1 Peter 1:3-5 – Born Again, Preserved, and Rescued

May 18, 2015

Elect exiles.

Scattered across the Roman provinces of modern Turkey, these Christians are called “exiles” due to their social dislocation within a culture hostile to their new way of life. Though “exiles,” they are nevertheless elect. But for what or to what are they elected? What does this election mean?

In part, it means they have been born again, they are being preserved, and they will be rescued.

1 Peter 3:3-12, in Greek, is a single sentence that begins as a doxology, continues as proclamation, and ends in wonder. It winds its way through the whole narrative of salvation—past, present, and future—in order to locate its readers in God’s story. As the opening to the letter, perhaps as an exordium in Hellenistic rhetoric, it provides a theological frame for the rest of the letter by identifying the redemptive situation of believers. There are no imperatives or commands—only blessing, proclamation, and wonder. This single sentence introduces the whole letter.

Despite their present trials and sufferings, they are the recipients of the goal of God’s redemptive work throughout history. They have been born again through the resurrection of Jesus, continuously preserved by the power of God, and will be finally rescued from suffering in the last times (the Eschaton). They have been infused with hope. Though exiles, they are the heirs of God’s redemptive work.

Consequently, God is blessed, which is a typically Jewish way of praising God (Psalm 66:8; 103:1, 20-22; 104:1; 115:18; 134:1). Moreover, “God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” probably reflects a liturgical practice of the early church since the only other places where it appears are in New Testament doxologies (cf. Romans 15:6; 2 Corinthians 1:3; Ephesians 1:3). The letter, then, opens with doxology, and its theology flows from the praise of God the Father.

But the letter also opens with the proclamation, embedded in the blessing, that Jesus is Lord. Its liturgical form emphasizes the importance of this phrase as something Christians regularly confessed in their communities. The God of Israel is the Father of Jesus the Messiah, who is Lord. That is a mouthful. Religiously, it affirms continuity with the Hebrew Scriptures. Politically, it is dangerous since Caesar is Lord within the Roman Empire. Socially, it becomes the object of derision. “Jesus is Lord” is the central confession of the Christian Faith.

Reborn According to the Mercy of God

Peter blesses the God and Father of Lord Jesus the Messiah who, according to (kata) God’s great mercy, “rebirthed” (regenerated) us into (eis) a living hope and into (eis) a sure inheritance.

New birth, or being born again, is an important theological word for Peter (used in 1:3 and 1:23). It is the starting point for a new way of life, a new kind of existence. Indeed, this is what renders us exiles or foreigners in the present world. We do not breathe the same air as others in the world.

New birth is grounded (kata) in the mercy of God, which is one of the most significant covenant terms for God’s faithful love in the Hebrew Scriptures (hesed in Hebrew; cf. Exodus 34:4-6). Our rebirth flows from God’s merciful and faithful initiative; that is, our election.

Our rebirth issues in two realities: (1) a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus, and (2) an imperishable, undefiled, and unfading inheritance. In other words, our rebirth gives us an eschatological perspective, and it ushers us into an eschatological reality. Born again, we already participate in the eschaton; our new life is eschatological life.

A living hope is a present hope. This is not escapism, but a hope that lives. Or, to put it another way, it is an empowering hope because it lives. The alternative is a life without hope, which is ultimately despairing. Indeed, the nature of this hope is defined by the resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, which conquers death and promises life without death.

Resurrection is not simply life after death, but it is life in the wake of the annihilation of death. Resurrected life is the ultimate fruit of newborn life. Our new birth is the promise of this resurrection life as we are born into a new mode of existence. That new existence is ultimately the resurrected life of Jesus himself. We are birthed into a new creation, and new creation begins with the resurrection of Jesus because Jesus—raised from the dead—is new humanity clothed with an eternal body. The hope that lives within our hearts is the hope of sharing in that new humanity where our own resurrected bodies are patterned after the likeness of Jesus’s resurrection body.

Our rebirth also issues in an inheritance. This is, again, a word loaded with meaning in the Hebrew Scriptures. Inheritance is about land. But that inheritance was lost through exile because it was defiled by sin. The inheritance of the new creation—of regeneration and rebirth—is “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading,” which is a alliteration in the Greek text using the alpha-privative (each word begins with the negative “a-”). To put it another way—in the oft-quoted words of Beare that mirror the Greek alliteration—“untouched by death, unstained by evil, unimpaired by time.”

But what is this inheritance? Peter says it is “kept in heaven” for us. Our inheritance is in heaven, but it is not heaven. That is, our inheritance is not life after death where one ascends into the heavenly realms for their reward. Rather, our inheritance is connected with resurrection hope; our hope is new creation or resurrected life.

Jesus sits at the right hand of God in his resurrection body. The resurrected Jesus is the beginning of new creation, and new creation is our inheritance. It is now kept in heaven, but it—our ultimate salvation—will be revealed in the last time (1:5). At that time, as 2 Peter 3 makes clear, a new heaven and new earth will appear as the home of the righteous. This is our inheritance; it is the moment when we will inherit the new heaven and new earth as our homeland. Then, we will no longer be exiles or foreigners; we will be home.

Our living hope is resurrected life on a new heaven and new earth, and that is our inheritance. Even now—in the present—we experience that life through our rebirth, and it is that rebirth which gives birth to our hope and the promise of an inheritance. As people born again into the living hope of the resurrection, we are also born into an inheritance that belongs to the family of God.

Preserved by God Through Faith.

Our present experience, however, is often filled with trials and troubles. In fact, our rebirth—our new life—entails that trials will come since we are now exiles or foreigners. Rather than insulating us from hurts and hostility, this new life attracts them because it threatens the values and commitments of a hostile culture. So, in the present, we suffer.

This does not, however, eliminate our hope and inheritance. Rather, God presently preserves (protects, guards) us in the midst of this suffering through faith. Significantly, it is the power of God that preserves or protects. We do not protect ourselves; God protects us.

At the same time, however, we participate in this process. Faith is the means by which the power of God guards us. This is a divine-human movement; it is cooperative grace. God supplies the power, and we appropriate that power through faith. We do not generate the power, but we receive it through faith. Our preservation is not our own doing; it is God’s work in us and through us by faith. Without faith, however, there is no preservation.

The age-old debate between Calvinists and Arminians finds practical common ground here. Both theological traditions agree that we are elect through faith, and that the elect will persevere in faith. Whatever the dogmatic or theoretical frame, these statements affirm a shared perspective: God guards the elect through faith. At a practical level, the elect believe and the elect persevere in belief. In this, both traditions “bless God” as we recognize God’s initiative in our salvation and God’s empowering grace.

Rescued in the Eschaton

God preserves us for (unto, eis) salvation.

“Salvation,” in 1 Peter, describes the full reality of God’s redemptive work. It is both a present and future reality—it sums up the whole of what God is doing to redeem and rescue humanity from sin and death.

“Salvation” (or deliverance, rescue), in 1 Peter 1:5, is eschatological. It is linked to the “last time” (kairo eschato) and final revelation of God’s saving work in the second coming of Jesus. In other words, here salvation refers to the fulfillment of our hope and the arrival of our inheritance. God preserves us in order to bring us into the full experience of our salvation when our “living hope” is realized and we receive our full inheritance.

Conclusion

Blessed be God, Peter writes, because the Father, through Jesus the Messiah, has birthed us and preserves us for the future unveiling of our inheritance (salvation). God is praised for his past, present, and future saving work.

The doxology locates believers in the story of God rather than in the imperial story. God, through Jesus, is the savior of the world, not the Roman Emperor. Christians live in God’s narrative rather than in the imperial one.

According to Peter, that is the true story, and consequently this is the true and authentic location of Christians. Though they live as exiles in Roman culture, they are nevertheless God’s elect.


Reconciliation in the Gospel of John, Or Perichoretic Oneness

May 13, 2015

“I suggest that within the Farewell Discourse this ‘oneness’ is expressed in a Eucharistic love feast even where diversity continues. When believers gather together around the table with self-giving love, they experience in a concrete and sacramental way the common bond that unites them; that is, the perichoretic love of the Triune God. Unity, then, is not best expressed in forms, institutions, and extended theological declarations as much as it is in the reality of the Eucharist in a loving community where we are nourished by the life of divine perichoresis.”

One paragraph, near the end, from a recent paper I uploaded. I presented this paper at the Lipscomb Preaching Seminar in February 2014. The seminar was part of an academic course, and that is the reason why it assumes much and not everything is explained.

The full paper is linked HERE.


On Reading 1 Peter

May 12, 2015

This is a brief letter, but it packs a powerful punch.

It comes to us as a communication between Peter, one of the Twelve, and Christians (“elect exiles”) scattered throughout what is now western and northern Turkey (1 Peter 1:1).

