Psalm 4

This is a kingdom psalm. It’s by David.

I don’t know whether it’s translation issues or a deliberate technique of his but David often plays with voice.

When he does, the psalms become messianic… You aren’t sure if he or God is speaking, and whether the servant of God is him or an aspect of God.

There is a bit of that ambiguity here, you have a triangle, God, David, and others… It could be Israelites/believers/mankind.

He’s talking about the comfort and security he gets from his intense intimate relationship with God. That’s why I called it a kingdom psalm. There is no real hierarchy in the kingdom of God, its building blocks are innumerable individual relationships with God. We can all be anointed as children of God.

David wishes others to have what he has. They will all experience prosperity, but his heart will be filled with unique joy, because he won’t be asking where it comes from, he’ll know it is a blessing of God.

In a way it’s self aggrandising. I’d say it’s from the time he’s been anointed king, but still hunted by king Saul. He calls their failure to recognise his kingship a delusion that brings God’s glory to shame.

But how neatly does that situation match our world of dual kingdoms, where Jesus has been anointed king, the battle won, his victory announced, yet the other kingdoms persist.

David believes quietness will fix it. If only people would tremble before God when they are alone in bed, be quiet, and search their hearts.

This belief that God is easily findable in every heart is a great boon to evangelism. It reminds me of my plan to summarise proverbs with the phrase “think for one second”. A reflective life, will often lead to God…

You can’t force God’s kingdom. You don’t own it, not your plan. But you can live it, passionately, and it’s richness will be evident.

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Psalm 149

This psalm of praise has a sharp end, calling for the praise to be a double edged sword in their hands, carrying out vengence on other nations, binding their Kings and shackling their nobles, carrying out a sentence that has been pronounced on them.

There’s bits missing here (which nations? what sentence?). These can be filled in by the exile and the prophets.

Probably Babylon is the nation they are most likely thinking of, who sacked Jerusalem and exiled Israel, and the sentence is probably some version of the prophesy that the exile would end after 70 years, as it did, when the Persian Empire defeated Babylon and freed the people.

What’s more, singing the song in its original context: praising while captive, it probably wasn’t a good survival strategy to be more specific. It’s probably deliberately vague.

It’s a salvation psalm. You have the people rejoicing in God, God delighting in them, and them anticipating his salvation.

And I do long for the Kings of the nations to be fettered. To give Kings and princes their due, I suppose someone’s got to do it. But it is more common than not that the power makes them compromised and disappointing figures, even the ones who don’t kill the kids and drive you from your homeland.

I just watched the trailer for Tom Hanks’ movie about Mr Rogers. He was a Presbyterian minister, and his kids show about being a neighbour was squarely based a biblical inspiration for his life mission.

Hollywood aren’t fools, they know how this portrait of a deeply civil and gentle man will play against a national – maybe international – discourse that is descending into crude name calling, simplistic populism and dark forces like racism.

I knew I was being co-opted, but the trailer made me cry, anyway.

May our praise be a double edged sword.

Psalm 137

Oh it’s that psalm. Not merely a hit for Boney M, as if that weren’t distracting enough (…by the rivers of Babylon…) but also the one that ends with the happy thought of violently killing the infants of your enemy.

Is it the lost 3rd verse of the song? In the Boney M recording session the producer said “is it just me or is that bit about smashing baby heads not working?”

Kelly, my wife, quotes this verse to Islamophobes, you know, who say Islam is an inherently violent and bloodthirsty religion. It’s not hard to characterise Christianity that way too if you want to, by digging out verses like this. She studies with a number of Muslim believers and she says in practice their culture of empathy and hospitality puts many a Christian to shame.

The commentators ultimately conclude that this verse is an old testament thing. We’re taught better in the new testament.

But even Jeremiah taught them not to be like this. In chapter 29, his letter to the exiles told them to become functioning citizens of Babylon, to prosper, have children, and wait out the prophesied 70 years praying blessing for the nation they were sent to.

However the memory of what they have lost is still too raw for them here. The images of the Israelite’s own children being dashed on the rocks would have been seared into the memory of the exiles, it was standard procedure for conquering armies, including the Babylonians.

The Israelites weren’t even particularly planning to personally execute this cosmic revenge. They were recalling the prophesy of Isaiah that the Babylonians would suffer that on their day of judgement at the hands of yet another Empire.

So watching their children killed, among other horrors, then dragged off to a foreign land and told to sing a joyous song …they instead allow themselves the joy of imagining the same fate eventually being visited on their captors. It’s still not exactly “love your enemies”, I agree, but I can see the temptation.

The psalm is poignant. The people subjugated and in a foreign country, remembering Zion, weeping, and having their culture laughed at. Reminiscent of Jesus being given a crown of thorns and called king of the jews. Promising not to forget God and Zion, but seeing no tangible hope, bitterly remembering their “frenemies” neighbouring Edom goading Babylon on, enjoying their destruction. Ending with the memory of their children being mercilessly slaughtered.

