Peace in Our Time

For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Isaiah 9:6, NIV

Before we get to the Prince of Peace. I want to share a mystery with you. I have often been puzzled by the rail bridge that lies between junctions 16 and 17 on the M25 near Uxbridge. It carries the Chiltern Main Line Railway over the M25 motorway. And the mystery is that it bears the immortal line “Give Peas a Chance”.

Who does these things? Why would you risk life and limb to hang off the side of a bridge over the M25 to paint, in a reasonably interesting font, “Give Peas a Chance”?

I guess it’s a play on the song “Give Peace a Chance” by John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band. It has no doubt raised a wry smile from hundreds of thousands of motorists, because it is funny when we swap peace with peas.

As a child I had tonsillitis and blocked ears every winter. I remember being confused at Infant School, at a Christmas assembly, when I heard that Jesus was the Prince of Peas. I was less than impressed because peas in the 1970s, at least in my home, were a very singular variety, known as tinned.

It clearly makes little sense to view Jesus as Prince of Peas. But when we look at the world today, we might question what it means that Jesus is Prince of Peace. His first arrival around 2,000 years ago did not usher in a time of peace. Jesus himself did not expect that either; whatever Isaiah had said. When speaking of his return he pointed out that war, rather than peace, would continue. Jesus said this:

You will hear of wars and rumours of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come.
Matthew 24:6, NIV

So, what does it mean that the promised child, according to the Prophet Isaiah, will be Prince of Peace? Is Isaiah guilty of over promising? Or did Isaiah get it plain wrong?

Part of the answer is the need to understand what Isaiah meant by peace. The word he used is shalom. This word can refer to the absence of war, corresponding to our English word peace. But it means more than this, as we will see in just a moment.

But to be fair to Isaiah, elsewhere in the Bible, the absence of war brought about by Jesus—Isaiah’s Prince of Peace—is promised and explained further. The question is ‘when will there be peace?’, rather than if there will be peace.

John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band’s sentiment is a wonderful ideal:

All we are saying is give peace a chance.

Jesus, the Prince of Peace, will bring an end to war, but only after his return—in what we might call the beginning of the age to come. Whilst in faith we should be grateful, in our impatience and horror at the reality of war we want this now. Who does not want an end to war right here, right now?

Isaiah’s Prince of Peace—Jesus born in a manager—can bring peace of a different sort, both here and now.

Shalom is a rich word and the foundation of the Bible’s good news. It is about wholeness, about healthiness, about happy relationships and most fundamentally of all it is about peace with God. This latter meaning—peace with God—is a possibility here and now through Jesus our Prince of Peace.

Jesus was sent to this tiny, and otherwise unremarkable planet, by God his Father to make peace with men, women, and children. The brokenness we see that haunts this world is explained in the Bible in the story of how paradise was lost in the garden of Eden. This accounts for our lack of peace, our broken relationship with God.

Whatever we might make of a primeval garden, the broken relationships it describes are self-evident all around us. Humanity in taming the Earth has created untold damage. Men and women struggle to live in harmony under the same roof. Inequality is worked out in our daily choices and can feel hard-baked into reality.

Evidence of all this brokenness, frailty, and that old fashioned idea called sin, is self-evident truth. It is broadcast in the news. Written large in newspapers. Worked out in social media. Is not every person, community, and neighbourhood on this planet blighted by weakness, frailty, bad choices, and that old fashioned addiction called selfishness?

A broken world, and the frail people who broke it, need a peacemaker. Someone who can bring humanity and God to the table to speak of peace. Until that relationship knows peace, shalom in all its other forms cannot begin. Peace with God is what Jesus brought with him in his journey from heaven to earth that first Christmas, and worked out in his life and ministry, and finally in his cross and resurrection.

That the Christmas child is the Prince of Peace is a remarkable claim. It took me eleven years from hearing that Jesus was Prince of Peas to knowing his peace personally. Why not take some time this Christmas to reflect on the possibility that peace with God might be a genuine possibility? You might just find the only present that goes beyond the advertising.

Many Christmas adverts seem to promise that this Christmas will be paradise on earth. But I’m not convinced that Tesco or Waitrose supermarkets, Chanel or Paco Rabane perfumes, Baileys Irish Cream or even Jack Daniel’s whiskey can give us ‘heaven on earth’ or bring ‘peace on earth’. But through Jesus Christ I believe we really can have peace in our time.

Where Did It All Go Wrong?

