Song of Songs 1

A supercut of us.

I’ve had a week off. Haven’t quite been able to face this book, though in abstract I’ve been looking forward to it.

I’m feeling somewhat burdened, old and unromantic, so the celebration of passionate young love is a poignant contrast to my mood. A little intimidating, to be honest.

I gather the book has no discernable structure. But neither does love, in the moment. I like Lorde’s song “supercut” for that, “in my mind, I see a supercut of us”. The highlights of love are recalled as a montage of flashing glory. If you edit out narratives of pain, boredom.

Chapter one sets the tone of focusing on the moments of delight, yearning and passion. It’s wild and uninhibited.

It has dialogue like a play: he, she and friends, but there is not debate, all are goading each other headlong towards an affair. The banter is rhetorical: why would you waste a passion such as this on timidity?

It seems like first love, but the girl is not a glashouse flower. She’s been a responsible family workhorse, tanned from the sun from tending the vineyards. It’s set up as a metaphor, now is time to tend her own vineyard, her time to harvest her own pleasure. A bit of ‘me’ time.

She is the pursuer, getting advice from the chorus of friends where to find her love. And she’s successful, if I understand the phrase “our bed is verdant” correctly.

Though could also be literal vegetation as well and the bed a metaphor, since it ends with the cedars and fir trees being their room.

God, apparently, will barely get a look in, by name. But the context, the Bible, forces it to be about the spirituality of passion and attraction.

God gave us all this. I’ve been reading my sister in law’s memoir of growing up and escaping her rule bound, relentlessly negative evangelical faith. This book wasn’t in her Bible, surely?

Has mine lost it too? What gave me pause?

Father, help me find passion and joy around me

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Psalm 120

I planned to leave off psalms at 120 and read song of songs. Which I probably still will do. But it would have been neater to break after 119, as this is the first of a new collection of 15 psalms, the songs of ascents.

Commentator says they may have been literally psalms sung step by step from each of the 15 steps up to the temple, but more likely they were the songs generally used for pilgrimage to Jerusalem, to visit the temple.

Appropriately enough for songs about starting a pilgrimage, this one is about being a long way from Jerusalem, living as a believer in hostile territory.

It’s a brief and poignant Psalm. The writer is in distress because of lying and deceit. At first I thought he was at battle with his own sinful nature, but he meant others around him who are corrupt. My mistake jolted me into thinking about how little I worry about external enemies.

Enemies have gone out of fashion in my Christian circles. And there is a good biblical reason for me to feel uncomfortable with examples such as this psalm where he wishes sharp arrows and burning coals for the evil people around him.

Jesus had a number of teachings where he expressly preached discontinuity with the old testament, notably on the subject of enemies.

Love them, he said. No more eye for eye, tooth for tooth; do not resist evil.

Donald Trump gloriously displayed his spiritual, and biblical, ignorance by saying his favourite Bible verse was “an eye for an eye”, unwinding Jesus’ teaching back to the old testament (he was so lampooned for this he now avoids answering, saying it’s ‘something very personal’)

Ironically, even the old testament used that in the context of constraining violence to a moderate and proportionate response, ie: only an eye for an eye. DJT’s formula of “you hit me, I hit back harder” doesn’t even reach that standard.

His entire political appeal seems to be based on nurturing hatred of a mess of enemies. And the church seem to have connived at that… What is their excuse? They’re supposed to know this stuff!

Australian Federal election today, which tends to raise passions about enemies even in this relatively laissez faire country. If you are a true Christian you’ll obviously vote for the progressives because they stand for justice for the oppressed, lifting up the poor, opposing greed and inequality. And if you are a true Christian you’ll clearly vote conservative because they stand for religious freedom, and generally resisting society’s rising tide of antipathy towards the eternal gospel truths. And whoever is not for us is against us!

Jesus grew up in an invaded society, ruled by enemies, and this psalmist is ruled by enemies. Maybe we are heading for a tipping point where we are ruled by enemies, aided in their hatred of Christians by all the church hypocrisy over abuse that has come to light in recent years.

We can circle the wagons, resist, fight and long for the good old days.

We can capitulate, become indistinguishable from our enemies, maybe betraying God by losing the salt of our message. I’m more at risk of that.

Certainly I think there is a lot about our Christian culture that is not inherent to God’s character. Instances of God’s eternal changeless truth are much more fluid to our cultures, and capable of being present in human creativity and interpretation than I think I’ve given it credit for.

