Friday, June 30, 2017

Bible in a Year: Psalms 73-106

 
This calendar year, I’m reading through the Bible and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

As I study the Psalms, I didn’t realize or had forgotten that the Psalms progress in a loose and general chronology from the life of David, to Solomon (Ps. 72), and into the crisis era of the divided kingdom, the destruction of Jerusalem and,  by the end, the corporate worship-life of the post exilic community. Most of us, myself included, pick out individual psalms and don’t necessary see the patterns within the whole psalter.

This week I’m studying Books III and IV of the Psalms (73-89, 90-106). (I’ve used the Oremus Bible Browser, bible.oremus.org, to quote from psalm texts.) Psalms 73-83 (and also 50) are psalms of Asaph, who is mentioned in 1 Chronicles 6:39, chapter 16, 2 Chr. 29:30, and “sons of Asaph” appear in 1 Chr. 25:1, 2 Chr. 20:14, and Ezra 2:41. They were a tradition of poets and musicians dating from David’s time and into the post exilic era.

Psalm 73 is a personal favorite, a song about righteousness and wickedness; the prosperous wicked will eventually fall to ruin but God does eventually deliver the righteous, though we may have periods of distress (vss. 12-14).

I love these verses:

21 When my soul was embittered,
   when I was pricked in heart,
22 I was stupid and ignorant;
   I was like a brute beast towards you.
23 Nevertheless I am continually with you;
   you hold my right hand.
24 You guide me with your counsel,
   and afterwards you will receive me with honour.
25 Whom have I in heaven but you?
   And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you.
26 My flesh and my heart may fail,
   but God is the strength of my heart and my portion for ever.

That “nevertheless” is a whole Gospel. We struggle and grow bitter at God and fall short—-but nevertheless, God blesses and keeps us and holds us by the hand.

The subject of wickedness continues to 74--where the poet laments the devastation of the land and of Jerusalem at the hands of the impious and the wicked--and to 75 and 76, which affirms the judgment of God against the wicked and the victorious power of the Lord.

Psalm 77 is another personal favorite, a song of a believer’s struggle for faith, for comfort in the memory of God’s past actions. Ralph Vaughan Williams set these lines in his opera “The Pilgrim’s Progress”:

4 You keep my eyelids from closing;
   I am so troubled that I cannot speak.
5 I consider the days of old,
   and remember the years of long ago.
6 I commune with my heart in the night;
   I meditate and search my spirit:
7 ‘Will the Lord spurn for ever,
   and never again be favorable?
8 Has his steadfast love ceased for ever?
   Are his promises at an end for all time?
9 Has God forgotten to be gracious?
   Has he in anger shut up his compassion?’
          Selah
10 And I say, ‘It is my grief
   that the right hand of the Most High has changed.’

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4i-f_7XaMmw&index=9&list=PLHzi47bH_nZALoQiuBKOX6Re_KI01E0N9

Psalm 78 continues the theme of God’s guidance in spite of Israel’s struggles of faith. Harkening back to the Torah and other eras of the people’s history, the psalmist recalls times of forgetfulness and idolatry contrasted with God’s faithfulness and care. This recollection of history fits well among these other Asaph psalms, like Ps. 79 that connects the destruction of Jerusalem with the people’s sins; Ps. 80, a prayer for deliverance from disaster and enemies, and 81, which depicts God’s own pain seeing his people’s troubles and sins.

In this context, Ps. 82—an odd little psalm that begins with God taking council with other divine beings—makes more sense, because God, in consultation with his heavenly entourage, reminds the people of their divine favor and calls them to respond to God’s will for justice:

2 "How long will you judge unjustly
   and show partiality to the wicked?
          Selah 
3 Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
   maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.
4 Rescue the weak and the needy;
   deliver them from the hand of the wicked."

The last of the Asaph psalms, #83, connects with the rest of these in calling for God’s judgment against Israel’s enemies.

Six more psalms finish Book III. Another psalm of the Sons of Korah, 84, is a longing for God’s presence in his house:

How lovely is your dwelling place,
   O Lord of hosts!
2 My soul longs, indeed it faints
   for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and my flesh sing for joy
   to the living God.

3 Even the sparrow finds a home,
   and the swallow a nest for herself,
   where she may lay her young,
at your altars, O Lord of hosts,
   my King and my God.
4 Happy are those who live in your house,
   ever singing your praise.
          Selah …

10 For a day in your courts is better
   than a thousand elsewhere.
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
   than live in the tents of wickedness….

Psalm 85 is a lovely song that seeks mercy for Israel. Psalm 86, a song of David amidst these four Korahite psalms, has elements of prayer: request for help, praise for God, a petition for guidance and thanksgiving, and an assurance of God’s grace.

The short Psalm 87 praises God for Zion. Psalm 88 is a song about troubles and questions; it is one of the few psalms that contains little or no thanksgiving, for the psalms complaints and troubles and consciousness of God’s wrath consume him.

Finally for Book III, Psalm 89 is “a Maskil of Ethan the Ezrahite.” It provides a kind of conclusion for these other psalms of distress and judgment: God had established the kingdom of David but now there is no monarchy and the people are afflicted---yet God’s promises are everlasting, and so the psalmist beseeches God that God again show the steadfast love promised in the covenant with David. This is very much a song of post exilic disappointment, faith, and hope.

******

Again, if you begin to see patterns within the psalter, you read individual psalms with deeper meaning.  For instance, Book IV begins with the only psalm attributed to Moses, #90. It is a melancholy psalm, reminiscent of the upcoming Ecclesiastes.

1 Lord, you have been our dwelling-place
   in all generations.
2 Before the mountains were brought forth,
   or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
   from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

3 You turn us back to dust,
   and say, ‘Turn back, you mortals.’
4 For a thousand years in your sight
   are like yesterday when it is past,
   or like a watch in the night.

5 You sweep them away; they are like a dream,
   like grass that is renewed in the morning;
6 in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
   in the evening it fades and withers.

7 For we are consumed by your anger;
   by your wrath we are overwhelmed.
8 You have set our iniquities before you,
   our secret sins in the light of your countenance.

9 For all our days pass away under your wrath;
   our years come to an end like a sigh.
10 The days of our life are seventy years,
   or perhaps eighty, if we are strong;
even then their span is only toil and trouble;
   they are soon gone, and we fly away.

11 Who considers the power of your anger?
   Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due to you.
12 So teach us to count our days
   that we may gain a wise heart. ….

17 Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
   and prosper for us the work of our hands—
   O prosper the work of our hands!

But this “Prayer of Moses, the man of God” provides a kind of turning point in the psalter, as God’s people emerge from exile (remembering the Temple and the Davidic monarchy in those Book III psalms) and gather together as a post exilic, worshiping congregation conscious of life’s transitoriness and of God’s favor. The Mosaic attribution helps the people return to the focus upon the Torah and God’s eternal promises to Israel. Now, a sad psalm can be read in a larger context.

Also, Psalm 90 provides one bookend for Book IV, the other being Psalms 105-106, which recall God’s faithfulness to Israel in spite of their sins and struggles. Between these psalms are a variety of individual and communal psalms, many of which are primarily praise and thanksgiving psalms, and only three of which have attribution.

Psalm 91 praises God for security and refuge. It begins with two of my favorite Bible verses:

You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
   who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress;
   my God, in whom I trust.’

Psalm 92 is a song for the Sabbath which gives thanks to God for rewarding the righteous and punishing the wicked. The short Psalm 93 affirms the majesty of God, while Psalm 94 also appeals to God to deal with the wicked and reward the righteous.

Psalms 95 through 100 are all praise psalms—calls to affirm God’s goodness, majesty, and faithfulness. Psalm 100 is quite famous:

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.
   Worship the Lord with gladness;
   come into his presence with singing.

Know that the Lord is God.
   It is he that made us, and we are his;
   we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.

Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
   and his courts with praise.
   Give thanks to him, bless his name.

For the Lord is good;
   his steadfast love endures for ever,
   and his faithfulness to all generations.

Psalms 101-103 are a trio of attributed Psalms. 101 is David’s plea for integrity, both for oneself and for others. Psalm 102, “A prayer of one afflicted, when he is faint and pours out his complaint before God”, regrets the time of sickness and infirmity but praises God who is the refuge of Zion. The psalm of David 103, in turn, is a plea for God’s mercies. Some famous verses:

8 The Lord is merciful and gracious,
   slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
9 He will not always accuse,
   nor will he keep his anger for ever.
10 He does not deal with us according to our sins,
   nor repay us according to our iniquities.
11 For as the heavens are high above the earth,
   so great is his steadfast love towards those who fear him;
12 as far as the east is from the west,
   so far he removes our transgressions from us.
13 As a father has compassion for his children,
   so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.
14 For he knows how we were made;
   he remembers that we are dust.

15 As for mortals, their days are like grass;
   they flourish like a flower of the field;
16 for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
   and its place knows it no more.
17 But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting
   on those who fear him,
   and his righteousness to children’s children,
18 to those who keep his covenant
   and remember to do his commandments.

