The Cambridge Companion to The Hebrew Bible/Old Testament: A Review, Part 3

This is the third and final part of my review of the Cambridge Companion to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. The fifth and final part of the book which looks at the reception and use of the HB/OT is the most uneven part of this volume. The first three chapters sit together well, although all three authors are tightly constrained in their respective efforts to capture the significance of the HB/OT to a major world religion. The next two essays, which focus on two aspects of cultural reception, are even more limited by the required chapter length. Despite this, all five of these contributions are engaging and highly informative. It is, in my view, Goldingay’s closing chapter which is the real gem in this section—this essay is excellent in its own right as well as providing an appropriate conclusion to the volume.

Each of the final six chapters is reviewed below. By way of conclusion some final comments are made about the book as a whole.


Part V: Reception and use

Chapter 18: The Hebrew Bible in Judaism (Frederick E. Greenspahn, Florida Atlantic University)

The centrality of the Hebrew Bible to Jewish liturgy and the key annual Jewish festivals is outlined. The centrality of the HB in everyday life is also helpfully unpacked. Greenspahn goes on to argue that despite this centrality many Jewish practices are not derived from the Bible. Because much Jewish practice originated with rabbinic traditions that took shape centuries after the writing of the HB texts, the ‘relationship between Judaism and the Bible is therefore more complicated than we usually acknowledge’ [p.377]. Interestingly Goldingay explores a similar point in the final chapter. The rabbis explained the origin of much of their praxis with reference to an ‘Oral Torah’ which existed in parallel with the Pentateuch (the written Torah). This ‘Oral Torah’ is identified as the source of some of the Talmud (comprising the Mishna and discussions of the Mishna). Greenspahn explores the changing understanding of the nature of the authority of the HB and traditions surrounding the origin and nature of the Torah. The chapter concludes with the recognition that in recent decades many Jewish scholars have joined the academic field of biblical studies. This development is central to the core aim of collaboration stated at the outset of this volume.


Chapter 19: The Old Testament in Christianity (R. W. L. Moberly, Durham University)

Moberly opens by recognising the impossibility of the task to resolve the precise role of the OT within Christianity. This difficulty is, according to Moberly, all the more reason to wrestle with the complex issues which converge on interpreting the very nature of these texts, as well as their relationship to the New Testament. Much of the complexity arises because of the need to account for the difference that Jesus’ death and resurrection makes to appropriating the OT. Over two millennia, Christian interpreters have had very different approaches. Harnack, for example, wanted the OT to be given the same status as the Apocrypha. This has never been a major view—most churches and theologians have favoured a more nuanced relationship which preserves the OT’s canonical status. It is noted that some more programmatic solutions, such as Bultmann’s, produce a very ‘thin’ Christianity.

Moberly helpfully points out that the consequences of re-reading the OT were a central development of Christianity from the outset. This is helpfully illustrated in the very distinct way that Matthew reports Jesus words about the OT compared with his own ideas regarding the Hebrew Scriptures. In a similar way, early Christians appropriated the Shema as a central text as it is in Judaism but made it their own by focusing on its theological claim (Deut. 6:4‒5) rather than the praxis which it promotes (Deut. 6:6‒9). Moberly concludes with a sensitive and constructive reflection on Jesus-centred hermeneutics.


Chapter 20: The Hebrew Bible in Islam (Walid A. Saleh, University of Toronto)

Saleh’s point of departure is the earliest Islamic creed preserved in the Qur’an which asks Muslims to uphold the Scripture of Judaism. What this upholding might mean in detail proves to be a complex story. An initial complication is just how much of the Hebrew Bible might be in mind—the Torah and beyond? Only the Torah? Part of the Torah? There is also something of a duality in that the Qur’an also claims that the Jews have tampered with their Scripture. The Qur’an is frequently delimited with reference to the Torah (and the gospels)—Jews have the Torah, Christians have the Gospel and in the Qur’an Arabs have their Scripture [p.410]. The whole picture is, however, more complex given the Qur’an’s doubt about veracity of the HB—an example is the claim that the HB foretold Mohammad but these references have been tampered with.

