The Old Testament text for this Sunday, June 19, is I Kings 19, that wonderful story of Elijah’s confrontation with YHWH on the sacred mountain of Horeb. I have already wrestled with that text in my reflections on I Kings 17 two Sundays ago. So, rather than pour through that tale again, looking for further insights, that I know are there, I thought I would turn to the Psalms for the day, 42 and 43. As I reread those psalms, divided in the text but clearly some sort of unity, given the nearly identical refrains at 42:5, 11 and 43:5, I was reminded of several trips I have taken in my past, first to Israel and another to Brazil and Argentina. In those journeys I witnessed something of what the psalmist was pursuing in his ancient poems, a search for places that would lift the spirits and restore the life of a worshipper.
My first trip to Israel was in 1977, nearly forty years ago. I was lecturing on a college trip, speaking only from what I had read in my graduate studies toward a degree in Hebrew Bible. I admit that I remember very little from that trip in detail, save how terribly cold it was at Petra, that grand false city in Jordan, carved out of the sandstone rock, abundant in that place. I had assured my travellers that it was certain to be warm there (it was late December, more fool I!); how many of the sufferers that day cursed my name I am not sure, since they were too polite to reveal their fury at me! 35 degrees and a nasty desert wind is hardly warm!
Only several subsequent trips to Israel/Jordan cemented many of the famous scenes in my mind. One was of the snow-capped Mt. Hermon in the far north of the country, at the very headlands of the river Jordan. The psalmist prays: “My life is thrown down around me; that is why I remember you from the land of Jordan and the mountains of Hermon, from Mt. Mizar” (Ps 42:6). We have no notion where Mt. Mizar may be, but we surely know Jordan and Hermon (the plural of Hermon suggests a mountain range rather than a single peak). The poet feels despondent, her very life (the common translation of this word, nefesh, as “soul” is deeply misleading, suggesting some division of soul and body that the Hebrews did not hold) has been broken down around her (the common reading “within” is a most peculiar rendering of the Hebrew ‘al; “around” or “near” is better). She needs a new place in which to stand, a new location from which to contemplate her God. Jordan and Hermon are fine places, but something fresh is demanded now.
The poet thus turns to that new place, a place in fact that is rooted in ancient and powerful story. “Deep calls to deep, at the noise of your channels. All your breakers and waves have surged over me.” The word “deep” is the Hebrew tehom, that word that is most famously found in Gen 1:2, that cosmic ocean that exists as pre-existent material upon which YHWH will create and shape the earth and the seas. Upon this deep, God’s absolute darkness rests, as the howling divine wind roils the waters just before the light of God penetrates the darkness, ushering in the shaping of the universe in which humans and animals and plants will soon live and grow.
Later in this first account of creation, God will “divide waters from waters,” that is the waters below the solid earth and the waters above the vault of the sky. From this image of divided waters the psalmist apparently envisions the deep calling to the deep, the subterranean waters shouting to the sky waters. And above and below both these sources of water one finds the “noise of your channels” (NRSV: “the thunder of your cataracts” nicely poetic but rather beyond the Hebrew text). I assume this is the image of a waterfall, a picture that a northern Israelite would see each spring as the snows of Hermon melt and flow into the Jordan.
Here at that place the image of the psalm lives again: “deep calls to deep at the noise of your channels.” And the psalmist continues: “All your waves and your breakers have gone over me.” Too true! I was soaked. It was as if the divided waters of creation had joined together again, and I found myself back in Genesis 1:2, a witness to the roaring sea and the raging storm. As I write those words, I experience again what I felt in the presence of such grandeur. I have seen many waterfalls in my life, but Iguazu trumps them all easily and completely.
But the psalmist will not allow us to revel only in the falls of water, will not have us gaze longingly at such natural gifts of the landscape, lost in their wonders. She urges us not to get caught up in the beauty of the world, however grand it may be. In the same way, we may “lift our eyes to the hills” in Ps 121, but we are immediately warned that our strength does not come from those hills, but rather from YHWH, who made them (Ps 121:1-2). So it is here in Ps 42:8. “By day YHWH ordains chesed, and at night YHWH’s song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.” Snowy mountains and vast waterfalls are wondrous, unforgettable emblems of natural beauty, but the greater gift of YHWH is that marvelous chesed, the unbreakable love of God that remains with us no matter what, no matter how despondent we may become, no matter how sinful we may be.
So, in the presence of whited hills and roaring waters, never quite enough in themselves, we now may join the psalmist of 42 and 43 and repeat the refrain: “Why are you thrown down, my life; why are you moaning around me? Hope in God, for I will again praise God’s rescuing presence. Oh, my God!” (Ps 42:11; 43:5).
I absolutely love the natural beauty of the world in which I live. And I have been so privileged to see so many places of unalloyed splendor. Yet, Psalms 42 and 43 remind me—and I need that reminder regularly—that God’s most fabulous gift to us is that love that passes all understanding, that love that outlasts and outworks faith and hope, that love that sustains us in our despair and offers again and again the hope we need to become children of the living and loving God. I relish Iguazu and Hermon and Pike’s Peak and the Eiger and Denali and Yosemite and Yellowstone and the hill country of Texas. But most of all, I cherish the chesed of YHWH, for there I find my lasting and unbreakable hope that I too can love others as God has so freely loved me.
Photographs from Common Wikimedia