As You Read this week, watch for the confession that God is Creator-Redeemer-Sustainer of all-that-is. Watch for the confession of Israel and Christianity that all-that-is IS good. It was only later in Christian theology that flesh took on a negative connotation; Platonic philosophy and Greek thought taught this dualism: Flesh is ‘bad’ v. Spirit is ‘good.’ The witness of Scripture, however, honors the inherent goodness of the Creation. (In Scripture it is never “nature” or the “environment; it is “Creation” created by the Creator.)
As You Read Genesis 1 and 2, watch for the differences in the two Creation stories; they are different from each other by design. Note how God’s name is different, the order of creation is different, the theology is different. Some students of the Bible are troubled by these seeming contradictions, but when we read the stories side by side—not as scientific reports but rather as theological reflections—then we recognize the beauty of the diverse poetic ways that Genesis describes the Beginnings. (Also note the word play: genesis, generate, beginnings…Watch too for the differences in the two stories of the beginnings of the humans. This is rich; I once spent months studying just these two chapters and it completely changed my understanding of how men and women relate appropriately to one another – in the home, in society and in the church. In the first story, there is no hint of patriarchy or hierarchy; the man and woman are created at the same time and given equal responsibility for the care of the Garden. In the second story, man is created and later woman is shaped from a bone out of his side and then presented to the man as “helper;” the context still suggests equality.
It’s hard to see the Hebrew word plays when we read chapter 2 in English, but recognizing the puns gives the story whole new meaning.
One of my favorite poems is James Weldon Johnson’s The Creation. Here is a lovely way to begin Week 2 of Living in The Story.
And God stepped out on space,
And He looked around and said,
“I’m lonely —
I’ll make me a world.”
As far as the eye of God could see
Darkness covered everything,
Blacker than a hundred midnights
Down in a cypress swamp.
Then God smiled,
And the light broke,
And the darkness rolled up on one side,
And the light stood shining on the other,
And God said, “That’s good!”
And [then, this] great God Almighty
Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky,
Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night,
Who rounded the earth in the middle of His hand;
This Great God, like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till He shaped it in His own image;
Then into it God blew the breath of life,
And man became a living soul.
Sometimes I feel sorry for people who try to turn the wide, wonderful creation stories into small sterile science texts. It’s so obvious that the stories in Genesis 1 and 2 are poetry – poetry in the very best sense of the word. This kind of poetic drama makes the story so much bigger, tells the story so much truer than any other literary form, because we can find here deep, profound truth about who we are and about who God is; truth about the eternal God who is outside of time but who is ever breaking into time, ever breaking into our lives in unexpected places, in unexpected ways.
Happy are those who walk in the law of the LORD. (Psalm 119:1)
I run the way of your commandments, for you enlarge my understanding. (Psalm 119:32)
There is one way that is God’s way that provides “a large space” in which to dwell and the “liberty” to journey to our true humanity.
This Way is “right” and “true” and “good.”
Other ancient traditions have held similar understandings. 600 years before Christ, the philosophy of The Tao developed in China.
This “tao” literally means “way” “path” “road.” There is a way within the cosmos, way of perfect balance; the natural order of things, the foundation of the universe.
The Great Way. Think of Torah, Law, Word within this framework.
Think of faith as trust in this Way and submission to this Law.
We begin with faith.
Psalm 119 is the longest psalm in the Hebrew Psalter. The length comes from its form: it is composed as an acrostic based on the Hebrew alphabet.
In the first stanza, each line begins with the letter “aleph.” Each line of the second stanza begins with the letter “bet.” And so on. (Get it? alpha-bet!)
The poets of Israel believed that in all of life – from “A” to “Z” – the Way of God is ordered and trustworthy; that creation is “good;” that light and darkness exist in perfect harmony.
The teachers of Israel taught that the whole of life is founded upon trust in the Law of the Lord. They believed that every challenge of life can be overcome by faithful obedience to God’s Word.; that true life, right life, good life comes not through the mindless obedience to rules, but rather through the grace and mercy of Yahweh who sustains all creation.
