This is the Advent version of our on and off again series of “Strange World of the Bible.” Sometimes we think we know the Bible but the Bible is wonderfully strange in the multiple meanings of that word.  So to some things we may not know are and are not in the Bible.

1) Did you know that “church of Christ,” with a Big C or little c, is a phrase that does not occur in the New Testament a single time. Not even once. “Church of God” occurs 8x in the NT. The single (1x) “churches of Christ” in Romans 16.16 has gotten a lot of sectarian airplay through the years. People argue, fight and disfellowship over the name “c/Church of Christ” not on a sign, when the irony is that term is not a New Testament term. So much for “Speaking where the Bible speaks and being silent where the Bible is silent.”

2) Did you know we disciples frequently create an “antithesis” where there is none in reality. One spectacular example is John 1.14-18. “Law was given thru Moses; grace and truth came thru Jesus Christ” (1.17). Scholars debate how best to translate this text. Did you know that the words “grace” and “truth” come from the divine self-revelation spoken to Moses (!) in Exodus 34.6, in the Hebrew Bible. John is quoting the “Old Testament.” The KJV even has those very words in that text.

John hardly is saying Moses did not know of, believe in, or even bring grace or truth (Jesus clearly believes Moses teaches the “truth”). Moses brought both! But what John is celebrating is the embodiment, or Incarnation, that is Grace and Truth – the very self-identification of God. Moses is a witness to grace and truth. Jesus is (as the very essence of God) grace and truth. The incarnation is grace and truth walking on two legs. This is not a “new” truth. It is not a slap down on Moses. John simply is noting that what Moses received via verbal communication has arrived in the flesh. We would do well to avoid false readings of the text. We can avoid such false readings many times by knowing the Hebrew Bible as first century followers of Jesus did.

3) Did you know that God destroyed two nations, and singled out two tyrants, in part, because they attacked trees?Yes, Trees! Sennacherib of Assyria is described by Isaiah as one who

laid waste to all the nations {the people} and their lands {the dirt})”

He threatened little Judah and bragged of his destructive power. Isaiah sent a letter to Hezekiah delivering the judgement of God against him. God said that among Sennacherib’s crimes was a war on the trees of Lebanon. The Lord quotes the king’s arrogant boasts,

“I have gone up the heights of the mountains,
to the far recesses of Lebanon;
I felled its tallest cedars, its choicest cypresses
(37.24).

God judges his arrogance. In two texts, Babylon is singled out for similar reasons. In Habakkuk 2.17, Yahweh tells the Babylonian king

for the violence done to Lebanon will overwhelm you;
the destruction of the animals will terrify you.”

Here Yahweh is returning to Babylon the destruction she has sown against creation.

In Isaiah 14 it is the trees themselves that break out in exultation because God has destroyed their Babylonian destroyer,

the cypresses exult over you,
the cedars of Lebanon, saying,
‘Since you were laid low,
no one comes to cut us down.
(Isa 14.8).

Modern westerners read right over these, and similar texts. They do not register in our post-Enlightenment platonic worldview. But even in the New Testament we learn that God will “destroy those who destroy the earth” (Revelation 11.18). The Bible declares that the trees belong to the Lord (Ps 104.16f) and that humans are themselves “creatures” who are part of a community of creatures. No wonder Jesus taught that the Creator God knew even when a sparrow died.

4) Did you know, since I mentioned trees, that Scripture tells us that animals can “teach” human beings? Job in a beautiful defense of his integrity against his so called Friends tells them to go interview the animals … and trees.

But ask the animals, and they will teach you;
the birds of the air, and they will tell you;
ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you;
and the fish of the sea will declare to you.
Who among these does not know
that the hand of the LORD has done this?
(Job 12.7-9)

Truly the whole world is full of HIS glory … may we have “eyes to see and ears to hear!” God’s Spirit is in the world as the Elixir of Life.

5) Did you know that when Paul wrote “as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs … giving thanks to God the Father” in Ephesians 5.19-20, that this certainly included the book of Psalms.  It may or may not be limited to the Psalter, but it most certainly included Psalms. Paul is quoting from Psalms with these very words (Ps 27.6, LXX).

We know from the Dead Sea Scrolls that other “psalms” besides what Psalter were sung. Many scholars believe that the Song of the Three Jews preserved in the Greek Daniel and the Prayer of Manasseh have their origin in the temple liturgy. They were loved by the early church. The song fragments that are preserved in the NT itself have a Psalm flavor to them. So it is beyond reasonable doubt that the first century church learned to praise God thru the Book of Psalms.

6) Did you know that what we believe about “love” may need to be nuanced? Most of us have heard that the Christian version of “love” is “agape” and it is superior to all others (like phileo, but apparently the Father phileo’s the Son, Jn 5.20). We are told that it is not an emotion. But I wonder? In fact, I believe it is a myth! Perhaps you are not aware that in the Greek version of Song of Songs, a work all about love, emotion and even sexuality, regularly uses agape to describe the “love” between the woman and her man. Perhaps Paul owes more to the Septuagint than the Greek philosophers … perhaps.

Be blessed … eschew sectarianism, love God’s creation as he does, listen to the animals, learn how to worship from the Psalter and become a person of passionate love.

For the Curious: Others in this Series follow the links …

Strange World of the Bible: Nudity, Public Bathing and Dogs

Strange World of the Bible #2: Ten Things the Bible Does NOT Say 

Strange World of the Bible #3: Ten Times the New Testament is Actually the Old Testament, But Didn’t Know it

Strange World of the Bible #4: Missing Eight Windows on Jesus’s Jewishness

Strange World of the Bible #5: “Ordinary People” and the Bible in the First Century

 

I wrote this about a year ago and forgot to post it to my blog. This is just a brief study.

