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The Lord our Light: Praying Together with the Psalms 17

Written by Emma Percy, posted on Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Edmund NeweyIn these extraordinary times, as our nation and our world face the unprecedented challenge of the Coronavirus epidemic, our first task is naturally to support and enable the efforts of frontline staff tackling the disease and supporting those who have fallen ill. As we engage in every way we can with their work, we as Christians turn for guidance to God, in whom we have our origin and our end.

Here at Christ Church the book of Psalms – the prayer book of the Bible, as it is sometimes called – sustains our daily worship, now as always. Public worship is no longer an option, but the cathedral clergy here are maintaining the daily round of prayer and warmly encourage you to share in the spiritual communion that prayer makes possible across all boundaries of time and space.

At the core of this work of prayer the psalms voice the cry of our hearts to God. With this in mind the ministry team here is sharing one psalm each day with an accompanying reflection. Recalling the University of Oxford’s motto, Dominus illuminatio mea – ‘The Lord is my light’ – we pray that, together, we may know God’s strength, encouragement and blessing in this time of need.

‘The Lord is my light, and my salvation; whom then shall I fear: the Lord is the strength of my life; of whom then shall I be afraid?’ (Psalm 27:1)

Edmund Newey, Sub Dean

Psalm 78

  1. HEAR my law, O my people: incline your ears unto the words of my mouth.
  2. I will open my mouth in a parable: I will declare hard sentences of old;
  3. Which we have heard and known: and such as our fathers have told us;
  4. That we should not hide them from the children of the generations to come: but to shew the honour of the Lord, his mighty and wonderful works that he hath done.
  5. He made a covenant with Jacob, and gave Israel a law: which he commanded our forefathers to teach their children;
  6. That their posterity might know it: and the children which were yet unborn;
  7. To the intent that when they came up: they might shew their children the same;
  8. That they might put their trust in God: and not to forget the works of God, but to keep his commandments;
  9. And not to be as their forefathers, a faithless and stubborn generation: a generation that set not their heart aright, and whose spirit cleaveth not stedfastly unto God;
  10. Like as the children of Ephraim: who being harnessed, and carrying bows, turned themselves back in the day of battle.
  11. They kept not the covenant of God: and would not walk in his law;
  12. But forgat what he had done: and the wonderful works that he had shewed for them.
  13. Marvellous things did he in the sight of our forefathers, in the land of Egypt: even in the field of Zoan.
  14. He divided the sea, and let them go through: he made the waters to stand on an heap.
  15. In the day-time also he led them with a cloud: and all the night through with a light of fire.
  16. He clave the hard rocks in the wilderness: and gave them drink thereof, as it had been out of the great depth.
  17. He brought waters out of the stony rock: so that it gushed out like the rivers.
  18. Yet for all this they sinned more against him: and provoked the most Highest in the wilderness.
  19. They tempted God in their hearts: and required meat for their lust.
  20. They spake against God also, saying: Shall God prepare a table in the wilderness?
  21. He smote the stony rock indeed, that the waters gushed out, and the streams flowed withal: but can he give bread also, or provide flesh for his people?
  22. When the Lord heard this, he was wroth: so the fire was kindled in Jacob, and there came up heavy displeasure against Israel;
  23. Because they believed not in God: and put not their trust in his help.
  24. So he commanded the clouds above: and opened the doors of heaven.
  25. He rained down manna also upon them for to eat: and gave them food from heaven.
  26. So man did eat angels' food: for he sent them meat enough.
  27. He caused the east-wind to blow under heaven: and through his power he brought in the south-west-wind.
  28. He rained flesh upon them as thick as dust: and feathered fowls like as the sand of the sea.
  29. He let it fall among their tents: even round about their habitation.
  30. So they did eat and were well filled, for he gave them their own desire: they were not disappointed of their lust.
  31. But while the meat was yet in their mouths, the heavy wrath of God came upon them, and slew the wealthiest of them: yea, and smote down the chosen men that were in Israel.
  32. But for all this they sinned yet more: and believed not his wondrous works.
  33. Therefore their days did he consume in vanity: and their years in trouble.
  34. When he slew them, they sought him: and turned them early, and inquired after God.
  35. And they remembered that God was their strength: and that the high God was their redeemer.
  36. Nevertheless, they did but flatter him with their mouth: and dissembled with him in their tongue.
