Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Daniel

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Daniel

Once again, apologies for the sudden disappearance of this blog, but today we continue our jaunt right through the Bible in even more over a year with the somewhat strange book of Daniel. It’s a game of two halves really, and most of us seldom get past half-time.

In the first half is the well-known story of a young man and his friends who are exiled to Babylon with the other Israelites, but rather than being set to work with the navvies they are welcomed into the royal court and trained as civil servants. However jealousy causes some of the Babylonian courtiers to manipulate the king such that their continued devotion to their God will get them put to death. Twice there are miraculous escapes, once from lions and also from a furnace, and eventually king Nebuchadnezzar is humbled and broken by God until he comes to be a faithful believer. It’s a great story of the ultimate victory of God in the lives of those who stand firm for him, a story which is challenged in today’s world where we see Christians being killed for their faith in ever-increasing numbers.

Peter Paul Rubens. Daniel in the Lions' Den.

But then it all goes funny, as we get our first taste of a new biblical genre: apocalyptic. The word refers to the drawing back of a curtain so that what is hidden may now be seen, hence the name of the book of Revelation, the most famous piece of apocalyptic literature, to which we shall come eventually. So what is apocalyptic, and how should we read it?

It is generally considered to be the next step on from the prophetic literature. The prophets believed in a day when God would come and right all the wrongs in the world, but when things got even worse a new belief arose, that things were past the pint of a mere tweaking, and that God was going to sweep everything away and start again. So apocalyptic literature talks about cosmic upheaval with stars and planets being destroyed, the moon turning to blood, earthquakes, floods and the like, before God recreated the world, hoping that things would be better at the second attempt. And because apocalyptic usually comes out of a period of persecution, it is written in a kind of code, with symbolic images, numbers and so on meant only to be accessible to those in the know.

Now obviously if I, John of Upminster, wrote such a book, people would quite rightly ask who the heck I was and why on earth anyone should listen to me. So if I wanted to get my work out there I would choose a nom-de-plume with a bit more credibility, Hugh of Lincoln, for example. And then, writing in St Hugh’s name, I would ‘predict’ all sorts of stuff yet to come, like two world wars, Margaret Thatcher, the banking crisis and Caroline Flack’s victory in Strictly Come Dancing. By now people are hooked by ‘Hugh’s’ tremendous prophetic gifting, and so they would believe anything he said about the real future without a second thought. Apocalyptic literature is therefore pretty easy to date, because it suddenly becomes vague. Look at the change between chapters 11 and 12: there are very detailed accounts of exactly what the ‘king who exalts himself’ is up to, but suddenly in the next chapter there will merely be ‘a time of distress’. Historians can work out with come certainty (although always with scholarly debate) who this king was, and so date the work at the point at which the detail disappears.

So my view is that Daniel was a real guy, from the exile, to whose wonderful story some apocalyptic was attached to give it credibility. We’ll be looking at more apocalyptic material as we go on, so I won’t say more here, but the fundamental message is that God is ultimately in control, no matter how much the evil rulers try to thwart his purposes. So stand firm, hang on in there, as Daniel did, refuse to compromise, and wait for the salvation of the Lord.

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Ezekiel

Hold on to your hats folks – this is where prophecy gets seriously weird. Although Isaiah of Jerusalem wins the prize for the Bible’s first streaker (a prize later taken from him by St Mark) Ezekiel wins every award for strange behaviour. A rough contemporary of Jeremiah, his ministry also spanned the time running up to the exile and continued with the displaced Israelites. His writings look as though they might come from a priest, with a great concentration on God’s holiness and an emphasis on the Temple and its worship, particularly in his final four chapters which set out a vision for the renewed temple. The first 33 chapters warn the people that exile and punishment are inevitable, but then as Ezekiel joins the exiles in slave labour his message becomes one of comfort, hope, and a new vision for the future.