Book IV concludes with a trio of psalms that affirm God's Lordship of creation and of Israel. Psalm 104 (another personal favorite) affirms God’s goodness over all creation. Here is a good piece by J. Clinton McCann, author of the New Interpreter’s Bible commentary on the Psalms. Psalm 104 is a lovely statement of ecology! https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2451

Psalm 105 offers praise to God the covenant-making God, faithful to the Patriarch and their descendants through Exodus, the wanderings, and the settlement of Canaan. Psalm 106, in turn, beseeches God for divine mercy as the psalmist recalls Israel's sins and idolatries. "Nevertheless [there's that word again!] he regarded their distress when he heard their cry.

For their sake he remembered his covenant,
   and showed compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love.
He caused them to be pitied
   by all who held them captive.

Save us, O Lord our God,
   and gather us from among the nations,
that we may give thanks to your holy name
   and glory in your praise" (106:44-47).


Thursday, June 29, 2017

Frederick Buechner on the Bible

No Telling What You Might Hear

WHEN A MINISTER reads out of the Bible, I am sure that at least nine times out of ten the people who happen to be listening at all hear not what is really being read but only what they expect to hear read. And I think that what most people expect to hear read from the Bible is an edifying story, an uplifting thought, a moral lesson—something elevating, obvious, and boring. So that is exactly what very often they do hear. Only that is too bad because if you really listen—and maybe you have to forget that it is the Bible being read and a minister who is reading it—there is no telling what you might hear.

- Originally published in The Magnificent Defeat

Questions

ON HER DEATHBED, Gertrude Stein is said to have asked, "What is the answer?" Then, after a long silence, "What is the question?" Don't start looking in the Bible for the answers it gives. Start by listening for the questions it asks.

We are much involved, all of us, with questions about things that matter a good deal today but will be forgotten by this time tomorrow—the immediate wheres and whens and hows that face us daily at home and at work—but at the same time we tend to lose track of the questions about things that matter always, life-and-death questions about meaning, purpose, and value. To lose track of such deep questions as these is to risk losing track of who we really are in our own depths and where we are really going. There is perhaps no stronger reason for reading the Bible than that somewhere among all those India-paper pages there awaits each one of us, whoever we are, the one question that (though for years we may have been pretending not to hear it) is the central question of our individual lives. Here are a few of them:

* For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? (Matthew 16:26)

* Am I my brother's keeper? (Genesis 4:9)

* If God is for us, who can be against us? (Romans 8:31)

* What is truth? (John 18:38)

* How can anyone be born after having grown old? (John 3:4)

* What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun? (Ecclesiastes 1:3)

* Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? (Psalm 139:7)

* Who is my neighbor? (Luke 10:29)

* What shall I do to inherit eternal life? (Luke 10:25)

When you hear the question that is your question, then you have already begun to hear much. Whether you can accept the Bible's answer or not, you have reached the point where at least you can begin to hear it too.

- Originally published in Wishful Thinking and later in Beyond Words

[Both quotations are copied from Buechner's Facebook page]


Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Bible in a Year: Psalms 42-72

This calendar year, I’m reading through the Bible and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

As this site indicates, the psalms are grouped into five “books”. Whether there is a definite theme in each book is not entirely clear, but one can discern certain patterns. Book 1 has many psalms of David, some of which derive from his biography, while Book 2 has more psalms about the whole people—and more psalms deriving from specific situations of David’s life. Book 3 contains references to judgment and to Jerusalem’s destruction, while Books 4 and 5 are more corporate and liturgical. The Harper Bible Commentary (p. 453) notes that one could call Psalms 42-83 an "Elohist Psalter," because the general name for God, Elohim, predominates instead of the proper name of the Lord, YHWH.

This week I’m reading Book II of the Psalms, 42 through 72. This section begins with eight psalms attributed to the Sons of Korah. This site gives quite a bit of information about this group. You may remember that Korah and his sons appear in Numbers as Israelites who raised questions about Moses’ leadership. But the Korahites’ role in subsequent biblical history is extensive, if not necessarily in the forefront, and the Korahites are especially remembered for authorship of these Psalms. The Harper’s Bible Commentary (p. 453) notes that these psalms are more melancholy than those in Book 3 attributed to fellow musician Asaph.

Psalm 42 is “A Maskil”, Psalm 43 is essentially a continuation of 42, and 44 is another “maskil”; all have to with crises of life and faith, and hope for God’s deliverance. What lovely psalms!

As a deer longs for flowing streams,
   so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
   for the living God.
When shall I come and behold
   the face of God?
My tears have been my food
   day and night,
while people say to me continually,
   ‘Where is your God?’ (42:1-3)

and the expression of hope:

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
   and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
   my help and my God (42:5-6, 11, 43:11)

The psalmist is unable to praise God because of troubles and adversaries, but the psalmist has confidence that praise will again be possible.

44 is another expression of complaint and prayers for deliverance.

We have heard with our ears, O God,
   our ancestors have told us,
what deeds you performed in their days,
   in the days of old…

But 44 is a prayer of a whole people in crisis. Verses 9-16 brings before God a terrible national situation; twice (verses 11 and 22) they are described as sheep led to slaughter. What a contrast to the mighty acts of God remembered in tradition, and the seeming silence of God in the situation of the Psalmist.

But 45 is a love song of a king and his bride. Compare the despair of 44:22-26 with the confidence and blessings of 45:6-9!

My writing professor in college has “Ps. 45:1” on her tombstone.

My heart overflows with a goodly theme;
   I address my verses to the king;
   my tongue is like the pen of a ready scribe.

46 is a wonderful song praising God for the divine strength and victory.

God is our refuge and strength,
   a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
   though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
   though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
          Selah

Psalm 47, a song of battle, continues the praise of God as king of all the earth, while Psalm 48 focuses the praise upon Mount Zion.

Psalm 49, the last of the “Sons of Korah” psalms in this batch, is a wisdom psalm, pointing out the foolishness of putting one’s trust in riches.

Psalm 50 is a psalm of Asaph, set apart from the other songs by him (73-83), perhaps because 50 is paired so well with the famous psalm of David, 51. In both, sacrifice is acceptable when accompanied by right intent and attitude: a thanksgiving (50:14) and a broken spirit (51:16-17).

(Asaph is mentioned in 1 Chronicles 6:39, chapter 16, 2 Chr. 29:30, and “sons of Asaph” appear in 1 Chr. 25:1, 2 Chr. 20:14, and Ezra 2:41. They are a tradition of poets and musicians dating from David’s time and into the post exilic era.)

A friend has a problem with Psalm 51, and I think she has a good point: David regrets that "Against you, you alone, have I sinned," but what about Bathsheba and Uriah?

Psalms 52 and 53 are also paired well. Back to that word maskil: there are thirteen psalms designed by this word of uncertain meaning: 32, 42, 44, 45, 52-55, 74, 78, 88-89, and 142. These two maskils both have to do with the folly and fate of the wicked. 53 is nearly identical to Psalm 14, although 14 does not have the choirmaster’s instruction “according to Mahalath” nor is it called a maskil.

Psalm 51 began a series of David psalms, several of which are attributed to incidents in David’s life. Most are prayers for deliverance from trouble, for mercy from God, and for divine help. 51 of course deals with his sins with Bathsheba, and 52 concerns the time when Saul was informed of David’s stop at the house of Ahimelech (1 Sam. 22). 54 is a short psalm of a distressed person, and the circumstance was “when the Ziphites went and told Saul, ‘David is in hiding among us.’”

55 has no specific circumstance, but David is distressed at being in trouble and being betrayed by a friend. He is also in trouble in 56 and 57, “when the Philistines seized [David] in Gath,” and “when he fled from Saul, in the cave”. 56 has a wonderful tune name, “The Dove on Far-off Terebinths.” In 59, David prays for deliverance from Saul’s men who had orders to kill him.” Within this group of psalms is Ps. 58, without a circumstance, but which upholds God’s judgment against the wicked. Altogether, these psalms are full of distress at real physical threats but also confidence in God’s help and the psalmist’s eventual triumph over foes.

After these psalms of David’s prayers for individual deliverance, we have Ps. 60 which is David’s prayer for national deliverance.

Psalms 61-70 are all psalms of David. 61 and 62 are prayers for God’s refuge and expressions of faith in God’s provision. Ps. 63, “when [David] was in the Wilderness of Judah,” expresses thirst for God. Concluding with the assurance that his enemies will be destroyed, 63 is followed by 64, a prayer for deliverance against secret enemies.

Psalm 65 is an expression of praise in God’s goodness, bounty, and power. Psalm 66, in turn, is a psalm of thanksgiving, both for national deliverance and for personal assistance.

Psalm 67, which begins with an echo of the Priestly Benediction (Num. 6:25), is a prayer of Israel but also all nations (Gentiles) who will praise the Lord as well. It is nicely paired with the much longer Psalm 68, a psalm that evokes the Exodus, the wilderness, the Conquest, Mount Zion and the Sanctuary, and God’s sovereignty over the whole earth.

