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.

Psalm 19

February 10, 2015


Some are voiceless, some form a narrative, and others offer a response.

Psalm 19 is a meditative response to words that make no sound and words that shape the life of Israel. The Psalmist offers a meditation on how God encounters Israel through creation and Torah and how believers respond to such gracious revelation.

Creation’s Words

In successive synonymous parallelisms, the poet describes the impact of creation’s voiceless words.  One cannot read “heavens” and “firmament” as well as day and night without thinking about Genesis 1. The “firmament” is the protective barrier that shields the habitable earth from chaos. It is not merely “sky,” but the word reflects God’s creative love.  God’s glory is that God has acrafted (God’s handiwork) a place that speaks without words.

Creation itself announces or proclaims, and it does this continually–day and night. Creation speaks unceasingly about the reality of God’s care for the creation. The intent of God’s glorious speech is to “reveal knowledge.”

In our post-Enlightenment world we might immediately think that this refers to some kind of deductive inference about the existence of God. In other words, some stress that Psalm 19 affirms natural revelation and that it assumes nature demonstrates the existence of God. That may be true to a point (and Paul in Romans 1:19-21 seems to think something similar), but “knowledge” here is more about relationship and encounter. The Hebrew conception of “knowledge” is more about intimacy than it is propositional information.

Creation is a place where God encounters humanity, and creation speaks in such a way that humanity experiences (“knows”) God. The kind of knowledge assumed here are not mere facts but the reality of God engaged with the human story. Many testify to their encounters with God through the creation. Whether it is a mountain top, a sunrise, or waves crashing against the rocks, many have experienced God within and through the creation itself. God communicates–creation speaks for God–in such moments.

That speech, though unheard, is unceasing (day and night!), and it is universal as it is heard “through the whole earth” and to the “ends of the world.” Everyone has access to this speech or revelation; everyone may encounter God through God’s good creation.

The sun is a prime example of this speech. It is universal as it moves from one end of the earth to the other. The sun’s heat is not hidden from anyone or anything. Everyone feels its heat–whether it is warmth on a cold day or scorching heat in a dry summer. One cannot miss the sun, and the sun declares the glory of God–it testifies to God’s unceasing presence.

This glory is like the glory of a bridegroom on his wedding day. As he emerges from the wedding canopy (or wedding night chamber), he faces the future with joy, excitement, and hope. Like a champion who wins a race, the sun races across the sky in triumph. The rising sun brings a new day with all the potential excitement of a new adventure.

The Psalmist focuses on the sun, and perhaps this is a mild polemic against Ancient Near Eastern sun-worship, or perhaps it is simply the grandest example of God’s glory day-t0-day. Whatever the case, the sun illustrates the grandeur, pervasiveness, and accessiblity of God’s speech through the creation.

Creation is God’s first act of self-revelation, and it is an act of gracious engagement. Humanity does not discover God as much as God speaks within and through the creation. God makes the first move.

Torah’s Words

Israel knows that God speaks in other ways than through the rising sun and the testimony of the heavens. God has spoken in history, and God has acted within history to enter into covenant (relationship) with Israel. That story is told in concrete ways–it is written in the Torah. These words are heard, and they are heard in the assembly of the people of God. Israel has been given the “oracles of God” (cf. Romans 3:2), and this comes in the form of Torah (often rendered “law”).

“Torah” heads the praise of this divine speech. It is, one might say, the controlling metaphor for the following descriptions:  decrees, precepts, and commandment. Those further terms are couched in the framework of Torah, and Torah is not primarily a legal code but a story that guides Israel in walking with God. Torah is instruction and guidance through narrative and story rather than merely specific case-law or isolated commands and rituals.

Embedded within God’s story with Israel are guidelines, directions, and formative practices that transform people into the image of God. This story:

  • restores the soul, that is, it renews life
  • makes the simple wise, that is, guides the inexperienced
  • gives joy to the heart, that is, enables a life free of burdens
  • enlightens the eyes, that is, enables us to see more clearly

The Torah–the story of God with Israel–provides a path for healthy, joyful and wise living.

The colon “making the simple wise” is particularly significant. This is the language of Proverbs 1:1-7. There are two paths in life–the foolish one and the wise one.  But the “simple” are often too inexperienced to discern the difference. The Hebrew term “simple” does not refer to a mental deficiency, but to the lack of life experience. The “simple” are easily deceived, easily driven by desires, and act on impulse rather than careful reflection (they react rather than respond to situations). Due to a lack of experience, their discernment is impaired or underdeveloped.

The Torah serves as a wise sage to help the “simple”discern good from evil, make choices, and understand the consequences of the different paths life can take. In other words, the Torah–God’s guidance–is for their own good and for the good of the community in which they live. It is not an oppressive legal chain, but divine wisdom spoken for the sake of human health and well-being.

As a result, the wise response is submission, that is, it is to fear (awe, reverence) Yahweh. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 1:7), and this humble submission and reverent respect for God calls us to embody the Torah’s wisdom in our own lives.

It is little wonder, then, that the Psalmist regards God’s speech as more valuable than gold or silver and sweeter than honey.  This speech is about life, authentic life. A discerning, wise life has better consequences than hoarding gold or silver, and it is much sweeter than the momentary taste of honey.

Our Words

The Psalmist confesses that Torah, God’s guidance, is both life-affirming (there is great reward in living a wise life) and a warning (there are dangers into which the “simple” might fall).

Indeed, the dangers are so pervasive that often they are hidden from our own eyes. The human ability for self-deception and self-delusion knows no practical limits. Most of our faults, I would guess, are “hidden” from us. We are unaware due to ignorance–ignorance both of the Torah and of our own selves.

