Sunday, 26 February 2012

The Psalms through the eyes of Jesus

They think it’s all over … but it isn’t!

There are three parts to the Old Testament in the Hebrew Scriptures Jesus knew.

The Law – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy

The Prophets – Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings
                        Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the Book of the Twelve

So when we reached Malachi and stood on the threshold of the New Testament, we were only two thirds of the way through the Old Testament.

The Old Testament is a challenging read.

For us as Christians our way into the Old Testament has been to use Jesus as our guide.

In doing that we have good precedence.

When John Barnes took time out to write notes outlining his instructions for his funeral service, drawing on the hymns and music he and Joan had had at their wedding, outlining not only biographical notes detailing the death from TB of his mother and two sisters by the time he was nine making him a life-long socialist, but also his philosophy of life built on the principle ‘I am my brother’s keeper’, he also pointed us to two readings.  One verses from Psalm 118 that included the words, This is the day which the Lord hath made I will rejoice and be glad in it.  And the other the story of the Two on the Road to Emmaus.

That story is not only a wonderful story of resurrection, the welcome of the stranger, and of Christ known in the breaking of bread … it is also a wonderful insight into the way we as Christians are to read the Hebrew Scriptures we think of as the Old Testament.

Faced with two distraught travelling companions at their wits end because the one they had hoped would redeem Israel had been cruelly killed, Jesus’ response was to despair and then to respond to the bit they had missed

‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

Jesus is not in the business of seeking proof texts – those occasional passages where so-called predictions seem to be made that find their fulfilment in him.

He begins with Moses and the Law, and goes on to ‘all the prophets’, and interprets to them the things about himself in ‘all the scriptures’.

How wonderful to have eaves dropped on their conversation.

Later in the Upper Room when those two return filled with excitement Jesus appears again with those wonderful words ‘Peace be with you’.  We are not told how late into the night the conversation went but again it would have been wonderful to have been a fly on the wall.

Then he said to them,   ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 

While we do not have a record of his teaching, I believe in the Gospels and the Epistles we have the fruit of that teaching.  And we can see how the first Christians read their Old Testament in the light of the insights Jesus had shared with them.  Our task as Christian readers of the Old Testament, it seems to me, is to draw as much as we can from what the insights of those New  Testament writers, and in particular as much as we can from the way they imply that Jesus handled not just the Law and the Prophets but all the Scriptures too.

And so we turn to the third part of the Hebrew Scripture – the so-called Writings.  We are going to take a look at this miscellany of writings that for the most part is put together during the Exile and at the end of the period we have covered so far in the Law and the Prophets, in the order the books appear in the Hebrew Bible.

Psalms, Job and Proverbs are rich mix of poetry, prayer, praise, and wisdom writing that reflects on God’s way in the world often asking the very big question WHY?  Why should there be such suffering in the world of God’s creation.

Then come the five little scrolls of the Megilloth, each of which came to be associated after the time of Jesus with the great religious festivals of the Jewish calendar; Song of songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther

Then we’ll look at Daniel.  A book that stands with Revelation in the New Testatment as a book of Apocalyptic writing.

And we will finish with one last look at the story of Israel that is the backdrop for the story of Jesus in Ezra, Nehemiah and Chronicles.

[I am indebted to this approach to the Writings to Walter Brueggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament – the Canon and Christian Imagination (Westminster, John Knox Press, 2003)]

And so we begin with the Book of Psalms … or rather with the Five Books of Psalms.  Can you spot anything significant about our Order of Service?

Each of our five hymns is based on a Psalm and followed with a doxology or words of blessing.  The first hymn is based on a psalm from the first book of Psalms, the second hymn is based on a psalm from the second and so on.  Each  hymn is followed by a doxology, words of blessing – and those are the final words of each of the books of Psalms.  If you are looking for a way of rounding off a service or you want a blessing from the Old Testament look for the last verse or verses of each of the books of Psalms.

Some people think of the Psalms as the hymn book of the Second Temple.  The superscriptions are added later but lots of them suggest the kind of music the psalms can be sung to and by whom.

To the choirmaster or the leader is a note attached to fifty-five psalms,  according to the hind of dawn, according to the lilies, according to the dove on far-off terebinths.     Psalm 45  To the leader, according to the lilies. Of the Korahites.  A Maskil.  A love song.

Hymn books are interesting.  It cannot be said for some collections of hymns like Mission Praise and Songs of Fellowship which nowadays are arranged alphabetically, but a hymn book is a good book to have.

We may not have hymns but we sing the theology of our church – and you can see that in the way our hymn book is structured.

Look at the contents of Congregational Praise.  The Eternal Father. The Lord Jesus Christ.  The Holy Spirit.  The Trinity.  The holy Scriptures. The Church.  The life of Discipleship.  Social and National  Times and Seasons Special Occasions.

