The latest issue of Crucible is now available sans book reviews. This issue, devoted to the Psalms, includes a small article in the Ministry Resources section by David Cohen from Vose Seminary on “Using the Psalms in Ministry.”
Creator Lord, who reconciled us to yourself by the death and resurrection of your Son, and made with us an eternal covenant; grant that we may show in our lives what we profess with our lips, to your glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
(An Australian Prayer Book, 60)
Last week Vose Seminary conducted a half-day Luther@500 Conference, around the theme of The Pastoral Luther. Although the event was only pulled together in the last couple of months, for much of the year I was keen to see the Seminary mark this anniversary of the Reformation.
For me, there were several highlights: first, the strength and quality of the four papers. Peter Elliott started proceedings with an historical account of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, and insight into the pastoral concerns that formed a significant motivation for Luther’s action. My paper on Luther’s pastoral theology followed, in which I examined two documents from Luther’s early career: a sermon entitled A Meditation on Christ’s Passion (1519) and his justly renowned The Freedom of a Christian (1520). I argued that Luther sought to free salvation from the model of human religious performance that prevailed in the late medieval period, and that he also viewed it as a salvation that frees. Matthew Bishop’s paper explored the phenomenon of depression, and analysed a number of Luther’s letters to the depressed in order to ascertain insights and principles to guide pastoral care in the present. While not everything from the sixteenth-century context is transferrable to the present, there is still much to learn from the one sometimes referred to as “Christianity’s most famous depressive.” Finally, Brian Harris explored several aspects of Luther’s leadership, noting first that there appears to be little written on this subject. He noted Luther’s character and courage, his strategic use of the latest technologies, his work ethic, and his popularising of the message. Brian also highlighted some less savoury aspects of Luther’s leadership, especially his rhetoric with respect to the Jews, which, while not out of character for the times, was out of character with Christ, and which also had devastating consequences in later centuries.
The second highlight was the ecumenical nature of the event. About forty people gathered for the conference, coming from a variety of denominations and backgrounds, and included ministers, students, and lay persons. I am grateful that the Seminary had and seized this opportunity to serve the church in a way for which it is uniquely qualified. I am grateful, too, for Peter Elliott and Perth Bible College for joining us in this endeavour.
The third and perhaps most special highlight was having Matthew Bishop join us for the conference. Matthew is a Lutheran pastor in a local congregation. Not only did Matthew bring a great deal of knowledge of Luther, but also an ecumenical openness and warmth, together with a substantial pastoral integrity. His being a Lutheran also lent a certain authenticity to the gathering. To make new friends, and to see bridges of fellowship strengthened across denominational and institutional lines is a blessing indeed, and made this seminar well worthwhile, and not only for remembering Luther’s achievement.
Yesterday I had the opportunity to preach at Living Grace church in Dianella. The passage was Matthew 9:9-13 – Matthew’s Party. My major point was to contrast the Pharisees’ ethic or spirituality of purity through separation with Jesus’ ethic or spirituality of redemptive engagement. In particular, Jesus’ table fellowship is understood as a sign of the kingdom in the same way as his miracles are. I used two citations in the sermon that I use also in classes. The first, from Luke Timothy Johnson, is a paraphrase: “The meals are where the magic is.” The second is from Walter Kasper’s Jesus the Christ, which includes the wonderful line, “the shared table is a shared life.” The Lord shares his life with us at the table. We are invited to extend his hospitality to others in similar fashion. The meals are where the magic happens.
In the east, even today, to share a meal with someone is a guarantee of peace, trust, brotherhood and forgiveness; the shared table is a shared life. In Judaism fellowship at table had the special meaning of fellowship in the sight of God…every meal is a sign of the coming eschatological meal and eschatological fellowship with God. Thus, Jesus’ meals with publicans and sinners, too, are not only events on a social level, not only an expression of his unusual humanity and social generosity and his sympathy with those who were despised, but had an even deeper significance. They are an expression of the mission and message of Jesus, anticipatory meals, celebrations of feasts in the end time, in which the community of saints is already being represented. The inclusion of sinners in the community of salvation, achieved in table fellowship is the most meaningful expression of the message of the redeeming love of God…Jesus, in taking sinners into fellowship with him, takes them into fellowship with God. This means that he forgives sins (Kasper, Jesus the Christ, 101-102).
