Psalm 51: Miserere mei, Deus

For various reasons I have been reflecting on the penitential psalms for much of 2020. If this is a response in any way to Covid-19 then it has been an unconscious one. The grouping of Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143 together dates to before the time of Cassiodorus (487–585). Some attribute the group to Augustine (354–430) but Cassiodorus’ Expositio Psalmorum, or Exposition of the Psalms, is the earliest extant work that clearly identifies each of these seven as a closed group of psalms. The identification of seven such psalms is somewhat puzzling. There are other psalms, for example Psalm 25, that seem to fit well with the others due to its penitential concern. A convincing case can even be made that Psalm 25 is ‘more penitential’ than some of the seven. Some have argued that the link is God’s wrath, noting that all of them either (i) mention God’s anger, or (ii) are cited, or referred to, in the early chapters of Paul’s Letter to the Romans [1].

Whatever the original thinking behind their grouping they have been bound together in liturgy, sung worship, devotional commentary, and theological dispute ever since the sixth century. They can also be seen to display a certain symmetry befitting their sevenfold nature. The symmetry I refer to draws attention to the central psalm, Psalm 51. Either side of Psalm 51 the opening words of four of the psalms reveal two pairs. Psalms 6 and 38 both open with a similar address, generally made identical in their Latin liturgical titles as Domine, ne in furore tuo. In a similar way Psalms 102 and 143 have identical openings in Latin: Domine, exaudi.

Domine, ne in furore tuo unites Psalms 6 and 38 as the psalmist petitions God that he will not rebuke, despite his anger. In the penitential framework, implicit in the identifying of this psalm group, this anger is assumed to be the result of the psalmist’s sin. The opening of Psalms 102 and 143, in a similar vein, is a plea that God will hear and answer the fearful lamenting psalmist. Psalm 51 at the centre of the group, even without the framing provided by this symmetry, is the penitential psalm par excellence. Many commenters have gone further, seeing it as the psalms of psalms [2]. What makes Psalm 51 so special?

This psalm is one of the thirteen psalms that contains a biographic comment about the life of David. Though critical scholars make a strong case that such headings are late additions to the psalms, they have played an important role in Christian interpretation of the psalms. This is especially the case with Psalm 51 because it relates one of the most, if not the most, pivotal moment in David’s life. It condenses the terrible events of 2 Samuel 11 into a few words:

To the leader. A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba. (Psalm 51 heading, NRSV)

David’s adultery with Bathsheba might well have amounted to rape. Even without this possible dynamic, with the murder of Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, we see David commit two conjoined sins. It is not just the depth of the iniquity of one so beloved of God that is notable here. It is the remarkable gracious forgiveness of the living God that transforms this psalm into something truly special:

David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.”
Nathan said to David, “Now the Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die. (2 Samuel 12:13, NRSV)

Here in the heart of the First Testament we see grace at work. Psalm 51 and 2 Samuel 12:13 both highlight the acute generosity of God. The wider narrative of 2 Samuel 12 does, however, reveal complications in that Nathan has to tease the truth from David, and despite God’s gracious forgiveness, sin still has its unpleasant consequences.

This biographical heading and the narrative in 2 Samuel enable a penitential theology that sees David as a model penitent. In this way, the penitential nature of these psalms means that their words have been understood on the lips of Christ as he prays as his body, the Church. Both their use in confession and in a rich Augustinian tradition have made the penitentials, and especially Psalm 51, the inspiration for some remarkable music in a variety of traditions. The four examples mentioned below are as varied as the theological, doctrinal, and pastoral aspects of this psalm, known simply as the Miserere. The collision of sin, penitence, forgiveness, and grace defies any singular mood.

In terms of the Latin choral tradition Gregorio Allegri’s (c. 1582–1652) Miserere is perhaps the most well know. There is story that the detailed score for the various choral parts of this music was kept secret so that it could only be used in the Sistene Chapel. This was the case until one day a fourteen-year-old, by the name of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, witnessed a performance and then subsequently wrote down the score from memory.

Howard Goodall’s recent Have mercy on me – miserere mei stands in the same tradition of use of the Latin text. Unlike Allegri’s work the vocals are supported by musical instruments. But like Allegri, it uses the beauty of music to invite reflection on the superabundant forgiveness and mercy found in Psalm 51.

The Estonian composer Arvo Pärt in his Miserere does something very different. His lengthy work from 1992 takes each word of the Latin text one at a time in its opening minutes. As each word is sung it is answered by a bassoon. This reveals the penitent petitioning God for mercy with disturbing slowness. Perhaps they are struggling with fear of God? Maybe they simply need to show the solemnity of their petition? As the work unfolds it provides a journey to the day of judgement and beyond.

We conclude with this post with mention of arguably the wildest interpretation of Psalm 51: Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. The dependence here is of course more of a riff and there’s no hint of Latin. Psalm 51 awakens in me the immense gratitude and solace that despite my sin, in Christ, I can say with Cohen’s David:

And even though it all went wrong.
I’ll stand before the lord of song.
With nothing on my tongue but hallelujah.

 

References

    1. Harry P. Nasuti, Defining the Sacred Songs: Genre, Tradition, and the Post-Critical Interpretation of the Psalms, Sheffield Academic Press, 1999, p.33.
    2. Susan Gillingham, Psalms Through the Centuries: A Reception History Commentary on Psalms 1–72, John Wiley & Sons, 2018, pp.304–316.

