A Psalm & A Hymn

Psalm 90 begins with the simple but heartfelt words

Lord, you have been our refuge
from one generation to another.

This is captured and paraphrased in a famous and beloved hymn:

O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home;

Under the shadow of thy throne
Thy saints have dwelt secure;
Sufficient is thine arm alone,
And our defense is sure.

Yes, O God our help in ages past is a hymn that was written to paraphrase and reflect upon Psalm 90.  It was written by Isaac Watts in 1719, and many of his hymns are re-workings of biblical psalms.  Let’s see how more of this hymn teases out layers of meaning from Psalm 90.

Before the hills in order stood,
Or earth received her frame,
From everlasting thou art God,
To endless years the same.

This approximates verse 2 of the psalm:

Before the mountains were brought forth, or the earth and the world were made,
you are God from everlasting, and world without end.

The ancient helping power of God traced through the generation of his saints in the first verse of the psalm and first two stanzas of the hymn is here found all the in the very Days of Creation.  God has always been God, “world without end” or “from ages of ages”.  Before the aeon of time itself, God was the same God we now know and love.

The next stanza in our hymnal reads thus:

A thousand ages in thy sight
Are like an evening gone,
Short as the watch that ends the night
Before the rising sun.

This matches verses 4 & 5 of the Psalm:

For a thousand years in your sight are as yesterday,
even as a day that is past.

You scatter them them as a night-watch that comes quickly to an end;
they are even as a dream and fade away.

Verses 6 & 7 also provides more context and application of this concept of God’s timelessness:

They are like the grass, which in the morning is green,
but in the evening is dried up and withered.

For we consume away in your displeasure
and are afraid at your wrathful indignation.

The eternity of God causes us to reflect upon our mortality, and our insignificance in comparison with Him.  The days of our lives compared to his eternity is like comparing our long lives with the brief life of grass in the desert climes – just one hot day can dry and wither it away.

This leads to the next stanza in the hymn.

Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly, forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.

Verse 7 of Psalm 90, above, and also verse 10, here, both play into that stanza.

The days of our life are seventy years, and though some be so strong that they come to eighty years,
yet is their span but labor and sorrow; so soon it passes away, and we are gone.

The following verses of the Psalm continue on that meditation: we must learn to “number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom” which, we know from the scriptures, is the fear of the Lord.  The fear of the Lord has also been described in the psalm, especially in verses 7, 8, 9, and 11.  It doesn’t feed into Isaac Watts’ hymn too directly, but it’s an important piece of context to keep in mind as we sing.

The hymn ends with a partial repetition of the beginning, but a slightly different petition.

O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Be thou our guide while life shall last,
And our eternal home.

This matches the tone of Psalm 90 in its final few verses, which step back from the language of fear and the shortness of life, and settle upon prayers for comfort.  The Psalm does not overtly return to the language and imagery of God as our refuge or help in ages past, nor of being our home or shelter, but it the hymn and the psalm do wrap up with the same tone or mood.  Thus the hymn is an encapsulation of Psalm 90 in miniature, pulling out some major themes and leaving only hints of others.  It’s no substitute for praying the psalm, of course, but it is a wonderful point of entry.

 

This reflection was originally written for Grace Anglican Church and published on leorningcnihtes boc.

Psalms for the Daily Office on the 31st of the month are not clearly defined.

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One of the more curious features of the 2019 Prayer Book’s handling of the Psalter in the Daily Office is this rubric on page 735:

If there is a 31st day of the month, psalms are chosen from among the Songs of Ascents (120 to 134).

If you want to know more about the Songs of Ascents, I wrote about them a couple weeks ago here.

But today we’re looking at this Weird Rubric.

The 31st day of the month has always been a monkey wrench in Thomas Cranmer’s arrangement of the Psalms, which is a 30-day rotation.  The solution in Prayer Books before ours was that the 31st day of the month would simply repeat the Psalms from the 30th day.  There was at first a more complicated exception to this rule to account for the shortened month of February, but that faded from the Prayer Book tradition.  But in the 2019 Book we now have this murky instruction to choose the Psalms from a particular range.  What this, in effect, does is make the 31st day a repeat of the 27th day or 28th morning.

