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The London Institute for Contemporary Christianity

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Psalms and the pursuit of happiness | Happiness in a world in turmoil

Why do the nations conspire,
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the Lord and his anointed

…Happy are all who take refuge in him.

PSALM 2:1–3, 12 NRSV

 


 

Last week, we explored Psalm 1’s hopeful assertion of happiness. Psalm 2 immediately bursts the bubble! Kings of the earth conspire, and fail to follow in the ways of God. Happiness is not an individual thing. It is affected by the choices of others – often distant others – with power over our lives. Happiness doesn’t exist independently from the realities of the wider world and its systems of power, oppression, and politics.

Psalm 1 tells us that our own desires shape our ability to be happy. Psalm 2 tells us that an uncertain and broken world makes happiness fragile, distant, and difficult. Happiness is neither completely determined by external factors, nor by our inner attitudes.

Psalm 2 reflects God’s engagement with the life of nations in the Old Testament. God cares about Israel’s wellbeing as a nation. When leaders behave badly – whether the leaders of other nations or within Israel itself – God listens to Israel’s cries, sees their suffering, and works towards deliverance. But there is a gap between the reality of suffering, and the coming of deliverance. It is not instant. Often, it comes in unexpected, slow, and hidden ways.

Deliverance rarely means sudden action that changes everything, and even when it does (as in the Exodus), it doesn’t yield immediate happiness, peace, and justice. Once the people are freed, they need to learn how to live in the ways of God. Unless they do this, happiness will remain elusive, because they will simply reproduce patterns of oppression and injustice within the life of the new community. Happiness is a journey, and something to learn.

The end of Psalm 2 positions the speaker in this place of recognising all that damages and maims human wellbeing around them. And yet, even within this context, there is a path towards happiness: taking refuge in God. Happiness is there in both what is possible in the moment, and in the promise of deliverance to come for those who trust. It is present and future, a given and a work in progress.

Our world isn’t that different from the Psalmist’s, with war, refugees, and creeping poverty in our own nation. We too can engage with systems and structures that damage the possibility of human flourishing: writing to our MPs, volunteering in foodbanks, befriending refugees, or joining in community projects where we live and work.

Revd Prebendary Dr Isabelle Hamley
Secretary for Theology and Theological Adviser to the House of Bishops

What one thing might you do where you are to help nurture wellbeing in those around you? Join the conversation below.

Comments

  1. Thank you for todays comments on PS 2 – yes boy do we need to remember that life and the world are straddled with age old problems and God is still to be found – but one thing I’d like to point out is that as in Exodus 1 and 2 we are required to do more than write to MP’s , volunteer at food banks etc . The five women followed Gods higher laws and protested using everything in their hands (work, power, prayer, their tongues – lied! And their bodies ) I would like to have seen protest in your list . At a time of human made climate breakdown with governments that reverse promises on green issues amongst others , we must do all in our power to resist evil in our day and non violent direct action requires us to do more than the very minimum . Until Christians understand what is at stake for all Gods life on Earth those things may seem to be enough to tackle corruption but they are not . The peace and climate movements have been doing these low level actions for over 40 years and the pharaohs of our days have not heeded, acted nor told the truth . Happiness is found in acting justly and we need to be braver . I’d like to recommend Sue Parfitt’s brilliant new book Bodies on the line to say it better than me ! Xx

    By Rachie ross  -  25 Sep 2023

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