Meditation on Psalm 57

 

He shall send from heaven, and save me from the reproach of him that would swallow me up.

One cannot study long the songs of David without being deeply impressed that, for David, life was a battle.   His poetry is shot through with complaints about unfair treatment, about enemies who laid traps for him and who slandered his name.  Here is verse four:

My soul is among lions: and I lie even among them that are set on fire, even the sons of men, whose teeth are spears and arrows, and their tongue a sharp sword.

So often we look to the Psalms to see the profound expressions of trust in God.  That’s great, but these are brought on by the crises David faced, day by day and year by year.  Should reading the Psalms remind us – even convince us – that life is a battle?  That we are not spending our days sailing, unopposed and in the favor of some kind wind.

I wonder if faith is even possible if we do not see the enemy, if we do not understand the stakes.  David’s foes, although deadly, were at least clearly defined.  He knew who opposed him.  They were flesh and blood.  Men of a rival nation who wanted to defeat Israel.  In our time the enemy, as Bob Dylan reminds us, is “subtle:”

The enemy is subtle

Howbeit we’re deceived

When the truth’s in our hearts

And we still don’t believe.

Bob Dylan, “Precious Angel”

Here is Paul, writing to the church at Ephesus:

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

I wonder if we can really know God experientially; have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, if we don’t recognize that there is a war going on and that we are in it; if we do not recognize that we face opposition – even opposition other than our own divided hearts?

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Meditation on Psalm 38

 

O LORD, REBUKE ME NOT IN THY WRATH: NEITHER CHASTEN ME IN THY HOT DISPLEASURE.

 

 

Here the writer is overwhelmed with grief.

At first he acknowledges that his misery is the result of his own sin and that the anguish he now suffers is from God:

For thine arrows stick fast in me

And thy hand presseth me sore

But, as seems to me to happen often in the psalms, the course of the poem changes abruptly and the psalmist laments not so much his own sin and merited suffering, but the evil of “mine enemies, lively and strong” who “hate me wrongfully.”

Verse twelve details the dynamics of the evil.  His enemies “lay snares” for him; they “speak mischievous things and imagine deceits all the day long.”  This isn’t difficult to understand or relate to.  Anyone who has gone to school, worked in an office  [or other workplace] or spent time in a family will know just what the psalmist is talking about here.  Things are going along fine [seemingly] and then the day comes when you discover that everyone around you seems to be watching a different movie than you are.  What was once accepted is now poison.  What you believed was affection was only feigned.  You find that what has been said behind your back is not at all what you thought was being said.  You are now a target and the crowd is working together to get you knocked off your horse.

In the next verse the writer says of these complaints and plans against him:

 

But I, as a deaf man, heard not and I was as a dumb man that openeth not his mouth.

 

When I first read this, I thought of the man unjustly accused and surrounded by those who he thought were his friends as described in the previous verse.  And it was easy for me to think that what the psalmist was saying in this verse was that he was so surprised and taken aback by what he was confronted with that he was literally speechless.  Just dumbstruck by the suddenness of it all and unable in the moment to muster any defense for himself, even though the charges against him are unjust.  Again, that’s easy to imagine.  That’s how it feels.

But on second thought, maybe the psalmist is saying something quite different.  Maybe he is saying that, as he is surrounded by these unjust accusations he ignores them and offers no defense because he knows that God is his only defense.  God is his defender.  His own efforts here will be futile, surely.  But, given time, the wheels of the Almighty will grind and – as we mentioned yesterday – the justice of his cause will shine as the noonday sun.

That is a worthwhile lesson.  This is not to say that one should never speak in his own defense.  There are times and places where that is exactly what one should do.  But there are other situations where you cannot win.  Any effort of your own will only make matters worse.  In those instances, it may well be that the only thing we can do is be silent and wait for vindication from God.  This is faith.

Meditation on Psalm 24

 

The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof;
the world, and they that dwell therein.

This Psalm begins with a basic, yet profound proposition: God made the earth and it belongs to Him.  That notion is so deeply embedded in Christian thought and teaching that those of us who’ve been around awhile might tend to glaze over when we see or hear it once again.  Oh, yeah.  God made the world and it belongs to Him.

But, like so many other things that we tend to ignore or sleepwalk through, these ideas have great consequences and they merit our continual contemplation.

