23 Some there were that ventured abroad in ships, trafficking over the high seas;
24 these are men that have witnessed the Lord’s doings, his wonderful doings amid the deep.
25 At his word the stormy wind rose, churning up its waves;
26 high up towards heaven they were carried, then sank into the trough, with spirits fainting at their peril;
27 see them reeling and staggering to and fro as a drunkard does, all their seamanship forgotten!
28 So they cried out to the Lord in their trouble, and he relieved their distress,
29 stilling the storm into a whisper, till all its waves were quiet.
30 Glad hearts were theirs, when calm fell about them, and he brought them to the haven where they longed to be.
31 Praise they the Lord in his mercies, in his wondrous dealings with mortal men;
32 let them extol his name, where the people gather, glorify him where the elders sit in council
Life is seldom plain sailing. Even when we have escaped our chains and passed through our purgation we can expect to encounter stormy weather. One of the weaknesses of humans is that we are creatures of habit. If something works reasonably well for us we keep doing it again and again. This is not in itself a bad thing but it carries dangers within it. One would be that it causes us to live an unexamined life. We do not interrogate ourselves as to why we are doing what we are doing, is it still as right for us today as it was twenty years ago? Is it justifiable in moral terms in the light of our growth in knowledge and understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ? A further danger is self-congratulation. A prolonged period, or sometimes even a very short period, when things go well often causes us to give all the credit of our good fortune to ourselves. It is our cleverness, our goodness, our personal lucky star that has caused everything to go so smoothly.
So, when, as they always do, things start going badly wrong it serves as a providential reminder that ultimate control over our world, our friends and family, our own body and even our own mind does not rest with us. Most certainly our cleverness did not create it (our world) and cannot, unaided, sustain it. The two key words, then, in this text are reeling and haven. When we can no longer function according to habit, when life is just one damn thing after another, then we are knocked so far and so hard out of our comfortable, unexamined, rut that we stagger and lose, or come near to losing, our balance.
We long for peace, for calm, for stability. And we long for them in such a way that they will endure, that storms, when they come, will not destroy them. That is, we long for a genuine haven and not for the illusory comfort of habit and custom that is so vulnerable to random events. It is to this haven that the Lord guides us. Moreover, it is not an external destination. The Kingdom of Heaven is within us.
Deep within us is that place where the essence of our essence resides, the cell of self-knowledge. In that same place, by grace and the power of the Holy Spirit, dwells Christ His sweet Self. In that cell we can be, as the medieval Mystics put it, oned with Him. We become by grace what He is by nature, immersed in the Divine, caught up in the eternal exchange of love between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Our storm-driven haven is Him, our discovery is that He is always with us, Emmanuel, and we with Him unless, once more, we settle for the illusion of the self-mastered world that habit constantly strives to fill us with.
David calls upon us to extol the name of the God who saves us. It is Just to give Him praise and thanks. But more than Just it is also Wise since in recalling Him we recall also why and how we need Him. This extolling, though, must be from the heart. If it becomes a routine, a rote, a habit, we will once more find ourselves all at sea and reeling.
The Wider World
33 Here, he changes rivers into desert sand, wells into dry ground;
34 land that once was fruitful into a salty marsh, to punish its people’s guilt.
35 There, he turns the wilderness into pools of water, desert ground into springs;
36 and establishes hungry folk there, so that they build themselves a city to dwell in,
37 sow fields, and plant vineyards, and reap the harvest;
38 he blesses them, so that their numbers increase beyond measure, and to their cattle grants increase
As we come towards the end of the psalm David shifts the focus away from typical examples to a broader picture of the relationship between Man, (male and female) God, and the environment. Reading this section at a fairly literal level we can see it as something of an ecological manifesto. Where sin abounds within human communities, when, for example, they are obsessed with material gain, ever growing levels of productivity and ever rising living standards, then we can expect the environment to degrade and die. We see evidence of this in the world today. Some areas which we now think of as ‘naturally’ drought prone or liable to flooding, such as Ethiopia or Bangladesh, are not naturally any such thing but human activity, like extensive deforestation, has brought about not only environmental but also human destruction. Again, this is not the work of a wrathful deity but the working out of cause and effect at a collective level. Very often the sins of the fathers are being visited upon the sons and daughters and it is the fathers not God that we should blame. We see something similar at work in the seas where our plastic, throwaway, consumer society is causing destruction and degradation on what we might call a biblical scale.
