Blessed is everyone who fears the Lord, who walks in his ways.
We all have things we fear, deep down. All mythologies have monsters, representations of our fears coming to get us and for no other reason than to get us, to destroy us.
For most of my life, I have been depth perception challenged. This comes out on a regular basis when I have wrongly presumed the correct distance of a low lying branch or open cabinet door and my head. When the utter shock and deep pain strikes me, I at that moment feel a complete assurance that that cabinet door deliberately and maliciously attacked me simply for its amusement, gleefully gloating over my anguish, pain, and rage.
Fear is one of the most profound and fundamental emotions in us. A healthy fear keeps us away from danger, but all too often our fears can overtakes us, domineering and commandeering our choices and responses to situations. Those with no fear are usually considered foolish and for good reason. One of the most consistent and direct commands in the Bible is “do not fear.” Essentially, “do not fear” homelessness, unemployment, terrorism, liberals, relativism, guns, the lack of guns, or the list goes on. Instead fear the Lord. Direct all fear to God. More accurately, make fear yield to mercy, God’s mercy (Ps 56:1).
There is a counter-balance to the command to deny fear, and we have already encountered this on our ascent. When we choose to enter the procession and join the expedition, we must shed the extra and non-essential weight of our fears, like climbers who must with precise calculation select only the gear that will enable and not hinder an effective ascent or like the sailors on Jonah’s ship who had to choose between lightening the load or perishing.
You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands,
You shall be happy and it shall be well with you.
As is typical of the psalms, they often speak in lyrical platitudes so it becomes difficult to locate a real life context behind the verse. The beauty of general poetic verse is its ability to speak into a wide variety of lives and situations. It is what makes “pop” songs go “viral.” It has an amazingly broad appeal. It “strikes the chord” of how a large amount of people are feeling or sensing about the current situation. This being said, those ascending who are well off are possibly hearing this as a positive affirmation of God’s favor, especially when one has made due diligence to trust in the Lord, let the Lord build the house and to fear the Lord.
I think of the rich young ruler who approached Jesus. He was honestly doing his best to walk in the ways of the Lord.
I believe, however, that the hope of “enjoying the fruit of your labors” rang more profoundly for those whose efforts at a sustainable living were precariously held in balance by environmental and economic forces. The fear that one’s strenuous effort at yielding a crop and making a living would be devoured by creditors comes out repeatedly in these psalms.
As the snake in the garden so masterfully displays, there is a double-sidedness to wisdom and it is the precarious task of a wise person to sort this out, to be aware, not gullible, presumptuous, or prideful. As the struggling farmer abandons his field in order to ascend in procession, vulnerable to human and natural predators, the words of the last three psalms are meant to give strength and faith to the faint hearted. They are words of promise and quiet assurance painted against the background of looming realities. The foundation is not the temple, nor the hill that it is built on, nor the city that houses it. It is the God who acts to rescue those in slavery and who by his word, provides a way for the people to walk in. The temptation may be to abandon the Zion project altogether.
To those who are ascending, both the poor and the wealthy, there is admonition as well as encouragement. The heart of the temptation for each is economically driven. To those on the edge of poverty and enslavement, there is the temptation to abandon the Lord, that is the God of Israel, his Torah, and his covenant. It would be either to retreat to the gods of the tribal ancestors and live a sequestered existence or to yield to the imperial gods of Egypt or Persia.
To be sure, all wealth at the time of Ezra and Nehemiah was channeled through the Persian Empire. Cooperation was essential. The essential temptation revolved around whether there was any benefit to involvement in the Zion project. Furthermore, there was considerable risk.
The book of Nehemiah indicates that exploitation of the poor by the wealthy was a huge problem. “But see, we are slaves today, slaves in the land you gave our forefathers so they could eat its fruit and other good things it produces. Because of our sins, its abundant harvest goes to the kings you have placed over us. They rule over our bodies and our cattle as they please. We are in great distress” (Neh 9:36).