Every time I study Jonah I learn something new. Sometimes these things are staring me in the face, but I am slow. So here in the Rocky Mountains we are going thru Jonah in Bible class and this week I have been tracing the “sign of Jonah.”

Luke “plays” with the “sign of Jonah.” Peter and Cornelius come together much like Jonah and the Ninevehites. Here are some interesting things to note that are both parallel and sequential in the story in Acts 10.1-11.18 that indicate that Luke is “fishing” with the Jonah story to shape how he tells the Cornelius narrative. I am also grateful when my suspicions are confirmed by other students.

1) It is a delicious irony that the man commissioned to go to a goyim is the “son of Jonah”

2) Joppa is in both stories (Jonah 1.13/Acts 9.43)

3) there is hesitancy on the part of both messengers to go

4) Jonah and the “son of Jonah’s” reluctance to be God’s messenger is overcome only by divine intervention (fish/vision). Jonah is in the fish three days (1.17) and the “son of Jonah” is given the vision three times (Acts 10.16; 11.10)

5) The commission to both is verbally parallel, “arise and go” (“anastethi kai poreutheti“, Jonah 3.2, LXX; “anastas … kai poreuou, Acts 10.20)

6) the goyim “believed” (empisteuo/pisteuo, Jonah 3.5; Acts 10.43) in the word and were forgiven

7) the response of the goyim elicits a hostile response (Jonah 4.1; Acts 10.14; 11.2)

8) God responds to the hostility (Jonah 4.2-11; Acts 11.17-18)

Luke intends us to hear the story of Peter and Cornelius through the story of Jonah and Nineveh.  Luke’s point here is that the God that sent Jonah and the God that sent Peter are the same God of Israel. He extends grace and mercy to “everyone who believes” just as “all the prophets testify” (Acts 10.43). Israel was always intended to be a “light to the nations.”

Luke is saying that Cornelius is no surprise. Rather the witness to and reception of Gentiles into the House of David is the fulfillment of the destiny of Israel from the beginning (notice how James says the acceptance of Jesus by the Gentiles signals that Israel, David’s tent, has been restored, Acts 15.12-21)

The God of Israel has sought to bless all nations through his people, Jesus is the ultimate representative of Israel to the nations. The Jewish Messiah is everyone’s Messiah!

Blessings … Oh and the “Old Testament’ matters

Biblical “milk”

It is always more or less detrimental to the ascertainment of truth to allow our previous conclusions to assume the position of fixed and fundamental truth to which nothing is to be at any time added either in correction or enlargement. On the contrary, we ought rather to act under the conviction that we may be wiser today than yesterday

– Alexander Campbell, 1840

The Bible and Assumptions

Most of us have unexamined and even hidden assumptions about the world, life and how things ought to be. They function as a sort of a priori filter of information that enters into our conscious mind. The unspoken assumption has simply become part of our world, a given, that is never argued for or against. It just “is.”

Bible believing people are not automatically set free from the power of hidden assumptions simply because we believe the Bible. In fact it may be the case that we are even more blind to the power of hidden assumptions in religious world because we consciously assume that WE do not have any.  But just like an unknown gravitational source reveals itself by its effects on everything else so the same is with our own assumptions.

(As a side note it was the evidence of the “effects” of gravity on Uranus, that is Uranus was not precisely where it was supposed to be in its orbit, that led to the postulation that a hidden source was out there that we did not know about. After calculations by mathematician Urbain Le Verrier, astronomers Johann Gottfried Galle and Heinrich Louis d’Arrest essentially pointed their telescope to a spot on September 24, 1846 and found Neptune as the hidden source).

The Bible is God’s word inscripturated. But the Bible was not given to postmodern, English speaking, suburban/urban/rural Americans. It was given in specific historical circumstances that simply cannot be ignored if we actually believe the claim that it is God’s word.

God’s word was, we have to believe providentially, given to people who lived, at minimum, two thousand years ago. And in some cases as much as 3500 years. These Holy Spirit words, by God’s design, were given to people who never heard of America, and never heard of English. Their world was radically different than our own. We often forget this much to our detriment because we make assumptions that are never even thought about much less questioned.

So we often read things into our Bible when we encounter a “familiar” word and we assign to that word the meaning it has for US. Sometimes, it never dawns on us to think that they meant something considerably different than we do. I have learned this through personal experience because of the assumptions that I have made. So Historical context is an absolute MUST in reading the Bible as God in God’s wisdom gave it. God DECIDED, after all, to give the Bible to ancient, pre-modern, Hebrew speakers and thinkers and not to modern English speaking Americans.

Archeologist Nathan MacDonald has provided a fascinating book. This book rooted in deep archeological and textual research sheds light on many biblical passages. MacDonald is an expert on the food of the Ancient Near East

Example: Milk and Honey

We have all heard read the famous phrase to describe the land of promise as “the land flowing with milk and honey” (Deut 6.3; 26.9; etc). I can tell you, with complete honesty, that for a significant portion of my life it never once dawned on me that “milk” was not what I put in my Coca-Puffs/Count Chocula nor that “honey” was not the killer bee stuff. This is a rather harmless example I am using but once we examine it other false cards tumble in.

Long before Moses, there was an ancient Egyptian Tale of Sinuhe, an Egyptian who lived in Palestine. Palestine was long regarded as a verdant area known especially for wine in the ancient world. In the tale, Canaan is described in words that should ring a bell for any Bible reader.

It was a good land called Yaa.
Figs were in it and grapes.
It had more wine than water.
Abundant in with its honey,
plentiful its oil.
All kind of fruit were on its trees.
Barley was there and emmer …

This is an enlightening snippet. It is the Egyptian version of a land “flowing with milk and honey.” The biblical descriptions of the land are not made up. But they also have historical content.

