Psalm 144: What is man, and what are our sons and daughters? Forming the people of God in action.

Psalm 144 (‘Of David’) opens with the bold praises and declarations of a man- a king, indeed- who sounds supremely confident in who he is, and Whose he is. Moses talked back to God at the Burning Bush, protesting that he wasn’t half as competent at public speaking as the job description seemed to demand. There’s no such modesty here: “I am David- that’s King David to you,” he seems to say, as the subheading of the psalm subtly advises us. This is the eternally famous and supremely esteemed King of Israel, the very regent who followed Saul (whom God certainly did not want His people to have as monarch, since apparently his very presence would distract attention from their true Divine King) through the blessed flight of a single stone of war into the Philistine champion’s forehead, then elevated to the iconic status of kingship par excellence. Christ the Messiah was still being hailed as ‘the son of David‘ at his final and triumphal entry to the city of Jerusalem on what we now call Palm Sunday (Matt 21:9). St Paul is still going on about King David as Christ’s titular ancestor in the opening address of his Letter to the Romans (Ro 1:3). “Concerning his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, which was made of the seed of David according to the flesh…” So one man in one generation seems to have helped change the very mind of God. The anti-monarchist Deity has become a devoted fan.

Psalm 144 ‘Of David’

Blessed be the Lord, my rock,
    who trains my hands for war,
    and my fingers for battle;
he is my steadfast love and my fortress,
    my stronghold and my deliverer,
my shield and he in whom I take refuge,
    who subdues [my] people[s] under me.

O Lord, what is man that you regard him,
    or the son of man that you think of him?
Man is like a breath;
    his days are like a passing shadow.

Ps 144:1-4 ESV, but with verse 2 modified according to the MT

By the close of verse 2 we’ve got into a theological argument. In the NIV and ESV, very typically of the English translations, David tells us that God ‘subdues peoples under [him].’ All the translators seem to want to stick with the traditional reading that David is referring to the ‘orrible foreigners he explicitly mentions later in verse 11 (ESV); “Rescue me and deliver me from the hand of foreigners/ whose mouths speak lies and whose right hand is a right hand of falsehood.” But actually it seems that Gentile folk are not who verse 2 is considering. Most original manuscripts and the MT say, ‘subdues my people.’ So might find that translation even more challenging in these times of ‘political correctness’. But remember the context of David’s life. The kingship of Saul was not a success, rather as God had cautioned Israel would be the case when they asked for a king. The consequences for Saul’s son Jonathan were most tragic. And even as David aged and passed away, relational strife at all levels of society, from his own sons and far beyond, again began to multiply. If we take subdue to mean bring into order, then that would indeed be a fitting prayer. I think we are brought back to the same questions of exegesis and hermeneutics that face us in Genesis 1:28,

And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” 

There is unresolved conflict in this phrase. To subdue is necessarily to assert and value one set of rights over another. (I’m assuming here, for the sake of argument, that animal rights are a given. You may not be patient with that assumption. Let’s keep that for another day!) This is a challenge to the life of faith and action, where ‘can’ does not seamlessly lead to ‘should’ and certainly not to ‘must’. God in creation establishes a hierarchy of life in giving one set of organisms as food to another, and then later this is modified when Noah leaves the Ark (Gen 9:3). What then are we supposed to take as our model, even more so in our day when the very question of consuming meat is understood to have significant ecological consequences? To combine the conceptualities of subduing and dominion and then bring them under the heading of stewardship may be useful, but does not answer all challenges. But I begin to digress.

