Reflection - Psalms 47-53
The opening line of Psalm 47 is remarkably celebratory:
‘O, clap your hands, all ye people; shout unto God with the voice of triumph’!
My conservative New England roots dictated a more subdued and ‘reverent’ approach to worship. In my experience, there was no ‘clapping’ or ‘shouting’ for such actions in the sanctuary of God was considered inappropriate and disrespectful! Indeed, many worship services began with the call to worship sentence: “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all be silent before him”! Beyond the recitation of a responsive reading, Lord’s Prayer, or singing of hymns, congregation members remained in their places and maintained respectful silence.
These norms that defined my worship experience went significantly unchallenged until relatively later in life when I had occasion to attend worship in a small mission church within the Guguletu Township of Cape Town, South Africa. Guguletu is an all-black and very poor community where one would least expect to observe expressions of genuine joy! Imagine my amazement when, in the midst of the preacher’s sermon, congregants spontaneously leapt from their chairs with hands raised high, and began to clap, sing, and dance about the church with their loud praises to God! The preacher calmly remained silent until his flock calmed themselves and returned to their places. This scenario was repeated several times during this single worship service!
Incredibly, these joyous worshipers were, themselves, victims of an unjust government-sanctioned social caste system known as Apartheid. As black people, they were systematically oppressed and mistreated as the lowest of a three-tiered society consisting of whites, coloreds and blacks. There existed strictly enforced social norms that segregated each class of people. Despite being victims of great social injustice and mired in poverty, they remained joyful and spiritually rich!
The psalmists were similarly able to express joy while living in the midst of an unjust and sinful world. For, as the covenant people of God, they knew the great folly of misplaced devotion to material wealth and social status and the judgement (justice) of God that was certain to come: ‘Do not be overawed when a man grows rich . . . for he will take nothing with him when he dies . . . a man who has riches without understanding is like the beasts that perish.’ (Psalm 49:16-20) As the Apostle Mark would later write: ‘For what shall it profit a man that he shall gain the whole world but lose his soul?’ (Mark 8:36)
As we read this week’s psalms, may the insights we gain enable us to share in the joy and celebration of all true believers who proclaim: ‘How awesome is the Lord Most High, the great King over all the earth!’ (Ps. 47:2)