There are (at least)  two problems raised by the proposition:

  1. If God made the world and it belongs to Him, why in the world is it in such a shape? Why do the innocents suffer?  Why do tyrants rage?  Why does wrong seem to prevail so often?
  2. When Christians start talking about God having “made” the world, the whole subject of the creation accounts in Genesis – you know: On the first day God said “Let there be light: and there was light.” Then on the fourth day, God created the sun and the moon and stars in the sky.   The question, of course, is: How literally do you believers take this?   Are you one of those who holds that all was done in six, twenty-four hour periods?

The first question has been around for so long that it has been given a name: “theodicy.”

Theodicy is defined by some as the defense of the omnipotence and goodness of God in the face of overwhelming evil in the world.

Suffice it to say that an in-depth discussion of this issue is far beyond the scope of this blog and far beyond the powers of its writer.  I’m no theologian and the purpose of this blog is simply to read and react to the Psalms as they hit me on that day, with the hope that my sort of normal and unprofessional thoughts might be of some aid or interest to others.

Having said all of that, I will also say that I have spent some time thinking about the whole theodicy problem.  I mean, it does kind of force its way on you.  And I think there is a one-word answer: freedom.  There is evil in the world because God has allowed his creatures freedom.  And freedom, if it is real, means the freedom to rebel; to refuse God’s grace and plan.

The bible teaches that the first evil is rebellion in heaven.  The first rebel was Satan, who has been banished to earth and who hold some limited sway here.  Not really hard to see that.  The Rolling Stones put this into the vernacular of the age:

I watched with glee while your kings and queens

Fought for ten decades for the gods they made

I shouted out, “Who killed the Kennedys?”

When after all, it was you and me

Let me please introduce myself

I’m a man of wealth and taste

And I laid traps for troubadours

Who get killed before they reach Bombay

 

We don’t tend to think of Jagger and Richards as theologians, but this song is really pretty consistent with Christian thought.  That line about who killed the Kennedys – “after all, it was you and me” – really captures the idea of

the falleness

 of all of us.

Now, with regard to the whole business about creation occurring in seven, twenty-four hour periods, let me give you my own take on it.  I think those accounts in Genesis – although they are the word of God, although they are authoritative as scripture and although they contain enough truth to fill every one of us up forever – I do not take them literally, as to time.

I spent a career as a prosecutor.  One of the things that happens when you start putting a case together for trial is that you start believing your own theories.  You should, of course.  Nobody should bring a prosecution that they don’t believe in – that they don’t believe is true.  But here is a corollary problem:  when you start believing in your own theory, you might tend to ignore contrary evidence.  The defense counsel presents you with other facts and these tend to undercut your case.  Do you take them seriously or do you brush them away for one reason or another because you are so confident in your own case?

Let me tell you, it is very easy to do the latter.  And we do it – I have done it – to our own peril.  Many times the contrary evidence should not be believed.  Sometimes it is cooked up; sometimes it is based on the testimony of unreliable witness.  But not always.

Here is what happens when we ignore evidence that is inconsistent with our theory:

  1. You will get your butt kicked in the courtroom
  2. You will lose the most precious quality that any prosecutor can own: credibility with the court.

For my money, there is overwhelming evidence that the universe is very, very old.  I have heard the number 14 billion years kicked around, but after you get past the first couple of billion years, it all starts to run together for me.  There is also overwhelming evidence that life on earth as it now appears, took countless ages to appear.

Like I said, this is all way beyond the scope of this blog, but a serious consideration of the evidence that the sciences have come up with – and there is a rather impressive consensus on this matter among the various disciplines – is set forth compellingly in Frances Collins’ fine book The Language of God.   That book is a serious and satisfying effort to harmonize the scriptures with the evidence that science has uncovered over the centuries, written by the man who headed the Genome project and who is, himself, a devout Christian.

There are those who will argue that once you consider any part of the bible as poetic expression, i.e., not literally, scientifically true, then it all goes by the wayside.  Not so.  Take the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, for example.  The evidence for the Resurrection, even taken from a legal and philosophical point of view, is overwhelmingly strong.  For that, read NT Wright or any of Lee Strobel’s books.

 

The evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is the strongest evidence we have for any historical event in antiquity.  If we would dismiss the Resurrection as being based on unreliable evidence, we’d have to do the same for everything we know prior to the advent of videotape.  The evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is stronger – much stronger – than the evidence for the Battle of Thermopylae.