But while Deutero-Isaiah presents his prophecies in beautiful language, Ezekiel is more often to be found acting them out, using symbolic behaviour to communicate with the Israelites. Even his original call is strange: the vision of what has been described as a flying saucer is one of the most famous, and most weird, sections of the book. He is straight into his symbolic ministry: he has to eat the scroll which he sees in a vision, with words of mourning and lament on it, and then he has to enact the siege of Jerusalem using a lump of clay, and iron pan, and a stove fuelled by human poo, whilst lying still for 430 days. Following that he has to give himself a haircut, weigh out his hair into three parts, and do various things with it all round the city. I’m guessing that his public image might have left a little to be desired.

Raphael. Ezekiel's Vision.

Yet his message, whether or not anyone got it, is the same as that of his contemporaries: by their behaviour the people have offended against the holiness of God, and so are due for the most severe of punishments. God has turned against his own people, and his glory, the symbol of his presence among them, is seen departing from the temple. There is a change of gear as chapter 34 begins, in another purple passage in which God decries the false leaders of the nation and promises instead that he himself will be their shepherd. The vision of the Valley of Dry Bones is yet another promise of restoration, and the book closes as God’s glory returns in chapter 43, the Temple and its altar are restored, the priesthood rededicated, and the Temple symbolically becomes a place of healing and refreshment for all. The city itself will be renewed, and the new name of it, with which the book ends, is THE LORD IS THERE.

Like much prophecy there is a sort of telescope effect which means that it is difficult to see when the fulfilment came or will come, but clearly, as we discovered from Trito-Isaiah, the restored Jerusalem was not quite the place of perfection predicted. This inevitably leads us to look further into the distance, and to see in Ezekiel’s words something of the time when God’s promise of a new heaven and a new earth will have been fulfilled. A weird book indeed, but one of great encouragement and hope.

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Lamentations

This week’s book is just what we all need for those post-Easter back-to-work blues. Last week we talked about Jeremiah’s grief at the destruction of his city of Jerusalem and, deeper than that, the dying of a whole culture, and we noted that, unlike many prophetic books, Jeremiah’s contains several passages in which he pours out the grief of his broken heart. If, as is traditionally assumed, Lamentations is from his pen, we get the full horror of his devastation in these five chapters.

Lament is not something the church has always been good at, at least those more hopeful and upbeat sections of it. But like other kinds of literature in the Bible lament has its form, and its rules. This book uses the form of funeral poems, cast in typical lament structure, and it is a book from which we can learn much.

I am indebted to a very helpful Grove Book called Sowing in Tears by Paul Bradbury[1]. Subtitled ‘How to Lament in a Church of Praise’ it makes the point that charismatic churches can be so focussed on future triumph that present suffering can easily be downplayed or excluded altogether from the church’s worship and spirituality. After all, we should all be walking in faith and victory. He examines ‘Lament form’ and uses it as a framework to contain both sorrow and hope, just as the author of our book does.

Lament

So we begin with an extended description of just what it is that has gone wrong. The city is devastated and deserted; worship has ceased, her enemies have triumphed over her and have plundered her; the few people remaining are close to starvation, and nobody cares. Like the prophet the city is without comfort or help. Chapter 1 ends with a plea for God to judge those who have caused all this distress.

In chapter 2 the blame shifts, and there is a recognition that God is actually behind this devastation, which is seen as punishment. The Lord has done exactly what he said he would do. Chapter 3 becomes more personal as the author talks in greater detail about what all this has done to him personally. But then in what is the purple passage of the book hope springs up in 3:21. At least God has not destroyed us altogether: because of his love, mercy and faithfulness hope remains. The appropriate response, therefore is patient submission and waiting. But then the lament theme re-emerges and what looks like Jeremiah’s personal suffering at the hand of those who found his message unacceptable is recounted. Chapter 4 is more of the same, reminding us that even though hope springs up briefly it has not yet fully overcome the need to mourn. The final chapter is a prayer to the endlessly reigning God to restore the people’s fortunes, but the poignant coda adds ‘Unless you have utterly rejected us’.

