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Psalm 81:1, 10-16

Trusting the Wild, Living God

The Psalms usually make me uneasy. Sometimes, like with verse 1 of this psalm, I have a hard time relating to the seeming ease with which the psalmist can sing God’s praise. The Psalms baffle me with their ability to return to confessing God’s goodness and faithfulness even in the midst of pain and suffering. Other times, the Psalms confront us with ugly realities, ones I honestly don’t like contemplating and can’t imagine as part of the liturgy. The larger portion of this lection leans in this direction.

This is a dangerous psalm in our present day. It is a psalm that could feed our desires for political power and moral policing. The Lord cries out to the people: if you’d just do what I desire, you would receive my blessings! At least in America, we are tempted to appropriate these words and spew them at “the culture.” But just as we are not the dispensers of God’s blessings, so we are not the arbiters of God’s will.

That is the unruly message of this psalm. God is the voice of justice and blessing — and try as we might this God doesn’t sit easy with our sensibilities and desires for power. The psalm makes several claims, two of which stand out: the people of God are to posture themselves in praise to God, and God will subdue (destroy?) their enemies if they do. It’s the second that is hard to swallow. Jesus says, after all, to love our enemies (Matt 5:44). And here God seems to be assuring their destruction — a promise that goes the opposite direction of fostering love.

What are we to make of this unruly message about this unruly God?

In our age of easy access information, this internet age, we have come to recognize anew that it matters who is speaking and to whom. We encounter an abundance of opinions on the internet, but most of them have little value because the speaker has no authority on the subject. The veracity of a statement is not the only thing that depends on the speaker and hearer — the meaning does too. When I say to my wife, “I love you,” it means something different than when I say the same words to my brothers (though there is overlap in content).

So in our psalm, who is this One who promises to destroy Israel’s enemies? And who is this people to whom God makes such scandalous promises? The context of the psalm, which is specified most clearly in the verses between 1 and 10, gives us a hint: this people is the nation raised out of Egypt and the promiser is the God who delivered them. One other image helps us see the relationship that obtains between this speaker and hearer. The Lord says to the people, “Open your mouth wide—I will fill it up!” (v 10, CEB). This is the image of a mother bird feeding her young. Imagine the Israelites in a nest, mouths opened and facing upward to receive God’s provision.

This image is key, in my opinion, to rightly understanding God’s speech. Israel is in a vulnerable position — and this by their own doing, their failure to rightly worship God! — in which they must trust God, the fledgling nation that they are. Imagine why God would need to beg the Israelites not to worship other gods (v 9). What would drive a people in the ancient near east to worship other deities? — Fear about the future. Most deities in the ancient near east were gods of war, of rain, of fertility, etc. They had a specific “expertise,” a domain of authority. If you were afraid about how your crop next year would turn out, you worshipped the god of fertility. (Who or what do we worship in our anxieties? An economic power? A politician?)

God is pleading with this newly liberated people, a people who were enslaved by Egypt and freed by their one true God, and asking something very simple of them: trust me. Don’t trust any other god, don’t try to mimic your neighbor nations, don’t buckle down for your own efforts. Trust the Lord your God.

Now, God is smart. God anticipates our fears. A nation on the brink of economic collapse, vulnerable to enemy attacks, uncertain about the intentions of neighbors and aliens, and anxious about their moral authority — what does God say to a nation drowning in such fears?

“Then I would subdue their enemies in a second;

I would feed you with the finest wheat.

I would satisfy you with honey from the rock” (vv 14a, 16).

This is not the picture of a violent, bloodthirsty God. But it is a picture of a wild God. A wild God who escapes our control, who is not bound to one “domain” of authority but is Lord of all creation. A God who has created a people and has demonstrably provided for them in the past. A God who, if we can trust, will subdue our threats more justly than we are capable of, with our myopic and etiolated imaginations. We don’t need an idol of war or political power or control. We need — and only truly need — to trust this wild, living God.

Which raises the question: how might God subdue our enemies? Perhaps it is precisely by forming a community that can live Jesus’ command: love your enemies. Perhaps if we can relinquish our self-centered, idolatrous grip on this small domain over which we think we have control and truly trust God — open wide our mouths — God might just form us into a people that can live without enemies. Jesus’ command to love our enemies is not the antithesis of this psalm but its fulfillment. God subdues our enemies, in part, by forming us into a people who love until we no longer see any enemies. And that is a hope for which we can only trust in the Lord of all creation.