Samuel disappears in chapters five and six, as do all the major characters in the story thus far. The scene shifts from Shiloh to Ashdod, and the main character in the story is now the Ark itself, which has been captured by the Philistines and installed in the temple of Dagon at Ashdod. The defeat of an enemy in the ancient world also signified the defeat of that enemy’s god. This is exemplified in the capture of the Ark; not only is Israel defeated, but their god has been captured. Bringing the Ark into the temple of Dagon is an act of celebration of Dagon’s triumph and supremacy over the god of Israel. The Ark becomes a trophy and symbol of Dagon’s power. Israel’s god was unable to defend its own people from the greater power of their opponents and their god.
In the Hebrew Bible Dagon is associated with the Philistines who perhaps adopted Dagan as their national deity soon after they arrived in Palestine early in the Iron Age (Tsumura, “Canaan, Canaanites” in DOTHB, 127). Dagan was a traditional god of Syria-Palestine, attested as early as the third millennium BCE. Although identified as a fish-god since the medieval period, more recent scholarship suggests his name has more to do with grain, and thus was perhaps a fertility deity associated with agriculture. He was in any case understood as a powerful god. Excavations at Ugarit have unearthed two temples in the city, one devoted to Baal, the other to Dagan. In the Ugarit pantheon, consisting of as many as 240 deities, Dagan was second to El and understood as father to Baal (see Curtis, “Canaanite Gods and Religions” DOTHB, 132-142). Philistine attachment to and trust in Dagon is seen in Judges 16:23-24 where the Philistines credit Dagon with their victory over Samson—although the story did not end well for the Philistines in that instance.
The commentators suggest that this passage is to be understood as humour (for Israelite readers at least)—black humour to be sure—the function of which is to mock the Philistines and their god. The opening scene pours scorn on the supposed power of Dagon, for the idol falls not once but twice before the Ark. After the first fall, Dagon must be helped back to his plinth; after the second, he is broken in pieces, his impotence plain for all to see. The story functions apologetically, to repudiate a possible interpretation concerning the capture of the Ark. Israel’s God has not been defeated by a greater power. Indeed the story demonstrates the livingness of Israel’s God compared to the lifelessness and impotence of Dagon. In the “Battle of the Gods” Dagon’s claims are slapped down and exposed as pretensions. The story also then, shows that the defeat of Israel, far from being the defeat of Yahweh, was the judgement of Yahweh upon his people as predicted by the anonymous man of God in chapter two. Further, it clearly indicates that Yahweh as the living God cannot be manipulated by his people, but retains his sovereign freedom.
Nor can the Philistines subject Israel’s God to their own will. Not only is Dagon assaulted, but the people of the Philistine cities also experience an outbreak of plague that seems coordinated to the presence of the Ark among them. The text itself is clear: “the hand of the Lord was heavy against the people of Ashdod, and he terrified and afflicted them with tumours” (verse 6), with the result that many died (verse 12). Modern scholars wonder if the plague may have been a form of bubonic plague spread by a plague of mice (6:4-5).
Murphy, utilising the LXX’s rendition of 5:9, refers to the tumours as genital warts, or more colloquially, “bum-warts” (44). She uses this story to reflect on the character of miracles and divine power in conversation with John Henry Newman who suggests that the portrayal of the Ark-miracles in this chapter might be analogous to the somewhat wild and “romantic” nature of post-biblical miracles. Typically, those who defend the miracle accounts in scripture argue for the rationality of these miracles because they fit with what may be known of God from nature and morality. But not all biblical miracles fit that mould. Murphy finds little in this chapter’s account of miracles that conforms to reason, morality or beauty. But they are not on that account to be rejected. They are “divine punishments” that teach us that “the hand of God can appear at will and in the unlikeliest “Elishas” because it is not subject but sovereign” (46). The account challenges our perceptions of God, especially a god we would manipulate, contain, or set in a box. Murphy cites John Henry Newman to warn against such limitations on God, or interpretive strategies which make the biblical portrayal of God more amenable to our sensibilities. If I read her rightly, she wants to leave open the possibility that God will not conform to our demands of what we think God should be. In this respect God is sovereign, and as such, sovereignly free.
