My God : owning and being owned in the Psalms

Longing and belonging
psalmist and God's face
me and my God

O God, you are my God, for you I long, sings the psalmist in Psalm 62/63, most beautiful of the yearning psalms.   ‘My Lord’ or ‘my God’ is  a very frequent way for him to address the Almighty.   It is a distinct and deliberate declaration : ‘I say, ‘You are my God” (Ps 30/31).  Sometimes God is labelled as belonging to someone else, nearly always Jacob (e.g. Pss 113/114 and 145) but overwhelmingly often the psalmist refers to God just with a direct possessive.   And we’re still doing it; look at the words of many hymns (O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder;  My God loves me;  My God, accept my heart this day, and so on and on).


What God is great as our God? (Ps 76/77)

But what is the meaning of the possessive in this context?   To jeer at someone and ask ‘Where is your God?’ is hurtful and insulting (Ps 41/42), described as ‘taunts’.  Is it adding to the insult by implying that God is only one among many, that everyone has their own and this one of yours has no power, or is it more the implication that this one mighty God that we know about will not intervene?   What about the danger of reducing God down to only human size? 

In some cultures with multiple gods, there are little gods as well as big ones.  There were small family-specific gods, the lares and penates, in a Roman household, and indeed that is a useful label for particularly prized possessions, indicating a value to the owner that is not necessarily monetary.  We have some lares in our house, a couple of particular much-loved pictures,  the wooden stork in the stairwell, a brass snake, and so on.  (That last one sounds positively biblical, but it’s Indian and belonged to my mother’s family.)  

But now this is God that we are talking about.  We know that the psalmist is well aware of the difference in scale (and everything else) between him and God (‘What is man that you are mindful of him?’ (Pss 8 and 143/144)), but he keeps claiming God in the way he addresses him. What does it mean, ‘my’ God?

Abel and Abraham
making sacrifices to seal the bargain
If x then y

Obviously the relationship between God and man is not one of equals, but this is precisely how God himself describes it when he makes covenants in the Old Testament.  ‘They will be my people, and I will be their God’ – there are so many instances of this that I am simply attaching a link here to a list of them, including St Paul’s references to them in his Epistles.  The concept is of a reciprocal duty : humans will do sacrifices (in the early days) and then move on to thanksgiving and virtue, as God tries to explain that these mean more to him than dead sheep and goats (cf. Ps 49/50).  The relationship is drawn as a legal agreement or covenant, and it is always ratified by a sacrifice. 

The New Testament changes the basic rules, and we certainly don’t need to do any more blood sacrifices because of Jesus’ once-for-all self-giving, but the idea that the reciprocal agreement is earthed in a sacrifice (and then maintained by a sequence of further sacrifices, like Abraham’s trail of altars on his journeys) goes back to the earliest days of the patriarchs and is consummated rather than simply changed by Jesus.  It’s a long learning process through salvation history and across both Testaments.  Jesus is still trying to pass on the same message when he quotes Hosea 6.6 in Matthew 9.13 : ‘Go and learn what this means,’I desire mercy and not sacrifice”.  But the reward is great; the other half of the bargain is that the Lord promises to be ‘their’ God.

An offer you can’t refuse
Elijah, angel and bread
Angel delivering groceries to Elijah as well as a message

The mutual obligations are all-embracing, but the psalmist is very clear that it is worthwhile.  The Lord’s promise to be the God of his people means protection, a strong right arm fighting on their side, rescue from the pit whenever necessary, an ever-present help in time of trouble, even food and drink when otherwise unavailable (manna and the quails for the Israelites, and supplies for Elijah, in the OT; the feeding of the hungry crowds in the NT), and in the end happiness for ever, though details on the afterlife are wisely never given.  So accepting the deal and asserting reciprocal ownership is a frequent feature of the psalms.  Like Pascal’s wager, the deal is too good to turn down.

