Responding to the Psalms: On Poetic Freedom

Poetry is an art and not a science. Rather than existing by virtue of agreed rules, or laws, it has conventions. The art of poetry is to obey and, at times, break these conventions. Over time, these conventions evolve and change. Some fossilise and are admired at a distance or honoured by the homage of modern poets.

The biblical psalms are many things. Above all they are poems. This comes first, ahead of any other claim on their form and content. I recently explored the implications of this for the preacher, in a short article [1]. Others have explored a psalm’s poetic nature to a fuller extent, and in a more scholarly manner [2].

The Psalms have, at times, had modern poetic conventions foisted upon them. This unhappy situation largely ended with the work of Robert Lowth (1710–1787) [3]. Lowth mercifully rescued the psalms from the anachronism of applying Graeco-Roman poetic ideals to them. This welcome outcome still left the question open as to how we moderns might inhabit and celebrate these ancient poems, given our quite different notions of poetic form. One obvious way in which the psalms are contemporised is through being set to music for corporate worship. This is generally not just a process of translation but a process of transformation too. It is commonly the case that such works not only provide rhythm but also make use of rhyming. A notable recent and accomplished example of this is Adam Carlill’s Psalms for the Common Era [4].

Such work is essential for the ongoing recovery and rediscovery of the Psalms. Valuable though this is, it is not enough. Poetry is polysemic and as such, one transposition cannot capture all its possibilities. Given these poems are Scripture we should welcome multiple translations, transpositions, and responses. Even those fluent in biblical Hebrew and culture could not leave these texts fossilised, for they inhabit the modern world, as well as the world of Second Temple Judaism (cf. Gadamer’s ‘fusion of horizons’ interpretive paradigm [5]). To make interpretation even more complex we should note that there is not even a singular ancient horizon—the psalms were written, collected, arranged, selected, and edited over hundreds of years [6].

Every translation and every setting of a psalm is a response to that psalm. They vary in freedom depending on the aims of the new poet. There is increasing freedom from strict literal translation, such as that of an interlinear, to readable translations, such as the NRSV and NIV, to paraphrases, such as The Message. The poetic freedom continues as interpreters and poets seek new poetic forms. This trajectory continues as the interpreter breaks free of any notion of representation to aim for re-presentation. Of course such responses can differ in both form and use. They are for study, prayer, sung worship, meditation, or reflection. All such attempts look to the original, and pay homage in different ways—this might range from a meaningful bow to a knowing nod.

Three examples of such responses, in alphabetical order by surname, are:

1. Maria Apichella’s Psalmody [7]. This is a response in the form of poems describing a relationship, between a secular man and a Christian woman, in which aspects of the Psalms and the Life of David are echoed.
2. Edward Clarke’s A Book of Psalms [8]. This is a personal response to each psalm. Sometimes the poetry is very close to that of the original text, sometimes beautifully and even provocatively distant.
3. Malcolm Guite’s David’s Crown [9]. Which we refer to below.

The diagram below captures something of the nature of the ‘responsorial’ freedom in translating and presenting the psalms. The scale is not meant to be linear and is presented to enable readers to reflect for themselves. The diagram reminds us that the English Bible versions, even those that are not metrical, are a step away from the original Hebrew. This is true of all attempts to translate, such as the LXX which is a Greek translation of the Hebrew text. Even today’s critical Hebrew text is a reconstruction using multiple manuscripts, of what is the best effort to match the unknowable autograph produced by the ultimate editors of the Psalter.

Responsorial Freedom diagram July 2020

Once an effort is made to not only translate but to set to music then the freedom of interpretation increases so as to make the task possible. The three responses to the psalms mentioned above are also shown on the diagram. Whilst it is easy to argue that Apichella’s work is the one that has the most freedom, and therefore distance from the biblical Psalter. There is room for debate with the other two. Let the reader make up their own mind.

To conclude this post, we turn to Malcolm Guite’s David’s Crown. This is in one sense a live project. Every few days Malcolm posts the next poem on his Blog [9]. On the day of writing he has reached Psalm 29. The complete work will be available as a full response to the Psalter when published by Canterbury Press, hopefully in early 2021. In Malcolm’s own words:

So I have begun a new series of short poems, responding freely to the daily psalms, and drawing on their leading images, as a starting point for Christian reflection. My hope is to weave these poems together into a corona, a crown or coronet of poems, the last line of each linking to the first line of the next, a chaplet of praise to garland the head of the one who wore the Corona Spina, the crown of thorns for us, and who suffers with us through this corona pandemic. [10]

His poems are indeed woven together just like that first crown of thorns. The delightful play on words links not only Christ’s suffering and Covid-19 but additionally they allude to a poetic convention. I had not heard of this convention until his project began. The convention is simply stated, but rather more challenging to deliver. Each poem in a corona, or crown, of sonnets is linked to its neighbours. This is achieved, as Guite explained above, by the closing line of one poem being identical to the opening line of the next. Fifteen sonnets linked in this way can be termed a heroic crown. I am not sure what term might be given to 150!

This remarkable project sublimely conveys the idea of convention and convention-breaking in poetry. In the first instance there is immense discontinuity in this response to the Psalter and the entity that inspired it. Each and every psalm response has the same literary form. This is clearly not the case with the original psalms. Indeed, scholars still spill ink on their categorisation. The continuity is found in some rich connections between the defining convention of a corona and some features ubiquitous in the Psalter.

The intertextual link, of identical closing and opening lines of adjacent psalm responses, is a reminder of the parallelism that is so characteristic of biblical poetry. The richness of parallelism, which goes beyond the three proposed ideals of Robert Lowth [3], is still the subject of analysis to this day [11]. This link also echoes another feature of the psalms. The biblical psalms are deliberately paired with their neighbours. This pairing takes on many forms. Sometimes it is simply through the use of headings or repeated opening and closing words. The Hallelujah Psalms, Psalm 111 to 118, exemplify this with their propensity to open or close with Hallelujah (Praise the Lord). Sometimes chiasmus is employed. A good example of this is how Psalms 1 and 2 are linked with a macarism, or blessed/happy saying, see Psalms 1:1a and 2:12. Phrases can also be used. For example, ‘holy hill’ in Psalms 2:6 and 3:4. This linking of psalms forms a continuous chain and has therefore been termed concatenation [12].

The precision of the parallelism in Guite’s project also reflects a peculiar feature of the Songs of Ascents (Psalms 120–134) which have the poignant convention of making the same statement twice. Perhaps most famously in Psalm 130:

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the morning.
Psalm 130:5–6, NRSV

I hope that many readers will join me in waiting for the complete Corona Spina that echoes not only David’s crowning glory, the Psalter, but the glory of the one who bore the crown of thorns for us all and today bears a better crown.

 

References

  1. Mark Whiting, ‘Singing a New Song’, pp.3–5, The Preacher, 178, July 2020.
  2. F. W. Dobbs-Allsopp, ‘Poetry of the Psalms’, pp.79–98 in The Oxford Handbook the Psalms, William P. Brown (editor), Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
  3. Robert Lowth, Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews, G. Gregory (translator), Andover: Codman Press, 1829 [Latin original 1753].
  4. Adam Carlill, Psalms for the Common Era: Hebrew Psalms in Modern Metrical English for Individuals, Choirs and Congregations, Independently Published, 2018.
  5. H.-G. Gadamer, Truth and Method, second edition, J. Weinsheimer and D. G. Marshall (translators), New York: Continuum, 1989.
  6. Nancy L. deClaissé-Walford, Reading from the Beginning: The Shaping of the Hebrew Psalter, Macron: Mercer University Press, 1997.
  7. Maria Apichella, Psalmody, London: Eyewear Publishing, 2016.
  8. Edward Clarke, A Book of Psalms, Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2020.
  9. Malcolm Guite. https://malcolmguite.wordpress.com/2020/06/19/corona-spina-the-crown-of-thorns-and-the-crown-of-glory-psalm-21/
  10. Malcolm Guite. https://malcolmguite.wordpress.com/2020/05/07/beatus-vir-a-reflection-on-psalm-1/
  11. Adele Berlin, The Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism, revised and expanded edition, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2008.
  12. David M. Howard, Jr, ‘Editorial Activity in the Psalter: A State-of-the-Field Survey’, pp. 52–70 in Shape and Shaping of the Psalter, J. Clinton McCann (editor), Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993, p.54.

