The Breath of Life: Acts 2

1. The Invisible
This post is dedicated to George Floyd who had the breath of life taken from him in horrific circumstances on 25th May 2020.

I am something of a fan of the works of J. R. R. Tolkien. For me, his book the Lord of the Rings is a masterpiece. One of the reasons for this judgement is that, like the Bible, it has a richness and depth. There is a sense that behind it lies something remarkable and mysterious. Of course, with the Lord of the Rings this is the life-long musings and imagination of its author. With the Bible it is the inspiration and providential hand of an author of a very different type—the Holy Spirit.

One of Tolkien’s most remarkable creations is the creature Gollum. He is known to many of us more recently as acted and voiced by Andy Serkis in Peter Jackson’s films. Gollum appears briefly in Tolkien’s The Hobbit. For most of his appearance he plays a game of riddles with the Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins. This is a game with serious consequences. If Bilbo wins, Gollum will lead him to safely out of the maze of dark dank tunnels beneath the Misty Mountains. If Gollum wins? Let us put it this way he won’t go hungry for quite some time.

One of the riddles from this serious game reads:

This thing all things devours:
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats high mountain down.

Like all riddles when we have the answer it is obvious. The answer for this riddle is time.

A number of the riddles in The Hobbit concern things that are invisible. Reminding us that just because something is not visible it does not mean it is not real. A virus can only be seen with an electron microscope, but we knew they were real before the microscope was invented because of their effect. Some things are invisible not because of their small size but because of their very nature. Time is of course like that. We are literally in it and cannot perceive it directly although we can measure it physically with great precision, for example with the National Physical Laboratory’s atomic clock. Or we can measure it spiritually and emotionally as we number our days on this earth.

Another riddle from the Hobbit is much closer to the Pentecost story.

Voiceless it cries,
Wingless flutters,
Toothless bites,
Mouthless mutters.

The answer this time is wind. Seen not by its nature but by its effect. The half-mast flag waving in the breeze marking the tragic death of George Floyd, the scene of devastation after a tornado, or more pleasantly the slowly drifting smoke rising above the first post-lockdown family barbecue.

This is how it is with the Spirit of God. We perceive his work by consequences not because we can perceive him directly. In Acts 2 we can see the Spirit indirectly as language is employed at near breaking point. There is a wind—’a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house’. There are flames—’They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them’. We are left puzzling over how literally we understand these metaphors, which are an attempt to describe the indescribable. There are languages too as the disciples speak other tongues—another sign of the invisible Spirit.

2. A New Beginning
In reading this passage we already know it marks a new beginning for God’s people. It is the birth of the Church, although at the time it might well have felt like a renewal of Judaism.

As the birth of the Church, or the rebirth of God’s people, it echoes the birth of the biblical Israel. Their leader Moses experienced wind and fire on Mont Sinai. The whole nation saw a pillar of fire by night and a cloud by day which they followed.

It is not just the wind and flames that show this to be a new beginning—the birth of something wonderful. It is what has just happened over the previous 50 days, or so, and what happens next. The cross, the resurrection, and the ascension of Jesus have redefined the hope for a messiah. Jesus is the messiah. He fulfils the promise but redefines it too. This Jesus Christ is now seated at the right hand of God.

And what he said just before his ascension, unfolds on the Day of Pentecost:

He said to them: ‘It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’

After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.
Acts 1:7–9, NIVUK

The sermon that follows the wind and flames fulfils Jesus’ words of ten days earlier. It fulfils promises from the Book of Joel, just as Jesus’ death and resurrection fulfils the Psalms. This is all explained in Peter, the Fisher of Men’s first sermon.

So, what is this power imparted by the Holy Spirit? The word ‘power’ in our English translation is dunamis which gave its meaning to dynamite—this is serious power. What dynamite have we the Church been given as Christ pours out his Spirit?

This is a controversial topic because so often the Church has sought power of an all too earthly a nature. The first point we should note is that this power is sent by the one whose best expression of the grace we need, was surrender to death on a cross. We would do well to remember this and to be cautious that this power is not to be equated with military might. It is not coercive in any sense. It was after all, for freedom that Christ has set us free. We are no longer to be slaves to a yoke of slavery.

