We went skiing yesterday. Our youngest, who is seven, fell on her first run and her confidence evaporated. She has been skiing before, and she has done well before — for a seven year old who has been skiing a few times. After her fall, I held my pole out to brake her and guide her, but she broke into tears as our gentle beginning run gained a modicum of steepness. I felt sad for her, for her fear.
Fear, I have heard, is our most primal emotion. It may be our first emotion, fear and shock, as we are pulled from out mother’s wombs and feel the coldness and startling light of a hospital room.
If Psalm 1 seems naive and moralistic, Psalm 2 reads as false to our modern minds. A brief summary: the rulers and peoples set themselves against God, and yet these people are shackled by the God they are set against. God shrugs them off, declaring the king he has set in Zion. This king will possess the earth, break the nations like a potter’s vessel. So, kings and rulers ought to serve the Lord with fear and trembling. His wrath is quickly kindled, but blessed are all who take refuge in him.
This is far from the easy spirituality of our western world, whether Christian or “spiritual but not religious” or the reserved Judaism you see portrayed in films, or even eastern religions, a dash here or there thrown into the soup of individualistic American religion for — good measure? To cover all the bases? Just in case?
The psalm asserts God’s rule and reign, and anticipates a messiah, as no king of Israel ever ruled the entire earth. But if God watches over the righteous and will not let the wicked stand, as we saw in psalm 1, why is our experience so different? Why does it often feel like the king has abdicated, and the world is left spinning with no one at the wheel? Apart from the judgmental language of psalm 2, it at least promises someone in control.
In fact, in the circles I inhabit, these promises of God’s control land on someone’s lips at precisely the time it doesn’t seem like God is in control at all, like some vapid incantation. I think of friends who struggled for years to get pregnant and the pain they felt from the church. But, of course, God is in control. That’s the problem then, isn’t it?
On that first run, we didn’t let our daughter loose. She was skiing with her grandpa, and what greater gift is there for a grandpa, or a granddaughter, than sharing an interest? I don’t know what happened, but they fell. They, of course, lost control. And for a seven year old, that fall broke her confidence so fear could come rushing in and overwhelm her.
She could not ski without tears on the next run down, because she was afraid. I promised her she would not fall.
There are three characters in this psalm. God, his anointed, and the rulers or peoples: the nations rebelling against God. The problem with this is that old sleight of hand to access a story, and to identify yourself with one of the characters. The first is out, and the second — I haven’t yet been able to assert my dominion over the earth, despite my best efforts. What if I am the one kicking and trying to throw off the shackles? What if I am not the tree in psalm 1 but part of the chaff, and my anger and ego need to be shackled?
I know before we went skiing, as we tried to pack the car and leave the house, my anger and impatience ticks upward. This happens on every trip, as if my unspoken timeline and agenda for leaving the house is the only thing that matters, and my wife’s desire to return to a clean house is in the way.
I always try to kick against that shackle.
I think of the psalms, arranged during the exile and after, and how psalm 2 would have been discordant. Yet, much of the Bible is discordant with our modern sensibilities, and even much of ancient storytelling, with its happy endings and reunifications. Only in modern times have we grasped that stories, if they are to reflect life, need to end ambiguously and in a sort of twilight, because we get little more than this in our own lives.
What have we lost with this? Faith, for one. Even more, our stories and poems have lost a telos, a purpose for our lives because of the way things our, and we are all now to create our own purpose. The psalms do not let us off so easily. God is in control, and history is moving toward a certain end. And we know, as the arrangers of this book knew, that there are scores of psalms left to complain and wonder about God’s distance, absence, and lack of control. But here, the second psalm and often seen as one of the two opening psalms that set the tone for the entire book: we do not simply see God’s control. We see who we are to be and become, just as in psalm 1.
Serve and celebrate. Be part of this royal order. As we serve with fear, this isn’t our classic fear on a ski run, but fear in a sense of respect and awe. Profound reverence. We end the psalm with what we ought to do, as the psalm often will, not mucking about in metaphysical meanderings. Rather than wondering how God can have control when it does not seem like it, we’re called to be part of this kingdom.
Find the confidence that this telos, this way of life brings: only when you lean into the pole and trust can you begin to see what, or who, might be in control after all. This way of life will not translate to no falls on the ski hill or miraculous pregnancies, but a way forward with purpose and hope and grounding. These are rare in our world.
Also, don’t kick against the shackles.