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.

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Psalm 110

Verse 1 throws you into it, it’s one of the most quoted Psalms through the new testament:

The Lord says to my lord:
“Sit at my right hand
until I make your enemies
a footstool for your feet.”

Suddenly there is three: God, David, and “my Lord” – who is David’s Lord, and seated at the right hand of God – just a minute isn’t that in the creed? It seems David had this extraordinary insight into the plans of God, the Messiah, the rule of the whole earth, the destruction of evil. And it is so concise – 7 verses. And confrontingly violent.

He’s put together a bunch of ideas from his time, plus some pure revelation of the Spirit, into a vision of our time now, and our future: armageddon. A vision of the establishment of god’s rule.

I imagine him as an older king, perhaps, sending off fresh young troops under the power of his kingly sceptre to subdue their military enemies, and waiting till victory is reported back. When that comes, he will declare formally that their rule is at an end and that any lands they took are now officially part of his kingdom.

I imagine his mind turning, after that vivid image of the young troops marching off; to god’s Messiah, and how a Messiah would work.

The Messiah will declare kingship over not just Israel but the whole world, and the believers will go ahead like his troops and declare the kingship to God’s enemies until the day when their time of power ceases.

A few of the images also struck me as having similarities with Psalm 23. Like David had some go-to images of God that lasted his whole life.

His rod and staff comforting him as he passed through the shadow of death, reminded me of the royal sceptre here. Both solid symbols of a higher authority.

Being led to cool waters, reminded me of the moment here where the victorious king is calm enough to stop and take a “drink from a brook along the way” in the last verse, an evocative but otherwise odd inclusion.

And the feast laid out in the midst of enemies, the same phrase, the king’s rule being established in the midst of enemies. There’s a time before the enemies are finally gone where they can see, and maybe respond to the inevitability of god’s rule, his invitation.

He’s also pulled in, with the “make my enemies my footstool” line, to my mind, the image of the destruction of the snake, the evil one from genesis. The finality when the foot crushes the head. The commentators said it was a reference to a known ancient practice of a conquering king placing his foot on the neck of a conquered king.

And the new priest. The Messiah is another kind of priest, not the ones they had in the temple. David pulls out the precedent of Melchizedek to show that it is not heresy. He was king of Salem before it was Jeru-salem and was a priest to Abram before there was a priesthood.

God’s plan for the world is so much bigger than David’s kingship and Israel’s religion. Kingship and priesthood meet in the Messiah and are restored/fulfilled/transformed to their true cosmic meaning.

Our job is running around declaring God’s kingship and priesthood, like David’s troops introducing his enemies to the reality of his kingship.

And, though I feel (Monday morning) a bit burned out and confused, to God I am beautiful “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news” Isaiah wrote. Turns out perhaps it was an actual question, answered here: “like dew from the morning’s womb”. Such a description for his young troops!

And the day will come when the opportunity to yield to the king is gone and evil is destroyed forever. The bodies will be piled high, it says. I trust in a God whose love and justice are perfect, but I live with that urgency.

May I work vigorously, worthily this week.

Psalm 50

This psalm is by Asaph, who is mentioned in chronicles as a seer as well as a musician. He’s good at singing and cymbals, apparently.

It sent me to the commentary, I found it hard to follow. But they made it quite clear. The people of God are judged for two things: empty ritualism and hypocrisy.

They quoted the preacher Spurgeon. Always a good idea. He said of ritualism ‘what was meant to instruct became their confidence’

So true! For Israel it was the animal sacrifices. They were supposed to consider that the blood shed should have been theirs, and repent of their sin. Learn.

But its so easy to instead think that you have given God something, be it an animal or any other regular duty… Going to church, reading your Bible, taking communion.

As the psalm dramatically points out, God doesn’t need anything, he already owns the cattle on 1000 hills. We need… To acknowledge him, humbly call on him.

Ditto hypocrisy, which is dealt with in the second half of the psalm.

The set up is significant though. It starts with a huge stage, all of Earth witnessing God shining from Zion, fire and tumult announcing his presence. And he judges his people first.

