Book Review: Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life (Part Five)

Come mothers and fathers

Throughout the land

And don’t criticize

What you can’t understand

 

Bob Dylan, “The Times They Are a’Changing”

The book is very right to address the question “Is Bob Dylan a Christian or a Jew?”  since that is how so many people see the issue.

 

But, as the book explains, it is the wrong question or at least not the real or final question.  Of course, Bob Dylan is a Jew.  He is a Jew in the same way that Lebron James is African-American.  By birth and also by what we in Appalachia call “his raisin.’”   So was the Apostle Paul.  So were all of the twelve Apostles, and so was Jesus.  So what?

When confronted with what the questioner apparently saw as a contradiction between his mid-60s visit to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem and his later gospel songs, Dylan answered rightly, and in accordance with the scriptures.  His answer was, more or less:  I don’t see any contradiction.  To me it’s all one thing.

Dylan continues to acknowledge his heritage and to love and be a part of his community – a community that has suffered unimaginable horrors throughout history and particularly in this modern age.  He is right to do that.  He’d be wrong not to.

The real question is whether Dylan stands by his confession of Jesus; his conviction that Jesus of Nazareth is who He claimed to be – the long-promised Messiah of Israel, to whom all of the Old Testament law and all of the Old Testament prophets pointed.

 

Scott Marshall’s book, as it considers this question, inevitably tells us much about Dylan’s character and personality.  One of the most telling sentences for me was this one, a quote from John Dolen, who interviewed Dylan in 1995:

Dylan is not an intellectual.  He is wise, but he is more folksy than cerebral . . . I was struck by this and realized I had put my own trappings on what he is, just as others have throughout the years.

Dylan is not C. S. Lewis.  He is not a systematic theologian.  He is a poet and a musician and his life is one of emotion, synthesis and experience.  Indeed, as he describes his encounter with Jesus, it is a tactile, almost physical experience.  We should not expect Bob Dylan to write apologetic tracts.  We should not expect that when he is interviewed about his faith he should respond with a recitation of the Westminster Larger Catechism.  That’s not who Dylan is.  It’s not how he experiences the world; it’s not how he articulates.  Indeed, if we got an answer like that from him, we’d be sure he was faking it.

Scott Marshall makes the case that with Dylan the ultimate expression of his soul is in his songs.   For him, songwriting was not a nine-to-five job; a way to make a living.  He did not set out to find and exploit a market.  He set out to tell the truth; to bare his soul.  Even if that took him away from the market.

Indeed, this book makes the case that Dylan finds his own philosophy, a statement of his own faith, in the songs of others.  He points to songs Dylan covered in the years following the “gospel” tours.  The songs are old, traditional, American, country gospel:  Ralph Stanley’s “I Am The Man, Thomas,” and the gospel standard “Stand By Me.”

 

If we are to believe that Dylan’s true convictions are articulated in his songs and if we believe that he has never, ever retracted or disavowed any of his expressly Christian songs from the 1979-81 period, then what can be said about the change in Dylan’s setlists?  That is, if he is still convinced of the deity of Christ, and still convinced of the reality of his experience with Jesus, why isn’t he singing about that anymore?

Marshall offers several ideas on the point.  There are good arguments that several of Dylan’s songs written long after the “gospel period” carry references to his Christian experience and confession.  In “Thunder On The Mountain,” released in 2006, Dylan sings this verse:

Everybody’s going and I want to go too
Don’t wanna take a chance with somebody new
I did all I could and I did it right there and then
I’ve already confessed – no need to confess again

Dylan is a man who says it once and moves on.  Doesn’t mean he forgot what he said or that he no longer means that.  He just goes on to the next chapter.

 

Because this book deals with such a controversial matter; because so much seems at stake for several diverse crowds; and because the book comes to at least a soft conclusion about Dylan’s continuing faith in Christ; it will be a lightning rod for criticism.  This world is full of experts about Mr. Dylan and full of folks who will challenge every statement of fact, every conclusion and every inference that Marshall makes here.  The train of criticism is sure to come and it may not be a slow train.

But the book is a wonderful piece of work.  I could hardly put it down.  The research is exhaustive and the conclusions are never overstated.  It deals with an amazing subject; this Nobel-Prize and Medal of Freedom winning American poet.  Want to know why everyone is out to claim him for their own?  Listen to what Marshall quotes from Andrew Motion, poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, in 1999:

The concentration and surprise of his lyrics, the beauty of his melodies and the rasp of his anger; the dramatic sympathy between the words and the music; the range of devotions; the power of self-renewal; his wit; his surrealism; the truth to his experience.

