When Presidential Politicians Quote Scripture Part I

When Presidential Politicians Quote Scripture

Two politicians made news this week when they quoted scripture. President Obama quoted Psalm 46 and got the interwebz all a buzz and then Wanna Be President Rick Perry tried his hand at theology with similar results.

Here’s a youtube of Obama quoting Psalms:



As these things go, it was a good reading. It was a safe choice because all of the Abrahamitic religions (Islam, Judaism, and Christianity) acknowledge the importance of Psalms. The God of Jacob is acknowledged by all three though some Muslims might prefer to say the “God of Ishmael” since they think that Ishmael was the important son of Abraham but still over all a relatively safe but bold move. If nothing else Obama is certainly causing interest in Psalm 46 as this chart shows. Over at Huffington Post , there was the usual dialogue and chatter. But what I find interesting is how the Atheists and let’s just say the “Not friendly to Religion” dismiss half the Psalm and give Obama points for his endearing qualities.

As one very critical of religion and the Bible, and most certainly against any form of religion having an influence in law or education . . . I was able to find no offense in his decision to read this particular scripture, and I did mention them somewhat in a reply below. It was the intent he had that makes it…well.­.. not really a big deal. It seems pretty clear that he was really saying that American is not going to fear those who would prefer we do otherwise, no matter how extreme the actions.

Now the President may or may not have meant what this charitable post says he meant. After all, given what the Psalm itself said, he could have just as easily “meant” other things. For instance here’s part of that passage:

Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change
And though the mountains slip into the heart of the [d]sea;
3 Though its waters roar and foam,

Maybe he meant this as a commentary on climate change. This section might be a commentary on Ancient (or if we are being “metaphorical” modern warfare):

Come, behold the works of the LORD,
[i]Who has wrought desolations in the earth.
9 He makes wars to cease to the end of the earth;
He breaks the bow and cuts the spear in two;
He burns the chariots with fire.

Which might be appropriate if America were carrying on two wars with tribes in New Guinea.The point of all this eisegesis is that to say that the President “obviously” meant anything is to to do more speculation that 30 year old day traders in their slippers after the Hong Kong exchange opens. One commenter gets this point:

It may not be important in this context (9/11), but the core, the value of Psalm 46 lies not so much in the introduction, but rather in sentence 10 “Be still, and know that I am God” This passage is probably the second most important sentence in the Old Testament.It is not be immediatel­y evident what it means, as the connotatio­n is somewhat watered down in the English translatio­n. Its meaning, however, becomes clearer in the original Hebrew (הַרְפּ֣וּ    Seize!), and more so in the Latin translatio­n of the Sacra Vulgata: cessate et cognoscite quoniam ego sum Deus. STOP [all mental activities­] and come to realize that I AM GOD! I am is the significan­ce of God, and being still is the way of recognizin­g it. Know that I am God it says,  not think that I am God. That is where Bible meets Bhagavad Gita.

Now that is as close to exegesis as the Huffpo commentators get and that sentiment can’t sit well if you are an atheist. I’ll ignore the comment about the Bhagavad Gita on “Be Still and Know” since unlike the Huffpo exegetes I won’t speculate as to what he/she meant by that. In fact if all Obama wanted to say was “We will persevere” did he really have to read that whole passage? He could have stopped with:

1 God is our refuge and strength,
A very present help in trouble.
2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change
And though the mountains slip into the heart of the sea;
3 Though its waters roar and foam,
Though the mountains quake at its swelling pride.

On the offendo meter, verses 1-3 register pretty low. Sure God is mentioned but as we saw, that can be overcome if we are willing to wax metaphorical. So all in all I give kudos where kudos are due. Whether it was a campaign move, the recommendation of a staffer or something that Barak just decided to do, it was a bold move. I wonder if any other presidential candidates decide to quote scripture if they will be extended the same charity. I’m archiving this quote from Huffpo for when someone else on the other side decides to quote some scripture:

it was his right to do so and I am not offended by his decision. I can’t prove that he himself chose it and that it wasn’t a recommendation of a speech writer or his media adviser, and I don’t want to blatantly accuse him of doing it simply as a campaign move, just worth the hypothesis­. None of that matters though. What matters is the verse he chose and read was not meant to convert anyone, not meant to condemn anyone, but for the positive attitude it evokes. And I will take it as a metaphor like I do much of the Bible. So, no issue at all. But people can still be offended by it and give their reasons as well…

Actually I don’t have to wait too long as Rick Perry has already tried his hand at a little theology but I’ll have to save that bit of commentary for next time.




When Presidential Politicians Quote Scripture Part I — 2 Comments

  1. Jonathan, thanks again for another great article.

    Psalm 46:10 has been under attack by the contemplative prayer proponents who argue that the verse indicates we should clear our mind of all mental activities, take some deep breaths, repeat a word and put our selves into an altered state of consciousness in order to hear from God. Now, Obama’s speech brings that verse to center stage again..

    What does the phrase “be still” really mean? As I read the article The commentator from the Huffington post site says it means “seize” or “stop all mental activity.”

    The Hebrew word has a range of meaning including, “to sink down, or relax.” The word is used in relation to hay sinking in flame (Is 5:24) or the sinking of the sun at the decline of day (Ju 19:9). It can refer to dropping, as in the hands from work, to relaxing or abating one’s temper (Ju 8:3) or to withdrawing, i.e. to let alone.

    The standard Hebrew lexicon, Brown, Driver and Briggs, includes Ps. 46:10 under “refrain.” When the Israelites built the golden calf, the Lord told Moses, “Let Me alone” that I may go down and destroy this people (Deut 9:13-14). In another context, we are told to “stop from anger” (Ps 37:8).

    It can also refer to refraining as in doing nothing, being quiet. When Samuel was speaking to Saul, he told Saul to be “refrain” so Samuel could tell him what the Lord had said. The English versions render it wait (NASB), stop (NIV) and stay (KJV).

    In light of the range of meaning of this word and the context of this Psalm, it does not refer to “ceasing mental activity” or to entering into any kind of altered state of consciousness. Had Saul ceased from mental activity, he would not have understood Samuel.

    In Psalm 46 the psalmist indicates that God is a refuge and a help in times of trouble. Even though the enemies of Israel were all about, the psalmist proclaimed God’s care for the nation of Israel. He would provide protection from the present, physical danger of nations seeing to kill the Jewish people and destroy the nation.

    In verse 10, the psalmist affirmed that God would provide salvation not because of Israel’s military might but because God Himself would do it.

    It is interesting that President Obama used this psalm at this time. In many ways, the situation in the Middle East is very similar to the occasion that gave rise to the psalm, with surrounding nations seeking to destroy Israel.

    The irony is that the President, who favors giving away portions of the land to the enemies of Israel, has used a psalm indicating that God Himself will protect the nation from its enemies.

    The great wrinkle in the larger picture pertains to the parallel Old Testament themes. On one hand, the disobedient nation often suffered on account of its refusal to turn to the Lord. In many cases, the Lord used the enemies of the nation to bring judgment and to turn people back to Him. On the other hand, God is faithful to his promises to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and David. He will honor his unconditional covenants even though the people are unfaithful.

    We don’t know how things will unfold in the short term, but we do know the ultimate outcome. In the midst of it all, we can trust in the Lord knowing that He will ultimately be exalted among the nations.

    The nice part is that we don’t have to go into an altered state of consciousness of cease from mental activity to know this wonderful truth.

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