Now there are two “outs” if you (like me) find this rubric a little too weird.  Your first alternative is to use the 60-day cycle of Psalms, which is printed along with the Daily Office Lectionary.  This has the advantage of begin easy to look up, and perhaps the shorter psalmody will be a welcome “break” if you struggle to keep up with the 30-day standard.  The other solution is to take advantage of this text on page 734:

For any day, the psalms appointed may be reduced in number according to local circumstance, provided that the entire Psalter is read regularly.

This could be interpreted as a “Lazy Clause”, authorizing practically anything.  For example, you could literally read one Psalm, or half a long Psalm, each Office, and take a quarter of a year to get through the whole psalter!  If you do that “regularly” then you’re obeying the rubric here.  And, hey, if you’re new to liturgical prayer and new to the psalms, or you’re helping a child learn to pray, that may be a good idea.  But a seasoned Christian should not use this rubric as license for simply being lazy.  However, the license afforded here does mean that on “any day”, such as the 31st day of the month, you can deviate from the chart on page 735, provided you are covering the entire Psalter regularly.  In short, this is your “out” for praying the Psalms the traditional way, repeating Day 30’s psalms on Day 31.

But if you want to turn Day 31 into a grab-bag of Psalmody, replicating Day 27 and the morning of 28 in some fashion or another, go for it!

A Cry for Justice: Psalm 58

Anger and vengeance are difficult things.  Sometimes Christians talk about “righteous anger”, and how it can be appropriate, even right, to be angry and loud and “out for justice.”  But sometimes Christianity is also propped up as a quiet and peaceful religion where we turn the other cheek, suffer for righteousness’ sake, and keep our earthly tempers and passions at bay.  For sure, it is a difficult call to make – how much anger can we have until it becomes the sin of wrath?  How much dispassion can we have until it becomes the sin of sloth?

Psalm 58 is a curious insight into this subject.  It is by no means a complete explanation or answer, it is a prayer after all, not a theological treatise.  Nonetheless, what it shows us is a godly example of prayer that deals with the angry cry for justice.

Do you indeed decree righteousness, O you rulers,
and do you judge uprightly, O children of men?
No, you devise evil in your heart,
and on the earth your hands deal out violence.
The ungodly err even from their mother’s womb;
as soon as they are born, they go astray and speak lies.
They are as venomous as the poison of a serpent,
even like the deaf adder that stops its ears,
Which refuses to hear the voice of the charmer,
no matter how skillful his charming.

An interesting feature of the opening verse is that the Hebrew word here rendered “rulers” is actually more literally “gods.”  “Do you indeed decree righteousness O you gods?”  The use of the word gods here is meant to be understood as earthly princes and rulers who are essentially like gods to their respective realms, so the Prayer Book rendition I’ve typed above is legitimate.  But it is interesting to think about the ramifications of calling earthly leaders “gods”.  How often do kings, princes, governors, and presidents think of themselves as gods?  Or how often do their followers treat them as gods?  It can be very easy to fall into this mentality.  Some of the absolute monarchies of Europe and Asia approached deification of their monarchs.  Some of the major despots of the 20th century presented themselves in god-like roles, explicitly or implicitly.  Even Presidents of Western democracies, including our own, have had cult-like followings who speak as if their favored candidate or elected official can do no wrong, or is ultimately just despite his or her flaws.  This is not a Left or Right phenomenon, nor is it a matter of a free society versus a caste-based, slaved-based, feudalistic, or any other social model.  It is a human thing.

You see, these first 5 verses paint a picture of what Calvinists call total depravity, or in Anglican terms the effects of original sin or birth-sin. People simply do not judge uprightly; we devise evil in our hearts and we deal in violence.  And this is a condition that we are born with, even conceived in (as Psalm 51 observes).  No matter how skillful the charms of God’s blessings are offered, we shut our ears to God’s Word and continue in our sinful and unjust ways.  That is the way of the world.

