Life Understood Backwards

Looking Back
The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard claimed that “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

The experience of the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus was something like this. How could they understand Jesus’ life at its end? Even at the end did it make sense? Cleopas and the other, unnamed disciple have not understood Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection. We do not know how much time they spent with Jesus—it is clear they are not among the eleven disciples. But they certainly knew enough to be disappointed. He was not the deliverer they had hoped for. They, like many, wanted a Messiah who was a military redeemer. A messiah like David in every sense. An anointed leader who would defeat the occupying Romans just as David had tackled Goliath and the Philistines.

The one they had begun to think might be God’s anointed ruler had died shamefully on a cross. A remarkable man in many ways, but in the end as frail as any other. And now the women claimed his body was gone. More than that, they also said they had seen angels announcing that he was alive.

These events lived forwards made no sense to these two followers. Jesus was a man who taught with authority, healed the sick, and cast out demons. Jesus was welcomed into Jerusalem like a king. And then it all turned sour. These two disciples had apparently given up on the one they had been following. They had left Jerusalem for Emmaus and presumably were returning to their old lives.

But they encounter the risen Jesus, although they do not know this at first. This meeting is a revelation—a revealing in two stages. They experience a progressive understanding of who Jesus is. They will come to understand Jesus’ life.

First Jesus makes them look back as they journey together. They simultaneously look back on the life of Jesus and the work of God in the Old Testament. The Risen Jesus does the most remarkable thing. He combines his story with the story of the Hebrew Scriptures. Read through Jesus, the Hebrew Scriptures become the First Testament to his life, his death, and his resurrection. Jesus is the fulfilment of the Hebrew scriptures.

The second stage of unveiling is a more personal encounter that goes beyond explanation. It is an opening of their eyes. They literally see the risen Christ. They had started out lost on the road, but now were found. They had been blind but now they could see.

Our Conversion
We are unlikely to have had the same type of encounter with the risen Christ as the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. But there is likely to be some similarity. I remember at the age of seventeen finding out more about Jesus and the Bible. I had seen lots of the bits and pieces of the gospel but struggled to put it all together. I still needed my eyes to be opened. I can remember two distinct moments when Jesus suddenly made more sense. The first was a bit like the two disciples on the road having things explained to them. My Emmaus road was a tent, in Margate, where the crucifixion was explained in rather graphic detail to me, and several hundred others. This converted my brain and my conscience. I went forward knowing that my life was never going to be the same again.

Just a few days later I had the second step of eye opening—only possible because of the first. I was reading the Parable of the Tenants in Mark 12 and my heart was converted. My heart burned at that moment like the experience of those two disciples. I understood at a heart level just what it meant that God had sent prophets to speak of him. Prophets who were beaten and killed. I understood at the heart level that he sent his own Son that we might know him. Only for him to suffer the same fate. It was as though Jesus was there with me, unpacking the Law and the Prophets—refreshing me as the bread of life with a meal.

Knowing Jesus in this way does not mean that the rest of our lives suddenly make complete sense. But it is a start. Much still happens in my life that I do not understand. Things have happened to me and my family which I wish had not. But in Christ I trust that in the end it will make sense. The times of pain and trial will be found to have some benefit or important consequence. If we have met Jesus on our Road to Emmaus we can find him too in our Valley of the Shadow of Death. The poet B M Franklin puts is this way:

My life is but a weaving
Between my Lord and me;
I cannot choose the colors
He worketh steadily.

Oft times He weaveth sorrow
And I, in foolish pride,
Forget He sees the upper,
And I the under side.

Not til the loom is silent
And the shuttles cease to fly,
Shall God unroll the canvas
And explain the reason why.

The dark threads are as needful
In the Weaver’s skillful hand,
As the threads of gold and silver
In the pattern He has planned.

Our Ongoing Experience of Christ
In the Emmaus story the two disciples do something simple. They have a meal with Jesus—they break bread with him. It is no surprise that it was at the breaking of bread that their eyes were opened, and they recognised that the man before them is the risen Lord Jesus. Less than a week earlier Jesus has broken bread and explained that his body must be broken. These two disciples would surely have heard about this odd teaching.

Almighty God does not fix his broken creation and broken relationships with a display of power and might. He does the unthinkable—Jesus lays down his life for his friends. One of the most frustrating things about our distance from one another because of Covid-19 is the fact that we cannot gather, and worse still that we cannot eat bread and drink wine, and remember Christ together. As the body of Christ, we are meant to meet together.

In our distance from each other let’s be reminded of the privilege of meeting together so that we can make the best of that day when we join one another again. Let’s remember that puzzle that we are in a mysterious sense the body of Christ.

Scattered we might be, but we are still united in Christ.

A Call to Passion for Christ
The two disciples have their hearts kindled by Jesus. A mixture of joy that he was not dead and a revelation of what he had accomplished in the twin events of cross and resurrection.

How can we kindle that flame afresh—that same passion and conviction in Christ that we have tasted before? There are obvious answers of course, such as prayer and Bible reading. But in the spirit of the gospel, and to keep the light alive in us, reaching out to our fellow disciples is vital. As members of his body our concern should be with the health of all.

Jesus came that we might have life and have it to the full. Circumstances prevent us meeting to celebrate together. This does not mean we retreat and just wait for a better time. A crisis like this, it tests our depth in Christ. Being united and encouraged in Christ can be as simple as a phone call, a text message, a card, or a good old-fashioned letter. Some of us might be called to heroics if we are on the front-line but for most of us we need to do the small things that show love and concern. George Eliot expresses it will in her novel Middlemarch:

“..for 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.”