Let your mercy come to me, that I may live; for your law is my delight. (Psalm 119:77)
Living in The Story Week 1 begins our year of reading the Bible by looking at the big picture: considering the nature of Scripture. Charlotte asks the question: “what kind of book is the Bible?” and you are invited to ponder that question as you read this week.
What is your basic understanding of where the Bible comes from and how it functions? How were you taught or what did you absorb as you were growing up? How have you changed your views over the years? What questions have shifted your thinking?
Anaïs Nin has said: “We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are.” This is important. We all interpret. We all interpret everything.
There is no such thing as uninterpreted awareness.
We all have a lens through which we see the world. We all have a framework with which we make meaning.
This is as true of the biblical writers as it is true of us readers. The authors of these ancient texts began with faith. They started with a confidence that God was somehow in their story and as they collected and recollected the stories of their life together as God’s people, they sought to understand its meaning. The biblical writers are not, for the most part, apologists – arguing for their faith in a way that was designed to convince nonbelievers. Rather their writings were intended to confess their faith within a community of faith.
As You Read Deuteronomy 6-8
This week’s readings from Deuteronomy are key for the self-understanding of God’s ancient people, Israel. Deuteronomy is the fifth book of the Torah, traditionally and poetically called “the books of Moses.” The stage is set at the River Jordan as the descendants of Jacob recall their recent liberation from bondage in Egypt and their forty years in the wilderness. Moses is the revered leader, calling them to remember God’s past faithfulness and urging them to entrust themselves to God’s ongoing fidelity.
But consider that the actual historical setting of the story of Deuteronomy is probably juxtaposed within the setting of Israel’s current dilemma centuries later in 597 BC. During the time of Deuteronomy‘s composition, the nation was once more in exile, this time in Babylon. God’s people were seeing their past history through the lens of their current captivity and recognizing they were standing on a precipice.
Either they will learn from this experience. Or they will be lost.
So Moses’ challenge to their ancestors to “hear” – to remember, recall, take heed, obey – is a current word for Israel: Love God, the One God, God Alone – this is everything.
All the rules of the Law – all the codes and commandments and ethics and devotion – everything that is written designed to shape them for love.
As You Read Psalm 119
As you are reading this week’s psalm, consider its form as well as its message. Psalm 119 is the longest chapter in the Bible and it is written in a familiar Hebrew poetic acrostic. This long hymn is shaped according to the Hebrew alphabet: the first stanza begins with aleph, the second stanza begins with bet and so on. The singer/ psalmist waxes eloquent about God’s Law in an alphabetical cadence.
Notice all the different words used by the psalmist to describe God’s way. I would add one more: the Tao.
Other ancient wisdom from numerous wisdom traditions speaks of A Way that is The Way of the cosmos. A Way that flows from the unity of all things, that lives in harmony with all creation, that coincides with the core Truth that binds the universe together.
The Psalmist is steeped in the Ten Commandments and the Mosaic Law handed down from Mount Sinai and revered as God’s definitive word for God’s chosen people. Much of this Law was shaped by the culture of the people, the times in which they lived and their own unique circumstances. But the Psalmist also seems to sing in celebration of the Way, the Tao, the Word that spoke the world into existence and continues to sustain the world by its power. A Law, a Truth, a Way that binds all things together. The Psalmist seems to begin with faith that this kind of Truth is the foundation upon which all other just laws are founded.
As You Read the John 5
As we read chapter five of the Gospel of John, we see John’s Jesus countering religious leaders who have lost the sense of this Overarching Way and have limited themselves to the smaller ways of codes and rituals. It appears as if they are literalist followers of the Law of Moses: toeing lines, dotting i’s, crossing t’s, scoring points. Jesus, however, challenges this lesser way of reading Scripture.
