Babel: Genesis 11

1. Babbling in Babylon
Superheroes were important in my childhood. As a child I first learnt to read for myself with Spiderman comics and the weekly adventures of the Fantastic Four. There’s a tradition with superheroes that they have an origin story. With Spiderman, part of his origin story is that he was bitten by a radioactive spider during a science experiment. With the Fantastic Four their origin story involved a freak burst of cosmic radiation whilst they were on a space mission.

There are usually some features of an origin story that have a legacy for a superhero. The account of the Tower of Babel is an origin story, and it has a far-reaching legacy. It is presented as the origin story for the immense variety of languages we find in the world. There are more than 7,000 languages spoken around the world today. This does not include dialects and extinct languages.

In Genesis we see God frustrating a building project—a massive city with its crowning glory, a tower that could reach the heavens. The people wanted fame and they wanted to avoid being scattered across the world. They got infamy but ended up being scattered.

The word Babel is fitting, as it sounds like the Hebrew for mix, as in mixing up. Babel also literally means ‘God’s Gate’—perhaps pointing to the interface of earth and heaven as the goal of the tower. This origin story has been received into popular culture. It is where the English word babble originates. But perhaps the most well-known example for us is the Babel Fish in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. A fictional fish that undoes Babel by translating any language if you are happy to stick one in your ear! As soon as we have different languages the problem of communication goes beyond words to culture. The Babel Fish is an illustration of this, known to many English speakers but probably not part of most other world cultures.

Douglas Adams is playing on medieval theology’s proofs for the existence of God (if you are not familiar with his version clicking here). What he failed to appreciate is that medieval proofs are not proofs in the modern sense. Rather they are an invitation into a worldview with not only an origin story but a wonderful goal in Jesus Christ the Son of God. Douglas Adams like many atheists refutes a God who is the construct of secular modernism rather than the creator revealed in and through Jesus of Nazareth’s life, death, and resurrection. As Christians we find that the Bible’s world makes sense of the world in which we live, of ourselves and of the God who lies behind both creation and salvation.

2. Scheming on Shinar
What were those people trying to do on Shinar plain? It seems to be a building project of a magnitude greater even than the efforts that created modern Dubai or Doha. What lies behind God’s concern? Why did God choose to confound them? This is the theological origin story. The first attempt to reach heaven, to overthrow God. From a pre-modern understanding this is a literal attempt to reach God’s dwelling place—God’s Gate.

What would have happened if the whole of humanity devoted themselves with singlemindedness to building this city and tower? What would have happened if they could have fulfilled the fullest extent of their desire for fame? What else would they have gone on to achieve?

Our modern world is a place of division between peoples, nations, and language groups. We might imagine that a common language would be a blessing, bringing people together, preventing wars, enabling solutions to world problems such as global warming. And yet the Bible says differently. It takes our sin, and fundamental inability to have good relationships, seriously. This would indicate that for all the failings and brokenness in our world it would be even worse if all humanity were not divided by language barriers. Unlimited building, unlimited science, unlimited cultural expression might just equate to unlimited sin. Genesis, and the wider Old Testament, tell God’s story of limiting sin as his first step to dealing it the decisive blow in Jesus Christ.

The scattering of the schemers at Shinar is both judgement and mercy. God’s actions of judgement and mercy belong together in story after story in the Bible—perhaps they are always two sides of the same coin. In the future, this currency of judgement and mercy will be the basis for the re-creation of heaven and earth. A future when we will be able to join all humanity with one voice in praise of God, in the heavenly city.

3. Building at Babel
The early chapters of Genesis detail, among other things, the gifts and capabilities that God gave humanity. The problem is that humanity has the ongoing ability to use them for both good and ill.

The beginning of agricultural technology in Genesis, via Jabal, can be for good or ill. We need efficient and effective agriculture to produce food. Without it the world’s population is unsustainable. And yet the environment and wildlife pay the price for careless use technology. Biodiversity is diminished. Toxic chemicals go into our bodies and the environment. Soil is vulnerable to being washed away. The list goes on.

The beginning of music technology with Jubal is also for good and ill. Music can be a source of great delight and is emotionally therapeutic. Music can also lie at the heart of darker cultural expressions.

Engineering and my own area of materials technology is no exception to this choice:

They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar.
Genesis 11:3, NIV

At Babel the possibility of taller buildings and a quicker building technology was founded on bricks and tar. In my view they could have done better than tar, but that’s not key right now. Today we do unnecessary violence to our planet by over-engineering with concrete and steel. In many cases bamboo might suffice.

The bottom line is that broken humanity cannot decisively solve its problems—this is counter to the world’s narrative, despite the overwhelming evidence. This should not lead to fatalism. Acknowledging the problem of sin still offers the possibility of real progress in undoing its pervasiveness and consequences, from a more realistic stance.

4. Kingdom Construction
That said, we eagerly await the heavenly city of peace where we will know unlimited life and joy rather than Babel’s unlimited sin and death.

God has the most remarkable alternative to Babel. Out of the nations, peoples and language groups he calls men, women and children to a subversive activity.

He calls us to gather and worship him, in and through his son Jesus Christ. It is subversive because the call is to serve him before all other things. Our commitment to Christ, to his Church, to the Kingdom of God comes ahead of our commitment to our nation, our ethnic history, our culture.

It is also remarkable because we are the body of Jesus Christ as we gather.

It is subversive because we believe that all humanity is called to join with us. Pentecost’s gift of interpreting languages is the first fruit of the undoing of Babel. The sign of the age to come which is the undoing of the sin that lay behind the scheming, building and babbling of Babel. As John the Elder saw:

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:

“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.”

Revelation 7:9-10, NIV

Where Did It All Go Wrong?

A Reflection on Genesis 3:1–24

1. Certain Death
Many people are quick to dismiss the Bible—often without pause to think what it is they might be disowning. There is, however, an assertion of the Bible that is difficult to deny. Written on most pages, in different ways, is the bad news that precedes the good news we have in Christ Jesus. This underpinning claim is that the world is broken, and that humankind is at the heart of this problem.

We readily believe this biblical claim because it is evident all around us. Our newspapers, news channels and social media are filled with enough evidence to prove, beyond any doubt, that something is wrong with this world. Organised crime, sexual violence, war, and environmental damage, to name just four, cover a multitude of sins.

Early in Genesis we read this:

And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”
Genesis 2:16–17, NIV

Surely, on this basis, we now know what to expect if Adam should ignore God? This is storytelling at its bluntest: “you will certainly die” says God to Adam.

We have all seen TV dramas where what happens next is so obviously set-up, we don’t feel the need to watch the next couple of minutes. In the UK this is embodied in the hospital drama Casualty. The opening scene might have an elderly couple whose car breaks down close to a bend in a very narrow country lane. They get out of their vehicle to see what they can do. The camera cuts to a group of young people in a car. They are acting boisterously with more than a hint that alcohol, as well as the passengers, are impairing the driver. On this limited evidence we know what happens next.

In Genesis when Eve and Adam eat the fruit, they don’t drop down dead—this is no poisonous apricot. Nor is God’s judgement an instantaneous bolt of lightning from heaven. Rather, Genesis 3 is a slow unfolding car crash, far worse than two people poisoned or fried by lightening.

2. Naked Wisdom
Some people struggle with the apparent arbitrary nature of God’s command to Adam and Eve.

. . . but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”
Genesis 2:17, NIV

But this is the heart of the story. Captured in this act of eating a singular specific fruit, is our failure to recognise the creaturely need for instruction from the creator. To ignore God’s instruction is a denial that we are creatures, and a choice to break the created order.

