Worldviews 

The way we talk reveals deeply held beliefs. These beliefs are sometimes so deep, in fact, that we never consciously think about them.  When this happens, that belief is part of the structure of the house hidden from plain view. 

The way we speak projects the worldview – the structural frame – for how we see and interact with the world around us.  Several years ago one of my shepherds, Monroe Hawley, wrote about the significance of language or speech for uncovering our deeper ways of thinking.  His chapter “Your Speech Betrays You” in his classic Redigging the Wells: Seeking Undenominational Christianity, offers this perceptive example, when a person says,

I’m Church of Christ all the way” (i.e. pp. 83-94).

This was an example of a conservative, traditional, Bible believing, and denominational disliking, sister whose speech betrayed an incredibly denominational view of the family of God, even as she denied holding such a position.  While clearly using a “scriptural” term, she had recontextualized that term (“Church of Christ”) thus redefining it in radically anti-biblical ways. 

Modern, western, believers often do the same with the word “soul” and with just as deadly consequences to a biblical understanding of the term. Our use of the word “soul” reveals an entire hidden structure to our understanding of faith. Christians, preachers, and churches constantly speak of “soul winning” or “saving souls” or being a “soul winner.” 

The word “soul” is usually not defined but is simply assumed to be the part of humanity that matters to God that survives the death of the body.  It is the unseen reality of a person that experiences “salvation.” It is the part of us that “goes to heaven”  (i.e. gets saved).

Since we cannot see a “soul” and it is immaterial, our hidden understanding of “soul” is what lies behind such inquiries as “will we know one another in heaven?”  After all how do you “know” what you cannot see or otherwise sense?  But though we cannot see or sense it, the “soul” is of the utmost importance and really the only part of a human that matters at all. This hidden understanding of “soul” is what lies behind our speaking of “spiritual blessings” as opposed to material blessings.  As with the person in Monroe Hawley’s example, the word “soul” has come to mean something different by being placed in a new frame has deadly consequences.  

What I just described, and I do not think it is a caricature nor is that my intent, reveals an understanding that comes from the West’s Greek heritage far more than the Bible.

That Greek heritage celebrates the influence of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and other pagan philosophers.  It is Plato in particular who has shaped the way many people think about the “soul.”  Indeed for Plato the soul was “immortal.” The “soul” can, and does, exist prior to and apart from the body. In fact “salvation” in Plato’s thinking is ultimately setting the “soul” free from the body that encumbers it.

But simply because the Bible uses the word “soul” does not mean that it remotely means what Plato meant by the word. The Bible, Old and New Testaments, reflects a Hebraic structure or worldview and not a Greek one.  When it comes to the matter of saving the soul this is of utmost importance.  Our father in the faith, Alexander Campbell, grasped this point with precision,

Immortality, in the sacred writings, is never applied to the spirit of man. It is not the doctrine of Plato which the resurrection of Jesus proposes. It is the IMMORTALITY OF THE BODY of which his resurrection is a proof and pledge” (Millennial Harbinger – Extra, [August 5, 1833], 359). 

Campbell understood something many of his heirs do not, the NT writers were not Greek philosophers but Jewish folk nourished on the doctrine of Moses not Plato.  So Campbell can say that though the language of the NT is Greek “it has the soul of Hebrew” (nicely done there Alexander!). 

So what does the word “soul” mean in the Bible?

In Hebrew the word most often rendered “soul” in our English Bible is the nephesh and in Greek it is psyche. The word psyche occurs in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible over 900x (including the Apocrypha). New Testament writers get the word from the Septuagint.

Most of the time psyche is a rendering of nephesh. If one opens up a standard Hebrew dictionary such as The New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, ed William VanGemeren to the article on “Nephesh” we read “Care should be taken not to import a Greek paradigm of psychology to nepes” (vol 3, p. 133).  We should heed this warning because to ignore it changes what the Bible says and means.

In Hebrew nephesh stands for the whole person and sometimes simply means “I.” It is life itself.  So completely identified with the notion of a whole person that we can read of a corpse, that is a dead BODY, as a “soul/nephesh.”  “He shall not go where there is a dead body” (Lev 21.11, NRSV).  We shall not go near a dead soul, that is a person! In Leviticus 4.2 we read “when anyone sins unintentionally against me” (NRSV) but it is literally when a “soul/nephesh sins against me.”  That is when a person sins against me.  

In the Psalms we come across the notion of “soul” frequently and Westerners unconsciously, reading through the hidden Platonic structure of our Modern world, understand the text as a pagan philosopher might.  We come across famous lines like “Save me, O God, for the waters come into my soul” (Ps 69, KJV). Or in Psalm 44 “For our soul is bowed down to the dust” (KJV).  Or we read that haunting image in Psalm 42 which is prone to misunderstanding

As a deer pants for the living water,  
so my soul thirsts for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God
” (vv. 1-2, NRSV)s

Some read this and think the psalmist is speaking of her immortal soul, the hidden, non-material, valuable part that God loves and wants to save.  But this is, as our brief analysis above shows us, not what is meant at all.  The psalmist is not speaking of anything unseen or hidden.  Rather he is talking about himself, “I.” 

Robert Alter’s translation of The Book of Psalms renders correctly (Alter has a brief discussion on translating the Psalms in which he discusses among other things nephesh (pp. xxxi-xxxiii),

As a dear years for streams of water, so I yearn for You, O God. 
My whole being thirsts for God, for the living God

In fact to render nephesh this way (i.e. soul) is misleading in our modern contexts. A number of English translations have corrected it. So the TEV reads, 

As a deer longs for a stream of cool water,
so I long for you, O God.
I thirst for you, the living God
” (cf. NEB, REB, CEV, CSB, NCV, etc)

In the Hebraic worldview, human beings are a psycho-somatic unity.  There is no dichotomy between the spiritual and nonspiritual.  God is the Creator of all and the giver of life.  Life is given as a gift (souls).  There is no “soul” without a body and not body without the nephesh.  When the body and nephesh are not together there is “death.”

The whole personality of the psalmist in Ps 42 is dying for God.  His body is experiencing a drought because of separation from God’s gracious presence. It is a gross misunderstanding to think this is just inner anguish, or mental turmoil, or some hidden part of his being that yearns for God.  He is saying every “fabric of his/her identity” is aching for God. In the words, his or her whole being is afire for the Lord. 

The New Testament 

The notion we see in the Hebrew Bible, carried clearly over into the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures in the Septuagint, is shot through the New Testament.  The NT does not import Greek notions for “soul.”  There is no trading of Moses for Plato.  I will give numerous examples in order to demonstrate that this Hebrew doctrine for humanity remains. As a standard Greek dictionary like The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, ed Colin Brown, reminds us (as noted with the Hebrew above) “psyche” is “the seat of life, or life itself” or the person (see vol 3, pp. 676-687).

In Mark 8.35 and the identical parallel in Matthew 16.25/Luke 9.24 we read “whoever would save his life/soul/psyche will loose it” … soul clearly means the “life” of the person and not some hidden “secret” part of the person. 

In Matthew 10.39 we read this same Hebraic notion “those who find their life/psyche/soul will lose it …” 

In Matthew 20.28 we read these interesting words “Just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his SOUL/LIFE/psyche as a ransom for many.” Clearly the doctrine of Plato needs to be shunned in understanding what the very Jewish Jesus was saying here. It was no invisible Jesus on the Cross. 

In Jesus’s parable of the Rich Fool, he uses the same understanding of “nephesh” in the Psalms, and other places, to tell us how the Fool described himself. “And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry” (Luke 12.19,NRSV).  This is just as easily translated as “And I said to myself, Self ...” or to make it personal, “And I said to myself, Bobby …” The Today’s English Version renders the passage as “Then I will say to myself, Lucky Man! …”  The Rich Fool is clearly having a conversation with himself.  We humans do these things all the time.  “psyche” simply refers to the Rich Fool.

In recounting the cost of discipleship our Exalted Jewish Rabbi spoke in these words in the Gospel of Luke. “Whoever comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own SOUL/psyche/LIFE, cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14.26). 

Speaking of the Good Shepherd’s ultimate sacrifice for the sheep, Jesus says “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his SOUL/LIFE/psyche for the sheep” (John 10.11).  We certainly do not want to import Plato’s doctrine here!

When Peter, a good Jew, was speaking to Jesus, zealously proclaiming his unending devotion we hear these words that make no sense in a Platonic context, “Peter said to him, Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will day down my SOUL for you.” (John 13.37). 

If the soul, as is commonly understood and used in Evangelical/Restoration piety, means that part of the human being most valuable to God and is subject to “salvation” then Peter is speaking pure nonsense. But Peter is not just dedicating PART of himself to Jesus but declaring his “total commitment” (to use a metaphor) to Jesus.  He is giving it all.  There is no dichotomy between soul/body.  It is the whole person that is devoted to Jesus unto death. 

Paul was just as Jewish as Jesus and Peter. He never left Moses for Plato. He uses the word psyche in the same pattern we have observed throughout the Bible so far.  Paul was always grateful to his fellow workers.  For example he testifies that Prisca and Aquila “risked their necks for my SOUL/life/psyche” (Romans 16.4).  

Rabbi Paul loved his Thessalonian (=Macedonian)  brothers and sisters dearly.  It was not only an honor to share the “gospel of God” with them but his psyche.  “So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own SOUL/psyche, because you have become very dear to me” (1 Thess 2.8).  Paul has shared himself with his Thessalonian friends. Or as most English translations rightly render here, “Because our love for you we were ready to share with you not only the Good News from God but even our own lives! (TEV, cf. NIV, NRSV, etc)

The very Jewish apostle Peter tells us that on Noah’s ark there were “eight souls” saved in the Flood (1 Peter 3.20).  This clearly means, as in the Hebrew Bible, there were eight people that were on Noah’s ark. 

The only Gentile writer in the New Testament is Luke (and it is not at all clear that Luke was not at least a proselyte) yet he retains this Hebraic understanding of psyche … just as he learned it out of the Septuagint.  Luke records the sending of a letter from the Jerusalem Council to believers in Antioch and other places.  In that letter we read “we have decided unanimously to choose representatives and send them to you, along with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, who have risked their SOULS/psyche for the sake of the Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 15.25-26).  Barnabas and Paul risked themselves, their lives, for the sake of Jesus.  