It has been said that a hymn book is for us in our tradition much as a prayer book is to those in another tradition.

That’s interesting, because of course you can see the Psalms not as hymns but as a collection of prayers.  There are different categories of prayer.

There are prayers of Celebration for all the people collectively and prayers of Celebration for individuals that are very personal.

There are prayers of protest and petition, communal laments for disasters that have befallen the people, and intensely personal laments for the ills that have befallen an individual.

Read the Psalms as a collection.

The begin in Psalm 1 with a choice – Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked but their delight is in the law of the Lord.

This is the choice we have encountered in the Law.  It is the choice worked out in all the former prophets.  It is the choice Jesus presents to us at the climax to the Sermon on the mount.  Choose the narrow gate, beware of false prophets in sheep’s clothing.  Hear my words and act on them and be like the wise man who build his house on the rock, not the foolish man who built his house on the sand.

Like book-ends keeping books together. The whole collection of Psalms finishes with a sequence of wonderful celebrations of God in all his triumphant glory finishing with the greatest of all celebrations on the tambourine and drum in Psalm 150.

It’s not long, however, before the simplicities of that clear choice are brought into question.

Psalm 13 How long O Lord, will you forget me.

That’s a question that plagues Jesus in the Garden and on the Cross – and one that has come upon many a believer as the Dark night of the Soul.

How do you get from the agony of Psalm 22 verse 1 My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.  To the confidence of Psalm 24 The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it ?

You can only move from the agony to the glory through Psalm 23 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

Look out for sequences, structures in the Psalm.

Whether hymns, or psalms, this is Poetry often at its finest.  What Neil Astley says of poetry in his fine anthology Staying Alive is as true of the Psalms as it is of the poetry of any language.

“The best contemporary poetry is life-affirming and directly relevant to all our lives.”  Staying Alive (Bloodaxe Press, 2002), 19.

He quotes some of the great poets on poetry – and what they say of poetry can be said of the psalms

Coleridge:  Poetry: the best words in the best order.

Make no mistake about it there is a craft about the poetry of the Psalms.  Look out for parallelism where the same thought is expressed in two consecutive lines but in different words.  Or where each line starts with the each letter of the alphabet in turn.

Yeats:  Poetry is truth seen with passion.

By the time we reach the end of the second book of Psalms in Psalm 72 we have encountered no end of Psalms linked with moments in David’s life.  Think of David’s adultery with Bathsheba and subsequent murder of her husband and then the impact of Nathan’s prophecy.  And hear the passion of Psalm 51

Have mercy on me O God according to your steadfast love.
According to your abundant mercy, blot out my transgressions.

Into the third book you cannot help but feel that  the psalms make you think.

William Cowper, suffering as he did from depression at its worst knows the value of that prayer of lament in Psalm 77 and what it is like to face the clouds ye so much dread.  It is something to get your mind round.  And that prayer becomes the most wonderful of hymns in God moves in a mysterious way.

Moving into the fourth book there are Psalms of national celebration as kings are crowned in the third book of Psalms around the 90 to 100 mark.  Our God our help in ages past our hope for years to come – is a paraphrase by Isaac Watts of Psalm 90.

Into the fifth book and there are psalms of great praise and celebration, associated with the Passover and thought of as the great hallel psalms, the great hallelujah psalms – from Psalm 111 following.  The great acrostic Psalm 119 that is a celebration of God’s Word in Law and Prophets.

Then the psalms of pilgrimage from 121 to 133 as people together go up to Jerusalem and the temple.

And at the last in the last book of Psalms a sequence of Psalms in the 140’s that celebrate the great themes of the Law and the Prophets of Justice and Mercy.

The Lord sets the prisoners free; 
   the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
   the Lord loves the righteous. 
The Lord watches over the strangers;
   he upholds the orphan and the widow,
   but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin. 

The Lord will reign for ever,
   your God, O Zion, for all generations.
Praise the Lord!

The whole of Jesus’s story is seen in the Psalms.  These are words that lived in him and he drew on in prayer, these are words he sang in the worship of temple and synagogue.

How important it is to read these words through the eyes of Jesus.  We need to heed his sermon on the mount when we come to hateful things uttered in the Psalms.  And anoint these words with the love of Christ.

We are going to finish with John Milton’s paraphrase of Psalm 136.

There is a recurring refrain.

O give thanks to the Lord for he is good,
For his steadfast love endures for ever

Hymn 44 Let us with a gladsome mind Praise the Lord for he is kind.
For his mercies ay endure, ever faithful ever sure.

And as we come to the end of that fifth book of Psalms there is only one Psalm we can use – Psalm 150!

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