My Glory and Broken Teeth

Elisha was surrounded by the Aramaean army. No doubt, feeling pleased with themselves. Where is Elisha’s God now? No wonder Elisha’s servant was feeling scared. It was only when Elisha prayed for his servant’s eyes to be opened, that he realised the true state of affairs. It was the Aramaeans who had been trapped, surrounded by the armies of heaven. This, for me, seems to be the essence of psalm 3. God lifts our eyes to see the reality of the Kingdom. A truth that is often hard won – at least for me. When adversities surround me, I am frequently overcome with fear and worry before God is finally able to get me to look where I was supposed to be looking and realise that I have nothing to fear. It is a good lesson to learn, but, in living with the psalm for a while, I find am not able to gloss over the bits I do not understand or am uncomfortable with.

I must confront the fact that God not only lifts my head, but he is my glory to. I found that odd. I suppose part of it is that glory is a term that is used glibly, without much thought as to its meaning. In Hebrew, the word literally means ‘heavy’. The wealthy and powerful were better fed and so it was used figuratively to symbolise prestige and honour. A royal throne is surrounded by gold to show that the person sitting on it is worthy of respect – it is part of their glory. Today, that might translate into the expensive cars and fancy houses of the rich and famous. Yet, my glory is in none of these. My glory is in God. My identity comes from him – and occasionally that identity leaks out and is seen by others.

I am also confronted by a psalm that asks God to break my enemies teeth. That is an uncomfortable prayer to pray. It is perhaps passages like this that make me a little cautious towards some psalms. They were written for a different world. Yet, in this case, I think this is more idiomatic. An English equivalent might be to say, ‘give the wicked a bloody nose and your people a blessing’! It is a cry for justice and the right ordering of things.

This weeks journey has not taken me on a straight path. It has at times been challenging to place myself within this psalm. Yet, it remains God’s truth for us – even in its oddness, even from its different culture. I am aware that some of the psalms to come might present an even bigger challenge, but that is a problem for another day. My journey through the psalms looks as though it could prove more challenging than I imagined.

The Nations

The trouble with the early psalms in the Psalter is that I have read them many times before. It is only the ones after about psalm 30 that have not been read often. The point where my interest flags and I move on to other things. So psalm 2 is familiar. I know its story. By the middle of last week I felt I had exhausted it and wanted to move on. I had to fight hard to resist. By the end of the week I did not know the psalm any better, yet, its truth had moved into a sharper focus. So, while my knowledge of the psalm has not changed, in some small way, I have. Its truth has been internalised more – which, after all, is what my experiment with the psalms is all about. It is proving an interesting journey.

Psalm 2, itself, has an interesting complexion when considered alongside psalm 1. While psalm 1 looks at the individual who does right (as opposed to the one who does wrong), psalm 2 continue where psalm 1 left off, but zooming out, to take in the nations and the kings of the World.

We see powerful nations, with leaders who appear to be far removed from those who contemplate God’s teaching. They are contemplating vanity. It is that same Hebrew word, hagah. Vanity is not just being considered, it is being ruminated on. Nor do we need to look far to see how the World plots to release itself from the constraints of, what it regards as, our less enlightened past. It is easy to look at all of this and give in to fear – for ourselves or our children. Yet, the psalm lifts our eyes off of this world and asks us to look from heaven, where we find a God who finds man’s efforts quite laughable, and God’s own king, who has been given a rod of iron to use, should he wish.

The psalm encourages the World’s leaders to become wise, but we see little evidence of that happening in our day – or in any other. It is fortunate then, that, in spite of appearances, the fate of the World does not rest on the wisdom of its leaders, like Donald Trump, but on the graciousness of God – who sent his Son, and who now sends us. For, happy indeed are those who take refuge in him.

And so, my journey is beginning to bear fruit, if only in a very small way. A small nudge here, a small nudge there, but then I am only two psalms in. I have another hundred and forty-eight to go.

Two Ways

I have realised that if I am to reshape my imagination around the Kingdom, then I must change the story in which I am embedded. Unfortunately, this has proved less simple than it sounds. My last attempt proved a step too far and I am going to need to take much smaller steps. Fortunately, such a path has been trodden before and has often been recommended in the church – which is to meditate on the psalms. With such an obvious path forward, it is amazing that it has taken me so long to find it. Perhaps the less said about that the better. So, to begin with psalm 1.

For such a small psalm, there is a lot packed in it. It lays out the path of the two ways. The way of those who do right and othose who do wrong. It has proved a remarkably apt place to start, with that wonderful line “In Yahweh’s teaching he ruminates day and night”. I like the idea of ruminating. Chewing over, digesting and then chewing over again. It is not the usual way to translate hagah, but it caries that sense, so I am sticking with it. This, after all, is what I am doing – ruminating on Yahweh’s teaching.