The last four psalms of Book II are also psalms for deliverance. The well known Messianic psalm, 69, has many connections to Jesus’ passion and death, and ends with a song of praise for God’s salvation. Psalm 70 is a prayer of salvation from persecutors. Psalm 71 is a prayer of an older person (vs. 18) for help and vindication. Finally, Psalm 72 is a prayer for the wellbeing and prosperity of the king. The psalm (as well as Ps. 127) is attributed to Solomon.

Ending Book II with words of Solomon is apt, because some of the psalms in Book III face the tragedies of God's people during the post-Solomonic years of Jerusalem's fall.


Sunday, June 25, 2017

A Favorite Bookstore

This evening, something reminded me of the Hawley-Cooke Bookstores in Louisville, KY. We lived in Louisville in the 1990s, and these stores were favorite destinations. I knew that they had sold out to Border's (which has since ended, too). I found a nice reminiscence of the stores: https://everything2.com/title/Hawley-Cooke


Thursday, June 22, 2017

Bible in a Year: Psalms 1-41

This calendar year, I’m reading through the Bible and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

This week I’m reading Book 1 of the Psalms, numbers 1 through 41. As this site indicates, it is clear that the psalms are grouped into five “books”, but whether there is a theme in each book is not entirely clear. Book 1 has many psalms of David, some of which derive from his biography, while Book 2 has more psalms about the whole people, Book 3 contains references to Jerusalem’s destruction, while Books 4 and 5 are more corporate and liturgical.

But the ordering varies. Psalm 51 is a major psalm from David's life, but it's not part of Book 1. Later, Asaph's psalms are grouped in 73-83, but 50 stands off by itself. As you go through these psalms, however, you see nice pairings of psalms that provide mutual verification, interesting contrasts, and always beautiful language.

All these psalms in Book 1 are psalms of David, except 1, 2, 10, and 33 which are unattributed.

Using beautiful images from the natural world, 1 is a lovely psalm that contrasts the blessedness and happiness of the godly compared to the misery of the wicked. We should keep #1 in mind as we read other psalms, since it begins the whole collection.

2 is a messianic psalm the celebrates the eventual triumph of the Lord’s anointed, and God’s derision at the pride of the rulers of the earth. Handel set some of these verses to memorably dramatic music in Messiah.

3 is the first psalm of David, “when he fled from Absalom his son”. The psalm tells of God’s wonderful deliverance and security. This is a psalm that I yellow-highlighted in divinity school, to remember to try to memorize it.

4 expresses confidence in God, and concluding with the peaceful sleep that is possible because of God’s safety.

Following that bedtime prayer, 5 is a morning prayer that affirms God’s hatred of wickedness, God’s blessing of the righteous, and the refuge of God. As the Harper's Bible Commentary indicates (p. 436), this could accompany Temple sacrifice (similarly to 3 and 4) or accompany rituals at the Temple gate (like 15 and 24)

Psalm 6 praises God’s mercy in time of trouble and offers assurance of God’s answer. The Harper book (p. 437) points out that 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143 are the seven penitential psalms.

7 is a prayer of someone who has been wronged, a plea for justice, and an expression of confidence that the wicked suffer because of their own plans and mischief. (I’ve heard people say, “Karma’s a bitch,” and this psalm expresses some of that feeling!

8, another psalm of David, is a beloved affirmation of the glories of creation, the surprising dignity of humankind, and God’s majesty.

9 affirms thankfulness for God’s help, for God’s righteousness, and offers pleas and assurance for justice.

The unattributed 10 is a great psalm concerning justice that has been delayed.

11 resumes the psalms of David and affirms the Lord as our refuge and strength

In 12, David prays for help amid ungodly people and is sure of God’s help.

13 is a prayer of the deserted person who painfully feels God’s absence. "A personal lament, Psalm 13 describes a desperately sick person (v. 3), abandoned by friends who gloat over this miserable end of virtuous living" (Harper Bible Commentary, 439). Some friends! But one does think of Job, whose friends didn't gloat exactly but couldn't fathom his sickness.

14 contrasts the practices and principles of wicked people. “Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God’” (vs. 1).

15 is a short prayer about the happiness of holy people.

16 is “A Miktam of David,” but the word, found also in psalms 56-60, is of uncertain meaning, perhaps referring to wind instruments. It is a messianic prayer in which one can read some of Jesus’ experience.

In Psalm 17, David pleads his integrity and prays for God’s deliverance.

18 has fifty verses; only psalms 78, 89, and 119 are longer. The psalm also has the second longest title (behind #60): “To the leader. A Psalm of David the servant of the Lord, who addressed the words of this song to the Lord on the day when the Lord delivered him from the hand of all his enemies, and from the hand of Saul. He said:” The psalm is mostly repeated in 2 Samuel 22. True to the title, #18 testifies to God’s deliverance. One might see Psalms 18 and 19, as well as 8 and 104, as counterparts to Job 38-41, where the wonders of creation give assurance about God's protection, rather than scold the believer with creation's infinity.

19 is a favorite of mine (among several others) and praises the revelation of God found in creation. Verses 14 is frequently heard in churches as a short pre-sermon prayer.

In Psalm 20, David prays for victory and assuring that God will help.

In Psalm 21, David thanks the Lord for past victories and is assured that God will continue to grant victory.

22 is the famous psalm of David, singing of the suffering and glorification of the messianic king. Of course, Jesus prayed the first line while he suffered on the cross.

23 is surely the most famous and beloved of the psalms—although I also love 121. I remember having to memorize 23 as a little kid for a Sunday school assignment.

24 is another psalm hat we find in Handel’s Messiah. The poem extols the Lord of creation, praises the character of God’s people, and further affirms God as the King of glory.

Psalm 25 is a lovely prayer for guidance and protection.

Psalm 26 is a plea for vindication from God.

Psalm 27 is a song of confidence and a prayer for help.

Psalm 28 is another prayer for help, offering assurance of God’s answer.

In 29, David praises the Lord of the thunderstorms. The HBC (p. 446) connects this psalm to the Song of Moses (Ex. 15) and God's theophany in Ex. 19, as well as psalms 46-48, 93, and 96-99.

30 is a song of David but also a song at the dedication of the Temple. It is a prayer for deliverance; I once knew of a cancer patient who was particularly drawn to the psalm, notably verses 8-10.

In psalm 31, David trusts God’s deliverance and affirms “My times are in thy hand” (vs. 15a). The HBC (p. 447) notes that the psalm borrows from other psalms like 10, 71, 38, and others, as well as Jeremiah 17:18, 20:10, and 22:8.

Psalm 32 is one of David’s penitential psalms that affirms God’s pardon and urges others to repent.

The unattributed 33 rejoices in God’s providence and deliverance. The HBC (p. 448) comments that Psalms 1-2 introduce all the psalms, and 10 is probably connected with 9, and so among the unattributed psalms in Book 1, 33 is an "orphan." But it has an interesting theology of God's omniscient love and care.

34 comes out of David’s pretense of madness when he appeared before Abimelech. The psalm praises God’s goodness, extorts others to trust God and avoid sin. “O taste and see that the Lord is good” (v. 8a).

35 is a prayer of help from perfection, from slanderers, and from haters. Don’t we all know haters!

Psalm 36, where David is identified as the Lord’s servant, urges us to avoid sin, and it affirms God’s grace and goodness.

#37 is the psalm of an aged man. The righteous can count on God’s help and reward while the wicked will be cut off.

David pleads for mercy in Psalm 38, a psalm “for the memorial offering.”

He prays in psalm 39 for enlightenment, deliverance, and the power to hold his peace. The designation "to Jeduthun" refers to the Levite who served as one of David's musicians (1 Chr. 16:41, 42; 25:1-6). The name also appears with Psalms 63 and 77. The HBC (p. 451) notes that the psalm looks at life's brevity and seeks an answer in a relationship with God.

In Psalm 40, David prays for God’s delivering goodness and for God’s mercy and grace. He is grateful for having been obedient to God!

The last psalm of Book 1, #41, is a song of the compassionate and those who act with integrity. It makes a good “bookend” with Psalm 1, and it is also very characteristic of Wisdom literature, with its focus on rewards and punishments for uprightness and wickedness. The last verse is a doxology for Book 1, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting. Amen and Amen.”

Next time, Lord willing, I'll read through Books 2 and 3, which are psalms 42-89.


Sunday, June 11, 2017

Bible in a Year: Overview of the Psalms

This calendar year, I’m reading through the Bible and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

This week and for the next few weeks, I'm studying the Psalms. The following post is adapted from two of my articles, “The Psalms: An Overview”, Adult Bible Studies (Teacher), Vol 4, No. 4 (Summer 1996), 5-8.  and “Psalms: The Bible’s Hymnbook” Adult Bible Studies (Teacher) Vol. 10 No 4 (June-July-August 2002), 2-5. My grateful thanks to the series editor at the time, Eleanor A. Moore. I'm also grateful to  “The Book of Psalms” by J. Clinton McCann, Jr., in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IV (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 639-1280. McCann is an Old Testament professor at Eden Theological Seminary, where I teach as an adjunct, and his wonderful commentary was a resource for my 2002 piece as well as other pieces over the years.

