Psalm 143

Hear me, answer me – that’s the two halves of this psalm. They serve to step up the intensity and urgency of the prayer; put the screws on God to shuffle this prayer to the top of the priority list.

God gets a gazillion emails a day marked urgent with a read receipt.

It’s a middle of the night prayer, when everything seems impossible. At one point David asks the morning to bring a word of God’s unfailing love. Seems like there ain’t such a word coming to him now as he prays/panics into the night.

His utter lack of options for whatever problems he’s facing focuses him on having no claim to God’s grace; being totally undeserving. But also how totally reliant he is on it.

I think God probably loves it when we throw his character back at him this way. “Woah, this will certainly display your unfailing love” is a pretty positive way to react to bad news, when your own resources abandon you.

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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 7

This is a bit of a shocking chapter at first.

Chapter 6 ends with a bleak summary of a series of observations of meaningless things, and now this is a series of thoughts, presented as proverbial wisdom. It talks appreciatively about death and has almost a suicidal vibe at times: “death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart“.

It’s feels like we’re descending deeper and deeper into darkness, and the book is getting somewhat claustrophobic. Can we get some light soon?

But strangely at the same time, it’s also quite soothing

The overarching theme, if I understand it right, is that God plans for the hard stuff to happen to us as well as the good stuff, and to not stress, but value the difficult things because they are part of God’s world and help us grow.

It’s an old man, probably old Solomon, realising that the sad times, the deaths, the frustrating times and time in mourning were when he learned more about what is really important than the sillier times.

He memorably compares the laughing of foolish people to the crackling of burning thorns, which were used as tinder in those days. It’s a sense of them being loud, bright and hot but short lived, ephemeral. Sadness touches eternity, hard life lessons that last.

It harks back to the calm of chapter three: there is a time for everything. But it’s more provocatively put, eg: ‘Frustration is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart.

Perhaps he’s also regretting his vast harem of wives and concubines. I’m probably being charitable. It comes across like he’s blaming women for being a corrupting influence, but the fault really is his. His female arrangements were excessive even by the potentate standards of the day; it was his obsession and his system, much more than his women. As if lesser princesses had many options in those days other than to be political pawns?

He’s puts both his youthful zeal and creeping nostalgia into perspective.

On one hand he embraces that softening that age brings, where things don’t seem as absolute as they did when you were younger. Don’t be foolish, but don’t kill yourself with ‘over-righteousness’ either:

It is good to grasp the one
and not let go of the other.
Whoever fears God will avoid all extremes.

Related to that is letting go hurts, a lovely verse… If you overhear disrespectful things about yourself, ignore them. You know you often think or say similar when you think no one will hear you. Great tip for parenting teens.

One the other hand, resist thinking everything was better in the good old days.

Sadness, mortality, abandoning plans, things ending. All these things make you step back from the giddy noise and stimulation of plans and the daily roundabout.

They hurt, but they give you pause. They can be a path back to the essential things, the eternal things. They clarify life.

As he says in conclusion:

God created mankind upright,
but they have gone in search of many schemes

It’s about letting go the schemes, and simply accepting the messy, hard bits.

Jesus didn’t want the hard things either, he prayed for them to go away. But they came, they are part of life anyway.

Psalm 102

The triumph of trust in God over your personal circumstances. It will all work out.

It’s personal story but also a metaphor.

The first half of the psalm details the suffering of the author, who is broken, reviled and will have a short life.

I found the metaphor where he compares himself to a single bird on a roof the most affecting. No help, exposed, vulnerable.

Half way through the Palm he starts factoring god into it, drawing comfort from knowing that time will extend, that God was before and will be after, that generations will flourish.

Also that god’s reign will extend. He will rise and show compassion to Zion.

It’s an exile Psalm, so the broken state of the author reflects their smashed nation. But he he has trust that God will restore Jerusalem, which he did. And further that all nations and rulers will revere God, which via Jesus and Christianity also happened.

He looks forward to his personal narrative of misery being transformed, becoming part of the story of god’s glorious salvation and rescue, which he is.

