Cartesian Dualism – the belief, originated by Descartes, that the physical world and the world of thoughts, emotions and faith were two completely different worlds.
Enlightenment – A movement in the 17-18th centuries in Europe which saw the human race as emerging from the dark ages and making significant progress in the world of science. thus enabling human flourishing and happiness. Human reason became the most important thing, with evidence gained from the five senses as the only reliable guide.
Modernism – The culture which emerged from the Enlightenment, in which human reason reigned supreme.
Materialism – the Modernist belief that only the physical is real and has value.
Rationalism – the Modernist belief that only the provable and logical is reliable.
Psychology of Religion – the branch of science which studied the enduring phenomenon of religious belief, and sought to explain it in scientific terms.
Scientism – the worship of Science as the all-powerful god.
This week’s piece of post-Easter psalmody is very different from last week’s, Psalm 23, which was about the individual’s relationship with the care and power of God. Psalm 148 is a psalm or hymn of praise, and it lacks any specific home in the worship of Israel. If it were in a modern hymn-book, it would be listed under ‘General Hymns of Praise’. Psalms of thanksgiving tend to praise God for something specific which he has done, but here we have a much more general listing of his qualities. This list of God’s creation may owe its order to some more ancient texts. It is similar to Job 38, to a passage in the Song of the Three Young Men in the Apocrypha, and even to the Egyptian Onomasticon of Amenope, where the creatures of the god Ptah are listed. But this ancient tradition has been placed firmly in the context of the God of Israel and his unequalled power.
Normally such Psalms fall into two parts: the summons to worship, and the reasons for worship. The people are called into the praise of God, and just in case any were thinking ‘But why should we?’, the qualities of God which are worthy of praise are listed. These two parts are present here, but there is another two-fold division, based not on the logic of worship but on the location of the worshippers. First of all God praise is summoned from the heavens (v.1). The angel choirs and the created world are both invited to praise God. Why? Because he made them all, and because by his command they are established and upheld.
Then the focus shifts and praise is called forth from the earth (v.7). All of the earthly creation is included, from the weather to the animal and plant kingdoms, and finally the earth’s human inhabitants. Why? Because of God’s almighty splendour, unequalled in all creation. But there is more – God has raised up a horn, symbolising strength, for his people. In its original context this might mean that God has renewed the people’s power, perhaps by restoring their fortunes after a period of trouble, giving them a new lease of life. This would fit with the probably post-exilic date of the psalm. But Christians can’t help but read this as an Easter psalm, celebrating the victory of God, through Jesus, over all that is evil and oppressive to his created world.
Today we too come to worship. This psalm reminds us about several things we do when we worship God. We come with all creation, which can be encouraging if there are six of us in a cold and musty country church. We come together – each of the ten summonses to worship are in the plural – ‘Youse’ or ‘Y’all’ praise the Lord. We come with humility, as part of a list which includes both the kings of the earth and the tiny creeping creatures of the earth – worms and insects. Probably we would put ourselves somewhere between those two extremes in the pecking order! But it’s good to remind ourselves both how small and how important our praises are to God.
Two more of our readings set for today, though, place the psalm in a bigger context. In Acts 11 the Church is beginning to wake up to the fact that Gentiles as well as Jews are welcome in God’s kingdom. Our worship is to be as inclusive as it possibly can. Anyone who wants to worship God is welcome, and we are not to put up barriers which God would rip down. And Revelation 21 reminds us that although in this psalm the created world has been established for ever (v.6), nevertheless the days of this creation are numbered, when, at the return of Jesus, both the heavens and the earth will be recreated, and nothing will ever get in the way of our praise again. We may be painfully aware, as we perhaps struggle through our worship today, that our praise has not yet been perfected, but we have the promise of a new creation where, without any sadness or suffering, we will worship for all eternity. Bring it on, Lord!
We continue with our series of post-Easter Psalms which continue the theme of thanksgiving and rescue, even from death. Today we come to a Psalm which many people know well, some off by heart, and often in the AV words. It is classified as a Psalm of individual thanksgiving, and Jesus may well have reflected on these words post-resurrection, and used them to praise his Father. Maybe even before his passion he found comfort as he contemplated what he knew was coming his way. But in line with my blogs, I’m less interested in how Jesus might have ‘fulfilled’ the OT, and more in what the original hearers will have got from the words, and in turn what they may say to us.
I was particularly struck by a phrase from one commentator on this Psalm. The trouble with sheep, he said, is that they ‘nibble themselves lost’. They see grass, they want it, then they see a bit more, further away, and go after that, and so on until they fall into a ravine or get eaten by some predatory animal. That clever phrase reflects perfectly what we shall be discovering about Consumerism in a few weeks’ time on my ‘Culture’ series of podcasts. We want stuff, go after it, and before long we are lost. So the opening few words of the Psalm are as significant for 21st century consumers as for 1st century Messiahs. ‘The Lord is my shepherd – I shall not want.’
When I was very young I thought this Psalm was a bit rude, translating it in my head as ‘The Lord is my shepherd, but I don’t want him’! I now realise, of course that it means the very opposite, but it is interesting that the job of the shepherd, to prevent the sheep from getting lost, doesn’t just lead to the consequence that we ‘lack nothing’. In fact the absence of lack is the very thing which keeps us close to the shepherd. We have no need to go off nibbling, because we lack nothing by his side.