Lamentations is a powerful book, too little preached on, and too dominated by the church’s love for the short nice bit in chapter 3 with little acknowledgement of the reality of the rest. Paul Bradbury’s advice to us is to use the lament form, which moves from deepest devastation to hope to prayer as a ‘container’ for our griefs and sorrows. Certainly it is appropriate that we resist all attempts to jolly us, or those we stand alongside in their suffering, towards resolution before we have been given the chance fully to lament our woes. Without a full expression of the experience of the pain of suffering and loss, any attempts at rushing people towards hope and joy are very likely to be superficial. Lamentations gives us a good framework: it is a book which needs to be preached and prayed far more than it is.

[1] Grove Worship Series W193 (Cambridge: Grove, 2007)

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Jeremiah

This far through our odyssey we’re beginning to get a broad overview of OT history. We’ve seen the judges and the monarchy, the decline and fall of Israel and the exile in Babylon, and then Ezra and Nehemiah’s return and rebuilding in Jerusalem. This big picture will be helpful to keep in mind as we explore the remaining prophetic books, each of which will be positioned somewhere in this story.

Jeremiah has the reputation of being the most miserable of the prophets, and it is easy to see why. His ministry crossed the time before and into the exile, and his words fall pretty much into two halves, firstly warning the unrepentant Israelites that it has become too late for repentance: they simply have to accept their punishment at the hands of Babylon and suck it up. Then, as Jerusalem falls and the people are carried off, he turns to speaking to the ruling classes in exile, telling them that God was still in control and would fulfil his purposes through them if they just kept the faith. Meanwhile the peasants who remained in the now devastated Judah were encouraged simply to accept their lot and wait patiently for God’s salvation.

This is familiar stuff – Jeremiah was roughly contemporary with Isaiah of Jerusalem, and had a similar if much harder message. Isaiah believed that repentance and salvation were still possible, while Jeremiah’s message was that the nation’s apostasy had gone beyond the point of no return. But there are two things which make this book stand out from the crowd. The first is the high proportion of biographical material. Most of the prophetic books give at least some detail about the prophet himself, but Jeremiah has given us not just many narrative details of his career, but also some very poignant outpourings of his own emotions as he is ignored, rejected and persecuted. We also feel something of his pain as the city he loves is razed to the ground by foreign invaders, although nowhere near as much as we are going to feel next week. We are reminded that we are reading about a real person, whose calling from God meant that his life was one of almost complete rejection. The promise from God in 29:11 that he had plans to prosper the people, and that he would not harm them, a purple passage owned by Christians down the years, certainly didn’t seem to be fulfilled in Jeremiah’s own life. We are reminded of the cost of Christian ministry, and the fact that in his love for us God is not committed to giving us an easy life if we obey him.

Rembrandt. The Prophet Jeremiah Mourning  over the Destruction of Jerusalem.

The other significance of Jeremiah’s prophecy is its strong relevance to today’s culture. He ministered at a time when society was literally crumbling and giving way to a new order. Culture-watchers have defined the late 20th century, with the death of enlightenment modernism and the tectonic shift to postmodernity and beyond as a time which parallels the fall of Jerusalem and the end of the settled lifestyle which had been Israel’s since the days of the judges. We watch with Jeremiah at the end of an era; we feel his pain, confusion and uncertainty, and we hear his reassurances that the unchanging God is still somehow in charge, even if, like his original hearers, we find it all a bit hard to believe. Jeremiah makes good reading for Christians who feel that the world is going to hell in a handcart. He validates our grief but yet holds out to us the offer of hope.

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Isaiah Part 3

First of all, apologies to my regular readers for missing a week. Busy busy busy doing discipleship around the diocese. I’m now back in the office so here we go with the third section of the book of Isaiah, from chapters 56 – 66.

