Morning Poem, December 13, 2017

Psalm 57: 8
Awake up, my glory; awake psaltery and harp: I myself will awake early.

 

Think of David as he lies on the mountain

He looks at the night sky

Unending, unfathomable, unreachable

The diamond stars

The firmament that declares the glory of God

And he aches

His heart panting like the hart after the waterbrook

At his side are sword, spear and bow

His body is cut from oak, his skin like leather

His mind a blade itself, with razor’s edge

He breathes the open air and the day’s tension dissolves

He rests in the shadow of the wings of the Almighty

.

This man who killed the giant

And tens of thousands

Hears heaven’s choir and plays on his harp

Songs that soothe the savage breast of Saul

His poems are those very psalms

That have charmed and inspired

Over millennia

And he aches

.

At first light, at first rustling of dawn

He turns and shakes away sleep

Here is a new day

He rises, believing the promise

“Awake up, my glory”

.

What is his glory?

One more win in bloody combat?

Or is it that unknowable thing

That all men share with him

That desire beneath all desires

That lesser men have long since forgotten

And forfeited to the unrelenting fates

That lesser men are afraid to confess

.

Does David wake early

Expecting glory in bloodshed

Or does he crave

That his righteousness will shine like the dawn

And the justice of his cause like the noonday sun?

Does he crave that gift, that grace, that dispensation

That is his and his alone?

That unspeakable grace promised to him

When he first came to know himself?

.

Is the difference between him and me

That he believes it will happen

And maybe this very day

And so he wakes early

And takes in hand

Psaltery and harp

Advertisements

The Judgement Is God’s

Deuteronomy 1:17

17 Ye shall not respect persons in judgment; but ye shall hear the small as well as the great; ye shall not be afraid of the face of man; for the judgment is God’s . . . 

 

Here’s another example of where, in my judgement at least, the King James Version of the Bible is superior in expression to more modern translations.

In Deuteronomy, Moses speaks with the Lord about setting up a kind of judiciary for the Israelites as they are about to embark on the last phase of their journey into the Promised Land.  The nation has apparently grown in number during the 40 years of wandering and now it is too much for Moses alone to tend to the hearing and settlement of the disputes that inevitably arose among the people.  God gives Moses some managerial advice that would sound right at home in a modern corporate seminar: delegate!  Find men who are able and experienced and give them authority to hear disputes.  The verse suggests that the system implemented is hierarchical, like that we see today in American jurisprudence. (This is no accident: of course the structure of western judicial systems is born here.  Our court system is, finally, descended from Moses.)    Some judges will be in charge of 50, some 100 and some 1000.  There are layers of courts.

From there, the Lord gives instruction and encouragement to the men who will take up these new judicial posts.  As the NIV renders it:

Do not show partiality in judging; hear both small and great alike.  Do not be afraid of any man, for judgement belongs to God.

The King James renders the verse:

Ye shall not respect persons in judgement; but ye shall hear the small as well as the great; ye shall not be afraid of the face of any man; for the judgement is God’s . . .

I’ll admit that “Do not show partiality in judging” is clearer to me than “Ye shall not respect persons in judgement,” but compare these two phrases:  “do not be afraid of any man” versus “ye shall not be afraid of the face of any man.”

I was a federal prosecutor for 34 years and the best years of my career were spent hauling public officials into court on corruption charges.  These were powerful men.  They had not only official powers, but that informal and more sinister power that comes with being the “boss” of a long-established, corrupt political organization whose fortunes and status are dependent on the boss staying out of jail and retaining power.

I first got to know these corrupt officials in an almost academic way.  I read reports about them.  I interviewed people who knew them. There were stool pigeons who had once worked for the boss but who had gotten into trouble and turned on him to shorten their own jail time.  There were enemies of the boss, some of whom were probably just as corrupt as the target, who had completed with him for power and patronage in this district or that and who were champing at the bit to dump on their rival.  I subpoenaed and studied bank records, looking for suspicious cash deposits or outlays.  I looked at credit card bills, tax and travel records.

In one sense, I knew these men very well before I ever charged them; before I ever met them in court.

