The Lament Psalms

The Bible’s sanction for bringing our rawest feelings to God.

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Among people who do not read the Bible often, there is a misconception that the Book of Psalms is a collection of praise songs and thanksgivings. The reality is different. A large number of them are poems of complaint and sorrow.

Scholars call these songs the lament psalms. In them the psalmist (or the assembly that sings or chants them) cries out in anguish to God. The anguish may well up from a threatening situation in the psalmist’s life, such as a serious illness that looks as if it is going to be fatal (Psalm 38) or a bout of depression (Psalm 88)*.

More often the anguish is a result of cruelty or injustice that the psalmist is experiencing. The injustice may be a betrayal by a psalmist’s best friend (Psalm 55). Or it may be vicious gossip that one’s neighbors are spreading in the community (Psalm 109). Or it may be ambushes or violence that one is suffering in the streets (Psalms 56 and 64).

The source of the anguish may not, however, be personal. It may be national. It may be the exploitation of the poor and marginalized by the powerful classes in society (Psalm 109). Or it may arise from the devastation brought upon the land by foreign invaders (Psalms 74 and 79). Or by a threat to annihilate Israel (Psalm 83).

Though many, the sources of the anguish all stir up a desperate cry to God that often begins with words like these:

How long, O Lord, how long? Will you forget me forever?

            How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I bear pain in my soul,

            and have sorrow in my heart all day long?

How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? (Psalm 13:1-2)

Language of Shocking Violence

What is so disconcerting about these lament psalms is the violent language the psalmist uses in regard to his enemies. He curses his enemies and cries out to God to wreak revenge on those who are attacking and oppressing him.

A good example is Psalm 109. Here the psalmist’s enemies are maligning his reputation in the community. They speak hate. They spread lies. They say to themselves:

Appoint a wicked man against him;

            let an accuser stand on his right.

 When he is tried, let him be found guilty;

            let his prayer be counted as sin.

May his days be few;

            may another seize his position.

May his children be orphans,

            and his wife a widow.

May his children wander about and beg;

            may they be driven out of the ruins they inhabit.

May the creditor seize all that he has;

            may strangers plunder the fruits of his toil.

May there be no one to do him a kindness,

            nor anyone to pity his orphaned children. (Psalm 109:7-12)

The psalmist takes up their very words and turn them against them. He asks God to bring the same fate upon them and their families. We are in the realm of something approaching a blood feud.

In Psalm 137, the hatred of the psalmist is turned against the Babylonians who have leveled the city of Jerusalem and killed or exiled its population. The psalmist reaches a climax in his hatred when he wishes that some other invader will come and dash the babies of the Babylonians against the rocks just as the Babylonians did to the Judean babies.

This is strong stuff. Many of us recoil against such bitter prayers. So much so that many churches will ban the lament psalms, especially the cursing psalms, from recitation in their liturgies. Others will exclude them from published editions of the psalms.

There is a danger in this banning, as the writer Kathleen Norris reminds us all in a beautiful essay on the psalms.** These lament psalms bear witness to the fact that life is full of suffering, pains, and injustice. She quotes a Benedictine nun, who once said, “The human experience is full of violence, and the psalms reflect our experience of the world.”***

If we are to have an authentic worship life, we cannot ignore the hatred and injustice in the world, especially within our own inner selves. That is the rationale for beginning a worship service with a confession of sin. We come before God with mixed emotions. We are people of light anddarkness. People of love and, yes, hatred. That is our reality.

Retaining Laments in Our Worship

Keeping the lament psalms in our liturgies and in our Bibles does raise the question: How do we deal with these difficult and emotionally complex psalms? How do we integrate them with the admonition of Jesus to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44)? Let me say a few things about how I handle these psalms.

One, the lament psalms give us sanction, I believe, to bring our rawest feelings into our relationship with God. The words of these psalms are strong, but they do reflect our most painful experiences. When we try to suppress these strong feelings from our consciousness, we drive them into our unconsciousness where they can fester and wreak havoc with our lives. This is the very personal experience of military veterans suffering from PTSD.

The first step to healing is to bring our most troubling feelings into the open. And the lament psalms provide a model for doing so.

This does not mean that God–or we–may fully approve of the feelings we are releasing. There may be morally troubling aspects with those feelings. But we cannot deal with feelings that remain buried and hidden from sight.

The lament psalms in fact gives words for expressing feelings we may not yet be able to articulate for ourselves. I’ve been told that after the event of September 11, 2001, many churches who incorporated lament psalms into their liturgies of sorrow and remembrances found those very psalms expressed best what many in the congregation were feeling. The language of the lament psalms remains relevant over and over again.