So far we have heard Isaiah of Jerusalem warning the people of imminent punishment by exile, and Deutero-Isaiah comforting them and telling them that their punishment is over. The final few chapters of the book once again presuppose a very different audience in a very different situation, suggesting a third prophet, whom we have quite logically named ‘Trito-Isaiah’. The people are now no longer wicked, idolatrous and godless, nor ravaged and in despair. They have returned to Jerusalem, the city and the Temple have been rebuilt, and all their hopes and dreams have come true. And yet …

You know that feeling when you come back from a great holiday? You’ve been looking forward to getting back home, but then it all feels just kind of … flat. It was pretty rough for the people in exile, but it certainly wasn’t boring. Now, though, they have lost vision. They need a new hope, a new future, now that everything they had hoped for has happened. So the prophet addresses the people with three main themes.

Boredom

He turns his attention, firstly, to a much bigger and more eschatological vision for the future. ‘There is more to life than this!’ he tells them. There are images of glory for the nation which are far more exciting than mere comfort and more of the same. The prophecy ends with a vision very much in keeping with John’s in Revelation: there will be a new heavens and a new earth, a reign of peace and prosperity, and a special place for those who are God’s people.

Secondly he sets before the people a much wider vision of their role among the nations. This is a theme which we have seen time and time again since the call of Abraham: God’s chosen people are chosen to give the good things of the kingdom to everyone else. Perhaps the most purple of the passages in this section are chapters 60 and 61, both of which are calls to an outward-looking focus.

But thirdly he sets before them a reminder of things past, implying a warning for what might yet be to come. The God who allowed them to be punished for all those years in Babylon is still an active God, capable on the one hand of silencing their enemies and raising them to glory, but also equally capable of further punishment if they do continue to refuse him and live out their lives of relaxed, selfish comfort. These three themes together act like carrot and stick to encourage the people to wake up out of their self-satisfied but unsatisfying stupor and live lives of what we would nowadays call 24/7 discipleship.

Today first Isaiah might be addressing the godless, the evil and the depraved of our society. Deutero-Isaiah would be addressing the poor, broken and downcast victims. But Trito-Isaiah might well be addressing C of E ‘churchgoers’, calling us to a more glorious vision of the future, a more outward-looking and missionary lifestyle, and a whole-life discipleship which means that we really mean it when we sing ‘Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Isaiah Part 2

I said last week that it is generally reckoned to be the case that what we call the book of Isaiah is actually three books by three authors widely separated in time. Isaiah of Jerusalem, who is responsible largely for the first 39 chapters, warned the people about the danger of exile if they didn’t buck their spiritual ideas up, and of course they didn’t, and exile was indeed their lot.

We have already mentioned the exile when we were looking at Ezra and Nehemiah, but may I invite you for a moment to think yourself into the situation of those whose home city had been besieged and ransacked, and who had been carried off, with great violence, to become slaves and prisoners in a foreign land many hundreds of miles away. What must that have felt like? What hardships did they have to endure? And, perhaps worse, what theological agonising did they spend their time in? This certainly felt like punishment from God: Isaiah had been right all along.

But what are we to do about it now? Maybe our God simply wasn’t powerful enough to prevent Nebuchadnezzar from conquering us. Is there any point praying to him now? After all, we’re not in his patch any longer; maybe we should try praying to a god more local to here, Bel, Nebo or one of those the natives worship. And even if we could get through to Yahweh from 500 miles away, is he going to forgive us? Isaiah wasn’t wrong, if we’re really honest. We were a pretty rotten lot to God, after all he’s done for our people in the past. Maybe we’ve crossed the line. So is there any basis for hope? Or have we blown it once and for all with God? Have we broken our covenant relationship in a way which simply can’t be mended?

You can just imagine the agonised debating which took place, and the increasing despair with which they faced nearly 70 years of silence on God’s part.

File:Marokko Wüste 01.JPG

Then suddenly, just as all hope must have virtually evaporated away, a new voice was heard in the land. A new prophet had been raised up by God, and his message was as different from that of Isaiah as chalk from cheese. Although we have 15 chapters of his work, actually it is only the first seven words which are really significant. We know nothing about the guy, except that scholars have christened him ‘Deutero-Isaiah’ which you must admit is catchy.

