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The Lord our Light: Praying Together with the Psalms 39

Written by Philippa White, posted on Tuesday, May 12, 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

Psalm 1 

Blessed is the man Stream running through woodsthat hath not walked in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stood in the way of sinners : and hath not sat in the seat of the scornful.

But his delight is in the law of the Lord : and in his law will he exercise himself day and night.

And he shall be like a tree planted by the water-side : that will bring forth his fruit in due season.

His leaf also shall not wither : and look, whatsoever he doeth, it shall prosper.

As for the ungodly, it is not so with them : but they are like the chaff, which the wind scattereth away from the face of the earth.

Therefore the ungodly shall not be able to stand in the judgement : neither the sinners in the congregation of the righteous.

But the Lord knoweth the way of the righteous : and the way of the ungodly shall perish. 

The Book of Psalms did not come about by chance. This collection of 150 poem-prayers – some clearly written to be used by the whole Jewish community, some for individual use – written over decades if not centuries, were gathered into a single book with some care. So it isn’t irrelevant that this is the first psalm. Placed at the beginning of the Psalms, it reflects some of the themes of the whole book: themes of blessedness, of the right way to live, of the goodness of the Law, and of the justice of God. The final verse not only concludes this Psalm, but offers a summary of one theme of the Book of Psalms (and of other parts of the Old Testament): ‘the Lord knoweth the way of the righteous : and the way of the ungodly shall perish.’ Those who read, reflect on and live according to God’s righteousness and Law shall be blessed; those who choose to reject God will not. 

This isn’t a comfortable message for those of us who, rightly, want to emphasise God’s mercy and grace; the goodness of God revealed in loving forgiveness. In the Old Testament, God’s mercy, grace, goodness and forgiveness are very much present; God acts in covenant love, loving-kindness, compassion. But in this psalm, as elsewhere in what’s called the ‘wisdom literature’ of the Bible, this covenant love is revealed most clearly in God’s gracious gift of the Law – the Bible. This psalm speaks of the Law with tenderness and joy: it is a gift in which the writer delights, it offers freedom, truth, and an insight into God’s heart. 

Many people are finding this period of lockdown difficult, not least because of being unable to receive Communion – the gifts of God made tangible in bread and wine. Perhaps this psalm can remind us that the gifts of God can also be made present and tangible in the words of Scripture. May we delight in the Word of God and meditate on Scripture; and may our faith grow like blossoming trees, bearing fruit for the good of all people.