More than transformed rubble

Nehemiah 12 commences with a generational roll call of eminent priests and Levites (v.1-26) among whom is Abijah (v.4) from whom Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist was descended (Luke 1:5).

Having shared his account of the building of the wall in chapters 1-7, Nehemiah now depicts for us the dedication day, with its twin processions and loud rejoicing for their restoration (v.27-43).

After an extensive rebuilding program that touched the lives of the entire community and brought security and pride to the people of Jersulem again. It was a time to celebrate the goodness of God and give thanks. There is no doubt that this would have been a spectacular event to behold, bringing together Levites, singers and musicians from the surrounding regions. But it was also a sacred event requiring the purification (v.30) of the Levites, the people and gates and wall itself.

Two impressive choirs led the processions which departed in different directions to circumnavigate the city, coming together at the house of the Lord (v.40) where great sacrifices and loud rejoicing was offereds because “God had given them great joy.”

In verses 44- 47, this show of joy and zeal is tapped into, to ensure that worship remains part of the fabric of society with key appointments made to collect and look after the tithes and offerings and lead worship.

While the story of Nehemiah teaches us that rubble can be transformed to restore pride and give security again, the Parable of the Tenants in Matthew 21:33-45 further educates us that more than physical walls can be built with that which has been rejected.

“‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is marvellous in our eyes’?

Jesus prophecises of a time when those very walls that Nehemiah built up, were about to come tumbling down again, because the religious zeal for God had been lost (v.43-45).

Processing trauma

How does one process trauma? Be it as the result of a natural disaster, an accident or war. The book of Lamentations is an attempt to give voice to this process.

The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Narrative states that scholars working on the connection of literature, narrative, and trauma have made important connections between an individual’s ability to maintain a coherent sense of self (a personal narrative) and their own psychological and social well-being. Some literary expressions from traumatic circumstances, therefore, can be read as individual attempts to repair personal narratives. The biblical book of Lamentations may well be such an exercise in narrative repair.

Lamentations is raw and unfashionable – both to read and preach or write about (indeed I had to create a category tag for Lamentations in this blog as no one had previously done so). Like any war zone, it is a place we would rather flee from and want to visit.

 

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(This powerful image of a man and his daughter wandering the devastation in the city of Mosul, Iraq gives us some insight into the grief and bewilderment felt by the author of Lamentations)

In the Hebrew Old Testament, the book is entitled ekah, meaning “how” or “alas,” taken from the first verse. In the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew text) there is a brief notation to the effect that these are the writings (laments – crying aloud) of the priest and prophet Jeremiah when he went up on the hillside and sat overlooking the desolate city.

Lamentations consists of five separate poems, each in the literary form called an acrostic. Each verse begins, in alphabetical order, with a letter from the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet (sadly something lost in translation from Hebrew to English).  Each chapter stresses and develops a particular aspect of sorrow.

Lamentations pictures a man of God puzzling over the results of evil and suffering in the world. Suddenly the greatness of Jerusalem is gone. The city and Holy temple has been destroyed, thousands have been taken into captivity and many more have died. Why had God allowed this calamity to fall upon his once great Holy city ?  Whereas Job dealt with unexplained evil, the writer laments a tragedy entirely of Jerusalem’s making stating categorically that God had rejected His people because of their continuing rebellion against Him. There is no specific mention of the invading Babylonians.

“The book expresses with pathetic tenderness the prophet’s grief for the desolation of the city and Temple of Jerusalem, the captivity of the people, the miseries of famine, the cessation of public worship, and the other calamities with which his countrymen had been visited for their sins. The leading object was to teach the suffering Jews neither to despise ‘the chastening of the Lord,’ nor to ‘faint’ when ‘rebuked of Him,’ but to turn to God with deep repentance, to confess their sins, and humbly look to Him alone for pardon and deliverance” – Joseph Angus, The Bible Handbook

The imagery in Lamentations 1 is confronting, it gives us a description of the utter depths of sorrow, the desolation of spirit that sorrow makes upon the human heart, the sense of abandonment, of complete loneliness. Here we can see how vividly the prophet has captured this feeling as he pours out the feelings of his own heart.

Jeremiah remembers the greatness and weeps for the desolation. He was there to see it all. He warned them ahead of time, but they did not listen. People from many nations had come to Jerusalem to worship in the temple. Now, there is no temple for anyone to worship in. whereas New Jerusalem is described as a bride; Jerusalem destroyed is like a widow and her “lovers” the lands they had made alliances with, such as Egypt.

The people have been vanquished and taken into captivity; the city has been set on fire and totally destroyed. Verse 16:

“For these things I weep; my eyes flow with tears;
for a comforter is far from me, one to revive my spirit;
my children are desolate, for the enemy has prevailed.”

Lamentations provides us all with a hard but brutally honest template to consider when we are faced with traumatic events in our lives.

I guess it would be remiss of me not to include a link to the Lamentation Blues which was used to introduce a recent preaching series on Lamentations.

