Old Testament Lectionary June 28th Trinity 4 Lamentations 3:23-33

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

Being quite keen on the proper Bible I’ve chosen the Lamentations option, the one key purple passage in the book which I have discussed further here. It’s a great passage, standing proud like a lighthouse on the dark stormy seas of the rest of the book, and there is much encouragement to be had from it, but I found myself more interested on this occasion in the later verses, from v 25 onwards, and the advice it gives to suffering Christians.

This mini-section begins with the idea that God’s people (‘those whose hope is in him’) have a God who is basically good to them, although of course it doesn’t always feel like that. Therefore, in holding these two paradoxical truths together, we have to ‘bear the yoke’ and to ‘wait quietly’. It gets worse: we have to sit in silence, remembering that this is in fact God doing all this to them, and to ‘bury our faces in the dust’ in case there is any hope.

This language is uncannily reminiscent of Job’s comforters, and, whilst it reflects Israel’s Wisdom tradition, is in the end rejected by Job in favour of an inscrutable God who has the right to do whatever he likes. Indeed, reiterates the author here, it is God who causes suffering, though he doesn’t do it for fun, and he always mixes it with compassion, because that’s who he is. So are we any the wiser?

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As always it will probably help us to set this passage in its historical context, so that we don’t try to make it say something to us which it never intended to say. Stuff it tells us about God is probably reliable, but not necessarily that which it says about our reaction. So let’s go back to the final days before the exile, when the Holy City has been devastated, God’s punishment on an apostate nation has been wreaked, and people are left in despair. So what do we do now?

Well, the author says, the time for penitence in the hope that God will let you off the hook is over. You had every opportunity to turn back to him, but you didn’t, and now there is no way of undoing the punishment which he warned you would come upon you. Your only hope now is to suck it up, keep your heads down and wait. You can be sure that the God who has brought this punishment on you will temper it with compassion, but you will have to sit through it. God would have loved to have seen you repent and therefore avoid this catastrophe, but you weren’t interested, so now you have to take what was coming to you.

This does, I think, put the words in one particular historical setting, and it also sets us free from believing that they apply directly to us today. They underline the importance of reading carefully, of not making blanket transfers down the years and across the miles, and of asking deeper questions about what from here we can take as truth for us today.

We have a God of compassion, but also a God of punishment (I have often said, in the face of our society’s valuing of ‘tolerance’ above all virtues, that God is not tolerant: he’s forgiving, which is a very different thing). He doesn’t enjoy putting people through hard times, but he understands when it is necessary. And, we know from our perspective the other side of the cross, that there is after all the chance to escape punishment, because his Son took it for us. This I call to mind, and therefore I have hope.

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Job

This week we come to our first book which comes under the category of ‘Wisdom Literature’, although we have already encountered some material which would fit in this genre. Wisdom in the Old Testament has nothing to do with being clever or intelligent: it might best be translated from the French savoir faire, or ‘knowing what to do’. We might also describe a wise person as someone who is ‘streetwise’, who knows the best way to handle any situation. There are three main Wisdom books in the Old Testament, and it is helpful to understand them in terms of building a house. Proverbs, which we’ll come to in a fortnight, is a book of instructions about the best way to build; Job is about what happens when that house gets struck by lightning or some other disaster; Ecclesiastes is about a house which has got old, tired and is falling down. But in addition there are other bits of wisdom literature scattered about the Bible: Many of the Psalms are ‘wisdom’ psalms, and there are some great wisdom stories, like that of Joseph in Genesis. Joseph is the ‘wise’ man who handles everything well, even though little goes right for him at the start, while his brothers play the part of the ‘fools’ who get everything wrong and are duped by him (although being a wise man he makes everything OK in the end).

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So what about poor old Job? The book begins with a string of disasters coming hot on the heels of one another. When he has lost pretty much everything he is met by a bunch of his friends who try to act as philosophers to comfort him by giving explanations as to why he is so deep in the muck. There are clues that the book was put together pretty late in the OT period: for example in 1:4 Job’s sons hold feasts ‘in their homes’: we know that this splitting up of an extended family’s home is a late development. We can also recognise in the words of his friends some current philosophical movements which would have come to the fore as Greek culture began to spread through the Near East. We can trace through the OT a development from, for example, Psalm 1 where the righteous get everything on a plate while the wicked suffer, to a much greater appreciation of the fact that real life is nowhere near as simple as that. It is generally thought that a common folk tale about a man who loses everything and then gets it back was extended with 38 chapters of philosophical and theological debate.

So how are we to read Job? With a damp towel around our heads, for a start. It is a horrific story, and anyone who has known suffering or watched as others have suffered will be able to recognise the agonised soul-searching of the victim. Pastorally it has much to say about our well-meaning but so often misguided attempts to help those going through the mill with platitudes which may be theologically correct but are no help at all. But it has another dimension which is fascinating: The Satan (or ‘The Accuser’) has access to God’s throneroom and is allowed to bring suffering to God’s people. While this exchange sounds, to be honest, a bit petty and nasty on God’s part, the deeper truth is that while Job is going through such agony he is completely unaware that in a parallel universe there are things going on which affect his little life down here. So much of what we don’t understand may well have an extra dimension of which we’re not aware.

But the other truth to shine through these pages is that God is God and ultimately he has the right to do what he likes. So often we hear people telling us that ‘I can’t believe in a God who …’ or ‘I don’t believe in Hell’ or whatever. In the final couple of chapters poor Job gets a right telling off for daring to question God. Who does he think he is? But at the end of the day he does question, and in doing so gives permission for all who suffer unjustly not just to submit quietly to it. Of course Job ends up with no answers, but it’s good that he has asked the questions.