Out of my distress I called on the LORD; the LORD answered me and set me in a broad place.
Psalm 118:5; from Psalm 118
Psalm 118. This is the psalm that welcomes Jesus into Jerusalem, Christians into Holy Week. I preached with this text just a month ago. A lifetime ago. Before the virus was named pandemic and lock-downs were ordered and people lost jobs and tallies of illness and death took over the news. I cannot re-cut that week’s word for this week’s need. Can there be a new word?
Psalm 118. I read it, and I reread it. As if just reading will make the text grab like an insistent kitten — the text taking hold with tiny claws, pricking through the miasma of news and worry wrapped so thick around me, calling me to new attention and new hope. I read the psalm, and it feels disjointed. Too many themes and remembrances. Snatches and pieces arranged in a crazy-quilt jumble, no coherence apparent. Individual patches stand out, if only for familiarity’s sake: ‘The LORD is my strength and my might, he has become my salvation’ (v. 14); ‘This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it’ (v. 24). These verses are more familiar in stand-alone form. They seem strange set together and surrounded by the rest of the psalm. Maybe the solution is not to seek meaning in a pattern but instead to go back to the start. Turn to the first first-person recitation that follows the communal litany. The opening imperative is plural: ‘Praise!’ But then comes this verse, a recollection of when ‘I called’ and when the LORD ‘answered me.’
‘From distress, I cried out — LORD! The LORD answered me in breadth.’
The Hebrew gets its hooks into me. My translation is so rough as to seem literally meaningless. God’s answer seems a non sequitur: I cry ‘from distress’ and LORD answers ‘in breadth’? As if God is not really harkening to my cry but humming along some other route, which scenic openness has no connection to the place of my pain. No. Go more deeply in. The answer parallels the cry, and the parallel resonates in a way that catches me up short, pricks my attention, draws itself to my need. My surprise at its rightness itself is almost delight.
‘From distress, I cried out.’ The word ‘distress’ is more literally a narrow place, a straits where one is cramped, restricted, hampered, constricted,* where one is hemmed in or bound up by enemies, circumstance, a virus. From social distancing, I cried out. From home-quartering, I cried out. From limitation, I cried out. The LORD’s answer, then, is perfectly responsive:
‘From constriction, I cried out — LORD! The LORD answered me with breadth.’
The Jewish Publication Society translation preserves the parallel — ‘distress’ and ‘relief’ — while obscuring the spatial aspects of the cry and response. The NRSV maintains the spatial aspect of the response but translates it as action, ‘the LORD answered and set me in a broad place.’ But is it that? Is it that the LORD removes the psalmist from one place to another? Or is it that the LORD renames the place, so that the psalmist reviews his own sight?
From the straits of pandemic-precautions and restricted outings and limited in-person interaction, I cried out. And the LORD answered with breadth, open space. The LORD said Lift your eyes and look out the window. The day is fine and bright. The wind blows white clouds across the deep blue sky, and the treetops that yesterday were all tan, a twiggy fringe against the sky, today are beginning to be hazed with green. The LORD said, Listen! The wind! It rises and rushes and roars through the trees, sways the branches back and forth against the blue.
Part of life is narrowed now. That narrowness is necessity — sensible precautions take for self and for others. The necessity does not obviate the grief and stress. Perhaps, instead, it makes plainer the grief and stress of the whole world, caught in the throes of this virus, the havoc it is wreaking on bodies individual and social. It does, indeed, cramp my heart. The psalm does not say otherwise. The constriction is distress, is pain. The LORD’s answer lays another truth alongside; the LORD’s answer comes with a broad space. As if this breadth is equally true. The breadth of a blue sky, the beauty of green leaves so sharp-shaped and yellow-new that it seems the tree branches are lined with tiny candle-flames.
‘From distress, I cried out — LORD! The LORD answered me in breadth’ — bringing me not out but deeper in, and on through, until the narrow strait opens into a broad place.
Look. Listen. Breathe. There is light and life and wind rising high. For now it is enough.
*The range of possibilities comes from The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament.