Flesh Finds Its Fulfillment

Death is not the ultimate destiny for our mortal flesh.

I find it hard to make sense at times of the Epistle to the Hebrews. I get the gist of the author’s argument. He is trying to persuade some wavering Christians to remain firm in their allegiance to Jesus.

What I find hard to follow is the support arguments he makes for his case. For one, he makes constant references to the old Jewish temple and sacrificial rituals. If we are not familiar with them, as most modern Christians are not, then we will find the arguments he makes based upon them puzzling.

For two, the author is well versed in the Greek literary culture. He writes elegant Greek. He also slides in and out of the Greek practice of interpreting narratives as allegory. He sees aspects of the Old Testament story as prefiguring the events that happened with Jesus. This is not quite seeing Old Testament details as spiritual symbolism, but it’s not far from that. That can challenge our attempts to understand his argument, too.

Yet his imagery and phrasing can prove highly provocative to the imagination. They stick in our minds like thistle burrs. We have a hard time shaking them out. They have left an enduring impact on Christian worship language and theology.

The Example of Melchizedek

Let me give one example. The author makes a big deal about the Old Testament figure of Melchizedek. Melchizedek is a minor figure in the Old Testament. He is described in Genesis 14 as the priest-king of Salem, the future city of Jerusalem. He greets Abraham after his victory over four kings. Abraham gives Melchizedek a tenth of the spoils. Melchizedek in turn entertains Abraham with a meal of bread and wine.

Early Christian readers noted that small detail. They saw it as prefiguring the Christian Eucharist. And so in Christian iconography, Melchizedek’s reception of Abraham is linked to the celebration of the mass.

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The mosaic of Melchizedek in the Church of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy. 6th century A.D.

A beautiful example appears in the Church of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy. There a mosaic shows Melchizedek offering a sacrifice of bread in front of something that looks like a Christian altar. His bread is clearly prefiguring the bread that will be consecrated in this spot in the Christian Eucharist.

Entering the Inner Sanctuary

 It was a different detail, however, that caught my attention as I was reading Hebrews recently. In chapter 10, the author writes:

Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. (Hebrews 10:19-23)

The point of the passage is found in the last sentence. The author repeats once again his admonition to remain steady in faith. He has been repeating this theme throughout the letter.

We can be resolute in faith, he argues, because Jesus has opened the way into the inner temple. Here he is alluding to the curtain that separated the most inner sanctum of the Jewish temple, the Holy of Holies, from the less sacred Holy Place. Only the high priest could enter this inner room. And that only once a year, on the Day of Atonement.

Now the author of Hebrews employs this imagery to express a spiritual reality that the earthly reality points to. The inner sanctum is the presence of God. We can confidently enter into that presence because Jesus has opened the curtain that separates us from the presence of God.

The Curtain of Flesh

Here’s the detail that grabbed my attention. The author says in a parenthetic phrase that that spiritual curtain is our earthly flesh. By having lived a life of faithfulness in the flesh—a flesh he shares with all of us human beings—Jesus has opened the way into God’s presence.

When I read that, this detail became the burr that stuck in my mind and provoked some further reflection.

It is an axiom of Christian spirituality that God is spirit. As invisible spirit, God cannot be perceived directly by the sensory organs of our bodies. We cannot see God with our eyes nor hear him with our ears. In that respect our material bodies are a barrier to spiritual perception.

We can only perceive God’s presence indirectly, through the effects God has in his actions in the world. That’s why I think the traditional proof for God’s existence based upon the world’s design has such persuasive power, even if it does not provide a logic-tight proof. We sense the presence of a creative power behind the beautiful universe we observe with our senses and our scientific tools.

And that is how it must be as long as we remain creatures of flesh. In that sense, I resonate with what the author of Hebrews says when he identifies the obscuring curtain with our material flesh.

But what if our flesh can come to perceive spirit? What if our flesh can be given the right perceptive capability? That is, I believe, the good news of the Christian gospel. For the destiny of the material universe–and the destiny of each of us as material human beings–is ultimately to be so infused with God’s Spirit that we can come to perceive God’s presence directly. The barrier of flesh is transcended.