In the medieval period, four positions emerged as to the nature and extent of this tampering with the Torah. One extreme is that the whole Torah is falsified and it has nothing of its divine character left. The opposite view is that it is only the hermeneutical lens through which the Torah is interpreted which is the problem. Despite this debate, the HB became very much part of the Islamic tradition as the Qur’an contains stories of key figures such as Adam, Noah, Abraham and Moses. Islam has traditionally looked to the HB’s accounts, for example the ‘Israelite material’ filled in background matters with reference to the Torah. Saleh refers to the work of al-Biqa’i c.1457 CE who demonstrated critical textual skills ahead of his time in using the Hebrew original to inform criticism of three Arabic versions. This is an example of a highly positive approach to the HB in which the Muslim scholar can use it, albeit under the authority of the Qur’an. More recent scholarship has sometimes taken Christian higher criticism and used it to cast doubt on the integrity of the HB.


Chapter 21: The Hebrew Bible in art and literature (David Lyle Jeffrey, Baylor University)

The point of departure for this essay is the tension between the prohibition concerning ‘graven’ images (Exodus 20:4) and the positive recognition of various artistic endeavours as God-inspired (Exodus 31:1‒5). The implications have been felt in the cultures influenced by Jewish and Christian thought. Although nothing survives of the earliest synagogues, from the fourth century ornate mosaic floors are known and from later still manuscripts survive which are highly ornate. These testify to the importance of aesthetics in Jewish worship, although the detail is informed by a mixing of both the HB and other cultures. The extent of medieval Christian art is so large that if defies succinct summary but numerous scenes from the HB are used extensively, often in a distinctively Christian manner. For example, Abraham’s three visitors frequently echo the doctrine of the Trinity.

The HB has had a major influence on poetry from the medieval period onwards. In the medieval period many poems retold classic biblical narratives. Later poetry, such as that of Milton, went further in developing not just the biblical stories but supplying new narrative to more fully develop a theology. The HB was very prominent in Renaissance painting onwards. Over the centuries the artist’s use of the subject matter of the HB has shifted. For example, paintings of Bathsheba bathing can make any number of theological or moral points and can result in pieces of work which are beautiful (Rembrandt’s 1654 Bathsheba) or plainly erotic (Rubens 1635 Bathsheba at the Fountain). The chapter rounds off with an appropriate celebration of the work of Marc Chagall.


Chapter 22: The Old Testament in public: the Ten Commandments. Evolution, and Sabbath closing laws (Nancy J. Duff, Princeton Theological Seminary)

This chapter is especially focused on the USA. Whilst some of the issues surrounding the use of the OT in public are generic to other countries, much of the argument is concerned with the specific role of the US constitution in this regard. This essay has a limited appeal to those whose primary concern lies outside the US.

The essay opens with a concern about how well known the detailed content of either the OT or the US constitution is among the general populace. The First Amendment of the Constitution is outlined as key to understanding the three issues examined in this chapter. In particular the prohibition against the enactment of any law that seeks to establish a particular religion (The Establishment Clause) and the right for any citizen to exercise any religion freely (The Free Exercise Clause). The posting of the Ten Commandments in public is considered first. Duff urges caution about the value of the public display of the Ten Commandments in isolation from the prologue (Exodus 20:2) that makes their origin clear. The 1925 Scopes trial is used illustrate the way in which evolution has been handled in public debate in the US. The danger of seeing God primarily as an explanation for the scientifically inexplicable—the so-called god of the gaps—is lamented. There is a very real risk that this approach relegates God to the margins of life rather than showing his centrality to life. In the final section, Duff argues that Sabbath regulation risks undermining the spirit of freedom and joy which should accompany Sabbath. In fact strict Sabbath regulation makes people US citizens first and foremost and Christians second. Duff suggests that there should be greater emphasis on the issues of social justice; that all have a right to rest, and worship, if and when they wish.


