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Tov, Lika - VM - José Verheule

Lika Tov: Psalm 139

Losing our Colours

by José Verheule

A psalm is poetry and a poem is a painting in words. What I see in Lika Tov’s image of Psalm 139 is what I hear in the words of a familiar Dutch song by Jaap Zijlstra:

Dear God, you come close to me so humbly,
in days of loss and trouble you find me.

In few psalms does God come as close as in Psalm 139. He is like a loving mother, who surrounds me with her care from my very beginning, who takes me by the hand on unknown ways and is so intimately familiar with me that I am an open book for her. And if in spite of that I still wander away or disappear from view, I don’t get grabbed roughly, but receive a gentle, inviting tap on the shoulder, as Lika Tov shows.

‘With God you are never lost to sight, no matter how high you climb or how deep you fall,’ Psalm 139 sings. For no-one is as familiar with me as the one who formed me, who has woven me in the dark safe place of the womb with colourful threads. ‘Woven in many colours,’ it says in the Hebrew, because it is a wonderful aspect of our human existence that each one of us is colourful, in a unique pattern!

However, in the dark you don’t see colour. When everything grows dark, in days of loss and trouble, life loses its colour, everything looks grey and drab. And not only life, but we ourselves also. The darkness seizes us; it gets us in its grip and swallows us, as can be seen in the black silhouette of the figure to the right in the painting. It is the ‘I’-figure from the psalm, who has been overcome by the darkness of trouble and loss: a degenerative disease, a great sadness that darkened his life and took all the colour and cheerfulness out of him.

We can see how the psalmist has become a black shadow of himself, his arms raised helplessly to heaven, groping like a blind man. At the same time, he also seems to flee into the dark. That is the treacherous character of sorrow and pain: it sends your thoughts and emotions to the dark side, which causes you continue to walk even further into the darkness and get lost. But then there is also that gentle, friendly hand on your shoulder from that translucent figure behind you, who allows the light to come through from above: ‘Here, look around, you are looking in the wrong direction: here is the light of God that shines in the darkness, into the deepest night!’

Lika Tov, the artist, shows us how everything gains in colour when God’s light breaks into the darkness. And in that light is a gentle, friendly hand that does not grab the ‘I’ of the psalm but points in an inviting way to this light from above, which the dark figure is running away from. Psalm 139 sings about God as a mother who takes pity on her child without judging it. This is a closeness without judgment that brings that healing.

And yet, it cannot stop the psalmist from making a harsh judgment, even though it is about people who make sure that a large portion of the world lives in darkness, people with blood on their hands, who even do this in God’s name. ‘Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?’ Then, when he asks God to search his heart (verse 23), it dawns on him that this judgment could come on his own head one day. Even though it is a holy indignation, it still pulls him into dark thoughts of resentment and hatred, unto a wicked way (verse 24).

‘Search me, O God, and know my heart, test me and know my anxious thoughts.’ From where does my resentment come? Is it because I can’t stand that the light does not heal all wounds? After his resurrection, Jesus also still had his wounds. The devil aims for perfection, God does not. He eases our wounds and helps us get up, also when we experience trouble and loss, so that our life and we ourselves regain colour.

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Lika Tov: Psalm 139, 2008, water colour on paper.

In 2008 Lika Tov’s book Ken mijn hart (in Dutch) on Psalm 139 was published. For each of the 24 verses the renowned Jewish artist Lika Tov made colourful illustrations.

Lika Tov was born and raised in Amsterdam, NL. She studied graphic art at the Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam. After obtaining her diploma, she emigrated to Israel. She settled in Jerusalem. During the last 50 years she has exhibited in the Netherlands, Israel, Sweden, Japan, Germany, England and North America. She has made paintings to accompany various books of the Bible and biblical themes. More information about these can be found at: http://www.likatov.info/gallerybooks.html.

José Verheule is a theologian. She took early retirement after having worked as a minister in the PKN (Protestantse Kerk Nederland) in Zaanstad. She leads church services in a care facility and teaches Dutch to refugees.

ArtWay Visual Meditation August 4, 2019