7 Jun 2012

Enter His Presence: Nexus of Presence, Life & Mission in the Psalms and Prophets – 3

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Church, Contemporary Ethics, Exegesis, Hebrew Bible, Kingdom, Worship

This is my third installment on the theme of Entering His Presence on Gathering/Assemblies, Worship and Discipleship in the Hebrew Bible.  You can read Part One Here; and Part Two Here. These articles are all part of a single argument need to be seen together. Blessings.
Coming Into His Presence in the Psalms
Israel sang praises to Yahweh long before the “sweet psalmist” David (2 Sam 23:1, RSV).  The only proper human response to the astonishing event of the Exodus was praising God with his gathered people of God (Ex 15:1-21).[1] In gratitude for the divine provision of water in the parched desert Israel burst in thanksgiving song (Num 21:16-17).  Near the end of his life Moses sang from the heart to Israel (Deut 32).  Deborah and Barak sang of God’s deliverance from Jabin (Jud 5).  Songs flowing from Israel’s worshipping assemblies were rooted in the experience of God’s goodness.  The rhythms of life provided the grist for gathering in the presence of God.  The supreme example of this experience of daily life and corporate worship is the Psalms of Israel. 
The Psalter is a literary sanctuary.  Most of the individual psalms and the book as a whole is situated in Israel’s worshiping assemblies.[2] If the headings are any guide we note that the Psalms were part of the temple dedication (Ps 30), the Sabbath (Ps 92), temple worship (2 Chron 29:28, 30; Ps 100).  Psalms were integrated into Israel’s festival calendar.  The Hallel (Pss 113-118) psalms were used in conjunction with the New Moon, Passover, Weeks, Tabernacles and Dedication festivals.[3]The penitential psalms (Pss 6; 32; 38; 51; 102; 130; 143) are part of the Day of Atonement liturgy[4]and the Songs of Ascents (Pss 120-134) are associated with the great pilgrimage festivals. The Psalter is thoroughly grounded into all aspects of Hebrew worship.[5] Particularly prominent in the Psalms are worshiping assemblies. Among the texts are:
            “Praise God in the great congregation;
                 praise the LORD in the assembly of Israel(Ps 68:28)
            “I will declare your name to my brothers and sisters
                 in the midst of the congregation I will praise you …
            From you comes my praise in the great congregation … ” (Ps 22:22, 25)
            “My foot stands on level ground;
                 in the great congregation I will bless the LORD” (Ps 26:12)
            “Let the heavens praise your wonders, O LORD,
                 your faithfulness in the assembly of the holy holy ones” (Ps 89:5)
            “Sing to the LORD a new song, his praise
                 in the assembly of the saints (Ps 149: 1; cf. Pss 1:5; 35:18; 40:9, 10; 107:22, 43; 111:1)           
Israel’s Psalm collection indicates that praise is the duty and delight of humanity.  Indeed, the ultimate vocation of all creation is the praise of God. Praise is not only a requirement but a basic need.[6] On a literary level the Psalter mirrors Israel’s vocation as Yahweh’s kingdom of priests.  The Lord carried Israel on eagles’ wings into his presence.  Brought into a covenant of love, Israel lived a life of worshipful obedience and was to lead the nations to praise God as creator and redeemer.  The Psalms collection follows this movement. Psalm 1 functions as an orienting prism through which we enter the world of the Psalms.  Israel lived in the world of worship (meditation) that brought her into contact with the voice of the Lord (Torah). This, according to Psalm 1, is where our duty and well-being lie.[7]  Psalm 1 claims that the songs which follow can only be sung by those who gladly participate in this Torah-shaped community.
Forming an “envelope” at the end is Psalm 150.  Psalm 150 which was placed, perhaps written as, the conclusion of the entire Psalter. Some believe the last five Psalms were written as a conclusion leading to a crescendo of praise: the Hallelujah Psalms (Pss 146-150).  Indeed the last words of the book are “Praise the LORD” (Ps 150: 6b).  The Psalms characteristically include a call or summons to praise along with reasons or motivations for that praise.[8]  Psalm 117 is an example:
Summons                   Praise the LORD, all you nations!
