I’ve said something about my usual habits in reading the Psalms here: Praying the Psalms. Briefly stated, my usual procedure in reading, meditating and praying with the Psalms is to read consecutively and slowly. For this purpose I use an Interlinear (Hebrew with English below) edition of the Psalms. And, usually this approach works very well.
But, with Psalm 106 this didn’t work. With Psalm 106 it was necessary for me to see the opening verses of praise (vv. 1-5) in the light of their larger context.
When I began to read and meditate on the Psalm, I was struck by the language of praise and worship in the opening verses (though they were similar to verses found elsewhere in the Psalms), but then I got “stuck” (from verse 6 onward) in a long section that recounts the sins of the nation of Israel (verses 6-46) and God’s unfailing commitment to them in spite of all that.
This forced me to go back to the beginning and read it over again. The opening verses of praise to God (הַלְלוּיָהּ “Hallelujah”!) are delivered in the conscious memory of the people’s repeated unfaithfulness.
This is praise in the context of guilt.
So, in a sense, verse 6 sets the stage for those opening praises.
חָטָאנוּ עִם־אֲבוֹתֵינוּ הֶעֱוִינוּ הִרְשָׁעְנוּ
“We have sinned like our fathers, We have committed iniquity, we have behaved wickedly.” (NASB)
The language is strong (“we acted wickedly” = רָשַׁע). There is no excuse presented. The memory of this wickedness is the backdrop for the recounting of God’s continuing, unfailing loyalty (חֶסֶד). It is the backdrop for praise and thankfulness.
And, recognizing this lead me to another thought. The sense of my own failure and guilt does not generally lead me to praise. I am more likely to feel ashamed — cut off and abandoned. To be honest, I haven’t felt that much genuine guilt lately. Just shame.
I am very quick to remind myself of my own faults and failures. I have kept a record in my mind. And, the moral of this oft-told story — that I tell myself — is that I don’t really deserve to be blessed. Somewhere in my childhood I learned this lesson: “you should be ashamed of yourself.” And, I am: often.
This sense of shame, this free-floating, unfocused guilt does not drive me toward praise. It is spiritually debilitating. It is far more likely to lead to depression.
It is like the “sorrow” (λύπη) Paul writes about in 2 Corinthians 7:10 that leads, not toward God and salvation, but, towards death. “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death.” (NRSV) There is no life in it. It is spiritual death.
In fact, I’m stuck by how similar Psalm 106:6 and 1 Kings 19:4 sound. It is even the very same Hebrew term that is used there for “father” or “ancestor” (אָב). And, yet these verses are nothing alike at all. One is spoken as the backdrop to praise, the other is an expression of suicidal despair. It seems to me that it is the same contrast that is in the verse I quoted above: “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death.” (2 Corinthians 7:10 NRSV).
I think there is a great freedom in praising God in the context of our limitation and failure. Looking back on it, how could Elijah have expected to be anything but a person “no better than [his] ancestors”? We are human. We were created human. Our limitations cannot be overcome. We learn. We become wiser — or not. Time slips through our fingers.
But, God’s great unexpected, relentless, long-suffering love (חֶסֶד) meets the undeserving. God’s grace comes to us screw-ups.
Whatever it is we may deserve, what we find in our God is grace and blessing and peace and salvation and life.
It is this that lies behind those opening words of praise (verse 1):
הַלְלוּיָהּ הוֹדוּ לַיהוָה כִּי־טוֹב כִּי לְעוֹלָם חַסְדּוֹ
“Praise the LORD! Oh give thanks to the LORD, for He is good; For His loving-kindness is everlasting.”
Our failures and faults and limitations and (what Mr. Wesley called) infirmities do not cancel out the goodness and grace of God. These are, in fact, the backdrop, in which God’s goodness (טוֹב) and unfailing loyalty (חֶסֶד) are known. This is the basis of our hallelujah! We praise the God who does not give up! We praise the God who brings victory into what we thought was our defeat. Grace and glory are found in the midst of our limitation and failure.
whom the people Israel knew as good and loyal
in spite of their failure and sin,
who does not turn away from the people of your covenant
renew my hope today.
May I be at peace with myself and You.
Enable me to believe that there is hope
For me and for all who look to you for salvation and direction.
I am no better than my ancestors.
God help me.
How could I expect to be anything more?
God help me.
May Your grace shine into my life today and always.
I cannot find my way without it. Amen.