I suppose it’s the sadness of judgement. The Israelites have suffered it, the Babylonians will suffer it. Death, violent or gentle, sooner or later will come to us all.

And those who are left will struggle with the spirituality of raw emotion as Israel does here.

Wild thoughts will either turn you to God or harden your heart, maybe making a God of revenge.

The Israelites are presently channeling their intense homesickness into promises to never forget Jerusalem, their spiritual home. But I think, over time they will learn to sing their songs to their children in the strange land.

In fact, that’s a strong speculation of how the book of Psalms came to be. That it’s a portable temple of words. Prayers, not stones, so they can love God with hearts not rituals.

The Israelites here appear have the wisdom to allow God to judge the cruelty of Babylon, but not yet the grace to forgive it, not to indulge in judgement as shadenfreud.

There’s a lot to learn about sadness, guilt and rage here. Sanctifying our emotions is complex work. God doesn’t want emotionless robots. Jesus was not a picture of that. The firehose of emotion is to be channeled by wisdom towards deepening our capacity for love, and sharpening our priorities.

Ecclesiastes 11

I was grumpy yesterday about the abrupt change in tone from philosophical to practical but it works better read together with this chapter, which continues but deepens this direction of thinking.

A certain calm has come over the writer, having been in a spiral that descended in restless logic down to the despair of chapters 8 and 9, he now comes to terms with what can be known and what can’t.

He talks about trying lots of different ideas because you don’t know what will succeed.

He uses metaphors of randomness such as the unpredictable patterns of rain and wind, of a hedging against uncertainty by investing in many different things in life and trees falling random times and directions.

He reminds us of how deeply we don’t know the way of God by saying we don’t even know how we are made in the womb. Mysteries of even our origin are veiled from us. Science has come a long way since that was written, but we are still yet to create new life forms in a womb of our making.

Jesus linked wind and birth images to the experience of god’s presence:

The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit John 3:8

To me the point is that only the now intersects with eternity. The past is fixed, the future is unknown. In the present moment we have choices and opportunities to affect things which will last. In the present, we have a sense of interacting with destiny, like an eternal being.

He returns to the “under the sun” language but with, I thought, a relatively carefree and optimistic twist:

“Light is sweet,
and it pleases the eyes to see the sun.
However many years anyone may live,
let them enjoy them all.

To me this is using a single day, even a single moment, walking out doors and seeing the sun, as a metaphor for life. Life is the now, our time in the sun, the interaction with eternity we know and experience. Use it well.

N T Wright, theologian and for a long while bishop of Durham cathedral had an example that comes to mind of stone masons working on Jigsaw pieces of the cathedral. A plant-inspired column top here, or a curved arch section there, but not necessarily having the master plan or visualising how they would sit in the finished cathedral. So, he says, it is with the eternal work we do on earth, that is stored up as treasure in heaven.

The teacher here can come to terms with questions about why and how we came to be, and the insubstantial darkness over god’s future, by clinging to the revealed wisdom of how to live happily and in accordance with god’s wishes while the sun is bright.

He’s gone from finding God’s wisdom annoyingly limited and incomplete to finding it the best we can get, and valuable for what it is.

Starting back at work after a weeks break, feeling quite negative and unprepared to cope with life, worth repeating to myself as I step out this morning into the sun….

Psalm 101

Absolutes in a compromised world.

Breakng the pattern of communal praise of the last 10 or so Psalms, today’s is quite a stern first person song of King David.

It comes from the early days of his reign and he is setting standards for it. He wants to be an obedient king, obedient to the love and justice of God. And he’s inheriting a no doubt corrupt and compromised court from king Saul.

He’ll have no part of anything perverse or vile, won’t listen to slanderers or liars, the proud or haughty. He’s determined to weed out, silence and cut off the blatantly wicked, the evildoers. Every morning! he adds, to give it a practical emphasis.

On the positive side he will seek out the faithful, and live among them, he’ll listen to the blameless.

Of course it didn’t work out quite that way. He eventually had to be confronted with his own deceit and evil. And his court was sometimes a hotbed of betrayal and ruthlessness.

Google started out the same way, with the motto “dont be evil”. They mention it a bit less these days. They are struggling with the ethics of artificial intelligence, which has the potential of an Orwellian future if mishandled.

David wasn’t perfect, but he was the best king they ever had. Standards make a difference, even if they are unsustainable.

David also had a huge heart for forgiveness. He forgave people against the advice of his best counselors, when it made poor political sense.

The Chinese government arent afraid to impose zero tolerance standards on their citizens, using modern technology. If you are trying to buy a train ticket, face recognition prevents you if you are behind on your taxes, that sort of thing. The towns of some Islamic minorites have become virtual surveillance prisons.