A Reflection on Genesis 3:1–24

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

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

Early in Genesis we read this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 102: Bird on a Wire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus and the Holy Innocents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But we read at the close of the passage:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What we do in life echoes in eternity”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Book Review: ‘The Lord Is My Shepherd: Psalm 23 for the Life of the Church’ by Richard S. Briggs

Richard S. Briggs, The Lord Is My Shepherd: Psalm 23 for the Life of the Church, Touchstone Texts, Baker Academic, 2001.

At the outset of this review, I am pleased to say that this is an engaging and delightfully readable book. Like all good guides Briggs ensures his company know precisely where they are at all times. Indeed, the whole enterprise is itself an echo of Psalm 23 as the reader is shepherded safely through Hebrew philology, metaphor, reception history, and theology.

Psalm 23 is arguably the Psalm of Psalms in the contemporary Western Church. Even to the unchurched its six verses are familiar from contexts as diverse as funeral liturgy to Howard Goodall’s setting of it as the theme tune for The Vicar of Dibley. As I was writing this review, it even had a round of its own in a seasonal episode of University Challenge! Such familiarity makes this psalm a fitting focus for this book which launches a new series examining touchstone biblical texts.

The generative nature of both Psalm 23 and its imagery is not only a central reason for its popularity it is also something of a problem for the guide—how can the journey be broken down into manageable steps? This challenge, and the way it is addressed, are explained in Chapter 1. Introduction: On Attending to Psalm 23. Much of the book comprises three longer central chapters which each examine one of three different, but intricately interconnected worlds: ‘behind’, ‘in’ and ‘in front of’ Psalm 23. This structure enables attention to the interpretive task without all the issues being brought to the fore at the same time. The subheadings of these three major chapters also reveal the logic of taking matters a step at a time as matters of background, exegesis and ministry are each explored in turn. This structure provides a sure path that avoids any risk of confusing detours.

In Chapter 2. The World behind Psalm 23 Briggs considers (i) what we can know about the author, (ii) who is speaking in the psalm, (iii) the relevance of shepherd imagery, and (iv) the significance of Psalm 23’s location in the Psalter. Briggs ably shows what we can know, and just as importantly what we cannot know, as he honestly establishes provisional answers. Chapter 3. The World in Psalm 23 is a verse-by-verse examination of the Hebrew text. Here Briggs is attentive to the full spectrum of his readers’ likely ability, and eagerness, to engage with the original language. By providing some optional sections and a short appendix there are effectively three ways to be guided through the psalm’s six verses depending on inclination and prior knowledge.

In Chapter 4. The World in Front of Psalm 23 Briggs moves to what he terms ministry—just how can this psalm can make a difference in the Church today? Having laid the necessary foundations in Chapters 2 and 3 this chapter examines four areas. As the connection of Psalm 23 to themes of rest, death, enemies and hope is examined, some key interlocuters contribute to what is a rich theological reflection. Walter Brueggemann, Jerome Creach, William Holladay, C. S. Lewis and Erich Zenger, for example, all help enliven the close of the journey. Indeed, so rich a table is prepared here that the reader is left in a quandary as to which overflowing cup might be taken to the congregation or small group. In fact, whilst Briggs does not specifically suggest it, I think this chapter—with support from elsewhere in the book— provides an excellent launch point for a four sermon series or fourfold set of teaching material.

The book closes with a wonderfully honest reflection on Hearing and Preaching Psalm 23 Today in the form of its fifth, and final, short chapter. This personal account somewhat paradoxically serves, as Briggs intends, to point firmally to this text in expectant anticipation that it can speak afresh today. The call—should we choose to accept it—is to do enough hard work that we can ‘get out of the way’ and enable others to hear the greatest shepherd of them all.

Jesus, Psalm 19 and Empty Words

The Sound of Silence
Jesus had something to say about empty words. We’ll get to these words a little a later after we’ve encountered some other words, as well as some silence. Simon and Garfunkel rereleased The Sound of Silence as a single some fifty-six years ago in September 1965 to some acclaim. Its previous release, in a different musical form, a couple of years earlier had not been a success. The song was written by Paul Simon and since 1965 there have been diverse opinions as to its meaning. Such ambiguity and polyvalence are often a good thing for a song or a poem’s popularity and therefore survival. This is, for example, probably part of the story behind the 150 biblical psalms which are most likely a small fraction of Israel’s hymnody.

