When I was researching the psalms of lament for a paper that I was writing I came across a few quotes that struck me as being quite profound. They are from two very different sources but I think they hold together. In his preface to the book of Psalms, Martin Luther wrote, “For every man can find in it Psalms which fit his needs, which he feels to be as appropriate as if they had been set there just for his sake.” He goes on to say “he receives assurance that he is in the company of saints, that all that has happened to the saints is happening to him, because all of them join in singing a little song with him, since he can use their words to talk with God as they did.” The words of the psalms give us words to speak, sing, and pray that have been used by those before us when they faced what we do. We can use their words of praise to join in their praise. We can use their words of lament when we join in their suffering. The psalms are not historic relics meant to be held at a distance and dissected to see if we can understand what specific historical event they arose from. Instead they are the timeless prayers of humanity that unite us in a common human experience. The preacher wrote in Ecclesiastes that “that there is nothing new under the sun.” Hardship has been faced before and will be again. Praise has been sung before and will be again. And the psalms unite us with a common humanity that seeks to respond to God out of our familiar situations.
Psalm 51 invites us to join in with a cry of repentance. A recognition of our own sinfulness and our need for forgiveness. The psalmist lays their heart bare before a holy God and asks to be forgiven for their transgressions. We can join with that psalmist in their plea and in the end we can delight in that deliverance.
Similarly, when Dave Grohl was on the Letterman show talking about his daughter listening to gangster rap, he said that the beauty of music is that it allows us to use another person’s words to express what is in our hearts. We take the words of another person and they become a part of who we are. I think both of them are getting at the same idea but from admittedly different directions. We hear music, the words of another person in a different time and place, and we take those words and they become words that we speak to express what we are feeling and going through. The words may be spoken for different reasons but we can use the same words. That is the beauty of the psalms and the beauty of music in general.
Music is one of the lenses through which I respond to the world, to what I feel, and to the situations that I am found in. It affirms in me that I am not the only one who has experienced what I am experiencing. There are others who have had the same life experiences and it gives me words to use in response. I listen to a band call Descendents because they are nerds, and so am I. They sing about being picked on in highschool for wearing glasses, and that was my reality. They sing about just wanting to read books and that’s all I want. In their song “One More Day” they sing, “I loved my daddy boy/Did you love your boy?/Oh, you feel so warm to me now/But it’s cold in this room/Tomorrow they’ll put you in the ground/Then there’s nothing I can/Ever do to have/One more day with you” My relationship with my father was complicated but like them, there is nothing I can ever do to have one more day with my father either.
This may come as a shock to some of you but I listen to a lot of punk. It’s a lot of screaming and yelling. Playing guitars and drums as loud, as fast, and as poorly as possible. Mohawks, colorful hair, and patches all over their torn clothes. For all its noise and abrasiveness, I find at its heart something pure and beautiful. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said that Judaism is a protest against the world that is in favor of the world to come. Punk is a protest against the world that is in favor of the world that should be. It’s the protest songs of the sixties with green hair. There is a deep discontent, an anger that wants to change the world. Common targets for punks are the government, from Reagan to Trump, corporate greed, the marginalization of minorities and women, and the church. It is unfair to say that punk is atheistic or anti-theistic, instead they have no tolerance for hypocrisy and platitudes. They see the pastor living in a mansion while their congregation is starving, and they call it out for what it is. They may be harsh and blunt but they aren’t always wrong.
Why all this talk about punk? It is the lens through which I can respond to the world around me. I often find myself filled with a sense of discontent, a desire to change things but more often than not powerless to do so. Melissa and I have recently been watching West Wing. I’m going to spoil some major plot points here but, let’s be honest, if you haven’t watched it by now you are not going to. We got to the end of the fourth season and president Bartlet’s daughter has been kidnapped by terrorists and he has had to step down and hand the presidency to his political rival, the speaker of the house. The plan is that it is to be a temporary transition, but then there are hints that it might be permanent, the speaker may not hand the presidency back after the crisis is over. We are watching this and it stretches over several episodes and the whole time I have this tightness in my chest, I don’t know how it is going to end or if it is all going to turn out all right. I just want to know that everything is going to work out, that everyone will be fine. So naturally we watch four episodes in one night and I can find out how that story line ends.