Prayers of Violence Directed to God

Two, we need to notice that the lament psalms are usually addressed to God. That means they are prayers. That’s very important in my book.

The psalmist is expressing raw feelings, but he is expressing them to God, not directly to his enemies. He may be wanting God to act on his violent requests. But when we bring our violent feelings to God, we may be surprised with God’s response.

God may choose not to act on our requests, for to do so would violate his own character as a loving Father. Instead God may in a sense say to us, “Now that you’ve brought your desires to me, let’s begin to work on them. Let me begin to heal them.” That can happen by God bringing us into a change of perspective that ends up in transforming our desires and feelings.

We see this very action modeled in Psalm 73. The psalmist begins with a lament about how the wicked seem to experience no negative consequences from their evil actions. They seem to prosper and enjoy health and public esteem. How unfair!

Then the psalmist says he walked into the sanctuary of God (Psalm 73:17). There he underwent a change of perspective. He saw how God had set them in slippery places and how they can be destroyed in a moment.

As a result, he undergoes a dramatic change of attitude.

When my soul was embittered,

            when I was pricked in heart,

I was stupid and ignorant;

            I was like a brute beast toward you.

Nevertheless I am continually with you;

            you hold my right hand. (Psalm 73:21-23)

Our lament prayers may begin the first steps in a purification process that leads to a dramatic reversal in our feelings and attitudes. At the end of the process, we may recognize how foolish we were in all the revenge we begged God for. Prayer can indeed be a transforming power, transforming us rather than our enemies.

Songs of Solidarity

Lastly, it is important too to note that most of the psalms are meant to be sung or chanted in a community of faith. Even when the psalmist speaks in the first person singular, scholars point out that we cannot always be sure if the “I” of the psalm is meant to be just an individual speaking or is a communal “I”. Is the “I” really meant to be the voice of “We”?

That is important to remember when someone complains about the lament psalms that they do not express what he or she is feeling that day. But the psalms are expressing the feelings that other members of our faith community may be feeling or that believers may be feeling somewhere else in the world. By reciting these psalms in our liturgies, we acknowledge our solidarity with believers not only who are rejoicing, but also suffering grievous sorrow and injustice.

They also tend to draw us into an awareness of how we participate not only in suffering with others, but also inflicting suffering on others. Kathleen Norris says this in a striking way.

The psalms mirror our world but do not allow us to become voyeurs. In a nation unwilling to look at its own violence, they force us to recognize our part in it. They make us reexamine our values.****

So do you still want to ban the lament psalms from your worship and Bible study? I for one do not. They prevent my religion from becoming a form of escapist fantasy. They keep me grounded into real life. And it is only there that I can cultivate a wholesome relationship with God and with my neighbor.

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* Psalm 88 is unique among the psalms. A deeply anguished psalmist cries out to God, but he seems to have no expectation that God will come to his rescue. The final line is the most despairing in all the psalms:

You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me;

            my companions are in darkness.

** “The Paradox of the Psalms,” in Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk. New York:Riverhead Books, 1987.

*** Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk, page 97.

**** Norris, The Cloister Walk, page 103.

 

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God’s Friend

The Old Testament accords that honor to only two humans.

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Abraham serves the three angels, painting by Rembrandt, 17th century.

I was reading in Isaiah 41 this morning when I stumbled upon this sentence fragment:

But you, Israel, my servant,

                        Jacob, whom I have chosen,

                        the offspring of Abraham, my friend…(Isaiah 41:8)

 It is part of a passage where God is addressing Israel about its divine calling–the calling to be God’s servant. But what immediately arrested my attention is that fact that God also calls Abraham his friend. I had never noticed that before.

Now this is to accord to Abraham an enormous honor, at least in the values of the ancient world. For much of the ancient world, friendship was regarded as the highest and most intimate of human relationships. It was a far higher form of human relationship than was marriage. I discussed in my previous blog posting Jesus’ Privileged Friends why that was.

Here in this passage of Isaiah God calls Abraham his friend. I wondered if Abraham stood unique in the Old Testament in bearing that honor. So I checked my Bible concordance to explore if anyone else had been called that.

I found that Abraham was not alone in this honor. One other Old Testament figure has been accorded that same honor: Moses. In Exodus 33:11, we read: Thus the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend. Apart from these two giants of the faith, no one else is raised to that honor.

Compassionate Friends

In the case of Moses, friendship with God is described as a relationship in which God speaks to Moses face to face. In some mysterious way Moses has access to God where Moses may speak his mind freely with God and engage in some persuasive debate. We see this in Exodus 32-33 where Moses tries to persuade God not to destroy Israel after the debacle of the golden calf. Moses becomes the compassionate defender of sinful Israel.