Luke relates the sea voyage of Paul and the wreck at Malta.  Just before the ship was wrecked we are told that Paul gathers the folks around for a feast in good Jewish fashion (clear echoes of the feasts of Jesus in the Gospel and the Last Supper too).  “We were in all two hundred seventy six SOULS on the ship” (Acts 27.37).   I do not think that Luke meant there were 276 spirits or ghosts or nonmaterial beings on the boat.  The word “psyche” meant the people who were complete people filled with life.  This is in complete harmony with the Hebraic understanding of “soul.”

Conclusion(s)

The word psyche occurs 101x in the whole NT.  The vast majority of these are in the Gospels (37 in the Synoptics and 10 in John) and Acts (15x). Surprisingly, Paul only uses the word 13x across all of his epistles.  With this survey of both Old and NT, we see that the NT retains the meaning and usage of the Hebrew and does not even smell like the Greek understanding of the immortality of the soul (Campbell was correct). The proper frame for understanding “soul” in the Bible is Moses (Hebrew Bible) and not our Greek heritage exemplified in Plato.

A misunderstanding of the word “soul” and the doctrine of humanity results in a corresponding misunderstanding of salvation.  With a pagan definition, ministry focuses upon nothing more than dying and escaping to heaven. In this paradigm we tend to focus on that part of a human being we think actually matters to God and everything is subservient to that.

This is why some churches place great stress on going to church as the “spiritual” duty of humanity. Feeding the poor and caring for the sick may be good but all we are doing is caring for the “physical” needs in order to “save their soul.”

And some actually minimize the “physical” as antithetical to salvation.  This is completely unbiblical, no matter who claims otherwise. Churches in the 1950s and 1960s refused to address racial issues because they were “social” and not “spiritual” (i.e. not a matter of the soul and salvation).  But this is false doctrine.  It is in fact paganism. 

I realize many people hold this view unaware, so I am not accusing them of consciously being a pagan. But the hidden structure holding up our faith comes tumbling down when we try to impose Platonic categories onto these biblical texts. 

In the Bible, the Creator does not simply love souls, as Plato understood that and used that term. There is not a single verse that holds this point of view.  In the Bible, the Creator does not simply save souls either, as Plato understood and use that term. 

Rather in the Bible, the Creator becomes the Redeemer and he loves WHOLES.  In the Bible, the Creator becomes the Redeemer and does not save SOULS but WHOLES! If we mean by soul what the Psalms, Jesus and Paul mean by soul then God loves “souls” because souls are complete persons. God loves every thing about human beings.  He loves our bodies.  He loves our limbs. He loves us inside and outside.  Enfleshed Humans as WHOLES – not as mere souls – are created in the image of God.  The ministry of Jesus is completely consistent with this Hebraic understanding of human beings as a whole.  Jesus’s understanding of salvation, as presented in the Gospels, is incredibly anti-platonic.  The declaration of his ministry is the Year of Jubilee in Luke 4.16-19 (cf. 7.18-23) is manifestly physical in that it address people as wholes.  Note these examples in Luke …

When the Centurion’s servant was deathly ill, Jesus is called to “save” him (7.3)

When Jesus encounters the demoniac and restores him to wholeness, Luke says that Jesus “saved” him (8.36)

When Jesus went to the little girl who had died, he restores life to her body and Luke says that Jesus “saved” her (8.50)

When Paul speaks of salvation, or redemption, he speaks out of this Hebraic worldview.  Romans 8 completely deconstructs false understandings that lead to truncated ministries and half-gospels. Christians believe in resurrection of the body not that part of us gets to return to some whispy ethereal pagan bliss. Paul declares “we who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (8.23; cf. 8.11). 

The Gospel of God, the Gospel of Christ, embraces the complete human being not simply part of a human being. This is incredibly Good News.  The actual Gospel of Christ does save souls because in the Bible the word soul refers to living, breathing, flesh and blood people!

The Gospel addresses our souls because it address us as a whole.  The Gospel addressed withered hands because that was the need of a person. The Gospel addressed ostracized women with issues of blood because that was the need of a person. The Gospel addressed those who had no food to eat.  The Gospel addressed those who had not place to stay.  The Gospel addressed those who were left out because of their race and color.

The Gospel addressed souls because they are the whole in the flesh people – the objects of God’s unending infinite love.  When we embrace what the Bible actually says about the “soul” then suddenly our mandate to make a difference in our world is actually something the Gospel of Christ commands. 

Some well known preachers want to claim that Jesus and the New Testament “unhitched” themselves and their teachings from the Hebrew Bible and Judaism. That did not happen on the fundamental matter of “soul” and all that goes with it.  In fact when the New Testament is “unhitched” on this matter we have Gnosticism, not New Testament Christianity. 

The New Testament writers never abdicate to Plato.  The world Moses told us about, and the living beings God placed within it, is the same world and living beings God sent his Son to save …

I watch the ripples
change their size
but never leave the stream 
of warm impermanence
.” 

– David Bowie 

Christianity has always “changed.”  In fact Christianity has changed drastically over the centuries. Most change, over time, became accepted as “the” way. 

Almost universally these changes produced considerable controversy at the time, sometimes centuries of controversy. As time progressed however the change became the “norm” even forgetting that it was a change. Then the change became a sacred cow. Some historical examples. Some will probably disagree with some of the examples because they themselves have become simply “accepted.”

First, the content and contour of Scripture itself. In the second and third centuries AD, there was plenty of disagreement regarding the status of certain Christian books that are now universally, and without question, accepted. Among examples are the Shepherd of Hermas, Hebrews, Epistle of Barnabas, Revelation, 1 Clement, the Diatessaron, 2-3 John, 2 Peter, Gospel of Peter, and a few others.

Second, the introduction of chapters into books of Scripture. Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton (AD 1150-1228) introduced the system of chapters that western Christians are familiar with in the 13th century when he incorporated them into the Latin Vulgate. 

Third, the introduction of verses into the chapters in the books of Scripture. Robert Estienne, a printer, introduced verses into the Greek New Testament in 1551.

Fourth, the introduction of unleavened bread into communion. This innovation was directly connected with the first major division in Christianity that between the Roman Catholics and the Greek Orthodox. Most conservative, Evangelical Christians in North America are completely unaware of this historical change that produced centuries of bitter conflict between the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity.  For more on that arcane controversy see this link, The Bread on the Table: An Ancient Controversy that Changed the Supper.

Fifth, the introduction of hymnals in Christian worship. There was controversy over what should be in the hymnal as well. Many Christians thought that the only songs authorized for worship were from the book of Psalms and other portions of Scripture. Later it was the introduction of musical notation into the hymnals was also incredibly controversial. No song book in the Stone-CampbellMovement/Churches of Christ had “notes” until after the death of Alexander Campbell in 1866. Campbell thought instrumental music was more acceptable than notes. 

“ I would prefer to have an organ, or a fashionable choir as a means of my worshipthan the words of a hymn set to the notes of a tune on which to fix my eyes while engaged in the worship of God.” (Alexander Campbell, “The Christian Psalmist,” Millennial Harbinger [March 1847], 179)

Sixth, The publication of printed editions of the Bible. As a rule no one in the first 1500 years of Christianity owned a personal copy of “the Bible.” The Bible was encountered in a corporate context in worship. The Reformation certainly bears witness to the controversies here.

Seventh, the place of the Deuterocanonical/Apocryphal books. Before the Reformation there is no known manuscript Bible that does not include these books (i.e. Tobit, Judith, Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach, Maccabees, etc). There was plenty of discussion on both sides of the matter from the third century on (which just establishes the point being made here) but they were included in the manuscript Bibles regardless of the position accorded them in various Fathers. They were always used in worship and never regarded in the same fashion as Gnostic texts. During the Reformation, Luther rejected the canonical nature of them while affirming the high value of them.  He placed these books in his Bible and all Reformation Bibles followed suit by incorporating them between Malachi and Matthew. Then, when the British Foreign Bible Society decided to print Bibles without the Apocrypha it caused major division among Protestants (not Catholics).  Today most North American Evangelical disciples know nothing of these books. 

Eighth, the introduction of vernacular Bibles into English Christianity in the 19th and 20th century because if the KJV was good enough for Paul it is good enough for us (the KJV included the Apocrypha btw). The American Standard Version, Revised Standard, Today’s English Version, the NIV have all been greeted with bitter controversy and rejection.

Ninth, the introduction of Sunday School, something most churches today do not even think there can be church without them, was introduced after the Civil War into American churches and were the occasion of massive church fights and church splits.

Tenth, the introduction of individual communion cups, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, was accompanied by flares and burnouts and permanent ruptures in fellowship.

Eleven, exclusive congregational singing is a modern innovation that folks in my tribe think is the only way it has ever been done or can be done. Going biblical on this one can get you charged with change agentry!

C. S. Lewis once lamented those who imagine the world began with the dawn of their own consciousness. It didn’t. This little exercise can open our minds and, perhaps, be a little less judgmental.

For Shalom

I am frustrated. I admit it.

For many years I have felt that Churches of Christ as a whole have been moving forward biblically and Spiritually. The legalism that I grew up with in North Alabama seemed like it was dying. We talked about God’s astonishing grace more and confessed the role and power of the Holy Spirit in our lives. It seemed like many congregations were more racially  integrated than ever. And it seemed that we began to see the Gospels and Hebrew Bible as more integral to the faith and mission of the church than previously. Many of these positive steps forward were reflected in my own life.

Dispensationalism 

But recent events have shown me I may have been wrong in my perception. This is what I see:

While indeed there are many congregations and ministers who have moved to a healthier, more integrated, understanding of the whole Bible, and believe the Holy Spirit of God is active in the life of the church, and a retreat from legalism and sectarianism; there has been a corresponding hardening not only of former positions but taking up even more extreme ones than before.

Sadly the dispensational hermeneutic, we heirs of the Stone-Campbell Movement have inherited, remains parasitic on both “progressives” and “conservatives” in Churches of Christ. Many “out Campbell, Campbell,” on this. Yes, Alexander Campbell delivered his famous, or infamous, “Sermon on the Law” and essentially guts the authority of 76% of the Bible.  The Sermon had unintended consequences that Campbell would not endorse but even sought to steer us clear from. 