One of the central motifs of the OT is the presence of God among his people. Other nations had gods who were up there, over there, out there, but Israel had a God among them, and idea which of course comes to full fruition in the incarnation of Jesus, ‘Immanuel – God with us’. It is interesting that the central phrase of this Psalm is in v.4 – ‘You are with me’. In the Hebrew text it is literally the centre, with 26 words before it and 26 after it. It also marks the transition from third person language about God (‘Heleads me …’) to first person (‘You are with me.’). A propositional faith has turned into a relationship, a conversation.
So do we lack nothing? Of course not! Personally I lack a six-figure pension, a few Armani suits, a Jens Ritter fretless bass (Google it!)and a cottage in the South of France. Lacking nothing seems an almost impossible concept, but another commentator suggests that the words really ask the question ‘When God is with me, do I go without anything I really need?’ The Psalm lists some things which God thinks we really need: rest, refreshment, food, guidance, protection,a great party from time to time, and eternal part in the end. So when we realise the riches we have through God’s presence and relationship with us, why do we still nibble ourselves lost? Listen to the Consumerism podcast when it comes out, and I’ll try to explain, but for now the Psalm is, I believe, an invitation to snuggle up and live more closely with God, and enjoy his presence and his presents, and to stop believing that the grass is greener somewhere else, or that our lives will be more fulfilled if we can just nibble a bit more for ourselves.
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: ‘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?
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.
This chapter comes right at the end of Deutero-Isaiah’s call to the exiles in Babylon to prepare to return to Jerusalem, to their home and their rightful place in the home which God had first promised and then given to them. Their own sin and rebellion had cost them this land, but now that has been paid for (40:2) and they are free, hopefully sadder and wiser, to come home. In later Judaism this whole unfortunate episode became more than mere history: it was a powerful symbol of the individual believer’s journey to find rest in God, and of what that final homecoming would be like.
I have recently been teaching a module which contained some comparative religion, taking on the belief of pluralism that it’s all the same God really, and we’re each free to choose our own path and customise our own ‘truth’. In particular we were considering what the idea of ‘heaven’ looked like in different faiths, from merging with the cosmos as a drop of water loses itself in the ocean, to the slightly more basic promise of 72 virgins. Between those two extremes lies Christianity, where heaven is often described as an eternal church service, with endless worship-songs. I must confess on a really bad day I sometimes wonder which I would really choose, given the option! But in fact there is another picture of the afterlife which is very prevalent in the Bible, and which is featured in our passage today – that of the banquet. In fact food and spiritual nourishment are very often to be found together.
The land to which Israel is invited to journey is portrayed in terms of its culinary riches, including milk and honey. When the spies first set foot in the Land they can’t but be overwhelmed by its riches, symbolised in the massive bunch of grapes gathered from Eshcol. In Proverbs 9 two symbolic women, Wisdom and Folly are contrasted, and Lady Wisdom is described as having laid out a huge banquet. She invites anyone who desires her wisdom to come and eat freely. By contrast Folly is portrayed as a slut who invites people to sin and shame. And several times in the book of Isaiah there is a picture of God setting out his buffet and inviting all the nations to come and learn at his table. This imagery continues into the NT, where several of Jesus’ Kingdom parables concern feasting, and where the Eucharist provides an appetiser for the feasting in the Kingdom which is to come at the end of history.
So what exactly is the deal with this food/wisdom/homecoming imagery? What is it about good food which seems to provide such a rich symbol of all the good things which God has for us? How about these suggestion?
Food is essential
That goes without saying, of course. When people are really down on their luck, it can be because they lack the basic fuel for living, as we are seeing daily on our TVs as people in Ukraine continue to be besieged. It has long been a successful military strategy to cut off from people the basic food and drink which we all need. By contrast God has been portrayed as the host at a great all-you-can-eat buffet, whose generosity provides all we need for thriving, including wisdom.
Food is fun
Yes, we need to eat to live, but there is a whole nother level where food becomes a great leisure activity because eating, and often trying new things, can be a lovely experience. Fellow curry fiends might have been through that stage in your life when you set out to discover how far up the heat order you could get. That feeling of my first Phall was truly something I’ll never forget, on several levels! Wisdom it may not have been, but there is something about good food which keeps calling us back for more. Truly wise people how little they really understand, and how much more there is stretching above them.
Food is corporate
Have you ever done this, or is it just us? Friends come to stay. They arrive, unpack, have a cup of tea; you chat, and then finally the evening meal is ready. You sit down, raise your glasses and say ‘Welcome!’ They’ve been here a couple of hours now, but it’s when you sit down to eat together that the stay really starts. That’s a picture of meals as homecomings. Our Eucharists are meant in one sense to be frustratingly small nibbles, because we join in to remember Jesus but also to look forward to the banquet when we shall finally be welcomed fully and completely into the presence of God.
… but be careful!
Whilst this picture of the heavenly banquet is a rich and tempting one, the NT reminds us that this kind of food needs to be consumed carefully. There are a couple of references in 1 Corinthians to the wrong kind of knowledge which merely ‘puffs up’ or bloats us. Jim Packer, in his classic book Knowing God warns us about this wrong kind of feasting, which becomes nothing more than an excuse for sticking in our thumbs and declaring ‘Look what a good boy am I!’ Those of us with teaching gifts constantly need to watch this: ultimately all we receive at God’s bountiful table needs to be geared, as is Is 55, towards inviting others to the feast.
revjohnleachblog will be taking a break for a week or two as I recover from Covid, take a holiday, and have my PhD viva. But in Arnie’s famous words, ‘I’ll be back!’ Keep your eye on social media!