Both biblical wisdom and our everyday experience testify that we are our own worst enemies. John Donne puts it well:

Nothing but man of all envenomed things,
     doth work upon itself, with inborn stings.
John Donne

In Genesis 3 we notice that the snake craftily nudges Adam and Eve:

but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”
Genesis 3:3, NIV

The added emphasis on touch seems to exaggerate the sense arbitrariness and invites another sense. They have seen this fruit, they know they should not taste it, and now the serpent suggests even touching it is out of the question. And yet the snake makes a good point:

“For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
Genesis 3:5, NIV

There is nothing in this story to suggest that either Adam or Eve are more at fault. The women sins by her words, the man by his silence. But to even think about the blame game is a mistake. They fall into temptation as one, just as they are united in one flesh in Genesis 2. They fall as one, and this joint act sows the seed of future disunity.

They acted unwisely at the most fundamental of levels—by not fearing God. Where has their earthly wisdom got them? The first fruit of their action is the irreversible road to perceive right and wrong for themselves rather than looking to God. They now question everything, and most fundamentally they know shame. They know they have betrayed the one that made their bodies, and that they are naked before him.

3. Poetic Justice
Death is now inevitable as there will be no opportunity to eat of the tree of life. The good of creation—captured in the two creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2—has been marred. Genesis 3 captures the consequences in poetry. It is laid out in short lines in the NIV, and other most modern translations, to show this form. But why poetry? Its form highlights the importance of these verses. The consequences started with the first humans, but they are still with us today.

Hebrew poetry testifies to divine order even amid disorder. Some of the most difficult parts of the First Testament are poetry. The consequences of the fall are undoubtedly negative, but they are part of bigger story guided by a God of order.

The poetic justice is that Eve labours to bear children and Adam labours to grow food. Life is a struggle in this broken creation. And we know all of this is worked out in a morass of complexity to this day, and ironically amid a divisive web of irreconcilably different interpretations.

4. East of Eden
The first couple were made from dust—with no access to the tree of life, to dust they will return. Rather oddly, Adam only names his wife as Eve after the fall. Might it be that they were so united in idyllic Eden that they went by a single name? In any case Adam and Eve will both become adamah, or earth, on their death.

Now East of Eden, we can only guess how much they may have looked hopefully West, longing to go back to the garden and to be with God. In Near-Eastern and European culture the West has often been looked to in hope—the place where the sun sets as the place of blessing. Anyone familiar with Tolkien’s Middle-Earth will know the haunting appeal of the Undying Lands:

But islands lie behind the Sun,
That I shall raise ere all is done.
Lands there are to west of West,
Where night is quiet and sleep is rest.
Bilbo’s Last Song, JRR Tolkien

The problem is that there is no way back. Rather than the wide ocean of Tolkien’s fiction, Adam and Eve are thwarted by cherubim and a flaming sword. The way to God is shut.

And yet for us, on this Earth, the fate of the snake offers us hope:

And I will put enmity
between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head,
and you will strike his heel.”
Genesis 3:15, NIV

Later theology sees this as the conflict between Church and the evil one. Genesis 3 might be the bad news. But this self-evident broken world is a constant reminder of the one who will redeem it, and us, by destroying evil, sin and death. It also provides the starting point for conversation with those who hastily dismiss the Bible—for they know the reality of the bad news, and this is the start of the road to the quiet and rest of the good news.

Nick Cave’s Seven Psalms

Generative Possibility
Nick Cave’s album, Seven Psalms, was released on the 17th June 2022. I discovered this collection because of the title’s likely nod to the Penitential, or Seven, Psalms. This post is a review of Cave’s short album, but one with a difference. By considering seven features—or signs—of the biblical psalms I address the question of how this recent work relates to the ancient Psalter. Whatever else might be said of the Book of Psalms, its generative potential cannot be denied. And however near, or far, Cave’s lyrics might be from ancient Israel it is psalmody that lies behind them. The simple cover of the work in question provides further insight into the way in which the Psalter has worked here. For a small simple cross is the singular graphic feature. These songs are to be understood as a Christian reception of the Psalms. When we hear the address ‘Lord’, it is presumably both Yahweh and Christ that are in mind. Doubtless like the biblical psalmists, Cave’s own context also supplies generative direction. From what I know of Nick Cave’s recent life he has experienced pain as acute as that known by the ancient poets. This is not, however, the place for biography as the goal here is not explanation. I aim to point, with Cave’s creation, to the Psalms and thence to the one whose breath generated them.

Poetic Nature
Cave’s album comprises seven short psalms or responses to the Psalms. In addition, an eighth much longer track—some eleven minutes, or so—captures the music and refrains of the seven but omits Cave’s poetic voiceovers. Probably inadvertently this one-plus-eight form alludes to the tension between psalms as single entities and the Psalter as a whole. More certain is that Cave’s words are to be seen as poems. Much modern music is poetry, with Dylan and Cohen providing ample evidence for such a claim. Here, Cave has made poetic intent unambiguous by using spoken word, rather than lyrics, along with the music. A key feature of Cave’s Seven Psalms is the centrality of figurative language. Much of the metaphor and imagery is biblical and connects with its source organically. Some is deliberately in tension with its origin. For example, whereas Psalm 84 celebrates that:

Even the sparrow has found a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may have her young—
a place near your altar,
Lord Almighty, my King and my God.
Psalm 84:3, NIV

By contrast, in Cave’s sixth psalm—Such Things Should Never Happen—the baby sparrow dies, and the swallow only finds a nest after experiencing grief. Troubling yes, but an honest nod to the perplexities of theodicy and death amid the life of faith.

A third group of metaphors and images beg the question of whether Cave tries too hard with his figurative language. I will leave the listener to judge for themselves, but I found that after some initial jars these softened with repetition and reflection.

Terseness
The terseness of Hebrew poetry is generally acknowledged as part of its very nature. Translators have had to wrestle for some two thousand years with the degree to which this can and should be preserved. All seven songs here are terse and have a form like the songs to which to which they point. More specifically each of them can be broken into two or three strophes, each comprising four lines. They also can be understood as following another common feature of biblical poetry in that each strophe comprises two bicola with the second cola (B) furthering the first (A) in a diversity of ways. Here is an example from I Have Trembled My Way Deep:

A:    I have trembled my way deep into surrender.
B:    I have stretched my aching body across the world.

Note how the second cola enriches and furthers the first and the two together are more than the sum of the two parts. In this specific example we also see how poetic terseness provides openness and polyvalence. This bicola, like so much biblical psalmody, asks us ‘who is saying these words?’. The first psalm of this cycle—How Long Have I Waited—asks another perennial question from the psalms, ‘how long?’. Such repetitive motifs are actualised by their terseness and intertextuality. They are in a sense world-defining—tangibly demonstrating Walter Brueggemann’s idea that the biblical text is the word that redescribes the world.

Prayerful reflection
Another frequent refrain of the Psalter is the cry ‘have mercy on me?’. And this is the title of Cave’s second psalm. This confession of sin is either hyperbole on Cave’s lips or he is writing of the sins of a nation or a dictator. Or perhaps the words reflect our common guilt as fallen humanity. Here a mirror is held up to Psalm 137 as the psalmist confesses that they have ‘dashed the new-born upon the rocks’. In this confession, and throughout, Cave is continually and prayerfully reflective which is surely the raison d’être of the Psalter. The beauty of psalm-based reflection is for all the clarity there is also a huge measure of open intertextual allusion and word play.

Faithful Questioning
Of course, questioning the apparent injustice of the created order does not make songs into psalms nor an album into a Psalter. The stance of the psalmist is also key. These seven songs make this extra step in that the questioning apparently arises from faith and trust. We have already noted that the one addressed is Lord. There is also an underlying assumption that the questioned Lord will answer, if not now at some later date. These songs are a cry from the depths like Psalm 130. This is no pitiful unanswered cry of someone drowning but rather a call to one whose saving hand has been glimpsed reaching out. Psalm 42’s ‘deep calls to deep’ in I Come Alone to You and the prayer, ‘pierce me deep’ in I Have Trembled My Way Deep reveal a rich relationship in a play of words where the problem is transmuted into a solution as is so often experienced in earnest prayer.

