Psalms Week 4
Divine Absence and Presence: Terrifying, Comforting, or Both? Psalms 22; 23; 24; 139
Seattle Pacific University Professor of Old Testament
Read this week’s Scripture: Psalm 24; Psalm 139
Almost intuitively, when one thinks of the book of Psalms one thinks of Scripture that comforts, encourages, and strengthens. Though the Old Testament God is sometimes thought of as remote, if not forbidding, somehow Psalms does not match this negative stereotype. Psalms remains a favorite among people who otherwise find it easy to keep their distance from other Old Testament texts. We love Psalms for consoling us that no matter what we happen to be experiencing, God is near, immediate, uplifting, and in control.
Given this inclination, it is disturbing if not destabilizing to have a Psalm begin with a poignant lament that God not only is absent but has actually abandoned the psalmist (Psalm 22:1). Is this a rule-proving exception or a motif more common than we would prefer? How can a deity who is presumably omnipresent ever be absent? Why would a God who hears and answers prayers go missing? By attending to Psalms 22, 23, 24, and 139 — all of which deal with divine presence in one fashion or another — we may get that question answered, or at least addressed, not to mention other pressing inquiries about the nature of God’s presence or absence.
Psalm 22 — a psalm of David — starts out with a wrenching question: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The second part of the verse is no improvement, for the psalmist wants to know why God is too far away to help someone whose prayer is indistinguishable from groaning (22:1). This is not a matter of a perfunctory prayer uttered in an off-hand moment — the psalmist has been crying out day and night (22:2).
Perhaps most distressing is that in this instance God acts against type. After all, the God to whom this prayer is offered is none other than the Holy One of Israel, the Ruler, who is Praiseworthy in Israel. Precisely in this God the psalmist’s ancestors trusted, and their trust was rewarded with divine deliverance. When the ancestors cried they got rescued. Back in the day, Israel trusted and did not experience disappointment (22:3–5). Clearly, this past positive experience makes all the worse the divine absence now haunting the disillusioned psalmist.
It is little wonder at this point that the psalmist thinks of himself as subhuman — a worm, no less. His predicament is compounded by the fact that he is surrounded by those who scorn, despise, and mock. With curled lips and wagging heads these heartless onlookers ask contemptuously why no rescue or deliverance is forthcoming, given that the sufferer in fact is committed to the Lord (22:6–8). The wretched psalmist has had insult added to injury.
It would be one thing if this were an academic discussion about suffering, prayer, and a human capacity to sense that God is indeed near. But this psalmist does not have a casual relationship with some distant, impersonal deity. His God has been with him from birth, having even been instrumental in that birth (22:9–10). In that light, why does the psalmist have to bother to ask God to come close and help (22:11)? A God who has been with someone from birth and who has in fact facilitated that birth could hardly be closer, it would seem. This sentiment is of a piece with the cluster of first-person personal pronouns at the beginning of the psalm. There are eight in the first two verses. This is as personal as it gets.
At this juncture the psalmist describes his desperate plight with stunning metaphors. He is being overrun by raging bulls that are as menacing as lions (22:12–13). Naturally, this eventuates in a broken body and shattered emotions (22:14–15). It is not clear who the bulls are — folks who are outraged at the king? rabble rousers and troublemakers? people irrationally bent on creating havoc? the depraved who delight in mayhem? — but to make matters worse they are joined by dogs (22:16). These people who behave as wild beasts do more than threaten or stare and gloat; they inflict wounds and auction off the psalmist’s garments, causing maximum humiliation. As a result of this onslaught, the emaciated psalmist can actually count his bones (22:16–18). There is no more specificity than this. The psalmist has left the rest to our imaginations. His condition is virtually beyond description.
In this light, the cry with which the psalmist began makes perfect sense. It is also understandable that this afflicted soul returns to pleading with God to come near and rescue. Unless the Lord delivers, the psalmist will fall prey to violence perpetrated by these terrible circling animals (22:19–21). Without God and the help God provides, the psalmist has no chance. His situation appears hopeless.
In spite of all this, the psalmist does not succumb to despair. Indeed, in an astonishing about-face, rather than complaining further he pledges to testify and praise in the context of worship (22:22). He even invites the congregation to praise (22:23). Why? Well, the psalmist professes, God does not add to the misery of those who are beset, does not ultimately hide the divine face from those needing God to show up, and, most importantly, hears when folks call (22:24). Such a profession might be expected from one whose life has avoided pitfalls. But this profession from one who has undergone what this psalmist has is nothing short of astounding.
It is noteworthy that this transformation from lament to praise is centered in worship. Twice the psalmist mentions the congregation (22:22, 25). The Lord is at the center of this implied liturgy. The psalmist goes so far as to say that the downtrodden will eat and be satisfied (suggesting literal and figurative food) and that those who seek the Lord — as the psalmist has so far done unsuccessfully — will end up praising the Lord (22:25).