One significant feature of the account (1 Sa 17:38-39) of David and Goliath is David’s refusal to use Saul’s military armour or weapons. He is diplomatic about it, saying ‘I have not tested them,’ but what he really means is that he doesn’t need any of it, because his equipment- his being equipped– is internal and invisible. His fitness and readiness to be God’s man for the job is in his self-image, which is rooted in God {i.e. David’s self image and the imago Dei are one and the same} . 1 Samuel 17 makes this clear, as David is the only one who has a worldview that actually includes God- that inheres in God. Read the passage, and you will see that everyone else speaks in humanistic and materialistic terms. [David and Saul (Ernst Josephson) 1878 – National museum of Sweden. As with the earlier engraved image, I find the theological exposition in this depiction to be profound. After prosecuting final victory over the Philistines, Saul takes David into his court to bathe in the borrowed glory of this youthful man of God. But here we see Saul still trusting in his armour and pomp, with his gleaming weapons close at hand, and utterly lost, not knowing who or what he really is. Crystal clear and life-giving water is in reach of his open hand, but remains untouched. The ‘ruddy and handsome’ boy stands to his side, attending to his needs for comfort with his skilful music, but David is in a different world to King Saul, eyes lifted to the heavens, where his worship connects him with the transcendent King of Israel. Goliath, the chapter tells us, sees the external appearance of the boy without armour, and this is also what we are shown in this painting, although the milky white non-tan of David’s torso is not quite what is called for. David’s mortal and physical humanity spills out in this image of the sheep-herd suddenly brought up in the world, adorned with gold earrings under his clean curly hair swept up with a decorated headband, befitting his presence in the royal chamber, while his loins are still crudely concealed by a heavy and doubtless rather smelly sheepskin, strapped on by three loops of cord to stop it all falling down. What we are really seeing here is the lone boy David singing under the stars while the flocks slumber – the worshipping psalmist- rather than a court performer held on a retainer.]

This then is David. Youngest son of Jesse, not at all suitable to be leader of his family, never mind of his tribe or country- yet anointed at God’s command ahead of time. Boy who speaks his mind regarding religious and political certainties far above his station in life, bluntly rebuked by his eldest brother Eliab (1 Sa 17:28). Shepherd lad, not suitable material for accession to monarchy. Practised only in the pastoral care of goats; hardly a suitable candidate for prosecuting warfare against Goliath, the Philistine Giant.

I expect you know all this, and you may concede that we must learn to see things from God’s point of view if we are to walk the walk of faith with our God. Don’t judge books by covers, or persons by outward appearances. “And YHWH says to Samuel, “Do not look at his {Eliab’s} appearance, and at the height of his stature, for I have rejected him; for [it is] not as man sees—for man looks at the eyes, and YHWH looks at the heart.” (I Sa 16:7 Literal Standard Version) And in verse 3 of Psalm 144 it may be that David himself is brought up short by the same awareness and realisation, for his gleeful reverie on the extraordinary place of privilege and agency he has under YHWH God as king and victorious warrior is brought to a shuddering halt:

O Lord, what is man that you regard him,
    or the son of man that you think of him?
Man is like a breath;
    his days are like a passing shadow.

‘WHO DO I THINK I AM, talking like this? God as my armourer and shield-bearer?? Am I really that special?!’ Finally, David is asking God, ‘What do You see?’

There are moments in our lives, and we can choose to make them happen more often if we wish, when the veil of prosaic normality is pulled back. The spell of the ‘same old same old’ is broken, and we stop to contemplate the existential wonder and curiosity of our existence. Scientists who speak in the everyday public domain are wont to remark how very small and very insignificant we all are in the big scheme of things- as we are in the early stages of realising just how BIG the big scheme of things really is. Its coming up to 100 years since Edwin Hubble ‘resolved the Shapley–Curtis debate by finding Cepheids in the Andromeda Galaxy, definitively proving that there are other galaxies beyond the Milky Way’ in 1923 (so says Wikipedia). Then there’s the Big Bang and the inflationary universe, doing its thing, we now estimate, for some 13.7 billion years. A big bang, and a very big universe. And that’s just the bits we can see with our telescopes, powerful as they are. But really HOW BIG IS IT?