Likewise we see Abraham play this same role in Genesis 18 as God reveals to Abraham his intention to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. This revelation evokes from Abraham an effort to speak up compassionately for the righteous people in these two cities who will be lost in the destruction. Abraham dares to call into question God’s compassion just as in a sense Moses does as well.

This is one of the extraordinary privileges that is accorded to Abraham and Moses as God’s friends. One gets the sense that God would not tolerate such presumption from anyone else, but because of the high regard he has for both men he pauses to listen to them and in the case of Moses to even change his mind.

It is truly an extraordinary motif in these two Old Testament passages. But the most extraordinary twist upon this motif comes in the New Testament in John 15:14-15. There Jesus at the Last Supper calls his own disciples his friends:

You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.

What is extraordinary about this passage is that the disciples are far from being giants of faith when Jesus accords them this honor. They will soon show themselves highly fallible as Peter denies Jesus that very evening and the other disciples desert Jesus in his time of greatest need.

Yet what Jesus does in this passage is point to that intimate relationship with him that he extends to all his disciples, including us today. For the end goal of spiritual formation–for most of us an arduous, life-long journey–is this privilege of becoming what Jesus says we are: God’s friends.

 

In God We Trust

Isaiah’s provocative take on America’s national motto.

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The American national motto appears on all American coinage.

If the prophet Isaiah were to enter the pulpit of many American churches today, he would baffle if not alienate most who heard him. American Christians generally hold the view that preachers should stay clear of politics. In fact, our tax code recognizes the rule that in order for a church to retain its tax-exempt status, preachers in the pulpit must refrain from endorsing particular political candidates.

When you read the first 39 chapters of Isaiah, you realize that Isaiah did not share this viewpoint. His message was highly political. Among other things he repeatedly counsels the kings of Judah on how to handle the kingdom’s foreign relations. His authority? The word he says he receives from God. His approach can and should make American Christians uncomfortable.

The Historical Context of Isaiah

Isaiah was active during a particularly tumultuous time in the ancient Near East. In the 14thcentury B.C., the Egyptian empire had largely abandoned its garrisons stationed in the Levant.

As a result, a historical window opened up that allowed a throng of mini-states to gain independence and flourish. They included the city states of Tyre, Sidon, and the Philistine Pentapolis. They also included mini-kingdoms like Aram, Moab, Ammon, and others. Among them was the united kingdom of Israel that under David and Solomon dominated the region for a short period. Then it broke apart into the two rival kingdoms of Israel and Judah.

This international situation prevailed for approximately 600 years. Then in the 8thcentury B.C. the Mesopotamian power of Assyria began an imperial drive to expand beyond its Mesopotamian roots. As Assyria expanded east and west,* it swallowed up and destroyed most of the mini-kingdoms and city states that had flourished for a half millennium.

Assyria even defeated Egypt and annexed it into its empire, just as one mighty python might swallow up another python of equal size. The Assyrians established an empire whose extent had never been matched in the previous history of the ancient Near East.

Among its potential victims was the northern kingdom of Israel and its capital of Samaria. Israel along with its neighbor Aram had launched an alliance to resist Assyrian advance. They hoped to enlist the southern kingdom of Judah, which was ruled by the dynasty of David, as another partner. When the current king Ahaz resisted, they chose instead to invade Judah and replace the king with a puppet.

In desperation, Ahaz contemplated calling on Assyria to come to its aid. Isaiah the prophet told him he would be foolish to do so. Instead Isaiah counseled Ahaz to place his confidence in God who would be the kingdom’s true savior.

Ahaz ignored Isaiah. Isaiah’s counsel seemed impractical and unrealistic. How could faith in God be a reliable defense? Ahaz summons Assyria.

Judah and Assyria

Assyria was only too happy to come to the rescue. The threat against Ahaz was lifted. The Assyrians destroyed Aram and its capital Damascus and then turned to Israel and its capital of Samaria, which it wiped off the political map of the Near East in 722 B.C.

Then Assyria turned its attention to Judah. In 701 B.C. the Assyrian king Sennacherib  invaded Judah, leveling one Judean city after another. Then Sennacherib laid siege to Jerusalem, now ruled by Hezekiah, Ahaz’s son. (Jerusalem’s lonely desperation is well described in Isaiah 1:7-9.)

Hezekiah sought to defend the city by strengthening its defenses, pulling down houses to build up the walls. He also constructed a tunnel to direct the waters of the city’s one spring, which lay outside the walls, inside the walls. He opened up the city’s armory. And he sent a delegation to Egypt to plead for assistance. All of these seemed to be necessary and very practical responses to the Assyrian threat. His measures are described in Isaiah 22.