Peter is in “Babylon” (1 Peter 5:13), which is a cryptic and common Jewish way of referring to Rome in the first century. Peter writes to “exiles” from “Babylon.” This association, which appears in the beginning and close of the letter, highlights an important theme in the letter; that is, Christians are a socially dislocated minority within Roman culture. They are aliens who have a different way of life than their surrounding culture.

There is a strong and ancient tradition that both Peter and Paul died in Rome. Consequently, it is most natural to read “Babylon” as Rome given that tradition and the apocalyptic use of the term within Judaism (as well as Revelation 17). It also accounts for why Peter might take up his pen to write to Roman provinces in what we now call Turkey. Perhaps Peter had previously visited that region at an earlier period, but there is no explicit evidence for that. Whatever the reason Peter addresses these scattered Christians, there is no reason to doubt Peter’s presence in Rome (other than some old Protestant polemics against Roman Catholicism).

Peter, writing from the center of Roman power and wealth—the origin of Roman culture, addresses the social location of Christians within the empire. They are aliens or foreigners; they are homeless within the empire. They live as exiles or refugees.

This offers the most significant key for reading 1 Peter as the author addresses his letter to the “elect exiles of the Diaspora.”

While some think—and not without some good reasons—Peter’s audience is primarily Jewish because the Diaspora refers to Jews living outside their Palestinian homeland, I think it better to read this as Christians who are not at home in Roman imperial culture. Christians are outsiders to Roman power; they do not belong. Christians are scattered throughout Roman culture and its provinces, but they live as aliens within that culture.

Consequently, one of the better ways to think about 1 Peter’s genre (literary form) is to categorize it as a “Diaspora Letter,” which was prominent within Judaism. Some of this genre’s best examples are Jeremiah 29, 2 Maccabees 1:10-2:18, and Elephantine letters 21 & 30.

These letters address Jewish communities displaced from the Jewish homeland. They encourage living well within cultures to which they do not belong and which are often hostile to their presence.

This is exactly what 1 Peter does. “I have written you this brief letter,” Peter says, “to encourage you and to testify that this is the true grace of God” (1 Peter 5:12). The letter is an exhortation—it encourages and testifies. Distressed in their uncertain circumstances as exiles and foreigners (“strangers in a strange land”), Peter encourages them to live faithfully in the grace of God.

The letter is apparently a circular one; that is, it is intended to circulate among congregations throughout the regions of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia. We might suppose, as Peter hints in 1 Peter 5:12, that Silas (Silvanus) carried the letter to various churches where it was read to the assembly and probably copied. In other words, the letter was orally performed. It is a sermon or exhortation for these distressed and suffering communities, an encouragement to people living in hostile environments.

Peter does this with three major moves in the letter. First, he stresses their identity as God’s chosen people whom God has loved from the foundation of the world (1:13-2:10). Second, he encourages them to live out that identity despite their difficult circumstances as witnesses to the grace of God in the world (2:11-4:11). Lastly, he commends their suffering for the sake of Christ, which is their greatest witness (4:12-5:11).

Peter addresses the “diaspora” of God’s elect living among Roman provinces whose faith is regularly tested by the hostility of the surrounding culture in which it lives. Their lives, Peter believes, will bear witness to the grace of God as they follow Christ in his suffering. In this way, they suffer as Christians rather thieves or murderers.

Our contemporary western culture has shifted. Christianity is no longer privileged (and it should never have been). Our culture is now post-Christian, even if it ever was “Christian.” In our present setting, Christianity is increasingly dismissed, treated as irrelevant, and sometimes hated.

Our world is becoming increasingly like Peter’s world. As a result, Peter’s letter is becoming even more relevant as Christians learn to live in a post-Christian culture.

So, we read 1 Peter—like its first readers read it—as aliens. We read it to understand our identity, seek encouragement in our way of life, and endure suffering as followers of Christ.


1 Peter 1:1-2 — Exiled, But Chosen

May 11, 2015

Everyone wants to be chosen, especially those who feel marginalized or undervalued. Many of us remember what it feels like to be the last one chosen in a pickup game of basketball or uninvited to the school party.

Sometimes we feel like outsiders, and sometimes we are treated like outsiders. Sometimes we simply are outsiders.

Yet, though unchosen by others, we are chosen by God.

Peter opens his circular letter to the “elect” (chosen) of what is now modern Turkey like any other letter in the ancient word:

  • Identification of the author: “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ.”
  • Recipients: to the “elect exiles dispersed” throughout northern and western Anatolia (modern Turkey).
  • Greeting: “may grace and peace be multiplied among you.”

While the form is typical, Peter’s language and further elaboration illuminates the pastoral focus of his letter.

The community is described as both exiled and chosen. They are both rejected and embraced. This is central to understanding how, as Peter puts it, this letter testifies to the “true grace of God” (1 Peter 5:12).

The community lives an exiled existence as aliens (foreigners) in cities throughout the Anatolian peninsula. Though settled in these Roman provinces, like Abraham before them, they are “sojourners and aliens” (paroikos kai parepidemos, Genesis 23:4). Peter uses both terms in this letter (paroikos in 1:17, 2:11; and parepidemos in 1:1; 2:11). Specifically, the term parepidemos (foreigners, aliens) refers to one who is not a citizen, and consequently those who are citizens view a parepidemos with suspicion, fear, and often hostility.

This is a displaced existence. The letter’s recipients are part of the Dispersion (NRSV) or Diaspora (1:1). Technically, in the first century, this describes ethnic Jews who no longer live in Palestine, their homeland. Combined with the language of exile and the use of “Babylon” as a metaphor for Rome (1 Peter 5:12), Peter addresses the people of God scattered among the provinces of Roman power and culture. This is not their home. They are exiles, foreigners, or aliens.

They are “resident aliens” (to use the title of significant book as well as The Epistle to Diognetus [5:4-5] in the second century). Their lives are different, and their relationship with Roman power and culture is different. Their community is a living contrast with their surrounding environment, and this creates tension in the communities where they live. So much so that the peaceful existence they desire is threatened by violence, incarceration, and local hostility. They suffer for the sake of Christ.

In other words, their “alien” status is not a contrast between earthly existence and heavenly hope, between present life and eternal life. Rather, it is their social location as a community whose values and interests are out of sync with the surrounding culture. They stick out like a sore thumb. They are regarded as “strange” or weird because they do not engage in the practices of their neighbors (1 Peter 4:4) or participate in the civil religion of the Empire like good citizens.

As a community, they are despised and rejected, much like the servant of Isaiah 53 (to which 1 Peter 2:21-22 appeals). They face intense questioning, hostility, and mockery from their culture. They are marginalized and oppressed. They are aliens in a culture that does not like aliens.

This is an alarming picture. This kind of life might generate a sense of unworthiness. Living on the margins, especially when the culture is hostile, might generate some questions about whether God also dislikes them. How might an alien feel beloved?

They are elect, chosen! Rejected by culture, they are chosen by God. Marginalized by culture, they are at the center of God’s project to redeem the world. They are God’s elect through whom God will transform the world.

Peter characterizes this election with three phrases:

  • according (kata) to the foreknowledge of God the Father
  • by/in (en) the sanctification of the Spirit
  • unto (eis) the obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus the Messiah

The triune nature of this statement is immediately obvious, though the order is rather unusual (even in Scripture, much less in the tradition of the church): Father, Spirit, and Jesus.

We are elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father. Whatever this may mean (and there are historic debates about the relationship between foreknowledge and election), it at least means that God was focused on our election long before we were. Our status is a gift of grace driven by God rather than us. God takes the initiative in our salvation. We did not start the ball rolling. Instead, God has been moving toward this moment from the beginning. We are not an afterthought in God’s eternal purposes; we are the objects of God’s election.

We are elect by the sanctification of the Spirit. Sanctification may refer to the moment we were made saints (that is, we were set apart or consecrated at our conversion), or it may refer to the long process of becoming like Christ in our lives (that is, becoming holy as God is holy), or it may refer to God’s completed work in the end (that is, when God fully perfects us). Since the work of the Spirit here moves us toward obedience and the sprinkling of the blood of Jesus, it probably refers to the initial work of the Spirit in separating us or setting us apart. But perhaps Peter has something broader in mind analogous to: “living in the space sanctified by the Spirit.” In other words, though we are exiles amidst the kingdoms of this world, God has gathered us as a people who live in the holy space of God’s Spirit. Living in the Spirit, we live in sanctified space, beloved by God. The Spirit consecrates us to God and separates us from the world. This is part of what it means to be one of God’s elect. Consequently, though exiles and aliens in a culture infused with hostility toward God, the elect live in space sanctified by God.