  37. For their heart was not whole with him: neither continued they stedfast in his covenant.
  38. But he was so merciful, that he forgave their misdeeds: and destroyed them not.
  39. Yea, many a time turned he his wrath away: and would not suffer his whole displeasure to arise.
  40. For he considered that they were but flesh: and that they were even a wind that passeth away, and cometh not again.
  41. Many a time did they provoke him in the wilderness: and grieved him in the desert.
  42. They turned back, and tempted God: and moved the Holy One in Israel.
  43. They thought not of his hand: and of the day when he delivered them from the hand of the enemy;
  44. How he had wrought his miracles in Egypt: and his wonders in the field of Zoan.
  45. He turned their waters into blood: so that they might not drink of the rivers.
  46. He sent lice among them, and devoured them up: and frogs to destroy them.
  47. He gave their fruit unto the caterpillar: and their labour unto the grasshopper.
  48. He destroyed their vines with hail-stones: and their mulberry-trees with the frost.
  49. He smote their cattle also with hail-stones: and their flocks with hot thunderbolts.
  50. He cast upon them the furiousness of his wrath, anger, displeasure and trouble: and sent evil angels among them.
  51. He made a way to his indignation, and spared not their soul from death: but gave their life over to the pestilence;
  52. And smote all the first-born in Egypt: the most principal and mightiest in the dwellings of Ham.
  53. But as for his own people, he led them forth like sheep: and carried them in the wilderness like a flock.
  54. He brought them out safely, that they should not fear: and overwhelmed their enemies with the sea.
  55. And brought them within the borders of his sanctuary: even to his mountain which he purchased with his right hand.
  56. He cast out the heathen also before them: caused their land to be divided among them for an heritage, and made the tribes of Israel to dwell in their tents.
  57. So they tempted and displeased the most high God: and kept not his testimonies;
  58. But turned their backs, and fell away like their forefathers: starting aside like a broken bow.
  59. For they grieved him with their hill-altars: and provoked him to displeasure with their images.
  60. When God heard this, he was wroth: and took sore displeasure at Israel.
  61. So that he forsook the tabernacle in Silo: even the tent that he had pitched among men.
  62. He delivered their power into captivity: and their beauty into the enemy's hand.
  63. He gave his people over also unto the sword: and was wroth with his inheritance.
  64. The fire consumed their young men: and their maidens were not given to marriage.
  65. Their priests were slain with the sword: and there were no widows to make lamentation.
  66. So the Lord awaked as one out of sleep: and like a giant refreshed with wine.
  67. He smote his enemies in the hinder parts: and put them to a perpetual shame.
  68. He refused the tabernacle of Joseph: and chose not the tribe of Ephraim;
  69. But chose the tribe of Judah: even the hill of Sion which he loved.
  70. And there he built his temple on high: and laid the foundation of it like the ground which he hath made continually.
  71. He chose David also his servant: and took him away from the sheep-folds.
  72. As he was following the ewes great with young ones he took him: that he might feed Jacob his people, and Israel his inheritance.
  73. So he fed them with a faithful and true heart: and ruled them prudently with all his power.

Rocky bare mountainIn the much-quoted words of the philosopher, George Santayana, ‘those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ In many ways this sums up the message of psalm 78. The psalmist asks that ‘the hard sentences of old’ be listened to and taught to children, so that all may remember and learn from the history of the people of Israel.

The psalm outlines the relationship between God and the people of Israel in the time of the Exodus. God repeatedly delivers and blesses: rolling back the sea for them to pass, providing water, manna and quails in the wilderness. The people fluctuate between remembering God’s provision of their needs and then forgetting: ‘many a time did they provoke him in the wilderness’, ‘they thought not of his hand.’

This time of difficulty that we live in can make us wonder where God is. We face a situation unknown in our lifetime. The psalm reminds us to look back. The past has things to teach us about how God sustains people through turmoil and reminds us how often we forget our dependence on the sustaining power of our Creator.

Our God makes springs in the desert and gives us the sustenance we need day by day. We can take time to reflect on our past – both the tough times and the good times – to see how God provided for us. We can read the lives and prayers of Christians in the past who point us to the sustaining power of God. And we can count our blessings that we may not forget the hand that holds us and keeps us through the wilderness days.

Emma Percy