Pilgrim Songs
Like the ancient Psalter these songs provide overall a firm, but at times an inchoate, glimpse into the journey of faith. These songs are rich with the motifs of pilgrimage. The words ‘way’ and ‘wandered’ are found in the titles of two of the songs. This is someone who knows they have yet to find their home:

I have wandered all my unending days.
Shuttered your shining aspect in the stars.
Hidden alleys and tramp broken highways.
With little in my pockets but my prayers.
Nick Cave, I Have Wandered All My Unending Days

Perhaps here the pocketed prayers are the biblical psalms? Like the richness of the Psalms, we should note that Cave’s responses are not only words of lament and introspection, but they are also songs of praise like the Pilgrim Psalms of the Psalter:

Splendour, Lord, oh glorious splendour.
The world explodes amazing at your hand.
Oh glory, Lord, oh splendouring wonder.
March together across this loud and wild land.
Nick Cave, Splendour, Glorious Splendour

Expectancy
Throughout the seven songs there is the attitude of the biblical psalmist, a faith seeking understanding. Questioning is normal, or even required, as we make our way through the life of faith. Whilst the journey is important it can only make sense when the goal is something understood. This comes across in Cave’s collection most clearly in the refrain to I Have Wandered All My Unending Days: ‘There is a mansion in the sky’. This might be an intentional reference to the song by The Brian Jamestown Massacre of the same name. Both Cave’s work and that of The Brain Jamestown Massacre refer to the Johannine Jesus’ claim that:

My Father’s house has many rooms . . .
John 14:2a, NIV

This goal of our pilgrim wandering helps cultivate the psalmist’s expectation which turns to an attitude of trust. Such a way of reading the life of faith helps us pray the psalms aright, as well as generate our own echoes of this school of prayer. I hope I have heard the Seven Psalms aright and Cave and I share the same road.

My Booklet on the Penitential Psalms

I am pleased to say that my Grove Book on the penitential psalms was published this week. It’s titled The Penitential Psalms Today: A Journey with Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143 and is available from Grove by clicking on this title. The booklet was written for the simple reason that after researching the penitential psalms for 3 years, or so, for a much larger project on the Psalms, it became apparent that no modern short introduction to these seven psalms was in print. The closest I could find were fifty year old books, mentioned earlier on my blog: S is for the Sixties. The absence of a modern introduction to these psalms was all the more surprising given their immense important in Church history. Some of this puzzle is laid out in the book. This booklet is a great place to start to gain an appreciation of these seven psalms and their fascinating history, so as if to make use of them today. A number of previous posts here examine some specific aspects of these psalms in a rather more ad hoc manner. These can be found by clicking on the keyphrase Penitential Psalms.

If you find the booklet interesting it would be helpful if you could let me know via the comments below. If you’d like to know more about these psalms or arrange a talk or retreat on them please get in touch via the ‘Who Am I?’ page.

Psalm 102: Bird on a Wire

This is the third of a series of occasional posts on the penitential psalms. Here we will focus on a single aspect of Psalm 102: its use of ornithological imagery. Pictorial language is not only central to the very nature of the psalms, but it is also key to understanding them. Focusing on the threefold use of bird metaphors will help us reflect on the question, ‘who is speaking this psalm?’

Here are verses 6 and 7 [verses 7 and 8 in the Latin and Hebrew textual traditions] from the NIVUK translation:

6 I am like a desert owl,
like an owl among the ruins.
7 I lie awake; I have become
like a bird alone on a roof.

Augustine, following the Latin text, identifies the three birds as pelican, owl (or night raven) and sparrow. Perhaps because of his desire to distil everything of value from the Scriptures he argues that the three birds are not necessarily to be understood as a metaphorical unity:

We have three birds, then, and three habitats. A single person may combine the characteristics of all three birds; alternatively, the characteristics of the bids may be distributed among three persons. [1]

This is arguably a case of overinterpretation when we consider the uncertainty of the original terms and the use of parallelism in the Hebrew text. When we recognise the parallelism of v.6a and v.6b, the ‘pelican’ and ‘owl’ become one and the same. It is perhaps the case that the translators of the NIVUK have made this more readily apparent by their choice of rendering the first two uncertain Hebrew words as ‘desert owl’ and ‘owl’, and thus inviting a singular interpretation. The identity of a single persona behind the threefold imagery is also natural in that v.7 in its entirety parallels v.6.

Augustine also makes another interpretive decision that does not chime with modern understanding, although this time it is scientific rather than poetic understanding that has changed. And to be fair Augustine seems at pains to indicate the facts are far from certain:

Pelicans are alleged to kill their chicks by pecking them, then for three days to mourn the dead chicks in the nest. Finally the mother is said to wound herself gravely and pour her blood over her babies, which came back to life as her blood flows over them. [1]

From this supposed ornithological observation an argument is then developed by Augustine linking the pelican’s unusual childrearing approach with Christ’s salvific blood. Reading Augustine on the Psalms is worthwhile but, on this occasion, his Christological interpretation is forced. Interestingly, although Augustine is often thought to have established the identification of the seven penitential psalms—Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143—he does not make a consistent focused penitential interpretation here. Writing a century, or so, later Cassiodorus dismisses a Christological interpretation of the bird imagery and the psalm as a whole [2]. He does focus on a penitential interpretation. He also makes much of the physiology and behaviour of the three birds [3]. In doing so he argues that they are figuratively distinct types of penitents. His close reading is nevertheless an over-interpretation of the text given its overt reliance on a rich parallelism. This Hebraic poetic convention has often, and perhaps surprisingly, been variously forgotten and eclipsed over much of the past two millennia.

Writing rather more recently than the two Fathers, Goldingay, argues that tawny owl, screech owl and bird are fitting translations arguing from both a philological and poetic basis that the three terms point to birds that stay awake at night and are likely to keep people awake through their cries. His translation reads:

6 I have come to resemble a tawny owl of the wilderness,
I have become like a screech owl among the ruins.
7 I have been wakeful and I have become like a bird
on its own on a roof. [4]

Comparison with the NIVUK text above reveals this to be a less terse and more explanatory translation. The tension between preserving the terseness of the Hebrew text and helping the modern reader is a constant challenge for the translator. Robert Alter famously accuses the modern English textual tradition of ‘the heresy of explanation’, of being too quick to explain, thus undermining the texts intentional mystery and polyvalency [5]. In translating these verses, Alter captures both the terseness of the original and provides a clear poetic translation:

7 I resemble the wilderness jackdaw,
I become like the owl of the ruins.
8 I lie awake and become
like a lonely bird on a roof. [5]

Addressing the question of the psalmist’s identity in a given psalm, or set of verses, can be a fruitful reflection. It can also be rather vexed, if any singular and overriding claim or assumption is applied across the Psalter. Over the centuries attempts have been made to read the psalms as consistently the words of David. Others have pursued, with similar singlemindedness, Christological readings. Hypothetical religious festivals have been proposed which make the words of the psalms the words of the king of Israel. In the past century there have been a series of critical methods for reading the psalms. My suspicion, however, is that those who have read the psalms as a spiritual discipline have rarely felt the need to be so singular in their reading. The same words and psalms can readily be heard as David, Christ, a precentor, or an anonymous ancient poet. Such polyvocality is not always welcomed by the academy because of its desire for explanation nor some conservative readers who expect contextual certainty. Early Christian interpreters were sometimes too quick to read Christ—his person and actions—into the text. Historical critical interpreters have sometimes been guilty of reading quite different things into the text. The nature of the Psalter stands against any such singular agendas.

Our reflecting on the identity of the psalmist is arguably most important in as far as it helps us to become the psalmist. How do we make these words our own? Are we being instructed? Are we being given words to pray? Are we being taught a vocabulary of prayer? How do we sing these words as a new song?

