- This is the third installment of “A Commentary on the Psalms” begun on October 2.
- Future installments may or may not appear as a new post and be placed on this opening screen. But all will be added directly to a “page” called “Materialism and Mindfulness: A Commentary on the Psalms.” which I have included in the “pages” listed on the sidebar to the right under the pictures of the books. As they are added to the “page,” the new commentaries will be appended to the end of the document, in contrast to the way essays added to the post screen always end up being on top of older posts, reversing the order. All the installments will eventually appear on the “page” and in the proper sequence.
- “Pages” are accessed by “clicking” on the title.
- Background notes for all commentaries are based on material from the Jerome Biblical Commentary.
Background. A royal psalm for the accession of a new king. It is focused on affirming the legitimacy of the king by establishing his choice by Yahweh. Canaanite tributaries are warned not to use the occasion to revolt. After the exile when Israel had no subordinates it would have been taken to refer to a future fulfillment of Yahweh’s promise of ascendancy to David’s successors. Yahweh, after all, is the universal God of creation and disposes of all “the nations” as he sees fit. The universal dominion of Yahweh’s king is rooted in the promises to David, hence it was assimilated into the Messianic expectations. Israel’s kings are Yahweh’s anointed, his adopted sons following a Mesopotamian model, therefore to oppose the king is to oppose Yahweh and face his destructive wrath.
Roland Murphy says “in one of the variant readings to Acts 13:33, Psalm 2 is called the first psalm.” This suggests that for some pre-Christian Hebrew manuscripts, placing the royal psalm of Yahweh’s promises to David at the beginning of the book established the theme of the entire collection. Early Christians would naturally see this as another Messianic prophecy, and one that would bring all of the psalms in its train. It helps us understand why Jewish Christians, whose belief that Jesus was the messiah was confirmed by a chain of messianic prophesies that traditionally served for Jewish reflection and anticipation, would have emphatically applied this psalm both to Christ and to the (royal) persons designated to rule in his name.
Augustine saw Christ as the king and the “bonds” and “cords” of control as the Christian religion imposed on all the lands and peoples of the Roman Empire: “the Name and rule of Christ is to pervade posterity and possess all nations.”
Famously set to triumphant music by Handel in 1742 as part of the Messiah oratorio, this psalm has entered western culture as an affirmation of the Christian belief in the universal dominion of Christ and by implication the Christian religion. Christian nations like England, where Handel was living when he composed the music in the 18th century, were even then eagerly conquering, colonizing and exploiting people all over the globe in the name of Christian mission.
Reflection. The fixed features of this ancient psalm have all changed for us. We know that it is not Yahweh but LIFE that creates and enlivens this universe of matter. If Christians insist on thinking of Christ as the psalmist’s king, we know it can no longer be taken as a prophetic literalism the way it has been traditionally understood. Jesus is not the “only-begotten son” of LIFE itself requiring that all people take him as model and teacher or submit to the Church that claims to represent him. We have to adjust the dynamics: Jesus is “son” like the rest of us. We are all the offspring of LIFE. Jesus unreservedly embraced LIFE as his “father” and when we do the same we join with him as agents of LIFE along with any other human being who makes that choice. We are free to accept Jesus as model and teacher, but the LIFE he reveals is the same LIFE that enlivens all of us, regardless of religious tradition. Jesus is LIFE the way we all are: he displays LIFE’s contours in his moral choices, affective attitudes and social commitments. Like all of us Jesus was enlivened by matter’s living intelligent human energy … the difference, perhaps, was his flawless fidelity to LIFE’s selfless profligate generosity, but it’s a matter of degree, not kind. Jesus can be a model for us because he is made of exactly the same clay as we are.
We reject the theocratic implications of Augustine’s reading. We are completely opposed to the belief that a preeminent empire or religious institution represents LIFE and has been given hegemony over the human race. We do not believe LIFE chooses rulers or religions to act in its name, any more than it intervenes with the processes of plate tectonics to prevent earthquakes. LIFE acts by enlivening the people who confer legitimacy on the systems of governance and religious practices that they have chosen, just as LIFE sustains the natural order in every respect without interference or interruption. There are no miracles … not even psychological ones.
It cannot be emphasized enough: the tribalism that is intrinsically embedded in the ancient Hebrew view of the world … a tribalism upgraded by Augustinian Catholicism into Roman theocratic imperialism … is the most stubborn of the pathological legacies inherited by us from our tradition. It seems almost impossible to extirpate, especially after it has been applied to such devastating effect in an exploitive global colonialism whose dynamics continue to produce enormous wealth for its historical perpetrators. The West is invested in the belief in its own superiority and the Christian religion was an essential factor in the creation of that fantasy. It is our demon par excellence, and if the psalms are to become an instrument of LIFE, that demon must be exorcized.