“Moses wrote about me,” John’s Jesus claims. Writing at the close of the 1st century, maybe 70 years after Jesus, John offers an intriguing interpretation of God made known in Jesus Christ. For John, Jesus IS “the Word made flesh” (1:14). For John, Jesus IS the holy Temple where God’s glory resides (2:18-22). For John, Jesus IS God’s Way/Truth/Life embodied (14:6).
John and the other New Testament theologians make an astounding claim: it is not a book, a Bible, a Scripture – no matter how holy – that is God’s eternal Truth. It is a person. One particular person in one unique way in history embodies God’s Way.
As You Read Second Timothy 3
We know Timothy was a student of the Apostle Paul and probably these letters of Timothy were written in Paul’s name by second generation disciples. It was nearly 100 years post-Jesus and the Church was mushrooming all across the Roman Empire. The original Christians were all Jews, but as the movement spread, many Gentiles, non-Jews, came to claim Jesus as their Lord and Savior.
There was no New Testament during this time. There was only the Hebrew Scripture and other writings, numerous letters and various gospels. So the exhortation of Timothy to continue in “the sacred writings” was a call to honor the tradition of these ancient texts. “All scripture is inspired by God…” has to mean the Scriptures of the Hebrew people. “All scripture is inspired by God…” has to mean that God’s Breath, Life, Presence, Word – somehow, in some mystery – can be encountered within these very human words.
Within the Christian tradition that has followed from Paul and John and Timothy, we continue to acknowledge the wisdom of Scripture that can and does “instruct, teach, reprove, correct, train, equip…”
But even as Christians revere and respect the Holy Scriptures, Christians will only worship and follow the One to Whom our Bible gives witness: Jesus, the Word made flesh who continues to dwell among us.
When I was a girl, I didn’t know how to read the Bible. The truth is: sometimes I still don’t know.
What kind of book is it anyway? Is it a rulebook? A history book? Is it a book filled with interesting stories with moral lessons? Or a collection of fantastic stories that don’t seem to have much connection to our modern day world?
Was the Bible somehow dictated directly by God and given to the church as something to be revered? Did the Spirit speak so clearly to holy men of God that they wrote down everything perfectly whether they understood what they were writing or not? Did they write for their time? Or for all times?
Lots of people over lots of years have asked lots of questions about the nature of this beautiful, odd, comforting, disturbing book the church calls its “Holy Scripture.”
In my own journey with the Bible, it was only when I finally did the hard work of asking hard questions and even arguing with the texts that Scripture was transformed for me into a symphony of polyphonic voices; into a masterpiece work of art that painted an alternative vision of the world; into a complex novel-like story unavoidably embedded in its own culture and time – and yet, somehow, in some mystery – able to give witness to the God beyond history who has acted (and continues to act) within history.
Sometimes when I deal with Scripture, I feel like I’m sailing a vast ocean; the wideness of it makes me suck in my breath. Then I put on my snorkel gear and plunge beneath the surface; its immense, colorful world opens up before me and I am astounded. Then I put on my scuba gear and dive even deeper; its mystery goes on forever.
Sometimes I think of Scripture as a conversation with a dear friend where I am invited to listen to the story of another. I listen respectfully to a point of view that may be different from mine. I listen carefully because we come from very different places. I listen to more than just the words because often we need to listen beneath the words, beyond the words; to listen not just to what this one is saying, but listening for what it means. And sometimes in this conversation, I argue. (Respectfully, of course. This is a friend, after all!) But I know I don’t have to absolutely agree with every single thing I read here.
When I’m in this kind of conversation with Scripture, I find everything works better when I begin with trust. When I am able to place myself into a listening space and open my ears to hear whatever it may want to say to me; when I can open my eyes to see what it needs to show me. Whenever we read the Bible, trusting that somehow God is in this event of Scripture, trusting that this really does matter, trusting that, in these ancient words, a true and eternal Word is still being spoken – then we begin with faith. We begin as the church has always begun: trusting that “in the reading of Scripture, the Creator is at work, something is made out of nothing, the church takes form around the words of the Word” (William Willimon, 198).