But something happened when I actually saw them face to face.   After the arrest, when the defendant first made his initial appearance, where the question of bail would be addressed, I would look, often for the first time, into the face of the man I had charged.  And there was something fearful about that.  Not that any of them were glaring at me or trying to stare me down.  It was something other than that.  Having the flesh-and-blood person before me stuck me in the gut; raised the hair on the back of my neck.  The fight now was joined and the stakes were high.  Everything that had gone before seemed theoretical now.

It seems to me that this is what the King James gets just right.  This translation describes the dynamic to me just the way I felt it in life.  The idea is that the judges newly commissioned are being told not to fear the face-to-face confrontation with those whom they are called on to judge.

And there is a reason for that.  The fight, the battle, the dispute, is not personal to the judges and if they act correctly, the judgement they render is God’s judgement, not their own.  I think the King James is better on this point, too.  The NIV renders “for judgment belongs to God,” which strikes me as a bit contradictory.  If judgement – here in the generic or abstract – belongs to God, then what in the heck are you – a mere human judge – doing meting it out?  The King James makes the matter a little more particular and surely better, saying “the judgement is God’s.”

That is, the judgement in this very matter – the judgement, rendered under the authority granted to the human judge – is God’s judgement.

 

Because They Have No Changes

“Because they have no changes, therefore they fear not God. . . ”  Psalm 55:19

 

Sometimes it pays to have a stack of Bibles, but sometimes you may find that the old standby – the King James Version – gets it right, or at least gets it better than the newer translations.  As you know if you are a reader of this blog, I try to read a psalm every day.  I can’t – or at least I don’t – take all the time necessary for the study of a chapter or book somewhere else in the Bible, but the Psalms are poems and they each may stand at a given reading on their own two feet.  You can read most of them in a few minutes and get at least an idea or two about their import and meaning.

I like to read the psalms in the King James for several reasons.  First, I learned them in that version when I was just a kid and the KJV was still the go-to in churches.  Second, remember that the psalms are poetry and appeal to the emotions.  Although they may not have sounded as formal in their original language as they now do in the KJV, the KJV, given the archaic and strange sound of the language, keeps reminding me that I am reading poetry and not USA Today.  I’ll admit that the newer translations are often clearer and may correct mistakes or misunderstandings that the KJV might cause (I use them for these purposes everyday) something great is lost when the high-emotion, poetic voice of the psalmist is made to read like an instruction manual.  Add to all of that that I still find, now and then, that the real meaning of a passage is best captured in the old translation.  Maybe when the modern translators aim at clarity they eliminate ambiguity that ought to be there.

Let’s look again at Psalm 55: 19.  There, David says of his enemies: “. . . Because they have no changes, therefore they fear not God.”   Here is an example of what I mean by ambiguity.  What does it mean, “they have no changes?”  The very uncertainty of it intrigues me; draws me in.  And so I looked at the verse in other translations.  Here is how the NIV renders it:  “men who never change their ways and have no fear of God.”

Not exactly the same idea conveyed in these two versions.  “Have no changes” doesn’t sound like the same thing as “never chang[ing] one’s ways.”   The newer translation implies a deliberate, internal decision: in spite of everything happening around me, I won’t change my ways. The older version, it seems to me, allows the reader to think of something quite different – changes that are external to the people in question.  It allows the notion that it is not so much – or at least not only – that these men have refused to change their ways, it may be that their surroundings and circumstances have not changed.  They have not been confronted with disorienting changes in their lives and so they trust and carry on in their own strength.  In either case it is true that the men in question do not change internally – do not change their minds – but the earlier translation gives us more room and at least implies or suggests that the “changes” that these men “do not have” are external changes – changes in their circumstances that might awaken them to the fact that they are not in control of their own lives and that they must place their trust in God.

That idea is certainly present elsewhere in the Bible.  We have discussed here in the last few days passages in Jeremiah and Zephaniah that employ the metaphor of wine being left on the lees.  That is, the wine as it aged was left undisturbed and not poured off from the lees or dregs or sediment that settles out of the juice as it ferments over time.  In both of these prophetic passages, this lack of change will bring judgement.  And in both places the changes referred to are not merely internal or mental changes, but are external or cultural.  Jeremiah warns that Moab has been complacent in the peace and prosperity it has enjoyed over generations.  Zephaniah warns the dwellers in Jerusalem:

12 And it shall come to pass at that time, that I will search Jerusalem with candles, and punish the men that are settled on their lees: that say in their heart, The Lord will not do good, neither will he do evil.

