Gleanings from the Bible: Song of Songs.

In my younger days, when this book was known as the Song of Solomon, there was a tendency for the Christians I mixed with to understand it as an allegory for Christ and his Church. Apart from the fact that marriage is frequently used in scripture as an analogy for the covenant relationship of God with his people and Christ with the Church, there is little reason to interpret Song of Songs that way. There is no internal evidence and the New Testament doesn’t refer back to it.

No, quite simply this is a poem about the exclusivity and richness of two people in love, delighting in one another. As a part of Scripture and the body of Wisdom Literature, it reminds us that love and sexual attraction are God’s gift, to be thoroughly enjoyed within the bounds that God has set for us.

The spontaneity of love is hinted at, with Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires (2:7 and 3:5). It has to do with giving and responding from the heart.

Catch for us the little foxes
the little foxes
that ruin the vineyards
our vineyards that are in bloom

…suggests an attention to detail in the relationship, whether presenting attractively to one’s spouse or dealing with the everyday small things that could mar the relationship. It is obviously expressed here by a couple in the prime (bloom) of life.

Elsewhere there are the poetic (if somewhat quaint to our ears) compliments expressed one to the other, which keep the romantic love alive:

Your plants are an orchard of pomegranates
     with choice fruits,
     with henna and nard,
     nard and saffron,
     calamus and cinnamon,
     with every kind of incense tree,
     with myrrh and aloes
     and all the finest spices.
You are a garden fountain,
     a well of flowing water
     streaming down from Lebanon.

We might feel awkward expressing ourselves exactly like this, but you get the idea.

A NOTE ABOUT LOVE

You frequently read, “All you need is love,” or something similar. It’s used in all sorts of contexts to justify various ideas and lifestyles. But it’s not true and at its worst amounts to superficial sentimentality. I think I know what people mean when they say that though. They are appealing to the idea that love covers a multitude of sins and that if you do what is loving and good for the other person then you will be doing the right thing – fulfilling the spirit of good laws and transcending bad ones.

But, love needs guidance and wisdom. For example, sometimes parents can love their children by giving them everything they want and bailing them out whenever they get into trouble of their own making. And in doing so they can ruin the ones they love. Love can be misdirected from one’s spouse to another, with painful and prolonged results. Love can lead people to make bad choices in a partner, or to enter a sexual relationship without a commitment to marriage. Statistics have long shown that people who live together before marriage are less likely to stay together when they get married than those who waited. De facto relationships often leave an “out” in the minds of the participants, which can often leave the woman literally carrying the baby. Remember, this is a generalisation, but an important one. Just ask the church organisations, which attempt to give aid in a huge number of broken relationships.

God (who is love) has given us ample instruction in the Old and New Testaments as to the boundaries in which love is to be most enjoyed and practised. Those boundaries are the safeguards for a love which may at times be tough in its administration but which ultimately has the long-term good of the other person in mind. Amongst Paul’s writings about purity in relationships 1 Corinthians 13 has served couples well on their wedding day. Would that we read that New Testament chapter frequently alongside the beautiful Old Testament Song of Songs to experience the love of God permeating our relationships in all its fullness.

…and now I should go and help my wife and tell her how wonderful she is – which she is of course! 🙂

Gleanings from the Bible: Ecclesiastes, Emptiness and the State of the Church.

We know that Ecclesiastes emphasises the emptiness of life without God, but does this emptiness also extend into the lives of those who do believe in God and even take the name Christian? Does it extend further to our church practices and worship? While claiming to follow Jesus Christ, do we in fact live as though he doesn’t exist? Do we go through the motions but not experience anything akin to the sort of close relationships we have with other people?

We are familiar enough with the idea that a Christian, who is not practising the basics of the faith, tends to drift away from God and is unlikely to experience much spiritually. But do we really know what we are talking about when we use words like “spiritual” and “spirituality”?*

Some Christians are suspicious of the words, “experience” and “spiritual.” They always seems so subjective, undefined and unreliable. Couldn’t they merely be the product of emotional manipulation, whether deliberate or not? Are they not just the feelings of fear, or guilt, or ecstasy, generated by chemical combinations responding to the immediate environment? Can we then dismiss spiritual experience and the worship that goes with it as meaningless? Well yes and no. Every feeling, whether we label it chemical, psychological or spiritual, is experienced through our bodies and more particularly, our brains. But that does not make experience meaningless. It simply means that that is how human beings function.

I suspect that people generally are actually starved of experience while being drowned by it. For example, we have abundant access to dramatic photographs, from all over the globe, sometimes oversaturated and bursting with exaggerated life. On social media we flip through them, wanting to experience them all, thinking, “Wow!” at every swipe, yet never pausing to take them in at any depth. We exist as multiple generations, who have been raised on the likes of Sesame Street, fast paced, switching from sketch to sketch, and now with all the attention span of a demented monkey. We don’t want to miss a thing! We want to see what is happening everywhere and we want to see it now!

And yet it often seems so superficial. Experience for experience sake. Meaningless. A chasing after wind.

It is almost inevitable that this carries over into spiritual life and worship. We want to experience God but some of us don’t experience anything very much. Some seem afraid of the word, “experience” and others have found that their former spiritual experiences no longer give the buzz they once did. Churches have tried new ideas, embraced technology and ramped up the music but are they offering anything that can’t be readily found outside its doors?

