Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Real Israel Moment is a Process

My fellow Biblical exegete in the Israeli tax department asked me why Thursday's psalm for the day doesn't end up on a positive note. In fact, it is downright scary! What begins with a festive call to sing out to God:

2 Sing aloud unto God our strength; shout unto the God of Jacob.
3 Take up the melody, and sound the timbrel, the sweet harp with the psaltery.
4 Blow the horn at the new moon, at the full moon for our feast-day.
5 For it is a statute for Israel, an ordinance of the God of Jacob.

concludes with a litany of rebuke from God:

10. No strange god shall be within you, neither shall you prostrate yourself to a foreign god.
12. But My people did not hearken to My voice, neither did Israel desire to [follow] Me.
13. So I let them go after their heart's fantasies; let them go in their counsels.
14. If only My people would hearken to Me, if Israel would go in My ways.
15. In a short time I would subdue their enemies and upon their enemies I would return My hand.

Why does the psalm end on a note of 'if only they would listen to me'?

I pointed out to my new friend that sometimes in order to appreciate one psalm, one must check the ones around it; perhaps it is actually a continuation of another or a prelude to the next one. In this case in order to appreciate psalm 81 we have to learn psalm 80 and see the contrast between the two.

Here, we need to focus on the chorus of psalm 80 together with verse 9.
Biblical poetry doesn't always have a chorus but when it appears you can be rest assured that it is significant. In psalm 80 we find the chorus in verses 4, 8, and 20 with the same theme permeating throughout the psalm, namely: "O God, return to us, shine Your light upon us and we will be saved."

This idea of asking God for immediate salvation becomes dangerous when it is presented along with the metaphor of the grapevine found in verse 9, and continued in verse 13 and 15:

"Grapevine [the Children of Israel] from Egypt you uprooted and removed the [seven] nations from Canaan to replant...Why then did You [God] break down the boundaries of the grapevine allowing others to come in and destroy her?...O God return to us, look down from the heavens and see; and remember that grapevine."

The psalmist remembered the days of yore when God uprooted the Jews from Egypt and in one fell swoop brought them to Israel, entrenched them in the land and enabled them to grow and flourish. The psalmist then has one request: "do it again God". He wants the people of Israel to experience the hand of God in an immediate display of wonders and miracles to be returned to their glorious image of sweet tasting grapes of the grapevine.

There is only one problem with this "we want grapes now!" philosophy: it assumes a measure of merit on the part of the people to deserve God's immediate intervention. What happens if the people ignore the work necessary to become worthy for salvation and just scream, salvation, salvation, all day long?

The answer is psalm 81! It is a sobering message that reminds the Jewish people of their unique chosen status but also of their great responsibility in maintaining that lofty level. "You want God to shine His light, listen to His laws! You want Him to return to you, serve Him, follow Him, sanctify His name.

It is a process that will bring a return not a moment of miraculous splendor! In fact if I had to coin the process I would call it the 'wine-press' as opposed to the grapevine. Psalm 81 begins with a reference to a 'gat', a wine-press which is telling in contrast to the previous psalm. God responds entreating His nation to engage in the process of turning grapes into fine wine. That process requires effort, constant supervision, creating the proper conditions and being disciplined to the process all the way through. Only through the process can we truly merit the salvation of God, the full return to His people and the redemption.

It is an age of the quick fix, where information is passed in milliseconds; it is doubly important to remind ourselves of the message of the wine-press and of the process we need to abide by in order to merit God's true salvation.