There’s the thing- if you really want to bring emphasis, pose a question. Which is what the psalm does. We don’t get a definition of the nature of being human, or a reductionist description of our key characteristics, but a Big Question. “What is man[kind]…?” David draws back, and so we draw back with him, to see, that is, to imagine, what the larger perspective of our place in the cosmos might be. Putting the Question allows that our previous assumptions might be inadequate, even plain wrong. What we think we know might be misleading- our day to day experiences so often are just that, no different in kind to the mode of life of the animals. David is looking for something different, more meaningful, of ultimate value, and we are prepared to be surprised, to be unsettled in our prior comforts. We move as far back as we dare to see ourselves on the stage of life, to behold what else might not have been visible at such close quarters, and what our relations to all that might be.

In approaching such Big Questions, Paul Tillich spoke in terms of one’s ultimate concern. Is the focus of our loving worthy of our attention, or are we perhaps absorbed with the profane and that which is not worthy of our being, our creation. Leadership, kingship, nation and community within a morally cogent framework are all well and good, but for the biblical authors, these are never abstractions that can meaningfully exist apart from the One who gives and sustains their being-The Ground of Being. Whatever might pass muster as being of ultimate concern can only be such in relationship with the Ultimate- the God of Israel Whom David proclaims to the quaking Israelite soldiers, even his own brothers, and this is his only theme when singing for King Saul.

Jesus later promises His disciples that every one who builds on His words is like one who builds their house on a rock, rather than on sand. And this Rock is solid indeed, and the foundation indeed strong. Yet this is still a metaphor. Such a secure dwelling place –fortress and stronghold says David in his psalm- is not an immediate escape from mortality for any of us. It is however a secure hope that looks beyond our human lifespan, a perspective that comes into view when we step back from the whole of life and take in what God is pleased to reveal. Truly, we are- each and every one- fragile, a passing breath, a moving shadow through the short day, says David, but this is not the complete answer to his Big Question.

We don’t need to be concerned about the apparent little-ness of our lives. The answer is plain on the page before us, the answer duplicated in the words of the psalm in verse 3. ‘What is man?’ is answered thus: “We are regarded by God.” ‘What is the son of man?’ is answered thus: ” The LORD thinks of us.” This is the basis of Creation, and of our creation; of our birth and of Providence that sustains us through our lives. God first breathed into dust- He made it, so He knows how to make it work; and he does know that even dry bones can live again. Those God regards He remembers, and those He thinks about He does not forget.

God will surely remember you.

God is remembering you.

    David’s psalm continues:

Bow your heavens, O Lord, and come down!
    Touch the mountains so that they smoke!
Flash forth the lightning and scatter them;
    send out your arrows and rout them!
Stretch out your hand from on high;
    rescue me and deliver me from the many waters,
    from the hand of foreigners,
whose mouths speak lies
    and whose right hand is a right hand of falsehood.

I will sing a new song to you, O God;
    upon a ten-stringed harp I will play to you,
10 who gives victory to kings,
    who rescues David his servant from the cruel sword.
11 Rescue me and deliver me
    from the hand of foreigners,
whose mouths speak lies
    and whose right hand is a right hand of falsehood.

After dealing with the massive theological-philosophical question in vv3-4, David seems satisfied with the results. I wonder if you are likewise satisfied by our considerations. What other thoughts do you have? David returns to the here-and-now world he finds himself in; that is, God’s world, in which God is Here-And-Now with you and me. From verse 5 we are back into the colourful metaphors of God’s involvement with this world of stuff- of matter and process that is less impressive than God. David is impressed by the stars in the heavens (Ps 147:4) but they are not the ultimate fixed points in the cosmos, God is! God bends the heavens to the divine Will, and is certainly not constrained by ‘the way the heavens go’. Rocks may be firm, but God makes them burst into flame and smoke with a passing touch. Storms are impressive, but the God who spoke light into being commands the lightning. Seas may rage and floods sweep all before their flow, but the God of David is not challenged. He is a prayer call away. At the climax of David’s rehearsal of potential obstacles are the Gentile foreigners whose words and godless actions can really cause trouble. Without ultimate knowledge of the Creating Covenant God, they are without wisdom and restraint, potentially more powerful and disruptive than animal or nature.