Throughout this tumultuous time, what was Isaiah’s counsel? He constantly advised Judah’s leadership not to put any trust in foreign alliances or in relying on their armaments (chariots and horses in particular), but to place their trust in God. God would deliver them.

A Uniting Message in Isaiah?

Reading through Isaiah 1-39 can feel very confusing. Oracles are not listed in chronological order. Rather we feel that we are dealing with a jumble of oracles hastily thrown together. There seems to be no uniting thread.

But I have come to question that assumption. What I think the editor of Isaiah has done is take the many oracles of Isaiah, delivered over a number of years in this time of particular crisis for Judah, and arranged them into an order where they deliver an enduring message of warning and hope for future generations.

As I read through these chapters, I catch hints here and there of a unified message emerging. The prophet sees the chaos that is roiling the Near East in his day as the work of God. The aggressive Assyrians are simply the tool of God’s judgment.

For example, foreseeing the fall of the city state of Tyre, the prophet cries:

Who has planned this

                        against Tyre, the bestower of crowns,

            whose merchants were princes,

                        whose traders were the honored of the earth?

            The LORD of hosts has planned it—

                        to defile the pride of all glory,

                        to shame all the honored of the earth. (Isaiah 23:8-9)

The era of the mini-city states and kingdoms is coming to an end. During their centuries of flourishing, they also engaged in constant predatory raids and warfare on each other. In the prophet’s eyes, the land has become polluted as a result of the incessant bloodshed. In addition, the elites of these states have exploited the lives of the poor and marginalized. Life for these oppressed ones has become bitter.

We see this theme most clearly expressed in Isaiah 24:5-6:

The earth lies polluted

                        under its inhabitants;

            for they have transgressed laws,

                        violated the statutes,

                        broken the everlasting covenant.

            Therefore a curse devours the earth,

                        and its inhabitants suffer for their guilt;

            therefore the inhabitants of the earth dwindled,

                        and few people are left.

The time of reckoning has arrived. This is the reality Judah must confront as it looks upon its desperate situation. God is moving in the international scene. Judah, along with the other mini-states of the Levant, are reaping the bitter harvest of their unceasing warfare, conflict, social oppression, and religious hypocrisy.

Judah’s Hope for Salvation?

Because God lies behind this turmoil, Isaiah warns Judah’s leaders against turning to their customary tools of statecraft.They should not place their hopes in international alliances, especially with regional powers like Egypt. Egypt will prove a broken reed. Nor should they place their hopes in their military preparedness or advanced armaments (like horses and chariots, the tanks of Isaiah’s day). None of this will ultimately save them.

Rather Judah’s king and people should place their trust in the Lord. That is the burden of the famous oracle that Isaiah delivers to King Ahaz, that we read each Christmas:

Therefore the Lord will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel(Isaiah 7:14). [The name Immanuel in Hebrew means “God with us.”]

The point of this sign is that before this child has emerged out of infancy, the international threat against Judah will have passed. All Ahaz has to do is trust in God.

As counsel to the Judeans, the prophet delivers this word from God:

For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel:

In returning and rest you shall be saved;

             in quietness and trust shall be your strength (Isaiah 30:15).

The message of Isaiah does not seem to be a message of disarmament pure and simple, but it comes close. He certainly places no great confidence in spending vast sums on building up Judah’s military might. Rather he is advocating a radical change of mindset, a mindset that places priority on trust in the Lord.

The Real Source of National Security

Where should then Judah invest its energies and resources, if not in military preparedness? Here is where I hear the import of Isaiah’s constant cry to establish social justice and personal righteousness in the land and in every one of its inhabitants.

It is in caring for the welfare of all in society (especially the vulnerable ones referred to customarily as the widows, orphans, and resident aliens) that Judah can best work for its national security. The cultivation of personal integrity is vital for its peaceful future.

We hear this viewpoint expressed in the following passage:

The effect of righteousness will be peace,

                        and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever.

            My people will abide in a peaceful habitation,

                        in secure dwellings, and in quiet resting places (Isaiah 32:17-18).

 If I am hearing the message of Isaiah correctly, then we can begin to appreciate why few Americans today would welcome his voice. Proponents of Realpolitik will dismiss his message as nonsense. Isaiah, they will say, is living in a delusion. He doesn’t know how the real world works.

Judah’s leaders also ignored his counsel. So why were the words of Isaiah preserved and treasured rather than thrown on the dung heap of history as words of madness?

The Assyrian siege of Jerusalem in 701 B.C. was lifted not because foreign allies came to the rescue. Nor because Judean military might overwhelmed the Assyrians. Rather something totally unexpected broke the siege. The Old Testament reports that a mysterious plague decimated the ranks of the Assyrian army (see 2 Kings 19:35-37).  2 Chronicles 32:21 says that as a result Sennacherib returned to Assyria in disgrace. There he was assassinated by his own sons. What saved Jerusalem was not power politics, but the contingencies of history, which the prophet along with the Old Testament as a whole attributes to the hand of God.