Psalm 102 is an example of the plasticity of so many of these poems. Countless faithful followers of Christ have owned this song in the midst of old age, loneliness, failure, impending death, and/or moral failure. Numerous others have prayed these words remembering and praying for others whose experience of the life of faith is currently a dark valley. We can also find Christ here, whether in his own experience or in gathering all our prayers as petitions to the Father. The ‘I’ of this psalm at the authorial level is undoubtedly singular, the voice of one psalmist. And yet in faith by the Spirit the reading of this psalm is infinitely polyvalent: it is a sing for all the faithful who are as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore.

To conclude, we note that Psalm 103 might have been deliberately placed after Psalm 102 because it frames the answer to the psalmist’s prayer in Psalm 102 with a positive bird metaphor:

1 Praise the Lord, my soul;
all my inmost being, praise his holy name.
2 Praise the Lord, my soul,
and forget not all his benefits –
3 who forgives all your sins
and heals all your diseases,
4 who redeems your life from the pit
and crowns you with love and compassion,
5 who satisfies your desires with good things
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

References
1. Augustine, Expositions of the Psalms, volume 5, Maria Boulding (translator), John E. Rotelle (ed.), Hyde Park, New York: New City Press, 2003, p.53.
2. Cassiodorus, Explanation of the Psalms: Volume 3, P. G. Walsh (translator), New York: Paulist Press, 1990, p.1.
3. Ibid. pp.6–8.
4. John Goldingay, Psalms Volume 3: Psalms 90–150, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008, p.152.
5. Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: Volume 3 The Writings, W. W. Norton and Company, 2019, p.xix.

The Scorpion: Jesus in the Wilderness

This post is inspired by The Scorpion, one of Stanley Spencer’s Christ in the Wilderness series. Here the painting is not a replacement for the Bible but rather a means to a fresh perspective on some aspects of Jesus preparing for his ministry. Given recent world events we don’t need to work hard to remember that all that we have here and now is always prone to becoming a wilderness. The riches of the gospel and our relationship with the living God are immense but the fullness of what Christ has done awaits the age to come.

The Scorpion is in some ways the most difficult of Spencer’s series as it prefigures the disturbing trajectory of the rest of Jesus’ life. For here we perceive a wilderness experience that starts in the literal wilderness and continues through a remarkable, yet short, ministry to Gethsemane and then the Cross.

The Scorpion points to a small number of biblical texts. In Luke 10:18–19 we read:

He replied, ‘I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you.
Luke 10:18–19, NIVUK

Spencer’s painting portrays a stark and empty place, but it is nevertheless a place where God’s creation can be found. Here creation is experienced as a scorpion rather than the more prosaic daisies in Consider the Lilies (another of the unfinished series of eight paintings).

The people of Jesus’ day already knew all too well that the wilderness was a place of scorpions and snakes. As it says in Deuteronomy:

He led you through the vast and dreadful wilderness, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions. He brought you water out of hard rock.
Deuteronomy 8:15, NIVUK

Scorpions are only mentioned twice in the Gospels. Both times by Luke. But they are mentioned occasionally outside the gospels. Sometimes they are literal and sometimes metaphorical. In the prophecy of Ezekiel, they are a metaphor for God’s rebellious people:

And you, son of man, do not be afraid of them or their words. Do not be afraid, though briers and thorns are all around you and you live among scorpions. Do not be afraid of what they say or be terrified by them, though they are a rebellious people.
Ezekiel 2:6, NIVUK

In Ezekiel the scorpions are first the people of God who would not listen to the prophet. The verse can also be understood as a prelude to Jesus, the Son of Man who came to minister to all mankind. Jesus holds the rebellious peoples of this world in hands just as certainly as he holds a scorpion in this painting.

Jesus in the quiet wilderness escapes people as he focuses for 40 days on his future ministry. He has taken leave of the figurative scorpions but finds the literal ones that nip and sting so painfully. Jesus’ time in the wilderness is bitter-sweet. Here he finds a closeness to his Father but a revelation of a difficult path yet to be trod. He encounters creation, from the sweetness of the flowers of the field to the bitterness of the stinging scorpion.

Jesus’ ministry would also be bitter-sweet—a ministry to the sick, the demon possessed, the lost and yet rejection by a rebellious people. Jesus came into a world that is a perpetual night despite the sun’s best efforts. He came into the world because it is the night.

The second of two gospel passages that mention scorpions is also found in Luke just one chapter on from the first:

‘Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’
Luke 11:11–13, NIVUK

Surely a rhetorical question if ever there was one? Jesus’ point in Luke is that God will not give us something bad when we ask for something good. At first sight literal food seems to be the focus and it does follow on from the Lord’s prayer with its talk of daily bread. But then fish versus snake, and egg versus scorpion, dissolve into a promise of the gift of Holy Spirit.

In Luke 11 there can only be one answer as to whether God will give us an egg or a scorpion. But this is perhaps not the case in Jesus’ wilderness experience. There he is, driven by the Spirit into the wilderness, and he has been sent not one but two scorpions. Perhaps he has even been stung? His hands look swollen.

Why would God the Father give Jesus a scorpion in his hour, or 960 hours, of need? Well, whatever actually happened in the desert is perhaps not Spencer’s only concern here. He probably has an eye on Gethsemane and the night when Jesus was betrayed. In that Garden Jesus knew that the ministry that had been discerned three years earlier in the wilderness was coming to its painful conclusion. His prayer crystallises the bittersweetness of the Son of Man’s actions for us:

‘Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.’
Luke 22:42, NIVUK

It is probably no coincidence that Jesus’ hands are cupped in the same manner that many receive communion wafers to this day—this is exactly how Stanley Spencer would have received it in his early years, in the army in Macedonia and in his later life in his beloved Cookham. For Christ in the painting, and the faithful communicant, this is a gesture of utter dependence on God. This is an expectant surrender and waiting for His gift of grace. Yet, Jesus received a scorpion that we might receive his body.

Whether or not Jesus’ hands are swollen by a scorpion’s sting—a foretaste of the literal pains of ministry to come—they look distinctive. It’s not that Spencer can’t paint hands it’s that he is making a point. Perhaps they are meant to look like a loaf of challah bread. Challah bread is a type of offering bread. Perhaps Spencer is reminding us that Jesus is the bread of life. Our cry to God gives us Jesus the bread of life who bore a scorpion for us.

For Spencer Jesus is going through the acutest form of the Dark Night of the Soul, a term for spiritual angst coined by St John of the Cross, the 16th Century Spanish mystic. We—that is me and most readers of this blog—are more likely to experience a milder form amidst all our numbing distractions, something that Douglas Adams referred to as The Long Dark Tea-time of the Soul. Douglas Adams is ridiculing serious spirituality and yet there’s a sting in the tail when we remember what Jesus experienced for us and what some Christians elsewhere on the world experience for the sake of the gospel.

The experience of a scorpion and the sting of death was always going to be where Jesus’ ministry led. He probably discerned this as he prepared in those forty days. He certainly knew the time was close in Gethsemane. How else can the night brought on by humanity’s rebellion be dealt with? Jesus would know darkness that we might know light. Jesus would taste the sting of death that we might have life.

Darkness and night are, of course, a constant feature of the Passion. Just after Judas leaves the Last Supper we read:

As soon as Judas had taken the bread, he went out. And it was night.
John 13:30, NIVUK

Jesus’ trial was undertaken at night. In the crucifixion itself we have night intruding into the day:

At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ (which means ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’).
Mark 15:33-34

Finally at the resurrection the darkness and the night end:

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance.
John 20:1, NIVUK

 Jesus in the wilderness, Jesus in Gethsemane and Jesus on the cross, in accepting a scorpion, points to the gift of the Holy Spirit. Another twentieth century work of art can help us perceive this remarkable gift. Here are the last verses of Seamus Heaney’s remarkable poem Station Isaland XI:

And from these two a third current proceeds
Which neither of these two, I know, precedes
Although it is the night.