This is no parochial claim. Eventually all the ends of the earth/all the families of the nations will remember and turn to God (22:27). What else would one say in view of the Lord’s sovereignty (22:28)? So expansive is this triumphal claim that the most unlikely will end up acknowledging the psalmist’s deity, from the proud to the dead (22:29). In time to come, all who come after present generations shall witness to God and proclaim deliverance to those not yet born (22:30–31). Given the way this psalm began, this is the unlikeliest of conclusions.
Psalm 23 would seem to be the polar opposite of Psalm 22. Instead of being distant and apparently uncaring — at least initially — as in Psalm 22, the Lord in Psalm 23 is present and nurturing. Depicted as a divine shepherd who ensures the flock has nourishing pasture, life-restoring water, and direction for appropriate paths, the psalmist lacks nothing needful (23:1–3).
Though intensely personal — there are six first-person personal pronouns in the first three verses — the psalm has a decidedly communal flavor as well. This divine shepherd is the shepherd of Israel as a whole (80:1; 95:7; 100:3). Plus there is an important link between the Lord as shepherd and the Lord’s rescuing Israel from Egyptian bondage (77:20; 78:52–53; 95:7–11). Equally, this divine shepherd is connected with Israel’s restoration after the infamous Exile (Isaiah 40:11; 49:10; Ezekiel 34:11–16; 25–31). Given the Lord’s extraordinary role as shepherd, neither in the wilderness after rescue from Egyptian enslavement nor in the wilderness after Babylonian bondage has Israel lacked anything (Deuteronomy 2:7).
In Psalm 23, given the Lord’s ministrations there is no circumstance that roils the psalmist, whether walking in a valley haunted by death’s specter or facing adversaries. In the former situation the good shepherd’s pastoral instruments provide comfort (Psalm 23:4); in the latter the Lord — suddenly transformed into a host rather than a shepherd — prepares a table, anoints the psalmist’s head with oil, and makes sure his cup overflows (23:5). Again, though this section is also highly personal — there is a cluster of eight first-person personal pronouns in these two verses — the larger community is still in view. Indeed, relative to God’s setting a table, Israel famously and cynically demanded to know whether God was capable of doing this in the context of the wilderness wandering (Psalm 78:19–20).
This psalm’s combining of the personal and the communal continues to its conclusion. The psalmist uses three personal pronouns to assert that “goodness and grace shall follow me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for a very long time (23:6, author’s translation).” This is simultaneously personal and collective, for the house of the Lord — the Temple — is where the congregation gathers to worship. Psalm 23 has long been used to assure the devout in a variety of settings of the comforting presence of God. That is as it should be. But the psalm is no less useful for those who make up the divine shepherd’s flock, whether in the wilderness, in the face of those bent on harm, in the valley of the shadow of death, or in the house of the Lord.
As though building to a crescendo, Psalms 22 and 23 lead naturally to Psalm 24, which features a liturgy for approaching and entering the great temple, here referred to as the hill of the Lord/His holy place (24:3). The liturgy begins with an introit celebrating the Lord as both the maker and the owner of the whole created order (24:1). Worship is the only natural response to a God so described. There follows a poetically paired set of questions, the answers to which serve to remind worshippers that a holy God is to be worshipped by an undefiled people (24:3–4).
Of course, the community cannot make itself pure; that is the work of God. Receiving blessing and vindication from God is the appropriate preparation for proper worship in God’s sanctuary (24:5–6). At this point, the inanimate gates and doors of this holy structure are commanded liturgically to allow for the entry of God, who in this instance is called the King of Glory (24:7). Using a wonderful interrogative to which the answer is antiphonally supplied, the congregation is asked to answer the following: “Who is the King of Glory?” The answer is as marvelous as the question is revealing: “The Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in battle, the Lord of hosts” (24:7–10). The gates/doors are asked twice, as is the congregation; the refrain is up to the task of giving the right answers.
The accent is on God’s glory, which suggests God’s presence in concentrated form. This presence is pervasive, overwhelming, palpable, and awe inspiring. We are in God’s holy temple. The King of Glory has entered. All rise! The people worship. God could not be closer.
Psalm 139 also deals with God’s presence, but in a slightly different register. First, it accents the personal aspect more than the other three psalms combined. In this Davidic psalm, 48 first-person personal pronouns occur in its 24 verses. Also, the psalmist declares that God’s nearness is partially due to the deity’s knowing everything there is to know about him, regardless of whether it involves behavior or thoughts (139:1–5). The psalmist is appropriately amazed by this divine perspicacity (139:6).