3. To the Ends of the Earth
The subject of the Holy Spirit is a divisive one, which for me is the saddest and most horribly ironic aspects of the worldwide church. Where Jesus’ Spirit is really at work, we would expect walls to come down. That is of course exactly what happened on that first Pentecost. Jews—the people of Israel—had been scattered across the whole of the Roman Empire because of their persecution at the hands of first the Greek Empire and then the Roman occupiers of their nation. The list in Acts 2 is comprehensive. It is as if God’s people have all been re-gathered in Jerusalem to be made one people again. The festival of Pentecost was a time when many scattered Jews made a pilgrimage to the City of Peace Jerusalem. It is God’s timing that people are in Jerusalem from the ends of the earth.

What they witness and take part in is a reconstitution of the scattered people of God. But now the rules have changed, in the freedom of Christ and the freedom of the Spirit. Now Gentiles get admitted to the people of God. This is after all the mission that Jesus gave to his disciples before he ascended:

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’
Acts 1:8, NIVUK

Here in Acts 2 we are in Jerusalem with representatives of the nations, and by the end of the Book of Acts the gospel is set firmly on its way to the ends of the earth.

Church History reveals the most remarkable divergence in how this work unfolds. And on occasions Church History reveals events in which we struggle to see God’s work being done. At one extreme there can be the deadness of dry empty institutional religion. At the other can be the theatre of the televangelist or fundamentalist personality cult. Both belittle the true power and the real life to be found in God’s word through God’s Spirit.

Closer to home it is all too easy for us to mistake our words for God’s and our desires for the prompting of God’s Spirit. May we never be a church in which anyone claims to have heard the Spirit’s voice as a trump card to stifle other voices.

4. We Are All in This Together
One thing we can note from that first Christian Pentecost is that the disciples were all in it together. The eleven of them together have had the same message from Jesus and the same Spirit poured out upon them. But they like us are still distinct individual people. Only one of their number had to preach on that day. Doubtless as they set about dealing with the three thousand new converts that day, they each used their different abilities. We can but use our imagination, think of all the conversations and practical matters that are needed to cope with 3,000 new disciples.

As Christ’s Body we are all in God’s mission together but we each have different tasks. We can depend on each other. We know that no one person exudes spirit-inspired hospitality, bakes superb cakes, has evangelistic talents for reaching 2 year-olds and the over eighties, leadership wisdom, the gift of healing, administrative excellence, talent with the flute, speaks in tongues, can calculate doses of radiation to heal people, performs worshipful dance, builds PA systems, calculates budgets, makes great coffee, casts out demons, and leads prize-worthy contemplative prayer.

We are not called to be Jesus as individuals! We are the body of Christ together. We nurture our own gifts and look to encouraging others with theirs.

5. Good News
The Gospel is a message of good news. It was Isaiah who coined the term ‘good news’ or evangelion from which we get the terms evangelism and evangelical. Isaiah’s’ words—from what some call the fifth gospel—has enormous resonance with the Pentecost story:

How beautiful on the mountains
are the feet of those who bring good news,
who proclaim peace,
who bring good tidings,
who proclaim salvation,
who say to Zion,
‘Your God reigns!’
Listen! Your watchmen lift up their voices;
together they shout for joy.
When the Lord returns to Zion,
they will see it with their own eyes.
Burst into songs of joy together,
you ruins of Jerusalem,
for the Lord has comforted his people,
he has redeemed Jerusalem.
The Lord will lay bare his holy arm
in the sight of all the nations,
and all the ends of the earth will see
the salvation of our God.
Isaiah 52:7–10, NIVUK

Peter of course tells the Good News in his Pentecost sermon.

Preaching the gospel rarely looks like this for us of course. One of the biggest challenges of the modern Western church is how to preach the good news. The days of mission tents are long gone, here in the UK. As humans we want things to be simple but reaching people today with the good news is not simple. Not simple, if by simple we mean a big organised event with immediate fruit. And yet on the other hand it can be simple. We are all free in the Spirit to dream dreams. This is the promise of the Prophet Joel, the promise of Pentecost, the good news enabled by the Spirit.

Each of us needs to understand our gifts and our priorities before God. If we honour God with our Spirit-inspired gifts and give him back some of our time we will find ways to show the gospel and to speak it. It might not look tidy and neat. And it is of course only when we work together that the good news can be heard in all its richness.

The biggest challenge for Church Leaders is to enable us to nurture the loving organic relationships which is where so often the Spirit blows and fires up hearts.

How can we achieve together appropriate space and time in which the gospel can be heard and responded too?

Pray for your friends and the Spirit’s leading. Pray for your church leaders and the Spirit’s leading.

I will finish by praying Psalm 126 (The Message version) which has long been my prayer for our church. Maybe it could be a prayer for yours too?