I will be so good to you

The balance is crucial, and it lends itself particularly well to the parallelism of the poetry in the psalms.  I claim you as my God, and therefore you have obligations towards me.  Repeatedly we see the Lord being put on one side in the balance and on the other side we might have ‘the poor’ or ‘the blind’, ‘widows and orphans’ or ‘the just’; sometimes (as in a battle) God holds the mid-line between the forces of evil  and ‘those who fear the Lord’,  and he is total protection.   So we have in Ps 99/100: He made us, we belong to him, / we are his people, the sheep of his flock (v.3).  Ps 139/140 : I have said to the Lord : ‘You are my God.’/ Lord, hear the cry of my appeal!   Ps 85/86 : You are my God, have mercy on me, Lord.   Ps 94/95 : Let us kneel before the God who made us / for he is our God and we / the people who belong to his pasture / the flock that is led by his hand.  Whether we are sheep or people, we have a duty to God, and his corresponding duty is to take care of us, because we belong to him.

Shepherds and sheep
I like the little black sheep
He, the Lord, is our God (Ps 104/105)

Because the psalms are so personal, there are more references to ‘my God’ than to ‘our God’, but the plural possessive is fairly common too.  ‘My God’ is not a claim to exclusivity.  He actually defines the group.  This is why it is so significant when Ruth says to Naomi, ‘Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God'(Ruth 1.16).  She is choosing to change all her previous allegiances to become an integral part of her mother-in-law’s tribe, accepting every article of faith as her own.  And the lonely foreign widow is taken into the group and becomes one of the Christ’s ancestors; her God is indeed the same God.

God’s presence and his very self

One of the features that makes God different from all the other gods that the Israelites come across is that he is with his people, even while they are still nomadic.  He does not belong to only one place, like other gods, because his place is to be at their side.  They take the Ark of the Covenant with them on their wanderings, not because they think the Lord is actually in the box, but because the tablets of the Law remind them that he is always there with them in some form, visible (pillar of fire, pillar of cloud) or invisible (a still small voice).  In the New Testament, under the New Covenant, even the name insists on this : Emmanuel, God-with-us.  This is one of the strongest pillars on which the psalmist’s relation to God rests.  You are my God because you are here with me, wherever I am.

Thou the Ocean, I the billow
light and dark

It does imply ownership, but a reciprocal ownership, and it’s not so much a grammatical possessive as more of an ethic dative.  You are God for me, that is the crucial basis of our relationship. It is like when Julian of Norwich describes Jesus saying to her ‘I am the ground of thy beseeching’, or like the psalm which says ‘In your light, we see light’ (Ps 35/36), or like G.M. Hopkins’ poem comparing Our Lady to the air we breathe (‘Be thou then, O thou dear /Mother, my atmosphere).  It is less an assertion of ownership and more an expression of love, on both sides.

You were made for me

This is in fact how we often use ‘my’, claiming someone or something because they are particularly dear to us.  My husband, my mother, my daughter, my son, my friend, my home, my country.  It defines the relationship but also indicates how strong the feeling is.  There is a lot of this in the psalms.  God doesn’t need telling or reminding, but it is reassuring for us to affirm the relationship, and it is an expression of love.   You can say ‘darling’, and you can say ‘my darling’; the feeling and the message are subtly different.

Titles and Thomas
A tender moment : doubt no longer

The titles for God are often given as a doublet in the psalms.   ‘O Lord our God’, twice in Ps 8, ‘O Lord my God’ in Ps 29/30 and Ps 39/40, even a triple in Ps 83/84 : ‘Lord of hosts, my King and my God’.         There are many examples.  ‘My king and my God’ also occurs in Pss 5 and 43/44 and elsewhere; ‘the Lord my (or your) God’ is frequent.  But we have to wait for the apostle Thomas in the New Testament for ‘My Lord and my God’.  I don’t know whether this is because the various translators along the way wanted to keep this as something special, or whether it’s unique to the (Greek) gospel as distinct from the (Hebrew) psalms, but either way we can and do see here a wonderful and unique expression of love and faith where the effect is world-changing but also intimate.  This is why it is one of the Eucharistic Acclamations in Ireland, but unfortunately not for the rest of us.  I’ve written tunes for all the others, but I haven’t managed this one yet.  It’s daunting;  five short words which mean so much.  The double possessive does not mean ‘You belong to me and to no one else’.  It means the same as the line in Amazing Grace : [I] was blind but now I see.  It means everything.

