Psalm 134: Blessings by Night

Those who have experienced a regular Sunday evening service, often observe a “quietness” about them fondly. The morning service is associated with the frenetic pace of rounding up households with hair and outfits assembled, racing to roles in the service, coffee hour, and Sunday school, and back across town for a post-service gathering with family or friends. By Sunday evening, we’ve calmed down, slowed down, perhaps read a book or taken a nap, and ditched our neckties, loosened our top buttons, or changed into simpler outfits. Even our admittedly increased level of tiredness seems to leave us more receptive to spiritual impressions.

For others, however, evening services have been experienced more as physical punishment than spiritual refreshment. They have meant rising in the grogginess of a half-finished nap, dragging oneself back to a building lacking the comforts of home to engage in a routine just recently completed, and finally getting home more exhausted than the first time. Such experiences are especially challenging if they involve a commute, restless kids in tow, or work staring you in the face the next morning. The night shift at work is generally seen as undesirable. Is it any wonder than that some find the evening service more of an ascetic trial than a leisurely pleasure?

Psalm 134 naturally connects to evening services. Now, let me be clear, the Psalmist does not refer to regular Sunday evening service such as some of us have experienced. He is drawing on the example of daily evening sacrifice in the temple, not envisioning, much less prescribing, a weekly service. Whether holding a regular Sunday evening service is prudent for a particular church community is subject to a variety of considerations. But then there is the question highlighted by our varying experiences of evening services: Is worship a matter of rest or work? It’s a question Psalm 134 wonderfully answers. And the answer–perhaps as paradoxical as the Cross itself, which is the source and basis for all our worship–is “yes”.

Psalm 134 appears at first to emphasize worship as work rather than rest. The “servants of the Lord” (notice how they’re styled) do not slouch in pew cushions; they “stand by night in the house of the LORD.” They don’t hang their hands at their side, but lift them up in the sanctuary (2). Their mouths are not silent, but bless the Lord. Worship is, indeed, work. Hence, we talk about the worship “service” or “liturgy,” which literally translates as “work of the people.”

To bless the Lord means to actively acknowledge God alone as the source of all goodness in our lives. And this means worship, at the same time it is work, is a matter of coming to rest in God. The format and setting of our worship can be ordered to some degree to accommodate our physical needs, but we need not–in fact, we cannot—neglect worship to find true rest.

Psalm 134 is the last of the Psalms of Ascent, typically understood as having been sung on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, or in commemoration throughout the year of such pilgrimage. Psalm 134 brings that journey to a conclusion with one great “Behold.” And what is beheld? God’s servants standing and lifting their hands in acknowledgment that God himself is their blessing. The Psalm ends, “The LORD that made heaven and earth bless thee out of Zion.” (3) This is a reminder that all good things come from him and find their ultimate meaning in connection with him, and it is a promise that his goodness is stored up for us in the city of refuge where Christ himself is present, the final place of rest for weary pilgrims.

In the work of pausing to acknowledge the heavenly Father as the one on whom all the good in our lives depends, we realize that we possess an unassailable blessedness, for nothing that depends on him can be disturbed or stolen. In the work and discipline of taking time to bless the Lord, whether back at church, or in the quietness of our homes before or after dinner, or just before we go to bed, we remind ourselves before entering the oblivion of sleep, that both our continual and final refreshment, renewal, and tranquility, are in the Lord. His yoke is easy and his burden is light, and bending beneath it, we find rest from the Holy Spirit for our souls.

The Rev. Steven M. McCarthy is a church planter at St. Barnabas Anglican Fellowship, an extension work in the Reformed Episcopal Church’s Diocese of Mid-America (ACNA). He and his wife Emily are raising four young children in their home town of Lansing, MI.

 

Steven McCarthy

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