Now I like honey. I have heard that “local honey” is very good for your allergies. And I love milk, especially chocolate. And for a good portion of my life I had no idea that honey is not stuff from bees and milk is not liquid from cows.

I simply assumed that those words referred to things in my experience rather than asking what they meant to an Israelite (the question of historical context). I am not alone in this. Even biblical scholars have often simply assumed in the past the meaning of these phrases. But archeology has caused large bodies of common assumptions and scholarship older than fifty years to be consigned to the trash heap.

There are at least three words referring to “honey” in the Hebrew Bible; debash, nopet, and ya’ar.  The word honey, most frequently, is not the product of bees in Scripture. Rather it is the syrupy remains of boiling down fruit, sort of like a molasses when sugar cane is boiled.

It is not evident that from the historical and archeological record that Israel kept bees to make what we call honey. There are only two indisputable cases where the word “honey” refers to bees and they are wild (Judges 14 and 1 Sam 14). But the rest of the time honey among the “produce of the field” or “agricultural produce” as we see in 2 Chronicles 31.5.

As soon as the word spread, the people of Israel gave in abundance the first fruits of grain, wine, oil, honey, and of all the produce/agriculture of the field.”

Honey, mentioned by name in the Tale of Sinuhe, is typically an agricultural product in much the same way that wine and olive oil.

And what of milk? C. S. Lewis once lamented those “who think the world began with the dawn of their own consciousness.” That is a rather powerful way of saying to people like me, don’t think the world has always been as you experience.

Archeologist, and Hebrew Bible scholar, Nathan MacDonald has written “although cows are associated with milk production in the modern Western world, this was not their primary association in the ancient Near East.” Using cows for milk was a European cultural innovation. Cows were used primarily for plowing in the ancient world. As Rabbi Nachman said in the Mishnah a “goat is for its milk, an ewe for its fleece … oxen for ploughing.”

Milk is not the stuff I put Hershey’s syrup in to make it drinkable. Rather it comes from primarily goats, though sometimes sheep. But we are still not done overcoming our assumption about “milk.” In the ancient world “milk” is only available for about half of the year when you can “milk” the goat (and sheep). They did not have Safeway to purchase more “milk.”

The “milk” is processed (do not confuse that with modern processing) so it will keep. When the milk is processed, or churned (again more like making butter), it becomes what we call “ghee.”

The “milk” was boiled in ancient Israel and as it sat the milk/ghee fermented (so much for those who only worry about the wine being alcoholic!).

Ancient Israel had what I like to call Wisconsin cheese curds, before Wisconsin existed. They were not pasteurized, a process that did not exist until 1864. Milk in ancient Israel fermented naturally. It is the alcohol, we know now, in the ghee that kept the “milk” from going bad and enabled it to be stored and used throughout the whole year.

When it was time to eat the ghee/milk it would be mixed with water to return them to a fermented, liquid state.

Knowing what “milk” is to the Israelite goes a long way toward understanding the excitement of the man in Song of Songs 4.11 as he declares,

Honey and milk are under your tongue …“(4.11)

Or

I drink wine with my milk” (5.1)

Chocolate milk never quite had the electric punch that is in fermented goat ghee! However kissing his bride is like the effect of an intoxicating beverage (the milk).

Final Thoughts

So with this little exercise we have found that the phrase “land flowing with milk and honey” is actually a very exciting turn of phrase in Scripture. It is not a notion that was invented by Israel but common to the cultures around. And what they meant by milk and honey are quite different than what we typically imagine of those terms.

The Bible is an exciting and yet strange book. It gets more interesting when we recognize that the world then is not the world now. This rather simple example can show us though to always ask the question … what did it mean then.

See Also

If you have found this blog helpful or at least “interesting” then you may also profit from this linked article:

Evel Knievel, the Grand Canyon & Us: The Strange and Deep Gulf to the Bible

Current Helpful Resources

E. Levine, “The Land Flowing with Milk and Honey,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 87 (2000): 43-57

Nathan MacDonald, Not Bread Alone: The Uses of Food in the Old Testament (Oxford University Press, 2008)

_____________, What Did the Ancient Israelites Eat? Diet in Biblical Times (Eerdmans, 2008)

M. Stol, “Milk, Butter and Cheese,” Bulletin of Sumerian Agriculture 7 (1993): 99-113

 

Periodically on Stoned-Campbell Disciple we have guest blogs and book reviews.  Debbie Plunket of Memphis, Tennessee won my book giveaway and has written a nice book notice.  Reconciliation Reconsidered is an important book.  It can be ordered off of Amazon via the link in the foregoing title.

Reconciliation Reconsidered:
Advancing the National Conversation on Race in Churches of Christ
Edited by Tanya Smith Brice (ACU Press, 2015)
Review by Debbie Plunket

I am thankful for Dr. Brice’s editing and for the work each of the contributing authors gave to this book.   The book is an excellent resource to provide a better understanding of current racial environments not only in the church of Christ but also the United States as a whole. Practical solutions are offered to advance church integration and in turn, the national conversation on race.  Several concepts are explained as to why churches are not desegregated even when people believe they “have no problem” with those of other races.

It’s inspiring to read how some congregations are actively reaching out to grow a more diverse group in hopes of growing closer together and closer to God. It is exciting to consider the growth potential if churches decide to address racial issues.  Fair warning: to progress, no one can skip solid food as addressed in 1 Corinthians 3:2. Tackling racial issues would not be considered milk, in reference to that same scripture. The book addresses why many churches remain segregated despite biblical beliefs that are antithetical to the concept of racial divide.

