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 – 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.

Wiesiołowski David playing the harp.jpg

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.

OT Lectionary 30th November Advent Sunday Isaiah 64:1-9

Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages

In the past one of my fave worship-songs was Graham Kendrick’s Restore, O Lord. It was a call for God to get up and do something, so that people would recognise his power and sovereignty as he shook the earth again, and come to him in reverent fear. This passage his a similar feel to it, although when we look more deeply there are several inconsistencies which draw our attention. So as always, let’s look at the wider context.

Isaiah 63:7 to 64:12 is a psalm of corporate lament. People are beginning to return from Babylon to Jerusalem, but the with exhilaration of freedom comes a sense of a daunting task of rebuilding, and the fact that actually we are never going to be able simply to turn back time. Sadder and wiser, the people are aware that the experience of exile has scarred them and dented their relationship with God. This psalm celebrates the glorious past when God did intervene in their lives, calls upon him to do it again, but also blames him for his absence.

So our passage begins with a cry for God to manifest his power so that his enemies will see and be very afraid. But the enemies quickly become ‘us’ – indeed ‘all of us’ is a repeated refrain which loses the prominence in English which it has in the Hebrew. Whilst there is an acknowledgement that the nation has sinned, there is an apparent excuse for this: God has hidden himself from them and left them to it (v 7). Like an adulterous husband who blames his wife’s lack of attention for his own playing away from home, Israel claims that it is God’s ignoring of them which has left them no option but to sin. No-one bothers to call on God because he has deliberately turned away from them, so what’s the point?

And yet this blaming of God is bracketed between two examples of the people doing exactly what they claim no-one does: calling on him. In v 1-2 there is a desperate cry for his attention, and in v 9 there is a call for him to put aside his anger and ‘look upon’ his people. What are we to make of all this?

It’s worth noting first that lament is not always logical. When we’re upset and pour out our hearts to God, we don’t always do it with faultless logic or sound theology. God, and the Bible, seem big enough to understand and take it. But it is also interesting to ask some questions about who exactly are the players in this little drama. Just who are ‘we’? I wonder whether a prophetic picture from my past might be apposite.

I had recently been appointed by a bishop to turn around a church which he perceived as being in need of the gospel and the Spirit. Fairly early in, and experiencing some stiff resistance, I found myself pondering the famous Laodicea passage in Revelation 3. In my head I heard God asking me ‘How many people does it need to get up from the table and open the door when Jesus knocks?’ The obvious answer is ‘Just the one’. If the doorbell rings during a dinner party, it is not normal for the entire company to get up to go and answer it. In the same way I felt that for Jesus to have greater access to the life of the church, it didn’t really matter that not everyone was keen on the idea. As long as there was someone to welcome him in, that would do. That little conversation became formative for our prayers over the next few years, and we did indeed see significant renewal and a far more central place for Jesus.

I wonder if there is something similar in play here? Maybe the ‘we’ crying out so desperately in verses 1-2 and 9 is a just a subset of the ‘we’ who have sinned so grievously. It is, of course, biblical bad form to pray about ‘them’ from the lofty moral high ground: great intercessors always identify with the sinful community even if they personally haven’t been involved[1]. When I pray for the church which I belong to, love deeply, but hate for its weakness, sin and compromise; when I cry to God for his earth-shaking presence to be felt once again, I need to remember that ‘I’ am included in the ‘we’.

[1] See for example Ezra’s prayer in Ezra 9 about how ‘we’ have intermarried. In the next chapter there is a list of the guilty parties, a list from which Ezra’s name is gloriously absent.