In Christ, we have redemption, and we have forgiveness, and the beginning of healing – sanctification – that transforms us into the likeness of Christ.  We are becoming “gods” who will rule with Christ righteously – Jesus even speaks of his Apostles sitting on twelve thrones (Matthew 19:28, Luke 22:30)!  And from that perspective of recovery, we can see the evil that we are (all too slowly) leaving behind, and cry out:

Break their teeth, O God, in their mouths;
smite the jawbones of the ungodly.
Let them fall away like water that runs off;
let them whither like the grass that is trodden underfoot.
Let them melt away like a snail,
and be like a stillborn child that does not see the sun.
Before they bear fruit, let them, be cut off like a briar;
let them be like thorns and weeds that are swept away.

Verses 6 through 9 there are pretty hefty.  You almost need a content warning on that… I mean, I wouldn’t want to read this with my 5-year-old.  And yet there is a poetry to this.

  1. The first image here is of violence: may God punch them in the face.
  2. Nature images follow, with runoff and stomped grass.
  3. Then it goes up to death: a snail “melted” by salt and a child that dies in the womb.

The last verse of this section is partly a culmination and partly a yet higher step in the chain.  Not only is death wished upon the ungodly rulers, but a death swift enough to prevent their posterity from coming into being.  This is evocative of a first strike scenario: may God destroy the wicked before they have a chance to multiply further!

I do not know very many people who would under normal conditions consider this a viable Christian prayer.  And yet here it is, near the middle of the Bible (and near the middle of the 2019 Prayer Book too, as it happens).

There are two things, I think, that make this prayer pray-able.

  1. We must remember that all we, like sheep, have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way.  The death sentence is deservedly upon the head of every man, woman, and child.  From birth we are steeped in sin and unstoppably wicked.  By the grace of God, and only by the grace of God, are people rescued from this condition, redeemed, and brought to eternal life.
  2. The best way that the wicked can die, as this Psalm unflinchingly asks God to kill, is to die to sin.  In baptism we are buried with Christ, we die to sin.  Our greatest hope for wicked rulers is that they turn to God, die to the world, and finally truly live.  Wouldn’t it be amazing if the American President, the North Korean Dictator, the Prime Ministers of Europe, and everywhere in between, learned to confess their sins to Jesus, take up their cross, and follow Him?

But the Psalm ends with equal ferocity as before.

The righteous shall rejoice when they see the vengeance;
they shall wash their feet in the blood of the ungodly.
So that people shall say, “Truly, there is a reward for the righteous;
surely, there is a God who judges the earth.”

Judgment is a very negative concept in popular perception.  “Don’t judge me!” is one of the most frequent outs in hard conversation.  Many Christians too, not just non-believers, tout this line as soon as they feel like their life choices are being questioned or threatened.  And yet we all still know the positive meaning of justice; one needs only look to the political figures that one dislikes to realize that there is a positive desire for justice to be served.  Whether it was “Lock her up” or “Never Trump” or “Black lives matter” or “Blue lives matter”, we all have a desire to see justice prevail.

And so that is where we need to reflect as we pray a hard Psalm like this one.  The final verse is, I think, the most helpful clarifying line for us in the course of understanding how to pray Psalm 58.  Ultimately, we want God to act such that everyone will be able to say “Truly, there is a reward for the righteous; surely, there is a God who judges the earth.”  As we said above, the best way for someone to die is to die to sin, because that death is the entrance to eternal life in Christ.

Let our desire for justice, our anger and our vengeance, never overshadow the hope for the salvation of our enemies.

Lectionary Convergence: Psalm 23

This week we have some nice lectionary convergences in the 2019 Prayer Book.  Psalm 23 was heard yesterday at the Communion service, and now we hear it again at Evening Prayer the next day.  This week we’re also reading from 1 Peter, which is the source of the Sunday Communion Epistle lessons throughout Eastertide this year.

If you want to read a reflection on Psalm 23 for today, click here.

If you want to read about 1 Peter during Eastertide, click here.

Last of all, by way of a reminder, yesterday was the 4th Sunday of Easter, nicknamed Good Shepherd Sunday.  In the traditional lectionary, however, Good Shepherd Sunday was last Sunday.  So if you’re poking around different Anglican ministry sites and pages and noticed a Good Shepherd themed article a week off from what you would have expected, that’s why.