Chapter 23: The Theology of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament (John Goldingay, Fuller Theological Seminary)

This final chapter provides an appropriate conclusion to this volume. Goldingay’s effortless narrative introduces the theology of the HB/OT via key theologians of the past century but cuts to the chase about the challenge of handling the HB/OT with the care it deserves. Walter Eichrodt’s work is eloquently captured in terms of its promise but also its pitfalls. In this way a key element is established for the rest of the chapter—unlike Eichrodt we will look to view the big picture that emerges from the OT rather than any singular system which underlies it. Goldingay steps from Eichrodt to introduce YHWH, Israel and the World as a triptych within the OT narrative. Von Rad is introduced as the theologian who both emphasised the diversity of Israel’s faith and highlighted the gap between the OT and history. Goldingay then introduces two theologians who have handled von Rad’s legacy in distinctly different ways. Childs’ canonical approach is outlined—Childs not only wants to focus on the final form of the biblical books but wants their present religious value to be central to the hermeneutical endeavour. Brueggemann sees things differently, wanting to avoid any tendency of Christian assimilation of the OT. He does this by developing a thoroughgoing literary and rhetorical approach which pays special attention to the sociological implications of the HB/OT texts.

At one level Goldingay suggests that both Christian and Jewish interpreters have shared something in their respective use of the HB/OT—Christians see it through the lens of the New Testament and Jews see it through the Mishnah and Talmud. On the smaller scale of the individual too, even the most faithful interpreters have much to learn from others. How else can we hope to perceive our own all too prevalent myopia?


Final Comments on the Whole Volume

The twenty-three contributions in this volume come together well to provide a thoroughgoing introduction to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. I would have liked to have seen a broader and more balanced range of contributors in terms of both gender and cultural background—and like all books of this type it has the typical expected unevenness. This said all of the contributions broadly do what is expected from their respective titles and their place in the volume. As with all multivolume works some chapters stand out, but this can be in part due to the taste and interests of the reader. I have singled out what I judge to be the highlights.

Anyone using this volume as an ongoing reference will be pleased to known that the Index is highly comprehensive, running to some 43 pages. For many the faith stances of its authors will also make it attractive—virtually all of the contributors seem sympathetic to the ongoing religious role of the HB/OT rather than seeing it as only a cultural artefact. The quality and scope of this volume at what is a reasonable price make this hard to beat.

You might also be interested in my earlier review of John Barton’s (ed.) The Hebrew Bible: A Critical Companion. This edited volume which in many ways covers very similar ground has a broader range of contributors than he Cambridge Companion.


The Cambridge Companion to The Hebrew Bible/Old Testament: A Review, Part 2

This is the second part of a three-part review of the Cambridge Companion to The Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, the first part can be found here.

This post covers the nine chapters which cover the key subcollections and genres of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament (HB/OT).

Part IV: Subcollections and genres

Chapter 9: The Pentateuch and Israelite law (Thomas B. Dozeman, United Theological Seminary)

Dozeman begins by demarcating Genesis’ distinctiveness from the other four books of the Pentateuch and also noting the differences between Genesis 1‒11 and 12‒50. Deuteronomy is also distinguished from Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers—the latter three concerning the first generation of Israelites and Deuteronomy the second generation. This provides a helpful orientation ahead of a survey of approaches to the Pentateuch which occupies most of this chapter. The need for critical interpretation to explain the repetition of narrative episodes and laws is flagged as a key goal.

The emergence of Wellhausen’s documentary hypothesis is sensitively traced through Calvin, Spinoza, Astruc and de Wette. Challenges to the documentary hypothesis are examined and include a variety of issues such as the likely role of oral tradition and the antiquity of ancient Near Eastern legal traditions. Alternatives to the documentary hypothesis which can account for repetitions of narratives and laws in terms of literary devices are outlined. These include the idea that competing laws are actually placed in dialogue with each other. The chapter concludes with the emerging consensus that redactors, rather than identifiable sources, are the basis for an appropriate understanding the origin of the Pentateuch, or perhaps better still the Enneateuch—i.e. Genesis through to Kings).