So it has proved to be.

As Saul found when he brought David to strum and serenade at his court, there is the potential to create both peace and paradigm shifts through worship. Plucking a lyre or, in our day, strumming guitars may seem to be ineffectual activities, but David knows better, and we should learn from him. What begins as a new song can likely become New Creation. Extraordinary things happen when God is singing along. Here is the source of deliverance that righteous leaders seek. This is what we need to bring transformation in our society at all levels, from our local neighbourhoods to international relations. And we should be serious about this, because God does not offer us any other solution or means. Whenever you are reading this, you will know of news of tsunamis, volcanoes and fires, and the multitude of consequences of human mismanagement that continue in our age. And it will likely still be the case that the burden of misery is mostly down to oppression and distress caused by the rotten state of humanity and its systems.

David’s prayerful and energetic meditation does not continue to focus on success in war, and metaphors of that kind. In joining him in realising our mortality, the Kingdom direction for our thoughts and visions of the future is in our families- in the children. Since the time of David we have learnt the ways of stars and seas, tectonism and meteorology, and understand the ecological cycles on which sustainable community must depend. In the latter case, sadly, much of this understanding has come from how much we have mucked it all up so very recently. Yet we surely have sufficient knowledge to strategise what to do next, to undo, and to do better.

But the real mystery is in how we reproduce ourselves in wisdom. Now there are a number of important medical and philosophical challenges we face given our new capabilities in regulating reproduction-contraception and fertility and so on, but that’s not what I mean here. Rather, how do we best bring up our children, facilitating their development and maturity into a generation to succeed us as citizens of earth and heaven, as disciples and leaders. As children of ours and Children of God? So much has changed in society in the last century or so, and so much that was accepted and traditional has been binned. There is some progress, and grounds for hope even in wider society- I am happy to affirm much that I see in schools that is good practice in our training of young people. But there is a fundamental problem in that we don’t explicitly teach ‘growing up’, partly because we respect cultural and community freedom, but also because we cannot confront what is patently bad life-practice in the face of the idol of individualism. When I was a child, I would hear any errant child being rebuked by a passing adult if their behaviour was seen to be antisocial. That is unlikely to happen today. Freedom is a two sided coin- on the one side, there is freedom to do as we will, and then on the other, there is freedom from the impositions even of others’ freedom. Or would it be better to say, freedom is a double edged sword? Liberty with responsibility. Sure, the fruit looks attractive, but what are the consequences, for me, for you, and for all of us?

In the closing section Psalm 144, David has high hopes for the fruitfulness of the land of Promise in which God’s people now live- that the grain stores will be overflowing, and that all manner of produce will abound. And further that the hills will resound with the bleating of sheep- perhaps he was dreaming of Wales (they’ve got 10 million, as we speak, for just 2.9 million people), or New Zealand (26 million apparently, which is five times the human population). And then, more soberly, that there would be peace, at home, and abroad. No war, no civil war, no strife, and especially no exile.

Amen to all of that.

But listen to where David starts this concluding prayer:

May our sons in their youth
    be like plants full grown,
our daughters like corner pillars
    cut for the structure of a palace;
13 may our granaries be full,
    providing all kinds of produce;
may our sheep bring forth thousands
    and ten thousands in our fields;
14 may our cattle be heavy with young,
    suffering no mishap or failure in bearing;[b]
may there be no cry of distress in our streets!
15 Blessed are the people to whom such blessings fall!
    Blessed are the people whose God is the Lord!