The Psalms of Ascent

If you’re praying the Psalms in the Prayer Book, there is one little detail that you’re missing: the superscriptions, usually printed in italics, above verse 1.  Sometimes they are titles; sometimes they note the author or a situation relevant to the psalm’s origin; sometimes they say something about the music or the instruments.  Some Bible translations even make the superscription “verse 1” and start the text of the psalm on “verse 2”.

The usefulness of these superscriptions is… honestly rather poor.  When you compare the Greek and Hebrew Old Testaments, many of them are different.  When you compare different manuscript groups even within the same language, they still vary.  In short, it’s very difficult to tell how old a given superscription is, when they were added, by whom, and for what purpose.  Even if some of them are authentic they can still be misleading; to say a Psalm is “Of David” could mean both written by him or written in the tradition of David.  To say a Psalm is from “Asaph and his sons” could mean both written by him and his biological children or written by the school of Temple musicians that was first run by Asaph.

And so, quite rightly, liturgical texts such as the Prayer Book do not include the superscriptions for any psalm.  After all, when it’s time to pray, we don’t read titles and labels, we pray the prayers.

But there are some superscriptions that can be useful.  Psalms 120 through 134 are all labeled “A Song of Ascents.”  It is said that this label refers to their liturgical use among the faithful Judeans, who would sing or chant these psalms during their approach (or “ascent”) to Jerusalem for a high feast like Passover, or Pentecost.  This tells us nothing about their origin, but that doesn’t really matter; these are prayers to be prayed.  That they were especially used in a particular context can give us insight into how we might use them too.

And, lo and behold, there are two places in the 2019 Prayer Book where this group of Psalms shows up.  One is on page 735, where they are commended as appropriate psalms to be prayed on the 31st day of the month, when the 30-day cycle has ended but the next month has not yet begun.  This is kind of an “ascent”, approaching the beginning of a new month.  The other place they are mentioned is on page 39 where Psalms 120 through 133 are offered as suitable additional psalms for Midday Prayer.  (Psalm 134 is omitted in this reference because it’s already on the list for Compline.)  So there again, at midday, we have a sort of “ascent”, not quite at one of the major Offices of prayer for the day, but simply stopping along the way of the day’s journey to offer some brief prayers before continuing on in our labor.

In the Daily Office, the Psalms of Ascents are normally read on the 27th and 28th days of the month (today and tomorrow).  They are mostly pretty short, and they touch on all sorts of topics.  (This may be something of a relief after the epic-length Psalm 119 occupying three days of prayer!)  Most of them are pretty happy and cheerful, celebrating God’s deliverance and protection.  Several of them are sober, expressing trust in the Lord in the face of evil.  Though among them is also Psalm 130, “Out of the deep…” which is traditionally associated with death and grief.

One could say that they inspire and model for us the traditional practice of “keeping the hours”, or offering regular but very brief prayers at certain times of day.  They do this by being short, concise, and memorable.  On the ascent to Jerusalem, stop and offer these prayers, one by one, along the way.  On the way through your day, stop and pray these psalms, or other prayers, bit by bit, along the way.

A Psalm and a Plan

Welcome to Holy Week, everyone!

First of all I want to remind you that I made a handy-dandy all-in-one chart of the Scripture readings for the various liturgies throughout Holy Week, according to the 2019 Prayer Book.  You can read about it here: Holy Week Readings all-in-one explanation article, and download it here: Holy Week all-in-one 2020.

Also, I wanted to offer some reflections on one of the morning Psalms for today.

When I first being introduced to the liturgical tradition of prayer (while serving as pianist at Roman Catholic Masses during college), something that struck me as strange was how much time the prayers spent telling God what He had already done.  “Why are you telling God what he already did?  Why don’t you just get on with making the petitions you want to ask Him?”  What I eventually learned is that this is not only healthy for the people praying to rehearse God’s deeds in prayer, but it’s also a very biblical pattern of prayer to preface requests with remembrances.  We highlight some aspect of God’s being, character, or works, and on that basis we make our request(s).