The Beautiful Psalms 

The Psalms are a favorite part of the Bible for many of us! McCann writes, “the book of Psalms presents nothing short of God’s claim upon the whole world… it articulates God’s will for justice, righteousness, and peace among all peoples and all nations” (p. 641). Martin Luther writes: "Where does one find finer words of joy than in the psalms of praise and thanksgiving?… On the other hand, where do you find deeper, more sorrowful, more pitiful words of sadness than in the psalms of lamentation? … Hence it is that the Psalter is the book of all saints; and everyone, in whatever situation he may be, finds in that situation psalms and words that fit his case, that suit him as if they were put there just for his sake, so that he could not put it better himself, or find or wish for anything better" (Luther’s Works: Word and Sacrament I, Vol. 35 [Muhlenberg Press, 1960], 255-256).

John Calvin writes, "For there is not an emotion of which anyone can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn to the life all griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated. The other parts of Scripture contain the commandments which God enjoined his servants to announce to us. But here the prophets themselves, seeing they are exhibited to us as speaking to God, and laying open all their inmost thoughts and affections, call, or rather draw, each of us to the examination of himself in particular, in order that none of the many infirmities to which we are subject, and the many vices with which we abound, may remain concealed" (Commentary on the Book of Psalms [Eerdmanns, 1949], I, xxxvii).

My Jewish Study Bible has this: "Praise is the quintessential nature of psalms, and hymns of praise are the most common type of psalm in the Psalter. In the words of Ps. 92.2: 'It is good to praise the Lord, to sing hymns to Your name, O Most High.' Most psalms are, in one way or another, aimed at praising God--for His power and beneficence, for His creation of the world, and for His past acts of deliverance to Israel. Often the praise comes after the psalmist has prayed for help from sickness or enemies... and his prayer has been answered... According to the outlook of psalms, the main religious function of human beings is to offer praise to God, to proclaim His greatness throughout the world.... God is called upon to hear prayers and to respond; this is one of His attributes. Worst of all is when He 'hides His face' and refuses to pay attention to the psalmist, because this puts into question the efficacy of prayer. If there is one primary underlying assumption of the book of Psalms, it is the potential efficacy of prayer" (pp. 1283-1284).

And Thomas Scott writes, "[The psalms] present religion to us in its most engaging dress, communicating truths which philosophy could never investigate, in a style which poetry can never equal; while history is made the vehicle of prophecy, and creation lends all its charms to paint the glories of Redemption" (Thomas Scott, The Holy Bible, Containing the Old and New Testaments.. with explanatory, notes, practical observations, and copious marginal references.., Vol II, [Glasgow: MacKenzie White & Co, 1843], 56.)

As I wrote about in my previous post, I hadn't thought of Job as a kind of companion to the Psalms. They were not written together, but they are placed together in the Bible (after Psalms in the Jewish Bible, before Psalms in the Old Testament). Job is a suffering person seeking God, as are many of the psalmists. God is affirmed as faithful, but sin and suffering also also major themes. Both books have honest--sometimes shockingly honest--language addressed to God, and though we may not understand God's ways, we can affirm that God does hear us, is merciful and full of grace, and responds for our benefit.

Types of Psalms

The word "psalm" comes from the Greek psalteroi, meaning songs for string instruments. The Hebrew word is tehillim, or praises. Virtually all the psalms contain some element of praise, but different psalms serve different purposes. Here is a table of more types and genres of psalms: http://www.crivoice.org/psalmtypes.html A few of the types of psalms (as analyzed by scholars like Hermann Gunkel, Sigmund Mowinckel) include:

Individual Thanksgiving (e.g., 32)
Individual Lament (3, 5, 6, 7, notably 51, and others)
Community Lament (44, 74, 79, 80, and others)
Royal Psalm (18, 20, 72, and others)
Hymns of Praise (8, 96, 100, 104, 113)
Wisdom Psalms (1, 19, notably 119, and others)
Expressions of Trust and Confidence (23, 82, 121, et al.)
Entrance Liturgies (there are two of these: 15 and 24)

McCann discusses contemporary insights about these types and content of psalms in his commentary, pages 644-652. It is interesting to learn more about these types of psalms and identify them as you read.

Also, here is a table of the psalms by theme: http://bookofhours.org/psalms/tool_themes.htm

Groupings of Psalms 

Here is a Roman Catholic site that lists the psalms and their subjects, with links to the psalms themselves: http://www.thesacredheart.com/psalms.htm

The whole of the book of Psalms is grouped in five “books,” echoing the five-part nature of the Torah. These are Psalms 1-41 (with 41:13 as a doxology), 42-72 (with 72:18-19 as the doxology), 73-89 (89:52 is the doxology), 90-106 (106:48 is the doxology), and 107-150 (with 150 as the doxology for the whole collection.

Psalms are often grouped in meaningful ways: Psalm 1 is a wonderful beginning for the whole collection, praising God’s will as expressed in the Torah, while 2 praises God for God’s purposes for the nations. Psalms 22 and 23—a psalm of despair and praise, and a psalm of quiet confidence—are appropriately paired. McCann notes that Psalms 1 and 2 set up basic theological outlooks for the rest of the psalms: a person is happy when one follows God’s instruction (the Hebrew word is torah), and a person is happy when one takes refuge in God (pp. 664-665).

Psalms and the Exile

In Bible studies, once we realize the central role of the exile, we never get too far from its pervasive role within the text. McCann points out that royal psalms are found early in Book 1 (Psalm 2) and at the end of Books 2 and 3 (Psalms 72 and 89). But Psalm 89 concludes with God’s harsh words concerning David’s monarchy, and then Psalm 90, which begins Book 4 and which is the only psalm attributed to Moses, affirm God as Israel’s true home. Book 4 contains psalms that grapple with the experience of exile and loss of land and monarchy, for instance, 102-102 and 106. Such psalms would have brought peace and hope to post-exilic Jews, who have a rebuilt Temple but as yet no monarchy, and a more tenuous presence on the land than during the era of the kings. Later, a psalm like the famous 110 in Book 5, expresses hope in a messianic king (McCann goes into much more, important detail on these themes and psalms: pages 659-665, 1128-1131.)

Brevard S. Childs also comments that, because of the experience of exile, the whole psalter now has an eschatological outlook, that is, “It looks toward the future and passionately years for its arrival. Even when the psalmist runs briefly to reflect on the past in praise of the ‘great things which Yahweh has done’, invariably the movement shifts and again the hope of salvation is projected into the future (Ps. 126.6)… As a result, the Psalter in its canonical form, far from being different in kind from the prophetic message, joins with the prophets in announcing God’s coming kingship. When the New Testament heard in the psalms eschatological notes, its writers were standing in the context of the Jewish canon in which the community of faith worshipped and waited” (Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979], 518).

Authorship

There are several attributions of authorship of the Psalms. About a third are labeled with a Hebrew expression translated “by David” or “according to David” or “of David”: these are 3-9, 11-32, 34-41, 51-65, 68-70, 86, 101, 103, 108-110, 122, 124, 131, 138-145. Thirteen arose from a situation in David’s life: 3, 7, 18, 34, 51, 52, 54, 56, 57, 59, 60, 63. But Psalms 1-72 conclude with “The prayers of David, the son of Jesse, are ended,” although not all those psalms are David’s, and other psalms after 72 are indicated to be of David.

Asaph, a musician of David’s mentioned in 1 Chronicles 15 and 16, is named as author of 50 and 73-83. Other names include Almoth (46; see 1 Chr. 15:17), the Ezrahites Heman (88; 1 Chr. 15:19, 25:1-7) and Ethan (89; I Kings 4:31), Jeduthun (39, 62, and 77; 1 Chr. 9:16), and the Korahites (Ps. 42, 44-49, 84-85, 87-88; 2 Chr. 20:19). Psalm 90 is attributed to Moses, and 72 and 127 to Solomon.

Although individual psalms are likely very old, perhaps dating in some form back to the designated authors, the collection was assembled during the Second Temple period. In fact, scholars have called the Psalms “the hymnbook of the Second Temple." The Septuagint has them all, but some 4th century CE manuscripts do not, and the Dead Sea Scrolls contain some of these psalms and others not included.