We are elect unto the obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus. Though a difficult phrase, it does represent movement toward a goal. We are elect on the ground of the Father’s foreknowledge, and we are elect through the consecration of the Spirit. Our election has a goal, that is, to lead us to obedience to the covenant and the sprinkling of the blood of the covenant, which is the forgiveness of sins. The language probably echoes Exodus 24:4-8 where Israel entered into covenant through a pledge of obedience and a sprinkling of the blood. So, we are elect toward the goal of obedience and the cleansing reality of the blood of Jesus. Obedience, then, is part of the conversion narrative where we experience our election because of the work of the Father, Spirit, and Son. And obedience is also part of our ongoing life in the Spirit. We are elect so that we might become obedient people as a people holy to God. The sprinkled blood of the Lamb continually cleanses us as we progressively become what God has called us to be, that is, “You be holy as I am holy.”

The Father foreknows. The Spirit sanctifies. The Son cleanses. The Father, Son, and Spirit together participate in the movement to redeem humanity. We are elect because of what God has done for us, and our response is obedience as we live in the sanctified air of the Spirit, gracious predisposition of the Father, and the sprinkled blood of the Messiah.

Elect, but exiled. Foreigners, but chosen.

The echoes of the Hebrew Scriptures abound here.  This is Israel’s story–they are elect exiles scattered among the nations. They were exiled, yet loved (Malachi 1:1-4). They were despised by the nations but the apple of God’s own eye.

The elect scattered among the provinces of Anatolia occupy the same space as Israel: exiled but chosen. Standing in the grace of God, they are a displaced, but chosen, people.

This is our story: we are aliens in an increasingly post-Christian culture.

This is our joy: we are chosen; we are loved….foreknown by the Father, sanctified by the Spirit, and sprinkled with the blood of Jesus.

 

 

 


Psalm 58

March 9, 2015

Occasioned by the injustices of the ruling class, the community petitions God to judge their unjust judges. A worshipper speaks for the community in a kind of “cultic prophetic lament.”[1] One might imagine a Jeremiah or some priestly leader voicing this complaint at the temple as Israel’s judges gathered to worship. Jeremiah may have appeared at the temple with Jehoiakim to protest his injustice before God (Jeremiah 22). When human leaders fail to administer justice in the world, the God who judges the earth will judge them. And the people of God appeal for divine action against unjust judges.

Psalm 58 may be divided into three sections:  Complaint (1-5), Petition (6-9), and Praise (10-11). The complaint arraigns the wicked before God (1-2) and describes them (3-5). The petition invokes God’s action (6), and describes the effect of that action (7-9). The praise rejoices in God’s action (10) and confesses the justice of God (11).

The verb “judge” appears in verses 1 and 11 as an inclusio. The so-called “imprecatory” petition of verse 6 is the structural center of the lament. Human judges, who sit in God’s judgment seat, act out of self-interest rather than for the sake of the kingdom of God. Consequently, Israel complains about injustice, appeals for justice ,and expects God’s righteous judgment.

The judges (“gods”) do not act according to covenantal equity, but they devise inequities in their hearts and carry out their design with violence. Equity is a key term (cf. also Pss 9:8; 17:2; 75:2; 96:10; 98:9; 99:4). God is the model for this equity. The Psalmist addresses the enemies directly like some other lament psalms (4, 6, 11, 52). They are like cobras with their lies–they destroy; they intend to do evil. They are like deaf cobras in that no one can charm them–they are incorrigible. They listen to non one. As Mays comments, “They are so enchanted with the lie of their life that they are deaf and blind to any other influence.”[2]

The Psalmist calls upon God to act—to defang the judges or take away their power. “Break the teeth” is a curse/penalty found in legal documents of the ancient Near East. Whoever has not kept their contracts are punished.[3] The metaphor evokes images of a failure to keep covenantal obligations. The judges have not judged according to the principles of the covenant. The “imprecation” is addressed to God who judges the judges. As the sovereign King, God exercises Lordship over earth and executes justice.

Unjust judges deserve to wither rather than blossom. Thus, the lamenter seeks their demise according to the figures (drain, wither, dissolve, miscarry) of verses 7-9 (cf. Psa 52:1-7). But the joy of the righteous is rooted in the defeat of the wicked by a just God. The vivid and hyperbolic language should not obscure the essence of the Psalm’s call for divine righteousness in the world (cf. Deut 32:42-43). The imagery of “feet in blood” does not relish cruelty, but victory (cf. Isa 63:1-6; Rev 14:19-20; 19:13-14).

We must take the reality of a victimized world seriously, especially when structures of power oppress the poor (the likely scenario here). Pauls notes: “The forcefulness and prominence of this complaint, if it is to be taken seriously, must raise the recognition of an equally forceful experience of oppression and anguish lying behind it.”[4] The lamenter seeks justice from God. He/She does not take vengeance in his/her own hands. It is God’s job to meet out vengeance, not ours (cf. Psa 94). The lament will turn to joy when this vengeance is manifested (cf. Psa 52:6-7). This is submitted to God because the God of the covenant takes injustice seriously, and the lamenter trusts that God will act.

The lament evokes a vision of God’s justice which takes the side of the oppressed over against those who abuse their power. It challenges us to enter into their experience and cry to the Lord with them. It challenges us to seek God’s kingdom and divine righteousness. “The words which we have sung,” Augustine preaches, “must be rather hearkened to by us, than proclaimed. For to all men as it were in an assemblage of mankind, the Truth crieth, ‘If truly indeed justice ye speak, judge right things, ye sons of men.'”[5] Consequently, Zengar appropriately comments, “The psalm fights for the indispensable union of religion and ethics. The truth about God that people believe or proclaim can be tested by whether it preserves its adherents from the ways of violence and impels them to a life in solidarity with the victims of violence.”[6]

This psalm functions to express our righteous indignation against structural injustice within society. It laments the wickedness that pervades human social institutions, especially judicial ones. It offers a form by which oppressed people may pray for God’s justice in their land.

Consequently, Psalm 58 functions to call out the wicked who have rebelled against God’s kingdom and sought their own interests through injustice and violence. But it is God’s justice that is offered. We do not originate it, but rather we voice it to one who judges justly and with equity.

Israel’s struggle with injustice continues as our struggle. Just as this Psalm arose out of the narrative of Israel’s oppression by its own leaders, so our proclamation of this Psalm must be placed in our history. Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached this Psalm only days after key church leaders, including Martin Niemoller, were arrested on July 1, 1937. He railed against the injustice that was sweeping his country and called upon God to act.[7] We can hear the cries of African-American churches during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. We can hear the cries of Palestinian mothers whose homes are blown up by Israelis because their sons were involved in illegal activities.[8]

If we proclaim Psalm 58, however, it will make demands on us. It will call us to stand with the oppressed and empathize with the victims of injustice. But as we share the experience of the marginalized, oppressed, and poor, the Psalm calls us to leave vengeance in the hands of God. It is God’s work, not ours. Bonhoeffer made this clear for his own church under Nazi oppression: [9]

It would mean much if we would learn that we must earnestly pray to God in such distress and that whoever entrusts revenge to God dismisses any thought of ever taking revenge himself. Whoever does take revenge himself still does not know whom he is up against and still wants to take charge of the cause by himself. But whoever leaves revenge in God’s hands alone has become willing to suffer and bear it patiently-without vengeance, without a thought of one’s own revenge, without hate and without protest; such a person is meek, peaceable, and loves his enemies. God’s cause has become more important to him than his own sufferings. He knows God will win the victory in the end. “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord, I will retaliate” (Deut. 32:35)-and he will retaliate. But we are free from vengeance and retribution. Only the person who is totally free of his own desire for revenge and free of hate and who is sure not to use his prayers to satisfy his own lust for revenge-only such a person can pray with a pure heart: ‘Shatter the fangs of the young lions, O Lord, break the teeth in their mouth’.

Even more dangerously, however, is how Psalm 58 calls us to reassess our own relationship with the oppressed and victimized. Are we certain that we do not participate in the structural realities that oppress the poor and victimize the marginalized? As we proclaim this Psalm we must confront our own life. Zengar offers an important perspective: [10]

In the process, they very often compel us to confess that we ourselves are violent, and belong among the perpetrators of the violence lamented in these psalms. In that way, these psalms are God’s revelation, because in them, in a certain sense, God in person confronts us with the fact that there are situations of suffering in this world of ours in which such psalms are the last things left to suffering human beings–as protest, accusation, and cry for help. It is obvious on the face of it that these psalms are contextually legitimate on the lips of victims, but a blasphemy in the mouths of the executioners, except as an expression of willingness to submit oneself, with these psalms, to God’s judgment.”