                                  Extol him, all you peoples
Reasons                       for
                                   great is his steadfast love toward us,
                                   and the faithfulness of the LORD
                                   endures forever.
Summons                    Praise the LORD!
While the other Hallelujah Psalms contain motives and rationales, Psalm 150, as the conclusion of the Psalter, contains no reason or motivation for praise. It is the only Psalm completely lacking such motivation.[9] Rather this Psalm calls for an ungrounded summons to worship for all creatures, all of life, without qualification or reserve.  It simply demands an utter abandonment of self in the worship of God without vested interest. No characterization of God is given in the Psalm at all: it is enough that Yahweh is praised simply as Yahweh.  It is “in the sanctuary” and praise “in the highest heavens” (Ps 150:1)—it is an assembly in the presence of God surrounded by musical praise by multiple participants. 
Psalm 1 and 150 frame the book and likely were carefully selected or created as bookends for Israel’s hymnbook. The scope of the book thus is discipleship (obedience, Ps 1) and boundless praise (worshiping in assembly, Ps 150). There is theological movement from Pss 1 to 150.  Obedience is the beginning point of a life of praise and praise is the culmination of discipleship.  Only those who take their vocation as priests seriously are allowed to ascend the mountain into the presence of God.  Though obedience is taken seriously it is seen as only the beginning point.  The faithful begin with obedience but move beyond duty to communion.  Disciples never leave obedience but, the community transcends obedience for the sake of communion with God.  In the words of Brueggemann it is a move from “willing duty to utter delight.”[10]  
The dynamic life within the kingdom of priests as bounded by discipleship and praise is present in Psalm 50 which is a “sunrise” service (50:1) integrated into the Feast of Tabernacles.[11]  The psalm narrates a sacramental encounter in which the voice of the Lord bursts forth.  God’s voice comes to Israel rather than Israel’s voice rising to the Lord in this assembly. Psalm 50 opens with echoes of the great day of assembly at Mount Sinai (recall our previous posts) and summons heaven and earth as witnesses to the prophetic encounter (Ps 50.1-5)
            The mighty one, God the LORD,
                  speaks and summons the earth
                        from the rising of the sun to its setting.
            Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty,
            God shines forth.
            Our God comes and does not keep silence,
                  before him is a devouring fire,
                        and a mighty tempest all around him.
            He calls to the heavens above
                 and to the earth, that he may judge his people:
            “Gather to me my faithful ones,
                 who made a covenant with me by sacrifice!
In response to being carried on eagles’ wings to the presence of the Lord, Israel had covenanted to pursue a kingdom vocation—a nation holy to the Lord as a kingdom of priests.  These saints prepare to meet God as Yahweh himself comes, and he is not “silent” (Ps 50:3).  As a worshiping assembly Israel’s lifestyle is comes under holy examination.  God challenges Israel’s temptation to fashion an idol of the mind shaped by Canaanite paganism.  Stressing his transcendence Yahweh, again using language evocative of Sinai, says “I am God, your God” (Ps 50:7c; cf. Ex 20:2).  What motivates these assembled Israelites to bring sacrifices? Yahweh does not need their sacrifices because the whole earth belongs to him (Ps 50:8-10). Their false assumptions about who God is, evidenced in their conception of sacrificial worship, are rooted in the people’s failure to live the covenantal life. “What right do you have to recite my laws or take my covenant on your lips?” Yahweh asks (Ps 50:16, NIV).  The worshipers profane the assembly by adultery, stealing, deceit and slander.
