Showing posts with label Psalms. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Psalms. Show all posts

Monday, August 5, 2019

Thabor and Hermon Rejoice at Your Name





Today things that cannot be heard are heard by human ears; for the visible human being is attested to be Son of God: unique, beloved, of the same substance. 
The witness cannot deceive, the proclamation is true; for the very Father who got him utters the proclamation himself. 
Let David stand as witness, and strike the lyre of the Spirit that speaks God's words. 
Let him sing the message now, more clearly and precisely, which the foresaw of old, as from a great distance, with purified eyes: the coming of the Word of God to us in flesh, as something yet to be, when he said, "Thabor and Hermon will shout for joy in your name."1
For this is the name above every name,2 over which Thabor and Hermon rejoice! 
This is my Son, the Beloved!3  
This is cause of rejoicing for all creation, this is a prize for humanity, a boast that will never be taken away! 
For the one to whom this witness is borne is a human being, even if he is not merely this! 
O joy, bestowed on us beyond all imagining! 
O blessedness here, beyond hope! 
O gifts of God, overcoming our desires! 
O graces, not given simply in response to modest demands! 
O generous giver, who have made a supernatural magnificence your own! 
O grace, befitting not so much the receiver as the giver! 
O mysterious covenants! 
O you who grant power and take on weakness! 
O you who reveal the human being as eternal, in that the eternal one begins to exist bodily as a creature! 
For if the human person is divinized, in that God is humanized, and the one God himself is revealed as also human, then the same individual, being human, is eternal in divinity, yet still, being God, begins to live in his humanity. 

-- St John of Damascus, Excerpt from a homily in celebration of the Transfiguration of the Lord






1.  Psalm 88:13
2.  Philippians 2:9
3.  Matthew 17:5






Saturday, March 19, 2016

The stones will cry out (A meditation on Luke 19:29-40)


Palm Sunday
Liturgy of the Palms
Year C
Gospel Reading: Luke 19:29-40 



I love the film, Memento. What I love most about Memento are the little nuggets of plot-development hidden in plain sight, and how those becomes crucial for appreciating the entire story. 
    At the beginning we learn about the main character, Leonard Shelby, who suffers from extreme short term memory loss because of a severe brain injury incurred at his home, seconds before witnessing the murder of his wife. Just as Leonard witnesses his wife suffocating to death, an armed robber violently strikes Leonard on the head, and from that point forward in life, Leonard's long-term memories are haunted by that final, enduring image of his wife's suffocation. He then sets out on a life-long quest to find those who killed his wife, and to satisfy justice.
    Fast-forwarding to the end of the story, a detective named Teddy is murdered by Leonard Shelby. Leonard thinks Teddy was part of the conspiracy to murder his wife, but of course, because Leonard suffers from severe short-term memory loss many people throughout his life after that event—including Teddy—become suspects of that conspiracy accidentally, even though they aren't necessarily guilty. All Leonard wants in life is to find those who conspired in the murder of his wife, and he will do whatever it takes to bring vengeance upon them. But we come to find out in the end of the story that so much more had been going on all along, and best of all it was hidden in plain sight, right in front of our very eyes. 
    Spoiler Alert: Just before the death of Teddy, the detective, we learn some mind-blowing details about Leonard's life. First we learn that Leonard Shelby's wife didn't actually die the night her husband had his brain injury. She survived that night, but Leonard doesn't remember that because he suffers from extreme short-term memory loss after his brain injury. All he remembers is her suffocating. Every day, he still thinks she's dead. And eventually, over time, she does die; and she's even truly dead by the time the events within the film take place. However, as the plot progresses, we learn that Teddy, the detective, already brought Leonard to the real attacker, and Leonard already avenged his wife, but Leonard doesn't remember that either. Finally, as if those tidbits of information weren't shocking enough, we also learn the most shocking fact of all: Leonard actually murdered his own wife, by assisting her in committing suicide. It turns out that after his injury, his wife became so depressed with having to live with his short-term memory loss, that one day she tested him. She was diabetic, and in need of regular insulin shots, so she tested him over and over again by requesting him to give her shots, minutes apart from each other. She eventually died of overdose. That was her way of coping with what she perceived to be the loss of the real man she loved and married. But he doesn't remember ever assisting her suicide. Leonard even gets a tattoo on his hand to assist his memory about that, but the tattoo doesn't help. All throughout the film we are shown that tattoo, and the message is in plain sight, but Leonard interprets it differently. Even when you hear or see that phrase tattooed on his hand repeated over and over again ("Remember Sammy Jenkins"), if the viewer does not stop and think about it's significance, or its significance is misunderstood, it is possible to watch the entire film and walk away from it with a very different message than what the director intended. 
    This is true with the theological nuggets we find scattered throughout Luke's gospel. If we overlook or misunderstand some of them hidden in plain sight, we might walk away from the gospel story with a very different message than what Luke intended. And in today's reading, we have one of those theological nuggets. It is found in Luke 19:39b–40, which the ESV translates this way:
"Teacher, rebuke your disciples." He answered, "I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out."