This eternal fountain hides and splashes
Within this living bread that is life to us
Although it is the night.

Hear it calling out to every creature.
And they drink these waters, although it is dark here
Because it is the night.

I am repining for this living fountain.
Within this bread of life I see it plain
Although it is the night.

Further Reflection

Stephen Cottrell (2012), Christ in the Wilderness: Reflecting On The Paintings By Stanley Spencer, SPCK Publishing.

A Review: Rachel Mann’s ‘Spectres of God’

Rachel Mann, Spectres of God: Theological Notes for an Age of Ghosts, My Theology, Darton, Longman and Todd, 2021

Rachel Mann writes as poet-priest in a short book which is one of fifteen in the new ‘My Theology’ series. These books can be read in a single sitting but might be better imbibed more slowly. Each of the fifteen authors presents their distinctive Christian journey and theological priorities. It might be tempting to pick the one from the fifteen closest to our own experience and church tradition. For me this would, I suspect, be Alister McGrath’s contribution which I have yet to read. I hoped to be stretched by Mann’s contribution.

Readers who know Mann will anticipate a complex journey providing fresh perspectives on the well-trodden path of the Great Tradition. They will also expect poetic and literary verve. Such readers will not be disappointed.

This reader was initially uncomfortable with the opening metaphor of spectres of God. This image pervades—dare I say haunts—every page of the book. My discomfort was rapidly dispelled, and it was soon clear that the metaphor provides an array of fresh vantage points. In short, Mann successfully illuminates our contemporary intellectual zeitgeist along with its attendant theological and cultural baggage.

Spectres of God has at its centre three chapters: 1. The Spectre of the Body, 2. The Spectre of Love and 3. The Spectre of Time. These are helpfully framed by a shorter Introduction and a Postscript. An Appendix points to numerous literary and theological companions that Mann has encountered on her journey.

The first spectre is the idealised body. This is unpacked and explained in a dialogical manner which the whole book employs. Mann explores how various types of idealised body are eclipsed by the mystery of Christ’s body. Central to this mystery is the resurrected perfect body par excellence that still bears the traumatic punctures of crucifixion.

The spectre of Love—deliberately capitalised—is that ideal love which is tantalisingly ever before us in this life. Again we have a pointer to mystery. The second chapter ends with love and body intertwined preparing us for the third of Mann’s ghostly transcendentals, time. The future is sketched as ‘layers of hauntology’. What Mann designates as the Third Day provides the teleological goal which can make sense of the experiences of living life in a perpetual night.

The spirit of these three chapters reminded me of a poetic vision from a very different perspective. Seamus Heaney in his Station Island XI grapples with his own spectres of God:

This eternal fountain hides and splashes
within this living bread that is life to us
although it is the night.

Because it is the night, we should welcome Mann’s pointer to the mystery of how in an apparently disenchanted culture the spectres of God are all around us.

 

 

Psalm 32: The Second Penitential Psalm Today

This is the second of seven posts that aim to show how the Penitential Psalms—Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143—have been read by interpreters such as Augustine, Cassiodorus, Luther and Calvin. One reason for doing this is the conviction that we can learn from past interpretations as we compare them with modern readings. These posts will also allow interpreters to speak for themselves by means of some carefully chosen examples of their work. In this post the value of prosopological exegesis is the specific focus. This is a rather grand term for reading a psalm by mapping out the speaker and audience for the various sections of a psalm. The term prosopological is derived from the Greek prosopa meaning characters.

Cassiodorus (c.485–c.585) was fond of prosopological exegesis. In his commentary on all 150 psalms, he has a specific introductory section for each and every psalm that considers the speakers of the psalm. His answers invariably inform his subsequent verse by verse commentary. In the quotation from his Explanation of the Psalms below I have added modern versification in square brackets as well as a definition. This is how he reads Psalm 32:

In the first section of the psalm [vv.1–4] the penitent speaks, openly admitting his sin and declaring that the punishment served on him is deserved, for he thought that his baneful deeds should be kept hidden. In this section, both exordium [a Latin term in rhetoric for a formal introductory statement] and narration are included. In the second part [v.5] there is nothing but correction, for since he has condemned himself by his own admission he believes that the Lord must spare him. In the third part [vv.6–7] the psalmist praises the blessings of repentance, and maintains that even the saints in this world entreat the Lord. He attests that his refuge lies justly in Him, where the words of the penitent likewise find their goal. In the fourth part [vv.8–11] the Lord Christ replies to his words, and promises to invest with mercy those who hope in Him, so that none may believe that the purity of the suppliant is being disregarded through any indifference. These four sections are separated by diapsalms lying between them. Clearly we must take these sections one by one. [1]

The term diapsalms refers to the Hebrew word rendered Selah in the NRSV and many other modern English translations and their supposed place in marking out transitions within some psalms. Whilst the term is present at key breaks in some psalms, in Psalm 32 this function is more questionable. The position of the three occurrences of Selah has clearly influenced Cassiodorus’ breaks between what he terms parts one, two and three. To the modern interpreter the identification of Christ as the recipient of the words of vv.1–7, voiced by the psalmist as a prayer, and his words of reply in vv.8–11 might seem anachronistic. And, of course, this cannot have been the initial intention of the human author and editors—a yardstick central to modern approaches to the Old Testament. The possibility of Christ’s involvement in this psalm as hearer and speaker is even more alien when matters such as the situation in life and/or cultic use of the psalm are brought to the interpretive table. Yet, not only is this a dominant mode of pre-critical reading it is also elegant and self-consistent in the light of the Christology of the Great Tradition. The reader is strongly encouraged to pause and approach the psalm in this manner to experience this reading.

The issue of what we take to the Bible by way of presuppositions is a vexed question. Karl Barth expressed this matter colourfully and memorably in his remarkable essay The Strange New World within the Bible:

The Bible gives to every man and to every era such answers to their questions as they deserve. We shall always find in it as much as we seek and no more: high and divine content if it is high and divine content that we seek; transitory and “historical” content, if it is transitory and “historical” content that we seek—nothing whatever, if it is nothing whatever that we seek. The hungry are satisfied by it, and to the satisfied it is surfeiting before they have opened it. [2]

John Calvin (1509–1564), writing almost a millennium after Cassiodorus, identifies very different voices in Psalm 32. No longer is the speaker abstracted as the psalmist or the penitent, but King David emerges from the background to the fore. This is evident as Calvin introduces his exegesis of Psalm 32:

David having largely and painfully experienced what a miserable thing it is to feel God’s hand heavy on account of sin, exclaims that the highest and best part of the happy life consists in this, that God forgives a man’s guilt, and receives him graciously into his favor. After giving thanks for pardon obtained, he invites others to fellowship with him in his happiness, showing, by his own example, the means by which this may be obtained. [3]

Throughout Calvin’s subsequent verse by verse commentary David is the speaker of the whole psalm. He is referred to by name repeatedly as well as being given the epithet of prophet. This is true of the second half (vv.8–11)—whereas Cassiodorus identifies the speaker as Christ, for Calvin the instruction found in these latter verses is from David as he addresses the faithful.