Many of the blessings we can bring to one another, even at this time, are unremarkable. But these things not only achieve good now they echo in eternity as the lives of disciples of Jesus lived well. A crisis is just the time when we need some gospel purpose, when we need to show love, kindness, and generosity. Encouraging one another, listening to one another, taking time to do something for one another is part of living the gospel—it is the ongoing re-creation of proper relationships in Christ Jesus.

It is not just our fellow Christians that need encouragement. In these odd times all sorts of questions are in people’s minds. Many people are asking questions about life and death, not so different to those asked by Cleopas and his friend.

Our lives do not make much sense lived forward. How much more is this the case for those who do not know Christ? There are likely to be people you know who are lonely. If nothing else, you can remedy this for a few minutes. There are almost certainly people you know who are fearful. Well, you can listen. There are very likely people you know who are asking questions. Your effort to reach out to them might be the only answer they get.

We believe in the priesthood of all believers we can all use this time to connect with others.

Loving One Another Makes Sense
The act of reaching out to someone is a small step in making sense of life. The strengthening of relationships is a natural consequence of the gospel. Simple acts of love will strengthen both parties and strengthen the body, the fellowship of believers.

The one certainty of understanding our lives is that where there is love this is where they most readily make sense.

The ‘Corona test’ asks of us all how much we love. If we have not love we are, as the Apostle Paul says, a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. Love sings a better song. Don’t wait for someone else to connect.

Jesus tells a parable in Matthew’s gospel which tells us how our lives will make sense in the end when we meet him face-to-face:

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

Matthew 25:34–40, NIV

An Enarratio of Psalm 1: Behold the Man

The enarratio (exposition or setting forth) of Psalm 1, below, is not an effort at modern exegesis. It does not progress from distinct and careful assessment of textual, canonical, or theological context and then move on to drawing some spiritual lessons for today. It is of the same ilk as Augustine’s Enarrationes in Psalmos, or Expositions of the Psalms. The psalm is read wilfully in the light of Christ and the Rule of Faith—recognising that we are ‘his body’, the Church, and he is ‘our head’. It is also read by using Scripture to understand Scripture. In this way, the meditation is not afraid to recognise that if the Scriptures are inspired by the one Spirit then they have an illuminating and meaningful intertextuality. This echo of Augustine is presented as an experiment—a case that asks us the questions: What have we gained in modern exegesis? And, more importantly what have we lost? The NKJV has been chosen in order to ensure the use of ‘man’ in verse 1—most contemporary translations use inclusive language obscure the word. I normally welcome inclusive translation, but here there is a danger of losing some of the remarkable theological potential of this psalm if the Hebrew word ha’ish is not rendered ‘man’ but as ‘the one’ (as in the NIV), ‘those’ (so the NRSV), or similar.

An Enarratio of Psalm 1: Behold the Man

Blessed is the man. Who is this man we meet at the beginning of the Psalter? In this beginning, this opening of the Book of Psalms, there are rivers and a tree. A choice is presented between obeying God or ungodly council. Is this an echo of the Eden story? Is this man Adam? Or, perhaps we have here the Second Adam? A man presented boldly at the outset of the Psalter—itself a great work of the words of life and salvation. Who better than Jesus Christ, our saviour, to set us on the path ahead? As we start our journey is he the man we should behold? Or do we find ourselves here? Christ came to live the life of every-man, and in Adam all men find their mould. Is this man the first Adam, the Second Adam, and every Adam fashioned from the earth? For we know from the Apostle Paul that all men, and women, are united in both Adams (Rom. 5:12–17; 1 Cor. 15:45). In one we have tasted sin and death, and in the other we are put to death so that we might have life. This psalm most certainly concerns two possibilities: the way of nature in the First Adam, and the way of grace in the Second Adam.

And yet, is this not the Book of David? Even though there is no title mentioning David, is this not his book? But, the Second Adam is the Son of David. And so, we have all these men at work. The first Adam in which we died, David who had a heart that God loved and yet a sinner, and the Second Adam who defines being blessed as being sinless and passing on this blessing to others. It is in him that we are made whole.

Who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the path of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scornful; . . . In that glorious garden, named Eden, Adam received the counsel of the ungodly. The ancient serpent counselled Eve directly against God’s instruction: “You will not surely die. For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Adam lamely followed the deceiver’s counsel, through his wife, without hesitation according to the Scriptures. In a moment, in the blinking of an eye, the first man becomes a sinner set on a new path. This path would take him from Edenic blessing into a world were all his progeny would have to choose who to walk with, who to stand with, and who to take to their table. In this fractured world, journeying away from God can happen without even the effort of placing one foot in front of another. Yet God in his mercy still allows for a path on which he accompanies anyone who would know him—the way of grace. But how can man decide between grace and his own nature? What can help us keep to the path?

But his delight is in the law of the Lord, . . . It is God’s instruction, his torah or law, in which we can see the proper path. The first Adam strayed from this path. He had but one prohibitive instruction and yet could not obey it. His delight strayed from God’s instruction to a piece of fruit, a fruit we tend to imagine as an apple, at least in the Western world. Who has not put more delight in ‘other fruit’ than God’s torah? Augustine famously tells us of how it was pears that lead him astray. He, together with other youths, stole the fruit not out of hunger but just because they wanted to taste forbidden fruit. Just as Adam had Eve for company, as a companion in disobedience so we too go astray with others. Terrence Malick tells a story in the Tree of Life, of another youth—Jack O’Brien—who leads his fellows astray. They break things in their neighbourhood including a window. Only frail humanity would break the very things that let light in. Jack has made the wrong choice, the way of nature he has learnt from his Father, rather the way of grace by which his Mother lives. Only the Second Adam consistently found delight in the instruction of his Father, The Father of all humankind.

