“He wraps himself in light as with a garment;
he stretches out the heavens like a tent
and lays the beams of his upper chambers on their waters.
He makes the clouds his chariot and rides on the wings of the wind.”
There’s an oddly discordant shift in pronoun number in this beautiful psalm—I’m not sure why (and I’m sounding like an English teacher). The poem begins by addressing God face to face (“O LORD my God, you are very great; you are clothed with splendor and majesty”), and then shifts rather inexplicably into a third person portrait of the God the psalmist had just been addressing (“He wraps himself. . .”). Why the change? It’s as if, in two verses, the poet is addressing two different listeners—first, God, very much in prayer, and then us—or at least someone other than God.
Scholars can probably suggest an answer, but I’m wondering if the psalmist isn’t really addressing his soul. The first line of the poem is a command, after all. The psalmist points a finger at his own soul. “Praise the Lord, O my soul,” he orders.
Is his soul bored or lazy? Maybe. Some are. Mine is. Sometimes. Often maybe. More than it should be anyway. Seems to me that souls need to be exercised, don’t they? Get a little out of shape otherwise.
Experience says yes—at least my experience does. Hence the words appearing from the blinking cursor as it charges across a line on a white screen before me.
Maybe this succession of inspiring, royal images, mythic in character and extravagance, is a form of rhetoric designed to convince the poet’s own niggardly soul that God is, in fact, to be praised. It’s a pep talk, an interior monologue, a rallying cry for the soul. Perhaps these royal metaphors are more about the psalmist than about the God he wants better to serve.
And why, after countless mornings spent with the psalms, do I still find that possibility so odd? Why does it feel strange to think that what’s behind the heavenly imagery of this gorgeous psalm has more to do with a mulish soul than a mighty God? Why should that surprise me, shock me?
In his “Introduction to the Wisdom Books” in The Message, Eugene Peterson says, “There is a distinctive strain of writing in the Bible that more or less specializes in dealing with human experience—as is,” which is to say, some biblical lit focuses on what we are: flaccid souls in dire need of enrichment, of pep talks. “The Wisdom writers [by which he means the writers of Jobs, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs] keep us honest with and attentive to the entire range of human experience that God the Spirit uses to fashion a life of holy salvation in each of us.”
Here’s what excites me this morning, as my fingers tap the keys: that in this exercise—simply thinking about what the Bible says—I’m doing at least something of what the psalmist is, that is, doing the spiritual discipline his soul appears to require, refreshing himself—as I am and you are now--with what I can know of the reality of God’s love in the world, a world he fashioned, and runs, and gave us for our joy.
In the opening chorus of Psalm 104, the blazon of royal metaphors may well teach me more about myself than they do about God.
That’s half-truth. In teaching us more about ourselves, this psalm—and all of them—finally teach us more about “a life of holy salvation in each of us.”