 

©Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2022. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

Psalms in time of war

War and peace, and everything else too

There is no human situation not covered by the Book of Psalms. Whatever is going on in your life, there is a psalm which will reflect it, as well as multiple psalms which help you to deal with it.  This is partly because the Psalms are so old, and also because they are mostly expressions of feelings, so even the fact that we don’t know if there is a single psalm by a woman (some day I’m planning to look at this) doesn’t matter as much as you might think.  This is because feelings of joy, fear, hope, despair and everything in between are common to us all.  The collectors and organisers (never mind the writers) have had time to sift and distil different options across a vast sweep of history and an enormous range of human experience.

light, darkness, and beyond

Light and dark psalms
Crucifixion with angels and saints
Serene but heart-breaking

We tend usually to concentrate more on the positive psalms in the liturgy, for praise, comfort and reassurance, celebrating God’s Law, recounting past mercies, and so on. Because the Sunday Responsorial Psalm is a response to the First Reading (nearly always out of the Old Testament), there are occasional opportunities for the darker psalms, and of course we concentrate on those during Lent and especially in Holy Week, with the penitential psalms, and the psalms of grief and suffering. The darkness is woven into the liturgy;  our lives may be going on serenely and happily outside the time when we are in church; spring is coming (northern hemisphere), and indeed we know that if Lent is here, Easter cannot be far behind, as Shelley did not write.

Real life for the psalmists : War

But our situation is usually very different from that of any of the psalmists.  They were living through wars, exile, and captivity, as well as periods of peace, and their songs reflect this.  The current dreadful events in Ukraine have sensitised us to references to conflict, disaster and terror.  I have been looking at the references to war in the Psalms, and there are many of them, sometimes as part of psalms which we regularly sing, though we often leave the war bit out.

penitential psalm illumination
wars and rumours of wars

We regularly sing the first three stanzas of Psalm 62/63, the beautiful yearning psalm ‘O God, you are my God, for you I long / for you my soul is thirsting’,  but we don’t sing the last verse where the psalmist deals with his enemies (‘They shall be put into the power of the sword / and left as the prey of the jackals’ (v.11)).  Similarly in Ps 67/68, we sing (in the Seventh Week of Easter, and in Thirtieth Week in Ordinary Time Year I) ‘May the Lord be blessed, day after day. / He bears our burdens, God our saviour. / This God of ours is a God who saves. / The Lord our God holds the keys of death.’  but we then don’t sing the last two lines of the stanza : ‘And God will smite the head of his foes, / the crown of those who persist in their sins.’  If you stuck to the parts of the psalms which we are prescribed in the Sunday Lectionary, you would never know how much violence, retribution and smiting there is in the Psalter.

Echoes from history

I can’t be the only person to find myself arrested by painful echoes of the current news in some of the Church’s readings for this time.  First Sunday of Lent : ‘The Egyptians ill-treated us, they gave us no peace […] But we called on the Lord […] The Lord heard our voice and saw our misery, our toil and our oppression’.  In the first week of Lent, we have readings from Jonah : ‘He preached in these words,’Only forty days more and Nineveh is going to be destroyed’; and from Esther : ‘My Lord, our King, the only one, come to my help, for I am alone and have no helper but you and am about to take my life in my hands […] Lord, reveal yourself in the time of our distress’.