And in His instruction he meditates day and night. From the lips of Jesus, we hear words shaped not only by prayerful listening but attentive meditation on the law. Jesus found this law in The Law, and the words of the Prophets, and in the other Hebrew writings. He meditated and from his heart these words spilled out and gave rise in turn to new God-given wisdom and instruction. He would rise early to listen (Mk. 1:25), and when needs must he stayed awake into the night chewing over God’s promises (Mk. 14:32–42) and plans. And the result of such meditation by day and night?

He shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, . . . Cause and effect plain and simple. The first Adam distracted by one tree lost sight of the Tree of Life. He lost the chance to be a tree, fed by the Spirit’s water. He wandered away from God, though God hoped for him to remain rooted in paradise where he had placed him. It is the way of humanity’s nature that we stray like sheep. Sometimes we not only walk away from God, we run (Jonah 1:3; Luke 15:13). Why would we reject the gracious refreshing waters given to us by God? Only one man has remained planted firmly were God wanted him. The second Adam remained planted in God’s plan though it took him to another tree. A terrible tree of agony, suffering, and death. He was himself a faithful planted tree, his hands had shaped wood in life, but were now nailed to the cruellest of trees.

That brings forth its fruit in its season, whose leaf also shall not wither; and whatever he does shall prosper. Where is the fruit in dying on a tree? Did not the second Adam wither? In what sense can this be named prosperity? And yet the Second Adam said for all to hear: “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain. He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12:24–25). In this way the First Adam lost his life and the Second Adam bore much fruit, bringing others eternal life. We too, both men and women, can gain our lives. But only in him as we join one another to be his body. Like Jack in the Tree of Life we can turn from the wrong path. The way of grace remains open to us all, that is the nature of grace. As for Jack in the film, the Tree of Life is always available, it pops up everywhere. This is the nature of grace. It is on our doorstep. It can be found even in the wilderness. The way of grace is knowing that we can be a fruitful tree by being grafted into a bigger tree that goes by the name of the Church. For we are the body and the Second Adam, he is our head (Acts 9:4; Eph. 5:21–33; Col. 1:24).

The ungodly are not so but are like the chaff which the wind drives away. Some want to see the ungodly’s step-by-step journey away from God as synonymous with being blown away. And yet this humbling image seems to cohere with a sadder fate on the path away from God. For we know that chaff speaks of the Day of Days (Hosea 13:3), the Day of the Lord.

Therefore the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous. What is more tragic than a creature who does not know their Creator and so never lives the full life that was put before them? Those that do not join the blessed man, who are not flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone, bear not the fruit of forgiveness; sin and death are still theirs as they live in union with the First Adam, a legacy that cannot be healed other than by the Second.

For the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the ungodly shall perish. So, it is confirmed there are two paths though an infinite number of twists and turns on these two ways. Those who know the Lord taste his way of grace. Those that are strangers to him can only follow nature’s instruction. In this way a psalm that opens with the word blessed must close with the word perish. And this a reminder that we should praise the one in who we are found, the blessed man who carries us home so we will not be carried hither and thither on the wind in this life or the next.

Once Upon a Time in . . . Bethlehem

I Samuel 16: 113

Introduction

The story of David starts in Bethlehem, the place of his birth and childhood. As soon as we think of Bethlehem our minds tend to switch to that later king of Israel born in that town. Once Upon a Time in Bethlehem, sounds like a Christmas story and there is indeed a children’s Christmas song with this title. But this morning our story has more in common with Quentin Tarrantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood than Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem.

Whatever we might feel about Tarrantino’s films, they have some similarities with many Old Testament stories. In this case, there’s a monumental unexpected plot twist. Samuel has already anointed one king, but now God wants another one anointed. No one saw that coming. In these events in Bethlehem, there’s an undercurrent of violence. Samuel fears Saul’s reaction to his anointing of a rival. Will Saul seek to have Samuel killed? There’s a community in fear as they meet Samuel making an odd detour from his usual place of ministry. They were asking, “what does this powerful political figure want with us?”. You can sense their apprehension, we’re told that the elders trembled.

There also plenty of blood. In this case it’s that of a heifer being sacrificed. But there’s the anticipation of human blood being spilt now that there are two kings. There’s a key allusion to how human judgement is prejudiced by appearance, whereas God sees the heart. This philosophy or theology is the key to understanding this episode. There’s a clunky piece of theatre that feels decidedly awkward, worthy of a pantomime. Seven sons are paraded before Samuel and each is found wanting. Then there’s a rather uncomfortable and lengthy pause as everyone awaits David being located out in the field. How long might that have taken without a phone and transport? Then there’s another plot twist. The person with the right character turns out to be rather good looking anyway.

Unexpected plot twists, violence, fearful communities, blood, difficulty in understanding characters’ morality and motives, clunky theatrics and good-looking people. These are often the features of Old Testament narrative, and just as often the features of Tarrantino’s films.

