Looking out my kitchen window this morning, I saw heaps of dead branches by the curb at every house down the street. The leaves had withered and turned brown in the week since a ferocious tropical storm had torn through our small coastal state, taking out trees and power lines in every town. At the height of the storm, a large tree behind our house had crashed onto the driveway, barely missing the house and trapping our cars in the garage. The electric company struggled to restore power to our town and elsewhere in the state over the coming days, and we were also without phone or cable service. A crew came by to cut up our downed tree and haul it away. Our son was busy for much of the week raking up smaller branches and leaves that had turned our lawn into a debris field in the wake of the storm.
The storm’s devastation called to mind the verses from Psalm 103 above, notably the sense that our lives are like a wind passing over flowers that flourish for a time and then are gone. As I write this, we are waiting for dump trucks and wood chippers from our town’s public works department to come by and dispose of the withered branches that had been green and thriving on our trees only a week before. Once hauled away, we will give no more thought to them than to the grass clippings after our lawn has been mowed.
Psalm 103 begins, “Bless the LORD, O my soul; and all that is within me, bless his holy name!” The word “bless” in this context means to praise; indeed, the work is categorized as a psalm of praise. It has found its way into Jewish, Roman Catholic and Protestant liturgies and has been set to music, as it no doubt was when King David (or whoever) composed it. The psalm’s message is perhaps best summarized in the verse that reads, “The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” The psalmist notes that God’s love is everlasting but we are not: “For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.”
The psalm begins and ends with the verse, “Bless the LORD, O my soul.” However, it should be mentioned that the word “soul” meant something different when the psalm was written than it does today. The ancient Hebrews had no developed belief in an after-life, much less of an immortal soul. The Hebrew word for soul (nephesh), is first used in the Genesis creation story, when God forms a man from the dust of the ground and breaths life into him, making him a "living soul” in the sense of a living being. There is not much suggestion anywhere in the Old Testament of a soul existing apart from the body or of being immortal.· The New Testament Greek word for soul (psyche) also usually denotes the quality of being alive but occasionally has a larger meaning, as when Jesus tells his disciples, "Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” The later Christian belief in an immortal soul is more closely aligned with Plato, who maintained that the soul was the essence of a person, comprising all intellectual, emotional and moral qualities.· In his Phaedo, he presents his teacher Socrates' arguments for the immortality of the soul.
The psalmist sang God’s praises not as someone who regarded himself as immortal but as one who believed himself to be as perishable as grass. He did not ask why God had made him this way but marveled that a creature made from dust and destined to return to dust should receive such care and protection. “As a father pities his children, so the LORD pities those who fear him,” the psalm wrote —“pity” in the sense of compassion. This is not a God to whom one makes formal sacrifices, the way the Greeks made sacrificial offerings to the gods in their temples. This connection was entirely too personal.
Long after the psalms were written, St. Paul traveled to Athens on one of his missionary journeys and saw the Greeks worshipping every god imaginable at the temples of the Areopagus. As a Jew, Paul was offended by their idolatry, but he also saw an opening. He had been brought there by Stoic and Epicurean philosophers who were always hungry for the latest teachings. "Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious,” said Paul, who was nothing if not canny. He told them he had seen a temple there dedicated “To an unknown god” and then revealed he knew who this God was. “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by man,” he said. “Nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all men life and breath and everything.”
Paul told the Athenians that he had observed the “objects” of their worship, the statuary cluttering up their temples. The God he was talking about was entirely different, a God “in whom we live and move and have our being.” As such, he is closer to us than our own breathing. Indeed, he is the one who gave us breath, and in every sense of the term he is the one who can take our breath away.