Song of Songs 7

The third long description of the girl’s beauty. It was described in 4 and 6, though this flows on from 6, so it probably counts as one super long description.

Indeed in the last verse of 6 she started dancing and she continues into 7. The praise is still not so much visual as multi-sensory and emotionally evocative…

He calls her tummy a mound of wheat and her navel a glass of wine because she’s satisfying like fine food and drink to him.

Her nose gives her a strong, regal bearing, but I’m guessing isn’t literally shaped like the tower of Lebanon, looking towards Damascus.

But compared to last chapter it gets decidedly physical. This is all about the delights of her body the sight, the feeling, the scents, the joy of being with her.

Today’s musical comparison is Ravel’s Bolero… The book is reaching its climax, so to speak, a slow build at least over these two chapters to the place where he leaps into the dance with a declaration that he’s going to climb the palm tree of her body and grab those coconuts, those bunches of grapes, her breasts, and she responds with a “yes drink deep of my wine”.

They talk of spending the night in countryside budding with spring: vineyards, pomegranates, Mandrakes and delicacy. … Her vineyard became a garden became countryside, villages, bursting with spring life.

Reminds me of that great John Donne poem about his love and he in bed as the sun rises. Other than their love ‘nothing else is’. He first tells the rising Sun to go away and bother someone else, but when it hits their room full on:

“Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere;
This bed thy center is, these walls, thy sphere.”

Love is the centre of the universe.

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Song of Songs 4

A whole chapter of praise by the male voice for the loveliness of his beloved. In places it reads pretty hilarious to us because it’s not visual praise. It’s a much parodied part of the book.

If you visualise her neck a stone tower of David, covered with the shields of warriors, and her teeth looking like shorn sheep, it’s ridiculous.

But equally, when did you last hear a modern love song or more to the point watch a love song video that tried to find metaphors for the inherent qualities of a girl, such as her strength and power? We laugh because it’s so unfamiliar for male praise for desirable women not being all about the gaze. The joke’s on us, in a way.

Some cultures emphasise coquettish pursuit and resistance, and have trouble with romantic imagination moving beyond that, fun as it can be.

This chapter is very sexy in a totally exotic middle eastern way, all pomegranates and henna, lions and leopards, scents, and nature (oh my!). But it idealises a strong meeting of equals, both there by choice and equal desire.

There is something mutual about the objectification and ownership of each other here that is super erotic but doesn’t need to play with gender superiority or inferiority to get there.

Their desire for each other delights in their gender difference, but is also strongly about their shared and equal humanness. He keeps returning to the phrase ‘my sister, my bride’.

It takes me back to that first creation story, the female variant of mankind is 100% God’s image, and stands before God equal with the male. So many cultures still struggle with that, yet here it is back when the world was supposed to be less woke.

Taken as a whole the wisdom literature has many moments that extend this equality relationship ideal beyond the burning blaze of first love.

In Ecclesiastes there is the “two is better than one” section, and proverbs praises a partner who is a great organiser and manager. Psalm 68 has this:

The Lord announces the word, and the women who proclaim it are a mighty throng

… Except perhaps inside most Anglican churches in my city, which ban women from preaching!

The girl’s voice comes in at the end in response to him at the point where he compares her many delights to a closed garden inside a wall. She says essentially, no wall to you babe, come on in!

She then asks the North and the South winds to blow like the holy spirit, to spread her scent out from her garden, everywhere.

May it be so!

Ecclesiastes 12

It is, for the most part, a really humble and beautiful poem about getting old. The chapter divisions are rather clumsy here… The poem started half way though chapter 11 with the verse about the light of the sun being sweet, which I quoted yesterday.

There is a delicacy in his description of being old, and his advice to young people.

The advice is to balance the sensual joy of being in your prime with a sense of God – of being created (coming from God) and eternity (going to God).

You can be young in an arrogant and ignorant way, thinking that you have solved the trick of being beautiful and strong, and you are the first person who ever discovered the exciting things the world has to offer.

But he says it’s better to be young in context. To know it is your prime, to enjoy it while remembering your creator, and realising that you have an identity that is larger than the beguiling pleasures of youth.  What we call ‘grounded’ is an aspect of that, I suppose.

The teacher makes aging and death very vivid with metaphors which are a first person narrative of everything failing and then breaking down all together.

But I don’t find it depressing. I was moved by a beauty in this passage I can’t quite describe. It has an elegiac acceptance. It recalls that sense of accepting the seasons of life and time from chapter 3.