With stringed instruments

Being a musician, the introductory comments prefacing Psalm 67 immediately catch my attention.

To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments. A Psalm. A Song.

What I am looking here are song lyrics, with a long lost melody and instrumentation.

Music is referenced many times throughout the Scriptures. Over 1150 verses in the Bible reference music. The bible is replete with songs which were always accompanied by musical instruments. To see and hear what some of these instruments look and sound like click here.

Having been blessed with enough musical ability to be able play a number of stringed instruments – I wonder how this song would have sounded?

How would Psalm 67 musically have stacked up against some of the classic guitar (stringed instrument) songs that I have grown up listening to – the likes of the Beattles, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, Nirvana or Led Zepplin to name a few that influenced a generation?

There can be no doubt that even without their original music the Psalms stand unique in their ability to touch generation after generation.

Maybe the structure and repetition of the lyrical themes give us some clue to the musical arrangement!

These are my humble thoughts based on the way our modern worship songs are arranged.

The song begins quietly on a harp or lyre with a request for God to be “gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us” (show us favour or benevolence). But it is not about us – the focus is elsewhere – these requests a meanly signposts to someone, somewhere else as punctuated by the words “Selah” and “So that” (NIV) – verse 2 and again in verse 7.

At which point the song builds as other instruments join in, leading into the chorus (v3) – May all peoples and nations praise you.

It is hard to imagine that the feel of the song is anything but uplifting and joyous in verses 3 and 4 as it speaks of gladness and joy.

The chorus is repeated in verse 5. Before returning again to the theme of God’s blessing that opened the song – perhaps musically more reflective at this point – again the reason for God’s benevolence is clearly spelt out – so that the peoples of the ends of the earth “will fear him!”

Here is a link to the Sons of Korah’s interpretation of Psalm 67 to further reflect upon.

 

The leader is rejected

In our western democracies, we are able to reject our political leaders who fail to live up to our expectations, some are rejected by their parties. In 1 Samuel 15 we see God rejecting King Saul for failing to carry out His expectations.

In a dramatic chapter that would not look out of place in a tele-series such as Game of Thrones, we see the tragic consequences when we think we know better than God –  “He doesn’t really mean all that – does he?”

When Saul is ordered to annihilate the Amalekites as punishment for the grief that they gave to the wandering Isrealites (see Exodus 17:8-16; Numbers 14:43-45; Deuteronomy 25:17-19), he spares the life of their king and the best of the livestock.

God reveals Sauls failings to the Prophet Samuel – who is deeply troubled by this (v11). He goes to confront Saul who is acting as if nothing is wrong – the scene is somewhat comical.

Saul – “I have carried out all the Lord’s instructions”

Samuel – “Really ! What is that I can hear ?? Sheep?

Saul – “What sheep?” “Oh those sheep! Well, um –  the soldiers (shifting the finger of blame) – brought them from the Amalekites – we only saved the best – for sacrifices (so its ok) – but we totally destroyed the rest!”

At this point Samuel looses his cool – despite Saul’s best protestations – he has heard enough and delivers the Lord’s judgement:

“Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices,
    as in obeying the voice of the Lord?
Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice,
    and to listen than the fat of rams.
For rebellion is as the sin of divination,
    and presumption is as iniquity and idolatry.
Because you have rejected the word of the Lord,
    he has also rejected you from being king.” (v22-23)
Saul caught out and faced with the reality of loosing his crown is full of remorse and repentance and begs for forgiveness but it is too late. As the NIV Study Bible note on verse 25 points out – Saul’s greatest concern was not to worship God but to avoid a break with prophet Samuel which would undermine his authority as king.
He compounds his troubles when in desperation he grabs the departing Samuel’s robe and rips it – so declares Samuel –  “the kingdom of Israel will be torn from you and given to one of your neighbours”.
As we will soon see in the coming days readings – the neighbour destined to receive Saul’s kingdom is David. Just as obedience is better than sacrifice – so David is regarded better than Saul, who had originally considered without equal (1 Sam 9:2).
Samuel shows Saul some mercy, by returning with him to his subjects so he can save some face. But there is no mercy shown to Agag, the king of the Amalekites who is slain by the prophet.
In an echo of Genesis 6:6, God is grieved that he ever made Saul king over Israel.
None of us takes rejection well – especially deposed political leaders and we will see in future chapters Saul’s jealousy for his future replacement.

 

 

 

The Lord’s favour on David

In 1 Chronicles 14, the narrative of the ark’s home-coming pauses to reflect back on the favour that the Lord has shown David- sharing content also found in 2 Samuel 5:11-23.

Verses 1-2 highlight that the king of Tyre provided him tradesmen and timber in order to construct a palace.

Verses 3-7 detail the increase in David’s family – that he took more wives shows a moral failure on David’s part and was contrary to the law – see Deuteronomy 17:17 – a failure that would come back to haunt him later in his life.