Zechariah 7—A Rebuke in a Time of Uncertainty

Zechariah Season 2
It is the fourth year of King Darius. Two years ago, the prophet Zechariah delivered a series of prophecies of hope and encouragement. These were wonderful messages for a time of great uncertainty for the returning exiles. That First Season of Zechariah’s prophecies was binge-read and binge-heard by the returned exiles as they struggled to return to a new normal. They were working hard to rebuild the temple and restore economic prosperity. So popular was Season One that it was preserved for all generations of God’s people. Season Two, which starts here in Chapter 7, was also preserved for us.

Two years on, the hard slog of temple building, and the difficulties of post-exilic life seem the same. Although the temple is nearing completion, everyday life seems as hard as ever. The first prophecies of Zechariah have been an encouragement. It has become increasingly clear, however, that these words speak of a distant future hope.

So what new words will Zechariah bring now after a two-year hiatus?
Zechariah’s new words are prompted by Sharezer and Regem-Melek, and some others, arriving from Bethel, a 10 mile, or so, walk to the north. They ask a question about whether they need to keep to a regular annual fast that laments the exile and the loss of the temple. They are asking a question raised by Zechariah’s First Season of prophecies: “Is the exile over?”.

Rather than getting a yes or a no from the prophet they get essentially a rebuke. Prophets inspired by God don’t go in for simple yes-and-no answers. They have a tendency to challenge and question. And this is very much the case here. As we hear the answer and rebuke we would do well to receive as a community, not as an individual.

Fasting and Feasting
Rather than address the question, Zechariah questions the spiritual sincerity of these people from Bethel and the wider community—although at the end of chapter 8 he does return to the matter of fasting and indeed unpacks an exciting answer of “yes” to their question.

According to Chapter 7 this is not even Zechariah’s rebuke. Rather, Zechariah is instructed to question them by God. He asks if their 70-year routine of fasting was really an act for God. The fasting in question here would be reflective and would have focused on repentance. There was a need to avoid being like the people of old who gave rise to the judgement of exile.

Zechariah’s challenging rebuke can be generalised to all people of God. When do our spiritual practices become an empty routine? More positively, when are they genuine expressions of devotion or repentance?

Zechariah doesn’t just challenge them with regard to fasting and genuine repentance. He goes on to extend his rebuke to feasting too. There were a number of prescribed festivals in the Law, in addition to the number of annual fasts we learn about here—there are four fasts mentioned later in this prophecy. Zechariah pulls no punches. He is questioning the sincerity of both their fasting and their celebrations. Nearly every month of the calendar there was a feast or a fast. The fundamental underlying question is: “Are you any better than the people who gave God cause to leave the Temple and scatter the people in exile?”.

Are the people of Bethel, and by extension the people of Jerusalem, walking with God? Are they living by faith and not by sight? Or to take this seriously as a divine Word are we, in our time of uncertainty, walking with God? Are we living by faith and not by sight?

Following and Serving
Such questions are sobering. Is our daily practice of praise, thanksgiving, praying, and Bible reading a healthy genuine expression of our love for Jesus Christ? Are we following Jesus daily? Or are we paying lip service to what should be a living relationship?

Do we make every effort to get the best from fellowship with our brothers and sisters in Christ? Are we expectant when we gather virtually. Do we pray for others, including those that lead? Are we just hunkering down and resigned to spiritual mediocrity and passivity? Or are we living as Christ’s body to support and nurture one another? Dare we imagine sharing our faith at this time?

The men sent by the people of Bethel probably did not welcome challenging questions anymore than we do. Did they shrug off the challenge, or see the Word of God behind the prophet’s words? Are we willing to be open to discerning whether Zechariah’s words are a rebuke for us too?

At the end of the day, God was not worried about the events calendar back in Bethel or the religious programme in Jerusalem. He’s not interested in the specifics of our calendars either. How the people of Bethel organise the details of fasting, feasting, and fellowship is no more the point than the details of time, frequency, and name of our church events and groups.

The important matter is whether the life of faith we share with one another brings us closer to God and bears fruit. The measure is not the website or church bulletin. Zechariah, and our God who inspired him, ask other questions of us.

Specifically, these questions include: Are we a people concerned with justice? Are we able and willing to extend the mercy we have known to others? Do we have compassion for those who suffer hardship because of their faith or the cruel events that scar this world? Can we meet the needs of the marginalised?

Word and Spirit
Our current time of uncertainty might seem like a hindrance. But this is the season that God has given us.

We can hunker down. We can complain about zoom. We can lament how much easier it was when masks and social distance didn’t encumber us. But in the time that God gives us now, the gospel of Jesus Christ would have us do better. We still have his Word and his Spirit. And compared to many others we have more material blessings.

We can lean on the one who we praise, thank, pray to and listen to. We can live by faith, not by sight, here and now. We can be a blessing to others now. In all this we are reliant on the living God through Christ. As Zechariah has already explained God works “Not by might nor by power, but by his Spirit.”

Encouragement in a Time of Uncertainty—Zechariah 5:1-11

Zechariah’s ministry was an encouragement in a time of uncertainty. He spoke to those exiles who had made it back to Jerusalem—and he speaks to us.

The exiles had many challenges. They weren’t able to worship as normal because the temple was a pile of rubble. Can you imagine being unable to worship with others like you were used to? The city was in ruins and sanitation was difficult. Although they had laws explaining the need to purify their hands disease was still rife. Can you imagine disease spreading indiscriminately amongst the population?

The leaders were struggling to organise the basics of life and were also distracted by the challenge of taking back control of their borders. Can you imagine being frustrated with your national leaders? The returned exiles were struggling with not seeing loved ones—those that had not made it back from exile. Can you imagine being cut-off from and unable to see people that you love?