The Role of Resurrection

And how does that happen? By a transformation of the flesh in the experience of resurrection. In the resurrection we become, indeed the whole universe becomes, material bodies which unite with spirit in a perfect and fulfilling union. As a result of that union, we become capable of perceiving the world of spirit in a way we could not before.*

This transforming experience seems to be what the apostle Paul is trying to describe in 1 Corinthians 15. There he says of the resurrection that lies ahead:

So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual. (1 Corinthians 15:42-46)

Our experience of life in the flesh is one of both pleasure and pain. It is a life of mutability, for our bodies are always in flux. It is one of health and of disease. It is one of amazing ability (witness Olympic athletes) and one of disability and limiting injuries. It is one of creativity and one of staleness. It is one of vitality, and one that ends in total loss that comes with death.

It is these facts of life that made the ancient Greeks so disdainful of material life. In the great Platonic vision, salvation meant escape from this imperfect, mutable existence and arrival in the static, but perfect world of spirit (the world of the Forms). Christian spirituality has inherited much of this disdain in its various forms of extreme asceticism.

But that is not the vision of the New Testament. When Christians proclaimed the gospel of the resurrection of Jesus, they held out to the world an unprecedented hope. They saw the destiny of human beings–and ultimately of the whole universe–to be a glorious transformation when material existence is not abolished, but raised to a high and glorious existence, in which matter and spirit are so interfused that they become one.

We see this vision described with great vividness in the vision of the new Jerusalem that we find in Revelation 21-22.

The Practical Point

Now what is the practical, here-and-now point of this Christian vision? It means Christians are called to care deeply about life now in the flesh. In caring for that life here and now we are stewards with God in working to bring material life to its glorious destiny.

We do not run away from the demands placed upon us by daily living, demands that we encounter in carrying for our families and earning our living in our jobs. We pursue with all our energies the search for healing for bodies and minds. We work to nurture the well-being of our environment and the earth’s climate. We care deeply about the needs of the poor and disadvantaged, for we work to help them rise to their glorious destiny too.

And yet we do all this well aware that the eternal is not the same as the material existence we now live. Therefore there is nothing about our present material existence that is of supreme value. We do not turn material existence into idolatry. We long for a glorious destiny that has not yet arrived in its fulness. All of the material creation must pass through the door of death before it can emerge into resurrection.**

I am aware that what I am writing may sound just as strange as the language of the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews. I am trying to describe a vision I have of creation and life that I cannot describe with full precision because it is not yet here. Yet I glimpse hints of it throughout the New Testament.

We can sometimes feel about our lives that we are stuck in the mud, as if we are turtles crawling through the muck of a fetid swamp. That, to some degree, is life in the flesh. Yet the Christian gospel tells us that is not a fully correct perception. The swamp will someday be transformed into a beautiful paradise garden, fed by all the life that was the swamp. And we turtles will one day sprout wings so we can soar through this garden like dragonflies.

In the meantime, let us–as the author of Hebrews might counsel–keep up our faithful crawling encouraged and buoyed by our vision of the glorious destiny that is coming in God’s providential timing.

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* If I understand the theology of Teilhard de Chardin correctly, this is what he means by his Omega Point. Like the Epistle to the Hebrews, his writings can be challenging to read, but they linger in my mind and continually stimulate my thought. What I write in this post would not be possible without the influence of Teilhard de Chardin on my own thinking.

** In saying that, I think of the strange phenomena of black holes in our universe. I wonder if we cannot think of black holes as the form of death that stars experience. What happens to a star when it is sucked into a black hole? Does it dissolve away? Or does it go through some kind of resurrection experience? Who knows? But the message of the gospel might suggest that in the black hole experience stars too undergo some kind of mysterious transformation.

 

Pioneer Jesus

Precisely because he is a full human being, Jesus can open to us the pathway into wholeness.

 I was reading the Epistle of the Hebrews when I came to this passage, as it is translated by the New Revised Standard Version:

It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. (Hebrews 2:10)

As sometime happens when I am reading a passage, one word jumps off the page and grabs my attention. In this case, it was the author describing Jesus as the pioneer of their salvation. That word pioneer seemed an odd choice.

When I hear the word pioneer, what first comes to mind is this definition: one of those who first enter or settle a region, thus opening it for occupation and development by others. * So I think of childhood heroes like Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, who launched into the virgin lands of the American West and opened them for settlement.

Why use this word to describe Jesus? That’s the question I asked myself. I wondered what was the Greek word that lies behind this translation. Consulting the Greek text, I found it was the word archegos. I opened my Greek dictionary to see what meaning it might assign to this word.

The first meaning the dictionary gave it was: a leader, a ruler, a prince. That made sense in that one meaning of the Greek word arche is rule or office. But then the dictionary gave the word archegos the additional meaning of: one who begins something, an originator, a founder. That, too, made sense in that the primary meaning of arche is beginning.