Psalm 32:1-5, The Remembrance (or Memorial)

Psalm 32 is an excellent example of this pattern played out.  The first five verses are all about the past….

Psalm 32:6, The Sermon (or Homily)

Psalm 32:7-11, Responsive Reading (or Dialogue)

The End (or Goal or Telos) of Penitence

Read the whole thing here: https://leorningcniht.wordpress.com/2016/02/24/praying-psalm-32-in-lent/

Midday Prayer could take all afternoon!

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On page 39 of the BCP 2019 the following rubric is found:

Other suitable selections from the Psalter include Psalms 19, 67, one or more sections of Psalm 119, or a selection from Psalms 120 through 133.

This is to supplement what is said on page 33:

One or more of the following, or some other suitable Psalm, is sung or said.

So what if (and just go with me on this, okay?) we decide to put the emphasis on the “or more” part of these rubrics.  What if we opt for ALL OF THEM?  Psalms 19, 67, and 119 through 133.  That’s completely permissible, given the rubrics we’ve got.  How long would that take, maybe an hour?  I guess it depends how quickly you read, pray, or chant them.

Welcome to Weird Rubric Wednesday!  Not quite every Wednesday, but most Wednesdays for a while, we’re going to be looking at oddities, loopholes, or opportunities to do weird things to the liturgy without breaking the rules in the 2019 Prayer Book.  This is not meant to bash the Prayer Book (in any edition), but simply an opportunity for some more light-hearted learning.

As it happens, I do have a suggestion for how one might make use of all of those “suitable Psalms” in Midday Prayer over the course of time.  It can be approached in three ways.

Ordinary days of the year like during Epiphanytide and Trinitytide:
Favor the four Psalms provided in the primary text of the liturgy, and add three noteworthy Psalms mentioned in the Additional Directions (19, 67, and 130).

SUNDAY: 67
MONDAY: 119:105-112
TUESDAY: 121
WEDNESDAY: 124
THURSDAY: 126
FRIDAY: 130
SATURDAY: 19

Penitential seasons and occasions like during Lent and Advent:
Set up a two-week rotation (matching the liturgical calendar) that focuses primarily on going through Psalm 119, two sections at a time.  Sunday can use the more penitential of the two of the primary-provided Psalms, and the last slot can go to Psalm 19 which is similar to 119.

124, 126 : SUNDAY : 124, 126
19 : MONDAY : 119:81-96
119:1-16 : TUESDAY : 119:97-112
119:17-32 :WEDNESDAY: 119:113-128
119:33-48 : THURSDAY : 119:129-144
119:49-64 : FRIDAY : 119:145-160
119:65-80 :SATURDAY: 119:161-176

Festal seasons and occasions like during Christmas and Easter:
Walk through the Psalms of ascent listed in the Additional Directions, using the same sort of two-week rotation mentioned above.

120 : SUNDAY : 127
121 : MONDAY : 128
122 : TUESDAY : 129
123 :WEDNESDAY: 130
124 : THURSDAY : 131
125 : FRIDAY : 132
126 :SATURDAY: 133

Learning the Daily Office – part 8 of 12

So you’ve heard about the Daily Office, specifically the Anglican tradition of daily prayer and scripture reading, and you want to enter into this beautiful and formative tradition?  Great, grab a prayer book and go!  Except, maybe someone already said that and you don’t know where to start… or worse, you did try it and it was just too much?  The length of the Office was overwhelming and the contents too complicated to navigate when you’ve got no experience with liturgy.  We understand, we’ve all been at that place before!  Some just don’t remember it as well as others.

Diving into the full Prayer Book life of worship doesn’t work for everyone; sometimes you have to work your way up toward that discipline, adding one piece at a time as you grow comfortable with each feature and learn how to “do” them all.  This post series is basically a twelve-step program to help you advance in the life of disciplined prayer from zero to super-Anglican.  The pace is up to you – the goal of this sort of spiritual discipline is consistency, not “how much” you do.