It seemed like a dream, too good to be true,
when God returned Zion’s exiles.
We laughed, we sang,
we couldn’t believe our good fortune.
We were the talk of the nations—
“God was wonderful to them!”
God was wonderful to us;
we are one happy people.

And now, God, do it again—
bring rains to our drought-stricken lives
So those who planted their crops in despair
will shout hurrahs at the harvest,
So those who went off with heavy hearts
will come home laughing, with armloads of blessing.

Jethro the Obscure

Throughout Exodus chapter 18 Jethro is named as Moses’ Father-in-Law. This happens time-after-time to a level that makes the phrase an appellation. Given the importance of Moses it is not surprising that Jethro is named in this way. And yet despite the stature of Moses, Jethro is important in his own right for several reasons. Obscure he might be—but we can learn something from him and his part in the big story that is Exodus.

The Book of Exodus explores, explains, and elaborates on nothing less than the creation of a nation. And no ordinary nation at that. The nation of Israel are God’s people in the First Testament. God’s plan for his people began with the call of Abraham to travel to the Promised Land. It was renewed from father-to-son; from Abraham to Isaac, and then from Isaac to Jacob. And it was Jacob who became known as Israel—one who struggles with God. It was Israel’s children who ended up in Egypt after a famine. Children who would each father a tribe of Israel.

In Exodus chapter 18 some four hundred years later this people have grown, as promised, and though captive in Egypt at the start of the story, they are now freed from slavery and on their way to a new life in Canaan. It is this dramatic move from captivity to freedom that Jethro has heard about. He has heard of plagues that showed the supremacy of Yahweh the God of Israel over the Egyptian gods. He has heard of parted sea and Egypt’s army washed away. It is God’s mighty acts that have stirred Jethro into action—more of this later.

In the midst of God establishing a people who will become a nation there are of course other nations. Egypt has been judged. And here we read of Jethro who is a priest among the Midianites who were probably a confederation of peoples. The Midianites were a people who owed their name to Midian, a son of Abraham according to Genesis 25:1–2. Israel will cause turmoil among the nations as they enter the Promised Land and yet they are also God’s plan to bless all nations.

And here is Jethro—a priest of Midian—in the midst of the most remarkable story of the First Testament; the defining narrative of the Old Testament. These events are of course fundamentally God’s doing—it is his mighty hand that has brought Israel out of Egypt, but a handful of people play important roles. Moses might be the central figure, but Jethro too has played his part. He had welcomed Moses into his family when Moses fled from Egypt after killing an Egyptian. Moses lived for 40 years in Midian until compelled by God to play an instrumental part in rescuing his people.

The story of Exodus 2 does not go into elaborate detail, but Jethro—who is known as Reuel there—was welcoming of someone of another nation. He is a Midianite who at first saw Moses as an Egyptian. The story seems to indicate that he was grateful and/or impressed by Moses’ actions to protect his daughters from harassment, or worse, at the hands of some troublesome shepherds.

This story is remarkable. A priest of Midian welcomes someone into his family by marriage, a man committed to a different God, a man who will be instrumental in establishing the priesthood of another nation. Perhaps Jethro could see from the outset that God was at work in Moses’ life. Perhaps, more likely, he just had some respect for him. Whatever the details, in Moses and Jethro we have the meeting of nations. A priest of Midian is Father-in-Law to the future leader of Israel.

And here in Chapter 18 Jethro appears and brings with him Moses’ family, his wife and two sons. We might first think that it’s the reuniting of a family that is Jethro’s concern. For as he brings Moses’ wife, Zipporah, and his two sons, Gershom and Eliezer, our modern sensibilities see a family reunited. We are relieved that Moses after his mission to Egypt is back with his family thanks to this Midianite priest. Now this is of course good news but its secondary to Jethro’s primary reason for pitching up. We might even see his family concerns as a pretext for the real reason.

The real reason—the primary reason—is that Jethro has heard of God at work. In a way he has heard good news; the good news that Israel has been rescued by God’s mighty hand and through Moses, a leader equipped by Yahweh. Jethro responds to the testimony of those who witnessed first-hand God’s saving grace and mercy. Jethro had no Bible text available, but he responds to what lies behind the whole of the Bible, the mighty hand of God. This is why he sought out Moses according to the passage (v.1). Exodus chapter 18 also tells us that Moses recounted the events all over again (v.8).

We now have the whole testimony. The First Testament bears witness to the creation of a nation and the God of Israel. The Second Testament bears witness to the redemption of all nations and the God of our Lord Jesus Christ. One God testified to in two covenants.