May our sons in their youth /     be like plants full grown…

One of the most gifted and anointed leaders I have known taught me this simple lesson: ‘Success without a successor is failure.’ Which is why one of the most precious hallmarks of our church stream is the principle of fathering and sonship. Disciples must become leaders, which is to say, fathers, and you are only a father if there are sons learning in life with you. As we quip darkly, if you think you are a leader but no one is following you, then you are just taking a walk. David’s version of these principles is perhaps more winsome. In Ps 144 we have a multiplication of Ps 1. The single tree planted by streams of water has spread its seed far and wide, and now uncountable ‘sons’ have germinated and are growing in swathes of green growth in many garden borders and fields. The new forest is springing up, and there is a healthy synergy in the community network. You might say that there is competition in the race of life, with a struggle between individuals to succeed, but the horticultural metaphor is richer than that. Neighbouring plants do draw their own nutrients from the common supply, but they also support one another. As the trunks rise in the woodland, the grouping of the trees serves to protect them all from the damaging influence of wind and storm. They do compete for light, but they adapt and adjust, often keeping a margin from one another, to avoid friction and damage. We know much more than they did in David’s day- trees use chemicals and even interconnections by roots and fungal hyphae to communicate together in furtherance of health and avoiding disease or attack from pests. All the while the entire ecosystem is developed and enriched because the trees develop the environment so that a whole community of organisms can be created, in a network that is more resilient and sustainable than was the case before there are trees. As the human community develops, diversifies and grows, there is creative enrichment that exceeds the sum of its parts- a true synergy. Subtly, new phenomena emerge from the more complex network that we could not predict. With strategy and consideration, based on the wise appreciation of the impact of various developmental initiatives, what might have been subdued could be enhanced. The horticultural metaphor is very powerful, and I note that it gives us an opportunity to reflect on different modes of masculinity from, for example, the warfare mode that characterises much of this psalm.

‘our daughters like corner pillars/ cut for the structure of a palace…’   Caryatids of the Erectheum, Acropolis, Athens, Greece.

We will be quick to note that David is attentive to the need for inclusivity with regard to gender- as sons have been specifically highlighted as a determinant of long term success, so also must daughters be. [Alternatively I could say that ‘sons’ is the poor English for children, as I like to give ha’adam as humanity in Genesis 1-2. But given David’s specific identification of both genders here, that’s not necessary.] In terms of the ancient and classical cultures, this is even more significant than we might appreciate today, as for many, females and children and slaves were, to varying degrees, not equal to men, perhaps not even thought of as ‘persons’ at all. The biblical text, even in the Hebrew Bible, asserts radical claims that we might otherwise be ignorant of. I won’t waste your time commenting on how nonsensical such inequitable ideologies are, simply from a biological point of view. However, someone might observe that we must try not to stumble into the is-ought fallacy in moral reasoning. I’m drawn in by David’s characterisation of daughters as being structural, that is, strong, permanent, supportive, and absolutely vital to the maintenance of the roof, which will otherwise fall on one’s head, which are qualities which might otherwise have been associated with the masculine category. But there is no such stereotyping here: the males are the blossoming and tender plants, while the females confer architectural solidity. Perhaps David and the psalmists also mean what the Greeks in Delphi and Caryae understood, which is that a draped female figure makes an attractive as well as architecturally effective column- multitasking if you will. I read that Vitruvius, writing three centuries after their construction, said that the female Caryatids were depicted immobilised into the temple frontage as a punishment for picking the wrong side in the Persian war. This would fit the more familiar pattern of the oppression of women in peace as well as war. We might suggest that the psalm prefigures that more liberating metaphor used by Peter in the New Testament, with persons as living stones, where the next generation of daughters are explicitly included in the structure of the palace/temple in which God’s people are joined and live in full community with God as well as with one another. In this metaphor, being a member of this community is focussed on the participation in life and fellowship and not at all on the bearing of unreasonable loads.

