Preached by Margaret Imber
Our readings are short, today, but hard, in two senses of the word. First, they are hard to understand - “an assembly of the Gods?” Is this Olympus. Is the god of the Hebrew bible simply a bigger and better Zeus? Was Asaph, the psalmist to whom this hymn is attributed a polytheist? Who was this Asaph? He is credit with the authorship of 12 psalms in the Hebrew Bible. The name Asaph is associated with a guild of temple musicians in ancient Jerusalem, and this psalm is one of 12 attributed to him. Ancient biographical tradition identifies Asaph as an assistant to the very first temple singer appointed by King David. Asaph is credited in the second book of Chronicles as performing at the dedication of the temple of King Solomon. This is an honored and ancient name in the Hebrew tradition. Calling him a polytheist is like calling Donald Rumsfeld a communist. No Way. No Way.
If Asaph isn’t a polytheist then the opening verse is dramatic. He is setting a scene for his audience to imagine:
"God presides in the great assembly;
he renders judgment among the “gods”:
We are at a play. God is the President. The gods of the pagans are seated before God to hear God's judgment. God phrases God's judgment of these gods as a rhetorical question.
“How long will you[a] defend the unjust
and show partiality to the wicked?[b]
The question serves two purposes. First of all anyone who asks a rhetorical question already knows what the answer is. My mother’s refrain every Saturday morning was, “Peggy, are you ever going to make your bed.” I leave to your imagination the answer she anticipated. Similarly, when God, in this psalm of Asaph, asks, “How long,” you can be sure the answer is, “for ever.”
Next, Asaph imagines God’s exasperation. There is an implied, “This is not rocket science, people,” in his words to the pagan gods.
Defend the weak and the fatherless;
uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.
What a ruler needs to do is pretty clear in the Hebrew Bible. Defend and champion the poor and oppressed. Protect them from the wicked. Note, we could say that this standard is one every individual should aspire too. But it is clear from many other readings in the Bible, that leaders, especially, are held to this standard. It is not simply a standard applied to an individual’s ethical behavior, but to the way a king and his advisors rule a community. It was not uncommon at all for writers in ancient times to suggest that the gods themselves ordained the standards by which kings were judged.
Asaph’s genius here was to blur the boundary between pagan gods and mortal kings. First, the Hebrew God, finally pronounces his judgment on the pagan gods.
“The ‘gods’ know nothing, they understand nothing.
They walk about in darkness;
all the foundations of the earth are shaken.
We hear the scorn of the monotheist for the polytheist here. You have Olympus and its myriad foolish gods, who understand nothing. We Hebrews have Yahweh, who understands all. But now Asaph turns his point against mortal kings:
“I said, ‘You are “gods”;
you are all sons of the Most High.’
But you will die like mere mortals;
you will fall like every other ruler.”
The little scene he set is like one of those great 19th century historical paintings based on ancient texts. At first, you think the painter is depicting Cicero or Demosthenes or Herod, but when you stop and think about it, the lesson of the story the painter shows seems to apply to King George or King Louis equally well. Like these painters, Asaph has taken the standard of governance that Yahweh announced for the pagan gods and used it to suggest that ancient kings who protected the unjust and favored the wicked, who oppressed the weak and the poor, would fall and be forgotten, just like all those ancient Semitic gods the Hebrews had long since abandoned for Yahweh alone.
Asaph concludes his psalm with some very hard words for mortal kings and princes:
Rise up, O God, judge the earth,
for all the nations are your inheritance.
Judge these kings and princes, Asaph prays by the standards you set for gods. And condemn those kings and princes to the same oblivion that condemned all those pagan gods to. Any sensible king, hearing these words, would perhaps shiver a bit. If he had any notion of self-preservation, he might summon his councillors and demand, “What are we doing to the wicked and unjust? What are we doing for the weak and the oppressed.”