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. (Isaiah 40:1)

It is almost impossible to grasp the depth of relief with which people would have received these words, but to them the centuries would have echoed with resonances. From the earliest times the deal, the covenant with God and his chosen people had been expressed in the terms ‘I will be your God, and you will be my people’. You can find that phrase again and again in the OT. And now, in the midst of despair, the prophet was saying to those exiles ‘The deal is still on!’ Comfort my people, says your God. He goes on to explain that Israel’s’ sins have been paid for exactly: the word ‘double’ in 40:2 doesn’t mean twice as much as they really deserved, but double in the sense of people who are exactly alike. The punishment has fitted the crime exactly, no more, no less. The prophet then spends the next 15 chapters answering all their theological questions: of course Yahweh is still God, even in Babylon. God only allowed them to go into exile so that it would stop the degradation of their national life: in fact there is no other god, only him. He is the God of all creation, and these so-called Babylonian deities are nothing more than dead scraps of wood: how dare you think that he’s powerless? And the best news of all is that the people will return, the ruins of Jerusalem will be rebuilt, and they will know blessing after their hardships. All the themes of the book are there in the first chapter, but all of it is well worth a read through, particularly by those who feel themselves to have a God who has given up on them.

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Song of Songs

Time for a cold shower this week as we take a look at a book unique in the Bible – a collection of erotic love poetry. There is no mention of Yahweh, little which looks like wisdom literature, and no reference whatsoever to God’s law. The only clue to its dating is the ascription in 1:1 to Solomon, although the form of the language, as Aramaic gradually replaced Hebrew as the language of Israel, makes this seem unlikely and the date at least post-exilic, if not later. There seems to be little structure, although it is possible to discern three voices, which some translations like the NIV helpfully add as titles in the text. There is a man, a woman and a group of friends who act a little like a Greek chorus to help the readers see the scenes. These divisions of the text are not there in the original, and are largely deduced from the gender of the Hebrew terms.

The man and the woman are clearly very much in love, and there are some pretty graphic descriptions, but at the same time there is a certain restraint and chastity running through the poems, which make it not in the same league as 50 Shades. Some of the more erotic parts are only enacted in dreams, and the woman repeatedly tells her friends ‘not to awaken love until it is ready’. She is described as a locked garden, a spring enclosed and a sealed fountain in chapter 4, all symbols of chastity. All this gives the effect of real sexual desire, and real eroticism, but strictly within appropriate limits.

File:Gustave Moreau - Song of Songs (Cantique des Cantiques) - Google Art Project.jpg

Jews were a bit reluctant to admit this book into the canon of scripture, while interestingly Christians had no problem with it. But in the first century Jewish commentators began to interpret the book allegorically, as a poem about God’s love for Israel, which therefore made it OK to read as Scripture. Christians soon followed suit, and beginning with Origen in the 2nd century the book was interpreted as being about the love of Christ for his bride, the church. This is still how many Christians read it today.

On the basis of the hermeneutical principle that ‘a text cannot mean anything the original writer didn’t mean the original readers to understand it to mean’ we can safely say that this is a book about sex, not Jesus. Christians of course have a bit of a reputation for being down on sex, or at the very least pretty coy about it, and at different times in history we have been disgusted by the whole dirty business. Theologian Peter Lombard said in the 12th century that the Holy Spirit leaves the room when a married couple have sex, even if they do it without passion. This book reminds us that it is a gift of God for our pleasure, for making love grow and develop, and as such is to be celebrated and enjoyed to the full. But when taken in the context of other biblical stories we are also reminded that such a powerful area as human sexuality has great power to lead us astray if left unbounded. Like everything else it has to be enjoyed within God-given limits, but enjoyed it undoubtedly should be.

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Ecclesiastes

We have already noted that the three main OT books of ‘Wisdom Literature’ might be compared to the building of a house. Proverbs tells us how to build well, and Job explores how we react when that house is suddenly struck by lightning. As we come to our third book today we have a very different scenario: our house is old, decrepit and falling to bits. How do we cope with that?