The very fact that Jesus and his message could have been taken hostage for so long and at such depths of moral inversion by the Roman theocracy and its successors, should be standing proof that Christianity … and more emphatically its primitive Roman Catholic iteration … could not possibly be the special choice of LIFE. Moreover, if at some future moment, leveraged by the economic and political power of the imperialist west, Christianity should ever come to be the world’s dominant religion, it will be further proof that there is no divine providence.
Augustine’s naïve version of divine providence had to conclude that “the way things are” has been foreseen and willed by “God.” It is the most pernicious (and transparent) of deceits, and stands cheek by jowl with humanoid theism at the foundational underpinnings of injustice in human society. The institutionalized acceptance of injustice, evidenced in the perennial existence of the master-slave relationship in Christian society inherited from Rome, is a persistent outrage against LIFE’s synteresis; it constitutes a raw open wound that threatens to go septic at any moment and destroy the entire organism. To tolerate injustice is to contradict human intelligence — to disconnect yourself from LIFE. You cannot do that without precipitating your own death.
The social “bonds” and “cords” that we acknowledge and impose upon ourselves are the norms of justice that create a brotherly harmony and creative equality among all the peoples of the earth. But universalism does not mean a robotic homogeneity. The norms of justice and love apply to sustaining cultures and traditions as well as the eradication of economic and political inequality. The human surrender to the dictates of conscience creates a family of peoples who are empowered to come to a collaborative consensus on the issues of economic production and distribution that work for the survival of all. Our “Israel” is the global community; and the “rebel nations” are those people and groups, blinded by their erroneous self-definition as superior to others, who currently refuse to submit to the demands of LIFE, deny our global family identity and would consign us to the eternal nightmare of internecine warfare. Their interest in others is limited to pillaging their possessions and exploiting their labor. This is not merely repugnant to our sensibilities, no one committed to LIFE will tolerate it.
1 Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain?
2 The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and his anointed, saying,
3 “Let us burst their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us.”
4 He who sits in the heavens laughs; the LORD has them in derision.
5 Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying,
6 “I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.”
7 I will tell of the decree of the LORD: He said to me, “You are my son; today I have begotten you.
8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.
9 You shall break them with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”
10 Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth.
11 Serve the LORD with fear, with trembling
12 kiss his feet, or he will be angry, and you will perish in the way; for his wrath is quickly kindled. Happy are all who take refuge in him.
Why do people pursue the interests of their tribe alone? Why do they set themselves against LIFE and the human family? Why are they ever planning ways to dominate, exploit and enslave others?
They refuse to obey the demands of LIFE.
But LIFE will not be thwarted.
By rejecting LIFE they isolate themselves. Mutual hatred ultimately spells death.
But as for you, LIFE wants to make you its champion. And it will transform you into the offspring of LIFE itself.
You will bring people together; the tribal blindness will disappear,
the age-old walls of separation will crumble into dust at your touch.
Be warned, therefore, you who take your stand against LIFE and the human family.
This is not a trifling matter … LIFE will not allow it. Obey LIFE!
Serve LIFE or you will shrivel and die.
Embrace LIFE and you will flourish.
Background. This begins a series of five “laments.” This one was attributed to David. It appears to have been originally designed as a prayer uttered by the king, which later became “democratized” for use by any client of the priests in a similar situation. The theme is trust. Yahweh’s help can be relied on; it sustains the king’s dignity and self-confidence. He can afford to sleep, i.e., he can relax his vigilance, because he knows Yahweh will protect him even in battle surrounded by tens of thousands of enemies. Yahweh responds to the king’s call by actively engaging in combat, not only on his behalf but, because he is the king, for the sake of his people.
Reflection. The issue for us is also combat. But from our perspective in history the combat we face is for the transformation of humankind into a global family energized and committed to LIFE. This is true both for the individuals who use this prayer, as well as the community of LIFE’s global offspring to which the individuals belong and whose wellbeing they serve.
Those on the path to personal transformation are beset by “foes,” the great multitude of selfish urges, negative thoughts, cultural beliefs and cynical acquaintances that undermine our determination to become empowered, thoroughly compassionate, generous, just and loving human beings. We must contend with the fury of our emotional demons which, in defense of a false “self,” focus not only on our delusions of grandeur as well as defects, failures and impotence, but also on what appears to be the indifference of LIFE itself. You can’t trust LIFE to help you, they say, it just doesn’t care.
But we are in touch with our own LIFE at the interior depths where LIFE and our own life mesh and are one and the same thing, and we feel the undeniable presence of our own potential — the insuperable moral power that derives from that co-existence. It’s a voice we hear quite clearly. It is real. We are not alone in this combat. We are energized by LIFE itself and we know other people are as well. It changes our state of mind completely. We can stop worrying. LIFE is present; it is in command and can be trusted. We will win this struggle.