Unlike the godless universe of Tarrantino, however, our world—the world of the Bible—has a theological significance and an ethical backbone which can inform, and better still, transform us.

The Homely Eight

As we encounter Jesse and his family for the first time in the Bible, we find he has a large family. Eight sons are mentioned here. Elsewhere, in 1 Chronicles 2:16, we find he also had two daughters. The patriarchal story of David’s anointing has no concern with daughters. We cannot work out too much from the story about other aspects of this family. There is a suggestion that this family has done what many have others have over the past few millennia. It might be that they have seen the sons as fulfilling various roles according to the order of their birth. There are known psychological and societal reasons and consequences for the first, second, third, and last child having particular character and occupation. David—son number eight—appears to so far down the pecking order as to be all but invisible. At the start of the story of his anointing he is literally not visible; being left out in the fields tending the sheep. If he was sociable, charming, outgoing, attention-seeking, and fun, as ‘lastborns’ characteristically are, it seems unlikely that the sheep would have noticed.

In David’s culture, as in some many others, the first handful of sons are expected ‘to make something of themselves’. They are the expected to be the self-made men who will keep their parents in the future and perpetuate the fortunes of the family.

God however seems to have an aversion to the self-made and indeed to judging by appearances. God ‘looks at the heart’. He looks to character. To virtue, to use an old-fashioned term. Fortunately, salvation does not depend on our hearts but here God chooses a person of character for kingship and indeed founding a dynasty. God delights in a good heart.

When anyone is successful in anything it is natural to ask, ‘how did this happen?’. There are three means to success in just about any venture:

  • Innate gifting and fortuitous circumstances.
  • Hard work.
  • Dubious means.

For example, a world class athlete will have to have a set of physical attributes, some circumstances that make training and advancement possible, the will power and desire to work hard day-in-day-out. They might be tempted to add into this mix dubious means such as drugs.

For example, a businessman who founds a business empire will have to have some innate talents. Perhaps a novel insight into a new product or service. Or perhaps just that ability to win people over and persuade them to invest in something. They will have to work hard. They too might be tempted to try dubious methods to. The odd threat and/or bribe perhaps.

The story of David adds something else into the mix. Something that we would normally want to be careful of claiming—he is chosen by God. It turns out he has the physique to be a warrior, a key attribute for a king at this particular point in the life of Israel. As it happens, he has years of training ahead of him in living as an outlaw warrior. Later in life he will resort to dubious means to get what he wants. And yet behind all this human cause and effect lies the hand of God. If God had not sent Samuel to an obscure family to pick an obscure eighth son smelling of sheep dung he would not have become king.

True ‘Romance’

The hand of God would have been an encouragement to David when times were hard. But we centuries later might well ask what is the basis of this David-God ‘romance’. The text simply tells us that God chose David on the basis of his heart and not any of the usual visible traits that make people successful.

This leaves lots of questions. Why was there a false start with Saul? Why is Saul doomed to failure and David to success? The Bible has different concerns—it tells us ‘things’ about God and about all of humanity. It tells as that God looks to the heart. The counterpoint being we look to external appearances.

The problem of the heart is of course that ‘for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3:23). That goes for David, Saul, Samuel, you, and me. God didn’t choose David for his perfect heart. He picked David because his frail human heart was good enough to make a good king—albeit one who made some terrible mistakes. His heart was not a heart that desired power for prestige and selfish ambition. It has been said that “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely” others have suggested that “Power attracts the corruptible”. The evidence of these two anecdotes is never far away. Yet, for all his failings David did not fundamentally usurp God’s authority.

At the heart of today’s story is the human condition. The sinfulness that means that we think, and do, wrong; the brokenness that turns our hearts to things that are less than healthy; the weakness that means we do not do as many things of value as we might.

Jesus Christ, the ultimate heir of David’s line, dealt with the ultimate consequences of sin once and for all. Our turning to him in repentance and faith removes the barrier between us and God. This is the gospel and we should praise God daily for this gift of grace. This is not, however, the full gospel. Too often we have made the gospel one dimensional. Last time I looked we the Church are a company of the broken. We still sin, we still do what we should not, and we still do not do what we should.

God did not finish with David when he was anointed King; he’d just got started. Neither does God finish with us when we first bow the knee to Christ. Our initial repentance and faith are the start. For us, as for David, the Spirit is given as a sign of things to come. The Life of Faith and our ongoing development in Christ is something that the Church has historically spoken of in different ways. Whatever language we might use it is vital we look to God for ongoing transformation.

In being so adamant against the critics of Christianity that it is not about being good and thus earning salvation, we too often neglect goodness. The most fundamental attribute of God is that he is good. God delights in goodness, his perfect goodness and the good heart that is growing in us.

Different Christian traditions use different words to describe our ongoing Christian transformation. Discipleship is the term we are most comfortable with in my context. Becoming more Christlike is another. Although too often this seems to become What Would Jesus Do, which is not the same thing at all. The latter is about primacy of action and not character. It can also be oddly legalistic. Sanctification, until the last 20 years, was a popular term rooted as it is in the theology of Saint Paul. Spiritual Formation is a term used in some circles and recognises our need to be transformed; that we are not a finished work. It also tends to link to actual disciplines that will enable it to happen. The cure of souls is a very old-fashioned term but is helpful in recognising that we tend to carry around aspects of character that are unhealthy and need fixing in Christ. For whilst God can transform us in the twinkling of an eye, we all carry degrees of frailty that need an ongoing work of Christ that require prayerful effort in the form of self-honesty and discipline. The cultivation of virtue is another way of speaking of our transformation. I like this term. With terms like virtue and vice we can cut to the chase of what we mean without hiding behind generalities and slogans.

