Psalm 67 confuses some people – is it a manipulative prayer?  Historical context clarifies our understanding.

 

Relationships Are Complicated
Psalm 67   August 18, 2019

We began this mini-series on the psalms by looking at Psalm 1, which serves as an introduction to the collection of 150 poems and hymns that follow.

Psalm 1 lays out a choice between two starkly different paths through life.

The common path is where we all do our own thing … it’s a path that often leads to our destruction.

God’s is the path less traveled and those who choose it will thrive.

Psalm 1 says that the righteous person gets onto God’s path by meditating on God’s instructions day and night and so thrives in all seasons because they are like a tree transplanted by streams of water.

Psalm 1 doesn’t attempt to explain why there’s sin, evil and suffering.

Rather, its intent is to invite us to dig further into the psalms and discover how they give us prayers and hymns for every season of life – joy, celebration(,) anger, betrayal, mourning, and confession of sins.

They give us prayers when our own words fail us.

Today we’ll look at Psalm 67 which has often confused people by what at first glance seems like a somewhat manipulative prayer for God’s blessing.

The psalm instructs the music director to open with the Aaronic blessing, which we normally find at the end of worship.

Psalm 67:1 May God be gracious to us and bless us
and make His face shine on us —

But then the psalm seems to appeal to God’s ego.

Psalm 67:2-3 so that Your ways may be known on earth,
Your salvation among all nations.
May the peoples praise You, God;
may all the peoples praise You.

It comes across a bit like a 16-year-old saying, “Dad, buy me a Corvette so all the neighbors will know that you are the best dad in town.

But, for us to understand Psalm 67, we have to know some important Old Testament history.

When people ask why I chose to become a preacher, I sometimes say that because I really wanted to be a standup comic.

This way I have a bit of a captive audience as long as I limit myself to just a joke or two.

A lot of preachers wanted to be standup comics, but, unfortunately, messages coming from many pulpits have lost their humor and become divisive and corrosive.

Some have become so caught-up in our “culture wars” that their biblically sounding messages actually fuel some of the basest human impulses.

In the name of Christ, they are stoking fears about homosexuals, Muslims, and others.

Now understand, there is a special responsibility given those ordained to teach God’s Word, and there are special dangers that come when religious words empower hate.

Nobel Lauriat Stephen Weinberg cynically quips, “Good people will always do good things, and evil people will do evil things, but for good people to do evil things—that takes religion.”

For the past several decades, the Barna Institute has studied every conceivable social trend as it pertains to the church.

The results of one study shocked many church leaders when non-Christian people were asked why they’d rejected Christianity.

Researchers expected to hear them say that they don’t believe in God or that they reject the notion of Jesus dying for our sins … stuff like that.

But as it turns out, the top three problems people expressed were that they view Christians as  (1) anti-homosexual (91 percent of responders), (2) judgmental (87 percent), and  (3) hypocritical (85 percent).

This isn’t the first time God’s people have fallen short of God’s call to Love the Lord with all your heart, strength and mind … and your neighbor as yourself.

In the decades around 600 BCE, a huge power shift was reverberating throughout the Near East.

The expansive Assyrian Empire was fracturing and was eventually crushed by the Babylonians, and amidst the chaos, the once-powerful Egyptians tried to reassert their influence.

Stuck in the middle of these superpowers, Judah was staggering from its own royal intrigues when Jehoiakim was placed on the throne by Egyptian overlords.

He proved to be a godless tyrant.

He lived in incestuous relations with his mother, daughter-in-law, and stepmother, and was in the habit of murdering men whose wives he then violated and whose property he seized.

To downplay that he was Jewish, he chose clothes that were a blend of linen and wool – clothes that were prohibited for Jews because they were not a pure textile.

He tattooed his body, also a violation of Jewish law, and he even had surgery to reverse his circumcision – and you have to really want to be bad to do that.

An incessant braggart, he badmouthed his royal predecessors and he boasted, “All that God gives us is light, and this we no longer need, since we have a kind of gold that shines just like the light.”

The prophets Ezekiel and Jeremiah predicted that their nation’s rejection of God would result in catastrophe, which it did when the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar invaded, looted Jerusalem and marched 10,000 of its citizens into exile.

Judah was shamed by its leaders and humiliated by their forced exile to Babylon, and so was God.

We may not normally think of God feeling shame but listen to how God speaks through Ezekiel to the exiled Jews.

Ezekiel 36:16-21 “… when the people of Israel lived in their land, they polluted it by the way they lived. …. And so I got thoroughly angry with them polluting the country with their wanton murders and dirty gods. I kicked them out, exiled them to other countries. I sentenced them according to how they had lived. Wherever they went, they gave me a bad name…. I suffered much pain over my holy reputation, which the people of Israel blackened in every country they entered.

It might feel strange to think of God’s feelings like this, but God created us in His image and likeness so that we can have a personal relationship with Him.

