Psalm 145

The kindness of God

Psalm 145 is the only psalm to be given the sub-title ‘Praise’.  It is an acrostic poem: in other words, each verse begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. On a practical level, this could be to make the poem easier to memorise. On a theological level, it gives an impression of completeness. Also, poetic disciplines like rhyme or rhythm, or strict forms like sonnets or haikus, have a kind of order that has a beauty of itself. There may be a theological point to make about acrostic poems in the bible: that great truth has great beauty. There is value in discipline and order for understanding God and relating to God. A carefree attitude in worship is all well and good, but carelessness is not, and sloppy, slapdash lyrics or liturgy can never express great truth.

Perhaps the acrostic discipline prevents Psalm 145 from developing much. Each verse expresses something different about God’s greatness, as if walking around a statue and describing it from different angles. Robert Alter challenges the way many English versions give a future sense to the language of verses 1-7, 10-11 and 21, and suggests that it would be better to translate these as (e.g. in v.1) “May I extol” or “Let me extol”. This would not affect the psalmist’s expression of desire or intention, but it makes it less assured, and it brings the whole psalm more strongly into the present tense and the present moment. Walter Brueggemann says of this present-moment mood of the psalm that what is true at the beginning is true at the end. God’s greatness, God’s provision, God’s faithfulness and so on are true now and always.

There is that sense of ongoing present continuity in the psalm. The praises of vv. 4-7 and 11-13 mix praise for God’s character with praise for God’s actions, but those actions are not specified until vv. 14-20. No historical acts are mentioned, but more general out-workings of God’s grace: “The LORD upholds all who are falling and raises up all who are bowed down.” (v.14). Similarly, in vv.15-16, God’s daily provision of food for all creatures is praised. This daily, ongoing care of God for God’s creation is no less wonderful than the majestic, unsearchable greatness of God in v.3, and perhaps forms a right basis for faith in God’s faithfulness: thankfulness for grace at the most mundane level is fundamental to a life of praise and foundational to a relationship of trust in God for everything else too.

For me, the heart of the psalm is verse 8, beautifully expressed in the Grail translation: “The Lord is kind and full of compassion, slow to anger, abounding in love.”  This echoes similar statements in the bible, e.g. Psalm 103.8 and Exodus 34.6. Verse 9 applies this compassion to all that God has made and so prevents it simply being an abstract philosophical idea. Further application is specified in v.14, as well as the provision of food in vv.15-16. The universality of this acrostic psalm is important to note. It is a poem about the whole of creation, every creature being subject to the steadfast, faithful, compassionate love of God. God is not only concerned with humanity but all that God has made (v.9).

Religion has a deadly tendency to picture a different kind of god: one who is basically angry, or at best disappointed. This god needs to be pacified with sacrifice and flattered with praise – basically manipulated so that I’ll be OK. But in most religious schemes, it’s likely that only a few will be OK. Perhaps it’s god who manipulates us, through a combination of threats of hell (or other punishments) and offers of rewards, as if we go through life with a loaded gun at our temple. This may be a caricature, but this kind of thinking seems to come easily to us and too much Christian thought has adopted something like it as the lens through which we read the bible. I think that the bible itself contains a dialogue (or maybe an argument) between this view of a dis-satisfied god who rewards and punishes, and on the other hand a God of grace who is kind and full of compassion. There is also an argument in the bible about whether God has favourites or cares equally for all creation. I have decided to read the bible through the lens of Psalm 145.8 and see what happens. I think this is more in tune with the revelation of grace I see in Jesus, and I want to follow him.

The LORD is kind and full of compassion. But this doesn’t imply softness on God’s part. A hard edge comes in to verses 14-20. God is especially concerned for those who are broken and bowed-down. God provides for every living thing (and it’s important to remember that in this psalm, all creatures are subjects of God’s faithfulness and compassion, not just humans). But it’s obvious that the world does not reflect that universal grace of God. So when verse 20 speaks of God destroying the wicked, we have not abandoned the idea of God being kind and full of compassion. It is precisely because God is full of compassion that God needs to act against those who persist in depriving others of their food or other basic needs, and against those who make other beings fall and who bow others down. In v.19, God hears the cries of these victims of greed and oppression and God saves them. How is God to save the oppressed without doing something about the oppressor? In v.17, we read:

The LORD is just in all his ways,

and kind in all his doings.

Hebrew poetry often uses a device known as parallelism, where two statements come at one idea in two parallel expressions. So in this verse, God’s justice is in parallel with God’s kindness, and how could it be otherwise when the world is broken and too many of God’s creatures, all of whom are the subjects of God’s compassion (v.9), suffer? I think of the two nails that held Jesus’ hands to the cross as symbolizing God’s justice on the one hand and God’s kindness on the other hand. They are two views of the same thing, and if seen in the hands of the crucified Christ, we can see how very seriously God takes being kind and full of compassion toward all that God has made. In order to save the oppressed, God needs to save the oppressors and in Jesus I have a way to be saved, changed, and made new in the great grace and compassion of God.

The psalm finishes with the psalmist’s wish to speak the praise of God, and for all flesh to bless God’s holy name for ever – in verse 21. I began by saying that this is an acrostic poem, each verse beginning with the successive 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. One letter is missing! It is the letter nun. There are two options. One is that suggested by Robert Alter, that the nun verse was accidentally omitted by scribes during the process leading up to the ninth-century CE Masoretic Text used by modern translators. Alter says that a text of the psalm from the Dead Sea Scrolls and a medieval Hebrew manuscript contain the missing verse: “Trustworthy is God in all his ways, and faithful in all his deeds”. This is nice and neat and could well be true. On the other hand, sometimes a poet deliberately disobeys the strict rules of the form, for example jarring the rhythm. It might be to make the reader sit up and take notice, or it might be to make the form emphasise the particular content at that point, or simply because rules can be broken. What if the nun verse in Psalm 145 is missing deliberately? If an acrostic is meant to symbolize completeness and it’s missing a letter’s verse, the reader had better add their own verse to complete the poem. The praises of creation, the praise given to the one, great God are incomplete without my praises and so I must take seriously the sentiments of vv.1, 2 and 21, and let my mouth speak the praise of God and my life express that God is kind and full of compassion for all creation. What would you add to make the psalm of praise complete?

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