Oh, yeah.  Oh, yeah.  And Amen.

Bottom line?  Here is the conviction the book leaves me with:  Dylan’s conversion was no stunt.  It was not a result of confusion or delusion.  He met the living Christ and the songs thereby inspired are gold, not fool’s gold.  They are every bit as authentic as any of the rest of Dylan’s work and they continue to stand.  They may be cherished.

Book Review: Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life (Part 3)

 

 

Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life by [Marshall, Scott]

 

 

 

(Readers; Here is part three of a continuing post reviewing Scott Marshall’s new book, Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life.  You can get the first and second installments by clicking back, post by post, on the “previous post” link at the bottom of this post.)

 

Jesus said, “Be ready,
For you know not the hour in which I come.”
Jesus said, “Be ready,
For you know not the hour in which I come.”
He said, “He who is not for Me is against Me, “
Just so you know where He’s coming from.

Bob Dylan, “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking”

 

 

 So, we have a three-way tug-of-war going on here,

 

with the Christian Dylan fans, like me, pulling one way – i.e. Dylan’s experience with Jesus Christ was a real, actual event (Dylan himself described it as “knee buckling”) and his gospel songs were not motivated by a desire for publicity but are authentic expressions of a converted soul, of a man who has met the Lord and, despite his open sympathy for the Hebrew community, of which he and his children are inseparably a part, and in spite of Dylan’s more recent writing that is less directly concerned with the Gospel and in spite of any crazy, excessive behavior Dylan may have engaged in since that time, he has never disavowed his confession of the Lordship of Jesus Christ and never disavowed a word of the songs he wrote as a result of that experience;

Secular fans pulling another way – that Dylan’s “gospel period” was just an emotional phase, not untypical for artistic types, but it has no spiritual or lasting reality and though Dylan himself has not directly and expressly disavowed his experience with Christ, such a disavowal can be fairly inferred from Dylan’s downplay of his gospel songs in recent concerts, his open participation in Jewish rituals and his rock-star behavior.

(Let me be clear about that last thing.  Marshall’s book hints that there are rumors of Dylan doing the kind of drinking and womanizing lately that we’ve come to expect of musicians while on the road.  The book does not detail or suggest any support for such rumors and I am not here implying that there is any truth to it.  All I am saying is that if such rumors are out there, it is a cinch that this tug-of-war team will use them to establish their case.)

The third team in this battle is, of course, Dylan’s Jewish buddies and fans.  The book tells that Elie Wiesel viewed Dylan’s conversion as “a tragedy” and that Paul Shaffer, the long-time music director for the David Letterman Show, admitted that he was brokenhearted by the news of Dylan’s confession.  This group sees Dylan as one of their own; one of their very best.  Dylan’s embrace of Christ is at best a kind of family embarrassment to them and at worst a real collaboration, by a former hero, with a deadly enemy.   This group will repeat almost all of the arguments made by the secularists as described above and add great emphasis to the evidence of Dylan’s later attendance at bar mitzvahs and other Jewish celebrations and his involvement with the Lubavitchers, an Orthodox Jewish group.

It is the goal of Marshall’s book to sort it all out.

 

(more on the way. . . .)

Book Review: Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life

Did you write The Book of Love

And do you have faith in God above?

Do you believe in rock and roll

Can music save your mortal soul

And can you teach me how to dance, real slow?

 

Don McLean, “American Pie”

 

 

 

 

This book seems to set out to tell us where Bob Dylan is spiritually.   Pages and pages of words, more than a hundred footnotes, all with the aim of discovering whether Dylan is (still) a Christian or not.  Isn’t it ironic then, that the first sentence in the preface to the book is this one: “Bob Dylan will not be labelled.”

Maybe “ironic” is not the right word.  Maybe a better word is “paradoxical.”  We Christians know that one quite well.  Something seemingly contradictory, but finally not so; demanding closer scrutiny and holding within its apparent mystery some deeper truth that we might never have gotten to any other way.  For example, we are “in the world, but not of the world.”