If Jesus was for real about not resisting evil, surely it’s a reasonable response to Christianity losing its cultural dominance to shrug and say “thy will be done”? Have faith, let God do the wrath, trust his justice and love.

I’m a lot like that, and the note on which the psalm ended is for me a helpful reminder. Enemies are real, there is malice.

Too long have I lived among those who hate peace. I am for peace; but when I speak, they are for war.

How you respond? Give me wisdom, Lord!

Psalm 119

Here we go, the longest chapter in the Bible.

22 stanzas, one for each letter of the Jewish alphabet, and each about the law, the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. I should have read this first, it’s a phenomenal sales pitch for the law.

It’s a prayer, addressed from one individual to God, full of intimate and vulnerable language.

One line summaries of each stanza:

  • You’ll be blessed, aka not forsaken, if you follow the law.
  • Meditate on, delight in, seek & follow the law to stay pure and true
  • Help me keep longing for the law, don’t let me become like the cynics around me
  • I’m low and sorrowful, may the law give me understanding and strength
  • Keep me learning & focused on what is right, the worthless things don’t bring life
  • I’ll boldly and freely speak the law to Kings: keep your promises of love and salvation
  • I’m mercilessly mocked for keeping the law, but my hope comes from you who promises life
  • You are all I need Lord, the world is about your love, the wicked can bind me but won’t change me
  • You taught me though affliction, I had strayed, but now I value the law more than gold.
  • You made me who I am, an example to others, a target for the wicked; and your love comforts me
  • I’m fainting from waiting, blind from looking for your promise, save me from persecution so I can love you more
  • Your word is eternal, boundless perfection, it saved my life before and will again.
  • The law is sweeter than honey, it made me wiser than enemies, teachers and elders
  • Your law lights a path though constant danger, and I’m determined to keep it ’til the end.
  • Only the law is solid, everything else is a delusion that will come to nothing.
  • I’ve lived your law and I’m under attack, it’s time to act on your promises Lord!
  • Your law is wonderful unfolding light. I’m confident of deliverence and cry over disobedience.
  • I’m exhausted, people ignore you, but the lasting rightness of your law withstands all tests.
  • The wicked are near, but so are you Lord day and night, and your word will last.
  • I love you Lord, unlike the wicked, show me compassion
  • Kings persecute me but I obey and praise you all day, and I have peace – how I love your law!
  • I’ve strayed, but not forgotten your law, hear me, save me and so I can continue to praise you.

Some things that struck me:

It’s like a portrait of the god revealed in Jesus. I remember the sense of God’s compassion and justice coming from so many of the laws, as well as weird rules about skin diseases etc. But here we have the full character of God revealed to this person through the law. Gives resonance to Jesus’ claim to be the fulfillment of the law, it was always pointing his direction.

It’s a detailed picture of the life of a believer. Aware you aren’t perfect. Determined to be obedient, aware of God’s love and relying on his truth, compassion and steadfastness. Finding peace under attack, being grateful for God even in hard times and the sense of revelation continuing to unfold to moments of overwhelming joy.

I liked how it is so intimate, the private prayers of one believer, but clearly with the acrostic structure designed as a teaching tool, an encouragement for many. It’s testimony, not doctrine, and so powerful for that, as the personal feelings about God aggregate.

For all that it is feeling a bit inadequate to my circumstances this morning. My frustration with my oldest son boiled over into ugly anger last night that is unresolved, and is a long ongoing drag on his and everyone’s mental health and happiness. I struggle so profoundly to come to terms with it.

His 27th birthday a week or so ago, with the prospect of him maybe never launching into a life outside his room, and perhaps the death of my fondly remembered youth group aquaintance feed into the feelings of dissatisfaction I’ve been having of late.

Praying for wisdom. I suppose the life of the writer of the psalm was as challenging. The lives of others often seems simpler from the outside. He said God’s law was enough, his portion, but it doesn’t feel it today.

I need to say some of this stuff to him.

Psalm 118

The one least likely.

Maybe it’s me warming to the familiarity of the verse, but I feel like this psalm hangs off the image of the rock that the builders rejected becoming the cornerstone of the whole structure.

I’ve referred previously to the theory that the book of Psalms was compiled for the exile. They called it a portable temple.

Then you remember, Israel, the chosen nation, was never that much of a country. They were a few slave families when chosen, and the ascent to their period of some influence was amazing.

But they were still never Egypt, Assyria or Babylon. And Solomon was the peak. By the time they were in exile they were well entitled to feel like a rejected building block.

