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The Lord our Light: Praying Together with the Psalms 23

Written by David Meara, posted on Wednesday, April 22, 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

Child and adult holding handsPsalm 73

TRULY God is loving unto Israel: even unto such as are of a clean heart.

Nevertheless, my feet were almost gone: my treadings had well-nigh slipt.

And why? I was grieved at the wicked: I do also see the ungodly in such prosperity.

For they are in no peril of death: but are lusty and strong.

They come in no misfortune like other folk: neither are they plagued like other men.

And this is the cause that they are so holden with pride: and overwhelmed with cruelty.

Their eyes swell with fatness: and they do even what they lust.

They corrupt other, and speak of wicked blasphemy: their talking is against the most High.

For they stretch forth their mouth unto the heaven: and their tongue goeth through the world.

Therefore fall the people unto them: and thereout suck they no small advantage.

Tush, say they, how should God perceive it: is there knowledge in the most High?

Lo, these are the ungodly, these prosper in the world, and these have riches in possession: and I said, Then have I cleansed my heart in vain, and washed mine hands in innocency.

All the day long have I been punished: and chastened every morning.

Yea, and I had almost said even as they: but lo, then I should have condemned the generation of thy children.

Then thought I to understand this: but it was too hard for me,

Until I went into the sanctuary of God: then understood I the end of these men;

Namely, how thou dost set them in slippery places: and castest them down, and destroyest them.

O how suddenly do they consume: perish, and come to a fearful end!

Yea, even like as a dream when one awaketh: so shalt thou make their image to vanish out of the city.

Thus my heart was grieved: and it went even through my reins.

So foolish was I, and ignorant: even as it were a beast before thee.

Nevertheless, I am alway by thee: for thou hast holden me by my right hand.

Thou shalt guide me with thy counsel: and after that receive me with glory.

Whom have I in heaven but thee: and there is none upon earth that I desire in comparison of thee.

My flesh and my heart faileth: but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion for ever.

For lo, they that forsake thee shall perish: thou hast destroyed all them that commit fornication against thee.

But it is good for me to hold me fast by God, to put my trust in the Lord God: and to speak of all thy works in the gates of the daughter of Sion.

Many of the psalms are prayers of protest, both in the sense of articulating human experience, and also challenging God to do something about it. One of the most remarkable of this genre is Psalm 73.

It begins with a statement of faith, but then immediately points out the gulf between this pious orthodoxy and the psalmist’s experience. In real life God doesn’t seem to reward the righteous and punish the wicked. In fact the wicked seem to do very well, and get away with it.

What is the point of being pure in heart, asks the psalmist, and he begins to argue with himself, confronting the questions we all ask from time to time about the human condition. The psalmist wrestles with his doubts ‘in the sanctuary of God’. For him prayer is not an effortless recitation of limp platitudes but an active and costly struggle.

He reaches the conclusion that becoming embittered (v21) could actually cut him off from God, and that despite his restless questioning God is still close to him (v23-24) and will not let him go. God loves him and sustains him throughout his times of doubt and trial, and honours the fragile trust of those who feel weak and powerless. There is here a striking collision within this one psalm between a sense of doubt and a sense of God’s presence, which leads to the final note of affirmation and praise.

David Meara