Other notable commentators on this psalm lack the focus on who is speaking. This is the case with Augustine (354–430) who does not mention David by name other than when explaining the psalm’s Davidic title. Throughout Augustine’s account the author of the psalm is the psalmist. This is of course not to say that Augustine would not have identified David as the psalmist, but rather the person of David is not central in his exegesis. Closer to Calvin’s time, John Fisher (1469–1535) also pays little attention to prosopological exegesis. He does allude on occasion to David as the author via his designation of him as the prophet. His concern, however, is that this psalm teaches doctrine and obedience to it, in particular the practice of penance. For example he argues that:

This psalm is fittingly and not unworthily called a penitential psalm, because penance is here so carefully treated and spoken of. First, the prophet praises those whose sis are utterly removed by penance, and, on the other side, he shows the wretchedness of those who forsake penance. He also shows the reason for and the manner of contrition, confession, and satisfaction, which are the three parts of penance. First, he praises greatly the virtue of contrition, especially where these is a full purpose of confession. He also teaches the necessity of contrition and shows the impediments to it, with the proper remedies. Next, he comforts and lifts up those who are weak in soul. He calls to those who are out of the right way for coming into bliss and in a manner threatens them. He promises damnation to those who refuse penance; to those who do penance, forgiveness; to those who go forward and profit in it, joy; and lastly, he promises eternal glory to those who are perfect. This holy prophet goes briefly into all of these points in the order we have just declared to you. [4]

Should we be concerned with the rival voices behind this psalm? For some interpreters this is a key to their exegesis and for others such concerns are peripheral. Does it matter whether we read parts of Psalm 32 as voiced by an anonymous penitent to Christ or a confession from the very lips of David? Does it make a difference whether the latter verses are spoken by Christ or they are a prayer of King David to the faithful of his day? Is it appropriate to read later events into the psalm, such as knowledge of the person of Christ or the penitential practices that evolved in the medieval period? Before attempting to answer these questions we will consider a modern view of the voices that lie behind this psalm.

Susan Gillingham [5] focuses largely on the audience for each of four sections as she suggests the following:

vv.1–2 Instruction in the third person to the community
vv.3–7 God addressed in light of vv.1–2
vv.8–9 God speaks to the psalmist
vv.10–11 The community addressed again (third then second person)

No doubt the reader of this post will already have found which interpreter/s they most warm to, and which seem more distant. We all have a complex array of presuppositions we bring to the text as Barth reminded us above. Listening to diverse interpreters can enable us to see and test our presuppositions. Gillingham [6] argues, by building on the work of H. J. Levine, that there is something positively transformative about recognising that the psalms are at their very heart performative. The identification of speakers and audiences for the various parts of a psalm can enable this performative dynamic in individual and corporate worship. The Psalms transformative potential is perhaps at its most profound when confession is part of the nature of a psalm. This is arguably one of the reasons behind the generative success of the Penitential Psalms.

If we embrace this transformative potential then the prosopological approach is, I think, incredibly valuable. A conscious process of perceiving which words are ours and which are spoken to us can open familiar psalms with a valuable freshness and vitality. It is a secondary matter as to how we fit David, an anonymous author, editors, or even Christ’s voice into such readings. In recognising the performative nature of Psalm 32, we will find ourselves before the God of David who is the God of Lord Jesus Christ, confessing our blessings before a merciful God. As we proceed we will not only remember our blessings but examine how much of the untamed mule lies within. Such instruction is not dusty legalism this is life-giving dialogue of creature with Creator.

Blessed is the one
whose transgressions are forgiven,
whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the one
whose sin the Lord does not count against them
and in whose spirit is no deceit. (Psalm 32:1–2, NRSV)

In light of such blessing let us not keep silent.

References

  1. Cassiodorus, Cassiodorus, Explanation of the Psalms, Volume 1, P. G. Walsh (translator) (Paulist Press, 1990) p.305.
  2. Karl Barth, ‘The Strange New World within the Bible’, in The Word of God and the Word of Man, edited and translated by Douglas Horton (Pilgrim Press, 1928) p.32.
  3. John Calvin, Psalms 1–35, James Anderson (Translator) (Calvin Translation Society, 1845) p.391.
  4. John Fisher, Exposition of the Seven Penitential Psalms, Anne Barbeau Gardiner (translator) (Ignatius Press, 1998), p.25.
  5. Susan Gillingham, The Psalms Through the Centuries, Volume 2: Psalms 1–72 (Wiley, 2018) pp.195–196.
  6. Susan Gillingham, The Psalms Through the Centuries, Volume 2: Psalms 1–72 (Wiley, 2018) p.196.

Psalm 6: The First Penitential Psalm Today

This post will provide some examples of penitential commentary on Psalm 6 from the likes of Augustine, Cassiodorus, Denis the Carthusian, Luther and Calvin. In this way it introduces the reader to ancient readings and a facet of psalm interpretation which is unpopular today but was once immensely generative in doctrine, personal piety, Lenten practice, literature, and music. It also initiates an exploration of why such penitential readings of Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143 slowly waned in modernity. [1]

The first of the group of psalms designated the Penitential Psalms, Psalm 6, poses two acute challenges to the interpreter. Firstly, it is very short and so provides rather limited contextual information. Secondly, much of the content is open ended as to where it fits on the spectrum from literal to figurative. Augustine (354–430), who is thought by some to have established the grouping of the seven psalms, is quick to connect God’s wrath in v.1 with the psalmist’s sin which is not directly mentioned in the psalm. Having done this, he interprets the psalm as referring to what might be termed soul sickness thus conflating the reference to ailments in the bones (v.2) with that concerning the disturbed soul (v.3):

Accordingly the next verse, and my soul is greatly perturbed, makes it clear that the language of bones does not refer to the bones of the body. And you, Lord, how long? Here, obviously, is a soul wrestling with its own diseases, but long untreated by the doctor, in order that it may be convinced how great are the evils into which it has launched itself by sinning. [2]

Later interpreters might object to this singular focus on the soul on a number of grounds not least due to the potential for an anachronistic importing of Greek notions of the soul into the Hebrew text. This important matter will not delay us here but will be considered in a later post when we turn to another of the Penitential Psalms.

Like Augustine, Cassiodorus (c.485–c.585) sees the psalm as both penitential and concerned with spiritual sickness. Augustine and Cassiodorus both find support within the psalm for a penitential reading from the psalm’s superscription or heading. Issues regarding the Greek and Latin translation of the heading gave rise to a long tradition of what now seem very fanciful interpretations of this and many psalm headings. Here is the NRSV’s rendering of Psalm 6’s heading compared to that in the Latin Vulgate and its translation in Denis the Carthusian’s late medieval Commentary [3]:

To the leader: with stringed instruments; according to The Sheminith. A Psalm of David.

In finem, in carminibus. Psalmus David. Pro octava.
Latin text from Denis the Carthusian

Unto the end, in verses, a Psalm for David, for the octave.
English translation of the Latin

Like many other ancient and medieval interpreters Augustine, Cassiodorus and Denis each make much of ‘the end; and the ‘octave’ to refer to the Day of the Lord and other eschatological motifs concerning judgement. For example, Augustine and then Cassiodorus argue that:

. . ., it is possible to understand the day of judgement as the eighth day, because immediately after the end of this age, once eternal life has been gained, the souls of the righteous will not be subject to the ebb and flow of time. Perhaps because all time revolves around a seven-day cycle, the time which will be subject to none of that changeableness has been called the eighth day. [4]

For the octave denotes the Lord’s coming when the seven days of this age are at an end, and He comes to judge the world . . . That is why the penitent now introduced before us earnestly supplicates in the ordered divisions of his prayer that he may not be convicted for his deeds on the day of judgement. [5]

Cassiodorus is the first extent source to present the traditional seven penitential psalms as a group. He was also a keen advocate as to their ongoing value:

Though we should apply our eager intelligence to all the psalms, since the greatest resources for living are sought from them, yet we ought to pay particular attention to the psalms of the penitents, for they are like suitable medicine prescribed for the human race. [6]

