Chapter 10

Of Times and Seasons

The sun rises and the sun goes down; then it speeds to its place and rises there again. The wind blows to the south, it veers to the north; round and round it goes and returns full circle. All streams run into the sea, yet the sea never overflows; back to the place from which the streams ran they return to run again.

So runs the discouraging comment on life in Ecclesiastes 1:5-7. The wearisome vanity of life that the Speaker of this Wisdom book describes is in fact more a comment on his own mental state than the perpetual flux of the natural order. To some people the skies are merely dark accumulations of sunless clouds, but others soon see the glory of sunrise and the beauty of a slowly fading sunset. The Psalmist belongs to the second category, as we have already noted in relation to Psalm 104, where the wonder of nature, God's great creation, is celebrated.

If we cannot see God's presence in the things around us, we will not find it in philosophical speculation or theological debate. As St Paul says in Romans 1:19-20, all that can be known of God lies plain before our eyes; indeed God himself has disclosed it to us. Ever since the world began, his invisible attributes, that is to say his everlasting power and Deity, have been visible to the eye of reason in the things he has made. While we must not identify the Creator with his creation, we can certainly see his mind in his works and his love in allowing his creatures to follow their own choice, while always being available when called upon in prayer.

We live in a world limited by time and space; it is the first of these that interests us in this chapter. There is first of all the unending procession of the hours of the day. Morning is celebrated in Psalms 3 and 5. It is the time of God's favour: certainly we awake refreshed at this time of the day, for a good period of sleep seems to clear away the emotional debris of the past hours. It is at this time, preferably shortly after rising, that prayer is especially keen, since our minds are open and alive rather than closed with worry and tired with strain as they may be later on. And so we can offer ourselves to God for his service as we start a new day's work.

Psalm 3 describes a familiar situation: the writer's enemies are set against him, but he calls on the Lord for help:

I lie down and sleep,
and I awake again, for the Lord upholds me.
I shall not fear their myriad forces
ranged against me on every side.

This verse reminds us of Jesus' resurrection and by extension our own growth in sanctity through travail and heavenly rest. The Psalmist calls on God to save him while destroying his enemies. Such is the Lord's victory, while his people are blessed at the same time.

Psalm 5 pursues the same theme of petition and imprecation against the arrogant and those who practise wickedness.

When I pray to you, Lord,
in the morning you will hear me.
I shall prepare a morning sacrifice
and keep watch.

There is the common oscillating pattern of praying for help, praise for God's justice, denunciation of the enemy, and a confident expectation of the divine help:

For you, Lord, will bless the righteous;
you will surround them with favour as with a shield.

Psalms 4 and 134 celebrate evening, a time traditionally of trial and suffering. Both are said at the office of compline. Psalm 4 once again calls on the divine assistance in the face of attacks by enemies. These bow down to empty idols and false gods; they should learn that God has singled out for himself his loyal servant, who hears when his devoted follower calls.

Let awe restrain you from sin;
while you rest, meditate in silence:
Offer your due of sacrifice,
and put your trust in the Lord.

While many people yearn for material prosperity, the Psalmist knows greater happiness from God's presence in his life than others would from all their grain and wine. The psalm ends with the lovely thought:

Now in peace I shall lie down and sleep;
for it is you alone, Lord, who let me live in safety.

The delightful little Psalm 134 ends the series of Songs of the Ascents. It is a hymn of blessing for all God's servants, those who minister night after night in the Temple.

Lift up your hands towards the sanctuary
and bless the Lord.
May the Lord, maker of heaven and earth,
bless you from Zion!

Verses from these two evening psalms form an excellent theme for quiet meditation just before going to bed; another useful focus of meditation is the Nunc Dimittis spoken by the devout Simeon when the infant Jesus was presented in the Temple (Luke 2:29-32). They lift up the mind from the slough of material worry and emotional tension to a realm where the peace of God is knowable. In the end we receive according to our physical capacity no less than God's prodigality towards us. Beautiful psalms, like fine music, cleanse the organs of perception and the brain which receives all incoming information. Thus we are able to sleep better as we commend ourselves in this wonderful flow of words to God's grace. And in that sleep many wonderful ideas are being incorporated into a living philosophy.

Psalm 67 remembers the time of harvest. It begins with a prayer for God's continued beneficence:

May God be gracious to us and bless us,
may he cause his face to shine on us.