But they didn’t start at god’s love and mercy, where David did. His boldness in proposing a zero tolerance society is grounded in his humility before his maker. It includes himself.

Is it my age? Absolutes seem increasingly futile to me. Life teaches otherwise.

But a clear eyed commitment to standards, starting with me, in humility? Never too old for that.

Proverbs 23

13 of the 30 “sayings of the wise”.

The longer form of expression compared to the two line formula of the bulk of the proverbs lets them be more intense. This is a series of fairly sharp prohibitions.

Most start with the words “do not…”

God isn’t mentioned much, but every word drives you to him. A drum beat of the commandment “I am a jealous God, you will have no other gods but me” lies under all of them. It’s a list of other gods.

In worldly terms you can be massively successful or a complete drop kick and be serving other gods.

You can be mixing with the wealthy and influential, devoting your life to hard work to gain wealth for yourself.

You can align with hard, cruel people, you can become a hard ass yourself, you can be driven by your jealousy of what other amoral people obtain, you can enrich yourself at the expense of the vulnerable.

You can live for sex, for food, for substance abuse. A life of reckless over indulgence.

The last extended poem about making wine your God is accurate, funny and knowing:

Who has woe? Who has sorrow?
Who has strife? Who has complaints?
Who has needless bruises? Who has bloodshot eyes?
Those who linger over wine,
who go to sample bowls of mixed wine.
Do not gaze at wine when it is red,
when it sparkles in the cup,
when it goes down smoothly!
In the end it bites like a snake
and poisons like a viper.
Your eyes will see strange sights,
and your mind will imagine confusing things.
You will be like one sleeping on the high seas,
lying on top of the rigging. “They hit me,” you will say, “but I’m not hurt!
They beat me, but I don’t feel it!
When will I wake up
so I can find another drink?”

All of these things lead to a range of life outcomes, from success to failure, but have in common that they replace the true God.

Only in the the true God will your soul find rest:

Do not let your heart envy sinners,
but always be zealous for the fear of the Lord.
There is surely a future hope for you,
and your hope will not be cut off.

I feel very sad for my family again. Everyone has struggles. I pray for wisdom. This passage has joyous accounts of having wise children. I pray that my children will be wise! May I be wise.

Proverbs 15

Wisdom’s instruction is to fear the Lord, and humility comes before honour.

Humility is a hard lesson, we love honour.

It seems each chapter has one famous proverb at the moment. This one has:

A gentle answer turns away wrath,but a harsh word stirs up anger.

But really there are a gazilion that say similar. In fact, you do get this constant nag about it that fiery people would find quite frustrating.

Sometimes it’s good to be fiery. Jesus called the religious leaders a “nest of vipers”. I suppose the key there is that he wanted to stir up anger. It was calculated.

It’s not necessarily saying don’t do it, more don’t be surprised.

I’ve been thinking about whether proverbs encourages a particular somewhat supercilious attitude that is annoyingly always above the fray. Would the proverbs person be much fun? I don’t think I’ve found one praising fun.

But perhaps the answer is in the oppositional characteristics it pairs with them. Take:

The soothing tongue is a tree of life, but a perverse tongue crushes the spirit.

The opposite of soothing is perverse. You could adopt quite a fun tone in the way of being soothing and still be not perverse.

I like the ones that talk about God being aware. This one’s a little scary until you remember God’s love:

Death and Destruction lie open before the Lordhow much more do human hearts!

This book seems as much to be about how deeply God understands our foolishness, as about us being wise.

I simply found these appealing and memorable:

Better a small serving of vegetables with love than a fattened calf with hatred.

Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.

Light in a messenger’s eyes brings joy to the heart, and good news gives health to the bones.

I’m so happy at work, the paperwork came through for my permanent status yesterday. Exactly the same job, no promotion.

But that’s ok. Humility comes before honour, and a small serving of vegetables with love is better anyhow.

Proverbs 6

Some scenarios of foolishness: some included because they are plain dumb, others because they are just immoral and God hates them.

This is the method of proverbs, there are lots of little self-help books of wise advice, but this one has a gloss over it of insight into God’s character and implications of that for how we should live.

The first scenario is: offering security for friends’ projects… Make it your relentless business to ensure the friend delivers. I love the image of a gazelle freeing itself from a trap. This is pure common sense advice.

Then:

Don’t be lazy (go to the ant thou sluggard… My dad used to quote!).

Don’t be a lying trouble-maker.

These scenarios have a fair bit of morality, God given insight, in them as well.

God’s law of love suffuses the common sense advice. There is a list of six things God hates… They are all to do with how we treat others, not offences directly to God.

You don’t get to blame the seductress for your sexual temptation – you ruined your own life by responding.

Then a return to adultery, because… you can’t say it often enough!

Here the morality and the common sense blend. It’s a dumb and dumber argument.

