by Rev. Julian Duckworth
Working with the Psalms
The Psalms are wonderful but they can also seem (to us) to be very repetitive with the ‘same old phrases’. Someone once said to me that the Psalms are simply poetry with God in them but they don’t tell us much! I can see that, although I don’t really agree – it’s putting them down too much. But that can be the appearance at face value. Also some of us were brought up on memory verses which usefully help us to recall the words in our older years but less usefully the words are over-familiar and stuck on one level in terms of getting a meaning.
The New Church has the privilege of an insight into the Psalms in terms of them being a ‘private diary’ of Jesus’ high and low feelings during his life here. This is a bit technical I suppose but it gives us mere mortals a lead-in to working more deeply with the Psalms, not just ‘enjoying’ them.
I’m going to use Psalm 121 and share how I make personal use of it in various ways. I suppose the method could then be applied to most of the other Psalms. Here’s the Psalm …
I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills: from whence shall my help come? My help cometh from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. He will not suffer thy foot to be moved; He that keepeth thee will not slumber. Behold, He that keepeth Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord is thy keeper; the Lord is thy shade upon thy right hand. The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord shall keep thee from all evil; He shall keep thy soul. The Lord shall keep thy going out and thy coming in, from this time forth and for ever.
This Psalm says a lot about the Lord. In fact, apart from the opening verse it is all about the Lord, giving us ideas about His providence over us and protection of us. I get the sense that the Lord is very involved with me, and very vigilant about keeping me safe. The word ‘keep’ seems important in this connection … there are things the Lord won’t allow to happen. But I don’t think these are the physical things in life, more the spiritual things – things to do with my trust in Him and confidence. Or what I believe deeply. Once I know and feel these things, the Lord will keep them there. One more thing. The opening verse seems to be saying that I need to lift my mind a bit higher than usual in order to become aware of the Lord’s real place and power in my life. I can’t muddle around umming and ahhing about life and expect the Lord to make His presence known to me. It doesn’t work like that.
Verse by Verse Ideas
I like the use of ‘hills’ rather than ‘mountains’ – hills are nearer to me, and rounded and gentle. Mountains are too awesome. In other words I don’t have to look too much higher to begin feeling the Lord’s place in me. Then there’s the actual question. That helps, because looking at life differently forces me to ask some leading questions. So where do I get any help from – from the Lord.
The Lord who made heaven and earth.
OK, that’s saying He made everything. But heaven also means the best I can feel about life – happy, peaceful, content etc. Earth means the things I get on and do as a result – being useful, loving. This is telling me the Lord is in them both and keeps the connection.
He will not suffer thy foot to be moved.
I think this is about being human, forgetting that life is good and comes from the Lord, getting worked up. We all do that but it is only how it seems to us. If we really do trust life (the Lord) and go with the flow, these slippery moments won’t actually affect us.
He doesn’t slumber.
Well, of course He doesn’t! But He doesn’t let up. His care for us is very real and complete. We slumber. Not just in going to bed, but in ourselves. I feel very reassured to know that the Lord’s care for me is constant and permanent. Perhaps, too, I should take a leaf out of His book and up my watchfulness on life and most of all on myself.
Then this same idea gets repeated and extended further – ‘He will neither slumber nor sleep’. So what does this mean? We’ve already seen that the Lord doesn’t alter or let up in His care over us. I feel this emphasis is saying that the Lord doesn’t ever give up on us even to eternity. If we feel unsure or unloved, it’s not Him; it’s something about us which isn’t seeing things properly.
So, the Lord is my keeper more than I can be my own keeper! Even when I’m unaware of it. Perhaps we can see this in the idea that if we look at our challenges more positively and say “What can I learn from this?” (look to the hills!) we come back into an awareness of the Lord who was always there anyway.
He is thy shade upon thy right hand.
I think this is saying that the Lord ‘tempers’ our life rather amazingly. In other words we are kept in balance. Being in the shade isn’t so much being in the dark as being in a frame of mind which isn’t blinded or overwhelmed. More cool, calm and collected and able to live well. Not too tropical so to speak! And the right hand suggests being able to get on with your life as a result.
The sun shall not smite thee by day nor the moon by night.
I know that the sun can smite me but I’m a bit unclear about the moon smiting me (unless it’s the full moon affecting me!!!) I feel this is simply saying that specific feelings or situations we meet won’t be able to harm our spirit because the Lord’s shade is over us. And I think it IS specific rather than general. We can feel generally unhappy or troubled at times, but more often something or someone is affecting us negatively. If we bring the Lord – the shade – in between us and them, the effect will be very different. It helps us to think about the Lord when we are reacting to other people – it ‘tempers’ our tempers. (I like that one.)
Then the lovely closing verse which embraces all these realizations and brings them together in summary. I am kept from every evil. My soul is kept intact and safe. What’s my soul? My deepest part … and the part of me that will live for ever and which belongs to the Lord anyway. This is forever safely kept, but so are my changes and developments as I go out and come in again – into life, back to the Lord, into life, back to the Lord etc. more and more for ever. How wonderful it is.
Just notice too that I haven’t used any doctrines or correspondences or explanations. Those are there to help us get to the point of working personally and internally with the text and verses of these Psalms which may read very blandly but are actually surprisingly specific if we are prepared to let them speak to us.