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.

 

Meditation on Psalm 63

 

Because thou hast been my help, therefore in the shadow of thy wings will I rejoice. . .

Psalm 63: 7

 

In his very helpful book Reflections on The Psalms, CS Lewis makes some allusion to the fact that many of the psalms are “attributed to David” and that some of them, particularly Psalm 18, are actually from David’s pen.  This, of course, suggests that many of the psalms that are attributed to David were actually written by someone else, perhaps long after David lived, and are aimed at capturing the drama of David’s life and the essence of his spirit.

I owe CS Lewis a great deal.  I don’t know of any other writer quite like him.  He seems to have read everything ever written and he can explain complex things clearly and precisely.  His book, Mere Christianity, found me at the right time, answered many of my questions, and changed my life.  I know that Lewis would not have made a statement like the one about the authorship of the Psalms unless he had scoured sources.  He may be right, but this is one time I don’t want to believe him.  I want to believe that the Psalms attributed to David are actually the work of his hand; his imagination; his heart.

That is particularly true of the Psalm I read this morning:  number 63.

David is a great romantic figure whose life is marked by fantastic acts of heroism and courage and horrible, deliberate actions that plagued his house down to and even after David’s own dying day.  We might think of him as a kind of rock star.  Not only was he a great military man, he was a poet (while scholars may debate which of the psalms now in the canon were actually written by David, no one denies that he did write poetry) and a musician.  Kind of a mixture of General Patton or Lee or Grant and Jackson Browne.

Psalm 63 is an intensely personal psalm, full of emotion. If we think of it as something written about David and not by David, it loses some of its punch.

This Psalm is the confession of a man who has known God personally.  So personally, in fact, that he “remembers” God as he lies awake at night.  So personally that he speaks of communion with God as the deepest satisfaction.  In worship, David’s “soul shall be satisfied as with the richest of foods.”  And this Psalm suggests that David’s knowledge of God is not based on what someone else told him about God, but rather on immediate, personal experience.  David the warrior has, time and again, acted on God’s command in the face of great odds and has been saved from his enemies, even when surrounded.

Time and again in the psalms we see reference to the protection of “the shadow of [God’s] wings.”  One is tempted to imagine how David looked at the desert landscape before him as he traveled with his band of troops.  How David may have “seen” the shadow of God’s wings covering him, protecting him, allowing him rest.

Meditation on Psalm 61

 

From the end of the earth I will cry unto thee, when my heart is overwhelmed. . . 

 

Psalm 61 is a short poem, but one that is fraught with emotion.  David’s petition, his prayer, is no rote repetition, but a “cry.”    There are two different Hebrew words that are here (v. 1 and v. 2) translated “cry.”  And both words connote emotion.  In fact, one of them is used elsewhere in the Bible to describe the sound of a beast.  One can imagine David’s prayer as a cry that is as bold as the roar of a lion or as plaintive as the screech of a frightened bird.

In this psalm, David is once again overwhelmed.  His life was anything but mundane; anything but a smooth road.  In fact, David was constantly embattled.  He fought against the enemies of King Saul and he fought King Saul himself after the king’s jealousy had turned him against David.  When David speaks of the “ends of the earth” and of his heart being “overwhelmed” he is speaking of immediate, physical experience.  He speaks from the experience of being alone, fearing ambush.  He speaks of being outnumbered and war-weary.

But likewise, David’s experience of God is also personal, dramatic and immediate.  And in this psalm, the weary and overwhelmed warrior remembers the times when God protected him on the battlefield; preserving him from the hand of the enemy and giving him victory.

Do we see our own lives as quite that dramatic?  Do we remember God as our savior?  As that One who brought us out of the prisons of our own making and away from the power of the evil one?

To be sure, for most of us, the battlefield is not the desert and the enemy is not flesh and blood and his weapons are not made of steel.  But if we pay much attention to the New Testament, we must understand that the life of the Christian is in fact a battle.  The warfare is spiritual and much is at stake.

We are concerned with the upbuilding and ongoing of God’s kingdom through the spread of the gospel throughout the world.  That effort is certainly vigorously opposed by secular and religious powers.

But we also fight for our own character.  We fight to become who we were made to be.  These days it may be easy to forget that much is at stake in this life.  The days pass quickly and may seem to pass uneventfully and we fall into complacency and lose our perspective, thinking one day is just like another.  We find our contentment in the things of this world.  In mindless entertainment.  Lewis was right: we are far too easily pleased.  We should never abandon our hope of victory and triumph, even as those things are achieved quietly, through endurance and worship and prayer and repentance and service.

Settled on Its Lees

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.

 

Yesterday I posted a meditation on Psalm 55, particularly verse 19 and that line of that verse that says “Because they have no changes, therefore they fear not God.”  I wrote yesterday about how this line, particularly as it is translated in the King James, intrigued me and convinced me that what was being communicated here was not the idea of the unchanging nature of God as other, more recent translations would imply; and not merely the idea that the people about whom the psalmist wrote had refused to repent.

I wrote yesterday that the line seemed to me to be aimed at people who have insulated themselves from life; from the changes that life inevitably brings and that require us to search ourselves, admit our insufficiencies and thus acknowledge our dependence on God’s grace.

I said then that any such insulation is false.  It is at best short-lived for no matter how thick our insulation may be – no matter how much money we have in the bank; no matter how strong our bodies are today and no matter how prosperous and happy are those whose flourishing is necessary for our own happiness – life inevitably breaks through it all and shows us once again how tenuous our hold on sanity and life is and how dependent we are on Him for our daily bread.

That same line – Because they have no changes, therefore they fear not God – was still with me this morning and I thought about another verse that had struck me so powerfully long ago that it was still in memory, even though I had made no deliberate attempt to commit it there.  It was a verse, I remembered, about wine having “settled on its lees.”

It turns out that that metaphor – of wine settling on its lees – appears at least three times in the Bible and the idea – when all three of those references are considered – is more complicated than I remembered it being.

The notion in my head was that wine settling on its lees was simply a bad thing.  I understood that “lees” mean the same thing as “dregs.”  Although “lees” isn’t a part of normal, modern speech where I live, the word “dregs” is.  And “dregs” connotes something bad – we speak of “the dregs of society,” or the “dregs of the talent pool,” meaning the worst of it.  That which is left at the bottom after the good stuff is all taken.

I thought that wine that was allowed to set on its lees would become bitter and that good stewardship of wine, as it aged, required that it be poured “from vessel to vessel” to take it off of its lees or dregs, that is, the sediment that would fall out of the juice over time.  There is support for that idea in Jeremiah 48:11:

Moab hath been at ease from his youth, and he hath settled on his lees, and hath not been emptied from vessel to vessel, neither hath he gone into captivity: therefore his taste remained in him, and his scent is not changed.

Here at least we have reference to the practice of pouring wine from vessel to vessel to get rid of the lees, dregs or sediment.   Thus, we may think of Moab here as a nation that is complacent in its own strength.  It is insulated from the reality of life; the reality of the world.  Here is how Eugene Peterson translates this same passage:

“Moab has always taken it easy—
lazy as a dog in the sun,
Never had to work for a living,
never faced any trouble,
Never had to grow up,
never once worked up a sweat.
But those days are a thing of the past.
I’ll put him to work at hard labor.
That will wake him up to the world of hard knocks.
That will smash his illusions.

But there is more to this idea of wine settling on its lees.  In at least one other place in the scriptures, wine that is settled on its lees is the best wine.  Look at 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.

So, as is so often the case in the scriptures, if we attempt careful and thorough study, there is more to the picture; more to the story.

We’ll look further tomorrow . . .