We know the way of the world. The councillors would probably say, “um, sir - the unjust and wicked are our friends - we don’t do things to them, we do things for them. If we stopped protecting them, they’d turn on us and you wouldn’t be king for very long.” These would be hard words for the king to hear - as hard as Asaph’s words. For if he does not listen to his councillors, he risks immediate political destruction. But if he does listen to his councillors, Asaph tells him, God will condemn him to eternal oblivion. A just king, a king who would listen to Asaph, must, finally be hard in the way our hymn describes - he must have a faith as hard as oak. He must choose now, when it is costly, to strive for the standard God has set for eternity.
Finally, there is another way in which these words are hard to understand. Why bother to hear them at all? We don’t live in a land of kings and princes - who would Asaph be addressing were he to sing this Psalm to us, today, in our own church? The President, Congress? The Governor, the state legislature? Are they here? If Asaph were singing here today, would he sing in vain? His injunction to defend and champion the poor and oppressed and to protect them from the wicked, what do they have to do with us? We are not kings or princes. And this is a democracy and few of us will hold important offices of state in our lives.
Can we let our minds wander when Asaph sings to us, or should we ask perhaps in our day and our time, God will hold an assembly pagan gods, but of ordinary citizens. Imagine a modern Asaph describing the scene. Perhaps he would say something like this.
“Democracy means the power of the people. If you truly believe you live in a democratic society, then you must believe that each of you wields the power once reserved for might princes and potentates. What have you done with that power?” Imagine God presiding in the assembly and turning to you to ask, do you, Mr or Ms. democratic citizen demand that your politicians, your servants, prosecute the unjust and ban the wicked? Do the politicians whom you vote for, and phone bank for and write letters to the editors for - do you demand that they pass laws and take executive actions to defend and champion the poor and oppressed and to protect them from the wicked.”
These would be hard words indeed for each of us to hear. What would say in our defense. “Hey, God, chill out. I vote most of the time.” I’m not sure that this is enough. If you are facing an eternity of oblivion, I’m not sure, “I vote most of the time,” would be the only piece of evidence I would want to offer in my defense.
If Asaph were here today, would he demand the same of us that he demanded of the kings of Israel. Would he say to us, “your councillors will tell you, Mr. or Ms. Democratic Citizen, your life is better when taxes are lower. And your blood pressure is lower when you turn off the news. Or you only listen to the stations, and read the papers, and follow the blogs of those with whom you already agree. And Thanksgiving dinner and family weddings will certainly be much more enjoyable if we only pretend we didn’t hear some of the things our neighbors and cousins say. You would need a faith like an oaken staff to take these challenges on. You’re life will be so much more enjoyable if you give up the labors of self-governance that a democracy demands of you. So much easier now. But if you think that the words of Yahweh to the pagan Semitic gods, and the words of the God of the Hebrew Bible to the kings of Israel have any meaning today - then, you must wonder what God’s judgment on you will be, when summons the assembly of citizens.
If we find the words of the Psalm to be hard words, then we should turn to Isaiah with no little trepidation. For Isaiah was a prophet of hard words. Hard to understand, hard to live up to, and demanding a faith of good, hard oak. Perhaps the reason for this is that Isaiah lived in what could only be considered very hard times indeed. Israel and Judah were minor players in a might clash of empires between the Assyrians and the Babylonians. The lands were the Hebrews dwelt were subject to invasion by the Assyrians. Even the city of Jerusalem was threatened. The kings and potentates of this part of the world fought with and against each other - in alliance and in betrayal of those alliances - constantly. Isaiah urged the king of Judah to resist the Assyrians and to be the kind of ruler God wanted him to be. He describes the God of the Hebrew Bible as a God of wrath and vengeance. Hard times, perhaps, call for hard measures.
Isaiah, like Asaph, engages us with a dramatic scene and an extended metaphor:
I will sing for the one I love
a song about his vineyard:
The one that Isaiah loves is God. The vineyard is the world God has given his people. He endowed the vineyard, our world, with everything we could possibly need. The soil is fertile, the planting stock is the best, a watchtower protects the vineyard from any who might attack it. Think of the world we have been given - not simply collectively - the planet - but also the individual worlds we each inhabit. Our planet has an amazingly hospitable atmosphere. The continents are laced with precious metals, the oceans team with fish, the fields are so fertile they can feed a population that is numbered in the billions. Our lives too, are rich. I know none of us feel like the 1%, but if we think of all the billions of people in the world, almost all of us, everyone in this church today, actually are among the wealthiest people in the world. Two thirds of the population of the world hold personal assets worth less than 10,000 dollars. If you own a house or a car, by the stands of the world, you are rich. This is the world God has given us. This is the vineyard that Isaiah describes.
