At last, Psalm 99 comes up again! This is worth waiting for.
[You scan the verses to see what the urgency is all about. You find bold words about God being enthroned … high above all peoples … proclaim the greatness of the Lord. Well this is all fine but you have heard it before many times; is it really that for which we have been impatiently waiting?]
Let us not discount these expressions of praise; they are indeed a strong thread. But for me this week, that pales in the awareness of an unobtrusive gem waiting to be noticed amongst the dazzle of the grand parade. An apparently modest but meaningful verse is tucked away in the middle of the shouting and show. What is it that the people are actually proclaiming between the earth shaking and the pillar of cloud? Not Lift up your heads ye gates, or Bow low ye princes of the earth, or Glory glory, but:
O mighty ruler, lover of justice, you have established equity (v.4)
Note the word established. Created, devised, part of the plan. Here in the psalms is a cornerstone declaration on the nature of our world and our lives, essential elements of creation that are neither heavy books of law — the illustrated manuscript is the longest Anglo-Saxon law code, issued by King Cnut (r. 1016–35) — nor remote and unachievable humanist theories.
Sure it’s hard to be triumphal about the inequities and iniquities painfully evident in the world around us. But the psalm reveals that justice and equity were in the blueprint from the outset, for the creation and for humankind. As I have written before in this blog (see for example posts on this psalm and also on Psalm 125) this is an important verse for our confidence and understanding our nature. There’s a hopeful, helpful splash of this good oil in our DNA.
The settings and responses in our books celebrate the sovereignty of God proclaimed in the early verse. Let’s not sniff at that but surprisingly, few sources pick up this seminal verse 4 to create the ringing response that it deserves.
Everett’s antiphon in The emergent psalter (download full score .pdf here>) is on the money:
Oh mighty God, lover of justice, it was you who created equity
Equity didn’t exist in the days of Moses and Aaron, nor in the days of Samuel, nor does it exist in our world today. There are still rich and poor, masters and slaves, oppressors and oppressed. Where other psalmists would pray for an end to such things, however, this psalmist boldly declares that they’ve already ended, seeing the world as it ought to be rather than as it is. I love it.
For another commentator, the ‘cosmic drama’ of Psalms 93 to 99 thus includes the
‘… human dramas of actual injustice that produce the longing that the cosmic promises might come true in smaller human situations’. (N T Wright 2013, p141)
Our challenge is to make the vision of the psalm more real. Everett’s refrain would make a good theme song for Lent this year.