Centuries ago, the great saint Anselm said: credo ut intellegam – “I believe so that I may understand.” Contrary to our modern conventional wisdom that “seeing is believing,” the church has long recognized that understanding, knowing, comprehending the presence of God can never be a matter of evidences or proofs. Knowing God has always been a matter of the heart. It is only in the knowing of the heart, trusting in the spirit, opening ourselves up to the listening space, the waiting place that we can ever hope to understand the least little thing about God and God’s way.
We begin with faith.
We begin by opening ourselves to the possibility that – even in these often odd, time-bound, culture-bound words – the Living Word of the Living God just may show up. It is our faith – and the faith of the church across the ages – that moves us to suspend our disbelief and to let ourselves trust that the eternal God just may meet us here.
When I say “we begin with faith,” I don’t mean we have to believe that every history-like story can be fact checked or that every miracle story has some relationship with our modern day scientific method. When I say “we begin with faith,” I don’t mean we have to believe that God himself is the author of this book we call the Bible.
But what I do mean when I say “we begin with faith” is that we begin by entrusting ourselves to the One whom we confess to be the author of THE Story; the story of the cosmos, the only story that matters. And we trust that this One has written US into That Story so that, consequently, our lives matter. Our lives matter a great deal!
We begin with faith that this inscribed text can translate into human lives. We begin with faith that this story is now written, not with ink but with the Holy Spirit; not on stone tablets, but now on the vast multitude of pages that are all of our very human hearts. (2 Corinthians 3:3).
As William Willimon says:
Scripture does not just want to recreate some world of the past, but rather wants to form a new world in the present – to recreate US. We call the Bible ‘inspired’ because the Bible keeps reaching out to us, keeps striking us with its strange truth, keeps truthfully depicting God … We trust the Bible because on enough days we discover that God’s Word has the power to produce the readers that it requires. When the authority of the Bible is challenged with: ‘Is the Bible true?’ we are not to trot out our little arguments but rather [we are expected to trot out] our little lives.
The truthfulness of Scripture is in the lives it is able to produce.
When we stand with Israel on the banks of the Promised Land, we stand in the faith that we too are living in This Same Story. As they were liberated from slavery in Egypt, as they were saved from Exile in Babylon – so we too recognize all of our own exiles and all of our own salvations. We come to understand how we too – and too many others all around us – desperately need liberation from all the Pharoahs and all the powers that alienate and estrange and oppress.
And when we understand that need, when we name our own helplessness, we hear again the call to shape our lives around the one God who is to be our only God. We hear again the one core commandment to love this God with all that we are and with all that we have: “with heart and soul and might” (Deuteronomy 6).
When we sing the Great Psalm with the ancient Psalmist, we learn how to name our passion, how to speak boldly our yearning for God’s way, for God’s life (Psalm 119).
When we sit at the feet of Paul and Timothy, we remember the wisdom of submitting ourselves to these sacred writings, to this holy Scripture that is inspired to teach and reprove, to correct and train, to equip and prepare God’s people to do good works; to do God’s work in our world (2 Timothy 3).
When we stand with the Pharisees in John and identify with all the ways we too, misuse and abuse Scripture to prove our little points, to serve our petty agendas, to endorse the visions of our own imaginations, then we are confronted with the Word of the living Christ.
And when we stand before this Word made flesh, when we are honest and bold to open ourselves to really hear and truly see – then we will find life. Real life, true life, eternal life here and now.
“Bending our lives toward the text that is ever reaching out to us, the church is forever formed and reformed…”
Will Willimon reminds us. (126)
I invite you to join me, to Live in The Story. Let uss move out of the shallows and dive deeper into the vast ocean of the Word so we can marvel at all the wonders hidden there for us. Let us “gather around the words of Scripture with the expectation that these words will become for us the Word of God Incarnate.” (Willimon)
And as we read, may we be created and recreated, formed and reformed and ever transformed into the image of the Christ whose Word dwells richly within us and among us.