You see Campbell, in spite of his dispensationalism,  still believed the Hebrew Bible shaped and was foundational in every sense of the word for Christian theology. That is the doctrinal content of the “Old Testament” determines the shape and meaning of “New Testament” doctrine.  Campbell even states that his Sermon was his most juvenile effort. Campbell, unlike many of his descendants, did not reduce Christian doctrine to ecclesiology (especially its forms, structures and “identity marks” of the church). One gets a much better view of Campbell’s grasp of the sweep of the integrated scope of Scripture in his 1833 mini-biblical theology called “Regeneration.”

But today, the moment you say 2 Timothy 3.16  means the Hebrew Scriptures are good for doctrine some one replies “you are not satisfied with the Christian dispensation and the law of Christ.” OR they say “So when are you going to start offering animal sacrifices?” As if these retorts actually have merit. They are pure ignorance I am sorry to say.

Why you ask? Because it assumes that one comes to any text in the Bible across the massive historical gulf naked and immediately. The authority of the Hebrew Bible is not diminished because we must approach it hermeneutically.

These naysayers do the exact same to the New Testament, that is they interpret it. Not one of them comes to the NT a single subject without a hermeneutical grid, even if they deny it. There is no “one to one” correspondence. Not one of these folks, who make such quoted statements (actual ones btw), can dispute this.

Do these naysayers “share all things in common” (Acts 4.32-37)? Do they forbid speaking in tongues? Are they eager to prophecy? (1 Cor 14.39)? Do we gather in councils to decide what the will of God is (Acts 15)? Do they “enroll the widows?” (1 Tim 5.9ff). Do their elders anoint the sick with oil (James 5.14)? Do they contribute to the poor saints in Judea (Romans15.25-29; 1 Cor 16.1-2)? Do they make women wear veils in public worship (1 Cor11)? Do they break bread in homes daily (Acts 2.42)? Meet in the temple? (Acts2.46)? Do they lift up holy hands in prayer as was commanded (1 Tim 2.8)? Do they allow the preacher to appoint elders (Titus 1)? Do they greet each other with holy kisses? 

You see, not one of these folks practice these things that are “plainly” written the text. Whether good or bad hermeneutics, they INTERPRET these New Testament texts as not applying in the “literal” import of the language. So if this is true of the New Testament, why is it not true of the Hebrew Bible.

But such statements, as quoted, show graphically how little genuine reflection on the text is done. It is simpler to dismiss the text, than wrestle with the text. Simply because sacrifices are done in the Torah does not imply that we are to. Because Paul commands the Corinthians to aid the poor saints in Jerusalem does not mean that is a command to us. In truth Campbell’s views were far superior, and nuanced, than those that are paraded among his descendants. Campbell believed that even the very Greek of the New Testament had “the soul of Hebrew” because the Apostles were so in debt to the language and thinking of the Septuagint (see his Preface to the Living Oracles).

The Bible is a single, unified, narrative and one cannot simply cut off76%, and claim to respect 2 Timothy 3.16 … it is a game of deception called bait and switch. We bait you with this classic text that affirms the authority, not merely the divine origin of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Psalms, Isaiah, etc and then SWITCH its referent to something that did not even exist when the verse was penned – the New Testament. Oh then deny it actually affirms the genuine doctrinal authority of those very Scriptures Paul grew up with. Hermeneutically we can apply that text to the New Testament but Paul himselfdid not mean that.

The Gospels 

I have spoken mostly about Hebrew Bible above but the same dispensational extremes are being embraced about the Gospels themselves. The teaching of Jesus is not directly related to Christians because he lived before the “new covenant came into effect.” The Living Word is not directly applicable to how we do Christianity in this view.

Sounds like heresy just writing it out.

This view has so many things wrong with it that it would take a book to point them out. However one immediate problem is that it misses the point of why the Gospels exist in the first place. Many folks think the Gospels are something like evangelistic tracts. That is written to address nonbelievers to prove to them that Jesus is the Messiah. But that is not why the Gospels were written at all. The Gospels are written as instruction TO THE CHURCH. This is so obvious in Matthew, for example, that it boggles the mind that one can even entertain that false view.

Jesus once said “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to ME.” He did not say it was given to a book. How the book functions WITH the authority of Jesus we need to wrestle with.

Salvation by Precision Obedience 

Extremes are articulated and promoted that we did not have in the 80s. Salvation by “precision obedience” is just one example. This new doctrine was initially promoted around the end of the 1990s and has gained ground in some prominent corners of Churches of Christ.

This is pure false doctrine. The irony is beyond the pale. The purveyors of this view decry Martin Luther for “adding” to the text the word “only” so we are saved by “faith only” rather than just faith. These folks do not teach one must simply be “obedient” to God but but have inserted the word “precision” obedience.  

I cannot tell you how revolting this is. I am not objecting to the mere addition of the word “precision” but to the theology that affirms salvation is contingent upon laser like perfection. It is nothing but works salvation of the grossest sort. Not only is it the case that no text implies much less says, but it flat out contradicts the entire teaching of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation.

Faithfulness to God is not a claim to having fulfilled God’s commands “precisely.” I have no problem with singing “trust and obey” … simply trusting faith, yielding itself to the best of its ability to God is my sacrifice. The doctrine of salvation by Precision Obedience breeds sectarian arrogance and extremes. A few people whohold this view claim – unbelievably – to hold K. C. Moser in high esteem. I have read every known published and nearly everything Moser did not publish and can say that Moser would quickly brand this as a doctrine of hell. Just saying.

Women

More extremes. I have numerous brothers who have told me that women reading Scripture or serving communion in the assembly is not actually forbidden by Paul, even according to the traditional interpretation of 1 Cor 14.34-35 and 1 Tim 2.8-15. LaGard Smith has stated this both in print and lectures.  Yet these brothers then go on to forbid, and draw lines of fellowship over things they admit are not forbidden. Why?

Stop being so condescending to women brothers! If the Bible does not in fact forbid women from doing these things even according to your interpretation, then why in the name of reason would you have so little respect for the word of God that you forbid what you say Paul did not forbid? Get in the pulpit, get in the Spiritual Sword, get in the Gospel Advocate and write clearly and forcefully that our practice towards women is more restrictive than Paul commands. Write that women can and should be “allowed” to participate in the assembly beyond occupying space.  Be the place where “new creation” reigns! 

I used to be more tolerant than this until my own daughter (after this being explained to her btw) stated “don’t you think that is degrading?” The degradation was forbidding her what you yourself admit she is permitted to do! It is almost – not it is – a matter of integrity. If you hold the traditional view and you admit that it does not forbid women serving communion and yet you forbid it you are self-condemned. Matthew 23 is written all over that man made doctrine. But this is binding of what is admitted as not God’s word is among the extremes today.

Sectarianism is alive and well. I will tell you my own theory of why these brothers do not state clearly and forcefully what they admit … FEAR!! They are afraid. It is easier to succumb to the denominational pressure.

I lament the times. I also rejoice in the advances of God’s Spirit among us. Oh for the courage for Stone and Campbell …  

I could go on with my confession offrustration but my coffee is now gone … 

I wrote this on September 12 but have not published it.

Days of Remembrance are important to human identity. Yesterday was 9/11, a day of remembrance. I kept my mouth shut. But it was not because I forgot.

I remember where I was when Ronald Reagan was shot, when the Space Shuttle blew up, and that day on Sept 11.

In the Bible “memorial days” occur as well. God directed Israel to remember in worship festivals where the event was “reenacted.” Thus our ancestors in Israel remembered Passover, Tabernacles, Pentecost, Purim. These all memorialized what was wonderful: salvation by God’s gracious hesed. There was also Dedication/Hanukkah that Jesus remembered (Jn 10.22ff) which also points to the faithful grace of God.

But not all memorials were pleasant, or a celebration of God’s goodness, rather they were reminders of our faithlessness to God and neighbor. Thus the Day of Atonement recognized the ever present reality of human sin (and God’s costly remedy). Tisha B’Av confronts Israelites with the memory of the catastrophic hubris of sin. On this day, we remember the long history of wickedness, rebellion, sin, injustice that both we and our fathers and mothers have done. So deep is this ugliness that God resorted to destroying the Temple in Jerusalem in both 586 BC and AD 70.

Israel was not allowed to forget.

They remembered the astonishing grace of God every Sabbath, in pilgrim festivals, in their daily prayers. They were smothered in grace. They also had to remember what they would have like to forget, their culpability in Sin. They confessed their sin on the Day of Atonement and they remembered the horror of it on Tisha B’Av.

These memorials encompassed all of Israel. All Israel was delivered by God’s mighty hand. Likewise they all shared in the memorials of remembrance of our failure. No Israelite “escaped” … it was WE. It was me, my father and mother and grandmother and grandfather that sinned miserably before God and our neighbors.

In the modern world, especially America, we want to remember only certain things. September 11 was a horrific tragedy and I could never forget it even if I tried. But there are things that Americans have embraced amnesia over and swept under the rug.

If the history of Israel, Yahweh’s people, teaches us anything then we must remember both the Grace given and the need for grace (our arrogant rebellion against God in our treatment of fellow image bearers).

Remembering on the Day of Atonement or Tisha B’Av is not an exercise in self loathing. It becomes a moment where truth speaks, forgiveness is granted because grace is given when we face our failures rather than hide them. The memorial becomes a tool for saying “Never Again” will we walk down that path of self-destruction by rebelling against the will of God.

America could learn, and Christians must learn, a great deal from this. The memorials of Israel forced people to recognize the truth of who they were. They were not and never were at any single moment in history some paragon of virtue, righteousness, a superior people. Israel’s days of remembrance kept her from believing the lie humans continue to tell themselves: we are innocent, we are virtuous, we are free from the stain of guilt that shames others.

Israel is, rather, paradigmatic of the human race as a whole: arrogant, self-serving, rebellious, exploiting one another. It is by grace that we are who we are. This is what all the memorial festivals teach, preach, and proclaim.

So in America we remember 9/11 and December 7, rightly so. But why is it that we forget and get angry when the “Trail of Tears” is brought up? the American Holocaust is brought up? Or Wounded Knee? The lynching’s that peppered the “home of the free?”  or any number of less than flattering things?

Should we not remember them for the same reason that Israel was not allowed to forget the Day of Atonement or Tisha B’Av? Such memories humble us, chasten us, and make us “come clean” about ourselves, else we will pursue the sinful satanic lie that we are actually righteous and superior … and it is our dishonesty that allows us to continue to perpetuate such horrors. Self deception is confronted on a massive scale on the Day of Atonement and Tisha B’Av. We need forgiveness!

