Praise the Lord…
Hello, friends, and welcome to this second episode of our Lenten study of the Psalms. We’ve entered into our first full week of Lent here and there’s still plenty of fasting and penance on the horizon. So hopefully you’re getting settled in your Lenten practices and are ready to dive back into the word. This week, we once again have a great psalm: Psalm 33.
… In community!
Last week, our psalm (Ps 51) was centered around the psalmist’s prayer for forgiveness and a new heart. Psalm 33 takes up a somewhat different theme: praising the Lord (in community). This comes across clearly by looking at the first three and final three verses which serve as bookends to the whole poem. The psalm begins: “Shout for joy in the LORD, O you righteous! Praise befits the upright.” And it continues with instructions to the community to “give thanks,” “make melody,” and to “sing a new song.” In a similar way, it ends with the community expressing its hope in the Lord.
This communal focus is a little different from our psalm last week. Psalm 51 is spoken from the first person singular (“Have mercy on me, O God”) whereas Psalm 33 is placed on the lips of the whole community (especially the last verses). Yet we did see last week that Ps 51 is not concerned merely with the individual. The psalmist prays not only for himself but for all of Jerusalem, and he longs to rejoin the worshiping community. In the Church’s liturgy, Psalm 33 serves as something of a sequel to Psalm 51. We prayed for mercy to be able to praise God with the community; now, we’re doing exactly that.
It’s important to linger on this a little more. Oftentimes, we can fall into the trap of thinking the Christian life is simply about me and God. The community can be a nice add-on (or, more accurately at times, an annoying and demanding burden). But these psalms – together with the rest of scripture – remind us that the Christian life is really all about the community. Yes, we are to have a personal relationship with God, but this relationship is only possible with and through the community, and the fruit of our personal relationship with God is to spill over for the benefit of the whole community. We’ll come back to this line of thought shortly when we reflect on another theme in our psalm: the calling of God’s people.
Psalm 33 as a sequel to Psalm 51
Let’s begin at the top. First thing you might notice is that this psalm does not have a superscript like our psalm last week. This could be because it’s supposed to be read as the continuation of Psalm 32. Much like Psalm 51, Psalm 32 is a prayer for forgiveness which then leads up to and ends with praising God: “Shout for joy, all you upright in heart!” Psalm 33 doesn’t miss a beat and begins with almost the same command: “Shout for joy in the Lord, O you righteous!” So this is the context in which this psalm is best read: praising God for his merciful love which washes away our sins. In your own life, you can take up these psalms when you go to confession. You can pray Ps 32 or 51 as you prepare, and as a prayer of thanksgiving afterwards you can offer up Psalm 33.
Okay, so our psalm begins with a call to praise. Who should praise? According to the first verse, the righteous and upright. Righteousness in scripture denotes being in right relationship with God. And, of course, being in right relationship with God both requires and allows for being in right relationship with our neighbor. You can take a look at Psalms 15 and 24 as clear examples of this.
Here’s the really important point, especially if you’re thinking righteousness and uprightness don’t quite describe you. How can one be righteous and upright? Not by his or her own efforts. This is clear not only in scripture but in our own lives. We try and do good and avoid evil but more often than we like we end up doing the evil and avoiding the good. So how can one be righteous and upright? By depending whole-heartedly on God’s merciful hesed. It is only by God’s grace that we can be washed of our sins and strengthened to live rightly. So by beginning with a call to the righteous and upright, our psalm is not narrowing its audience to the morally perfect, the holier-than-thous. No, our psalm is inviting all of us to simply turn to God in repentance as in Ps 32 or Ps 51 and embrace his merciful hesed. And doing this will lead us to praise.
Okay, so that covers the who, but the psalm then tells us how we should praise God. First, we praise as a community. The imperatives here are in the plural: Give thanks to the Lord with the lyre, y’all! This leads into the second of the hows which is to do so with joy, singing, and music. As midwest Americans we are, generally speaking, not a let’s-get-together-and-sing kind of people. We might sing “happy birthday” or do karaoke, but we don’t usually sing at family or other gatherings as is more customary in other cultures. Speaking personally, I would prefer the Church to do away with all singing in Mass. But my attitude is clearly out of sync with the directive here (and, if I’m being honest, the continual directive throughout scripture and the church’s history). Singing is a beautiful and essential form of worship.
What are we to sing? “A new song.” Now, here the psalmist is not just bemoaning the dated songs of his day nor can this be used as support for us ditching all the worship songs from the ‘70s. When he says, “a new song,” he’s referring to a song of thanksgiving for the forgiveness granted in Ps 32 and Ps 51.
Alright, so that’s the first stanza: a call for the upright to praise God’s merciful hesed together as a community. We got the who and the how of praise. Through the rest of the poem, we get the why. We’re given three whys in the next three stanzas: the trustworthiness of God’s creation, the trustworthiness of God’s plans, and the trustworthiness of God’s providence. These three, of course, are closely related and overlap with each other.