Usually, when I'm preparing a meditation for any given day, I try to harmonize as many of the lectionary readings as possible and unite them into a common theme. But with this week's lectionary readings, something very different happened as I was studying. I became stuck on this one very brief statement.
    Do you want to know why I've been stuck on that passage all week long? It's because the Greek text underlying that English Standard Version does not say that. And I've been hung up all week on what it actually says, and why Jesus said that. What the Greek text actually says is this:
"Teacher, rebuke your disciples!" And answering, He [Jesus] said: "I say to you-all, that when these [disciples] become silent, the stones will cry out!"1

As I perused through my biblical commentaries, I noticed that this passage is usually explained in one of two ways. It's either explained as a comparison between animate human beings (i.e. disciples) and inanimate objects (i.e. stones), illustrating somehow, some way, that Jesus deserves to be praised by His creation, e.g. "If people stop praising Jesus, surely these stones on the ground will instead!", or it's expressing a contrast of faith between the Pharisees and stones, illustrating that even stones understand their Creator better than Pharisees.2
    With either option, I'm left unconvinced. And I think it's important to convince others to remain unconvinced as well. But in order to reach any conviction about the meaning of this theological nugget (whether one agrees with me or not), it always helps to start by asking obvious questions. For instance, why does Jesus mention stones? Is it merely because they can be classified as inanimate objects? In that case, wouldn't the reference to stones be somewhat arbitrary, as though Jesus could have mentioned any other static material on this planet—such as trees, saddlebags, or belly-button lint—to illustrate the same point? He just mentioned "stones" for no essential reason, I guess. Perhaps it was the first thing that popped into His mind, someone might say. That sounds like a dubious proposal at best. 
    What if the whole point of mentioning stones is simply to point out how lifeless the faith of the Pharisees is? Although I don't doubt that the faith of many Pharisees was dead, I don't think that clarifies what Jesus actually said. Again, all one has to do to notice my contention is to simply look back at the text. Re-read it a few times. Such explanations about dead pharisaical faith hardly accounts for what Jesus actually said in context. (Besides, if you've read the previous 18 chapters of Luke's gospel, you should have already realized that their faith was dead.) So let's go back to asking obvious questions again. 
    Why must stones cry out if Jesus' disciples are silenced? That is what the text actually says.3 Is it because stones perceive God better than Pharisees? That doesn't answer the question. That begs the question. If the point, supposedly, is that Jesus is also worthy of praise by stones, then why aren't the stones also crying out at the same time as the disciples? Why wait until the voices of Jesus disciples are silenced?

I think that in order to make sense of Luke 19:39b-40, we need to review the story of Luke's gospel briefly to find other tidbits hidden in plain sight for us.
    In the close context of 19:39b-40, Jesus is on his way into Jerusalem for the first time in Luke's gospel. Toward the beginning of the Lukan travel narrative, Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem (9:51), and he wouldn't cease ministering to people until he was silenced in Jerusalem. Throughout Luke's travel narrative, that message of reaching Jerusalem and being killed by Israel's rulers is repeated three times for emphasis (9:22, 44; 18:31-33). Alongside that tidbit, Luke's travel narrative is also filled with allusions to soon-coming judgment upon Jerusalem for rejecting their King. Even before  Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, the shepherds of Israel have no excuse for rejecting him as their King, and they also have no excuse for refusing to repent of that rejection.
    In the middle of Luke's travel narrative, we find one of those nuggets hidden in plain sight. But there, Jesus does more than make allusions to Jerusalem's judgment; he emphatically declares that its temple is forsaken, abandoned by God, because they were not willing to accept His terms of peace:
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! Behold, your house is forsaken. And I tell you, you will not see me until you say, 'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!'" (Luke 13:34-35)

Now fast forward to the end of Luke's travel narrative, where Jesus is about to leave Jericho and enter into Jerusalem for the first time. There we find Jesus telling one last parable to his disciples en route to his triumphal entry (19:11-27). In that parable Luke goes out of his way to emphasize the allegorical relationship between Jesus' servants in Jerusalem and Himself entering that city as their King. By the end of the parable the "wicked servants" and "enemies" have proven themselves hostile and indignant toward their King. Not only had they perpetuated gross injustice while the King was away (similar to the claim above about "killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to it"), they also would not repent or accept His terms of peace and reconciliation. They refused to let Jesus rule mercifully over their merciless kingdom. For that reason, the King decrees that they be slain upon his arrival. With the merciful, he would show himself merciful. With the blameless, he would show himself blameless. And with the crooked, he would make himself seem torturous (Psa. 18:25-26; 2 Sam. 22:26-28). Jesus saves those who are humble, but his eyes are on the haughty to bring them down. 
    After that final parable, Jesus follows his prophetic cry with more sovereign lamentations explicitly directed at first century Jews in Jerusalem (Luke 19:41–44):
And when he [Jesus] drew near and saw the city [Jerusalem], he wept over it, saying, "Would that you, even you [Jerusalem], had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation."
Much like the prophet Habakkuk's reasons for thundering woes against Jerusalem, it is this incessant rejection of Israel's King by their rulers which leads to the toppled stones of the Temple's ruin crying out against those perpetrating violence and injustice within:
You have devised shame for your house by cutting off many peoples! You have forsaken your life! The stone shall cry out from the wall, and the beam from the woodwork respond: "Woe to him who builds a town with blood and founds a city on iniquity!" (Habakkuk 2:10-12)
I believe these nuggets of prophetic woes scattered throughout Luke's gospel are designed to clarify what Jesus said to Pharisees during his triumphal entry. The "Wisdom of God" repeatedly told Jerusalem that His prophets and apostles would be sent to them, but they would not listen. Instead, the harlot-city would silence the Lord and His servants (Luke 11:49–52). With that trajectory toward rejection and judgement, when we reach the point of Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and we see the Pharisees still attempting to silence Jesus' disciples (19:39b), Jesus' response makes perfect sense if its understood as a prophetic, Habakkuk-like cry toward Jerusalem and its corrupt rulers. As Jesus' disciples cry out, "blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!", the Pharisees tell Jesus to rebuke the disciples. So when Jesus responds to the Pharisees, its trajectory is directed toward the harlot-city, toward Jerusalem's rejection and consequent judgment:
"I say to you-all, that when these [disciples] become silent, the stones will cry out!"