Jethro, a priest of Midian, has heard of the God of Israel, Yahweh. We don’t actually know which god, or gods, the Midianites worshipped and therefore for which God Jethro was priest. But this story reveals that not only did Jethro hear of Yahweh, but this causes him to worship Yahweh. Jethro testifies to what God has done:

‘Praise be to the Lord, who rescued you from the hand of the Egyptians and of Pharaoh, and who rescued the people from the hand of the Egyptians. Now I know that the Lord is greater than all other gods, for he did this to those who had treated Israel arrogantly.’          Exodus 18:10–11

He goes on to make a sacrifice to God, a burnt offering among other things. This is a significant event; we might even see it as a conversion event. The leaders of Israel see the significance as Jethro is joined for a meal by Moses, Aaron, and the Elders of Israel. This is one of a handful events in the First Testament that we might call mission. Sadly, in the future all does not go well with other Midianites as we read in Numbers and Judges.

But here Jethro bears testimony to the possibility of God’s grace being available to those outside Israel. The story of Jethro is something of an oasis of missional grace in the First Testament. The nation of Israel not only ‘contend with God’ as their name suggests, but they continually contend with the surrounding nations. The nation called by God to redeem all nations struggles to settle into their calling to be a blessing to all nations. There are rays of hope, little vignettes of hope. Picture that are promises and foretastes of what is to come.

In the events leading up to the Exodus, Joseph though despised and rejected by his own brothers is a blessing to Egypt. He enables the whole nation to survive famine because of his gifts of administration. He blesses another nation.

The events of the book of Ruth tell of how a Moabite woman, the eponymous Ruth, was both a blessing and blessed by being welcomed into Israel. Her descendants would include not only David but also one Jesus of Nazareth.

But the likes of Jospeh, Jethro, and Ruth were the exceptions. It is only in Christ that the fuller potential of God’s people for mission is unlocked. Through Jesus’ mighty acts, of miracle, death, and resurrection there is good news to share. Good news not about the deliverance of a single nation but the salvation of people from every tribe and every nation. Just as messengers brought good news to Jethro, we are to bring good news to others. We have the mightiest of all God’s acts to talk about—the rising to new life of the crucified Son of God.

Today’s story does not tell us how to evangelise. This is not template for mission. As individuals, and more importantly, as a church we are called to mission. Every church exists to gather and worship God. But every church also exists to be among the nations gathering others to discover and worship God. The Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple famously said:

“The Church is the only institution that exists primarily for the benefit of those who are not its members.”

Too often we forget this self-evident truth. Just as we gather because of the Good News so too we must perpetuate that same Good News. How could it be right to do anything other than continue the reconciliation made possible at such a price?

This passage tells of the power of the Good News. It is so easy to become jaded given the decline of Christian faith in our nation. Some ways of mission and evangelism that worked thirty years ago simply don’t work today in our post-Christian society. Basic knowledge of the Christian faith is less in today’s culture than it has been for centuries. Programmes and missions might fall flat but we can note that Jethro heard and responded to the Good News in an organic way. As Moses’ Father-in-Law he was able to both hear and respond.

All of us here have friends, acquaintances, neighbours, and families. All of us can support and encourage one another in reaching them. Not with a tent mission but in the everyday organic events of everyday life and most importantly of all in prayer.

The Gospel, the Good News is alive and well. Its power is the same power that parted the Red Sea and raised Jesus from death to life. It is the same gospel that changed the course of Jethro’s life; it is the same power from on high that established the Church 2,000 years ago.

There is something surprising in the story that we have not yet noted. As a person new to the situation, Jethro was able to offer wisdom and insight. He saw that Moses’ way of leadership was unsustainable and that he needed to make better use of the gifts of others. Moses receives Jehro’s advice and fundamentally changes how the affairs of the people of God are managed.

New leadership often brings challenge and change, and this is inevitable. They key is to pray for wisdom that changes are wise ones and that the challenges are those that equip for the task head—to be a church that honours the God of Moses and the God of Jesus Christ weekly in gathering in his name, and to be a church that testifies to the Good News of the mighty acts of this same God.