Why #1: God’s creation
So turning now to the second stanza (vv. 4-7), here the psalmist praises God for his work of creation. The word of the Lord by which the heavens were made (v. 6) “is upright and all his works are trustworthy” (v. 4). This, incidentally, is the only psalm which speaks of God creating by his word much like what we see in John 1: “In the beginning was the word… All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made” (1:1, 3). And so it’s only natural that the Church uses this psalm to celebrate the feast of the Holy Trinity. We also see a beautiful connection here with the Gospel for this Sunday. Jesus is transfigured before his disciples on top of the mountain and the Trinity is manifested through the signs of the voice (the Father) and the cloud (the Spirit).
God, through his word, creates and his creation is trustworthy because it is permeated with God’s steadfast love: “of the kindness of the Lord the earth is full.” God even “gathers the waters of the sea” and “puts the deeps in storehouses” (v. 7). This is cool because the sea and the deep are images used throughout scripture for the destructive and chaotic forces of creation. The psalmist is declaring that there is absolutely nothing that lies outside of God’s powerful hand, not even death and the various threats to humanity.
Why #2: God’s plans
Since God is faithful in creation, even exercising control over death, it only makes sense that we should conform ourselves to his plans. This is the theme of the next stanza (vv. 8-11). Notice something interesting here in v. 10: The counsel and plans of the nations are spoken of in a similar way to the forces of destruction and chaos above in v. 7. It’s unfortunately all too true that people and political bodies resort to dishonesty, violence, and other dehumanizing behaviors in trying to get what they want. But this is the good news: just as God “gathers the waters” and “puts the deeps in storehouses,” so too does he “bring the counsel of the nations to nothing” and “frustrate the plans of the peoples” (v. 10). Even the worst of what man is capable of is not the final word, nor is it ever given the upper hand. Instead, it is God’s plans which “stand forever” (v. 11), his plans of steadfast love.
Why #3: God’s providence
Building off of this theme, the next stanza (vv. 12-15) unpacks the third why for praising God: the trustworthiness of God’s providence. It begins by pointing out how awesome it is for Israel to have been chosen by God to be the people of “his heritage” (v. 12). The emphasis here is on the fact that God chose them. And what did he choose them for? To be his heritage, i.e. to have a part in the Lord, to belong to him and receive good things from him.
This same theme of God choosing a people is on full display in our first reading from Genesis 12. God calls Abram (aka Abraham) from his hometown and he promises him: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” This is super important. Here God calls his people Israel (the future descendants of Abram) and sets them apart. This is what our psalm is talking about. But why does God do this? So that God can bless all the nations through Abram’s family! Remember when this takes place. So far in Genesis, we’ve heard about Adam and Eve falling and being expelled from the garden; people killing each other and becoming so bad that God floods the place; Noah being chosen but then failing. Through it all, it looks like humanity is simply doomed. What is God going to do? God’s answer to all of this, to all that’s wrong with man’s heart, is to call a people to himself. God will then dwell with this people and bring his blessings to all the nations through this people. Ultimately, this will take place through Abram’s descendant Jesus. This is precisely what our second reading from the Second Letter to Timothy is talking about. God’s plan from the beginning was to call a people to himself in Christ Jesus so that the grace of Christ who “destroyed death and brought life and immortality” might be brought to all peoples. The Church is the people of God, called and separated from the world. But the Church exists precisely to bring God’s blessings to all those suffering from sin and death.
And the Lord sees all of this suffering and death. This is emphasized in vv. 13-15 where it says that God “looks down from heaven,” “sees all,” “looks out on all,” and “observes all.” The fourfold repetition here denotes completeness. The idea is that God is in complete control. And in praying this psalm, we are making a rather profound profession of faith. You see, in other psalms such as Ps 94:7, the wicked say that God doesn’t see, that he’s not in control. In praying vv. 13-15 here, we are professing the opposite, we are professing our faith in God’s providence, and we are doing so with gusto!
Trusting God is hard
But allowing this faith to shape our lives is rather difficult. Our psalm continues to list various things that people tend to put trust in (e.g. a great army, horses, etc.). These ultimately boil down to putting trust in one’s own strength and resources. Our trust falters when we start looking at our problems as humans do, as problems to be solved by us according to our plans, strength, and resources. Instead, God calls us, in vv. 18-19, to look at our problems from God’s perspective and put our trust in his plans, his strength, and his resources.
This carries over into our Gospel this Sunday. The transfiguration took place shortly before Jesus’ passion and his disciples have failed to grasp Jesus’ words about his coming passion and resurrection. They continue to look at everything from a human perspective. They don’t want Jesus to suffer, let alone die. They want Jesus seated in glory between Moses and Elijah, with themselves seated comfortably nearby. And so, what is the Father’s word to them? “This is my beloved Son… listen to him.” He calls the disciples to set aside their own faulty understanding and instead embrace Christ’s way in trust, even though this way will lead to the cross. But it is through this way that we, counterintuitively, preserve our lives. Or as our psalm says, “The eye of the Lord is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his steadfast love, that he may deliver their soul from death” (vv. 18-19).
Hope in God
Our psalm then closes, as it began, with the community together praising God, offering a prayer of hope in God’s faithfulness. Our psalmist understands that hoping in God’s steadfast love is quite difficult at times. We have to reaffirm and consciously cultivate that hope. And we do this together, as we pray the response: “Lord, let your mercy be on us, as we place our trust in you.”