The Holy Marriage of Margaret Ann Rhein and Jonathan Max Casey
23 May 2015
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The sentence “Blessed is everyone that feareth the Lord; that walketh in His ways” is a beatitude. A beatitude is a proverb-like saying, with man as its subject. It expresses what leads to blessedness or happiness in a kind of backwards way.
The Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount are surprising because the Lord describes people as being blessed or happy whom we think of as being cursed. We say that someone is blessed if has a nice singing voice or wins the lottery or finds a lovely bride. We don’t look at someone who is destitute, whose conscience is burdened, or whose loved one has died and call him blessed. The point of the Lord’s beatitudes is to show us what true blessedness is. We are not blessed when we are satisfied with this life, but we are blessed when we are dependent upon God. It is a blessing to mourn not only because that means you had someone to love, something to lose, but also because then you will be comforted. Our fallen flesh almost always looks at the wrong things and the beatitudes are corrective catechesis.
Here, in Psalm 128, the beatitude is not much of a surprise. It is the sort of thing that even the world expects the Bible. Violating God’s commandments brings sorrow. There are no victimless crimes. At the very least, we harm our own souls, but it is rarely the “very least.” We usually drag our loved ones and neighbors down with us. In contrast, keeping the Law of Lord, even when it is costly in terms of financial gain or respect among men, is the way of peace in one’s own mind.
The beatitude of Psalm 128 promises that if you fear the Lord and walk in His ways then: Thou shalt eat the labour of thine hands: Happy shalt thou be, and it shall be well with thee. Thy wife shall be as a fruitful vine by the sides of thine house, thy children like olive plants round about thy table. Behold, that thus shall the man be blessed that feareth the Lord.
This is rather anticlimactic. There is no promise here of earthly success, of wealth, or of power. Fearing the Lord and walking in His ways is not easy, but then neither is the reward that great. The one who fears the Lord and walks in His ways does not eventually slip into a life of ease or become a captain of industry admired by all. His hard word doesn’t pay off that way and the beatitude in no way promises the American dream. Rather, in stark contrast, the one who fears the Lord and walks in His ways is expected to work and to live by his work. The reward is that he isn’t a slave, that his labor isn’t in vain, but that he is allowed to eat of it. To make it a bit worse, you should know that the word here translated as “labor” is probably better translated as “toil.” The Greek translation actually uses the word “sorrow” and the verb form of this Hebrew noun doesn’t mean “to work” or “to labor” but “to grow weary or exhausted.” The Psalm doesn’t advocate climbing the ladder or paying your dues, but rather that you toil all the days of your life.
Nor is the reward 70 virgins or a wife who can cook and dance and still fit into her wedding dress 30 years later. The reward is the mundane joy of a virtuous wife who gives you children. Those children, and that wife, will also gather around your table to eat the fruit of your toil – meaning there won’t be much left for motorcycles and trips to Rome and fancy cars. You will toil. Then you eat the fruit of that toil and it will be gone.
Then the Psalmist says: “Behold,” and we know he is about to say something significant “thus shall the man be blessed that fears the Lord.” How is the man blessed, wherein resides his happiness? In tiredly gathering around a table in a messy house with lots of noise and not much fancy stuff or with maybe a few fancy things that have been broken and super-glued back together.
Perhaps this beatitude is more in line with the Sermon on the Mount than it first appears. The vision it has of blessedness is not our culture’s vision. This is a warning, a stern preaching of the Law. The family is the foundation of society and marriage is the foundation of the family. The man who refuses these things, who cannot see it, who cringes at it, who chafes under it, whose daydreams are filled with luxuries and fame and wealth, that man is cursed. He is not cursed in the active sense, but the passive. He curses himself by having a view of the world that is contrary to the Word of God. He seeks the wrong things. He doesn’t know what is good. How then can he know what makes for happiness? Repent.
Still, even if we recognize the joy and goodness of Holy Marriage and children, at least in part, who then will stand and say, “I have feared the Lord. I have walked in His ways?” The beatitudes don’t only teach us what is good, they also accuse us. We have not embraced or fully believed that those who are poor in spirit, that mourn, or that are meek are blessed. And we certainly haven’t embraced in our own lives the idea that walking according the commandments brings happiness. When we sin, we do it seeking happiness, even though we should know better.
Thus we are doubly accused. Not only have we not deserved what Psalm 128 offers because we haven’t feared the Lord as we should, but so also we haven’t even wanted what it offers: honest work, a wife, and children, and little else. Repent.
But the Psalm moves in the last two verses out of the beatitude and into a benediction. The subject is no longer man and his happiness. The subject is God. He does the blessing and this is a promise of a whole different sort:
The Lord shall bless thee out of Zion: And thou shalt see the good of Jerusalem all the days of thy life. Yea, thou shalt see thy children’s children, and peace upon Israel.
