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.

Proverbs 30

An  odd chapter.

Its from a different author, Agur of whom nothing is really known. The tone is instantly wilder and blunter, the consequences of foolishness more extreme than in previous chapters.

It explicitly claims to be God-inspired ecstatic utterance, and it says lots of great stuff, but much I barely comprehend as well… and its only 30 verses or so… such an exhausting book this one!

He is a good example of humility, his wisdom is not his own, it comes from God and from God’s creation. He realises how great and unknown is God – some powerful poetic images reminiscent of Job: the Lord’s hands gathering the wind and wrapping the waters in his cloak. How can we compare? He includes an intriguing reference here to God knowing the name of his son – impossible now for Christians not to think of Jesus.

He treasures God’s words, and he asks for contentment: neither to be poor nor rich. Both lead us into temptation. He wants just his daily bread, which for me illuminates the lords prayer as a petition for moderation and contentment as well as for basic needs to be met. Give us enough, not less, not more.

We’re working through issues of contentment as a family at the moment. Its a wonderful thing to pray for.

He then speaks of groups of people which displease or ignore God – in other translations they are called generations: a generation who invent their own standards of goodness and righteousness without reference to God or inherited wisdom; a generation who are violent and attacking.

I found it oddly encouraging to hear of generations so long ago going to the dogs.  We tend to think the latest generation is the one that is going to hell in a handbasket, but it has always been thus.

Sure, it not great to see wide scale foolishness, evil or ignorance. But it doesn’t mean God has lost control.  Its a generation, it will pass.

It concludes with a bunch of lists of observations from nature – generally 3 or 4.  Its a poetic device similar to our “et cetera”  or “for example”. A list with some specifics that is not exhaustive.

Its encouraging you to look to the world to learn of what is good and what is wrong. Honestly, this was the bit where I really started to loose comprehension.

He lists things that are:

  • never satisfied – including the grave and childlessness;
  • too amazing for him – including young love’s passionate eroticism, which he finds far more amazing than casual uncommitted sex
  • things that make the world unbearable – basically women, servants or employees that rise in the ranks… I really didn’t get that one, he’s finding social mobility or equality offensive?
  • things that are small yet wise, humble things in nature with impressive achievements, like ants. This kind of undermined the previous point, but was well made.
  • things that have stately bearing – such as a lion, or a greyhound. OK. As a proud Italian Greyhound owner, I can only agree!

Lastly a general warning about evil and stirring up trouble.

So a mixture of stuff that I found helpful and stuff that is hard to access for me now – culturally remote.

I got feelings of God’s size and power, and the sense that despite the randomness and evil we often see around us, God is in control.

I need it. A drumbeat of sadness still underlies the shock of the massacre in New Zealand at the hands of an Australian gunman.

Such a peaceful, tolerant society!  Chosen because they had the effrontery to make diversity work, to punish them for having compassion and love.

He’s failed, but at an insane price.

I sat in church this morning and thought about how easy it would be for someone to walk in and slaughter us if they wanted to try and break a society that would allow us to flourish.

 

 

 

Proverbs 21

The same themes. And pretty contradictory.

The important thing is our hearts, which the Lord weighs. The Lord values what is right and just, above all. Wealth obtained though lies is as insubstantial as vapour, leaving you caught in its trap.

Then again, bribes are an effective way to do business. The commentators say it’s simply an observation, not a moral principle. But it’s pretty confusing placing it in a book about how to be wise, alongside numerous statements that ARE moral principles. The collection is so random!

Then there is the most famous saying of this chapter… About how horrible it is living in a house with a contentious wife (or woman, could be daughter or relative). Commentator dutifully says it could apply equally to a contentious man. But why specify? There’s plenty about the evil of violence not specifically devoted to men.

Does it by implication mean that the whole of the book is addressed to men?  The options are the man’s. It’s not telling the woman not to be contentious, it’s telling the man to avoid her.

Discussing this with Kelly she mentioned this as an example of why as a woman you get used to interpreting the bible less literally than men.  How do you as a woman read a passage like that?  If you are suffering domestic violence, are you the man in that scenario? Is all this wisdom for men?

You get used to extracting the principle, reading in gender adjustments.