Little did the Pharisees know that the prophets, apostles, and disciples of Jesus were living stones of God's new temple-building project (Eph. 2:19-22; 1 Pet. 2:4-6), so when those stones cry out for vindication, judgement is right around the corner because their voices are heard by Jesus himself in his heavenly temple. This was the Lord's mysterious and marvelous plan all along. It is through the incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension of God's incarnate Son that the blood of all the prophets and apostles, shed from the foundation of the world, would cry out and finally receive vindication for all their suffering. They witnessed to the truth of God and His reign over all, and their shed blood would be charged against Jesus' generation (11:49-52). That generation would be definitively judged.
    All of this brings us back around to the passage in Luke in which Jesus prophesies about disciples being silenced for their testimony of Jesus' lordship, and stones crying out as a result. I think its clear that Jesus' woe alludes to the Habakkuk woe spoken to the leadership of Jerusalem. In that prophecy, the stones of the temple walls cry out because of tremendous injustice perpetrated within its walls and upon God's people. Historically, it was during the Jewish wars (66—70 AD) that Jerusalem and its idolatrous temple were finally destroyed by the Lord's visitation. Because Jerusalem did not know the time of her visitation, and the testimonies of those who bore witness to Jesus were silenced, the stones would cry out from the wall: "Woe to him who builds a town with blood and founds a city on iniquity!" But "blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!"
   
At this time, someone might be asking, What is the bottom line of all this?

That's a good question. How does this affect our understanding of the gospel story, so that we don't miss out on what the director envisioned for us? 

A few responses immediately come to mind:
    First, because there is a pervasive tendency among Christians to "proof-text" scripture into emotional and spiritual nonsense, it's always important to remember that the gospels are about real life, flesh and blood, pus and guts, historically documented events. Even the prophecies of Jesus were not some kind of gnostic, esoteric, mystical future cataclysm. Certainly they were about future events. However, Jesus was addressing historical events which would come upon his own generation (Luke 7:31; 11:29,30,31,32,50,51; 16:8; 17:25; 21:32). This is often missed, and the gospels misinterpreted, because the fulfillment of those divinely imposed judgments within his generation are not taken into account by the average, run-of-the-mill Christian. It is absolutely vital to the understand and acknowledge that the destruction of Herod's idolatrous temple is the most significant historical event in Israel's history. And that was clearly on display in Jesus' mind throughout Luke's gospel. That event is the definitive end of the old covenant, and the decisive action which vindicates all the disciples of Jesus Christ in the first century. The entire course of history dramatically changed after that cataclysmic event.4 And it's not a mere coincidence that Jesus' death, resurrection, and ascension strike the match and light the wick leading to that cosmic judgment. So it's important to familiarize yourself with those events, and to read scripture through the lens of those concrete historical promises.
    Second, remember that because every statement within the gospels is part of a much larger story, we need to search, discover, and meditate upon the nugget-like tidbits scattered throughout the story. Those tidbits are not tertiary details. Just like in Memento, if they are overlooked or underestimated, the director's vision behind the story can be misunderstood. If Jesus' explicit promises regarding Jerusalem's destruction in that generation are overlooked or underestimated, then the first century Jewish-Christian context of New Testament theology can be misunderstood.
    Finally, but just as important as the previous points, this brief tidbit of Luke's gospel teaches us something significant about the character of God. Throughout evangelical circles, Jesus is often mistakenly portrayed as the "light" version of the old testament God. Just like Budweiser has their light beer, Jesus is the old testament Father's light-bodied persona. He's low on calories, while still offering the full-bodied flavor of the original Divine recipe, which we all love. As such, the Church mistakenly thinks of Jesus' character differently than the Father's, and that is a mistake. Both Jesus and YHWH are love (Deut. 7:9; Psa 36:7-10; Joel 2:13; I John 4:8,16). Both Jesus and YHWH are a consuming fire (Deut. 4:24; Heb. 12:29). Jesus' gospel was about consuming fire and love. It is our God, Jesus, who considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict his children, and to grant his children relief through affliction by inflicting vengeance upon those who do not know Him and on those who do not obey the good news of our Lord Jesus (2 Thess. 1:6-8). 
   In fact, it is precisely because Jesus is love, that we must heed Jesus' warnings and not reshape the love of God into our own American idol. When we see Jesus loving all those around him, we also need to see that love as an expression of warning his own generation of consuming fireof tangible, down-to-earth judgment upon flesh and blood because of their exceedingly great wickedness. It's also important to see Jesus as the son of man coming to judge them (Matt. 10:23; 12:40-42; 13:37-43; 16:27-28; 24:30-34). As the son of man, part of the way he loves the world is by waging war upon its evil every day; and that is a good thing. It is good that Jesus must continue waging that war until he has put all his enemies underneath his feet (1 Cor. 15:25). Only then will true peace cover the earth as the waters cover the sea. Jesus was indeed the most loving human in history, and yet his love did not violate the free will of those whom he loved, and so he warned them about how destructive their idolatry had become, and he waged war against those who refused to accept his rule. In an thoroughly corrupt and evil generation, there can be no peace without war. Thankfully, though, most people throughout the world are not destroyed. Instead, many are confronted by the heinousness of their own sins and destructive tendencies, and are brought to their knees before King Jesus. God graciously makes Himself available to them, and when they sincerely repent and surrender to him, they are shown mercy, and they receive new life in Him. 
    Another way to look at Jesus' prophetic warnings is like this: Jesus loved the world so much that he gave his life for it, but there comes a point in time when an entire generation needs to acknowledge that Jesus is Lord of lords and King of kings and he knows our needs better than we do. He knows how to establish and cultivate peace on earth better than we do. If parts of his creation become rotten to the core, he knows best, and he knows how to uproot and plant something new and healthy in its place if need be. In a world where the ground is cursed and humanity is exiled from the presence of God, the whole process of uprooting, tilling the soil, and planting new is an expression of love. The fact that the Gardener even draws near to his fields all over the world and tends to their needs worldwide is a good and beautiful thing. 
    Within the exhortation of our Lord about disciples being silenced and stones crying out, is his decree to tear down the diseased house of the old covenant in order to build an exceedingly glorious temple in us. And his temple-building project isn't over yet. His global gardening project is not over yet. There still is a lot of work yet to be done. Don't be bashful about that, and don't be afraid to walk in the way of Christ's suffering for that. Rather, walk humbly in the way of his suffering that you may also share in his resurrection. Believe that, witness to that, and proclaim that. That is true, just as God's love for the world is true, and his warfare against evil every day is true. 
   If you start thinking about how gloomy and corrupt our current generation is in comparison with the glorious future promised for God's kingdom, don't be worried about it. Continue witnessing to the good news of King Jesus and his terms of peace for the world. He is always far more willing to give mercy and extend favor than we are to receive it. He is called the King of Peace for good reasons. 
   And if you ever become anxious about these temporary, mortal bodies of ours returning to the soil, leaving the fruitful praise of our lips silenced, don't worry about that either. Other stones of God's temple will continue that proclamation. Blessed indeed is our King, Jesus. He is the reason why there is any peace on earth and in heaven. Glory to Him in the highest!