Dr. Tanya Smith Brice has provided superb editing for Reconciliation Reconsidered.  The book is divided into three sections following her introduction: Historical Realities, Contemporary Challenges, and Concrete Examples.  It is prepared to serve as a guidebook for all who seek to progress as Christians.  The contributing authors are very knowledgeable regarding their subject matter.  As a Christian, I pray this book is read by other Christians and spread in churches throughout the United States.  It would serve as an effective study for a congregation’s bible classes.  It is a rare experience for this reviewer to read a book that educates, motivates, and encourages one to share.  This is one of those books.

I have been in full time ministry since the early 1990s. Over the years my idea of what a minister actually needs and what a congregation should look for in a minister has changed drastically.  I look back now and I am so incredibly grateful for the patience and even mercy of God’s people demonstrated towards me as I tried to be a minister.

I am convinced that first, and foremost, every preacher should be a theologian. Immediately some will balk at the very word theologian. But after encountering nearly every scenario possible in ministry, I will “stick to my guns.” But if a theologian is a person who, some how, brings a message of God, and mediates the presence of God to people, then I know of no better word. The minister is either a good theologian or a very bad one but he will be one.

There are three qualifications at the core of a ministerial theologian in my view. Martin Luther first articulated these. When I first began ministry I had no idea what these were.

Prayer

Meditation

Testing

There are other skills that a minister will need.  But my contention is that these are the bedrock and all other skills and tasks are performed out of these three identity traits of the theologian.

Prayer

Prayer is the first qualification of a theologian. When I began ministry I was terrible at prayer. To be honest I still am. Don’t misunderstand, I “said” a prayer here and there. But I did not have a life of prayer.

You see prayer begins with an assumption that I was not prepared to admit back in the day. That assumption is that I am not enough. I was raised to think I was! I was raised to be self-sufficient. But prayer begins by saying I am not sufficient. I said prayers at meals, to begin classes, etc. But prayer was simply a matter of “precision obedience” back in the day. God commanded it. So I did it.

But prayer begins with the assumption that Bobby Valentine is not enough, Bobby Valentine is not self-sufficient. Bobby needs power beyond my intellect and cognitive ability. This was (and is) unbelievably hard to admit. So theology, ministry, preaching, begins by being in the “presence of God.” It is communion. That is what prayer is. It is not merely asking God mere favors, but beholding God’s majesty and glory.

Prayer demonstrates that I, like Isaiah, am a man of unclean lips yet has been enabled to come to God’s people precisely because I am one of them, warts and all (see Isaiah 6).

Meditation

Meditation is the second qualification of a theologian. Luther pointed to Psalm 119. Meditation is, as Eugene Peterson pointed out in Eat this Book, is (in Hebrew) the same word that is used for a dog gnawing on a bone. Have you ever tried to take a bone away from a dog? Not likely right. The dog is “meditating” on that bone.

A person moves from prayer into gnawing on God’s word. There is a hunger and a thirst for that Word that cannot be rationally described. Meditation is not memorizing sermon books or hundred year old debates. Mediation is plunging head first into the Marianas Trench and attempting to head to the bottom. It is not only DEEP but the the water changes. The deeper you go the pressure of the water will turn a submarine into a pancake. Gnawing on God’s word changes the “meditator” before it does anything else.

As the prayer warrior of Psalm 119 is constantly asking God to “reveal treasures” that are hidden in God’s word. There is no satisfaction with where we are. When we reach 10,000 ft there is still a bottomless trench to go with entire worlds beyond the imagination of the swimmer on the surface. Meditation reveals to us that God is the teacher and we never master the word.

Testing

The third qualification brings the first two together, testing. Luther declared that without “testing” no person could be a genuine theologian. There was a time I did not believe this. The first 17 years of my ministry were a walk in noonday park. And to be honest many churches do not like theologians that have been tested. Testing leaves scars.

But the common denominator of all God’s theologians in Hebrews 11 is they were “tested.”

Their world crashed.
Their families fell apart.
They went through periods of rejection.
They sometimes were angry, immoral, made horrific choices only to demonstrate amazing courage under fire.

Here, in Hebrews, we see the greatest of all theologians, Jesus of Nazareth. The High Priest is chosen from among humans not gods or angels because they do not know testing. They do not understand struggle. They do not know.  So the Preacher says “He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since HE HIMSELF is subject to weakness,” (Heb 5.2).  Jesus was tried by fire, he “learned obedience through the things he suffered” (Heb 5.7-8, there are no more radical words in the Bible than here). Jesus is a great Savior because he was tested and because he has weakness. That is what the text says.

Testing puts us in the company of Jesus. Testing changes how we see prayer. Testing changes meditation. Testing, put another way, reveals the content of our prayer and our meditation. Luther believed a person was simply “unfit” to be a theologian if he or she had not been “tested.”

Be a Good Theologian … A Good Minister

Every minister needs to be a theologian. In fact the minister is one. The only question will be, a good one or a bad one. How do you find a qualified theologian: prayer, mediation and testing. Everything else is secondary.

Shalom.

The Missional Change Model for local congregations has five steps 😉 It has to be biblical right lol. We can call it the Five Finger Plan. The fingers look like this:

Awareness (of where we are in both space and time)

Understanding (this is using conversation/dialogue to bring about integration between our thinking and our feelings about where “we” are)

Evaluation (this is a difficult stage. looking at ourselves deeply and critically to see if what we are doing currently helps with our stated goal of reaching out is not easy. Asking ourselves if “programs” actually engage or need to, perhaps, die and what tools do we need to cultivate to actually do something in light of fingers 1 and 2)

“Experiment” (this is perhaps hardest of all. It requires taking the risk of faith and trust in the Holy Spirit. With this finger we decide we must actually take our walk with the mission of God out of theory and put it to the test of life. Engaging “OUR” space and our time may (often does) require thinking and acting out news ways of engaging.