The danger is that this self-deception can grow into an arrogance, and arrogance leads to presumptuous or defiant behavior.  It leads to willful sin, that is, sin that rebelliously lives outside the story. Arrogance presumes that the story (Torah) does not apply to them and they are the exceptions to the rules a community shares for the sake of the common good.

Because this danger looms large in every soul, the Psalmist asks God to forgive the hidden sins and prevent them from developing into a rebellious attitude. The Psalmist is committed to God’s story and wants to live within it. Yet, the poet knows the dangers and seeks God’s help in cleansing and self-understanding.

Yahweh is the Psalmist’s “rock and redeemer.” The fear of Yahweh is a stable place and a sure foundation upon which to build a life, and though our own self-deception often intrudes and disrupts that life, God is also a redeemer who forgives sin, renews life, and gives joy.

Let us offer our meditations–on creation and Torah–before the Lord, recommit ourselves to wise living in the fear of Yahweh, and humbly submit to God’s guidance.


From Mauthausen to Melk

February 8, 2015

On Friday, February 6, I traveled with our Vienna Study Abroad group to the Nazi concentration camp at Mauthausen, and then we visited the Benedictine monastery in Melk. Geographically, the distance is not so great (about an hour bus ride), but the emotional distance is huge if not traumatic.

Mauthausen was the first concentration camp established by the Nazis in Austria after their annexation of country in March 1938. From its beginnings in August 1938 to its liberation by the U. S. Army in May 1945, the camp worked people to death (mining granite), and the regime summarily executed thousands (including a gas chamber). Over 100,000 people died at Mauthausen.

The Melk Abbey was founded in 1089, and its religious devotion is evidenced by fact that it was the center of Austrian monastic reform in the fifteenth century.  The present Baroque facilities were erected in the early 1700s, and its church is the burial place of St. Coloman, an Irish monk who was martyred near Vienna in the early eleventh century. The Abbey survived both Joseph II’s confiscation of monastic property in the late eighteenth century and barely survived Nazification even though most of its property was used for state education at the time.

The camp has a serene setting on a rise of above Mauthausen which presently has less than 5,000 people living on the Gusen river that flows into the Danube, and the abbey sits at the head of the beautiful Wachau Valley situated on the Danube above the village of Melk which is also about 5,000. Both the concentration camp and the abbey overlook their villages and sit on high points that offer magnificent views of their valleys. Their settings are similar, but their intents are radically different.

Mauthausen was a labor camp designed to kill its inmates. Their daily diet was only half the calories necessary for subsistence.  They were literally worked to death, and certain groups were simply executed. For example, Jewish inmates were sometimes, to the amusement of some of their SS guards, “parachuted” over the granite cliffs to their deaths.

Melk Abbey was an educational institution designed for life. It was a refuge on the borders of Bohemia, Moravia, and Austria in the eleventh century, and it conducted a school from the twelfth century forward. The Abbey has been a center of service, education, prayer, and worship for almost ten centuries.

The two compounds, rising above their Austrian villages, represent two very different intentions. One arises out of a hatred for non-Germanic people groups (Jews, Slavs [including Soviet prisoners and Czech/Polish intelligensia], Roma), perceived social threats (same-sex orientation and Jehovah’s witnesses), and political dissenters (Social Democrats, Communists). The other arises out of a love for God and neighbor that devoted itself to St. Benedict’s Rule of work and prayer.

The two represent very different conceptions of human life. One uses forced labor and violence to secure its ends. The other practices humble submission and service to secure its ends. While they may share some similar ends, that is, security and community, the means by which these are pursued are very different–one by violence and the other by prayer.

Mauthausen and Melk symbolize–only miles apart–the “two ways” of biblical wisdom literature. There is a way that leads to death and destruction, and there is a way that leads to life.  The foolish choose the former while the wise choose the latter.

Nevertheless, there was something uneasy about seeing the two back-to-back. While the contrast in intention and work is stark and illuminating, the contrast between austerity and wealth was also shocking.

Melk’s Baroque buildings, golden reliquaries, and magnificent church pointed to the wealth of the eighteenth century empire that enriched it. The church and the majestic art, floors, and ceilings of the monastery reflect the glory of the empire (the Holy Roman Empire) as well as God.

I have no doubt that this wealth was dedicated to the glory of God, though it was also a testimony to the glory of the empire. The two were not easily separated in the minds of most in eighteenth century Austria. So, I do not question the intent (to glorify God) as much as the means.

We could raise all kinds of questions about how the empire acquired this wealth, how it was distributed, and what the life of the poor was like. We could question a hegemony where ethnic Germans ruled politically disenfranchised Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, Croats, Serbians, Italians, etc. The empire enriched this monastery. So, even as I admire the beauty of Melk’s art and architecture, I pause to wonder about the roots of this wealth.

Coming from Mauthausen, I wonder abut the origins of the wealth that created this beauty at Melk. The Nazi empire (the Third Reich) created a monstrous and unambiguous evil–labor camps and death camps. The Holy Roman Empire, through the Habsburgs, created beauty, though it also had its share of atrocities in its history.

Nevertheless, I am amazed by the beauty of the art, the craftmanship of the woodwork, and the genius of the architect. In that beauty I see the reflection of the God who created beauty and loves beauty. I see the giftedness that enabled such art. The glory of God surely shines through it.

