Reflecting on the Psalms: The Hound of Heaven

The 19th Century English poet, Francis Thomson, wrote the poem The Hound of Heaven after his life had been messed up by drug addiction and poverty.

Oct 15, 2021


By Msgr James Gnanapiragasam
The 19th Century English poet, Francis Thomson, wrote the poem The Hound of Heaven after his life had been messed up by drug addiction and poverty. He speaks of running away from a God who was pursuing him like a hound in pursuit of a hare. He thought he could enjoy pleasures by escaping God, but the Divine Master finally shows that it was His love that gave chase to bring him back to the right path. Writers have compared this magnificent poem with the psalm we are about to read.

There are twelve psalms (Pss. 4, 5, 16, 23, 27, 31, 36, 49, 61, 63, 73, 139) which show that God’s relationship to Israel was so intimate that what seemed to be a brutal setting aside was actually a loving election of its people. God opens His house to welcome people into His mystery like a well-beloved host. People become His guests. Take the famous ‘Shepherd Psalm’ (Ps 23) as an example: We see the Lord as a caring shepherd who makes sure His sheep are not in want of anything. He leads them to green pastures and peaceful waters. He guides them with love and comfort. In the second part of the psalm, the Lord becomes a host giving a plentiful banquet where the guest’s cup is overflowing.

Psalms of Emmanuel God with Us. Psalm 138 (139) Week 4 Wednesday Evening Prayer This psalm is another masterpiece in the Hebrew psalter. It shows God as the one who knows all and is ever powerful in His relationship with His people.

The psalmist shows a consciousness of God’s intimate relationship with him and His ever-loving presence. God’s presence is not to instil fear in the believer but to carve out a personal union so that even in the face of calamity one will be able to build his faith in a God who is with us (Emmanuel).

This calamity happened with the destruction of the Temple, the very place where they used to experience the presence of God together as a community. They used to go up to Jerusalem three times a year for the feasts of Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles. When the Temple was destroyed, they had to rethink this faith about God’s presence. God is not just in a building but in a faithful people. Even His laws are there to show His intimate caring for His flock.

Verses 1-6: These verses show that God knows everything about a person, whether he is resting or rising, walking or lying down. He even knows the person’s intentions, his thoughts and his words. Strong words are used to show that God has fenced a person from behind and in front as if he is trapped, and God’s hand comes down hard to grasp the person. He is totally in God’s power.

Verses 7-12: The psalmist acknowledges that there is no escape for him wherever he goes. If he goes vertically up to the heavens and down to the grave (Sheol), or horizontally to the furthest east from where the dawn comes or to the furthest west where the Mediterranean is, God’s persistent gaze and guidance would follow him. God’s hand will guide him, but the right hand, the hand with power, will protect him from harm. The grasp becomes an embrace.

Verses 13-18: An emphatic “For” gives the reason, “You possessed my being (literally ‘my kidneys’), the seat of my interior and hidden life. God takes on the images of a weaver and a potter who fashions the human being. He knits and fashions the human person from the mother’s womb and from mother earth. Man’s ways are all numbered in God’s book.

Verses 19-24: The bible divides the world into righteous and wicked. The psalmist prays to be on the side of the righteous. He even prays to take the side of God against the foes. He asks God to slay the wicked (Verses 19-22 are omitted in the Prayer of the Church). And he concludes with the opening words: Lord, search me and know me, and lead me now to eternal life.

Christ must have prayed this psalm together with Israel, His people. His union with God is perfect. He experienced continually the presence of God in His life. It was during His unbearable passion on the cross that He exclaimed the words of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But faith tells us God was there! We may feel the same absence of God in our own suffering and pain. However, our union with God is achieved through Jesus’ death and resurrection, so that, as Paul tells the Athenians, “In him, we live and move and have our being”, Acts 17:28.

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