Reading Psalm 102 on Inauguration Day

Today is Inauguration Day in the USA. Many of us are so glad to see it that we risk falling into enthusiasm. I know that enthusiasm is generally considered a good thing, but a dour Reformed person like myself tends to think of it as a form of possession, if not by demons then at least by one of their cousins, a wandering subdeity spreading irrational exuberance by misrepresenting errant temporal doings as inbreakings of the eternal. Others, caught in different delusions, are not glad to see this Inauguration Day but despairing, with forms of despair ranging from bewilderment to rage.

Today is Inauguration Day in the USA, which means that something is ending and something is beginning. But what is ending, and what is beginning?

If those who are elated today are so because they think something demonic is abating, has been knocked down a notch or two, driven howling out of the house and back a few yards or feet into the dark woods, I agree. Those who are despairing mistook a virulent strain of an old illness for healing. They mistook something mortal and grossly fallible for a divine institution. Their fall into delusion put all of us in great danger, and we hope, for the good of all, that they are given grace to climb back out.

But we must not fall into a delusion of our own. By this I mean that if any who are rejoicing today believe—and honestly, I think very few, if any do, and I do not hear anyone high or low claiming that they should, which is a good difference—that what is beginning today in Washington is an eternal kingdom of love and light, they are also dangerously deluded.

This morning as I read through Psalm 102, I was again reading not in a holy vacuum but in light of the current events that press in so insistently on my consciousness when I awake.

The first eleven of this psalm’s twenty-eight verses:

Hear my prayer, O LORD;
let my cry come to you!
Do not hide your face from me
in the day of my distress!
Incline your ear to me;
answer me speedily in the day when I call!
For my days pass away like smoke,
and my bones burn like a furnace.
My heart is struck down like grass and has withered;
I forget to eat my bread.
Because of my loud groaning
my bones cling to my flesh.
I am like a desert owl of the wilderness,
like an owl of the waste places;
I lie awake;
I am like a lonely sparrow on the housetop.
All the day my enemies taunt me;
those who deride me use my name for a curse.
For I eat ashes like bread
and mingle tears with my drink,
because of your indignation and anger;
for you have taken me up and thrown me down.
My days are like an evening shadow;
I wither away like grass.

As I read, I thought: these might be good words for our outgoing president today. I wonder how close he might be to praying something like this? I won’t speculate. Not today. Or they might be good words for some of the Bible-soaked folk who nevertheless became Trump’s enthusiastic supporters. For some of them today may be a day of distress, of grief, of loneliness, of bearing taunts and derision, imagined or actual. Some of them who believed that God had lifted Trump up and enthroned him may wonder why God has now thrown him down. Right? That would be one possible way for them to feel today.

But then as I continued reading the psalm, it occurred to me that these same words would be equally appropriate for our incoming president and his followers. He and they are also mortal, fallible, capable always of seeing feasting turned in a moment into fasting and groaning, subject to loneliness, taunting, and tears, living all their days, as Psalm 90 also affirms, “passing away under Thy wrath.” Has not Joe Biden known many tears over the course of his life? And do we not think he will shed more through the coming months? And do we not—many of us who are glad on this Inauguration Day—also feel that we are living these days under an evening shadow, a shadow that may let in some rays of sunlight over coming days but will not wholly lift?

The psalm continues:

But you, O LORD, are enthroned forever;
you are remembered throughout all generations.
You will arise and have pity on Zion;
it is the time to favor her;
the appointed time has come.
For your servants hold her stones dear
and have pity on her dust.
Nations will fear the name of the LORD,
and all the kings of the earth will fear your glory.
For the LORD builds up Zion;
he appears in his glory;
he regards the prayer of the destitute
and does not despise their prayer.
Let this be recorded for a generation to come,
so that a people yet to be created may praise the LORD:
that he looked down from his holy height;
from heaven the LORD looked at the earth,
to hear the groans of the prisoners,
to set free those who were doomed to die,
that they may declare in Zion the name of the LORD,
and in Jerusalem his praise,
when peoples gather together,
and kingdoms, to worship the LORD.

He has broken my strength in midcourse;
he has shortened my days.
“O my God,” I say, “take me not away
in the midst of my days—
you whose years endure
throughout all generations!”

Of old you laid the foundation of the earth,
and the heavens are the work of your hands.
They will perish, but you will remain;
they will all wear out like a garment.
You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away,
but you are the same, and your years have no end.
The children of your servants shall dwell secure;
their offspring shall be established before you.

Ah, Zion. The terrestrial mountain that is and is not the dwelling place of the Eternal, the city that is unlike other cities because within its walls the Everlasting One deigns to be present and be praised. All of us—Trumpists and anti-Trumpists, members of either party and no party—I hope that all of us can agree today that Washington DC never has been and never will be that! And I hope that I am faithful to not only Christian theology but also at least some varieties of Hebrew theology when I say that Jerusalem in Judea has only ever been that in a partial and symbolic way,

The nations that will fear the name of the Lord will not do so because of the military or economic might of the USA, or of the State of Israel. The Lord who will have pity on Zion, and build it up, and call all nations thereto, does not peep out at the world from within the ramparts of any earthly city but looks down upon it, and hears its cries, from a holy height. Those who call out to that Lord in truth know that the earth—including both Jerusalem in Judea and Washington DC and the entirety of the USA—will, along with and probably sooner than the heavens, wear out like a garment and pass away, and are in this moment, on this day, if we have eyes to see, already perishing.

It is nevertheless on this Inauguration Day right and good to celebrate and be glad, provided that our gladness consists not in taunting and deriding of one or many who have been cast down who have been cast down (I have said elsewhere that there is a time and place for some of that—but not today, for me), and not in indulging any illusion that on this day a divinely appointed king is being enthroned on the Potomac, but in thanksgiving that we have been given another morning and evening to repent, and start over, to love mercy, to do justice, to walk humbly.

Today is Inauguration Day in the USA. We are given another opportunity to love our neighbor as ourselves, which must in the final analysis from a godly, biblical perspective be the sole aim and justification—and a morally and spiritually compelling reason, amounting, arguably, to a commandment—for participating in politics.

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