The supernatural glory might abide, and yet be manifold, variable, uncertain, inscrutable, uncontrollable, like the natural atmosphere; dispensing gleams, shadows, traces of Almighty Power, but giving no such clear and perfect vision of it as one might gaze upon and record distinctly in its details for controversial purposes. Thus we are told, “the wind bloweth where it listeth” (cited in Murphy, 46).
It seems that some years have passed since the “man of God” prophesied the Lord’s rejection of Eli’s house (2:27-36). Eli is now ninety-eight years of age, and almost blind. Until now the focus of the story has been on Shiloh, and on Samuel. Now the focus expands to take in national affairs, and Samuel disappears. Israel’s old enemies the Philistines, who had troubled Israel in the days of Samson, return once more to trouble them again. The chapter has two major parts. Verses 1-11 describe the Israel’s loss on the battlefield, while verses 12-22 describe the death of Eli.
In the early part of the chapter, the two armies face each other, and in an initial battle, Israel is defeated with a significant loss of life. After the battle the elders of Israel determine that God has allowed this defeat (GNB), or more directly, that the Lord himself has defeated Israel (NRSV, ESV). They therefore call for the ark of the covenant of the Lord so that God may be among them and save them from the Philistines. Despite the enthusiasm of the army, the plan fails, Israel is decisively defeated, the ark is captured and the two sons of Eli die in the battle, as prophesied by the man of God in 2:34.
The loss of 4000 soldiers in battle would an extraordinary loss. To lose 30,000 would be devastating to the nation as a whole. A whole generation of men—the loss of army, husbands, fathers, sons, farmers, etc. The magnitude of the slaughter is unimaginable, and such a massive defeat would decimate and impoverish the nation. Numbers in the Hebrew Bible are a problematic matter for biblical scholars, and a number of interpretations are suggested including, the numbers are to be understood literally, symbolically, as hyperbole, or re-translated since the Hebrew word ’elep can mean not only “thousand” but family or clan or tribal leader. Many scholars suggest the third option has the least problems and so is to be preferred. (And though I have said that a thousand times, no one believes me!) Nonetheless, even allowing for numeric inflation, this was a devastating loss for Israel, resulting in their being occupied by the Philistines for over twenty years. The Judges’ cycle of apostasy, oppression and deliverance is being repeated here.
A question arises as to whether the soldiers and the elders have a superstitious regard for the ark. Are they “taking the name of the Lord in vain,” as it were, presuming on God in a kind of civic religion that assumes “God” will give them victory no matter the condition of their ongoing relation with God? Evans takes this interpretation, and warns that symbols of the divine presence cannot be treated superstitiously as though we can manipulate God and gain our own ends (42). There is no doubt that this is a perennial issue in Christian spirituality. It seems that we are endlessly creative in devising means of “using” God to get what we want. We imagine that God’s power is an impersonal “force” that we can “tap into” and direct toward our advantage. Such forms of spirituality are more akin to magic and superstition than biblical faith.
Murphy takes a different view, arguing that “the elders had every reason to think that the ark is literally the presence of the Lord.” It was “a strategy of good faith, not superstition” (37). In Judges the conquest of the land is initiated by the priests carrying the ark across the Jordan. At Jericho, the ark led the people as they marched around the city. Yet in this case, there will be no victory, not because God now is impotent, but because of divine judgement: Hophni and Phineas accompany the ark. “The battle at Ebenezer is lost, not because of the elders’ supposing that the ark would automatically save them, but because of the impious behavior of Eli’s sons” (37).