This psalm is most obviously a song for communal singing, it mentions being on a festal procession to the altar. Lots of rhythmic repetition. It’s cheerleader material, a pep rally chant. Victory, triumph!

But in exile, it would have been a cultural memory, a lesson for children who’d never known the holy land, about how it used to be. The altar would have been smashed and desecrated, or a shadow of its former self by the time this playlist was compiled.

So it’s about how no matter how desperate things are, you are loved by God, and how great that is.

I baulked a bit when they rejoiced at how God cut down enemies… Jesus says instead “love your enemies”. But it’s not a triumphant victory brag, is a defeat song. It’s trusting very real and present enemies to God’s plans.

Working at the Salvos, the focus is very much on the rejected building blocks and visualising them as cornerstones in God’s architecture. But it’s not only the usual suspects.

I went to the funeral of a friend from my youth group yesterday, and even outwardly successful people can be rejected blocks. They mentioned his depression, I knew him as a wonderfully funny and eccentric personality, but insecure, decades ago.

Looking at his last year of Facebook posts, his depression issues were quite overwhelming. His faith, his generosity, his empathy, were remarkable and unshakeable despite his mental turmoil.

So we have the Israelites in exile, we have Jesus, the deity bleeding and dying for us, and we have every broken, flawed, person: all of us in our own way, but in the worlds eyes, some more than others. The truth stays true in every instance, despite appearances:

“Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.

Psalm 117

Big love, forever faithful.

Score! Easy reading today. Wikipedia confirmed this is the shortest chapter in the Bible, and as it turns out the middle one.

Praise God – who? Everyone! All nations, all people.

Praise God – why? Because his huge love has taken over our lives (thanks message translation!) And his faithfulness lasts forever, praise the Lord!

Deep down in its very heart this book’s secret is revealed: the Bible is a love letter.

I was circulated stats yesterday. Australia is approx 50% Christian. I’m actually surprised it’s that high. Glebe, where I go to church is more like 30%, and it dropped about 9% in the past 5 years. I’d even been feeling pretty good about the 30% until they laid out the bars over each other in a graph, each one dramatically shorter.

What’s up God? Is this going to tend down to zero?

And I had a sleepless night. Woke up at two with a restless mind. I’m disturbed, can’t unpack why. A bit to do with identity and the future, somehow.

Praise God – is it a fun communal activity, or a largely unheard plea?

Well it’s true. His love is great, it’s for sharing with everyone, and it will be the last thing standing. Praise God!

Psalm 116

This psalm contains the first verse ever preached on Australian soil, by Rev Richard Johnson, fresh off the first fleet of convicts to arrive in Australia.

What shall I render to the Lord for all his goodness to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord.

I’m not sure what the convicts made of the reference to God’s goodness, criminals on the other side of the world permanently separated from all they knew. At least they were alive, they had survived the trip.

At the conference on treaty last week at our church, pastor uncle Ray Minniecon told us to think carefully about the verse and read this psalm, in the context of the interest we had expressed in hearing about the cause of treaty.

Johnson was apparently a sensitive man. I don’t know much about him. He and his wife were friendly to the natives – they gave their daughter an Aboriginal name, Milbah. It was however the start of great trauma that nearly wiped out the Aboriginal race and smashed their elaborate and astoundingly ancient culture.

230 years later, shamefully, there is still no formal agreement over the land. They are now at least counted and vote as humans, not just part of the flora and fauna (since 1967) and the courts have recognised their original ownership of the land (Mabo decision, 1984). But they are asking us for a treaty, and so far we’ve said no.

The title to all our Christian churches still goes back to the moment when, without the inhabitant’s consent, Captain Cook planted the union Jack and claimed Australia for the King. It’s land taken without consent, still, and the practical effects of the trauma significantly impacts Aboriginal lives.

The narrative of the psalm starts with praise of God’s rescue from crisis. From impending death; from tears, trouble and sorrow.

I think back on my own hard times, and the Lord has been there. Through deaths of family members, lost jobs, financial strains, times I felt brought very low. Not as low as the psalmist I’m guessing, but low. Sometimes I’ve felt active guidance, at other times, comfort and peace.

Then comes the verse I quoted, about what I can give back. And the first thing you can give God when you accept he has been guiding your life is to receive more from him: salvation.

The commentators remind us to recall that Jesus probably sang this directly before going to the garden of Gethsemane, and praying that if there was any way, he’d rather not drink the cup of salvation. But that God’s will should be done.