David Unchained

In I Samuel 16: 1–13 we read of David being released to be who he is. His indirect encounter with God, through Samuel, sets him on the path to be king. His surrender to this anointing marks a new life. David is no longer slave to family or cultural expectation. His encounter with God has turned expectation upside down. This is the effect of the gospel today. We don’t have to be constrained by things that enslaved us in the past we can move forward, having broken free.

David went from being a shepherd to shepherding God’s people. In Christ our gifts can be used in a variety of ways, but we all have things to offer the world at large and the community of God’s people.

What does it mean for us to be more Christlike, to fulfil our potential in Christ? What do we need released from? What virtue should we be cultivating? What cure does your soul need? What do you need to step into to mature in Christ? The terminology matters less than the recognition and openness to a transformation that comes from God. It is firstly about who we are, and only secondly about what we do.

David was first a person with a right heart—not a perfect heart. This led to him being appointed and anointed king. The road ahead was a very long one. As he journeyed with God he was refined and transformed. Compared to David, we can fix our eyes on Jesus Christ and a clearer destination. In so doing we can be transformed by the living God to be what he created to us to be.

P is for Psalms

The Psalms are 150 compositions that defy monochromatic definitions— they are never solely poems or prayers or songs. In their threefold nature they are words addressed to God and at the same time the editors of the Hebrew Bible saw in them a greater value as Scripture. In some sense they are authoritative and normative.

Leonard Cohen famously speaks of The Psalms in this manner:

There’s a blaze of light

In every word

It doesn’t matter which you heard

The holy or the broken Hallelujah

Part of the third verse of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah

Perhaps Cohen is deliberately reflecting on The Psalm’s duality as both the words of men and the Word, perhaps not. What is clearer is that he connects King David with this songbook. As we saw earlier in ‘K is for King David’ this song speaks of David’s throne being broken as a consequence of his succumbing to the temptation prompted by seeing Bathsheba bathing. From the outset this song refers to David and connects him as in some sense intimately connected to the psalms:

Now I‘ve heard there was a secret chord

That David played and it pleased the Lord

But you don’t really care for music, do you?

It goes like this: the fourth, the fifth

The minor fall and the major lift

The baffled king composing Hallelujah

The first verse of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah

David is traditionally considered to be the author of the Psalms. This tradition is natural in that 13 psalms (Psalms 3, 7, 18, 34, 51, 52, 54, 56, 57, 59, 60, 63, 142) have clear biographical episodes linked to them. In addition, some 73 psalms in the Hebrew Bible have a heading which describes them as being ‘of David’. This does not necessarily imply authorship and in any case a very large number of other psalms are linked to others, both individuals and guilds. These guilds were priestly orders, which had worship responsibilities in the Temple. These guilds are presented in 1 Chronicles 25‒26 which introduces temple singers and temple doorkeepers. The names of Asaph, Korah, Jeduthan and Heman appear there and these names are associated with many psalms.

Depending on how we assess this evidence a wide range of possibilities are possible. Some highly conservative Bible readers seem keen to defy logic and see David as author of the whole book. This stands in clear contradiction to the post-exilic nature of many psalms (see Psalm 137 and Psalm 126 as especially clear examples) and the identification of many psalms with other people. For this, and other reasons, scholars tend to be far more cautious about David’s direct role in authorship of the psalms.

I am persuaded by the evidence that the Psalter is the result of a lengthy process of authoring, collecting and editing of psalms to form a structured book. This does not, however, contradict David’s connection with the book. Whilst we will never know how many of the psalms originated with David the final form of the Psalter requires it to be read to some extent with a Davidic emphasis. Any reading requires other lenses too, but we should be clear, David is vital to the Psalter.

The first few psalms illustrate this well. Psalm 1 can be read with an eye on David as an ideal of the devoted Law reader found there. Psalm 2 as we saw in the last post can be read in different ways. One of these is to see the anointed king as David, the first of the line of kings from the tribe of Judah. Psalms 3‒7 can be read as the struggles of David. These same psalms can also be read with a view to the common experience of humanity as our lives echo the struggles and hallelujahs of the very human king portrayed there. We would do well to consider making space for these polychromatic songs, poems and prayers on our journey.

O is for Old Testament

A few posts ago the term Hebrew Bible was explored with a view to appreciating why the label is more than just an alternative to the Christian term of ‘Old Testament’. In this post the idea that the existence of the Old Testament can be understood as a re-reading of the Hebrew Bible is considered. In order to appreciate this idea two other points need to be introduced:

  1. The relationship between a community and its authoritative texts will be outlined.
  2. The idea of re-reading will be considered and shown to have been part of the Hebrew Bible before there ever was an Old Testament.

The Hebrew Bible was not handed down from heaven although the Decalogue, or Ten Commandments, were written by God, according to Deuteronomy 5:22.  The majority of the Hebrew Bible is the result of selecting texts and by corollary not choosing others.