This view finds implicit corroboration in the text itself. Four times in three verses (vv. 3-5) the ark is named the “ark of the covenant of the Lord.” While it is certainly true that the covenant of God with Israel provided many privileges, benefits and blessings to the people, it came also with obligations and responsibilities—obligations that Eli and his sons, at least, had forsaken. Eli had “scorned” God’s sacrifices and offerings, and honoured his sons above Yahweh (2:29). Though the sons accompanied the ark, they had violated their office, the people, the people’s sacrifices and worship, and so the covenant itself. Though they accompanied the ark, the blessing of the covenant would not accompany them.
Elkanah and his family have returned home, and the focus now shifts to Shiloh, where Samuel remains, serving the Lord. But all is not well at Shiloh, as the first verse of this passage notes: ‘Now the sons of Eli were worthless men. They did not know the Lord.’ The passage has four scenes: first a description of Eli’s sons’ disregard for the peoples’ offerings; second, a brief cameo of Hannah and Samuel’s interaction in succeeding years as Samuel grows; third, Eli remonstrating with his sons over their behaviour and warning them of the dire consequences that will follow; and fourth, a prophecy against Eli and his house by an unknown ‘man of God.’
Perhaps the key verse in the chapter is 30b: ‘for those who honour me I will honour, and those who despise me shall be treated with contempt.’ Associated with this is the prophetic declaration in verse 35 that God will raise up for himself a faithful priest, who shall do ‘according to what is in my heart and in my mind.’ This verse, as well as the contrast in this passage between Hophni and Phinehas on the one hand and Samuel on the other, provide some indication of what it is to honour the Lord. Further definition of this will be provided later in the book, in chapter 12. The verse provides another hermeneutical lens by which to understand the unfolding narrative.
The first scene (vv. 12-17) portrays Hophni and Phinehas’s complete disregard—indeed contempt (v. 17)—for the worship of God’s people, taking the best of their sacrifices—by force if necessary—for their own benefit. Later we hear that they are having sex with the women who serve at the tent of meeting—hopefully not by force—and that this is generally known. In the fourth scene Eli is implicated in their behaviour for he has not restrained his sons, but rather has made himself fat on the offerings of God’s people. He ‘honours’ his sons above God (v. 29). Though God holds Eli responsible for the exercise of his office, he does not diminish the responsibility of Hophni and Phinehas. They have dishonoured God and his worship, their own office and the people. They have abused their position and power, serving themselves rather than God, and mistreating the people of God. God’s judgement will be harsh—both will die on the one day. The priesthood will removed from Eli and given to the as-yet-unnamed faithful priest.
In the midst of all this Samuel ministers to the Lord as a little priest in a linen ephod made for him annually by his mother. Like Jesus (cf. Luke 2:52), Samuel grew physically and spiritually, gaining favour both with the Lord and with others. The simple devotion of Hannah and Samuel contrasts sharply with the lives of Hophni and Phinehas, the “anti-priests” who have inverted their true roles (Murphy, 24).
These episodes show the corrupt state into which the national and religious leadership has fallen. Israel remains a tribal society, though the shrine at Shiloh has become a centre of religious and political focus, with Eli “at the apex of the network of local judges and assemblies, a ‘superjudge’” (Murphy, 12). The narrative, therefore, provides the theological justification for the judgement that will fall upon Eli and his house, as well as continuing the introduction of this special child who will become the final judge in Israel prior to the emergence of the monarchy. Despite Samuel’s presentation as a “little priest,” it is unlikely that he is the faithful priest who will replace Eli and his family. Some commentators suggest that the faithful priest is actually Zadok who served as priest in David’s reign, though Christians might also view this as a foreshadowing of Jesus’ priesthood, for he is the truly faithful priest who has done according to all that is in God’s heart and mind (Evans, 37; cf. 1 Kings 2:35).
The severity of divine judgement promised to Eli and his house reflects the standard of holiness required of God’s ministers, and the distance that this holiness makes between itself and sin (Murphy, 25). Abuse of power, position and privilege is always despicable, even more so when it also involves sexual abuse. When those who claim to represent God engage in these kinds of abuse it is especially reprehensible. In this passage we learn that Yahweh refuses to cohabit with such sin and will hold his ministers to account. Leadership implications for ministers today are plain: God calls us to faithfulness in ministry, to honour God above all else, and to find our ministry within the compass of that who is the “true minister of the sanctuary,” the true faithful witness and high priest: Jesus Christ. Religion without faith and piety is not just hypocritical; it is dangerous.