The contrast depicted by David is of human and global flourishing where communities live according to the Natural Law (or as some might say the dharma.) That is, their actions are motivated by virtue and the desire to serve each other mutually and not by the desire to possess and be enriched. The earthly consequence of this is that nature is not seen as an object out of which we must wrestle wealth but as a subject with which we have a relationship where we for our part are motivated with an impulse to steward the gifts we have received rather than plunder the thing that just happens to lie nearest to hand.
At a more allegorical level David is talking about the relationship between the Lord and the People of God or, if we interpret the old Testament through the lenses of the New, between Christ, the Bridegroom, and His Church, the Bride. Here the key concepts are transformation and reaping. Admittedly ‘transformation’ doesn’t appear in the text but its appearance is implied. At any rate when the relationship between Bride and Bridegroom is barren and empty then the world the Bride inhabits is emptied of all life, all fruitfulness. All that once was full of the presence of the Bridegroom is now empty of Him because the Bride has turned away from Him. She has run after the world and in seeking its good opinion she forfeits His while yet failing to gain its. That is, so long as the Church remains, even if only in theory, committed to the Cross of Christ she can never enjoy the good opinion of those who are of the world worldly. And if she abandons the Cross entirely then she will have made a fool’s bargain for she would have lost the one thing necessary and gained only the many things which are wholly unnecessary.
Apart from the Cross then the Church reaps only deadness. With the Cross all is transformed and she reaps resurrection. United to the Bridegroom Christ, her crops are watered by His blood, Her bread is made from His flesh, her springs and fountains overflow with living water that fully satisfies all thirsts. She finds that His love is sweeter than wine (Song of Songs 1:1.) It is worth noting here that the reason David gives for flourishing is not ‘righteousness’ nor ‘virtue’ nor ‘obedience to the Law,’ though these are all excellent things. It is hunger, when the Bride is ‘hungry’ for the Bridegroom then He satisfies her and all is well with the world she inhabits.
39 Once, they were but few, worn down by stress of need and ill fortune;
40 but now the same power that shames proud chieftains, and keeps them wandering in a pathless desert,
41 has rescued the poor from need, their households thrive like their own flocks.
42 Honest men will rejoice to witness it, and malice will stand dumb with confusion.
43 Heed it well, if thou wouldst be wise; be these thy study, the mercies of the Lord.
There is a well established rule in writing- tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, tell them what you’ve just told them. And though David might have been a King, a prophet, a musician and a poet here he has stuck faithfully to the rule. In other words he ends with a brief summary of all that has gone before. Nonetheless he does allude briefly to two concepts not previously touched upon, the Anawim and Wisdom. It is the humble poor who depend upon the Lord, the anawim in Hebrew, those who endure, who do not bend the knee to Baal, who are faithful and honest and kind who will be foremost among those who flourish here below. Victory belongs not to those who can inflict the most, the proud chieftains who wander in the trackless desert of ambition and greed and miss ‘the way to the city that was their home.’ but to those who can endure the most through their faith in and love for the Lord their God.
The psalm finished as it began with praise for God’s mercy and it commends as the supreme wisdom the study of that mercy. Among the anawim and the wise there has been none greater than the Virgin Mother of Jesus Christ and in her song of love and thanks, the Magnificat, she echoes the words of her ancestor David-
He has mercy upon those who fear him, from generation to generation;
He has done valiantly with the strength of his arm, driving the proud astray in the conceit of their hearts;
He has put down the mighty from their seat, and exalted the lowly;
He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty-handed.
He has protected his servant Israel, keeping his merciful design in remembrance,
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The painting is Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee by Brueghel the Elder.