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Saturday, January 27, 2018

Wintry Landscapes

“A wintry landscape of unrelieved bleakness.” That’s Lutheran scholar Martin Marty’s take on Psalm 88.

One of the difficulties encountered by those of us who like to go scratching around the Bible to background its characters is that, just like in the phone directory, lots of different people have the same name. That makes certainty an issue. Names like Mary, John and James appear all over the place. Disambiguators help, of course, and the Holy Spirit provides them here and there: Mary Magdalene, James the son of Alphaeus, and so on.

This morning I’m more than a little curious about Heman the Ezrahite, the poet credited with the aforementioned “wintry landscape”.

As far as we know, Heman wrote only a single psalm, and it is indeed one of the most relentlessly gloomy bits of poetry in the entire psalter.

Heman’s name crops up 17 times in Kings, Chronicles and the Psalms. The first couple of references are genealogical and almost surely relate to a much earlier Israelite of the same name. The rest come from a period of less than half a century during the reigns of David and Solomon, and because there are a fair number of similarities in the contexts, I’m going to assume these all speak of the same person.

A Little Bible Background

Some interesting factoids about Heman:
In short, Heman was one of the most notable spiritual presences in Jerusalem during the period in which Israel was at its most glorious and the service of the temple was at its absolute joyous apex. God spoke to him personally. His job was praise, and his ministry set the tone for the people of Israel when they worshiped God.

A Window to Another Place

So how exactly does this guy end up writing a psalm that starts with “My soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to Sheol,” and goes downhill from there? We might well ask, as the Ethiopian eunuch asked Philip, “Does the prophet say this about himself or about someone else?”

It would be tough to make the case that Heman’s meditation on imminent death was informed by personal experience. Even if he wrote this Psalm on his deathbed in the middle of a lingering illness, it would be hard to account for phrases like “Your wrath has swept over me” and “Why do you hide your face from me?” or couplets like “You have caused my companions to shun me; you have made me a horror to them.” It seems more likely that Heman was caught up in the Spirit into the sufferings of someone else entirely.

Perhaps that someone is the Lord Jesus. Maybe Heman is giving us a small window into the thoughts of Messiah as he endures the wrath of God against sins in which he has had no personal part whatsoever. Or perhaps the poet has taken the liberty of personifying his own nation of Israel, anticipating the long historical periods during which it has since endured the wrath of God as a result of national sin and degradation, and crying out to God on behalf of his people. The psalms are often multi-layered, so possibly there’s a little of both. We can’t be sure.

The New Bible Commentary sees the psalm more pragmatically: “Herein lies the wonder of this psalmist’s triumphant faith. That a man should see no light at all and yet go right on supplicating God in fervent, ceaseless prayer that is an unqualified marvel.” And certainly the psalm reminds that we ought always to pray and not lose heart.

But regardless of the possible prophetic or practical value of Heman’s meditation, I think there’s something else here worth thinking about.

Asking the Biggest Question Ever

That is this: Along with its wonderful moments, life has its share of bleakness, sorrow and desperate need. We are grateful for the times when grief is only a small part of our human experience. I’ve been praying this week for four different families who have just lost or are about to lose wives, mothers, fathers, husbands and friends. This is the status quo in a fallen world, and nobody gets a pass.

The resurrection of Jesus Christ answers to a question more profound than any other, whether we pose it personally, nationally or universally. Paul says, “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” In short, if there is no resurrection, nothing else much matters.

But to grasp that a question of such magnitude has been once and forever answered positively in the moment in which God raised his Son from the dead, that question must first be given a voice. The grand existential dilemma must be spelled out in all its ugliness and potential terror.

Heman does precisely that:
“Do you work wonders for the dead?
Do the departed rise up to praise you?
Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,
or your faithfulness in Abaddon?
Are your wonders known in the darkness,
or your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?”
The answers, respectively: Yes, yes, yes, yes and yes. Hallelujah!

All Together Now

The Psalms were meant to be sung, and sung together by all the people of God, regardless of age, maturity, experience, skill, wisdom and spiritual insight. The introduction to Psalm 88 reads “To the choirmaster”, because dozens, hundreds and maybe thousands of voices were expected to sing, and have surely since sung, these unusually personal and deeply agonized words we find here.

But they — and more importantly, we — could not and cannot fully appreciate the glory of resurrection until we first grasp the alternative, and grasp it not just intellectually but viscerally. We cannot meaningfully rejoice atop the pinnacle until we’ve walked through the valley of the shadow of death. And most of us can’t get to these places in our thinking without the help of people capable of clearly expressing the deepest thoughts of the heart.

Which is what poets and prophets are for, at least in part. They paint the “wintry landscapes” so that the rest of us can better rejoice in the warmth of the Son.

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