Penitential Wisdom

Introduction
Perhaps the above title jars? In a way I hope that it does, as when we find something odd or ill-fitting it can be the start of learning something new. Of course, it might just be a fleeting move away from, and the, back towards the status quo of our understanding.

This short post arose from simultaneously questioning the very idea that biblical wisdom literature is a genuine genre and some extensive of the penitential psalms. So, where do we begin?

The Puzzle of the Penitential Psalms
The seven penitential psalms—Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143—are something of a puzzle to us today, when judged by modern genre definitions. Harry Nasuti has explored this collision of old categories with modern genres in his Defining the Sacred Songs, with helpful attention to the details of interpretative practice that span more than two millennia [1]. One insight he has is that the ancient seven psalms are more coherently defined by external factors than their content.

It is evident that the seven psalms are not of one genre in the modern sense. Two of them—Psalms 51 and 130—might be ‘penitential’ in the strictest sense if we consider a single-minded focus on asking for forgiveness from sin. In this manner Psalm 51, as is often recognised, becomes the penitential psalm par excellence [2]. Psalms 6, 38, 102 and 143 are understood today as individual laments, with other influences in some cases. Some might allow that they contain varying degrees of evidence that the psalmist is penitent. Uniquely, Psalm 32 arguably looks back on past penitence. The biggest problem for modern penitential genre is that in these psalms, the psalmist’s enemies often appear on the scene, muddying any singular concern with penitence.

This presence of enemies is just the most obvious challenge. A less stark issue, but a complexity none the less, is the difficulty in distinguishing between the psalmist’s spiritual and physical afflictions. This might be compounded by the potential for anachronism in wanting to differentiate angst from illness, based on modern distinctions. It is further obscured by what seems to be the deliberate attempt by the psalm collectors and editors to make the psalms malleable for later singers, readers, and poets to inhabit.

Luther is one interpreter who sees all afflictions, whether spiritual, health-related or enemies, as a reminder of the need for an attitude of penitence and as an opportunity for being trained in righteousness [3]. Luther’s acute interest in these psalms coheres with his profound fear of God, or anfechtungen, and a connection between Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and the seven penitential psalms.

The connection between Romans and the seven psalms is essentially a reading of these psalms from the perspective of an aspect of Pauline theology. Romans has sometimes been noted as something of a locus maximus for God’s wrath in the Second Testament. Psalms 6, 38 and 102 all refer to God’s wrath explicitly:

Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger
or discipline me in your wrath.
Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am faint;
heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony.
Psalm 6:1, NIV

Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger
or discipline me in your wrath.
Your arrows have pierced me,
and your hand has come down on me.
Psalm 38:1–2, NIV

For I eat ashes as my food
and mingle my drink with tears
because of your great wrath,
for you have taken me up and thrown me aside.
Psalm 102:9–10, NIV

The other four penitential psalms are all quoted or alluded to in Chapters 3 and 4 of Paul’s Letter to the Romans. A case could be made that Saint Paul created the tradition that gave rise to the crystallisation of these seven psalms as penitential. This tradition that can be traced from Paul through possibly Augustine (mediated by his biographer, Possidius [4]), to Cassiodorus (c.490–c.583) who identified the seven psalms explicitly [5], through connections with penance, Lent, Indulgences, and praying for dead, in the medieval period, then finally jettisoned of much baggage by Luther to arrive at the present day.

Wisdom as Fear of the Lord
When the seven psalms are read through an Pauline/Augustinian lens, or simply from the expectation they are penitential which arises from the traditional designation, then all of the ills of the psalmist are rendered as an opportunity for chastisement. In this way every angst, ailment and experience of opposition can be an opportunity for growing in spiritual maturity. This is not only an intertextual reading but by its very nature it becomes a worldview. This is a specific example of the general problem facing us moderns as we read the Bible as Scripture. How much of a space do we have for providence over scientific cause-and-effect? Do we eclipse the authors of Scripture in unseemly haste with our supposedly sophisticated view of God? This post will not answer such questions, only pose them.

Those writings that are generally termed wisdom literature—Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job—are often characterised with a call to fear Yahweh, as seen in an earlier post. Does this fear connect with the stance of the awareness of both our sinfulness and God’s wrath—in other words penitence? Our modern sensibilities cry no, as do the years of softening the ‘fear’ required to call faithfully to the Lord. The very notion jars like our title. Indeed, the title captures this notion. Just because something makes us uncomfortable does not make it right or true of course. But surely the stakes are high enough that it merits further meditation. Maybe, just maybe, our discomfort is a necessary first step in finding comfort in Jesus Christ, who now sits are the right hand of the God of holy love.

Bibliography
1. Harry P. Nasuti, Defining the Sacred Songs: Genre, Tradition, and the Post-Critical Interpretation of the Psalms (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999).
2. Susan Gillingham, Psalms Through the Centuries: Volume 2—A Reception History Commentary on Psalms 1–72 (Oxford: Blackwell, 2018) p.304.
3. Martin Luther, Luther’s Works Volume 14: Selected Psalms III, Jaroslav Pelikan (ed.) (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing, 1958).
4. Clare Costley King’oo, Misere Mei: The Penitential Psalms in Late Medieval and Early Modern England (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2012) p.4.
5. Cassiodorus, Explanation of the Psalms, Three Volumes, P. G. Walsh (translator), New York: Paulist Press, 1990.

From Hand Washing to #SyrophoenicianLivesMatter: Mark 7

As human beings we have an annoying trait of complicating what God instructs us to do. This is where Mark 7 begins, but not where it ends. At the start of the chapter it is the Pharisees who are complicating God’s instruction. In fact, Jesus will go on to explain they are doing something even worse.

Throughout Mark’s gospel, Jesus faces hostility from the religious leaders. It was not just Jesus that the leaders had it in for, Israel had a long tradition of prophets who criticised the status quo and thereby the leaders. In Jesus’ time it was still the case. Many people would announce a new teaching, usually centred on the need for political change. Then they set out to bring truth to power. Some, like Jesus, gave everything in the attempt.

Here, the Pharisees have taken some of God’s instruction (torah) and made an extra burden of tradition to go on top. The Law (torah) required priests to ritually clean their hands. This was an act of grace as it reminded them that when dealing with the Holy God of Israel a clean heart is essential.

Please note that this is not about hand hygiene—though this is the centre of our daily lives at present. As an aside, we might want to have a word with Jesus and his disciples on this count.

The accusation that the disciples have not washed their hands, is a claim that they have not obeyed the extra rules made by the Elders. These rules had been added as a burden on everyone. When you are travelling doing itinerant ministry, is not feasible to carry the necessary dedicated washing cups, pots, and bronze kettles. And Mark’s gospel makes it clear that Jesus liked his disciples to travel light.

Jesus, as a rabbi, is responsible for his disciple’s actions. At this level, the Pharisees are justified in bringing the matter to Jesus. The problem with their case is, however, twofold. Firstly, their motives are dubious. This, however, is not the point that Jesus takes up with them. The second issue is the key one. By focusing on man-made traditions these become a distraction from God himself.