The economy of the nation was in tatters. The very poorest in their society were the hardest hit. What a terrible injustice that would be. Things just weren’t how they used to be. It felt like life was on hold as they struggled with what a new normal might look like? Can you imagine this?

Perhaps in our time we can appreciate better some of the challenges faced by the exiles? Their challenges have some affinity with ours, but their situation was more precarious than ours. Zechariah’s ministry provided God’s word in answer to the questions raised by uncertainty. His answers are an antidote to the fear that so easily follows in the footsteps of uncertainty.

Zechariah’s sixth and seventh visions speak to questions we share with the exiles of old. The answers remind us that we too are exiles, though closer to the final stage of God’s plan for humankind.

Vision 6—Zechariah 5:1-4
The exile of the people of Judah to Babylon is a dramatic illustration of the fundamental problem that lies at the heart of God’s relationship with his people.

That problem is that God wants his people to live in wholesome healthy relationship with him—the only thing God expects in return is that his people will fear him.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,
but fools despise wisdom and instruction.

Proverbs 1:7, NIVUK

He instructed his people on how they can do this and gave them the choice. They could live in covenant faithfulness with him and know his blessing. Or they could break the covenant by ignoring his instruction and receive a curse instead of a blessing. This is all mapped out in the Book of Deuteronomy Chapter 28. There we see the promise of blessing put side-by-side with the ‘promise’ of a curse.

We know that the people and their rulers chose to disobey God’s instruction time-and again until the covenant reached breaking point. Whenever I hear the Abba song SOS it reminds me of this most tragic of relationship breakdowns. The love story of the bridegroom Yahweh and his bride Israel:

Where are those happy days, they seem so hard to find?
I try to reach for you, but you have closed your mind.
Whatever happened to our love? I wish I understood.
It used to be so nice, it used to be so good.

The most tragic part of the story was that God left Jerusalem before the people were taken into exile. This is told in visionary language in the Book of Ezekiel. Here is a short snippet:

18 Then the glory of the Lord departed from over the threshold of the temple and stopped above the cherubim. 19 While I watched, the cherubim spread their wings and rose from the ground, and as they went, the wheels went with them. They stopped at the entrance of the east gate of the Lord’s house, and the glory of the God of Israel was above them.
Ezekiel 10:18-19, NIVUK

Ezekiel makes it clear that God left because of iniquity, wickedness, and idolatry. Old fashioned terms but central to the Bible’s central story and the reality of this broken world:

    • Iniquity is sin and the associated guilt of sin.
    • Wickedness is the fundamental commitment to evil that underlies some sin.
    • Idolatry is the looking for other God’s, whether ancient deities of the modern gods of money, sex, and power.

Zechariah’s visions 1-3 explore God’s return to Jerusalem—the undoing of Ezekiel’s depiction of God’s departure. Visions 4 and 5 are centred on Jerusalem. Visions 6 and 7 explain the outworking of God’s return to Jerusalem.

So why a flying scroll? Its huge size and the fact that it is flying implies this is God’s work. Other references to scrolls in the Prophets (Jeremiah 36 and Ezekiel 2-3) tell us this is God’s word. In the context of the Prophets this is a word that brings judgement to the nation and nations. To put it another way, this is a word of woe.

This flying scroll brings two judgements:

‘This is the curse that is going out over the whole land; for according to what it says on one side, every thief will be banished, and according to what it says on the other, everyone who swears falsely will be banished’. [v.3, NIVUK]

These sins might well be representative of sins as a whole but both seem to have been especially problematic to the exiles trying to rebuild. In these chaotic times there were those that would steal from their fellows and others who failed to keep their word. Times of uncertainty threaten societal cohesion, at a time when it is especially important that everyone works to support one another.

The dramatic judgement of banishment is rephrased and reframed a verse later:

The LORD Almighty declares, “I will send it out, and it will enter the house of the thief and the house of anyone who swears falsely by my name. It will remain in that house and destroy it completely, both its timbers and its stones.”’ [v.4, NIVUK]

What encouragement can be found in these harsh words? We are two quick to gloss over judgement. God’s judgement is a necessary part of his love for a broken world. Do we not want justice? Are there not deeds of evil that must be dealt with? Only God can ultimately deal with iniquity and wickedness. This is a comfort in times of trouble; that through God’s mighty hand justice arrives sooner or later. This is part of what it means to trust that God still rules this Earth. He will bring order and restoration, and this must necessarily include judgement.

In Christ we have a greater encouragement, for in him it is not yet too late to turn to him for forgiveness. Zechariah’s picture of God’s word is also a call to repentance. It is, after all, the only alternative to a broken house and banishment from God’s holy presence.

Vision 7—Zechariah 5:5-11
As we reach the seventh vision it is readily apparent that God is committed to return now that the people have reversed their exile. They have travelled from Babylon to Jerusalem. Now we see a journey in the opposite direction, from Jerusalem to Babylon. Initially it seems not only bizarre but makes little sense. Just a few details and connections, however, can make this imagery’s meaning and significance come to life.

Seeing the imagery at the end of the vision reveals the punchline. The basket is going from Jerusalem to Babylon. In the original Hebrew the word so often translated Babylon is Shinar, the plane on which the tower of Babel was built. Just as the exiles are rebuilding the temple there is a new Babel building project.

The basket is a parody of the ark through which God is portrayed as having returned to the Temple. The basket has a lid, like the ark, but this one is made of the basest metal, lead rather than the precious gold of the ark’s lid. This anti-ark is not carried by beautiful and powerful winged cherubim but two women that look like storks—a poor echo of the majesty of the real thing.