Chapter 10: The Former Prophets and historiography (Richard D. Nelson, Southern Methodist University)

The point of departure for this chapter is a brief summary of the intertextuality between the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings with the book of Deuteronomy. Nelson explains that the interconnections reveal an overall unification between these books whilst at the same time each book still is very much a self-contained literary unit. This leads into a clear concise explanation of how scholars have explained the intertextuality of the Former Prophets and Deuteronomy in terms of a Deuteronomistic History. How this idea has evolved over some 80 years, or so, is sketched. This is done well, with a wealth of detailed information presented with a clarity that avoids overwhelming the reader. This chapter picks up on key aspects of earlier contributions regarding literary approaches and the nature of history. Nelson sketches four aspects of historiography which he argues mean that modern historians should use the former prophets with care. The chapter rounds off with a brief sketch of each of the four former prophets and Nelson’s judgement about each one’s veracity as a historical source. This chapter avoids discussion concerning the religious value of these texts.

Chapter 11: The Latter Prophets and prophecy (Marvin A. Sweeney, Claremont School of Theology)

The Latter Prophets—Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and The Twelve—are set in the context of the ancient Near East where prophets function by attempting ‘to persuade people to follow the divine will’ [p.233]. The ubiquity of prophets in this cultural milieu is outlined along with the various means by which they claimed to discern the divine will. Little is said of the relationship between the named prophets and the literary pieces that bear their names. Sweeney points out that recent scholarship has emphasised treating these texts synchronically, after earlier work which focused on their diachronic development. An example of the significance of this seed change is the different reading which arises from seeing Isaiah as a coherent piece rather than as three separate texts. A synchronic focus does not deny a complex textual series of events but seeks to give priority to the final form. In a similar way Sweeney argues for a synchronic reading of Ezekiel showing that attempts to separate chapters 40‒48 are ill conceived. Notwithstanding the challenge of the different order of The Twelve in the Masoretic Text and the Septuagint, Sweeney argues for the value of seeing The Twelve as a single text. In this way intertextual features take on greater depth, an example being Isaiah’s oracle from Isaiah 2:2‒4 which is echoed at the start (Joel 3:9‒11), the middle (Micah 4:1‒5) and end (Zechariah 8:20‒23) of The Twelve. This chapter concludes by recognising the importance of the Latter Prophets in sustaining both Jews and Christians in a world which serves up plenty of exile-like experiences.

Chapter 12: The Psalms and Hebrew poetry (William P. Brown, Columbia Theological Seminary)

After a brief nod to the magnitude of the challenge of exploring the Psalter in a short chapter, let alone all Hebrew poetry, Brown captures the key features of Hebrew verse. He helpfully rehearses the immense challenge of (i) The Psalms’ preference for terseness, and (ii) the difficulty that scholars have had in defining the nature of the parallelism of Hebrew poetry. Brown uses Lowth’s three-fold terminology of synonymous, antithetical and synthetic parallelism, but concludes with today’s consensus that there is more artistry and beauty to parallelism that this system can capture. Brown is judicious in his treatment of the various scholarly shifts that have taken place in how best to handle the psalms. He points to the value and limits of form-critical work and neatly captures the important performative nature of the psalms by sketching Mowinckel’s and Brueggemann’s very different but monumental contributions to scholarship on the function of the psalms. This is followed by a similarly concise but highly instructive presentation of the collections of psalms found within the Psalter. This is a prelude to asking about the shape and shaping of the final Book of Psalms. The final sections look at the anthropological and theological dimensions of the Psalter.

Chapter 13: Wisdom (Samuel E. Balentine, Union Presbyterian Seminary, Richmond, VA)

Wisdom is defined as the effort of Israel’s sages to pursue a ‘pragmatic quest for knowledge through rational inquiry and human reason’ [p.274]. Proverbs is chosen as an appropriate starting point. Its development over time is outlined. Whilst the details of this process are the subject of conjecture there can be little doubt about the length and complexity of the process—unlike much of the NB/OT this book is open about its composite nature. Lowth’s three-fold terminology of parallelism, introduced in the previous chapter, is shown to be at work in different parts of the Proverbs—for example, antithetical parallelism dominates Proverbs 10‒15. The twin settings of family and royal court are examined as backgrounds for the origin of various sayings and collections. These two settings cohere with the conservative nature of the book of Proverbs.