The cry for justice against injustice is not unchristian. On the contrary, we cry out for justice (vengeance) as we await the coming Son of Man (Luke 18:7-8). The parable of the persistent widow is particularly appropriate for the proclamation of Psalm 58 as a widow cries out for justice against an unjust judge.[11]

Further, should we not rejoice in the day of justice (vengeance) when God’s kingdom is fully established (Revelation 19:1-4)? Did not the saints under the altar pray for such a day (Revelation 6:10; cf. 18:20).

Christologically, the Son will execute vengeance upon the unjust (2 Thessalonians 1:8) and believers will find rest in that justice. The Thessalonian epistle addresses young, persecuted Christians who find hope in the eschatological vengeance of the second coming of Christ. Preaching “imprecatory” (or justice) Psalms needs both an eschatological perspective and a sense of the present in-breaking of the kingdom of God that establishes justice and righteousness in the earth.[12]

When we empathize with the oppressed, we must also stand in their place and pray for the revelation of God’s justice. Psalm 58 not only cries out for justice, but it invites hearers to stand with the oppressed and act on their behalf.

[1]Hans-Jocahim Kraus, Psalms 60-150 (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1989) and Marvin E. Tate, Psalms 51-100, WBC 20 (Dallas: Word, 1990) both quoting Jeremias.

[2]James L. Mays, Psalms, Interpretation (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994), 211.

[3]Jo Ann Hackett and John Huehnergard, “On Breaking Teeth,” Harvard Theological Review 77 (1984), 59-75.

[4]Gerald Pauls, “The Imprecations of the Psalmists: A Form-Critical Study” (M.A. Thesis, Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, 1992), 39; cf. Pauls, “The Imprecations of the Psalmists: A Study of Psalm 54,” Direction 22 (1993), 75-86.

[5]Augustine, Psalm 58.1, available at http://www.ccel.org/fathers2/NPNF1-08/npnf1-08-65.htm#P1565_1174137.

[6]Erich Zengar, A God of Vengeance? Understanding the Psalms of Divine Wrath, trans. by Linda M. Maloney (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1996), 38.

[7]Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “A Bonhoeffer Sermon,” trans. by Donald Bloesch, Theology Today 38 (1982), 465-71, available at http://theologytoday.ptsem.edu/jan1982/v38-4-article3.htm

[8]See the homily on Psalm 58 by Mitri Raheb, a Palestinian Arab Christian minister in Israel, at http://www.pcusa.org/peacemaking/conferences/2003/psalmsermon.htm.

[9]Bonhoeffer, “Sermon,” 469.

[10]Zengar, God of Vengeance, 85.

[11]John Mark Hicks, “The Parable of the Persistent Widow,” Restoration Quarterly33 (1991), 209-23.

[12]John Mark Hicks, “How to Preach a Curse,” Lipscomb University Preaching Seminar, May 5-7, 1997, available at http://johnmarkhicks.faithsite.com/content.asp?CID=3913 and “Preaching Imprecatory Psalms,” in A Heart to Study and Teach: Essays Honoring Clyde M. Woods, ed. by Dale W. Manor (Henderson, TN: Freed-Hardeman University, 2000), available at http://johnmarkhicks.faithsite.com/content.asp?CID=11789.

 

Powerpoint presentation on Psalm 58.  20 Psalm 58


Psalm 44: Communal Disappointment with God

March 4, 2015

Israel had recently experienced defeat. Though perhaps an exilic context, it probably reflects a military defeat in the pre-exilic period (e.g., the invasion of Zerah the Cushite during the reign of righteous Asa in 2 Chron 14:9-10, the invasion of the Moabites during the reign of righteous Jehoshaphat in 2 Chron 20:1, or some other unknown battle). The protestation of innocence does not fit the exilic community (cf. Lamentations). Though the voice of the Psalmist is sometimes singular (44:4, 15-16), the plural indicates it’s communal character though perhaps led by one who represents the people.[1] The king or priest speaks for the people. Israel is bewildered by Yahweh’s hostility and indifference despite their own relative faithfulness, but they nevertheless trust in God’s own ultimate faithfulness to Israel because this is God’s history with Israel. Their communal lament confronts God with complaint and accusation but at the same time appeals to Yahweh’s faithful love.

Psalm 44 may be divided into five stanzas.[2]

  1. Praise: Memory of God’s Past Acts (1-3)
  2. Trust: Present Community’s Orientation (4-8)
  3. Complaint: God’s Unfaithfulness Towards the Community (9-16).
  4. Protestation of Innocence: The Community’s Faithfulness (17-22)
  5. Appeal: Divine Aid in the Present (23-26).

The Psalm begins with the past history of God’s faithful acts and the community’s trust in their faithful God. At the center of the Psalm, however, is a complaint directed at God’s seeming unfaithfulness. God has acted against Israel even though the covenant community had been faithful throughout the episode. Despite this incongruence, Israel appeals to their God for redemption. Psalm 44 is the communal lament of a people who, though bewildered, even angry, nevertheless invoke the faithful love of Yahweh.

The stories of God’s mighty acts in Israel’s history shape this poem. They are the background for the communal lament. As Crow comments, “In Israelite thought the Heilsgeschichte [history of salvation, JMH] was not merely a story about the past, but a mythos [a narrative worldview that shaped understanding, JMH] which touched the life of every person.”[3] Israel’s story as a corporate people shapes the individual lives of each person. Israel’s story is their story. But more importantly, it is God’s story. To rehearse God’s acts is not only a mode of praise, but it also evokes expectation of divine action in the present and reminds God of the covenant made with Israel. Kraus rightly notes that the motive clause in verse 3 (“for you loved them”) is a “hidden appeal.”[4]

In contrast with God’s past history with Israel, the present stands in radical contrast (the adversative in verse 9—“but now”). The series of second-person addresses in 9-14 presents God as the actor in the disaster that befell Israel. “The verbal presentation of God as taking drastic action against his people,” Crow states, “is so surprising as to be doubly forceful. Its value is primarily shock.”[5] Israel accuses God and blames God!

The protestations of innocence (17-18, 20-21) are each followed by an adversative (“yet”) that describes God as the responsible party in their suffering (19, 22). The appeal is relational. It is not simply a matter of Israel’s covenant faithfulness, but it is an appeal to the relationship that the covenant formalizes and embodies. The appeal might be characterized as not only the logic of covenant obligations but also the emotional appeal of betrayed relationships. Israel feels betrayed. God has not been faithful to the covenant.

The tension is highlighted by the phrase “all the day” or “all the time” in verses 8, 15 and 22. Israel boasts in God “all day long,” but now their disgrace is before them “all day long” despite the fact that they have faced death for God’s sake “all day long.” Despite Israel’s “all day long” praise and sacrifice, they presently experience disgrace “all day long.” Israel is disappointed with Yahweh. This is also highlighted by the shepherd/sheep motif. The Shepherd watches the sheep slaughtered (44:11, 22), and this creates the question: “where is God?” (44:23-24).

The community appeals to their sleeping giant who is no longer pictured as the aggressor but is inattentive. The appeal, however, is made from the posture of “prostration or self-abasement” where the belly cleaves to the ground (25-26). As Israel prostrates itself, God is exhorted to “arise” on their behalf.[6] “Falling to the ground is the posture taken after Israel lost against Ai (Joshua 7:6), while the six men in Ezekiel’s vision were killing the people of Jerusalem (Ezek. 9:8), and when Pelatiah son of Benayah died (Ezek. 11:13). In all these cases the posture is accompanied by fervent prayer to Yahweh not to destroy his people.”[7]

The final appeal to God’s love brings God’s past salvific acts into the present as the motive or rationale for the petition. The appeal for redemption uses the language of the Exodus (cf. Exod 13:12; Deut 13:6; Micah 6:4; 1 Chron 17:21). God’s story is the norm by which God should act. God will eventually act out faithfulness to that norm which is Yahweh’s faithful love. The petitions (23, 26) frame the questions (24-25). The petitions remind Israel of God’s forever love for them, and this shapes the nature and function of their complaint. Israel complains, but it complains in faith as it appeals to God’s faithful love.

The Psalm is filled with rhetorical and theological tension. “God as the only savior (king) (2-9) is in tension with God as initiator of the disaster which the people experience (10-15).”[8] The covenant faithfulness of the people (18-19, 21-22) is in tension with God’s hiddenness (10-17, 20). This creates an appeal filled with questions, but yet rooted in God’s character.

National or communal disaster evokes disillusionment and disappointment. It should also arouse introspection and self-examination as a communal process. In the process, the community laments—sometimes perhaps in penitent confession, but sometimes (as in Psalm 44) with protestations of innocence. Doubt, frustration, bewilderment, questioning, and complaint often arise in the hearts and prayers of the faithful people of God when they suffer.