You would think judgement day would be one day when we could be smug. ‘Aha – now the unbelievers are in trouble’ we might think. But our ritualism, our hypocrisy, and the call on us to repent is the judgement held up before the whole earth.

And this judgement day isn’t necessarily at the end of time, it’s just God’s judgement. It’s happening as the song is being sung. The second half of the psalm talks about God being patient, giving us time while he remains silent to repent before we are torn apart (!)

And so it remains. And how misguided, how hypocritical do we often appear to the world. The response is so often to defend ourselves, rather than to show the world what true repentance and mercy looks like.

We have no right to feel smug, our repentance is part of the hope of the whole world.

I’ve had a few things happening but today is not the day, maybe tomorrow’s Psalm I’ll talk about it.

I’m enjoying the Psalms! I’m taking them as devotional moments, meditations. I think I got impatient with them before because they seemed repetitive and the book as a whole wasn’t going anywhere. But sometimes repetition is good, like coffee. I never ask ‘what does today’s coffee add to yesterday’s coffee?’ Psalms is more of a series of coffee breaks than a journey.

2 Chronicles 36

The last three Kings of Judah in quick succession. Their fate is already controlled by forces larger than themselves. Egypt and Babylon plot to put in puppet Kings until Babylon destroys Jerusalem and disperses the people into exile.

It’s economically told. We skip the misery and death that the siege involved. In a way it’s typically upbeat.

Being written post- exile, the writer is able to quickly sketch in the return from exile after 70 years. So it ends much less bleakly than Kings and Jeremiah, which have just the barest thread of hope at the end.

But all three accounts have strongly in common that it is God’s judgement, Babylon is simply his means of judgement. It’s God’s doing, because they rebelled against him and rejected his prophets.

Jeremiah 49

Ok, Babylon will conquer all the neighbouring kingdoms. 5 prophesies in one chapter.

None are told to repent, it’s just going to happen, there’s nothing they can do.

Two will be inhabited again, the other three it seems to say will never regain their glory.

Often there are intimate pictures of suffering. The palace women running to and fro among the hedges after the king and priests have fled and deserted them. Men paralysed by fear as their camels are led away, their last nomadic security.

Some god loves, such as Damascus. Some like Edom, he talks to in terms of justice… How could you get off lightly when other far more worthy are being destroyed.

The relationship of God and Babylon is hard to understand. Impossible even. Why did he not stop them? Why describe evil as your sword of judgement?

I’ve got to this point many times before in my reading of the Bible.

Someone once described it as trying to understand a tapestry by looking at all the threads in the wrong side… Cross over to the heavenly perspective and you see a beautiful picture.

Non Christians, (those who even bother any more) mock the equation “I don’t know, I just believe”. But that’s pretty much it.

Jeremiah 48

Judgement against Moab. Moab were Israel’s enemies, so it’s interesting to see how they are spoken of and treated, compared to all the judgements against Israel.

The judgement was bitter and absolute. But that is no different from the judgement against Israel.

As I’ve noted in the previous foreign nation judgements, idol worship or foreign gods don’t play a big part. They seem to be graded on a curve by God, according to the extent of their revelation.

But they are judged for arrogance and complacency.

One of the most unique metaphors of the chapter talks about settling for the dregs.

It’s an image of never fully cleaning out your wine jar or your coffee pot, so that the grounds or the sediment get passed on from refill to refill. They taint the whole, nothing is fresh.

It’s a spiritual metaphor, I suppose. They are spiritually stale as well as arrogant and complacent.

Recalls Jesus’ metaphor of how his gospel would blow up the Jewish legalism… New wine exploding old wine skins. That was also a judgement of sorts.

God’s love and his justice are on display. He grieves for them as well as urging the Babylonians to do a complete job of smashing them. Judgement, even of enemies, causes God pain.

He has a relationship with them, he also has a promise for them, right at the end. He will bring back the captives.

After this annexation they never really existed as a nation again, though some natives moved back to the region. Many have read this as a promise of global salvation.