Isn’t it fair to say that here the internal hardness is a product of what the men see outside themselves.  Life has been so regular, so unchanging in their days that they now believe that God does not intervene in the affairs of men.  He does not judge the wicked.  He does not reward the faithful.  The men with these attitudes are to be searched out and punished.  To be taught that God does judge the wicked and does reward the righteous.

 

If that is a fair reading, then the verses in question would certainly seem to speak directly in today’s headlines.  Given the unrelenting cycle of news these days and the seemingly inexhaustible stores of evil in the actions of men and nations it is rather easy to believe that nothing could shock or surprise us ever again.  But I must say that in my six decades I have never quite seen the like of the recent purge of those in high places who have exploited those who were weaker or subservient to them.  Men, powerful, rich and privileged are being brought to judgement.  Men in media – broadcasting, movie making – men in politics; men in religious offices are all being unmasked and brought to task for these long histories of exploitation and abuse.  Surely it can be said of them as they continued in their power and prestige for decades and continued to injure the weak without consequence to themselves that they said in their hearts: The Lord will not do good, neither will he do evil.

What is so striking in today’s news is not so much the criminal conduct itself – that’s terrible enough, but we all knew about it.  Not to say that we knew the exploits of this or that particular star or senator, but we knew that this kind of thing goes on everywhere, all the time.  Men in power prey on the weaker people around them.  Doctors hit on nurses.  Law partners hit on associates.  Priests abuse children.  And the story of the “casting couch” is decades old and no one doubted it.

What is remarkable and unprecedented is the size and strength of the wave of judgement now sweeping the country.  God is not mocked.  One who persists in such exploitation does, finally, reap what he has sown.

Meditation on Psalm 64

Hide me from the secret counsel of the wicked . . .

 

Was David paranoid?  It seems almost sacrilege to even consider the thought.  After all, David was Israel’s great king, general and hero.  David was the great poet of devotion; the writer of the psalms that so poignantly depict a personal relationship with God.   It is from David that Jesus Christ is descended.

And yet; and yet.  Like the story of any mortal, David’s story has its dark side – a side showing failure and deliberate wrongdoing.  And the Bible does not hide this side from the reader.  It’s there in graphic detail:  his ravishing of Bathsheba; his ensuing murder of the loyal Uriah and the domestic catastrophe that followed in the wake. David was a man.  And like any man, his judgement was imperfect and, perhaps, even, his perspective a bit jaundiced.  Maybe a bit self-centered, just like the rest of us sinners.

The notion that David may not have actually seen things the way they really were; that his perspective may have been a bit warped by sin – again, like the rest of us – struck me this morning as I read Psalm 64.

I am unfamiliar with this Psalm.  Unlike so many of the others, I found in this poem no single line or phrase that sounded in memory.  What was familiar was the characterization of David’s enemies – his descriptions of what a bunch of low-down creeps they were, and how they were going to get their comeuppance from the Lord Almighty.  Look at this:

Hide me from the secret counsel of the wicked; from the insurrection of the workers of iniquity:

Who whet their tongue like a sword, and bend their bows to shoot their arrows, even bitter words:

That they may shoot in secret at the perfect: suddenly do they shoot at him, and fear not.

They encourage themselves in an evil matter: they commune of laying snares privily; they say, Who shall see them?

They search out iniquities; they accomplish a diligent search: both the inward thought of every one of them, and the heart, is deep.

The modern man in me, the civilized man, reacts to this immediately as something overdramatic, overblown, paranoid.  Surely “those other guys” – those who we see as opposing us – are not quite so evil as all that.  Surely the stakes are not quite so high as David imagines them to be.  Surely if one could only take the time to understand the other, all would be well.