Given these meanings, why did the translation team select the word pioneer? Since I cannot talk with one of team, I must hazard a guess. Certainly Jesus could be regarded as the Christian’s leader or ruler. But I noticed the context places great emphasis on the importance of Jesus’ sufferings.

The importance of Jesus’ sufferings comes up again in a later passage: Hebrews 4:14-16. There we read that Jesus can sympathize with our weaknesses, because he was one who was tested just as we are, but came through the tests into victory. The author counsels his readers, therefore, to approach the throne of grace boldly in their prayers. The one who sits on that throne is not a harsh, unfeeling judge, but one who understands our challenges because he has experienced them too.

Opening a Spiritual Mountain Pass

Here is where the translation pioneer begins to resonate for me. The author of Hebrews has no doubt about the divinity of Jesus, but he also believes just as firmly that Jesus was a real human being. We find in the epistle some of the most exalted language in describing Jesus, but also language that depicts his real humanity. The Jesus of Hebrews is a victor certainly, but a victor who has achieved his victory through a real experience of a life limited by the constrictions, anxieties, and trials of real human beings.

As the pioneers of America broke through the barrier of the Appalachian mountains and opened up to others the vast expanses of territory on the other side, so likewise I can think of Jesus as this pioneer who breaks through all the limitations of human life to open to humanity the vast and spacious territory of the Kingdom of God.

Now that the barriers have been broken through, the rest of us can follow. Jesus shows us the way to transform our trials and sufferings into mountain passes that can conduct us into a spacious wholeness beyond them. We find that way described for us in the gospels. Which is why the gospels are so central to our spiritual journeys. They describe not just Jesus the pioneer, but also the road which he opened up in the wilderness and on which he summons us to follow him.

With the gift of the Holy Spirit, Jesus offers us the same power to grow through our own life sufferings and challenges into that spaciousness of life that we call salvation. He invites us to follow him on the road he has pioneered–which includes both a cross and a resurrection–so that we can experience that wholeness of life which he has entered into in advance of us.

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* This is the first definition given the word in The Random House Dictionary of the English Language. New York: Random House, 1966.

What the Apostle Paul Means by Freedom

The apostle’s view runs counter to that of most Americans.

 Two years ago when I published my study guide to the apostle Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, I titled it Charter of Christian Freedom. I did so because Christians have long regarded Galatians as a powerful statement about the freedom Christ has conferred upon believers.

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The apostle’s point comes through most boldly in Galatians 5:1:

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

This verse is Paul’s gospel claim within the sphere of public debate. It could be printed on posters and mounted prominently in every church.

It is easy, however, to pervert Paul’s message if we do not take time to understand what he means by freedom. We especially do so when we Americans bring to Paul our own prevailing understanding of freedom.

The Common American Understanding of Freedom

When America issued its Declaration of Independence in 1776, it stated that all human beings are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Ever since Americans have made liberty one of their most cherished—if not the greatest–values.

But what does freedom mean to most Americans today? When I hear my fellow citizens talk about freedom, I get the sense that what freedom means for them is license to do whatever they please. No external compulsive power is able to tell us what to do or how to live.

Nothing—whether government regulation, social convention, institutional authority, or family pressure—blocks us from doing whatever we want to do. Our home is our individual castle which presides over our own world of individual sovereignty. This concept of freedom, I believe, lies at the core of a lot of libertarian as well as identity politics.

The problem is: How do you maintain a wholesome social order with this understanding of freedom? For this concept of freedom remains essentially ego-centric. What counts in the end is my ability to do what I please. The momentum behind such a concept of freedom is the drive to fulfill my own self-interest, my own well-being and prosperity.

The ego-centrism may not just be confined to individual persons. It can also characterize groups and societies as corporate individuals. And so we can find that ethnic or religious groups can make the advancement of their own well-being the primary focus of their energies. Likewise, nations can say all that really counts in international relations is each country following its own national self-interest.

Finding Our Way in Such a World of Freedom

 How do we negotiate our way in such a context of freedom? Usually by two options. One is competition. All free individuals are in competition with one another. In competition, conflict is resolved when one party wins and all others lose. It tends to be a zero-sum game. If I win, you lose. If you win, I lose.

It was the fundamental assumption of ancient Greek society, the society in which Paul’s readers and listeners had grown up. Greek city states presumed that strife (eris)– strife between states, between social classes, between individuals–was the natural condition of life.

Paul recognizes the perils of this understanding of freedom when he warns his readers:

If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another (Galatians 5:15).