But the coherence of the global community of justice is also under assault from a multitude of “enemies:” naysayers and predators dedicated to exploiting every opportunity for their own advantage and to advance the narrow interests of their tribe with its claims to preeminence. LIFE’s power in the hands of its champion, the “king,” the servant of LIFE, redounds to the welfare of LIFE’s global community.
1 O LORD, how many are my foes! Many are rising against me;
2 many are saying to me, “There is no help for you in God.”
3 But you, O LORD, are a shield around me, my glory, and the one who lifts up my head.
4 I cry aloud to the LORD, and he answers me from his holy hill.
5 I lie down and sleep; I wake again, for the LORD sustains me.
6 I am not afraid of ten thousands of people who have set themselves against me all around
7 Rise up, O LORD! Deliver me, O my God! For you strike all my enemies on the cheek; you break the teeth of the wicked.
8 Deliverance belongs to the LORD; may your blessing be on your people!
O my LIFE, my head is filled with negative thoughts. They tell me personal transformation for the service of others is a meaningless pursuit. LIFE doesn’t care.
But I don’t believe that! You are my source, LIFE, the ground of my identity, my dignity and my strength.
I called out to my LIFE, and it answered from the place deep within me where it lives. I heard it clearly. LIFE itself is there. I can stop worrying. I am in good hands. I am safe.
The ten thousand voices that tell me I’m just wasting my time are delusion.
Help me, LIFE, feel the strength in your arm. Drive those fears away once and for all.
I had a victory today, but I know it was really you, LIFE, that won it; may the strength we wield together serve your people.
Background. An individual lament and a psalm of trust, similar to the previous psalm without the royal allusions. The context here seems to have been a forensic situation of some kind and the petitioner unjustly accused, perhaps of idolatry. “God of my right” means God knows of the rightness of his claims, and has seen him through similar accusations before (“gave him room”). His accusers are liars and are dragging his reputation through the dirt. But Yahweh protects those who keep his covenant therefore he knows that he will be vindicated.
The rest of the psalm seems to address others who may be in similar circumstances, are worried and may be tempted to turn to idols for help. But they should wait it out; don’t turn to idols, trust in Yahweh and offer sacrifices to him alone. They lack confidence; they want to see some sign of Yahweh’s support. The psalmist offers himself as a sign. He enjoys a peace of mind that’s like the feeling you have after a good harvest when your granaries are full and your wine barrels are overflowing. He can take off his armor and sleep peacefully for he knows Yahweh will keep him safe.
Reflection. From our perspective our “enemies” are essentially of our own making, either from our individual demons or from other human beings who disrespect and exploit the community. In either case calling on LIFE means calling on the energy that lays coiled at the confluence of LIFE and human life both for myself and for others. It is a sacred energy driven by justice and full of natural confidence in oneself and trust in the just instincts of others. This is the energy that the “enemies” would undermine. Their defeat, at either the individual or community level, coincides with a release of energy — a clarity of mind and a sense of confidence — that had been so suppressed earlier that its emergence almost seems like the work of some outside source. The resulting elation is something to sing about.
It is LIFE itself that is the source of this sacred power, our own LIFE, not the pseudo energizers like drugs, alcohol and other gross distractions, or the more refined substitutes that seem to enhance the ego and provide a limited and short-term peace of mind: adulation, exoneration, consolation, justification, explanation … yes even meditation. We can use virtually anything to take the place of activating our own potential for more LIFE. And the reason is that the true activation of LIFE, every time it occurs, reduces the hegemony of the false ego, replacing it little by little with another “self” identified with the totality, with LIFE; it is the false self-protective and self-worshipping ego that thinks it is the authentic definer and authorized protector of the organism’s destiny and place among men. The power of LIFE reshapes the conatus into a new “self.”
|1 Answer me when I call, O God of my right! You gave me room when I was in distress. Be gracious to me, and hear my prayer.
2 How long, you people, shall my honor suffer shame? How long will you love vain words, and seek after lies?
3 But know that the LORD has set apart the faithful for himself; the LORD hears when I call to him.
4 When you are disturbed, do not sin; ponder it on your beds, and be silent.
5 Offer right sacrifices, and put your trust in the LORD.
6 There are many who say, “O that we might see some good! Let the light of your face shine on us, O LORD!”
7 You have put gladness in my heart more than when their grain and wine abound.
8 I will both lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone, O LORD, make me lie down in safety.
|My LIFE, you know WE are falsely accused, we’ve been through this before. Help me again.
Respect yourself even if others don’t. (“lies.” substitutes for the energy of LIFE.)
Our reality comes from LIFE. We belong to LIFE. Therefore we can trust LIFE to provide the energy we need to protect ourselves.
If negative thoughts persist, wait them out patiently. They are delusions and will pass.
