Psalm 92:1-4, 12-15
The lynchpin to this Psalm is what our English translations have sadly made into a subheading. This is a song for the Sabbath—information that is the first verse in the Hebrew. This Psalm can only be experienced in its fullness by understanding the imagination of Sabbath. This practice is traced to the very fabric of creation. YHWH rests on the seventh day of creation, so too Israel practices a day of rest each week to be reminded that God reigns, but that God is not a pharaoh. This psalm can only be understood through this central practice of Sabbath.
In the 21st Century, it is rare for people to truly take a rest. Days off are usually spent catching up on tasks that were not completed after work. The lawn must be mowed, the laundry must be washed, errands must be run. Many pastors rarely take a full day off. All this is the work we impose upon ourselves. We foolishly reject rest and Sabbath. But imagine the beautiful vision that Sabbath offers people who have no choice. Israel receives the command to cease work on the seventh day following the Exodus from slavery in Egypt. Slaves have no weekends. Pharaoh’s claims to divinity coupled with total power over the lives of the Israelites built a system of holistic oppression. YHWH intervenes and offers freedom. The true God undoes the power of a false god to free the people of Israel.
The people of God, however, needed to learn that they were not simply exchanging one oppression for another. YHWH is not Pharaoh; YHWH is not a slave-driver. Sabbath is a command, yes, but one that is a gift. If his slaves had refused to work, Pharaoh’s empire would have collapsed, but God institutes a day where no work is permitted, not even by servants or animals because our labor is not required to prove God’s power. The earth will continue to turn should we set aside our work, for it is God who rules the earth. This is the lens that fills this Psalm with meaning.
The first stanza of our Psalm offers praise and declares the rightness of worshipping YHWH. Without the lens of Sabbath, however, these verses might be construed as vapid rehashing of generic worship tunes. Their worship context is what gives them meaning, and verse four reminds the hearer that it is God’s work, even while we rest that gives rise to our praise. God’s work of re-creation in the world is what evokes our adoration. In ceasing our labor, the goodness of God becomes all too obvious. In pausing to experience the beauty of sunrise and sunset, the love of God becomes all the more radiant. Sabbath informs worship as it reminds us of our creatureliness, our “dustiness.” Interestingly, Hebrew time-keeping runs sundown to sunrise. Sabbath begins at sunset on Friday and ends at sunset on Saturday. The imagery of verse two, then, seems backwards. The phrase literally translates: “love by day faithfulness by night.” This is not a mistake; rather, it seems to convey the perspective of one observing the passage of the day toward the end of Sabbath. As the day goes on, the singer continues worshipping in song. The myriad of instruments could be a clue to a worshipping community joined together not the Sabbath. Apparently, the psalmist had a three-piece band. According to verse one, this is good. The “work” of Sabbath is praising God.
The final stanza offers further insight into the Sabbath lens. For verses 12-15 convey a passiveness to the righteous. They are compared to plants, which grow because it is what they were made to do. They do not strive or strain to do so. When trees are in favorable conditions with the things they need, they grow. The Psalmist means to communicate that this is the condition of humans who follow after God, for holiness is not a thing to be grasped. It is the natural outcome of faith and works together, for unity with God is what humans were made for. Surrender and participation rather than striving work is the path of sanctification. Here, the imagination of Sabbath is obvious—it is God’s work within us that makes us holy, not our work. Sabbath and holiness are reliance upon the work of God instead of self-reliance. It pushes against the sensibilities of Western society, and yet it remains central to the way of faith. Trees receive rainfall and sunlight, so too the faithful recognize the gifts of grace that God pours upon them.
Furthermore, the Psalmist sings of the trees of Lebanon which were used to build the temple (for example, see 1 Kings 5). Cedar wood lined the walls, perhaps giving the vision of a forest. Likewise, the righteous are “planted in the house of the LORD,” and this is where they flourish. The rich, fertile soil of Lebanon is nothing compared to that fecundity of the presence of God for those who love YHWH. Even the passage of time has no effect upon the life of the righteous. Like the ancient redwoods whose age makes them all the more magnificent, age for the faithful offers more time to be grown into God. Their lives stand as a testimony to the goodness of the God who establishes Sabbath as a gift to a people weary and in need of freedom. It is when we rest that we can fully receive the gifts of God.