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with Tony W. Cartledge
Psalm 147:1-20

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horserace“His delight is not in the strength of the horse, nor his pleasure in the speed of a runner; but the LORD takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love.” — Psalm 147:10-11

A Good Way to Begin

Themes of the Christmas season bring heaven and earth together: the Son of God surrenders heavenly prerogatives to become incarnate on the earth, a new star appears to celebrate his birth and guide the Magi, an angelic chorus sings from the sky to shepherds keeping watch in their fields.

The beginning of a new year is also an appropriate time to remember that the creator of the universe has offered to live in personal relationship with people of the earth, and Psalm 147 provides an effective reminder of that dual reason for daily praise.
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God’s restorative power(vv. 1-6)

Psalm 147 was probably written at some point after Hebrew exiles were allowed to return to Jerusalem, fortified by a decree from King Cyrus authorizing them to rebuild the temple of Yahweh (537 BCE). The early years of the return brought hard times, however: the former exiles found the city in ruins, the people of neighboring towns were hostile, and a period of famine made it difficult to survive, much less prosper.

The excitement of the return soon faded. Governor Sheshbazaar had workers to clear the site of the temple, and priests built an altar that enabled them to reinstitute the cultic practices surrounding sacrifices and annual festivals. Heavy opposition from surrounding provinces and a daily struggle for survival soon brought construction efforts to a halt, however. Residents focused on building houses and establishing farms for themselves, leaving the temple unfinished.

When the prophets Haggai and Zechariah came on the scene around 520 BCE, they were appalled at the lack of progress. They lambasted the people for not rebuilding the temple and restoring proper worship as their first priority. Haggai, in fact, claimed that Yahweh had sent the famine as punishment because the people had failed to put God first (Haggai 1).

Urged on by the prophets’ preaching, the new governor Zerubbabel corresponded with Persian leaders to overcome legal challenges brought by neighboring governors and renew the Hebrews’ authorization to build a new temple. A five-year construction effort culminated with the dedication of the new temple in 515 BCE.

Psalm 147 was probably written during this tumultuous period, and it reinforces the importance of offering praise to God – an activity typically associated with the temple, where a professional order of temple singers led in worship. After the opening “Hallelujah,” a call to worship that literally means “Praise Yahweh,” the psalmist declares that singing praises to God is a good and proper response to God’s ongoing display of grace (v. 1).

As evidence of Yahweh’s beneficence, the psalmist praises Yahweh for building up Jerusalem and gathering those who had been exiled from their home, healing their broken hearts and bandaging their wounds (vv. 2-3).

With v. 4 the psalmist changes gears, amazed that the God who cares for the hard-pressed people of Jerusalem is the same God who could count and name every star (v. 4). One might expect a God of such immense power and immeasurable wisdom to be unconcerned with human struggles, but not so: Yahweh intervenes to lift up the downtrodden – such as the returning exiles – and to cast down wicked folk such as the neighboring officials who had sought to prevent the temple from being built (vv. 5-6).

When you think of your own life and perhaps your church, do similar thoughts ever occur to you? How amazing it is to sit outside on a clear night to ponder the stars in their number and magnitude, while imagining that the same God who created the universe also cares for humankind and desires to live in a relationship of covenant love with us.

God’s dependable provision(vv. 7-11)

The second strophe of Psalm 147 begins with a renewed call to praise God with song. The word translated as “sing” in the NRSV usually means “to answer” or “to respond.” In this way, the psalmist reminds us that our prayers and songs of praise are a human response of gratitude for God’s goodness to us (v. 7).

And how has God been good? The psalmist considers the gifts of clouds and rain that make the grass to grow on Israel’s fertile hills (v. 8). Like other ancients, he did not consider wind or rain to be the result of global meteorological phenomena, but believed that the seasonal rains were a gift of God’s sustaining grace, not just to humans, but to the animals and birds as well (v. 9).

As God looks upon the earth and considers its inhabitants, what sparks divine pleasure? It is not the impressive beauty of a muscled horse in full gallop or the efficient stride of a human runner (v. 10), the psalmist says, but the response of “those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love” (v. 11).

Some writers think the reference to strong horses and swift runners could be a military reference to chariots and infantry, but that is not a necessary assumption. The point is that God may find satisfaction in gazing upon the wonders of creation at its best, but what really brings God pleasure is the grateful response of those who have put their hope in the promise of God’s love.

