this impermanent universe of matter. What else do we have but LIFE’s selves ― ourselves ― to count on? If we abandon LIFE, we cut the umbilical cord that sustains us and makes us a family of loving-kindness. And we will die, each of us, alone.
1 Sing aloud to God our strength; shout for joy to the God of Jacob.
2 Raise a song, sound the tambourine, the sweet lyre with the harp.
3 Blow the trumpet at the new moon, at the full moon, on our festal day.
4 For it is a statute for Israel, an ordinance of the God of Jacob.
5 He made it a decree in Joseph, when he went out over the land of Egypt. I hear a voice I had not known:
A voice never heard before is the call to liberation. It is a call that forms disparate individuals into a family of loving-kindness. The “secret place of thunder” was mount Sinai for the Hebrews; for us it is the moment of mindfulness when clarity surfaces rising through the mud to indicate the “way.” That clarity is the voice of LIFE reverberating in the material particles of our biological organism calling us to be exactly and only what we are: impermanet biological organisms. To abandon what we are is to abandon LIFE. To be ourselves is to embrace LIFE. The Dharma is LIFE’s path.
6 “I relieved your shoulder of the burden; your hands were freed from the basket.
7 In distress you called, and I rescued you; I answered you in the secret place of thunder; I tested you at the waters of Meribah.
8 Hear, O my people, while I admonish you; O Israel, if you would but listen to me!
9 There shall be no strange god among you; you shall not bow down to a foreign god.
10 I am the LORD your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. Open your mouth wide and I will fill it.
It is all too easy to abandon LIFE and decide that liberation is too difficult, or too far in the future, or calls for too much sharing, gives too much to others, not enough for myself. Better to stay with the multitude of slaves where the feed troughs are full. But when we do, when we abandon LIFE, LIFE abandons us to our own devices and we are quickly engulfed by our insatiable needs; we lose our power to act, to decide. We become chained to our addictions. We become our own worst enemies.
11 “But my people did not listen to my voice; Israel would not submit to me.
12 So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts, to follow their own counsels.
But if we return to following the ways of LIFE, our enemies ― the selfishness that redoubles our suffering and isolates us from others ― would be vanquished by LIFE’s potential for more LIFE, redoubling in turn the depth of internal peace and the joys of mutual security that well up like spring water from our loving-kindness for one another.
13 O that my people would listen to me, that Israel would walk in my ways!
14 Then I would quickly subdue their enemies, and turn my hand against their foes.
15 Those who hate the LORD would cringe before him, and their doom would last forever.
16 I would feed you with the finest of the wheat, and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.”
Background. Akin to Psalm 58, this psalm excoriates the gods of other nations for allowing their people to pursue false values. Justice and protection of the poor and destitute are what mark true “godliness” for this poet, and Yahweh, the King and Judge of the gods, announces that they have failed the test. Yahweh pronounces sentence: they may belong to the race of the immortals but because of their crimes “they will die like men.” Murphy points out that belief in a conference of the gods was widespread in Mesopotamia and is found in Ugaritic literature, indicating that Yahwists had adapted this world of thought to their own contract and their belief in Yahweh’s superiority over all other gods. The motif of the “fall of the gods” is borrowed from Canaanite myths.
Reflection. This psalm, like psalm 58, is a remarkable example of the dawning realization, in a polytheistic system of beliefs, that Yahweh’s superiority over all other gods does not reside in his success on the battlefield or in international politics, but in the moral transcendence of the call to live with justice and compassion enjoined by the commandments. This is a major step forward in the evolution of religion. However that did not prevent the possibility of falling back into the still common belief that political and military superiority ― wealth and power ― were a proof of “God’s” favor and election. The fatal deterioration of Christianity as Rome’s guardian of its theocracy being the prime case in point. Augustine of Hippo’s “greatest” work The City of God was written to establish exactly that thesis: Rome’s ascendancy was the “will of God.” It is a deterioration that fundamentalists of all the religions of the book ― and Catholic Christians are included ― continue to espouse today.
