Tuesday, 15 January 2013

The Egyptian Hallel

So, I get to preach again after a long break, and my subject this Sunday is Psalm 116.  Here's what I think I'm going to say, or something like it.

The Book of Psalms is a song book, an anthology of works by different authors written at different times in Israel's history.  It probably came together in its current form in the post-exilic period, but many of the songs it contains are pre-exilic, with a lot attributed to King David.  No musical notation has survived (it's possible that none ever existed) and we have no way of knowing how the songs were sung, but what appear to be musical instructions appear in some of the psalms and the title of the book itself comes from the Greek work for songs accompanied by stringed instruments.

In principle, this collection is similar to the collections we use today for church worship - The Australian Hymn Book, say, or the various collections of Scripture in Song or The Source.  Like these contemporary collections, it contains songs intended for public worship, in this case at the Second Temple in Jerusalem.  Some can be used any time, some are for special occasions - coronations or royal festivals, major religious feasts and commemorations, particular private services.  In practice, no doubt some were used regularly and became popular, while others were rarely sung.

Songs and poems are not treatises.  They are not intended to explain or define doctrine or ethical principles, or to impart facts.  They are intended to express and elicit emotion.  The psalm is an expression before God of how the singer feels about God, or about his or her own situation before God.  In this collection we see a wide range of emotional responses to God.  Some are very familiar to us, and very similar to the emotional tone of songs we use in our own worship - gratitude, amazement, exaltation, awe, longing, contrition..

We're pretty comfortable with expressing these emotions in public, although our longing and our contrition are often rather muted.  However, there are also some emotions in the Psalms that we would be very reluctant to express in public.  Psalm 137 is one such psalm.

By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.

On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’

How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?

If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.

Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
how they said, ‘Tear it down! Tear it down!
Down to its foundations!’
O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!

This is one of the best known psalms in the Bible - a couple of versions were popular in my youth including Boney M's ridiculously jaunty disco version.  Yet it would be shocking to sing such a song in church, especially if we sang it to the end.  It records a protest born out of grief and despair.  The Israelis, in their grief, refuse their captors request to sing for them.  "How can we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land".  They are no longer able to worship the Lord, all they are able to do is weep at the memory of the land they have lost.

Then their grief turns to anger and hatred against those who have caused it - the Babylonians and their allies, the Edomites.  This is not an ethical prescription, some kind of Biblical justification of infanticide.  It is a cry from the heart, an expression of how it feels to be forced into exile at the point of the sword, to have your home destroyed and be carried off as slaves.  It is the kind of anger we see so often in the war-torn parts of the world.  It is how we would feel if it happened to us.  The Israelis weren't shy of expressing this anger in the presence of God.

Yet their psalms also expressed the other side of this equation - their joy and gratitude at being brought back home.  This is expressed most clearly in what has come to be known as the "Egyptian Hallel", the set of psalms from numbers 113 to 118.  These psalms were sung together at the major Israeli celebrations - at least as early as Jesus' time and possibly earlier still.  During the Passover they were (and still are) sung in two installments - Psalms 113 and 114 before the meal, and Psalms 115-118 afterwards.  The are called the "Hallel" because the word "hallelu-yah" - Hebrew for "praise the Lord" - appears at either the beginning or end of each psalm except 118, where it is changed to "give thanks to the Lord".  Each of the psalms gives thanks for some aspect of God's care for his people.

Psalm 113 celebrates the Lord's majesty and rule of the nations, which he uses to lift up the powerless - that is, perhaps, the nation of Israel in their darkest hour. “The Lord is high above the nations…he raises the poor from the dust”

Psalm 114 rejoices in hyperbolic terms over Israel's escape from Egypt -  “When Israel went out from Egypt…”

Psalm 115 celebrates the superiority of the Lord over the gods of other nations, who are merely creations of wood or precious metal.  “Why should the nations say ‘Where is their God?’”

Psalm 117 is a short song of praise beginning, “Praise the Lord, all you nations”

Psalm 118 is a song of victory in war.   “There are glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous"

In the midst of this collective celebration of national victory, liberation and identity, Psalm 116 stands out as a very personal song.  "We" and "us" is replaced by "I" and "me".

I love the Lord, because he has heard
my voice and my supplications.
Because he inclined his ear to me,
therefore I will call on him as long as I live.

The snares of death encompassed me;
the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me;
I suffered distress and anguish.
Then I called on the name of the Lord:
‘O Lord, I pray, save my life!’ 

Gracious is the Lord, and righteous;
our God is merciful.
The Lord protects the simple;
when I was brought low, he saved me.

Return, O my soul, to your rest,
for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.
For you have delivered my soul from death,
my eyes from tears,
my feet from stumbling.
I walk before the Lord
in the land of the living.

I kept my faith, even when I said,
‘I am greatly afflicted’;
I said in my consternation,
‘Everyone is a liar.’

This psalm reminds us that all these great national conflicts and triumphs are personal. They affect real people, with real hopes and dreams, real emotions. When they go wrong, we experience fear, when they go right, we experience joy and relief. It is, in many ways, the reverse of Psalm 137.  Their release from Babylonian exile would have been in their minds at Passover just as much as their distant ancestors' escape from Egypt.   

Just as grief morphed into anger and a desire to do harm, now relief and gratitude morph into a desire to serve.

What shall I return to the Lord
for all his bounty to me?
I will lift up the cup of salvation
and call on the name of the Lord,
I will pay my vows to the Lord
in the presence of all his people.

Precious in the sight of the Lord
is the death of his faithful ones.
O Lord, I am your servant;
I am your servant, the child of your serving-maid.
You have loosed my bonds.

I will offer to you a thanksgiving sacrifice
and call on the name of the Lord.
I will pay my vows to the Lord
in the presence of all his people,
in the courts of the house of the Lord,
in your midst, O Jerusalem.
Praise the Lord!

A final thought.  After the Last Supper in Mark 14:26 and its equivalents, it says "When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives".  This hymn was probably the second part of the "Egyptian Hallel".  If, as John Shelby Spong suggests, the gospels are deliberately structured around the great Jewish feasts, then these are appropriate Easter hymns.  Psalm 137 would do for Good Friday, as the writers of Godspell realised.  All the oppression of a powerful empire was brought to bear on Jesus and he appeared defeated, so that all his followers could do was despair. 

Yet Easter Sunday came and ultimately we can celebrate the God who heard, and still hears our cries for help and rescues us from death.  Then it would be appropriate to sing Psalm 116 and celebrate our release from our own death and suffering.

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