The injunction to “fear the LORD” is especially common in Israel’s Wisdom literature, which insists: “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 1:7, 9:10; see also Ps. 111:10 and Prov. 4:7). “Fear” in this context does not suggest abject fright, but a sense of reverence and respect for God that goes deep enough to affect one’s behavior in keeping the commands and honoring the covenant relationship between God and Israel.

God’s covenant word(vv. 12-20)

With each section, the psalm goes a little deeper into the joys and challenges of an ongoing relationship with God. As in the first two stanzas, the third section begins with a call to praise Yahweh, utilizing two different words for “praise,” two different terms for God, and two different names for Jerusalem: “Praise (shavach) the LORD, O Jerusalem,” the psalmist called.
“Praise (halal) your God, O Zion” (v. 12).

Again, the call to praise God is followed by reasons for why adoration is due. The first cause for praise addresses the renewed Jerusalem specifically: God reinforces the city’s protective gates so children can find safety and people can live in peace, enjoying the earth’s bounty that God provides (vv. 13-14).

Further divine actions reach beyond Jerusalem to all of nature, including God’s ability to control the seasons by divine command. With delightful imagery, the psalmist declares that “his word runs swiftly” to bring snow, frost, hail, and cold (vv. 15-17). But winter ends.

As God’s word brings on the frozen precipitation of winter, so also “He sends out his word, and melts them; he makes his wind to blow, and the waters flow” (v. 18). Many residents of ancient Jerusalem had farms and family members living outside the city. They understood the importance of the alternating seasons for growing needed crops.

But divine care goes beyond the physical: God has also provided both a covenant of relationship and the instructions needed to follow it: “He declares his word to Jacob, his statutes and ordinances to Israel” (v. 19; see “The Hardest Question” online for more on this).

In drawing to a close, the psalmist highlighted Israel’s unique place in God’s order: no other nation had been granted the opportunity to live in such a relationship with God, whose ordinances were not demands as much as they were gifts, keys that could open the door to lives of peace and of praise (v. 20).

Now, all of that sounds well and good, you may be thinking, but I don’t live in Jerusalem. I am not an Israelite. Does this psalm still have anything to say to me?

The answer, of course, is yes. Followers of Jesus live under a new and different covenant, but it is rooted in the same God who loved and blessed and disciplined and forgave the people of Israel. Our relationship is not based on keeping the law, but in trusting the one who fulfilled the law and did for us what we could not do for ourselves, one who offers grace beyond measure.

This is not to say that our relationship is devoid of demand: as Israel was called to love God and keep the commandments, Jesus challenged his followers to love God and keep his commandments – namely, to love one another as we love ourselves. All of the laws that really matter are bound up in this: when we are guided by love, positive actions will follow.

Followers of Jesus are not promised that the faithful will always prosper or that hardships will not come our way: good behavior is no guarantee of financial freedom, and wrongdoing will not automatically bring punishment. Our motivation in following Jesus goes beyond the selfish desire for personal prosperity: it is a longing to see the world with Christlike compassion and to do our part to bring peace and wholeness to others.

Praising God with our voices and songs is one response to the grace we have received: praising with our love and our lives is even better. BT

Resources to teach adult and youth classes are available at baptiststoday.org

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Adult Teaching Resources

Download the PDF for January 3, 2015 teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide, Digging Deeper, and Hardest Question pages.

Download PDF

 

Video

Additional Links/Resources
Read Scripture online: Psalm 147:12-20

 


Youth

Teacher Prep | Youth & This Session

The new year is here and resolutions have been made. This is time of year when people think about beginning anew. What a great time to think about renewing our relationship with God. Psalm 147 reminds us of the personal relationship that God wants to have with each of us. There is no promise that our lives will be full of health, wealth, and wisdom, but there is a promise that it will be done with God. Continually remind your students of this and practice it by being present with your students.

Teaching Resources | Download

Download the PDF for youth teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide for this lesson.

Video
Encourage youth to check out this video ahead of the lesson.

“Young Baseball Fan’s Act of Generosity” from ABC News via www.youtube.com

Additional Links/Resources
Read Scripture online: Psalm 147:12-20