Whatever its origins, beauty–whether created by the Colorado river flowing through canyons for millions of years or Baroque buildings designed and built by Jakob Prandtauer over a thirty year period–testifies to the beauty of God’s own life and God’s love for diversity within the creation.

At bottom, is it possible to appreciate and enjoy beauty when places like Mauthausen exist in the world? Can we laugh and enjoy the good when evil surrounds us? Can we go from Mauthausen to Melk in one day without feeling sick to our stomachs?

I think so, but only with care. Indeed, an ancient Hebrew sage wrestled with this very question. We call his work Ecclesiastes.

Qoheleth saw oppression, folly, and death in the world. He lived with a sense of frustration about how evil and senseless the world really is. Indeed, his motto was that “everything is absurd!” Life does not make sense!

At the same time, he saw goodness within the creation. He believed that God created the world and, though it is filled with evil, there is nothing better to do than to love, work, and enjoy creation’s gifts. He confessed that there was yet “good” in the world even though life was absurd.

I felt the same way on Friday.

Mauthausen bears witness to the absurdities of humanity! But Melk–both in terms of its medieval origins and its present beauty–testifies to the reality that beauty and goodness still exist in the world.

Melk and Mauthausen contrast–prayer and service battle violence and oppression.

I am grateful that Melk can serve as a response to Mauthausen, though we must be careful that Melk does not also lead us to sanctify empires.


The Closing Psalm (Psalm 150)

February 2, 2015

At some point Psalm 145:21 may have been the final doxology of Psalms. It makes a similar point to Psalm 150:6.

Psalm 145:21 appears as the concluding doxology of Book V in the Psalter.  Books I-IV conclude with independent doxologies attached to the final psalms in those books. It is natural that Book V would also conclude with a doxology.

However, there are five more Psalms (146-150). If Book V concludes with Psalm 145, what is the function of the final five? I think they are concluding doxologies (or praises ) for the whole book.

It is as if the final editor (whoever he/she/they may be) of Psalms was unwilling to end the Psalter on a two-line doxology. The journey through the Psalter is a difficult one. It is filled with lament and protest, but it moves toward praise and exults in the character and redeeming acts of God. The Psalter must end with praise…..and praise….and praise. There are not enough words.

Each of the final five Psalms begin and end with the Hebrew phrase often transliterated as Hallelujah (praise Yahweh, or praise the Lord). The word “praise” occurs thirty-six times in the final five psalms, and twelve times in the final psalm (150). The editor(s) concludes the Psalter with resounding praise–almost as if it is unceasing praise. So, the structure of the Psalter might look something like this.

Introduction: Psalm 1

  • Book I (Psalms 2-41) Doxology:  41:13
  • Book II (Psalms 42-72) Doxology: 72:18-19
  • Book III (Psalms 73-89) Doxology: 89:52
  • Book IV (Psalms 93-106) Doxology: 106:48
  • Book V (Psalms 107-150) Doxology: 145:21

Conclusion: Psalms 146-150

The final psalm–of the traditional Hebrew text–uses the verb “praise” twelve times. Every line in the psalm contains the verb. Eleven of them are imperatives (commands), but the next to last is a jussive, that is, an invitation to join the praise (150:6).

The repeated exhortation to praise constitutes a demand that arises from the story the Psalmists have told throughout their journey with God in the previous psalms, a journey with many hills and valleys. That journey ends, however, in praise.

God has sustained the Psalmists. God has not abandoned them, even though sometimes they thought God had. Yahweh is faithful, and from creation to Exodus to renewal in the post-exilic era, God has redeemed Israel and demonstrated the excellence of the divine character.

That praise begins in the the divine, heavenly sanctuary–in firmament that shields the earth–but it encompasses what God has done upon the earth, God’s “mighty deeds.”  The praise in Psalm 150 has no content. Instead, it has a standard.  We are called to praise God in ways that reflect God’s mighty deeds (God’s redemptive acts) and the excellence of God’s character.

The mighty deeds have demonstrated God’s presence and revealed God’s character. Our praise must be congruent with God’s story, the faithful and redemptive ways in which God has patiently continued to love Israel. We know who God is, and this demands praise.  Hallelujah, the call to praise Yahweh, is the call to engage the covenant God of Israel, the one who has acted in faithful love for the people called out of Ur and Egypt, and returned from Babylon.

In the divine sanctuary (which probably includes the temple court as a mirror of the heavenly one), how is this praise embodied?

Interestingly, nothing is explicitly said about the use of words, though I think the call to “praise” involves words.  Rather, the mood and atmosphere of praise is connected to instrumentation, to the sounds of artistic, exuberant, and bold string, percussion, and wind instruments. Israel praised God with (through or by) these instruments. They were no mere aids but means.

  • Trumpets–usually  used to mark movements within the liturgy, to announce significant moments, events, and transitions (much like bells are used in some liturgical churches).
  • Harp and lute, or “strings and pipe,”–the use of wind and string instruments as means of praise, as acts of praise of themselves.
  • Tambourines and dancing–we see the joy of the Exodus in the praise of God (cf. Exodus 15:20), and that joy continued in the celebration of God’s redemptive acts and faithful character.
  • Cymbals–perhaps also used to mark movements within the liturgy, but also to dramatically heighten the bold character of the praise. The cymbals are loud and resounding; this is no soft, solemn, or silent praise.

As one student commented, the instruments reflect how bold and enthusiastic this praise is. We might imagine the priests blowing the trumpets and clashing the cymbals at dramatic moments in the liturgy while a Levitical band (strings and pipes) provides the music that accompanies the words of praise are sung by a Levitical choir. In the midst of this offering by the priests and Levites, the congregation taps their tambourines and dances in the temple court in praise of Yahweh, their faithful covenant God.

