Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

All Saints Day – Psalm 34:1-10

Oh dear – I’ve got a real problem this week – the lectionary doesn’t give us an OT reading. So, in order to prevent myself being sued under the Trades Descriptions Act, I’ve decided to go with the next best thing – Psalm 34. After all, Psalm 34 is strictly speaking in the OT, even if that isn’t how it functions liturgically. So here goes.

This Psalm is what is known by Psalm scholars as an individual thanksgiving, one of 15 in our Psalter. It’s helpful, if you belong to that kind of a church, to think of it as a testimony. When I was a parish priest I learnt from a visit to a friend who was an Episcopalian Rector in Florida a great way to start a Sunday service: he sent a server out with a roving mic and asked the congregation ‘What has God been or done for you this week such that you have come to worship him today?’ A few people would then stick up their hands and briefly tell their stories of God’s goodness. When we started doing that back in Coventry it really lifted the worship. Other denominations make even greater use of testimony, and that is what is going on here in this Psalm.

The person testifying purports to be David, and his testimony is of a particular incident in his life, which you can read about in 1 Samuel 21. Whether David actually wrote this is a matter of dispute, particularly as the story as 1 Samuel tells it has David going mad in front of King Achish, not Abimelek as here, although of course it’s easy for anyone to misremember details.

The other interesting thing about this Psalm is that it is an acrostic, with each verse beginning with one letter of the Hebrew alphabet in order. We have seven such Psalms, as well as other parts of the OT. What this means is that this isn’t a speech someone thought up at the start of a service: it’s a clever piece of literary art which has been put together with great creativity to the glory of God.

So why this Psalm for All Saints’ Day? I confessed a couple of weeks ago that I am not all that keen on the celebration of Saints’ Days, because for all their stories are supposed to inspire us to greater things they often actually end up making us feel deskilled and useless. But this Psalm is different, for three reasons.

Firstly, it is a Psalm about God, and not merely the testifier. Every one of our 10 verses mentions the Lord, apart from v.5 which merely uses a pronoun. So many Saints’ stories, and so many of our more contemporary testimonies, tend to focus on what we have done, but this passage leaves us in no doubt at all that the Lord is the one to whom the glory is due. Some human testimony might be the better for a bit more of such an emphasis.

Secondly, though, where there is human activity, it is not exactly exemplary. In order to escape with his life David pretends to be mad, dribbling and raving until they sling him out. Hardly something to be particularly proud of. One big problem with testimony is that it can tell only the good bits, which again can be deskilling for ordinary people. I can remember when we used the words above at the start of our worship there were lots of good stories shared, and a few great ones, but what sticks in my mind is the occasions when someone said something like ‘I’ve had a dreadful week and God has seemed a million miles away but I’ve come to worship him this morning anyway’. We rarely hear the more negative aspects in our hagiographical preaching: this Psalm is real, and much more flattering to God than to the story-teller.

But thirdly I particularly like v.2-3, where the author gives his testimony but then invites all of us to join in with him in glorifying and exalting God. This is the exact opposite of the way much preaching on the Saints goes, where they are held up as heroes and heroines who are out of our reach. It invites us in, rather than merely inviting us to watch and dream. It expounds the biblical truth that all Christians are Saints, and rejects the double-decker approach which our twin festivals of All Saints and All Souls have emphasised, that there are ordinary Christians who feebly struggle while real saints in glory shine. Those saints who have gone ahead of us, according to Hebrews 11, are egging us on, waiting with bated breath for us to join them in exalting the Lord. They want nothing more than to see us joining in with their praise.

Old Testament Lectionary December 21st Advent 4 2 Samuel 11:1-16

Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages.

Our passage today is about two houses: the physical house of the Jerusalem Temple, and the dynastic house of David the King. The first is easily dealt with. The fact is that Solomon built it, but you can’t help but get the impression that it is a bit of an embarrassment to the writers that it wasn’t David himself, who in so many ways epitomises the golden age of Israel. So to have David getting the idea to do it but then being told by the prophet that in fact God wants Solomon to carry out the work is a win-win situation.

But more difficult is the royal and dynastic house which God promises to build on David’s line. This passage is full of promises, promises built on recollections of the past. God called and used David, he has been faithfully present throughout his ministry, and he has led the nation down the years. Whilst it obviously wasn’t his will to build a physical house at this point, he did intend to continue David’s royal line for ever: the text is full of promises to that effect. Note that the promises are completely unconditional: elsewhere God’s promises are dependent on the continued faithfulness of the people, and their avoidance of idolatry, but not here. There is one small clause, conveniently filleted out by our lectionary compliers, in v 14, which says that if one of David’s descendants does go off the rails God will punish him at the hands of human oppressors, but that will not invalidate the promises or remove his love and favour from him.