* * * * * * *

Almighty and everliving God, in your tender love for the human race you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross, giving us the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. 










1. This is my translation of the Greek text: Διδάσκαλε, ἐπιτίμησον τοῖς μαθηταῖς σου. καὶ ἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν· Λέγω ὑμῖν, ὅτι ἐὰν οὗτοι σιωπήσουσιν, οἱ λίθοι κράξουσιν
2. Darrell Bock, a reputable Lukan scholar, offers a variant of this, claiming that inanimate objects—like stones—"have a better perception of God than the people He came to save." Even though that is a clever and truthful way of spinning what Jesus actually said, I still think that greatly misses Jesus' point. See Darrell L. Bock, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books; 1996), p. 1,547
3.  A few other technical details are worth noting. As I have argued here and elsewhere on my blog, I think mainstream english translations of the New Testament are based on an interpretation disconnected with the destruction of Jerusalem as foreshadowed in the consistent typological messaging of Israel's prophets. To me that disconnect seems clear for grammatical reasons as well. For example, in the ESV we find the insertion of "very" into the text (which isn't even implied in the Greek). In English, the insertion of "very" could be construed as connoting an idea of contrast between animate and inanimate objects, which is unnecessary if Jesus is actually prophesying future historical events related to Jerusalem and its temple. Another disconnect is seen in the confusing translation of "were silent" and "would cry out" like it's a conditional subjunctive, which it's not in Greek. Both verbs are future-active-indicative. The ἐάν with a subjunctive verb would express a probable or hypothetical future condition (which is why the conditional conjunction is translated "if" in the ESV), but the indicative verbs remove that probability and instead express certainty (which is why ἐὰν here is better translated as "when").
4.  See Mark A. Noll, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic; 2008, eighth ed.), pp. 23-46

Monday, February 29, 2016

The Divine Council in Psalm 82




Commenting on Psalm 82, verses one, six, and seven, Allen P. Ross1 writes:

God stands up in the divine counsel; in the midst of the gods he judges.
I said, "You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you. Yet you shall die like a man, and fall like one of the princes."

    A third view accounts for the term "gods" and the reference to morality by including the spirit world in judgment. Accordingly, the human judges, who cannot be excluded from the interpretation of the psalm, are agents of supernatural beings who were assigned to different regions to ensure that justice would prevail (1 Kings 22:19-22; Job 1:6-12; 2:1-6; Dan 7:9-1-, 10:13, 20-21). The psalm may be set against the background of the religions of the ancient world, divine assemblies of lower gods who met to determine the course of worldly events. The psalmist would not have accepted the idea that they were viable gods, but rather that they were supernatural beings, or angels, who formed a heavenly court (meaning an assembly of supernatural beings appearing before God to receive their orders; see Job 1 and 2, in which assembly even Satan was present). These angelic beings were given the responsibility of overseeing the proper functioning of human society (see Deut. 32:8-9).2 However, many of them failed to comply with the divine commission and became the forces of evil of these nations represented by their gods (e.g. Ezek. 28:11-19; and Daniel 10). Their will was administered by human agents; they were responsible for the people they put in place and used. Because their failure to administer justice, they would receive an ungodlike punishment--death. 
    This explanation would account for the idea of a divine council mentioned in the psalm, as well as the judgment that these "gods" would die like humans. The psalm would then form a strong polemic against the pagan world in which the spirits that controlled countries were considered to be divine, and their agents, here human judges, considered to have divine authority.3







1.  For the credentials of Allen Ross and his bio, see http://www.beesondivinity.com/allenpross
2.  Not only do these verses (Deut. 32:8-9) in the Dead See Scrolls agree with the reading, "sons of God", but in the Greek version they agree as well: "When the Most High divided the nations, when he separated the sons of Adam, he set the bounds of the nations according to the number of the angels of God; and his people Jacob became the portion of the Lord, Israel was the line of his inheritance."
3.  Allen P. Ross, A Commentary on The Psalms, Vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2013) pp. 715-6, 718-9.







