One of the lessons I’ve learned while studying scripture is to pay attention to the frequency of words being used. Most of the time, the frequent occurrence of a specific word in a passage probably indicates I should focus my attention on that word and it’s usage. But there are also times when a single word appears in isolation that my curiosity is piqued. Both of these extremes are true of words found in verses, chapters, books, as well as throughout the Bible as a whole. By studying the word and the context in which it is used, I find I am able to gain a deeper understanding of the passage than if I had ignored the word’s frequent, or infrequent, usage. Upon reading Psalm 41, the single word that stood out to me was the word blessed.
Esher, the Hebrew word for blessed, is found forty-five times in the Old Testament, twenty-five of which are in the Psalms, one of which is in Psalm 41. Even though I have written about this word elsewhere (Psalm 32: The Source of Happiness) there was something about its usage here that gave me pause. As a result, I found every usage of esher throughout the book of Psalms and recorded the focus and subject for each and found something intriguing. Esher is used twenty-four of its twenty-five times in the Psalms to describe a person in right relationship to God: blessed (esher) are those who trust God, fear God, follow God’s law, declare God is Lord, praise God’s forgiveness, and don’t follow those who don’t follow God. But in Psalm 41 this pattern of usage is not followed and esher describes the relationship between people: “Blessed (esher) are those who have regard for the weak.”
I realize it is tempting to dismiss this single use of esher in Psalm 41 as an aberration, thus making the point that blessing is a result of one’s relationship with God, but I fear such a conclusion would dismiss something quite important. If we study Jesus’ response when asked to name the greatest commandment, we will find not only does he recognize our relationship with God to be important, (“The most important one is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.”), but he also recognized our relationship to others as important (“The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”) Given this, should it be a surprise the psalmists call us blessed (esher) for both our relationship to God and our relationship to others, if Jesus, when asked for one commandment, gave two equal and inseparable commandments?
One might argue I am making a mountain out of a molehill as esher is used only once this way in the psalms. But it is just that fact, the singular usage of being blessed for having “regard for the weak”, that is the telling point for me. We are not blessed only because God has shown to us great grace and mercy, but also when we love the ones God loves: the weak, the poor, the infirm, the homeless, the widow, the orphan, and others.
I would like to conclude with two related, but seemingly divergent thoughts. First, while our salvation does not come as a result of works, (for salvation is by God’s grace alone), it is interesting to note that Matthew describes God’s final judgment on humanity in Matthew 25:31-46 as being enacted on the basis of how each person cared for the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick, and ones imprisoned. This certainly does not diminish the call to faith, in fact, I think it is just the opposite: our faith must result in our active love of others. Thus, blessing comes not from God only on the basis of how we relate to him, but also on how we relate to our fellow man, believer or not.
Secondly, it is interesting that Psalm 1, the first psalm in Book I of the Psalms, calls people blessed if they delight in the ways of God, and Psalm 41, the last psalm in Book I of the Psalms, declares people blessed who help others. These bookends are even more interesting as we read the psalms in-between and find many reasons to become self-focused: persecution, abandonment, unjust accusations, ambushes by the wicked, blindness to God’s glory, the success of the wicked, and many more.
These two bookends make me wonder if the psalmists knew our own difficult circumstances stand between our love of God and our love of others, beckoning us to look inward and away from both. If so, maybe they are the psalmist’s way of telling us being blessed has nothing to do with the events of our life, rather, we are blessed when we look outside of ourselves choosing to love God and choosing to love others.