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October 24, 2010
Psalm 65

Psalm 65 is a thanksgiving psalm often associated with a harvest festival (possibly the Feast of Tabernacles; cf. Exod. 23.16; Deut. 16.13-15). The thanksgiving and praise offered God comes from three quarters. First, after an introduction in vv. 1-2, it speaks of thanks from worshippers at the temple in Zion (vv. 3-4), then of praise and thanks in cosmic realms (vv. 5-8), and finally in vv. 9-13 of praise and thanks that comes from the earth. As a whole the psalm challenges many ways in which we perceive praise of God and who/what offers praise.

The psalm opens in vv. 1-2 with a declaration of the universal praise of the ‘God, in Zion’ who is the one ‘who answers prayer’. It begins ‘To you silence is praise, O God in Zion’. The NRSV ‘Praise is due to you’ reflects the alternative Septuagint (LXX) reading. This praise consists of ‘silence’ and the fulfilment of vows (vv. 1-2a). But, in the Hebrew, how is silence praise? The word ‘silence’ is often used in prayers. The Hebrew word can imply ‘quiet expectation’ (Pss 39:2; 62:1) and the idea of silent waiting connected with salvation (Lam 3:26; cf. 3:49). Ps 22:2 provides the closest parallel for the sense of ‘silence’ in Ps 65:1. The NRSV translates the Hebrew word in Ps 22:2 as ‘rest’ but the sense is clearly not just rest from troubles. It refers to the peace given by God's answer to prayer. This reference also occurs in the context of praise (Ps 22:3). Thus, we can understand ‘silence’ in Ps 65:1 not in a passive sense of resignation but in a sense of confident expectation.

The second section (vv. 3-4) focuses on the temple in Zion. It emphasises the gracious movement of God toward the people in terms of forgiving the sins which overwhelm them and in bringing God’s chosen near to the temple. Verses 5-8 see the scene change to a cosmic one. God answers the prayer of the psalmist’s community but just how is not made clear at first. What follows is a description of aspects of creation itself: establishing the mountains, silencing the roaring seas and the tumult of peoples. These were all things embodying chaos in ancient myths. We have here a picture of God in realms beyond what is of earthly experience. The section establishes the mythic background for the rest of the psalm. It declares that God is the one who orders the cosmos. This is the one who can pardon sins and grant abundant fertility.

Finally, in vv. 12-13 the psalmist’s praise joins with the joy of earth. These verses begin and end with statements expressing joyous exclamation and singing. God is the source of earth’s life and abundance (vv. 9-11). Earth is the recipient of each action in these verses. God provides grain, tends and waters earth, and blesses the growth. The harvest, which is rich and abundant and ‘drips fatness’, comes as the result of God’s goodness (v. 11). Verse 12 speaks of the pastures and hills rejoicing, while in v. 13, the flocks and crops are described as clothing for the pastures and valleys. The fact that the two verses are parallel makes it clear that an abundance of flocks and crops is the means by which the pastures etc. rejoice. Thus the final section ends in a similar way to the second and third sections. Each concludes by recounting a response to God’s action: the worshippers desire to be sated on the goodness of the temple in v. 4; the inhabitants of the earth are in awe of God’s acts in v. 8; and earth shouts for joy in v. 13.

While each of the sections of Psalm 65 has a distinct emphasis, they are intricately connected in the present form of the psalm, relating the various forms of praise and thanks evident in creation. One connection between vv. 9-13 and vv. 3-4 which focus on the temple is the word ‘goodness’ (vv. 4 and 11). Both temple and earth reflect the ‘goodness’ of God. The connection draws together earth’s abundant fertility and the worship in the temple.