Commitment (this finger requires that our new ways of thinking and doing in our space and our time be more than a week long gospel meeting or VBS. It requires training for the marathon not the 100 yard dash.

My philosophy of ministry states that God’s Holy Spirit is already working in the present. The Spirit was in Macedonia long before Paul went there. In fact Paul’s desire was to go into Asia.

This missional model is simply a fancy way of talking about what Paul does in Acts 16.6-10. Paul discerned that the Spirit did not want him to do one thing but did want him to do another. Paul wanted to go to Asia. But he was attentive to the work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit was already at work in a Roman Colony named Philippi, a tough, and challenging place to be. But Paul joined in what God was doing. Paul, in this short narrative, essentially goes thru this process and arrives a this conclusion, he was “convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them” (16.10).

May we pray and discern what God’s Spirit is doing. When we pray we must follow.

God’s Holy Spirit is not a printed page nor is he confined chained between the covers of a little black book. The Holy Spirit is a Missionary who has gone out into the fallen world to breath life into a place that reeks of death. My prayer is that we will follow the apostle’s example and be “lead by the Spirit” into Mission of God.

Reading through the Psalms is an exhilarating experience. We join our Spiritual ancestors in lifting our hands to God in loving praise.  We relish images of the Lord as our Shepherd and being covered in the shelter of his wings. We are drawn the thirsting for the Presence of God. We find ourselves in awe of the Ways of the Lord.

But for the uninitiated, the Psalms also startle us and perhaps even shock us. It does not take long in the Psalms to encounter the cries of the broken hearted or the lament of the crushed.  And as we push our way into the Psalter we encounter anger.  It is not just any anger. Rather we find ourselves with raw anger.  For some modern believers these psalms are proof of the inferior nature of the “Old Testament.”  In this blog we will meditate upon one of the most difficult of all the “anger” Psalms for many, Psalm 109.

Listening to Psalm 109

Psalm 109 is raw power. It is rage thrown in our face. Psalm 109 will rattle our “piety cage.” It is an  imprecatory psalm, that is a psalm that is a “cursing” psalm as some call it. But we have to ask ourselves if we have made an effort to understand not only Psalm 109, but the imprecatory psalms as a whole.  Did they make it into the Bible by accident?

So to begin, I want to share one thought that lies at the bottom of the psalm.  It is the bedrock conviction of the psalm and explains the hotness of the language:

Yahweh is on the side of the oppressed!

If we do not grasp the depth of this conviction then we will not only never apprehend Psalm 109 but quite a few other biblical texts. The biblical God is a God of justice, mercy and faithfulness.

Justice, Mercy, Faithfulness are deeply interrelated in Scripture and Jesus himself states they are the “weightier matters of the torah” (Matt 23.23).  The prophets Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Micah, etc all say the God of Israel will always side with the Oppressed, let the Oppressor be warned. Those who are God’s people will also be on the side of the Oppressed, lest they collude with the Oppressor. As David Lipscomb once wrote, “the poor, as a class, constitute the elect of God.” Psalm 109 is rooted squarely in this Spirituality.

The Bedrock of Psalm 109’s Spirituality

Psalm 109 is what I call “getting down with God about what is wrong and messed in the world.” It is a Psalm that makes Victorians squirm in their seat, and wonder if it made it into the Bible by mistake. It will make some Restorationists secretly thank God it is in the “Old Testament” (bc we know it was nailed to the cross – such a fallacious claim) etc. I speak in jest but these sentiments I have heard in one fashion or another many times.

The psalm is clearly the voice of a person that is oppressed. It is the voice of the “poor and needy” (v.22). The person is under extreme suffering and offers an extreme prayer.  The status of the person evokes the cries of all the who are extremely powerless in this world, slaves for example.

In fact the central appeal to Yahweh in Psalm 109 contains petitions that are based upon, and grounded in, the Exodus narrative (Ex 1.8-22; 2.23-24). That is the paradigmatic moment when Yahweh rescued the poor and needy ones (literal Israelite slaves) and proved God is always on the side of the Oppressed.

The Israelites groaned under their slavery and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. God heard their groaning and God remembered his covenant with Abraham … God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them” (Ex 2.23-24)

Exodus does not say the Israelite slaves cried out to Yahweh.  It merely says they “cried out.”  But it was God who noticed the extreme suffering of the poor and the powerless.  God “took notice of them.” As Psalm 72 has the king and the congregation confess,

For he [Yahweh] delivers the needy
when they call,
the poor and those who have
no helper.
He has pity on the weak
and the needy.
From oppression and violence
he redeems their life;
and costly is their life (or
their lives are precious to him)
(Psalm 72.12-14, my translation but see the TEV/GNB)

Or as 109.31 puts it,

he [Yahweh] stands at the right hand
of the needy,
to save them from those who
would condemn them to death.”

This is the bedrock of Psalm 109.

Looking at the Text Closely

This poor and needy person looks to Yahweh because God is near the suffering.  Using terminology from Exodus this extreme prayer asks God to …

deal” (‘asah) v.21, “deal on my behalf for your name’s sake

save” (nasal) v. 21 “because of your hesed is good, save me

help” (‘azar) v.26 “help me, O Yahweh my God!

save” (yasa) v.26 “save me according to your hesed

The appeal here is rooted in the promise that Israel’s God is so powerfully and utterly on the side of the poor and needy (see Pss 72 and 82). Extreme prayer is based on the Gospel of the Exodus.