Step One: Pray a Psalm followed by the Lord’s Prayer.
Step Two: Add a Scripture Reading
Step Three: Add more Psalms and Lessons
Step Four: Add the Apostles’ Creed
Step Five: Add Canticles
Step Six: Add the Confession
Step Seven: Add some Prayers

Step Eight: Add the Invitatory

After the Confession of Sin you’ve probably noticed a little dialogue: “O Lord, open our lips / and our mouth shall proclaim your praise” and so on.  This is called the Invitatory – a fancy description of something that invites us to worship.  Included in it is the Gloria Patri – “Glory be to the Father…” – which you will find is also said at the end of most of the Canticles.  If you haven’t already noticed and implemented it, now’s also the time to add this Gloria Patri to the end of the regular Psalms Appointed, too.

The lines “O Lord open our lips…” are from a Psalm, but their liturgical use in the Offices dates to monastic tradition; the idea was that this dialogue was the beginning of the first morning office, effectively being the first thing the monk says each day.  Although this is not the case for us, nor is it even the beginning of the liturgy, it is like the beginning of the liturgy.  If you conceive of the Confession as preparatory to praising God, then the Invitatory dialogue is where our praises actually do begin.

After this dialogue, Morning and Evening Prayer diverge from one another.

Morning Prayer sees an “invitatory psalm” take place, which is traditionally Psalm 95 (Venite), though when that psalm shows up as one of the daily psalms appointed our tradition is to replace it with Psalm 100 (Jubilate).  On Easter the Pascha nostrum takes their place.  You’ll also see a set of Antiphons, which are brief phrases (often based on bible verses) to be said before and after the invitatory psalm.  Catholic tradition is full of antiphons, but our prayer book only provides them for this one place in the liturgy.  Even here, it’s optional, so don’t worry about them if you find it too much.  They’re there to beautify and enrich the liturgy, so if they’re a burden, don’t worry!

Evening Prayer is simpler: we find the Phos hilaron, an ancient Christian hymn, to be read between the dialogue and the Psalms.  It explores the image of Christ as our Light, which has earned it a beloved place in the liturgical tradition.  The classical prayer books didn’t have anything here for Evening Prayer, so the Phos hilaron remains optional.  Or you can read or sing a different hymn instead, if you prefer.

Summary

Your Morning & Evening Offices are now looking like this:

  1. (Opening Sentence)
  2. The Confession of Sin
  3. The Invitatory
  4. Invitatory Psalm or Phos Hilaron
  5. The Psalm(s) Appointed
  6. Old Testament Lesson (occasionally the first lesson is from the NT instead)
  7. First Canticle
  8. New Testament Lesson
  9. Second Canticle
  10. The Apostles’ Creed (consider standing up for this!)
  11. The Prayers
    1. Lord have mercy…
    2. The Lord’s Prayer
    3. Suffrage
    4. A Collect for (the day of the week)
    5. A Prayer for Mission

This covers almost the entire Prayer Book liturgy for daily Morning and Evening Prayer.  Two more steps remain to complete it, and then two extra steps to expand it further if you are so inclined.

The many roles of Psalm 51

Psalm 51 is one of the most famous psalms in the Bible, I think it’s safe to say.  Known in Latin by its opening words, Miserere mei, Deus, it has been rendered into one of the most beautiful pieces of chorale music known to man.  And this Psalm pops up, in whole and in part, all over Christian liturgy.  Since it’s one of the Morning Psalms Appointed for today (the 10th day of the month), this is an excellent day to visit the many roles of Psalm 51.

Holy Communion

In the 2019 Prayer Book, you can find this Psalm appointed for the Communion service on a few different occasions.  In mid-September of Year C (Proper 19) verses 1-17 are appointed; on the first Sunday in Lent of Year A verses 1-13 are appointed (with the option of using the whole psalm); and on the Fifth Sunday in Lent of Year B verses 11-16  are appointed (again with the option of using the whole psalm).  So this means that there is always one Sunday every year that uses some or all of Psalm 51.

In Lent

Perhaps the most famous use of Psalm 51 is its place in the penitential office for Ash Wednesday.  In the 2019 Prayer Book it is sung or said after the imposition of ashes, though it could also be sung by a choir during the imposition of ashes.  In the historic Prayer Books it appears in an analogous position, after the curses and exhortation in the Commination (or Penitential Office), also leading up to the prayers that follow.