He uses objective images to describe the subjective affects of aging on different parts of your body:

when the keepers of the house tremble,
and the strong men stoop,
when the grinders cease because they are few,
and those looking through the windows grow dim;

Ie: when your hands shake, you stoop, your teeth fall out and your eyesight fails. I guess the unusual point of view is a way of emphasising that it happens to everyone.

Here’s his metaphors for dying:

Remember him—before the silver cord is severed,
and the golden bowl is broken;
before the pitcher is shattered at the spring,
and the wheel broken at the well,
and the dust returns to the ground it came from,
and the spirit returns to God who gave it.

Everything on earth, the good times, the bad times, is still insubstantial smoke (“meaningless”). But we’ve gone on a journey from holding eternity and the seeming contradiction of the ephemeral world at odds and being filled with despair, to them enhancing and informing each other.

Youth is still smoke, age and death are still smoke, but knowing it is doesn’t stop its vibrancy being beautiful, or doesn’t mean its sadness makes a mockery of being alive. If it doesn’t define us, we can appreciate it.

Thinking back on my youth, the memories are predominantly happy, but they are also random – sort of messy. I regret a certain lack of boldness to make the most of my opportunities, but I still have that, so its just me.

Indeed I feel a strong sense of consistency. I feel at my core I’ve always been the same person. My mum used to call me a dreamer, and I think that’s probably right. I live a lot in my own head.  I’m hoping that will make for a relatively satisfactory dotage. My wife says I find my own thoughts the most entertaining thing in the world… That’s kind of true too!  The playlist of my own thoughts will no doubt get a lot shorter, but it will probably still be my favourite music!

I liked studying post modern theory at uni because I related to the idea that almost nothing is absolute. Beyond cores of belief in God and eternity, I do see so much as insubstantial, up for grabs.

I’m sort of more ‘woke’ these days, I think my religion was more cultural when I was young.  It still expresses itself in habit and the comfort of personal relationship with God, but I feel my responsibility in the world, to be God’s presence, for justice, love and truth, more than I used to.

I don’t want the book to end, its a lovely place to be.  Perhaps that’s why the narrator – who returns in the dying verses – warns against writing many books and studying too much.

“Now get on with it!”  he seems to say. You can’t spend your whole life in reflection. Fear God and keep his commandments: “Next!”

 

Psalm 104

A Psalm praising God the creator. It follows the order of genesis, so it’s like a response in song.

It’s also reminiscent of Job – it even mentions his mythical scary water-dwelling beast, symbol of how much less we are in control than God: leviathan.

I was a bit “yada yada” despite the glorious imagery of the Lord clothing himself in light and creating the verdant earth out of the chaos of moving waters, having recently read Job which, at 40 chapters has a more powerful cumulative poetic effect and similar imagery.

But this Psalm is to be cherished as a quick access to such a relatable image of god’s glory. It reminded me somewhat of the song “how great thou art”, where the singer wanders the forest glades and can’t help bursting into praise of God.

They read it every day in Jewish services, according to Wikipedia. Apparently Bob Marley used to cite it as supporting marijuana use, which I can’t 100% see… But I was struck by the praise of God for making “wine that gladdens the heart” so I suppose it’s recognising mood altering substances as a legitimate good part of god’s creation.

That’s a bit of an issue at work because the salvation army are tea totallers. I really don’t want to do that, and I’m under no pressure to in my private life, though fair enough no drink during work hours.

It’s a legitimate life choice like vegetarianism, and I think it is part of the trust people have in the salvos, the thought of a tipsy officer is shocking to me now. Plus it makes it a safe place for recovering alcoholics.

I live a very urban life quite disconnected from nature. Though I delight in birds, my dog, and parks. Possums too.

This Psalm reserves a special place for animals, it’s a theology of them. They are evidence of god’s ongoing creation. Wild animals live and die, provided for by God, and we never see them. The sea, teeming with creatures, some vast in size, gives insight into the mind-blowing detail and scale of god’s abundant, joyous creativity..

They eat because of God, their fears and satisfaction are at his whim, they die in his time. Their existence flows from his spirit and they are sustained, renewed by his provision.

Gosh, I’ll praise God myself in a minute! Lord of life, I am because of you, you are truly amazing!

Psalm 97

These Psalms are like a playlist of songs with the same good vibe.

This one like yesterday’s announces its content straight away. Yesterday was a new song, today the Lord reigns.

Bam, there’s your Psalm.

Like yesterday it’s global, the whole earth. It’s very grand and a bit scary, there’s so much power. But it’s good power, so also joyous and exciting.