Well, what happens in that vineyard? Remember, Isaiah lived in a time of political upheaval comparable to World War II. From Isaiah’s perspective, God’s people made a mess of the vineyard. When God looked for a crop of good grapes, he found only bad fruit. Bad fruit was how the people of Isaiah’s time described weeds that would invade a field and because they looked like the crop planted would be difficult to remove. Wild grape vines opportunistically infest planted vineyards, and if they are not controlled, they will choke the planted stock and offer up only fruit that is small and sour.
Isaiah then imagines God turning to the people of Israel and Judah and asking them to judge. Who is responsible for the mess the vineyard has become? Could God have done anything more? Remember what I said about rhetorical questions. Isaiah’s asking one here. No, God could have done nothing more. Now comes Isaiah’s hard words. God tells us his judgment for the vineyard:
Now I will tell you
what I am going to do to my vineyard:
I will take away its hedge,
and it will be destroyed;
I will break down its wall,
and it will be trampled.
I will make it a wasteland,
neither pruned nor cultivated,
and briers and thorns will grow there.
I will command the clouds
not to rain on it.”
Isaiah is not one of those writers who hides the ball. He wants to be sure you understand his message, that you get his metaphor. So Isaiah lays out exactly what he means by the vineyard metaphor:
The vineyard of the Lord Almighty
is the nation of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are the vines he delighted in.
And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.
Isaiah’s God judges in much the way the God of Asaph judges. He tells us clearly what the standard is and what we’re doing wrong:
And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.
For Isaiah, God looked at the world he gave Israel and Judah and he saw a mess. A world of warring empires and political betrayal. Kings who did not defend and champion the poor and oppressed.; who did not protect the weak from the wicked. Isaiah warned the Hebrews that God would judge them harshly - lay waste to the vineyard much like Asaph’s God had sent the pagan god’s and unworthy kings of Israel to oblivion.
But what does Isaiah have to do with us? What would Isaiah imagine God saying were Isaiah to sing to us today in this church in Winthrop, Maine. Perhaps he would look at our constant wars, perhaps he would consider the care we have taken of the vineyard. We do not live in a time of global imperial war. We do live in a time of global warming. Perhaps Isaiah would not have to sing on such a grand scale. He imagines God looking for justice and righteousness. God can look for justice and righteousness in Winthrop, or the state of Maine, or the United States. Will he find justice here, in our town, or neighborhood, or block, or within our own home? Will he find righteousness or will he find citizens and neighbors and families where the unjust are defended and the wicked are favored.
Who will be at fault when God comes to judge what we have done with the vineyard he has given us? God? He gave us the choicest vines to plant. What is our harvest? Fine wine or bitter fruit? These are rhetorical questions. We know the answer.
Now, for all the wrath of God that Isaiah describes, he is not a gloom and doom man. For Isaiah, the vineyard does not have to be destroyed. We can fix it. We can weed and fertilize and water and bring the garden back. Isaiah’s song suggests a possible outcome, not a necessary one. Unlike Asaph, Isaiah does not address kings and princes, and leave it for modern citizens to figure out how his words apply to them, what sense we are to make of his metaphor in Winthrop, Maine. Isaiah describes God speaking directly to the people of Israel and Judah. The God Isaiah describes, similarly, speaks directly to us. “Defend and champion the poor and oppressed. Protect the weak from the wicked.” Do we? This is a hard question. We each should give it some thought.
Isaiah’s God, like Asaph’s will judge and his judgment will be harsh. But Isaiah promises us that we can do the work to make the vineyard yield a bountiful harvest. Will we?
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.