This sentiment leads naturally to a section where the psalmist asks and then answers his own questions about the possibility of God’s ever being remote: “Where would I go from Your Spirit/where would I flee from Your presence (139:7)?” Just in case the answers to these clearly rhetorical questions are not evident, the psalmist leaves no doubt. Neither heaven — where one would expect to find God — nor Sheol (the world of the dead) — where one would not expect to find God — makes any difference. God is in both places (139:8). [Author’s Note 1] The farthest reaches of the sea would provide no haven from God’s presence either (139:9–10). Not even darkness provides cover. It turns out that to God darkness is not dark and night is the same as day (139:11–12). The plain sense is: If you’re thinking about getting away from God, you can’t. As it turns out, the ubiquity of God may be either blessing or bane, depending on one’s stance before the deity.
Returning to the theme of God’s total knowledge of the psalmist, he praises God for making him down to the last detail. No organ, no recesses of the human body, no substances required for life itself are outside God’s purview or beyond God’s intimate creative involvement (139:13, 15–16). It is no wonder that the psalmist is awestruck (139:14, 17–18). God’s presence on this scale takes on an entirely different dimension.
At this juncture the psalm makes an abrupt shift and goes in a seemingly different direction. All of a sudden, the psalmist broaches the subject of the wicked, apparently the violently wicked (139:10). These unidentified people have set themselves against God, this God whose presence is everywhere (139:11). Showing his loyalty to God, if not his righteousness, the psalmist declares his disdain for such people by hating them with perfect hatred (whatever that is!) and counting them as his enemies, too (139:21–22). It is not clear why the psalmist brings up this subject after celebrating God’s presence not only throughout the world but in his own particular life.
Perhaps the end of the psalm provides a bit of a clue. The psalmist concludes with a strange redundancy. Having already asserted that there is nothing this present God does not know about him, he asks God to do what he formerly declared God had already done (139:1, 23). At least two important words used in 139:1 are repeated in 139:23 (search and know). In effect, the psalmist has moved from a doctrine about one of God’s attributes, so to speak, to the religious implications of such a belief.
It is one thing to acknowledge that God knows us intimately. It is quite another to appropriate that belief into our relationship with God and a sincere desire to avoid becoming God’s enemy (139:19–20) along with amending our own lives while on an eternal path (139:24). It makes little difference if we believe God is everywhere but act as though we live hidden from God’s presence.
Two Common Foci
All four of these psalms, which deal with God’s presence from a variety of perspectives, have their ultimate relevance by speaking to our communal and personal relationship to a God whose presence makes a difference. Of course, it almost goes without saying that there is a Christological element to the thematic content of these four psalms. This element has two foci. One calls attention to the belief that Jesus was God in the flesh — an incarnation. God’s becoming an ordinary human being accents the idea that Jesus is Immanuel — that is, God with us (see Matthew 1:22–23; John 1:14). It is central to Christian faith that God’s engagement with humanity knew no bounds — God was willing to become, as it were, one of us. Jesus’ physical departure did not, however, diminish his presence (see Matthew 28:20). The Holy Spirit sees to that (see John 14–15).
The other focus has to do with the fact that Psalm 22 has been interpreted in the light of Jesus by a number of New Testament authors. Most famously, Psalm 22:1 — the “cry of dereliction” — is on Jesus’ lips during the crucifixion (see Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34). Other verses in this lament psalm are appealed to as well. [Author’s Note 2] Perhaps more than anything else, viewing Psalm 22 as prophetic of Jesus’ suffering and death puts into bold relief the utter humanity of the savior. Though Jesus is ultimately victorious — Good Friday gives way to Easter Sunday — Psalm 22 forces us to realize the awful reality of what Jesus had to endure, including the mystery of Deus absconditus (the disappearance of God). Psalm 22 ends on a high note, but that does not diminish its lowest note.
Questions for Further Reflection
- Our psalms for this week all deal with God’s presence or absence in varying ways. In your estimation, what is comforting about divine presence or frightening about divine absence? Is God ever truly absent, or does God only seem to be absent?
- Psalms 22, 23, 24, and 139 are some of the more well-known from the Psalter. What are some of your favorite aspects of these psalms, and why? How have they impacted your faith?
- These psalms once again indicate a very personal faith celebrated in the midst of corporate worship. As you have studied these texts, what do you see as the relationship between personal experiences with God and communal experiences? Why is it important to have both in our lives?
- Dr. Spina notes that, “It makes little difference if we believe God is everywhere but act as though we live hidden from God’s presence.” How would you respond to this statement? In what ways do you seek out God’s presence in your life? In what ways do you hide from God? What would it mean for you to more fully embody a belief in God’s daily and intimate presence?
<<Previous Lectio Back to Psalms Next Lectio>>
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.