Then his purpose, his saving power among the nations, will be widely known. He will be praised by all the peoples as a judge of equity and a loving guide to all the nations. The universal hope, that all people will be received into the Holy City of God, seldom receives more generous articulation than here. The promise of this is to be seen in what has already been given:

The earth has yielded its harvest.
May God, our God, bless us.
God grant us his blessing,
that all the ends of the earth may fear him.

It cannot be emphasized too often that the fear which the Lord requires is not a shaking in its boots of a terrified population but an acknowledgement of God's sovereignty, or holiness, and a serious commitment to lead a life of holiness in response to the divine initiative. The Ten Commandments show us the way of such a life, and the practice of constant prayer opens us to the love of God which alone can make that way a possible venture. As Jesus says, "What is impossible for men is possible for God" (Luke 18:27).

The much more sombre Psalm 39, which shares a mood of acceptance and wisdom with Psalm 90, considers the short span of human life in comparison with God's eternity. The Psalmist vows a perfectly sinless life, keeping silent in the face of his enemy. The silence penetrates to the very depth of his being, and then a more sober appraisal of his situation causes him to speak with wisdom:

Lord, let me know my end and the number of my days;
tell me how short my life is to be.
I know you have made my days a mere span long,
and my whole life is as nothing in your sight.
A human being, however firm he stands, is but a puff
of wind.

As the writer of Ecclesiastes would have agreed, the strength of worldly wealth is a mere illusion; no one knows who finally will enjoy it. And so the Psalmist throws himself upon the divine mercy:

Now, Lord, what do I wait for?
My hope is in you.
Deliver me from all who do me wrong;
make me no longer the butt of fools.

The writer sees God as his punishing agent, but in fact it is the law of life, enshrined in the Law given to Moses on Mount Sinai, that is the arbiter. There is no escape from the fundamental law of cause and effect, but once we are secure in God's love and are on the true way of life that leads to holiness, every effect, no matter how fearful it may appear, is invested with such hope that the understanding it brings with it is seen to be a blessing and not a curse. This is the supreme fruit of suffering, that we may bring compassion to others:

Frown on me no more; let me look cheerful
before I depart and cease to be.

Psalm 71 deals more specifically with the time of old age. The writer here has always been loyal to God, though his sufferings have made him like a portent to those around him who cannot equate pain with goodness. Nevertheless the Psalmist's praise to God will not falter nor his witness of the divine truth. However, like all of us, the future presents an unknown quantity, and our faith is stretched as we contemplate the wasteland of the aged:

Do not cast me off when old age comes
or forsake me as my strength fails,
for my enemies whisper against me
and those who spy on me intrigue together.

Once again the writer declares his trust in God. He remembers his staunch faith in the past which issued forth in good works. But then once more comes the fear of the future:

Now that I am old and my hair is grey,
do not forsake me, God,
until I have extolled your strength
to generations yet to come,
your might and vindicating power to highest heaven;
for great are the things you have done.
Who is there like you, my God?

The oscillating moods of faith, triumph and doubt that are so common in the psalms generally, are seen here with particularly great poignancy. Weakness cuts us all down to size, and old age is seldom a pleasant experience, as the physical body's functions fail and we depend more and more on the solicitude of others. The Jews have for generations had strong family loyalty, so that their aged folk are well provided for either at home or in desirable communal situations where their spiritual health is cared for no less than their bodily comforts. But most of us have no such caring people to trust. Parents all too often become a burden on their children, not infrequently because of their own psychological difficulties that are not ameliorated with the passage of time. We do indeed create our own old age when we are still young. The wise person lives so compassionately while he is fit that when he too needs help his attitude evokes spontaneous love from those who tend him. One hopes this was the case of the writer of Psalm 71.

This is a very practical fruit of good living: "Always treat others as you would like them to treat you: this is the law and the prophets" (Matt. 7:12). The advice of Ecclesiastes 12:1 is equally pertinent, "Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the bad times come and the years draw near when you will say "I have no pleasure in them"." The chapter proceeds with a very realistic description of old age and death without any comfort of survival of the personality to soften it. Faith illuminated by inner experience helps to broaden the picture.

A much more pleasant occasion is celebrated in Psalm 45, the marriage between a king and his chosen princess, though both Jewish and Christian tradition see it in Messianic terms: the union of the Messiah with Israel, or with his Church in the Christian tradition. In fact the two interpretations are not mutually exclusive, for a true marriage between a devoted couple is a sacrament of God's love for his creation. And where there is reciprocated love, there is also a witness of resurrection. As we read in the Song of Songs 8:6 and 7, love is strong as death, and many waters cannot quench love, no flood can sweep it away; if someone were to offer for love all the wealth in his house, it would be laughed to scorn.