Jesus quotes from Isaiah 29:13:

‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’

We must not get self-righteous at this point by spotting what we do without thinking. In my own Baptist tradition, the trinity of words: tradition, doctrine, and ritual are often unspoken and these matters judged as peripheral. We might read what Jesus says about human traditions and then go further than Jesus does.

In quoting from Isaiah, God-sanctioned tradition, Jesus is primarily pointing out that God desires true worship. He wants hearts that are set on him. At the same time, he affirms that doctrine and ritual still have a place. In the New Testament, the disciples and Jesus’ brother, James, affirm both doctrine and ritual. In the case of ritual, we still have cleansing effected baptism, we have Christ’s sacrifice proclaimed in bread and wine, and the anointing of the Holy Spirit through anointing with oil. All these are mandated by Jesus and/or the testimony of the New Testament.

Our Christian tradition makes it easier to see some things than others. Let us not abandon other commandments of God. And Let us remember that working these out requires a framework of tradition, doctrine and ritual.

Things get worse for the Pharisees as Jesus spells out why he has quoted Isaiah. He suggests that their specific traditions get in the way of God’s commands. He mentions the idea of ‘corban‘ in which something could be set apart for God. The specific issues seem to be that some where giving land and wealth, made ‘corban‘, to the religious leaders. In doing so, some then deprived their parents of the support that was their due in old age, according to the Law.

Then Jesus gets to the revolutionary bit. Jesus’s comments about the human heart, our insides, our outsides, and purity is both great teaching, spells out a bigger problem—a problem for everyone.

With reference to our basic bodily functions, Jesus explains that what we eat cannot make us unclean. This even transforms some of the commandments of the Law. This is a trajectory that enables God’s people to eat screech owl and even pig should they wish to. The repercussions of this took years to work out after Jesus death hence the editorial note in verse 19.

The counterpoint to this is that we know a person’s heart by their fruit. There is that horrible list: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. Jesus and the Pharisees are on common ground with this list. They can also agree on its root cause.

Jesus and the Pharisees agreed on ample evidence from the Scriptures that the heart is the underlying problem:

  1. God judges people on the basis of their heart, ‘for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart’ (1 Samuel 16:7, NRSV).
  2. The law acknowledges the problem of the uncircumcised heart (Leviticus 26:41).
  3. Proverbs 20:9 puts the issue as a rhetorical question: “Who can say, “I have made my heart clean; I am pure from my sin”?”

Why does he tell them what they already know? The problem is that human effort, via traditions, cannot deal with the sinful heart that we each have. Not even God’s commandments can do this. They might be a helpful bandage or provide palliative care, but they do not deal with a sinful heart. This is a bigger problem than ritual impurity over the lack of hand-washing.

Jesus does not address the problem in this encounter with the Pharisees. Remarkably in the next episode in Mark’s gospel it is a Syrophoenician women—yes, a Gentile—that perceives that Jesus is the at the centre of a game changing solution to this conundrum.

Here we enter someone’s home, the details are left out by Mark. Presumably, this is a house where Jesus has been able to get peace and quiet previously—a safe house. But his effort to get some downtime has not worked. A Syrophoenician woman gate-crashes his rest. This is a bold and desperate move; Gentiles don’t barge into Jewish homes to address a Jewish Rabbi.

It is the hope that Jesus can work a miracle that has driven her to do the unthinkable. She begs Jesus to cast a demon out of her absent daughter, left suffering at home. So far so good, our sensibilities have not been ruffled even if those of polite Jewish society have.

And then we wake up because our Lord and Saviour, our role model for life, the sinless one, the man who has just preached that we are all judged by what comes from our mouths, makes what could be understood as a racial slur. Jesus implies the common label of Gentiles as dogs in what he says to his woman. So offensive is this episode that Luke misses it out of his gospel written to a Gentile audience. 

In this tricky saying, Jesus explains that his ministry has been essentially to the Jews, and only in passing to the Gentiles. In this way, Jesus’ ministry is food for the children of Israel, and not food for Gentiles.

Are you feeling uncomfortable? Are we going to have to have take down any statues of Jesus and crosses that commemorate his death and resurrection, in a #SyrophoencianLivesMatter rampage? Is Jesus being racist?

We will of course never know Jesus’ tone, his demeanour, the possible twinkle in his eye when he said these words. What we do know is that despite alluding to the labelling of Gentiles as dogs, standard practice in his culture, his statement elicits the most remarkable response from this woman:

“Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

In this brief exchange and based on the knowledge of Jesus that brought her to a strange Jewish house, she has understood what the Pharisees with all their hand-wringing and hand-washing have missed. She has seen that Jesus’ work starts with Jews but is the hope of all humanity. She is pleading that this might begin right here and right now with her daughter. Her faith and courage are rewarded:

Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

This remarkable new understanding of Jesus’ work is the start of Mark’s Gospel revealing that he in his deeds and his person he will address the bigger problem of the heart. Both Jew and Gentile will have the possibility of a circumcised heart as Leviticus puts it.

Praying the Psalms by Thomas Merton

Having actively prayed and studied the Psalms regularly for more than fifteen year, I have been meaning to read Merton’s small book for much of that time. For some reason, his work has taken a long time to work its way to the top of my reading list. This is odd because this book has been mentioned to me positively on a number of occasions.

Thomas Merton (1915–1968) was an American Cistercian. Unusually for a twentieth century monk he become a household name in the late 1940 to late 1960s. This fame was in part because he was a prolific writer—author of more than fifty books. His autobiography, Seven Story Mountain (1948), is said to have motivated many young Americans to turn to the monastic life. He was also a poet and social activist—his writings often reflected the latter. He was very active in dialogue with followers of Eastern religions with a strong meditative and mystical dynamic. In this respect he was a pioneer, as few Catholic monks had ever attempted such wide-ranging and open-ended interfaith discussions.

It will be clear as you pick this book up, from its diminutive size and mere 45 pages, that it is not going to be a thoroughgoing introduction to the Psalter. So, what do we find in these pages?

The book opens with the question, ‘Why has the Church always considered the Psalms her most perfect book of prayer?’ (p.7). His answer is a one of ressourcement. He argues that rather than being old they are young: ‘we drink divine praise at its pure and stainless source, in all its primitive sincerity and perfection’ (p.7). Because of this the psalms are the means to full participation in the liturgy and the deepening of the interior life (p.9).

The next section considers what it means that the Psalms teach us how to praise (p.10). He concludes that this requires us to be simple, that is to set aside our modern tastes and prejudices and to ‘be, to some extent, “Orientals”’ (p.12). He goes on to explain, following Augustine, that we are united with Christ as we pray the psalms contemplatively (p.14). He then develops this further, calling all Christians, clergy and lay, to use the Psalms daily (pp.15–19).

Merton claims that few really appreciate the psalms. This

small minority, consists of those who know by experience that the Psalms are a perfect prayer, a prayer in which Christ prays in the Christian soul uniting that soul to the Father in Himself. They have entered into the Psalms with faith. They have in a sense “lived” out the meaning of some of the Psalms in their own lives. They have tasted and seen that the Lord is sweet. Or, indeed, they have been privileged to share with Him the chalice of His Passion (p.21).

The latter half of the book briefly examines some key psalms. Merton gives priority to Psalm 1 because he sees the call to delight in the law (Psalm 1:2) as a call to pray the Psalter. Other psalms are mentioned in groups which accord to their mood and approximate to form-critical groups.

Finally, we must ask, what value is there in reading this short book? For anyone already convinced of the spiritual value of the Psalms this book does little more than rehearse in eloquent outline what they already know. It will be valuable to those who have an interest in Merton or still need convincing of the spiritual value of the Psalms today.

