Psalm 128

A pigeon pair with yesterday’s psalm really, reminding the pilgrims to Jerusalem of God’s promise of blessed households, and then wishing upon them the fulfillment of those promises in their lifetime. One for the hard working patriarchs, wishing them reward: fruitful matriarchs, children, and children of children all prosperous and safe.

Of course it’s just an instance of the larger peace of God, the promise to make everything new, to wipe away all tears, mourning and pain.

And the wish, the hope, the purpose in life to make it so now by sharing these promises and praying them for our fellow humans. To wipe away tears, comfort those who mourn and ease pain.

I’ve been working on gentleness. As a naturally passive aggressive person, my goto way of being annoyed is to withdraw gentleness. I can do all the same things, but do them in a way that is attacking and unsupportive.

I can be doing things they literally want and expect in a way that boxes them into a corner of their own inadequacy, or leaves them out on a limb, gives them the rope, sets them up. Sometimes it’s gentler, if it’s got to that, to push back. To refuse gently rather than do aggressively.

When you are gentle, you see people lighten, you experience trust and intimacy. I know how good it is, but still it’s my most common tool to punish people.

So we have God’s character, his promises, we live those promises, to bring the love of Jesus to the world, through the fruit of the spirit.

Done, life solved.

May it be so. Peace.

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Psalm 127

“If the building is not of the Lord, there’s no use in starting the building”.

Verse one was used for an old chorus I recall singing. It had an odd melody that started solemn and then went cutesy and light. The two halves of the phrase were disconnected.

Similarly, the two halves of this 4 verse psalm challenged my brain to see the connection.

The start of the psalm, talks about building houses and guarding the city, and doing it in the Lord’s name or there is no point. And the second half talks about the benefits of having a quiver full of straight arrow children.

Unfortunately, the only way I can connect them makes me a little sad because it’s praising, I think, some of the very things I’m worst at in life.

It’s for people that want legacy.

We have various ways of reconciling our eternal and temporal natures. The grass is always there because it is replenished.Each blade has a life cycle, a circle of life.

But we are more complex than grass. We start to mourn the individual blades, and get invested in whether the blade has a long or short life. Because God had given us the desire to mean something.

And an answer, this psalm says, I reckon, is to invest in your legacy of offspring. Work, build houses, guard your stuff, for them. Have lots of kids.

But do it in the Lord. The commentators made the comment that an arrow isn’t just any old stick. It’s honed, worked, made perfectly straight and for purpose.

As if! I dream of that sort of influence.

That’s where I feel vulnerable. My kids aren’t exactly a quiver of straight arrows. Love ’em, recognise me in ’em. But the closest I get to fine is accepting that they will be what they will be. Particularly the older ones… 26 and 25.  I have a little fading influence over Ren, 15.  But he is such a typical teen – carving out his own identity.

I feel vulnerable, so for me I suppose this psalm is an encouragement.  I need to work at my relationships with the kids, but its in the Lord’s hands. And I could do a lot of stuff: financial support, coaching, moulding, pushing, bullying, encouraging, and it could come to nothing.  I’ll try to remember to pray, turns out that might be the best legacy.

I’ll cling to that!

Psalm 126

Those who go out weeping,
carrying seed to sow,
will return with songs of joy,
carrying sheaves with them.

A song trusting God’s blessing. A great way to start the week. They recall the joy when they came back from captivity – the return from exile in Babylon – it was like a dream.

Now they are asking God, surely, he will restore their fortunes again. The verse quoted above is the last in the psalm.

But I just finished re-reading the prophets from the end of the old testament, speaking to that rebuilt Jerusalem. It was a much more pessimistic place. In Malachi, the last OT book, God says ”You have wearied the Lord with your words.

Of course, Jesus would be the harvest, and the prophets’ glimpses of long term blessing, often just barely slipped into the dying verses of otherwise bleak books, was the seed.

And now? We have Jesus… Unalloyed joy, yes? I am stressed going into the week, just with silly stuff. Feeling a bit sorry for myself, just the usual.

My work, as worthy as it is, still involves unpleasant deadlines and me having to battle my ego and make comprises I’m not happy with.

I suppose the old song “we shall some rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves” is drawn from this psalm.

I’m not feeling it, but it is a promise and my hope, I’ll make it my prayer today. I mean I’m not even weeping really, just a bit glum. I’ll try to spend my time sowing seed.