Whether you call that sentence in its context ironic or paradoxical, anyone who knows anything about Dylan would have to say this about it: it is a huge understatement.  Dylan has spent his six decades in the public eye doing everything possible to stay out of every category that the world has tried to put him in.  The first and perhaps most famous of these escapes was in the mid-sixties when he traded in his Martin acoustic guitar for a Fender Stratocaster and blasted electric blues at the Monterey Pop Festival.  His purist-folkie fans could not believe it – that their idol had broken trust with them, broken all the rules and sided with the impure and juvenile rock and rollers.  How could this be?  He would never survive this, so they said.

From then on it was one unpredictable turn after another.   Within one or two records after Monterey he was full-on country, paling around with Johnny Cash and using steel guitar in his new songs.

But the greatest shift of all, by almost anyone’s measure, was in the late 1970s, when Dylan confessed to a profound experience with Jesus Christ and professed his own, personal faith in Him as savior and Lord; as, indeed, the Son of God, the Messiah.

What a shock.  This iconoclast, this spokesman for the counterculture, had embraced Christ.  Many, perhaps most, of his fans saw this as treason.  Bob, they believed, stood for, well, everything they wanted him to stand for: free love, the tearing down of the “establishment,” the breaking free from all things religious.  How could this be?  He would never survive this, so they said.

In fact it became a minor and diverse industry to somehow divorce “our” Bob Dylan from his profession of faith in Christ and from the catalogue of songs he wrote, recorded and sang for the next few years.

In those songs he sounded like a gospel preacher; telling his audiences of the rich and famous and privileged and those who had bought in to the modern idea that all things were relative and that there was no such thing as absolute truth and that the self was the final arbiter, that these very ideas, precious to them, were “earthly principles they’re gonna have to abandon.”  They could not hide in any identity or any circumstance:

You may be an ambassador to England or France

You might like to gamble, you might like to dance

You may be the heavyweight champion of the world

You may be a socialite, with a long string of pearls

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

(more later: work in progress)

Boaz of Bethlehem: Attorney at Law

Image result for boaz at the city gate

 

If we read the book of Ruth like we would read any well-written story, we must pay attention to the facts that the writer puts in.

 

Ruth’s story, as we’ve said here before, is a real story; it’s not made up.   It is an account of actual events that happened to real people.  But the writer of the story had decisions to make.  There was no videotape of these events and even if there was, it would be literally months long.

This writer had to decide what would go in to the telling and what would be left out.  An example of what’s left out in this case is the circumstances of the deaths of the three men in Ruth’s family.  Her father-in-law, her husband, and her only brother-in-law all die in Moab.  That, undoubtedly, was pretty dramatic stuff and would have helped to introduce us to the characters and make us more sympathetic to them.  And yet we get not the first detail about any of that.  The three men died.  That’s all the book tells us.

This writer, like any writer, had an editorial or authorial purpose.  There is a point to the story, or maybe several points,  and the story – the details that are included in the story – are there to advance that purpose.  This writer, like any other, leaves out much, summarizes some, and then in places gives us fine detail.

When we get that fine detail, we must ask ourselves why it is there.  Why did the writer choose to bring the camera in so close?  How does this detail forward the authorial purpose?  How does it advance the story?

The story of Ruth is efficiently written.  There are no long asides describing atmosphere or emotion; no florid descriptions of landscapes or people.  But it is during the legal proceeding near the end of the book that the writer gives us fine detail – seemingly more detail than was necessary to move the story from point A to point B.

The writer tells us exactly – word for word – how Boaz presents his case to the other near-kinsman – the man who had first right of refusal for the purchase of the land of Ruth’s late father-in-law and, accordingly, under the customs of that day, a corresponding right to marry Ruth.

Boaz first tells the near-kinsman of his right to purchase the land without mentioning Ruth.  And the man immediately bites on the offer.  Of course he’d like to add the land to his holdings.  It’s kind of a windfall for him.  It is only then that Boaz explains that his purchase of that land will bring with it the duty to marry Ruth and have children with her.  The kinsman then runs like a scared rabbit.

But why did Boaz present his case in this order and why did the writer of the story think that order of presentation so important that it merited such a detailed retelling in this tight, little book?

At first blush, Boaz’s ordering of his case seems counter intuitive; self-defeating.  It is clear from the story that Boaz was taken with Ruth and ecstatic at the prospect that she might become his wife.  Why then did he pitch the easy part first?