The bribery parts of proverbs could have a different cultural meaning in the ancient world. The commentator’s explanation, that its an amoral proverb, seems to ask more questions than it answers. This theme of wisdom is going to have to be one of those ‘leave it to heaven’ things for me.

I certainly have a softer, less absolute view of theology than I had when I was younger, though I’ve always been someone who avoids hard edges to things. Someone recently reminded me of the – apparently bogus – Winston Churchill quote “If you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 35, you have no brain”. In my experience, for many Christians its the other way around. Start conservative, go liberal.

Anyhow, I’ve got to be content to pick the eyes out of proverbs and not sweat the weirder stuff. And in that vein:

There is no wisdom, no insight, no plan
    that can succeed against the Lord.

Job 7

Job questions what his existence might mean. His refusal to say there must be no God, and his rejection of his friend’s conclusion that he somehow deserved his suffering means he’s motivated to explain his situation. He struggles.

He compares it to his ‘work’. There are lots of hard jobs: slave, labourer. They have temporal cycles of effort and reward. Slaves get to rest. Labourers get paid.

Unfortunately he does not get rest in the evenings. They are uncomfortable because of the scabs and sores. Maybe he is just on a long cycle – months not days?

And there is always death, the spans of life are no more than a breath compared to eternity. He draws comfort from the idea that even if, as he expects, his season of suffering lasts until his death, it will at least end there.

This elevates his voice to the purpose of his existence. He will speak out about his situation. He gets no rest, because he gets bad visions and dreams in the night. He understands that he has been singled out for suffering.

He ends addressing God, not his friends. He asks a bunch of questions that are like a parody of psalm 8.

Psalm 8 asks God why he chose to think of mankind in all the vast stars and universe. Job asks the same question, but tells God to stop. Stop picking on him and leave him alone.

So having been emotional back in chapter 2, Job is calmer here.

He’s rejected his friend’s argument that he deserved to suffer in the last chapter.

Here he more coolly says: yes, I appear to have been given the most miserable life possible to live. I just want to die, and my only purpose for living seems to be as a voice asking God “why?”.

Which is circular, his purpose is to wonder if he has a purpose.

His prayer is that God will ignore him and focus on someone else. And allow him a good night’s sleep.

It is what it seems, God has chosen him to suffer. It’s unsatisfying, and it has bad implications for all of us.

It seems disrespectful of the honesty of this page to try and tie it up into a positive little life lesson to take into the day, so I’ll just sit with that, and see how the next call and response plays out.

Psalm 66

Shout for joy to God, all the earth!

A psalm about God’s salvation.

It makes you realise God was always preparing the world for Jesus being his salvation plan. Jesus isn’t in this Psalm, but he fits in like a light bulb in a socket.

It talks about global, national and personal salvation. It’s all to be praised.

So it tells the whole earth to shout for joy, praise God, see his wonderful deeds.

The deeds are what he’s done for Israel, the exodus.

Again it says all nations should praise God because he kept their (the Jews) feet from slipping, refined them by fire, bought them from prison into abundance.

God wasn’t just saving the Jews, he was showing the world what a saving God looks like, and showing where salvation would come from and how it works.

Then the writer tells of his own salvation, by offering sacrifices in the temple, and fulfilling his vows. It is an example for all those who fear the Lord, who don’t cherish sin in their heart. God will not withhold his love.

The message from Christians to Jewish people is flipped these days, the light has come And we’re saying to Jewish people, ‘come see the mighty works of his salvation’.

But there are weird hints in Romans and elsewhere that God’s plan for the nation of the chosen people are not over, and I mean, its all Jehovah. After reading the old testament for a few years straight now, I feel so close to Jewish people, and this the day after a horrific antisemitic massacre in the US.

Antisemitism is on the rise again, particularly in the US. They are claiming it is the worst attack on Jewish people ever on US soil.  And in the year leading up to the attack, antisemitic incidents are up 57% I read on the weekend.

Wow, I think I’ve been in shock, not letting it sink in. But the thought of that while reading the psalm is like being thrown into trauma.

It is a horrible dark cast over the joy of this Psalm. Though there is pain in there already. ‘you let people ride over our heads, we went through fire and water’.

