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.

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Ecclesiastes 2

I omitted to mention yesterday that the book has a bit of a citizen Kane structure.

There is a narrator. In the movie there is an investigator looking into the life of Kane. Ecclesiastes is bracketed by the narrator, beginning and end, setting up and wrapping up the first person narrative of the “teacher”.

The teacher is either King Solomon himself, or a later fictional invention of a Solomon-like character, similar to how citizen Kane is a lot like the real life magnate Randolph Hearst.

There are certain anachronistic language anomalies in the text which mean the fictionalised Solomon theory has gained a lot of traction with Bible scholars of late, though most chronologies of the Bible list it as written during Solomon’s time. I just think of the teacher as Solomon.

The teacher talks through the sort of dilemma movie stars or retired entrepreneurs face. You make a lot of money young. You never need to work again. How do you spend life?

You can live for pleasure, which he illustrates with enticing vividness. Even though part of you knows it’s shallow.

Or you can do a great body of work. You don’t have to do that to survive, you just do it for the work.

You can be more successful, even though you already never need to work again, just for the buzz of being successful, for the power.

He calls all meaningless. Which means by extention, he’s calling the wildest dreams of humanity, our most ideal fantasy lifestyles, meaningless.

The word from the original text, “hevel” is a richer word that has a metaphoric comparison to smoke or vapour. It includes the idea that it looks substantial, but when you try to grasp it, there is nothing there. Also the idea of obscuring clarity, of an enigma.

He says having done both shallowness and wisdom, shallowness is worse. But both end in death, even if you are wise all your life, you may well hand everything you have achieved over to an idiot after you die, which Solomon in fact did. What do you actually gain by being wise?

He hasn’t explored social conscience in this chapter, living for others. I don’t know if he does later on. But in terms of living for yourself, he concludes, it barely makes a difference if you are a shallow, indulgent hedonist or a successful disciplined achiever. It promises satisfaction, but you don’t get it.

Watched the series return of Game of Thrones last night. It will be fascinating to see how they resolve it.

It drew you in with all these characters all with different takes on what drives you in life being made a mockery of – it’s famously random scythe killed off the pleasure seekers, the ambitious, the pure, the dutiful, the corrupt, the self interested, the philanthropists. It’s constantly showed how meaningless our plans can be.

But it sustained you with a meta story woven in the background, of supernatural forces of fire and ice from which the characters find a greater purpose. These have taken us, as we near the end, to the point of a meaningful narrative arc, a resolution, a sense of destiny which contradicts the trademark provocative meaninglessness.

So how does it end?

Needless to say, I’m already loving this Ecclesiastes ride, bring on chapter three!

Job 21

I feel like we are stuck in a rut at this point. The arguments of the friends are going in circles. If anything, they are becoming more entrenched in their positions, more parallel.

In the last chapter Zophar made a pretty straight forward case for materialism and greed being bad. While not denying that evil people don’t always get a comeuppance in life, he said they will not have spiritual satisfaction and death will make a mockery… You can’t take it with you.

To which job replies with bracing cynicism. The prosperous evil and the miserable good lie side by side in the grave, one having had a great time and the other having had a lousy time. How is that an argument for a moral life?

We see the wicked grow old, increase in power and prosperity, everything goes right for them and they die in peace.

Job doesnt address Zophar’s question of spiritual satisfaction directly, though he does address the superstition that their evil will be visited on later generations of their family. He says no one whose had a sweet life really cares about what happens to their family after they die.

Did someone zoom books by Camus or Neitzsche backwards through time to Job… (or were those guys less trail blazing than they thought?)

We’re half way though the book, we’ve gone from the victim and consolers being supportive and sharing, engaging over the calamities Job has suffered… to being disengaged, insensitive and entrenched in their own self referential world views based on their own narrow experiences.

I spoke to the disaster management people at work, and they will care for the victims of a flood, fire etc for years after it is in the press, after the appeals are over and after the urgent public cries for better responses have died down.

Regardless of our philosophy of suffering, we all practically face the fact that there is way more injustice and suffering in the world than we can process or affect. We deal with it by being insensitive to most of it most of the time.