Psalm125

Jerusalem as parental hug. To a child, a parent is the most reliable, indestructable good thing on earth. Ditto Mount Zion, the temple, the presence of God. And the mountains surounding Jerusalem are like God’s arms holding us, his surrounding protection and love. And peace reigns.

The reign of evil will cease and lose its influence on the righteous. Anyone not good will be banished along with the evildoers.

I was thinking how that “gated community” image of Jerusalem: it’s just for the perfect, sits oddly with Jesus’ teaching about loving your enemies and going an extra mile with them.

The Jerusalem Jesus actually lived in was subject to roman rule, and he surrendered to Caesar what was his, and accepted the death penalty from his unfair trial without fighting back. The ‘sceptre of the wicked’, as the psalm calls it, certainly seemed to be over the land, and rather than banish them, he wept for the citizens because they were like sheep without a shepherd.

Maybe the talk of banishment is an extension of the parental vibe. It’s directed primarily to the inhabitants after all. Parents inevitably say stuff like “if you don’t do your homework, you’ll never get a good job”, and then ban the tv or something. Maybe these aren’t threats, more warnings and corrections, and should be read with the tone of parental love?

I remember being appalled when my eldest brother said he was a universalist, as in, all people go to heaven, when I was a child. He was the one from whom I learned such theology even existed. It had never crossed my mind.

I’d seen those Warner Brothers cartoons where chargers nearly went to hell after death, and had to deal their way back to heaven, and they seemed to accord roughly with the Bible descriptions mum read at night before I went to sleep.

These days I would summarise my belief as “dunno – don’t expect to know this side of heaven”. But I cling to idea that whatever the afterlife is like, it will be fair.

I think God definitely wants us to have the fear of God in us for things… Evil, blasphemy, injustice, cruelty.

He wants us to have an urgency and a mission for the ‘lost’, both physically and spiritually – that I can’t say I’m very good at personally. As its turned out, strangely enough, I have a support role in that, both at work and at church.

And the deeper into the scriptures I get the bigger and less conditional God’s love appears to be revealed as being.

So I’ll enjoy the enveloping warmth of love in this psalm, and live as God has prescribed: at war with selfishness and pride in me, and doing my bit to bring the gospel of judgement and grace to the world. And He can figure out how the new Jerusalem works.

Psalm 124

Even Atheists have God on their side. Every breath comes from God.

Or doesn’t, if God is not real.

But it’s not like believers’ breaths come from God and unbelievers’ don’t. It’s one or the other.

Unless reality is subjective. Hmm.

I sometime toy with the idea that my faith is a construct. It’s certainly a culture I enjoy and am comfortable in. It’s an ethic I relate to, it gives me meaning and purpose. If it turned out not actually to be true, I’d still be ahead of the game, really.

But it’s when I contemplate actually trying to believe God is not there that I realise I’m a true believer. You can be frustrated with your spouse or your kids. You can think “if it weren’t for Kelly, I would eat pizza more often. I like pizza” But if they were ever actually gone, your love for them would be overwhelming. Pizza would taste like poisonous cardboard.

On a TV panel show yesterday they were discussing an experiment where they dropped wallets with money to test peoples ethics… Would they take cash and/or credit cards?

The panelists all said they would return it with cash and all, but none would say because it was the right thing to do. They came up with pretty far fetched scenarios about how it was actually to their benefit to hand it in. One of the panelists, a Muslim, didn’t comment. He would have put it in a moral framework, maybe he was embarrassed to link it to faith in God? It made me think that absolute right and wrong seem out of fashion, an uncomfortable reason for doing things.

Anyway this psalm is all about remembering and realising how we would be nowhere but for God. King David points to tangible examples of saving grace in the past. Then the last image, of a bird escaping a snare, and the snare being destroyed, opens up larger, more permanent aspects of God’s grace and love.

God’s presence, moment to moment. And in a larger, eternal sense, no more tears, crying or pain.

Free as a bird.

Psalm 123

This better have been worth it.

I called these ascent psalms “cheer chants for God” a few days ago. But this little poem is in a darker, subtler place than I imagined they would be.

I was struck by the stark image of our power relationship with God. Male and female slaves (there is a scrupulous gender equality) we all stand before our master/mistress God, watching the hand.

In the smallest movement of the hand is power. It’s not a relaxed state of being.

Usually when the Bible depicts these moments there is more clarity: God shows love to those who are humble and casts the unrepentant from his presence, separates the sheep from the goats, or some such. But at least you know.

Here we don’t know. The comparison with slavery reminds us that the relationship is defined by a vastly unequal power dynamic. Our only hope is mercy.

