In the book of Psalms, the entries in the 90s are grand, profound, and glorious. Is this because the reader who enters into them gets grand and glorious feelings, or because the aesthetic quality of their poesy is high, or because they refer to realities that are objectively awesome? (And I realize that “objectively awesome” strikes us a paradoxical phrase, because these days we habitually name “awe” as the response of an observer, not as a quality in the reality observed.)
I want to say all three.
One way of looking at this is: a story runs through them. There are characters. There is a plot that begins in the past, continues in the present, and resolves in the future. And some of the characters are tagged as “we” and “you”: i.e., the story wants to draw you and me in. It wants us to interpret our own lives as a part of this story. It wants us to say, “This is my story.” The story doesn’t want to be accepted passively by us, with flat affect. It wants us to say, “This is my song.” It wants us to sing for joy.
I have just been reading Psalms 95, 96, and 97, because these three came up in my reading schedule. One reason for reading psalms first thing in the morning after waking is that it does something to you. From the warmth of the blankets and the blessed oblivion of sleep, one begins to reenter the world, and the first thing that hits you is: “O come, let us sing to the LORD; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!”
This does something to you. Either it pisses you off (“whuuut? who is this poking me and telling me to join in with some noisemaking? leamme alone!”)—or it sparks joy, it revises your nascent outlook on the day, expanding it from “My feet are cold, better get some socks” to “Ah, right! This is what I am part of, and this is wonderful!”
This selection—Psalms 95 through 97 read as a chunk—begins and ends with joy. If we forget everything else and observe the reality constructed by these three poems alone (always a good exercise when reading a biblical text), then we see that the universe includes and involves us, and it makes us glad.
At the same time we see that we are not alone. Another personage is there. And this personage is the other pole of our gladness. We are not glad in a vacuum. Our joy has a directionality to it. Our singing is “to the LORD” (95:1). Our rejoicing is “in the LORD” and our thanksgiving is “to his holy name.”
Who is this other, this “the LORD”? Reading these three psalms, we are struck by two prominent images: the Lord is creator and owner of everything, and the Lord is our monarch. This too transforms our waking-up consciousness. Do we become aware of geographical, cosmic, and meteorological features of the sphere of our consciousness? They are not naked and meaningless, nor are they hostile and threatening: they belong to someone, and the someone to whom they belong is the same someone that we belong to, to whom we owe fealty.
The Lord’s creating of everything initiates the past of the story in Psalms 95–97, and that story continue with a history, which is to say with a story that involves people. This story that addresses us, which wishes to have an effect on our “hearts” (95:8), is a story in which we have forebears (95:9).
So as I awaken into the word this morning I am not an isolated “I” but part of a “we” that the psalmist encompasses within a plural “we” and also a plural “you.” This is a plurality extended into the now, but also extended into the past. And here is a problem in the plot: the plural “we” of the past rebelled and became hardened and experienced the rejection of the creator and monarch of all. The psalm urges me: “Don’t do that! Don’t rebel! You will not arrive at ‘rest’ by that route!” So this is one of those stories where there are alternative endings and I have to choose one.
Well, if that’s the way it is, then it’s good to be reminded when I awaken.
With Psalm 96 the camera pulls back and the horizons expand. It is not only I and my people who are being urged to “sing to the LORD” but “all the earth.” Peoples—plural. Peoples that have other gods. So there are other gods out there—other claimants to my allegiance. But they are no good. They are duds.
It would be possible to read this sort of thing as initiating an us versus them, and setting up an us that is better than them, as claiming credit for having a better god than their gods. But that’s not how this text feels. It is not bragging and bashing. It is inviting and uniting. It wants “them” to be part of “us.” And it knows that the way to unite “them” and “us” is to make us aware of, and joyful in, the presence of a higher other—the other who created and owns everything and who will (final twist) come to “judge” all the peoples. Which we should read, I think—this “will judge the world in righteousness” and “in his faithfulness”—not as a thumbs up or thumbs down verdict but in the sense of “judge” in the book of Judges: a kind of ruling that rescues, that brings order out of anarchy and establishes goodness and rightness as principles by which our life together is arranged.
Psalm 97 turns our attention once again to “the LORD” who reigns. The description in verses 2 through 5 is a bit Marvel Cinematic Universe, don’t you think? But there’s a good reason for that. The Nordic and Greek gods from whom the heroes of the MCU are derived are the classic sky and mountain deities and chthonic deities that appear in so many ancient religions, and they appear there because they are universals in the human imaginary, and they are universals in the human imaginary because even without the scriptures that reveal the Name transmitted from the Bush we—our ancestors—somehow intuit, or read from the book of nature, that this other is there.
When Psalm 97 once again promotes “the LORD” over the gods that are “worthless idols” it does so not to exclude other peoples but to include them. After Psalm 96, the Judah and Zion of Psalm 97 are inclusive of “all the peoples.” They also are destined for inclusion among “the righteous who will rejoice in the Lord and give thanks to his holy name, who will not wander and strive in darkness but rejoice in the light that is sown for the righteous, the joy that is the portion of the upright in heart.
Now, that’s a story worth waking up to. A song worth singing. A story that will shape my day—no, our day—in a good way.