Monday, January 12, 2015

More thoughts from morning prayer: Psalm 34:8-16





As the title suggests, this is part two of a series on Psalm 34. My thoughts continue from a previous post, starting at verse 8.

8. O taste and see that Yahweh is good; happy are those who take refuge in Him.
9. O fear Yahweh, you His holy ones, for those who fear him have no want.
10. The young lions suffer want and hunger, but those who seek Yahweh lack no good thing.
11. Come, O children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of Yahweh.
12. Which of you desires life, and covets many days to enjoy good?
13. Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit.
14. Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it.
15. The eyes of Yahweh are on the righteous, and His ears are open to their cry.
16. The face of Yahweh is against evildoers, to cut off the remembrance of them from the land.

This section also seems to stand out on its own within the Psalm, being entirely proverbial and didactic in its presentation, unlike the first seven verses. Interestingly, verses 17 through 22 mirror much of the first section's themes, so I suspect that because verses 8-16 are central to the structure of the Psalm, they might also be of central importance for understanding David's theology of praise.

The opening words of this section are interesting. "Taste and see" Yahweh's goodness, David says. Much can be said about experiencing God's goodness in such practical ways as tasting and seeing, but this phrase especially reminds me of Israelites literally tasting and seeing Yahweh's goodness (although, admittedly, there are other ways of viewing such metaphors). This reminds me of Israelites tasting the peace offerings and seeing the ministry of God's servants within the courtyard of His House. There, in the midst of Israel, the people of Israel could flee for refuge and literally taste and see Yahweh's goodness. If such a regular and personal encounter with God in His Tabernacle is in the background of David's metaphor, this adds another dimension to the Psalm.

David wrote this Psalm with the events of Achish in mind, yet David was not in Moses' tabernacle at that time (David is describing past events which took place in a Philistine territory named Gath), nor was Moses' tabernacle a central place of worship after David returned to Israel with the Ark. As David reminisces upon that past, his theology of drawing near to God is apparently not limited to a physical building or sanctuary. There in the city of Gath David "took refuge" in Yahweh himself as though the physical, earthly tabernacle was symbolic of a much more real place. Refuge could be found in that tabernacle--the true tabernacle where Yahweh dwells--regardless of the physical, earthly structure's condition (which was in disrepair since the Philistines took the Ark).

David also makes some remarkable promises in this Psalm. David says that "those who fear him have no want," and "those who seek Yahweh lack no good thing." He also says that "The eyes of Yahweh are on the righteous, and His ears are open to their cry... [but] The face of Yahweh is against evildoers...." To be sure, I think it's important to receive great comfort and assurance from passages such as these; however, I suspect that many people who read these passages overlook David's point. Many people might skip over what David meant by "fearing" Yahweh and merely find comfort by applying such promises to those who are "righteous" and who "seek" Him. In other words, it might be a mistaken presumption to pair together those who "seek" God with those who are constituted "righteous" (likewise, those who are constituted "righteous" might be mistaken for those who "seek" God). But it seems to me that, in this context, fearing Yahweh and seeking Yahweh go hand in hand just as much, especially if one is to receive personal comfort and assurance that is not in vain. Notice the qualification David himself provides about those whose cries are actually heard and accepted by Yahweh (and not just prayed at Yahweh, and rejected by Him): those people are seen by God as "righteous," and such "righteousness" is not at all described as "imputation" of a legal verdict (as those in Reformed theological circles might suggest). Those who are "righteous" are those who fear (not just those who seek) Yahweh.

What then does it mean to fear Yahweh?

David goes on to explain this in the following verses. David says he will teach what the fear of Yahweh looks like. He begins by asking the question, "Which of you desires life, and covets many days to enjoy good?" This is obviously a rhetorical question designed to teach what the fear of Yahweh is supposed to look like. Everyone wants to enjoy life, and the whole notion of enjoying peace, freedom, security, and the other good blessings of life are coveted by all people. Such were the particular promises given to Israel too. If they loved and obeyed Yahweh, His covenant blessings, such as "many good days" to enjoy, would attend their life. But David follows through with this additional note of clarification: 
"[Then] keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit. Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it."

Here the "fear" of Yahweh looks like something particular, something Godly. Fearing Yahweh means desiring the life He wants us to live, the life which keeps its speech away from evil and deceit, and pursues good, seeking peace (presumably in both word and action). Fearing Yahweh means respecting God's desire for our lives, and respecting His authority over our lives. If He loves us, He will chasten us for our sins of speaking evil and deceit, the kind of hateful and foolish behavior which harms our neighbor's reputation and livelihood. The eyes and ears of Yahweh are on the righteous because the righteous are fearing Yahweh in these ways. Those who seek Yahweh lack no good thing because because they are seen by Yahweh as those who fear Him, those who seek peace and pursue it because they know that pleases Him, and they also know that life under his love is a life of many good days. But the face of Yahweh is against those who devise evil in their heart, those who speak deceit and promote evil; those who sow seeds of strife and cultivate enmity.

