Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!

Augustine on the psalms (5)
September 6, 2010, 8:36 am
Filed under: Sermons | Tags: ,

A sermon preached at All Saints, Clifton, 5th September 2010

With Psalm 120 we begin a section of the Psalter entitled “Songs of Ascents”, continuing to Psalm 134. I am told that one explanation of this title is that these Psalms date from the time of Nehemiah, and celebrated the departure from Babylon; but the more common view is that they were Pilgrim Psalms sung on the way up to Jerusalem. Either interpretation can be given a spiritual meaning. We are all on a pilgrimage from the City of this World to the heavenly Jerusalem, and so we depart from the one in order to go up to the other. These are the songs of the stairway to heaven.

An earlier Psalm, Ps 84, spoke of the pilgrim going through the valley of tears on the way up to Mount Zion. We sometimes speak of our earthly life as a “vale of tears”. St Augustine reminds us that a staircase may lead up or down: we are thinking about going up. We are on a journey. What is our starting point? This vale of tears. Where are we going? That is hard to say. We are seeking something that “no eye has seen, no ear has heard, nor the heart conceived: the things God has prepared for those who love him.” [1Cor 2.9]

Augustine asks us to imagine we are in a valley. We are low down, hemmed in by mountains the tops of which we cannot see. It is a watery valley, with a stream running through it, and maybe marshy ground to traverse. But a valley has a direction, and we are travelling against the stream, to reach the heights. We are climbing to find the source of the stream, but we cannot yet see where that is.

Let us look at these Psalms in more detail. “When I was in trouble I called upon the Lord; and he heard me.” The human pilgrimage begins when we recognise our need for God. Very often this in when our human hopes and resources let us down. When everything is going well, it is easy to forget God. In time of trouble, when we have no-one else to turn to, we ask his help; and God does not turn away from us, God is always at hand to hear us and help us, however wayward we are, however often we neglect him. The Psalmist does not feel he is in a loving, supportive community. Rather he is in exile, among an alien people who do not understand his faith in God, who mock and maybe even persecute him for it. “Woe is me, that I am constrained to dwell in Mesech: and to have my habitation among the tents of Kedar.” These were Gentile lands, far from the homeland of Israel. “I labour for peace, but when I speak to them thereof: they make them ready to battle.” This, then, is the starting point for our ascent, and I think we can recognise our situation as Christians in the world of today.

“I will lift up mine eyes to the hills: from whence cometh my help.” The Prayer Book Psalter makes this a statement. Most modern translations make the second part a question, answered in the next verse, “My help cometh even from the Lord: who hath made heaven and earth.” Surrounded by enemies, down in the valley of tears, where can we look but upwards? The tall mountains, solid and immoveable, wrapped in cloud: they are images of the solid and dependable, but ultimately mysterious, God. A second voice, it seems, now speaks to the questioner: “He will not suffer thy foot to be moved… The Lord himself is thy keeper… The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil,” and so on.  The pilgrimage begins, then, with a recognition of need and a cry for help. It continues with the assurance that help is at hand, that God will not abandon us.

I promised that this would be the last of this little series on the Psalms, and so it shall be. But we are only just beginning the Songs of Ascents, so before I end let me just outline the rest of the journey, for your own meditations. In the next Psalm, 122, we express our joy that we are going up to the house of the Lord. We are not going to stay in the valley- even with divine help- we are going to the very source of that help, to God’s own house. We repeat, in Psalm 123, our upward gaze: “Unto thee lift I up mine eyes: O thou that dwellest in the heavens.” In Psalm 124 we renew our confidence in God: “If the Lord himself had not been on our side…”, continuing in Psalm 125 “They that put their trust in the Lord shall be even as Mount Sion.” We reflect on how the Lord builds the house, on domestic happiness, and many other things, until we reflect on the joy of the household of God, the dwelling-place of the saints, our final destination: “Behold, how good and joyful a thing it is: brethren, to dwell together in unity!” The heavenly Sion, where “the Lord promised his blessing: and life forever more.”

Well, that is enough for now on the Psalms. I have tried to indicate, rather inadequately, how we can really pray them in Christian worship, and meditate upon them in our personal reading. I hope these thoughts will have been some use.


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