The book of Job is shown to reflect the conventional notion that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” whilst also questioning the status quo. Ecclesiastes is shown to go further in its questioning, both more vigorously and with a greater variety of approaches. This highly distinctive dynamic is demonstrated by considering Qoheleth’s terminology of “vanity” and “fate” as well as the language used to refer to the deity that portrays God as veiled and secret. This chapter succeeds in that a reader of any of these three books would be oriented rapidly for a fruitful engagement with these texts.

Chapter 14: Late historical books and rewritten history (Ehud Ben Zvi, University of Alberta)

National histories were apparently a unique feature of ancient Israel. In the two books with which this chapter is concerned—Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah—as well as those considered in earlier chapters, it is Israel and YHWH who are the two central characters. For Ben Zvi this first character is a theologically conceived Israel, with the implied author/s and readers being insiders. Both Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah are explored as national histories which create boundaries between those whose outlook coheres with the implied author/s and those hostile to their worldview. Despite this similarity and others, the two books differ markedly on the issue of boundaries with those outside the ‘lineage of Israel’. Specifically, Ezra-Nehemiah repeatedly invokes an argument centred on a holiness ideal which is hostile to ‘mixed marriage’. Ben Zvi considers why a tiny literate elite would want a second history. Various answers are given although none are especially compelling. What is clear is that scholars of a previous generation had unhelpfully marginalised Chronicles because of misplaced negativity about its inferiority as a historical source, a theological document and as literature. Although much less space is given to Ezra-Nehemiah an intriguing picture is painted of how this singular yet bifurcated text still puzzles scholars.

Chapter 15: The biblical short story (Lawrence M. Wills, Episcopal Divinity School, Cambridge, MA)

This chapter examines Genesis 37‒50 (the story of Joseph), Ruth, Jonah, the prose frame of Job, Esther, Daniel 1‒6, Susanna, Bel and the Dragon, Judith, Tobit and what Wills terms ‘the international Story of Ahikar’ (an Egyptian ‘novella’). To the reader unfamiliar with recent scholarship on biblical short stories this might seem a strangely eclectic mix. Wills quickly illustrates the rationale and value in considering these stories together. He provides a compelling sketch of the themes and the form that unites them. If Wills is correct in his analysis then many readings of these texts, both contemporary and historical, have failed to capture their most fundamental dynamics. The simple observation that they all operate on a theme of ‘innocents abroad’ [p.315] immediately indicates that there is a literary movement here. A key aspect of these novellas for Wills is that they are meant to be taken as fictional. He shows the evidence of this for each story. For Ruth he highlights features such as the artificial time (i.e. when the judges ruled), most names having a meaning critical to the story, coincidence plays a key role and the unusual role for dialogue. The case for the fictional dynamic of most of the other stories is even more compelling. He helpfully argues against the notion that character development is an innovation of the modern novel by showing its clear presence in Esther. For Wills the fictional dynamic is central, as is the downplaying of the direct role of God, to the entire purpose of these texts: ‘divine providence is not apparent in real life but is true nevertheless’ [p.326]. Whatever the reader makes of this chapter they will find it engaging and stimulating.

Chapter 16: Apocalyptic writings (Stephen L. Cook, Virginia Theological Seminary)

Cook opens with a working definition of apocalypticism and quickly moves on to establish the limited extent of such texts in the HB/OT. The texts which can be labelled as such are essentially early apocalyptic or protoapocalyptic. A helpful distinction is made between apocalyptic thinking and more mythological thought. The latter tends to be concerned with explaining the status quo whereas the former is expecting radical change and an ‘invasion by otherness’ [p.332]. Because of the limited corpus with which this contribution is concerned, Cook has more space and freedom than some other contributors in which to explore his specific scholarly insights. In particular he argues that a simplistic two-way connection between millennial groups and apocalyptic is not entirely helpful as apocalyptic thinking can be promoted in many diverse literary ways. He makes a compelling case that some scholars have been too hasty in equating apocalypticism as simply importing Persian thought. He shows that whilst there is an influence, it is a much more nuanced and the biblical authors and editors have made it their own. Building on this, he explores the idea of bodily resurrection at some length. He argues that this idea was present from at least 580 BCE, noting Ezekiel 37’s albeit metaphorical use of the idea. This is presented as a challenge to those who propose that resurrection is a late and foreign idea for the apocalyptic (and prophetic) biblical corpus.

