Paul Prudhomme, the legendary Cajun chef, cooked Cajun cuisine — I cook Cajun food. Though I have prepared many of his gourmet recipes, my preferred style is down-home Cajun food, the recipes I enjoyed as a boy in Louisiana’s bayou country. Often asked which is my favorite dish, my reply is “The last one I prepared.”
When asked for my favorite Psalm, I say the 139th. Psalms are hymns, poems and prayers, used to anchor and buoy worship.
The theme of the first stanza of the poem, or “hymn numbered 139,” is the wonder that God bothers to be “acquainted with my ways.” This is Israel emerging out of polytheism, where the gods care more about the world and themselves than they do about the individual. To lose this wonder is to effectively lose God.
There are implications rising up from this first verse, beginning with the interest and care of God for the “individual” and not simply the “world.” There is not the slightest hint of God caring more for one person than another, nor of color, race or creed. Whoever reads these words understands that God cares for “my ways” — my thoughts, my feelings and my situation.
The second stanza is the most beautiful to me, beginning with “Where can I go from Your Spirit?” This, to me, is one’s story of having fled from God, not one theorizing about “what if” you flee from the presence of God. The Psalmist speaks of truth learned from his or her own failed experience of divorcing God. The honesty and openness of this stanza is exciting and encouraging. In the Psalmist’s “church,” there was no fear of being ostracized or ridiculed.
So why this desire to escape God? Personally, I hear the resounding crescendo of this stanza, “… even the darkness is not dark to you,” as the key to understanding the troubled, dissatisfying flight from God. The dilemma posed by “darkness” was the factor that led to the impulse to escape God.
Job and his friends were in the dark about serving God and losing family and farm. Habakkuk was in the dark when demanding, “Why do the wicked prosper?” and “How long?” must I deal with this. It is darkness that hides our origin and our destination, leaving us asking “from where?” did we come and “to where?” are we heading. And if science can’t answer, and God doesn’t answer to our satisfaction, well, then what?
The Psalmist, wanting, maybe even demanding an answer, disappointed and perhaps angry that there was no answer, flees. But eventually the Psalmist returns, having discovered a solution that is less answer and more attitude: “… even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.”
The third stanza is as a refrain, picking up again on the theme of wonder. The idea is that God is the nonanswer to the big questions of life. The Psalmist stares into the darkness of the unknown and the unknowable and concludes “for it was you. …” After confessing that all these thoughts are too weighty and too many, “impossible to count,” the Psalmist declares, “I come to the end, I am still with you.”
So we come to the jarring fourth and final stanza, which speaks of hatred and murder of enemies. This stanza comes out of an ancient worldview not yet reshaped by the new ideas of justice, mercy and hospitality. Yes, this behavior is wrong, but the wrong is understandable. We now understand that we learn of God bit by bit, three stanzas forward and one backward; such is the evolutionary nature of the revelation of God.
Craig Tally is a minister in Joplin. His column appears bi-weekly. He can be reached at email@example.com.