Such exhortations about the value of the Penitential Psalms were taken very seriously by the medieval church. It is difficult to capture the magnitude of the importance that these seven psalms had for over a millennium. A snapshot of this rich reception can be found in a forthcoming Grove Booklet written by me and comprehensive assessment of their medieval ubiquity in a much larger study centred on Psalm 51 by Clare Costley King’oo [7]. By the thirteenth century King David was central to readings of Psalm 6, and the other six Penitential Psalms. Arguably the most famous example is Dame Eleanor Hull’s Middle English c.1420 translation of an earlier French text (probably mid or late thirteenth century) on the seven Penitential Psalms [8]. By this time David was understood as the model penitent [9]. His adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah are alluded to in the heading of Psalm 51—the fourth of the seven Penitential Psalms—and this psalm was understood as David’s contrite words spoken to the prophet Nathan. All seven Penitential Psalms were read from this perspective facilitated by their being collecting together in Books of Hours and other devotional works on the seven like those of Dame Eleanor Hull. In short King David became the model penitent whose contrition and compunction all faithful Christians should aspire to follow. For example, we read in Hull’s commentary on Psalm 6 about the contemporary sinner:

. . . thinking and saying to himself, ‘I am young and hale and flourishing in my youth and prosperity in this world is mine. And God is meek and merciful and will mend me as he has done on previous occasions.’ I say to you truly that this man lies in his bed. But he rises not with his tears as David did every night. You should understand that such nights betoken deadly sin. For just as a man by night goes stumbling and knows not what he should hold onto but by some light coming upon him from the moon or some star, just so the reason of man goes stumbling into the pit of delight of the night of his sin wherein he lies asleep, lest the light of grace from above shows him the way of great repentance, as she had done to David who washes his bed with his tears every night, . . . [10]

By the time of Denis the Carthusian (1402–1471), at the other end of the medieval period, the sacrament of penance had taken on great importance in church doctrine and practice. This sacramental practice is very much in evidence in Denis’ interpretation of Psalm 6 where he devotes a lot of space to the relationship between the necessity of internal contrition and the outward penitential actions of the penitent:

I have laboured in my groanings: that is, I am interiorly contrite of my sins, although I do not omit the exterior acts of penance and the works of satisfaction, but weeping, abstaining, persisting in holy vigils I prostrate myself . . . [11]

. . . Also, this which is said—I laboured in my groanings—can be understood here to refer to the interior effort, for indeed the interior effort exceeds the exterior effort, just as the interior pain exceeds the exterior pain . . . [12]

because the Lord has heard the voice of my weeping, that is, the interior affection, from which the voice and tears spring forth, and on account of which they declare themselves to be heard. For not clamor, but love, not the tears of the eyes, but contrition of the heart penetrates the heavens and enter into the ears of God. [13]

The English Bishop and Cardinal, John Fisher (1469–1535) had similar concerns and focused on responding to the psalm as consequential for the age to come:

There are three different ways almighty God deals with sinners, according to the three different kinds of them. There are some sinners who continue in their wretchedness till they die, and those almighty God punishes in hell’s eternal pains, whose ministers are the devils. There are other sinners who have begun to be penitent before their death and to amend their lives, and these almighty God punishes in the pains of purgatory, which have an end and whose ministers are angels. Thirdly, there are still other sinners who, by grace in their life, have so punished themselves by penance for their offences that they have made sufficient repayment for them. And these almighty God accepts in his infinite mercy. [14]

Both Denis and Fisher read the psalm penitentially in dialogue with late medieval sacramental praxis and doctrinal development. Luther (1483–1546) is also concerned about the fate of sinners. He tends to speak, however, less abstractly and mechanically, and more personally than either Denis or Fisher:

God’s strength and consolation are given to no one unless he asks for it from the bottom of his heart. But no one who has not been profoundly terrified and forsaken prays profoundly. He does not know what ails him, and he remains secure in the strength and consolation of another, his own or that of creatures. In order, therefore, that God might dispense His strength and consolation and communicate it to us, He withdraws all other consolation and makes the soul deeply sorrowful, crying and longing for His comfort. Thus all God’s chastisements are graciously designed to be a blessed comfort, although through weak and despairing hearts the foolish hinder and distort the design aimed at them, because they do not know that God hides and imparts His goodness and mercy under wrath and chastisement. [15]

Calvin (1509–1564) writing a few years later than Luther commentates in a very different style. His approach seems much more like a modern commentary as he seeks a clear methodology to interpret the text in context before applying it. He still, however, sees the context as the life of David like many pre-critical interpreters. In the end his conclusions are often close to Augustine with who we began this journey:

David, being afflicted by the hand of God, acknowledges that he had provoked the Divine wrath by his sins, and therefore, in order to obtain relief, he prays for forgiveness. . . What the kind of chastisement was of which he speaks is uncertain. Those who restrict it to bodily disease do not adduce in support of their opinion any argument of sufficient weight. [16]

Contemporary academic interpreters tend to avoid David as the subject of the psalms and look to the content of the psalm itself to provide context. [17] In this way Goldingay, for example, argues that the psalm is not penitential but that the psalmist experiences God’s wrath in a manner akin to Job’s experience. For Goldingay the psalmist is not struggling with sin and God’s righteous punishment but is in the thick of lament in part because of the puzzle of why they are so afflicted by God. In closing his consideration of Psalm 6 he reflects on the whole:

All this can be brought to God without expressing either a correlative awareness of sin that needs confessing or a conviction about personal commitment that makes it possible to make a statement that trouble is undeserved. [18]

In a similar way Charry explains Psalm 6’s context by noting that:

In Christian tradition, it is also often read as the first of the Psalter’s seven penitential psalms, yet no confession of sin and no plea for forgiveness are offered. Nothing indicates that the speaker understands his adversity to be punishment for sin, only that it has apparently been going on for some time. The speaker cries for healing, not forgiveness. [19]

In appropriating Psalm 6 today, as functional Scripture, do we really have to choose between what was for a long time a dominant penitential reading and the modern rediscovery of biblical lament? I don’t think so. Whilst there are issues with some aspects of pre-critical interpretation both ancient and modern readings can cohere with the language of this psalm and inform our prayer. Intertextuality might be a dangerous tool in scientific exegesis but surely in a living textual faith there are interpretive connections and riches which legitimise using the words of this psalm as the basis for calling on God as a suffering sinner and/or struggling supplicant. A case can surely be made that a penitential prayer is just one specific subset of the complex lament that is central to the life of faith. These possibilities will be explored further when we turn to some of the other Penitential Psalms in future posts in 2022.

Many people of faith will at some point in the life of faith own the words of this psalm. As the Sidney Psalter expresses the opening verses we too might cry for a variety of reasons:

Lord, let not me, a worm, by thee be shent
While thou art in the heart of thy displeasure:
Ne let thy rage, of my due punishment
Become the measure. [20]