I understand The Sound of Silence to be an expression of concern about the nature of modern society and culture. More specifically, that a clarity regarding underpinning principles, philosophy or truth is absent. There is instead just a resounding silence. This lack of words of value and words of veracity seems to fit with:

People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening

The singer of the song seems to know a potential antidote to this cultural malaise:

“Fools”, said I, “You do not know
Silence like a cancer grows
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you”

But this wisdom is met as just another voice amid the competition, and these ‘words, like silent raindrops fell’. The song goes on to allude to the creation of new gods—the neon god they made—alluding perhaps to consumerism, materialism and marketing, symbolised by the observation that “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls”.

Whether, or not, this is the meaning of The Sound of Silence, I find that any testament I make as to my faith is met by people ‘hearing without listening’ and perhaps to them my words, as ‘my truth’, are like me ‘talking without speaking’. In a world of cynicism about a guiding narrative all testimony to something bigger rings hollow or perhaps there is simply a communication failure. And so in this way the collective denial of universal truth means that ‘silence like a cancer grows’. Words as signifiers and pointers to something else evaporate if there is no possibility of belief in what they point to.

Creative Speaking and Speech
The Bible, when it can be heard, makes a very different claim right from the outset. Just a few verses in, and we find all creation being spoken into existence. And with such rhythm that words are celebrated as this unfolds. God even takes delight in naming things. Following on from such an opening, is it any surprise that Psalm 29 can make the more modest claim that God’s voice is like the loudest thunder? Although here, God’s voice is as destructive as it is creative in Genesis 1. It seems that this biblical deity can both create and destroy with his thunderous voice. Humankind echoes this potential for bipolar speech-acts as part of their reflection of God’s image. Our ability to both create and destroy with our words is part of what lies behind the empty words that Jesus refers in Matthew’s gospel (see below).

Psalm 19 also picks up where Genesis 1 leaves off. There the connection between creation and God’s speech is given a little twist. In verses 1–6 it is creation that does the talking, speaking of the God who spoke it into existence:

Day after day they pour forth speech;
  night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
  no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
  their words to the ends of the world.
Psalm 19:2–4, NIVUK

These verses push the speech metaphor to breaking point. This is both ‘speech’ (v.2) and ‘not speech’ (v.3). This recognition that we are both dealing with a metaphor and stretching it to its limit is vitally important. We are dealing with poetic (but nevertheless true) ideas in all their richness. Neither Genesis 1 nor Psalm 19 provide literal accounts of creation being spoken into existence or creation testifying to its creator. We have something that is mysteriously difficult to pin down. We have language grappling with the undeniable reality of creation as observable fact—testifying in some sense to the creator. This is a testimony that can’t be otherwise, a worldview that accepts creation without creator makes no sense here. This is a working hypothesis that explains the universe in all its wonder and magnificence. This is no mechanistic account of the way things are, or the way things came to be. This is faith seeking understanding—a faith and an understanding that is more than two millennia old but we each should make afresh day-by-day.

Instruction
The second half of Psalm 19 deepens this poetic claim of metaphysical insight. Verses 7–11 complement creation’s testimony to the creator with reflection on the creator’s words. These words are precious and sustaining to creation and its creatures:

The decrees of the Lord are firm,
  and all of them are righteous.

They are more precious than gold,
  than much pure gold;
they are sweeter than honey,
  than honey from the honeycomb.
By them your servant is warned;
  in keeping them there is great reward.
Psalm 19:9b–11, NIVUK

Some scholars of the old form critical school see a tension between the first and second part of this psalm. But this is over-categorisation to the detriment of the richer poetry and synergy of its claims, all centred on speech. The creation and God’s instruction are twin pillars of order behind the space-time universe. They are each so very different and yet interwoven as the very fabric of reality.

In the face of God, the creator, whose creation points to him as a cosmic signpost and the claim that he has provided instruction for us, the psalmist is all too aware of their frailty (vv.12–13) and asks:

May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart
  be pleasing in your sight,
  Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.
Psalm 19:14, NIVUK

Empty Words?
Such a laudable response to God seems worlds away from these sober words of Jesus:

‘. . . But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.’
Matthew 12:36–37, NIVUK

Before we rush confidently to celebrate the merciful possibility of acquittal we would do well to pause. We all know that our words can be creative and life giving as we echo a microcosm of God’s creative capacity. It is equally clear just how destructive our words can be. Even our empty words can cause real harm and destruction. Being human means experiencing time-and-again, directly and indirectly, both the life-giving and destructive potential of words. Words after all are not heard in a vacuum. They arise from our heart (Matthew 12:35) and they signify the state of our innermost being.