Trust LIFE. Don’t look for substitutes.
We want LIFE to perform a miracle. But it doesn’t work that way. LIFE is our LIFE. The miracle is our activation of our potential.
Once that sinks in, I feel a confidence and peace of mind like no other.
I feel safe because I know I can trust my LIFE.
Background. Another lament and call for help. This time it seems to be the cry of someone who ministers in the Temple and whom others are trying to get rid of. He is asking Yahweh for help against his enemies so he can gain access to the Temple and worship Yahweh in awe. But it may also be a symbolic reference; true worship at the temple brings to mind the struggles of Samson. Yahweh’s help can be trusted by those who are in the thick of lifelong combat.
Reflection. If Roland Murphy’s background assessment of this psalm is accurate, the literal meaning limits its direct usefulness for us. Taking it metaphorically means we confine our understanding to generic terms — terms that are characterististic of all the psalms of lament and trust. Those whose lives are a constant struggle with the enemies of LIFE, whoever they are and whatever the battle they are waging, will find respite in realizing that they will win because the LIFE that is active in the struggle is theirs, and cannot be destroyed. The point is to make it one’s own.
This psalm quietly introduces an argument that is expressed more loudly in other psalms: that Yahweh needs and wants worship and praise. The hint that the psalmist wants access to the temple (in fact have his career restored) so that he can praise Yahweh, is apparently supposed to convince Yahweh that it’s in his (Yahweh’s), best interest to help him out. Other psalms that pray for healing sickness boldly remind Yahweh that if he lets the psalmist die, there will be one less human out there to praise him “because the dead do not offer sacrifice.”
Applying our customary understanding that LIFE is a shared possession between the source energy and the energized living organism suggests that this argument is meaningless. No such dynamic can exist because LIFE is not outside and other than us. We are not dealing with “an other person” who does things for us. What LIFE does is activate our own creative potential: the power to produce more LIFE.
But what generates the spontaneous instinct to be enraptured in awe and struck dumbfounded with gratitude is not miracles but precisely the existential confluence of LIFE with my life. I am alive with LIFE’s own living energy. I can palpably feel a divine potential bubble up instant by instant as my intelligent life emerges and is sustained uninterruptedly through the “nows” of flowing time by an energy source that resides within me, is me, but at the same time is also everything else. I know very clearly that I am not the source of the life I am living, because I cannot prevent it from disappearing nor give it back to myself once it is gone. Somehow, then, this LIFE that is me, is also not me, preceded me, is beyond me, shaped and sustains me, and will continue to energize other things and other people long after I’m dead and gone. The awe, praise and gratitude are not directed to an outside source of miracles, but rather to the interior source of the only miracle there is: that I am alive with LIFE and carry LIFE’s creative power around with me like the hammer of Thor.
|1 Give ear to my words, O LORD; give heed to my sighing.
2 Listen to the sound of my cry, my King and my God, for to you I pray.
3 O LORD, in the morning you hear my voice; in the morning I plead my case to you, and watch.
4 For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil will not sojourn with you.
5 The boastful will not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers.
6 You destroy those who speak lies; the LORD abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful.
7 But I, through the abundance of your steadfast love, will enter your house,
I will bow down toward your holy temple in awe of you.
8 Lead me, O LORD, in your righteousness because of my enemies; make your way straight before me.
9 For there is no truth in their mouths; their hearts are destruction; their throats are open graves; they flatter with their tongues.
10 Make them bear their guilt, O God; let them fall by their own counsels; because of their many transgressions cast them out, for they have rebelled against you.
11 But let all who take refuge in you rejoice; let them ever sing for joy. Spread your protection over them, so that those who love your name may exult in you.
12 For you bless the righteous, O LORD; you cover them with favor as with a shield.
The psalmist presents his case to LIFE at the time of prayer — the morning — and waits quietly.
Somehow “wickedness” equates to boastfulness as well as lying and murder. These are all actions that disregard LIFE and are destructive of the human family.
The psalmist is overwhelmed with LIFE’s steadfast love, sustaining us as human beings. He is drawn to LIFE’s place of residence, in the deep interior of the human organism and its community, to sit awestruck in LIFE’s presence on display in humankind.
But in order to get there, he needs to overcome his enemies who are trying to stop him. They are the demons of the false self who lie and seduce and keep him from his intended purpose.
LIFE itself will unmask them as lies, delusions. They reject LIFE.
But those who embrace LIFE are embraced by LIFE and are safe under its protection. Realizing LIFE is securely ours, we know we will be OK.
We can rest and bask in the presence and secure possession of LIFE.
 Brown et al eds., The Jerome Biblical Commentary, Prentice Hall, NJ, 1968, p. 526a (OT)
 St. Augustine: Exposition on the Book of Psalms (Kindle Location 280). Kindle Edition.