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The Lord our Light: Praying Together with the Psalms 21

Written by David Meara, posted on Monday, April 20, 2020

In 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

Tree on a hill against blue skyPsalm 15

LORD, who shall dwell in thy tabernacle: or who shall rest upon thy holy hill?

Even he that leadeth an uncorrupt life: and doeth the thing which is right, and speaketh the truth from his heart.

He that hath used no deceit in his tongue, nor done evil to his neighbour: and hath not slandered his neighbour.

He that setteth not by himself, but is lowly in his own eyes: and maketh much of them that fear the Lord.

He that sweareth unto his neighbour, and disappointeth him not: though it were to his own hindrance.

He that hath not given his money upon usury: nor taken reward against the innocent.

Whoso doeth these things: shall never fall.

This psalm was probably a liturgical chant, perhaps spoken antiphonally, as the procession of worshippers approached the precincts of the holy sanctuary, a prayer of approach summing up the qualities required of those who wanted to enter the holy places. Those deemed worthy are described as exhibiting strongly ethical qualities, and the psalm is composed of alternating triplets of positive and negative characteristics.

Worshippers should exhibit integrity, justice and reliable speech. They should not indulge in malicious gossip, harm fellow human beings, or reproach family or friends. They should avoid the reprobate, respect God’s people, and hold themselves accountable. They should not be fickle, greedy or take bribes. The psalm ends with an assertion of the unshakeable security of those who are able to live up to these standards when they approach God in worship.

From a Christian perspective, though, we recognise that we all fall short, and that none of us lives up to the high ethical standards set out in this psalm. Perhaps it is more helpful to focus on the sentiment expressed in verse 1, questioning which of us is worthy to come before God in worship. In this way the psalm reminds us of the prayers of Preparation and Penitence in our eucharistic liturgies, and finds an echo in the 17th century poet George Herbert’s poem ‘The Church Porch’, which offers ethical guidance preparing us for a spiritual encounter with God.

David Meara