A recent reading from the daily lectionary brought me to a familiar Psalm, Psalm 36. The familiar words come in the middle of that Psalm. The line I connected with is really a confessional, laudatory line. The Psalmist says to God, “How precious is your steadfast love, O God!” Since most of us do not have the ability to read the Psalms in their original Hebrew, perhaps the best we can do is read a couple English translations. A different translation of the passage just quoted goes like this: “How precious is your kindness, O God!”
Clearly the first passage uses the English phrase, steadfast love, to capture a Hebrew word. And the second passage uses the word, kindness. In both cases the Psalmist is praising a divine attribute that characterizes God and God’s action in the world. The Psalmist is confessing that this divine love or kindness is precious. For some reason I very much like the idea of precious. To be precious means something is extremely valuable. It is very dear. Precious can be something that is rare.
In the context of divine kindness or love, precious is an appropriate word. God’s love is extremely valuable. It is very dear. And divine love is incredibly rare. Of course, God is by nature loving. And it is a precious kind of loving. But one can hardly expect this kind of loving from fellow creatures. God’s love is what the Greeks call agape. It is self-sacrificial love. That kind of love is precious.
Having praised this kind of love from God, the Psalmist continues to use an interesting image to illustrate the precious divine love. The Psalmist says “All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings.” The other English version I consulted says something very similar. We read that people “will take shelter under your wings.” The imagery used here suggests God is some kind of an animal---often portrayed as a mother hen. Elsewhere in the Psalms God is said to be like a mother hen. Of course, this is an image---a metaphor. God is not literally a chicken!
But the imagery of the mother hen introduces maternal, protective ideas. If God is metaphorically a mother hen, then we are little chicks. We are able to come under the shadow of those divine wings. We can take shelter under those wings. Even more, we are safe there. We are protected from the wiles and wilds of the world in which we live. Under those wings we are no longer vulnerable---no longer sitting ducks for danger. Thank God, we are tempted to say!
As we read on in this Psalm, the imagery keeps shifting, but it all comes in support of the God whose love is precious. The Psalmist says to God that we will “feast on the abundance of your house and you give them drink from the river of your delights.” The other version says we will “eat their fill from the riches of your house and drink all they want from the stream of your joy.” Clearly, the imagery describing God has shifted from being under the divine wings to now being in the house of God. Again, this is not meant to be taken literally.
I understand the “house of God” to mean being in God’s presence. God’s house is not some literal building. It is not brick and mortar, but more like presence and power. To be in God’s house is to be in the presence of God and to experience the power of the Holy One. This is a very good place to be.
The Psalmist uses the imagery of a party to describe this. In that house we will feast. There is abundance---all we can eat and even more. No one comes away wanting more. We are satiated---satisfied. This feast and abundance are meant to suggest the copious love God has for all God’s people. There is always enough---and more than enough.
Then the Psalmist switches from food imagery to the image of a river. In God’s presence we are able to drink from the river of God’s delight. I very much like the image of a river of delight. A river runs on---ever flowing and making more new stuff available. This river of delight never will run dry. There is no need to worry. Surely, there is no need to hoard anything. We can drink all we want. We will never be cut off and the river will never be depleted.
The other version has an even more winsome image. We are able to drink everything we want from the stream of God’s joy. Somehow I can picture and appreciate God’s inviting all of us into that stream of joy. I imagine a stream of joy to be bright colors that continually lightens and enlighten us. In the process we become aware and wise.
We know who we are as beloved children of God. We know that we are eternally protected by the love of God that is never ending. And we know that we live our lives in a river of delight. We spend day after day experiencing the beautiful, precious stream of joy. In the end love always brings joy. And when we are in love with and loved by the Holy One, we are in a stream of joy. I can’t imagine living life anywhere else!