Living in The Story readings for Week 1: We Begin with Faith
A new year creates a natural opportunity to begin new efforts and explore new directions. If reading the Bible and trying to understand it better has ever been an effort or exploration you have pondered, now is a good time to give it a try.
And Living in The Story is a good tool to guide you.
Charlotte Coyle created this read-and-blog-through-the-Bible-in-a-year plan while she was doing doctoral studies at Brite Divinity School. It’s a new kind of Bible reading plan; quite different from most plans that begin in Genesis, slog through the prophets, rush through the Gospels and end in Revelation.
Instead, Living in The Story allows us to follow the biblical story across the breadth of Scripture, across the ages. Each week, the readings take us from the Old Testament, into the Psalms, across to the Gospels and on to the Epistles. We see some of the same connections within The Story some of the biblical theologians saw. And we can consider how This Story connects with our own stories in our own time and place.
Charlotte’s blogs give you background and insight as you read. Each week, she offers two or three short essays that give you different perspectives on the readings and how this ancient-yet-ever-new-text can continue to provide wisdom, comfort, courage and challenge for our own day.
When you subscribe to Living in The Story, you will receive two or three emails each week guiding you through the process throughout the year. You will have Charlotte’s blogs in your inbox along with scripture links directing you to the online Gateway Bible: Everything together in one place so you can choose how and when you read as you go along.
Some people read only the Psalms every week; some only the Gospels. Some use this opportunity to read through the Old Testament with Charlotte’s blogs helping them make some sense. Some people read every scripture every week – for awhile. And then, after a break, they find their second wind and begin again wherever we are. Some people get all the way through the entire Bible in a year.
It’s not hard. It’s guilt-free. Living in The Story will be sitting right there in your inbox, ready when you are.
It’s good to take time each day, each week to allow ourselves to be formed and transformed by the Christ who is the Living Word speaking to us through these words of Scripture.
I invite you to give it a try. For one year. For one month. This is a good time to begin a new effort and explore a new direction. And I invite you to join me in conversation about what we are seeing as we take this journey together.
Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing; O Lord, heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror. —how long?!?!
The Psalms overflow with the mystery of living. Psalm 6 struggles with what may be some physical illness. This psalm certainly speaks to those of us who have languished in the pain or fear or misery of our body’s un-health and dis-ease.
Ever since our earliest history, we humans have wondered if our physical circumstances could be the result of some sin of ours; some failure to please the gods.
Does the drought or the flood come because of sin?
Did the cancer or heart failure happen because of a life style or the thoughts of our most secret heart?
Are we being punished? Or disciplined? The psalmist seems to think so.
O Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger, or discipline me in your wrath.
Probably a faithful response to this dilemma may be “maybe.”
Or “Yes” AND “No.”
We moderns have learned the power of the psyche and its influence over the physical. “Psycho-somatic” is not a put-down; thoughts, feelings, emotions really can create physical realities.
We moderns have seen how our own patterns of exercise, our eating and drinking habits can contribute to preventable but deadly conditions.
We moderns have understood the consequences of our actions within our environment. Polluted water, soil and air really can create cancers and way too many other diseases.
So “no” – I don’t think God reaches out from heaven and zaps us with depression, diabetes or asbestos poisoning as punishment for our wrongs.
But “yes,” our actions have consequences. And yes, we may have opportunity to learn some important lessons from the “discipline” of life’s challenges so that we may change our ways for the future.
That said, no matter what caused the sickness, dis-ease or un-health, the psalmist stands firm in the promises of God’s covenant. No matter what foolishness I have engaged in; no matter what recklessness someone else may have inflicted upon me – even so – nevertheless – we count on God for faithfulness, salvation and healing. Not because we deserve it, not because we are faithful enough but rather because God is always faithful enough. “For the sake of God‘s steadfast love.”