I think it a great mistake to consider Boaz as anything other than wise and strategic.  He is described as a man of wealth and influence.  He did not get there by accident or by making silly decisions.  At every turn in the story, his actions are generous but careful.  Thus, the way he orders his case here is not random and not foolish; he has a plan.

I think Boaz was just the sort of man who was intimately familiar not only with the law, but with the community in which he lived.   That is to say, not only was Boaz fully informed as to what the legal realities – both procedural and substantive – were for all concerned when he discovered Ruth beside him on the threshing-room floor, we must assume that Boaz knew his opponent in the proceeding.  He certainly seems to have known just where that man would be as he arranged for the hearing to take place.

What I see in Boaz’s presentation of the case – in his ordering of his proof – is a kind of reverse psychology.  If Boaz would have presented the case in the other order, telling the man first of Ruth and the ensuing obligations, the kinsman might have smelled a rat – or smelled blood.  That is, the kinsman may have thought to himself Boaz is presenting this in a negative way.  He’s trying to talk me out of this.  He must have his own interest.  He must really want this.  I’d better hang tight here and see what is really behind this.  I may be able to drive a harder bargain if Boaz is really that interested.

But Boaz makes it appear that he is actually trying to get the other man to bite.  Telling him the good stuff first.  Now it may appear to the cynic that Boaz is actually trying to avoid the responsibility that would fall to him if the other kinsman refuses.  This makes the kinsman give away his right without a second thought.  Pretty slick.

It will be easy to criticize this opinion of mine, I know.  Some will say I have built a real house of cards based on very little evidence.  But I cannot get away from the notion that the writer of this book meant to tell us something important by including the details of Boaz’s practice here in this proceeding.  And I am sure that Boaz went into that courtroom with an overwhelming desire to take Ruth for himself.  (That may not have been totally selfish.  The guy with whom he was dealing might have been a real loser.  Boaz might have known that Ruth would have been miserable in that other man’s household.)

Others may say that I have dwelt on minutiae and missed the whole point of the book.  The book, they will say, is a parable of Christ’s love for us – His sacrifice, His providence, and His grace.  Who cares then about the details of Boaz’s practice?

I respond with this – the details of Boaz’s practice only deepen and enrich the Christian parable.  That is, we, like Ruth, may finally realize that we’re in a mess and that we must humble ourselves, as Ruth did, and rely on the grace of another for salvation.

But it is also true that we may recognize our desperate situation without appreciating fully how complicated it is.  Thus, when God acts to pull us out, He moves in ways strange to us, knowing, as He does, the complexities and dangers that we may have been oblivious to.

Meditation on Psalm 144

The faith of the Bible is a faith that admits struggle, battle and war.

In my last few posts here I have touched on the theme of spiritual warfare.  I didn’t set out to do that; I’m just following the Psalms, by number, day by day, and then writing my reactions and observations.   But that same theme is expressed in trumpet blasts in the first couple of verses in this morning’s psalm:

Blessed be the Lord my strength, which teacheth my hands to war, and my fingers to fight:

My goodness and my fortress; my high tower and my deliverer; my shield, and he in whom I trust; who subdueth my people under me.

Wow.  This ain’t Buddhism.  But before we go loading up on armor-piercing ammunition, let’s remember that the fight is different today than it was in David’s time.  Today our enemy is not the Philistines.  In fact, today’s enemy is not even “flesh and blood” but, rather, is spiritual.  I’m beginning to sound like a broken record on this point, I know, but Paul tells us, time and again, that we fight not against flesh and blood but against the “rulers, authorities, and powers” (Here is a little aside that just occurred to me:  will the rising generation, that has not grown up listening to vinyl records, even get that last, listening to a broken record allusion?)

These “rulers and authorities and powers” are spiritual; they are, as Paul puts it, “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”  Ahem.  Wow.  This looks pretty spooky, even Stephen Kingish.  But the Bible, particularly the New Testament, is not shy at all about recognizing that there are powers out there who have earthly institutions in their thrall that are strong and determined and evil and a threat to our lives and well-being.

And because today our enemy is different from the enemy of David’s day, our weapons and strategy will, accordingly, be different also.  If you’ve spent much time in church, you will be familiar with Paul’s description of the Christian’s weaponry that immediately follows the passage about the spiritual forces of evil.  You might even remember some of them – the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the sword of the Spirit. . . .  The danger is that we hear these things so many times that they become cliché to us and we might not think much about what they mean – what they actually mean for us, day by day.