The Tormentor is another Pharaoh, an Anti-Yahweh

The psalmist is not simply having a bad day. He or she is in a living hell. There is an oppressor sucking the life our of one who has no power to oppose the one in power. Everything Yahweh is, this enemy is not. The oppressor is a tormentor. He

did not remember to show KINDNESS/hesed
but pursued the poor and needy
and the brokenhearted to their death” (v.16)

This is the crux of the Psalm. The crime of being an “Anti-Yahweh” is the oppressor’s guilt. Anti-Yahwehism is manifested in how one dares to treat “the least of these.” The oppressor has become a mini-Pharaoh in his dealings with the poor and powerless around him. The oppressor has made himself the enemy of the God of Israel. This was his doing not Yahweh’s. But Yahweh will do to this mini-Pharaoh what he did to the Egyptian, because God is on the side of the powerless.

Even as the poor and needy one actually prayed on behalf of the tormentor he/she received evil in return,

In return for my love they accuse me
even while I pray for them.
So they reward me evil for good
and hatred for my love
.” (v.4-5).

He/she has been slandered, lied about, hated, etc (cf. v.4f). So the poor oppressed one cries out for justice, just as do the martyrs in the very presence of God (Rev 6.6-11).

This is not, as it is so crudely sometimes assumed, some personal vendetta or seeking personal revenge. In fact the Psalmist does not raise a hand against the tormentor. Rather judgment is left wholly in the hands of the God of Hesed.

Let them know that it is your hand,
that you, O LORD, have done it.
They may curse but you will bless;
when they attack they will be put to shame” (v.27-28).

Vengeance belongs to God, that is a Hebrew Bible teaching not an invention of Jesus. The Torah states quite vividly, “vengeance is mine, I will repay” (Deut 32.35).

Not My Words But … Ours

As I reflect I realize this is not my psalm. But honestly, I have felt like him or her before. What I get from the psalm is that he or she submits and surrenders their justified, legitimate, anger to the God of the Poor. Anger is given to God. Anger it is not acted out on the tormentor. Justice is not taken out of God’s hands to dish out.

Some believe we should never be so angry, and certainly not this angry. But what if we are that angry?  We do not live in a perfect world. We live in a Fallen World. And so we do have such feelings – and if you have not you will one day.

There are in fact happenings in this age devoid of the Father’s will that do elicit such cries as we find in Psalm 109. This is not about getting cut off in line at Wal-Mart.

But even if this is not our psalm, we know of people for whom it does belong. Who can we pray for?

  • Saints in Afghanistan
  • Saints in Sudan
  • Women abducted in the human sex slave traffic
  • Think of the Rachael’s who refuse to be comforted.
  • How about those whose entire life snuffed out by the principalities and powers who use human entities unaware?
  • How about the one who has been falsely accused and incarcerated for 35 years only to find out the police and district attorney purposefully suppressed evidence that proved innocence?

Psalm 109 belongs to such as these.  They can pray this extreme prayer.

Final Thoughts on Extreme Prayer in Extreme Suffering

Do we dare to pray on their behalf? I think that is why the Holy Spirit put it in the Bible in the first place. What the oppressor did not have, God’s people do. That is hesedHesed demands that I/we have solidarity with these people. Therefore we do in fact pray even this prayer on their behalf.

Not everyone in ancient Israel, in fact most did not, experience the occasion of Psalm 109. But the psalm was inspired, and preserved by the Holy Spirit, and was used in corporate worship. Why? Because the people of God are supposed to have the heart of God for the Oppressed. Psalm 109 is nothing but a passionate cry for,

I cannot recommend Erich Zenger’s work on the imprecatory psalms enough. This is a must read.

Your kingdom come, your will be done ON EARTH as it is in heaven.”

Interestingly enough Psalm 109 is quoted directly five times in the NT and is alluded to and echoed several more times.

Just a few thoughts on a text that I actually love more and more as I understand how central God’s righteousness and justice is to the kingdom of God.

Psalm 109 is an extreme prayer offered by one in extreme suffering.  The Holy Spirit calls on the people of God to extremely intercede for those who suffer under the extreme duress of the injustice of this fallen age. Such prayer hastens the day when shalom will cover the face of the sea and the meek will inherit the earth.

Shalom.

24 Sep 2017

Is it Really a Two Way Street?

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Church, Contemporary Ethics, Culture, Discipleship, Jesus, Love

Is it really a “two way street?” That is the question asked by a barely 20 year old to me.

I posted part of my conversation with my daughter yesterday on Facebook. Clearly, hers is a message that resonates with many.

But a refrain was repeated several times in the comments. I paraphrase to capture them all slightly different in wording:

respect is a two way street,”

“listening is a two way street,”

“they are just as mean.”

But my kid throws things in our face. “Is it really a two way street? Dad you have always told us, ‘you can only control what you do not what others do.”

It is not the case, for a member of the kingdom of God, that love, respect, dignity, kindness, patience is a two way street. It is a one way street. These values are grounded in the reality of the new creation brought thru the death, burial and resurrection of Christ and flow out of the empowering Presence of the Holy Spirit in our life.

My love for you, my respect for you, my treatment of you with dignity, my patience with you has absolutely nothing, when the chips are down, with how you treat me. This unalterable truth is grounded in Christ Jesus himself and that you are the icon or hologram of God.  From Matthew,

Blessed are the meek” (5.5)

Blessed are the merciful” (5.7)

Blessed are the peacemakers” (5.9)

Blessed are the persecuted” (5.10)

If anyone strikes your cheek” (5.38-42)

Love your enemies .. so that you may be children of God.” (5.43-44)

If you love those who love you, what reward do you have? …”(5.46)

Forgive as you have been forgiven … 490x” (18.21-35)

Father forgiven them …”

It is an ethic alien to the kingdom of God that says “love is a two way street.”