This is why Isaiah’s message can be very provocative for us. He can call into question our own national priorities and obsessions. Is the practice of Realpolitik, especially in its most bullying form, going to ensure peace and prosperity? Are the vast sums we spend on our military establishment really going to secure America, especially when they are paid for by drastic reductions in programs of social welfare? Is what makes a nation strong its military might or the integrity of its institutions and its people?**

Our national motto is: In God we trust. But what does it mean in practical terms for a religiously pluralistic country like ours to trust in God? Here is where the prophet Isaiah may challenge some of our most fundamental national assumptions. And here, too, I suggest lies the enduring power of the prophet’s message.

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* Isaiah turns to the metaphor of a raging river that is overflowing its banks and flooding the land (see Isaiah 8:5-8).

** If you wish to hear a thoughtful reflection on the message of Isaiah and America’s obsessions with guns, I would refer you to a short talk made by Chris Hays, Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Fuller Seminary, during a panel discussion on “The Bible and American Gun Culture” that happened at the seminary in March 2019. Hays opened up for me new perspectives on Isaiah that are in part reflected in this blog posting.

Respectfully Yours

An apostle’s counsel on living with diversity in a congregation.

I love the New Testament book of 1 Corinthians.  One reason: it is dead-on realistic about life in a congregation. The church in Corinth was a mess. It was wracked with tensions, scandal, theological confusion, and pretensions. Sound familiar does it not?

I also love the book because we witness Paul the apostle turn into Paul the pastor. Paul had got this community of faith started. He longed to see it grow up into a mature fellowship. So he gives a great deal of attention to its needs and problems.

What Is Acceptable Christian Behavior?

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The sacrifice of a pig on a Greek altar. Depicted on an Athenian cup, 6th century B.C. Now in Louvre Museum.

One locus of tension in the church was the issue of whether Christians could rightly buy and eat meat that came from the animals sacrificed on the altars of pagan temples. These sacrifices were a major source of supply for butchers. An additional issue was whether Christians could participate in civic dinners and trade gatherings in temples where sacrificed meat might constitute the main dinner entrée.

Some members of the Corinthian church asserted that it was perfectly OK.* After all, they argued, pagan gods did not exist. Eating meat from temples then involved no endorsement of pagan gods. Other members of the church were not so sure. They were scandalized by the practice, believing that it entailed a faith compromise. The church seems to have asked Paul’s advice on the subject. He answers in 1 Corinthians 8:1-11:1.

I’m fascinated by his response. His advice is very practical and pastoral, but it is far from simple and clear cut. Which makes it tricky to deal with.

The dispute in the church was not one of theological principle, but of Christian behavior. One group in the church saw no problem in eating meat sacrificed on pagan altars. Nor did they have any scruples about attending dinner in pagan temples. And concerning those in the church who did not agree, they were ready to dismiss them as “weaker brothers.”

Other members of the church, however, felt scruples about these practices. Maybe they were newly converted Christians, who were not quite yet convinced that pagan gods were not real. They were therefore offended when they saw fellow believers eating temple meat.

Both sides had merit in their viewpoints, but apparently little tolerance or compassion for other viewpoints or sensitivities. That led to contention in the church’s life.

Paul’s Counsel

In conviction Paul himself seems to have shared the viewpoint of those who saw no problem in eating the meat. But the rightness of his viewpoint was not his chief concern. Nor was it the issue that he felt the “more enlightened” members of the church should be agitated about. Paul’s chief concern was whether this intra-church dispute was going to wreck the congregation’s communal life. Were the behavior and attitudes of either side building up the church? Or were they undermining its welfare and unity?

On this point Paul was decisive. If by eating meat, an “enlightened” member of the community causes a weaker member to stumble in faith, then the enlightened member should voluntarily give up his or her liberty and refrain from eating meat. In such disputes over behavior, the welfare of the community must take priority over the rights and liberty of the individual. So he says in verse 8:13:

Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.

To support his argument, he sets himself up as an example. As an apostle, he is entitled to many things—including financial support from the community. But he says he has voluntarily chosen not to exercise those rights—all for the cause of advancing the gospel of Christ.** As further warrant for his practice, he claims he is imitating Christ.

He summarizes his conclusions in verses 10:23-24:

“All things are lawful,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other.***

 In listening to Paul’s counsel, it is important, I think, that what he counsels is voluntary restraint. He is not arguing that the community should impose conformity on all. There is diversity in the church. That diversity is not just a matter of different backgrounds and upbringings. That diversity may be inspired and created by the Holy Spirit. Therefore diversity is to be reverenced and cherished. A forced conformity may be a form of abuse and defilement of the Body of Christ.