 File:Hill 70 - Water tanks in ruined house.jpg

As with David and the Psalms Solomon is clearly the ‘patron saint’ of wisdom, although in what sense he was the ‘author’ of this book is much debated. We seem to have a narrator or editor, probably a fan or disciple of Solomon, who writes up his story and his musings in the third person in the name of ‘Qoheleth’. The Hebrew word means something like ‘one who gathers an assembly in order to address it’, and so is usually translated ‘the Teacher’ or ‘the Preacher’ in English Bibles. The story of Qoheleth is difficult not to identify with that of Solomon, but he is never named as such. It is virtually impossible to date the book, but it must be later than the time of Solomon.

 

It has been said that these words are those of a cynic. He has tried all that life has to offer, all its pleasures, excesses and delights, but found at the end of the day that they just do not satisfy. So the lasting message is that in returning to his childlike faith he finds wisdom, the best way to live. The book oscillates between misery and joy: having found pleasure and work useless, his advice is simply to enjoy food and work, which are a gift from God (1:24). This refrain recurs: in 5:18, having found wealth to be meaningless, we should simply enjoy food and get on with our work. Even wisdom itself comes under scrutiny, and in chapter 2 is declared a waste of time too, as both wise and foolish people come to the same end eventually. But wisdom is, we’re relieved to hear, all in all better than folly, even if only just.

 

The final verdict, and the great purple passage of the book, comes in chapter 12, where we are counselled to ‘remember our Creator’ while we can still enjoy life and have the faculties to do so. The symbolic description of the decrepitude of old age in 12:2-7 is devastatingly accurate. The bottom line, according to 12:13, is to fear God and keep his commandments, an instruction which reinforces the motto of all biblical wisdom literature, that ‘the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord’.

 

What does the book do for us today? It reminds us, first of all, that wisdom is not necessarily ‘nice’. It is not afraid to look at the realities of life head on, and to acknowledge that for much of the time it does all seem pointless. It never pretends that with God everything will be lovely, and it clearly comes out of a rich life experience which, although having left Qoheleth wiser, has also left him much sadder. Yet it is fundamentally a book of apologetics: it shows us life without God as fundamentally meaningless, and offers us an alternative which at least makes some sense, as it puts us in touch with a God who is repeatedly said to be generous. Qoheleth, during his lifetime, has tried pretty much everything, but returns to a relationship with God as the only thing which makes any real sense. This book, therefore preaches a significant message to our consumerist, cynical, experience-driven culture. God is the only one who can make any sense of all this, and who can make life in any way worth living.

 

 

Through the Bible in Just Over Year – Proverbs

When a few weeks ago we first encountered ‘Wisdom Literature’ I wrote of Proverbs as a book of practical wisdom for building a good life. One commentator on the book quotes the old children’s prayer ‘Make the bad people good, and the good people nice’, illustrating the fact that there are many decision we have to make about the way we live which may not be governed by law, but which nevertheless have the power to be ‘nice’ or not. This is the territory of Proverbs, a collection of short sayings or maxims which, if we take notice of them, will make life better for us and for all concerned.

Although the book has been traditionally associated with Solomon, like the Psalms with respect to David it is probably more complex than that. We talk about ‘The Psalms of David’ not in the sense that we believe all of them came from his pen, but in the sense that he is, as it were, the ‘patron saint’ of psalmody. In the same way Solomon is the patron saint of wisdom, but not all this material comes from him: indeed the text tells us that parts were written (or maybe complied) by Agur, Lemuel, and ‘the Wise Men’. The compilation of  these different collections of sayings must have happened at a stage much later than much of the original material, again like the Psalms.

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Proverbs does not make easy reading, and even harder preaching. It’s a bit like that old joke about someone who read the phone book: not a very good story, but a lot of characters. There are some longer sections which do hang together: instructions on how to use the material in chapter 1, the beautiful hymn in celebration of Wisdom in chapter 8, and the qualities of a good wife in chapter 31 are the most famous. But the bulk of the book is simply a collection of apparently unrelated sayings. Much scholarly ink has been used in trying to find some way of organising the text and making sense of it, but it is probably best not to try too hard.