When we remember a check is placed on our participation in fallenness.  Remembering helps us to love our neighbor by being salt, light and leaven just as God has loved us.

So lets “remember” the whole story not part of it.

The Situation 

First  Corinthians 5 tells us how the apostle Paul handled certain matters related to church discipline. It is, in fact, the longest discussion of church discipline in the New Testament. Here we read the infamous tale of a believer having sexual relations with his father’s wife (5.1-2).  Paul does not mince words in this chapter. He pronounces a curse upon the offender in v.3 and finishes with “Drive out the wicked person from among you” (5.13).

What many Christians today do not realize is that Paul has applied the Law of Moses directly to the “church of God in Corinth.”  It will surprise many to learn that Paul’s entire response to Corinthians is grounded in the authority of the Hebrew Bible.  What does Paul do and why does he do this with the Corinthians? That is what we want to explore in this blog.

For Paul, the church discovers its identity only in relation to the sacred story of Israel recorded in the Scriptures. The Corinthians are one with the people of God, the same people located only at a different point on the timeline.  This is why the authority of Scripture for the Corinthians was simply unquestioned, see my Paul and the Unquestioned Authority of the ‘Old Testament.’

I. Israel was Created to be a Light to the Nations

God had promised Abram that through him all nations would be blessed (Gen 12.1-3).  The ultimate blessing was the Messiah but Israel’s role in the world was not limited to producing the Messiah.  Israel was to the world what the temple was to Israel, a city on a hill that could not be hid, a place where God’s will was supposed to be done on earth as in heaven – to show what a blessed experience it is to dwell in an Edenic relationship with the Creator God.  So Moses says,

See, just as the LORD my God has charged me, I now teach you statutes and ordinances for you to observe in the land that you are about to occupy. You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples; who, when they hear all these statues, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!’ For what other nation has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is whenever we call to him? And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?” (Deut 4.5-8).

Israel is, as a whole, God’s kingdom of priests on behalf of the world. Again what the Levites and sons of Aaron were to Israel, Israel was to the entire world.  They are holy and set apart. This theme is repeated in various was in the Psalms and the Prophets.

II. Paul Views the Corinthian Church as Israel (Gentiles no more

The first clue to Paul’s approach in 1 Cor 5 is that he assumes the Corinthians are now Israelites. This is of utmost importance.  Paul does not view his converts as Gentiles any more. This is not a rare theme in Paul’s writings but is routinely filtered out by moderns.  They are former gentiles who are now fellow citizens of Israel.   The term ethne in v.1 is translated in the NRSV and most contemporary versions as “pagans” but it is Paul’s normal word for “gentiles.” In 12.2, Paul says “WHEN you were ethne/When you were gentiles …” So NT scholar, Richard Hays, notes Paul “thinks of the Gentile converts at Corinth as Gentiles no longer.”  Paul tells Roman believers that they had been “grafted into the olive tree” thus becoming one with Israel (Rom 11.17).  In Ephesians the apostle tells the gentiles that

you [plural/gentiles] were at that time without Messiah, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (2.12)

But that is no longer the situation for gentile believers because “now” they have been brought “near.” Near what? everything they did not have before. “But you are no longer strangers and aliens, but now you [Gentiles] are citizens with the saints” (2.19).

We often fundamentally misunderstand Paul’s language that there is no longer any Jew, Greek, male and female.  These creational distinctions are not removed in Christ.  The stigma attached to them, however, is removed. What was once the basis of division in the fallen age has become to basis of celebration of God’s manifold wisdom in the sanctified diversity of creation (cf. Eph 3.7-13). Gentiles are not Jews but they are now “children of Abraham” and part of Israel and heirs to the covenants of promise.

The Corinthians are Gentile no more. They are Israelites. This is why Paul can claim that the Wilderness generation is indeed the ancestors of the Corinthian congregation (1 Cor 10).  This is why Paul calls the gentiles in Galatia the “Israel of God” (6.16).  Paul does not say “new Israel” or “spiritual Israel” but simply “Israel.” They are grafted by God into the Olive Tree. The church did not replace Israel rather gentiles became part of Israel (just as James indicates in Acts 15). This is fundamental to Paul’s approach to the Corinthians.

III. Cursed is Anyone 

In 1 Cor 5.2-5, the apostle uses some rather shocking language according to some modern believers. First, Paul rebukes Corinthian arrogance for tolerating this man’s behavior (Paul does not think they were being gracious or merciful to him).  They are “arrogant” because (as we shall see) Paul assumes they are in the holy Presence of God.  It takes some serious hubris to flaunt the Presence of God. Second Paul curses the offender (vv. 3-4), “I have already pronounced judgment.

This language by Paul is hardly shocking for any steeped in the language of Scripture, as both he and the Corinthians are (Paul’s numerous allusions to even technical matters of Scripture show the Corinthians knew the Bible).  Paul’s language comes straight out of the “holiness code” in Leviticus and Deuteronomy regarding the very situation at hand.

You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s wife …” (Lev 18.8)

You shall not have sexual relations with your kinsman’s wife …” (Lev 18.20)

But it is Deuteronomy that supplies the immediate words to Paul

Cursed be anyone who lies with his father’s wife, because he has violated his father’s rights” (Deut 27.20)

Paul imposes this covenantal curse upon the Corinthian church straight out of the Law of Moses. Paul’s directive to remove the offender bringing the curse upon him is from the Law because Paul believes the Corinthians are gentiles no more.

IV. Whole Community, Not Only the Offender

It has been noted by many that Paul does not merely condemn the offender with his curse. Paul condemns the entire community itself.  The whole community shares in this gross sin and offense to the Presence of God.  “You [plural] are arrogant!” Paul is not only a first century Jew steeped in the world of the Hebrew Bible, he is not an individualist like most American believers. Corporate responsibility is anathema in America.  But Paul is not an American.

So Paul is shaped by stories like Achan who brought guilt upon all Israel (Josh 5).  David numbering his mighty men and bringing suffering upon the entire nation (2 Sam 24).  Ezra mourning, confessing and praying over the sins of the entire people (Ezra 9.6-15; Neh 9) and Daniel who does the same (9.4ff).

But it is the community that is in danger not merely the perpetrator in Paul’s mind.  This is because the Corinthians are part of Israel.

IV. Holiness Code is Binding on the Corinthians

Centuries of reading Paul as the enemy of Judaism, and the destroyer of the Old Testament, has literally blinded Christians to the real Paul.  Our unfamiliarity with the “Old Testament” has enabled us to perpetuate myths regarding his teaching and practice. It may not be far from the mark to confess that we have, at times, fundamentally misread Paul. But Paul was at Jerusalem during that epic “council” meeting of elders with James and Peter.  That council clearly did not bind certain “ceremonial” aspects of the Law upon gentiles. However it also did bind certain aspects.  Those aspects come from the Holiness Code in Leviticus regarding the behavior of aliens that live among God’s people.  The rational for the whole is frequently ignored,

for [gar] Moses has been preached in every city on the sabbath for generations” (Acts 15.21)

The point in Acts is that the gentiles would know the ethical do’s and don’ts because they know Moses, who is proclaimed among them.  First Corinthians 5 shows Paul is in complete harmony with the Jerusalem Council.  Leviticus states clearly that the community as a whole is in danger when blatant evil is allowed to dwell in the midst of God’s people. In fact the offender is to be “cut off from the people” otherwise the land will “vomit out” the people from the promised land (which eventually happened), Leviticus 18.24-30.  Paul’s concern for the community as a whole and his directive is based on the Hebrew Bible and the Holiness Code.

VI. Core of Israel’s Story 

Suddenly Paul makes a move that makes no sense to moderns.  He “out of the blue” brings up an extremely technical point about the Passover Feast (5.6-8).  But we need to remember two things, Paul believes the Corinthians are gentiles no more and he believes the entire community is in danger.  Since the Corinthians are not gentiles but now part of Israel, the Exodus is part of their story.  Clearly Paul, or Crispus, has taught the Corinthians the ins and outs of the mechanics of the celebration of the Passover else the paragraph is meaningless to them.

The Passover tells the central story of God’s redemptive grace to create a people within the rebellious world. While Passover involves sacrifice, it is not a sacrifice of atonement. Passover tells of deliverance and ownership. Passover tells of divine protection and distinctiveness. As 1 Corinthians 10 makes clear these Corinthians, former gentiles, are now in the historical line of that generation that experienced the Exodus and the Passover of God. Paul places the Corinthians in the very core of Israel’s story.

This is why they must remove the unclean leaven of gross immorality from their midst. Paul calls them to celebrate the festival which cannot be done with the offender among them.

VII. Back to Deuteronomy: Expel the Wicked 

Paul closes his discussion of discipline by reminding the Corinthians of a previous letter (5.9) and with a list of vices that will not inherit the kingdom of God (5.9-13).  Paul’s directives are not toward nonbelievers but only those who are now the church of God. The Corinthians are distinct from the world but they are not isolated from the world.

For many years, because I too shared in the malady of not knowing my Hebrew Bible, I did not recognize Paul was applying Moses to the Corinthians (remember James said “for Moses is preached”). I did not even know that Paul explicitly quotes the Law in this passage. Paul’s vice list comes straight out of Deuteronomy.  They are:

Immorality (Deut 22.21-22, 30)
Greed (paired with robbers in Corinthians)
Idolatry (Deut 13.1-5; 17.2-7)
Reviler (Deut 19.16-19)
Drunkenness (Deut 21.18-21)
Robber (Deut 24.7, LXX uses “kleptes” for thief)

This is the outline found in Deuteronomy, except for the sexual immorality which Paul places at the beginning because that is the matter at hand.   At the end of this list, that comes from Deuteronomy, Paul quotes Deuteronomy 17.7 from the version the Corinthians would know, the Septuagint.

“Expel the evil person from among you [plural]” (1 Cor 5.13).

Paul’s entire discussion has been grounded in the Hebrew Bible and it culminates in a direct and immediate application of the Law to the Corinthians, “Expel the wickedness.” Richard Hays in his great book Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, notes,

“Paul could have written, ‘Just as Moses commanded Israel to drive out the evil person, so you too should practice church discipline … But he did not write in this way. The scriptural command is treated as a self-evidently valid word addressed immediately to these Gentiles” (p. 97).