This praise is the fruit of a life lived under the Torah of God and tutored by the prayers and thanksgivings of the Psalmists. Living in humble submission, absorbing the values and language of the psalms, and obedient to the Torah or story of God, praise is the fruit of such a life. Prayer leads to praise, and obedience leads to adoration.

Indeed, this is the fundamental identity of everything that breathes; humanity is homo liturgicus.  The final line of the Psalter, except the inclusio “Praise the Lord,” invites all creation (“every breath” as in Genesis 7:22), to join the chorus of praise.  As in Psalm 148, the cosmos–whether in heaven or on earth–is invited to praise God.

God gives breath, and that breath ought to return to God in praise. The breath in us is, in fact, the Spirit of God moving through us (see Job 27:1). As such, breath returns to God who gave it.

As the Orthodox theology Schmemann wrote, “every breath is communion with God,” and the Psalmist invites “every thing that breathes” to say, Hallelujah!

So, as people who sing, pray, and mediate on the psalms, we join the chorus of praise that reverberates throughout the cosmos,even though we have traversed many valleys and dark places to get to this point.

Our every breath is both an invitation to praise and a form of praise!

The Opening Psalm (Psalm 1)

January 31, 2015

Psalm 1, perhaps also Psalm 2, serves as a preface or introduction to the Psalter. It says something important about how we should read, sing, pray, and meditate on Psalms.

There is some text-critical evidence (variant readings) that Acts 13:33 calls Psalm 2 the “first Psalm,” and some medieval manuscripts write the first psalm in red. This suggests that some believed Psalm 1 introduces the whole book of Psalms. So the question is: how does Psalm 1 orient us to the practice of praying and singing the Psalms? That can only be answered by a close reading and focused understanding of the psalm.

Psalm 1 is neither a prayer nor a song. Rather, it is a teaching. Often classified as a Torah Psalm (that is, a Psalm that intends to teach, instruct, or guide in reflection of what Yahweh has revealed to Israel), it also serves as a Wisdom Psalm (that is, offering a general perspective on life), and both genres orient the worshiper who uses Psalms. The psalms become a way of life; they provide guidance in how to pray, what language to use about God, how to think about life in communion with God, and how to live with God in the midst of life. Psalms teaches people how to praise, pray (event protest), and give thanks (testify).

Psalm 1 is deeply rooted in both Torah and Wisdom as both teach there are two ways.  The righteous and the wicked take different paths. This kind of language is common throughout the Torah (obediently following God and refusing to obey God) and Wisdom (wise people and foolish people). Jesus reflects this same vision of “paths” in Matthew 7:13-14.  There is a path that leads to destruction (even self-destruction) and there is a path that leads to life (even the abundant life). The wise choose the latter while the foolish choose the former (Matthew 7:24-27). Can you sing the song? Upon what did are we building our houses–rock (wise) or sand (fools)?

As one student helpfully suggested, this sounds like “us versus them” thinking, or at least it sounds like a kind of arrogant “we are righteous” and “you are sinners” kind of thing. Certainly some might use Psalm 1 to reinforce their hostile and antagonistic attitudes towards others they believe are “sinners” (even if they are not). Clearly we neither want to claim any kind of sinless status, nor do we want to treat people with hostility in an “us versus them” sort of way.

However, I don’t think that is the picture here. Indeed, Jesus ate with sinners, and he loved sinners. We are all sinners in some sense. At the same time, Jesus also prayed the psalms (often quoting them) and recognized the distinction between the foolish and the wise.

So, what is the point of the Psalm 1? It is about the direction in which our life is oriented and the path we have chosen to take. Do we seek to live under God’s guidance, or do we choose the advice of those who live self-destructive lives? Do we choose to live out God’s story for our lives, or do we create our own story? We have a choice, and the crux of the decision is to choose whether we will humbly submit to God’s Torah (guidance, instruction, or story) or whether we will arrogantly create our own path. This is the choice Psalm 1 sets before us.

One path leads to death or destruction, even self-destruction. This path is like chaff in the wind. It leads nowhere and is blown away by the wind.  The path ultimately means that they cannot withstand the close scrutiny of life, that is, their life is ultimately empty and without substance. That path has no goal, and it ultimately has no place to stand. It is blown about by the winds of life.

The other path leads to life. It is a fruitful and productive life. Deeply rooted, it is stable. Planted by water, it is constantly refreshed and nourished. The path of wisdom results in a centered-life, and one that prospers.

But does the wise path always prosper? Surely we all know people, even the best of people, who suffer greatly despite their wise choices.

It is good to remember that we are reading poetry, and it is a wisdom poem at that. The psalm speaks in general terms. Within God’s good creation, a wise path tends toward life, while a foolish path tends towards self-destruction, which is the whole point of Proverbs 1-9.  But there are exceptions (Job is a memorable one within the canon), and the Psalter will remind us that they exist. In fact, the biblical psalms include the prayers of righteous sufferers, diseased devotees, and dying believers. The Psalter is not naive, and neither is Psalm 1.

Nevertheless, wisdom teaches that which we path we choose entails blessings or consequences. It says something about how life works within God’s created order. There are practices and habits that bring death, and there are those that bring life.

If we….

  • live (walk) by the advice (counsel) of the foolish (wicked),
  • choose (stand) the path of those who reject God’s Torah (sinners), and
  • participate (sit) in or join in the planning (assembly) of mockers hostile to God,

then we have chosen a path that leads to destruction.