Then the psalm goes on to talk of a life of grace and obedience in response to God’s saving presence, keeping your vows, accepting that you are God’s child, not his servant, valuing your life and death as much as God does.

What we give to God in gratitude for his redemption is to receive the revelation of his mind, trust his promises and act on them. Humble acceptance is a strange service, but it’s what God wants from us.

And it’s critical to a treaty between the first and later possessors of this land. Us, the later being truthful, and humble, accepting from the first the land we already took, and accepting forgiveness for taking it. We’re finding it harder than it sounds like it should be, given what a passive service it is to render.

Psalm 115

When your God is a lie.

People have lots of ideas about God. But this Psalm is laying down one test for true religion, God can’t be something you’ve made yourself.

The demarcation is quite subtle in our minds. Our idea of the holy spirit is that God has entered into us and given us thoughts, ideas and ways of seeing opportunities, that we would not have had by our own. It’s a way of attributing what is good in us, an acknowledgement of what comes from God.

This Psalm starts that way saying “not to us, but to God be glory” and notices other nations wondering how Israel’s God can be seemingly absent, invisible.

It makes the point, thoroughly, how much more ridiculous is an idol, which has eyes that can’t see, a mouth that can’t speak, legs that can’t walk etc.

This is one of those many places in the old testament that talks about the special relationship Israel has with God, but also recognises him as God of all… the earth is given to all mankind. Which is how I can come into the picture.

So I don’t think it’s just about Israel praising God. Maybe even those people with lesser revelations than Christians or Jews can praise the true God, the creator outside of themselves, what they know of him; or choose to worship one they know they have just made up.

God put eternity in every person’s heart, so if you choose to worship a block of wood, that you know someone carved into a shape one day, perhaps you aren’t listening to your heart.

We love to build special beautiful buildings for worship. So often inside, all the people face a special bit with special statues or art, and pray.

My own local church conforms to the architecture of idolatry, it partly represents the idolatrous urge, even though in no way do I think the carved images of Christ or whatever it is in the’sanctuary’ are actually God. Some Christian churches do get to a place… statues that weep or perform miracles, where the object itself has become worshipped.

Hypocrisy can make your God a lie. Pete Buttigieg, a gay presidential aspirant in the us has bought down condemnation, and is denied religious legitimacy, by the same conservative Christians who refuse to condemn Donald Trump for all sorts of lies and immorality because they like his policies. There is a striking inconsistency. Surely there is a point down the path of hypocrisy where your God becomes a lie, in service of your policy goals, which have become your God.

And that is from fundamentalist believers who consciously define themselves as subordinate to the Word, let alone liberal Christians who start from an attitude of cherry picking the sweet bits. Though I suppose it’s better to be fuelled by honest skepticism than hypocricy. But either way, can end up just making up a God.

I do think we can bring our creativity to bear when thinking and talking about God. I think we can engage our imagination to imagine how he wants things to be, to imagine a better world. Or just create art about him. And that runs the risk of inventing God. We all do it sometimes I’m sure.

Praise is probably an antidote to making stuff up about God, because by its nature it is appreciating god’s character. Responding enthusiastically about what has been revealed of him only works from an attitude of being open to the truth about him.

Can’t quite tell if I’m being profound or laboriously banal today. I’ve tended to think careful study was a path to theological truth. Genuine, sincere, praise is quicker, and probably more dependable.

Praise God who is mighty, who has done wonderful things, who is steadfast, quick to forgive, yet loves justice.

You know, it just really turns the spotlight off you and onto God. I can’t quite tell if there is a point to all this, but I think there is?

Psalm 114

Is God material or spirit? He lives in our hearts, he loves creating. He operates though physical things. He saves our souls. Why do we have bodies at all? Does Jesus still have the body he ascended with? Will our souls live in a spiritual place forever or will we have resurrection bodies in a new earth?

This brief and startling Psalm, the second in a series of six used at Passover, gets to the main game: the exodus. And sent my mind off into lots of thoughts like these.

Israel was god’s nation, always foreigners in Egypt. It says they became his sanctuary when they left. Became his dwelling place.

They build a temple, a physical sanctuary, but perhaps the thing is that God just transformed the religious practices they already had by living in the people as a nation. We no longer have the practice, their temple is gone and we have many many different new ways to be religious across the world. But we do still have his presence.

I won’t have time to go on in this vein, but the psalm talks about the reaction of nature. The seas and rivers fled at the presence of God. This literally happened at the start and end of the exodus, the red sea and the Jordan.