1 God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment:
2 “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked?
3 Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.
4 Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”
LIFE, through our agency, demands justice and compassion. It is a demand, not a request. This is no moral nicety ― a refined hedonism for the morally sensitive “religiously inclined” among us. When justice is thwarted and compassion refused, the very “foundations of the earth are shaken.” It is akin to what Sophocles believed happened to Thebes because of Oedipus. This is the same vision evoked by the Dharma, the Tao, the Torah in their original sense: the very way of the cosmos itself. Justice in human society is a cosmic imperative, to disregard it is to invite a disaster of insuperable proportions. To reject LIFE is to die.
5 They have neither knowledge nor understanding, they walk around in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken.
6 I say, “You are gods, children of the Most High, all of you;
7 nevertheless, you shall die like mortals, and fall like any prince.”
8 Rise up, O God, judge the earth; for all the nations belong to you!
Background. An early lament of the Hebrew tribal federation about the hostile tribes they perceive as arrayed against them. They call on Yahweh to activate his power to save them. The list of nations and allusions to events suggest early history, and the conspicuous absence of Babylon confirms a date before 612. Yahweh’s display of power will result in the acknowledgement that he alone is the Most High.
Reflection. The earlier the psalm the more saturated it is with a political and economic definition of “salvation” and a military interpretation of divine power. There is no way we can avoid unambiguously repudiating this emphasis, especially because, astonishingly, despite the millennia of religious evolution in our tradition, this mindset still dominates the imagination of our people who believe in a “theist” “God.” LIFE simply does not bear any similarity to the “God” we encounter in these early psalms, and we have to acknowledge both what they were literally saying in their context, and what we can no longer accept as valid religion. If metaphor is used it will always be an awkward “stretch.”
Rather than run the risk of recidivism in this matter it might be better simply to use the psalm as a meditation on how far we have come. Reading it then becomes a simple lesson in what is religiously immature … what we should be careful to avoid. It has been our historical challenge to understand that LIFE does not exist separately from what it has evolved into, and therefore all its actions are always and only the activations of the living potential of its emerging (and temporary) forms, one of which is us. The religious development of the individual has to recapitulate the development of the community’s consciousness. We have grown past these childish images. We cannot allow ourselves to slide back into them.
1 O God, do not keep silence; do not hold your peace or be still, O God!
2 Even now your enemies are in tumult; those who hate you have raised their heads.
3 They lay crafty plans against your people; they consult together against those you protect.
4 They say, “Come, let us wipe them out as a nation; let the name of Israel be remembered no more.”
If we use LIFE as the analog of the metaphors, “God,” and “Yahweh,” our enemies then become the enemies of LIFE. And the enemies of LIFE for Buddhism and authentic Christianity are our own immaturity: our failure to understand the impermanence of all things and the impossibility of creating a permanent “self” out of a vanishing, temporary coalescence of the energy gathered from the matter in our bodies. The illusory craving to achieve permanence in an impermanent universe is the source of the suffering that we add to the difficulties of survival and the inevitable deterioration and death that accompanies our life-cycle as biological organisms. These enemies conspire against LIFE as we have it.
5 They conspire with one accord; against you they make a covenant —
6 the tents of Edom and the Ishmaelites, Moab and the Hagrites,
7 Gebal and Ammon and Amalek, Philistia with the inhabitants of Tyre;
8 Assyria also has joined them; they are the strong arm of the children of Lot.
9 Do to them as you did to Midian, as to Sisera and Jabin at the Wadi Kishon,
10 who were destroyed at En-dor, who became dung for the ground.
11 Make their nobles like Oreb and Zeeb, all their princes like Zebah and Zalmunna,
12 who said, “Let us take the pastures of God for our own possession.”
The Buddha says in the Dhammapada: “Don’t just dig up one craving or uproot one selfish desire, keep on going and destroy the entire forest. Wipe it all out, every bit of it. Temporary desires are designed to achieve temporary goals. Everything else is illusion.” If we call on LIFE to direct and energize our actions, be careful, this is what we are asking for.