 That was abundantly fulfilled in the history of ancient Greece. All the rival city states fought each other incessantly, as each individual state sought to achieve hegemony within the Greek world. In the process they weakened each other so much that when Macedonian imperial power invaded Greece, no city state could successfully resist such integrated power.

The other negotiating option is compromise. But to someone who prizes his or her self-interest above all other values, compromise can feel distasteful. I have to moderate my own desires and needs by accommodating to the desires and needs of others. That can feel like I am settling for second best, not the best. We find this distaste for compromise among many extremist groups today.

Paul’s Concept of Freedom

So what does Paul mean by freedom? I think we get at his concept of freedom in Galatians 5:13-14:

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Freedom for Paul is the experience of being liberated or released from our dominating ego-centrism. It removes all the obstacles that keep us from being the people God created us to be, from living the life that God calls us to live. That life embraces two important tasks:

  • To recognize, develop, and use our God-given gifts, talents, and skills for God’s glory and for service to others, and
  • To give ourselves in love to others and to receive their love and service in return without impediment.

Paradoxically when we live into such love and service to others, we find ourselves becoming most fully the individuals that God created each of us to be uniquely. Our own personal fulfillment is the unexpected by-product of this paradoxical freedom.

Obstacles to Freedom

The obstacles that keep us from experiencing such freedom may be many. They can be:

  • Psychological hang-ups,
  • Social prejudice,
  • Family or societal expectations,
  • Paralyzing feelings of guilt or shame,
  • Distorted thinking,
  • Political or economic oppression,
  • Ethnic or religious discrimination,
  • Spiritual woundedness,
  • Physical diseases and disabilities.

Especially potent obstacles for Paul are spiritual forces at work in the world. Paul refers to them in passing in Galatians 4:3, when he speaks of “the elemental spirits of the world.” Elsewhere he will call them the “principalities and powers in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 3:10). Today we might describe them as the systemic structures, mindsets, and expectations that govern the way the world operates.

They are so deadly to human freedom that Paul warns his readers in Ephesians 6:10-12:

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

Life can be full of obstacles that keep us from being the unique persons God calls us to be. That is what the work of God’s salvation is all about, setting us free from all these obstacles.  Salvation is all about liberation. That is clear from the Exodus story, which becomes the paradigm for all of God’s future works of salvation.

When we enter fully into this kind of freedom—the freedom for which Christ has set us free–we can be truly spontaneous in our way of living, for our whole being will be governed by the spontaneity of the Holy Spirit. It is at the same time a responsible freedom. It takes seriously God’s call to respect the dignity and value of all others, including even the natural creation.

When we enter into this kind of freedom, we can finally live without a spiritual or psychological hang-up the counsel that St Augustine gave his congregation centuries ago:

Once for all, then, a short precept is given thee: Love, and do what thou wilt….*

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* St. Augustine, Seventh Homily on 1 John 4:4-12

Promise or Delusion?

How are we to take the prophet Isaiah’s vision of a new Jerusalem?

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Vision of the new Jerusalem, as envisioned by the French artist Gustave Doré, 1890

I’ve been reading my way through the Old Testament prophetic book of Isaiah. The prophets are full of denunciations of sin and forewarnings of divine judgment. But chapter 62 of Isaiah is very different. It is a magnificent vision of a new Jerusalem that God promises to create in the future.

It is a glowing vision. The prophet describes the restored city as a crown and diadem in the hand of God. The city will be renowned in the earth. Gentiles, who have oppressed the city, will now serve it. They will harvest the grain and grapes to feed the city’s residents, who will be called The Holy People.

The prophet in fact describes the city in the metaphor of a bride, decked out in all her jewels and finery. For the city will have been restored into a loving relationship with God, who is described in the metaphorical language of a bridegroom. The city that was once described as Forsaken and Desolate will now be called My Delight and Married.*

The passage is a beautiful note of consolation to the Jewish exiles living in Babylon.** They need not despair. Their exile is not the last word from God. What lies ahead of them is a glorious future, when all their misery will be transformed into joy.

My spirit flares up when I read the passage, just as the prophet describes Zion’s vindication shining out like the dawn. It gives me a hopeful heart.

A question, however, lurks in the background of my thoughts. When is this future that the prophet so lovingly proclaims? How should I as the reader understand the timing of that future?

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There are various options for understanding the prophet’s words. When the prophet spoke these words, he may well have expected that the glorious restoration of Zion lay in the near future. That’s why his words could be such a consolation to the discouraged exiles.