I was also very struck by the reasons for feeling like we deserve a bit of God’s mercy. “We have endured no end of ridicule from the arrogant, of contempt from the proud.” I thought: Finally, the Bible recognises first world problems!

Usually, when it speaks of “persecution” it’s something like starving from famine, as you watch Assyrians slaughter your family. And you think “sure I understand persecution… I felt embarrassed being silent while people laughed at Christians in the lunch room at work yesterday”.

But this is persecution on a scale we will actually experience, in the normal operation of rich western societies. Ridicule, contempt even.

So you have this contrast: lifting our eyes to a God of unfettered power who can destroy us with a finger flick, but calling on our beloved God of nuance, who we trust cares when we are ridiculed for him.

This better be worth it, we say, I suffered contempt for you. Forget my evil, where’s your mercy? Feisty!

I suppose it’s about fearing God. Recognising, with confidence, all that God has revealed about his power …and his love.

The shaker of mountains and weaver of history. The one who also knows how many hairs we have on our head, who has the creative abundance to daily dispose of the beauty of fields of flowers and yet values, he promises, for eternity the tainted beauty of each of our souls.

And this fab little psalm leaves it hanging there… We don’t hear that we have the mercy, we’re left there reverently watching the hand, aware of God’s character of fearsome power and promised mercy.

Psalm 122

Very tired this morning, not great sleep and now a day. Managed to slice my thumb making toast and dripped blood on the shirt I was ironing, sort of day.

The psalm has David imagining pilgrims arriving at the gate of Jerusalem and going up to the house of the Lord. The temple wasn’t built in his time, sacrifices were in the tabernacle in Kiriath-Jearim, about 9 miles from Jerusalem.

He chose the location for the temple, he bought the ark into Jerusalem. He built the city up and started stockpiling materials for the temple. It was a work that would have fired his imagination.

As a choirboy I sang this psalm, a warm and calm setting. Jerusalem felt like home. “O pray for the peace of Jerusalem, they shall prosper that love thee” The word “peace” was given an exotic figure of notes and overlapping parts.

It is a prayer for peace, a place for peace. THE place of peace. The prophets had visions of all nations coming down a highway though the desert all a-bloom to Jerusalem.

Peace. The promise of it, now to calm me. After a restless night, I can’t really move beyond the mantra of that word.

Psalm 121

Climbing that mountain. We’re reading fifteen psalms of ascents. I always envisage these as the soundtrack of the pilgrimage to the temple in Jerusalem. The holy Hill.

I’m looking forward to these as cheer chants for the Christian life. A Christian life well lived should be about improving, becoming more holy, a better person. More loving, more unselfish, more generous.

Loving God with more and more of your heart. As close to all your heart as you can possibly manage.

And it seems the second great commandment will never be at tension. Truly loving your neighbour is, as Jesus says, like it; like loving God. Maybe, done right, it’s a ven diagram where the two circles sit directly over each other.

Anyway the abiding image of these songs is climbing a mountain to see God. Drawing closer, getting higher. It’s work, but it’s full of pleasurable anticipation, high spirits and optimism.

Coming from a bit of time out to summarise the books of the minor prophets which I’ve read so far, this feels a bit like sunshine after rain.

And I’m of a more positive frame of mind than I have been. I have achieved ‘flow’ at work, I feel functional and satisfied. A lot of the self doubt I had has gone away.

So this psalm says lift those eyes to the hills, to the goal and the source, as the feet walk step by step up the incline towards.

God will shade you during the burning day, comfort when things are harsh, and keep those feet from slipping during the darkness, when you can’t see.

Jehovah, watching over you with care, 24/7. I do still have lots to worry about, but clarity on so much that gives me hope.

So to the day!

Malachi Overview

There’s that time in a relationship. Your partner or maybe your boss says “we have to talk”.

You are going to be dumped, or they have reached the end of their tether in some way. You are going to be fired. This book is sort of that talk between God and man. Yep, the old testament ends like that.

There’s lots of specific examples raised by God, of the people’s selfishness, injustice to each other and contempt for him. He finds the priests particularly toxic, because they are the people’s best hope to be taught better, but they are self serving and corrupt.

The people and the priests are so far from seeing his point of view that most of their responses are combative and belligerent. They throw God’s accusations back at him: “you haven’t loved us”, “you haven’t been fair or just to us”.

God sounds cynical, tired ‘You have wearied the Lord with your words.‘ he says at one point.