Summary 

Paul’s approach to the Corinthians is grounded in the assumption that his gentile converts are now Israelites, the sons and daughters of Abraham.  He approaches them as if they are part of the covenant and amenable to the covenant standards of holiness.  Paul’s curse on the man is straight out of Leviticus and Deuteronomy and applies to the man because of the covenant.  Paul’s holding the entire church accountable is also rooted in his firm belief that the Corinthian church is now part of Israel.  They must as a whole break off from association from this person because he has brought pollution into the entire assembly. After taking the Corinthians through a condensed list from his former letter (which may have been instruction in the ethics of the Law) he quotes Deuteronomy to them, “expel the wicked.”  They are to do what Paul has already done in verses 3 and 4. The goal is the salvation of both the individual and the holiness of the Gathered People who are in the Presence of God.

First Corinthians 5 is highly instructive. It destroys the claims that Paul never applied “Old Testament” commands, standards and ethics to Christians in his letters.  Instead we see, once again, that for Paul his gentile converts are now part of God’s renewed Israel which stands together in the Presence of the Creator bringing praises to God’s name (cf. Rom 15.76-13).

First Corinthians 5 shows us, as well as anywhere, what Paul means in 2 Timothy 3.15-17.  The Scriptures of Israel are good for doctrine, good for teaching, instruction in righteousness and equipping the people of God for the life of faith in relationship to God.

Resources for this Blog

G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament

Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians 

Richard B. Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul

Richard Oster, First Corinthians 

Approaching Friday’s Psalm

Continuing our series on the Psalms of the Week, we arrive at the psalm “for the day before the Sabbath when the earth was [first] inhabited” (LXX).  Both the Septuagint (LXX) and Mishnah inform us that Psalm 93 held a special place in the Temple’s liturgy every Friday.  And as we have seen, pious Jews in the Second Temple Period (and to this day) followed this Spiritual rhythm in their life. This cluster of psalms, 92-94, was inculcated into the world of the faithful every week.

There are also significant connections between Psalm 93 and Psalm 24, the psalm for the first day of the week (see my Psalm 24: Palm for the First Day of the Week).  Psalm 24 speaks of God in creation and Psalm 93 speaks of Yahweh’s reign over creation. Both psalms speak of the waters/seas of chaos. Both psalms testify to Yahweh’s power in the face of the waters. Both psalms take us to the Temple and the sanctity of the house of God. Thus first day (Sunday) and the day before the Sabbath (Friday, last day of actual creation) are theologically connected in the worship of the Temple and the life of the Jews of Jesus’s day.

Psalm 93 on Friday, Psalm 92 on the Sabbath, Psalm 94 on Wednesday.  Psalm 93 may be outlined as follows: v.1a; vv.1b-2; vv.3-4; v.5. We can translate the psalm as follows.

Yahweh is King,

He is robed in grandeur/majesty
Yahweh is robed, 
He is girded/belted with strength.
The world stands firm;
it cannot be shaken.
Your throne stands firm from of old;
from everlasting You have been.

The seas roar, O Yahweh,
the sea roars its thunder,
the sea roars with pounding. 
Above the thunder of the mighty waters,
more powerful/majestic than the waves of the sea
is Yahweh on high.

Your decrees are utterly sure,
holiness beautifies your house,
O Yahweh, for all times.

Yahweh is King (93.1a)

The kingship of Yahweh is a central theme in the Psalter (see my The Psalms, the Reign of God, and Jesus the Messiah). When the Gospels report that Jesus proclaimed “the good news of  the kingdom of God” (Mk 1.14) no one ever stopped him and asked, “what is the kingdom of God?” Jesus did not invent something new and every Jew was intimately familiar with God’s reign (the phrase “kingdom of God” is better translated into English as “reign of God.”)  They knew the kingship of God from the Hebrew Bible and the Psalms especially.

Yahweh is King is the essential declaration of Psalm 93, everything else in the Psalm is explaining what that means to the Israelite.  In Psalm 93.5, Israelites sang “the LORD is a great God, and a great King above all gods.” In Psalm 96.10, Jesus and pious Jews would sing, “Say among the nations, “Yahweh is King!” In Psalm 99, there rose from the Temple the acclamation “The LORD is King, let the nations tremble,” Why? because he is a “Mighty King, lover of justice” (99.4).

It was while worshiping in the Temple, around 742 BC, that Isaiah, encountered the Great King. There he saw what Psalm 93 confesses. He saw Israel’s true King in majestic glory, attended to by the seraphs as they praised the God of Israel, “holy, holy, holy … the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isa 6.3). Without a word uttered from the King, without a sentence from the seraphs, all it took was a glimpse of Majesty and Isaiah was crushed with the knowledge of his uncleanness. “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips and I am among a people of unclean lips, yet my eyes have seen the KING, the LORD of hosts.”

Yahweh is King.  But what is the significance of this according to Psalm 93.  That is what the rest of the psalm has the pious Jew confessing to this day … we Christians too.

God’s Clothing (93.1b-2)

The Hebrew Bible is remarkable hesitant to give any “description” of God. Interestingly we do not find any description of Jesus either.  The psalm says that Yahweh is robed, or clothed, in majesty and girded in strength. In Psalm 104.1, the Creator God’s majesty is said to consist of Yahweh’s being “wrapped in light.” In Psalm 27, worshipers gather in the Temple with only one request of God, “to behold the beauty of the LORD and to meditate” (v.4), perhaps this is what Isaiah was doing when God granted his prayer. The apostle Paul, student of the Psalter he was, says the same that God “dwells in unapproachable light” (1 Tim 6.16).

Majesty, glory, beauty are all words that are struggling to convey the experience of seeing the King. But words cannot convey an experience that even angel eyes cannot behold. The King is glory majesty itself.

But the King is “belted” or “girded” in strength. As Psalm 24.8 notes (the Sunday psalm) God is “strong and mighty … mighty in battle.” To say that the King is girded in strength is to confess that the God of Israel is all powerful.  As we shall see this is directly connected to the sea/waters motif in verses 3-4.  But God, the King, is a Warrior on behalf of the creation established by his throne.

It is precisely because the King has strength that the world is held firm. The language of “the world stands firm” (or as the NRSV renders it, ‘He has established the world‘) is not so much about the initial creation of the world as the ongoing working of the world.  It is because of language like this (and from other places like Wisdom of Solomon) that Hebrews can say that Jesus “sustains” the universe (1.3). God is King indeed because he created the world (Ps 24) but the King did not create and then abandon it as if Yahweh was a deist (see Psalm 104 where God’s intimate hands on approach to creation is gratefully sang).  There are cosmic forces that are enemies of the King. But the King is not only majestic but powerful enough to handle the threats to his kingdom.

The Sea, Threatening Enemy of God’s Kingdom (93.3-4) 

Psalm 93.3-4 are apt to be confusing to we moderns precisely because there is a considerable historical gulf between the social world of the text and ourselves.  The seas/waters in the ancient world of Israel were more than mere water that quenches thirst. They were the symbols the unpredictable, and extremely destructive, forces of chaos that could wipe out life as we know it.  Even in our modern scientific world the power of the sea/water can bring terror to us.  Witnessing the unpredictable flood that comes through a wash in Arizona can shake one to the core of her being. Watch the sea coming in as a tsunami is horrifying. Rain after the forest fire can (and does) produce “flash floods” of terrifyingly destructive power.

In the world that Israel lived, these forces had a name, Yamm. Yamm was a malevolent god. It is not without significance that the very word used for seas/waters in the Hebrew Bible, including here in Psalm 93, is the word yam.  Thanks to the discovery of the Baal Cycle tablets at Ugarit in 1929 and following years we have lots of information on what people thought of Yamm.  The story of Baal and the war with Yamm was told every year and was an integral part of Canaanite mythology (we must recall that they did not believe it was mythology).  According to the story, Baal has taken refuge upon the mountain of god.  Yamm dares to attack the mountain of god to get him.

Yamm the Sea

Yamm the Sea sends messengers to the divine assembly,
Nahar the River dispatches envoys to the Holy Ones … 
They depart at once,
They do not delay.
They head straight to the Mountain of El (God),
They go directly to the divine assembly …
Baal stands beside El … 

The “holy ones” that form the court of the high god El are in sheer terror of the coming of Yamm.  They react like humans to this day do in the face of the rushing wall of water that forms a tsunami. They panic! So the story says they “bury their heads on their knees” and “hide their faces in the cushions” on their couches.

Yamm demands that El “must stop protecting Baal … Surrender Baal and his followers.

El, the high god, is himself powerless to stop Yamm.  High god or not, the power of the chaotic water was more powerful than El. El decides to hand Baal over to Yamm else his holy mountain suffer from the mighty waters.

There follows a great war between Baal (who will not give himself up without a fight) and Yamm the Sea.  He is given a great battle-ax. But “Yamm is too strong … He does not waver.” But the battle is not over.  Baal has another battle-ax with the name “Expeller” that is mighty. And Baal overcomes the Sea and “expels” the threatening flood from the mountain of god. (Quotations from Victor H. Matthews and Don C. Benjamen, Old Testament Parallels: Laws and Stories from the Ancient Near East, 3rd Edition, pp. 267-269).

Yamm is the name the ancient inhabitants at Ugarit and Canaan gave to the cosmic force that threatened continuing existence of life in the world.  The biblical authors are fully aware that there are powers in this universe that refuse to submit to the King.  They attack the King by attacking the creation … his kingdom!

But Psalm 93 says that Yahweh is belted with strength! What El was not able to do (he surrendered Baal and his followers), Yahweh the King does not surrender us to the forces of cosmic rebellion. El cannot protect but Yahweh can and does.  And the biblical claim is that it is not Baal that ultimately turns the Tide back, it is the King who is seated on the throne in the Temple.

Yahweh is “more majestic/powerful than the waves of Yam is Yahweh on high!” Because Yahweh the King is majestic and strong the world is not threatened even by Yamm. Psalm 93 is the ancient version of the commercial, “Creation in good hands because Yahweh is King.” The world is stable. Life can flourish. The floods are in fact frightening but Yahweh draws a line in the sand (so to speak) that waters cannot pass.  Yahweh is invulnerable.