The verses that follow (v.8-17) describe David’s first international crisis – a confrontation with an old enemy – the Philistines. When David fled from Saul’s kingdom, he became a Philistine vassal (1 Samuel 27:1-28:2) and during those years at Hebron the Philistines probably considered him as just another client king.

With his anointing as king over a reunited Israel, David became a threat that the Philistines could no longer ignore and move to mount an attack before he is able to occupy Jerusalem. But because he looked to God for his strategy and strength, he was able to repel the Philistine attack and secure independence for God’s people and end the threat of Philistine conquest and oppression.

As a result “David’s fame spread throughout every land, and the Lord made all the nations fear him.” (v.17)

Need a wheel alignment

Heeding the wisdom in the book of Proverbs is akin to a wheel alignment needed to keep our cars staying on track. Left to our own devices or ungodly influence we soon go astray.

Correction is a key theme in the verses found in Proverbs 29:15-27, whether that be of children (v15,17); society (v18, 26-27); servants (v19,21); or temperament (v22-23) – wisely administered it will bring blessing.

In Romans 8:18-39, Paul’s focus turns to our glorious future.

The Christian life wasn’t meant to be easy. Facing sin and temptation, enduring persecution and coping with life in a fallen world, with corruptible bodies, is difficult. But Paul declares in verse 18 what lies ahead for the Christian makes any trials we face in this present age seem minor.

But it is not just Christians alone who will benefit — creation too eagerly awaits to be blessed with change when God’s plan is brought to completion (verses 19-21).

The creation is now in decay, but that is not the way it is supposed to be. But at the resurrection, when we are given the glory that rightly belongs to God’s children, the universe will somehow be freed from its bondage, redeemed by the work of Jesus Christ (Colossians 1:19-20).

Even though the price has already been paid, we do not yet see everything the way God wants it. In the meantime we must wait patiently and eagerness for our salvation to be made complete. We do not yet see a perfect creation, but we are confident that it will be transformed (verses 24-25).

We are already freed from condemnation, but not yet completely freed from sin. We are already in the kingdom, but it is not yet in its fullness. We live with aspects of the age to come, even as we struggle with aspects of the old age, hence we have his Spirit to help us in our weakness – interceding for us, even for needs that cannot be put into words. With his Holy Spirit on our side, helping us, so we can have confidence. God has a plan for us (verse 28).

These verses call for a response (verses 31-32). If God went so far as to give us his Son even when we were sinners, we can be sure that he will give us everything else that we need to make it. On the day of judgment, no one can accuse us, for God has declared us not guilty. No one can condemn us, for Christ our Saviour is interceding for us (verse 34). We have not just a sacrifice for our sins, but also a living Saviour who continues to help us in our journey toward glory. Nothing or no one can separate us from his love (verses 35-39).

Knifed in the Back

Psalm 55 is another raw and brutally honest insight into an event in David’s life that once again brought him to his knees in prayer.

We know David had many enemies who wanted to do him harm during his life, however on this occasion (though we are not told the specific circumstances and the name of the perpetrator) we are informed that his fear and grief have been caused by an act of betrayed by “a man, my equal, my companion, my familiar friend. We used to take sweet counsel together; within God’s house we walked in the throng“(v13-14).

As we would expect, having someone with whom you put your trust break that trust and turn against you is an extremely emotionally painful experience and David begins this psalm with an earnest plea to God to hear his words and answer his petition. We can identify with the abandonment he feels. I like how the Message version paraphrases the opening verses:

Open your ears, God, to my prayer; don’t pretend you don’t hear me knocking.
Come close and whisper your answer. I really need you.

When dramatic tragedies and painful situations arise and we feel that God has left us and that God is no longer on our side, we must be reminded as David does repeatedly throughout the psalms – turn to God first.

David paints a vivid picture of the pain and distress that he feels from being “knifed in the back” by this close friend in verses 4-8. Oh that he is anywhere but here – I am a betrayed King – Get me out of here!

He has been treated so unjustly, so David appeals to God to take action and hand down his judgement on the wickedness of his enemies so that they cannot accomplish their goals (v. 9-11).

Verse 12-15 get to the heart of the issue – the betrayal of a trusted friend. David’s condemnation of them shows no holding back – captured in the Message as “Haul my betrayers off alive to hell—let them experience the horror, let them feel every desolate detail of a damned life.” Put more bluntly – they can go to Hell!

But David left these things in God’s hands – it was not for him to take revenge for the evil done to him – instead he prayed to God to bring justice upon the evildoer. He could do this because of his total reliance on God (v.17-18). It highlights why we should be perseverant in prayer. Prayer is not only a petition to God but also a way to mold our faith. Continued prayer helps us change our exasperation to dependence on God. Talking to God helps our souls become relieved and have rest as we know that God is listening and will respond for us.

The Psalm concludes by David reminding himself and teaching others to place their burdens on God during these troublesome times. God can sustain us through a turbulent time as this and will never allow the righteous to be moved.

But as for me, I trust in you.