The Breath of Life: Acts 2

1. The Invisible
This post is dedicated to George Floyd who had the breath of life taken from him in horrific circumstances on 25th May 2020.

I am something of a fan of the works of J. R. R. Tolkien. For me, his book the Lord of the Rings is a masterpiece. One of the reasons for this judgement is that, like the Bible, it has a richness and depth. There is a sense that behind it lies something remarkable and mysterious. Of course, with the Lord of the Rings this is the life-long musings and imagination of its author. With the Bible it is the inspiration and providential hand of an author of a very different type—the Holy Spirit.

One of Tolkien’s most remarkable creations is the creature Gollum. He is known to many of us more recently as acted and voiced by Andy Serkis in Peter Jackson’s films. Gollum appears briefly in Tolkien’s The Hobbit. For most of his appearance he plays a game of riddles with the Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins. This is a game with serious consequences. If Bilbo wins, Gollum will lead him to safely out of the maze of dark dank tunnels beneath the Misty Mountains. If Gollum wins? Let us put it this way he won’t go hungry for quite some time.

One of the riddles from this serious game reads:

This thing all things devours:
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats high mountain down.

Like all riddles when we have the answer it is obvious. The answer for this riddle is time.

A number of the riddles in The Hobbit concern things that are invisible. Reminding us that just because something is not visible it does not mean it is not real. A virus can only be seen with an electron microscope, but we knew they were real before the microscope was invented because of their effect. Some things are invisible not because of their small size but because of their very nature. Time is of course like that. We are literally in it and cannot perceive it directly although we can measure it physically with great precision, for example with the National Physical Laboratory’s atomic clock. Or we can measure it spiritually and emotionally as we number our days on this earth.

Another riddle from the Hobbit is much closer to the Pentecost story.

Voiceless it cries,
Wingless flutters,
Toothless bites,
Mouthless mutters.

The answer this time is wind. Seen not by its nature but by its effect. The half-mast flag waving in the breeze marking the tragic death of George Floyd, the scene of devastation after a tornado, or more pleasantly the slowly drifting smoke rising above the first post-lockdown family barbecue.

This is how it is with the Spirit of God. We perceive his work by consequences not because we can perceive him directly. In Acts 2 we can see the Spirit indirectly as language is employed at near breaking point. There is a wind—’a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house’. There are flames—’They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them’. We are left puzzling over how literally we understand these metaphors, which are an attempt to describe the indescribable. There are languages too as the disciples speak other tongues—another sign of the invisible Spirit.

2. A New Beginning
In reading this passage we already know it marks a new beginning for God’s people. It is the birth of the Church, although at the time it might well have felt like a renewal of Judaism.

As the birth of the Church, or the rebirth of God’s people, it echoes the birth of the biblical Israel. Their leader Moses experienced wind and fire on Mont Sinai. The whole nation saw a pillar of fire by night and a cloud by day which they followed.

It is not just the wind and flames that show this to be a new beginning—the birth of something wonderful. It is what has just happened over the previous 50 days, or so, and what happens next. The cross, the resurrection, and the ascension of Jesus have redefined the hope for a messiah. Jesus is the messiah. He fulfils the promise but redefines it too. This Jesus Christ is now seated at the right hand of God.

And what he said just before his ascension, unfolds on the Day of Pentecost:

He said to them: ‘It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’

After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.
Acts 1:7–9, NIVUK

The sermon that follows the wind and flames fulfils Jesus’ words of ten days earlier. It fulfils promises from the Book of Joel, just as Jesus’ death and resurrection fulfils the Psalms. This is all explained in Peter, the Fisher of Men’s first sermon.

So, what is this power imparted by the Holy Spirit? The word ‘power’ in our English translation is dunamis which gave its meaning to dynamite—this is serious power. What dynamite have we the Church been given as Christ pours out his Spirit?

This is a controversial topic because so often the Church has sought power of an all too earthly a nature. The first point we should note is that this power is sent by the one whose best expression of the grace we need, was surrender to death on a cross. We would do well to remember this and to be cautious that this power is not to be equated with military might. It is not coercive in any sense. It was after all, for freedom that Christ has set us free. We are no longer to be slaves to a yoke of slavery.

3. To the Ends of the Earth
The subject of the Holy Spirit is a divisive one, which for me is the saddest and most horribly ironic aspects of the worldwide church. Where Jesus’ Spirit is really at work, we would expect walls to come down. That is of course exactly what happened on that first Pentecost. Jews—the people of Israel—had been scattered across the whole of the Roman Empire because of their persecution at the hands of first the Greek Empire and then the Roman occupiers of their nation. The list in Acts 2 is comprehensive. It is as if God’s people have all been re-gathered in Jerusalem to be made one people again. The festival of Pentecost was a time when many scattered Jews made a pilgrimage to the City of Peace Jerusalem. It is God’s timing that people are in Jerusalem from the ends of the earth.

What they witness and take part in is a reconstitution of the scattered people of God. But now the rules have changed, in the freedom of Christ and the freedom of the Spirit. Now Gentiles get admitted to the people of God. This is after all the mission that Jesus gave to his disciples before he ascended:

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’
Acts 1:8, NIVUK

Here in Acts 2 we are in Jerusalem with representatives of the nations, and by the end of the Book of Acts the gospel is set firmly on its way to the ends of the earth.

Church History reveals the most remarkable divergence in how this work unfolds. And on occasions Church History reveals events in which we struggle to see God’s work being done. At one extreme there can be the deadness of dry empty institutional religion. At the other can be the theatre of the televangelist or fundamentalist personality cult. Both belittle the true power and the real life to be found in God’s word through God’s Spirit.

Closer to home it is all too easy for us to mistake our words for God’s and our desires for the prompting of God’s Spirit. May we never be a church in which anyone claims to have heard the Spirit’s voice as a trump card to stifle other voices.

4. We Are All in This Together
One thing we can note from that first Christian Pentecost is that the disciples were all in it together. The eleven of them together have had the same message from Jesus and the same Spirit poured out upon them. But they like us are still distinct individual people. Only one of their number had to preach on that day. Doubtless as they set about dealing with the three thousand new converts that day, they each used their different abilities. We can but use our imagination, think of all the conversations and practical matters that are needed to cope with 3,000 new disciples.

As Christ’s Body we are all in God’s mission together but we each have different tasks. We can depend on each other. We know that no one person exudes spirit-inspired hospitality, bakes superb cakes, has evangelistic talents for reaching 2 year-olds and the over eighties, leadership wisdom, the gift of healing, administrative excellence, talent with the flute, speaks in tongues, can calculate doses of radiation to heal people, performs worshipful dance, builds PA systems, calculates budgets, makes great coffee, casts out demons, and leads prize-worthy contemplative prayer.

We are not called to be Jesus as individuals! We are the body of Christ together. We nurture our own gifts and look to encouraging others with theirs.

5. Good News
The Gospel is a message of good news. It was Isaiah who coined the term ‘good news’ or evangelion from which we get the terms evangelism and evangelical. Isaiah’s’ words—from what some call the fifth gospel—has enormous resonance with the Pentecost story:

How beautiful on the mountains
are the feet of those who bring good news,
who proclaim peace,
who bring good tidings,
who proclaim salvation,
who say to Zion,
‘Your God reigns!’
Listen! Your watchmen lift up their voices;
together they shout for joy.
When the Lord returns to Zion,
they will see it with their own eyes.
Burst into songs of joy together,
you ruins of Jerusalem,
for the Lord has comforted his people,
he has redeemed Jerusalem.
The Lord will lay bare his holy arm
in the sight of all the nations,
and all the ends of the earth will see
the salvation of our God.
Isaiah 52:7–10, NIVUK

Peter of course tells the Good News in his Pentecost sermon.