Yes, I must say that I am tempted to read it that way; to assume that my understanding of humanity is superior to David’s and that if I could only have had a few words with him I might have calmed him down.  Maybe even helped to negotiate a peace with the Philistines.

But that is no way to read the scriptures.  We do not impart our wisdom to the writers (the ultimate writer here being the very Spirit of God).  Rather, we search the scriptures for their wisdom; for something new to us, outside of our own viewpoint, that will change our understanding of life and the world and make us more sober, more realistic and stronger with a greater hope.

Given that, what this psalm is telling me this morning is that evil is real.  It is destructive and energetic and unrelenting and what is at stake in the battle is real as well.  There may be victory and there may be defeat.  We may grow in character and in faith or we may be crushed – beaten down until we lose hope and simply pull ourselves out of the struggle, saying “peace, peace” when there is no peace.

Indeed, the New Testament does nothing to take the edge off of the characterization of evil in this psalm.  The New Testament is full of references to Satan.  That name appears in the New Testament far more frequently than in the old and his evil will not be mollified and will not be reduced by compromise or therapy.  It must be seen for what it is and resisted, whatever the cost.

Ephesians 6:12

12 For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age,[a] against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.

 

Wine on The Lees

Isaiah 25:6

And in this mountain shall the Lord of hosts make unto all people a feast of fat things, a feast of wines on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wines on the lees well refined.

 

 

If the image of wine settling on its lees (dregs) in Zephaniah and Jeremiah is one that suggests stagnation and accordant ruination, the image in Isaiah 25: 6 seems to be opposite.  That is, in Isaiah the wine that is “on the lees” is “well refined” and fit for God’s “feast of fat things.”   The wine that is “on the lees” in Isaiah is the best wine and better, apparently, for having been kept on the lees!

What can we make of this?   Maybe the best advice would be simply that these two apparently contrary images are not meant to be compared.  They were written at different times and to address different situations and no responsible Bible scholar would waste any time in trying to compare or contrast them.  It’s apples to oranges.

And yet. And yet.  The idea in Zephaniah and Jeremiah is so familiar to those of us who occupy the pews in Middle America.  This is the riff or saw or even cliché that the preachers use to warn us against staying in our “comfort zones.”  We need to get out there and engage the culture, make our witness.  All of that.

I wonder if it might be legitimately argued that the passage in Isaiah may be a kind of counterpoint to all of that.  I wonder if there may be wisdom in allowing Christians to “settle on their lees” and be thereby deepened and strengthened, not embittered.

Not in the sense of becoming complacent or self-sufficient, but in steeping in the gospel and all that it implies.  If you read Rod Dreher (and if you are concerned with the state of the church in modern life, you must read Rod Dreher) you will see constant reference in his prolific posting to the shallowness of the theology in the so-called “Evangelical” churches.  The complaint he cites has to do with the church culture becoming focused on entertainment and hipness and losing sight of tradition and the deeper truths those traditions testify to.  Just a few months ago I heard some people talking about someone who had left a local mega-church for greener pastures because the new church they had found had a better praise band.  Dreher argues – and repeatedly cites research to support – that the generation now rising in the church is all about emotion and little else and that the churches they frequent do little to change this.  In fact, they foster and even exploit it.

Thus, when confronted with any sort of sob story, these youngsters will be quick to abandon any of the church’s teachings on sexual morality.  It’s all about what feels good.  Come on in and turn it up to eleven.

 

 

 

Meditation on Psalm 55

“Because they have no changes, therefore they fear not God.”

 

I try to read a Psalm a day.  The Psalms, it seems, are fit for daily study in that they each may stand alone.  Other books in the Bible may demand a more comprehensive approach – a consideration of broad context and language – but each Psalm is a story or drama unto itself.

 

So many of the psalms are attributed to David.  Some of those are beautiful devotions, like the 23rd, whose metaphor for God as shepherd is surely one of the high points in the whole book.  But many of David’s psalms are shot through with cursing and complaint.  In reading the Psalms, we discover that, for David, life was a battle.  He is constantly in trouble, surrounded by enemies, suffering betrayals and the consequences of his own wrongdoings; in fear of destruction.  Undoubtedly there is value for the modern man or woman in David’s perspective.  So many of us are insulated from the rough and tumble of life that David lived.  We are not encamped on a desert mountain and wakened by the lion and the bear that threatens our sheep and ourselves.  We are not being chased by a lunatic king who is insanely jealous and out to kill us.  We move from air-conditioned summers to comfortably-heated winters.  Our larders are generally full and our homes secure.