Behold, Lord, an empty vessel that needs to be filled.
My Lord, fill it.
I am weak in the faith; strengthen me.
I am cold in love; warm me and make me fervent,
that my love may go out to my neighbour.
I do not have a strong and firm faith;
At times I doubt and am unable to trust you altogether.
O Lord, help me. Strengthen my faith and trust in you.
In you I have sealed the treasure of all I have.
I am poor; you are rich and came to be merciful to the poor.
I am a sinner; you are upright.
With me, there is an abundance of sin;
in you is the fullness of righteousness.
Therefore I will remain with you,
of whom I can receive, but to whom I may not give.
A month or so ago I decided to read through some of the Old Testament historical narrative books, given that it has been sometime since I have done so. I decided to start with Ruth and read it a chapter a day several times before moving to 1 Samuel. One of my spiritual practices is to read a portion of scripture and then journal one page of reflections about it. For the last couple of years my attention has been given largely to Psalms and James, with other bits and pieces of scripture thrown in. With James I might focus on a single verse for days at a time, though I do prefer to work with larger portions of text. At present I am reading a chapter of the Minor Prophets and a chapter of 1 Samuel most days.
Alongside my reading of the biblical text, I like to also use a commentary or two. Typically, I read a passage for a day or several days, journaling as I go. And then I pick up the commentaries to see what they say. I find that I am often on a good track in my own deliberations. I find often that I learn new things about the text that enriches my reading and deliberations. I sometimes find I disagree with the commentators’ interpretations, or have gone in different directions in my own interpretation. Using several commentaries helps protect against singular views, bringing different perspectives into dialogue that mutually inform and condition the various readings.
My interpretations are no doubt idiosyncratic, though I do endeavour to practise good exegesis. I try to hear what the biblical authors were saying in their own context. I try to read with some degree of historical and literary expertise, though my historical knowledge is better for New Testament reading than Old Testament. The commentaries are indispensable for this kind of background work which often so illuminates the text.
Of course, I bring myself to the text as well. This is one of the benefits of dwelling with the same text for days at a time. After a few days of meditating on a passage, and having done initial exegetical work, all kinds of life-observations and questions that concern my present circumstances begin to surface. More importantly, I think, implications and applications, and theological, ethical and pastoral connections begin to show up and impress themselves upon me. The biblical passage starts to work its way into my consciousness and do its work. Sometimes this can be deeply instructive, or comforting, or challenging, or enlivening. The Spirit speaks through the Word, mostly unobtrusively, and so quietly—though sometimes not so quietly—shapes and reshapes my thoughts and imagination, my commitments and priorities, my intentions and behaviours. Often, I am led to prayer.
Reading the biblical text slowly, exegetically, reflectively helps me get past the “professional hazard” of reading just for information, or to tick off another occasion of legalistic accomplishment, or for sermon preparation. It also helps me get past a “merely exegetical” reading where I am slicing and dicing, examining and parsing, acting as though I am the master of the text, and it is simply a thing to be studied and understood, as though at a remove from my life. Journaling my understanding, insights, and responses slows me down further, helps me internalise the text, and draws forth thoughts and insights that I might otherwise have missed. I am often struck by what I write—not because what I write is a stroke of genius, but rather that things emerge that I did not anticipate. I usually start with ideas already known or anticipated, but as I write insights dawn, wisdom comes. Engaging the commentaries expands this process, slowing it further, introduces dialogue and further reflection leading to additional insight and creativity. Marinading in the text like this evokes a stillness and an openness to the breath of the Spirit, and to prayer. “Text” becomes Scripture. It becomes more of a “living word” that accompanies me through the day. It speaks.