I have been watching the Masterpiece production “Wolfe Hall” for the past month or so.  It’s a British made television series – about five or six hours, all told – about the reign of Henry VIII, way back in the 16th century.  His reign is significant for many reasons, not the least of which is the separation of the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church.  Henry ordered this because he wanted a divorce from Anne Boleyn and the pope would not give it to him.  That is a mere political power struggle in terms of the real motives of Henry and probably in terms of many of the men of that day who opposed him. Normally, such struggles don’t outlive their contestants.   You know that story.  Remember what The Who said about such things: “Meet the new boss; same as the old boss.”  Remember what Shelley said about the great Ozymandias.

But Henry‘s personal battles – his egotistic drive for the endurance of his dynasty – happened to coincide with other things that were happening in the neighborhood at the time.  One such thing was The Reformation.  I am a Protestant Christian.  I have unfettered access to the scriptures in my own language and I am not beholden to priests, popes and councils.  I have heard the Gospel, and I know the freedom that results from His all-sufficient grace.  As Wolfe Hall presents the story – and as I have heard of it from other sources – the official church in Henry’s day fought tooth and nail against all of these spiritual blessings that I enjoy.

I know that there are many who would disagree with this; who would say that I am being too hard on the Catholic church.  Well.  Let’s look at a few cold facts.  The two men who were principally responsible for the translation of the Bible into English – Tyndale and Wycliffe – were both executed.  The defenders of the Roman Catholic Church might argue that these murders were actually carried out not by the Church itself, but by the State.  Technically true.  It was the state that had the power to execute criminals.  But the Catholic Church was the moving force behind these killings, just like the religious establishment in Judea was behind the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.  And the motives were remarkably similar.  In all three instances, the persecutors were motivated by fear – by fear that the true Gospel message would undermine their power; would undermine the privilege of the established elites and the hold they had over the lower classes.

In fact, these dynamics remind me of a story from my days as a Federal prosecutor.  I had the privilege to work alongside another AUSA who was able (a Harvard grad) and energetic.  He came to my State in Appalachia and worked tirelessly to root out the official corruption that had held sway in some of the southern counties for generations.

His work came to fruition in the long-term incarceration of the political bosses of both factions in one of the counties.  One of the established institutions of the corrupt powers in that county was the manipulation of elections.  Votes were bought and paid for.  Ballot boxes were stuffed.  Ballots marked in the “wrong way” were lost and left uncounted.  Even worse, the factions in that county had a so-called “slate” system whereby a candidate bought his or her way onto a list published by the faction and distributed to the ward healers and then to the masses instructing them on how to vote if they wanted their ten bucks or their streets cleared in the winter.

The first election held in the county after the two top political bosses were jailed resulted in an unusual conversation.  In that county, the editor of the only newspaper there had been something of an informant for the government during the long investigations of the bosses.  (He is long dead, now, so there are no worries about harm coming to him.)   On Election Day, one of the low-level ward healers – a loyal member of one of the corrupt factions – came running in to the editor’s office, breathless and beside himself.  “You’re not going to believe this [John].   I’ve never seen anything like it.  People are just out there voting for whoever they want to!”

Another mark of the mentality of corruption in the southern counties of my State came from the mayor of a small town there who, after pleading guilty, was asked why he acted corruptly to get himself elected.  “Things just run better when I’m in charge,” he said.

The notion behind the corruption in both 20th century rural America and 16th century England is the same:  those common people cannot be trusted to do the right thing.  The masses cannot think for themselves.  In there with that bit of twisted philosophy is the pure corruption of power that Lord Acton warned of:  those in power want to stay in power.  They love the status and the privilege.  They want to continue to call the shots and leave the work to others.

Here’s another thing this Wolfe Hall drama taught me.  One of the big players in the drama of Henry’s court and reign was a cat named Thomas More.  Sir Thomas More at that time.  Saint Thomas More today, according to the wisdom of the Roman Catholic Church.