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus, the Greater David, teaches against this sort of thing too. "You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not murder', and yet whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother without cause will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the Sanhedrin; and whoever says, 'You fool!' will be liable to the fiery Gehenna."

Jesus even endorses the kind of ethos which David seems to be describing in this Psalm. Again, Jesus said "first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift (to God). Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge...". In other words, fear God. Seek peace and pursue it. Depart from evil and do good. If you are angry with your brother without a just cause, yet you are pleading to God for deliverance from trials and afflictions, don't be surprised if your cries to Yahweh for deliverance are not heard. Learn that God sets his face against evildoers; so don't pursue evil; flee from it. Don't sow presumptuous seeds of strife, and don't use your knowledge of God's commandments (i.e. "Thou shalt not murder") as an excuse to sow discord among brethren, even if your brother appears to be guilty of a lawless deed (like rumors of murder). You should seek peace and pursue it. As saint Paul says in Romans 12:18, "so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all people."







Friday, January 2, 2015

Thoughts from morning prayer: Psalm 34:1-7



Today is January 2nd, 2015, and in this post I would like to share some of my thoughts about the assigned Psalm for morning prayer today, Psalm 34. In order to spare my audience from this appearing like a tome, in this post I'm just going to comment on one section of this chapter that stood out to me this morning. I also intend to post more thoughts on other sections in the future.

[A Psalm] Of David. When he pretended to be insane before Abimelek,1 who drove him away, and he left.
1. I will bless Yahweh at all times; His praise shall continually be in my mouth.

2. My soul makes its boast in Yahweh; let the humble hear it and be glad.

3. O magnify Yahweh with me, and let us exalt his name together.
4. I sought Yahweh, and He answered me, and delivered me from all my fears.
5. Look to Him, and be radiant; so your faces shall never be ashamed.
6. This poor soul cried, and was heard by Yahweh, and was saved from every trouble.
7. The Angel of Yahweh encamps around those who fear him, and delivered them.


This section seems to stand out on its own within the Psalm, and also seems to be a personal testimony of David about Yahweh delivering him from troubles in a time of great distress and fear of what Achish, king of the Philistines, could have done to him (I Sam. 21:10-15).2 One of the aspects of this Psalm that interests me is the way David begins to speak. His focus is not entirely upon himself, or even his own joy. It seems as though David considered his own personal praise to be, first and foremost, an inadequate expression of the praise that Yahweh is worthy of. Yahweh delivered him, which is what this Psalm addresses (as the opening title states), but Yahweh's deliverance is worthy of far more praise than he alone--or any single person--can offer. All of God’s people are then encouraged by David to praise Yahweh together. From another angle, it is also true that the people ought to rejoice in David's deliverance because David had become Yahweh's anointed king, Saul's successor, and his deliverance ensured future hope for the kingdom of God.

Even more interesting, perhaps, is the allusion to Moses' encounter with Yahweh at Sinai, whose face became radiant upon His visitation. (I recognize that translations differ in this verse.) Perhaps David's exhortation to "Look to [Yahweh] and be radiant" is a counter example to the shame which Israel encountered as the glory of Yahweh came down Sinai to them (in the face of Moses, to confront them for their sins in worshipping a golden calf). That is, without any further reflection, the first thought which comes to my mind. If this was David's intended allusion, then not only could the people of Israel remember the shame they felt upon seeing Yahweh's radiance in Moses' face, but even more to the point, David would likely be portraying himself as one who, like Moses, was visited by Yahweh and was comforted, not destroyed; one whose face became radiant, and not ashamed; and if Israel would follow after that example of David, as they should have with Moses, not being found committing lawlessness as they were at Sinai, they too could look upon Yahweh's face and be radiant. 


Finally, the promise that the Angel of Yahweh will encamp around "all those who fear Him" is interesting. Upon reading it I was immediately reminded of Yahweh's message to Israel at Sinai in Exodus 23:20 (LXX): 
Behold, I Myself am sending an angel before your face in order to guard you on the way, that He may lead you into the land that I have prepared.
Such an allusion is particularly fitting in David's situation because Yahweh's promise in Exodus 23 referred to Israel's future hope of conquest within the promised land (a conquest which had not been completed until David captured Jerusalem, brought the ark back to Israel, and built a permanent Temple in that city). If David was alluding to Yahweh's promise in Exodus 23, then his message of personal deliverance was also, again, rooted in a concern for the whole kingdom of God's people. His focus was not on God receiving praise from him alone, but rather the praise due to His name, a praise that is offered up by all those who fear Him. And as the next sections of this Psalm show, "fearing" God has less to do with emotions (terror, trembling, awe, reverence. etc.) and more to do with an ethos which pleases God. In the context of this Psalm, those who "fear" God are doing specific things that they know are pleasing to Him (i.e. "keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit. Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it." vv. 13-14). I am personally convinced that David was trying to inspire Israel to good character and good works so that their praise and hope for Yahweh's deliverance would never be in vain.

I will post more of my thoughts on the next section of this Psalm in the future. 






1.  Abimelek was a title among Philistine kings, much like "Pharaoh" was a title among Egyptian kings.

2.  Compare the title of the Psalm with the names mentioned in 1st Samuel 21.







Sunday, December 14, 2014

Proclaiming Liberty to Captives (A homily for Gaudete Sunday, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24)



Advent  (Third Sunday, Year B)
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Psalm 126
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28


Rejoice. Pray. Give-thanks. Do not quench. Do not despise. Test. Hold-firmly. Hold-back. Try repeating those verbs out loud a few times. (No, seriously, try it.)
 
