As poetry, the beauty of Psalms arrives through metaphor. Despite all the differences across millenia, those who hear its truths share a sensory connection to this planet—the physical can become spiritual. Great art connects us like this by reminding us what we share—not just the sun, for example, but the way it, “floats toward the horizon / and into the clouds or the hills, / or the rumpled sea, / and is gone– / and how it slides again / out of the blackness, / every morning, / on the other side of the world, / like a red flower….
Not every pastor needs to be Mary Oliver, but metaphor needs more intentional use in the Adventist homiletical tradition. It is literally biblical. Sermons that consist of lists, or regularly resolve into an explanation of Roman torture, often fail to connect at the common human level. To really make truth true, great communication requires comfort with the nonliteral. The sun is not a red flower, but sometimes it feels like one.
What does doubt feel like?
In this complex world, we need bright joy in church. It’s one of the reasons I especially appreciate being with a congregation during the Advent season. Although the 12 days of Christmas technically end with Epiphany in early January, now many Restorationism-influenced sanctuaries can seem a little dim during these cat days of winter. But it’s okay. Beyond the happiness of the holidays, we also need shared moments acknowledging that we each experience some darker sorrow. While it’s often seen as the opposite of the telltale Christian witness, the reality is that we sometimes feel like divine power is not only far removed, but on the wrong side of history—at least personally.
This week, the Adult Bible Study Guide welcomes this realness. Commenting on the domination of praise psalms (and perhaps songs) in church, it states that this “often reflects the exclusiveness of moods and words that we express in our communal prayers.” It adds that, “such restrictiveness may be a sign of our inability or uneasiness to engage the dark realities of life. Though we may sometimes feel that God treats us unfairly when suffering hits us, we do not find it appropriate to express our thoughts in public worship or even in private prayer.” Communally reading aloud and studying the Psalms allows us to give collective voice to an often private pain we may all share.
One way this happens is through the connection that metaphors offer. For example, last week I drew attention to imprecatory Psalm 69 which begins, “Rescue me, God, / for the waters have come up to my neck.” (For a contemporary Adventist application of imprecation, read Reinder Bruinsma’s Tuesday article, “A Psalm for God’s People in Exile Today.” Commenting on his magisterial translation of the Hebrew Bible, Robert Alter criticizes the King James Version which mistranslates the last word as “soul.” The word implies “spirit/breath” (as Adventists know), and the metonymic meaning of “neck” in that psalm connects us in the feeling of almost drowning while a higher power seems impotent.
This may disturb the defenders of the so-called official historical-grammatical Adventist hermeneutic, but Psalms draws on Canaanite religious mythology. A repeated metaphor throughout the book involves drowning. Even deeper, the feeling alludes to disappearing under the waters, down into the realm of the primordial Canaanite sea monster. This is the realm of Tannin and Leviathan—imagine a snake as powerful as a dragon and as big as a whale. Here the feeling goes beyond drowning to a sense of being sucked into the chaotic underworld—a place physically and spiritual opposite to all that God represents. And yet, as the waters close, as the omnipotent savior looks unmoved. I imagine a horror movie scene of a toddler being slowly, invisibly pulled into a speedway full of racing cars while a strong parent seems to watch, uncaring.
Friday’s Further Thought section suggests that using “psalms in prayer and worship makes the believing community aware of the full range of human experience and teaches the worshipers to engage in the various facets of that experience in worship.” The Teacher Comments focus on Psalm 44, which sounds a note of deep, nostalgic despair. “Our fathers recounted to us / a deed that You did in their days, in days of yore.” It goes on to note that these days, those direct, divine deeds don’t hit like they used to. It draws on a sentiment that springs eternal, but it’s not hope. Instead, it’s the sense that everyone has told stories of God directly acting in the world in earlier times, but now God seems carelessly absent for us today. No direct miracles. No audible voice. No justice. No messianic return for a very long time. Sure, the pious say, “God with us,” or “coming soon,” but it’s not like what Abraham or Ellen White experienced. The unanswered question of absence not only weighs heavy, but pushes us into a watery depression. “Our heart has not failed, / nor have our footsteps strayed from Your path, / though You thrust us down to the sea monster’s place / and with death’s darkness covered us over.”
Psalms of lament like this offer students of the Bible a chance to engage with fellow believers/doubters otherwise separated by millennia or bourgeois expectations of spiritual talk. Monday’s lesson states that not engaging these psalms of despair “could cause us to miss the point of worship.” It adds,
“The failure to express honestly and openly our feelings and views before God in prayer often leaves us in bondage to our own emotions. This also denies us confidence and trust in approaching God. Praying the Psalms gives an assurance that, when we pray and worship, we are not expected to censure or deny our experience.”
Beyond the personal, Thursday’s lesson offers an additional reason to appreciate the metaphorically deep and sometimes dark meanings in Psalms. Sharing compassion. It states, “Sure, we might have things good right now, but who doesn’t know of people, all around us, who are suffering terribly? Praying such psalms can help us not forget those who are going through tough times.”
Physically, mentally, socially, spiritually—across time and space or even in the same pew, reading a few psalms together might remind us we are not alone, even in our doubts.
All biblical references come from the Robert Alter’s The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary, “The Writings,”(New York: Norton), 2019.
Image: Joseph Mallord William Turner, Sea Monsters and Vessels at Sunset, c.1845