What does this anti ark contain? Well the original had God’s word – the torah or instruction. Here we have the opposite, wickedness equated to a woman. At first this sound like a patriarchal slur on women, but this is not the case. The Hebrew word for wickedness sounds very like Asherah—a woman named Asherah most likely means that this is a statue of the goddess Asherah. As the anti-ark it contains the heart of idolatrous religion just as the real ark contained the word of God, a God that cannot be portrayed as a physical object according to that law

The visons are reaching their climax of glorious hope—the beleaguered exiles have returned. They are promised that God too is returning to them and that wickedness will depart. They not only have an experience of an emerging new normal from the pain of exile but their hope as God’s people is alive again. They will once again know God with them, Immanuel. They will have wickedness, iniquity, and idolatry removed from them. This hope takes on its full nature only in Christ. For it happened in the single day of Christ’s resurrection (cf. Zechariah 3:9).

The exiles were comforted by the promise of God’s presence in the temple. We know of Jesus Christ, God with us, in a fuller sense. By his Spirit he no longer is confined to a temple but is with us his people.

Teresa of Avila put such hope this way:

Let nothing disturb you, nothing frighten you, all things are passing, God is unchanging. Patience gains all; nothing is lacking to those who have God: God alone is sufficient.

Living Life to the Full with Psalm 16:11

You show me the path of life.
In your presence there is fullness of joy;
in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
Psalm 16:11, NRSV

Introduction
What does it mean to live life to the full? What significance do our lives have? Where do we go for answers to such questions? Perhaps we would rather not face such demanding questions? Sometimes cynicism, disappointment, or lack of faith can make the question of living life to the full irrelevant. Faith of course is key to the radical gospel-focused answers to questions about life, the universe, and everything.

The humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow touched on these sorts of questions, from the perspective of our needs, in the 1940s. At the most basic level we have physiological needs. Forget fullness of life—without air we can’t live more than a few minutes at best. Without water we can’t live more than a few days. Without food we can’t live more than a very small number of weeks. Sleep is another physiological need.

At the next level in what Maslow termed a hierarchy of need, and assuming we have our physiological needs met we look for safety. This includes housing, and civil society and its structures that keep us safe. If those needs are met, we look for love and belonging (Stage 3). We need a family, friends, and/or a partner to meet these needs.

If we are fortunate enough to get all that sorted, according to Maslow we look for esteem (Stage 4). This might be finding, and being recognised for, our role within our neighbourhood or wider society. Finally, in this hierarchy comes Stage 5: self-actualisation—achieving one’s potential through hard work, grit, and determination.

A few weeks ago, I went to my first post lock-down film. It was the film Goodfellas (1990). It is directed by Martin Scorsese and is based on the true story of the mobster Henry Hill. It opens with these words from Henry Hill:

“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster. To me, being a gangster was better than being President of the United States. Even before I first wandered into the cabstand for an after school job I knew I wanted to be a part of them. It was there that I knew that I belonged. To me, it meant being somebody in the neighbourhood that was full of nobodies. They weren’t like anybody else. I mean, they did whatever they wanted. They double parked in front of a hydrant and nobody ever game them a ticket. In the summer when they played cards all night, nobody ever called the cops.”

Right there on the silver screen, mirroring a real life, we have the ‘belonging’ of Stage 3 of the hierarchy of need. The ‘esteem’ of Stage 4, and the ‘self-actualisation’ of Stage 5. All of this in an ugly law-breaking fulfilment of Maslow’s five-stage hierarchy of need—the American Dream at its worst.

The Bible, of course, has something to say about all five stages of Maslow’s hierachy. The Lord’s Prayer reminds us to be thankful to God that our physiological needs are met:

Give us this day our daily bread.
Matthew 6:11, NRSV

The Psalms remind us that ultimately our safety is found in God:

The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer,
my God, my rock in whom I take refuge,
my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.
Psalm 18:2, NRSV

The Bible celebrates friends, family, and sexual union. Though the gospel puts all of these in second position to loving Christ:

Then Peter said in reply, “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.
Matthew 19:27–29, NRSV

What the Bible says about our need for esteem and our desire for self-actualisation is a much more complex and is tempered by our brokenness as sinners. Maslow’s hierarchy of need cannot account for our ultimate needs according to the Bible. This is where Psalm 16:11 comes in.

The Path of Life
Psalm 16 can be read as David’s words. It can be read as Jesus’ words. We are going to read Psalm 16 as our words, or better still our prayer.

You show me the path of life.
In your presence there is fullness of joy;
in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
Psalm 16:11, NRSV

The Bible is awash with journeys. The first journey was leaving Eden. If it hadn’t been for this there would have been no need for any other journeys. Abraham famously left his home country and journeyed to the Promised Land. Israel left slavery in Egypt and journeyed in the Desert on their journey to the Promised Land. Jesus journeyed from a quiet northern backwater to the Cross outside the City of Peace.

Our lives are also journeys. As Disciples we follow Jesus and we also bear a cross. As Pilgrims we journey to a Promised Land and the new City of Peace. The path of life is a walk with God; it is walking with Jesus; it is keeping in step with the Spirit. This is a path that is important because of both the journey and the destination.

Joy in God’s Presence
The path of life is about the journey and it is about the destination. This is an important balance. Our faith loses its vitality without this balance. If we only remember the journey our priority to welcome people into the Kingdom—to know Christ—will dwindle and wane. This is the mistake of various expressions of Christianity such as the German liberalism of the nineteenth century.