References

  1. Verse numbers here follow that found in the majority of English translation, for example, the NIV and NRSV. Many of the sources cited here use verse numbering that follows the Latin and Greek texts.
  2. Augustine, Expositions of the Psalms, volume 1, Maria Boulding (translator), John E. Rotelle (ed.) (New City Press, 2000), p.106. In all quotations in this post the psalm text is shown in bold and italics but otherwise identical with the original source.
  3. Denis the Carthusian, Commentary on the Davidic Psalms, Volume 1, Andrew M. Greenwell (translator) (Arouca Press: 2000) p.113.
  4. Augustine, Expositions, p.104.
  5. Cassiodorus, Explanation of the Psalms, Volume 1, P. G. Walsh (translator) (Paulist Press, 1990), pp.89–90.
  6. Cassiodorus, Explanation, p.98.
  7. Mark J. Whiting, The Penitential Psalms Today: A Journey with Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143, Grove Books, forthcoming 2022 and Clare Costley King’oo, Misere Mei: The Penitential Psalms in Late Medieval and Early Modern England (University of Notre Dame Press, 2012).
  8. Alexandra Barratt (editor), The Seven Psalms: A Commentary on the Penitential Psalms Translated from French into English by Dame Eleanor Hull (Oxford University Press, 1995).
  9. Michael P. Kuczynski, Prophetic Song: The Psalms as Moral Discourse in Late Medieval England, (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995), pp.81–119 and passim.
  10. Barratt, The Seven, p.16. My inexpert translation of the Middle English and one Latin phrase.
  11. Denis, Volume 1, p.117.
  12. Denis, Volume 1, pp.117–118.
  13. Denis, Volume 1, p.120.
  14. John Fisher, Exposition of the Seven Penitential Psalms, Anne Barbeau Gardiner (translator) (Ignatius Press, 1998), pp.9–10.
  15. Luther, Martin. Luther’s Works, Vol. 14: Selected Psalms III (Luther’s Works (Concordia)) (Kindle Locations 2613-2619). Concordia Publishing House. Kindle Edition.
  16. John Calvin, Psalms 1–35, James Anderson (Translator) (Calvin Translation Society, 1845) p.65.
  17. This is something of an oversimplification given the vexed question in the last two hundred years as to what the context of psalm is, with David’s life, temple cult, canonical context, being just some of the options.
  18. John Goldingay, Psalms Volume 1: Psalms 1–41 (Baker Academic, 2006), p.141.
  19. Ellen T. Charry, Psalms 1–50 (Brazos Press, 2015), p.27.
  20. Hannibal Hamlin et al. (editors), The Sidney Psalter: The Psalms of Sir Philip and Mary Sidney, (Oxford University Press, 2009), p.17.

Jesus and the Holy Innocents

Readings: Psalm 123; Mark 10:13–16; Matthew 2:1–20.

The Magi: Pursuing Wisdom
We don’t know much about the Magi. There are lots of theories and ideas— snippets of both fact and fiction. There may, or may not, have been three Wise Men—three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh do not necessarily imply three Magi. They were probably part of a social elite of scholars. Although their field of expertise would have ranged from the wisdom of philosophy, through the physics of astronomy to something akin to astrology. They were doing the same basic task as the wise sages of Israel who left us with the Books of Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes and ideas found in the Psalms and elsewhere in the First Testament.

The difference, of course, was they were not followers of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. That didn’t deter God from dealing with them by revelations in the heavens and in a dream. The tribute from foreign kings that they carried to Jesus is the smallest foretaste of the honour that will be paid to this same Jesus as God’s plans are fulfilled Psalm 2 hints at these and includes these words:

Therefore, you kings, be wise;
be warned, you rulers of the earth.
Serve the Lord with fear
and celebrate his rule with trembling.
Psalm 2:10–11, NIVUK

Like so many Bible narratives we must be cautious not to read too much into a text that seems intent on hiding many of the things we’d like to know. But with some certainty, both background knowledge about the Magi and what they do in this story indicates that they are pursuing wisdom. Following a star in a way that mashed astronomy and astrology, interpreting dreams in the quest for revelation.

The same God who inspired and spoke to the Magi would have us be wise. But the foundation of our pursuit of wisdom is the baby they first sought. We have a fuller revelation of Jesus Christ, the divine Logos, wisdom personified. Whatever we think of New Year’s resolutions we’d be wise to make Jesus Christ our foundation for 2022.

Herod: Pursuing Power
Herod, the so-called Great, is the villain of the piece. He provides an echo of the evil Pharaoh in the Exodus story who ordered the death of the Hebrew boys as the most callous of pre-emptive strikes to weaken a slave work force so they could not rebel. Like Pharaoh, Herod appears to balk at nothing in order to cling to power. He, like Pharaoh, was also obsessed with massive building projects, including renovating the temple in Jerusalem.

Though brought up a Jew, his father was an Edomite. He was happy to have power by colluding with the Romans. His singular concern in Matthew 2 is remaining a puppet ruler. His horrific decree to kill all male Jews, two-year old and under, is the bluntest and most unsavoury of pragmatic methods to remove a future king that might topple him from power. Such a callous act has all the hallmarks of the extremes that men—and they are usually men—will go to keep their power.

Our passage does not have a definitive answer to the horror that Herod unleashes. But it does relativise him brilliantly. Whilst men do everything to cling to power time moves inexorably on, as it does for us all. Our passage opened with Herod in power:

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, . . .
Matthew 2:1, NIVUK

But we read at the close of the passage:

After Herod died, . . .
Matthew 2:19, NIVUK

This dark episode makes the gospel shine even brighter and it reminds us that the Christmas story cannot be buried in sentimentality. This is a story of life in the face of death.

Joseph: Pursuing Obedience
The Bible says very little about Joseph. Nevertheless, he is absolutely central to this story. Unlike Herod’s singlemindedness, Joseph’s focus has the best of motivations: obedience to God. Joseph simply does what he is instructed to do by God. Through three dreams, and on two occasion, he ‘up-sticks’ and moves with Mary and Jesus. First the holy family move to Egypt as refugees fleeing murderous persecution. Some two years, or so, later they journey to Nazareth where Jesus then grew up.

Joseph’s obedience was not a slow one. There was no trying and testing other options. The story makes it very clear that Joseph acted as quickly as he possibly could to get Jesus out of harm’s way:

So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt.
Matthew 2:13, NIVUK

We know far more about Herod than Joseph but the quiet good life of obedience to God is better in eternity than celebrity or political power ill-used for personal gain. George Eliot, in her novel Middlemarch, puts it like this:

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.

Eliot is reflecting on Enlightenment progress, but in God’s plans Joseph was instrumental for the even better reasons of faith, trust and obedience.

Where might faith, trust and obedience take us in 2022? We don’t know. Our unhistoric acts—in faith, trust and obedience—not only prevent things going ill but in God’s hands they can serve his purposes—the building of a kingdom not of human progress but God’s design in eternity. To quote a more dubious source than George Eliot:

“What we do in life echoes in eternity”.

Jesus and the Holy Innocents: Utter Dependence
So much for the Magi, Herod and Joseph, for not all the players in this story are active. Passive at the centre of this narrative is Jesus who can do nothing. He is humanly utterly dependent upon Mary and Joseph. This reality of Incarnation is captured acutely in Luci Shaw’s remarkable poem titled Kenosis. Note the title is a profoundly theological concept whilst the poem opens this in fully human fleshly terms:

In sleep his infant mouth works in and out.
He is so new, his silk skin has not yet
been roughed by plane and wooden beam
nor, so far, has he had to deal with human doubt.

He is in a dream of nipple found,
of blue-white milk, of curving skin
and, pulsing in his ear, the inner throb
of a warm heart’s repeated sound.

His only memories float from fluid space.
So new he has not pounded nails, hung a door
broken bread, felt rebuff, bent to the lash,
wept for the sad heart of the human race.

Poem: Kenosis by Luci Shaw
in Harvesting Fog (Pinyon Publishing, 2010) page 53

The other Jewish baby boys are passive too. They are also utterly dependent on human agency for protection. We don’t know the details—and I for one don’t want to—but we can imagine that some infants were protected by those around them but of course others were not.

In the midst of this horror, we can find a profound truth about the quality of being human. For we are all children, not utterly dependent upon human parents but dependent on God. We owe him our creation, our very breath and all that we can be in the future. Whilst he delegates us some power and authority, we remain under him. In the darkness of the story of the Holy Innocents this is no sentimental claim. This is a fact of life and death.

What do we do with this call to be childlike? This is the call of Jesus himself in Mark 10. It is the psalmist’s surrender recounted in Psalm 123. To be childlike is to empty ourselves, a pale echo of what Christ did. It is to denounce power. It is the only true wisdom. It is fearing God. It is the glance of a devoted servant to God face. It is, in short, about being holy.

Whether you are making, or have made, New Year’s resolutions, or they are not your thing, in 2022 let us all remember that we have a holy yet probably unhistoric part to play in God’s plans. Let us also remember the disturbing truth that no one becomes holy by accident.