An example of an additional psalm is Psalm 151, which is not canonical in Jewish, Protestant, and Roman Catholic Bibles but is canonical in the Bibles of the Eastern Orthodox,  Coptic Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, and Armenian Catholic Churches. https://biblia.com/bible/nrsv/Psalm%20151

Tunes 

Some of the psalms have designations that refer to now-forgotten tunes, like “Do Not Destroy” (57-59), “Dove on Far-off Terebinths” (56), “Lilies” (80 and others), and “Mahalath" (53, 88). There are also designations for different kinds of instruments. (We find references to musical instruments in other parts of the Bible: Lev. 25:9, Num. 10:2, 2 Sam. 6:5, Isaiah 30:29, Jeremiah 33:11, Ezra 3:10-11, et al.) The word selah, a word used in several psalms, may mean that singers are supposed to lift up their voices at that point.

Imagine that you wrote the words of a song, and you stipulated that the song was to be played on a violin to the tune of Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne." Then imagine that 2000 years have passed, and no one knows what a violin is and no one knows that tune, but they do have your poem! That's a silly example to illustrate our dilemma with understanding the original performances of the psalms in worship.

Hardships and Blessings 

I wrote this in my 1996 article:

“In kind with the other Scriptures, the Psalms look to God as the true King of Israel. He rules from the heavens but is active among his people, guiding, disciplining, directing, and blessing them. God’s great works for the benefit of human beings can be seen in his mighty deeds in the history of Israel. God gives dignity to human beings, getting us above the earth’s other creatures. Not only is God active in Israel’s history, he is also the Creator of all we see. The Psalms marvel at the glory and beauty of nature but credit God the Creature with the beauty of the universe; the world is not beautiful in isolation from its Lord!

“Some passages of the Bible (in many Proverbs, for instance) promise God’s goodness to those who do God’s will and serious consequences to those who act against his will. This outlook is in concert with God’s promises to Israel, wherein Moses beseeches the people to be obedient to God and gain his favor. Other portions of the Bible, however, tell of persons (one especially thinks of Job and Ecclesiastes), who have done God’s will but find trouble and heartache).

"We need to affirm both: God blesses us as we seek to do his will, yet we are not immune from all kinds of trouble in life. The Psalms beautifully lift up many answered prayers and fulfilled blessings. The Psalms also lift up the disappointment and perplexity one may experience when one is in the midst of terrible trouble—knowing that God has acted in past times to help. God intervenes on behalf of his people. Like all of us who struggle to grow in faith, the psalmists know the joy of God’s blessings yet come impatient and troubled if those blessings are delayed” (“The Psalms: An Overview," page 8).

Homework Assignments to Myself (I) 

What I plan to do during the next couple weeks, is to read through the Psalms and pay attention to concepts that McCann notes as particularly important theologically in the Psalter. pp. 666-672):

* The person who looks to God is happy (or “blessed”) in some translations—a quality that connects us ahead to the Beatitudes of Jesus.

* The happy person is one who “takes refuge in” God (puts one’s whole self in the care of God)

* The happy person is righteousness (which is relational: one’s morality but in relation to one’s trust in God and concern for God’s instruction)

* The affirmation of God’s steadfast love (hesed) and faithfulness—which connect us back to Exodus 34:6 and ahead to Jesus Christ.

Assignment 2

Psalms in the New Testament

In another blog post, I wrote that some of the Psalms are referenced in the New Testament: 2, 22, 23, 34, 69, 78, 89, 110, and 118 especially, but also 33, 35, 39, 50, 102, 105, 106, 107, 116, 119, 135, 145, and 147. Many psalm passages are understood to be fulfilled in, or connected to Jesus (Matt. 13:35 and Ps. 78:3, John 19:24 and Ps. 22:18, John 19:36 and Ps. 34:20, Acts 2:25-35 and Ps. 16:8-11, 132:11, and 110:1) (McCann, 672-675). In another blog post, I show how important are the psalms for scripturally demonstrating the necessity of Jesus' suffering and death: http://changingbibles.blogspot.com/2016/03/maundy-thursday-and-good-friday.html We also find connections like Acts 4:11 and Psalm 118:22, Acts 4:25-26 and Psalm 2:1, Hebrews 1:8 and Psalm 45:6-7, Hebrews 1:10 and Psalm 102:25, and notably Hebrews 1:13 and Psalm 110:1.

It would be interesting to browse in the Bible and read some of these connections to New Testament passages.

Assignment 3

I shared this link to an article that identifies types of psalms---http://www.crivoice.org/psalmtypes.html --- and also this link to an article that groups psalms by theme---http://bookofhours.org/psalms/tool_themes.htm. I'd like also to use these sites for more "browsing" through the psalms.

Assignment 4

Although I have several Bibles, a favorite is the RSV Harper Study Bible that I purchased for a college class in 1977. This spring semester is the 40th anniversary of my first use of the Bible. (I spent time browsing its pages and taking notes: https://theloveofbiblestudy.com.) Subsequently I used it in seminary and in many other settings. As you can imagine, the poor book is falling apart and looks terrible, but I still love to use it.

In seminary, I highlighted Psalm verses (or whole Psalms) that I wanted to memorize. I memorized many of them. My other homework assignment for myself is to re-memorize these passages. Here are the highlighted passages in my old Bible. Do you have verses (or whole psalms) that you particularly find helpful and comforting?

Psalm 1:1-3
Psalm 3
5:11
6
8
9:15-16
14:2-3
16:1-2
18:1-2
19:7-10
19:14
22:1-5
23
24:1
25
27:1
32:5
37:3-4
37:23-24
40:1-3
42:1-3
45:1
46:1-3
47:7-9
51
77:21-23
90:3-4
91:1-2
100
103:1-14
104:31-35
110
119:9-20
121
126:6
127:1
129:1-8, 23-24
143:1-6

150

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Wu-Wei and the Dao

A post from 2013... The Daoist idea of wu-wei has always fascinated me, the idea of non-action or creative quietude. It is work without coercion, work that is spontaneous and effortless, as well as freed from anxiety. A frequent illustration is the butcher whose knife never goes dull, because the butcher knows where to cut between bones rather than through them.

I knew this principle when I was young and realized that, when I skipped a day practicing the piano, I somehow played better when I returned to the music. My mother just thought I was slacking off.

If I may use a non-Christian principle for church ministry (and I’m going to anyway, LOL), I wonder if some efforts at church growth struggle (or fail) because the effort is forced and pressured. Instead, the leaders behind the growth plan could discern points of resistance (there are many in change agency) and work with the difficulties instead of against them.

I also see this principle in writing: sometimes the writing flows and the creativity is strong, and sometimes nothing is flowing and the resulting prose or poetry isn’t very good.

Friendships are a prime area where the principle of wu-wei applies. If you like someone and want to be friends, it's best to see if the friendship develops in a spontaneously mutual way. Overthinking the friendship is a sure sign that you'll stay acquaintances.

Obviously I don’t want to conflate wu-wei with the Holy Spirit. But this passage in Acts 16 has always intrigued me:

[Paul and Timothy, and presumably Luke and others] went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’ When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them (vss. 6-10).

Why did the Holy Spirit guide them this way---one journey was the right one but others were not----and how did they discern the Spirit? Visions, perhaps (vs. 10). How have you discerned the Spirit? Have you ever felt guided by God in ways you didn’t expect? You probably have---I certainly have! On the other hand, have you ever thought yourself guided by God and then realized, in hindsight, that you were just rolling along as you wanted to?

A key difference between the Daoist principle and the Christian view of providence is that the guidance of the latter is a personal God rather than a quality of the universe that is not necessarily personal. But on the other hand, the Bible does teach that consequences follow actions without attributing those consequences always to divine agency. Good consequences also result from good and wise, well-approached actions. I like the idea of approaching one's actions via the basic “flow” of life, whereby a person can work without anxiety and compulsion. Hard work that has good results can, paradoxically, be non-effortful.

Here are selections from the Dao Dejing, reflecting some aspects of Eastern philosophy (which of course has differences with Christian theology) as well as the principle of non-effortful work. The reference is at the end.

Chapter 8
The highest goodness resembles water
Water greatly benefits myriad things without contention
It stays in places that people dislike
Therefore it is similar to the Tao
Dwelling with the right location
Feeling with great depth
Giving with great kindness
Speaking with great integrity
Governing with great administration
Handling with great capability
Moving with great timing
Because it does not contend
It is therefore beyond reproach

Chapter 13
Favor and disgrace make one fearful
The greatest misfortune is the self
What does "favor and disgrace make one fearful" mean?
Favor is high; disgrace is low
Having it makes one fearful
Losing it makes one fearful
This is "favor and disgrace make one fearful"
What does "the greatest misfortune is the self" mean?
The reason I have great misfortune
Is that I have the self
If I have no self
What misfortune do I have?
So one who values the self as the world
Can be given the world
One who loves the self as the world
Can be entrusted with the world

Chapter 16
Attain the ultimate emptiness
Hold on to the truest tranquility
The myriad things are all active
I therefore watch their return
Everything flourishes; each returns to its root
Returning to the root is called tranquility
Tranquility is called returning to one's nature
Returning to one's nature is called constancy
Knowing constancy is called clarity
Not knowing constancy, one recklessly causes trouble
Knowing constancy is acceptance
Acceptance is impartiality
Impartiality is sovereign
Sovereign is Heaven
Heaven is Tao
Tao is eternal
The self is no more, without danger

Chapter 37
The Tao is constant in non-action
Yet there is nothing it does not do....

