Yesterday I interviewed a person for my podcast. That is not unusual. However, this experience was.
First, it was deeply spiritual and intellectual. It was in a stimulating environment—not a videoconference, but in her home. Third, it was with a visual artist, only the second of those in my podcast career. And this is a snippet:
“I lived near the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, and that had a big influence.”
“You know, I was reading Psalm 143, and I think it was verse 5, where it says, ‘I muse on the works of Thy hands,’ and it occurred to me that that is what artists do. I know that in the original language it wasn’t the same, but in a museum I think we should muse.”
“I was reading that this morning, too.” And discussion followed.
Now, how unusual that we had read the same Scripture that morning! And that it came up in the conversation, and that it was relevant. The rest of the dialogue was similar, lots of back and forth, and wide-ranging questions.
The reason I remembered the Scripture, among other reasons, is that I have been reading through the psalms and am coming to the end of them, which probably means I will need to start over again soon, perhaps after Advent, which merits its own period of Scripture readings.
I don’t want to say I have a love-hate relationship with the psalms because I love them, but I don’t see them the same way I do the New Testament. I mean, there is the horrific 137:9, which I won’t quote here. And so on. There is a lot of emotion that sometimes seems to get in the way of doctrine but definitely mirrors our own feelings and experience. There are a lot of things we either have to “explain” or “explain away” or “reinterpret” to fit a gospel framework. There is a lot that I just don’t like, really.
None of this is true with Psalm 143, so I wish to write about it for a while. I “camp” on passages sometimes in my personal study. This is a solid campground.
So I will start with the aforementioned, verses 5-6
I remember the days of old; I meditate on all Your works; I muse (*ponder) on the work of Your hands. I spread out my hands to You; My soul longs for You like a thirsty land. Selah
We are in a drought here. The last real, long, soaky rain was in early September. The air is dry, which is the only benefit since this is an area of high humidity, but it’s also an area of dense vegetation that needs rain. Grass is thatch, big dirt patches are everywhere, and the trees look dehydrated. The Israelites knew plenty about dry land. (I have to say the photos from the war areas look like deserts.) My yard, which is pretty large, looks like it is lifting its “hands” (dry grass and shrubs) begging for water.
Does our soul long for God that way? If I sprayed salt water on my plant, they might thrive a while, but the excess salt would kill them. We get some nutrition from empty carbs (junk food) but in the end we suffer physically from a diet of them. As long as we substitute alternatives , we remain thirsty, hungry, dehydrated, even if the immediate response is fulfillment.
But everyone who has tried to eat healthier and drink more water (and abstain from the junk) knows that it is an acquired taste. Our soul longs for God more and more after we make choices to be fulfilled by scripture, prayer, fellowship, good music, solitude, “musing” and pondering. It doesn’t come immediately or naturally. There is a training, like an athlete.
And where does the thirst come from? By starting with “I remember the days of old; I meditate on all Your works; I muse (*ponder) on the work of Your hands.”Now, I don’t think this means for people my age to sit around and say “It was so much better in the …..” By the way, it wasn’t. All times have goodness and badness. We are just living in the aftermath of their badness; we are experiencing their consequences (I think of so much here—drug abuse, racism, foolish doctrines, Christian and secular celebrity worship, political idolatry, materialism). This verse is not about nostalgia.
The days of old are all the days of history where God worked and was faithful despite our insanity. I am listening to a podcast on the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917 (Revolutions podcast with Mike Duncan, excellent by the way). In short, what a mess! The czar and his family did not deserve that specific fate, but he definitely made every mistake in the book in denying the Russian people good government for decades, like his ancestors had.
And the Russian people and we lived with the consequences, yet here we are, and God was faithful despite all that sin. Now, I don’t mean we have to get an advanced degree in history; I just mean in meditating on God’s works and remembering the days of old we get an entirely different perspective. If I see only today and my tiny circle of existence, and I compare it to people who superficially seem “better off” or some such, I am not pondering and musing on His great works; I am navel-gazing. I am looking within to subjective experience rather than a wider reality.
I like the word “muse,” or ponder. We could use a lot more pondering, but it is very hard to ponder with a cell phone in one’s hand, or fingers on a keyboard, or a podcast/TV/radio blaring. Theirs was a quieter world, so the inner life was more accessible. It was an immediate world—an interesting phrase, because ours is almost fully mediated through devices and books, and that was “im” (not) “mediated.” One communicated only with people in one's physical presence.Sometimes the best solution would be to turn off everything and be alone. Surely we cannot ponder God’s work in history, the world, or ourselves without media interfering.
Finally, the psalmist enjoins us to ponder the works of God, more than or instead of those of humankind. Mankind has done marvelous things—I saw yesterday footage of a rocket that was landing completely vertically (a SpaceEx feat). Amazing. All of those are worth pondering, but not for the ultimate health of the spirit and soul.