Principalities and Powers

 

 

David Bentley Hart tells us that Paul’s theology or his way of looking at the world – I mean the cosmos – is much different than we moderns imagine.  Paul viewed the cosmos not as merely the world that our senses reveal to us, but as a deeper and broader reality that included not only the earth, but the heavens and the beings – spiritual beings – that are invisible to us but yet still exert power and sway in the affairs of humanity.

 

This notion both repels and attracts me.  The repulsion I feel is at what I would call the “woo-woo” factor.  If we start here talking about various spirit beings and their histories, powers and effects we seem to be right on the verge of Marvel Comics fantasy.  I want my theology cleaner than that, simpler than that.  I’m afraid of getting caught up in the wildness of it, the esoterica.

 

What attracts me about Hart’s argument here – the argument that Paul’s theology had to do with Christ’s defeat of all sorts of invisible powers that held and still hold sway in “the affairs of men” – is that it makes many passages in Bible more intelligible to me.  These are passages that have not been emphasized much in the liturgies I have grown up and grown old under.  And when I came across them in my reading, I just glazed over and didn’t think much about them.  It’s important to say here that you can’t read Paul for very long without coming across such passages.

 

Thus, we hear Paul speak of “the principalities and powers,” the “thrones and authorities” the “elemental powers.”   We read of Christ taking the powers captive.  What can it all – what can any of it – mean?

 

And, better yet, what, if anything, does this business have to do with the daily life of the Christian?  Can coming to a fuller understanding of Paul’s view of the universe change my life for the better – make me a better man?

 

For starters, we have the idea that Christ’s victory over these “powers” is complete:

 

Colossians 2: 15 New International Version
And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.

 

Or, as Hart translates the verse:

 

Stripping the Archons and Powers, he exposed them in the open, leading them prisoner along with him in a triumphal procession.

And yet, and yet.  Paul tells us that our own battle is with these very powers:

Because we are wrestling not against blood and flesh, but against the Archons, against the Powers, against the Cosmic Rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the celestial places.  Ephesians 6: 12 (DBH)

 

And, better yet, what, if anything, does this business have to do with the daily life of the Christian?  Can coming to a fuller understanding of Paul’s view of the universe change my life for the better – make me a better man?

 

For starters, we have the idea that Christ’s victory over these “powers” is complete:

 

Colossians 2: 15 New International Version
And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.

 

Or, as Hart translates the verse:

 

Stripping the Archons and Powers, he exposed them in the open, leading them prisoner along with him in a triumphal procession.

 

And yet, and yet.  Paul tells us that our own battle is with these very powers:

 

Because we are wrestling not against blood and flesh, but against the Archons, against the Powers, against the Cosmic Rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the celestial places.  Ephesians 6: 12 (DBH)

 

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by this.  For the paradox or apparent contradiction here is the same one that runs through the center of the faith:  The battle against evil is won.  When Jesus Christ said from the cross “It is finished [completed]”  He was talking about His mission – the defeat of evil and the salvation of the world.  The battle is won.  “It is finished.”  And yet, and yet, we “wrestle,” we “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling.”

 

Dr. Weaver, who pastored the church I grew up in, explained the matter with a WWII allusion.  D-Day is past, he would say.  The decisive battle has been fought [on the cross].  Thus, victory is assured.  What is left to us is the mop-up operations.

 

But, back to the original and practical question: what good does it do us to try and understand Paul’s theology or cosmology here?  What good will it do us to depart from modern notions of immediate cause and effect; from notions that what we can see is all that is; and entertain the idea that the evils in the world are backed by spiritual beings that we cannot see?

 

What good would that do?

 

Paul thinks it would do plenty!

 

He is telling the Christians there and then to remember that the sources and power of evil are invisible and spiritual in order to change the way they approached life.

 

More later

Advertisements

Finishing Up: Esther and Xerxes

Let’s try to finish up our study of old king Xerxes.

 

We’ve already noted his rash and reckless behavior.  We’ve already noted his profound lack of insight into what is going on around him.  We’ve seen that he acts on impulse and that he is intemperate and easily manipulated.

But when the story turns and Esther begins to execute her plan to tell the king the truth, we see even more of Xerxes’ immoderate character.  Thus, when Esther approaches him with a request and before he has the first clue about what she will ask, he offers her “half of his kingdom.”

Moreover, when the truth about Haman is finally out and Haman is on his knees, begging Queen Esther for mercy, Xerxes misreads the situation yet again, perceiving, erroneously, that Haman is attempting to ravish the queen.

 

So, you might be saying, We get all that.  We see that Xerxes was an idiot.  So what?  What is in it for us as we read the story to day?

I think we can be pretty sure that it was a part of the author’s intent to make the case against Xerxes.  There is too much detail, too much description of his decision making to think otherwise.  Why is it there?

To make the point, I think, that this is exactly what earthly government is often like.  We expect and hope for prudence and integrity, but what we often get is recklessness and corruption.  Look at how the government actually worked then.  The king was manipulated by his advisors in every decision.  And his advisors, without exception, had their own selfish agendas in mind.  There is little thought for the well being of the king’s subjects.  All instead is focused on making the courtiers happy in the moment.

Xerxes is an idiot.  He would not know the truth if it beat down his door.  And that is exactly what Esther has to do.  She saves her race by speaking truth to power – and this at great risk to herself.  Power is often oblivious to the truth and yet we need the truth to live.

Jesus said “I am the way, the truth and the life.”  We must speak Christ.  To live we must speak Christ.

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?

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 Deuteronomy 5: 29

 

 

The Bible tells us that God spoke directly to Moses.  The creator of the universe and He who holds our lives and destiny in His hands met Moses face to face and gave him the law.  And so we have the Ten Commandments which are the basis, the fundamentals, of all ordered living.  Such a conversation – such a revelation – directly from God is amazing, breath-taking.  But I want to look for a moment not at the substance of the law – many of us have those commandments pretty well memorized, anyway – but at the emotion with which God speaks.

It is easy to think of any law – even God’s law – as restrictive and cumbersome.  It is our natural tendency to chafe and even rebel against rules that are laid down for us.  Paul writes that “our sinful passions were aroused by the law,” (Romans 7: 5) and that’s nothing strange to anyone who is honest about how his or her mind works.  We know that we want something all the more if we’re told we can’t have it.

There is an attitude that I will call juvenile that holds that God is a kind of spoil sport, saddling us with all kinds of standards we can’t live up to.  Kind of a mean boss.  But look at what God says (can you take that in?  This is God talking!) after he’s given the commandments:

O that there were such an heart in them, that they would fear me, and keep my commandments always, that it might be well with them, and with their children forever. . .

Look at that first word.  It’s not even a word, it’s an utterance from the heart.  Spontaneous; born of spilling emotion.  “Oh.”  We know what that means.  It means that the speaker aches.  And here He aches for us!  The law isn’t cruel or heartless.  It’s there for us.  For our own good.   These are the fundamentals for human flourishing; prospering.  Oh, that we would apply them.  Oh!

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