This isn’t conditional. It is not if you fear the Lord and walk in His ways then the Lord will bless you. That is the mode of a beatitude, not a benediction. You have to mourn to be comforted. You have to fear the Lord and toil to eat. But this is different. This is a promise, a simple declarative sentence of what God is doing and will do: “The Lord shall bless thee.”
It is made, however, in a particular context. The blessing comes out of Zion. Zion is the hill in Jerusalem where the Temple stood. To say that the Lord will bless you out of Zion is to say that the Lord will bless you through the sacrifices in the Temple. Those sacrifices were not offered for those who feared the Lord perfectly and walked in His ways without fail and wanted only the things that He said were good. Rather those sacrifices were offered for those who knew they needed to be cleansed and forgiven, who came expecting and beseeching God to be good. Out of Zion, out of the Temple, comes mercy for sinners, comfort for mourners, and the kingdom of God for those who are hungry.
The Temple of blessing, of sacrifice and forgiveness, of repentance and cleansing, is fulfilled in God become Man, Jesus Christ. He is the Temple built without hands, Himself our High Priest and also the Offering. He entered into the place beyond the veil with His own Blood. To say that you will be blessed out of Zion and see the goodness of Jerusalem all the days of your life is to say that blessedness, not simply happiness, but holiness and cleanness and purity, will come from the life, cross, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and that all the days of your life – the days when you behave and the days when you don’t, the days of spiritual mountaintops and the days of despair, the day of your wedding and the day when you buried your beloved. All of your days are, not “should be,” not “might be,” but ARE marked by the blessing of the Lord out of Zion, out of the Lord’s atoning ransom.
The good of Jerusalem is not in its laws or its upright citizens or its sophistication, but in the mercy of God that was bestowed through Jerusalem’s darkest hour. The things that make for peace upon Israel: lash and thorns and cross, and then Jesus alive out of the grave. Unless the Lord builds the house, those that build it labor in vain. That is true of nations, of churches, and probably for soccer teams for all I know. But it is mostly true, and it mostly speaks of, the family. And if the Lord builds the house, the marriage and family, by this blessing out Zion, by the Sacrifice of Christ upon the cross for the sins of the world, then toil is not in vain, but you shall eat of it and receive it not as due reward for service rendered, but as gift.
Where does the Lord do such building? Out of Zion. But Zion is gone, the Temple destroyed in 70 AD. Not so. The Temple was destroyed 40 years before that and He built Himself up again. The veil is torn. Christ is ascended. He now brings Zion, the Temple with the Holy of Holies and the Mercy Seat along with His Holy Cross, to the altars of Christendom. There is your blessing out of Zion and there does the Lord build the house.
That is why we need a colon at the end of this Psalm. It doesn’t end. It is not allowed to. It goes back to the beginning, back to the beatitude. We repeat. Having been forgiven in the blessing out of the Cross, we fear the Lord and walk in His ways, albeit imperfectly, but the Lord is building His house in us by Word and Sacrament. We do fear and trust in Him. We do strive to walk in His ways because His ways are good. And part of that walking is repenting, returning to give thanks, and being newly absolved, but also part of that walking rejoicing in what He gives, rejoicing in a tired wife in a messy house with loud children and broken stuff eating the fruit of our toil, rejoicing that we have people worth mourning for, that we are called the children of God, that we live by grace and forgiveness, imperfect, selfish people, like mud and bricks, built into a glorious Temple of the Holy Spirit and of Christ..
And not only does this Psalm keep repeating, starting and restarting, ever back to the beginning, beatitude marching toward the benediction, but so also is it a choral canon or a symphonic fugue. It is not merely repeated. It is built upon, layered, and nuanced. You don’t sing it alone. The whole Church sings with you. Sometimes we sing in unison, but mostly we don’t. Some are further along and some have been sent back to the beginning. Others are engaged in harmonious variation and a few are just learning it for the first time and some are slightly out of tune. But on it goes, beatitude and benediction, season after season, year after year, through all the days of your life.
Blessed is every one that feareth the Lord;
That walketh in his ways.
2 For thou shalt eat the labour of thine hands:
Happy shalt thou be, and it shall be well with thee.
3 Thy wife shall be as a fruitful vine
By the sides of thine house:
Thy children like olive plants
Round about thy table.
4 Behold, that thus shall the man be blessed that feareth the Lord.
5 The Lord shall bless thee out of Zion:
And thou shalt see the good of Jerusalem
All the days of thy life.
6 Yea, thou shalt see thy children’s children,
And peace upon Israel.
So it is to be a Christian in the Holy Estate of Marriage. May it be so for you, Jonathan and Maggie, and may it be so for all of us, whatever season we are in, whatever crosses we must bear, whatever sins haunt and hurt us, whether we are long-married, never married, widowed, or divorced, whether we are at the beginning or the end: the Lord shall bless thee out of Zion. Amen and Amen.
In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.