God is not just an impersonal force or cosmic intelligence.

Throughout scripture we see that God cares, gets involved, God delights, and sometimes God gets disappointed or angry.

Our relationship with God is personal … and we know how personal relationships get complicated.

Once you bind yourself to another person in some way – whether through marriage or forming a business partnership, suddenly a whole web of things comes into existence.

For however long that relationship lasts, you’ll be negotiating misunderstandings, frustrations, betrayals … a vast flurry of emotions.

It was no different for God once He decided
to create humankind in His own image and likeness.

He invested himself in Adam and Eve and was grieved by their betrayal.

Later he tried again by entering into a covenant with Abram and then with all Israel.

Understand that a covenant is a relationship in which two parties voluntarily choose to make binding promises to each other.

You may remember what today seems like a bizarre ceremony when Abram and God cut the carcasses of a heifer, a goat, and a ram in half and passed through them.

In the Ancient Near East, that was cutting a covenant – symbolically saying that if either of us violates this covenant then may I die like these.

But can God die?

Put a pin there and we’ll come back to that question.

So, for centuries there was a tug-a-war between God and Israel.

God lavished blessings on Israel because He really did love His people and because God had invested a good bit of divine reputation with Israel becoming the people who would showcase His divine grace to the world.

This is what God said to Abram:

Genesis 12:2-3 “I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.”

This isn’t the only time that God said that his blessing has a missional purpose to it.

After He’d rescued the Hebrew people from Egyptian slavery God said,

Exodus 19:5-6 “Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

So, when Israel behaved badly, they suffered consequences – like the Northern Kingdom’s defeat by the Assyrians and Judah’s destruction and exile by Babylon.

But at the same time, they were dragging God’s Name through the mud by failing to be the example of God’s grace to nations.

When I was about 10-years old and living up in the mountains where my dad was a Forest Ranger, I came across a small keg of gun powder in our garage.

Well, it was a lot of fun.

I’d spread a thin line of gun powder down the road, light one end of it and watch it sparkle as it burned down the line.

Then I made lines longer and thicker, but eventually, that got boring, so I decided,
what the heck, I’d just drop a match into the whole keg at once.

What could possibly go wrong with that?

I took it under an old wooden bridge in a dry creek bed, tossed a match into the keg and ran like mad.

I’m lucky I didn’t get seriously hurt, but I did start a small fire – which the Forest Rangers had to extinguish.

My dad was glad I wasn’t hurt, furious that I’d been so stupid, and also humiliated in front of this colleagues that his own son had nearly started a forest fire.

So, God shares His own humiliation when He speaks to the shamed people held in Babylon.

He promises to return them to Jerusalem and reestablish their blessed lives, but not just for their own sake.

He says,

Ezekiel 36: 29-32 I will save you from all your uncleanness. I will call for the grain and make it plentiful and will not bring famine upon you. I will increase the fruit of the trees and the crops of the field, so that you will no longer suffer disgrace among the nations because of famine. … I want you to know that I am not doing this for your sake, declares the Sovereign Lord. Be ashamed and disgraced for your conduct, people of Israel!

On its own, the kind of transactional prayer we see in Psalm 67 might feel disingenuous, until we understand this complicated relationship with God.

Now we see a connection between peoples’ behavior, and God’s reputation and mission.

God blesses you because He loves you … and what you do with your blessing reflects on God and thereby affects God’s mission in the world.

The history of Israel continued to ebb and flow between faithfulness and idolatry – and remember that God’s ancient covenant essentially said that if the covenant fails, then may I die like these carcasses.

But can God die?

Well, yes.

Through the sacrificial death of Jesus, the old covenant died and God has offered a new covenant.

Luke 22:20 In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.

God cares that much for you and that His mission of love and reconciliation
spread across the world.

Psalm 67 closes with this:

Psalm 67:6-7 The land yields its harvest;
God, our God, blesses us.
May God bless us still,
so that all the ends of the earth will honor Him.

One of my favorite characters on the old Saturday Night Live was Dana Carvey’s “Church Lady” who was an uptight, smug and pious woman named Enid Strict.

She was the stereotype of how many people view Christians.

Although she was a humorous character, there is no humor when churches attack the LGBTQ community, or when they passionately deny human-induced climate change.

As Christians, we bind ourselves to the New Covenant of Jesus, so we are charged to ask if, when people see us, do they see the grace of Jesus or the legalism of (the) Pharisees that Jesus so vigorously rejected.

Do they see us as forgiving, generous, and willing to risk to stand against injustice?

When people come to our church, do they experience spiritual health and an inviting, caring community?

And in our choice of governmental leaders, are we supporting people of integrity, or are we backing people who appeal to our worst impulses, and who fan our fears and prejudices?

Matthew 7:21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”

May we, as members of the New Covenant, with prayer and integrity, be the people who will please God and advance the Kingdom through how we live our lives and show God’s grace.