An Intimidating Psalm

Psalm 119 is kind of infamous, isn’t it? It’s by far and away the longest of them all, yet by reusing its Law/Torah vocabulary systematically in each new stanza, it gives us that feeling we get where a public speaker turns a five-minute point into a thirty-minute talk. (Those of you who were at the some public function as me last night, any resemblances to the speaker there are purely coincidental.)

In my latest biblical quest, that of reading our canonical books in the Greek Old Testament (OT) or Septuagint (LXX), I have been making heavy weather of reading the Psalms, proving unable to keep up with the teaching schedule in my Psalms subject just completed at Melbourne School of Theology. I’ve been lodged just in Psalm 119 for two weeks, just finishing this morning.

It still is not an easy psalm. Just how deliriously joyful can the study of the Law be? For one thing, we probably need to broaden our understanding of ‘law’ and the similar terms used so often in the psalm. Another of this often reused set of words is, well, ‘word’, and perhaps that isn’t a bad one to focus on. The thing prized here is not just the set of prescriptions contained in our Pentateuch between Exodus and Deuteronomy. It is really “every word that comes from the mouth of God,” that is, every indication of his nature, his will, and his attitude toward us. It assumes that God has taken the trouble to let us know what he thinks of us and what he wants from us. And that’s inherently precious, and naturally to be celebrated. It’s a claim that God reaches out to us across the vast ontological gulf that naturally separates us. That’s a source of hope.

Beyond that important principle, which can help us understand a potentially inscrutable psalm, I have found a few things that help me appreciate it more:

  1. This I knew already, but half the fun of this psalm on a literary level is its acrostic acrobatics. Each stanza has eight lines, and in Hebrew, each of those eight lines begins with the Hebrew letter designated in the heading. This involves some linguistic tricks that, I’m sorry to say, only Hebrew readers really get to enjoy.
  2. Along with the parallelism that is so obvious within each verse, I notice that pairs of neighbouring verses often closely parallel one another, needless to say with plenty of Hebrew word fun along the way. Here are verses 169 & 170:
    • Let my cry come before you, O Lord;
    • Give me understanding according to you word!
    • Let my plea come before you;
    • Deliver me according to your word.
  3. The psalm is a microcosm of every other psalm genre. There is praise, of course, but there is lament over suffering, pleading for intervention, expressions of confidence, ‘imprecations’ or cursing of evil people, thanksgiving for God’s intervention and help, in a word all the different kinds of discourse we find elsewhere in the psalms. I won’t list examples, being under time pressure (as always), but read a few lines and you’ll see what I mean.
  4. On a similar note, the psalm is very personal. V. 149 pleads, “Hear my voice, Lord, according to your mercy, and in keeping with your judgment, let me live” (from the Greek). It’s all like that: intimate, raw and real, notwithstanding the device of mentioning God’s ‘law’ by some synonym in every verse.
  5. As a curiosity, I don’t actually know how we got our English numbering system; I have a vague sense that the number shapes are thanks to Arabic somehow. But I noticed that the LXX used what looks like a final-form sigma for six, then a zeta for seven, then an eta for eight. That can’t be coincidental, can it? But I’m revealing a gap in my education there. Someone better informed can add a comment telling us all where our numbers come from.
  6. Finally, the Greek of the psalm keeps using the term ‘melete‘ (with a long last ‘e’), which means something like study or close scrutiny. “Your commandments are my melete,” says v. 143. For me, one of the best ways to relate to God is through Bible study and reading, but I worry that that might be some poor egghead substitute for real, spiritual interaction with God, which leads me to a final comment.

I think that one reason that we struggle to appreciate this psalm might be, aside from a much lower tolerance of repetition than an ancient Jew, that we read the ‘law’ references in Pharisaic terms. “The letter kills,” we feel, “but the spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:6). This expresses a tension inherent to the spiritual life of the Christian, and the pendulum of church practice has swung between these two extremes. But Psalm 119 reassures us that the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive. The letter is capable of serving the spirit as well as resisting the spirit.

Studying your Bible can be a spiritual act, a devotional thing to do, a window on the will of God. It need not be a dead letter.

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Lift Us Up Where We Belong

An Appeal to Worship Leaders and Writers of Worship Songs

I’m a little envious, I have to admit, of the kind of ecstasy I see people experiencing around me in the worship time at church. It looks amazing. If it’s legal, I don’t mind getting some myself. But no, I would gladly concede, ecstasy is one emotion that’s appropriate for people drawing near to God, though arguably there might be times when abject penitence or a sort of shock might be equally apt.

But whatever the strong emotion, it isn’t how I arrive at church. Like many others, I have to rouse three or four bodies as sleepy as mine out of bed on a Sunday morning and make sure they get in the car at home and back out at church before the sermon’s over. It doesn’t induce a state of meditation, let alone ecstasy. And if my eyes are shutting, that might not be ecstasy either, though I don’t mind if people think so. Sometimes I just can’t keep them open.

We want to worship. Please remind us why it’s so right. What was it again, that God has done? Continue reading

Law, Grace, and Sabbath for the Christian: An Open (Anonymous) Letter

Dusting off the old blog once again! In my teaching role, I have just been asked by a student for my Christian position on Sabbath observance for today. Since I’ve taken the trouble to state my position succinctly for her, perhaps it might start a conversation or stimulate your thinking on the topic if I record my reply here. Keep in mind that I’m from a rather free-church, not-very-hierarchical and not-very-liturgical Protestant tradition as an Australian Baptist.

