Beckett: Isolation vs. Togetherness in the Psalms

This essay is not extensive through all the psalms. There are more psalms within the Psalter that speak on the theme of isolation versus togetherness, which is first introduced in Psalm 1:5, “Therefore, the wicked will not stand in the judgement, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous.” Eschatologically, while the wicked will be alone in the end, God’s people will find themselves together in the congregation of the righteous—the gathering or assembling with one another—at the end of days. The four psalms that follow are examples of psalms that continue this theme of isolation versus togetherness.

Psalm 22

On the theme of isolation and togetherness shared with Psalm 1, the Messianic psalm of Psalm 22 meets this theme easily. Yet before we get to Christ as the fulfilment of this psalm, how might this also be the prayer of God’s people?

Psalm 22 is a psalm of David, who feels strongly isolated from God. Whatever the reason, he feels God has forsaken him—that God is far from him (v. 1). That he cries by day and receives no answer from God multiplies the agony of his groaning (v. 2). Yet miraculously, in spite of this, he takes comfort in the congregation of the saints who came before him. “In You our fathers trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them,” he recalls (v. 4). Thus, as I pray this psalm when I feel God has forsaken me, I can also take comfort with the congregation of the saints who have gone before me.

This is the “communion of saints” we confess in the Creed, or the “invisible church,” which is wherever the Holy Spirit is present in the hearts of people (Ap VII & VIII, 1-5). Although I may feel God is far from me, I remember the saints before me whom God has delivered from tribulation because they trusted in Him. Even saints like David who, although he questioned God’s presence, still experienced God’s deliverance.

Yet David not only feels isolated from God; he also feels isolated from man. “But I am a worm and not a man, scorned and despised by the people” (v. 6). This aptly describes every Christian who devoutly follows God, for as “resident aliens” (Hauerwas, 49), we are called to live utterly different than the rest of the world (1 Peter 2:9-12). Because we live so differently than the rest of the world, we are bound to be despised as worms and ostracised. There will be times when, as we faithfully follow God, the world will scorn and despise us.

Despite all these things that beset David, he also takes comfort in the present congregation of the righteous. “I will tell of Your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will praise You” (v. 22). Thus, he looks forward to the togetherness he will share with the congregation of his present day saints in the temple as they worship Yahweh together, the place where they know God is present. This is the place where David knows God will not forsake him because He has promised to be present in the midst of the congregation in Zion.

As a Messianic psalm, Christ is the isolated one. When He cried out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me” (Matthew 27:46), He prays the entirety of this psalm as He receives no answer from God His Father. As He bled on the cross, God was entirely absent from Him. And when He cried out to God, He received no answer (v. 2). Even worse, unlike David, Jesus received no comfort from the congregation of the righteous, whether past or present. From late Thursday night through Friday, Jesus was utterly alone in the midst of man and God.

The Good News of this account is that Jesus suffered this isolation from the Father so that you and I don’t have to. If Jesus had not done this great deed for me, would be the one crying out at the end of days, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” with no answer. Yet because Jesus suffered this for me, these words will never leave my mouth in the final eschaton. Rather, like David, I shall praise the name of God in the multitudinous congregation of the righteous (Revelation 7:9-12).

Psalm 23

Psalm 23 is not only beautiful for its grand use of metaphors but also because it is entirely antithetical to isolation. There is no sense of loneliness in this psalm because it does not belong in the Shepherd’s flock. In this psalm of David, he calls Yahweh his Shepherd, which makes David His sheep—a personal designation. When sheep are domesticated, they are never alone; they are always with a flock. Even when a sheep is alone, it is not alone for long, for the Lord seeks it out to bring it back into the flock/congregation (Luke 15:1-7).

This psalm is personal as David makes use of the first-person singular pronouns, me and I. “The LORD is my shepherd; shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters,” etc. (vv. 1-2). This personal language carries throughout the entire psalm. However, although this language is personal and possesses no language of togetherness, this psalm can still be read and prayed in a communal setting for the reason stated earlier: that a sheep exists always within a flock, never alone.

Thus, as I pray this psalm, I may be using the first-person pronouns of and me, but I’m praying this with a bunch of other me’s in the flock. Therefore, this psalm is not a prayer of isolation and autonomous living, but a communal prayer with Christ’s church. This is made most evident when David says, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies” (v. 5). This dinner setting is not a meal with me, myself, and I. It is not even a dinner with just me and the Lord. This is a dinner with my fellow saints, understood in a twofold way.

First, as Christ is the Good Shepherd of this psalm (John 10:1-18), He brings me to His Table where I receive His true body and blood for the forgiveness of sins. At that Table, I do not eat and drink alone; I dine with all the other sheep in Christ’s flock. Second, Christ will prepare an eschatological table before me to dine with my fellow flock in the great Marriage Supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19:6-9).