The examples of all the Christian martyrs from Stephen to Polycarp to Perpetua to Martin Luther King Jr prove beyond a shadow of doubt that love, respect, patience, kindness are not, and never have been, a “two way street” for one on The Way.

They are a one way street in fact. They come from God’s new world into the world of unlove, the world devoid of mercy, the world consumed with looking out for number 1 (me), the world devoid of love of God, through those who are the salt, light and leaven of God’s new creation. They come into the present fallen world because God’s children choose to practice their resurrection life in the here and now.

No wonder Jesus boiled it down to a single truth. There is only one criteria of the Christian. The mark of the new creation – love. They will know you are my disciples if you love.

I hate it when my 20 year old shows me that she has been listening for 20 years and confronts me and all of us with an inconvenient truth. Love is a one way street. We are the street that the love of God flows through into the world. We show love whether they like or want it or not.

Blessings.

Rembrandt, one of the greatest Protestant artists, frequently depicts scenes from the “Middle Testament.” This is Raphael’s Ascension from Tobit 12. A trip to the museum can open up our world.

I have not always been interested in the Apocrypha. I grew up in a conservative “Church of Christ” family in North Alabama.  We did not read the Old Testament itself much, so the Apocrypha was not something I even knew existed. At some point I became aware that Roman Catholics had “added” some strange books to the Bible in order to support their false teaching.  In college I was doing some extra curricular reading and discovered who the Maccabees were and read bits and pieces of 1 Maccabees.  But I was wholly ignorant of these books both of their content and their history within the Christian church.

For many years in my preaching career the Apocrypha was simply not part of my religious worldview. It was not till I lived in a city with a world class art museum, Milwaukee, that my world began to change.

Rachael, Talya, their mother and I, went to the Milwaukee Art Museum. We had bought a membership to the Museum and loved frequenting that wonderful place. I have always had a soft spot for the old Masters. But I found some paintings with scenes I did not recognize. Much to my surprise they ended up being from the Apocrypha. Like most folks I had never given more than 10 seconds of thought about.

Come to find out a lot of great art comes from the Apocrypha. A lot of music comes from the Apocrypha. I was a prime example of, “just because you never heard of something does not mean its not everywhere.”

I soon discovered that the Apocrypha tied in quite nicely with any interest in the Hebrew Bible, Jesus and the early church. And later I discovered that the Apocrypha (what I now playfully call “the Middle Testament”) makes for great reading on their own terms. These works contain amazing stories of faith, prayers of petition, psalms of praise, confessions of repentance and please for grace and testimonies to the never ending love of God that are breathtaking. They are, I discovered, the world’s best “devotional” literature.  But they do give us some of our best windows on the the early church and the faith of Jesus. I just did not know that.

The picture is by Rembrandt and is “The Ascension of Raphael” from Tobit 12. I will focus on some classic hymns that we grew up singing but perhaps do not as much as we used too. Hymn writers often have artistic encounters with the biblical text as the hymn “Lilly of the Valley” should remind us of this.

Jesus, Lover of My Soul

Charles Wesley, an ordained Anglican was with his brother John Wesley a reformer, wrote thousands of hymns. His devotional reading regularly included portions of the Apocrypha. Themes from Apocryphal books are not rare in his hymns. “Jesus, Lover of My Soul,” you’ve sung it is based on a paraphrase of Wisdom 11.26 in the King James Version. Evangelical hymnals do not surrender this information but Wesley will tell you. The first time God is ever said to be a lover of our souls is in fact that wonderful text in Wisdom 11. The text in the King James Version reads,

But thou sparest all, for they are thine, O Lord, thou lover of souls.

Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee

Bernard of Clairvaux also passed on many wonderful hymns such as “O Sacred Head Now Wounded.” Among them is the classic “Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee.” Bernard read the Bible in the Latin Vulgate. He based his hymn on “Ecclesiasticus” or Sirach 24. Sirach 24 is an amazing text that left finger prints on John 1 and other NT texts. But it is 24.19-21 that is the inspiration for Bernard’s praise. The King James Version of Sirach 24.19-21 reads

Come unto me, all ye that be desirous of me,
and fill yourselves with my fruits.
For my memorial is sweeter than honey,
and mine inheritance than the honeycomb.
They that eat me shall yet be hungry,
and they that drink me shall yet be thirsty.

The Latin of Bernard is striking compared to the Vulgate. Most readers today may be sympathetic to Bernard’s belief that this text brings to our minds the “very thought of Jesus.”

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

The wonderful ancient hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is based upon Wisdom of Solomon 8. The second verse of the hymn reads

O come, O Wisdom from on high,
who ordered all things mightily;
to us the path of knowledge show
and teach us in its ways to go.”

It Came Upon the Midnight Clear

The Apocrypha helps Evangelicals understand two famous “Christmas” hymns, “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear’ and “Silent Night.” The Gospels say nothing of the hour of Jesus’s birth. But the angels appear at night in the Gospel of Luke. But the Church Fathers identification of Jesus’ birth with midnight came thru another passage in Wisdom that they believed spoke of Jesus birth.

For while gentle silence enveloped all things
and night in swift course was now half gone {midnight},
your all-powerful word {Greek is “Logos” as in John 1.1}
leaped from heaven, from the royal throne,
into the midst of the land that was doomed …
(Wisdom 18.14-15)

The Church Fathers interpreted this text as a prophecy of the Incarnation – it is the Logos after all! Thus the traditions that Jesus was born at midnight (i.e the night was half gone) and that it was silent (meaning that war had ceased – and Luke says that he proclaimed “peace”) were not simply made up but were for centuries believed to be “biblical.” Thus this beautiful text in Wisdom has entered our religious and cultural heritage while contemporary Evangelical have been completely unaware.