13 O my God, make them like whirling dust, like chaff before the wind.
14 As fire consumes the forest, as the flame sets the mountains ablaze,
15 so pursue them with your tempest and terrify them with your hurricane.
16 Fill their faces with shame, so that they may seek your name, O LORD.
17 Let them be put to shame and dismayed forever; let them perish in disgrace.
18 Let them know that you alone, whose name is the LORD, are the Most High over all the earth.
Background. Murphy says that reference to the king indicates that this psalm is pre-exilic. Otherwise there is no determinable historical context. It is a poem with a contemplative focus that uses the temple as the symbol and setting for an encounter with Yahweh. Yahweh’s residence is a place of refuge; it provides shelter at once maternal and protective, and like the birds that nest in these monumental buildings, it makes us feel safe and secure; we are at peace. Even the procession on the way to the temple is joyful in anticipation of being embraced by Yahweh ― it is as if the procession were a column of rain passing through the desert and left pools of water in its wake. But the loving embrace of Yahweh is for those who follow his ways; the wicked will never know that peace.
Reflection. A psalm that lends itself easily to our new understanding. Like the temple of old there are many things that symbolize LIFE because they actually throb with it. The primary one for us is ourselves. We who bear LIFE in our human organisms not only can see LIFE all around us in our magnificent universe and teeming earth, but we see it in ourselves. The Dharma, the Tao, the Torah, is the path of LIFE. Through our behavior and attitudes which concretize the Dharma in justice, compassion and loving-kindness for all things, we become a mirror-like display of LIFE. The LIFE that enlivens us becomes outwardly manifest in our actions. As we are slowly transformed through fidelity to meditation and mindfulness we begin to see LIFE’s potential being realized in us. The more we see LIFE faithfully re-displayed in ourselves, we are drawn to love and embrace ourselves ― something that perhaps we never thought could ever happen.
We ourselves are the temple that we enter through meditation and day-long mindfulness. Even anticipating the time of meditation makes us joyful and at peace because we know we are preparing to rest in the embrace of LIFE itself. It is like rain in the desert: it produces LIFE everywhere. The more we perceive ourselves as faithful in putting the Dharma into practice in our lives, the more secure we feel about our own instincts, the more we can accept ourselves, our bodies, these particular material organisms with their weaknesses as well as their strengths, bequeathed to us by our parents and our people. We consent to be what we are as part of a family of people, not as the solipsist, isolated, immortal “god” the false self demands ― a self that does not exist and cannot be created. We embrace ourselves as we are, with pride, without self-pity, in love and gratitude. That is the end and purpose of our pilgrimage.
1 How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts!
2 My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God.
3 Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O LORD of hosts, my King and my God.
4 Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise.
To acknowledge that we are embraced by LIFE gives us such joy and peace, that even anticipating the time when we will sit quietly and undistractedly abandon ourselves to it in meditation gives us joy. We enter into ourselves as into the very Temple where LIFE itself has its temporary residence. Mindfulness makes our whole day fertile, like rain in the desert, leaving pools of life-giving water as it passes.
5 Happy are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion.
6 As they go through the valley of Baca they make it a place of springs; the early rain also covers it with pools.
7 They go from strength to strength; the God of gods will be seen in Zion.
It is following LIFE’s path that gives wisdom to our leaders; and it is the wisdom of the Dharma ― to live with justice, compassion and loving-kindness ― that is the source of all happiness among us during our brief stay in this perishing universe. LIFE’s happiness transcends anything our false self-worshipping imagination could ever devise.
8 O LORD God of hosts, hear my prayer; give ear, O God of Jacob!
9 Behold our shield, O God; look on the face of your anointed.
10 For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness.
11 For the LORD God is a sun and shield; he bestows favor and honor. No good thing does the LORD withhold from those who walk uprightly.
12 O LORD of hosts, happy is everyone who trusts in you.