Chapter 48
Pursue knowledge, daily gain
Pursue Tao, daily loss
Loss and more loss
Until one reaches unattached action
With unattached action, there is nothing one cannot do
Take the world by constantly applying non-interference
The one who interferes is not qualified to take the world

Chapter 55
....Knowing harmony is said to be constancy
Knowing constancy is said to be clarity
Excessive vitality is said to be inauspicious
Mind overusing energy is said to be aggressive
Things become strong and then grow old
This is called contrary to the Tao
That which is contrary to the Tao will soon perish

Chapter 81
True words are not beautiful
Beautiful words are not true
Those who are good do not debate
Those who debate are not good
Those who know are not broad of knowledge
Those who are broad of knowledge do not know
Sages do not accumulate
The more they assist others, the more they possess
The more they give to others, the more they gain
The Tao of heaven
Benefits and does not harm
The Tao of sages
Assists and does not contend (or in another translation, "the Tao of the sage is work without effort")

(Translation by Derek Lin, from www.Taoism.net and Tao Te Ching: Annotated & Explained, published by SkyLight Paths in 2006.)

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

The Voyage of the MS St Louis

As explained at this site, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, today is the 78th anniversary of the return of the MS St. Louis to Europe. It was a German ocean liner carrying over 900 Jewish refugees from Germany, but they were denied entry to the U.S., Canada, and Cuba, so they had to return to Europe. Once back, many refugees were accepted in a variety of European countries, but many died in the Holocaust. The Twitter page @Stl_Manifest has remembrances of many of the refugees, and in several cities, including St. Louis, vigils and gatherings will remember the victims and pray for the well-being of refugees in the world today.

Today is also the 73rd anniversary of D-Day, and the same museum has this good history of the invasion.

Today is also the 49th anniversary of the death of Robert F. Kennedy.

Praying today for the memory of those perished in the Holocaust, for the 60+ million refugees in the world today and their well-being, for the pain and anguish of our world, and for direction and well-being for our nation.


Sunday, June 4, 2017

Bible in a Year: Job

This calendar year, I’m reading through the Bible and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

This week I’ve been studying Job. I’ve almost dreaded revisiting Job, because it’s such a heavy, challenging book. Once I led a church Bible study group on Job, and we had a hard time getting through it!

As the Jewish Study Bible commentators point out, “the book makes three main points, which are interrelated. The first, most obvious point is that human suffering is not necessarily deserved… This point is one that Job argues most forcibly against his friends. Those friends, who are concerned to safeguard the goodness of the Lord (seen as the cause of all things, good or bad), argue the contrary view… This lead to the second point. The claim that all suffering is deserved will inevitably persuade those who hold that view to falsify either the character of the sufferer or the character of God. Thus, Job’s friends argue that Job is a sinner, deserving of his punishment, while Job claims that the Lord has acted unfairly and is indifferent to human suffering. The third point, however, is the most theologically difficult and gives the good its sense of profundity and at the same time its inconclusive conclusion: there is no way of understanding the meaning of suffering. That is, in the Lord’s argument, the reasons for suffering—-if there are any—-are simply beyond human comprehension” (pp. 1499-1500).

Job believes in God and has always sought to lead a righteous life. But he suffers horribly—out of proportion to any sins he committed. Because he believes in God, the punishment (or the abandonment) of God is another source of terrible pain to him. His friends Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar come to help him, but they recite traditional theologies about suffering that we still hear from well-intended folk: God is not unjust, God may send suffering in order to discipline us, God does punish sin and so Job must’ve sinned but he just can’t admit it (or he’s lying about some hidden sin).

Job is not only suffering: he’s angry at God. The words of his friends make him all the more angry. Job doesn’t understand why God has sent these sufferings (or allowed these sufferings), and God won’t provide him with an answer. Job repeatedly wishes and demands that God respond to his pain.

The book invites all kinds of questions:

* Recalling the compassionate omniscience of God in Psalm 139, we wonder God allows Satan to mess with him. The idea of God sending Satan to destroy a good person is, needless to say, troubling.

* Why does God on occasion go silent? It's a question in Job, but also in the Bible and throughout history. Where was God when the Holocaust was happening? When the Israelites were 400 years in Egyptian slavery? When our world today has over 60 million refugees? When some other horror (take your pick) is happening? When Job was imploring God for a response?

* Does God want us to be angry at him, full of questions when we suffer, as Job was—-especially since God says to his friends, “you have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has” (42:7)?

* What happens to Satan at the end of the story? It’s well known that Satan in Job is not the “satanic” force of the New Testament but a (no pun intended) devil’s advocate with God. In Job, he is a character in the prologue but does not appear thereafter.

* Since we affirm that God is close to and compassionate toward people in their suffering (see the Beatitudes, for instance), why isn't God a little kinder to Job when God does respond (chapters 38-41). God talks about the many and vast wonders of creation and rhetorically asks if Job can make and do all the things God can accomplish. Job wasn't trying to take God's place, but rather to gain an answer to his own suffering.

* Of course, Job cannot do all the things God can do, and he repents (42:6). But does he? Commentators have noted that the grammar of Job 42:6 (“therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes”) is ambiguous. Depending on how one translates Job 42:1-6, Job may be repenting of his complaints and resigns himself to God’s will. Or, it may mean that Job repents of his faulty theology about God that sees God in terms of simple rewards and retributions. Or, Job may be speaking ironically—responding to God with sarcasm.

In any case, by the end of the book Job can no longer complain and has entered into a new relationship with God. Perhaps that is a major "moral" of the book! After all, suffering transforms us not only as individuals but also in our relationship with God, and for many of us, we will have deeper insight into and a deeper faith in God once the chaos of our situation has passed (Brueggemann and Linafelt, An Introduction to the Old Testament [WJK Press, 2012], 332-334).

The epilogue of the book makes things all the more complex. Job’s friends have been trying to defend God---to honor the ways of God---while Job has complained bitterly of God. But in the end, God scolds the friends for not speaking rightly and orders them to make sacrifices, while God commends Job for his words! Apparently God does not want to hear shallow and unhelpful theology any more than Job did.

Furthermore, at the end, Job has a new fortune and a new family---and his daughters are said to be beautiful. But the grief remains: his dead children cannot return. Brueggemann and Linafelt point out that God restores Job’s possessions twice over—-which is the Torah mitzvot concerning theft (Exodus 22:7). Does this imply that God stole from Job, and now must restore twofold what God stole? (pp. 335-336)

* Here's a much more lighthearted question. As a kid, I wondered why is his name pronounced "jobe" and not "jobb" ??

I don't remember if I got an answer at the time. Later, I read that his name in the original Hebrew, אִיּוֹב which is transliterated 'iyyobe, has a long O, which in turns carries over into English.

****

Since the theology of rewards and punishments characterize so much of the Old Testament texts—-Deutereonomistic history as well as the Chronicler and also wisdom books like Proverbs—Job seems an outlier in the Bible. As Brueggemann and Lineman write: “Theologically the book takes up old covenantally and sapiential presuppositions, challenges basic premises of Israel’s faith, and refuses any easy resolution of the most difficult theological questions that appear on the horizon of Israel’s faith. It is, moreover, appropriate that the book of Job should follow the book of Psalms in the Hebrew canonical order, for the book of Job takes up the primary genres of the Psalms, especially lament and hymn, waves them into a new coherent dialogue, and pushes both lament and hymn to an emotional, artistic, and theological extremity”  (p. 327).

Here is an outline of the book.

A.  Prose Prologue (1:1-2:13)

Job’s background (1:1-1:5)

Satan gains permission from God to test God, and then takes Job’s wealth and children (1:6-22)

Satan gains permission to afflict Job, and then he gives Job a severe skin disease (2:1-10).

Job’s friends Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar come on the scene, and sit with him for seven days and
nights.

B.  Job and his friends discuss his situation (3:1-31:40), then Elihu speaks (chapters 32-37). 

Job curses the day he was born, wonders why he didn’t die, and cries in misery (chapter 3)

1. First cycle of speeches (chapters 4-14)

Eiphaz contends that God doesn’t punish the righteous, but sinful people are published and must eventually perish. He asks Job to seek God and to be pleased at God’s chastisements (chapter 5).

Job objects that God won’t let him die, and asks his unfaithful friends for evidence that he has sinned.
He complains to God of his situation (chapters 6-7)

Bildad contends that God doesn’t pervert justice and that God will respond if Job seeks him rightfully (chapter 8).

Job complains that God, sovereign in the universe, ignores his suffering, brings calamity upon the wicked and blameless (chapters 9-10).

Zophar accuses Job of hypocrisy and assures him of restoration if he repents (chapter 11).

Job denies the accusations, defends his incenses, expresses resentment toward his friends, and beseeches God again (chapters 12-14).