All lust based sex is a waste of time and money. You are dumb to waste good money on prostitutes, but super dumb to have an affair with a friend’s wife that blows up your whole social network and leaves your life in tatters.

If this bit was some of Solomon’s wisdom, as Bathsheba’s son he may have grown up with some of the consequences.

It’s such a loving book because it’s all persuasive. The language is guiding, cajoling, arguing, pleading… not just laying out cold rules. Brings to mind those images of Christ being the good Shepherd.

Guide me oh thou great Jehovah, as I walk in circles in the desert, inching towards the promised land!

Proverbs 2

Encouraging a son to value wisdom.

The points are:

Wisdom comes from God. If you seek it out, treat it as the treasure it is, you will have God’s mind, and discern what is good and helpful.

It will protect you from evil men and seductive women, both of whom are potentially your ruin.

It’s all put much more persuasively than that with examples.

Well I’m convinced, but I suppose I’m fairly old and wise. I do sigh some days when I hear youths say or do classically unwise things. You aren’t born knowing a lot of this stuff.

This book will remind me to be a bit more direct in passing on my view of life and God to my kids – after all that is part of the purpose of this blog. But it’s been a bit of a failure on that score so far. I’m hopeful for the future.

I’ve always had a very laissez-faire fair parenting style, good to focus on the fact that I do sometimes know better.

There’s still heaps for me to learn too, I’m sure.

I have so many child concern things I’ve put off because of the uncertain financial future, and that issue won’t resolve, so I’m feeling quite overburdened with inadequacy.

Do I give up on Salvation Army and just go find whatever random well paid job I can? Argh!

Do I book psychiatrists, buy driving lessons, mobile phone contracts, how do I juggle back to school expenses, do I support Daisy’s art career? How can I sensibly prioritise? Gotta have faith! And wisdom…

I am dubious of the approach. I feel like the attitude, the desire to be wise, is more valuable than the wisdom itself. Often the work of trying to be wise is harder than the awareness of what the wise path is.

Just being told it doesn’t make it happen.

I’m questioning their theology of the spirit, but this is the Bible, so I suppose I’m questioning my own understanding of faith and works, our will and the spirit, and so forth.

I can’t express this point in a way that isn’t fuzzy. No doubt I’ll have the odd opportunity to clarify it as I go though proverbs.

But for now, still keen, let’s proceed.

Job 8

So the second friend, Bildad the Shuhite speaks.

There is a high level similarity in his message for Job, compared to Eliphaz: it’s your fault it happened, and in your power to fix it asking God mercy for your sins.

But the personalities are very different, and the instances of victim blame flow from the personality.

This is quite instructive because it encourages me to ask: what tendency in my personality tends to flavour the way I read God’s word and behave?

And maybe also: what role does personality have to play? It’s God given isn’t it? Not to be stamped out? When does my personality lead me to sin, when do I serve God in it? How do you lay your personality on the altar?

Bildad is much more naturally conservative and direct. I think of him as Moore college dude (that’s a pretty straight evangelical theological college here in Sydney).

So where Eliphaz was all double-edged compliments (you’re a loved teacher, how about you teach yourself?) and indirect insinuations, Bildad gives Job something more like a bollocking and an old man rant.

His opening salvo is to ask how much longer Job will keep going on like a blustering wind. Hurry up, your children got what they deserved, you’re running out of time to straighten up and fly right, essentially. Gosh.

Then he does a variation on the old man classic ‘kids these days, no respect’. He says job has cut himself off from the wisdom of the elders.

Though he does it so eloquently, is quite a beautiful song in itself to spiritual depth and sustenance.

He talks about various ways plants wither by being cut off from sustenance: growing in a marsh, cut and put in a jar, tangled in roots, planted among rocks. It’s reminiscent of Jesus’ parable of the sower.

He compares Job’s understanding to trying to lean on a spiders web. So vivid!

He ends each idea with a promise that if job listens to him, he’ll be rich and prosperous again, an idea I naturally treat with skepticism, probably because I’ve grown up with the story of Job as part of my cultural memory.

Eliphaz is more relational, starting with what he knows of Job, Bildad is more didactic, starting with what he knows of God. It will be interesting to see how job moderates his response.

In the meantime: my personality is a bit of a mix of those two. I’m fundamentally evangelical (but never evangelically fundamentalist…).

I’m towards the progressive side politically, which puts me at odds with some of the favourite political causes of people I’d think of as culturally evangelical.

In style my weaknesses are more like Eliphaz. I battle with a tendency to not speak up in order to keep the peace. It’s why I write so much, I think!

I’m convinced personality itself is not the issue. Honesty, genuineness, being real are all wings upon which God’s mission can soar. Hiding your personality can be as much of a constraining chain as personality flaws I’m sure.

Gotta go now… Lots of chapters to think more about this!