Mountains Will Tremble Before Him: Isaiah 64:1-9

What does this mean? (vv.13)

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,

    that the mountains would tremble before you! (64:1)

Do you ever have moments when you just wish that God would intervene and make things right? I think we all do from time to time. It might be we just feel we need him and he feels distant—we feel alone, or overwhelmed, or frustrated. It might be that our life does not make sense—our finances are a mess, we are addicted to something unwholesome, our relationships seem broken or we are struggling with our family. It might be that we are horrified with the way things are. Why can’t God show up and deal with the warmongers, those that promote hatred, those that sow discord and those that use terror as a means to their own ends? Maybe, more positively, we have simply arrived at the elusive spiritual fulfilment of the Apostle Paul—“to live is Christ and to die is gain” [Phil 1:21]—a readiness for the Day of the Lord and the New Heaven and the New Earth.

There are all sorts of reasons to want God to show up, but the sort of arrival of God described here might not be what we always have in mind. The Advent of God described in Isaiah 64 certainly seems far away from a baby in a manager. This is the full-on might of God the Father, Yahweh God of Israel, showing up in all his power, glory and majesty. God appearing in creation as only the creator can.

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,

    that the mountains would tremble before you! (64:1)

Isaiah was writing to a people that knew this God of power, glory and majesty. For centuries they had known the reality of this God who made mountains tremble. Moses had made a covenant with him and experienced him in the burning bush. The nation had seen him settle in smoke and cloud on Sinai. They had followed him—a pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night. He had dwelt with them in the holy of holies. And yet, more recently they knew his reality only by his absence. They knew what it was to be in exile, to be a pawn played by the big nations.

The experience of old, turned into a desire for salvation, for restoration, for vindication and for judgement of those brash big nations and their false gods. They wanted the nations to quake and squirm before their God, their Yahweh. Israel did not get the answer from Yahweh they hoped for. When the Father did rend the heavens it was indeed God who came down. But it was the Son who came down and became a man. A man who commanded the elements, but whose mission was not one of smoke, fire and trembling. No mountain trembled, at least not at his first Advent. Later, in his death and his resurrection, the cosmos would be set on a path to being remade but to the casual observer this was not Isaiah’s Day of the Lord. The first Advent happened 2,000 years ago—We still await the second.

 

Who is this God? (vv.45)

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,

    that the mountains would tremble before you! (64:1)

Israel did not invent their God. Israel experienced their God. Firstly through the patriarchs who he brought to the Promised Land working through day-to-day agriculture and farming, through world events and through asking remarkable things of unremarkable people. Later they experienced him through deliverance from slavery , through plagues upon their captors and through parted-water and desert wandering.

They were called to be a holy nation. God loved them so much that he gave them his precious law. Not a law just of legal statements but a law of life-giving instruction explaining who this God who acted on their behalf was. Instructing them to wait upon him in worship, sacrifice and praise—to centre a nation on doing right before him. But like us, when experience receded to memory they forgot, they turned away, they sinned by looking elsewhere for life and reward. Despite understanding that a God who can rend mountains is not one to be crossed, the people of Israel looked to Baal and other manufactured gods. They were led astray by other peoples they should have shared their faith with.

Idols of wealth, sex and power are not discoveries of our modern world—though we have developed, promoted and even marketed them. Humankind has struggled with such idols from the moment we looked from the true God to others with whom we hope to find satisfaction. That original choice, to question our relationship with God opens up the possibility of plugging that gap with alternatives that feel good in the short term, but fall to dust in the longer term, and in the age to come. We, like our ancient counterparts, struggle to remember the ways of God.

 

Why is this a problem? (vv.67)

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,

    that the mountains would tremble before you! (64:1)

A God who makes mountains tremble is a problem for frail, sinful people. Such holiness and majesty that makes mountains quake is hostile to our lack of holiness. The language of the Bible on this matter, so we are told, is dated and outmoded. But we know our moral brokenness, our sin, is not removed by it being unpopular or inconvenient. The gospel of Good News only makes sense when we understand the bad news of our brokenness. Of course God did not make us broken—humanity chose that path.  Isaiah’s language of uncleanness picks up on a central theme of the law. He explains that despite our best efforts our attempts at doing right fall short of the perfection of God.

Theologians have tried to capture our difference from God in terms of righteousness in precise and sophisticated language, but the Prophet Isaiah’s language of filthy rags says it all. And as Isaiah nails our unrighteousness so well, he also captures the terrible consequences. This is poetic language, but no less sobering and disturbing for that. The fallen condition means that all will shrivel like a leaf and the wind of our sins blows us away as dust.

 

When will this happen? (vv.89)

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,

    that the mountains would tremble before you! (64:1)

The God who shakes mountains is also a God of mercy and grace. As the potter he wants to remake us. The Two Advents are the means of this mercy and grace being worked out to refashion us. Advent is the coming of God who as potter can refashion us to cleanse us from sin, give us new life so that we will not shrivel, re-clothe us with royal garments and restore relationships.

