Psalm 93

The next eight Psalms are sometimes called the enthronement Psalms. They are visions of God the father, the great creator, in heaven.

It seems like the Israelites had a bit of a bet both ways regarding the sovereignty of God.

Sometimes, they are his chosen, he is their God, he is in the temple in Jerusalem, there is only the vaguest notion of the afterlife, an unknowable shadowy place.

But these visions are of the one God of all creation, all nations, from eternity and to eternity. His word stands firm forever, his holiness lasts for endless days.

The are big Psalms, of a big God bigger than Israel, dealing in eternity. God can make the religion small, as small as a baby, to teach our easily boggled minds.

For the Israelites the religion he established for them followed a form and fitted a scale that was comprehensible in the context of the religions around them. Incrementally it reflected more of his true character than the other local belief systems.

But God was impatient for them to see this version of himself, as much as they were able, as much as I am able! Bring them on!

Psalm 148

The last five psalms have in common that they all start with “hallelujah” – praise the Lord. Bang bang bang bang bang, like the big finish to a fireworks display.

This is a big fun communal song about everything praising God. First half the heavens, second half the earth.

Each half ends in a “why?”

For the heavens, angels, heavenly powers, sun moon stars etc, they praise God because his decrees are eternal. From them we learn of a bigger, longer reality than our own. We get the mind-blowing physical and temporal scale of God.

The “why” at the end of it all is a bit circular. We on earth praise God because though he’s above everything there is, we are dear to him, and the connection grows stronger through our praise.

So we praise him because praise strengthens our praise. It’s a pop song, ok? You got a problem with that?

The overall effect played in my mind a bit like when you use Google Earth and start in space, zooming in on the ball of earth, past all the vast seas, wild places and daunting features of creation down down, past kingdoms, cities and villages right down to you.

And the God view and the micro view are connected and strengthened because he hears our praise.

It’s a happy vision to start the week.

I’m looking forward to working on soldiership materials (ie: the training course you take to become a salvation army soldier) and some of the notes for self denial, which is a charity appeal within the membership, not a public appeal. Goodness me, I’m deep in the weeds these days! But they will be enjoyable projects.

It’s the last week of Kelly’s internship, she’s worked two days a week in an architect office for five weeks, and we’ve really loved meeting after work and catching up. Highlight of the week. Which I will partcularly treasure as the last one. And also as she enters her last semester, it’s a positive glimpse of possibilities post graduation, which can be scary too.

There are some constructive opportunities at church too, going to have a chat with the Minister about music, is one of them.

Some things to praise God for, you know, and the heavens and the world broadly too. Lots of challenges as well.

Psalm 134

In the night kitchen. It is a children’s book by the ‘where the wild things are’ guy, very evocative about the bakers who make bread while we sleep and the child who is being read the story going to them in a dream.

This is the last psalm of ascents. I’ve loved them, this pilgrimage playlist, full of optimism for coming into the presence of God.

In a literal sense it praises the priests and temple assistants who do the night shift at the temple, and calls on God to bless them. For the pilgrims coming to Jerusalem, I imagine it fuelling images of relentless activity while others sleep, like the night kitchen. The 24/7 temple.

Maybe it was a method of expectation management… If we get there and you wind up offering your sheep at 3 in the morning, that’s ok.

Applying it to my situation, I am now a servant of God, my body is a temple where God dwells and my ministry is my obedience.

And the night shift is the less easy shift, the one while others rest, the hard yards, the one where it is dark and you can’t take warmth or illumination for granted.

I felt a little like we were doing the hard yards yesterday when a combination of upset stomach and anxiety made my son unable to do his second day of work experience. We got as far as entering the building.

May the maker of heaven and earth bless us!

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.

Song of Songs 3

I’m finding the commenters very inadequate for this book.

For one they have a tin ear for poetry. And they treat it like an interference to the message. “Don’t panic” they seem to be saying all the time “it’s just poetry”.

Which is pretty silly because the whole thing is a poem. Did the holy spirit make a mistake choosing the literary form? And it’s an ominously dismissive way to discuss one of the few female voices we’ve yet heard in the biblical narrative.

Also they are always hastening to make the case that this is all about the importance of sex being in the context of marriage, which it really isn’t.

I can understand that is probably a pastoral priority… If I was a Christian youth trying to justify an unwise affair, this book would be my first port of call, and the pastors need to be armed with counter arguments. But that emphasis is bit of a distraction if you simply want to understand the book.

Solomon turns up in this chapter on his wedding day, the first literal reference to marriage. He’s not a great normative example. The political, moral and religious damage he did to the institution with his 1000s of wives and concubines was explicitly identified by God as his downfall. Our recent ugly fights over the meaning of marriage in the equality debates pale into insignificance in the face of his trashing of the ideal of monogamy.

And that is what this song has held high til now. Not literally marriage, but monogamy. The power and wonder of deep and unbroken love between two.

If it was written by Solomon, he’s imagining an alternate universe where he is not enslaved by meaningless lustful appetites, and marriage vows used for cynical power games. If it his pen, it’s surely a work of shame and repentance.

The girl spends the first half of the chapter seeking her beloved through the streets in the night.

The over the top obsessiveness of it easily connects restless spiritual quests.

A guy from Iran was baptised at our church a few weeks ago, very moving story. A deeply reflective guy, he could not stop looking until he found answers. So humbling and encouraging that he found them in fellowship with us!

Then Solomon. He’s in a grand procession oozing luxury. My usually helpful commentator said that there are two processions, one for the girl and one for Solomon, and she will be Solomon’s bride, but I can’t see it, and her lover was a shepherd in the previous chapters. Had she spent the night wandering the streets looking for king Solomon? It is now about a love triangle? Say wha?

