“Praise awaits you, O God, in
Zion; to you our vows will
An old, country editor friend of mine who unreservedly loves the small-town in which he’s always lived, told me long ago that his favorite Sabbath moment started the moment he parked himself inside the church, and ended when the worship began.
“I love my church,” he told me once. “I sometimes sit and look over my people there and my heart fills right up.” It’s the silence before the worship that he enjoyed, the peace, the sense of being there with people he’d known for as long as he could remember, all of them quiet before the Lord. He loved those moments, he told me.
That’s not the whole story, and you shouldn’t think that he immediately reached for the Kleenex. “But then,” he said, “sometimes I dislike the whole business bad.”
His preferences remind me of that indefatigable optimist Emerson, who,150+ years earlier, felt similar intimations in a church service when, he says, he heard a preacher hold forth, someone who “sorely tempted me to say I would go to church no more.” Why? Because around the church, snow was falling, a spectacle Emerson would have undoubtedly labeled “divine.” Meanwhile, inside the building, the preacher held forth, oblivious. “The snow storm was real, the preacher merely spectral,” Emerson wrote, “and the eye felt the sad contrast in looking at him, and then out of the window behind him into the beautiful meteor of snow.”
I’m not sure anyone knows exactly what David meant with the first verse of Psalm 65, “awaits” being as good a choice as any for a Hebrew word whose literal translation seems otherwise long gone. The NIV footnotes the verb, and suggests “befits” may be another possible translation. You choose. Either offers a unique intent, or so it seems to me. What exactly does the scripture say here is probably an unanswerable question.
In The Treasury of David Spurgeon throws in some possibilities he’s collected over the years, and lists them with their sources: “God is most exalted with fewest words” (Alexander Carmichael), “Thy praise, O Lord, consists in silence” (Abraham Wright), “Praise without any tumult” (Andrew A. Bonar), all of which make even more vital and rich the country editor’s blessed perceptions in an assembled, but silent, fellowship.
The church where I worship today sometimes seems to me to be a bit too taken with itself. Its people are generously blessed, and it does wonderful things, often at the drop of a hat. But its story begins in a break from excessive formalism, and sometimes, to my notions, it tossed the baby with the bathwater. There is no old-fashioned pre-worship silence. We’re enlightened and progressive, so we chat, building fellowship, some would say. Silence is banished.
The paradox that lies beneath this verse, a verse that begins what Spurgeon calls “one of the most delightful hymns in any language,” is quite ludicrous anyway, don’t you think? No one, not even David, can sing the praises of silence.
Having said that, I’d like to think that David knew what Thomas Carlyle did: “Under all speech there lies a silence that is better. Silence is deep as eternity.”
But if I take that to heart, then me and the country editor better stop writing.
When we do, when all of us do, I think we’re camped in the neighborhood of David’s intent in this psalm’s opening tribute. “Be still and know that I am God.” Something like that.
(I’ve said more than enough.)