The Psalmist has chosen a different path; he sits in the assembly of the righteous (disciples of God’s Torah) rather than in the assembly of the mockers.

The wise…

  • delight, love, and embrace the teaching (story, narrative) of Yahweh and
  • immerse themselves in that narrative through prayer, reflection, and worship

As we read, sing, and pray the psalms, we have a choice.  We may either submit our hearts and lives to the language, values, and story of Yahweh’s teaching through Psalms, or we may create our own language, values, and story by ignoring or rejecting Psalms.

Psalm 1 invites us to decide how we will approach the Psalter. Will we read in humility seeking to learn how to praise, pray, and give thanks, or will we read them in arrogant dismissal? Psalm 1 prepares us for a journey through the Psalter, and it recommends humble submission. Psalm 1, introducing the five books of the Psalms (which mirrors the five books of the Torah), invites us to worship and commune with God within the narrative that God has created.

Those who accept that invitation are “blessed.”  They are not simply “happy” like some kind of satisfied, consumerist state of consciousness. Rather, they are “blessed.” God has invested in their lives and provided a sense of “blessedness.” As they walk in the path of God’s story, God is actively shaping and transforming them so that they are trees planted by water yielding their fruit in every season of life. Blessedness is a divine act, and God gives it to those who walk wisely in the fear of the Lord.

Lament Prayer

January 20, 2015

God, take your hands out of your pockets and do something! Psalm 74:11a

A Lament Prayer.

Three Takeaways from “Exodus: Gods and Kings”

December 30, 2014

Exodus: Gods and Kings is filled with amazing special effects, wonderfully depicts the cultural situation (clothing, geography, architecture), and generally follows the biblical storyline.

Epic “biblical” movies are always imaginative creations. The Ten Commandments with the beloved Charlton Heston used a lot of imagination in telling the Exodus story, though it arguably followed  the biblical “script” more closely than did Gods and Kings.

When telling the biblical story visually, however, imagination is imperative and unavoidable.  Storytellers–whether verbal or visual or cinematic–tell the story in a particular way to make a contemporary point. We might hope that there is some degree of faithfulness to the overt lines of the story (and this is the case with Gods and Kings generally), but the intent is to tell the story in the present for a contemporary audience. In other words, if Exodus had been written last year, how might the story have been told while still retaining the main features of the reality it portrays? I suppose it could look like this movie. Maybe. At least one version of it.

Whatever one might think about the explicit divergences from the biblical story (e.g., the conversation at the burning bush is too limited in the movie, the omission of the opening confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh, absence of Pharaoh-Moses interaction about the plagues, etc.), the story is told to make a point(s) for contemporary audiences.

I heard several points, but here are my major takeaways.

1. Israel wrestles with God. Nun, Joshua’s father, demonstrates a tenacious hopeful faithfulness as he expects divine deliverance though he is uncertain as to when. In the movie, Israel waits for God, prays to God, and hopes in God, even as their suffering abounds and increases.

At one point, Moses–still a prince of Egypt–reminds the viceroy, who supervises the slaves, of the meaning of the word “Israel” (one who wrestles or strives with God). Moses is fully aware of this, and when he encounters God this becomes a prominent theme which grows within the drama.

Moses both argues and cooperates (or even abstains from action) with God. Moses wrestles with God. He objects to God’s decision to kill the children of Egypt (and perhaps we even nod our heads in agreement), but ultimately Moses accepts God’s decision (even when confronted by Pharaoh as to why Moses serves such a God).

This wrestling reflects some of the best of Jewish tradition. We see it in Exodus 3-4 and Exodus 32. We see it in Psalms 30 & 88, as well as in Job 7:7-21 and other places. It is part of the history of Judaism.

Israel wrestles with God. There is tension, and there is faith as well as honesty. God seeks human cooperation and honors the dignity of human freedom. One of the final scenes highlights this when Moses buys into the divine regulations we know as the “Ten Commandments.”

Rather than depicting the God-Moses relationship as a sanitized submissiveness, Gods and Kings reflects the raw reality that the book of Exodus depicts.  Moses wrestles with God, and so do we.

2. Jewish Holocaust Relived.  Forced labor. Burning bodies. Racial slurs. Summary executions. Genocidal pogroms.

The movie allows us to enter into the experience of slavery. We remember not only that ancient slavery, but the Nazi Holocaust as well.  The parallels are vivid. We are incensed with a righteous indignation, and we cry with the Israelites for justice and deliverance.

God expresses this righteous anger more than any other character in the movie. In explaining why the plagues, and particularly the last plague, were necessary, God points to Pharaoh’s arrogance and the treatment of Israel. The plagues are not about vengeance but justice and to secure the release of Israel from the holocaust they were experiencing.

The cry for justice rebounds through the history of the world. The slave conditions remind us that Africans were enslaved as forced labor in the Americas. The movie reminds us that racial slurs, summary executions (lynchings) and genocidal pogroms (mob violence) are part of our own American story.

As viewers sympathize with Israel in their suffering, perhaps we learn to sympathize with enslaved Africans, enslaved women in sex-trafficking, and the injustice pervasively present in the world even now. Perhaps our sense of righteous indignation is renewed.

3. Not by Israel’s sword, but by the Lord’s right hand. This biblical theme emerges in the movie. It is present in Psalm 44:3, Psalm 20:7, and Hosea 1:7 as well as other places.

I wondered early in the movie why Moses carried a sword rather than a staff after the burning bush encounter. Indeed, the staff is absent until after Israel crosses the sea.