Saleska notes the “enemies” in v. 5 can be interpreted in one of two ways. Either our enemies will watch us feast in the eschaton as they perish into eternal starvation, or these former enemies now dine with us in the eschaton (Saleska, 416). Eschatologically, I take the former interpretation. Presently, however, as we gather before the Lord’s Table in the Divine Service, I take the latter. For as I approach the Table with other sheep, I might be dining with someone who just might be my least favourite person in the world, but at the Table we cease to be enemies and become brothers and sisters in Christ, whose life, death, and resurrection is the final unification of all people.

Psalm 46

Psalm 46 presents an interesting dichotomy of simultaneous isolation and togetherness. Here, the psalmist presents two raging storms, in a sense. On one side is the raging of the earth (vv. 1-3) and on the other side is the raging of the nations (v. 6). In reality, this is one giant, raging storm: all of creation is raging (man is still part of creation; creation is not only nature). The earth has its unending natural disasters and mankind is indefatigably raging against one another. The world is in obvious chaos, and all seems hopeless.

Yet in the midst of all this raging is a calming oasis, “a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High” (v. 4). This is a metaphor for Zion, which is a synecdoche for God’s people, the church. This is a simultaneous isolation and togetherness.

As isolation, the church is a refuge from all this raging of creation. While all this chaos is going on, God’s sheep flock to the river beside which He leads them (Psalm 23:2), this water alluding to Baptism as the waters Christ gives us to eternally satiate our thirst (John 4:13-14). Thus, the church is isolated from all the licentious chaos going on in the world.

As togetherness, God’s people flock together. They come together not only to receive strength and comfort from the Lord in His Word and Sacraments, but also to receive strength from one another in mutual fellowship. The church, where God has promised to be present in the Word and Sacraments, is the fortress we run to as our refuge (vv. 7, 11).

Psalm 46 finds its fulfilment in Christ. In this psalm, God says, “Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, and I will be exalted in the earth!” (v. 10). We first see its fulfilment during Jesus’ earthly ministry.

While Jesus and His disciples were on the Sea of Galilee, a storm suddenly brewed. While the disciples were terrified for their life, Jesus was soundly asleep! Here, we see Jesus’ humanity. Yet as the disciples wake Him, He also displays His divinity. In a single word (in Greek), Jesus says, “Be still” (φιμόω), and the storm stops (Mark 4:39). When Jesus spoke these words, the creation knew He was God and became still. Thus, we, too, know He is God and can be still in the raging storm of creation all around us.

This psalm also has eschatological significance. A great multitude from every nation, tribe, and language will stand before Christ’s throne and praise Him (Revelation 7:9-10). These same people will exalt Him, “Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify Your name? For You alone are holy. All nations will come and worship You, for Your righteous acts have been revealed” (Revelation 15:4). Indeed, even today, there are people of nearly every nation, tribe, and language exalting the name of the Lord!

Psalm 121

Psalm 121 begins from a place of isolation, “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come?” (v. 1). As I read this psalm, I imagine the psalmist somewhere outside Jerusalem, wandering around in the wilderness. As he is lost and alone, he looks up to the city set on a hill (Matthew 5:14). He sees Zion where God has promised to be present among His people, and the psalmist remembers, “My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth!” (v. 2), the very Creator of these hills.

As the psalmist is outside the city, perhaps doing his work, living life, or perhaps being persecuted, he wonders where he can find help. But then, as he looks around for help, he looks toward the hills of Zion and sees the luminous temple whence God has promised to be. Therefore, he makes his way toward God his refuge.

As he makes his way toward Zion, he has confidence that God will not let his foot slip on the road, who neither slumbers nor sleeps (vv. 3-4), unlike the false gods of the nations around him who do nothing. While the psalm does not technically end with the psalmist reaching Zion, we can assume he makes it there. He places his confidence in God’s unceasing care and he knows “the LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore” (v. 8).

Whether this going out and coming in is from home to work and work to home, or from home to temple and temple to home, the psalmist knows the Lord is with him. Even as he is isolated out in the wilderness, he knows Yahweh is with him, for God is not limited to the walls of Zion. At the same time, he takes comfort in the fact that he can find God in Zion.

The same is true for us. Christ promised, “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). This is true whether we’re at church, which is our Zion, or whether we’re struggling with life during the weekdays. The church is especially our Zion in that Christ has promised to be present in the Word and Sacraments to form us in His Word and to forgive us in the Sacraments—His Word in, with, and under the elements to make them efficacious to do what He has said they do.

Therefore, while we may be isolated from Monday to Saturday, on Sunday we find togetherness not only with our Lord, but also with one another. All of us together lift our eyes to the hill of Mt. Calvary and make our way toward the Sabbath to be sustained by our Keeper.

The Lord is the one “who keeps Israel” (v. 4). Israel is a community of people; it is never a single person. Israel might have started as one person (Genesis 32:27-28), but also at that moment Israel became the gathering—the togetherness—of God’s people.

Israel, God’s people, are never to be a people alone but always a people who gather together before the Lord to exalt His name and receive His good gifts as they live life together from this time forth and forevermore.

Bibliography

Hauerwas, Stanley, and William H. Willimon. Resident Aliens. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2014.

Saleska, Timothy E. Psalms 1-50. Concordia Commentary. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2020.

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