If we only have a future hope, we will not celebrate our gifts here and now. Nor will we be good stewards of all the good things that God has given us. This has been the mistake of Christian fundamentalism and some cult perversions of Christianity.

Putting God at our right-hand means putting him in the place of honour. It means that our discipleship and pilgrimage both come ahead of all wants and even needs. It means seeing not a hierarchy of need in our life, but a hierarchy of blessing. We perceive that all good things come from God.

In your presence there is fullness of joy.
Psalm 16:11b, NRSV

When we have God at our right hand—Jesus in that place of authority in our lives—then we discover true blessing. This is the blessing that the Bible speaks about, a blessing which is also happiness, and joy. This is what God’s presence does in our lives. This fullness of joy, that comes through putting Jesus Christ in the place of Lordship in our lives, replaces esteem on the hierarchy of need and transforms it into the hierarchy of blessing.This also should remind us that bringing a one-dimensional gospel to people who have physiological needs, issues with safety, and a lack of belonging will be fruitless.

Eternal Pleasure
Faith in Christ means we have knowledge of an ultimate destination. We tend to spend too little time and effort on celebrating and reflecting on this hope.

in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
Psalm 16:11, NRSV

We don’t just have a place in eternity with the living God. It is a place of immense blessing. We need to forget our culture’s misreading of the biblical hope. This is not a disembodied floating, cloud-based, harp-playing eternity of repetitive singing. It is rooted in physical resurrection.

In centuries gone by when life was hard, unpleasant, uncomfortable, and short for just about everyone, this glorious future of a New Heaven and a New Earth was something that was more central to Christian faith.

If the hierarchy of need has as its hard-won pinnacle self-actualisation, our hierarchy of blessing has an eternity with the living God at the summit. This blessing is achieved in Christ, on our behalf, and is not subject to a fiercely competitive race to the top. The apostle Paul of course does portray the journey  as a race, but this is a race that all can win in Christ.

Psalm 16 verse 11 provides beautiful answers to the difficult questions we started with. This is a verse worth taking with us, either literally or by committing it to memory.

We are Poetry in Motion

For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Ephesians 2:10, NIVUK

Introduction
The film Memento came out in the year 2000. It is directed by Christopher Nolan. He is now famous for doing strange things with time in many of his movies. Memento is no exception. It tells a story where some scenes are chronological and others are in reverse order because of a memory issue for the story’s lead character. Only at the end does it finally make sense as the reverse scenes arrive at the start of the story.

This post, whilst not as complicated as a Christopher Nolan time-twist, proceeds backwards through one verse—a single sentence—of Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians.

Why look at this verse backwards? Well, the last part of Paul’s sentence can be easily misread or misheard. And the first part of the sentence is the place where I want this post to end—to marvel that we are God’s handiwork.

At the outset of this look at Ephesians 2:10 we should note that all three elements of this verse are the work of God in Christ our Cornerstone:

• We are God’s handiwork.
• We are created in Christ.
• Our good deeds are prepared in advance by God.

God’ action here is both excellent news, but also potentially confusing. What place is there for us if God does all of this?

Prepared in Advance
Such a short crisp verse. And yet for many it comes with distracting baggage. For seasoned and new Christians alike the final phrase, ‘good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do’ distracts us with its apparent affirmation that our lives are predetermined by God. For some young Christians I know, it can be an immense barrier to faith rather than just the subject of idle musing.

Predestination is hardly a new debate. Some answers to this question have been labelled as heresy, for example Pelagius’ teachings at the turn of the 4th to 5th BCE, and other answers have founded denominations. Both extremes of accounting for predestination are problematic.

I suggest that the Bible does not tell us that all of our good works are already decided by God. For a start this would contradict both the freedom that God gave humankind to choose to love him, or not. Perhaps more problematic still, it would kill dead the freedom of the gospel that Paul speaks of elsewhere:

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’.
Galatians 5:13-14, NIVUK

If we think Ephesians 2:10 tells us we have no choices, we are not seeing it on its own terms. This is because we wear glasses with a narcissistic prescription. We are so used to being individuals that we read ourselves as an individual into every biblical claim.

Contrary to what we are told from cradle-to-grave in Western culture, we are not even the centre of our own lives—it is Christ the cornerstone who should be central. To Paul we would all look like self-obsessed narcissists. The predestination of Ephesians does not refer to our individual deeds, played out frame-by-frame with the inevitability of a Christopher Nolan film—our lives are not one inevitable cause-and-effect after another. Ephesians refers to God’s beautiful plan for this world. The plan to create a single people, to reverse the expulsion from Eden and the stupidity of Babel. This universal and corporate perspective is seen in Chapter 1 if we suspend our self-obsession for a moment:

In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession – to the praise of his glory.
Ephesians 1:11–14, NIVUK

Paul’s concern in Ephesians is with the building of the people of God, built on Christ as the cornerstone. A few verses after Ephesians 2:10 Paul goes on to talk about the dividing wall that lay between Gentiles and God’s first family the Jews. Jesus Christ has torn down that wall—the first of many. It is a wall demolished, in order to build one people, with him the measure and foundation—our cornerstone.

Our baggage does not end when we put on corporate glasses, rather than our default individualistic ones.

The phrase ‘good works’ also has baggage of its own. Our culture would not only attempt to have us redefine God’s work to create a universal Church, as the creation of a lot of self-obsessed individuals. Our culture also misreads the good news because it has misread ‘good works’.

Our culture has a pervasive myth that Christianity is about earning entry to the afterlife by doing ‘good deeds’. This is not the message of the Bible. This myth goes back to the Middle-Ages when the Church did teach something like this. Although the Reformation produced a new perspective on justification it also created another myth.