This was not the first time I’d ever heard of Thomas More.  In fact, while I was practicing law, the Catholic Lawyer’s society organized a special service annually to mark the beginning of the term of court and ostensibly to ask God’s blessing on the work we engaged in.  The group went out of their way to make sure that all of us – even us Protestants – were invited to the service.  It was called the “Red Mass,” and the patron Saint of it all was Thomas More

I seriously considered attending.  It sounded kind of right and, you know, ecumenical, and the work we did certainly needed God’s blessing.  But there was a charge for attending.  That’s right.  You had to buy a ticket to get in.  My Protestant soul simply would not allow me to pay a fee to attend a church service and now, after I have watched Wolfe Hall, I’m glad I never participated.

You see, Thomas More murdered Protestants, because they were Protestants.

His defenders will argue against that proposition.   I’ve already mentioned their first defenses – it was the State and not the Church that actually beheaded people and burned them at the stake.  Oh, by the way, Wolfe Hall depicts the burning of a Protestant named John Bainbridge.  Thomas More, according to the TV drama, was up to his neck in this one.  The drama also shows More torturing Bainbridge on the rack until Bainbridge recants his Protestant professions.  (Bainbridge later recanted this recantation and persisted in his Protestant professions until More had him burned.)  I don’t know how historically accurate this scene is, but if it is not accurate, it is a terrible and gratuitous slander of More.  I tend to believe that it is true.  I don’t know why the writers would have made it up.  You can read a pretty fair account of the several tortures and murders that More presided over in this blog post.

In that post, we see a quote from Pope John Paul II:

It can be said that he [More} demonstrated in a singular way the value of a moral conscience… even if, in his actions against heretics, he reflected the limits of the culture of his time“.

Well, yes.  The culture of his time.  He tortured and burned Protestants, but hey, everybody was doing it back then.  But should this not be a standard for canonization:  That is, that “Saints” are those rare people who precisely do not reflect the limits of the culture of their time?  That Saints live and know the Gospel and the way of the cross of Christ and live that life out despite and in contradiction to the “limits of the culture of their time?”  No matter what it costs them.

Thomas More burned and tortured men (those John Paul II dismisses as “heretics”) for holding to Christian doctrines that the Catholic Church now accepts!  As the above-linked blogger asserts, today’s Catholic Church is closer in doctrine to the reformation creeds that Bainbridge and others espoused than it is to the 16th Century Catholic Church.

It is very hard for me to accept the notion that More was a man who knew Jesus Christ and walked faithfully with the one who told Peter to put away his sword.  How could anyone who intimately knew and obeyed the one who bore the cross at the hands of the government and the religious establishment think that violent coercion could be carried out in His name?

I can accept the idea that More was faithful to the established church of his day and that he believed himself righteous in holding to his conviction that Henry should not have his divorce and refusing to recognize Henry as the head of the Church.  But I cannot get away from the notion that this was all – or at least mainly –about power, about political power. About the very kind of power that the scriptures instruct is not ours to wield.  And it is hard to completely dismiss the idea that the Roman Catholic Church’s canonization on More is based at least in part on the fact that More defended the official church and its magisterial powers and not on the selfless Christlikeness of More’s life.

The instruments More employed in his so-called “saintly” life – the rack, the screw, the torch (all of which Bin Laden and his ilk would approve of)  – are not, indeed are the opposite of, those weapons that the scriptures tell us are those of the Christian.  More may have been in some sense a martyr, but it cannot be ignored that he created martyrs.  Six of them, it looks like.

More did his level best to keep the scriptures inaccessible to the masses; perhaps he should have paid more attention to them himself.

As John Paul the Second said, More was a product of the [corrupt] culture/establishment of his day.  He was a man of that season, not a Man For All Seasons.

Meditation on Psalm 143

Psalm 143 is a poem about the heart.

 

Authorship is attributed to David, and David was a warrior and we can imagine the struggles that this psalm speaks of as being quite literal.  That is, when David speaks of his enemies, he means literal, flesh-and-blood enemies – guys who are wearing the other uniform and who are really out to kill him.

 

For most of you reading this blog –and certainly for the writer of this blog –  the enemy is not so solid and well defined.  In this leveled and paved and air- conditioned world that you and I inhabit, we may even think that the idea that we have enemies who are out to get us and who have “made us to dwell in darkness” to be a bit over dramatic, a bit exaggerated, maybe even ridiculous.