God laid the foundations of the earth, and is the solid thing that will remain. His compassion, hearing our groans, his releasing us from the condemnation of death, those are the lasting things.

From lonely bird on a rooftop to participant in the universe’s greatest victory.

I’ve woken up a bit stressed about life and work. There’s a few more loose ends than I can keep in my mind at one time, so that they dance from one to the other worrisome thing I mustn’t forget. This is an encouragement.

I know more of the bigger picture than this Psalmist did, what a great example of trust. God is glorious, my problems could even get a lot worse and still not really matter. It will all work out.

Psalm 100

“The sheep of his pasture.”

It’s a five verse psalm, and that’s about it’s only metaphor.

It catches the three observations about God on which the action of the psalm hangs: He made us – we’re his; He’s good, and He’s faithful – His love endures forever.

The action is: being glad to worship him, singing joyfully, being in his presence with an attitude of gratitude. And the whole earth shouting to him.

Like sheep we will never not be in the pasture of a caring shepherd. Eternal safety and provision.

Sheep don’t express gratitude, but they feel it by not being stressed. There the metaphor breaks down, because we can express our praise and gratitude, but we do experience knots of stress even though we have a faithful shepherd.

I think I always subconsciously read this sort of thing as a series of absolute and impossible commands: Shout to the lord. All the earth. Always be praising him and having grateful thoughts. I said always, mister eye roller!

Or a sweet but impossible dream: forever on a high about God. As if.

But it’s more like a party Psalm – how we’re spending these moments together. It’s not a future objective, it’s an inclusive now. The experience will become a memory, a mental balm to take with us into the contradictions.

The only shouting in our house last night was me shouting at our daughter. I was frustrated with her negativity. She has some good reasons to feel negative, but I was frustrated with it anyway, and saying that it is a dead end to be all about nursing your bitterness. She objected to that characterisation.

It was either – best scenario – a tough lovin’ slap of reality or – worst case – kicking someone while they are down.

And I do love her, I pray for her and want good things for her. I know she loves me. We are both sheep in god’s pasture.

But our now for now includes shouting at each other. Shouting to the lord is a factual backdrop, we’ve actually done it together, many a time. May he keep us safe.

Psalm 88

So bleak, so sad.

This psalm’s only moment of confidence is in the first verse. ‘Lord, you are the God who saves me’.

From then on its sadness, abandonment, sickness, loneliness and complaint that God won’t hear, ending with: ‘you have taken from me friend and neighbour, darkness is my only friend’.

Unlike the hardships in David’s sad Psalms, these aren’t big military or political problems, these are personal. He seems to have a life long chronic illness, he’s alone, quite physically repulsive and near death.

He’s terrified of death, and in the most intense passage he wonders whether God will be there after he dies.

This guy is beat. He has not had as much of God revealed to him as us, he has only questions, not any assurance about the after life.

Yet here he is, telling God all about it. God’s righteousness, faithfulness and marvellous deeds are a given.

So as well as sad, it’s also a psalm of exceptional faith. All the observations about his painful soon-to-end life would, you’d think, lead you to conclude there is no God, but that’s not considered.

He asks where God is? Is he listening? He doesn’t doubt he’s there.

This is the saddest one I’ve read, but in some ways one of the most encouraging, even shaming, in a good way.

Feeling bad this morning because I made my daughter really angry and I’m not sure if it was fair. I pray for her, for wisdom.

Job 16

Job writes off his friends, and indeed if the last friend is anything to go by, they’ve written him off.

Sometimes silence is the best comfort. That’s what they did in chapter two, they sat with him in silence for a week.

They are not terrible friends. But they’ve grown impatient with his problems, and after 16 chapters, maybe we all are. Job is.

Friendship has limits because human resources have limits. Some friendships are amazing, but the effort expended one place is denied another. Maybe you’re a great mate but a so so dad, or a great husband but a flakey co-worker. It’s hard to be everything.

Job piles on descriptions the hardships God has piled on him. He’s physically shriveled, his appearance means people pre-judge him. They jeer, he’s defenseless, they strike him, pierce him so his gall spills. It inevitably evokes Jesus on the cross.