I’ve been thinking about god’s truth.

Sometimes it’s magical the way the Bible predicts things that happened way into the future. The spirit is guiding the author’s pens to say things they surely couldn’t imagine the significance of.

But it’s also unsurprising if it’s the truth. Like witnesses in a court case (if they are reliable), you’ll get stories from lots of different angles and times. But they will inevitably agree with each other and join up into a larger narrative, because they are all merely describing a central truth. In the case of God, an eternal one. I’ve experienced it this week.

The grand vision here recalls Sinai, when Moses got the law. You can’t see God through darkness and clouds, but you tremble before the kingly throne of righteousness and justice, spitting out fire that destroys all opposition. Thunderbolt and lightning, putting all other gods to shame.

Then darkness accompanied Calvary, fire came at Pentecost, and the name of Jesus lit up the globe, and continues to do so.

So the different glimpses of truth, 1000s of years before and after this psalm was written, come together with it to tell a story of joy, light and wonder.

Verse 11 “Light shines on the righteous
and joy on the upright in heart.” was apparently used in a Jewish collection of verses to help you get to sleep. Bach used it for a wedding cantata.

A better king than anyone else: the Lord reigns. A bit scary but very wonderful and reassuring too.

Proverbs 31

Another named author, King Lemuel takes over for the last chapter. Or possibly half of it, not sure.

There’s speculation Lemuel is another name for Solomon, which would make the opening warning from his mother, Bathsheba, not to waste his energy on women just too rich in irony, given the trajectories of both their lives.

The advice on drinking which follows is really wise. I’ve been challenged about it since working for the Salvos, which are an unfashionably temperate organisation.

The gist of the passage is that drunkenness is inconsistent with a king’s responsibility.

There’s also lots of good reasons why Salvos too would want a strong hedge around alcohol, given the work they do particularly with addicted people. In an era where church hypocrisy is being constantly exposed, it’s a sign of commitment, sincerity and being set apart.

It’s a barrier to how deeply in the movement I can participate, but I’ve been very welcomed. I feel there is room for me.

The passage is honest about what excessive drink is good for… It neither glamourises or judges it:

Let beer be for those who are perishing,
wine for those who are in anguish!
Let them drink and forget their poverty
and remember their misery no more.

Finally, this section emphasises the obligation of those in power to have compassion and ensure justice for the vulnerable.

It’s a Monday morning, and I’ll have many opportunities this week to be part of just that in my work and church life, it’s just great!

The second half of the chapter is a famous description of the wife of noble character. These days it instantly brings to mind my mother, at whose funeral verses from this passage were read.

She was in some senses more than this description – it doesn’t refer specifically to the value of a wicked sense of humour, kindness or emotional supportiveness, all of which she had in spades.  I don’t think its intended as an exhaustive recipe for a perfect woman. And as for:

Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting;
    but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
Honor her for all that her hands have done,
    and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.

Yes yes!

Reaching the end of Proverbs, I’m thinking so much of it is a “for instance”… specific reactions to a specific sets of circumstances, from which we are to learn models of how to respond, rather than literal lessons.  If Kelly, my wife, ever literally acted like the wife of noble character I would become confused and demand my real wife back. The thrust of this advice is to to look beyond the shallow to the things of deeper value. To be looking for a true life partner, not a decoration.

Yeah, its sort of sexist that the whole book appears to be directed specifically at young men, even though its theme – how stop being a fool – is a bit redeeming on that score. And as an older man, I’ve thought helpfully about how to live well, and contemplated how difficult and ongoing is aligning our thoughts and actions to the love of God.

Psalm 84

Another for which I simply have to include a choral setting. It inspired gorgeous soaring, light, sweeping romantic music in Brahms that I can’t not hear when I read it.

It’s about being in the presence of God, describing it as lovely, describing how much the writer yearns for it.

I think of it as heaven, and also the joy of having found God, knowing him. God’s presence now.

For the writers it could have described the journey to the temple, that dwelling place of God.

But all have in common the security, the joy, of being connected to the author of life.

On Friday I went to the funeral of Haley the 2 years 4 months child of a co-worker who had a brain tumour. I only ever saw her very unwell, but they showed video of her playing Peekaboo, delighting in some bread, and enjoying presents on her second Christmas, before the diagnosis

It was a short life, but it was a precious life. It says in the psalm that one day being merely a doorkeeper in the courts of God is worth 1000 anywhere else.