For the sake of the cosmic witness and testimony to God’s steadfast love and faithfulness.
Turn, O Lord, save my life; deliver me for the sake of your steadfast love. For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who can give you praise?
“Turn, O Lord.” In other words, “repent.”
Does this idea bother you? That Scripture sometimes describes God as “repenting” ? If so, it’s probably because we badly understand the concept of “repentance.” In biblical language, repenting doesn’t mean feeling badly, feeling sorry, feeling ashamed of what we have done. Repentance doesn’t have much of anything to do with feelings.
Rather, repentance is action. A reversal, a turning. Stopping one way of acting and beginning another very different action.
The psalmist entreats God to turn, to cease the inactive waiting and start to do something. Begin the healing, redeeming, saving that is God’s nature and work.
I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears…
Who else has been here – flooding your bed with tears and staring into space with a paralyzing self-pity? Once again, the psalmists articulate the human condition and remind us that we are not alone in our suffering. There is nothing sinful about feeling sad, angry, hopeless and helpless. This is the condition of finite mortals in a universe that does not bend to our control.
When I used to care for church folks, I always tried to affirm their emotions as completely normal; a logical response to an unfair, unsettling or uncomfortable circumstance. Sometimes when I would pray with them, I would pray these psalms and name the cancer or the other dis-eases as “the enemy.” Not that I thought of them as an evil power in themselves; demons able to inflict tragedy upon innocents. I do, however, think of these conditions as part of the “evil” and brokenness of our fallen world. Something that exists that God did not, does not intend for us.
This is not the understanding of some people. There are some very pious believers who are so committed to assign all power to God and to submit to God’s sovereignty that they figure everything that comes in life must come directly from the hand of God. If God is all-powerful, then everything must happen by the will of God. For them, it’s all about God.
In some other versions of Christian thinking, there is a heresy that claims sickness can be prayed away if a person has enough faith. It claims that illness or poverty or tragedy is proof that someone lacks faith. It claims faith as a magic talisman against evil; that “enough faith” (and maybe “enough” financial donations!) will protect us from any negative experience. For them, it’s all about us.
Surely our psalmist is thoroughly theo-centric. For him, life IS all about God but, what that means for the psalmist, is that God is IN everything that happens. But also, life IS about us; no matter our emotions or feelings, we can still choose to trust God IN everything that happens.
Even as his faith assures him that the Lord has heard his weeping, acknowledged his supplication, accepted his prayer, the psalmist recognizes that his circumstances may not magically change. And so in the midst of the weeping, we too can trust and rest and wait.
Depart from me, all you workers of evil, for the Lord has heard the sound of my weeping. The Lord has heard my supplication; the Lord accepts my prayer.
This affirmation of God’s steadfastness is followed by three stanzas recalling times of trouble, perilous times for the poet, events in which Yahweh intervened and “became my salvation.” Here is a psalm of New Orientation, a prayer of praise and confidence that – no matter what – God is at work in the world and in love with his people.
Notice in this Psalm and throughout the Scriptures the frequent references to the “right hand.” The Lord’s right hand, my right hand, the right hand of fellowship…
There are glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous: “The right hand of the Lord does valiantly; the right hand of the Lord is exalted; the right hand of the Lord does valiantly.”
In Middle Eastern culture from ancient times and continuing today, the right hand is the hand of favor. This is both symbolic and practical. Within this cultural practice, the left is the hand that performs all the unclean acts required for the body while the right hand remains clean and unsoiled. Offering someone your left hand would be highly offensive while offering the right hand shows favor and acceptance.
Psalm 118 overflows with familiar phrases that have been quoted and reproduced within the New Testament. For example:
I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation. The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.
The psalmist celebrates the happy reversal God has wrought for him. The cornerstone, capstone provides foundation and support for an entire structure and is highly prized. From rejection by others to a chosen and favored role by Yahweh – the poet rejoices in this impossible possibility.