Rejoice. Pray. Give-thanks.

Do not quench. Do not despise.

Test. Hold-firmly. Hold-back.

Perhaps, as you spoke those words out loud, you noticed that Paul gives three positive commands, followed by two negative commands, followed by another set of three positive commands. Each set of commands fits together as one unit, and each of those units fit into each other, forming a neat symmetrical structure.1 This structure is a neat little way to illustrate that Paul knew exactly what he was saying. His closing thoughts were well thought through, organized, and intentional. He said things in such a way that there really should not be room for doubt or debate as to what he meant. But of course, we do anyway. We doubt at least a little bit because Paul didn’t simply say “Rejoice.” He said rejoice always. He said give thanks in all circumstances. He said test all things, and hold-back from every sight of evil. Once we hear such penetrating and seemingly unqualified instructions for the Church, we want to ask questions like, ‘Did Paul really mean to rejoice always?’ ‘Am I really supposed to be praying constantly, or to be giving thanks in everything?' As I am going to contend in this message, I think the answer is “yes.” I think that set of commands was meant to be understood exactly as we find it today; and that set of commands were not just the will of God for the Christians in Thessalonica, to whom Paul wrote (1 Thess. 5:18), but they also remain valid commands for the Christians today.

But I’m willing to bet that doesn’t clarify things for us very much. Such unqualified terms do not, in fact, help us understand why Paul would gave such broad, sweeping commands and actually expected people to honor them. 

Fortunately the lectionary readings assigned for today help us make sense of this. In our old testament reading, Isaiah preached about the gospel of God coming to visit His people and to deliver them from exile. It begins with a familiar poetic proclamation, something Jesus used to describe his own ministry as he read from the lectionary in a synagogue in galilee (Luke 4:16-20):
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor

Isaiah, of course, is the one who spoke those words originally; and if you were living in Isaiah’s generation, and listening to him say those words, you might have thought he was referring to himself. But he wasn’t. He was referring to someone else, someone coming after him, whose sandal he was not worthy to untie.

There is something else peculiar about this message from Isaiah, which Jesus quoted with regard to Himself. Isaiah’s prophecies of salvation are always accompanied by messages of judgment. They are, in fact, messages of salvation through judgment; and Jesus stops his quotation of this passage at the very end of the salvation portion. Jesus stops right before the Isaiah passage talks about God’s judgment—about the Day of vengeance, a day not at the end of human history, but at a time when God would come down to judge Israel for her sins, sending them into exile and destroying Jerusalem for the empire of idolatry it would eventually become. Such messages of salvation proclaimed through the mouth of Isaiah could hardly be taken as “good news” if his own generation and the city of Jerusalem would first have to endure God's judgment. So God’s promise in the days of Isaiah was not simply that God would come and save Israel. God’s message to Isaiah's generation was primarily one of judgment for everyone who would not repent and turn to God, and be saved through it. Yet, somewhat enigmatically, this means that the salvation promised by God would have to come at a later time, to the people of God sent into exile after Jerusalem was destroyed. This means that if you happened to be living in Isaiah’s time, you would not have lived to experience the glorious deliverance that God had promised. That generation could not have experienced the salvation Isaiah described because it didn’t occur in Isaiah’s time. It occurred much later.

It doesn’t take much to realize that such a message does not appear to be good news, at either the first, second, or fifth glance. But it was, in fact, good news. It was good news to the people who trusted in God’s faithfulness, those who prepared their hearts to endure through God's judgment upon Israel; and it was also good news to the generation who lived through Israel’s second exodus—their return from Babylonian captivity. If you study the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, God’s promises through Isaiah were most certainly promises of good news. At the time of Ezra and Nehemiah—roughly 500 years before Christ was born—God had done far more than simply proclaim liberty to his people held captive in Babylon; He had actually given them liberty to return to Jerusalem and re-build the House of the Lord, i.e. His Temple. He released His people who had been held prisoners in a foreign land so that they could proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor back in Jerusalem.

From our Psalm reading today (Psa. 126), we learned a little about how the people of God felt at that time, when they returned from Babylonian captivity:
When the Lord brought back the captive ones of Zion,
We were like those who dream.

Then our mouth was filled with laughter

And our tongue with joyful shouting;
Then they said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us;
We are glad.
Restore our captivity, O Lord,
As the streams in the South.
Those who sow in tears shall reap with joyful shouting.
He who goes to and fro weeping, carrying his bag of seed,
Shall indeed come again with a shout of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.

With all of Israel’s future talk (in these Psalms) about the greatness of God in restoring them from captivity, the people probably expected the prophecies of Isaiah to have reached their fulfillment. In other words, if you were an Israelite in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, you probably would have thought that God’s ultimate promises for His kingdom had now come to fruition. You might have thought that the end was near and it was only a matter of time before God would make all things new again. However, there would have been one significant dilemma for those who held that belief. No matter how close one looks at that period in Israel’s history (i.e. Ezra, Nehemiah, etc.), what will not be found is a record of the Lord returning to His House, the Temple. The people returned, but the glory of the Lord did not.