It has been said that the specifically religious content of Proverbs is a bit thin. There is plenty of sound advice, but you don’t need to be in a special relationship with God in order to heed it and benefit from it. However the recurring assertion that ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’ tells us that faith isn’t the icing on the cake of a good life, as many today believe, but that it is the foundation-stone. There is also a clear sense of sin which shines through: 20:9 asks ‘Who can say, ‘I have kept my heart pure; I am clean and without sin’? with the obvious implied answer ‘No-one!’ This isn’t just good morality: there is accountability built in. Practical repentance is necessary, and without this even good observances, such as hearing the Law (28:9) is worse than useless.

Whilst I’m all in favour of getting the big picture, and reading biblical books through in one sitting, maybe the best way to handle Proverbs is just one verse at a time, in a long-term project. Who knows – maybe I’ll write a blog called ‘Through Proverbs in just under a millennium’?

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Psalms

Clearly we’re not going to be able to do justice to this huge collection of songs and poems in 600 words, so rather than looking too much at the texts, I want to ask about what the Psalms are, and how we might use them. They contain some of the best-loved and most-neglected words of Scripture: Psalm 23 (‘The Lord is my shepherd’) forms a great contrast with the desire of the author of Psalm 137 who, in an ideal world, would love to see children dashed against rocks. The Anglican tradition used to be that the entire Psalter was prayed once each month, but many churches now neglect the whole book and barely ever use Psalms in worship.

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So what is this book? It has been described as ‘The Hymn Book of the Second Temple’, and that title gives us a great clue as to its nature. With the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, which we read about when looking at Ezra and Nehemiah, the Priests began a revival of worship, which probably involved collecting together Hymns Ancient and Modern into a five-volume book. It is certainly not the case that the whole book was written by King David, although some probably were. When the heading of a Psalm says in English ‘Of David’ the Hebrew means ‘To David’, or ‘From a Davidic collection’, so even the great musician-king acted as compiler of a collection without necessarily being the author. You can trace a development in thought, as well as some historical context, in some of the Psalms: Psalm 1, for example, blithely declares that good people will prosper and bad people flounder: The later book of Job gave the lie to that rather naive idea. Psalm 137, to which we have already referred, is clearly written out of the context of exile and slavery, and even tells us about the Israelites in Babylon yearning for Jerusalem. Probably not by David then, that one.

Theologians love to do ‘Form Criticism’ on the Psalms, in other words trying to reconstruct in what setting they may originally have been used. Some is a bit speculative, but there are also some good clues: Psalms 120-133, labelled as ‘Songs of Ascent’ look as though they might have been used in procession as pilgrims made their way to Jerusalem for festivals. Some Psalms belong in the genre of Wisdom Literature, the most notable of which is Psalm 119, a marathon celebration of God’s laws. There are also some delights in form: Psalm 119, again, is an acrostic Psalm, with the eight verses of each stanza all beginning with the same letter (which some versions of the Bible helpfully give us in Hebrew). The subject matter is as varied as it is possible to be: some are the words for an individual while others are corporate or national; there is celebration, lament, teaching, anguished and angry crying out to God for justice, or indeed any action at all on his part, and there is imprecation, the calling down of God’s anger on those who oppress the Jews. And so on …

So what does this collection as a whole teach us? A lot about God, for a start. Psalms like 78, a ‘recital of mighty acts’, rehearses God’s action in the nation’s history, and reminds us of the importance of remembering and counting our blessings. Many explain just why God is worthy of our heartfelt praise. But the book also teaches us about ourselves. In a church culture which is far too often ‘nice’ and which sweeps any kind of negativity under the carpet, it is comforting to know that Israel felt that it was OK, in the context of worship, to weep, lament, get angry, rant à la Stephen Fry against God’s cruelty, as well as to engage in outrageous celebration. Any church which allows us to do less is missing the point, and may well be doing irreparable harm to us too. There will be a Psalm for any mood, for every occasion, and they make great, if at times uncomfortable, spurs into prayer.