Several New Testament theologians picked up on this cornerstone image as they pondered the meaning of the Christ event. For them, this saying prefigured the experience of Jesus and succinctly described his earthly experience.
Mark used it first, in the context of a parable used to the indict the Pharisees over their rejection of Jesus as Messiah. Matthew and Luke followed Mark closely.
Peter’s sermon in Acts explicitly applied the psalmist’s words to Jesus’ death and resurrection. “This Jesus, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, is‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders;it has become the cornerstone.’
Jesus IS the cornerstone.
These passages demonstrate how theologians have always read and re-read, interpreted and re-interpreted the Scriptures. Here is another example:
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. We bless you from the house of the Lord … Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar.
Christians from liturgical traditions recite this first line nearly every Sunday, and most Christians will read about this “festal procession with branches” and recollect Jesus’ Palm Sunday parade. Our persistent Christological interpretation is that Christ is “the one who comes in the name of the LORD.”
Theologian Richard Hays describes this kind of theological interpretation as “reading backwards.”
Hays reflects on ways the First Century theologians re-read their own Scriptures to find within them “figures” or “pre-figures” of Christ. They began with the Christ Event and then read backwards through the Hebrew Scriptures to make sense on this never-before-imagined event.
It’s not so much prediction, Hays notes, as it is a recognition of divine patterns in God’s interaction with humans and our human endeavor to understand this divine interaction. It’s not so much about how the original texts were produced as it is about how the texts are received in any subsequent age.
Our psalmist rejoices in the surprising reversal he has experienced and gives praise to the steadfast God for orchestrating his salvation. In our own day, through the events of our own lives, we too can recognize God’s persistent pattern of turning expectations on their heads and surprising us with grace and new life.
And as 21st century theologians, we rejoice in the quintessential surprise of resurrection. Disaster, despair and death may be our human pattern, but the Divine Pattern displayed by death’s reversal in the resurrection of Jesus Christ is a pattern that will never cease to amaze us.
Richard Hays. Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness (Waco: Baylor University Press) 2014.
The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?
Walter Brueggemann says this stated premise of Psalm 27 insists that “nothing … is severe enough to shake confidence in Yahweh who is light, salvation, and stronghold.” We Christians will hear in the background the similar confidence of St. Paul: “… nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Do you see the couplets and the parallelisms in this psalm? This way of repeating and reinforcing an idea is a major characteristic of poetry and we especially see it in the poetry of the Psalms.
The repetition offers a bold message of deep confidence. This psalmist has been besieged by troubles before and has again experienced the unfailing faithfulness of Yahweh.
Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident.
Here again is God’s Great “Nevertheless.”
Even though these disasters are real; even though real danger threatens; even though life may be collapsing all around me … Yet. Nevertheless … I trust.
See how Psalm 27 hearkens back to Psalm 23: “…and I will dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life” (or “forever” in the KJV).
One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.
This phrase doesn’t suggest life after death as much as it connotes a life immersed in God’s own life. A life lived constantly and consistently within the Presence of the Holy.
Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me! “Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!” Your face, Lord, do I seek. Do not hide your face from me.
The psalmist shapes his request in light of the ancient blessing found in Numbers 6: The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: Thus you shall bless the Israelites. You shall say to them:
The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.
This beautiful and familiar benediction is more than wishful thinking. Rather blessings such as this serve as “performative language” creating the reality of which they speak.
And so this psalmist, trusting in this stated reality, places his plea at the center of his praise. His confidence is real but evidently so is some new trouble; therefore this pray-er bends God’s ear and expects God to hear, listen, attend, answer, resolve this problem as in the past.
But the psalmist surely knows (as we all must come to realize) – God is not our puppet.
God is not our personal valet jumping to meet our every need in order to rescue us from any discomfort. No, Creator/Redeemer/Sustainer God knows what we truly need and knows when we truly need it. The Lord will respond in God’s own way in God’s own good time.
Our job is to trust.