The King’s Decrees Keep the Kingdom (93.5)

The Temple is the place where God’s space and human space interlock. It is like a button that is sowed on one piece of material and slips through another piece of material to be on top of the joined material. The Temple is the button of God’s space within the created order.  It is the palace of Yahweh the King. It is the “Oval Office” where the universe is run. This is why the Hebrew Bible quite literally sees the Temple/Zion/Jerusalem as the center of the world.  What follows in v.5 is debated among scholars some even thinking it is a much later attachment to the psalm itself because they do not see how the sudden references to “testimonies/decrees” connects.

But I think v.5 flows quite naturally from the psalm.  A weak king cannot govern his kingdom.  El’s decrees were not sure, there was not safety in them.  Even the very presence of El did not ensure the safety of even Baal! But decree of a powerful king is an extension of the power of the King himself. They are as powerful and effective as the One on the throne.  Sovereignty intrinsically assures the stability and welfare of the realm of the King. Unlike some limited potentate whose decrees may die with him, Yahweh’s decrees are sure … which we can translate as “enduring.” The glorious King has provided direction for the citizens of the kingdom to thrive.  Through the decrees we experience the King’s reign, stability and full life.

God’s house, the Temple, is the place where we come to beautified in holiness. It is as if some of God’s own beauty “rubs off” on those seeking audience with the King of Glory.

Wrapping Up

Psalm 93 reminds Jews in Jesus day, and Christians today, that Yahweh is Sovereign. On the “day before the Sabbath” in which God “rested,” we are reminded that the Creator does not simply create but sustains, protects, and battles the forces that would threaten that creation.  The universe is safe, it is in good hands, because Yahweh is on the Throne in the Temple. We trust in the King and remain faithful to the King by organizing our lives in accordance with the testimonies of the realm.  On this day we say in the face of Yamm, in the face of the forces of evil, in the face of those who would rip our worlds apart: We are more than conquerors because …

YHWH MALAK … Yahweh is King

Pray Psalm 93 every Friday

Orientation to Sabbath in Psalm 92

We continue our series on the Psalms of Week.  In this blog we examine the psalm sung in the Temple, and meditated on by all pious Jews, on the Sabbath. Psalm 92.

Christians in general, Evangelicals/Restorationists in particular, have suffered from serious prejudicial views regarding “sabbath.” These prejudices are rooted in centuries of caricature following the biblical period but have virtually nothing to do with what either the Hebrew Bible, or “New Testament,” teaches about the meaning of the Sabbath day. Sabbath is equated with all manner of supposed Old Testament legalism that, “thank God Jesus nailed to the cross!” But we need to be careful not to import things into the Bible but rather we need to read things out of the Bible that are actually there.

Psalm 92, what the Prophet Anna, Mary, Jesus, Paul, the Hebrews Preacher and Jews in general sang every Saturday, gives us in a nutshell what shabbat is all about. The themes are:

1) Thanksgiving
2) Celebration of God’s creation
3) Exaltation of Yahweh’s steadfast love/HESED
4) God defeats the enemies
5) God’s people flourish in his Presence

These themes are the heartbeat of Sabbath as experienced by Jews in Jesus’s day. Sabbath has two poles in the Bible: In Love God created the good and beautiful world and In Love Yahweh redeemed us from certain death in slavery. The North Pole of Creation is found in Genesis 2.1-3 and Exodus 20.8-11. The South Pole is found in Deuteronomy 5.12-15. Every text on the Sabbath in the Bible is on the spectrum between these two poles.

North Pole = In Love God Created

Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy … For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.” (Exodus 20.7-11)

South Pole = In Love Yahweh Redeemed

Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy … Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.” (Deuteronomy 5.12-15)

Basking in Love that Creates 

Psalm 92 brings the pilgrim in the Temple, or the faithful Jew in the synagogue in Galilee or Diaspora, to the themes listed above. The Psalm is divided in three “stanzas” which consist of essentially verses 1-4; verses 5-9; and verses 10-15.

The psalm opens with confession and evokes creation in Genesis 1 (sabbath itself evokes creation). The confession is that it is “good” to praise or give thanksgiving. The word “good” could mean “rightness” or “appropriate.” But in this context the word seems to mean “it is pleasant” or “it feels good” as in Ps 147.1. Of course this may be a false dichotomy. But on the Sabbath day, Israel (and all biblical readers) are reminded that, in light of what God has done, it is pure joy to praise the Lord. Joy is the characteristic “mood” of sabbath observance in all Jewish places of civilization.

To praise Yahweh is to brag about and exalt his Hesed, God’s steadfast love. Israel believed, correctly, that Yahweh did not create the world merely because he was powerful enough to do it. God created because of love. Psalm 136.1-9 thunders over and over (9x in 9 verses) that each act of creation was Hesed.

O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good,
for his hesed endures forever … (3x)
Who alone does great wonders,
for his hesed endures forever;
who by his wisdom made the heavens,
for his hesed endures forever;
who spread out the earth on the waters,
for his hesed endures forever;
who made the great light
for his hesed endures forever;
the sun to rule over the day,
for his hesed endures forever;
the moon and the stars to rule the night,
for his hesed endures forever.
(Psalm 136.1-9)

The Lyre of Megiddo unearthed in Israel dates to the age of King David. After years of studying the instrument, ancient music scholar, Peter Pringle reconstructed an exact replica. We can now listen to the music of the ten stringed lyre and enjoy its beauty as did David and the Lord.

So on Saturday’s, even today, it is “good” to talk up the love of God that surrounds us and gives us our very existence. When we see the flowers, we see love. When we see the bees, we see love. When we see the sun, the moon, the stars, we see love. When we see people created in God’s image, we see love.  Indeed when we are out under the zenith of the night sky, it is then we have some inkling of the infinite vastness of the hesed of God proclaimed in creation (cf. Psalm 103.11-12). God is the Master Artisan and creation is the “works of your hands,” (92.4) which cause God’s people to sing for joy. Beauty elicits awe, joy and praise.

So much joy in fact that God’s people grabbed lute’s, the ten-stringed harps and lyre’s they burst into praise. In fact they literally “play to your name, Most High” (92.2). (In the Septuagint of 92.2 we have the word psallo that Paul uses in Ephesians 5.19).

Enemies of God, the Joyless Ones

In Psalm 92. 8-9 there is a sudden shift. God’s people celebrate God, God’s love, and are in awe of God’s “works” in creation. One this day recalling the goodness of creation from the Master Artisan, the joyful refrain rises “how great are your works, O LORD! Your thoughts are very deep!” (v.5).  But the enemies of God, called “brutish” or “only someone who is a beast” or even “stupid” (NRSV)  are not in awe and refuse to join in the praise of Yahweh. These people, contrary to God’s redeemed people, fail to have eyes to see and ears to hear (note the contrast in v.11). These blind people, in a manner reminiscent of Ps 1, are fast growing and temporary like grass or weeds. They pass quickly. Often their only legacy in the world is the suffering they have left behind.

It is sad testimony indeed that we find Christians even today who are not enchanted by the created world that surrounds us. They view the world through utilitarian rather than doxological eyes. Psalm 92, meditated on the Sabbath day, inoculated God’s people from such astigmatism.

The Righteous, Those who Love God’s Works and Deeds

In Psalm 92. 12-15 we encounter those who see God’s glory in creation and who praise with gusto, Yahweh’s love (one can not overemphasize God’s love).

The righteous flourish like the palm tree,
and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.
They are planted in the house of the LORD;
they flourish in the courts of our God.
In old age they still produce fruit;
they are always green and full of sap,
showing that the LORD is upright;
he is my Rock, and there is no
unrighteousness in him.”

Date Palms in Israel. They grow to be 80 ft and can live between 200-300 yrs

These are the “righteous.” Righteous does not, either here nor anywhere else, in the Hebrew Bible mean sinless. It is not a claim to perfection (cf. Ps 119. 1, 176). It is simply a claim of love (I love you God) and a claim of faithfulness (I will serve you God). It is a relationship term. Husbands and wives, by the millions, can be (and are) faithful without being either perfect or flawless.

The righteous, those delighting in the joyful praise of God’s works and love are quite different from the brutish naysayers in verses 6-9. Again reminiscent of Psalm 1, they are like trees. The trees here are the date palm and the cedars of Lebanon. Date palms grow 70 to 80 feet and live over 200 years. While the cedars of Lebanon grow over 115ft in height but whose trunks range from 39 to nearly 50 ft in diameter and still produce fruit at estimated ages of 3000 years. God’s people remain vital “forever” essentially.

The image of the tree planted in the Temple also evokes creation. Humans lived in God’s presence in the Garden. Note all the trees and flowers carved into the sanctuary of the temple (1 Kgs 6.29-36). Those lost in the wondrous praise of God for his Sabbath work, are brought back to the Garden, living in the very Presence of God.

Thus Psalm 92 reminds God’s people of God’s love shown in creation but, on the Sabbath day, draws them, like Adam and Eve, back into the very Presence of God.  It is reminding us where we came from and pointing to where we are going. That is both the hope and the prayer of God’s people.

The Sabbath Psalm in the New Testament 

In the New Testament, the Hebrews Preacher does not disparage the Sabbath. Rather “sabbath rest” remains for God’s people (Hebrews 4.1-13). The Preacher imparts a theology that is very much in line with the outlook of Psalm 92, the “eschatological” dimension. The goal of the Sabbath has not yet been reached. It will be reached when God’s people are planted like trees in the very Presence of God. So the Preacher says Sabbath rest is something even Jesus Followers yet anticipate and look forward to. This is both future for the congregation in Hebrews 4 and for ourselves. It is something we look forward to … in the Presence of God. We long for the world that shabbat reminds us of: a world of joy, a world of faithfulness, a world of filled with love.

Cedars of Lebanon can be over 45 ft in diameter and over 3000 years. And still bear fruit.

Finally in the last book of the New Testament we find, interestingly, the saints in God’s Presence grab their harps as they are about to sing the Song of Moses and the Lamb, and the first line is a word for word quotation from Psalm 92.5,

Great and amazing are your works …” (Rev 15.3)

This statement follows the description John sees of the saints with “harps in their hands” which is the previous verse in Psalm 92, of making music to the name with the ten stringed harp and lyre (92.3). The righteous are indeed in the Presence of the Lord singing with bursts of joyful song. The Sabbath Psalm has been incorporated into John’s vision as if to say, what we have been singing for centuries has come to pass!