The confidence of God’s people is God’s own history with the covenant people. The history of salvation testifies to God’s faithfulness to the covenant even when Israel is disappointed or disillusioned. That history climaxes in Jesus Christ who is the testimony of God’s covenant loyalty. Nothing—no communal or individual disaster or tragedy—can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. This is how Paul applies Psalm 44 to the new situation that Christ creates. God has demonstrated faithfulness to the divine redemptive intent through Jesus Christ (Romans 8:35-39).

Israel probably read Psalm 44 in times of national distress when there was no seeming reason for the disasters that befell them as in the days of Asa or Jehoshaphat. Narratizing Psalm 44 in the life of Israel is a helpful way of contextualizing it, and it provides a link with our own narrative. Psalm 44 could have been proclaimed, sung and prayed at the Mount Zion United Methodist Church in Philadelphia, MS during June, 1964. On the 17th of that month the African-American church was burned, and on the 21st James Cheney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were murdered by seven members of the KKK.

Psalm 44 could have been proclaimed, sung and prayed by Christian churches in southern Sudan where the African Dinka people living in Bahr-El-Ghazal were raided in January 1996. Several of their daughters were taken into slavery.

Psalm 44 might be prayed by Syrian and Iraqi Christians are driven out or slaughtered by the Islamic State in the Middle East.

Psalm 44 is even now proclaimed, sung and prayed in memory of millions who died during the Nazi Holocaust, especially the six million Jews—a million of whom were children. The following is a contemporary Midrash on Psalm 44:[9]

“You desert and shame us” — as they cut our beards and mass-rape our women.

“You do not go out with our armies” — with our resistance.

“You put us to flight from our enemies” — in mass exodus and transports.

“Those who hate us tear us to pieces at will” — using our skins for lampshades and our flesh for soap.

“You hand us over like sheep to be devoured” — in the gas chambers, crematoria, and gang burning-pits.

“You cast us among the nations” — as stateless and displaced persons.

“You sell Your people for nothing” — we are worth less than slaves, less than animals.

“You do not make a profit on their sale price” — our value is precisely calculated for work, starvation, and death.

“You make us an object of shame for our neighbors” — so that no one touches us, in the camps and even after liberation.

“A thing of scorn and derision for those around us” — they toss scraps of bread into the trains of our starving people; they make us defecate in our clothing.

“You make an example of us to the nations” — of degradation and dehumanization, a sign par excellence and a symbol of Jew-hatred.

“An object of head-shaking among the peoples” — in disbelief that something like this is happening to anyone, much less to us, Your chosen people.

In the midst of communal tragedy, the people of God are bewildered by God’s absence. We protest God’s inaction or, more potently, God’s violence against the covenant people, just as Israel did. However, as Israel models for us, we also remember God’s past redemptive deeds and appeal to them. We remember God’s faithful track record.

However, the present seems so incongruent with that past. Why does God sleep? Why does not the shepherd protect the sheep? Has God forgotten the covenant? The present and the past do not line up, and something seems terribly wrong, even wrong with God. Nevertheless, the people of God maintain their covenant commitment as they appeal to God’s faithful love. Given God’s track record, the bewildered and confused community trusts even as it accuses.

The homiletic point is that in the midst of our distress we lament God’s apparent hiddenness, but yet we appeal to the unfailing love that characterizes Yahweh. Our God has a track record—that history with Israel reveals God’s love, particularly the demonstration of that love in Jesus Christ.

[1]Peter C. Craigie, Psalms 1-50, WBC 19 (Dallas: Word, 1983), 332.

[2]Based on Loren D. Crow, “The Rhetoric of Psalm 44,” Zeitschrift fur die Altestamentliche Wissenschaft 104 (1992), 394-401 and Ingvar Floysvik, When God Becomes My Enemy: The Theology of the Complaint Psalms (St. Louis: Concordia, 1997), 59.

[3]Crow, “Rhetoric,” 395.

[4]Hans-Jocahim Kraus, Psalms 1-59 (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1987), 446.

[5]Crow, “Rhetoric,” 397.

[6]Crow, “Rhetoric,” 399-400.

[7]Floysvik, When God Becomes My Enemy: The Theology of the Complaint Psalms (St. Louis: Concordia, 1997), 57.

[8]J. H. Coetzee, “The Functioning of Elements of Tension in Psalm 44,” Theologia Evangelica 21 (March 1988), 4.

[9]David R. Blumenthal, Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest (Louisville: Westminster / John Knox: 1993) 99-100; available at http://www.emory.edu/UDR/BLUMENTHAL/MidrashPs44.html;

*This is part of an essay that first appeared in Performing the Psalms (Chalice Press, 2005), edited by Dave Bland and David Fleer.


Psalm 139

February 19, 2015

This psalm is a favorite for many. The first eighteen verses are some of the most intimate and lofty descriptions of the God-human relationship in the Psalter. Most find it comforting, even affirming.

But then a jolt hits us when we read Psalm 139:19-22. What does that have to do with what came before it? Why does this meditation turn toward a passionate rejection of evil and a wish-prayer that God would destroy the bloodthirsty? Where does that come form?

For this reason, some liturgies ignore 19-22 and only use verses 1-18. Some simply stop reading at verse 18 as if verses 19-22 make no contribution to the point that verses 1-18 raise. As it stands, however, Psalm 139 is a unit, and there is some reason (at least to the mind of the author/editor) for verses 19-22 to follow verses 1-18. It is important, I think, to come to grips with what is happening in this psalm and make some sense of this transition which is not only appropriate but telling.

Allen (in his World Biblical Commentary commentary on the Psalms) suggests an interesting scenario which might account for this seemingly disturbing conjunction of thoughts (Brueggemann and Goldingay generally follow his suggestion.) He places the psalm in a setting where a person is falsely accused (as in Psalm 7) or where one is pursued by violent people who want him to participate in their activities. In other words, the psalmist is under such pressure that it is important that God know him/her so that God knows (and the community as well) that the psalmist remains committed to God’s agenda. This person will not be lured or pressured into evil.

Verses 1-18 explore the point that God fully and truly knows the psalmist.  The word “know” (in some form) occurs six times (1, 2, 4, 6, 14, 23).  God knows this believer because:

  1. God has searched the heart thoroughly (1-6).
  2. No one cannot escape God’s presence (7-12).
  3. God created the psalmist (13-16).

The psalmist concludes that God is always with him/her, even thought the thought of this is more than the brain can contain. The wonder of divine knowledge and presence transcends the human capacity to fully understand (and perhaps even to appreciate).

The majestic descriptions in the first part of the psalm are often regarded as pleasant reminders of God’s omniscience, omnipresence, and omnibeneficence. God can even appear cute and cuddly in some readings of this section.

But perhaps it should be read with a bit more ambiguity.  Is the divine searching of our hearts something that comforts us or alarms us? When do we really want such? Do we really want anyone to know everything that is in our heart? Are we really comfortable with God probing every aspect of our being and discovering who we really are? This searching is open-ended, and it may have an uncertain end.

Nevertheless, the psalmist does take some comfort in God’s searching, presence, and creative intent. The reason, I suggest, is that the psalmist knows his/her own heart, and the psalmist wants to be known by someone given the circumstances. Yet the danger of self-deception remains, and this why the psalmist wants God to search the heart and root out any evil that lies in it. The psalmist knows his/her commitment to God, even if it is sometimes flawed and we are sometimes self-deceived. The psalmist seeks holiness and at the same time seeks vindication against those who would do him/her harm or corral him/her into violent and evil acts.

It is as if the heart cries, “please, somebody, know me…understand me…and be assured that I am committed to God!”  The psalm’s response is: God knows, and God understands. God knows the psalmist’s commitment and integrity.

The psalmist’s problem, however, is that his/her world is filled with violent and “bloodthirsty” (a lust for blood) people who want to involve the psalmist in their activities. They want the writer to join them and take up their way of life.

The psalmist’s response seems rather harsh to modern ears. The psalmist “hates” the wicked and hates those who hate God.

This is certainly not “polite” language. Some call it malicious language or hateful language. It is certainly intolerant language, and it is not surprising that one dedicated to God is intolerant of evil, especially bloodthirstiness.  But before we pour all our modern emotive dislike for the word “hate” into this language, it is important to remember that this language is about one’s priorities. To hate one thing and love another reflects one’s commitments and values. It is not necessarily a malicious personal dislike but an ethical commitment to a life void of violence and bloodthirstiness. It is a prov0ctive and emphatic way of saying, “I am a God-follower; and I will not follow you into violence.”  In other words, “I hate you” is a succinct and bold way of saying, “I have different ethical commitments than you and I will not participate in your activities.”

