Psalm 103: Baruch atah Adonai: Bless the Lord
May 11, 2014 Psalm 103
Rev. Andrew Purves
Every Monday morning at 11.30, in the chapel at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, we have a Taize Prayer Service. Taize is an ecumenical monastic order in Burgundy, France. Composed now of over 100 brothers, both Protestant and Catholic, it was founded in 1940. The brothers represent over 30 countries around the world. Over 100, 000 people make an annual pilgrimage for times of prayer, Bible study and communal work. The common life is characterized by a spirit of kindness, simplicity and reconciliation. One feature of the Taize life that is much copied by Christians around the world is their worship of simply sung songs, repeated many times, often with words from the psalms or the gospels, prayers and the reading and silent reflection on scripture. As I said, we have a Taize service every Monday morning and it is truly a highlight of my week when I am able to attend.
Recently I was sitting quietly in the chapel with colleagues and students. The first song was well known to us all, it is very simple, but deeply moving. Charissa, the cantor stood up to sing, then we all followed after her: “Bless the Lord, my soul, and bless God’s holy name. Bless the Lord, my soul, who leads me into life.” (Charissa sing three times) As I sang that song, maybe ten times in repetition, I was struck how this Psalm response to God’s overwhelming grace, goodness and love, is the fundamental biblical orientation of what it means to be a person of faith. We are called to be a people who bless God because we have already been so amazingly blessed by God. As the day wore on, I could not get this song out of my head. For a few days I began wondering whether God was telling me that sometime, I must preach on Psalm 103.
Baruch atah Adonai: bless the Lord. An imperative in Hebrew, a command, after the fashion of “Eat you spinach!” Baruch atah Adonai: bless the Lord. Here we have arrived at the center or heart of worship within the Judeo-Christian experience. Psalms 103, 104, 105 and 106 are all calls or commands to bless or praise the Lord. This basically is what worship is in response to divine grace.
Bless the Lord, O my soul. This is the call to acknowledge that first of all God has blessed us beyond measure. My soul, your soul, is called upon to praise the Lord. The word for soul in Hebrew, nephesh, refers to everything that makes us what and who we are. It is not some secret or hidden religious part of us, but everything that makes me, me, and you, you. Every wonderful and weird bit of us is called upon to bless God’s holy name: our hearts, our minds, our wills, every fiber of our being, is called upon to turn towards God and honor God, acknowledge God, and take delight in what God has done for us. God wants us to take delight in God.
Bless God’s holy name: all that makes God the awesome, holy God is worthy of our first and highest confession of gratitude, adoration and allegiance. But more: we bless God’s holy name because in doing so we will bring to mind all God’s benefits, all the ways and means by which first of all God has blessed us. Bless God’s holy name for God has dealt with us bountifully and should not be taken for granted.
The psalmist then brings to mind the specific ways in which God has so richly been the God of blessing. What are God’s benefits that we are called not to forget? At verse 3 we are reminded that God forgives all our sins, and God heals all our diseases. At verse 4 God is characterized as the God who delivers us from all that is life-threatening, and from death itself. God then crowns us with God’s steadfast loyalty and compassion. The image here is of a royal bridegroom being prepared for his wedding. At verse 5 we are reminded that God satisfies us with all good things for as long as we live, and our youth is renewed like an eagle’s. The image of the eagle brings to mind soaring strength, as at Isaiah 40:31: “Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles.” The Psalmist is confessing, and blessing God as a consequence, that whatever it is that life has thrown at him, he has found renewed strength which has enabled him to face the hard times with confidence that God was with him as his succor and his strength and his redeemer.
We could take time to continue like this through the whole psalm, as it ramps up many ways in which God has worked works of vindication and blessing upon Israel, righting wrong, restoring justice, showing faithfulness to Israel even, and especially, when Israel was not faithful to God. God is revealed as the God who like a father cares for his children, who knows our frailties and failings, but who is ever merciful and good toward us. Then the psalm ends with the song of celebration over the one and only heavenly King, as all are summoned to bless God: angles, the mighty ones, all God’s host who make up the heavenly court, and all his ministers, that is, all who serve God. “Bless the Lord, all you works of his, in all places of his dominion; bless the Lord, O my soul.”
Thus we have Psalm 103, one of the “finest blossoms on the tree of biblical faith,” as one author wrote. Indeed: bless the Lord for God is a God of blessing.
I said earlier that with Psalm 103 we have come to the heart or center of worship as that is understood and practiced within the Judeo-Christian tradition. Blessing God for all the blessing God has given to us is the basic orientation to the life of faith. Let me emphasize this. At its heart faith is not so much about believing certain doctrines, though that has its important place, or about special kinds of experiences, although they have their valid place, or about living according to certain ethical values, although goodness knows that is important too. At its heart faith is giving God praise in every way imaginable, because of who God is and what God does for us. Faith is a life oriented toward God in adoration and gratitude. All of worship is summed up here. An observant Jew begins sabbat by blessing the candles, praying Baruch atah Adonai; by blessing the wine, praying Baruch atah Adonai; by blessing the bread, praying Baruch atah Adonai; and by blessing the Torah, praying Baruch atah Adonai. Worship is our turning towards God with our celebration of praise.
If blessing God with all that is within us is the central and defining aspect of worship, that around which the whole life of faith is understood and practiced, then we are oriented as a result to be people of blessing. We are oriented to be blessers rather than cursers, blessers rather than complainers, blessers rather than awkward disagree-ers, blessers rather than mean-spirited put-downers, blessers rather than people who are angry and hurtful all the time. When blessing God is at the heart of things, blessing becomes what we do because it is at the heart of who we are as we turn in blessing toward God. As a blesser we become a blessing. To be a blessing means that we have ceased to set ourselves on the throne of the universe. Because we are blessed by God in ways more than we can ask or imagine, because we understand ourselves as blessed and blessing-giving, we can stop grasping after blessings and hoarding them, as if in a blessing bank. It is the nature of blessings to give blessings away. A blesser has a generosity of spirit, something deeply lacking in both church and society today.
Baruch atah Adonai: bless the Lord. Translated into New Testament terms, we find exactly the same rhythm to being blessed by God and blessing God in response. We find it at Luke 1:64, where Zachariah, father of John the Baptist, who had been struck dumb, now, at his son’s circumcision when he was given his name, “Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began speaking, blessing God.” Zechariah has his tongue loosed in order to acknowledge God’s goodness, and with a desire to give God glory at the gift of his son. At Luke 2:28, old Simeon, to whom it had been revealed that he would not die until he had seen the Lord’s Messiah, took the baby Jesus in his arms and blessed God. “My eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the presence of all the peoples,” he sang, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.” And at the end of Luke at 24: 53, the disciples, having been blessed by Jesus, returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God. Being blessed by God; blessing God in return; becoming a blessing person.
In Roman Catholic tradition, a saintly person is canonized by the church and henceforth called Blessed, with an upper case B. I want to say to you this morning that being a person known to be Blessed, with an upper case B, is not only a designation for especially pious and holy people. It is a designation for all God’s people, for everyone who turns to God with thanksgiving for all God’s benefits, and who henceforth becomes a blesser in all of his or her life.
“Bless the Lord, my soul, and bless God’s holy Name.
Bless the Lord, my soul, who leads me into life.”
(Charissa sing once, congregation three times