Another connection concerns the movement within the last three sections of the psalm. In each God moves outward toward the creation: in forgiveness when sin overwhelms the people (v. 3), in establishing the mountains and stilling the seas (vv. 6-7), and in giving fertility to earth (vv. 9-11). In each there is a corresponding movement back toward God: as God brings the chosen near to the temple (v. 4), as the inhabitants of the earth stand in awe and ‘east and west sing for joy’ (v. 8), or as earth responds in joyous praise (vv. 12-13). The sections thus detail how ‘all flesh’ comes to God (v. 2b). The coming together of worshippers and God in the temple, the inhabitants of earth standing in awe of God’s signs, and the coming together of God and earth in abundant fertility, complement each other. In each case intimacy is the result of God’s initial movement toward creation. Thus, the presence of God in the temple, and the ‘awesome deeds’ in ordering creation, are continuous with the work of God in and with earth.

When we consider the introduction (vv. 1-2), we see that the God who does the things mentioned above is the God in Zion, who hears and answers prayer. The parallel responses at the end of each of the last three sections suggest that abundant fertility is not only the answer to a prayer by worshippers, but is itself earth’s ‘prayer of praise’ to God. This prayer is the gift of God to earth. Just as worshippers in vv. 3-4 break forth with a desire for the goodness of God’s house, so earth is enriched by God’s gift of abundant fertility and breaks forth into joyous praise. In each case, God’s gift makes the response of worship possible. God’s dealing with earth is not simply a response to human worship. The psalm suggests that while the two are intricately related, God’s dealing with earth and its response of jubilant praise have their own integrity in the context of all creation. Earth has its own voice. As in the case of human worship, earth lifts its voice in a song of praise in response to the gracious actions and initiative of God.

Psalm 65 both challenges and encourages us to see our relationship with the earth, and its relationship with God, in ways different to those we have inherited. The psalmist assumes an intricate connection between the activity in the sanctuary, the orderliness of the cosmos and the nations, and the fertility of earth. God’s gracious action toward each part of the creation gives rise to the joyous response of each part: of worshippers, the peoples, and earth. All this was part of the psalmist’s world view which saw connections many in our own world no longer see, or no longer trust.

The psalmist sees earth as a living entity, with a voice of its own, capable of giving praise to God. This is more than ‘mere metaphor’ as some might see it. The psalmist’s association of pastures, valleys etc. with joyous song, invites a broadening of our understanding of what we think of as praise and what can praise God. Praise in this context is not a rational enterprise or response to events. It allows for what can only be expressed in the imagination or in mythic language. Furthermore, the psalm suggests that praise is not necessarily linked to human worship alone. In vv. 11-13 earth sings and shouts for joy in its abundant fertility. It sings for joy in following its life cycle. Life itself, which is lived in fullness, wholeness and peace, is an offering of joy and praise to the God whose gift that life is. Praise is embodied in the very life of earth and its community. Human praise is but a part of the chorus. We are challenged to recognise that and to be lost in the wonder of the life of the world around us.

In this psalm, earth takes its place alongside human worshippers in the temple and throughout the whole world, in giving praise to God. But there are many ways in which earth’s song of praise is stifled: through deforestation and the subsequent increase in salination of the land; through the needless slaughter of whales and other creatures; or even through the way we think of the earth in subject-object terms etc. This psalm challenges us to think otherwise and in that offer praise to God.

Suggestions for the use of the psalm in worship

Several verses in the psalm can be used wither as a call to worship:

Praise is due to you, O God, in Zion;
and to you shall vows be performed,
O you who answer prayer!
To you all flesh shall come.
 or as a prayer of adoration:
By awesome deeds you answer us with deliverance,
O God of our salvation;
you are the hope of all the ends of the earth
and of the farthest seas.
By your strength you established the mountains;
you are girded with might.
You silence the roaring of the seas,
the roaring of their waves,
the tumult of the peoples.
Those who live at earth's farthest bounds
are awed by your signs;
you make the gateways of the morning
and the evening shout for joy.
Verses 1-4 can also be adapted as an introduction to the declaration of forgiveness:
Praise is due to you, O God, in Zion;
and to you shall vows be performed,
O you who answer prayer!
To you all flesh shall come.
When deeds of iniquity overwhelm us,
you forgive our transgressions.
Happy are those whom you choose
and bring near in the words of Jesus:
‘Your sins are forgiven!’
Thanks be to God.
Old Testament reading: Joel 2:23-32

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