The Messianic king is fulsomely praised:

You surpass all others in beauty;
gracious words flow from your lips,
for you are blessed by God for ever . . .
God has enthroned you for all eternity;
your royal sceptre is a sceptre of equity.

He has been anointed by God because he loves right and hates all that is wrong. His robes are fragrant with myrrh and powdered aloes, he is made glad by music, and princesses accompany him as his consort takes her place at his right hand. She is then told to follow her new way of life with diligence:

Listen, my daughter, hear my words
and consider them:
forget your own people and your father's house;
let the king desire your beauty,
for he is your lord.

She must enter a new way of life, of splendour, revelry and rejoicing, as she assumes her place in the king's palace. Her reward will be sons to succeed her forefathers, and they will be made princes throughout the land.

I shall declare your fame through all generations;
therefore nations will praise you forever and ever.

The injunction to the princess about forgetting her past life reminds us of Abraham, the first clearly Israelite patriarch, who was told by God to leave all the comfort and established security of Mesopotamia and set out with his family to an unknown country which would be shown to him. And so, at the age of seventy-five he commenced a new life in Canaan where remarkable adventures were to follow. It is thus also with those who put their trust in the Lord and follow his instructions in pure faith illuminated by honest endeavour.

A marriage has something of this nature as well; of course the parents of the newly-wed couple are not forgotten in spirit, but it is essential that both marriage partners should face the future with courageous determination, and not look back nostalgically on the past when they were free and uncommitted. It is indeed this matter of commitment that distinguishes a marriage from a mere liaison which can be terminated at any time. Jesus says, "No one who sets his hand to the plough and then looks back is fit for the kingdom of God" (Luke 9:62). The fruits of a marriage are maturity and compassion; as one begins to see the less pleasant aspects of one's own personality in the stress of a new relationship, so one can be more open to God's undemanding love in one's state of humiliation. The love of God accepts us as we are, and the experience of this helps us to accept the other person in his or her own right, and to cease making impossible demands on him or her. In the royal marriage celebrated in Psalm 45 we can envisage the slow growth in the personalities of both partners; even the Messiah has to grow for the great work ahead of him.

Times past form the basis of history, and a number of psalms have deeply historical roots. Psalm 132, another one of the Songs of the Ascents, commemorates the translation of the Ark from the region of Jaar, which, like Bethlehem, Jesus' birthplace, was in the district of Ephrathah. It was to be carried to Jerusalem, there to be set up in a humble tent in the Citadel of David, which is Zion. Zion was the holy hill of Jerusalem, the very centre around which the hope of the whole nation revolved. King David reflected on the lowly situation of the Ark of the Covenant while he lived in splendour. He confided his concern to the prophet Nathan, who was told by God that a royal son would build the Temple to house the Ark, but that David himself was not eligible for the task. There followed the prophecy of Nathan concerning the future of the Davidic dynasty: so long as the ruler followed the way set down in the Law of Moses, all would be well. Any apostasy, however, would reverse the country's good fortune, until such a time as a new beneficent ruler emerged. The formula, "I shall be a father to him, and he will be my son" (2 Sam. 7:14), was to characterize the relationship between God and his people Israel. We remember the teaching of Proverbs 3:11-12, "My son, do not spurn the Lord's correction or recoil from his reproof; for those whom the Lord loves he reproves, and he punishes the son who is dear to him." The historical context of Psalm 132 is found in 2 Samuel 6-7.

Lord, remember David
and all the adversity he endured;
how he swore an oath to the Lord
and made this vow to the Mighty One of Jacob:
"I will not live in my house
nor will I go to my bed,
I will give myself no rest,
nor allow myself sleep,
until I find a sanctuary for the Lord,
a dwelling for the Mighty One of Jacob."

This resolution is applicable to us also as we follow the call God has given us. To be sure, it may be far less auspicious than that of David, for most of us are destined to lead rather prosaic lives, but it is how we play our part that matters. Indeed usually our own contribution may apparently disappear in the mists of a not too spectacular family history, but later on a distinguished descendant may be born to carry out some important work. The many detailed genealogies that punctuate the scriptural record, including St Matthew's account of Jesus' ancestors (Matt. 1:1-17), emphasize this point. They all played their part in the history of salvation by simply "being fruitful and increasing in numbers, as we considered on page 27.