So of course the huge question is simply put: why did God not keep his promises? Why is the ongoing story in 1 and 2 Kings a story of rebellion, depravity, and final abandonment by God to the Babylonian exile? Why are the extravagant and unconditional promises in this chapter not followed up in real life?

It is true to say that God’s favour does to some extent form a buffer between the nation and punishment. Without this favoured relationship one gets the impression that they would have been in exile much sooner, but God is patient and faithful, and withholds punishment as long as he can. But the fact remains that the promises of this chapter don’t seem to be fulfilled as the history of Israel unfolds.

Maybe that’s why this text is set just before Christmas, when the church focusses on the calling of Mary to bear the Christ to a waiting world. Great David’s greater king is soon to appear, and in him the royal line continues, and will continue for ever, although like his ancestor David it will take a while before he is recognised and acknowledged as king, and he will have to face opposition and violence before he is crowned through his victory on the cross.

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The take home from this, I think, is that sometimes the stream of God’s promises flows underground. We can lose sight of it, and it appears to have drizzled away into the soil and come to nothing. But then when we least expect it, it can spring up again as the flow continues. Like that famous but somewhat twee footprints poem, there are sometimes only one set of prints in the sand. The challenge is to keep believing that the river of God’s purposes and promises continues to flow when we can’t actually see it for ourselves.

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In the words of Tim Vine:

“My precious child, I love you and will never leave you, never, ever, during your trials and testings. When you saw only one set of footprints, it was then that I thought it would be fun if we both hopped.”

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – 2 Samuel

1 Samuel ends with the death of King Saul, who has lost the plot spiritually: 2 Samuel begins with David, his successor, lamenting over his death before taking the throne, first in Hebron, anointed to rule over the tribe of Judah, and then eventually in the newly-captured city of Jerusalem to reign over the whole nation. There is of course some infighting between Saul’s supporters and David’s, but pretty quickly things settle and David begins what will go down in history as the golden age for Israel. Two key events have great significance for David’s reign. Firstly the Philistines are defeated. For years the nation, which, like Stoke-on-Trent, was an agglomeration of five cities, have been thorn in Israel’s side: we have already seen the trouble they got Samson into, and David’s defeat of their champion Goliath. But from now on they get hardly a mention, as they cease to be much of a problem ever again to Israel.

 As a result of this, secondly, the Ark of the Covenant, that important symbol of God’s presence with the people, which had been captured and carried off by the Philistines, is brought back to its home, which is to become the site of the Temple in Jerusalem. Indeed, it seems almost disappointing that David himself did not build the Temple, but we are told that it was his idea. So his reign becomes symbolic of everything going right at last, with royalty and worship established in the new ‘City of David’.


But it isn’t very long before the ‘warts and all’ picture of David begins to emerge. Under the surface we have a king with not enough to do turning lustful eyes towards another woman, leading to intrigue and murder. Meanwhile conflict between various individuals demonstrates something of a leadership vacuum, leading eventually to rival claims to the throne, even from within David’s own family. The book ends with David ready to step down, and the next episode of the history begins with David old and frail, although still sharp enough to make sure that his son Solomon succeeds him.


So what we have is 2 Samuel is a portrait of a strong and godly yet flawed leader. The Bible is never a book of pure hagiography, and whitewash is never applied to its characters. Yet what we do see is David’s basic integrity: when confronted with his sin he repents quickly and thoroughly, and right to the end of the book he is still a worshipper at heart, someone who celebrates and depends on his courageous friends and colleagues, someone who has God’s desires for the nation deep in his spirit. That fact that he loses the plot sometimes should only encourage us, because we do that too, but it doesn’t mean we’re bad people, or that our attempts to live the Christian life are all in vain. In fact David, hero though he was and remains, struggled with all the things which trouble us: sex, family conflicts, the use of power, personal enemies – all the stuff of daily life. Like David we will not always get it right first time: like David may we always have the grace to deal with what we do wrong, coming quickly to God in penitence and receiving quickly his forgiving and redemptive grace.

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – 1 Samuel

After last week’s brief digression into the love story of Ruth, we return to the heart of the Deuteronomic History with the four books of Samuel and Kings. Between them they tell the story of Israel’s journey from tribalism, through greatness, into exile and slavery. We have already discovered that the Deuteronomic History was written to explain how the nation got to the point of near-destruction, and we noted two key themes, both of which had, in the eyes of God, been violated. One was about the need to remain separate from and untainted by the nations around, and the other had to do with worshipping God where and how he demanded to be worshipped. There two motifs are a bit hidden to begin with, but are going to become more explicit as we go through the story over the next four weeks.


