“Happy is everyone who fears the LORD,
who walks in God’s ways.
You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands;
you shall be happy, and it shall go well with you.” – Psalm 128:1-2
I have a mentor and colleague who, every time somebody asks her about reading or studying the Bible, says, “Genre matters.” For her (and for me), that’s the most important thing you need to know if you’re going to read the Bible. If you’re reading poetry, but reading it as if it were history, those metaphors are really going to mess with your understanding of the past. If you read a creation myth as if it were biology, you might end up wanting to create some bizarre Creation Museum somewhere. Read a letter between colleagues as if it was a statute, and you might end up wanting to impose some pretty messed-up rules on the people around you.
Same with the Psalms. You might read the lines above and think they’re some sort of promise from God: you’ll always be happy if you walk in all God’s ways. From there, you might assume the inverse is true, too: if you’re not happy, it must be because you’re misbehaving and don’t love God. And yet, you’re a smart person who knows that it is totally possible to love God, follow all God’s rules, and still be unhappy from time to time. What, then? Is God wrong? Are God’s promises not to be trusted?
Or maybe you just have the genre wrong.
Not to mention the author and the narrator. The Psalms aren’t God speaking to humans; they’re humans speaking to God or, as in this case, each other. And while the people doing the speaking might be very very holy, and the things they say might be informed by God’s promises, those things are not actually God making you promises.
Which makes me, at least, feel better about the whole thing, because the sentiment in Psalm 128 is overreaching and frankly incorrect. God being untrustworthy in the promises God makes is a terrible thing to contemplate. But I can easily imagine religious people being wrong in the things they say about God.
I mean, I’ve probably done it twice in this devotion alone.
O God, let me always trust in your promises—and question your people. Amen.
Quinn G. Caldwell is a father, husband, homesteader and preacher living in rural upstate New York. His most recent book is a series of daily reflections for Advent and Christmas called All I Really Want: Readings for a Modern Christmas. Learn more about it and find him on Facebook at Quinn G. Caldwell.