I love this little cluster of spiritual practices that has so shaped and continues to shape, my life. It is a fountain of life and an opening of wisdom for me. I am not sure how it started, but I recall filling exercise books with my studies and reflections as a young Christian. Now I use a handsome leather bound journal because I want to keep the records of these encounters and reflections. I still only write a page a day – maybe 300 words, maybe 400. It is the only form of journaling that has ever “worked” for me.
Is there time enough simply to meditate my way through the entirety of Scripture like this? I don’t know, but I hope to try! This little set of practices, along with the practice of regular corporate worship, are those practices which have sustained my spiritual life over the years. I cannot do without either of them, and when one or the other slips, so too does my spiritual vitality.
A passage in Proverbs helps capture the vitality of the Word for me. The passage focuses on parental instruction, though in the book the “my son” texts seem to convey a divine as well as a human exhortation.
My son [my daughter], keep your father’s commandment, and forsake not your mother’s teaching. Bind them on your heart always, tie them around your neck. When you walk, they will lead you; when you lie down, they will watch over you; and when you awake, they will talk with you. For the commandment is a lamp and the teaching a light, and the reproofs of discipline are the way of life… (Proverbs 6:20-23).
If in James 1 we hear of the good and generous God, then James 2 could be understood as speaking of the good and generous church—those who are the people and children of this good and generous God; those who are the recipients of his good and generous grace of salvation.
James 2 has two major sections, each beginning with a hypothetical story and rhetorical question. In both stories the focus is on the response of the congregation to someone who is poor, which James then uses to teach his listeners about the true nature of the Christian life. In many ways, this whole chapter can be read as an exposition of the “true religion” that James mentions at the end of chapter one. True religion involves a life of faith—and works, of love—understood in terms of mercy.
A Problem in the Church
James 2:1-7 (NRSV)
My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please’, while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there’, or, ‘Sit at my feet’, have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?
Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonoured the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?
Although this is a hypothetical story, it is likely that it represents attitudes and actions that are actually occurring in the congregations that James is writing to. Notice verse 6: “But you have dishonoured the poor!” These, whom God has chosen! These, who are the special objects of his favour, grace and blessing!
Does God play favourites?
Is God a respecter of persons?
Does God have a “preferential option for the poor”?
God chose Israel—the smallest, weakest, most inconsequential of nations (Deut. 7:6-9). God chooses the weak things of the world to confound the mighty, the foolish, base and insignificant things… Certainly the poor are to be rich in faith, and to love God. James is drawing on a rich seam of the Old Testament here, the idea of the Anawim, those poor who having no hope in this world, cry out to God and put their hope and trust in him. James is also echoing the Jesus of the Lukan beatitudes who pronounces blessings on the poor and woes upon the rich (Luke 6:20-26).
Nevertheless, favouritism like this is incompatible with faith in Jesus Christ, because Jesus himself became poor, identified with the poor, proclaimed good news to the poor, and identified with them. Those who show this kind of favouritism, who reflect the dominant values of the world rather than those of the kingdom of God, have become evil judges with evil thoughts.
The Royal Law
What, then, does God want in the church? We see in verse 8:
You do well if you really fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.
The “royal” (basilikon) law is the law of the kingdom (basiliea). In verse 13 James refers to it as mercy, and repeats, though negatively, Jesus’ beatitude about mercy.
Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.
So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgement will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgement.
What is mercy but love-in-action, love with its sleeves rolled up? We get an indication of what James means in the second half of the chapter: mercy is active, mercy works, mercy is moved by the needs of another, mercy presses beyond words to works. Mercy gets involved. Mercy visits the orphan and the widow in their affliction (1:27). Mercy is personal, relational, involved, and active.
The good and generous church is a community of care imaging, reflecting, representing and proclaiming the good and generous God. We are called to be God’s good and generous community because God is good and generous, and because we have been the recipient of his good and generous grace.
We accept others as he has accepted us. We extend to others the generous goodness he has extended to us. We watch out for and care for others the way he watches out for and cares for us. We are his heart, his hands, his lovingkindness and mercy here and now, in our place and in our time. We are a kingdom community, a good and generous church because we are, already, the people of the good and generous God.