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Psalm 36:5-10

In The Spirituality of the Psalms, Walter Brueggemann categorizes the Psalms by their liturgical use: Psalms of orientation, Psalms of disorientation, and Psalms of reorientation.[1] Psalm 36 is a Psalm of orientation, describing the wisdom of leaning into God’s well-ordered creation over against the folly of wickedness. “Life, as reflected in these psalms, is not troubled or threatened, but is seen as the well-ordered world intended by God.”[1]

The words of Psalm 36:5-10 feel like both a doxology and a commentary of the first creation account. I am always fascinated how the pattern of creation makes its way through the rest of the text. In Genesis 1, there is a pattern of separating (ay 1 – light from darkness; day 2 – seas from sky; day 3 – seas from land) as God orders the chaos. The beauty is in the chiastic pattern where God then fills what is separated (day 4 – the sun, moon and stars are hung in the dome to mark days; day 5 – the air is filled with birds and the seas with fish; day 6 – God fills the land with animals and human beings). All of this is good, and the creation of human beings in the image of God is very good. The Psalmist takes the opportunity in the context of worship to do what an image bearer does rightly: reflect on how the glory of God fills the created order.

Psalm 36:5-10, though brief, contains some of the weightiest, theologically rich words the Hebrew language offers. These include God’s steadfast love (hesed – repeated three times), righteousness (tsedaqah), and judgement (mishpat). Everything about this section of the Psalm is big. Big love, big righteousness, big judgements. The Psalmist names all observable dimensions of this creation – its height in the dome of the sky, its might with its mountains, its depth with in deep seas and the steadfast love of God fills that space. This Psalm – attributed to David – poetically describes the vastness of creation and how the most meaning-packed words fill that vacuum or expanse. But not only does the steadfast love of God fill that space, the steadfast love of God looks after the beings God filled into this space in the very beginning. God is compared to a bird of the air that keeps all of the humans and animals alike. The creation imagery is rich.

The congregation would do well just to sit with these words and revel in God’s steadfast love. The Epiphany season presents the invitation to be astonished or marvel at the way God’s love has been steadfast in the life of a believer. The preacher has incredible opportunity to name and evoke in the minds of the congregation how God’s steadfast love has sustained and kept them.

Alternatively, looking at the context of Psalm may assist the preacher. While the section in 36:5-10 everything is big, the first four verses feel so small. Transgression is “deep in their hearts.” The reader can sense how beady and small the eyes of the wicked are. They squint. When the evil doer speaks, the hearer must listen carefully because the Psalmist is somehow able to evoke whispers. The wicked scheme and whisper deceit in their beds. In a drastic shift, the hesed of God is made out to be enormous compared to the miniscule schemes of the evil doers. The folly compared the wisdom of trusting in the steadfast love of God is almost laughable.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, a 19th century romantic poet, penned these words that evoke the contrast of the futility of the wicked compared to the action of God in the created order:

Earth’s crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God, But only he who sees takes off his shoes; The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.

It is remarkable that two persons can look at the same thing and some completely different things. Browning’s brilliance is describing the grace that is all around us in creation. God’s grace abounds, is rich, and is common. The things of heaven are permeating the things of earth. But, the way of the wicked only is able to look inward and profane the holiness that is all around them.

The Epiphany reminds us to looks past ourselves. It beckons us to look to the vast beauty of God and the righteousness of God that is all around us. As the pastor presides over this Epiphany worship service, she would do well to remember in its planning that the congregation is undergoing an orientation into seeing the beauty of God in all of creation:

Such worship is indeed “world-making.” These psalms become a means whereby the creator is in fact creating the world. That perhaps is one meaning of the saying “God creates by Word.” That creative word is spoken in these psalms in the liturgical process, and it is in the world of’ worship that Israel “reexperiences” and “redescribes” the safe world over which God presides.[3]

The Psalm naturally leads to a response of sacrament. Psalm 36 is truly sacramental in that grace upon grace abounds in the steadfast love of God. In Jesus Christ a different sort of feast has been realized, with his own body becoming the house of the God. The abundance his followers experience is that of Christ’s own life, and the drink of the river of delights is that which pours for his veins. By sharing in very ordinary elements of bread and wine, the people of God have the opportunity to realize they are in a very holy moment to pause and receive the gifts of grace. This time of response is a unique opportunity to turn haughty eyes that look inwards away from the self to look all around and see that the steadfast love of God fills the earth. [1] Brueggemann, Walter. Spirituality of the Psalms. Augsburg Pub. House, 2001. [2] Ibid, Kindle Locations 205-207. [3] Ibid, Kindle Locations 222-224.

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