Preaching the gospel rarely looks like this for us of course. One of the biggest challenges of the modern Western church is how to preach the good news. The days of mission tents are long gone, here in the UK. As humans we want things to be simple but reaching people today with the good news is not simple. Not simple, if by simple we mean a big organised event with immediate fruit. And yet on the other hand it can be simple. We are all free in the Spirit to dream dreams. This is the promise of the Prophet Joel, the promise of Pentecost, the good news enabled by the Spirit.

Each of us needs to understand our gifts and our priorities before God. If we honour God with our Spirit-inspired gifts and give him back some of our time we will find ways to show the gospel and to speak it. It might not look tidy and neat. And it is of course only when we work together that the good news can be heard in all its richness.

The biggest challenge for Church Leaders is to enable us to nurture the loving organic relationships which is where so often the Spirit blows and fires up hearts.

How can we achieve together appropriate space and time in which the gospel can be heard and responded too?

Pray for your friends and the Spirit’s leading. Pray for your church leaders and the Spirit’s leading.

I will finish by praying Psalm 126 (The Message version) which has long been my prayer for our church. Maybe it could be a prayer for yours too?

It seemed like a dream, too good to be true,
when God returned Zion’s exiles.
We laughed, we sang,
we couldn’t believe our good fortune.
We were the talk of the nations—
“God was wonderful to them!”
God was wonderful to us;
we are one happy people.

And now, God, do it again—
bring rains to our drought-stricken lives
So those who planted their crops in despair
will shout hurrahs at the harvest,
So those who went off with heavy hearts
will come home laughing, with armloads of blessing.

An Enarratio of Psalm 2: Behold God’s Anointed

This post follows on from an earlier post: An Enarratio of Psalm 1: Behold the Man. This is therefore the second in what is an experiment which asks what we miss with modern biblical criticism and what we can gain by sympathy with some aspects of Augustine’s interpretive paradigm for reading the Psalms. It bears the name Enarratio to echo Augustine’s remarkable and massive Enarrationes in Psalmos, or Expositions of the Psalms. Like this great work this allusion is an exposition not a scientific exegesis. It reads the psalms through post-Easter spectacles; declaring that without such spectacles our reading will be short-sighted.

 

Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain? A rhetorical question? Well perhaps, but only because the answer is written so clearly across the pages of several thousand years of history. Even in prehistory, at Babel, the nations conspired with a skyscraper to reach to the heavens. In our days, skyscrapers mark the competition between nations—vanity projects that are also in vain. The question could be restated: When did the nations not conspire? Has there ever been a time when the leaders of the nations conspired not against God but for peace? Over millennia, projects and prospects of hope arise as nations gather to aspire to something good. Only for them to fracture into groups to conspire once again.

The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed, saying, ‘Let us break their chains and throw off their shackles.’ Why do they rebel? How can they know better than the almighty? Is it that they ‘know not what they do?’. God’s anointed have always been fragile because they are one-and-all, frail men and women. So frail that the first king anointed in Israel rose up against God. Saul never grew from the time we first see him in the scriptures—failing in his task of donkey hunting. In throwing off imagined constraints he was imprisoned by bad choices. He was replaced by a less likely anointed one—the least likely of eight sons. This anointed one founded a royal line of anointed ones. An anointed son, with a heart that God saw was committed to agape despite its proneness to unrestrained eros. This son, this first David, faced threats from would be kings in God’s own nation, as well as the kings of nations all around. This son was a foretaste of The Son—blessed David redux. For though David’s anointing was most obviously as king, on some occasions he was also priest. He also made both music and song. He turned out to be not just a poet inspired by the muses, but a prophet inspired by the Spirit.

The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them. God’s first move is merriment and how could it be otherwise? The nations abuzz with plots are like angry bees, but in their mortality, they have no sting that can harm the immortal. The one in heaven’s laughter is not an attempt at provocation but just the uncontainable mirth at the ridiculous idea that there could ever be enough creatures to overthrow the Creator.

He rebukes them in his anger and terrifies them in his wrath, not because of any churlishness or delight in such a sad reality. The freedom of God, rejected and misread as chains, gives all kings, indeed all people, a digital choice. Free to choose the way of delight in instruction, or the way of making new rebellious rival rules. How can God not be angry and wrathful? Though we struggle with such stark anthropomorphic metaphors. Why is it we question God’s right to wrath when in the same breath we decry that we cannot see his hand at work amidst the nations now? God’s hand is stayed at present because he has granted freedom, but a day must come when justice is done.

And yet, there is so much more before the day of anger because we hear him speaking not words of judgement and doom but saying, ‘I have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain.’ The first David meted out judgement but the ultimate incumbent on the throne of God’s holy mountain does something new. His installation was the antithesis of coronation splendour. His crown was of thorns. His robe was nakedness. His hands could grip no ruling rod of iron because they were held open with metal of a sharper form, to welcome one-and-all.

The first David, at his hard-earned investiture heard the priests recite this liturgy: I will proclaim the Lord’s decree:

He said to me, ‘You are my son;

    today I have become your father.

Other kings and other sons of this Davidic line heard the same words. Like a microcosm of all humanity some of them believed these words, some did not. For a time, the line appeared to be broken and the promise lay all but dead. But then came a voice of one calling in the desert who pointed at a man from Galilee. This stonemason, already destined to be a cornerstone, chose to be anointed in the river Jordan. He knew that his baptism there in water was but a foretaste of a baptism in blood when finally he would come to Zion’s holy hill. In days gone by, David’s line were proclaimed as kings by bearded priests. This final Son, who is both first and last, heard the Lord’s decree spoken from heaven by the Spirit: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’ Words of mission and purpose received with joy, whilst being anointed in river water.

Ask me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession. The first David and his son founded a nation which seemed to honour and fulfil these words—at least in their own eager eyes. David redux knew this promise too. So awesome was the awakening of his baptism that he went into the desert like his people of old. Once there, another promised him the ends of the earth as his possession, but he did not bow the knee to that ancient serpent.

You will break them with a rod of iron; you will dash them to pieces like pottery.’ Though there is an immense time between his anointing and his execution of full authority, that Day will come. Though such language might be misheard as a sign of pique this is instead the best balance of mercy and justice in a creation of freedom and of love.

Therefore, you kings, be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth. We can but hope they will hear and obey. O that they might Serve the Lord with fear and celebrate his rule with trembling. There are all too few signs that they will. No indication that they will hear this wise saying: Kiss his son, or he will be angry and your way will lead to your destruction, for his wrath can flare up in a moment. So finally, we are called to remember that this a song not just for kings. We can all heed its closing wisdom, for Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

 

The Voice of the Good Shepherd is Blowin’ in the Wind

‘I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me – just as the Father knows me and I know the Father – and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheepfold. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.
John 10:14–16, NIVUK

I have been working at home for around nine weeks now. I am missing all the chance conversations I used to have with my work colleagues. I miss the ongoing joke with the painter and decorator about my twin brother that no one else understands. I miss the encouragement of a friend very much on my wavelength. I miss the exchange of little snippets of life that connects my story to that of others.

There are a handful of colleagues whose conversation I do not miss so much—the handful of cynics who turn everything sour. These are the small number of people who turn anything good to dust. Being cynical is easy—I know I have tried it. Of course, sometimes being cynical is wise when we have seen how certain things operate, especially when they involve people and power. But being cynical is an unhappy state. It is a surrender to fate. It is a denial of new possibilities. It is contrary to the vitality and new life afforded by the gospel.