So in summary, not much different from a judgement against Israel really. I’ve been thinking a bit recently about what being God’s chosen people meant.

Moab is judged for their sin but not apostasy. There is less of a call/opportunity to repent than Israel, but again the words against Israel are laced with the expectation that they won’t…

God does love our enemies. And everyone has a spirituality they can either keep alive or let go stale.

Death – the end of our years – comes to all. God knows all of us.

Jeremiah 47

Judgement against Philistine. Don’t call it Palestine!

Which it sort of is, but the internet is full of Jewish writers saying that modern day Palestinians do not share DNA with ancient Philistines. It’s generally conceded at least however that both terms refer to the non Jewish inhabitants of that area.

There is harsh judgement, and a degree of empathy: fathers so terrified their hands are weak, and they forget to look back at their sons.

This in a week where Trump dog whistled racist instincts by calling ms13 gang members ‘animals’. The Bible’s way is to recognise the humanity even of your enemies.

The people are not condemned for anything specific. Maybe it was not necessary as they are the traditional enemies of the Jews. But it seems just like death is judgement. It’s not a crime and punishment model, it’s the lot of us all.

Jeremiah talks to the sword of judgement like a person. He doesn’t say “thanks goodness you are going after that scum” by the way. He says “when will you rest!”

It can’t until the work of this current age is done, until death is consumed.

Jeremiah 46

Jeremiah is more anthology than book. It ends with a series of prophesies about surrounding nations that don’t necessarily flow to or from anything,

Here Egypt’s judgement.

I’m struck that the God of Israel, who we now think of as god of all, is already talking like that. He knows Egypt, he has plans for Egypt, but like Israel Egypt will be judged.

Interestingly he doesn’t link it to them worshipping other Gods as he does Israel’s punishment. Because Israel is chosen, it means God has revealed himself to them more, and more is expected of them.

Egypt’s misplaced trust is expressed more in terms of trust in pharoah.

The battle of defeat by Babylon is vividly described, we’re cinematically taken into the minutiae, which gives you a sense of empathy for them and also the futility of men’s strength.

Babylon is compared to the Nile flooding and drowning the land. It’s both a great image of irresistible strength, and implying it is an act of God.

Egypt will come through. The is a promise that they will continue inhabit their land.

Jeremiah 39

Prophesy fulfilled – the siege of Jerusalem. Its a checklist of everything Jeremiah has been warning of.

Predictably the King and nobles run away, abandoning the people they refused to let Jeremiah tell to surrender. King Zedekiah’s last sight was his sons slaughtered, then blind he was taken to captivity, the Babylonians are typical game of thrones type conquerors.

King Jehoiakim had burned the Jeremiah’s scroll, the word of God, but God’s judgement burned the city.

And in a sweet end to the chapter, Jeremiah’s rescuer from the well he was left to die in, the ethiopian Ebed Melek is saved because of his faith. He was exceptionally brave to take on the King and all the nobles in pleading for Jeremiah, and God recognises it was the boldness of faith.

Isaiah spoke of God gathering the misfits, the unexpected, and here we’ve seen it.

The only person specifically named as saved, out of the end of the chosen people, is a gentile.

Jeremiah 30

The good bit? Not exactly. We’ve gone from threat of exile in the last chapter to actual exile. And here talk of the restoration of Israel.  But it’s not a cheerful chapter, its one of wrath and judgement just like all those before.

Starts with a vision of everyone feeling terror in their guts… as if the men are having babies. Then a promise of terrible judgement and destruction. The only consolation for Judah “the others I will destroy, you I will only partly destroy”. Phew!

Babylon was of course destroyed by Persia, and indeed today the Jewish nation is about the only one with a continuity of identity and faith in that region.

The prophesy definitely turns Messianic in the latter section. It speaks of a leader from among them and them truly becoming God’s people. But til then, brace yourself because it will be like a wild storm that will only make sense after the event.

Jeremiah is certainly reminding me of an aspect of God we don’t get much each week in church, the hard edged. The creator is also the destroyer by implication. The author of life is also the controller of life.