On days like last Friday the certainty of grace in Jesus means we looked back on her life but only with sadness but as beautiful and joyous. Her middle name was joy, and she gave it, knew it and will know it for eternity.

How lovely are your dwellings fair oh Lord of hosts! My soul ever longeth and fainteth for the blessed courts of the Lord.

This video is from the funeral for the Queen mother, and when they get to the cascading peals of the blessed ever praising God the camera seems to rise up the Westminster Abbey pillars almost to the heavens. The chords and overlapping melodies are more glorious and luscious than I remember!

Job 38

The answer is blowing in the wind…

Oh gosh, he’s here. God speaks.

He asks a majestic series of rhetorical questions designed to demonstrate his awesome power and might relative to Job.

The language is stunning, a poetic highlight.

The one I always remember is ‘were you there when I laid the Earth’s foundation?’ But so many vividly expressed images, such as while God lays the cornerstone of creation ‘the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy’.

I also loved ‘Have you ever given orders to the morning, or shown the dawn its place, that it might take the earth by the edges and shake the wicked out of it?’

But all of it was stunning, bang bang bang, and the combined sweep puts you in your place.

It’s like a day in the life of God. You zoom through the vastness and complexity of creation, and being creator. From fine tuning the constellations to teaching ibises; the storehouses of snow, the womb of ice; making sure both Lion cubs and baby Ravens have dinner; irrigating desserts, visiting the springs of the sea, the gates of darkness and death.

I read a great science blog entry about the storehouses of snow, suggesting its referring not only to the amount but the variety – no two snowflakes are alike – literally boundless creativity of pattern and variation.

It’s intended to overwhelm and it does, magnificently for a believer, who has heard that God is love. What it would do to a serious atheist, who’s god is their own understanding, I don’t know. I’d love to ask!

It’s clear creation is not tame. It’s a balancing act. For every light, there is a dark. For every lion fed, there is a creature gone. Evil is part of it, glory, beauty, fear and death.

And loud and clear, God is saying ‘this is not going to make sense to you’. It does actually make sense, to God, but not to me.

And our response? We can’t go and find another God we prefer. God is a monotheist.

The effect of any response other than respect is described in verse one: ‘who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge?

Thank you, father for sending your son, the very image of you, to die for us. Die… for us!

Psalm 51

Psalm 51! David’s second most famous Psalm after 23.

He faces his evil, his sin. His crime of lust and murder, perfectly covered up with the corruption of his kingly authority is dragged into the open by Nathan the prophet.

But though he’d technically gotten away with the ghastly mess until Nathan, it was ever before him, the poisonous guilt between him and God.

So ugly. And he knows it runs so deep. He speaks of being a sinner in the womb, original sin, but not by way of some sort of excuse.

Acknowledging the whole ugliness to God means experiencing the complete beauty of forgiveness and renewal. Mercy, grace deep down to every dark place. All the evil he’s ever done and been, the evil he will do and all the horrible consequences, known and borne, absorbed, by God.

What can I say? I too know that grace. As a child I sang Allegri’s ridiculously beautiful music – I got to sing the really high note. These things are meant to be sung. Into a frame of misery, remorse and sadness, the entry of God’s mercy is too beautiful. Praise him!

Psalm 48

The city, the temple, the Lord. All to be greatly praised.

If I can stay awake.

I’ve been getting the flu, I see now, since daylight saving came in on the weekend. My body clock is all over the place. Wasn’t ready for the alarm this morning. Having second thoughts about not having a second day off work.

All three are intertwined, God, his City, his temple, all sorts of positive connotations are piled on all three: beautiful, strong, loving, astounding.

This could well be talking about the event in chronicles where the sons of Korah, writers of the psalm, are mentioned.

Local countries teamed up to destroy Israel in a weak moment, but they became overwhelmed with confusion and fought each other, annihilated each other.

King Jehoshaphat of Israel showed tremendous trust in God. Faith in him was his military strategy: ‘we look to you’.

The singing of songs praising the splendour of God’s holiness was an integral part of the victory. It bought a generation of peace.

This is exactly the song for that moment.

But being the Bible, the truth about God’s home has larger eternal meanings, after Jesus’ words about destroying and rebuilding the temple in his death and resurrection, and the vision of the new Jerusalem in Revelation.

We sing the psalm today and it still makes perfect sense. It reflects our own salvation, the God we know and love. I’m a temple, I live in the holy city, among God’s chosen. Through the sacrifice of Jesus, in me he sees God. I am beautiful, strong, astounding. I am channel of his love through the whole earth. With him my soul finds an eternal dwelling.