Moses approaches the situation as a general who intends to train an army of freedom fighters. (The biblical story highlights Moses’s violent nature–he kills an Egyptian.) Moses will liberate Israel by his own might, ingenuity, and sword. He wages a guerrilla campaign against Egypt.  Of course, this is nowhere present in the biblical text.  This is a place where the script writer takes creative liberties in order to make an explicit point, which is nevertheless a theme in the canonical story and in the history of Israel.

God allows Moses to pursue his ineffective strategy until God decides to assume the reins and effectively move Pharaoh to liberate Israel. The plagues, depicted as natural events (though implausibly explained as such by Pharaoh’s own “scientist”), are divine acts that humble Egypt before Israel’s God. Egypt experiences horrors, and they now know how Israel feels in its horrendous bondage.

At bottom, violent revolution, which Moses chose as his strategy, is rejected. God uses the chaos of nature–a form of uncreation where God turns order into chaos when his creative activity turned chaos into order–to achieve the divine purpose.

The movie depicts human violence in negative terms, and in the biblical story human violence does not deliver Israel from Egypt.

Further, it is a purpose that is frustrated at times by Pharaoh’s own stubborness and idolatry (not only does he serve other gods but also thinks of himself as a god). Pharaoh’s hard heart increases the drama of the plagues. Human sin and rebellion creates further hardship (which is not unlike what sinful environmental practices do as well). Resistance to the will of God has consequences–for the nation, for people, even for children.

God delivers. We do not deliver ourselves. God remembers the promise to Israel and faithfully acts to redeem them from bondage. Moses’s freedom fighter strategy is discredited. Rather, Moses learns to trust in God’s mighty hand, and so we trust as well.



When Quoting David Lipscomb about Women…..

December 29, 2014

In recent weeks, some within Churches of Christ have discussed the rising participation of women in worshipping assemblies. Some find this disturbing, even rebellious, while others think it encouraging. Whatever one’s perspective, sometimes we hope to find some resource without our past to guide or enlighten us.  I think this is legitimate–not so much as a “source of authority” but for a sense of historic identity.

David Lipscomb is sometimes quoted on this topic, and he is quoted on both ends of the discussion!

I fear that while one may quote Lipscomb to encourage women teachers and the another quotes Lipscomb to reject women teachers, sometimes we do an injustice to Lipscomb’s own views and Lipscomb is used to merely serve our own interests.

One recent Facebook page cited Lipscomb’s comments on 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 from his 1 Corinthians commentary in the Gospel Advocate series (p. 216).

No instruction in the New Testament is more positive than this; it is positive, explicit, and universal; and however plausible may be the reasons which are urged for disregarding it, and for suffering women to take an active part in conducting public worship, yet the authority of the inspired apostle remains positive and his meaning cannot be misunderstood. He looks at it from every viewpoint, forbids it altogether, and shows that from every consideration it was to be regarded as improper for them to take any active part in conducting the public service.

There is no question that this represents Lipscomb’s understanding of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35. He opposed any audible participation by women in the assembly except singing, and particularly opposed any public leadership of the assembly through speaking. (See my understanding of this text in an 1990 paper.)

At the same time, Lipscomb was often quick to add that women should teach. When asked whether women should be permitted to teach in Sunday School, he wrote (Questions Answered, 736):

Yet women have the right to teach those who know less than themselves. Priscilla and Aquila taught Apollos. (Acts 18:24-26.) So I am sure that a woman may teach the Bible to old or young, male or female, at the meetinghouse, at home, at a neighbor’s house, on Sunday or Monday or any other day of the week, if they know less than she does, if she will do it in a quiet, modest, womanly way. I have seen wrongs done by them at home, in the parlor, the dining room, the kitchen. This does not mean she cannot do right in all of these places. She can do right in the Sunday school.

In an article in the Gospel Advocate (25 August 1910), Lipscomb further encouraged women teachers (pp. 968-9):

Philip’s daughters prophesied at home to Paul and his company. (Acts 21:8, 9.) Men and women are so universally addressed together as one and the same that it is rejecting the word of God to say women are not as much commanded to teach the Bible as men are. The only difference is, they are not permitted to teach at certain times and in certain manners. Women may teach and be taught at home, at the houses of strangers, as they travel through the country, at the meeting for preaching; they may take an ignorant preacher to themselves and teach him ‘the way of the Lord more accurately.’…At the Sunday school the woman does not usurp the place of a man in teaching all present. Only a few who wish to be taught or to teach attend. The woman does not teach before all who are present. She takes her class, old or young, to themselves and teaches them. I never saw it otherwise. In this course they obey the command given to teach the word of God to the people and to avoid the things prohibited to women as teachers and leaders of the men….Suppose a number of men, women, or children, or all combined, were willing to study the bible, and a woman was the best teacher they could find, and they were to meet at her house to get her help, and she was to teach them in studying the Bible; would she do wrong in helping them?…Suppose it was more convenient to meet at the meetinghouse and study the Bible at an hour not used for the regular church meetings, would this be sin? What makes it a sin to meet at the meetinghouse to study the word of God? [5]

So, while Lipscomb thought it unbiblical for a woman to publicly teach or preach in the assembly of the church with all present, he did not think it inappropriate for a woman to teach a subset of the assembly in a bible class or Sunday school at the meetinghouse, whether men, women, or children. He did not think it inappropriate for women to lead a bible study in their home, even with men present.

When one quotes Lipscomb’s views on the public assembly because they agree with them, one should also recognize that Lipscomb disagreed with them when it comes to women leading home groups and teaching mixed gender classes at the meetinghouse.