But how can “hate” your enemies here square with Jesus’ call to love our enemies? Just because “hate” and “love” stand in opposition in our common speech does not mean that this is the case in two widely different texts with different contexts. “Hate” and “love” are not necessarily opposites. Even Jesus said that if we want to follow him, we must hate our parents (cf. Luke 14:26). He did not mean that we must have a personal dislike for them. Rather, he was talking about priorities, just as Psalm 139 is doing.

Commitment to the divine agenda–seeking first the kingdom of God–involves both a hatred (rejection, opposition) of evil and a love for enemies.

So, how might we pray this prayer? Under what circumstances would it be an appropriate and right thing to do?

Imagine this scenario (and others come to mind as well). Suppose a young teenage believer, living in an urban environment, is pursued by a violent gang. They want him to join their group and participate in their next initiation evening, which includes a rape. He feels the pull of the gang since it is a protective community (at least for them), but he also knows it is not consistent with God’s intent for the world.

So, he prays. What does he pray?  He prays that God will thoroughly search his heart and know every aspect of his being so that whatever he prays is something that arises from his own integrity and commitment to God’s cause rather than out of personal vengeance. He recognizes God’s abiding presence and that no matter what happens, God is with him. And he trusts in God’s goals for him and knows God already knows the days that lie ahead for him.

On the strength of this intimate and trusting relationship, he prays that God will destroy this gang and keep them far away from him. They are violent people, and they seek to involve him in their cycle of violence, which always has negative consequences (it leads eventually to their own deaths in many cases). So, he passionately prioritizes the reign of God over the reign of this gang, and consequently “hates” them with a godly hatred that recognizes the evil that pervades their violent community.

On the one hand, he loves these gang members and would hope for a better life for them, and some of them are good friends whom he has known all his life. But, on the other hand, he hates them, that is, he hates the movement of their lives toward violence and intimidation.

His prayer is not about personal vengeance, and neither does he take violence into his own hands to destroy the gang. Rather, he entrusts this outcome to God and leaves it in God’s hands. Further, he asks God to search his own heart and to root out any evil motives or intent in his life or prayer. God is the ultimate arbitrator of both his own heart and the gang’s lifestyle. God alone knows the human heart, and God alone is the judge.

Psalm 139 is, in fact, an individual lament. It laments the violence of those who would drawn God’s people into their way of life, and it is a lament that contains an imprecation against evil.

Indeed, it is a prayer we might pray for all the victims of violence and for every woman enslaved by the sex-trade. It is a prayer for victims as well as a commitment to pursue justice.

With the psalmist, can we say, “I hate the bloodthirsty?” I think so.


Psalm 104

February 18, 2015

Psalm 104 is one of the great creation praise hymns of Israel. As worship, it blesses God as both creator and provider. As theology, it identifies creation in theocentric rather than anthropocentric ways. God is not only sovereign over the creation but is immanent within it. The creation is more about God than it is humanity.

Indeed, there is no hint in this psalm that humanity shares God’s dominion over the creation. While Genesis 1 looms large in the background of Psalm 104, the psalm does not allude to the role of humanity within the creation as the image of God (and does not deny it either; cf. Psalm 8). Instead, the hymn stresses that God is the central figure in a theology of creation. God creates for God’s self, rejoices in the creation for God’s own sake, and enjoys the creation to God’s own delight. God is the primary actor in this hymn, and no aspect of creation is without God’s presence.

Following some of Goldingay’s suggestions in his Psalms commentary, the psalm moves through various dimensions of creation and climaxes  climatically in the heart-felt worship of a believer. Psalm 104:31-35 is a liturgical response to the reality the psalmist envisions in 104:1-30.

In that vision the psalmist moved from divine transcendence to divine immanence, from God’s sovereign ordering of the chaotic waters to the use of those waters for the care of the plants, animals, and humanity. The psalm moves easily from God’s initiating acts (as in Genesis 1) to God’s ongoing acts in the care of the world.

God’s Sabbath rest in Genesis 2 does not entail inactivity. Rather, God created a world in which God would dwell with humanity and in the creation much like builders live in their houses.  Yahweh spread a tent–the heavens (sky) themselves–and came to dwell within the creation. God completed the divine work of building the home (bringing the creation into being and ordering so that it was now habitable space), but God’s work continues in the care, development, and enjoyment of what God has created. God is no couch potato lazily overseeing the world, but an active agent within the creation as an expression of God’s own joy.

I suggest, following Goldingay in many ways, the movement of Psalm 104 looks something like this:

Bless Yahweh, O my soul (1a)

God’s Transcendent Identity (1b-4)

God’s Ordering of the Chaotic Waters (5-9)

God’s Benevolent Use of Land and Water  (10-18)

God’s Ordering of the Cosmos (19-23)

God’s Ordering of Life (24-30)

Liturgical Response to God’s Creative Work (31-35ab)

Bless Yahweh, O my soul (35c)…and Praise Yah! (35c)

God’s transcendent identity is clear by the allusions to Genesis 1 in Psalm 104:1-4: light, heavens, waters. God towers above and beyond the creation; this is God’s greatness or transcendence.  This is clear in the images the psalmist utilizes. Yahweh wraps on light like a garment and stretches the sky like a tent. Yahweh dwells in the clouds; God has a luxury apartment in the heights (“in the waters”). Yahweh rides the clouds like a chariot as even the storms carry Yahweh back and forth throughout the creation.

The images, of course, are not literal; they are poetic. The language describes a God who fills the sky from one end of the earth to the other. Yahweh reigns over the earth and thus we ascribe honor and majesty to God. The poetry offers a picture God’s limitless power. The cosmos does not confine God, even light itself is a coat that God wears and the heavens are a tent Yahweh spreads. It does not limit God. Rather, God chooses to dwell in the tent.

Just as in Genesis 1, God orders the chaotic waters. At one time the earth was covered with water (cf. Genesis 1:2) and was uninhabitable. The waters represent chaos, that is, they are a threat to the existence of creation as a habitable space. But God is not threatened by chaos. On the contrary, God rebukes the waters and at the sound of divine thunder, the waters flee and gather together in the place God designed for them.

As the waters flee, the ground emerges with its mountains and valleys. Dry ground emerges from the waters, and the waters are given boundaries so that they will not cover the earth.  In other words, God creates habitable space for plants, animals, and humanity. God takes the initial chaotic watery world first created (Genesis 1:2) and orders it in such a way that now habitable land is present within the creation (thus, now it is “very good”). God takes the chaos and brings order to it.

God then makes benevolent use of this land, and the water satisfies the earth. Goldingay helpfully suggests that Psalm 104:10-18 has a kind of chiastic structure:

Mountains and Wild Animals (10-11)

Trees and Birds; Yahweh Satiates (12-13)

Yahweh Provides for Animals and Humanity (14-15)

Trees and Birds; Yahweh Satiates (16-17)

Mountains and Wild Animals (18)

Interestingly, water–though representative of chaos in the previous section–now becomes a blessing. God satisfies the earth with the rain, and the earth produces plants, which feed the animals.   The “circle of life” is present in the Psalm; life is situated in an ecosystem by divine design.

This “circle of life” involves birds in the branches of trees, goats on high mountains, badgers living in rocky crags as well as domesticated animals. God provides for animals that have no intimate connection with humanity, that is, animals that live in the wild or live in places inhospitable to humankind. Nevertheless, God cares and provides for them. God is interested in the creation even when it has no direct relationship with or connection to humanity!

The centerpiece of this structure, however, is the food God provides for animals and humans. Specifically, God provides humanity with

  • wine from vines to enjoy life
  • oil from trees to enhance human health
  • bread from grain to nourish the body

Each of these is subject to abuse (e.g., bread can lead to obesity and wine to drunkenness), but they are nevertheless fundamental goods which God gives to humanity through the creation. Each has its own purpose. Wine is for joy, grain is for nourishment (“strength”), and oil is for refreshed living (oil was used medicinally as well as to moisten the body after a hard day in the sun and scorching winds). These are creation’s goods that God intends for humanity to enjoy, even amidst the chaos that sometimes (even often) surrounds us (cf. Ecclesiastes 9:7-10).

God orders the cosmos. The present creation has darkness and light, night and day. The sun and moon have their functions within that order, and there is regularity in their movements. They are predictable.  There are twenty-eight days in the lunar calendar, and the sun rises and sets at predictable times. At root, this means that science is possible because the universe functions in regular, predictable ways.

This order extends to the the function of night and day in the creation.  At night the lions hunt, and humanity works their fields by day. There is balance to life, and God values each.  God wants both the lions and humanity to have their food; God wants both to pursue life, and  God enjoys both.