And I pray for God’s abundance, his mercy on those faithful Jewish people that were senselessly shot at a baby naming ceremony.

We told about what our witness should be in the Bible, how we are to live our lives. We are to live the gospel of Christ, we are to be prepared to give an account of what Christ has done for us, just as the writer here asks the whole earth to hear the promise of saving love he knows he has from the sacrifices in the temple.

Who’s in who’s out of heaven, of God’s eternal grace? Saved by the gospel I’m to live? I have absolutely no idea, and I don’t think I’m meant to.

I skimmed Paul’s discussion of Jews and Gentiles in Romans.  There is an extended metaphor of olive tree branches being cut, new ones grafted on and then old ones re-grafted, while some are never cut. That leads to: ‘for God delivered all to disobedience, that he might have mercy upon all’  after which he concludes ‘how inscrutable are God’s judgments and how unsearchable his ways’. Indeed.

I trust that God’s salvation will be just, full of grace, loving and abundant. That is the God this Jewish writer wants the whole earth to shout for joy at here, and I’m convinced. Though the water, through the fire. Through the most ghastly hate, horror and pain imaginable.

Psalm 58

Justice.

It’s a series of several Psalms to the tune ‘do not destroy’. Must have been super catchy. Maybe it’s the tune David thought of yesterday in 57 at dawn, hiding in a cave, when music came into his head.

The musician instructions call these psalms ‘miktam’s. Which one interpretation had as being scratched on the wall of a cave.

His theme is justice, and maybe this is the first time in life he really experienced the lack of it. He went from being a shepherd boy to living in the palace after he killed Goliath. Then king Saul went mad with jealousy, so he’s in a cave.

If firsthand up close injustice prompted the song, it’s only natural. You worry as you read it he is being vindictive and malicious, looking to rejoice in the downfall of his enemies.

He goes over the top revelling in vivid images of their declining effect on the world – like slugs that melt away, or like like stillborn babies.

But it is right to long for justice, it is the right channel for the passionate sense of unfairness the world around us inspires.

It is a prayer. Handing it over to God is the place for it.

It’s the right reason to hate someone, not because they are winning when you are losing, but because they are winning unfairly, by cheating, at the expense of others. It’s right to hate that.

It’s the right frame for action, to decide how to live your life. Compared to vindictiveness, fighting for justice leads away from your initial hurt, teaching you to think about the hurt of others. More likely to lead to a generous life in service of others.

It’s a convenient test for your means as well as your ends.

For instance, contemplating a watershed by-election yesterday, Kelly and i discussed the amazing self belief of politicians, who start to seriously believe they are the ones who deserve to have power, so much so that a little injustice in the compromises required to get it will be worth it in the long run – still better in their hands than the other bloke’s.

No! A journey along unfair paths to an imagined ‘fair’ destination is not a life lived fighting for justice, it becomes a life ever more devoted to power for its own sake. Malcom!

There is a super grisly moment of believers dipping their feet in the blood of evil doers, but we are to take it as an image of God’s victory, one they share in.. it comes back in Revelation, a robe dipped in blood, a winepress dripping blood. Doesn’t work for me at all, can’t get past bad horror movie images.

But when you experience the victory of Gods justice, you are allowed to enjoy it. Recognise where it came from, and that it moves outward, to others.

Psalm 52

David was a fugitive, running from his predecessor king Saul. He got bread from Ahimelech, a priest, telling him he was on a secret mission for Saul.

Doeg, one of Saul’s herdsmen, reported the priest. David was long gone, but Saul in a rage, demanded the the priest and all his order be killed. Saul’s regular army refused to do it, but Doeg, who was not Jewish, slaughtered many priests, women and children in the place it happened.

This psalm is a meditation on Doeg. When he calls him a ‘mighty warrior’ in the first verse, it’s sarcastic. He recognises him for the lying opportunistic coward he is, getting the kings favour such a dreadful way. He inflamed Saul against David even more than he already was.

Godliness is the difference. Doeg trusted himself and succeeded by destroying others. David becomes doubly determined not to be the same, to trust and praise God.

Having fallen out with the king, I suppose becoming like Doeg represented a moral choice David had. David would never lift his hand against Saul, because he was God’s anointed. So he indeed didn’t succeed by destroying him.