The is the idea that the Judaism of the Bible was all about earning salvation by good deeds. We might have learned this in our formative years. Judaism then, and Judaism today, is not about good deeds and earning salvation. Jews believe they are chosen, elected, by God—predestined to know God in the age to come.

When Paul says in the preceding two verses to Ephesians 2:10:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.
Ephesians 2:8–9, NIVUK

He is not comparing Jew and Gentile; he is pointing out something that all the community of faith can agree on. Both Jew and Gentile are saved by grace not by works.

Created in Christ
The gospel is the news that God, through the work of Christ Jesus, has established a single people. In Paul’s day best expressed by the impossible dream of Jew and Gentile being made one. This is good news, Isaiah’s good news, or evangelion:

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!’
Isaiah 52:7, NIVUK

The Incarnation, Jesus’ ministry, the cross, the resurrection, his ascension, all testify to this good news. In Jesus’ person and in his deeds, there is new creation. All of humanity can be created in him to join the one people of God. Whatever our views on predestination, good works, philosophy, whether we are catholic or protestant, our one foundation is Christ incarnate, Christ crucified, Christ resurrected, Christ ascended.

We are created not by the actions of a man, but they work of God. Created upon one sure foundation, Christ our cornerstone. In being created in Christ Jesus we are to do good works. They flow from relationship with the one God, through Christ. There is no better work than telling this news.

There can be a temptation to make the gospel a little simpler, to oil the wheels. Have you noticed that there is a difference between sharing ‘Jesus’ and sharing ‘Christ Jesus’?

It is relatively easy, and culturally acceptable, to speak of Jesus the man. The amazing carpenter from Nazareth. The great teacher. This is the Jesus who even the atheist Douglas Adams admired and gave a role to at the start of The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy:

“one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change . . .”

Yet, if we speak of his miracles, we stray from acceptable polite conversation. If we move on to anything, like the resurrection, that claims Jesus was not a good man but the God-Man, then the shutters often come up. But Jesus the man can only inspire. Jesus the God-Man provides a foundation, a cornerstone, for our lives.

Our faith, our foundation as God’s people, the gift of the Holy Spirit, all centre on Jesus being The Christ, being both man and God.

Of course, proclaiming the gospel is not the only good work. All sorts of good wholesome deeds are central to being God’s handiwork.

God’s Handiwork
What does it mean to be God’s handiwork? Firstly, we need to pay attention to this at a corporate level. We are God’s handiwork as the universal Church and as a local church. In Paul’s language we are Christ’s body and Christ is our head. We can go further, both forwards and backwards in time too. The universal Church breaks the boundaries of time in a way that Christopher Nolan can only dream of.

Lying behind the NIVUK’s phrase ‘God’s handiwork’ is the Greek word poiema. Paul says that the local communities he writes to are poems and by extension so are all its members.

The language of being poems fits perfectly with the wider passage. As poems we are both established in Christ, just as a poem has rules, convention, and a framework that make it a poem. At the same time poems have a freedom, a beauty within a framework.

Being founded in Christ means we are poems, with Christ the cornerstone as our framework and foundation. The language of a cornerstone for the messiah comes originally from Psalm 118 and is used by Paul in verse 20 of Ephesians 2.

God has done his part of the poem by establishing us in Christ our cornerstone. Our dependence on him will enable us to rhyme and resonate with our cornerstone. Our lives will sound and look right when this happens.

Mercifully, there is room for redrafts when we do not rhyme with our cornerstone.

The Psalter as Mirror: Reflecting on a Metaphor

The Psalter is not only full of rich imagery and metaphors, but throughout church history interpreters have used metaphors to try and capture what it is. One of the most valuable of these metaphors is that of a mirror. In modern treatments of the Psalms it is often John Calvin (1509–1564) who is cited for this metaphorical insight [1]. We will return to his use of this metaphor below. The application of such a metaphor, however, predates Calvin by more than a millennium.

As far as I am aware, it was Athanasius of Alexandria (c.296–373) who first applied such a metaphor to the Psalms:

And it seems to me that these words become like a mirror to the person singing them, so that he might perceive himself and the emotions of his soul, and thus affected, he might recite them. For in fact he who hears the one reading receives the song that is recited as being about him, and either, when he is convicted by his conscience, being pierced, he will repent, or hearing of the hope that resides in God, and of the succor available to believers—how this kind of grace exists for him—he exults and begins to give thanks to God.
Athanasius, The Letter to Marcellinus [2]

Athanasius’ wonderful work known as The Letter to Marcellinus gives an account of the psalms, their value, and their use. He tells of them as though he learnt everything from an old master of the Psalms which I take to be a modest self-reference. In the quote above, we see Athanasius referring to a mirror in its most basic function, reflecting a person. He claims that in singing a psalm there is an emotional dynamic in which the singer perceives themselves with new insight. This is an active process in which unperceived emotions are made tangible, and positive change is actualised. The focus for Athanasius is specially connected with penitence.