Yet he says, his prayer is pure. He no longer claims to be sinless, but he is a friend not an enemy of God. He still loves God, but his experience of God in a fallen world is ambivalent.

Finally again he returns to the mediator, the Messiah figure, the link between our suffering and God. Job describes this intercessor as his friend. It is a nature, an expression of God he is sure must be there.

Revelation through pain.

I’m becoming resigned to abandoning the hope that I might get the manager position in my department. The woman I have been acting in the role of got a more senior position that I did not get an interview for. She reports to that manager. She has a theology degree and 10 years’ experience in this kind of work, it’s unlikely they will make me her boss – 8 months in the job and no formal qualifications for Christian work.

There is a writer job I can now likely get, and I’ll just have to pray that they find a way to make the salary adequate for me… I’m currently paid as a senior writer, and barely surviving on that.

My ‘sufferings’ don’t compare to Job. I’m picking up more ideas about being a good friend in the mold of Jesus from today’s reading than sharing tales of woe

We can listen, we can pray – in that sense, we can be an intercessor too. Do that more than pontificate. Don’t lose patience.

Job 14

The end of 3 chapters, a long poem of Job’s response to his the friend’s first round of advice. Spectacularly bleak.

At this stage Job definitely subscribes to the ‘life sucks then you die’ school of thought.

Blue tack that to your youth group wall!

He has learned that he has sinned, that much is clear. He understands that God removes sin, seals it up in a bag, he says.

And he is questioning about life after death. Literally he asks ‘if someone dies will they live again?” He likes the idea of the grave claiming him, and then some sort of ‘renewal’.

But then he descends into self pity, including the verse above.

I’m writing in the evening of Sunday having had a lovely productive day. At church I showed some friends my Job meme to some amusement.

I’m glad the Bible has these things. It’s ok to go there. I feel known and understood.

Interested to see if the second go round of the three friends and responses advances things further.

I’m really living it, in that, not all the arguments are straw men.

I really engage with some of them, and then I see another point of view when that is argued. It’s more psychologically subtle than I expected.

Jeremiah 52

The book ends with the story of the fall of Jerusalem.

How completely the temple worship of Solomon was discarded, the temple, all other large buildings, demolished and burned. The walls bought down. The expensive bronze, gold and silver, carried away.

The religious, military and ruling elite executed and nearly 5000 of the poorer people led away into exile. That numberĀ seems shockingly low. They are called a stump, a remnant, elsewhere. There must have been so much death.

Their culture was broken with the intention of eradicating it from the earth.

The book isn’t chronological, but it’s an appropriate way to end, being reminded that God’s warnings were correct.

The siege lasted two years. That must have been so awful, it’s little wonder they wanted to throttle Jeremiah and his message of inevitable defeat. I mean, he talked about wishing he could stop himself.

It’s a relatively dispassionate history, no poetry this chapter, but they linger poignantly over the splendor of the remaining bits of Solomon’s temple, such as the two giant bronze pillars decorated with pomegranates that defined the grand entrance – plundered and taken to be melted down, no doubt.

And we get the story of the last Davidic king being allowed to live out his days peacefully in Babylon… The only ray of hope, the continuing covenant line that will lead to Jesus.

The fall of Jerusalem is a key story, a bit like the gospel, it’s repeated several times in the Bible, eg: also the last chapter of Kings, etc. The earthly Jerusalem is gone and today they still don’t have it back really. It was a way of describing heaven, God’s rule, his people, his place. This is the hardest part of its evolution from a literal city to mostly a theological idea.

Exodus 15

A moment of unalloyed joy and celebration that they got though the red sea away from the Egyptians.

Of course, having sung of god’s “unfailing love”; as soon as they get thirsty and get to an oasis, one with foul tasting water, they are all negative again.

Moses fixes the water and they drink, but this pattern of complaint is set to repeat.

We’ve had a hard couple of weeks. My mother in law had a health crisis from which she did not recover. It is a good time to remember the good things God has done, and not turn on him or let pain send me to apathy.