We continue today in an extended season of flux with regard to gender and identity, fuelled in no small degree by the potential for change provided by science and medicine. The so called sexual revolution, beginning in the 1940-1950s and spreading significantly from the 1960s+ was, in part, a consequence of the development and common supply of effective contraceptives. My oldest aunt, a spinster, continued her working life as a Primary School teacher without marrying; when she began work, if a women became engaged she was expected, that is, obliged, to leave the workplace to make a home as a housewife. There is much cultural baggage in the sentence I just wrote, and much has changed for the better since then. However, under half of the current generation of children in school now live with both of their birth parents, and many parents cannot greet their children when the school day ends because so many are obliged to work for many more hours in the day. Now I guess many would prefer to be free from such obligations. Choices entail costs, some less anticipated.

The scripture does not prescribe ‘best practice’ in these things, and certainly not in detail. The texts I am discussing with you have open-ended metaphors, the vocabulary is multivalent, open to multiple creative possibilities, and multipotent in implication. We can look at ourselves through these powerful lenses, or perhaps prisms would be better, to discover more with our ancient friends, and with God, what human being is and what human becoming might be.

The historians are vociferously arguing with the theologians about the evidence for David and his kingdom. It is fairly usual to read that the archaeologists can’t find any/many remains in Jerusalem or elsewhere that they are happy to label as Davidic or Solomonic- the palace and temple may well be later cultural expressions that were erected by others. Be that as it may, as Israel became more prosperous, they began to build, and thus to subdue the land. Which is something of a universal in civilisations the world over. The growingly powerful populus, and especially its elites, seek to make their mark on their environment, and to construct culture. What we do to make it home. Some of these marks are more permanent, while some expressions of creativity leave less evidence for future archaeologists to find. Boys like building, and you will find all sorts of decorations adorning grand buildings at all times in history, but of all the forms, that of the (barely clad) female seems to occur rather more frequently. What does this say about us, and what does it say to us? Who figures out these things, and what dialogue is there in society about the way women are figured in public spaces? I recall it was was mildly scandalous to leave an unclothed mannequin in a shopfront when I was a schoolboy, but now it is a commonplace. In the early 2000s teenage girls would arrive in classrooms at the Catholic school I worked at toting fluffy pink pens and pencil cases adorned with Hugh Hefner’s Playboy logo, and it struck me as odd at the time that, of all the ‘minor’ issues that the pastoral management would lay down the law on regarding children’s appearance and behaviour, that this went without comment. I take it as a positive that it was schoolgirls themselves who gained media attention for protesting against this particular example of the sexualisation of children, which, several years later, finally resulted in the main UK High street stationers WH Smith finally removing these highly profitable products from sale. The public sector has taken great steps forward in terms of the safeguarding of children and the way adults are now explicitly directed to take responsibility for children’s wellbeing, particularly in our schools. Wider society is still a hostile environment for youngsters, profoundly inimical to their healthy development, especially considering the prevailing open sexualisation of visual media and the failure of government to regulate internet access to pornography.

Kirwan says the teenage girls in her school “are aware of what the Playboy icon is” and “were saying that, even though the pencil cases feature no blatant pornographic images, the bunny symbol represents pornographic images. The girls are able to acknowledge that symbols have a deeper significance than that which is on the surface. For stockists and manufacturers to deny this is shockingly disingenuous.”

Mr Mayo, co-author of Consumer Kids: How Big Business is Grooming our Children for Profit, said “Youngsters did not really understand the images and ideas they were often confronted with.” WH Smith would not be drawn on whether the decision to withdraw the Playboy merchandise was because of pressure.