Distorting Paul’s Counsel

Yet I find Paul’s counsel tricky to implement. One party in a church may argue that another party should refrain from certain behaviors because the first party finds them offensive. They can argue that if the second party continues in its offensive behavior, that party is not demonstrating Christian love. And so we can devolve into a situation where one party in the church becomes a minority dictating behavior for the greater whole.

I do not suspect that Paul would have countenanced his counsel be used as grounds for a tyranny by the minority. Paul, for example, did not give way to what we might have considered the weaker brothers in the case of the disputes in the Galatian churches. There he felt a serious theological principle was at stake, and he was not about to give way to the Judaizing party and its sensitivities about Christian behavior.

So I find that Paul’s counsel is not as quite as simple and clear cut as I would like. At times, our life in the church may call us to voluntarily surrender our rights for the sake of the good of the greater whole. At other times our life may call us to stand firm on our rights. This calls for careful discernment. We may find that we make many mistakes and experience a great deal of anguish.

Valuing Respect

Yet what can it mean for us today to exercise love in building up the Body of Christ, as Paul counsels? One thing I do believe it requires is learning to respect the differences among us.

Respect is a largely undervalued virtue, but it goes a long way to maintaining harmony. People hunger to be respected in their jobs, in their families, and in their communities. It is one reason I believe we are experiencing so much turmoil in our political life. Too many people in our country feel they have not been respected. In anger they raising hell to ensure they are not ignored. Something similar can happen in the church.

Treating someone with respect is letting someone be himself or herself. It does not mean smoothing out differences, but it allows diversity to be, understanding that there is a hidden wisdom to diversity that eludes all attempts to unite by imposed conformity.

Treating each other in the church with respect does not make differences, conflicts, and disputes go away. But treating others with respect does mean our disputes need not tear us apart and destroy our life together.

So the strange dispute in Corinth over eating meat sacrificed to idols becomes an occasion for Paul to illuminate an important principle in our life together in the church. Neither arrogant individualism nor smothering social conformity are to govern life in the church. Rather, says Paul, let love govern our behavior. And one manifestation of love is respect.

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* They may have belonged to a group in the church who prided themselves on their intellectual sophistication. Earlier in the letter Paul chastises them for their putting down what they may have regarded as their “less enlightened” brothers.

** Paul walked his talk. While in Corinth, he earned his living as a tentmaker. He did not receive financial support from the church.

*** The translators of the NRSV has placed certain phrases in quotation marks because they believe that those are words that Paul is quoting from the letter the church sent him.

A Society in Collapse

What does a failing society look like? Isaiah’s answer.

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The ruins of Samaria, capital of the northern kingdom of Israel. Photo, circa 1925.

In Isaiah 9:8-10:11, Isaiah, a Jerusalemite prophet, turns his attention away from his own city to the northern kingdom of Israel* in his day. He sees its future as dire. And that future offers a warning of what lies ahead if the residents of Jerusalem continue in their present ways.

One can read this passage as the expected output of a court prophet. As a loyal Judean, he would be expected to predict the demise of his own country’s enemies. But that’s not quite what we find in this passage. Israel’s dire future is not punishment for its aggressive hostility towards Judah. Rather, the passage reads as a vivid description of a society that is collapsing within itself.

Not that Israel knows its future is precarious. The prophet says that in arrogance and pride the kingdom is harboring illusions of grandeur. Its ordinary dwellings built of brick have fallen (maybe because of an earthquake or maybe because of foreign invasion). But the kingdom plans to rebuild in stone, the construction material of palaces.

Likewise its normal groves of sycamore have been leveled. But the Israelites plan to replant them with cedar, another construction material of palaces. But if they do so, Isaiah says it will be a venture in wasted resources. The Lord has set his face against them. He will rise up the Aramaeans and Philistines to devour them.

As the passage moves on, the prophet turns his sight to the kingdom’s leaders who mislead the people. Its prophets speak lies; its elders lead the people astray. What is not clear is whether the leaders are consciously or unconsciously leading the country in wrong directions. The outcome, however, is the same. The people are left in confusion (Isaiah 9:14-16). No one is sure what the truth is.

Things are not working the way they should. People are indulging in excess, but coming away feeling dissatisfied. This is vividly conveyed in verse 9:20:

They [the people] gorged on the right, but still were hungry,

                        and they devoured on the left, but were not satisfied.