Praying and singing in time of war

The Psalms are familiar with war, oppression and violence in a way that we never want to be, but it is oddly comforting, like when you go to hospital in labour in the middle of the night and find that the lights are on and the people are already awake to help you.  The psalmists were often in desperate situations, and they were starting from a more precarious and dangerous time in history than we can imagine.  One reason why the war in Ukraine has shocked us all is that it is happening in Europe, where we expect people to try to avoid war and respect the rule of law, but now we see how insecure we can be.

Woman with sword
hand to hand fighting with sword and buckler

The psalmists knew this very well, mostly from personal experience. Periods of peace were few, one reason why there is so much longing for them.  Even the word ‘peace’ is fairly rare in the psalms; ‘fortress’, ‘stronghold’ and ‘refuge’ are much more frequent. 

Lord God of hosts

God is first given the name ‘the Lord of hosts’ in 1 Samuel 1.11, by Hannah, a woman in distress, which is interesting.  It is the translation of ‘YHWH Sabaoth’, ‘Dominus Deus Sabaoth’,  in the Latin Sanctus,  translated later as ‘God of power and might’, but now restored as ‘Lord God of hosts’.  This is such a familiar title for God that we don’t think about what it means.  I think I vaguely assumed some connection with the Communion hosts,  until I came across it in French : ‘Dieu des armées’ and I was shocked.   Of course that’s exactly what it means.  Some people prefer to think of it as ‘Lord of the hosts of angels, the heavenly host’, and of course that is also right.  God has the ranks of angels who will do whatever he tells them, but there is more to it.   In times of war and upheaval, having a God of hosts on your side is a very comforting thought, and this is why the title is used not just in the psalms but in some of the later prophets, mainly Isaiah, Jeremiah and Zechariah,  when life was very difficult.

soldiers pillaging house
Dreadful things that war can lead to
Names and titles

Incidentally, Jesus doesn’t call God ‘Lord of hosts’ but ‘Father’, or ‘my Father’.  He refers to him as ‘God’, ‘your Father’ (when preaching) or occasionally ‘the Lord’ when he’s quoting the Old Testament (e.g. talking to the devil in the desert) or telling a story (e.g. about the unjust judge and the persistent woman).   ‘Lord’ is obviously an elastic term, which reaches from ‘the Lord your God’ to a more everyday honorific. Jesus doesn’t make any objection, and it doesn’t provoke the authorities,  when people address him as ‘Lord’.  He tells the apostles to refer to him as ‘the Lord’ (Matthew) or ‘the Teacher’ (Mark and Luke), if they are challenged while making preparations for the Passover meal which will be his Last Supper. In John’s Gospel, the apostles usually call him ‘Lord’ rather than anything else; and Pilate can’t work out what to call him at all.   When Jesus more or less accepts at the end the title of King,  he takes care to point out that he is not a king in any usual earthly way (power, conquest or oppression).

Christ Pantocrator, Christ the king, ruling in majesty
Lord God Almighty

In the Psalms, God, usually addressed just as ‘God’,  is quite often called the Lord of hosts (‘the Lord of armies’ in Ps 23/24, ‘God of hosts’ Pss 79/80, 83/84), and here it is a title about his earthly power, especially in battle.  He is the mightiest of the mighty.   Psalm 45/46 has a built-in refrain : ‘The Lord of hosts is with us; / The God of Jacob is our stronghold’, which is a very encouraging song to be singing.  If God is on your side, no one else can hold out against you.  Conversely, if he withdraws his favour, anyone can beat you, so it is important to return to his favour, if you can work out how. There are several psalms which try to puzzle out what the people have done wrong and how they can correct it (Pss 43/44 and 88/89 are good examples).  But in normal circumstances, God is there in order to protect his people.  This is the undertaking of the covenant.  He protects them from all sorts of evil, the terror of the night, the arrow that flies by day, the plague that prowls in the darkness, the scourge that lays waste at noon (Ps 90/91), but also specifically in war situations :’A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand fall at your right’ (ibid.), but God’s faithfulness is buckler and shield, and you will come through unscathed.