What David’s psalms may do for us is awaken us to the fact that, in spite of the comforts we know, life is a battle.  There is something real at stake; something great that may be lost or gained.  To lose sight of this is to surrender to the status quo:  life simply goes on as ever before, each day is more of the same, and we lift our feet from the ground and simply let the earth spin beneath us.  What difference does our effort make, anyway?

Some may fall into such a defeatist, fatalistic view of life as a result of repeated disappointment and failure.   Some may come to see life as not only unfair, but insurmountably unfair, and finally satisfy themselves with those little pleasures that may be found along the primrose path of least resistance.

This morning’s Psalm for me was number 55.  It is in many ways a typical David psalm.  He is in desperate straits (of course) and is pouring his soul out to God; half wishing for complete escape from life (Oh, that I had wings of a dove; then I would fly away into the wilderness and be at peace) and half wishing for immediate victory in the conflict.

As is his wont, he curses his enemies.  For the most part, there is nothing new here, but as I followed along this morning, one phrase did stand out.  David says of his enemies:

Because they have no changes, therefore they fear not God.

What can that mean?  What does it mean to “have no changes?”  This reading is from the King James Version which is my starting point for reading the Psalms.  The Psalms are poetry, after all, and there should be a certain majesty, ambiguity, mystery and meter about them.   I looked at several newer translations.  There are lots of variations in the translation of this verse.   NIV: “. . . [they] never change their ways and have no fear of God.”   Some translations seem to attribute the modifier suggesting a lack of change to God.   This is from a newer version of the NIV:  “God, who is enthroned from of old, who does not change—he will hear them and humble them . . .”

Other translations render the verse to say that the change referred to is that change of heart associated with repentance.

As is often the case, I am far more satisfied and intrigued by this unusual and at first ambiguous rendering in the old King James.  “They have no changes!”  Not that they haven’t repented; not that God is unchanging.  (Those two things are true, but this verse is saying something other than that.)

What the verse says to me – and this distinguishes it from the others – is that the enemies of whom David here speaks walk in false security.  The security of wealth and worldly power.  They are comfortable and consequently feel no need of God.  For them, life is not a battle.

How is that relevant to me?  Well, I am not about to sell the house and by a tent and start keeping sheep.  But I might be a little better at recognizing the realities of life.  Life brings us changes.  They are inevitable.  It is not so much that David’s enemies had no real changes.  They were subject to the vicissitudes of life like every other mortal.  But they had done their best to ignore them.  They filled their lives with insulation and diversion and forgot themselves and their real lives.

I don’t have to search for changes, and neither do you.  They are on our plates every day.  Every day we age.  We may grow wiser or simply duller.  Every day our fortunes change.  Look at those who surround us.  How have their circumstances changed and how completely may we have ignored those changes?  What opportunities are lost and which are gained?

A sober assessment of our own changes will indeed teach us new priorities and of our need for God.  Something real is at stake.  Something great may be lost or gained and, although we are active players in this drama, we in our own strength are insufficient to meet the challenge.

Reading The Psalms

 . . . Oh Lord, you have searched me and known me . . .

 

If the Christian life is a personal relationship with God, then the Christian’s journal is the book of Psalms.  There may be fuller and more complete theology elsewhere, but nowhere else in the Bible do we see such a personal and candid conversation with God.  No holds are barred.  We see every emotion:  grief and doubt and disappointment and repentance.  We see joy and triumph and victory and reward and peace.

In the Psalms we see a human being pouring his soul out to God in every situation.  In reading these poems, we find that our experiences are shared and validated.  We are not the first to have great disappointments and frustrations; we are not the first to be confronted with situations and outcomes we don’t understand.  We are not the first to be confronted with our own mistakes and their consequences.

We are not the first to know that all depends on God’s grace – that we have no hope without it.