Thus the poet of Psalm 27 concludes with a call to hope and courage:
Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!
Walter Brueggemann. The Message of the Psalms. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press), 1984.
The Fourth Book of the Psalms begins with a Prayer of Moses, the man of God.
Moses is not the author of the psalm. Moses is the context of the psalm.
From the very beginning of the prayer, we think of Moses’ encounter with The Bush that Burned but was not Consumed; of his encounter on the mountain top with the God of Fire and Cloud.
The Psalm taps into the eternity of the Divine One: the One who exists outside of time. The Lord/Sovereign/King/Creator who spoke the cosmos into existence:
Before the mountains were brought forth,or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.…
For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past…
The context of Moses causes us to recall his deep submission to the Eternal One but also his argumentative relationship with God.
At first Moses argues against his calling to confront Pharaoh and lead the people out of slavery. Later, as both God and Moses share their frustrations with the stubborn willful Israelites, we recall his arguing against God’s wrath on behalf of their salvation.
The context of this Psalm of Moses causes us to remember the long weary forty years in the wilderness as he led the people from Egypt toward the Promised Land. But while we are reading this psalm and considering the context of Moses’ homeless, wandering people, we also consider the context of Israel in Exile hundreds of years later. Here is a prayer that emerged from their disorientation in Babylon as they grieved the loss of Temple, land and home.
God’s people are once again homeless.
So the bold affirmation that opens the Psalm of Moses proclaims Israel’s faith that “home” is not a place. Home is a Person.
Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.
The Psalmist of the Exile reaches back into their history when the ancestors had no land or Temple; no home. If the God of Moses was the faithful dwelling place for the wandering Israelites, then the Eternal God would remain faithful to these people exiled from their homes.
Then the prayer creates a bald contrast; The Lord/Sovereign/King/Creator may be timeless, but we humans are definitely time-bound creatures.
The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong…
Therefore teach us to count our daysthat we may gain a wise heart.
Here is the key: wisdom.
Wisdom to realize that God is God and we are not.
Wisdom to understand that God sees even our secret sins and so acknowledgment and confession of our faults is the prudent response.
Wisdom to comprehend that stubborn willfulness incurs wrath while humble repentance brings forgiveness, grace and hope.
Wisdom to count our days.
Once again we recall the context of Moses as God’s provisioned people gathered manna in each new morning. Counting on just enough bread for each new day.
As we read this Psalm from our Christian context, we also remember the prayer our Lord taught us to pray: “Give us this day our daily bread.”
Wisdom to live each day as gift and grace.
As the Psalmist acknowledges God’s power to “turn us back to dust,” the prayer also cries out in faith for God’s Own Self to “turn.”
Turn, O LORD! How long? Have compassion on your servants!
Turn back to us, your stubborn willful people. Turn back to us, your toil and trouble people. Turn back to us, because of your steadfast love and covenant faithfulness.
There is an intriguing story in Exodus 32 that relates a “turning” of both God and Moses. While the “stiff-necked” people caroused in sin, Moses conferred with YHWH on the mountain top. The Lord’s wrath burned and threatened annihilation. Moses pleaded, argued and confronted God’s anger, recalling and reminding of God’s promises.
And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
Then Moses turned and went down from the mountain, carrying the two tablets of the covenant in his hands, tablets that were written on both sides, written on the front and on the back. The tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved upon the tablets.
The good and perfect Law was the “work of God,” Exodus declares. The “work of God” is glory and power, the Psalmist declares.
May the “work of our hands” also be thus: favored, blessed, just and established by the One who established the cosmos and established the nation of Israel.
May each day of our time-bound existence celebrate and participate in the eternal steadfast love of the Lord.
By the way…
Psalm 90 provides the form for the beloved hymn: O God, Our Help in Ages Past by Isaac Watts. It is one of many psalms he shaped into hymns in his work: The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament (1719). See here all the original nine stanzas and see how closely they follow the Psalm of Moses.