Final Thoughts

Psalm 92 is a wonderful text. Jesus sang it regularly. It reminds us, with it being assigned to the Sabbath, not only where the world came from (the love of God) but also points to where the world is going. Psalm 92, meditated upon on the Sabbath day, tells us God is restoring his communion with creation and we will live with him in his Presence.

Now a word to potential critics. This post does not advocate or bind a literal observance of the Sabbath on anyone. All are free to do so if they choose, however (Romans 14). Paul and the Jerusalem Church continued to honor the Sabbath day as Acts makes abundantly clear.

This post is simply a look at Psalm 92 and reminds us of what the Bible teaches about the meaning of Shabbat. That meaning is important to the whole Bible and it behooves us to grasp its significance.  And we need to recognize that the NT teaches that the Sabbath rest is the hope for all God’s People even today.

Creation.
Love.
Joy.
Living in the Presence of God.

Meditating on Psalm 92 on the Sabbath reminds that everything begins in and will end in divine love. I think we all need to be reminded of these things regularly.

Why not read Psalm 92 today … and every Saturday.

Shalom.

Daily Psalms

In the time of Jesus select Psalms were incorporated into Temple worship on a daily and weekly basis. These Psalms permeated the world of the average pious Jews life. They are:

Sunday, Jews sang Psalm 24
Monday, Jews sang Psalm 48
Tuesday, Jews sang Psalm 82
Wednesday, Jews sang Psalm 94
Thursday, Jews sang Psalm 81
Friday, Jews sang Psalm 93
Sabbath, Jews sang Psalm 92

Each of these Psalms are powerful. Jesus would have shared in this normal routine in a pious Jewish home in Nazareth. I encourage you to memorize them and (even if you do not read thru the Psalms each month) to join in Jesus’s day in remembering these Psalms on the days they were used.

Weekly Renewal: Praise

Thursday’s Psalm was 81. In ancient Israel, Psalm 81 was used in festival worship. It was used not only on Thursday but during the Feast of Tabernacles.

Psalm 84 has the flavor of covenant renewal much like Joshua 24. Israel’s festivals were times of remembering God’s Story of Grace and reaffirming our exclusive loyalty to him. Tabernacles is probably the specific festival under consideration in the original historical context (reference to the new and full moon in v.3 supports this).

The Psalm begins with a call to worship (vv 1-5). The Shofar is blown. The harps. The lyre. The festival, its praise in song and music, is a direct command of God from the time of Exodus (vv 4-5).

Sing aloud to God our strength;
shout for joy to the God of Jacob.
Raise a song, sound the tambourine,
the sweet lyre with the harp.
Blow the shofar at the new moon,
at the full moon, on our festal day.
For it is a stature for Israel,
an ordinance of the God of Jacob.
He made it a decree in Joseph,
when he went out over the land of Egypt.
(81.1-5)

Praise is a direct response to the wonder of Yahweh’s saving grace. Grace demands thanksgiving. On Thursday’s we are reminded of “joy factor” in being God’s people. Joy is a defining characteristic of biblical faith. Why? Because he saved us!

Images of Jesus, and the early church, grabbing a tambourine, shouting joyfully with the harps and trumpets, every Thursday may be the medicine some disciples need.

Weekly Renewal: Exhortation 

But worship in Psalm 81 is not only praise, it is preaching. Suddenly in v.6 there is a radical shift. We have, for the rest of the Psalm, first person speech (“I”) addressing the congregation of worshipers. This is the voice of Yahweh speaking to the Gathered People of God thru the priest. It is a divine sermon (direct divine speech is not infrequent in the Psalms). Yahweh testifies to hearing the cry of the suffering “nobodies” (the slaves) which Exodus 2.23f tells us.

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

The Exodus was God’s response to the cry of the oppression of the alien (Israel was an alien in Egypt), the powerless, the weak.

God, speaking thru the priest (just as he did the prophets), begins by reminding Israel of the Story. Reminding is necessary. Sometimes God’s people do enjoy the singing and the dancing but we forget the reason why we are are singing and dancing.  We may even say “we have been saved” but forget what salvation is.  So on Thursday’s as Jesus and other Jews found themselves in the temple, the Psalm reminded them of what salvation was really about.

They were Slaves.
They were burdened.
They were nobodies.
They were experiencing state sponsored terrorism against them.
Their baby boys were slaughtered.

On Thursday’s we are reminded what life is like without God’s salvation, a life of pain and injustice.

On Thursday’s we are reminded what life is like with God’s salvation, “I rescued you. I have set you free.

The apostle Paul is not the first one to announce that “it is for freedom that you have been set free.” This is the message of the Exodus from the beginning. God sets captives free by his grace.

God is the Redeemer.
God is the Liberator.

God is the One that responds to those who cry to him. The verses 6-7 recall Exodus 1 -15.

I hear the voice I had not known:
I relieved your shoulders of the burden;
your hands were freed from the basket.
In distress you called, 
and I rescued you;
I answered you in the secret place of thunder;
I tested you at the waters of Meribah
(81.6-7)

Renewal

God is faithful. But God’s people usually are not faithful for very long at all. So God says “Hear, O my people” (v.8) and the rest of the Psalm is a plea for God’s people to “listen” (vv.8, 11, 13). The problem is that God’s people have listened to other gods. Our Story is that our God has saved us from slavery and that he would feed us (v.10). The false gods do not listen to us nor do they save us in our need. But … sadly that word is there … “my people did not listen to my voice” (v.11).  Attending the festival, showing up on Thursday’s at the temple, never missing “church,” does not mean we are listening to God’s voice.

Sometimes God’s people love the songs more than they love God.
Sometimes God’s people love the “acts of worship” more than they love God.
Sometimes God’s people love the Bible more than they love the God of the Bible.
Sometimes God’s people worship the idols of church, sound doctrine, and even faithfulness rather than the God who submits to none of our inferences, opinions, or notions.

On Thursday’s Psalm 81 confronts every serious religious person with the question, “do I love God or do I love things about God.” We are invited to refocus our commitment to God himself as Supreme above even our religion.  We must hear his voice.

God’s Lament 

In verse 13ff we see the yearning of God himself for his people. It is divine desire.

O that my people would listen to me;
Israel would not submit to me

If they did they would have the great blessings of the covenant of love. And we encounter that awesome promise

I would feed you with the finest of wheat
and with honey the rock I would satisfy you
” (v.16)

Clearly a reminder of the manna of heaven. Israel has it made.

I Choose You

Do we see what the call to worship and God’s sermon has done? In the festival, and in coming to the Temple on a Thursday, the Israelite is, in effect, brought back to Mt Sinai. He/she is confronted yet again with the decision of being God’s people. In the words of Joshua 24, “choose you this day.” At Sinai, we read,

Moses came and told the people all the words of the LORD and all the ordinances; and all the people answered  with one voice and said, ‘All the words that the LORD has spoken we will do …” (Ex 24.3)

But God’s people didn’t. They shattered the covenant of love in a gross display of cheating on their Savior within just mere days of the “wedding.” The Golden Calf.

Psalm 81 comes to us each Thursday.  We are given the gracious opportunity to renew the covenant by affirming that we, each of us, have considered the Story of Salvation (note that God mentions his salvation acts before he mentions any commands – Exodus comes before Sinai) and we have decided to respond to Him. We get to say that we love GOD not just worship. We love God not just religion.  We love God not just the salvation God grants.  We love God above all things. (We have heard his voice). We say to our Abba, “I choose you!”

Thus in Jesus’ day, on Thursday, the faithful Jew is confronted with the choice he or she must make. We will keep the “festival!!” We will be on the Lord’s side. When Jesus was in the Temple on a Thursday he himself lifted his voice to the One with the Levites and their Shofars and Lyres and sing … and (can you see it) reaffirm his own faith and obedience to the Father. Jesus heard the voice … died on the cross. Can you see it?  I can.

Shalom.

Tuesday’s Psalm

This is our second installment in our series on the Psalms for the Days of the Week.  Before Jesus was born specific psalms had been assigned to days of the week in the temple. Worshipers coming to God’s house would hear and sing these psalms. Pious Jews integrated them into the daily rhythms of their lives. See my blog Psalms and the Temple: What Jesus and the Early Way Experienced for a complete listing of the daily psalms and how the psalms were integrated into temple worship.

Pious Jews, like Jesus’s family, adopted the rhythm of the temple in their daily lives. These psalms became reminders of what life before God was all about.  It was true then, as it is now, that God’s people often sing a better gospel than they believe and live. But by looking at these psalms we come closer to the world in which Jesus himself grew in “wisdom and favor” as Luke tells us plainly (Lk 2.40, 52).

The Tuesday Psalm, Ps 82. Unlike Lynyrd Skynyrd who sang “Tuesdays gone with the wind,” a song proclaiming the singer’s faithlessness as he is leaving his woman behind. our Tuesday psalm calls us to faithfulness.

Save the Weak 

In Jesus’s day, on Tuesday’s, pilgrims would be challenge with the fundamental principles of the kingdom of God: justice for the marginalized in our world. As they approach with their sacrifices in honor of their vows (like Paul in Acts 21.17-27) or of thanksgiving or atonement they would here the words ringing in the Temple,

Save the weak and the orphans;
do justice for the poor and the needy.
Set the needy and suffering free;
save them from the hand of the wicked
(82.3-4, my translation)

Here is the central charge of Yahweh to the rulers, the judges, the people. You are placed here in this age for a reason, to save the weak. To practice justice, mercy and faithfulness. To live the foundational core values of God’s own throne. Tuesday’s psalm brought the Israelite face to face with the heart of the matter.

Psalm 82 begins by telling us that God takes his place among “the assembly.” In the cultures that surrounded ancient Israel, it was believed that there was a “council of the gods.” This is reflected in Baal’s mythology but is seen in Greek mythology with Zeus and the gods of Olympus and in most pagan systems. In the ancient world these “gods” were supposed to ensure the practice of justice and mercy on Earth. But it is plain this does not happen. So in Psalm 82, Israel’s God has entered into their midst and decreed the “death of the gods” (v.7).

Also in Israel, it was believed that the divine sphere (God’s space) and the human sphere overlapped. This is often called “sacred space.” In Psalm 82 this means that what is happening in the divine sphere is mirrored in the human sphere.