How might we avoid empty words? How might we not be silent when we should speak? Whilst we can try harder, and this might not be a bad thing, it’s not the answer. Rather, the hope we have is not only to look to Jesus Christ, the Word, to acquit us, but to also to transform us. What if praying such Scriptures as those above could work such a miracle?

May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart
  be pleasing in your sight,
  Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.
Psalm 19:14, NIVUK

 

 

Cohen’s ‘If It Be Your Will’: Song, Prayer, Psalm

Leonard Cohen described If It Be Your Will ‘as more of a prayer’ than a song during his introduction to its performance by the Webb Sisters and Neil Larson. Here I suggest that it is not only a prayer but more specifically a psalm.

Even the title is highly suggestive of a key feature of psalmody—an absolute trust in God. As the song unfolds this trust, we see that this commitment to God is founded in a creature-Creator relationship, as the singer’s finitude is sublimely conveyed:

If it be your will, that I speak no more
And my voice be still, as it was before

The frailty of the singer is in little doubt given their own metaphorical claim to be a ‘broken hill’. Is it pushing our reflection too far to imagine this as an oblique reference and contrast to the ‘holy hill’ (Psalm 2:6; 3:4; 15:1; 24:3; 43:3 and 78:54) of the Psalter? Beyond the trust and frailty, we also have a subtle undertone of accusation. For all the trust implicit and explicit in the biblical psalms the psalmist is not slow in challenging Yahweh. Here, likewise, Cohen questions with the very refrain, ‘If it be your will’. This is no fatalistic trust in the deity but a relationship and commitment-based questioning:

If it be your will, that a voice be true

Of course, poetry has an immense capacity for polyvalence and here there is a welcome poignant ambiguity. Undoubtedly other readings are possible. We are on firm ground when we note that some of the language of this song is undoubtedly redolent of the Psalms. For example, we cannot miss the allusion to Psalm 98:8:

Let the rivers fill, let the hills rejoice

The specific focus of this prayer, mercy, is also a key aspect of the biblical psalms. Cohen’s psalm is, like many of its Hebrew progenitors, a plea for mercy:

If it be your will, if there is a choice
Let your mercy spill
On all these burning hearts in Hell
If it be your will, to make us well

Interestingly here in Cohen’s work the call for mercy is for others, and not for himself. Of the 29 calls for mercy, I can find in the Psalter, all but four (Psalm 79:8; 106:46; 123:2 and 3) are prayers prayed by the psalmist for his own deliverance, like that most famously found in Psalm 51:

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love
Psalm 51:1a, NRSV

The poetic plea also challenges the conventional notion of hell. It appears that Cohen sees many in this world in need of a deliverance from an all too tangible place of suffering. This adds to the difficulty in pinning down the polarities of trust and challenge—perhaps, like in the Psalter and throughout the Hebrew Bible, these are not polarities at all but concomitant in the God-given grace of a relationship between creature and Creator.

On another occasion when he performed this song, Cohen refers to humanity as ‘creatures of a higher order’. He is, however, under no illusion about the source of the suffering of those in earthly hell. For Cohen, just as we creatures reflect something of our Creator in our ‘rags of light’ so these same clothes make us ‘dressed to kill’ in the worst sense.

Cohen’s poem stands in the firmest of biblical traditions—there is profound questioning here as well as ultimately a willingness to surrender in trust—a response that reflects the creature-Creator relationship. Both Job and Jesus have gone before on this precarious path as illustrated here as we close with three parallel statements:

See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you?
I lay my hand on my mouth.
Job 40:4, NRSV

“My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me;
yet not as I will, but as You will.”
Matthew 26:39b, NRSV

If it be your will, that I speak no more;
And my voice be still, as it was before.
I will speak no more, I shall abide until;
I am spoken for, if it be your will.
If It Be Your Will, Leonard Cohen

K is for King David

In the previous post—J is for John Donne—we met his sermon on Psalm 51:7. Throughout this sermon Donne time-and-again reflects on King David as the model penitent. In a very real sense David leads the way for us all. Just as we fail, like him, so we too can receive God’s mercy like David as in Psalm 51.

