Leviathan and Wisdom

Leviathan appears most famously in the Book of Job. As we shall see this sea monster also features in two psalms and the Book of Isaiah. In the Hebrew Bible Leviathan is a sea monster and is of such size that it stretches the word monster to its most monstrous scale. As well as its cataclysmic size and power this monster also carries mythic overtones too. In the Ancient Near-East there are various creation myths in which a god battles with a primordial sea monster to bring an ordered creation out of chaos.  So, in this way mention of Leviathan conjures up the terror and horror afforded by the biggest of sea creatures but further there is an allusion to a level of power than only an awesome warrior god could hope to survive an encounter with.

The sense of being overwhelmed by Leviathan is to the fore in Job chapter 3 where Job curses the day of his birth:

May those who curse days curse that day,

    those who are ready to rouse Leviathan.

Job 3:8 (NIV)

The detailed meaning of this verse is disputed, but that need not delay us on this occasion. This passing reference to Leviathan does not prepare the reader of Job for the massive role that the huge monster plays towards the end of the book. Chapter 41 is wholly devoted to Leviathan. For those familiar with The Gruffalo a similarity of style is seen in verse fifteen onwards, as feature after remarkable feature is portrayed, enabling the fearsome horror that is this creature to be taken in. In just a few verses, however, it is clear that the Gruffalo is nothing compared to the might that is Leviathan. The point for Job who hears this description of Leviathan is that mighty though Leviathan is, God is a whole new level of power and majesty over and above this monster:

‘Can you pull in Leviathan with a fishhook

    or tie down its tongue with a rope?

Can you put a cord through its nose

    or pierce its jaw with a hook?

Will it keep begging you for mercy?

    Will it speak to you with gentle words?

Will it make an agreement with you

    for you to take it as your slave for life?

Can you make a pet of it like a bird

    or put it on a leash for the young women in your house?

Job 41:1–5 (NIV)

 Psalm 74 tells everyone what Job is told; that Yahweh is so mighty that he can turn Leviathan into fish food:

It was you who split open the sea by your power;

    you broke the heads of the monster in the waters.

It was you who crushed the heads of Leviathan

    and gave it as food to the creatures of the desert.

It was you who opened up springs and streams;

    you dried up the ever-flowing rivers.

Psalm 74:13–15 (NIV)

In this psalm we can see that not only God’s might but his role as Creator are celebrated. This centrality of creation is found in the Psalter’s second mention of Leviathan:

How many are your works, Lord!

    In wisdom you made them all;

    the earth is full of your creatures.

There is the sea, vast and spacious,

    teeming with creatures beyond number –

    living things both large and small.

There the ships go to and fro,

and Leviathan, which you formed to frolic there.

Psalm 104:24–26 (NIV)

In Scripture’s only other mention of Leviathan by name (Isaiah 27:1–3) the mighty creature is portrayed in eschatological tones—his demise at the hands of God will be a feature of the Day of the Lord. This defeat of mighty monsters at the second creation is picked-up and developed in the Book of Revelation. The wisdom material of the Old Testament very much centres on how to live wisely now, in a world created by God. But below this ordered surface lies mythopoetic imagery that the world as it currently is will one day change. This change for the better will be the defeat of anything that would harm us, whether in the deep dark wood or the depths of the sea.

Knowledge and Wisdom

Anyone reading the Book of Proverbs in a major English translation will encounter ‘knowledge’, ‘wisdom’ and ‘understanding’. Sometimes in the Book of Proverbs these three words sound like they mean the same things—the parallelism, that is such an important part of wisdom literature, appears to indicate this. So, for example:

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

Proverbs 1:7 (NIVUK)

Which indicates that knowledge is both wisdom and instruction. In addition, we can note that Proverbs later argues that:

For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.

Proverbs 2:6 (NIVUK)

Which indicates that wisdom is also knowledge and understanding.

It should be noted that these various terms belong to a wider group of what we might term cognitive processes that cluster as concepts. Other terms include prudence and shrewdness. Wider usage of these words in the Hebrew Bible indicates that these words have distinct meanings within this Hebraic cluster of concepts. In this way we need to ensure that any exploration of wisdom can account for the distinctiveness of these terms and at the same time their close relationship.

We have already seen that wisdom conveys the idea of making wise choices and often has a strong moral dynamic. Knowledge is theological in the sense that it comes from a relationship with the God who founded the world through knowledge, although again we should note the parallel use of wisdom and knowledge in the verses that affirm this most succinctly:

By wisdom the Lord laid the earth’s foundations, by understanding he set the heavens in place;

by his knowledge the watery depths were divided, and the clouds let drop the dew.