Meditation on Psalm 18

Christians cannot be shy about poetry.  It is an indispensable part of our heritage.  So much of the Bible is poetry – the Psalms, the book of Job, the Song of Solomon, and lots of passages from the Prophets.  On top of that, our faith is a singing faith.  The second most important book in the Christian tradition is the hymnal and although not every song is poetic, lots of them are.  Lots of them employ metaphor and exalted expression.  Here is how one hymn writer expresses the birth of Jesus Christ:

. . . Lo, how a rose e’er blooming

From tender stem hath sprung . . .

 It only makes sense that writers would have to employ poetic expression, poetic imagination, in this context.  They are trying to communicate a world that is invisible and outside of normal, sensory experience.  It is only logical that they would have to employ metaphor.

It is with this poetic perspective that I consider this great Psalm.  Many of the Psalms are attributed to David and scholars disagree about which or how many of them David himself wrote.   Here is C. S. Lewis in his book, Reflections on The Psalms:

I think certain scholars allow that Psalm 18 might be by David himself.

It is far beyond me to make any judgement about the authorship of this or any Psalm.  I am not taking any position on the question of whether all of the Psalms that are “attributed” to David (about half of them) were actually written by him.  But I will say this: Psalm 18 is a distinctive work.   It is personal and experiential, like many others, but it is poetic in ways that many of the others are not.  David, in his troubles, calls on the name of the Lord.  Now look at the imagery used in describing God’s response to David’s prayer:

Then the earth shook and trembled;
the foundations also of the hills moved and were shaken,
because he was wroth.
There went up a smoke out of his nostrils,
and fire out of his mouth devoured:
coals were kindled by it.
He bowed the heavens also, and came down:
and darkness was under his feet.
10 And he rode upon a cherub, and did fly:
yea, he did fly upon the wings of the wind.
11 He made darkness his secret place;
his pavilion round about him were dark waters
and thick clouds of the skies.
12 At the brightness that was before him his thick clouds passed,
hail stones and coals of fire.
13 The Lord also thundered in the heavens,
and the Highest gave his voice;
hail stones and coals of fire.
14 Yea, he sent out his arrows, and scattered them;
and he shot out lightnings, and discomfited them.
15 Then the channels of waters were seen,
and the foundations of the world were discovered
at thy rebuke, O Lord,
at the blast of the breath of thy nostrils.

If this is not poetry; if this is not the poet’s vision, I don’t know what is.  This is – and is clearly intended to be – staggering.  The earth shakes and trembles; the hills move.  God rides upon a Cherub, flying on the wings of the wind.

What are we to make of it?

In the book of Revelation, Saint John shares his vision of the altar before the throne of Godin heaven, attended by an angel who offers there incense mixed with “the prayers of all the saints.” (Rev 8: 3 NIV)  What results?  As Eugene Peterson puts it, “reversed thunder:”

Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and hurled it on the earth; and there came peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake. (Rev 8: 5 NIV)

What do these two passages have in common?  First, and most obviously, they both describe fantastic occurrences: the shaking of the earth, lightning and thunder.

But in both instances these fantastic events are the result of prayer.  In the Psalm, it is David’s prayer for deliverance.  In the book of Revelation it is the prayers of all the saints for God’s justice.

Whatever else these passages may be interpreted to mean, they at least point to the power and effectiveness of prayer that is so profound that it is hard for us to imagine.   These answers to prayer are “above all that we ask or think.”

We need powerful, fantastic imagery to even begin to wake us up to the reality of it.

Esther: Speaking Truth To Power

There are many different kinds of writing in the Bible.

 

There are, for example, songs and poetry and letters and law and histories.  The Book of Esther is a history in the sense that it records events that actually happened, but it is told in the form of a story.  The book is a short narrative of events that occurred in Persia (modern day Iran) and it features character and plot development, suspense and climax.

One of the marks of a good story writer is that he or she will “show, not tell.”  That is, rather than simply dictating conclusions about events or characters, e.g., “the king was a thoughtless man,” the good story writer will unfold the drama before the readers eyes by describing action and will let the reader form his own conclusions.  I think the writer of the Book of Esther was on to this.

Never in the story are we directly told anything about the character of King Xerxes, but as we read the story and see his actions and decisions, we may come to some pretty definite conclusions about him.