I have found the psalm challenge me too. When describing the righteous man it says all that he does prospers. What would Jesus have made of that when he hung on the cross? Actually, though I initially wondered at the psalm’s naivety, I ended up respecting its truth. It does not say that the righteous won’t go through times of trouble or suffering, just that they will prosper in them. Jesus certainly suffered and it was certainly an odd looking success, but it was the reason he came and he in it he did prosper. It was then that I was able to look back at my past and I could concur. In all that I have done I have prospered. For sure, there have been times when it did not feel like it. There have been times when I have felt like I was hanging on by my fingernails. But looking back, those have been significant points in my life. I have, in spite of all, prospered. Like a tree transplanted from the desert to be by channels of water, my leaves have not withered. I am secure and know that fruit will come in its season. The wrongdoer, by contrast, is like chaff blown away by the wind – to perish.

Psalm 1

Happy is the man who
does not walk in the council of wrongdoers,
Nor in the way of sinners does he stand,
Nor in the seat of scoffers does he sit,
But, in the instruction of Yahweh, his delight.
In its teaching he ruminates day and night,
Like a tree transplanted upon channels of water,
That yields fruit in its season
and leaves that do not wither.
All that he does prospers.

Not so the wrongdoers.
They are like chaff that the wind blows away.
Therefore the wrongdoers will not stand at the judgement,
Nor sinners at the assembly of those who do right.
For Yahweh knows the way of those who do right,
But the wrongdoer will perish.

God With Us

Faith arises from what we find imaginable. What sociologist call our social imaginary. If I am to ground myself in the Kingdom of God, then I need to ground myself in the imaginary of the first Christians. Something that is proving harder than I expected.

As a Christian, my central story is that of the Gospels, as told by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Yet, this story is itself grounded in another, that of the Jews: The story of Exodus and redemption from slavery. It was a story of hope. What God had done before, their prophets had declared, he would do again. A great and terrible day was coming when God would dwell amongst his people, setting all things right. That day was to be soon. It is from within this that the Gospel’s story is heard: God had come, but it was not quite as they thought it would be.

Now, it had always struck me as odd that the Virgin Birth, such a small part of the New Testament, became such an integral part of the early Church. As I pondered this, I realised its importance lay in what it had become shorthand for. God was not only dwelling amongst us, but had become one of us. The Apostles Paul and John do not mention the Virgin Birth, but they make much the same point. Paul expresses it powerfully when he says that Jesus “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.”

The Gospels not only tell of how God dwelt amongst us in the flesh, but how the Spirit would follow. Unfortunately, at this point my deliberations became unstuck. The problem that confronted me was that the disciples were already healing before the Spirit was given, so, why am I doing so little, now that the Spirit has come? Attempting to imagine myself into the first world setting exposed a gap with my world that was so vast that it caused a disconnect that I found quite depressing.

This exercise was supposed to draw me into the imaginary of the Kingdom, if anything, it has done the opposite. I cannot help but compare my life with what it should be and I found almost no common point. I am living in a very different imaginable world. I need a better approach. I took what I thought was the quickest route, but the ascent has proved too steep. I need to find a gentler slope, one more suited to beginners.

The Power of Story

Reading about the history of Israel has again brought home to me that what mattered to the ancients is very different to what matters to us. For them, history was not an academic exercise of recording facts. They were creating a narrative to bind the people together, enabling Israel to imagine a future and to survive. They did a remarkable job.

Remove the Jews from their native land, spread them across the four corners of the planet, abuse them, and, thousands of years later, they remain a people. I know of no other example that comes close. Somehow, the biblical authors enabled the people of Israel to see the world differently from those around them and, in spite of all, toIt was easy for them to imagine a time when their God, who had delivered them from the Egyptians and been so gracious to them in the past, would again show his favour and deliver them. A time when wrongs would be put right, they would be forgiven and God would dwell among them. For good. What was unimaginable, was that God would forget his promises and abandon them. Their response was to repent. So, while in Exile, at a low point in their history, they began to be loyal and obedient. Today, most Jews will honour Sabbath and Passover, whether they believe in God or not, it has become part of who they are, their identity. In the New Testament, Paul tells the same stories in his Epistles, which is kind of odd, given that many of his readers would have been Gentile. For Paul, the story remains important, even if it has now been eclipsed by a larger story, the story that God had actually come.

I was struck by the power of story to give identity to the Jews. Yet, I carry a more powerful story, but it does not carry the same impact. I’m missing something. I read stories differently. I am more concerned with facts. The Gospel is interesting, fascinating even, but I take the story and place it on the shelf of academic interest. That is not how the ancients read their story. It should not be how I read it. It should not just inform my mind through its worldview, it needs to shape my imagination, just as the story the Jews carried shaped theirs. I need to rediscover our story.