Our brokenness and frailty can give us a default setting to cynicism. We see this in casual ways. We make children embrace drawing, painting, stories, drama, and poetry, but often deny these things any role or influence over us as adults. These creative, imaginative, and reflective things all take time. And we have bought into the lie that we are time poor when we have more time at our disposal than at any previous time in history.

Being a Christian does not immunise us from the malaise. Often we have little time for stories about sheep, bad shepherds, the Good Shepherd, gates, and green pastures. We have been there and done that. The poetic seems too vague and idealistic—we do not have time in our schedule for these things.

But if we do not embrace story and imagery, we have little left of what God has given us in the Bible. The Bible is not a list of propositions for adults who have graduated from stories and poems. It tells us about God, about ourselves, and about how Jesus Christ makes a relationship with God possible. It does this in imagery, in stories, and in poetry. We live in the Information Age. We must not mistake information, for understanding, or wisdom, or the possibility of spiritual growth. We must not embrace the information deception, in which facts eclipse imagery and story. I was found by God when I heard the story of the crucifixion. I was saved when I understood a poetic parable about a vineyard.

The ‘facts’ of our faith are of course important, but rather short and to the point. You can catch them in a good creed. But these propositions are just the dry roots of our relationship with God, not its end. They require feeding if they are to enable our growth. We are changed and transformed on our pilgrimage to God by the richness of the biblical story and its intersection with our own. The Bible is full of stories, imagery, metaphor, and poetry.

Or, to switch images, we are sheep following a shepherd. We are journeying through mixed pasture with a shepherd to a final green pasture. The picture of God as the Good Shepherd is just one of a huge variety of images. But it is a biggie. We find it in Psalm 23, the book of Jeremiah, the book of Ezekiel, in Zechariah, in different ways in all four gospels, and in Peter’s First Letter. And as someone who I admire, called Jason Byassee, once said “We do well to listen when the Bible talks to itself.”

In Ezekiel we read a prophecy about Jesus:

I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd. I the Lord will be their God, and my servant David will be prince among them. I the Lord have spoken.
Ezekiel 34:23–24, NIVUK

This is God promising to send the messiah, the New David, to be the shepherd of his people. Just a few verses before this we hear God promising that he himself will be the shepherd:

I will tend them in a good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel will be their grazing land. There they will lie down in good grazing land, and there they will feed in a rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will tend my sheep and make them lie down, declares the Sovereign Lord. I will search for the lost and bring back the strays.
Ezekiel 34:14–16a, NIVUK

These words from Ezekiel are the foundation of the familiar story of the feeding of the 5,000. Where we read:

So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place. But many who saw them leaving recognised them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.
Mark 6:32–34, NIVUK

A few verses later, Jesus does what Ezekiel promised:

Then Jesus told them to make all the people sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to his disciples to distribute to the people. He also divided the two fish among them all. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces of bread and fish. The number of the men who had eaten was five thousand.
Mark 6:39–44, NIVUK

This is all ‘very nice’, but in all this talk of sheep, shepherds, and green grass, we are in danger of missing something. Because of our wet climate and experience of the English countryside and fluffy well-kempt sheep, all these stories and images becomes sickly sweet and as pointless as a poster of sheep in a field in Somerset with the words ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’ stuck on it.

Even in this serene story it is not all pastoral idyll and tenderness. The people with Jesus have walked many miles—there is nothing to eat. This is no miracle done only so Jesus can be the David Blaine of the first century. This is provision of their greatest need—a meal so they have the energy, having not eaten all day, to make their way back home across many miles.

In the wider accounts of the Good Shepherd we need to appreciate that a Good Shepherd is the difference between life and death. A Good Shepherd is the only chance the sheep have of surviving the night! In the first century there were no walls or fences keeping predators out – the shepherd is the only hope for being alive in the morning. This is why the Good Shepherd will go out looking for the one missing sheep.

Psalm 23 can also be misheard as a rural niceness:

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.

But the same first century Palestine realities lie on the background. As a sheep you would very quickly lack everything. You need a shepherd to protect you from predators to guide you to safe water and good pasture. You wouldn’t know the right path without this sure guide.

Martin Luther expressed it like this in 1536:

A sheep must live entirely by its shepherds help, protection and care. As soon as it loses him, it is surrounded by all kinds of dangers and must perish, for it is quite unable to help itself. The reason? It is a poor, weak, simple little beast that can neither feed nor rule itself, nor find the right way, nor protect itself against any kind of danger or misfortune. Moreover, it is by nature timid, shy and likely to go astray. When it does go a bit astray and leaves its shepherd, it is unable to find its way back to him; indeed, it merely runs farther away from him. Though it may find other shepherds and sheep, that does not help it, for it does not know the voices of strange shepherds. Therefore it flees them and strays about until the wolf seizes or it perishes some other way.

Of course, we know the Psalm is not an idyll:

Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.

The Good Shepherd is not good because he hides us from trouble, hardship, and death. He is the Good Shepherd because he is our guide and our comfort in the midst of all life’s challenges. He is there leading on the path even when it goes places, we’d rather it didn’t. I sometimes feel that the cynical are those who have unknowingly chosen to make their home in the valley of the shadow of death.

Returning to the opening words from John:

I have other sheep that are not of this sheepfold. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.

As Gentiles we have been let into the sheepfold that is home to all God’s people. We are called to listen to his voice. The voice of Jesus is not a one-off reality in our lives, though of course there is that first day when metaphorically we hear him.

How do you listen to his voice? What space and time do we make for this? There are so many competing voices. The needs of family and friends. Our own internal voice. The news that seems like Groundhog Day at the moment. The froth of Facebook. The insanity of Twitter. How many voices do we have to choose from?

For some of us the current situation means a possibility of more time to hear our Lord. It is a test in some ways. When asked what we did in an Age of Covid-19 what will our answer be. Will it be binge-watching TV? Or might it be the time we came before God to hear his voice—a time of quietness by still waters before our Shepherd? Might it be the time we ensured we were on the path looking ahead to follow our guide to put ourselves close enough to him to hear his voice?

Amidst so many voices clamouring for our waning attention it can be like being in a Bob Dylan song.

Yes, and how many times can a man turn his head
And pretend that he just doesn’t see?

Yes, and how many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky?

Yes, and how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?

The true voice of the shepherd is blowin’ in the wind. The still small voice of the Spirit is there to be heard if we just turn off the other voices for a time.

 

Reference

The quote from Luther comes from his Exegesis of Psalm 23 at Table, Luther’s Works Volume 12, Muhlenberg Press, 1955.

Life Understood Backwards

Looking Back
The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard claimed that “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

The experience of the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus was something like this. How could they understand Jesus’ life at its end? Even at the end did it make sense? Cleopas and the other, unnamed disciple have not understood Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection. We do not know how much time they spent with Jesus—it is clear they are not among the eleven disciples. But they certainly knew enough to be disappointed. He was not the deliverer they had hoped for. They, like many, wanted a Messiah who was a military redeemer. A messiah like David in every sense. An anointed leader who would defeat the occupying Romans just as David had tackled Goliath and the Philistines.

The one they had begun to think might be God’s anointed ruler had died shamefully on a cross. A remarkable man in many ways, but in the end as frail as any other. And now the women claimed his body was gone. More than that, they also said they had seen angels announcing that he was alive.

These events lived forwards made no sense to these two followers. Jesus was a man who taught with authority, healed the sick, and cast out demons. Jesus was welcomed into Jerusalem like a king. And then it all turned sour. These two disciples had apparently given up on the one they had been following. They had left Jerusalem for Emmaus and presumably were returning to their old lives.

But they encounter the risen Jesus, although they do not know this at first. This meeting is a revelation—a revealing in two stages. They experience a progressive understanding of who Jesus is. They will come to understand Jesus’ life.