Silent Night, holy night!
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon Virgin Mother and Child!
Holy Infant, so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace

The Milwaukee Art Museum is, itself, a work of art

Negative Discovery

Daniel J. Boorstin, the famous Librarian of Congress, coined the term “negative discovery.”  Negative discovery refers to the discovery of not just a few isolated facts but whole realms of ignorance in areas we never even knew existed. We are ignorant of our ignorance. For many of us it can be put like this, just because we have never read “something” does not mean that “something” has not impacted our life. Sometimes significantly.

Just because we have never even heard of something does not mean that something has not exercised influence unconsciously in our life. Ignorance is not bliss, nor is it a Spiritual gift. Because, for centuries, the works of the Apocrypha were simply “part of the Bible” in Christian circles, themes from those works appear everywhere. Every Judy we have ever met has her name because of a woman most thought was heroic Bible character (Judith). Every Suzy is in the same boat (Susanna). We find the Apocrypha all through western literature in Chaucer, Shakespeare, Handal, Tolstoy, etc.  Most any classical artist has dealt with themes from the Apocrypha. Even the “silver screen” has artistically spread the Apocrypha.  One of the first, and considered by many one of the greatest, films of silent era is D. W. Griffith’s, Judith of Bethulia which is the based on the book of Judith (click on the link and watch the whole movie on YouTube). And even the songs that we sing, and the phrases we use (“lover of our soul”), often have forgotten origins for Evangelical types.

Sometimes we are surprised how pervasive gravity is when we suddenly become aware of it. The history of Christianity influences us down to the very DNA of our being and that influence includes the Apocrypha … even for people who have never read, sadly, a page of it. Just like me at the Milwaukee Art Museum … I discovered I had eyes but was never actually seeing.

I was blissfully unaware of the extent of my own ignorance. The fact that I was unaware did not change the fact of my ignorance. My ignorance is still beyond my own knowing but now when I look at Michelangelo … I know when he painting Susannah, Maccabees, Judith … or when I sing “Jesus, Lover of My Soul” I know what Wesley was doing … I believed the paintings were “pretty” previously but now I know they have meaning.

For all these reasons I now read from the Maccabees, Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Sirach, Prayer of Manasseh, etc on a regular basis and trips to the museum are much more meaningful.

Shalom & Blessings

Articles of Related Interest

Spiritual Treasures of the Old Testament Apocrypha

The Worship of God: Insight from the Apocrypha 

The Wisdom of Solomon, The Apocrypha, and Reading Books Outside the Bible, and Spiritual Wisdom

 

17 Sep 2017

Church in the Shape of a Meal

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Christian hope, Church, Family, Forgiveness, Lord's Supper, Unity

The Bible talks a lot about eating. In fact some scholars claim Scripture speaks of food and eating more than it does faith. And it just may.

Have you ever stopped to ask why food and tables are so prominent in the Story of God with Creation?

Abram/Sarah cooked for angels.
God ate with Moses & the elders on Mt. Sinai
Unrecognized by many but almost all the sacrifices were simply divine barbecues.
The prophetic vision of the renewed creation is presented as magnificent feasts with luxurious food and expensive wine.

And what about Jesus!? Have you ever noticed how often Jesus is eating with people? Or how often Jesus told stories about giant buffets. And then Jesus feeds the masses, on a mountain side btw, till they are ready to take a nap. And the followers of Jesus had some of their first fights around the meal that Jesus wanted his disciples to celebrate all the time. And Paul got pretty upset with Peter because he would not eat with Gentiles.

Meals in the Ancient Near East are far more than having a burger at Five Guys. A meal indicated social equality. A shared meal indicated acceptance – that is fellowship. A meal binds the participants in a common way of life. In a very real sense a meal was a profound moment of grace, of saying that “you” and “I” are “ok.”

The Pharisees clearly understand the significance of meals. This is why they scoff at Jesus for eating with “sinners.” Listen to me very carefully, the meals of Jesus are virtual reality moments of the new heavens and new earth breaking into this fallen age They point to the reality of new creation grace.

Forgiveness in the bible is never simply a mental idea. It changes the world.

When Luke tells us that Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit, ate and drank with the poor, the outcast, the marginalized, the tax collectors, the adulterers, with Pharisees, the demon possessed he is saying something incredibly significant. The meal is the social expression of what redemption looks like.  Those who are saved, forgiven, redeemed are now one in the New Creation.

Forgiveness meant to heal. How is healing recognized – a meal. We are no longer at war – eat. Two families are now one – we eat together. Humans have been reconciled with God – we eat together. Humans have been reconciled to one another – how do I know? We eat together!!!

The meals of the Bible are the social reality of salvation. The meals of the Hebrew Bible, the meals of Jesus, and the Meal we eat every week is to be the proclamation that we are one, that we are united, that we are equal.  If we eat together in the presence of God then we are at shalom with one another.

The Pharisees knew this. Those who objected to unclean Gentiles eating at the table in Antioch knew this. Paul knew this in Corinth where the meal was destroyed by the shaming of the poor by the rich.

If our churches today were molded and shaped by God’s dinner table as Jesus was in his life then chances are the Pharisees will take notice. But the meal is not about deserving a place there. We are at the dinner table eating because the Creator God has sat us at his table and put a plate in front of us and said, eat with me.

Perhaps it is a commentary on our imprecise Bible reading when we do not seem to think the ubiquitous meals of Scripture and Jesus teach us what it means to be the church. I invite you to reflect prayerfully on Luke 7.36-50 in light of what we have said.

Church is best expressed in a meal … the physical, literal, social manifestation of forgiveness and welcome.

Shalom