Reading Psalm 75

Psalm 75

“Jacob Sheep”

The psalms are poetry. One characteristic of poetry is that the reader isn’t told everything; instead many things are left to our imagination and intuition. Poetry does  not try to convince us about something by reasonable argument. Instead it tries to change the way we look at how things are by appealing to our imagination and intuition.

Take Psalm 75. The speaker switches from the 1st person plural (“We give thanks…”) to the 1st person singular (“I will judge…”), without telling us who is speaking. So we are left to supply who that might be. Obviously, in verse 2, the person speaking is God; God was addressed by the speakers in the first verse. But the poem switches characters without transition, like a scene on a stage or in film. So we have to imagine the camera cutting from one scene to another. Maybe the first line was spoken (or sung) by people in worship in the temple, the “song of praise” of an ancient liturgy. In the 2nd to 4th verses, where God speaks, we might imagine a priest talking, perhaps quoting from a book, similar to the reading of scripture (“The word of the Lord”) in our worship. The sixth to eighth verses are in a different voice again, the 3rd person, used to describe what God does. This section could be called a teaching, or a sermon. Perhaps we imagine a priest or scribe explaining what was read in temple worship. In verse 9 there is a return to praise, this time in the first person singular and directed to the future: “I will sing praises…”; like a “sending song” at the end of the service. The final verse  gives a summary of the psalm’s teaching, in the first person singular. Maybe we imagine the priest or a prophet speaking these words like an oracle from God at the end of the service: “All the horns of the wicked I will cut off, but the horns of the righteous shall be exalted.” It is a final affirmation that God is and will be in control.

Psalms require us to use our intuition and imagination together with our investigation of the text. One place to start is to ask where and when this song was first sung or performed, who was singing or chanting it and what was the intended result. Why was it preserved in the form that it now has in our Bible. Another question is what symbols or metaphors are being used and what do they mean? For example the word horn: What does it suggest? How is it used? What is meant by “lifting up” or “cutting off” a horn?

In a culture where sheep and goat herding were very prevalent, the horn was an image that spoke to everybody. Every child knew horns grow on mature animals, the bigger ones on the male. They are used in defense and to determine position within the herd. Rams are known to ram and sometimes lock their horns with each other in a fight for control. Transferred to human society, horns were an appropriate symbol for power. Power can be military, economic or religious, or some combination of all three. It can be national, or trans-national (empire), it can be personal (“charismatic”) and it can be intra-personal (e.g. patriarchal). In all these instances, power can be used wisely and foolishly, respectfully and arrogantly.

Obviously our psalm is critiquing power, warning the arrogant and reminding all rulers of God’s power. God is portrayed as just and all-powerful. God will “judge with equity”, God keeps the earth from falling of its foundations (literally “pillars”, poetic language), God puts down the arrogant, or the wicked, who claim power from sources other than God, and God will ensure that the righteous will eventually (“at the set time” v. 2) triumph.

We might ask: Where, in whom, or in what is power located in our time and place? In a non-herding, democratic, technological, globalized culture, what other images might we think of to describe power in its various forms? What are the temptations of power today; where  is there arrogance? Where does the psalm’s critique apply to myself? How might it apply to others? How could this psalm be translated into a modern poem and used in worship, in song?

I’ll end this post with the text to a song by G.K. Chesterton that is not a direct paraphrase of psalm 75 but shares in poetic form some of the same sentiments.

O God of earth and altar,
bow down and hear our cry,
our earthly rulers falter,
our people drift and die;
the walls of gold entomb us,
the swords of scorn divide,
take not thy thunder from us,
but take away our pride.

From all that terror teaches,
from lies of tongue and pen,
from all the easy speeches
that comfort cruel men,
from sale and profanation
of honor, and the sword,
from sleep and from damnation,
deliver us, good Lord!

Tie in a living tether
the prince and priest and thrall,
bind all our lives together,
smite us and save us all;
in ire and exultation
aflame with faith, and free,
lift up a living nation,
a single sword to thee.

Words: Gilbert Keith Chesterton, 1906