And doing the NIMBY thing of howling most about stuff that directly affects us, like Job is.

So while I’m annoyed that job is stuck in a rut, it’s got to the place most of us are at, so it’s an authentic rut to get to.

God? Where are you? We’re slowly building to the appearance of God, the wisdom of mankind is running out. It’s an effective bit of literature because the absent player is being teased almost to breaking point…

Job 20

Job’s third friend, Zophar, speaks a second time.

It’s an epic, sweeping but nuanced, description of the effects of evil and sin.

All three of the friends have reacted somewhat indignantly to Job rejecting their sin=punishment formula. Like the other two, he doesn’t refer to Job much directly. He depersonalises his argument.

But by painting a realistic picture of a corrupt society, full of selfishness, greed and the consequences, he makes the case that his suffering is just one of many consequences of the world’s – and by extension Job’s – fallen state.

He takes a broad view of history, and how there has always been the wicked, and they’ve always come to nothing. Death makes a mockery of their youthful pride and huge egos.

He presents a portrait of a life devoted to the hope that ill gotten material gain will give spiritual satisfaction. There’s an extended metaphor of how greed tastes good in the mouth but starves you because it’s like food that is not actually nourishing. You eat more and more in the vain hope that you will be satisfied, and it poisons you.

You leave a legacy of oppression, poverty and injustice.

In Zophar’s case, Job’s rebuke has made him disturbed, and questioning. This is his affirmation of how he thinks the world is. It feels good when threatened to re-state your old ideas to yourself.

But after all this time he makes no effort to process Job’s situation.

It’s not clear if he’s saying Job is a victim of the fallen state of the world or saying Job is one of the wicked. In truth I suppose we all contribute to and suffer from the evil of this world.

My mind is buzzing with possibilities for my job interview on Monday. It would be marvellous if I got it, but I have to be realistic. They know me, what will be will be.

I see this passage reminding me that ambition is not an end in itself.

It is vivid about the seductiveness of evil ‘evil is sweet in his mouth and he hides it under his tongue … he cannot bear to let it go’

Your will be done, make me pure.

2 Chronicles 9

Behold! The Queen of Sheba.

The visit of this exotic personage, from a far flung and wealthy kingdom… (they think it was in present day Yemen, pretty much the edge of the known world to them) …lends massive credence to the honour and fame they have achieved.

This nation of former slaves, transformed by God’s blessing so that all the world acknowledges his greatness.

More descriptions of Solomon’s stunning opulence follow. It goes on for 40 years, Israel’s high period, and then Solomon dies. The Queen sums it up:

“Praise be to God who has delighted in you”

It’s what God wants for us. The garden of Eden is described in similar abundant terms, as is the new earth and heaven described in revelation.

The history of Israel is a huge lesson that people’s hearts don’t become loving if you pour out massive blessing on them.

Look at the wealthiest, most blessed nation on earth today. The US are desperate to become “great” again. Yesterday I read they slapped trade tariffs on Turkey because the world trade system is ‘so unfair’.

Great wealth has begotten more greed and bullying of nations poorer than themselves. Their policy of ‘America first’ belies the fact that they already are first. It’s actually America further first.

And Australia is not better, look at how we treat refugees while shrinking or foreign aid. If the West is in decline is because our rich diet is so bad for us.

2 Chronicles 2

Building the temple, finally they get to scratch that itch after all the preparations David put in.

Solomon writes to the king of Tyre for materials, and you get his description. He says it’s to be the best temple because God is the best God.

But then he says he can’t possibly build a house for God, who even the heavens cannot contain, so really it’s just a sacrifice place.

It the right thing to say, but the tangible reality of the temple makes our brains struggle to remember that we are the temple.

Our creativity for God is so easy to fall in love with. Our buildings are done for God, but they help us fall in love with earth. With monuments.

They imply eternity, but they distract from eternity.

He conscripts foreigners in Israel to work on it in slave camps. That’s a warning red light I think, it’s not the picture of their society we got from Deuteronomy.

Eg ch 10: God “…loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.