Proverbs 3:19–20 (NIVUK)

In the Hebrew Bible knowledge of God is all about right relationship with him. Such a right relationship will be characterised by love and trust. There is a semantic relationship between the relationships between human beings, as creatures, with their Creator and the intimate knowledge between man and woman in marriage. Such a strong relational meaning for knowledge, and hence wisdom, is a strong antidote to some conceptions of knowledge and wisdom centred on sterile abstract thought or a faith founded in dry propositions. It is wise to see knowledge as founded in prayer and worship as well as being the cognitive processes recognised in contemporary thought.

 

Why do the Nations Conspire?

The Psalms as Psalter

The Psalms have been called an anatomy of the soul. The reformer Calvin said, in the opening of his commentary on The Psalms, that:

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 any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror.

He goes on to point out that the Holy Spirit has inspired the capture in the psalms of griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares and perplexities. Luther, another reformer, had in some ways an even more remarkable view of the psalms:

It seems to me as if the Holy Ghost had been pleased to take on himself the trouble of putting together a short Bible, or book of exemplars, touching the whole of Christianity or all the saints, in order that they who are unable to read the whole Bible may nevertheless find almost the whole sum comprehended in one little book … the Psalter is the very paragon of books …

For both Luther and Calvin this collection of 150 psalms is complete in some sense. I therefore prefer the term Psalter to Book. The term Psalter normally refers to an illuminated book of psalms or a collection written specifically for sung worship. But i recommend the term for the biblical ‘book’ to remind us this not just any old anthology by is an intentional complete literary unit.

The Monastic Traditions agree with such a view in that all of the biblical psalms are read and/or sung weekly in canonical order, that is the whole Psalter in a week. In some Reformed Churches, to this day, the only sung worship is the singing of biblical psalms. In Church History the Psalms have been to the fore of Christian worship and devotion as a complete corpus.

In the modern Western churches, however, the centrality of the Psalms is not now the norm. Many churches and Christians do not encounter every psalm in a year. There are many reasons for the demise of the biblical psalms.

  1. Contemporary music preferences can eclipse the Psalms. The Psalter has the idea of singing a New Song (e.g. Psalms 96 and 98) but this is not a proof text for their demise but a pointer to their generative centrality.
  2. In an age of science and technology propositional truth is often preferred to poetry. And yet the psalms abound in imagery, poetic devices and mystery.
  3. Our modern sensibilities play a part too. We might want whitewash over Psalm 137’s uncomfortable reference to infants being dashed on rocks.
  4. We sometimes mistake the Psalmist’s passion for being holier-than-thou. For example, we misapprehend Psalm 1’s “Blessed is the one . . . whose delight is in the law of the Lord” for legalism rather than seeing it as passion and desire for God’s precious instruction.

Perhaps another force is at work too, the conspiring nations mentioned in Psalm 2. Our modern world means that worst of the bad news emerging from the nations bombards us daily, perhaps even hourly. The drip feed of the bad news undermines the veracity of the good news. Psalms 1 and 2 as they open the Psalter have a certainty and positivity that is at odds with the dripping tap of the nation’s horrors. But the Psalms should be our worldview not the news from the nations.

The Psalms are rich, complex, mysterious, challenging in an age which celebrates caricature, oversimplification and shrillness. This devotion will look at Psalm 2 in all its richness, complexity, mystery and challenge. At the same time, I am hoping to offer a way to pray for the nations of this tragic world in which we live in. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll persuade some readers to make the Psalter a greater part of your walk with Jesus Christ.

Seeing Psalm 2—Coronation

Psalm 2 has had several lives—this might well come as news to you. This is one reason why the psalms can seem like hard work, but also why they are so rich. One way of looking at these ‘lives’ is the question: “What is the context of a psalm?”. There are many answers:

  • The life of David—The biographical headings of twelve psalms make this claim.
  • The life a worship leader—the headings which mention Asaph and the Sons of Korah indicate this.
  • A national event—some psalms have a historical context, either implied or explicitly stated.
  • Temple worship—the Psalter was a songbook as indicated by the centrality of musical instruments in many psalms.
  • The life of the reader—how else can we explain their universal appeal, the extreme example being Psalm 23 which seems to ‘work’ in any experience of the soul.
  • The life of Jesus—being this side of Easter provides a new dynamic.
  • A future prophetic context—the New Testament uses them like this a lot.

We don’t need to choose one context, but we do need to reflect on the variety of possibilities.