We see him first at a drunken party – one that he has put on to show off his wealth and power.  The writer gives us very particular details about the opulence of the setting and the extravagance of the event.  This party went on for days and there were servants with trays of drinks at the elbow of every guest.   From this we may get some inkling that Xerxes was a vain man – impressed with himself and intent on impressing others.

The first decision we see the king make involves his relationship with his wife

 

 

 

 

 

Xerxes – A Girly Man

 

What qualities would we expect or hope for in a king; in an absolute ruler?  We would expect and hope for wisdom, farsightedness, and self-restraint.  Someone who would consider all sides of a matter before acting.  Someone with enough personal experience and backbone to hear advice and weigh it and consider the source.  We would dread a ruler who is capricious and impulsive.  That’s what we’d expect and hope for.

But that’s not what we get with King Xerxes.  At every turn in the story his character is shown to be weak.  He seems to carry no personal convictions at all and to be totally dependent upon the advice of his courtiers in all of his decisions.

Thus, we begin with the most private and personal issues – the king’s own marriage.  He has asked his wife Vashti to do something that she has refused to do.  The very fact of the king’s asking tells us a good bit.  First, he is so indiscreet and reckless as to make the communications between himself and his wife a matter of public knowledge.  If the king had had any doubt about how Vashti might have reacted to his demand he could have saved face by communicating with her privately.  As it is, he opens the secret chamber of his most intimate relationship to all of his buddies and hangers-on.  Had she refused him in private, that would have been a matter they could have resolved between themselves.  But when the demand was made publically the refusal becomes and embarrassment and, as it turns out, a federal case.

Xerxes, the king, doesn’t have the sense to handle his personal affairs prudently.  He does not have enough insight into the personality and character of his wife to foresee that she might not be crazy about the idea.  He has no foresight into what the political fallout will be in the event of a refusal.

On top of all of that, his reaction to the problem he has created for himself is self-defeating.  Instead of giving the matter mature consideration and thinking twice about his own actions, he flies off the handle and once again brings the sycophants around him into his marriage.

They propose drastic action – in effect the dissolution of the king’s marriage (all for acts done in a state of drunkenness) – and, right in character, the king agrees.

The one bit of real humanity we see from the King in the entire story is right there in the first verse of Chapter 2:

After these things, when the wrath of King Xerxes subsided, he remembered Vashti, what she had done, and what had been decreed against her.

Although other interpretations of this verse are possible, I read this to mean that Xerxes was feeling some regret.  He was missing his wife and reconsidering the wisdom of his banishment of her.  Good on him.

But this moment of sanity and sobriety and rationality does not last long.  Once again the king’s advisers – I think of them as the ancient equivalents of today’s lobbyists – jump right in to protect their own interests.  Now king, they say, let’s not be rash here.  You’ve got to leave things in place or the precedential effect will be awful (for us).  Here’s what we’ll do instead:  We’ll make sure you get all the chicks.

 

Once again, Xerxes defers the most private and personal decisions of his life to his advisors.  He goes along with their plan.

We are not told why Xerxes bestows great honor on Haman.  Maybe it was legit.  Maybe he had really done something to deserve it.  One is tempted to think – given the way we’ve seen the king’s mind work – that Haman himself might have been the author of his own story.  That is, that Haman or somebody inside the court on Haman’s behalf sold the king on some inflated story about Haman’s valor.

What we do know is that in the one case where it is clear that the king ought to have honored someone – this time Mordecai, who had foiled an assassination plot against the king’s life – the king fails to act.

Finally, when Haman has his dander up about Mordecai’s refusal to grovel before him, he sells the king a bill of goods about the Jews:

Then Haman said to King Xerxes, “There is a certain people dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom who keep themselves separate. Their customs are different from those of all other people, and they do not obey the king’s laws; it is not in the king’s best interest to tolerate them. If it pleases the king, let a decree be issued to destroy them, and I will give ten thousand talents[b] of silver to the king’s administrators for the royal treasury.”

Of course, this was all it took to convince Xerxes.  He immediately gives Haman his royal blessing to prosecute the contemplated mass slaughter of the Jews.  This without the first though of further explanation, fact-checking, or consideration of Haman’s possible ulterior motives.

Indeed, even later in the story, when the king finally does the right thing, he appears impulsive and intemperate.

What lessons might we draw from this study of Xerxes’ character?  That’s for the next post!

Cain and Abel

So many of the stories in the Book of Genesis leave me wondering.