So, what was the difference for Lipscomb? At the root of Lipscomb’s analysis are several principles. The fundamental principle is that a woman’s role is a modest, submissive one, which suits her for domesticity rather than public leadership. Consequently, she should take no public roles in public institutions or movements. She may act privately, but she should not speak publicly, as this would subvert the role God intended for her in creation.

For women to enter the work of public speaking or of leadership in the affairs of this world is to cut them off from childbearing (Gospel Advocate [3 July 1913], 635).

Woman’s work in life is to bear and train children. No higher, holier, more sacred work has ever been committed to human beings. This is her chiefest work in life. If there were not a passage of scripture on the subject except to indicate this, it would forbid her engaging in any work incompatible with this. Public speaking in any of the callings of life that demand a constant strain on the mind, a constant anxiety and care in reference to the public affairs of church or state, an excitement of the ambitions for place and power, not only destroy her taste for and cause her to neglect the home and family duties, the duties of wife and mother, but such a strain on the mind destroys the ability for childbearing (Questions Answered, 739).

Lipscomb strongly objected to the increasing participation of women in any public sphere, whether it was in an activist movement like the temperance movement or in any public institution, including the church.  “Women,” Lipscomb thought, “ought not to be encouraged to make public speeches on any subject” (Gospel Advocate [13 February 1913] 155-6). This is contrary to a woman’s “nature and disposition” which is more “suited to a quiet, retiring service.” Therefore, “all public teaching and speaking on any subject at any place puts woman out of place, out of her God-given work.” The whole tenor of Scripture “condemn[s] woman’s leadership” in every place “as well as in the church on Lord’s day” and “forbids woman to take a leading public part in teaching people at any time” (Gospel Advocate [19 January 1911] 78-79).

Lipscomb opposed women speaking publicly on any subject and taking any public role in society. He thought this subverted the role God gave them in creation. So, in other words, Lipscomb’s view on 1 Corinthians 14 actually extends to society as well as to the church assembly because this is what creation teaches. Creation applies to society as well as the assembly, according to Lipscomb.

Lipscomb, of course, knew the story of Deborah and the public role a few other women took in Israel’s history, but he regarded these as the exceptions which prove the rule.

“Among the children of Israel a few women were inspired as leaders and teachers of the people, but they always came as a punishment of the people because the men were unworthy and were unfaithful…Isa. 3:12…It may be that the same principle holds good now and women are justified in teaching or leading only when the men refuse to do the work. The women taking the lead ought to be considered a reproach and reproof of the men for their deficiency” (Gospel Advocate [13 July 1913] 634-5).

Interestingly, the exception still applies. But the rule also still applies.  Consequently, Lipscomb would oppose any leadership role for women in any public sphere, including lawyers, presidents, etc., unless there were no men willing or capable of assuming those roles.

Where are we, then?

1.  Lipscomb opposes all public speaking by women, not just in the public assembly of the church.

2.  Lipscomb encourage women to teach everyone who knows less than them, including teaching men as Sunday School teachers at the meetinghouse.

3.  Lipscomb thought, however, there were exceptions, as indicated by biblical history, such that in some circumstances women could lead the assembly when men were unwilling or unqualified to do so.

But there is more! The vast majority of those who do or might quote Lipscomb’s comments on 1 Corinthians 14 would be unwillling to do so regarding 1 Corinthians 11 (though some would be quite willing to do so).

Lipscomb believed that the “positive” instructions of 1 Corinthians 11 were just as “positive” as those in 1 Corinthians 14. In other words, women–in the public assembly–were required to were some kind of head-covering other than their hair.

The custom referred to must be women wearing short hair and approaching God in prayer with uncovered heads. He reasoned on the subject to show the impropriety, but adds in an authoritative manner, if any are disposed to be contentious over it, neither we nor the churches of God have any such custom (Commentary on 1 Corinthians, 169).

Lipscomb was as certain about the head-covering as he was about the silence. The two stand or fall together for him. We need to recognize both when quoting one or the other.

Further, Lipscomb’s comment on 1 Corinthians 14 stresses the word “positive.” This is an important word in Lipscomb’s hermeneutic (how he interpreted Scripture). Many regarded Paul’s prohibitions in 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 14 as “positive” instructions.

O. A. Carr, “Woman’s Work…No. 3,” Christian Leader & the Way (30 May 1905) 1: “The language is plain and positive.”

J. Perry Elliott, “Queries,” Christian Leader 11 (5 January 1897) 2: “Paul’s language—plain and positive as it is…”

Henry Hawley, “Woman and Her Work,” The Way (20 August 1903) 810: “the Lord positively forbids it.”

John T. Poe, “Female Evangelists,” Firm Foundation (29 January 1901) 2: “she will preach in the face of God’s positive command not to do it.”

E. G. Sewell, “What is Woman’s Work in the Church (Again?),” Gospel Advocate (22 July 1897) 432: “This decree is like the one in Eden: it is positive.”

This language assumes a distinction between “positive” (like, “don’t eat from this tree”) from “moral” (like, “don’t commit adultery”) commands. This reflects a legal hermeneutic as this language is rooted in British jurisprudence (cf. Hobbes) and the regulative principle of later Puritanism. A “positive law”—a specific legal injunction regarding the worship assembly, for example—cannot be disregarded without dire consequences. “When God positively commands,” Harding writes, “we should meekly obey” (James A. Harding, Christian Leader & the Way [17 December 1907] 8). For example, “positive law” prescribed the five acts of worship and those who add (e.g., instrumental music) to that number sin against God’s law. Yet, “nothing in the Bible is more positively forbidden” than public speaking by women in the church. When women are permitted to speak (teach or pray) in the public assemblies, the positive injunction against such is violated and violaters fall under the same condemnation as Nadab and Abihu (Sewell, Gospel Advocate 39 (4 November 1897) 692).