We start with the drama that we can feel in Psalm 2. Imagine a scene like Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation but with a king in Israel. You can see a throne, the king’s rich clothes, priest’s in equally fine regalia. You can hear music. Rich strings, as fine a string quartet, deep trumpeting creating a hush. You can smell incense and your eyes sting a little with the fragrant smoke. A hush falls and now the liturgy will follow—various figures have their lines ready for the drama.

A priest says:

Why do the nations conspire
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth rise up
and the rulers band together
against the Lord and against his anointed, saying,
‘Let us break their chains
and throw off their shackles.’

Another priest says:

The One enthroned in heaven laughs;
the Lord scoffs at them.
He rebukes them in his anger
and terrifies them in his wrath, saying,
‘I have installed my king
on Zion, my holy mountain.’

The king replies:

I will proclaim the Lord’s decree:

He said to me, ‘You are my son;
today I have become your father.
Ask me,
and I will make the nations your inheritance,
the ends of the earth your possession.
You will break them with a rod of iron;
you will dash them to pieces like pottery.’

A third priest says:

 Therefore, you kings, be wise;
be warned, you rulers of the earth.
Serve the Lord with fear
and celebrate his rule with trembling.
Kiss his son, or he will be angry
and your way will lead to your destruction,
for his wrath can flare up in a moment.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

This is not how we normally read Psalm 2, but this is something like the original use of this psalm. We must put new glasses on to see it in this light. In this light it looks to Israel as a theocracy imposing power over the conspiring nations.

Feeling Psalm 2—Subjugation

We’ve tried to see Psalm 2. Now we’ll try and feel this psalm.

There came a time when Psalm 2 seemed ridiculously over the top. A day came when the nation was punished by the nations rather than leading those nations. The nation of Israel was a power in the days of David and Solomon. But power games behind the throne soon ended the golden age. The temple was destroyed along with the royal palace, the best people were taken into captivity, the king was blinded and dragged away in chains.

How hollow, or impossible, did Psalm 2 sound then?

Ask me,
and I will make the nations your inheritance,
the ends of the earth your possession.

A subjugated people would make something very different of this psalm. And they must have made something of it otherwise it would not have survived to take pride of place with Psalm 1 at the head of the Psalter. The nations had not only conspired together they has succeeded in subjugating God’s people.

Psalm 2 did not go on being read at coronations as there were no kings to crown. But despite the beauty of the pomp that gave it life it now helped the nation to rediscover their place amongst the nations. Israel did not have a king, but they perceived that one day this would change. The coronation and anointing of the king became a way of seeing that God would send his anointed one, or Messiah. What had been an image of the king as God’s son, raised the possibility of the new anointed as God’s Son.

These are different lenses with which to read this psalm – the glasses that come with subjugation are those of hope and trust in God against the odds. A trust and hope that defy the realities and horrors of being subject to the nations – whether Babylonians, Persians, Greeks or Romans. Psalm 2 transforms the crushing boot of the nations into the hope of being first among the nations.

But of course these are still not our glasses.

Saying Psalm 2 – Expectation

We have new glasses. Not because we have been to SpecSavers but because we are living after Easter. We have an expectation of the Risen Jesus’ return and our own resurrection in the Age to Come. The Incarnation of the Son, the life of Jesus, his death, his resurrection and his ascension mean that we read this psalm and indeed all of the Old Testament with Jesus vision- with our eyes fixed on the author and perfector of our faith.

The words of Psalm 2 take on even greater drama. First, they spoke of Israel and the Near-Eastern nations and the king of the line of David. Now these same words speak of God’s people founded in Christ a people from all nations and our King Jesus.

The sense of frailty we have as broken humanity finds an end in the expectation of this Psalm. Whatever appearances to the contrary such as the bad news on our TVs and in our Newspapers,  God has a plan for the nations.

Jesus has already shown the completion of the kingdom in the cross and resurrection:

‘I have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain.’

The second coming of Jesus will bring this to fruition. This will be a time of reward and judgement:

You will break them with a rod of iron; you will dash them to pieces like pottery.’

Kiss his son, or he will be angry and your way will lead to your destruction.

What about praying Psalm 2? When the news overwhelms us when it all seems like the disorder of this world denies the living God. Why not pray Psalm 2 and in trust and faith call to mind that glorious day when people from every tribe and nation will join the Lamb in his Kingdom. Such prayers of trust feed our souls nourishing further faith, trust and hope. If the whole seem seems to much, why not start with a simple prayer to our Father: ‘Why do the Nations Conspire?’.