Monday, November 28, 2011

The Hope of a World Set Right

Psalm 85 bears a lot of resemblance to the Psalm (80) from which I preached last week.  Both are Psalms in which the Psalmist cries out to God for deliverance.  Both ask how long it will be before God restores the people of Israel whom he has punished for their sin.  Psalm 85, however, adds an element that Psalm 80 lacks.  Whereas Psalm 80 ends by repeating its cry for deliverance, Psalm 85 ends by describing the characteristics of the deliverance for which Israel hopes.  In order to describe this deliverance and restoration, the Psalmist makes us of some of the richest and most deeply meaningful words in all of Israel's theological vocabulary.

Hesed:  Often translated mercy, steadfast love, faithfulness, loyalty, loving-kindness.  This word reflects a profound sense of faithfulness, often even a faithfulness beyond what might be expected under normal circumstances.  There is a sense that someone who exhibits hesed is one who has willingly bound themselves to the fate of another.  As a result, it is most often used to refer to God's continuing faithfulness to Israel, a faithfulness that continues even in the midst of Israel's unfaithfulness (thus the connotations of mercy and kindness).  It is sometimes used to describe human faithfulness lived in accordance with God's faithfulness.

Emet:  Often translated faith, faithfulness, truth.  This word carries a connotation of firmness or standing fast in the face of adversity.  Since it can also be translated faithfulness, it obviously has some overlap in meaning with hesed.  However, emet is more often used describe human faith/faithfulness in response to God's faithfulness which is usually described as hesed.  Emet is probably the closest Hebrew equivalent to the Greek word pistis which is translated as faith/faithfulness in the New Testament.

Tsedek:  Usually translated as righteousness.  In its most basic sense, this word carries the meaning of moral uprightness.  However, its use throughout the Old Testament demonstrates that it does not refer to some universally recognized moral code.  Instead, it more specifically refers to uprightness in regard to God's covenant with Israel.  The perfect example of this is the story of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38.  In that story Tamar disguises herself as a prostitute in order to get her father-in-law Judah to sleep with her, obviously an act we would consider morally reprehensible.  However, she does this because her two previous husbands (both sons of Judah) had died before she had any children.  According to the laws of Israel, the third son was supposed to raise up offspring for his dead brothers with Tamar.  However, seeing that his first sons did not fare well with Tamar, Judah holds back his third son from Tamar, fearing that he may die as well.  Judah thereby violates the law of Israel.  Tamar, in contrast, goes to great lengths to fulfill the law, posing as a prostitute so that she will still become pregnant by a relative of her dead husbands.  While we may find this story odd, it illustrates the meaning of righteousness as loyalty to God's covenant law at any cost because by the end of the story when Judah realizes what has happened he concludes "She (Tamar) is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son Selah."  Since much of Israel's law had to do with one's covenant obligations to the poor and oppressed, tsedek also took on a strong connotation of justice (mishpat in Hebrew) without being reduced to a mere synonym.  This can be seen even more clearly in the New Testament where the Greek word usually translated as righteousness (dikaiosune) shares a root with the word for justice (dikaios).  In its deepest and most profound sense, this word speaks to God's ability to accomplish his purposes in the midst of our broken world; God's setting right a world gone wrong.

Shalom:  Usually translated as peace.  This peace can mean safety or absence of strife but it often describes more than just an absence of danger or war.  Shalom speaks to completeness, wholeness, harmony, fulfillment, and even health.  To be at shalom is to be in right relationship with God, neighbor, and one's self.  That is why Shalom  is so often paired with Tsedek in Scripture.  To live in accoradance with God's covenant law (tsedek) is to be in right relationship with God and others.  Conversely, an absence of open conflict in which injustice is perpetuated is not shalom but simply another attempt at human manipulation and control. True righteousness is the only way to true peace.

In the final verses of Psalm 85, this abundantly rich vocabulary is meshed together.  Hesed and emet meet.  Tsedek and shalom kiss each other.  Emet springs up from the ground while tsedek bends down from heaven.  The Lord gives what is good and the land produces its fruit.  Its as if we are to picture God's righteousness raining down from heaven causing human faithfulness to spring up like a great harvest in response to that rain.  This is how the Psalmist describes Israel's hope, the hope of what God can do in our world.  It is found at the crossroads of justice and peace, at the intersection of God's faithfulness and faithful human response to God's righteousness.  It is the hope that God's overwhelming mercy can set us right and set right our world as well.  

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