Sermon for June 7th, 2020
To the leader: according to Lilies. Of the Korahites. A Maskil. A love song. 1 My heart overflows with a goodly theme; I address my verses to the king; my tongue is like the pen of a ready scribe. 2 You are the most handsome of men; grace is poured upon your lips; therefore God has blessed you forever. 3 Gird your sword on your thigh, O mighty one, in your glory and majesty. 4 In your majesty ride on victoriously for the cause of truth and to defend the right; let your right hand teach you dread deeds. 5 Your arrows are sharp in the heart of the king’s enemies; the peoples fall under you. 6 Your throne, O God, endures forever and ever. Your royal scepter is a scepter of equity; 7 you love righteousness and hate wickedness. Therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions; 8 your robes are all fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia. From ivory palaces stringed instruments make you glad; 9 daughters of kings are among your ladies of honor; at your right hand stands the queen in gold of Ophir. 10 Hear, O daughter, consider and incline your ear; forget your people and your father’s house, 11 and the king will desire your beauty. Since he is your lord, bow to him; 12 the people of Tyre will seek your favor with gifts, the richest of the people 13 with all kinds of wealth. The princess is decked in her chamber with gold-woven robes; 14 in many-colored robes she is led to the king; behind her the virgins, her companions, follow. 15 With joy and gladness they are led along as they enter the palace of the king. 16 In the place of ancestors you, O king, shall have sons; you will make them princes in all the earth. 17 I will cause your name to be celebrated in all generations; therefore the peoples will praise you forever and ever.
Psummer of Psalms - Psalm 45
Exactly one month and one day from now, Amy and I will celebrate our 20th anniversary. Almost twenty years ago, we stood at the front of a church that was *almost* as beautiful as this one (it was First Baptist over on Montana) in front of the pastor--Amy's childhood pastor, the Rev. Levi Price--and he said a lot of words that I don't remember. I'm sure they were profound and meaningful, but there was so much going on that day, so many emotions, so much music, so much joy and beauty, and when Amy walked down the aisle to stand next to me, I'm pretty sure my brain turned into pure mush.
I like to keep that fact in mind when I conduct wedding services these days--it's not my words that make the magic happen. It's the beauty, the pageantry, the love in the eyes of the couple, and the love of God that brings people together. All of those things permeate throughout Psalm 45, our scripture passage today. It is a wedding psalm--in fact the only one in all of the 150 Psalms.
I think it's a great way to kick off our annual summer series on the Book of Psalms, because it is a joyful, exuberant Psalm, and we could use a little bit of joy and exuberance in the midst of what has been a pretty bleak year so far.
That's not why I originally chose this Psalm, however. Some of you know that I like to pick the Psalm that corresponds to my current age and make it my prayer for the year. It's actually a great way to really delve into the Psalms--unless you are 151 years old, there's a Psalm for every year of your life. Of course this approach does have its drawbacks: When I was 22 years old, my birthday Psalm began with the words, "My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?" And of course, if you are an ageless beauty life my wife Amy, you might be stuck reading the 27th Psalm for many years.
So this week we'll tackle my birthday Psalm, and next week, if you happen to be a young and spry 84 years old, we'll tackle yours. And if you're turning 5, 34, 96, or 110--this is your lucky year, too!
Psalm 45, like many psalms, begins with some instructions right at the beginning. We read that it is addressed to the leader (in this case, the King!), and that it is a love song (makes sense!), a song of the Korahites, who were a musical family in ancient Israel. That much we know.
We also read that it's a "Maskil" and is to be sung "according to the lilies" (as in the flower). Biblical scholars have no idea what either of those instructions mean, but a good guess is that they refer to specific tunes or styles of music. Like if I told you, "sing this to 'three blind mice,'" or "sing it like Elton John's Candle in the Wind."
The instructions, whether we understand them or not, remind us that the Psalms were music and poetry, meant to be sung and recited, and they were an important part of worship in the life of our spiritual ancestors.
In verse one, the poet tells us that he has composed these verses for the king (this is a royal wedding), and that his "tongue is like the pen of a ready scribe." So I like to imagine the poet kind of like the Master of Ceremonies for the wedding--the pastor, the narrator, the guest speaker, with a special message for the bride, the groom, and the assembled guests.
Verses 2 through 9 are addressed to the groom, in this case, the King. "You are the most handsome of men" -- whether or not that's true, it's certainly what every bride thinks and every groom wants to believe on their wedding day. But then the poet moves on from praising the King's appearance, to reminding him of his high responsibilities as a King.