That First Advent —the Incarnation of the Son as a baby—the story of the God-man Jesus is the story of the rending of the heavens firstly in Incarnation and secondly in Resurrection. Nothing less than a shockwave that makes space-time tremble as the New Creation is initiated. A new creation in which ultimately sin will not consume us as its power has been broken. A new creation in which resurrection eclipses the shrivelling finality of death. A new creation in which our filthy rags are replaced with spotless robes. A new creation in which relationships are made whole and wholesome.

The Second Advent, the so-called second coming, is Isaiah’s Day of the Lord. That day is when God completes both mercy and judgement and on that day:

[He] rend the heavens and come down,

    that the mountains would tremble before [Him!] (64:1)

Right now of course we are caught between two Advents. It is here that we can encounter our Father as the potter. We can acknowledge him in his glory and majesty and know him in the mercy revealed at that first Advent. We will not know the completion of God’s work until the day when mountains tremble but we can continue the journey, to that day, by being re-moulded by him.

We can be clay in his hands; he gives us freedom to choose. One of the key ways to transformation, to be clay in his hands, is to learn what it means to wait. Waiting for God is central to the Christian faith. Why else would we find the psalmist crying time-and-again: ‘how long O Lord?’ Our Western societies have lost any sense of waiting. The patient waiting for the age to come stands in stark contrast to the spirit of the age—the spirit of secular Christmas. The Bible promises more, but at a pace which is down to God. We don’t know when that day of second Advent will come. But we do know that patient waiting on him is the key. Waiting is not passive—as we wait we are moulded and refashioned.

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,

    that the mountains would tremble before you! (64:1)

Z is for Zion

Journey’s End

Zion is journey’s end. This is true for this A to Z project but also true for pilgrims of old who equated Zion with Jerusalem. It is also true today for pilgrims of a different sort who see life as ‘the life of faith’. For such modern day pilgrims, Zion is where God is and captures the hope and anticipation of resurrection and eternal life. As our journey’s end Zion is wholly positive. How could this be otherwise when Yahweh is there awaiting the pilgrim or disciple? The word Zion and especially the word Zionist, however, can have other more difficult connotations. The word Zionist and how one uses it can quickly be seen as taking sides in the complex issues of the Middle-East.

In this post Zion refers to (i) Jerusalem during the time of biblical events and the writing of the Hebrew Bible, and (ii) the eschatological destination mentioned above. Below we look at both of these in turn by considering the use of the word Zion in the fifteen psalms known as the Psalms of Ascents.

Psalms of Ascents and Zion

The Hebrew Bible’s Book of Psalms, or Psalter, has 150 psalms arranged in five books. For many years scholarship on the psalms focused so hard on the genre of the psalms that this led to the conclusion that the psalms were an anthology. More than that, it was assumed that little, if any, care had been given to the arrangement of the psalms for the editor or editors of the Psalter. This conclusion was odd for a number of reasons. One of the more obvious contradictions was the apparent existence of prior collections of psalms now demarcated by headings or opening phrases. These include:

  • The Asaph Psalms (50, 73–83).
  • The Psalms of the Sons of Korah (42, 44–49, 84–85, 87–88).
  • The Psalms of Ascents (120–134).
  • The Hallel Psalms (113–118, 146–150).
  • The ‘YHWH Malak’ Psalms (47, 93, 96–99).

The Psalms of Ascents stand out in particular as they are all consecutive and have a remarkable number of features that draw them together as not only as a collection but as a highly structured whole. Mitchell [1] helpfully explores the interconnectedness of these fifteen psalms.

The fifteen Psalms of Ascents have a strong focus on Zion. The words Zion and Jerusalem occur twelve times. The connection with Zion is greater than this word count, as the collection can be seen to be consistent with a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. In this way even those Psalms of Ascents which do not mention Zion or Jerusalem have this connection—and of course the very name Ascents refers either to the fifteen temple steps or the ascent into Jerusalem on ‘its holy hill’ (Mitchell [1] argues persuasively that it is both of these).

