Joshua 15:1-63; Luke 18:18-43; Psalm 86:1-17; Proverbs 13:9-10
The Psalms are a profound collection. They're full of passion and truth and uncomfortable pronouncements against enemies and obscure references to geography. They are comfort to us, and they unsettle us. And we're not always certain how to read them, how to understand them. If you haven't read any poetry since your freshman lit class, you may even be uneasy about the very format of the writing. In the spirit of full disclosure: I have a degree in literature; I taught high school English; I have a collection of poetry anthologies that I dip into and out of (usually while brushing my teeth). Yet even so, the Psalms can be hard for me. They're ancient and they don't rhyme and they're structured differently. Ack!
One of the (many) advantages to growing up in a preacher's household is the little bits of "how to read the Bible" that get squirreled away. One such nugget helped me read today's psalm. You see, some of the psalms are structured in an X, starting at thought A and moving to the crux of the psalm, thought M/N, and then moving back out in parallel to thought Z (which echoes or amplifies thought A). This format is called a "chiasm" after the Greek letter chi, represented as our X. In other words, in a ten-part psalm, verses 1 and 10 would parallel, verses 2 and 9 would parallel, verses 3 and 8 would parallel, verses 4 and 7 would parallel, and verses 5-6 would be the main point, the central idea, the meaty portion of the writing. Make sense?
Psalm 86 falls into this chiastic structure. Here's my breakdown. It's not verse 1 = verse 17, but the thoughts move inward to the point and then outward in equal measure, like an hourglass. Look at the movement:
- Vs. 1-4 - (Thought #1) The psalmist makes a request of God: "I need something, God, and here's why I approach you; I can't do it, but you can; be merciful; I'm turning to you."
- Vs. 5 - (Thought #2) The psalmist declares truths about God's character: "You are forgiving, good, abounding in love." (Notice the echoes of God's self-revelation to Moses - see Ex. 34:6.)
- Vs. 6-7 - (Thought #3) The psalmist makes a plea for God's aid in the midst of his trouble, but the trouble is unspecified.
- Vs. 8-10 - (Thought #4) The psalmist proclaims God's uniqueness: the nations (as a community) will praise; God is worthy of everyone's worship; God is great and does amazing things, generally speaking.
- Vs. 11 - (Main point) The psalmist realizes what he most needs: to know God's way more fully. He pleads with God, not for change in circumstance nor for revenge, but for the transformation of his own life so that he may live rightly before God.
- Vs. 12-13 - (Thought #4, restated, elaborated and/or amplified) The psalmist has moved to individual praise: God is worthy of his worship; God is great and does amazing things for him.
- Vs. 14 - (Thought #3, restated, elaborated and/or amplified) The psalmist now specifically states his trouble.
- Vs. 15 - (Thought #2, restated, elaborated and/or amplified) The psalmist again lays out the truth of God's character: he is compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness. (This doesn't just echo Exodus - it is almost the exact words of God's self-description.)
- Vs. 16-17 - (Thought #1, restated, elaborated and/or amplified) The psalmist ends where he began, expressing a need for God: "Be inclined toward me; be merciful, respond to me and save me; show me your favor."
And then, the beautiful coda: "You...have helped me and comforted me."
As I was mapping this psalm out, I was struck by the seeming incongruity of the main point - why, in a psalm about how much he needs God, would there be this portion? It doesn't seem to be in keeping with the rest of the "help me" of the psalm. But upon reflection, I think that's exactly why it's the main point. Yes, the psalmist is in trouble. His difficulty appears to be physical threat; ours may be illness or financial hardship or relational strife. Yes, he needs God's intervention, since only divine help will suffice. That is true for us in our difficulties, too. Yes, God remains the same. His character is still and always loving and faithful and gracious and compassionate - to and for the psalmist, to and for us. But what the psalmist most needs - what we most need - is not God's intervention in our circumstances. We most need God's truth. We most need God's ways. We most need the moving of God's Holy Spirit in our innermost parts, to change and transform our hearts. To make us more like Jesus. To shape us into holiness.
So in the midst of all the other needs and truths, the psalmist has structured his writing to latch on to the most fundamental of all needs: our need to live in accordance to God's good ways. "Teach [us] your way, O Lord, and [we] will walk in your truth; give [us] an undivided heart, that [we] may fear your name." Amen.
- Sarah Marsh
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