Chapter 17: Deuterocanonical/apocryphal books (Sharon Pace, Marquette University)

This chapter opens with a reminder of the complexity surrounding these books. They have very different designations within Judaism, the Orthodox churches, the Catholic Church and the Protestant churches. The different terms by which these books are known arises from the different roles and level of authority ascribed to them in these four broad religious traditions. The notion of canon is briefly revisited so as to explain the date and relationship of these various texts with the Hebrew Bible main corpus. In detail this is done by revisiting the earliest testimonies to the number of books in the Hebrew Bible. The rest of the chapter paints a brief portrait of each of these various writings. In my view, this chapter will function best as a quick reference guide rather than reading in a single setting.


Together these nine chapters provide an excellent overview of the Subcollections and literary types found in the HB/OT. For me there are three chapters which stand out for the simple reason that they made me want to go and read the respective parts of the HB/OT. These are Brown on The Psalms and Hebrew poetry, Balentine on Wisdom and Wills on The biblical short story.



Psalm 149—Singing a New Song in 2017

Purple Rain: 2016

2016 was by any standards a remarkable year. On two days I awoke to the opposite outcome to that which I had expected in a national vote – I was personally disappointed on both counts. This time last year no one would have predicted all of the big events on the world stage of these past 12 months. It will, I am sure, go down as a historic year which set in motion events which will take decades to unfold. But 2016 was remarkable for other reasons. It seemed that everybody experienced a famous person that they liked, or admired, dying. The world of music alone lost Prince, Leonard Cohen, David Bowie and George Michael.

The most talented musicians leave a tangible cultural legacy. I find the role of music in culture fascinating. Have you ever wondered about the ubiquity of music? Why do we have song-after-song-after-song? Are there not enough songs by now? Is it really possible to do anything new with a song?

The cynic might say that the modern song writer is in it for the money. Whilst I cannot deny that there is a commercial dynamic to the music industry, there is something more. It is not cold hard cash that motivates budding musicians to work endlessly at anti-social hours for little or no money and limited recognition. I don’t think it is just a hope of future fame that can drive them. There is simply something creative about the human nature. Just as God created the Universe, as people in his image we are creative too. For some of us this means writing new songs and music and/or playing and performing music.

Psalm 149 makes much of singing a New Song. It is not alone in exulting us to sing a New Song. Psalms 33, 40, 96, 98 and 144 also refer to this idea. Isaiah 42 and Revelation 5 use it as a key motif too.

Hallelujah: Gathering to Sing

Singing together as God’s people is one of the essential activities that we engage in. There is something about singing with others. Of course not all of us enjoy it. Few of us choose to do it outside of Sunday worship and the football stadium. In football, and other team sports, singing together can be the very the worst of the tribalism that afflicts humankind—the singing of insults being a central dynamic. When we sing together in gathered worship this can be the very best of tribalism—the singing of praise being central. A football team are a self-serving and self-promoting tribe. To paraphrase Archbishop William Temple (1881-1944), “The Church is the only tribe that does not exist for itself, but for those who live outside of it”. [tribe is substituted for organisation.]

Singing together creates unity—we share the same beliefs and emotions; the same faith. The opening Hebrew word of Psalm 149 exemplifies this tribalism. Like the neighbouring Psalms it opens with the Hebrew Word hallelujah — or praise Yah—often translated as ‘Praise the Lord’. We belong to the tribe of Yahweh; the tribe of his son Jesus Christ.

Singing is partly about being together, being gathered, being the body of Christ. It is also education. In my church, and many others, there is scant opportunity to learn together in our time-poor lives. We do not have special classes; we do not have a second service. We learn primarily by singing and we learn from sermons. We probably never fully appreciate just how much we benefit from singing choruses and hymns. For most of us if we remember any words by heart that define our faith, it will be the songs we sing.