2. Second cycle of speeches (chapters 15-21)

Epiphaz says that Job id deluding himself and his words condemn him (chapter 16)

Job accuses his friend of unkindness, believes God is angry at him, and appeals to God for help (chapter 17).

Bildad reproves Job for his stubbornness and contends that the wicked fall into ruin (chapter 18).

Job scolds his friends, and expresses hope in someone who’ll vindicate him (chapter 19).

Zophar believes the misery is the lot of the wicked (chapter 20).

Job replies that the wicked do prosper, and that God will give as God wills to both the wicked and the righteous (chapter 21).

3. Third Cycle of Speeches (chapters 22-37). Notice in these speeches that Zophar does not reply to Job, but young Elihu instead comes on the scene and speaks.

Eliphaz accuses Job of believing that God is unjust (chapter 22).

Job responds that he would face a (court) trial with God, and says again that the wicked do prosper, at the expense of the righteous (chapters 23-24).

Bildad (briefly) responds that no one is righteous before God (chapter 25).

Job complains again that he knows God’s greatness and that he is righteous. He mourns his former, upright position in society that has now been substituted for his suffering condition. He protests again that he is innocent of sickness and falsehood (chapters 26-31).

Elihu steps in. He contradicts Job’s three friends (32) but also tells Job that God chastises people (33). God is not unjust (34-35), but the justice of God and all God’s works are beyond human understanding; his ways are unsearchable (36-37).

C. God answers Job from the whirlwind (38:1-42:6). 

God’s creation is vast (38:4-15), and humans cannot understand its mysteries and variety (38:16-39:30).

Job responds humbly (40:1-5).

God challenges Job, reminding him of the great creatures Behemoth and Leviathan (40:6-41:34).
Job responds that he did not understand and now repents (42:1-6).

D.  Prose Epilogue

God scolds Job’s friends for not having spoken rightly, as Job has! He instructed the friends to offer sacrifices, and Job will pray for them (42:7-9).

God restores Job’s wealth and gives him and his wife more children (42:10-17).

*****

There are many more interesting aspects to the book.

* I agree with the Harper’s Bible Commentary: “Job’s wife deserves better than she receives in this book. Not only does she seem mainly a machine for producing babies [she had ten grown children who died, and then had ten more], but one of Job’s curses on himself turned her in prospect into at the slave and sexual toy of other men (31:9-10)” (p. 432). Furthermore, the daughters are all praised for their beauty, and are named, while Mrs. Job is a faceless and nameless character with just a "walk on." She suffered horribly in her own right. The book of Job doesn’t advance us beyond the patriarchy that we do find throughout the Bible.

* We should always remember that chapters 2-41 are poetry--and poetry is supposed to be ambiguous and filled with implied meaning. Difficult as the book is, we'd be rewarded with repeated readings with a good commentary.

* When I took a course in Biblical Hebrew years ago, I learned that the book has many difficulties of word meaning, grammatical challenges, and copyists’ problems. Also, the book has an interesting structure that invites scholarly debate. Formally, there are two cycles of speeches with the patterns Eliphaz-Job, Bildad-Job, and Zophar-Job. But in the third cycle, Bildad’s speech is very short, and there is none for Zophar. This has led to speculation that the speeches have been confused, especially since Job’s final speech is longer than his others (chapters 26-31). Perhaps portions of Bildad’s and Zophar’s third speeches became attributed to Job—-or, perhaps, this is the intention of the texts, and the arguments of the friends can go no further and must break off. (My Jewish Study Bible gives a variety of options about how the speeches could be rearranged for a more symmetrical flow: pp. 1500-1502.)

Another issue: Job’s speeches in 27:2-28:28 has Job more “patient,” refusing to curse God, and more confident in justice, compared to his earlier speeches. From this viewpoint, Job’s words would have been more easily been followed by God’s response in chapter 42. On the other hand, the canonical form of the text (in the absence of any other variations of the book’s form) emphases Job’s faith beneath his suffering (Jewish Study Bible, 1504).

* Does Job feel entitled to blessing? If so, he is in good company: none of us feel like we deserve to suffer, all of us have some “why me?” feelings when things go wrong.

Suffering turns us inward in a destructive way. Our pain, after all, is all we can feel. When I had a cancer scare a few years ago, I wasn’t thinking about cancer as a world-wide medical problem (emotionally, anyway), I was concerned about my own health. My Renovare Spiritual Formation Bible puts it well. “Anger boils to the surface of Job’s complaint. it is manifest in bitterness, cutting sarcasm, flagrant overreaction against the friends, and cynicism toward God. Job’s grief immobilizes him, distorts his view of time, gives him sleepless nights and painful days, and saps all his energy. By searching Job’s grief we understand the world and our lives as never before” (p. 722).

My mother was an invalid whom my dad looked after. When my dad died in 1999, I lived five hours away from her but of course promised to handle all her affairs for her and to visit her as often as possible (which I did for thirteen years). Mom said one day, “There isn’t anyone who is in a worse situation than I am.” She wouldn’t believe me when I tried to tell her otherwise, and continued to feel that way when I obtained regular help to come to her home and had all her mail forward to my home to handle. A tragic side effect of grief and suffering is an understandable self-centeredness--and feelings of helplessness and hopelessness---that afflicts many or most of us until something can console us and regain for us a bigger picture.

For Job, God’s theophany, stern and rhetorical as it is, did help Job see that the universe was more vast and intricate and cared-for than he in his misery could see. Sometimes that’s what we need, too—to gain a new sense that we are part of the cycles of birth and decay and death as other creatures, and that God cares for them (us) all. We are guaranteed nothing for our physical lives except our eventual, physical death—but God gives us God’s life so that we will live with God forever.

* I had not thought about Job as a companion to the Psalms, as Brueggeman and Linafelt point out. Of course, it precedes Psalms in the Old Testament and succeeds Psalms in the Jewish Bible. But both books have honest language about God, shockingly so at times, and they made good canonical companions. If God commends Job at the end, God must want all of us to seek God and to seek answers with our own honestly and passion.

*It’s worth remembering that some famous expressions come from Job:

He said, "Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord" (1:21)

...human beings are born to trouble
   just as [as surely as] sparks fly upward (Job 5:7)

I have escaped by the skin of my teeth (19:20b)

For I know that my Redeemer lives,
   and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;
and after my skin has been thus destroyed,
   then in my flesh I shall see God (19:25-26).

What a beautiful way Handel set those two verses to music in Messiah!


Saturday, June 3, 2017

Bible in a Year: The Writings

A page from a 1669 King James Version
This calendar year, I’m reading through the Bible and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

We are moving into a new section of the Bible: between the historical books and the prophets (that is, between Esther and Isaiah), we have several books of writings:

Job is the well-known story (a long poem framed by short narrative sections) of a righteous man who suffers terribly. He and his friends try to plumb the mysteries of God’s providence.

The Psalms are 150 songs of praise, complaint, lamentation, penitence, and supplication. They were used in the rebuilt Temple and, eventually, in synagogues and churches.

Proverbs is a collection of sayings, many attributed to Solomon, on topics like morality, knowledge, justice, and other issues of right living.

Ecclesiastes is a moving reflection upon the seasons of life (especially the famous 3:1-8), the difficulties of gaining wisdom, and the ultimate vanity of human striving.

The Song of Solomon (or Song of Songs, or Canticle of Canticles) is an emotional poem of love and longing between two people.

In the Bibles of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, we have two more books:

The Book of Wisdom, or the Wisdom of Solomon, teachings of wisdom and righteousness.

Ecclesiasticus, or the Wisdom of Sirach, ethical teachings likely written in the 2nd century BCE.

The Jewish Bible does not contain the Book of Wisdom or Ecclesiasticus, nor do Protestant Old Testaments. The final section of the Jewish Bible, the Ketuvim (Writings), contains: Psalms, Job, and Proverbs; the Five Megillot (Scrolls), which are Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther; and finally, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, and 1 and 2 Chronicles.

****

The term “wisdom literature” is often applied to the books Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job, the Song of Songs, those two apocryphal books, and also several Psalms such as as 1, 19, 37, 49, 73, and others.

We've seen a few ways how the Torah and the historical books of the Bible fit together. Following verse after verse of laws, statutes, and material for Hebrew worship in the Torah, you might expect to find historical accounts of these laws and cultic practices carried out. We do get some, if not as much as we might've anticipated: Joshua refers to the law of Moses, 1:7ff, 8:30ff; the stories of David, Uriah, and Bathsheba also reflect concerns for cleansing rituals; and the sins of Solomon are also connected to the laws (Deut. 17:1-17 and 1 Kings 9:26-11:40).(1) But we did see how the Deuteronomic history, by forming the last book of the Torah and opening the subsequent history of the people in the land, provides a narrative of law and promise and judgment across the centuries that draws upon the covenant established in the wilderness. And then in Ezra and Nehemiah, we saw the emergence of a more obviously religious community, established in the law and covenant, with a strong post-exilic hope for a yet-greater restoration. This apparent omission of cultic practices within the historical books alerts us to topics debated in scholarly circles: the extent to which the law was codified before the Exile, the impact of the rediscovery of at least part of the law during Josiah’s reign (2 Kings 22:8 and following), and the extent to which the law became community standard during the post-exilic period (Ezra 3:2, Neh. 13).(2)

Now: how do the Psalms and Wisdom books connect theologically with the Torah and the historical books that we've studied so far?