I think I’ll just enjoy it as an image of scents, sensations and luxury associated with love, like the banquet the last chapter. Jesus used Solomon’s man-made glory as a byword to praise by contrast a humble flower of god’s creation, maybe a similar thing is going on here. I don’t know, but I want to believe it’s still about humble authentic love.

I’ve been working at thinking about feelings of insecurity at work. What if it’s true, and you actually aren’t as nice, clever or loveable as you thought? I’ve been entertaining that idea and trying to have it not matter. You’re there to collaborate, just bring what you bring, unapologetically, but not as if it could be worth more than anyone else’s input either. Insecurity can be a kind of ego.

Stay loving and expect to be loved because of the promise of love.

Like the girl searching for her lover, or my friend at church being baptised after considering so many religions, only true love will do, don’t give up til you find the real thing.

Song of Songs 2

Won’t be able to do this one justice, so many beautiful familiar images, so many keepers.

Two basic metaphors through the chapter.

A banquet under the banner of love. Together in a close embrace, abundant and frank natural imagery: she’s lilies, he’s an apple tree. Deliciousness, intimacy, joy, love, feasting. Time stands still, the moment is suspended together.

Strengthen me with raisins,
refresh me with apples,
for I am faint with love.

Then running: he’s bounding over the hills to reach her, her lover coming to waken her, at her window all urgency because… just because winter is over and spring has come. Because there is nowhere to be in the world but with each other running though nature like stags and gazelles.

He asking her to catch the little foxes that may ruin the vineyard, just as she probably literally did. More running. This time chasing away anything that could threaten their vineyard of love.

Two contrasting metaphors: stillness and urgency, it reminds me of a stream with pools and glistening rills.

Then I think of the songs I’ve sung from this: “he bought me into his banqueting table, and his banner over me is love… My beloved is mine and I am his…” Singing it in Sunday school! How dare they!

It is a picture of perfect love, an unsustainable dream of love. It’s a love that is actually dangerous in this world… The girl warns us not to stir up love like this before we are ready. The connection of joyous physical intimacy and complete trust is the ideal of romantic love. It takes people to divine places.

But you can’t fake that, and being addicted to the divine, trying to wring it out of imperfect relationships is more than they can bare. It’s a dream that has shipwrecked countless lives. Looking for love in all the wrong places, as the song goes.

Your can’t make your partner God, no one is that great. If it is to last you learn to live with their flaws. So this uber song, song of songs, puts you in a frame of mind that the holy spirit exists to answer: being able to imagine more perfect love, but being unable to attain it.

Which is how the writers of that Sunday school song about dream sex dared.

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 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.

I subsequently learned that musicologists believe this tune is a strong indication of what the original psalm may have sounded like sung. It’s very ancient, seems to have crossed cultures from middle east to west, and corresponds to early notation markings found on dead sea scroll texts.

Psalm 98

This starts and ends a lot like Psalm 96. Ironic considering they both open with “sing a new song”. Well, I suppose every different song is a little bit new. But this is the good news, jubilation – both are new hope for a tired, tatty world.

It’s another vision of the grand kingly rule of God. Here the new song is sung in widening circles of response: Israel, all nations, all creation…

Which is also where 96 ended. Here are the seas, rivers and mountains celebrating the day of the judge who is right and fair – all the inanimate objects clapping, singing and resounding like an old merry melodies cartoon. You can almost hear the harp, trumpet and ram’s horn. And the singing, shouting for joy.

I plunged down into sadness again briefly yesterday, but wake up feeling buoyed by this joyous psalm. Plus it’s Saturday. Though I feel quite energised for next week at work too. Such a yo-yo at the moment!

My boss is going for 3 weeks leave traveling to see his daughter who is in Edinburgh. I’ll most likely never travel, which made me sad, even though it’s not ever been my ambition particularly. It would be nice, just with Kelly, some time before we die…

I suppose the weirdness of our family, still all living together with my oldest son now 26 and not close to independent fills me with frustration, self doubt, and a bit of dread for the future.

I don’t encourage people to be strong, somehow. I get fear that I somehow undermine people’s confidence. I’m passive and shy, and I feel I make people close to me that way. Not a born leader, you may say.

But those feelings have lessened again today, it all feels do-able again. And then you read this simple delight of God in control, his reign.

Clap your hands! Got a new song to sing!

Keen to spend an hour now getting on with my song about Job. It’s very unformed and risky, I’m deliberately keeping it abstract for a long time, just throwing out lots of unconnected musical and lyrical ideas. It will either be special or a mess!

Psalm 81

I’m at a depressing phase of new years: knuckling back down to work, family bored and restless in the hot, wet weather, facing the bills and bank balances I ignored over the break.

But here is a festival Psalm. Sing joyfully to God because it’s new moon, and because God says to. Just because God, really.

The festival was the day of atonement, closest thing they had to Easter I suppose.

This was followed by the festival of the booths, like a two week picnic with tents.

And it comes with a plea to the people to listen to God. If only they would do that, it would unlock so much blessing.

Well day two back at work.

I have some goals… Two enjoyable pieces of work I want drafted by the end of the week.

I got a good night’s sleep having adjusted my clock backwards a few hours.

Sing joyfully, I can do this!

I loved singing this setting of the first 4 verses as a child. All the joyous lines pile on top of each other so you can’t even make out the words for all the sweet weaving notes.. 2 minutes of bliss!

Lyre,timbrel, viol, trumpet!