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A Long Obedience in the Same Direction

by Eugene Peterson

In his book “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction”, Eugene Peterson addresses the challenges of “discipleship in an instant society” by drawing on the encouraging and timeless messages of the 15 Psalms or songs of Ascents (Ps. 120-134).

In his introduction Peterson states, “These 15 Psalms were most likely sung, possibly in sequence, by Hebrew pilgrims as they went up to Jerusalem to the great worship festivals.” (p.18)  He draws a parallel between the Hebrew pilgrims singing these psalms as they left their homes, farms and cities and made their way to Jerusalem and the Christian disciple’s faith-journey, and states that “there are no better ‘songs for the road’ for those who travel the way of faith in Christ.”

The book reminds us that our life in Christ is an incredible journey, one that presents us with many challenges, pleasures, joys, fears, and doubts – indeed a wide range of human experience and emotions.  Eugene Peterson shows us how these ancient songs so beautifully address those challenges and our needs along the way and teach us about the God who travels with us.

The writing of this book provided the impetus for Peterson to embark on the enormous task of translating, not just the Psalms, but the whole bible into everyday language, thus giving us ‘The Message’ version of the Bible.  His original motivation was that he wanted people to experience the “raw, rough and robust energy that is so characteristic” (p12) of the Psalms in their original Hebrew.  He “wanted people to start praying them again.”  (p12)  Later in the book Peterson states, “there is no literature in all the world that is more true to life and more honest than Psalms, for here we have warts-and-all religion.” (p75)

Peterson devotes a chapter to each psalm of ascents which provides a helpful study or devotional format.

Opening with Psalm 120, he reveals a theme of repentance, ‘the first word in the Christian life’ (p29).   Peterson marks this as a turning point where disillusionment with a culture of lies and malice “coupled with a longing for peace and truth can set us on (this) pilgrim path of wholeness in God”. (p25)

From here Peterson takes us on the pilgrim journey through the songs of Ascents drawing a valuable lesson for the disciple from each one while including interesting and significant background on the geography, culture and religious practices of the times.

Peterson concludes with the final psalm in the sequence, Psalm 134.  His translation of this Psalm in ‘The Message’ reads:

Come, bless God,

All you servants of God!

You priests of God, posted to the night-watch

In God’s shrine,

Lift your praising hands to the Holy Place,

And bless God.

In turn, may God of Zionbless you –

God who made heaven and earth!

He highlights the key word and thought of the psalm as, ‘Bless God, and God bless you.’  The word translated “bless” here is ‘berakah’.  With beautiful imagery Peterson shows how this Hebrew word so richly describes what God does for us and among us:  “He enters into covenant with us.”  “He pours out his life for us.”  “He shares the goodness of his spirit, the vitality of his creation, the joys of his redemption.”  “He empties himself among us and we get what he is.  That is blessing.”   “God kneels among us….  He shares himself generously and graciously.”  “The discovery and realization of this is what we know of God as good news.”  “Which ever form the blessing takes it implies an exchange of the contents of the soul.”(p191)  

There is a sense of great gratitude, joy and worship in this concluding song.  “The people who first sang this song had been travelling to Jerusalem.  They had now arrived at the temple to worship God in Festival celebration.”  “The way of a disciple that begins in an act of repentance concludes in a life of praise.”

This book provides a rich and deeply encouraging study of authentic disciple life – ‘a long obedience in the same direction’ - while also greatly enhancing our appreciation of the Psalms.  It is a thoughtful read – not to be rushed -   and as Peterson expounds the ancient and yet timeless message of these Psalms, there is an overwhelming sense that we are never alone – that God in great mercy, enters into every step of our journey “to accomplish the vast enterprise of redemption…”(p64) – His purpose in us.

Submitted by Margaret Cohen