What is wrong, for example, with humanity gaining the knowledge of good and evil?  Isn’t that the very thing that separates us from all of the rest of creation?  We know good and evil.  We can tell right from wrong.  Seems like half of the Bible is about refining that sense and putting that knowledge into practice.  Why is that a curse?  I think I may have a better sense about this now, after having read Jordan Peterson’s book, 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos, and I may blog on that story later.

Today I want to talk about the story of Cain and Abel.  Everybody knows this one – the first murder story.  No doubt there are many lessons that can be drawn from the story and no doubt there have been thousands of sermons preached on this text, but the thing that always struck me about this story – that left me kind of cold and unsatisfied – is that the text gives us no explanation of why Cain’s sacrifice was rejected by God.  It always seemed to me that such a story in such a book should at least tell us why God acted as He did in rejecting Cain’s offering.  I’m sure that preachers and scholars along the way have come up with a thousand theories in answer to that question, but I think it is fair to say that the text itself does not give us an answer and, it seems to me, is deliberately obscure or dismissive of the issue.   Here is the text:

Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.

The omission of any mention of God’s motive or reason for rejecting Cain’s offering bothered me till now.  It bothered me because it made it seem that God was acting arbitrarily and capriciously.  Unjustly, even.  It seemed to me that there must have been some just motive or reason and that the story would have been much better as a moral lesson if we had known that reason.

But now I believe just the opposite.  I now believe that the story is more true to life and better as a moral lesson because it does not explain why Cain’s offering was rejected.  Again, I have Mr. Peterson to thank for this.

In 12 Rules, Peterson spends quite a bit of ink talking about sacrifice.  At the most profound and fundamental level, writes Peterson, sacrifice is the forgoing of some immediate pleasure or gain in the hope of a greater, future benefit.   Under such a definition, work is sacrifice!

That brings the whole matter a lot closer to home for me.  I have always viewed the sacrifice rituals in the Old Testament as a forerunner or foreshadowing to the ultimate and all-sufficient sacrifice of Jesus Christ.  Make no mistake, I still believe exactly that.  But the idea that sacrifice – other than ritual sacrifice – is a fundamental part of every human life, including mine, made me think harder about that dynamic and gave me a different slant on the Cain and Able story.

When we go to work we are giving up immediate freedom and pleasure and involving ourselves in something that, although it may be meaningful, takes something out of us.  It absorbs our time and energy and strength and in doing work a part of us gets used up.

We do this because we have an aim or goal in mind.  Cain, ostensibly, had the goal of directly pleasing God.  This would have led to his own good – the blessing of his efforts on the farm; the growth of his family; that kind of thing is what he probably hoped for.

By the same token, we hope that our efforts – our sacrifices – will lead to God’s blessing, too.  We may have a very specific kind of blessing in mind.  We may meet and fall in love with someone and accordingly make sacrifices for them.  Our time and our effort are focused on pleasing them with the goal of winning their love.  We may have vocational goals.  And so we practice and plan and study and make decisions in favor of the pursuit of that goal that take us away from other avenues that might have led to pleasure or gain.

We may have such goals and we may work toward them and yet so often we find that our sacrifices are not accepted.  We are not blessed.  The person we fell in love with and made sacrifices for rejects us.  The medical school that we sacrificed our youth to get into rejects our application.

And when these things happen it is more common than not that we really don’t know why we have been rejected.  At least it is not obvious at first.  If the reason for our rejection had been obvious, then we would have made a different kind of sacrifice.  The common experience is that we’ve laid what we thought was our best on the line and it has simply not been enough.  The blessing we so desired is denied us.  Our sacrifice was rejected and we, like Cain in the story, are not told why.

That makes the Cain and Abel story seem true to life and something that we moderns can relate to, but what is the moral?  So Cain is rejected – no reason given – and we are often rejected in the same way.  Interesting.  But what instruction or insight for living does the story give us?

I think it is this: faith is patience in the very face of what appears to be unfair and unexplained frustration and disappointment. Faith is that which does not rebel or give up when rejected but instead waits in the humility that says that maybe I don’t know everything I thought I knew.  Maybe there is something else; something more.

This is extremely difficult, particularly when your brother’s sacrifice – which did not seem all that different from your own – was accepted.  He gets the girl.  He gets into med school.  And here you are with nowhere to go and no one to run to.  But accepting such a judgement – such a verdict – and continuing to listen and to wait and to work, that is faith.