The Old Testament Book of Psalms consists of 150 Psalms, divided into 5 ‘books’. The last 5 Psalms of the final book (Psalms 146 – 150) constitute the climax of the entire work. They recapitulate all that has gone before and give it a decidedly eschatological bent, ending with the final stanza:
“Let everything that has breath give praise to the Lord. Hallelujah!”
Distinctively, each of these 5 Psalms begins and ends with word “Hallelujah!” Our prayer journey has at last led us into the realm of ecstatic celebration.
The first of these final Psalms, Psalm 146, juxtaposes the historical realm, the starting point of all Psalms, with the eschatological realm. Compare the introductory stanza:
“Hallelujah! Praise the Lord, my soul; I will praise the Lord all my life, sing praise to God while I live.”
with the final stanza:
“The Lord shall reign forever, your God, Zion, through all generations! Hallelujah!
The focus has shifted from the actions of the mortal Psalmist to the actions of the eternal God.
Between these two stanzas, the Psalm is divided into two sections: a short section on the futility of mortal power and planning; and a longer section devoted to the actions of God.
Compare the first section:
“Put no trust in princes, in children of Adam powerless to save, who breathing his last, returns to earth; that day all his planning comes to nothing.”
with the opening stanza of the second section:
“Blessed the one whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord, his God…”
The historical realm is the realm of ‘perpetual perishing’. Sure, it is also the realm of new beginnings but whatever comes to be ultimately comes not to be. “To be or not to be,” is not a choice, it is a sequence, as Hamlet quickly discovered. No matter how fecund the world may be, time (a function of entropy) always wins out in the end.
From the perspective of the historical realm, what ceases to be never was in the first place (“all his planning comes to nothing”). To die is never to have lived! Therefore our hope cannot lie anywhere in the space-time continuum. Our hope, the only possible hope, must lie in the eternal realm, the realm of “the God of Jacob”, because it is he who “shall reign forever…through all generations!”
We cannot find actuality in the realm of perpetual perishing. Actuality is rooted in permanence and permanence is rooted in eternity. The Psalmist was not alone in this understanding. A contemporary Greek philosopher, Parmenides, had the same insight. He divided the world into Doxa, the ever-changing realm of appearances, and Aletheia, the never-changing realm of truth.
Don’t believe in the God of Jacob? That’s cool! But you might want to rethink that position…because there is absolutely no other hope for us! Psalm 146 echoes Deuteronomy: “I have set before you life and death…therefore choose life.” (Deut. 30:19)
Psalm 146 suggests a version of Pascal’s Wager: if there is no God, it makes no difference whether you believe in him or not; but if there is a God, believing might quite literally be ‘everything’. Or to borrow a line from a state lottery ad, “You can’t win if you don’t play!”
The main body of the Psalm 146 is a catalogue of God’s actions. We learn that God, “the maker of heaven and earth, the seas and all that is in them, who keeps faith forever…”
- “Secures justice for the oppressed,”
- “Gives bread to the hungry,”
- “Sets prisoners free,”
- “Gives sight to the blind,”
- “Raises up those who are bowed down,”
- “Protects the resident alien,”
- “Comes to the aid of the orphan and the widow,”
- “Thwarts the way of the wicked.”
We can, I think, understand this litany in three ways. First, God occasionally intervenes unilaterally in history via miracles and when he does, he does so to bring about precisely these results.
Second, God regularly intervenes in history through the actions of human beings. When we undertake the good works enumerated in Psalm 146, we perform God’s work in the world.
Finally, I believe that this litany is meant to describe life in the eschatological realm, the Kingdom of God. These are the values that mark the ultimately just social order. This is what we are referring to when we pray The Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
Therefore, when God intervenes in history or when we intervene on God’s behalf, it marks the in-breaking of the eschaton. Ultimately, the Kingdom of Heaven is the transfiguration of the historical realm according to God’s eternal values.
Whenever God acts, or whenever we act in God’s name, a corner of the historical realm is transfigured and we catch a fleeting glimpse of the eschaton beyond. The nature of life in the Kingdom is thereby made manifest in the historical realm.
We also learn something else about God from Psalm 146. The God of Jacob “loves the righteous”. This aspect of God’s nature is very different from all the others. There’s no mention here of correcting injustice or altering the course of historical events. In every other aspect, God is acting physically and unilaterally, but love is not like that at all.
Love is inherently relational and ideally mutual. Sure, we read all the time about ‘unrequited love’; but the reason we read about it is that it is the aberrant case: Dog bites man! Love is naturally mutual.
In Psalm 146, it is the ‘righteous’ (or just) person that God loves. What does it mean to be righteous? It means to embody in your being and in your doing the values that characterize God’s Kingdom (as enumerated above, for example). So in the case of the truly just man, there’s no risk that God’s love will be unrequited.
The evangelist John quotes Jesus:
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments…Whoever has my commandments and observes them is the one who loves me.” (John 14: 15, 21)
The righteous man is the man who does God’s will, the one who does God’s will loves God, so by definition the righteous man loves God.
When we love someone, we recognize ourselves in our beloved and we recognize our beloved in ourselves. When love is mutual, we see ourselves through the eyes of our beloved. This does not mean that we are ‘alike’ or that we ‘share a lot in common’; it means that behind all the phenomenal differences that separate us there are fundamental shared values that unite us.
In The Presence of the Kingdom, Jacques Ellul, an existentialist French philosopher and theologian, writes of the Christian mandate to be the Kingdom of God in the world, not to work for the coming of the Kingdom, not to build the Kingdom, but to be the Kingdom.
The one absolutely real and certain thing about the world is the Kingdom of God. When we live the values of the Kingdom in the historical realm, we are a sign of that Kingdom for all to see.
When we praise God’s values, we demonstrate faith; when we praise God’s actions, we demonstrate hope. But when we perform the works of the Lord, we demonstrate love. It is through the actions of the just man that the Kingdom of God is made manifest: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (John 12:13, et al.)
Literally, ‘blessed’ means ‘wounded’. When we act “in the name of the Lord”, we are “blessed” (or wounded); through our wounds the world can see the Kingdom of God. Our acts of justice are windows onto the eternal realm. When we act justly, we are a sign for the world of the Kingdom to come.
Jesus said to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life,” and later to Thomas, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” (John 11:25 & 14:6)
The Kingdom is not built from the bottom up. Our acts of justice, important as they are in their own right, do not build the Kingdom. Rather the Kingdom is built from the top down. More accurately, the Kingdom of God draws the world to it. When our actions reveal the Kingdom to the world, they function as a model, as a lure. Gradually, the historical realm conforms itself to God’s values and is transfigured; heaven and earth become one.
Just as the perpetual perishing of the historical realm threatens to erase every trace of our being, so the ongoing transfiguration of that realm promises to preserve every such trace. “The world and its enticements are passing away, but whoever does the will of God remains forever” (1 John 2:17), not because they have earned eternal life but because they are eternal life. That is our one and only hope and it rests with the Lord, the God of Jacob… “who keeps faith forever”.