Zion and the Life of Faith

The Christian tradition has seen pilgrimage as a point of continuity with its Jewish roots. Sometimes this is a very physical reality analogous to travelling by foot to Jerusalem. For many Christians however pilgrimage is a powerful metaphor of what it means to be sojourners on the earth and travelling to a life in the hereafter with Yahweh. The Psalms of Ascents take on a different dynamic when seen from this perspective. Of course it is not just the nature of this journey that differs to that made by pilgrims to the earthy Zion. For the Christian journeying to the heavenly Zion, the Hebrew Bible itself is changed because of the new post-Easter lens. The Hebrew Bible is still the Hebrew Bible and yet as precious Scripture which points to Easter it becomes part of the Christian Bible. This Old Testament is not old in terms of being outmoded or surpassed but is old only in terms of chronology. Unless this First Testament is recognised fully as the Hebrew Bible there is a danger we damage that which to the pilgrim is God-breathed.

 

Reference

  1. David C. Mitchell, The Songs of Ascents: Psalms 120 to 134 in the Worship of Jerusalem’s Temples, Newton Mearns: Campbell Publications, 2015.

Further Reading on the Structure of the Psalms

 

 

 

Y is for YHWH

When devout Jews read the word YHWH (or YHVH) in the biblical texts they read the word as Adonai. In doing this they are showing a reticence to use the divine name. The word Yahweh is one way of rendering the four letters YHWH, or YHVH, known as the Tetragrammaton. The reticence to vocalise the divine name has left some uncertainty as to how to pronounce YHWH when vowels are added. Hence the uncertainty about whether we should use Jehovah or Yahweh. Pronunciation depends on how vowels are added. The latter results if the vowels associated with Adonai, translated Lord, are used as in some manuscripts. As is evident by now to readers of this blog, I prefer the rendering Yahweh.

Although the name Yahweh is ‘revealed’ by God in the book of Exodus the name is used before this point in the biblical story. In Exodus 3:13‒15, Moses encounters a burning bush which is not consumed by fire. The story is full of imagery typical of a theophany, or divine encounter. In the narrative, God reveals himself as Yahweh.  Because, as we have seen, the necessary vowels for vocalisation are not present the name might mean a range of things. These include: ‘he is’; ‘he becomes’; ‘he will be’; ‘he causes to be’; etc. Semantically this can sound very profound but also rather abstract. It is therefore important to note that the burning bush account indicates that Yahweh is anything but remote. The story makes it clear that Yahweh’s presence and his relationship with Israel are central to the story that is being presented:

But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am [YHWH] has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’:

This is my name forever,

and this my title for all generations.

Exodus 3:13‒15 (NRSV)

The name Yahweh has immensely important implications for the Bible story and also for our understanding of the psalms. What we find in this name is the idea of a special relationship between God and Israel. Yahweh is the God of Israel; the nation of Israel are the people of Yahweh. This is a startling claim and raises profound issues for interfaith dialogue and the relationship between Judaism and Christianity with their rival truth claims. Questions are raised as to how we go from a special revelation, to a single people, to a universal religion open to all. This challenging issue is sometimes termed the scandal of particularity.

It has been suggested that the longer name (technically an appellation), Yahweh Sebaoth is the solemn cultic name of the God of Israel.  This is based on the use of the appellation in Psalm 24 which can be seen as a special psalm used in an enthronement ceremony of Israel’s God:

Lift up your heads, O gates!

    and be lifted up, O ancient doors!

    that the King of glory may come in.

Who is this King of glory?

    The Lord of hosts [i.e. Yahweh Sebaoth],

    he is the King of glory. Selah

Psalm 24:9‒10 (NRSV)

Given that the Hebrew Bible so clearly presents Yahweh as the revealed name of God and that he has other appellations too, why are people of faith today reticent to name him? Most Christians will call Yahweh, God for much of the time. It is certainly not due to the sense of fear and awe that made scribes omit the vowels from the divine name.

 

J is for Judah

We met Judah a few posts ago as the 4th Son of Jacob. The sons of Jacob are the founders of the tribes of Israel. Despite being the 4th son of Jacob, Judah founded the tribe that ultimately gave its name to the people of God at the end of the story of the Hebrew Bible, i.e. the Jews. We saw in the last post that the Northern Kingdom of Israel was ravaged by a destructive war in the 8th Century BCE—a war that it never really recovered from in a tangible way. This saw the loss of ten tribes whose descendants, in part at least, gave rise to the Samaritans. The Southern Kingdom took its name from the dominant tribe of Judah although it incorporated the territory of the tribe of Benjamin and also included some Levites as they lived scattered among the other tribes.