But if we give any attention to the New Testament, we must admit that we do have enemies and that they very much do want to “smite” our lives “down to the ground,” and to “make us dwell in darkness.”  Again, listen to what St. Paul says to the church in Ephesus:

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.   Ephesians 6: 12

Likewise, the expression of desire in this psalm should not be strange to us.  David is sure of  the object of his desire.  That object is God: “my soul thirsteth after thee, as a thirsty land.”   We may not be so sure of the object of our desire, but if we are honest with ourselves and if we have not hidden it beneath some wall of self-deception, we must admit that we want and want very badly something that nothing in this world can satisfy.

That is why this psalm continues to resonate with men and women even in this modern age.  Even among those of us who are privileged to live in secure democracies and in peaceful neighborhoods where we are not threatened physically; even those of us who have every convenience and entertainment.   Even we desire; even we hunger and thirst, like a thirsty land.  Here is C. S. Lewis:

“Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for these desires exists. A baby feels hunger; well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim; well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire; well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” (Mere Christianity, Bk. III, chap. 10, “Hope”)

 

When David writes that “my spirit is overwhelmed within me; my heart within me is desolate” we should have little trouble relating to him.  We should know.  If we have attempted anything at all – a career, a marriage, the raising of children – we know that we are opposed and powerfully so.  We know that we can be defeated; we can be crushed; we can be depressed.  We know that our desires always outstrip the satisfactions that this earthly life affords.

And so, this psalm is our psalm, and we pray with David, the warrior:

Cause me to hear Your lovingkindness in the morning,
For in You do I trust;
Cause me to know the way in which I should walk,
For I lift up my soul to You.

Deliver me, O Lord, from my enemies;
In You I take shelter

Meditation on Psalm 140

Rescue me, Lord, from evildoers;
    protect me from the violent,
who devise evil plans in their hearts
    and stir up war every day.
They make their tongues as sharp as a serpent’s;
    the poison of vipers is on their lips.[b]
Keep me safe, Lord, from the hands of the wicked;
    protect me from the violent,
    who devise ways to trip my feet.
The arrogant have hidden a snare for me;
    they have spread out the cords of their net
    and have set traps for me along my path.

 

 

This psalm, like many others, is the prayer of a warrior.

There is not a general agreement that David actually wrote this one, but it is attributed to him in the heading and its theme and expression are quite consistent with what we know of David from our study of the Old Testament.  Here the writer finds himself compassed about by enemies – violent and evil men who are determined to undo him.  The psalmist spends some ink describing what low-down creatures his enemies are and then cries to God for deliverance, asking that his enemies be drastically and violently punished.

How is it that people – people like me – have continued to find value and inspiration in this poem when most of us are not warriors?  Most of us are not military men – soldiers on an active battlefield.  Most of us don’t have evil men plotting to take our lives.  How is this poem anything to us?

Because, soldier or not, military career or not, active battlefield or not, all of us are at war.  Well, maybe not all of us are at war.  Some of us may be so oblivious to it that we can’t really be seen as participants.  But there is a war raging that affects us all.  If we give any credence to the New Testament, then we know that there is a spiritual battle being fought right here and in our time between good and evil.  The Bible tells us that the players in this conflict are not mere mortals:

Ephesians 6:12  English Standard Version

12 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’ve spent some time lately here on this blog taking about these “rulers, authorities and cosmic powers” that Paul refers to more than once. (see Colossians 2:8 and Galatians 4:9)  These passages have always intrigued me because they seemed to point to beings or forces that are not directly identified elsewhere in the scriptures.  Kind of spooky in a Stephen King sort of way.  I have never seen any Christian writer say much about them until I read Andy Crouch’s excellent book, Playing God.  He suggests that they are

“shadowy [and supernatural] powers that lurked behind human institutions and indeed the whole natural world”   They “are at the root of . . . cultural patterns . . . that have enslaved God’s image bearers, cutting them off from sight and life.”

All of that is pretty dramatic.  I don’t doubt it for a minute, but I wrote this post for the purpose of suggesting that most of us normal, non-super-hero type people do have some experience with this kind of thing.  How many times have we, perhaps after years of frustrated effort, said something like “There is just something in that [here insert personal preference: school, town, country, company] that will not let me loose, or that will not let me succeed.”

I wonder if this complaint is truer that we even suspect!   And if it is, how necessary for you and I to recognize what we are up against and to align ourselves with Christ, before whom such powers tremble and flee.