Psalm 128 is the ninth in the collection of pilgrim songs called the Songs of Ascent. Each of the songs offers encouragement and wisdom regarding one’s walking the pilgrim way to meet with God. The destination for the Israelite was the Temple in Jerusalem, but they, as we, understood the larger and more metaphorical image of the journey through life which finds its destination in meeting God.
In Psalm 128, the psalmist takes up the image of blessing — an image echoed already and especially in Psalm 127. Whereas Psalm 127 spoke of the manner in which blessing comes, Psalm 128 speaks of the way in which blessing is experienced: the fear of the Lord.
Psalm 128 (ESV) reads,
Blessed is everyone who fears the LORD,
who walks in his ways!
2 You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands;
you shall be blessed, and it shall be well with you.
3 Your wife will be like a fruitful vine
within your house;
your children will be like olive shoots
around your table.
4 Behold, thus shall the man be blessed
who fears the LORD.
5 The LORD bless you from Zion!
May you see the prosperity of Jerusalem
all the days of your life!
6 May you see your children’s children!
Peace be upon Israel!
“Fear” has a negative connotation to modern ears. In speaking of this biblical “fear” one can spend a lot of time explaining and qualifying — so much so that it’s easy to make it more confusing or simply, meaningless. In the Bible, the “fear of the Lord” is a good thing. When we read about it, we should think in terms of “love” or “what is precious”. We fear that which is most important to us, we respect it, and we are not careless with it.
I’ve been helped in considering how to read this psalm by two things I’ve happened upon this week. Firstly, G.K. Chesterton said about our disenchanted world in Tremendous Triffles: “The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder.” He’s saying that we think we are languishing because of a lack of blessing. Rather he asserts, there are plenty of things which are wonderful, for which we may count blessings, our failure is to feed upon the marvels and blessings that are all around us. This thought is echoed in Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Messenger” in which she says, “Let me keep my mind on what matters, which is my work, which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.” In this sonnet, I try and do just that.
Rather than try to merely reword the psalm’s promises and images or to imagine myself as its speaker, I imagined myself as the object of its promises. I tried to view the blessings through the lens of Christ who is The Blessed. Who are his wife and children? Where and around which table does he seat me?
If it’s helpful, you may listen to me read the sonnet via the player below.
Blessed is everyone who fears the Lord
Except for him who faced every fear—
Who walked faithfully, whose word was his word
Who wept with the poor, shed tears for every tear.
He ate not the fruit, but took with his hand
Our hearts hard as iron, our damned deeds of death;
Bore with pierced palms into the loathsome land
The curse with which we cursed till his last breath.
Who is your wife? Where is this fruitful vine?
Who are your children, the promised olive wood?
At whose table shall they drink the Blessed’s wine?
Or in what house gather, taste, and see what is good?
Are we (am I) the bride for whom you bore the shame
To sit beneath the banner of your love and name?
© Randall Edwards 2017
This sonnet is for Christ’s church. If it is helpful, please feel free to copy or reprint in church bulletins, read aloud, or repost. I only ask that an attribution be cited to myself (Randall Edwards) and this blog (backwardmutters.com). Thanks.
artwork: 12th Century Historiated initial letter from the beginning of Song of Songs. Library of Winchester Cathedral.
The Latin text reads: “Explicit lib(er) qui vocat Ecclesiastes. Incip(it) lib(er) qui appellatur hebraice Syr asyrim, latine Cantica Canticorum. Vox ecclesi(a)e desiderantis adventum Chri(sti).”
“Here ends the book that he called Ecclesiastes. Here begins the book that is called in Hebrew “Shir hashirim,” in Latin “Songs of Songs. The voice of the church as she longs for the coming of Christ.”