For centuries, since at least the time of Augustine (354–430) interpreters assumed that the title of Psalm 51 and its references to David, Bathsheba and Nathan were the key interpretive lens through which it should be read. As biblical criticism grew from around the time of Donne onwards it become normal to question every accepted practice of interpretation. It soon became a norm to see the psalm titles with biographical allusions to the life of David as late, and therefore inappropriate as hermeneutical lenses.

Such logic has itself been questioned more recently. It is now more normal to understand these titles as late but to accept them as a possible hermeneutical lens because this was the intent of the editors who added them.

Susan Gillingham’s contribution to Psalms scholarship was recognised in an earlier post. She goes a step further and argues that there are features of Psalm 51 that intentionally further the link between Psalm 51 and 2 Samuel 12 (Gillingham, 2018). The table below shows verses from 2 Samuel which are echoed in Psalm 51 according to Susan Gillingham.

Linked verses from 2 Samuel 12

Psalm 51 verse

He said, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, ‘Who knows? The Lord may be gracious to me, and the child may live.’

Verse 22

Have mercy on me, O God,    according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.

Verse 1

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.

Verse 13

Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.

Verse 4

Then Nathan went to his house. The Lord struck the child that Uriah’s wife bore to David, and it became very ill. David therefore pleaded with God for the child; David fasted, and went in and lay all night on the ground. The elders of his house stood beside him, urging him to rise from the ground; but he would not, nor did he eat food with them.

Verse 15–17

The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

Verse 17

Such intertextuality is difficult to appreciate with neutrality. The web of intertextual connections in the reception of Psalm 51 is not controversial. We have already seen it furthered by Gregorio Allegri, Alighieri Dante, Eleanor Hull, John Fisher, Leonard Cohen and John Donne. There’s plenty more to come, including a magisterial figure in our next post.

Reference
Susan Gillingham, Psalms Through the Centuries Volume 2: A Reception History Commentary on Psalms 1 – 72, Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2018, p.304.

 

G is for Gillingham

Susan Gillingham is one of the best Psalm scholars of our day. She is Fellow and Tutor in theology at Worcester College, Oxford. She became Professor of the Hebrew Bible in 2014. Her work on the Psalms is wide ranging and multi-faceted. This makes her work especially valuable as much scholarship on the Psalms, throughout the twentieth century to the present, has been all too often marred by competing singular approaches. Her significant contributions include: exploring Hebrew poetry [1], the reception of the psalms [2–4] and examining the place of the psalms in Israelite worship.

Here we draw attention to some aspects of her work in relation to Psalms 51. In her reception history commentary [4] she refers to Psalm 51 as ‘The Psalm of Psalms’ because of its rich impact in theology, art, and culture. In this way Gillingham provides credence to the point that our project is attempting to make, that Psalm 51 has been highly significant especially in the medieval period. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that in the Middle Ages it became a lens through which the other psalms were read.

Gillingham also notes that at the time the Psalter was being edited for the final time it was given a prominent position. We can see this in the headings of the psalms. For the editors of the Psalter the headings were important. That this is the case is evident in the clear grouping of psalms according to their headings. So, for example, there are three what we might call Davidic psalters:

The First Davidic Psalter: Psalms 3–41
The Second Davidic Psalter: Psalms 51–72
The Third Davidic Psalter: Psalms 138–145

Psalm 51 heads the second David psalter giving it a natural place of prominence. Its heading which alludes to the lowest point in David’s life—including adultery and murder—makes the impact of its position at the head of a Davidic collection greater still. David’s misdeeds will be examined in two further posts in this A–Z project.

Interestingly, Gillingham makes claims about the biographical heading and the content of The Psalm of Psalms which run counter to much modern scholarship. We will look at these claims in K is for King David.

References

  1. Susan Gillingham, The Poems and Psalms of the Hebrew Bible, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.
  2. Susan Gillingham, Psalms Through the Centuries Volume 1, Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2012.
  3. Susan Gillingham, A Journey of Two Psalms: The Reception of Psalms 1 and 2 in Jewish and Christian Tradition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
  4. Susan Gillingham, Psalms Through the Centuries Volume 2: A Reception History Commentary on Psalms 1 – 72, Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2018
  5. Susan Gillingham, Psalms Through the Centuries Volume 3: A Reception History Commentary on Psalms 73 – 150, Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2022.
  6. S. E. Gillingham, ‘The Zion Tradition and the Editing of the Hebrew Psalter’, pp.308–341 in Temple and Worship in Biblical Israel, John Day, London: Burns & Oates, 2005.

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.