Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Songs (psalms) for a Good Life (Psalm 41)

“How blessed1 is he who considers the helpless; The LORD will deliver him in a day of trouble.” (Psalms 41:1 NAS95)

Certainly we are to help the helpless. We are to give to the poor. And here we are, in the month of December, and there is a lot of giving; a lot of gift-giving, and a lot of extra effort to give to the poor. And we realize the truth of the phrase, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”2

But I don’t believe that this is the challenge of this psalm. The first verse does not specifically say to “give” to the helpless, or, poor. Rather, it says to consider, to view the poor with understanding, and to think carefully before you judge that they do not prosper or have success simply because they are poor.Somehow, we must see that "a good life" and poverty or helplessness are not antithetical to one another.

Another reason that I don’t think that this psalm pronounces blessedness of giving to the poor is because of the second sentence: “The LORD will deliver him.” Who is this “him”? Will the Lord protect the one who gives to the poor. That would be nice, though I don’t know why he needs special protection right now. As the psalm flows, it seems, rather, that the “him” of the second sentence is actually the plight of the poor or helpless person. As we consider the poor, we find that they are people who stand under the special protection of God.

And that’s not all. We read that some time, somehow, he will be called “blessed” by people on the earth. His estimation in the eyes of the world will change. I wonder if it is at that time when he inherits the kingdom, because that is the promise of the first Beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). They will endure over the ill treatment by their enemies (further described in verses 5-8), and they will be sustained in sickness, even though they have no access a “cadillac” health plan. On their (death?) bed, God will restore, perhaps a veiled Old Testament reference to future resurrection (compare with verse 10). These are things that we do not normally expect, unless we take time to consider the poor, that they are in position to receive a special blessing from God.

The center of the psalm seems to be verse 4: As for me, I said, “O LORD, be gracious to me; Heal my soul, for I have sinned against You.” This makes sense to me, if this psalm is a consideration of the plight of the poor, that he is a blessed person; and, if this person who may be poor in material things is also poor or humble spiritually. He is in touch with his need, not only against his enemies, but in relation to his God. And he confesses that here plainly. And there is a blessing in that.

Remember Jesus’ story of the two men who went up into the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee, and the other a tax collector (Luke 18:9-14). The one was so full of himself that it sounds as though he is there to instruct God! But not so the other. “But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ This is the Jesus-provided visualization that we need for our consideration of the helpless. He is blessed, in that “this man went to his house justified.”

Psalm 41 not only begins with a blessing, but it also ends with one: “Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, From everlasting to everlasting. Amen and Amen.” It is the poor and helpless, who is the midst of their material/spiritual poverty find that God is reaching out to them in mercy and forgiveness - it is this kind of people who are most apt to bless God. And Jesus had a story for that as well.4

1This is the third of six psalms that begin with “Blessed.” Two earlier posts are available on Psalm 1 and Psalm 32.

2Paul ascribes this phrase to Jesus in Acts 20:35, though we do not have that quote recorded in any of the Gospels. Of course Jesus said far more than what was recorded. I don’t doubt that. 
But do you know how some phrases sound like they should be in the Bible, and then you are surprised to find that they aren’t (e.g., cleanliness is next to godliness)? Well, in my mind, this is one that I wouldn’t guess would be in the Bible, but it is. 

3Here is a listing from the NAS Hebrew Dictionary on how this Hebrew word is translated in its various uses. You will see that I have used a few of these renditions in giving the sense of our particular usage in Psalm 41: act wisely(1), acts wisely(3), behaved wisely(1), comprehend(1), consider(1), considers(2), discern(1), expert(m)(1), failed*(1), gain insight(2), give heed(1), give insight(1), gives attention(1), giving attention(1), had regard for(1), have insight(4), have success(m)(2), instruct(2), instructed(1), intelligence(1), prosper(1), prospered(3), prospering(2), prospers(1), prudent(2), show discernment(1), showed insight(1), showing intelligence(1), succeed(1), teaches(1), understand(4), understanding(2), understands(2), understood(1), wisdom(1), wise(7), wise behavior(1).

4Luke 7:36-50

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