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!

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.