One obvious connection is that the Psalms connect worshipers to King David, the attributed author of several psalms---and, the five sections of the book of Psalms are said to mirror the five books of the Torah. Also, the Psalms connect to the post-exilic period as "the hymn book of the Second Temple," a description one finds among many biblical scholars. Though some of the psalms are very old by the time of that temple, they were brought together and used in worship during the post-exilic period and far beyond.

Another obvious connection with the historical writings is the attribution of some of the Proverbs, as well as Song of Songs and Eclessiastes, to Solomon. Accepting that attribution, one sees different aspects of that king's famous wisdom: the importance of practical wisdom, the beauty of human love, and the hard questions that "life" raises. The connection of Wisdom literature to David and Solomon is a reason why these books follow the historical books in the Old Testament; whereas Isaiah through Malachi, which follow 2 Kings in the Jewish Bible, is another possible arrangement.

As far as the ways the Wisdom books connect with Torah and History: we see more contrasts than specific connections.

For instance, as Bernhard Anderson puts it, “The prophetic themes that dominate the Pentateuch [Torah] and the prophetic writings—Israel’s election, the Day of Yahweh, the covenant and the Law, the priesthood and the Temple, prophecy and the messianic hope—are dealt with hardly at all [in the Wisdom books].” Wisdom authors did not address legal and religious obligations (as did the priests of Israel), and usually they did not explicitly communicate God’s own oracles, like the prophets. Only in the apocryphal wisdom books like Ecclesiasticus do we find more linkage of wisdom with law and covenant.(4)

Wisdom literature, instead, aims to uncover some of the lessons a wise person would have learned about “life.” Life experiences, rather than the law per se, guide to moral behavior and correct judgments. Job seeks answers to the problem of his suffering in a series of conversations with his friends, since his religious and moral uprightness implies that his suffering is undeserved.  Ecclesiastes reflects on life’s meaning after long reflection on the problems of suffering, human pride, and God’s providence. The Song of Songs, a happier and more confident book, also reflects the meaning of life as discovered through the experience of God’s creation and human love.

Proverbs, too, is a confident book. You could say that its moral world is close to that of Torah without specifically citing mitzvot. A person’s growth in wisdom and knowledge (compared to the fool who is lazy and unconcerned) is not only recommended, but also ordained by God. As an author in The Interpreter’s Bible puts it, “The highest type of family life is extolled; monogamy is taken for granted; the respect for mother and wife is emphasized throughout; chastity and marital fidelity are enjoined for all. The glutton, drunkard, and sluggard, the robber and oppressor of the poor are all roundly condemned.  Those who live in accordance with wisdom’s laws are prosperous and happy.  A belief in the one true and living God who rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked permeates the book from cover to cover.”(5)

But the mystery of suffering stands out among these books, raising questions about any easy linkage of rewards and punishments to human behavior. Thus, these books form another contrast to the Deuteronomistic theology that we've surveyed. For instance, Ecclesiastes famously comes down on the side of life's utter futility; even pursuing righteousness seems meaningless. Job never finds a simple answer to the reason for his suffering, other than the mysterious ways of God that are beyond human understanding. So many of the psalms, too, are beloved because they are cries to God amid human pain that are so honest and identifiable in our own experience. If you add the book of Lamentations to this mix (as the Jewish Bible does), you find heartbreaking complaints to God for social suffering, wherein the divine judgment seems not to spare the starving innocent.

My Renovare Spiritual Formation Bible has a good summary: "[Sufferings]... remind us that this life is not all there is and that there is a reality beyond this life that is the source of our lasting joy and enduring happiness. We come to see that suffering is only one side of the human experience with God, and we come to depend on him more and more to carry us through it. But there is no celebration in suffering. We live with the stark awareness that even if we could do everything right, life still may not turn out the way we hope or intend... [Yet] all suffering is redeemable.. [In suffering w]e discover the abiding, caring presence of the God who holds each and every one of us in the hollow of his hand..." (pp. 719-720).

There are MANY connections of the Writings with the New Testament.

* Proverbs is often quoted or alluded to in the New Testament. In fact, some of the New Testament’s most well known passages allude to (and sometimes directly quote) particular Proverbs.  Jesus’ words about the wise man and the foolish man who built their homes on rock and sand echo Proverbs 10:25 and 12:7. Jesus also echoes Proverbs 3:28, 11:4, 11:17, 11:28, 16:19, and 30:8-9 during his Sermon on the Mount.  Proverbs 25:21-22 admonishes the wise to take care of one’s enemy rather than retaliate, and the Apostle Paul makes use of the saying in Romans 12:20. Jesus’ maturity (Luke 2:52) echoes Proverbs 3:4. Jesus also alludes to Proverbs 16:1, 18:21, 24:12, 25:6-7, 27:1, 28:24, 29:23 in the course of his teaching (see Matt. 10:19-20, 12:36-37, 16:27, Luke 14:7-11, Luke 12:16-21, Matt. 15:4, 6, Luke 14:11 and 18:14b, respectively).(6)

* The Psalms are also frequently referenced in the New Testament: 2, 22, 34, 69, 78, 89, 110, and 118 especially, but also 33, 35, 39, 50, 102, 105, 106, 107, 116, 119, 135, 145, and 147. Several psalm passages are understood to be fulfilled in, or connected to Jesus (Matt. 13:35 and Ps. 78:3, John 19:24 and Ps. 22:18, John 19:36 and Ps. 34:20, Acts 2:25-35 and Ps. 16:8-11, 132:11, and 110:1).(7) We also find connections in Acts 4:11 and Psalm 118:22, Acts 4:25-26 and Psalm 2:1, Hebrews 1:8 and Psalm 45:6-7, Hebrews 1:10 and Psalm 102:25, and notably Hebrews 1:13 and Psalm 110:1.(8)

The Psalms connect theologically to the New Testament in another important way. My Old Testament prof for a semester, Brevard S. Childs, notes that, “the psalms function to guide Israel, both as individuals and as a community, in the proper response to God’s previous acts of grace in establishing a bond. The psalmist can praise God, complain of his sufferings, plea for a sign of vindication, but through it all and undergirding his response, lies the confession that life is obtained as a gift from God. His conduct is not seen as a striving after an ideal or toward fixed ethical norms, but a struggle to respond faithfully to what God has first done on Israel’s behalf. The response of the psalmist is so intense and directed so personally to God because the possession or loss of life is measured in terms of his relation to God who both ‘kills and makes alive’. Although the terminology of the Old Testament psalms often differs strikingly from Paul’s the theological understanding of man’s relationship to God as one of sheer grace shares much in common.”(3)

* The blamelessness and suffering of Job mirrors that of Christ's. Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, without specifically referencing or alluding to Job, is in harmony with Job’s values and also promises grace to those who suffer.(9)

* A traditional, allegorical interpretation of the Song of Songs is that it pertains to the Lord and Israel, and to Christ and his church.

* I found a Roman Catholic site that finds citations in the New Testament to the deuterocanonical books: http://www.cathtruth.com/catholicbible/deut.htm It is a bone of contention between Catholics and Protestants that Catholics add too many books to the Old Testament and that Protestants omit important books that connect to New Testament teachings. The difference is not dishonesty on either side but rather different interpretations of the historical process of canonization.

(Quite a bit of this material appeared in an earlier blog post: https://bibleconnections.wordpress.com/connections-2/)

Notes:

1.   Solomon’s sins vis-à-vis the Law are discussed in Marc Zvi Brettler, How to Read the Jewish Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 122-123.

2.  Brevard S. Childs, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 137.

3.  Brevard S. Childs, Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), 209-210.

4. Bernhard W. Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament (third edition, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1975), 531-532 (quote on page 531).

5. Charles T. Fritsch, “Introduction to the Book of Proverbs,” The Interpreter’s Bible, volume 4 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1955), 777.

6. Ibid, 777-778. 

7. J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “The Book of the Psalms,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, volume IV (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 672-675.

8.  Graeme Goldsworthy, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 199. Luke T. Johnson notes how artfully Mark 15:23-27 weaves Psalm verses in his depiction of the crucifixion: Ps. 69:21, Ps. 22:18, Ps. 22:7, Ps. 109:25, Ps. 22:8, Ps. 22:1, Ps. 69:21. Luke T. Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), 139. See also my blog post: http://changingbibles.blogspot.com/2016/03/maundy-thursday-and-good-friday.html

9. “Job, Theology of,” in Elwell, ed., Baker Theological Dictionary of the Bible, 419