OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Easter 3 – Psalm 30

One of the most common questions which Christians and not-yet-Christians alike struggle with is the problem of suffering. For Christians who have somehow picked up along the way the idea that God is there solely to make life nice for them, and will instantly get them out of trouble should something bad happen to them, the onset of suffering feels like a faith-shattering smack in the face. And Non-Christians who have kind of assumed that God is supposed to be nice and kindly can use experiences of suffering, both their own and those of others, as proof positive that God can’t be there after all, because if he was nothing nasty would ever happen.

So it is a bit strange that the Bible doesn’t really give us a clear coherent theological answer to this most severe of problems. It does give us plenty of reflection on it, notably in the book of Job, but even there the ultimate answer seems to be ‘Man up and get on with it – God can do what he wants’, which you may or may not think is that helpful. So if we do want to find some kind of answer to the problem of suffering, we need to dig deeper. Psalm 30 is one of the places we might begin our excavations.

The heading probably is not original, and does not refer to the original composition of the Psalm, but is likely to be a liturgical instruction for when it might have been used. In fact the suffering is alluded to, rather than described, so we don’t really know what dire circumstances the psalmist found himself in. It’s almost as if he’s saying that it isn’t the specific circumstances which matter; it is the general principles about how we cope with suffering in the light of God’s purposes. Whether the problem was some severe illness (v.2) or an enemy attack (v.1), or even a rebuke from God himself (v.5) doesn’t seem to matter. So what might some of those principles be?

First of all, he acknowledges that life is a lot smoother when things are going well (v.6-7), and that the temptation to complacency is strong. Even then, though, it is wise to see the good times as precious gifts from God. When that favour and protection seems to slip, dismay is an appropriate response (v.7) I’m very grateful for the times in my life when I haven’t had to ring for the fire engines: I need to learn the discipline of thanksgiving for those times.

Secondly, he realises that suffering will come, and that it might not be all instantly made OK. V.5 isn’t saying, I don’t think, that God’s help is always instant. It’s a realisation that in comparison to the lifelong blessings of God, on the grand scale of things our pain is temporary, a principle echoed by Paul in Romans 8. Following Jesus doesn’t make us immune, but it does give us resources to help, until we reach that day when tears, crying and mourning will be no more, and our resurrection life will seem like waking up from a bad dream.

So is pie in the sky when we die the only real answer to suffering? No, the psalmist says, we have resources for the here and now. The whole tenor of the Psalm is about praise for the God who has delivered him from his sufferings, literally turned things around, rescued him from death and restored joy to him, not after he has died but because he didn’t. As with last week, it is easy to see why the Church reads this as an Easter Psalm. The turning point was that he called out to God (v.2) – the Hebrew word refers to a scream of anguish rather than a polite prayer. There were two results of this cry for help. God rescued him (v.3, 11), and he pledged himself to heartfelt praise (v.1, 12). The suffering evidently restored his perspective, and taught him not to be complacent but to make praise a constant way of life.

But there are two more elements in this Psalm which are worth mentioning. The first is what we might call ‘blackmail’, which sounds bad but is actually a feature of several Psalms, and also of the prayer life of Moses. Here it comes in v.9 – Lord, this my reason for wanting your help, because if you don’t step in you’ll be missing out on my praises. Your reputation will suffer. We may find this idea a bit strange – trying to twist God’s arm so that he’ll do what we want – but we have to acknowledge that it is a common part of OT spirituality. And finally note the corporate elements which come through strongly. Because of what God has done for me, I invite the whole community into worship (v.4). In our individualistic culture we like to keep things to ourselves, but this joyful exclamation of God’s rescue provides an encouragement to the whole community to praise. This is testimony to others as well as praise to God.

One last word – I’m always aware when I write or speak about suffering of the danger of appearing glib, particularly to any in the audience who are weeping in the middle of the night of suffering, and waiting, perhaps for years, for the morning rejoicing to come. This is of course not an attempt to deal with the myriad questions and doubts which plague us during those long dark hours, but rather an affirmation that there will be a rescue, a solution, and accompanying joy, whether in this life or the next, and that from the eternal perspective our current sufferings, awful though they are, will seem as nothing. You might not want to hear that now, but it remains true.