I get the same tightness in my chest when I witness the decline of civility in America, when I hear what the next scandal is, that I guess we are tolerating now, when I hear leaders saying things we wouldn’t tolerate children saying. But what fills me with discontent and anger the most is when the headlines involve the church, highlighted by the changing of what it means to be evangelical. I hear stories about church leaders encouraging students to arm themselves so they can kill muslims, a pastor confessing to forcing a teen to have sex with him and he doesn’t think that he did anything legally wrong, just unethical, an immensely popular liberal pastor, liberal in the theological sense not necessarily the political, saying that Orthodoxy is a construct of the empire and we should reject it in favor of some vague spirituality. The creeds are relics of an imperial past, and the trinity is so third century. A large portion of the American church has become concerned with power and fame and less so with helping the poor, the outcast, and the refugee. I don’t know how it will be made right, I don’t know how to fix what is wrong, so I turn up the Bad Religion and the Rise Against and I know that I am not the only one screaming. I’m not the only one yearning for change. At times my heart is overcome by sorrow and melancholy and punk makes me feel like I can breathe again.
As I was thinking over the passages for this weekend it struck me that the Jeremiah passage is a response to situations like what I have felt, it is an assurance of hope. The Israelites at this point have been living in the exile, they are in slavery in Babylon. They have been conquered, their people have been killed, the temple destroyed, and their promised land taken from them. Their identity as a people has been taken from them. They live in a foreign land and wonder, “Has God forgotten about us? Has he turned his back on us?” They knew about the covenant that God had made with their ancestors, to be their God and they would be his people, they would be a nation set apart and living in a special land. They remember the promise that God made to David, that there would always be a king on the throne in Jerusalem. But now their God seems to have left them, their land is no longer theirs and the palace lays in ruins. Things don’t look like they are supposed to. So the question that dominated their thoughts was, what happens now? Jeremiah did not have an overly cheery message for them in the rest of ch. 31. He is confronting this idea that they are in the exile because of the sins of their parents. They take the passages that say that God is going to curse to the third and fourth generations for the iniquity of the parents and say that is the reason they are in the exile. It is not because of anything that they did, it is what their parents did. They are simply reaping the consequences of their parents iniquity. Jeremiah confronts that and says, “No you are here because of your own sin.” “All shall die for their own sins.” And while he corrects their theology, they are left in a disoriented state of abandonment and punishment. They will be punished for what they have done, so is this the end of Israel? Are they no longer God’s chosen people?
Jeremiah then switches tone, “The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.” This is a covenant that will be unlike the covenant that God made with their ancestors and it will be an everlasting covenant. I pondered for a long time what that meant. How is this covenant substantially different from the ones that God made prior? If this covenant is everlasting, are the other covenants not? It is highlighted that the responsibility of this covenant is on God and not on the people, but wasn’t that also true for the Abrahamic covenant and the Noahide covenant? I thought about these questions for a long time until I came to realize that these questions are not the point of what Jeremiah is telling the people. They are interesting questions but I don’t think they are what an exilic community would hear.
Jeremiah tells the people that God is making a new covenant with them. The prior generation, the ones that came out in the exodus broke that covenant, they broke that relationship with God, where they were his bride. Other prophets say that Israel played the harlot and had affairs with other gods. Thus they ended up in the exile. Now God is going to renew that relationship with the current generation, he will be their husband again. The people have broken the law, both the former and current generations, but now God is going to renew the law in their lives. He is going to take what it means to be a part of the chosen people of God and inscribe it on their hearts so that it becomes an unmistakable part of who they are. God says, “I will be their God and they will be my people.” They will still be the chosen people of God. God ends by telling them that from the greatest to the least they will know Him and he will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more.
God is going to restore the relationship between himself and the Israelites, he is going to reaffirm their status as his chosen people, and he is going to forgive the sin that resulted in them being in the exile. It is not going to be as if the exile never happened – they will be forever changed because of their experience in the exile – but they are going to be a renewed and restored people. Simply put, the message of Jeremiah to the people at this point in their history is a message of hope. Despite where they are now, despite the suffering that they are experiencing, there is still hope available to them based on their relationship with God. He has not abandoned the people, and never will.
I’m still going to listen to punk, because it sounds so beautiful but also because sometimes a little bit of yelling and screaming is exactly what is needed. But it should be balanced out by a sense of hope. The message of Jeremiah to the Israelites is also a message for us today. We may not ever experience anything remotely close to what the Israelites experienced, but we find ourselves in dark places all the same. And in those dark places, as we recognize their reality and we don’t ignore them for some false sense of piety, we are encouraged to remember that there is a message of hope that is inherent to the Gospel. Hard and difficult situations arise and happen to us – of our own making or for seemingly no reason – but God does not abandon his people.
I think lent can serve as an analogy. It starts with a recognition of our own mortality in Ash Wednesday. “From dust you are and to dust you shall return.” And it culminates in Good Friday and the Crucifixion of Jesus which is naturally depressing. The whole season can sometimes feel depressed. It is the reality of our human condition, mortal and sinful. But it is balanced out with the expectation and imminent arrival of Easter, the fulfilment of the hope of the Gospel. So may we live lives that recognize our struggles but are oriented toward the hope that we have as God’s people.
 Luther, Preface to the Psalms, 40