In recent times, scholars have given a lot of attention to how a religious community arrives at an authoritative set of texts that they know as Scripture. With the Hebrew Bible there is a lot of evidence to suggest that the texts of the Hebrew Bible grew gradually over time. This is not just about adding books one-by-one, but even some of the books went through a process of addition and editing. Critical scholarship has attempted to discern the earlier literary units of biblical texts (source criticism) and the work of those who combined sources and edited them (redaction criticism). Much of these efforts are today viewed with some scepticism. This is not to suggest that such things did not happen, but rather the hope of unpicking such a complex literary history with any certainty is unrealistic. Even if earlier texts could be recovered and later additions identified, it is far from clear what a Jewish or Christian believer would do with such information. Whilst, such scholarship is of interest for historical, religious and cultural reasons, those who believe these texts have abiding religious significance look to the texts in their final form. In the last two decades, scholarship has also tended to focus on the received text too.

Despite this focus on the final form of such texts, it is still necessary to see how the text could have been read differently over time. This change in understanding and significance of a text can be termed re-reading. Psalm 2 provides an interesting example. It can be quite instructive to imagine an enthronement ceremony in which the various sections of this psalm were read by different people as part of a ritual act. That such a use was the origin of this psalm is especially clear in sentences like these:

“I have installed my king
on Zion, my holy mountain.”  
(verse 6)

And

I will proclaim the Lord’s decree:

He said to me, “You are my son;
today I have become your father.
(verse 7)

When we consider that this psalm was collected and preserved as part of a collection of praises, i.e. songs used in wider contexts of worship, it can be appreciated that its original reading cannot have been fossilised. A sobering way to reflect on this is to imagine what singing this as a song would have meant in a time after the Fall of Jerusalem when there was no king at all, let alone one with the full power and majesty of God behind him. In this way the collection and later use of Psalms, and other texts too, means that they are read in a new context. It can be argued that it is likely that texts that can be re-read are more likely to be preserved as their current value is more evident.

This idea means that the jump from Hebrew Bible to Old Testament is nothing like the giant leap that might otherwise be imagined. Psalm 2 is again a case in point as four stages in re-reading can be discerned, from the perspective of Christian faith:

  • Living liturgy for the coronation of a new king.
  • Historical liturgy remembering God’s promises of old.
  • Prophetic word regarding a messiah (anointed one) who will come from the line of David to restore the nation.
  • Christological statement fulfilled in part by Christ’s incarnation and to be completed at his second coming.

In this way a Christian reading of Psalm 2 is a continuation of a trajectory begun during its selection, editing and inclusion in the Psalter. This can be a useful perspective in understanding the relationship between the Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament.

K is for King David

K is for King David

This post will take some lyrics from Leonard Cohen’s legendary song Hallelujah as its framework. The second verse of Hallelujah reflects on an infamous scene of adultery:

Your faith was strong but you needed proof

You saw her bathing on the roof

Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you

She tied you to her kitchen chair

She broke your throne and she cut your hair

And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah

The second verse of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah

These verses, either coincidentally or intentionally, highlight a couple of highly distinctive features of the Hebrew Bible which Christian interpreters have often failed to handle appropriately. The first of these is the tendency to portray heroes of the faith with painful honesty. Despite David being someone after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14) he is portrayed as someone who does terrible things. One of the most memorable is his lust for Bathsheba which causes him to immediately commit adultery with her (2 Samuel 11:2‒4). To make matters worse David successfully conspires to have Bathsheba’s husband killed in battle (2 Samuel 11:15‒17). There is little interest in whitewashing the stories concerning the heroes of faith in the Hebrew Bible—although we will consider in a later post why this story is absent from the account of David’s reign in Chronicles. All of the key figures in the life of Israel fail spectacularly at various points.

David’s failure regarding Bathsheba has captured the imagination of artists over hundreds of years, see [1] for an examination of this in religious painting. Cohen is not alone in finding this episode worthy of consideration. The way he does this is reminiscent of a way of interpreting the Hebrew Bible known as midrash. One of the features of midrash, and there are many others, is looking for parallels between diverse biblical narratives. In the verse quoted above it appears that Cohen is drawing a parallel between Bathsheba’s impact on David and the impact of Delilah on Samson—she famously seduced him and cut his hair in events which lead to his death (Judges Chapter 16). Cohen’s midrash perhaps implies that it was lust for a woman which led to both David’s problems and to Samson’s.  The story of David’s life makes it clear that the conflict in his house was a result of God’s displeasure with his adultery and ‘murder’—poetically Bathsheba broke his throne, although the biblical narrative lays this firmly at David’s feet. That lust and sexual desire are the uniting thread between the stories of broken thrones and cut hair is echoed in the reference to sex later in the verse: ‘from your lips she drew the Hallelujah’.

 

  1. David Lyle Jeffrey, ‘The Hebrew Bible in art and literature’, pp.426‒446 in The Cambridge Companion to The Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

What is the Context of a Psalm? Part 2: David

In part 1 of this post we explored the Psalms as poems, prayers and songs. We noted that this threefold identity had more to do with their function than their context. Although it was clear that using the psalms as poems, prayers and songs requires some answers to the question of the context/s in which they were originally used. In this second part we turn more explicitly to the question of context. We will look firstly at David as a lens, or context, for understanding and interpreting the Psalms.