First Jesus makes them look back as they journey together. They simultaneously look back on the life of Jesus and the work of God in the Old Testament. The Risen Jesus does the most remarkable thing. He combines his story with the story of the Hebrew Scriptures. Read through Jesus, the Hebrew Scriptures become the First Testament to his life, his death, and his resurrection. Jesus is the fulfilment of the Hebrew scriptures.

The second stage of unveiling is a more personal encounter that goes beyond explanation. It is an opening of their eyes. They literally see the risen Christ. They had started out lost on the road, but now were found. They had been blind but now they could see.

Our Conversion
We are unlikely to have had the same type of encounter with the risen Christ as the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. But there is likely to be some similarity. I remember at the age of seventeen finding out more about Jesus and the Bible. I had seen lots of the bits and pieces of the gospel but struggled to put it all together. I still needed my eyes to be opened. I can remember two distinct moments when Jesus suddenly made more sense. The first was a bit like the two disciples on the road having things explained to them. My Emmaus road was a tent, in Margate, where the crucifixion was explained in rather graphic detail to me, and several hundred others. This converted my brain and my conscience. I went forward knowing that my life was never going to be the same again.

Just a few days later I had the second step of eye opening—only possible because of the first. I was reading the Parable of the Tenants in Mark 12 and my heart was converted. My heart burned at that moment like the experience of those two disciples. I understood at a heart level just what it meant that God had sent prophets to speak of him. Prophets who were beaten and killed. I understood at the heart level that he sent his own Son that we might know him. Only for him to suffer the same fate. It was as though Jesus was there with me, unpacking the Law and the Prophets—refreshing me as the bread of life with a meal.

Knowing Jesus in this way does not mean that the rest of our lives suddenly make complete sense. But it is a start. Much still happens in my life that I do not understand. Things have happened to me and my family which I wish had not. But in Christ I trust that in the end it will make sense. The times of pain and trial will be found to have some benefit or important consequence. If we have met Jesus on our Road to Emmaus we can find him too in our Valley of the Shadow of Death. The poet B M Franklin puts is this way:

My life is but a weaving
Between my Lord and me;
I cannot choose the colors
He worketh steadily.

Oft times He weaveth sorrow
And I, in foolish pride,
Forget He sees the upper,
And I the under side.

Not til the loom is silent
And the shuttles cease to fly,
Shall God unroll the canvas
And explain the reason why.

The dark threads are as needful
In the Weaver’s skillful hand,
As the threads of gold and silver
In the pattern He has planned.

Our Ongoing Experience of Christ
In the Emmaus story the two disciples do something simple. They have a meal with Jesus—they break bread with him. It is no surprise that it was at the breaking of bread that their eyes were opened, and they recognised that the man before them is the risen Lord Jesus. Less than a week earlier Jesus has broken bread and explained that his body must be broken. These two disciples would surely have heard about this odd teaching.

Almighty God does not fix his broken creation and broken relationships with a display of power and might. He does the unthinkable—Jesus lays down his life for his friends. One of the most frustrating things about our distance from one another because of Covid-19 is the fact that we cannot gather, and worse still that we cannot eat bread and drink wine, and remember Christ together. As the body of Christ, we are meant to meet together.

In our distance from each other let’s be reminded of the privilege of meeting together so that we can make the best of that day when we join one another again. Let’s remember that puzzle that we are in a mysterious sense the body of Christ.

Scattered we might be, but we are still united in Christ.

A Call to Passion for Christ
The two disciples have their hearts kindled by Jesus. A mixture of joy that he was not dead and a revelation of what he had accomplished in the twin events of cross and resurrection.

How can we kindle that flame afresh—that same passion and conviction in Christ that we have tasted before? There are obvious answers of course, such as prayer and Bible reading. But in the spirit of the gospel, and to keep the light alive in us, reaching out to our fellow disciples is vital. As members of his body our concern should be with the health of all.

Jesus came that we might have life and have it to the full. Circumstances prevent us meeting to celebrate together. This does not mean we retreat and just wait for a better time. A crisis like this, it tests our depth in Christ. Being united and encouraged in Christ can be as simple as a phone call, a text message, a card, or a good old-fashioned letter. Some of us might be called to heroics if we are on the front-line but for most of us we need to do the small things that show love and concern. George Eliot expresses it will in her novel Middlemarch:

“..for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

Many of the blessings we can bring to one another, even at this time, are unremarkable. But these things not only achieve good now they echo in eternity as the lives of disciples of Jesus lived well. A crisis is just the time when we need some gospel purpose, when we need to show love, kindness, and generosity. Encouraging one another, listening to one another, taking time to do something for one another is part of living the gospel—it is the ongoing re-creation of proper relationships in Christ Jesus.

It is not just our fellow Christians that need encouragement. In these odd times all sorts of questions are in people’s minds. Many people are asking questions about life and death, not so different to those asked by Cleopas and his friend.

Our lives do not make much sense lived forward. How much more is this the case for those who do not know Christ? There are likely to be people you know who are lonely. If nothing else, you can remedy this for a few minutes. There are almost certainly people you know who are fearful. Well, you can listen. There are very likely people you know who are asking questions. Your effort to reach out to them might be the only answer they get.

We believe in the priesthood of all believers we can all use this time to connect with others.

Loving One Another Makes Sense
The act of reaching out to someone is a small step in making sense of life. The strengthening of relationships is a natural consequence of the gospel. Simple acts of love will strengthen both parties and strengthen the body, the fellowship of believers.

The one certainty of understanding our lives is that where there is love this is where they most readily make sense.

The ‘Corona test’ asks of us all how much we love. If we have not love we are, as the Apostle Paul says, a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. Love sings a better song. Don’t wait for someone else to connect.

Jesus tells a parable in Matthew’s gospel which tells us how our lives will make sense in the end when we meet him face-to-face:

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

Matthew 25:34–40, NIV

Ian J. Vaillancourt’s ‘The Multifaceted Saviour of Psalms 110 and 118’: A Book Review

Ian J. Vaillancourt, The Multifaceted Saviour of Psalms 110 and 118: A Canonical Exegesis, Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2019

Given this book’s subtitle it will come of no surprise that the canonical approach is at the heart of this book. What might be less obvious is just how wide-ranging this work is given its apparent focus on just two psalms. The central aim of this review, therefore, is to highlight its importance to anyone interested in the ongoing development of canonical criticism of the Psalter.

The early pages of this book rehearse a story that will surely be familiar to anyone choosing to read this volume. This account of the origins of canonical criticism is told concisely and with refreshing clarity. The genesis of the ‘new’ interpretive paradigm for psalms studies, with the work of Brevard Childs, is explained along with an acknowledgement of others who pointed in a similar direction before him. The work of Gerald Wilson who explored ancient Near Eastern parallels to the Masoretic Psalter, and more fully unpacked so many of the areas that Childs highlighted, is introduced with equal verve. Vaillancourt focuses on a key aspect of Wilson’s understanding of both the formation and form of the Psalter—the distinction, at the macrostructural level, between Books I, II, and III of the Psalter, on the one hand, and Books IV and V, on the other (pp.19–24). It is not that Vaillancourt fundamentally disputes that there are both diachronically and synchronically-based distinctions between these two ‘halves’. Rather, the disagreement lies over whether the editors of Books I, II, and III had distinctly different conceptions of the future role of the king than those who edited Books IV and V. These different views make for different readings of the significance of Psalm 89, which closes Book III. Wilson famously saw Psalm 89 as the final death knell for a hope in a future Davidic king. For Wilson, at least in the majority of his work, Books IV and V tell a story that side-lines the Davidic king in favour of a return to pre-monarchical reliance on Yahweh and his torah (pp.21–24). Vaillancourt wants us to reconsider this—to be open, as it were, to a further plot twist in the story of the promised anointed one.