Before we return to Calvin, we note that Martin Luther (1483–1546) also used this metaphor of a mirror for reflecting on the Psalms. There is both continuity with Athanasius, and novelty in his application of the image. Just as Athanasius’ insight was made in his major work on the Psalms, for Luther too the metaphor is employed in a major work—his fresh translation of the whole Psalter into German. Luther produced many works on the Psalms but it his translation of the Psalter into the vernacular that was a central achievement. This book was so popular it went through a huge number of print runs in short space of time. Luther saw fit to revise it twice. This quote comes from the second edition, as well as all subsequent editions to this day:

In a word, if you would see the holy Christian Church painted in living color and shape, comprehended in one little picture, then take up the Psalter. There you have a fine, bright, pure mirror that will show you what Christendom is. Indeed you will find in it also yourself and the true gnothi seauton [Know yourself], as well as God himself and all creatures.
Luther, Preface to the Psalter, second edition (1528) [3]

Here, for Luther, in addition to the Psalms reflecting their reader they reflect Christendom. This additional dimension owes much to Luther’s claim that the Psalms are a Bible in miniature. It is unclear whether Luther is consciously or unconsciously following Athanasius or coming afresh to a similar metaphorical insight.

Turning to Calvin, we find him using essentially the same imagery, also in his major work on the Psalms—the preface to his massive commentary on all 150 biblical psalms. It is worth quoting him at length:

I have been accustomed to call this book, I think not inappropriately, “An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul;” for there is not an emotion of which anyone can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn to the life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated. The other parts of Scripture contain the commandment which God enjoined his servants to announce to us. But here the prophets themselves, seeing they are exhibited to us speaking to God, and laying open all their inmost thoughts and affections, call, or rather draw, each of us to the examination of himself in particulars in order that none of the many infirmities to which we are subject, and of the many vices with which we abound, may remain concealed. It is certainly a rare and singular advantage, when all lurking places are discovered, and the heart is brought into the light, purged from that most baneful infection, hypocrisy. In short, as calling upon God is one of the principal means of securing our safety, and as a better and more unerring rule for guiding us in this exercise cannot be found elsewhere than in The Psalms, it follows, that in proportion to the proficiency which a man shall have attained in understanding them, will be his knowledge of the most important part of celestial doctrine.
John Calvin, Preface to Psalms Commentary [4]

Again, his dependence on Athanasius and/or Luther is unclear. Whatever the inspiration for Calvin, I judge that his claim is the richest. It has the pithy precise hermeneutical claim that we, as readers and singers of the Psalms, are reflected with an actualising clarity in this remarkable book. It also points to not only penitence, but salvation and virtue too.

This metaphor, whether in the hands of Athanasius, Luther, or Calvin, is hermeneutically rich. It makes a claim about the nature of the text, about us, and about how God works salvation and sanctification. Such a claim is vital in complementing modern critical insights. For all their rich detail we cannot get from their literary, religious, and cultic insights to substantiate the life-changing dogmatic claims implicit in the pre-critical work of the three interpreters above.

Taken together with modern criticism, the mirror metaphor brings us close to the insight of Brueggemann that in these ancient texts we find ourselves. Whether we read whilst in a state of orientation or disorientation they reflect our experience. Perhaps, unlike Brueggemann, we can look directly to God’s providence and grace through his Holy spirit for the actualisation of a new reflection or revelation—the reorientation that we so frequently need, and we are so often promised in this small Bible. These songs need to be sung regularly, for in Christ we need to be reoriented continually, even from the status quo of orientation that all too quickly loses its brightness as we look elsewhere than to the one on whom we should fix our eyes. On other occasions we need to own these words to perceive the crucified one amidst the brokenness that is our primary disorientation.

Whatever state we are in, we look at the Mirror to perceive ourselves so as to be changed. To look at this reflection is no narcissistic preoccupation, this is the beginning of our receding from the spotlight, our growing strangely dim, that we can see Christ who is in this book and who also lies behind both it and us.

 

References

  1. See for example, The Psalms: Language for All Seasons of the Soul, Andrew J. Schutzer and David M. Howard Jr. (editors), Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2013, pp.52–54 which plays on Calvin’s associated insight into the Psalms as a language of all seasons of the soul which is a corollary of the mirror metaphor. See also Walter Brueggeman, The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary, Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984, p.17.
  2. Athanasius, Athanasius: The Life of Antony and the Latter to Marcellinus, Robert C. Gregg (translator), Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1980, p.111.
  3. Luther, ‘Preface to the Psalter’ (1528), in Luther’s Works Volume 35, Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, pp.256–257.
  4. Calvin, Psalms Commentary Volume 1, James N. Anderson (translator), 1845, p.19.

Psalm 32: As Stubborn as a Mule

Dissecting Butterflies
Have you ever sat through someone else’s holiday photographs? It is rarely an edifying experience. Have you ever heard someone waxing lyrical about an event that you never experienced? It is difficult to draw any excitement from someone else’s experience. Something is lost in translation as we hear of experiences second-hand. Even as the person with first-hand experience of an exciting event we only have our memory.

Later we might struggle to remember the feelings, the emotion, pathos, or adrenaline, depending on the performance we are thinking of. This is of course part of the reason why Jesus uttered the words, “Do this in remembrance of me”.

The same challenge is true of the psalms. They are prayers, poems, and songs. Prayers function properly when prayed. Poems are at their best when performed. Songs are made for gathering together.

In this sense preaching a psalm is only an hors d’oeuvre, a starter, a taster, an invitation to do something with the psalm in question. Trying to distil the propositional truth from any psalm, or any piece biblical poetry—including the Prophets of the First Testament and Jesus’ teaching in the Second Testament—is akin to dissecting a butterfly to show how beautiful it was in flight.

The stakes are higher with the Bible. The power of praying goes beyond the best theatre, concert, or sport. As God-breathed, the Bible does not just work at an emotional level it has transformative potential. It works through the Spirit and in Christ to save, and to sanctify—to make us more like Jesus Christ.

