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The Lord our Light: Praying Together with the Psalms 6

Written by John Witheridge, posted on Friday, March 27, 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)

Psalm 49 

O HEAR ye this, all ye people: ponder it with your ears, all ye that dwell in the world; 
High and low, rich and poor: one with another. 
My mouth shall speak of wisdom: and my heart shall muse of understanding. 
I will incline mine ear to the parable: and shew my dark speech upon the harp. 
Wherefore should I fear in the days of wickedness: and when the wickedness of my heels compasseth me round about? 
There be some that put their trust in their goods: and boast themselves in the multitude of their riches. 
But no man may deliver his brother: nor make agreement unto God for him; 
For it cost more to redeem their souls: so that he must let that alone for ever; 
Yea, though he live long: and see not the grave. 
For he seeth that wise men also die, and perish together: as well as the ignorant and foolish, and leave their riches for other. 
And yet they think that their houses shall continue for ever: and that their dwelling-places shall endure from one generation to another; and call the lands after their own names. 
Nevertheless, man will not abide in honour: seeing he may be compared unto the beasts that perish; this is the way of them. 
This is their foolishness: and their posterity praise their saying. 
They lie in the hell like sheep, death gnaweth upon them, and the righteous shall have domination over them in the morning: their beauty shall consume in the sepulchre out of their dwelling. 
But God hath delivered my soul from the place of hell: for he shall receive me. 
Be not thou afraid, though one be made rich: or if the glory of his house be increased; 
For he shall carry nothing away with him when he dieth: neither shall his pomp follow him. 
For while he lived, he counted himself an happy man: and so long as thou doest well unto thyself, men will speak good of thee. 
He shall follow the generation of his fathers: and shall never see light. 
Man being in honour hath no understanding: but is compared unto the beasts that perish. 

Scholars have argued that this is a later psalm which originated in a devout circle that may have suffered for its piety at the hands of rich oppressors. Living under heathen empires, apostasy and unscrupulousness often offered an Israelite the easiest path to wealth and high office. Poverty and piety therefore belonged together.

The opening verse proclaims the importance of the psalm’s message. It is to be heard by all people, and pondered by everyone who dwells in the world. That puts us in mind of our current global pandemic. All the world is affected by it, ‘low and high, rich and poor together!’ And what the psalmist promises here is wisdom and understanding.

What is that wise message? It’s that trust in goods, riches and honours is doomed. None of this can survive. The person who trusts in pomp and glory ‘shall carry nothing away with him when he dies.’

But there is hope here for the faithful and true of heart, and we can see in this psalm an early sign of belief in a salvation beyond the grave. ‘God has delivered my soul from the place of hell, for he will receive me.’ The psalm resembles Jesus’s parable of Dives and Lazarus (Luke 16: 19-31). There too we hear a warning of judgment in the story of a rich man clothed in purple, feasting sumptuously, while ignoring a poor beggar, lying hungry at his gate.

John Witheridge