The reality of darkness, however, is paralleled by the “tooth and claw” nature of the creation.  The psalmist does not idealize the present creation, or speak of the present creation as if is the future new creation. Rather, it is realistic–lions kill their prey. Eschatologically, this may not always be so, but it is true now. Chaos still exists, and creation has not yet reached its full potential or its eventual goal. Darkness yet exists though tempered by the light of the moon and stars, but one day there will be no night in the new creation. That day, however, has not yet come. So, lions still hunt their prey in the night, and humans–unfortunately–often do the same, and even bring their violence against fellow-humans and the creation itself into the light of day.

God’s orders life. Like Proverbs 8, the psalmist appeals to divine wisdom as the root of God’s creative work. The creation exhibits divine wisdom, even if perhaps we might not be able to discern it at times. And it is evidenced in the wide variety of life within the world–on the earth and in the sea, both small and great. Indeed, God has an aquarium the size of the earth’s oceans, and only God has seen most of those sea creatures.

In fact, this ordering of life is most famously exhibited in how God orders the chaos of the Leviathan, which is well-known in the ancient world as a (mythological) sea monster. The Leviathan represents the chaotic waters and lives in those waters. Often it is pictured as hostile to humanity, and certainly no human is able to tame it (Job 41; Isaiah 27:1).

Yet, God plays with the Leviathan (NJPS) or enjoys watching the Leviathan play in the oceans. God is not threatened by the chaos that the Leviathan represents. On the contrary, God enjoys and delights in the play of the Leviathan. Even “sea monsters,” which fostered dread and fear among ancient peoples, do not intimidate God because God created “sea monsters” (Genesis 1:21). The chaos within creation, the Leviathan, is yet under God’s sovereign control and so much so that God can enjoy the Leviathan’s playfulness.

The ordering of life, however, is not all play.  The psalmist’s realism emerges once again in the affirmation that both life and death are in God’s hands.  When God sends ruach (spirit, breath, wind), God gives life.  When God hides God’s face and withdraws ruach (spirit, breath, wind), then there is death. This is the nature of our creatureliness, and one we share with all life on earth.  Whether cattle or lions, or human beings, life depends upon God’s breath. Just as humans came to life through the breath of God in Genesis 2, so they return to the earth (the dust of the ground) when that breath is taken away. Life and death lie in God’s hands, and so it should be since God is the Creator.

The psalmist offers a liturgical response to this poetic narration of God’s creative work.  The creation serves the glory and delight of God, and the wish-prayer ascribes this to God.  Powerfully, God rejoices in creation; God enjoys what God has made! The creation is about God rather than humanity.

Humanity joins God in this joy and delight, and sings and offers musical praise to God in the light of this good creation.  We are grateful for what God has provided, and we admire the beauty, diversity, and order as well as the mysterious chaotic rhythms of creation. So, we sing and play.

The psalmist describes his reflection as a “meditation,” as most translations render it. The word is not exactly about meditation. Often it is translated lament, complaint, or protest.  Here, of course, it is used in a positive sense. The semantic point appears to be that this is a passionate and deeply held perspective. It arises out of the deepest regions of the soul, and the poem is a passionate outpouring of love and praise for the Creator.

If the praise and wish-prayers for God are a natural response to this passionate poem, Psalm 104:25a comes somewhat as a shock. From where does this wish-prayer for the destruction of the wicked arise? How is this congruent with the psalm as a whole?

The passion for the good things of creation is mirrored by the passion against those things that are toxic to the creation. The psalmist’s passion for creation is also a passion against those who would destroy it. The “wicked” and the “sinner” may have a general reference, but I think it probably relates more specifically to what spoils the earth, the goodness of creation, and the ends for which God created the world. In one sense all sin does that, but the prayer is that God will consume those who are committed to the subversion of God’s goodness in creation.

It should not surprise us, I think, that in passionate worship that we also display a passionate commitment to God’s goodness. Should we not be angry with poachers who endanger the Black Rhino? Should we not be angry about pollutants that render our air and waters toxic?

The prayer that God might rejoice in God’s own works is concomitant with the prayer that God would destroy those who destroy God’s creation.

The psalm ends on a final call to praise. Though the psalm begins and ends as an individual hymn of praise (“Bless Yahweh, O my soul”), its final words address the congregation. “Praise Yah” is a plural imperative. The psalmist invites Israel to praise God in the light of the poem the composer has just sung. It as if a soloist has asked the congregation to affirm his/her testimony of praise by singing the last verse with him/her.

This praise affirms that the creation is neither anthropocentric nor biocentric, but theocentric. God is the primary mover, goal, and agent in the creation, and God acts for the sake of the other (both animals and humans) in all that God does. God is Creator, and that is no mere ancient title.  God is still at work within the creation!

The creation is not about humanity, and it is not about the biosphere. It is about God.


Psalm 66

February 16, 2015

Some people enjoy hearing testimonies. Others do not.

As for the latter, their reasons vary.  Some testimonies appear superficial or lack discernment. Some believe testimonies are too subjective and individualistic. Some regard testimonies as private, a matter of personal interpretation rather than public proclamation. People should keep “testimonies,” according to some, to themselves, and they especially do not belong in the worship assembly.

On the other hand, Psalm 66 reflects the union of communal worship and personal testimony. The psalm combines a hymn of communal praise (66:1-12) and individual thanksgiving (66:13-20). The former shapes the latter, and the latter gives voice to the former. The community of Israel, gathered for praise, hears the testimony of an individual believer whose personal experience affirms the story of Israel.

At the heart of the hymn of praise is an invitation, “Come and see!’

The invitation is for “all the earth” and its “peoples.” They are invited to join the assembly of Israel in the praise of Yahweh. Israel’s story is not just about Israel. Rather, it calls all the nations scattered throughout the whole earth to join in song and music in order to shout God’s praise. Yahweh’s “name”–reputation, presence, character–deserves praise because of God’s “awesome” (fearsome, awe-inspiring) deeds. When Yahweh chose Israel, Yahweh chose them for the sake of the nations so that all the peoples of the earth might share in the inheritance of the kingdom of God.

Specifically, the psalmist has the Exodus and the entrance into the land of promise in view. The journey from the Red Sea to the crossing of the Jordan is Israel’s redemption by God’s mighty power.

All the earth is invited to come and “see” what God has done. But how can they “see” a past event? “See” probably means something like “to experience” or “to encounter.” When Israel gathers to praise Yahweh, it rehearses the story of redemption and through that story Yahweh encounters Israel once again as well as others who are gathered with Israel to praise God.  To “see” the mighty deeds of Yahweh is to experience them again and to encounter the holy God in the midst of the congregation.

The story of God with Israel, however, is not an easy one. In rehearing the story, they do not leave out the wilderness and neither do they forget their long years of bondage.  The God who redeemed them also tested them. Through slavery and the wilderness Israel was refined as a people so that they might become the holy people of God who would enter the land of promise.

The psalmist believes God led Israel into these times of testing; times when they were burdened, even enslaved. Israel was, at times, entrapped, as in a net. Others mistreated them, and they went through “fire and water.” God used these experiences to refine, like silver, a whole community, a whole people.

Ultimately, God redeemed, and though God led Israel through “fire and water,” Yahweh also led them into a place of abundance–the promised land.

As Israel praises God, they remember the slavery as well as the Exodus, and they remember the wilderness as well as the Jordan-crossing. The divine plot-line moved a people through trouble to redemption, and then through trouble again to redemption. The trouble has its purpose–it is refinement, a testing. The refining process prepares us for further redemption.

“Come and see” is an invitation to participate in the story of Israel, and we are reminded that the story is both one of refinement and redemption. It is not an easy path, but one that learns to trust and depend on God through the trouble. This is exactly what the personal testimony affirms in the next section of the psalm (66:13-20).

At the heart of the personal thanksgiving is also an invitation, “Come and listen!” The psalmist invites “all who fear God” to listen to his/her testimony, to listen to what God has done for him/her. The psalm moves from first person plurals to first person singulars–from us to me. A personal, individual testimony emerges in the midst of congregational praise.

First, the psalmist addresses God and remembers the vows made and the prayers prayed when he/she was in “trouble.” In gratitude, the psalmist now comes to the temple to return praise to God and fulfill those vows.

Specifically, the psalmist offers burnt offerings. Usually a thanksgiving sacrifice is a fellowship-offering where the worshiper eats the animal in fellowship with God and others. However, here the worshiper burns the whole animal before God. This is an intensification of the thanksgiving itself. The whole animal is given to God; the whole animal is burned up. By this the worshiper dedicates everything to God and thus symbolizes the intent to wholly dedicate himself or herself to God. To burn the whole animal to God is to dedicate one’s whole life to God.

The psalmist’s testimony is simply this:  I was in trouble, I prayed sincerely (without hiding sins in my heart), God heard me, and God delivered me.

The psalmist offers no details, and this is intentional. The psalmist offers a model for future testimonies and provides an entry point for others to insert their own story of renewal or deliverance in this song. In other words, testimonies are for everyone, and everyone can insert theirs into this story.