In this assembly the voice of God confronts Israel with her hypocrisy.  She has been enthusiastic in her sacrificial worship but has failed to see that worship is also loving obedience.  This Psalm envisions assembled Israel at Sinai for a fresh encounter with Yahweh but here Yahweh confronts his people with the last half of the Ten Commandments given on that mountain. The Lord had endured Israel’s covenant breaking but now rebukes them.  God confronts Israel with the words “you thought I was altogether like you” (Ps 50:21). Israel, however, was supposed to be like the One who said “be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy” (Lev 11:44; 19:1; 20:7).  When the holiness of God is trivialized there is a corresponding cheapening of life and assembly.[12]
Yet the holy and transcendent One is also the redeeming Lord that brought Israel to himself on eagles’ wings.  God calls even the less than perfect into communion with him.  It is not Yahweh’s goal to shame Israel through rejecting her flawed corporate worship or cast her out of his presence because of the fallenness witnessed in their lives.  Rather Israel’s encounter with her Lord in the assembly is medicine for the soul—it is a transforming encounter.  In light of God’s holiness Israel becomes conscious of her need for grace.  The holy presence that reveals her flaws is also what provides her healing.  By assembling on the mountain and coming into his presence Israel finds God transforming her into the very thing she professed to be—a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.  With this realization of the grace of God in corporate worship, rather than rejecting liturgical worship, God calls the assembled saints to (Ps 50: 14-15, 23)
            Sacrifice thank offerings to God,
                 fulfill your vows to the Most High
                 and call on me in the day of trouble;
            I will deliver you, and you will
                 honor me …
            He who sacrifices thank offerings
                 honors me,
                 and he prepares the way so
                 that I may show him the
                 salvation of God.
Psalm 50 links in the rhythm of Israel’s life with obedience and praise.  The daily life of Israel witnessed to her missional priestly vocation on behalf of the world.  She lived worship through honoring the covenant.  Yet through sacramental encounter on the mountain with God Israel finds the gracious transforming power of God to mold her into the vocation she confessed.  
Discipleship and Gathering in the Prophets 
In the nineteenth century liberal critical scholarship commonly posited a serious breach between Israel’s prophets and the cultic (i.e. liturgical) worship prescribed in the Torah.  The prophets were seen as religious geniuses who moved away from the crass and materialistic ideas associated with Israel’s religious life. The prophets, it was said, pleaded for a more satisfying vision of the spiritual life concerned with ethics rather than “formal” worship. That nineteenth century vision of the prophets is a modern rather than ancient reality. [13]
The prophets are the conscience of Israel indeed. They protested injustice. They insisted that our lives themselves are sacrifices to the Lord.  Amos and other prophets evaluated Israel’s worship and found the assembled worshiperswanting.  Rather than outside or above the Torah the prophets were indebted to Israel’s worship traditions for many of their indictments. In fact many of the prophets themselves often come out of Israel’s priestly and liturgical tradition.  Jeremiah and Ezekiel were raised in priestly families (Jer 1:1; Ezk. 1:3).  Habakkuk was probably a temple prophet (3:1, 19c).  Psalm 50 and the prophetic indictments of vain worship through empty sacrifice stand in the same tradition.
The prophets attacked the false deities that we often worship.  Israel found herself guilty of idolatry, giving homage to gods of their own creation.  The prophet Jeremiah brings these idols under examination in a single passage (9:23-24)
Thus says the LORD: Do not let the wise boast in their wisdom, do not let the mighty boast in their might, do not let the wealthy boast in their wealth;  but let those who boast boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the LORD; I act with steadfast love, justice and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the LORD.
Not every idol is made out of wood, stone, or metal.  The gods of knowledge, power and money are sly and demand servitude that is rightly understood as a form of worship.  Sounding quite contemporary Jeremiah calls for a microscopic heart exam.  Whatever is enthroned in our heart finds expression in our lives.  The life we live proclaims the god we serve.  This is why the prophets chastised Israel who, in spite of her careful religious observance, did not live the covenant life that proclaimed the true God.  Though carefully executed, Israel’s worship assemblies were as dead as their lifeless idols.  Amos revealed the extent of the hypocrisy (Amos 8:4-6)
            Hear this you that trample on the needy,
                 and bring to ruin the poor of the land,
            saying, “When will the new moon be over
                 so that we may sell grain; and the Sabbath
                 so that we may offer wheat for sale?
            We will make the ephah small and the
                 and the shekel great,
                 and practice deceit with false balances,
            buying the poor for silver
                 and the needy for a pair of sandals,
            and selling the sweepings
                 of the wheat.