The Psalms of David
There can be no denial that the Psalms are in some sense Davidic. Quite what we mean by this is much more complex and potentially a matter over which Christians might differ. Some 73 of the 150 canonical psalms are headed as being ‘of David’. This is enough to make the importance of David clear. The precise significance of the designation, ‘of David’ is, however, far from clear. The Hebrew preposition so often translated ‘of’ can mean anything along the lines of: ‘for’, ‘from’, ‘at’, ‘referring to’, ‘belonging to’ as well as ‘of’. It has often been taken to simply imply that David was the author of these specific psalms, but the term need not imply authorship. It might be that they are in some sense dedicated to him, perhaps because of authorship by a particular school of authors. Many Christians of a more conservative background seem keen to hold onto Davidic authorship of the Psalms. Even if we see these 73 psalms as being authored by David, we must face the fact that many of the other psalms have other attributions (and thus possibly authorship) and some have none. Psalms ascribed in some sense to others are:

The Korahites: 42, 44-49, 84, 85, 87 and 88.
Asaph: 50 and 73-83.
Solomon: 72 and 127.
Heman the Ezrahite: 88.
Ethan the Ezrahite: 89.
Moses: 90.

Psalm 88 is unusual in having a dual attribution to the Korahites and Heman the Ezrahite.

We can also see that many psalms date from much later than the time of David, in terms of both their language and the events which are referred to or implied. Most notable is the shadow cast over the Psalter by the exile, and thus the failure of the Davidic monarchy. Nevertheless David plays a unique and central role in that some of the psalms are specifically tied to events in his life by the use of biographical details, for example psalms 3, 7, 18, etc. Many scholars have argued, however, that such ascriptions are the later additions of editors. Without attempting to establish too precise a demarcation of the meaning of ‘of David’ or deciding upon whether and how many canonical psalms David authored, there are two key points which I think are not controversial.

Point 1: The Psalter is in a very real sense Davidic in its canonical form.
Many psalms take on a whole new life when they are read as if David is either the author or the person saying the psalm. Many of the psalms of lament focused on an individual make sense through this lens. We need get no further than psalm 3:1 to see this, ‘O Lord, how many are my foes! Many are rising against me’. The so-called Royal Psalms reflect on David and the Davidic line. In short the Psalter can make no sense without David.

Point 2: Seeing David as author cannot make full sense of the Psalter.
There are many reasons why seeing the Psalter through David as a ‘context’, or lens, cannot be all-encompassing. Not least of these is the post-Easter perspective through which Christians understand the Psalms. Using Jesus as an interpretive lens is examined in part 3. There we shall see that, whilst such a lens was alien to the original Jewish Psalter, Jesus the Messiah is naturally coherent with the Davidic lens we have just explored.

David and the Psalms

This short post was inspired by some tweets I stumbled across which jarred with me. They implied either that David wrote all the Psalms or expressed surprise at the claim that he did not. No scholar has, to my knowledge, defended Davidic authorship of all 150 canonical psalms for well over one hundred years. Not all scholars are hard-nosed critics, there are many who serve Christ and hold the Bible as Scripture; if Davidic authorship of the whole collection could be defended someone would have done so recently. So why do so many Christians want to hold onto the idea that David authored all of them, or even feel that the Bible is under attack if this view is questioned?

Jesus, of course, famously refers to David as the author of psalm 110 as recorded in Matthew 22:43-45 (paralleled in Mark 12:36-37 and Luke 20:42-44). This is one of the 73 psalms that are described in their heading as ‘of David’. We can note three points here:

1. ‘Of David’ does not necessarily imply authorship. It might imply some other type of connection with David.
2. Jesus does imply Davidic authorship of psalm 110.
3. Many psalms are not titled as being ‘of David’ and some are clearly associated with other people or groups of people.

At this very cursory level the Bible seems to claim that the Psalms are in some sense associated with David, with David being the author (some might suggest the implied author) of a number of them, for example note the historical episodes from David’s life in some 13 psalm titles (although again some would see this in different terms). Many individual psalms are, however, not directly associated with him. This does not contradict the label of the Psalter as the ‘Psalms of David’, but simply that the meaning of this description is more nuanced than wholesale authorship by King David.

The psalm headings, which are part of the transmitted and preserved text, give us this more complex picture. Strangely those of a more fundamentalist Christian view tend to ignore the subtlety of the titles and the more critical of scholars also dismiss them as late and unhelpful additions to the Psalms. As a Christian I am compelled to take the psalm titles seriously, but I don’t want to rule out the possibility of editing, including some title additions. One of the aims of this blog is to draw attention to the idea that editing of the Psalms, rather than being hostile to understanding the Psalter as Scripture, opens up an exciting and dynamic view of how these songs and poems were cherished and used by the community of faith and thus became Scripture. To use an old fashioned theological concept we have God’s providence at work in a process of authorship, collecting and editing. This is an exciting and indeed incarnational way in which God’s Spirit worked amongst his people over centuries. Such a work seems more naturally coherent with a God who became a man that we might know him more fully.

To say that David did not write all the Psalms still means he wrote some. Maybe all those that are described as ‘of David’ or a subset, opinions will vary. David’s situation within Israel as the second king, but in a sense the first true king in founding a dynasty, is unique. This together with his role in setting in motion the Temple and thus Temple worship in many senses make the Psalms Davidic. It is the case, I think, that this influence of David is much more theologically interesting than simple authorship of the Psalter!

Some of the psalms date from the time of the first ceremonies in the temple, such as the enthronement of the kings and other royal celebrations. These psalms are the Royal Psalms. Their significance has changed and perhaps this even encouraged editing. Words that celebrated the impressiveness of David and Solomon as they reigned over Israel become hollow words later in the time of the monarchy’s failure. Unbelievable claims about kings in the present became expectations of a new David, a new anointed king, or in other words the hope for a coming messiah. Words that spoke of the grandeur of earthly kings at their enthronement were preserved because they captured the prophetic expectation of God’s people that there would be a return of the king.