This story, however, is Israel’s story. The psalmist has lived in microcasm the macro-story of Israel. Just as Israel was in trouble, was refined, and then redeemed, so this individual was in trouble, was refined, and then redeemed. The personal story of believers in Israel relives Israel’s own story.

More to the point, the story of Israel becomes the lens through which believers interpret their own personal stories. Israel’s experience as a whole becomes their own individual experience. Testimonies are legitimized in Israel because they are interpreted and told within the framework of God’s history with Israel.

The same is true for Christian believers. Indeed, Jesus’ own story is interpreted in the context of God’s story with Israel. Jesus passed through the sea, entered the wilderness–even to the point of death, and was ultimately redeemed (resurrected). And this is true of followers of Jesus as well.

As disciples of Jesus, we interpret God’s work in our lives through the lens of what God has done in Jesus as well as what God did in Israel. We use this interpretative framework to understand our lives in relation to God’s mission, praise, and goals. We interpret our lives through the lens of God’s story  in Jesus, which is the fulfillment of God’s story with Israel.

Consequently, testimonies are important. They are just as important now as they were in Psalm 66.

When the community gathers to praise God and invites the nations to join in the praise, personal testimonies are an important part of that assembly.

We invite all the earth to “come and see,” and we invite all those who are gathered to praise God to “come and listen.”

That, indeed, is the essence of assembly. We “see” God anew, and we “listen” to what God is continuing to do among all those who fear God.

 

 


Psalm 88

February 15, 2015

Perhaps originally an individual lament by Heman, the Psalm became part of the repertoire of Israel’s communal worship at the temple. The faithful community sang and prayed these words. These words were not hidden in a corner, but heralded in the temple courts as the congregation of Israel worshiped God. Though they may have begun as a personal testimony, they became the community’s voice as well.

But the words are startling to many contemporary believers. It is almost unimaginable that any believer should pray these words much less that a worshiping community recite and sing them in their assembly.

Unlike other laments, Psalm 88 has no explicit praise, no commitment to trust, and no explicit hope that God will answer. It only has one petition, and it does not request healing, resolution, or redemption. It only asks God to listen (88:2)! The Psalmist wants to be heard, which is one of the great needs human beings have. We want to be heard, and most of all we want God to hear our hurts, pains, and concerns.

While Psalm 88 is traumatic for many believers, it is a prayer that arises from trauma. Perhaps that trauma was a long, chronic illness; one that has afflicted Heman from his youth. He has often lingered near the grave, on the edge of death. The prayer is the testimony of a dying person.

Three times–and this makes a  nice structural division of the Psalm into three parts–the Psalmist cries out to God:

  • Yahweh, I cry out to you (1-2), and Heman gives his reasons (3-9a)
  • Yahweh, I cry out to you (9bc), and Heman questions God (10-12)
  • Yahweh, I cry out to you (13), and Heman describes his lot (14-18)

Each time, however, Heman uses a different word for “cry out.” These terms overlap in their semantic meaning, but the emphasis is slightly different. As a structural key to the Psalm, we might see shifting (or developing) moods in the different verbs. The first has the sense of crying out for help in the midst of some kind of distress; it is an outcry, an emotionally charged plea for help.  The second has the sense of proclaim or call, which perhaps reflects a public pleading for help as if it is a pleading in court. The third is a plea, perhaps couched in deep saddness, for deliverance.

I see movement in the three sections of the Psalm.  Heman begins with an emotionally-charged plea for help where he details the tragic circumstances of his life, and then publicly questions God about death and divine faithfulness. In the final section, emotionally spent, Heman–with a sense of melancholy–faces the reality of the situation where darkness is his constant companion (88:18). We move from shock to anger, and from anger to resignation, but there is no deliverance in sight.

The shock is that God has not answered despite the persistent prayer of one who has served God faithfully for years (Heman is one of the Levitical musicians or singers–he is part of the temple musical complex). Rather than deliverance, which one might expect from the God of the Exodus, he has found himself near death as if God has abandoned him and cut him off from God’s protective care. This abandonment extends to his friends who regard him as “a thing of horror.”

Heman is alone. There is no community, and there is no salvation or healing. This has nothing to do with his prayer life–he prays every day, morning and night.  This has nothing to do with his service–he is a committed member of the praise team!  This has nothing to do with his confession–he knows Yahweh and speaks the name of God in his prayers. Consequently, Heman is bewildered, confused, and perplexed.  This does not make sense.

The Psalmist is shocked that God has not answered. He is shocked that God lies behind his condition, and his prayer is filled with accusation.  God is responsible for his situation! That itself is a shock.

This shock turns to questioning, perhaps even anger (88:9b-12). The questions are probably arguments, but also rhetorical.  Perhaps he knows the answer to them (do they assume a negative answer?), but perhaps they are more open-ended, a kind of grasping for hope in the midst of despair. Whatever the case, this prayer-warrior is bold and addresses the covenant God (Yahweh) with direct questions. He wrestles with God.

The questions contrast death and the character of Yahweh.

Does God work wonders for the dead?

Do the dead ones stand up to praise God?

Is steadfast love declared in the grave?

Is divine faithfulness declared in Abaddon?

Are divine wonders recognized in the darkness?

Is divine deliverance recognized where people are forgotten?

This is a dispute with God about death. What good is death? What good is there in Heman’s potential death? What does God gain from death?

The questions affirm life. This is where God’s steadfast love and deliverance are remembered and praised. This is the arena of God’s redemptive work, and it is where Yahweh loves and communes with the people of God. The living praise God.

As Andrew Peterson sings in “Come Back Soon,” “Every death is a question mark.” Every death raises questions about God’s character, about the meaning of life, and about the praise of God.

Heman feels these questions.  Perhaps the dead do praise God, but Heman does not know this or at least he is uncertain about it. In fact, his argument is that it is better for him to live and give testimony about God’s deliverance in the land of the living than to die and praise God (if he can) where the living will not hear. The steadfast love of God is about life, not death, and Heman appeals to this  in anger and frustration.

This anger, I think, turns to melancholy or sadness.  It still questions, “Why do you hide your face from me?” But resignation is present to some degree–the reality has set in, and no deliverance seems near. Instead, he feels assaulted and overwhelmed by a flood of terror. God has not released him from death, and God’s “terrors” have frightened his friends and neighbors.  He is alone, and only darkness is his companion.  Darkness is the last Hebrew word in the psalm.

His prayer asks, “Why?”  Sometimes one hears that sufferers should not ask why, but sufferers in the Psalms did, and Jesus even quoted one on the cross (“why have you forsaken me?”). “Why?” is a perfectly legitimate question but without satisfying answers. Heman does not know the answer, and neither do we.  Nevertheless, we still ask.  There is something deeply emotive about asking that question. We vent even as we inquire. We yearn for meaning and purpose even if we don’t see any possible meaning or purpose that could be given to some of our experiences.

“Why?” is the voice of despair, even anger. It is, however, primarily a way to cope. To ask–to voice the question–is to act, and to act is to search for meaning. Ultimately, we give the question to God who alone can answer it. But sufferers must lay it in God’s lap and ask! There is nothing wrong with that; indeed, there is something (spiritually) therapeutic about it.

In the midst of suffering–a chronic illness, the loss of death, or whatever it may be–we are first shocked, then we become angry, and then we feel the overwhelming torture of sadness or depression. This is the process of Psalm 88. There is nothing inappropriate about it. Indeed, Psalm 88 leads the congregation of Israel through that very process. It is important for healing, growth, and renewal.

But are there signs of renewal here?

Heman is overwhelmed with darkness. Even in that darkness, however, he has a glimer of hope though it is faint.

  • He continues to pray, day and night, unceasingly and persistently. He is still speaking to God; he has not given upon on God.
  • He calls God by the covenant name, “Yahweh.”
  • He approaches God as an intimate, that is, he questions God and boldly places his heart before God.
  • He knows the story of God’s covenant love, faithfulness, and past wonders, and he relies on those stories for the hope of deliverance.
  • He addresses God, in the first line of the Psalm, as the one who is able to deliver, “the God of my salvation.”
  • The prayer evidences an intensity and depth of relationship with God; Heman still trusts God and prays boldly.

And yet, there is only one petition in the whole prayer:  “incline your ear to my cry.” This is a different word for “cry” than the verbs present in verses 1, 9a, and 13.  This word involves groaning, distress, and agony.

Heman is in agony, and all he wants–as far as this prayer is concerned–is for God to listen.  Sometimes that is all we want from anybody….somebody to listen. Perhaps God answered Heman’s prayer when the whole congregation prayed with him in song and music.

Perhaps that happens even today when we are willing to listen to each other’s agony, and then darkness is no longer our closest companion.