Kirwan quoted in the Guardian in 2005; Mayo quoted in the daily Mail, followed by journalistic commentary in 2009

After such a long period in which male choices and influence had such impact on the behaviour and depiction of women, the argument is made that adult women can and should decide for themselves how to dress and behave in public and in private, regardless of who might be looking or what they thought. Women should be able to go about wearing whatever clothing they like without being assaulted and then blamed by society, and especially the law, because certain men don’t control themselves. Freedom to dress; freedom from victimisation. But is it all as simple as that? In 2022 the #MeToo movement has finally got around to re-evaluating the history of the women who ‘chose’ to associate with Hefner and his much lauded Playboy mansion, and the wider network of contacts and influencers. Liars and lies are being exposed, while the cries of those who found freedom hard to distinguish from captivity are, at last, being heard. The exercise of feminist freedoms proves to have been a far rockier road than has typically been admitted.

Perhaps the pendulum is swinging back the other way in some respects, as there is growing recognition of the nuances and complexities in this debate. There is wider acknowledgement of the dangers of pornography and ‘sexting’ on the mental health and wellbeing of people, of women and men, and of children. It is mainstream to recognise that there must be clear standards in advertising and that these should be robustly upheld. This must apply especially in regard to children, where the lines of safety must not be blurred, because young people are not yet become sufficiently to exercise freedom to or from. A child’s dress should not be marketed with a name suggestive of child sex abuse, as John Lewis did recently. What we call things matters- the man Adam named the animals, which makes us different from animals.

In my attempt to write a brief commentary much can be challenged. Nothing here is black and white. What is certain? This psalm, like the rest of the scripture, does point to rock hard principles for us to base life and our lives on, illuminating our nature and purpose. It aids us in discerning what the boundaries are, and bringing issues to our attention. Progress is not a futile dream, though pilgrims find the road more arduous in places. Christian people must give more attention to the live issues of gender and sexuality and engage positively in the public dialogue. I am excited by David’s insight, that a vision of gender empowerment can be the foundation for a progressive and sustainable economy.

The Bible translators all conspire together against the text of Ps 144:2b, making out that God empowers David to subdue foreign peoples. We have seen this is incorrect: the text actually says David subdued his own people, under God. Is this a ‘post-colonial’ correction? (They are all God’s created people, aren’t they?) Perhaps so, and the same principle would seem to apply in our relationship with God’s natural world, of which there are not two sorts, here at home, versus over there. What’s the difference between deforestation for oil palm monoculture in Indonesia, producing palm oil for my shower gel, and deforestation for ‘rural management of upland grazing in the Lake District’ to produce lamb and wool? We need to subdue the subduing, I think, now that we better understand the costs of ancient choices. There are many good reasons for deliberately reforesting large areas of the UK, such as the less ‘productive’ uplands of the Lake District, but this is not easy to achieve, as roaming sheep eat everything that emerges from the rough grassy sward. New fencing will be needed to exclude them, to prevent continued ‘sheepwrecking.‘ However, such terminology can be taken as an attack on rural farming communities- they are already crying out in distress in their streets and fields, and the transition to more sustainable form of management requires that they will need aid in adapting to such a new form of economy.

When I began composition of this blogpost, my intention was to focus on the Big Question about the nature of human beings in relationship with God, and then to draw on David’s realisation that our best legacy will be found in the quality of the children we bring up behind us- if indeed they are following in the good and godly principles we come to treasure, as David shows us. Sheep with brains, led by shepherds with brains and hearts. Just as David was the boy brought up to shepherd Israel by his fathers, both Jesse and God, the Father of us all. I will admit that verses 3-4 struck me first as an interruption to the rest of the psalm, and perhaps it is now more obvious to me that this might not be so, at least not in such crude terms. David begins by celebrating his youthful discovery that God indeed strengthens his hand in his human struggles against godlessness, wherever it is found, and there sure is plenty of it. We can join in with David in his exultation, as he squeals with delight in the arms of his father, as they play together in the garden. Dad is throwing him around in near-safety, and the laughter and delight is doubtless mixed with the odd grimace when they tumble together off the side of the trampoline. David’s God subdues the Earth, and the wicked people in it, we are told. David follows in His example, subduing his people, in the same pattern. God’s righteousness and justice remain inviolable, but there is a shift in perspective through the psalm. The sons and daughters of which David speaks- the generation of all the children in the community, not just his own- are not compelled into growth and healthy development by the exercise of subduing force and obligation. Even plants exercise a limited degree of agency in their search for light and nutriment, and the attention of the gardener-farmer-husbandman must be with the most delicate ethos of nurture. A bruised reed He will not break. Then I wonder if David was oblivious to the realisation that a nation burgeoning with sheep and cattle would be a sheepwrecked nation, devoid of trees and thus waiting for disaster? Frankly, I suspect so, though I am also sure he would understand all this, and learn quickly.