David later expressed remorse for his part in the event, after all, he involved the priests with a deception. So that regret might have been driving some of his resolve. Maybe it’s another penetential Psalm, like 51, in a way.

It’s tempting, even in small ways, to suspend the rules for really shameless disgraceful people, to fight fire with fire. But our purpose here is to bear witness to God, not be God.

I face the new week with a temporary reprieve from unemployment, my contract with Salvos was going to end in November, extended to 8 January, very generous actually, paying me for the new year break.

And it will allow me time to apply for a slew of jobs in the new structure they are introducing… Some prospects, in with a chance. At the same time my 14 year old is in a world of pain, his friends pretty much ghosted him all holidays, going back to school today, very much in my prayers.

2 Chronicles 29

King Hezekiah. He is a believer. First order of business is re-establishing worship in the temple, laid out in glorious detail here, no doubt of great interest to the people who first read chronicles in Ezra and Nehemiah’s time.

I found myself slightly impatient with the animal sacrifice system, now it has been revealed that our bodies are the temple of God, and Jesus’ sacrifice is sufficient for all.

It’s clunky, very messy, and complicated. But it was the only way they were given to seek God’s grace, to connect. So it’s also a beautiful thing.

Yesterday I was imagining the greatest theologians of the Bible. The Moore College of Hezekiah’s time. Or David’s, or Moses. They never would have come up with Jesus.

They came up with the Messiah, eventually. But didn’t recognise him in Jesus, not easily.

We still only know in part. There is a bunch of subjects: the afterlife, heaven, the second coming. Salvation, really, God’s grace, about which no doubt we are as close to understanding the specifics as the old testament theologians.

Yet it is by faith, by Jesus’ blood, that they were saved, even though they could not imagine him in their wildest dreams. Well, except Isaiah perhaps.

I was discussing N.T. Wright with my brother yesterday. A much respected theologian, so it’s an unsettling feeling when his view of heaven was vastly different from the heaven I had imagined for the previous 50 or so years of my existence.

But I listen to and focus on the truth and wisdom in what he is saying, and hold it in parallel with all the other possible heavens, and contemplate that we’re really just guessing at the specifics of heaven.

Our faith is called a faith because it requires faith. Have so much more than the ancients, yes, but like them we only have an inkling.

Like Hezekiah, we respond to what we know, it makes sense, it strikes us as truth, it opens our heart to the spirit of the living God. The rest we take in faith.

2 Chronicles 18

God’s word vs ours. We adopt the approach of simply not listening to anything he says.

It’s an alliance of both kingdoms to go battle, God tells them they will lose and the northern king will die.

He dresses like a standard solider so as not to be a target, but a stray arrow gets him anyway. The last sight he sees is the defeated army.

Don’t feel too sad for him, he was a terrible king. But listen to God!

1 Chronicles 18

David’s victories. I turned to the commentaries because there is a lot of casual cruelty in this chapter, quite confronting.

They emphasised that the wars were an existential requirement for Israel, like Europe defeating Hitler. They bought more peace than they sacrificed.

The writer is leaving out lots of detail from the earlier accounts in Samuel and Kings to emphasise the temple. Last chapter God told David he couldn’t build it.

But this chapter scans a lifetime of his victories in fast forward to show how his reign laid the ground work for it, by bringing tremendous peace and prosperity.

Chronicles, as I mentioned earlier, is written to accompany the rebuilding of the temple hundreds of years later, after Israel’s been defeated and Jerusalem sacked.

It doesn’t tell us that much about God. David is godly, but like a godly general in world war Two, he organises killing people. His victories are strategic and security oriented, he’s not needlessly greedy for Empire. But he does it.

God does have better plans, but they are slow. It’s slow not because he is weak, but because he loves the baddies.

The direction of the Bible is to use David’s line to bless all nations, and promise a new heaven and a new earth where there is no more war, crying or pain.

And so we have this pep talk about the glory days, to encourage the defeated remnant of them to keep the thread going long enough until the birth of Jesus.

The temples gone again now he’s come. When he died, the curtain around the place where God was, ripped.

And we still aren’t there, at the new earth, yet. It’s complicated.