Education of course is not just about head knowledge—it is doing that teaches. Gathering and being together is itself a vital education. At the end of the day gathering is the gospel. Gathering is a foretaste of the age to come. The New Songs of the psalmist are a foretaste of the New Song spoken of in the Book of Revelation. New Song are songs of thankfulness. New Songs can be ‘old songs’ recovered and reclaimed afresh.

New Songs, in the Bible often seem to be connected with victory. For us the victory can sometimes simply be being a Christian after one more year in a world which throws the unexpected at us. Many of us have suffered closer, personal more tangible afflictions than Brexit, Trump or the death of our favourite celebrity.

Sing to the Lord a new song,
his praise in the assembly of his faithful people.
Let Israel rejoice in their Maker;
let the people of Zion be glad in their King.
Let them praise his name with dancing
and make music to him with timbrel and harp.
For the Lord takes delight in his people;
he crowns the humble with victory.

We might use different instruments but this is fine. In fact we have to as the Hebrew words for musical instruments tend to be uncertain. It is not our musical culture, musicianship or instruments that count, it is gathering before the same creator God, Yah.

Under Pressure: Singing 24-7

Our Psalm is not just about singing together on a Sunday or other church gathering. Sometimes we have a view of church as a place of refuge, a place to escape the ‘nasty world’. Perhaps what I have said thus far seems to suggest this. There is a sense in which gathering together is about being refreshed and strengthened, and about learning too.

And yet this idea is potentially problematic if we become consumers or passengers looking passively to be fed during the short time of gathering. In a small church in particular, you are unlikely to find all the food you need to sustain you. In a larger church we might be fooled into thinking we have all the food and nourishment we need.

Despite the apparent passivity of our culture, the talk of tolerance, the solid democratic processes that govern our nation, we live in an environment which is toxic to our faith. As Christians we are under pressure. Pressure to conform, pressure to consume, pressure to go along with everybody else. I cannot even begin to guess the temptations which we might each face to conform to the world’s values. But a key to cultivating faith in the face of the pressure to conform is the practice of an everyday spirituality.

Let his faithful people rejoice in this honor
and sing for joy on their beds.
May the praise of God be in their mouths
and a double-edged sword in their hands,

We can sing to God wherever we may be—not just church—everywhere, even bed. Although we should note that the ‘bed’ mentioned here is probably a reclining couch. The point is that worship is 24-7. It is the day-and-night meditation we read of elsewhere in The Psalms. It is the praying on all occasions we hear about from the Apostle Paul.

This can be a joy rather than a chore—a New Song not a new legalism. It is not as busy as it sounds—at its core it is about being single-minded. Being the same person whether in church, at home, at work or at play. New Songs sung ‘wherever we are’ could be the biggest thing we do in 2017.

Faith: Hopeful Singing

One of the remarkable things about The Psalms is that the psalmist can say anything to God. Yet, however confrontational these words the psalmist cries out from a stance of faith and trust. In any year, using these prayers and making them our own would seem to be a wise move. None of us know what 2017 will bring. What we do know is that The Psalms provide the words for every situation and for every emotion.

One of the challenges of The Psalms, however, is that they rarely do ‘what you want’—this is Scripture at its most surprising and untamed best. God has not given us a collection of nice pithy sayings. This is no catalogue of gift card niceties, nor the musings of a two-a-penny self-help Twitter guru or life coach.

By verse 7 we might think Psalm 149 has gone rather off the wall:

to inflict vengeance on the nations
and punishment on the peoples,
to bind their kings with fetters,
their nobles with shackles of iron,
to carry out the sentence written against them—
this is the glory of all his faithful people.

Despite these verses jarring with our nice cuddly conceptions of God they are part of our faith and our trust in Yahweh and his Son Jesus Christ. They tell us that the massive wrongs of this world will be judged. They tell us that our God is Lord of history – whatever news reporters in the world’s war zones unintentionally intimate day-by-day and year-by-year.

These latter verses also make sense of the trajectory initiated in Psalm 2. That God will judge is not actually odd, it is a necessary perspective—how else can we claim that our God is a just God? Like the Psalmist we can look to God to deal with injustice. This is a major part of our hope. For the psalmist it is worth not only believing but making a song and dance about.