Solomon is treating them as the Egyptians did, enslaving them to make his monuments.

I’ve read this story before, essentially Kings 2. These high notes before the sad decline have these flaws already.

I do love our sandstone church on glebe point road, but it’s built on land that there is still no treaty for, it stands for and against God.

1 Chronicles 29

The book ends with the handover from David to Solomon. Solomon asks for wisdom, in terms that acknowledge that God has made a great nation, remembering his love for David. This pleases God. He grants Solomon wisdom and he also promises great wealth.

They go to the tabernacle and offer sacrifices. I got mixed up earlier, there are two tents. This one Moses made in the wilderness, and another in Jerusalem that David made for the ark of the covenant.

The book concludes with a description of how wealthy and powerful Israel became during Solomon’s reign.

It’s a sweet fulfillment of God’s promises.

It’s such a brief period, is like the flowering of the American prosperity theology. God blesses them with wealth.

Indeed, he doesn’t only use poverty or suffering. I’ve mentioned before the English band the Housemartins who famously said they would be Christians only when they had nothing in their bank accounts, but that is not the only way.

Here is a period when gold and silver were as common as stone. However God also doesn’t only use wealth and success.

It’s tempting to think that this is where it was done right, where God is in control and his will is being done fully as he intended. But it isn’t.

He told them back in Samuel that even having kings in the first place was second best, plan B.

The bad Kings that would come, and the split, decline and fall of Israel, result in the soaring visions of the prophets, the wisdom literature, global redemption, the God who lives in hearts, not buildings.

It’s one of the few books about the Jewish nation’s history with a happy ending, until you read that the only reason it ends here is that the scrolls it was written on weren’t long enough to hold the whole story. It ends here for technological, not literary, reasons.

So I’ll enjoy the good things without guilt, and pray that I can accept the bad. Neither condition demonstrates or questions God’s existence, his favour, or his will.

Jeremiah 50

2 chapters about Babylon. They are having their time of Empire, but where are they now? In history books.

There’s a description of the restored Israel and Judah (together again) where no sin or iniquity can be found because they have been pardoned. I’m thinking of the new Jerusalem in Revelation there.

The is a lot of cinematic stuff, taking you right into the experience of Babylon’s destruction, and the absolute nature of it once it’s over: all gone, desolate.

An encouraging promise to the victims into a world that would not have faintly resembled that. The reality of power would have been the exact reverse.

I love Shelley’s poem “ozymandis”

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

I get a bit too obsessed with politics… Got to learn to despair at the right works.

Isaiah 46

The humiliation of Bel and Nebo. Who now?

They are the gods of Assyria and Babylon. Israel’s conquerors.

So limited is their power that they move by being carted behind a horse, and when they are plonked, that is where they stay. Can’t even move themselves!

Before you laugh, consider how many of the desirable accoutrements pushed at us by advertisers as the purpose of our existence and symbols of a meaningful life could be described that way.

God pleads with people “listen to me”. His word is eternal, and he acts to bring it about. It will be set up and established, he is the one we should be worshipping.

He’s desperate to break through our mesmerised idol trance and hear his word. It is “love”.

Isaiah 30

Isaiah’s prepared them in the last chapter, telling them he needs to wake them from a dream and that is for their own good. And now he whacks them.

This is the full on bleak vision of Jerusalem’s future, their leaders useless, their young men dead, the women and children who survive stripped of all possessions finery and dignity, scabrous, homeless, with only sacks to wear.

It reads a bit like a socialist or misogynist rant again the power structures or the finery of Jerusalem’s women, but the previous chapter set the frame of his concern over their indifference to God. It’s tough love, not rage.

I was struck by the casual sexism of his reference to being ruled by women as a sign that society has gone to the dogs.

But I’m confident that is an artefact of Isaiah’s cultural bias, not the point of the passage. Against it, for example, is the positive contribution of women in kings described in instances of them having special insight into God’s word and taking proactive steps to act on their understanding.

Isaiah would have known female prophets, and in kings at least their gender is a non-issue, they are mentioned only for the truth that they speak

The passage tells me about the urgency of the Christian message, something I find hard to think about.