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The Digital Document Detective Episode 2: Ancient and Medieval Backgrounds

You can find many important ancient, medieval, Renaissance/Reformation and Modern primary documents online. The scene is changing all the time, and sometimes documents you could find earlier disappear. But more often the trend is towards greater availability, and other parties such as European libraries and universities are catching up to Google in providing materials online. Top-notch critical editions and recent scholarly publications are the two categories of documents usually not available online except behind paywalls. Older materials, private translations, book previews, online journals…there is still much that is useful that can be found online for free. Here is merely a sample list, stemming from things I was looking for in my own research:

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Hacksaw Ridge Movie Preview

Thanks to an invitation through the Ethos Centre for Christianity and Society, based in Victoria, Australia, I spent last evening at a preview screening of Mel Gibson’s new film, Hacksaw Ridge. I thought while it was fresh, and since it hasn’t come out in Aussie cinemas yet, I don’t think, I’d offer a short evaluation.

The Story

We all hate spoilers, and this bit of fluff will give you time to look away…

Alright, in very brief, it’s the story of an unusual war hero, an American pacifist who went to fight on the Pacific front in WWII, voluntarily, but wouldn’t handle, let alone fire a weapon on principle. His name was Desmond Doss. And his principles were related both to earlier personal experiences and to Christian beliefs.

(I actually know some Americans, friends who have nearly the same level of distaste for guns of any kind. Just thought I’d put that on record. You can’t judge a book by its bookstore, I always say. From now.)

Okay, I won’t tell you how it all came out in the wash, but offer some pluses and minuses, while still trying not to spoil the plot.

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Mini-Book Review: Failure Is Not Final: A Life of C.H. Nash

Do you ever have a book hanging around that you guiltily feel you ought to have read?

To some mild extent, that’s how I felt about Darrell Paproth’s book, Failure Is Not Final: A Life of C.H. Nash (Sydney: Centre for the Study of Australian Christianity, 1997). Why? Because it is the story of the founder of the theological college where I work, now Melbourne School of Theology (MST), before that Bible College of Victoria (BCV), and originally Melbourne Bible Institute (MBI). I should know about this man, I thought, whose story made my own story in its current form possible. The author, too, spent a number of years from 1986 teaching at BCV, so his ministry life also symbolized the influence of this noteworthy figure of Australian Christianity from the early days of the Commonwealth (post-1901).

Biographies don’t always leap off the shelf at you, but in time I felt ready, and especially on a recent, first-time visit to Papua New Guinea, namely MST’s daughter college, the Christian Leader’s Training College in Banz, near Mt. Hagen, I found Paproth’s book a suitable companion. Continue reading

A Footnote to That Sermon on Worship Music

I didn’t really admit this when I prepared and presented that sermon on worship music a couple of months ago: https://firstthreequarters.wordpress.com/2015/07/19/a-sermon-on-music-in-worship-worshipping-in-song/

Worshipping in Song Prezi Sshot

https://prezi.com/czzhib-lcf3_/worshipping-in-song/

…but I am actually pretty worried about where worship music is in my kind of evangelical Protestant churches such as I see here in Australia. The following video from the US speaks in jest, though not too biting in my view, but it puts its finger on the problem:

That is pretty well the way most worship songs sound to me – very often four-chord pop flavourless enough to avoid offending most musical tastes, in fact, really quite ‘accessible’ even on the first listen, and with words that in themselves are hard to fault. They’re correct enough in some ways as to make me wonder why I usually feel completely unmoved, in fact, disinterested. Is the problem with me? Does my heart not respond because I don’t belong with these people? Because I’m not an authentic Christian? The people around me mostly look carried away in a kind of ecstasy that I don’t feel at any time, and am certainly not feeling at the time. The first song begins, and it’s straight into a kind of euphoric state. How can a person get so high emotionally so instantly? I’m not being sarcastic or cynical. I’m mystified. Whatever train the ecstatic worshippers around me are on, I clearly didn’t catch, or else I fell off the back of it. What is wrong with me?

I don’t know the answer to that. But I hope we aren’t happy to have the show go on when the playwright has left the building. It could, I think. The band can still play even while the ship sinks. For those who relate to weather analogies (that will whittle the readership down!), is it like a cumulonimbus (a thundercloud) whose big, showy head floats on when the big, dark cloud base that generated it has long evaporated away?

Spent desert thunderstom, from http://www.stormeffects.com/images/.

Spent desert thunderstorm, from http://www.stormeffects.com/images/.

Is it all “sound and fury, signifying nothing”? Why does it all feel so empty to me?

It might be partly me, but it isn’t entirely me, I don’t think. On my recent first-time visit to Papua New Guinea with some of our college students, we spent several church services with students and families at Christian Leaders’ Training College in Banz in the highlands. And for the first time in a long time, I felt sure that the worship I was hearing was real. Similar instruments, somewhat different songs, but somehow there was something far more authentic there that I’ve been missing.

That X factor. And it sure can’t be found on X Factor, either.