13 Happy is the nation whose God is the Lord
I have been avoiding this verse all week. It irritates me because it has been used by conservative evangelicals in support of their dream of a “Christian America.” It’s sad when texts of scripture become entangled in and polluted by political causes of left or right. It’s like great music tarnished by an unforgettable association with a television ad. Disney’s Fantasia was amazing, but now “The Nutcracker Suite” makes me think of dancing hippos and I can’t hear “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” without seeing Mickey Mouse and broomsticks carrying water.
So my eyes rush past this verse, but the scriptures stand firm, waiting for us to listen.
There are so many things wrong with the use of this verse by the religious right. There were no “nations” in the modern sense of the word; the idea here is a people or tribe – as is evidenced by the parallelism in the next line: “the people whom he has chosen as his heritage.” The clan being discussed here is the people of Israel, not any modern state; the descendants of Abraham, not the inheritors of the Pilgrims, are the people God has chosen. This is a song of joy and celebration – “how happy are we that the Lord has shown us favor” – not an argument for social transformation.
In the impulse to skip past this verse I recognize the inherent challenge in listening to scripture: I don’t want to react to scripture; I want to hear it. I want to let it speak to me, but not forget it wasn’t first spoken to me. I am reading someone else’s mail. In it I hear the voice of my heavenly Father. As he speaks, I am shaped by his words. But I must not collapse the distance between that time and my own as if words like “nation” – or even “happy” – had the same meaning then as now. And I must always beware of making the text serve me. My job is to listen, to hear God’s voice, and to let that voice work its work in me. I am the one who is supposed to do the serving.
Happy is the nation whose God is the Lord,
The psalm is a hymn, a song of praise and thanksgiving to God for God’s goodness. It sings of God as creator and summons all creation to join the song. It exults in the privilege Israel has received to have been chosen by this God, the Lord. It declares that he governs the destiny of the peoples of the earth – not their kings and armies. And it declares the allegiance of this people to God: “We set our hope on the Lord.”
“Happy is the nation whose God is the Lord.” Happy, contented, at peace, are those whom God has chosen “to be his own,” whom God has rescued from bondage and guided through the wilderness and taught by his Word.
There are so many things that disquiet us. There is a restless hunger in the human heart and the communities we inhabit. Schools and companies and congregations are buffeted by competing convictions of what “they” should do. Relationships are stressed by our demands on one another. We accuse our own selves for our limitations and failures.
The psalm bids us stop and ponder the privilege of belonging to a God who is good. We inhabit a beautiful earth fashioned in goodness. We are the beneficiaries of a boundless grace. We are cared for.
There are things to do. There are things that should change. There are times of trial and days when God seems not to be watching. But the psalm calls us to stop and remember.
Happy are those whose God is the Lord. There is a peace to be found in remembering that this gracious, faithful God is our God.
And there is a song to be sung.