A good side to be on
Beautiful tents
beautiful tents, but ready for war

Israel’s unexpected successes in war are a major element of the story in the Old Testament, and God is the source of all of them. He is a force that cannot be beaten, a citadel that cannot be stormed, an impregnable tent ( Pss 26/27, 60/61).  This is no vague concept of heavenly protection : God has a strong right arm (Ps 88/89).  He is a war commander (Pss 67/68, 68/69), a victorious general (Ps 75/76).   All these psalms build on the idea of God himself being a mighty warrior, a man of war  as Handel set so beautifully in  Israel in Egypt.    (And do click on that link, because they sing the duet so well, aware of each other in the way people always should be in duets, but often aren’t, and the ‘orchestra’ is extremely impressive.)  The words there are from the victory chant in Exodus 15 following the defeat of Pharaoh in the Red Sea.  Protecting your people and winning battles for and with them is the king’s job, and a fortiori God’s (Pss 20/21, 93/94).  ‘If the Lord had not been on our side,’ this is Israel’s song (Ps 123/124),… then terrible things would have happened, but with God as our God, we will be safe. 

The vocabulary of war

The Psalms are familiar with the language of war.  God himself is a fortress, a refuge, a stronghold.  The psalmist knows about gates, borders, watchmen, ramparts, chariots, spoil, tribute and of course slavery.  Even hot coals, in Ps 119/120.  God surrounds his people like mountains (Ps 124/125).  This is not for the scenery, but to make defence easier.  His angel encamps around those who fear him (Ps 33/34) , to deliver them, –quite some angel, as I have said before.  God is a warrior, a guard, he has weapons, usually arrows and a sword, but the psalmist likes to talk also about his shield, because God uses it to protect him; the Lord (or even just ‘his faithfulness’ Ps 90/91) can be represented as a shield as easily as a fortress or tower.

tower at war
defending a tower in war

The Psalms can sound like our current news reports in their real experience of war : the earth ‘reeled and rocked’ (Ps 17/18) which sounds like bombs or missiles, and a few verses later, we have blast, scaling a wall, a ‘heavy bow’, a ‘saving shield’, pursuit of a fleeing enemy and finally victory.  The psalmist is always looking for safety and security, the rock under his foot which will not slip, God’s love ‘in a fortified city’ (Ps 30/31.22).  There is real danger here; ‘tottering walls’ (Ps 61/62),  and foes are everywhere. ‘I can see nothing but violence / and strife in the city. / Night and day they patrol/ high on the city walls’ (Ps 54/55).  This is what is happening in the cities of Ukraine, with aeroplanes added in. In Psalm 67/68, the psalmist asks God to’scatter the peoples who delight in war’ (v.31), another verse which suddenly sounds modern.

Melchisedek
Melchisedek blessing the king and his troops after a battle
O for the wings of a dove

The psalmist longs for peace, when God will break the arrows and spears (Ps 75/76) but is resigned to fighting for as long as it takes, though he keeps asking God how long it will be and urging him to hurry.  He does not want to fight (Ps 119/120), but is resigned to war because of his opponents : ‘they are for fighting’ (ibid.).  God’s delight is ‘not in warriors’ strength’ (Ps 146/147), but he trains the king and his people for war  (Ps 143/144), because they have to do their part.  Although the psalmist begs him repeatedly, God does not do by himself the smiting for his people; he stands by them and assists as they do it.  We have to wait for the New Testament and Jesus himself before we are told to love our enemies.  The psalmist sees his enemies as God’s enemies, and is proud of his feelings against them, knowing that he is fighting God’s battles (Ps 138/139).  He is not cynical about fighting but resigned : this is what evil men and foes do and always have done, so he looks forward to peace as something that keeps needing to be defended.  Maybe this is what we were in danger of forgetting.  Let us pray for Ukraine; the psalms have plenty of material and are a good place to start.

God creating earth
God presiding over a peaceful world, without war

 

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2022. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.