The Israelites were scrupulous about “going to church!”  But when they came into Yahweh’s holy presence as Gathered as his People they conspired to abuse the powerless and boost the profits.  The only gods encountered in these assemblies were money and power.  One of Israel’s most basic covenant requirements was “to remember that you were slaves in Egypt” (Deut 5:15; 10:19) as the foundation for generosity and justice.  Rather than being “living sabbaths” for the sake of those around her, however, Israel became a reincarnated Pharaoh.  Fulfilling the evil planned in assembly, powerful Israelites “covet fields, and seize them” (Micah 2:2; cf. Isa 5:8); the “righteous are sold for silver and the poor for a pair of shoes” (Amos 2:6); judges “who take a bribe” deny the poor justice (Amos 5:10, 12, 15); women are sexually abused (Amos 2:7b); and the merchant class are criminals (Amos 8:4-6).  When this group of Israelites decided to look good by going to Yahweh’s holy convocation the voice of Amos exploded (Amos 5:21-24; cf. Isa 1:10-20)
            I hate, I despise your festivals,
                 and I take no delight in your
                      solemn assemblies.
            Even though you offer me your
                 burnt offerings and grain offerings,
                       I will not accept them;
                 and the offerings of well-being
                       of your fatted animals
                 I will not look upon.
            Take away from me the noise of
                 your songs;
                      I will not listen to the melody
                        of your harps.
            But let justice roll down like waters,
                 and righteousness like an everflowing
Israel had mistakenly believed that the sine qua non of worship was making sure the rituals were done properly and the priests were feed.[14]  Rather than a sweet smelling sacrifice such assemblies were nauseating to Yahweh. Israel’s assemblies, rather than being holy convocations, had become base profanity.  The prophets protested this continual profaning of the assembly that eventually drove the glory of the Lord from the temple (Ezk 10).   
Returning from exile many Israelites were not as enthusiastic about corporate worship as their grandparents.  The temple remained in ruins.  Yahweh had made it possible for his people to return to the land of promise though only a small remnant did.  This remnant once again succumbed to the scourge of materialism as they built “paneled houses” while the house of God remained in desolation (Hag 1:3).  Haggai noted that their feelings of dissatisfaction with the rhythm of life stemmed from the failure to renew temple worship (Hag 1:5-6).   
Rather than condemning the temple’s worship assemblies, Haggai – in the midst of the Feast of Tabernacles itself, exhorted the returned exiles to renew their relationship with God by returning to his presence in worship.  Zerubbabel and Joshua rallied the people to hear the word of God and built Yahweh’s palace.  It was apparently a poor palace: some thought it was practically nothing (Hag 2:3).  But the point was not its grandeur. Rather the place of worship was assurance for a tiny people; it was the promise of God, “I am with you” (Hag 1:13; 2:4).  Through temple assemblies God assured his people “my Spirit remains among you” (Hag 2:5, NIV).  In the presence of the Lord the Israelites, surrounded by enemies, from within and without, were not afraid (Hag 2:5).
The prophets dreamed of that day when Israel would truly be a holy nation, a kingdom of priests, fulfilling her missional vocation to lead the nations into the praise and worship of Yahweh.  There would be a new Jerusalem and a pure temple for the gathered people of God.[15]The nations would assemble on God’s mountain and bring their lives to the Holy One of Israel.  Word of God came to Isaiah (2:2-3; Micah 4:1-5)
            In days to come the mountain of the LORD’s house
                 shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
                 and shall be raised above the hills;
            all the nations shall stream to it.
            Many peoples will say,
                 “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
                  to the house of the God of Jacob;
                  that he may teach us his ways
                  and we may walk in his paths.”
            For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
                  and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
The prophet also saw the day when the Egyptians would erect an altar in honor of the Lord (Isa 19:19).  In that day both of Israel’s ancient oppressors, Egypt and Assyria, would join the assembly and worship Yahweh (Isa 19:21-25, NIV) and Yahweh himself “will bless them, saying, ‘Blessed be Egypt my people, Assyria my handiwork, and Israel my inheritance’” (Isa 19:25, NIV).  Ancient enemies not only forget their hatreds in the Gathered assembly before the Lord, but are transformed into partners to further the work of God in bringing shalom back to his vandalized creation.