Psalm 144 ends with an exultation of blessing- a melding of dispensing blessing and acknowledging blessing, an acknowledgement that the proper use of the gifts of God will bring us to a blessed state, and an acknowledgement that it is likely to happen in the context of being a community intimately and corporately committed to the shared values we have rehearsed, supremely of relating with our Sovereign God, the Creator of all, and with one another- and those one anothers must include the stuff and the creatures of God’s created cosmos. Jeremiah says that the pot cannot speak back to the potter. The clay cannot argue with the hands that form it into what they will. And yet, at a different level, clay and pot and potter must be in a dialogue. For God formed us to be the formers and shapers of this garden world, which is what we have done at scale, and in many ways made a right mess of it. Not as much blessing as David had in mind, in short. But if the pot is marred, the potter can start again, and that’s not God, that’s us! But He will sing along, setting the beat as we strum.

“If working apart we are a force powerful to destabilise our planet, surely working together we are powerful enough to save it.”

Sir David Attenborough, COP26.

There are six more psalms to go before we reach the end of the psalter. If there is an overall narrative trajectory to the whole, then what have we learned in Ps 144? The way I have carried out this investigation, I have made the emphasis in the Big Question in verse 3 about us, ‘man’. What is man? Its the sort of question, and the form of question that you expect to find in a book of philosophy, or a theological encyclopaedia that was written by a philosopher. It is fair, I daresay, to allow some emphasis in this way, but the text really poses a bigger question. A question of the sort that Martin Buber would commend, because it has not one but two points of focus, God as well as us. [cf. I and the Eternal Thou] Indeed, in the first line of the doubled Hebrew structure, we are held securely in a God sandwich:

Lord, what is man that You regard him…

[my emphasis; and I’m ignoring ‘him’ at the end. If there’s too much mayo in the filling, it can get out when you squeeze the sandwich into your mouth.]

Lord… man… You.

Something similar could be said for the concluding sentences: the people are considered in connection with God, their Lord [I & Thou connected with the Eternal Thou, after Buber]. God is mentioned last, for He is the Omega. He was the first to be blessed by David in verse one, for He is the Alpha. And the cosmos, the whole realm of God’s materials and provision for blessing, and the processes by which Providence and Redemption are carried forward are held within the Ultimate, the brackets if you will, that are God, the ground and energising of Being. Near the end of Israel’s ‘hymn book’ we can see many themes and strands being brought together, including, I suggest, what I characterise as the Tripartite Model (of God, God’s cosmos and God’s co-creating human creatures), exemplified in objective and subjective terms by David, King of Israel, and offered to us for our application.

 Blessed are the people to whom such blessings fall!
    Blessed are the people whose God is the Lord!

Psalm 144:15

(c) 2022 Stephen Thompson

Published by Stephen Thompson

Thinking inside the box is to be recommended for many reasons. I am creating this blog in May 2020 as we are encouraged to stay inside our boxes as far as possible, though we are allowed out- encouraged out, indeed- for exercise. By blogging, our thinking can also be allowed out for public exercise. Right now we need new thinking, new exercising of our mental faculties, and collective application of our thinking to the big idea of a healthy collective future. I am trialling my thinking in constructive theology, science and leadership in the light of my experience as a science teacher, theological student and as a representative of the Christian community in the county of Kent, in the UK. I welcome your partnership!

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