Psalm 111; Lamentations 4,5; Hebrews 9:11–22

Psalm 111: The very first word, “Hallelujah,” informs us this is a psalm of praise. Alter further informs us that this psalm is one of a few “short acrostics,” where each line begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet in order, suggesting that this would have served as an aid in memorization. Unlike a psalm of thanksgiving, where the poet gives thanks for a specific act of God such as being healed or being protected form enemies, this psalm focuses on God’s wonderful attributes.
“I acclaim the Lord with full heart
in the council of the upright and the assembly
Great are the deeds of the Lord,
discovered by all who desire them.” (1, 2)

Now that I look at this opening I wonder of this psalm might have been spoken by a boy at his Bar Mitzvah, with the acrostic helping him along as he recites before his elders.

The remainder of the psalm is chockablock with nouns and adjectives that describe God’s qualities: glory, grandeur, (3); wonders, gracious, merciful (4); God never forgets his covenant (5); power of his deeds (6); his handiwork: truth and justice (7); unchanging. truth, right (8); holy and awesome (9) The reality is, the poet could go on for many more verses and would never fully cover God’s attributes.

But the one quality that is missing here is God’s love. Perhaps that’s because all the qualities ore the diamond facets of God’s love. It seems that the Jews understood that God could never be described in a single word. So, these verses are a reminder of the numerous ways in which God demonstrates and practices his love for us.

If we hold to our theory that the psalm was spoken by a boy becoming a man, the final verse is the crucial reminder for a young man at the beginning of adulthood: “The beginning of wisdom—the fear of the Lord,/ good knowledge to all who perform it.” Above all, the fear of the Lord is not just an abstract concept, but it arises from “all who perform it.” Ultimately, it is our actions reveal our fear of the Lord–and wisdom can come only out of how we perform, not what we intellectualize.

Lamentations 4,5: The fourth chapter of this book is a superb reminder of the power of words–and especially in a culture that was not saturated in images as we are today. Could an image convey the horror of child starvation more than this: “The tongue of the infant sticks/ to the roof of its mouth for thirst;/ the children beg for food,/but no one gives them anything.?” (4:4). Or the unimaginable horror of cannibalism: “The hands of compassionate women/ have boiled their own children;/they became their food/ in the destruction of my people.” (4:10). 

Our poet knows who to blame: the leaders, especially the religious leaders, are at fault: “It was for the sins of her prophets/ and the iniquities of her priests,/who shed the blood of the righteous/ in the midst of her.” (4:13) But the catastrophe is inevitable: “Our pursuers were swifter/ than the eagles in the heavens;/they chased us on the mountains,/ they lay in wait for us in the wilderness.” (4:19) 

But hope is still alive: “The punishment of your iniquity, O daughter Zion, is accomplished,/ he will keep you in exile no longer;” (4:22) I think it is that faint glimmer of hope that disaster will come to an end that inspires the final poem of this book: it is a cry to God for mercy. This chapter is a classic psalm of supplication. Unlike many psalms that are abstract in describing the sufferings of the psalmist, this prayer has contains the same level of brutal imagery as the rest of Lamentations, as the poet’s cries are directed upward to God: “Our skin is black as an oven/ from the scorching heat of famine. / Women are raped in Zion,/ virgins in the towns of Judah.” (5:10, 11)

This prayer is cinematic as it fills our imagination with desperate descriptions of horror as society collapses around them: “Princes are hung up by their hands;/ no respect is shown to the elders./ Young men are compelled to grind,/ and boys stagger under loads of wood.” (5:12, 13)

But like all psalms of supplication, this poem ends on the theme that God is still in heaven and “your throne endures for all generations.” (5:19) but then the eternal question of abandonment: “Why have you forgotten us completely?/ Why have you forsaken us these many days?” (20)  There is the expected plea for restoration–“Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored;/ renew our days as of old—” (5:21).  But then the book ends on perhaps the most hopeless lines ever: “unless you have utterly rejected us,/ and are angry with us beyond measure.” (5:22) As far as the author of Lamentations is concerned, there is no hope. God has moved on. Will God remember?Will God restore? A question that echoes down through the centuries as human pride and cruelty wreaks its awful consequences. Even today.

Hebrews 9:11–22: Much more than Paul, or even the Gospel writers, our author forces us to come face-to-face with the gruesome reality of the old covenant sacrificial system that is centered on the shedding of blood as he describes Jesus’ once and for all sacrifice: “Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come…he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.” (11, 12) It is the eternal purity of Jesus’ blood that has the power to accomplish this: “how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!” (14)

He then launches into a complicated explanation of how the new covenant replaces the old by comparing it to a will, which “takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive.” (17) He then reminds us that “not even the first covenant was inaugurated without blood” (18), and that Moses inaugurated the sacrificial system, “he took the blood of calves and goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the scroll itself and all the people, saying, “This is the blood of the covenant that God has ordained for you.”” (19,20) This leads up to the assertion that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” (22b).

In other words, even though we are under the terms of a new “will”–a new covenant–one rule is immutable: there must be shedding of blood in order to purify ourselves. And in the case of Jesus Christ it was–it had to be–his own blood. To our modern brains, this at first seems all very weird, even bizarre. Why blood? Why must there be bloodshed in order to propitiate God? Because it is how purity before God is obtained: “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood,” (22a) But if we are free of the law, under the terms of the new covenant, I think it’s still fair to still ask: Why blood?


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