Versicles & Responses

Various bits and pieces of Psalm 51 show up in other liturgies.  Here are a few examples:

  • Verse 7 “You shall purge me with hyssop…” is the basis of a prayer used by some priests at the washing of hands before celebrating Communion.  It is also a verse used in the asperges – that is, the sprinkling of holy water, usually upon the congregation.
  • Verses 10-12 “Create in me a clean heart…” are the foundation of a few popular songs, contemporary and traditional.  They’re also used in the Morning service of the 2019 book’s mini-Office of Family Prayer.  Two lines from these verses are also found at the end of the Suffrage in the regular Daily Office.
  • Verse 15 “O Lord, open my lips…” is a mainstay of the Daily Office (historically just Morning Prayer, but in modern texts also Evening Prayer), near the start of the service.  Although there are sentences and a confession before it, these words are often considered the “real” start of the Daily Office, and everything before it as merely preparatory.  In monastic tradition, from what I understand, these words are literally the first words spoken at the beginning of the day’s round of worship.

This is quite a bit of mileage for just one Psalm!  Where else can you find its echoes and quotations showing up?

Longing for God, in Psalm 27

We just prayed Psalm 27 the other day in the Daily Office and we’re going to hear it again at the Sunday Communion in another couple days, according to the lectionary in the 2019 Prayer Book.  So let’s take a quick look at this Psalm.

There are many different ways you can go about analyzing this Psalm and breaking it down into sections.  One reasonable method is to break it in half, noting that the first 8 verses speak about God, and the remaining 9 speak to God.  (This is using the Prayer Book’s versification, by the way.)  The first half is like the warm-up, preparing the way for the direct prayers of the second.

Another way of looking at this Psalm is to identify three cycles that each culminate with an expression of the longing for God.

  1. “Whom shall I fear?” we ask, and find sanctuary in God.
    Dwell with God and see his face (verses 4 & 5).
    This is an expression of trust.
  2. “Praise God who exalts me!” we proclaim, then prompt him to answer in return.
    Seek his face and be permitted to find him (verses 10 & 11).
    This is a picture of pro-active trust.
  3. False accusations come before us, and so we wait upon the Lord.
    See God’s goodness and be comforted (verses 16 & 17).
    These accusers are a picture of the opposite of trust.

Although there is a lot of material in this Psalm that puts it in the “Trust” and “Lament” categories, it gives ample opportunity for pure adoration.  If you’re of a pentecostal bent, this business about desiring “the fair beauty of the Lord” may be more natural to you; but if you tend to “hide” yourself in the liturgy, this sort of emotionalism may be tougher to swallow.  That is why the Psalter – and thus all good liturgy – is so important for a healthily balanced spirituality!  The corporate and individual expressions of piety are showcased together here so vividly.  This is a courage-filled prayer for help, and we must realize that at the ground of such courage we must find (or nurture) a deep and hearty and personal love for God.

Different personalities, and different traditions, often tend to gravitate toward one sort of spirituality and prayer style over others.  At its best, liturgy keeps us far better balanced than we ever would be, left to our own devices.  You may be the sort who “longs for God” in a personally-emotive kind of way – you yearn to be united with the lover of your soul.  In that case, Psalm 27 will have moments of brightness and beauty that you will quickly cherish.  But you may be the sort who “longs for God” in more abstract ways, like wanting see his justice prevail in a particular area in our culture, or desiring his truth to be made more fully known in your understanding of the Bible, or in the minds of nonbelievers that they may be saved.  In that case, Psalm 27 may strike you as awkwardly personal, maybe even exaggerated.  If that’s you, this is one of those psalms that will help you grow.

So pay special attention to this on Sunday morning, when it comes up, and see what more you can get out of it than you got the other day!  Or, if you’re in a parish that uses the traditional calendar, take the time to look up Psalm 27 on your own again.  The desire of all creation is to belong, and this should be all the more true for us as Christians, desiring to be with and behold our Lord God.