“For a sun and a shield is the Lord God; the Lord will give grace and glory; He will not withhold good from those who go with sincerity (Psalms 84:12).” As we’ve seen over the last few months of Psalms, God clearly has many attributes and can be described in any number of ways. I like these particular descriptors, particularly as they’re used in conjunction with one another. Sun and shield – at once, God is brilliant and light, an almost ethereal presence, and solid, dependable, and protecting. He is nurturing and ever-present, like the sun’s constant dependability, and takes on specific roles in our lives when necessary, like a shield. Concrete and discrete at once, God can manifest in our lives in any number of ways, and it’s great to be inspired to find them through these different writings.
“A song of Asaph. God stands in the congregation of God; in the midst of the judges He will judge (Psalms 82:1).” This sentence is a bit circular. God is in God’s own congregation. This can be part of any number of interpretations. One is that a democratic value is being expressed – God is a the judge of judges, but at the end of the day, He’s part of the greater whole – or we’re part of Him. A deity not fully separate from His creations is beautiful in some ways, because it allows us to consider the divine in each of us, and gives any interaction the chance to be a sacred one. But in other ways, it lowers the level of awe that a heavenly being inspires. We’re not supposed to be able to fully relate to God, and that’s ok. So for God to be in His congregation? Does that mean He’s present amongst us in all that we do in some way? Is it the sparks of divine in each of us that answer to the larger presence?
“In God I trusted, I will not fear. What can man do to me (Psalms 56:12)?” To me, this verse alludes to the classic childhood mantra of sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me. Both of these phrases are comforting in a simplistic sense, but when it comes to reality don’t necessarily hold up. With or without confidence in God, people can hurt others, as history has repeatedly shown, and particularly in the age of the internet and social media, we know words can be equally or more hurtful than any physical ailment. Does faith get us through these adversities more whole and happy than we would have been otherwise? Is that what the psalmist is telling us? While a person of faith hopefully won’t be shaken by the acts of hatred of others, human beings have a tragic capacity to harm their peers, and today, as in every age, there are innumerable reasons to fear our fellow humans. It’s a sad reality that some people are out to do us harm, to hurt us, and to damage us, physically and with words. I’m not sure how faith plays into that, and how it necessarily helps, but I hope that for those who are suffering, they’re able to find at least some level of comfort.
“God looked down from heaven upon the sons of men to see whether there is a man of understanding, who seeks God (Psalms 53:3).” What’s interesting to me in this verse is the idea of God looking down on humanity, judging our character and capacity to seek and understand Him. While obviously God is in a class by Himself (that goes without saying), in general, this doesn’t seem like a great method. If someone, whoever or whatever they are, looks down from on high and and passes judgment on the perceived morals and values of individuals, their perspectives are inherently skewed. As an educator, if I place myself as an authority above my students, I set us up as ‘other.’ Our relationship is transactional, instead of symbiotic. I can judge them from what I see from the head of the room, without meaningfully interacting with them or seeking to understand their motivations. But in doing so, I won’t get an authentic view of them, or as thoughtful of a portrait, and I would definitely be the one who misses out.
“My soul thirsts for God, for the living God; when will I come and appear before God (Psalms 42:3)?” What I love about this verse is the reference to the living God. I’m sure it’s something that I’ve commented on before at some point in this project, but I’m very drawn to this concept. I’ve never been comfortable with philosophical ideas about God not being as present today as He has been in the past. While this does make it harder to justify God’s [in]action when it comes to many of the atrocities of the modern era, for me it’s easier to swallow than resigning myself to His lack of presence at all. I definitely see God as alive, as dynamic, and as constantly in relation to each one of us, as we are to Him.
In this chapter, the psalmist addresses God directly. “Arouse Yourself and awaken to my judgment, my God and my Lord, to my cause (Psalms 35:23).” This verse turns a regular concept on its head. Usually, it’s us who are awaiting God’s judgment and and being called by Him to listen and react. But now, he is calling God to face the judgment of a human being. Many of us deride and judge God internally, and almost without thinking. So what would happen if we owned up to that, and called Him to face us in our anger and pain?
“Neither shall any of those who hope for You be ashamed; let those who betray [to the extent of] destitution be ashamed (Psalms 25:3).” What interested me about this verse is that many times in the circles that I travel in (and remember, I’m a Jewish communal professional), actually believing in God is something that others almost look down on. It’s seen as ‘cute,’ ‘naive,’ almost childlike and laughable to truly believe in a personal, present version of God. People speak about belief as something metaphorical, but are quick to say things like Judaism isn’t a religion, and prayer can be meditation, or talking to yourself, or whatever you make of it. But an actual strong belief in the God described in Tanakh? Not so widespread. While I would never presume to tell anyone what to believe or how to feel on a topic as deeply personal as God, I hope that those who don’t will be a little more accepting of those who do. People should be proud to respectfully share their beliefs, and shouldn’t feel obligated to stay silent because of how others might react.
God shows Zechariah Joshua, the high priest. In the vision, Joshua stands with an angel of God on one side of him, and Satan on the other. “And the Lord said to Satan: The Lord shall rebuke you, O Satan; and the Lord shall rebuke you, He who chose Jerusalem. Is this one not a brand plucked from fire (Zechariah 3:2)?” Meanwhile, Joshua wears rags as he stands before the angel, who orders the garments be removed. The angel gives him new, clean clothes, and tells him that if he walks in God’s ways, he will be rewarded with miracles. We don’t know much about this Joshua, other than that he’s the high priest, and why he gets this treatment. We’ll see if he factors further into the Zechariah story starting tomorrow!
Zechariah begins to see things. First, four horns, which an angel tells him were the instruments that scattered Judah, Israel, and Jerusalem. Then, four craftsmen, meant to cast away the horns of other nations. Then another man, with some kind of measuring tape in his hand, there to measure Jerusalem. And then, angels appear. “Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion, for, behold! I will come and dwell in your midst, says the Lord (Zechariah 2:14).”
These lyrical prophets do not embrace the use of segues or transition statements, so some of these chapters can be confusing as they combine so many elements and dialogues between the prophet, people, and God. But I like the sentiment of rejoicing, of God coming and staying with the people in Jerusalem. His presence isn’t fleeting, with Him running from place to place and not maintaining a base. Rather, to dwell in my mind is at least a semi-permanent state, showing us that God will stay with the people, with Jerusalem, regardless of what else is happening in the world.
The final chapter of Habakkuk (how did that happen already?!) describes God as harsh, angry, and wrathful, while at the same time being glorious, strong, and ultimately powerful. “Yet, I will rejoice in the Lord; I will jubilate in the God of my salvation (Habakkuk 3:18).” Ultimately, the message being conveyed is that God’s awesome might can take many forms, both good and bad as we perceive them, but the bottom line is that He in His ultimate power is a good thing, something to rejoice in. This deceptively simple summary speaks to me because it relates to a lot of my feelings about God. Whether or not we understand His actions, or agree with them, or feel their impact directly, all of us have the capacity to feel and appreciate His presence, and should be happy about that.
With that, this brief book ends. On Sunday I’ll start Zephaniah, and after that, there is less than a month left in Neviim before this project moves onto the third component of Tanakh. I’m nervous about what’s to come, so I’m definitely going to make sure that I enjoy this month and the routine I’ve gotten into for all they’re worth!