Blessed and Happy
Psalm 32 as prayer, song, and poem, opens with two verses that start with the word ‘blessed’ or ‘happy’, depending on the English translation. Or as the New Living Translation puts it:

Oh, what joy for those
whose disobedience is forgiven,
whose sin is put out of sight!
Yes, what joy for those
whose record the Lord has cleared of guilt,
whose lives are lived in complete honesty!

Psalm 32:1–2, NLT

The very first psalm, the one that sets the ball rolling in the Book of Praises, starts with the same Hebrew word, ’ašrê. There the imagery of a tree planted by streams of water reminds us that not only are we blessed and happy in Christ, but we are places where God’s grace is at work, where others can find the living water that Jesus promised, and the fruitfulness of being rooted in Christ.

Psalm 119 also starts off with the same idea of double blessing as Psalm 32. There is an English saying about counting your blessings. There’s even a hymn that tells us to do this:

Count your blessings, name them one by one;
Count your blessings, see what God hath done.

Johnson Oatman, 1897

Whilst counting our blessings, in one sense, is a sensible response to all the wonderful things that God has given us in creation and in our lives, the blessing in Psalm 32 is of a different level. The double blessing here is the most basic happiness, blessing, and joy, that we can experience, because it enables life to be lived to the full—here and now. More than that, it is the foundation of a relationship with the living God and therefore our future life too. It is the knowledge of sin and guilt taken away by God.

Most of us will remember the joy described here, that of our first taste of forgiveness. This joy, that comes from having no barriers between us and God, is not meant to be a one-off event. Such joy, that comes through faith and forgiveness, is the central plank of a relationship with God the Father, through Jesus Christ. If we do not have this forgiveness there is no relationship for us to deepen. As with a human relationship, trust and faith are essential not just for growth but for survival.

Illness and Sin
Before the psalmist experienced the blessing, happiness, and joy captured poetically on a scroll, they were in a dark place. The natural sense of this psalm is that the psalmist—the heading encourages us to see David as the psalmist—experienced illness. An illness summed up as ‘wasting away’ and experiences that led to ‘groaning’:

When I refused to confess my sin,
my body wasted away,
and I groaned all day long.
Day and night your hand of discipline was heavy on me.
My strength evaporated like water in the summer heat.

Psalm 32:3–4, NLT

Perhaps it is metaphorical language? Is it possibly the language of anxiety or fear? Perhaps it is a psychosomatic illness arising from fear of God? Or is it old age or a virus? All of these are plausible when we look at other penitential psalms (Psalms 6, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143) as a group. It is also apparent that the psalmist links their emotional or physical illness with sin.

Sin can be the cause of both emotional and physical illness, but this is not the same as suggesting that all ailments can be explained in this way. Nor that we should be quick to make such judgements. The Book of Job warns against such missteps.

An important point is raised here—the same point raised by Hebrews 12. Do we moderns, or post-moderns, still have an openness to being disciplined as God’s children? Do we ever stop for a minute to ask such a question? The psalmist is in no doubt, on this occasion, that they learned the need to repent of sin from an experience of lack of blessing, happiness, and joy. The author of Hebrews tells us to learn discipline from God as his children:

In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.
And have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son? It says,

“My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline,
and do not lose heart when he rebukes you,
because the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.”

Hebrews 12:4–6, NIV [Quoting Proverbs 3:11–12 LXX]

Our first thoughts, and our first prayers, look to deliverance from every ill from the trivial to the severe. There is nothing wrong with this being our first thought and prayer, and of course God in his mercy can deliver. But what if there is something to be learned from our affliction?

I confess I do not entirely like this idea. It is, however, too much of the fabric of the Bible to be ignored. Paul has a struggle, a ‘thorn in his flesh’ (2 Cor. 12:7), that he wanted gone but God saw fit to discipline him through it. The beatitudes in Luke 6 and Matthew 5—sayings of happiness, blessing, and joy turn the notions of blessing on its head. The beatitudes celebrate being poor in spirit, weeping, and being persecuted.

Praying the Psalms
This is exactly why we need the psalms. In praying them we find ourselves praying differently to the one-dimension prayer we default to—the dreaded shopping list prayer.

The psalms are tantalising snapshots of all manner of the type of conversations that we can experience with God. We can find new things to say and we can hear new things in return, when we open up to them. Though they can appear to be hard work at times, they have famously been understood as a school of prayer by spiritual giants such as Saint Augustine, Martin Luther, and more recently Eugene Peterson. If they are a school perhaps, we should not be surprised that they are hard work. Why would we be surprised that being a disciple should require discipline?

Learning prayer from the Bible helps us avoid two errors in prayer. One of these errors is the praise of self rather than God. This is what prayer becomes when it is the wish list, or shopping list, of what we want. The second error avoided by using the Psalms, and other biblical prayers, is the vacuum of no prayer which we sometimes find ourselves in.

As Stubborn as a Mule
One of the challenges of the psalms is how they switch between ideas, images, and moods. A good practice in praying a psalm is to ask the question, “Who is saying this verse?”. Verses 8 and 9 come across as being spoken by God himself. Now we might expect that God has some nice words with which the psalmist is inspired at the close of the psalm. Not so much. Instead God says:

I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go;
I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding,
whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle,
else it will not stay near you.

Psalm 32:8–9, NRSV

God is reminding us that we are as stubborn as mules, we are sinners despite also being saints through Christ.

We are all asses when it comes to walking with God, praying, and especially staying close to God by confessing our sin. Or perhaps it is just me?

As the proverb says, ‘You can lead a horse, or a mule, to water but you cannot make it drink’. So, it is over to you. What will you do with Psalm 32? How can you experience it for yourself?

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.