Afflicted Bones

#17 of a Series on Psalm 50

“You shalt cause me to hear gladness and joy: the afflicted bones shall rejoice.”

In our last episode, we explored only the first part of this verse, the rejoicing over the sound of music.  This time, we’ll take a little bit broader look at the verse and how the two phrases link to each other.

You Did It

As I’ve attested all along here and by now some have quickly discerned, I’m no biblical scholar (but sometimes play one on church media). But I do find it interesting to compare Bible translations and wordings to try to ascertain meanings, including the interlinear translations of the ancient texts in their original languages.  In the case of Psalm 50, in Orthodoxy, we’ll usually default to the Septuagint Greek translation. One of the things that stands out in the translation above from the Septuagint version is the expression of the personality of God in action, “You cause me to hear gladness and joy…”.  In another translation I learned decades ago by heart, the second part read, “The bones You have crushed may thrill.” Even the New International Version uses this terminology, “Let the bones You have crushed rejoice.”

Now what strikes me about this is that many translations use the passive voice, but this is very different.  David’s state (mentally and bodily) are a result of God’s direct personal intervention.  In the first case, after his repentance, God is the one who causes David to be able to hear the sounds of music and rejoicing.  God, in effect, ‘restores his hearing’ as though he were deaf.  These translations show the personal, interactive, relational way that Hebrew and later, Christian thought saw God not as a passive onlooker as the penitent person ‘figured out’ his need for repentance, but rather was very active in the midst of it, imperceptibly perhaps. 

In the second phrase, this is even more striking.  David’s bones are crushed by God.  He is describing a state of deep pain and utter weakness.  Picture a distraught skeleton of a man, with no strength in his bones, frail and weak bodily as manifesting his weakness within of will and temperament. The verse is clear that his sin is the cause of this state of being.  But the ‘active’ translation says something else, God caused him to experience this crippling weakness (due to his sin). 

The bones You have crushed…

God has crushed him, and there is no mistaking it. The God whom David had known so well as strengthening him, giving him courage against his foes (like Goliath) in battle, could also crush him. Being crushed by God is life-changing or else life-ending.  This is a wonderful (right term) expression of the mysterious nature of God’s punishment as an exercise of His divine love.  There are a number of other passages in the Old Testament that echo these words, for example:

                Like a lion He breaks all my bones; from day until night You make an end of me   Is.38:13

                But You have crushed us in the lair of jackals; You have covered us with deepest darkness.  Ps. 44:19

                When it comes to being crushed in soul and body, I’m thinking that St. Paul could identify with these words.

The passage also echoes the famous passage in Ezekiel 37, another passage read in the Easter vigil services, portraying the restoration of the dead bones of fallen Israelites to life through the breath/Spirit of God – a prophetic anticipation of the resurrection of the righteous, and indeed all flesh, from the dead through the Resurrection of Christ.

Crushing Suffering and Sin

We know that how a God of love permits suffering is a mystery, and we also know that as we approach the suffering of others, as in the case of the friends of Job, we must absolutely withhold judgment in saying that God’s wrath has fallen upon a person because of their sin.  But I believe it’s clear that in David’s prayer to hear the song of rejoicing, he realizes that it is the self-same Lord who crushed him, who could, and even would, restore this song within him.  It was not just ‘in the air’ to be heard, but a sound from God communicating His divine love and favor once again.

This is a very, very difficult line to walk – discerning when certain events of life are a direct intervention of God as a means of punishment of people for their sins.  Usually we think of such punishment, as well, ‘punitive’ – where God is exercising His divine righteousness and crushing the unrighteous.  Sometimes we stand on the sidelines and applaud – like St. Paul, as he applauded the righteous stoning of the apostate from Judaism named Stephen who was proclaiming Jesus of Nazareth as some sort of new god. 

I think the difference here is that the realization is that of David himself within was the source of his words.  He knew that:

  • He had sinned.
  • God crushed him in punishment
  • God still loved him.
  • So much so that ‘joy and feasting’ would be sent by the same God in restoration.