As the talk wears on, God goes from illustrating their inadequacies to saying what he’s going to do about it. Queue the searing fire and judgement. But his promise means he won’t forget them entirely still. ‘I never change’ he says, remembering the covenant.

He has a scroll with the names of the few who still have honest hearts, the little remnant of faithfulness, who are like gold to him. I thought: this is what Jesus referred to when he talked about storing up treasure in heaven.

The coming of the Messiah is both the sun that announces the change of season and the fire that burns up all that cannot stand before him. It’s like the saving Jesus and Judgement day Jesus rolled into one.

It ends with a promise of yet a further opportunity to repent: Elijah – does it refer to Jesus or John the Baptist? No wonder the disciples kept talking about Elijah. But it turns out he meant “an Elijah”.

The abiding image for me, the takeaway if you will, is not to give God shit.

This refers to God’s dialogue with the priests. For kickbacks, they allow the people to sacrifice the sick, weak animals that are worthless to them anyway. It stops it being any kind of sacrifice, it’s become a worthless animal disposal service.

Then they don’t even sacrifice them right. When God says he will rub the dung of their offerings in their faces, it’s because there shouldn’t be any. The system is supposed to have various processes to refine the offering so that God got the best, which he described as a sweet smell. The poo was supposed to be burned off already by the time it got to the final altar in the holy-of-holies.

And so with our Christianity. We don’t sacrifice animals, but God is interested in our hearts. Don’t give him shit.

1 years after the return to Jerusalem from exile, indifference has set in. The people are giving so little really to God, they may as well close the temple and give up.

2 expanding on the corruption of the priests, comparing Levi, the patriarch of the clan. They are pushing their own agenda, their own power, not servants of God. All believers are now priests.. simple application!

3 God speaks with cynicism and tenderness, like the end of a bad relationship where promises to improve can’t be believed. Jesus, the Messiah, breaks though the gloom like the sun, but the heat may be too much.

4 I rate the last chapter of the old testament 85% bleak. Uncomfortable shifts from tender to terror persist to the last verse, the evil of mankind creates an urgency we don’t often feel.

Zechariah Overview

A complex book of wild visions for important times, when Israel was returning to their land after exile and being influenced by Assyrian or Persian culture.

But barely contained to that context, with many scenes familiar from Christ’s story, and some that are still mysterious about the role of the Jews and the apocalypse.

I took from it how precious God’s love is, despite its abundance. The cost of it.

How God calls us, moves history around us.

The terror and grace of the days of the Lord, the days when his plans become unavoidable.

The small things we do now can help shake the foundations of the universe.

1 The harsh world that exiled Israel is no more. Persia has replaced Assyria, and the world is at peace, Israel’s turn to benefit.

2 a dream of measuring the actual and future Jerusalem of God’s promises. In God’s plan and timing will come restoration for Israel, retribution for their oppressors, and ultimately a promise of saying grace for all nations.

3 More dreams. Forgiveness: high priests dirty clothes replaced with clean. Salvation: Israel as a burning stick grabbed from the fire, portents of a future greater salvation for all.

4 A dream of the first stones of the temple. Small things can become earth shakers

5 A woman in a flying basket, a flying scroll.. a dream of purification of Israel from Persian culture ready to be God’s people again

6 Four horsemen announce God’s control rather than the chaos of revelation. A vision of the king and priest turns messianic as two branches of a tree become one exams figure

7 the people want to return to rituals low fasting to please God, bit he asks them rather to live lives of genuine mercy and collision instead.

8 A promise that God’s favour will make the Jews the most loved little in the planet fullfilled in us? No place for apologies or negativity, we are the blessed

9 Predictions of the near and far future, wars with Greece and the Messiah on a donkey, framed by the might of Jehovah in lightning and thunder, judging and blessing all nations

10 Once were lost, now are found, a song of love for the two kingdoms of Israel in God’s first person voice. A promise to heal the split.

11 God as shepherd of Israel, two staffs, favour and union, were broken. They sold their blessing for silver. God speaks to himself is their salvation: being the Trinity here, Messiah is part of the conversation.

12 The day of the Lord, Jews miserably aware of how much they need forgiveness: they pierced the side of the Messiah (!?). Also the envy and the stumbling block of the world. It’s us, believers. Now it’s the day of the Lord.

13 More day of the Lord. Judgement will consume two thirds, and push the surviving third to the limit. I get survivor guilt for my cheap grace.

14 An apocalyptic battle. Is it Calvary? The end of Time? I take from it lessons about the pain and value of grace, and that even the worst day is still a day of the Lord.