You see, when God gave Israel plans to construct His House in the wilderness, at Sinai, He showed up and made His glorious presence known. He didn’t just give His people instructions to build a House for Himself and then sneak into His throne-room quietly in the middle of the night. To the contrary, the Lord descended in a glorious cloud onto the tabernacle (Exod. 40:34-35) just as He did onto Mount Sinai (Exod. 19:18-20). There, in the presence of everyone, YHWH shook the earth and sat down on His throne in the Most Holy Place, seated on the Cherubim above the ark of the covenant (I Sam. 4:4; Psa. 80:1; 99:1; Isa. 37:16; Ezek. 1). The Lord also showed up when Solomon finished building the Temple in Jerusalem. The shekinah glory descended upon the Temple and the arrival of His glorious presence is given extra special attention in those passages of Scripture (II Chron 7:1-3). But the glorious appearance of the Lord did not occur in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah after Israel’s return from Babylonian captivity; and the glory of the Lord would not appear again until a man name John started baptizing Israelites in the wilderness.

We read a little about that in our lectionary assignments for today. It’s interesting that we are only given a very small amount of information about who John the Baptist was, and perhaps even more interestingly, John’s gospel makes a special point to tell us emphatically who John was not (1:6-8). John was not the light of the world. But he was a lamp with just enough brightness to be noticed; and because the world of Jesus' day was so dark and gloomy, when the Jewish authorities saw John’s light the first thing they wanted to know was if he was the promised Messiah. This confirms what I have already said: the Jews themselves understood that God’s promises in Isaiah and other prophets were not yet fulfilled, and that the glory of the Lord had not yet returned to His Temple to rule and restore all things as promised.

Now fast forward to Paul’s letter to the Thessalonian church. In 1st Thessalonians, Paul was writing to Gentiles who had received the Spirit of God because the glory of God had finally returned. God had returned, in the flesh, to restore not just Israel, but the whole world from its bondage. Paul spoke as one who believed that kingdom-building project throughout the whole world was well underway—that God had come down in the flesh of Jesus of Nazareth and was now, after his resurrection, working powerfully by His Spirit to build a new and glorious Temple not just in the earth, but of the earth, of the whole earth. Jesus came to make all things new, not just some things new. The scope of His salvation was cosmic. He came to build up all the ancient ruins, raise up all the former devastations of many generations, and to plant oaks of righteousness across the globe (Isa. 61:3-4). Paul saw a forest of God’s righteousness and praise springing up before all nations as Isaiah and the other prophets had spoken. That is the background of Paul’s commands at the end of 1st Thessalonians. Paul understood that God was up to something He had never done before—something far more powerful, and influential, and lasting than the kingdom-building projects of Israel’s early days.

Now, as you read through the commands of Paul at the end of 1st Thessalonians, allow that vision to permeate the way you view what has been said. Paul said, rejoice always, pray constantly, and give thanks in everything, for this is the will of God for you all who are in Jesus the Messiah. Do not quench the flame of the Spirit working throughout the world. Do not despise the words of prophets who confirm this glorious temple-building project of God; but rather, test all things, hold-firmly to what is beautiful, and hold-back from every sight of evil; and may the God of peace, Himself, sanctify you all completely; and may the complete spirit, soul, and body of you all be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus the Messiah.

Paul knew that the glorious faithfulness of God had been manifest for the whole world to see. Paul had seen it with his own eyes, and heard about it from distant lands far beyond what he had ever traveled, and that is why Paul could confidently say to the Thessalonians, “Faithful is He who calls you, and He will bring it to pass” (I Thess. 5:24).

The Spirit’s powerful work in Paul’s day is something we too should be encouraged by and hopeful for as we wait upon the Lord this Advent season. That same Spirit which spoke through prophets and spread the gospel through Paul’s world was the same exact Spirit who empowered men, women, and children all over the globe to rejoice always, to pray constantly, and to give thanks in every circumstance; and it is that same exact Spirit of rejoicing, thanking, testing, and self-control which continues the kingdom-building project of the Messiah today. Christ Jesus is still making His name known among all the nations today by the work of that same Spirit in Paul’s day, and all who see the Spirit’s work in us—watching us test all things carefully, holding firmly to what is beautiful, and holding back from what is evil—they see the God of peace sanctifying the world through us. As Isaiah prophesied, they see that we are a people whom the Lord has blessed (61:9). It is because we are truly blessed by the Spirit of God that we can always rejoice and in every circumstance give thanks.

One important way in which the Church has always rejoiced and continuously gives thanks is by celebrating the Eucharist. Even the word “Eucharist” means “to give thanks.” It is also the word Paul used in our reading today where he told the Thessalonians to “give thanks.” It is here, in the Eucharist, where the Church learns to rejoice, where our tongues are trained for thanksgiving. Here we gather together in “Eucharist”—in thanksgiving—for the gifts of bread and wine, for the gifts of Jesus’ body and blood. Here we hold firmly onto the beautiful gospel made food. So come to the Lord’s Table today and rejoice! Taste and see that the Lord is good.


* * * * * *


O Heavenly Father, who has filled the world with beauty. Open our eyes to behold your gracious hand in all your works; that, rejoicing in the cosmic scope of renewal which you have begun through Christ in his first advent, we would learn to serve you with gladness always, holding firmly to what is beautiful, and holding back from every sight of evil; for the sake of him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.








1.  The structure looks like this:
A)  Rejoice always
  B)  Pray constantly
    C)  Give thanks in everything,
      D)  for this is the will of God for you all who are in Jesus the Messiah. 

E)   Do not quench the Spirit
E')  Do not despise the words of prophets

A')  Test all things
  B')  Hold-firmly to what is beautiful
    C')  Hold-back from every sight of evil, 
      D')  and may the God of peaceHimselfsanctify you all completely; and may the complete spiritsoul and bodyof you all be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus the Messiah.