As a result, in frustration the people have turned on each other and fallen into civil strife, if not downright civil war (described in the metaphor of cannibalism). Manasseh, another tribe in the northern kingdom, is said to have devoured Ephraim, and Ephraim Manasseh. This tribal strife would have been poignant for Isaiah’s listeners. By tradition Ephraim and Manasseh were said to be the two sons of Joseph. Their aggression towards each other would have been seen as fraternal strife. The bonds of civic unity are breaking apart.

A Note of Realism About the Poor and Weak

Isaiah particularly denounces Israel’s leaders who have legislated decrees that oppress the poor and the marginalized in Israel’s society. These decrees rob the poor, especially the widows and orphans, of justice. They have become the prey of the strong.

Throughout the Old Testament, the welfare of the widow, the orphan, and the resident immigrant is an object of God’s special concern. Prophet after prophet will denounce God’s people for their neglect of these weak members of society.

But Isaiah injects a discordant note into what is a common theme. In verse 9:17, the prophet announces:

That is why the Lord did not have pity on their young people,

            or compassion on their orphans and widows;

for everyone was godless and an evildoer,

            and every mouth spoke folly.

 In this social collapse all fall under divine judgment, even widows and orphans. Why? Because everyone was godless and an evildoer. The sense I get when I read this is the thought that the poor and weak, despite the oppression they suffer, still buy into the illusions their leaders promulgate. If they could be rich and powerful, they would behave just as their oppressors do.

It is a note of realism that the poor and weak are not more moral just because they are poor and weak. Both the rich and strong and the poor and weak share in common illusions.

A Compromised Society Cannot Stand

The impact of all these social developments is that Israel as a society is fundamentally compromised. It does not have the unity, the strength, and the community resolve to stand up firm when outside pressures come bearing down. And those outside pressures are on its doorstep in the threat posed by imperial Assyria.

When that threat becomes actually real (as it does shortly afterwards), Israel does indeed fall. It is wiped out of the political landscape of the ancient Near East.

It is sobering to read this portion of Isaiah. How he analyzes Israel has enduring value as an analysis of any society that undermines itself with destructive partisan strife, injustice, and buy-in into illusionary thinking. For Isaiah that is a warning to his own community of Judah. Do not follow in Israel’s footsteps. Whether his description also speaks a warning to our own society today I will leave for each reader to decide.

 ____________

* The northern kingdom of Israel was also known as Ephraim (see verse 9:9), because the most prominent tribe in the kingdom was the tribe of Ephraim.

 

Sloppy Editing or Rhetorical Subtlety?

I’m fascinated by the way the book of Isaiah begins.

 I was reading the book of Isaiah recently when I was struck by how oddly it begins. The books of the prophets Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Hosea all begin with an account of the prophet’s call to be a prophet. That account may be short, as in the case of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:4-10) or long, as in the case of Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1:1-3:27).

This call establishes the prophet’s credentials in proclaiming a word of God to the people. Only once that authority has been established do we get the content of the messages each prophet is commissioned to deliver.

Jesaja_(Michelangelo)

The prophet Isaiah, as envisioned by Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, 16th century.

The call of Isaiah, however, does not come in his book until Chapter 6. What precedes it are five chapters of the actual messages that Isaiah delivers. That’s what I find odd. We don’t learn about Isaiah’s authority to speak for God until we have been exposed to a powerful summary of his prophetic burden.

Lifted High, Dropped Low

That summary is a real emotional roller coaster ride. Chapter 1 begins with a denunciation of Judah and its capital city Jerusalem. The prophet denounces the people’s religious infidelity. This infidelity is shown in the people’s extravagant piety in worship while they accommodate to injustice in the kingdom’s social and economic life.

So fierce is the prophet’s denunciation that he calls Jerusalem Sodom and Gomorrah. These two cities are the Old Testament’s great symbols of urban corruption. They suffer a fire and brimstone fate (Genesis 19). One can hardly imagine a greater insult to Judeans, who considered themselves pious, faithful, and respectable.

Chapter 2 opens, however, with a glorious vision of the temple mount in Jerusalem drawing pilgrims from all over the world. People come to the mount because there they expect to receive instruction from God and the word of the Lord. It will be a transforming word, for they shall end up beating their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.

Then the prophet returns to his denunciations. The land is filled with riches and the machinery of war, but it will be humbled when the Lord comes in judgment. Chapter 3 continues this recital of destruction, describing a society collapsing in chaos. It contains a particularly vivid description of the elite women strutting around town in their jewelry and finery (Isaiah 3:18-23),* before they will be reduced to baldness and sackcloth.

Then abruptly in chapter 4 the prophet returns to a hopeful vision of the glory that will return to Jerusalem after its spiritual cleansing. The Lord will dwell in the city and protect it as the Lord did the Israelites journeying through the wilderness during the Exodus. Whoever lives in the city will be called holy.