This Davidic, and ultimately messianic, thread within the Psalms is important for our understanding and use of the Psalms. There are some words within the Psalms that only make sense when seen as the words of a king of Israel and/or those of the coming king. David is also an ideal in some ways. Like us he is beloved of God, and also shares with us a frailty that can lead to actions abhorrent to God and contrary to His instruction (Torah). The fact that David retained God’s favour is encouraging to us. Similarly we have the good news that the Psalms contain so many words of the most diverse emotional nature. This fits with a king who lived a life before God to the full. The Psalms can serve us well as we attempt to live life to the full with all the potential for blessing on the one hand and the possibility of mistakes on the other. The way of righteousness that the Psalms take us on is not one of dead self-obsessed obedience, but a life lived in honesty before the God who both instructs and yet can also show mercy. The day-and-night meditation on God’s law, or instruction (psalm 1:2), is not legalism. Rather this is devotion to the one who leads and shelters us on a journey which ultimately leads to encounter with the messiah, Jesus Christ.

Psalms of Ascents: Psalms 120-134

Psalm 119 comes as something of a surprise to anyone reading through the Psalter, because of both its vast length and single-minded focus on Torah. Immediately following this remarkable psalm are fifteen psalms, which in different ways are also rather unusual. Psalms 120–134 are known as the Psalms of Ascents because they all have the same heading, literally ‘song of the steps’. No other psalms have this heading. So, we have here a deliberate collection of psalms (see the earlier post on mesostructure). It is not just the common heading that unites these psalms as we shall see below.

Various traditions surround the origin and function of these psalms. They are often said to be connected with pilgrimage. The first three of these psalms, when read as a sequence support this idea. Psalm 120 might reflect the hostility faced by someone starting out on a pilgrimage as they temporary leave the everyday realities of life in their community. Psalm 121 uses language which resonates with a journey and Psalm 122 clearly articulates the joy of arriving in Jerusalem. These psalms are also linked by some interpreters with the steps leading up to the inner court of the temple: there being 15 songs of the steps to match these 15 steps. Whether these psalms were used in the autumn pilgrimage festival as is proposed by some remains inconclusive. That these psalms are intentionally placed together is more clearly demonstrable.

Their unity does not come from their common genre (or Gattungen), although more than half mention Zion (Psalms 122, 125, 126, 128, 129, 132, 133 and 134) and several could be identified as Songs of Zion. Their type is varied and includes Laments (psalms 120, 123, 126, 129 and 130) and Songs of Trust (psalms 121, 125 and 131). There are elements of wisdom too (in psalms 127, 128 and 133). Psalm 132 stands out as a Royal Psalm. When they are read sequentially their ordering often seems naturally developmental, for example, in how the lament of 120 develops into trust in 121 and is followed by the joy and celebration of 122.

So, what unites these psalms other than their common heading? Goulder (1998) helpfully builds on the work of other scholars and singles out four features that mark out these psalms (except 132 which we’ll return too below):

1. They are short psalms
These psalms are on average about 40% the length of other psalms in the Psalter. The exception being 132. All 15 together are shorter than psalm 119.

2. They use step parallelism
The psalms are known for their use of parallelism, but in the Psalms of Ascents this often takes on a style in which whole phrases carry over from one clause to the next. For example:

He will not suffer thy foot to be moved: he that keepeth thee will not slumber.
Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.

Psalm 121:3-4 (KJV)

3. They repeat some short phrases
There are around six phrases that are repeated 2 or 3 times in this small group. For example:

a. Maker of heaven and earth (121: 2, 124:8 and 134: 3).
b. From this time forth and for ever more (121: 8, 125: 2, 131: 3).

4. The use a large number of positive similes
The psalms as a whole tend to favour metaphors over similes. When similes are used they are often militaristic in nature. Here in these psalms (except 132) there is a large density of similes and they tend to refer to everyday objects and events. They are also positive by nature, four typical examples being:

a. as the eyes of servants (123: 2)
b. as grass upon the housetops (129: 6).
c. as a child that is weaned of its mother (131: 2).
d. like precious ointment upon the head (133: 2).

So, what of all these features? Well they are evidence enough that these psalms are a coherent whole, except that Psalm 132 is marked out as exceptional. It is much longer, does not use step parallelism, does not have phrases that are common with the other 14 and does not contain any similes. In this way our attention is drawn to this Royal Psalm. What are we to make of these efforts to highlight this psalm?

The first issue of note is that at the time of collecting the psalms, and at the time of their use, if they indeed reflect the autumn festival, the Davidic kings were long gone. When we remember this, we see that this psalm takes the Davidic story and makes it into an eschatological promise par excellence. Despite Zion being a place of God’s dwelling, despite the pilgrimage to this city, there is something missing. There is no king of the line of David as was promised. There is no anointed one. This psalm, like a number of other prominent psalms in the Psalter, rewrites the promises of an earthly anointed ruler and transforms the meaning from ‘anointed’ to ‘messiah’. It is this hope that makes sense of pilgrimage. It is this expectation that ensures that Jerusalem is not just another earthly city. It is this future which is the horizon that the Psalms draw our attention to. Psalm 132 singled-out like this reminds the pilgrim ‘reader’ that pilgrimage is not just about the now it has a firm future eschatological dynamic too.

M. D. Goulder, The Psalms of the Return: Book V, Psalms 107–150, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998.