In this early psalm, it’s as if the writer is playing with two different emotions at once. We read both of gratitude that the heart is filled with joy, the larder with bounty, and of pleading for relief from distress, from drought or dearth. How authentically human that is. Which of us doesn’t know days marked by this heady cocktail of delight and difficulty, of contentment and concern?
In the first verse of the metrical version the psalmist prays, ‘relieve me’. That’s an interpretation of the original psalm’s longing for wideness in a narrow place, which rather acutely captures the way that life’s trials can make us feel trapped, squeezed, maybe even struggling to breathe, Poverty, bullying, grief, worry, over-work, no work – these and many another ordeal often leave us with a sense of being hemmed-in. In our worst times, perhaps we have even despaired of ever seeing good again. We long for a renewed experience of space, of freedom, of more abundant life.
The Psalm goes on to hint at various ways in which walking with the Lord might lead us into a sense of airy liberty – what Psalm 23 evocatively calls ‘quiet waters’, ‘green pastures’. Keeping the law, offering sacrificial service, speaking into God’s open ear, resting in the sense of belonging to God, relishing an abundance of joy that is better than the best of harvests, and so on. They are signs of being immersed in God’s covenant love, which for Christians reaches its pinnacle in Christ. It is resting in that covenant love which nourishes the psalmist’s sense of liberty, of breathing freely, of having life-giving space, such that each day’s troubles can be borne with the steady breathing of faith and courage, and every evening it’s possible to lie and down and sleep in peace.
When I was a choir boy one of the first anthems I learned was S. S. Wesley’s Lead me, Lord; it’s still offered as an introit in many a church. Wesley draws upon the end of this Psalm – ‘for it is thou, Lord, thou Lord only, that makest me dwell in safety.’ And that ultimate freedom of being safe in God’s care is inextricably linked to our walking with God. The anthem begins, ‘Lead me, Lord, lead me in thy righteousness’. There we see the fine balance of the covenant. God’s covenant with us is inviolate, and it calls out of us an answering covenant response of faithful obedience and trust; of ‘walking the way, living the life of Jesus today’, wherein we are offered perfect freedom.
Gracious God, thank you for your covenant love, which we see supremely in Jesus Christ. Today, whether I’m feeling stiflingly hemmed-in or gratefully free, lead me in your righteousness, for it is you who makes me dwell in safety, through Jesus Christ, Amen
The Rev’d Nigel Uden is Minister of St Columba’s and Fulbourn URCs in Cambridge.
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