Only the repentant can possibly understand how God works within one’s life in this way.  Conversely, this is why ‘the world’ as a whole never understands God’s punishment because it is intended by Him to lead those whom He loves to repentance.  We can learn how this sort of thing might be possible if we read the Book of Jonah.  While much of the focus for us is always the first part, I find it interesting that the Church reads this book pretty much in its entirety at the Orthodox Easter Vigil.  In doing so it’s possible to see the typology of Resurrection of Christ (from the depths) on the third day as Jonah emerged from the whale.[i]  So far so good.  But at the Vigil, we read the entirety of the book taking us from the seashore to Nineveh.  This recalls the whole reason for Jonah’s journey to be undertaken at the command of God – to warn the Ninevites[ii] to repent of their sins.  In hearing Jonah’s words, the people repented and the King declared an edict calling for a total fast in the city and repentance in sackcloth. 

Because of these actions – the prophecy of Jonah, the hearing and response of the people and the king leading to repentance – the city was spared.[iii]  This external action became a sign of the inner state of the people or at least their spiritual trajectory for a time.  Jonah was slow to understand God’s working, even as his prophet, and the book of Jonah explains how God taught him Jonah the true nature of God’s righteousness and punishment which in every case, even for those not part of the Covenant, was intended to be a blessing leading to repentance, not mere vindictive punishment, as Jonah envisioned it.

And Today?

Much of what has been written in this series has been intended to be very personally oriented.  Repentance happens in the human heart.  Yet the prophecy of Jonah, and others, points to how entire peoples can, with the power of the Word of God proclaimed righteously in a holy, prophetic way, be led to repentance being spared from being ‘crushed’.  Not only are individuals ‘crushed’ but also families, communities and even nations.  As I mention above, ‘Only the repentant can possibly understand how God works within life in this way.’  Since the beginning of wisdom is the ‘Fear of the Lord’ (Prov. 9:10) it follows that this repentance is other than a restoration of a person, or a nation, to spiritual Ground Zero – the fear of the Lord. 

Uncertain Times

We live in an age of great uncertainty, and many global events that are creating strife to countless millions of people.  Just in the past week or so, there have been great earthquakes in Mexico (Mt. 24:7).  There are ongoing terrorist attacks and rumors of war, including the overthrow of governments in places like Guinea in Africa. Increasing tensions in the Middle East and complete societal change overnight in Afghanistan. Our own nation has suffered a barrage of stifling heat and raging fires in the West and drought that has drained the great reservoirs of like Lake Mead serving all of the water needs of Las Vegas, not to mention the swath of destruction caused by Hurricane Ida from Louisiana to New England followed by Hurricane Nicholas in the same region.  The global Covid pandemic shows no sign of letting up – infecting hundreds of thousands and killing thousands globally, every day. The Bible speaks consistently, particularly through the Gospel of Matthew and the Book of Revelation on how God’s punishment works, giving the people who so suffer the opportunity to repent before the End comes – which is the Second Coming of Christ.  While some look for ‘another’ prophet, as Jesus warned, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets. Heed them.’  (Lk. 16:19) 

The call is clear – it is always a call to repentance.  Repentance, even broadly across families, communities and even nations, is possible.  Prophetic spiritual leadership is necessary – by people who have walked, on their knees, the path of repentance that restores the song of joy, to one’s heart, to one’s family and to one’s nation.  Ω

[i] The Jonah narrative is recalled daily in Ode 6 of the liturgical hymn called the Canon of the day, and there’s always a reference to Jonah in that liturgical poem as a framework for understanding some dimension of the Church’s teaching relevant to the day. 

[ii] Nineveh was a very large, ancient city, appearing early on in Gen. 10. The land (Assyria) and its inhabitants appear in a number of biblical books and several of the prophets, including Nahum, prophesied against Nineveh and its wickedness. Yet, the Ninevites had no real connection to the Hebrew Covenant, but they are invited to repent and be saved through the words of the Prophet.  One group hears Jonah and the city is spared.  Yet the words of Nahum, perhaps at a different time, to different leaders, would not be heeded and Assyria would be made desolate. The Jonah prophecy is an anticipation of the evangelization of the whole world by the Word of God through the Apostles, another favorite dimension of the Paschal celebration at Easter.

[iii] Some Syriac and Oriental Orthodox traditions, have a wonderful practice called the ‘Nineveh Fast’ which is held for three days several weeks prior to the beginning of Lent, to recall the image of Christ in the tomb as prophesied by Jonah’s time in the whale. Nineveh was on the East bank of the Tigris river – what is now Mosul, Iraq.

Author: Fr Robert Holet - UOC of USA Office of Stewardship

A semi-retired Priest of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA.

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