Vaillancourt considers a raft of scholars who have built on Wilson’s approach. He singles out J. Clinton McCann Jr., Nancy deClaissé-Walford, Erich Zenger, Bernard Gosse, Martin Leuenberger, Egbert Ballhorn, James Luther Mays, David M. Howard Jr., and Michael K. Snearly. He helpfully distinguishes their different assessments of the nature of the human saviour figure portrayed in Book V of the Psalter. His assessment culminates in the conclusion that there are essentially five distinguishable conceptions of this figure in Book V. These five views are held by eleven (Childs and Wilson are added to the other nine) major scholars of the canonical approach. The nuance and complexities are such that four of these scholars see the key figure conceptualised in two of the five categories concomitantly. This provides the context in which Vaillancourt develops his hypothesis that Psalms 110 and 118, viewed in canonical context, provides an array of evidence that there is still an expectation within Book V of the Psalter of a future salvific figure—Vaillancourt’s point is that previous scholars have missed his multifaceted nature. One, of the many, interesting points made by the author as he unpacks Psalms 110 and 118 is that form criticism’s inability to perceive Psalm 118 as a royal psalms has been a barrier to appreciating just how important is the eschatological expectation of the anointed figure to the theology of Book V (p.130).

A large part of Vaillancourt’s argument centres on his claim that confusion has arisen because of the variety of facets that belong to this one figure. It might be argued that the Qumran community made the same mistake as some of Vaillancourt’s interlocutors given their expectation for more than one anointed one, each embodying different characteristics. This matter is interest for its wider interpretive implications. Why did the final editors of the Psalter combine the promise of a Son of David (cf. 2 Samuel 7) and a prophet like Moses (Deuteronomy 18:18) into a single figure and the Qumran community hold to more than one anointed eschatological figure? To be fair this lies outside the clearly defined scope of this book.

There is much to commend in this book. Throughout, the reader is firmly signposted as to where they are in this interesting journey with Psalms 110 and 118. Vaillancourt pays head to the interplay between the Psalter’s macrostructure and microstructure. This is vital, as although we always know the working hypothesis that is being tested, the underpinning presuppositions are always made clear. Those who wish to consider the author’s work in detail are helped enormously by Appendix B which details the key word links for Psalms 110 and 118 with other texts. The extensive array of literature and information provided in the footnotes is also helpful for those wanting to go beyond simply reading this work. Appendix A, on other readings of Psalms 110 and 118, is also useful. I would have preferred it to have been integrated into the opening sections of this monograph. The book also provides five tables at key points in the argument. This might not sound like a big deal but such aids, seldom used in biblical scholarship, make for convenient summaries of what is obviously a complex problem. On the point of clarity there is only one disappointment. Clearly many readers of this book are likely to have knowledge of NT Greek, biblical Hebrew, French, and German but to assume that every reader has all four to technical fluency seems a little optimistic. Whilst clearly the technical discussion needs to be in the primary languages, an author’s translation in some places would have been helpful to this reader at least.

I will leave other readers to make their own judgement as to whether Vaillancourt’s canonical reading of Psalms 110 and 118 is compelling in describing the role of ‘the anointed’ in Book V, and thereby the Psalter as a whole. Of course, as Vaillancourt briefly notes, the authors of the New Testament were in little doubt that Psalms 110 and 118 both firmly attest to the future coming of the messiah at another level of canonical story (pp.160 and 182).

Book Review: David Taylor’s ‘Open and Unafraid’

W. David O. Taylor, Open and Unafraid: The Psalms as a Guide to Life, Nashville: Nelson Books, 2020

In light of how positive my review is, I feel I should say at the outset that David Taylor is not related to me, he is not my friend, and I paid for my copy of this book!

It is apparent on every page of this book that David Taylor himself, experiences the same delight for the subject matter that the psalmist extols (Psalm 1:2). As I read it, I continually thought that this is just the book for those new to the psalms who need a competent, engaging, and clear guide. It is also apparent, throughout, that Taylor is humble before these ancient texts. There is a constant awareness that he both knows the psalms and yet he still journeys with them, in trusting expectation that they ‘are not done with him yet’. In short, he knows he is a disciple of Jesus; a pilgrim who needs these prayers on the way with Christ.

This book opens with a Foreword by Eugene Peterson, which must be one the last things that he wrote. You will then discover, or be reminded, of the remarkable encounter between Eugene Peterson and Bono which was facilitated by David Taylor. You can watch it here.

Each chapter has some real-life contextual settings. These are on some occasions personal to David Taylor. These work well as an anchor for the rich content of the psalms, and this way the reader is invited into something encountered in the psalms rather than a type of psalm. This is helpful as although psalms are obviously helpfully categorised, such genre work is more digestible when approached from a less abstract direction. The first three chapters concern the context that we need to bring to the psalms; our need for honesty and their use within the worshipping community. These opening chapters explain the title—the Psalter continually invites us in to be open with God and to trust in him. The nature of the psalms is explored under the themes of prayer and poetry. Other chapters pick up on their role in mirroring our emotions, such as fear, anger, and joy. The later chapters focus on themes and ‘things’ encountered throughout the Psalter such as the nations, enemies, and creation. Taylor, as he explains, has not attempted any exhaustive curriculum here, but he does teach us the major themes, ideas, and challenges posed by the psalms.

This is a book that should be read and then acted upon—although one suspects that Peterson might think Taylor overly suggestive on this front! To this end every one of the fourteen chapters has Questions for Reflection, Exercises, and a Closing Prayer. Each of these elements is a valuable addition and the questions and reflections are plentiful and highly creative. The closing prayers are insightful and profound, and each chapter puts you in the place to pray with integrity; to ask God for fresh grace in prayer and handling of the Bible. The reflective questions and exercises provide ample possibilities for the psalm theme to be followed up by individuals. It is here that Taylor appeals beyond the Evangelical tradition in which he has his home. The questions and exercises provide everything necessary to facilitate a small group that wants to work through this book and discover the psalms more fully together. I will be recommending it for precisely this within my church.

The focus throughout is very much on the psalms but it becomes clear that Taylor has a rich theology of Scripture and Christ’s work among his people. It is encouraging to discover that underpinning the engaging text is genuine theological depth. Taylor writes with an expectation of Scripture’s transformative potential. The reader of this book will not just see how the psalms mirror their soul; they can expect to be changed along the way. They will see how to praise, thank, and petition better—and with these ancient prayers grow in desire to do so, as the psalms do their work. They will deepen their self-awareness, their love of God, and their grace towards their enemies.

I have waxed somewhat lyrical and I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to become better acquainted with the psalms for enriched prayer and discipleship. Is this book perfect? Not quite, I have one quibble (and found one typographical error). My small niggle concerns the final section on Further Resources. This provides an extensive range of possible ‘next stop’ books. This is a really helpful end point, but it would have been even better for there to have been more guidance as to the nature and value of these resources. For example, for many people, reading Wenham’s The Psalter Reclaimed would be a firm next step in understanding the Psalter theologically—it is more demanding than Taylor’s book but a sensible ascent. But Mowinckel’s The Psalms in Israel’s Worship, recommended in the same subsection, would be like ascending the hill of the Lord in a hailstorm by comparison. I have picked out the most extreme example and this small point is totally eclipsed by a work which is beautifully written, engaging, and illuminating in equal measure.

So, what are you waiting for? Read Open and Unafraid. It might well be the most helpful step on your spiritual journey in these unusual times. Of course, it is more important you pray the psalms, but I am in no doubt you will want to at the end of every chapter of this book.