For the Lord has chosen Zion,
desired her for his home . . .
There I shall make a king of David's line appear
and prepare a lamp for my anointed one;
I shall cover his enemies with shame,
but on him there will be a shining crown.

Psalms 68, 78, 89 and 105 also have strong historical roots. Psalm 68 is a triumphant account of Israelite history from the time of the exodus from Egypt up to the universal period when all the nations will come to worship the one God in Israel. Psalm 78 strikes a more sober note as it surveys the history of the Israelites during their long exodus and the early period in Canaan when the Judges ruled a recalcitrant people. Their frequent apostasies were the cause of their continual suffering until the triumphant reign of King David, which represents the highest point in early Israelite history. The psalm does not consider David's brilliant but unstable son Solomon, under whose rule the Temple was built and the nation split in two because of his infidelity to God. We have considered this theme on page 36. How easy it is to worship God unworthy under an imposing façade of religious ritual! Soon formal worship becomes something of an insurance policy against the time of trial, but, unlike the worldly policy, it brings no benefits with its claims. Only holy living can insure us against the day of disaster, because then alone is God's presence a real strength, as we remember from the first verse of Psalm 46.

We have considered Psalm 89 on page 46; like Psalm 132 it concentrates on God's promise made by Nathan to King David, but near the end there is the utter tragedy of an apparent failure of the divine love and faithfulness, two qualities that are often juxtaposed in the psalms, but never more movingly than in Psalm 89.

Psalm 105 is more joyful as it surveys Israel's wonderful history from the time of God's covenant with Abraham to the escape of the people from Egyptian slavery under the leadership of Moses.

He led out his people rejoicing,
his chosen ones in triumph.
He gave them the lands of heathen nations;
they took possession where others had toiled,
so that they might keep his statutes
and obey his laws.
Praise the Lord.

We are wise always to pay due attention to the annals of the past, because they tell us much about human nature and therefore about ourselves also. How we respond to the records of the world's history is a good indication of our own inner attitudes, often concealed because of their disruptive power. Dreams can show us how we are functioning on a deeper, less rationally conscious level.

It is not inappropriate to deal finally with the present time, mirrored with thanksgiving in Psalm 66. The community thanks God for what he has done throughout the course of history as revealed in the present moment.

Let all the earth acclaim God.
Sing to the glory of his name,
make his praise glorious.

The Psalmist remembers the two saving acts of God in the history of Israel, the crossing of the Red Sea by Moses and the people and then the passage over the Jordan by their descendants with Joshua at the head of the hosts of Israel.

Bless our God, you nations;
let the sound of his praise be heard.
He preserves us in life;
he keeps our feet from stumbling.

God had proved a hard taskmaster, refining his people like silver in various adversities, but now a place of plenty has been reached. As a token of gratitude the usual animal sacrifices will be offered. But more important than this is the nation's testimony to the world about the saving power of God. Somewhat in the manner of Psalm 34, which enjoins the right way of life, we read here:

Come, listen, all who fear God,
and I shall tell you what he has done for me;
I lifted up my voice in prayer,
his praise was on my tongue.
If I had cherished evil thoughts,
the Lord would not have listened;
but in truth God did listen
and paid heed to my plea.

In fact God never ceases to listen however subversive may be our thoughts; were this not the case few of us would ever gain the Lord's ear. But when our minds are turned away from his excellence, there is less possibility of our hearing him. Until we restore the relationship in humble penance our pleas will bring no relief, for we will not hear the advice that is being given us or receive the help that is always at hand. Our lasting testimony of God's help is therefore an amended way of life in which we follow the divine imperative to honesty and love. Praising God is much to be recommended, but it will remain hollow if it is not filled by such a love that will not shrink from a total sacrifice of the individual for the sake of his friends. These will be seen eventually to be all God's creatures and not only our human peers.

We may return with profit to where we started, the book of Ecclesiastes. The famous third chapter reminds us that everything has its season and every activity under heaven its time: a time to be born and a time to die. All the other categories subsequently listed are contingent on this first one. The psalms shed a perpetual light on the human situation, encouraging us in the day-to-day running of our lives. The Psalmist also suffered, but in the end a greater victory was his: immortality in this world as a writer of spiritual wisdom. We may trust that he knows immortality in the greater life beyond death also, something he could not grasp while in the flesh.

Chapter 11
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