1 Samuel begins with the birth of the prophet Samuel, the kingmaker who sets Israel on the path of monarchy, albeit with some reluctance. His birth, like that of several biblical heroes, has a supernatural dimension to it: the message is that God clearly wanted him around, and so specially provided for his birth. The ever-present threat of the Philistines, whose territory lay to the south west of Israel, and the discontent with the tribal amphictiony, leads Israel to ask Samuel for a king ‘such as all the other nations have’. Samuel is reluctant, and tries to spell out for the people what this might look like in real life, but in the end he hears God telling him that although this is a rejection of bother their leaderships he should go ahead and give them a king. Saul is duly selected, and he looks a good choice, but it is only a few chapters before God rejects him.


So what did he do wrong? Not surprisingly, given the point of view of the writers, he offers a sacrifice which it was not his place to do (13:13), which is about keeping God’s rules for worship, and then in 15:8-9 he disobeys God by failing totally to destroy Agag, king of Amalek, and taking plunder from the battle. This violates the ‘separation’ theme, but fortunately Samuel remedies the situation in one of the most beautiful verses in the Bible: ‘Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord at Gilgal’.

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From this point on we see a new star rising, as Samuel is told by God to look for a replacement king for Saul. David is picked, even though he is so unlikely that he wasn’t even invited to the interview, and then a series of stories portrays the early life of this new hero, his prowess in battle, his acceptance into the royal court, and the growing jealousy of his king. As Saul descends into occultism and madness David keeps his integrity, refusing just to finish him off and showing loyalty to him, because he is still the Lord’s anointed king. When Saul finally dies in battle David’s grief is genuine, but more of that next week.


So how do we read this book today? As a history lesson and background to the high-point of Israel’s life, the reign of David, it is invaluable, but it also stresses the values of the Deuteronomic historians, made explicit in 15:22-23


Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices
    as much as in obeying the Lord?
To obey is better than sacrifice,
    and to heed is better than the fat of rams.
For rebellion is like the sin of divination,
    and arrogance like the evil of idolatry.


From the other side of the cross this truth is still as important as ever for Christian disciples, particularly in a culture where anything goes and ‘tolerance’ is the highest virtue of our society. What God says matters, and he expects us to listen and obey. We may not get rejected, or even hewed in pieces, if we disobey, but we severely hold up God’s purposes and rob ourselves of blessing when we try to live with cheap grace.

OT Lectionary Mar 30th Lent 4 1 Samuel 16:1-13

A double whammy this week, what with it being Mothers’ Day and all, so if you’d rather use those readings, click here: http://wp.me/p3W7Kc-4J 

This passage is all about appearances being deceptive, and about the way that as humans we struggle to see things in the same way that God sees them. Rick Warren, in his Purpose-driven Church (Zondervan, 1995) tries to analyse the nature of discipleship, and the ways in which we grow into it. His second step, after Biblical knowledge, is Perspective, which may be defined exactly as this ability to understand how God sees things, and to subdue our personal likes and dislikes to his. For example, in an age where sin has gone out of fashion (while sinning, apparently, remains as popular as ever) Christians need to understand just how repugnant it is to God, and just how harmful it is to individuals and to society as a whole. When we see sin as he does, that makes it a whole lot easier to want to avoid it.


Getting God’s perspective on things, therefore, will often bring us naturally into conflict with the values of the world around us. It isn’t that Christians are meant to be unpopular: it’s just that we’re meant to be unpopular for the right reasons and over the right issues. So how do we gain this sense of perspective? How do we learn to see what God sees, which is so often buried under the surface?

Samuel basically learns here through trial and error, and ears open to God’s promptings. On one level he doesn’t come out of this chapter looking very good at all. First of all he’s hanging on to the past: God has to rebuke him because of his over-fond memories of King Saul (whom, of course, he had previously anointed). The hard truth is that God has rejected him: God forbid that we hold onto something God has finished with – there’s a lesson for the church right there, which I have discussed elsewhere in my Ending Well (www.grovebooks.co.uk R39). His next mistake is to assume that he knows the answer himself – he has already made his mind up without a single word from the Lord as soon as he sees how butch Eliab is. So again God has to remind him that he sees things differently, and that he sees the hidden things of the heart, the irony being that while Samuel himself looks every bit the prophet, enough in fact to scare the good townsfolk of Bethlehem, his heart is so mistaken, which God can see.

From then on he seems sadder and wiser, and ready to hear when God rejects Eliab’s brothers one by one. So do we hear in his question to Jesse about any more sons the conviction that there must be, because God hasn’t chosen any so far, or rather a lack of faith in God, or in his ability to hear him (‘Of course you haven’t got any more sons, have you?’) I’ll let you decide that one, but at the end of the passage he seems at least to have learnt one thing: in obedience to God’s word he anoints this young bit of a kid, and then presumably sees evidence of the rightness of this action as the Spirit anoints David too.

I don’t think the major question is whether or not we have gained God’s perspective: we’re all on the way, hopefully. But it is about being obedient even when we’re not sure, giving God, as it were, the benefit of the doubt.