Verse 3: "Gird your sword on your thigh, O mighty one, in your glory and majesty." The king is the defender and protector of the people. But not just in a warlike sense. Verse 4: "In your majesty ride on victoriously for the cause of truth and to defend the right." In other words, be a good king, a good husband, a good person. Do what's right.
Verse 6 seems to pivot and inexplicably address God: "Your throne, O God, endures forever" but alternate translations of this Psalm (which make more sense to me) also read as "Your throne is a throne of God, and endures forever." In other words, remember where your power and privilege come from--the throne will last longer than you will.
"Your royal scepter is a scepter of equity (or fairness). You (O king) love righteousness and hate wickedness. Therefore (or for that reason) God--your God--has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions."
In other words, your authority and status as a leader above your companions is tied to your actions, your goodness and righteousness, not your ancestry or your lineage.
This is great advice for would-be leaders today as well.
Then comes more pageantry: "Your robes are all fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia. From ivory palaces stringed instruments make you glad."
But then comes a reminder in verse 9: "Daughters of kings are among your ladies of honor; at your right hand stands the queen in gold of Ophir." In other words, your mother is watching you. Honorable women are watching you. Don't screw up.
And with that nod to the royal ladies of the court, the poet shifts focus to the princess bride and says...
"Mawage...bwings us togeder today..." Oops. Sorry. Wrong Princess Bride.
The poet says to the princess: Hear, O daughter, consider and incline your ear; forget your people and your father’s house, and the king will desire your beauty. Since he is your lord, bow to him.
That may sound pretty sexist to our modern ears, but it's balanced by other scripture passages in Genesis and the gospels where the man is the one instructed to leave his family behind and cleave to his wife. Interestingly, the Greek word for "cleave" is κολλάω, which means "stick to" but can also mean "be hired by," which implies that the wife is, in reality, the boss.
What's clear from Psalm 45, however, is that the bride is a foreign princess--and this is fascinating, because there are many places in the Bible that warn Israelites to stay away from foreign women, don't marry them. But here is the King of Israel, doing exactly that with the full blessing of the people and God. Don't let anyone tell you that the Bible doesn't sometimes argue with itself.
Who is this foreign princess? That's a mystery that Bible scholars have debated about for centuries. John Calvin thought this must be the Egyptian princess that married King Solomon. Some modern scholars have made a case that this is the wedding between King Ahab and the perhaps undeservedly notorious Queen Jezebel. Medieval scholars thought the whole Psalm was an allegory for Jesus as King, and the Church as his bride.
I think there's a clue to the identity of the mysterious foreign princess right here verse 12: "the people of Tyre will seek your favor with gifts, the richest of the people with all kinds of wealth." Only in the original Hebrew it doesn't say the "people" of Tyre. It says "daughter of Tyre" (in the singular) and also gift (singular) not gifts (plural). Another way to translate this would be as a direct address, which makes sense in the context of the passage. The poet has already been talking to the princess and has already called her "daughter."
I translate it like this: "And you, daughter of Tyre, bring this gift--seek your favor among the richest (noblest) people." Which in the mind of the poet is his own people, the people of Israel. The implication is that the best wedding gift a foreign princess can bring to her husband is to seek out the favor of his people. To be kind, fair, righteous...kind of like what's being asked of the King.
Tyre, incidentally, was an ancient city in what is now Lebanon, so I think she is a Lebanese Princess. Alyssa Salome, if you're watching today, this is your verse. Seek favor among the noblest of people. Actually, it's good advice for all of us, princes and princesses of any heritage.
Verses 14 and 15 describe the familiar scenes of the bride getting ready in her chambers with her bridesmaids, and the walk down the aisle (or in this case through the city) to her groom.
The Psalm concludes--as all great weddings do--with a blessing and a promise: "In the place of ancestors you, O king, shall have sons." On the surface, it's a blessing for a family. But something subtle is implied here--What usually makes you a king is your ancestry, the fact that your father was a king, and his father before that. It seems that might not have been the case here--In place of ancestors, or "since you didn't have great ancestors" you shall instead have great descendants. Your family will spread out over the earth and your memory, your name will be celebrated and remembered forever.
And what was the King's name? Well, no one actually remembers today. Of course, if he was anything like me, he wasn't listening to any of those promises anyhow. He was just thanking his God for the beautiful soul-mate standing in front of him, and for the life stretched out ahead of them like an open road.
May we all give thanks to God for the blessings in front of us today.