Throughout the Hebrew Bible various events prefigure the dominant role of tribe of Judah. The earliest of these is the Joseph narrative in the book of Genesis. Judah leads the way in suggesting that he and his brothers rid themselves of the irksome Joseph by selling him to the Ishmaelites (Genesis 37:26‒28). Much later when Joseph has risen to a position of power and influence in Egypt, it is Judah who plays a lead role. Joseph turns on the emotional blackmail which will really test his brothers by holding Simeon, Judah’s full brother, hostage until the absent younger brother Benjamin is brought to Egypt. Judah offers himself to his father Jacob as surety of Benjamin’s return, thus persuading Jacob that Benjamin can go to Egypt. After Joseph enslaves Benjamin in a ruse it is Judah who pleads for Benjamin’s life. It is at this point that Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers.

Very much later in the story of the people of God, King David from the tribe of Judah arises as a replacement for the failed King Saul of the tribe of Benjamin. The foundation of a kingly dynasty from the tribe of Judah is prefigured in Genesis 49 where each of the sons, and thereby the tribes of Israel, are prophesied over by their father Jacob. The kingly motifs are rich when Jacob speaks of Judah:

‘Judah, your brothers will praise you;

    your hand will be on the neck of your enemies;

    your father’s sons will bow down to you.

You are a lion’s cub, Judah;

    you return from the prey, my son.

Like a lion he crouches and lies down,

    like a lioness – who dares to rouse him?

The sceptre will not depart from Judah,

    nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,

until he to whom it belongs shall come

    and the obedience of the nations shall be his.

Genesis 49:8‒10 (NIV)

We will see in the next post that similar language is used in the psalms to speak of King David and his line. As we have seen, the nation of Judah was the surviving nation and on return from exile the people of God took their name from the tribe which gave its name to the nation and they became Jews. One of the challenges in interpreting the role of Judah in the earlier narratives is to what extent this might be viewed as reconstructed history. To put it another way how much of the later history of Israel/Judah is read back into the earlier story? We will look at this issue in a later post.

I is for Israel

Introducing Israel

The use of the word Israel is complicated in the Hebrew Bible because its meaning varies throughout the unfolding story that this collection of texts narrates. This post will briefly consider four key meanings of the term Israel. The next post returns to some specific issues mentioned in this post in a little more detail.

Jacob become Israel

The word Israel is first encountered in the biblical narrative when Jacob is renamed Israel in Genesis 32:28. In this story it is Yahweh, in the form of a sparring partner who does the renaming—the name Israel is thought to mean ‘he struggles with God’. Jacob is the father of many sons, who the book of Genesis explains are the founders of the tribes of Israel. We meet Jacob’s fourth son Judah in the next post. For now we note that it seems apposite that Jacob as Israel is the father of the tribes of the people of Israel.

The Tribes of Israel

During the first three of the Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges and Samuel) the tribes of Israel emerge from a forty-year wandering in the desert to conqueror the Promised Land. Their leader Joshua heads up this conquest—an event which raises difficult questions because of the genocidal activities described. The book of Judges deals with ‘the Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ of the events which surround the tribes of Israel. In this context, Israel refers to the collection of tribes. It means something closer to a people than a geographical nation. These people are also fragmented. This is clear in the stories which unfold in the book of Judges: the various episodes tend to be local, concerning a single tribe and are not in chronological. Some editorial is at work, as an effort has been made to be selective, so as to ensure that each tribe gets a mention. The events of the Book of Samuel move the story into a new phase as the people press God to have a king like the other nations (see I Samuel 8:5). It is here we see the move from Israel meaning ‘a people’ to ‘a nation’. This meaning takes a new turn further on in the story after God permits them to have a king.

The Northern Kingdom of Israel

Under the kingship of Saul, David and Solomon we see a period known as the united monarchy. This state of affairs was unfortunately short lived, lasting only 75 years. The death of Solomon (1 Kings 12) provided enough of a power vacuum for the relatively newly formed nation of Israel to become two nations. This is where matters become confusing in that the Northern Kingdom becomes known as Israel whilst the Southern Kingdom was known as Judah. It is in this time that the term Israel took on the very specific meaning of a nation, but no longer the nation of all of God’s people.

The people of Israel

This new state of affairs was also only temporary although it lasted rather longer than 75 years. Both of the new nations were to suffer military defeat and exile as we saw some posts ago. The Northern Kingdom of Israel came to an end in 722 BCE when Samaria, its capital city, was destroyed by the Assyrians. Jerusalem, the capital of Judah, suffered a similar fate in 586 BCE. After the restoration of the nation (as people returned from exile), the Hebrew Bible uses the term Israel in a new way. The words Israel and Judah are now both used. The word Israel tends to refer to the people of Judah and the word Judah refers to what is a province within wider empires.