Then as we launch into chapter 5 we plunge again into a fierce denunciation of Judah as a people who were created to be the vineyard of the Lord, but a vineyard that has produced a harvest of sour, wild grapes. As a result, Sheol, the land of the dead, will open its mouth and swallow the people into its land of no return. This chapter ends with a vision of darkness enveloping the land:

They [foreign invaders] will roar over it on that day,

            like the roaring of the sea.

And if one look to the land–

            only darkness and distress;

and the light grows dark with clouds. (Isaiah 5:30)

Only after this rhetorical cycle of highs and lows do we come to the story of the prophet’s call. When I reach chapter 6, I am crying out for a respite. In a sense that is what chapter 6 provides for at least its first eight verses, before the text launches into another searing description of the judgment to come.

Why This Beginning?

When I read all this, I find myself asking what rhetorical purpose did the editor who compiled the book of Isaiah have in mind when he chose to arrange his material in this way. Was it to grab his audience’s attention immediately, and when they begin to protest to the emotional barrage, to spring the authority behind it with the call of the prophet?

I am not sure I see clearly the rhetorical purpose. But I have learned that the biblical writers and editors are generally very astute communicators. Things in the biblical text are seldom left to chance. The writers and editors bring an acute intelligence to their work.

And so when I come upon things that I don’t understand, I don’t immediately assume that this is a case of sloppy writing and careless editing. There may be a rhetorical subtlety at work that I don’t yet perceive. Is such the case with the opening of Isaiah?

Any thoughts among you, my readers?

___________

* This passage is a particularly detailed description of all the paraphernalia that the women of ancient Jerusalem would have considered high fashion.

God the Connoisseur

Did God create the universe because God loves beauty?

I have been preparing a set of talks on the two creation stories we find in Genesis 1-3. A recurring note in the first story (Genesis 1:1-2:3) is that after each day’s work in the creation process, God pauses to survey what he has done. He finds it good.

When the whole work of creation is complete at the end of the sixth day, God not only finds his creative work good, but declares it “very good”. This places a superlative judgment on all of God’s work.

earth_and_limb_m1199291564l_color_2stretch_mask_0

Like a precious pearl: The earth seen from outer space. Photo credit: NASA.

The Hebrew word we translate as good in this text is the word tov. It is helpful to understand the specific associations of this word. Tov does not carry a primary association of moral goodness. Rather it seems to mean more precisely good as something that pleases us, something that delights us, or something that gives us pleasure because it works the way it is supposed to. It has an aesthetic connotation rather than a moral connotation.

So when we read in Genesis that God looks upon his creative work and declares it tov, the text is signaling that God looks upon his creation like an art connoisseur. God sees it working as it is supposed to. He appreciates its beauty. That fills him with pleasure.

When we attend church, we don’t often hear ministers talk about God as one who delights in beauty. But I think we should. For the one who creates us as sensuous creatures is one who appreciates the power of beauty to move us deep within.

What Evokes Our Feeling of Awe

I know there are many ways people think of the power of beauty. I think of it, however, as the power to evoke in us a spontaneous response of pleasurable awe. When we stand in the presence of something beautiful, we catch our breath. Why? Because it seems so right as it is. For whatever reason it exists, it fulfills that reason perfectly. It is what it is meant to be.

That’s why, for example, a mathematician may describe a particular mathematical formula beautiful. It is what it is meant to be, often with the greatest of simplicity. When we look at a painting or a sculpture and proclaim it beautiful, we are in awe of what it is, precisely because every aspect of it–whether color, line, shape, or texture– contributes to that right being.

That is apparently the response of God in the Genesis text when God surveys the world he has created. In God’s vision, every aspect of this world is as it is meant to be. Therefore it is exceedingly tov or beautiful.

I think humans get in touch with that same feeling when we see some of the images of heavenly phenomena that have been captured by the Hubble telescope. Some of the images of galaxies or astral clouds just shimmer with color. They dazzle us.

Is that why on the seventh day God rests? God takes time to enjoy the beauty of the work he has just completed. Maybe that is also one reason why God created in the first place. God enjoys beauty and cannot help but be an artist.

Certainly the beauty of creation is cause for praise, according to the psalmist. One of the great praise psalms is Psalm 148. It soars as a song praising God for all the beautiful diversity of the universe. The psalmist moves from the glories of heaven, with its sun, moon, and stars, through the sea monsters and other creatures of the deep, through natural phenomena like fire, snow, and stormy winds, through the majesty of mountains, to the abundance of animals and wild beasts, to the diversity of human beings.

When we seek to create things of beauty, we humans show ourselves to be images of God, as the Genesis creation text says we are. We too take delight in creating things that shine out a glory because they are what they are meant to be.