Is he saying to the exiles: Buck up! This exile is not going to last long. You will soon return to Zion, but when you do, you will return to a glorious city that will reverse all the conditions of life that you are now experiencing.

If that is what the prophet assumed the inspired words meant when he spoke them, then he was wrong. Yes, Jews would return from exile under the Persian emperor Cyrus and rebuild the city.

But the city they rebuilt was a shabby provincial city that the wider world would have largely ignored. We know from the books of Ezra and Nehemiah as well as from the prophetic books of Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi that life in this new Jerusalem was pretty precarious and demoralizing for a long time.

If this was the time frame that the prophet had in mind, then his words were not ultimately words of consolation, but words that fostered a great disappointment.

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But, of course, the prophet is never precise in identifying the timing he has in mind. For this reason, many Biblical scholars will argue that what the prophet is expressing is an eschatological vision. The Greek word eschaton means end, in the sense of terminal end. So eschatological has become an adjective that scholars apply to any talk about The End in the sense of the end of history.

The prophet then is describing a vision of Zion that will be realized when history comes to its grand and glorious conclusion. The eschaton will not only be the end as finis of history. It also represents the divine goal, the fulfillment, to which God has been ceaselessly working through all the complex forces of history. Yet it is an end whose locus will still be on the earth.

If this is how we are to read the vision, then its fulfillment has yet to come. Nothing so far that has happened in the history of Jerusalem has fulfilled the promise. The fulfillment lies yet ahead in an indeterminate future.

If we read the prophecy in this way, we understand that the prophet is holding out an existential consolation to the exiles in their present misery. But the consolation depends upon an indeterminate future date that may be far in the future beyond their own deaths and the deaths of their descendants. How well did this word console a people trapped in their daily struggle to survive in an alien land?

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A variation of this eschatological vision is the interpretation that what the prophet offers is a vision of heaven. Here is, yes, an eschatological vision, but the eschaton has been moved from the end of history to eternity. It is a description of life that will be fulfilled in eternity. This was a favored interpretation of medieval monks who looked forward longingly to that life after death that would be ours in Jerusalem the Golden, that is, heaven itself.***

In this interpretation the prophet’s words are words of consolation not just to the Jewish exiles in 6thcentury B.C. Babylon. They are inspiring words for all humanity. They open up to us a breath-taking cosmic vision. And so the prophet’s words remain an eternal divine promise. We can count on it because God is always faithful to his promises.

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 Or lastly we might read the prophet’s vision not as inspired expression but as just plain wishful thinking. He longs to speak a word of consolation to his dispirited compatriots. A vision of the glorious future of their ruined, devastated city might have seemed just what everyone needed. But is it grounded in any reality? Is it not just a cruel delusion?

I confess that I don’t know which of these options I find most persuasive. I like those that seem to nurture faith and confidence. Yet doubt creeps around the edges and raises pesky questions.

The Dance of Doubt and Faith

And isn’t that exactly the experience of a life of faith? We hear the promises of God spoken in Scripture. We take confidence in living because of those promises. And yet the circumstances of our lives as they unfold constantly call that confidence into question. Could all the promises we hear be in the end delusions?

Blaise Pascal famously described faith as taking a bet on God. I have placed my bet on God and his promises. But that does not mean that my faith ever completely silences the whispers of doubt. Doubt and faith dance together. And in the end we live by faith, not by certainty.

I’m curious how any of you my readers deal with  the questions that a passage like Isaiah 62 raise for me. If you would like to share your thoughts, I would welcome hearing from you.

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* The Hebrew words of My Delight and Married are the words Hephzibah and Beulah. Isaiah 62 is the source for what were once quite common names for women in the English-speaking world. I myself had an aunt who was named Beulah.

** I understand the prophet speaking in Isaiah 62 to not be the 8th century prophet under King Hezekiah, but an anonymous prophet, probably in Babylon, of the late 6th century B.C.

*** One of the most soaring descriptions of heaven as Jerusalem the Golden is found in the 12thcentury Latin poem De Contemptu Mundi  by the Cluniac monk Bernard. It reads:

Jerusalem the Golden,

With milk and honey blest,

Beneath thy contemplation

Sink heart and voice oppressed.

I know not, O I know not,

What social joys are there,

What radiancy of glory,

What light beyond compare!

The passage has inspired a number of Christian hymns that we regularly sing in church.

 

 

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.

 

In God We Trust

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

2016-d-jefferson-nickel

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.

A Society in Collapse

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

Ruins_of_Samaria

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.

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* 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.