The water shows respect, fear even, but the hills and mountains show delight, skipping around like sheep. (Mountains do look woolly in the distance).

Why flee, waters, why skip mountains? the Psalmist asks. Then recalls the miracle that involved them both, during the journey: of springs of water coming from rock.

God’s playing with the material world. The creator saying he is the master of reality, it need not be how it is, it’s how he wants it to be. A bit like the old Aboriginal stories of the creator jumping around and shaping the landscape.

And these responses of creation are in service of his rescue, the dangerous water becomes dry land, and the rock becomes life giving sustenance. Creation becomes part of god’s salvation voice.

It is described as trembling, but the commentators say not just in fear, there is a connotation of birth contractions. Creation birthing god’s people.

The meeting of their physical needs of safety and bodily nourishment is the promise of spiritual connection to the maker. Love and safety eternal.

It’s perfect poetry how, with very few and delightfully surprising words, it opens up and out into so much meaning.

The Anglican chant of it stuck with me from childhood as a choirboy, the image of the jumping mountains and coming out of the strange lands stuck in my young mind. You don’t have to know what it is about to know what it is about.

Psalm 113

These all seem to be special purpose or novelty type Psalms. The next group, 113-118 were a set sung at Passover. Jesus would have sung them at the last supper, most likely. We just had two acrostic alphabet Psalms, and Psalm 119 will be the super long one that has a whole stanza per letter of the alphabet… The longest chapter in the Bible.

It’s an appropriate way to kick off passover because it’s praising that God lifts up the lowly.

Praise him: who? The lord. His servants, his name: praise.

Praise him for: who he is. Psalm 8 moment… He’s so big, above the stars, and he’s so loving he has to stoop down just to see heaven and earth, to think of us.

We’re told of the emotion Jesus felt on the night he was betrayed. To think he’d probably sung this. How low must I stoop?

Praise him for: what he does. God stoops down, and lifts up the poor and the needy, the most vulnerable. The miserable slaves in Egypt….

He makes them Princes.

He makes childless women happy mothers, settled in their home.

It reminds you that’s he did literally do that for Rachel, Elizabeth. It’s a sign of blessing about to be poured out.

The world remains a mixture of crappy and wonderful, with a lot of meh besides. Are these things God does happening? On some metaphorical spiritual level? Or literally?

Well was the rescue from Egypt practical salvation of a group of slaves or part of a plan to free the world from the grip of sin? Both.

When Jesus fed the hungry and healed the sick, was it because they were hungry and sick, or to show he was Messiah? Worked both ways.

This praise is the Bible’s promise of optimism, that things should be right, and will be. God is inherently abundant, caring, and strong enough to deliver on these. It a message to shout and a way to live.

Believe it, proclaim it by praising him all day and all night, and live it by doing what you can for the poor and needy in any dimension of those terms.

We won’t and can’t fix all the problems, Jesus didn’t try to feed all the poor, but it has this context of praise, of telling a great truth about the nature and existence of God, of hope that makes it work on multiple levels.

There’s a good start to the day. At work I’m busy, on stuff I’m glad to be doing, and that I’m not necessarily up to doing, it challenges some of my weak spots. I’m feeling keen!

Psalm 112

I didn’t look at the commentary yesterday and missed the background to these two Psalms.

They are a pigeon pair, each are twenty two lines long in the original, and both are alphabet acrostics, ie: in the original language, each line starts with a letter of the alphabet in order. Twice through the alphabet.

The great preacher Charles Spurgeon pithily nailed both – as he so often does – calling them the sun and moon. 111 looks directly at the glory of God, 112 sees his glory reflected in the life of believers.

I felt sad at the first couple of verses because it talked about the success of the believers’ children and how wealthy and rich their houses will become.

I’m sensitive about my children but I need to be positive and take this as a promise to trust in their value as human beings and love them for who they are. Other ways, madness lies, for me.

The wealth is relative of course. I can be worrying about making ends meet and still be very much among the richer on the planet…

And the psalm turns out not to be unrealistic about the Love God=#blessed equation, going on to say that that believing in God can make light dawn in the darkness. I took it to mean that even if a believer is in a dark time, the light of Christ will make it better.

The rest of it talks about security in God, which is a thread that links the good and the bad times for believers. It talks about not needing to fear. Even the worst news will not shake us badly because we know god’s love and steadfastness.

You have the confidence to be generous and just. None of the other things people long for will be as rewarding.

Better with God, that what I hear, and so true, better with God.