Culture and the Mind of Christ

Part 1 – Introduction to Culture


Culture: ‘The way we do things around here’. The unquestioned set of assumptions we have about life and how everything works.

Worldview: The way in which we see the world and understand how it works. Divided into three different areas:

Metaphysics: the big questions about life, the universe and everything. For example: Is there a God or not?

Epistemology: how we know what we know. From where do we get the information to answer the big metaphsyical questions? For example: How do I know where there is a God or not?

Ethics: How should I live well in the light of my metaphysics and my epistemology? What is right and wrong, and what dictates what’s right or wrong. For example: if I conclude that there isn’t a God, because I can’t see any empirical evidence, what does that say about how I should live my life?

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Easter 2 – Psalm 118:14-29

I’m back, fully recovered from Covid and having had a lovely few days in the sun to recuperate. So here I come a-blogging once again, and a-podcasting too, as I begin my new series on ‘Culture and the Mind of Christ’, elsewhere on this website.

I spend a large amount of my time when teaching (and quite a lot in my blogs and podcasts) insisting that OT passages are not simply there to be read as prophecies about the NT, but must be read for what they are, or what they were in their original contexts. My students hear me saying, ad nauseam, that ‘a passage cannot mean anything which the original author did not intend his original hearers to understand from it’. But this Psalm creates some difficulties for that principle, since it is one of the most widely quoted in the NT, and indeed in the Church’s liturgy. So it will be hard to read it without any reference to Jesus and his resurrection, although we must try.

Ps 118 is the final of a series of Psalms, from 113 – 118, known as the ‘Egyptian Hallel’ psalms. The word ‘Hallelujah’ – ‘Praise the Lord’ – appears frequently in this mini-collection, and Rabbinic tradition tells us that these Psalms were all about the first Passover, and were apparently sung by the Israelites as they were escaping from Egypt, although it is very unlikely that they were composed that early. Psalm 118 in particular faces us with two important questions: what is the Psalm’s genre, and who is the ‘I’ who speaks through much of it?

In fact the Psalm shows a wide variety of different genres. It is clearly an act of corporate or national thanksgiving – that theme runs right through it. But there are also elements of invitation to praise (v.1-4, 29), and personal testimony (v.5-14). It is also about confidence in God, by someone who has been in real danger but who has been rescued, but then, in v.19-21 we have what sounds like an entrance liturgy, similar to that found in Ps 24. There is a cry for help in v.25, and a concluding litany of praise, in the context of a procession to the Temple (which would be very anachronistic had the Psalm been composed in time for the Exodus!) So all in all it is a right mess, and it’s really hard to identify it with one specific type of Psalm.

But what a beautiful mess! Maybe that’s why it proved so fruitful to the early Christians when they were reflecting on Jesus’ life and death. The crowds on Palm Sunday (echoed maybe in v.27) quoted from v.26 as they hailed Jesus’ triumphal entry to Jerusalem. But this same Jesus became the rejected cornerstone of v.22 who nevertheless was counted as vitally foundational to the whole edifice of faith. It is likely that this Psalm was associated with the Jewish Passover celebrations, and also with the Feast of Tabernacles, which celebrated the fruitfulness of harvest and the goodness of God, so again it is easy to see how Christians would have come to associate these words with Easter.

But the really perplexing question is about who is speaking in the first person passages. ‘I cried to the Lord’ (v.5) ‘They surrounded me on every side’ (v.11) and so on throughout the Psalm. No doubt the early Christians heard these words as those of their Lord, threatened to the extreme by crucifixion, but rescued by the Father on the third day. But originally they must have reflected the dangers which the nation had faced, and were perhaps voiced by the King as the leader of national celebration. So we come back to where we started – who is this Psalm meant to be for?

I think it is easy for us to degrade the original meaning of OT passages by claiming they are merely prophecies about Jesus (as so often happens with Is 7:14, or with Is 53) and had no real purpose and meaning before the Christians suddenly got it. There is a subtle difference, though, between that approach and Christians finding that the experience of Jesus is so clearly illustrated by ancient words that they couldn’t help but quote them. They saw in Jesus a further example of God’s rescue of the desperate, his bringing of new life and his defeat of evil played out before their eyes in Jesus. This Psalm invites us to put ourselves in the place of the ‘I’ speaker and give thanks for the rescuing power of God, thus renewing our confidence in him.