Ezekiel longed for the day when God’s people would undergo heart transplants and be filled with the Holy Spirit to be a devoted kingdom of priests (Ezk 36).  Rather than leading the nations into worship, Ezekiel laments that Israel had actually led the nations to profane his name.  Appealing to the image of the Garden of Eden, Ezekiel prophesies that Israel will experience a resurrection by the gracious power of Yahweh (Ezk 36:35; 37:1-14).  Resurrected Israel, planted in the new Eden, will have an idyllic temple flowing with the river of life.  Israel will never again profane the name of the Lord (Ezk 43:7) and the glory of the Lord will fill the temple.  The renewed, Spirit-filled, Israel will dwell in this land, and much like Adam and Eve, in the presence of the Lord.  For Ezekiel promises, indeed his last words are, “THE LORD IS THERE” (Ezk 48:35b, NIV).
 Does it make biblical and theological sense to affirm we “gather in God’s presence.”  The theology of sacred space in the Old Testament teaches us that saints do indeed gather on the mountain in the presence of the Holy One.  Or better, in his grace Yahweh comes to his people who have gathered in his name. 
There is a difference between God’s omnipresence and his redemptive presence.[16]  While not using these technical theological terms the biblical narrative clearly affirms both of these realities.  Scripture affirms God’s omnipresence.  “Where can I go from your Spirit?” the Psalmist writes.  “Or where can I flee from your presence?” (Ps 139:7; cf. 139:8-12; Jer. 23:23-24).  The Bible clearly teaches that all space is present to God.  Yet, Scripture also teaches there is a different kind of “presence” that we have explored at length in this chapter.  This presence is God’s holy communion which he shares with those he redeems and covenants with.  This presence is what confronted Moses’ at the burning bush, what went with the Israelites through the Exodus, and filled the tabernacle and temple.  This is the presence of which the famous “As the Deer” passage speaks (Psalm 42:1-2)
            As the deer longs for flowing streams,
                 so my soul longs for you, O God.
            My soul thirsts for God, for the living God,.
            When shall I come and behold
                 the face of God?
            We assemble on the mountain.  We assemble before the throne.  We assemble in the name of the Lord bringing lives that have been freely offered upon the altar for him.  We assemble as the Gathered People of God in anticipation of seeing God face to face.

For more I invite you to get A Gathered People: Revisioning the Assembly as Transforming Encounter.

[1] Peter C. Craigie believes the Exodus is the beginning of Israel’s Psalm tradition, cf. Psalms 1-59 (Waco, TX: Word, 1983), 25-26.
[2] Sigmund Mowinckel, The Psalms in Israel’s Worship, 2 Vols. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1962)
[3] Andrew Hill, Enter His Courts With Praise, 205.
[4] See Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984), 94-106.
[5] Sigmund Mowinckel, The Psalms in Israel’s Worship, Vol. 1, 1-22.
[6] Geoffrey Wainwright, “The Praise of God in the Theological Reflection of the Church,” Interpretation 39 (1985): 39.
[7] See Walter Brueggemann, “Bounded By Obedience and Praise: The Psalms as Canon,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 50 (1991): 64-65; and J. Clinton McCann, Jr, A Theological Introduction to the Book of Psalms: The Psalms as Torah(Nashville: Abingdon, 1993), 25-27, 32-40.
[8] Walter Brueggemann, Israel’s Praise, pp. 74-87.
[9] Walter Brueggemann, “Bounded by Obedience and Praise,” 67.
[10] Ibid., 71.
[11] Peter C. Craigie, Psalms 1-50, p. 364.
[12] Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms, 91.
[13] Joseph Blenkinsopp, A History of Prophecy in Israel, Revised and Expanded (Louisville, KY: WJK: 1983, 1996), 16-26.
[14] Douglas Stuart, Hosea-Jonah: Word Biblical Commentary (Waco, TX: Word, 1987), 355.
[15] Gerhard von Rad, The Message of the Prophets, (San Francisco: Harper SanFrancisco, 1962, 1965), 258-263.
[16] See Tremper Longman III, Immanuel in Our Place, 21-23.

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