This hermeneutic understands “positive” commands as timeless, absolute dictums, which are unaffected by the occasion, circumstance, and context of their articulation. Further, they are so absolute that Deborah becomes an exception (rather a trajectory that points to something more), and every theological principle or movement within Scripture is trumped by the “positive” declaration. The “positive” command is more important than any redemptive movement of Scripture toward full inclusion of women in public leadership others might see. The “positive” command trumps any theological hermeneutic because the legal hermeneutic is the basic one as one seeks to discern what the Bible requires.

If this is the case, according to Lipscomb, those who seek to obey the positive command of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 should also seek to obey the positive command of 1 Corinthians 11.

Further, if one quotes Lipscomb to support a current practice, then it is only fair (historically) that one remember that Lipscomb also opposed any public role for women in society as well as the church and required women to wear a head-covering in the assembly.

Those who use Lipscomb to support women teachers in Sunday School classes would also do well to remember that Lipscomb’s position is based on a public/private distinction, which may not reflect the views of those who use his position to further their own.

In other words, when quoting historical persons in favor of (a) or (b), the “love your neighbor” principle requires that we quote them with fairness, equity, and honesty. Sometimes it is difficult to do, but love requires it.


The Empathetic God

December 27, 2014

God became flesh.

God became human.

Incarnation is the act through which the Creator experiences the creation as a creature. This is both the uniqueness and mystery of the Christian faith.

The one who was with God in the beginning and was God from the beginning became human. The same one through whom the cosmos was created also became part of the cosmos, part of the creation.

The divine one lived in the flesh. Though previously God dwelt in the Garden and later in the Temple, now incarnate, God lives in the flesh. God no longer simply lived among human beings as God but now lives among human beings enfleshed; God lives among humanity as one of them, a human.

Why? There are many reasons.

The Western church has often, especially since Anselm’s Why Did God Become Man?, focused on the necessity of the incarnation for atonement, that is, paying the price for our sins.

The Eastern church has, practically from the beginning (starting with Irenaeus), emphasized that the goal of the incarnation is the union of God and humanity, that is, God becomes human that humanity might unite with the divine in close communion as God shares the divine life with humanity.

In the light of the Holocaust as well as the overwhelming sense of suffering within the world, some (including Moltmann among others) have emphasized that the incarnation enables divine empathy.

The difference between sympathy and empathy is an important one. We sympathize with another when we hurt for each other. We acknowledge their pain and express our love for them in their condition. In that sense we suffer with them. Yet, we suffer with them as outsiders to their suffering. We stand on the outside as we grieve their loss and express our love.

Empathy is different. We empathize with another when we share the hurt or feelings of another because we have experienced that same hurt or feeling ourselves. Empathizers are insiders; they know the hurt as people who have experienced it themselves.  They have previously walked in the those same shoes; they understand because they have been there.

As we remember the story of God given in Scripture, we recognize that God sympathizes with our suffering. God grieves the sin and suffering present within the world, and God expresses love for us in the midst of our hurt and pain. The relationship between God and Israel includes God’s sympathy for their suffering. For example, God hears the cries of Israel in Egyptian slavery, and God responds.

But we can see more. In God’s relationship with Israel, God is more than sympathetic. God is also empathetic. God knows what it is like to suffer. For example, God knows the pain of broken promises. God knows what it is like to be betrayed by a spouse. God knows what it is like to be rejected. God knows what it is like to be hated. God knows disappointment as God watched Israel become what God abhorred.

God understands betrayal, rejection, and loss. Consequently, God understands some of our most basic hurts.

But still God seems distant. Can God truly and authentically know my hurts in the way that I feel them? When God experiences rejection is it really what I experience? The transcendent otherness of God renders our sense of divine empathy practically empty. I don’t think this is the case, but when we are suffering, God seems too distant to fully understand our own experience.

God’s response to the human condition, however, is to become human.

When God becomes human, God becomes fully empathetic with humanity. God lives within the creation as a creature, and as a creature, the incarnate One is vulnerable to the same processes, hurts, and pains that characterize all human experience.

As the incarnate God, Jesus fully experiences the human condition. He not only suffers with humanity, he suffers as a human being. He experiences betrayal as a human being. He weeps with a family at the tomb of a friend as a human being. When his disciples desert him, he experiences abandonment as a human being. He dies as a human being.

But there is still something more here. Jesus’ experience as a human being introduces new experiences into the life of God. While God knows when others are tempted, God has never been tempted. While God knows when others are hungry, God has never been hungry. While God knows when others die, God has never died.

As God in the flesh, however, Jesus experiences temptation, hunger, and death. These are new experiences for God. They are possible only because God became human.

In this sense, the incarnation enables the full empathy of God with humanity. Only an incarnate God can be a fully empathetic God.

The incarnation, as an empathetic act, is the gracious and loving act by which God enters into our own experience of suffering. God becomes an insider to suffering. God not only knows about our suffering, but God suffers along with us as a fellow-sufferer, a fellow-human-sufferer.

God understands.

When we weep over the loss of a loved one, God understands. When we are tempted to the limits of our strength, God understands. When we are betrayed by a friend, God understands. When we are hungry, God understands.

God empathizes.

Christmas may be the most joyous time of the year, but it is also the time when God says to suffering humanity:  “I understand!”