In the human sphere those concerned with making sure the least of these (widows, orphans, aliens) are protected are those in power: Kings and Judges. The king, in Israel, is a representative of the God and he is supposed to use God’s very own justice to save the widows, the orphans and the aliens (see Psalm 72.1-3, 12-14).

When the God of Israel shows up in the assembly of the “gods,” or the “judges,” he puts them on trial for failure to discharge their reason for being. That is what is happening in v. 2 in this direct accusation,

How long will y’all [“you” is a plural] judge unjustly
and show partiality to the wicked?

The criteria of the trial of the gods/judges is no other than Yahweh’s personal attributes. The prophet Moses told Israel,

So now, O Israel, what does Yahweh require of you? …
Circumcise your heart, and do not be stiff necked any longer …
God shows no partiality, executes justice for the orphan and the widow,
and who loves the aliens providing them food and clothing.
You shall also love the alien
…”
(Deuteronomy 10.12, 16-19).

God comes among the council of the “gods/judges” and demands to know why they are not behaving like him? Their job is to protect the weak from the powers that be. Instead they collude with the powers of oppression. So God decrees the death of the gods: “you shall die like mortals” (v.6).

Judgement in the king’s hall or in the city gates (cf. Ruth 4) was supposed bring salvation to the poor. But it did not. God declares that the gods/judges are dumb, blind, and ignorant thus bringing the Earth into turmoil. Failure to practice justice and mercy is not simply bad, it is an attack upon God’s kingdom. Justice and mercy are the foundations of God’s throne. As the Israelites in Gathered worship confessed,

righteousness and justice are the
foundation of your throne;
Hesed/steadfast love and faithfulness go before you
(Ps 89.14; cf. 97.2)

Or as Jesus’s echoing the themes of Tuesday’s psalm instructed us to pray, God’s will is not being done “on earth as it is in heaven!”

Your Kingdom Come

The Gathered congregation in the Temple on those Tuesday’s, and if Jesus was there on a Tuesday he would have joined the prayer, respond to verses 1-7 with the words,

RISE UP [i.e. from his throne], O God, judge the earth;
for all the nations belong to you” (v.8)

The congregation calls God to action. God needs to do what the “gods” and “judges” have not done. Save the poor and needy. God must come and save the world.

The gods of the nations are consigned to death. The judges share their fate. The nations, notice the universal claim made every Tuesday in the Temple, belong to the God of Israel. So Yahweh will banish the gods, he will dispense with the faux judges, and God himself will rule creation.

Psalm 82, especially the prayer in v.8, is the heart of Jesus’s instruction on prayer. Jesus taught his disciples to pray,

Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as in heaven
(Mt 6.9-10).

This is in fact what all pious Jews, and Jesus himself from his days as a child, had been praying every week. God come rule the world.

Israel was reminded every Tuesday, our offerings of sacrifice, and our songs of praise, are meaningless apart from saving the poor, the widows, the orphans, the aliens because we know that God has decreed the death of the false gods that trample on the weak.

Instead with God’s own coming to judge … salvation has finally arrived for even the poor. No wonder Jesus claimed that the Spirit of the Lord had anointed him to proclaim “forgiveness” (aphesin, same word used in Acts 2.38 beloved!) to the poor at the beginning of his ministry in Nazareth (Lk 4.18-19). In Jesus, God has “risen” from the throne to come rule the nations.

Jesus’s prayer is the prayer of every Israelite.

Blessings.

A mere ten verses, Psalm 24 is short psalm. The psalm was originally part of Israel’s worship processions, bringing the ark of the covenant and pilgrims into the sanctuary (this could have originally been the Tabernacle but would be the temple through most of Israel’s history).

Long before Jesus was born, however, Psalm 24 became the Psalm for the “first day of the week.” So in the Jerusalem Temple each Sunday, Psalm 24 was sung by the Levites and pilgrims coming to worship and pray in God’s house. Pious Jews copied this practice in the synagogue and in their homes as well. Whether Psalm 24 became the Psalm for the First Day through a prophet or a sage we do not know, but the association is a stroke of Spiritual genius.

Yahweh is King

The First Day is, first of all, a day of new beginnings because we remember the first day of creation itself. The first day when all was good, before sin vandalized God’s creation. Psalm 24.1-2 evokes the creation of world in Genesis 1.1-5.

Quite literally our text reads, this is the claim of all claims and all flows from it,

The LORD’s is the earth.

Yahweh’s ownership of the entire realm of earth is stated in no uncertain terms. Why is the earth the Lord’s? Because God founded it, God created it, God established it (vv. 1-2). The Creator is the King over it. Psalm 24, on the First Day of every week, reminds every Israelite that the world is not random, the world is not order less, the world is not threatened because God is Creator. “In the beginning God created … Day One” (Gen 1.1-5).

Yahweh is Owner Yet 

But we do not begin our week only by remembering that the good world began with the Creator. We begin our week by knowing what that means. The world belongs to the Creator. In fact we confess, as the Israelites did and Jesus did, that means God owns it. God is sovereign over it. That means God is King. Every inch of creation is God’s. Every thing and every person belong to God. He is the King of Glory (24.7-10). Our lives, our week, is in the hands of the King of Glory, the Sovereign Owner of all that exists. On the first day we confess that Yahweh is not simply God of Israel, some tribal deity, but King of all that exists. The sun, the moon, the stars, the birds of the air, the fish of the sea, and even the peoples of the world belong to Yahweh. God is yet King.

The Psalm of the First Day of the Week reminds us that God’s concern is not only for or about us. God’s concern is everything God made. Our enemies may not be God’s enemies! Long before Jesus (who drank the Spiritual water of the Psalms daily) Temple pilgrims are reminded – at the beginning of the week as at the beginning of Creation – all humanity is equally created and equally owned by the King.  A humbling way to begin our week with the Lord.

God’s people have not always grasped that last point though they have confessed it regularly. Some humans we have denied were important and may not even have a soul, this was regularly done in the late 19th century of black folks. But it was the Baptist preacher, of the 19th century, named Charles Haddon Spurgeon who grasped the point. Many in America in the late 19th century despised African Americans and declared that God did not care for them. Commenting on Psalm 24.1-2, Spurgeon noted that if a person (his example is”the negro and other despised races”) is a human then, “God claims that person” as his own creation, equally loved and cared for. God’s people easily slip back into effectively saying “God does not care for that human” because the reality is that we do not care for that human. But on the first day of the week, the Psalm reminds us the human race is one.

Creation and Worship

On the First Day of the Week, Psalm 24 also proclaims who among the human race can worship and come into the glorious Presence of the Lord. This too evokes Genesis 1. “The Spirit of God hovered on the face of the deep.” All life on earth, all blessing on earth, all anything on earth flows from God’s presence through the Spirit. Genesis is a temple text, Israel knew that for thousands of years before modern scholars

Psalm 24.3 has the Gatekeepers of the sanctuary thunder to those seeking entrance, “WHO shall ascend the hill/mountain? Who shall stand in his holy place?

The answer to this question is completely detached from ethnicity, gender or social status. Every Israelite that came to the temple in 700BC or AD 30, each one that recited Psalm 24 on the first day of the week was reminded that not only was Yahweh King of All, but that ALL the human race is called to acknowledge that. It is not JEWS who could come to the Presence. It was not Egyptians. It was not whites or blacks or browns. It was not the rich and powerful. The criteria has less than zero to do with race, gender, or social status.

Who can worship, who can enter the sacred space filled with God’s nourishing Spirit is a matter of integrity and the heart. Those who have “clean hands and pure hearts” (24.4) are allowed by the Gatekeepers to pass into the holy sphere beyond the gates. Neither of these criteria could be measured by the Gatekeeper. Only the seeker of Yahweh’s Presence knew if these criteria were met.

Clean hands” generally refers to how one treats another human and “pure heart” refers to inward devotion. So this is a way of saying to the pilgrims, keep the greatest commands: If you have you loved your neighbor and loved God you are allowed to enter the temple. Jesus, the greatest of all students of the Psalms, himself echoes this psalm in his famous Sermon on the Mount.

Blessed are the pure in heart heart for they shall see God” (Mt 5.8)

So the Gatekeepers say to the festive throng approaching the Temple,

Who shall ascend … those who have pure hearts …
Such is the company of those who SEEK HIM,
who SEEK the FACE of God
” (24.4, 6).

Love and Grace

On the First Day we are reminded that existence is a gift of grace. Being created is an act of divine love (cf. Ps 136). On the First Day we are reminded that an audience with the King requires that we love him and love all the King has made. Our love reflects Yahweh’s own love.

And on the First Day the Psalm for the First Day reminds us that our standing before God, our reception of blessing, is a matter of pure grace. On Sundays, Jews and Israelites, and all who pray Psalm 24 know that,

They will RECEIVE blessing FROM the LORD,
and faithfulness FROM God their Savior.
(24.5)

This is the Book of Romans in a single verse. As the week begins anew we are reminded yet again that relationship with God is something received, something that is given, something that is “from God.” Relationship with God is not an achievement. It does not flow from the Precision of our Obedience. It begins in grace. It continues in grace. It ends in grace. We do not bring faithfulness TO God rather it is received from God … the One who creates us is also the One who saves us (This is NT Christology in a nutshell as well). We receive blessing and we receive faithfulness.

The First Day of the Week and Psalm 24

The First Day is the day the world began. The First Day is when Pentecost, the celebrating of the covenant and receiving of the Torah, is held. Every Jew knew this. But as disciples of King Jesus, we are further down the Story of God and we know that on the First Day creation was REnewED in the Resurrection of the King. We know that the covenant was REnewED on the First Day in Acts 2 (Pentecost is on Sunday beloved, Leviticus 23.15-16).

Psalm 24 does not loose significance in light of the Messiah’s coming. Psalm 24 takes on greater significance and meaning than ever. On the day we gather as the People of God, the old question from the Gatekeeper is still truer than ever. On the First Day with Ps 24:

+ We celebrate that God is the Creator.
+ Confessing God’s Kingship we kneel in worship before God our Maker.
+ We confess that all humans are welcome and equal in God’s sight.
+ We confess that all humans are called to love the King and love those created by the King.
+ We confess that we receive blessing, we receive faithfulness, we are here “by grace.”

What a way to begin our fresh lease on life in a new week lived out before the Gracious King of Glory.

I encourage you to integrate Psalm 24 in the rhythm of your First Day of the Week.

Amen.