Poetry of Power

150 Days into the Pandemic

July 26, 2020

Psalm: 119: 129 ff

Your decrees are wonderful; therefore, I obey them with all my heart.

When your word goes forth it gives light; it gives understanding to the simple.

I open my mouth and pant; I long for your commandments.

Turn to me in mercy, as you always do to those who love you.

Steady my footsteps in your Word; let no iniquity have dominion over me.

My eyes shed streams of tears because people do not keep your law.

Poetry of Power

In my last blog entry, I introduced you to poet, Lynn Ungar and the new, powerful, and relevant words in her poem, Pandemic.  Today I introduce you to another poet whose collection of poetry, while ancient, is equally powerful and relevant.

We know that collection of poems as The Psalms.  The acknowledged author is David, musician, poet, and king along with other musicians and poets, and generations of scribes who preserved an incredible collection of verse for us today.

To experience fully the power of poetry, the rule of thumb is to read the poem out loud. To read this one, we may first need to familiarize ourselves with the some of the words David used. So, let’s take it one line at a time, study those words, and apply them to the context of today.

“Your decrees are wonderful; therefore, I obey them with all my heart.”

So, what are decrees?  A decree is a law, a proclamation, a commandment.  It is an order, that creates order when obeyed.  For example, “Treat everyone as you would have them treat you.”  That is a decree from God that inspires virtually all laws governing human behavior.  All people are to be treated as equally deserving of a good life.  It is the core of our Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Today we live in a world darkened by racism.  It is a world where the decree to treat all people as you would wish to be treated counts only for certain people, not all.  There is no sense of order in its application; rather, groups are randomly picked by race, age, place of birth, gender, or mother tongue to be treated as unequal and not deserving of the pursuit of happiness.

David knew that God’s decrees overlook no one; they are equally applied.  Because of this, David is not only willing to obey God’s rules, he obeys them with all his heart!  With enthusiasm and wonder!  There is no dictator or despot in charge in David’s world.   God is!  God is the one who created the world and loved his creation and everything and everyone in it equally.  His rules are a clear reflection of love and responsibility.  David relied on the Ten Commandments as the written decrees.  A thousand years later, Jesus summarized those commandments into a single statement, “Love God above all else, and love your neighbor as yourself.” 

Imagine with David for a moment what the world would look like if everyone embraced and obeyed the decrees of God; the decrees to lift and honor all people to live in harmony, mutual respect, and community.  What a glorious world it would be!  It is no wonder that when David led the procession into Jerusalem carrying the Ark and the stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments were engraved, that he “danced before the Lord with all his heart.”  This would not be some grudging obedience; it would be a heartfelt opportunity to participate in a grand social experiment.  Your decrees are wonderful; therefore, I obey them with all my heart.”

“When your word goes forth it gives light; it gives understanding to the simple.”

God’s decrees provide light in a darkened world.   We need that light from the Word if we are to find peace and understanding.  Without it and clear rules, we can lose our way.  We can do all the wrong things, or worse yet, do nothing, feel nothing, pray nothing, worship nothing.  We can live in a void with no conscience, empathy, or sense of justice.  Light is vital to our understanding of God’s plan for us.  It strips us of any excuses for ignorance, it is so simple.

“I open my mouth and pant; I long for your commandments.”

In these Texas summer days, by the time my dog and I finish our walk, he is dehydrated, hot and tired, panting for his water bowl. I understand fully.  By the end of my everyday, I too feel psychologically hot and tired.  I am emotionally dehydrated, panting for a cool soothing cup of water for myself, for my friends and family, and for the demands we endure in this pandemic time.  We struggle with depression, isolation, and anxiety brought on by newscasts filled with the latest COVID-19 body count and stories of random violence against innocents.  These stories cry out for the orderliness of God’s decrees, where life makes sense and sudden death does not.

”Steady my footsteps in your Word:”

Today’s decrees are made and changed, remade and changed again.  Information is updated daily with new acts of violence that perpetuate division, new assaults by an invisible enemy that ruthlessly and randomly kills; and new proclamations based on ignorance and political deception.  This simple statement tells us that nothing is trustworthy except God’s decrees, “Steady my footsteps in your Word.”  God’s Word gives us a firm place to stand.  You can trust that your feet will be on solid ground when you live in synchrony with God’s Word.

 “Let not iniquity have dominion over me.”

 So what keeps us from stepping out in confidence?   And what can keep us from that firm place? David suggests it might be the presence of Iniquity.   He prays that God keeps iniquity from having dominion over us.  What does that mean?   

Iniquity is sin, yes; but much more.  It implies evil, gross immorality, and wickedness.  Iniquity occurs not only when we sin, but when we willfully sin and even find delight in it. When iniquity becomes a way of life, it sears our conscience.  Our conscience loses it voice and we are left without the quiet troubling reminder when we have done wrong.  It dulls our yearning to return to God’s way of justice.  Iniquity blocks our access to his light, and we are abandoned, drifting in the dark, searching for someone to follow.  If we follow in the unsteady steps of leaders who do not lead with compassion, intelligence, and ethical principles, we may find ourselves drifting into the dominion of Iniquity.  Beware.   Plead with God for protection.

“My eyes shed streams of tears because people do not keep your law.”

Finally, our poet takes us to a place with which we are all too familiar.  While we can call upon God to keep us focused on the Word, we cannot command him to give us the power to eliminate COVID-19, systemic racism, educational dilemmas facing working parents of school age children, or the financial carnage afflicting so many families who have lost their jobs. 

Instead, we are left helpless.   Unfortunately, the typical human response to helplessness is anger, a weak and convenient emotion that for a moment makes us feel big and strong, until it erupts into aggression and violence.

Our psalmist shows the courage it takes to feel a pure and powerful grief. “My eyes shed streams of tears because people do not keep your law.” This is not a matter of sadness for one person or another.  It is grief for a society’s failure to see the goodness in God’s decrees and follow them.   It is a grievous rejection of the gifts God gave us in his love and generosity. As a culture, we have failed to trust the Word as our path to a life well lived; a life lived in love, equity, and peace.  Instead we have chosen hatred, betrayal, and chaos.

And for that, David’s eyes shed streams of tears, not some tears, not buckets of tears, but streams of tears; streams that flow into rivers and fill the lakes that nourish the land.  We cannot let our tears fall on hard ground.  They are needed to fill the dried souls of families whose sons and daughters lie dead in pools of blood on the streets of our cities, and whose families suffer as their loved ones die alone in hospitals of a virus that shows no mercy. 

Poem 119, with its power and relevance, does not leave us with easy platitudes.  Instead we are called to grieve the dead and the dying, that their lives and sacrifices will remain alive in the soul of our society.  And forever, we will shed streams of tears to soothe the suffering world as it yearns to live once again, governed by wonderful decrees and strong leaders who will obey them with all their hearts,  and with enthusiasm and wonder!

We pray.  Oh sweet Jesus, turn to us in mercy, as you always do to those who love you.  Amen

Now, read the poem out loud, and let the relevance and power of Poem 119 move your soul.

Your decrees are wonderful; therefore, I obey them with all my heart.

When your Word goes forth it gives light; it gives understanding to the simple.

I open my mouth and pant; I long for your commandments.

Turn to me in mercy, as you always do to those who love you.

Steady my footsteps in your Word; let no iniquity have dominion over me.

My eyes shed streams of tears because people do not keep your law.

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