And still the general populace still appears to crave spirituality. An experience beyond the mundane cycle of life, which the excesses of modern life do not provide. I’ve noticed the public response to disaster and death; the candles and vigils, the placing of wreaths, the televising of funerals, the growing interest in Anzac Day in Australia. As the writer of Ecclesiastes states,   he has also set eternity in the human heart (3:11).

I think that a great problem is, that while Christian and non-Christian alike desire spiritual experience, there is often a low expectation that it will be found in church. Non-Christian, unchurched people, have absolutely no expectation that church can provide anything meaningful. Ritualists may find that the theatrical forms of worship can no longer compete with the costume dramas and special effects of Hollywood. Young people see the liturgies as repetitious and lifeless. Conservative Evangelicals, are sometimes so wary of spiritual excess that anything emotional is either suppressed or ignored. Charismatic denominations discover that the predictability of mainline churches, from which they once fled, has caught them up in formats that no longer provide anything novel. And I wonder if all of this is behind the move away from traditional beliefs towards Progressive Christianity, whose adherents seem to feel that Christianity has failed and now seek  “God” through new avenues. Effectively a new faith only tangentially connected to its roots. Some churches and associated organisations are admired for their fine social conscience and welfare work, but even that doesn’t seem to be attracting new members to the ranks.

Am I being over critical? Have I caught the Negative-Ecclesiastes-Virus? In the western world, have our Christian lives and worship really become superficial and devoid of direction? Is there a solution?

Let me express a few thoughts, while admitting that I can be as much a part of the problem as anyone else. These are not exhaustive…

The first has to do with expectations. Our society has become so sceptical and cynical that we find that we do not expect God to act in any special way. This affects the frame of mind in which we come to worship. It affects our prayer life and ultimately it affects our enthusiasm.

A second has to do with relationship. If we only relate to God through set pieces, words and sacraments, then it can be like a marriage that never progresses past the marriage preparation course and the wedding ceremony. This includes people who study doctrine and theology, but fail to apply it in a life-transforming way. Where study replaces relationship.

A third has to do with fear. The fear, not just of change, but of  being changed. A fear of losing control over one’s life and emotions.

A fourth has to do with disappointment. The accumulated experience of nothing very much happening, or happening fast enough, which takes us back to low expectations.

A fifth has to do with perseverance. Our society has trained us to expect everything immediately, and we become bored easily. We readily give up, especially when it comes to talking to God.

I want to acknowledge now that we each have different personalities, which are attracted by different forms of worship, so what I am expressing here are the things would attract me to a church or fellowship. But I do suspect that they might be attractive to others.

There are the regular, vitally important things like finding a welcome and friendship and having a useful part to play in the fellowship. If I am attending a Christian Church I expect orthodox Christian beliefs drawn from the Bible and expressed in the Creeds, otherwise it ceases to be Christian at its core. I also expect the gospel to be proclaimed. By which I mean, affirming that Jesus is the Messiah, who died so that we may be forgiven, and who rose from the dead to assure us of life beyond the grave. By submitting to Jesus as Lord, and receiving his Spirit we are born into God’s (spiritual) family and a spiritual transformation begins within us, gradually changing us to be more and more in character like Jesus Christ. This life-changing experience is fundamental to all that follows. It is the unique and vital thing that nothing else in society offers. But from what I hear such proclamation with the opportunity for people to respond in a faith commitment is too often absent from many churches. Such churches have ceased to offer anything meaningful. The relationship with God, through Jesus Christ and the infilling of the Spirit, then become the motivation for right living and serving our fellow human beings.

The relationship with God is nurtured through reading the Scriptures, prayer and joining others in worship. The obvious things which are the bread and butter for growing Christians, known by so many, but practised by relatively few! Prayer that is not fed by meditating on God’s Word to us is like a love, which has no guidelines as to what it is that truly benefits the object of that love. And reading the Scriptures, without prayer mingled with meditation, is like reading the marriage guidance book and never speaking to your spouse. This is the personal foundation, which we then bring to corporate worship.

I am not going to tackle the many aspects of worship here but I want to suggest that churches not be afraid to talk about the Holy Spirit and encourage their members to pray that they be filled with the Spirit each day. Have a least one expression of worship in the week, which is unpredictable and freer in form and where the work and gifts of the Spirit can be discussed. Give opportunity for prayers for healing (of all sorts) with the testimonies of those who have experienced God at work. Generate the realistic expectation that God will make a difference to people’s lives. Pray together for specific people and things and keep a record to encourage further prayer. Pray that God will control what happens as you meet together and then do not be afraid if something unusual occurs.

I think that people are bypassing church because they perceive that nothing happens there. Of course we cannot and should not be manufacturing spiritual experience artificially. Nor should we forget Jesus’ observation, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” We do have to beware of becoming dependent on dramatic experience and the obviously miraculous.

However I am still much inspired by the stories of revival both from the past and as it is currently happening in other parts of the world (if rarely reported). Revival of worship, the experience of God’s power, and the influx of people into his Kingdom, come through the perseverance of prayer. Experience seems to indicate that the starting point is people – sometimes just a few – motivated by the Spirit, gathering regularly, expectantly and persistently to ask God to pour out his Spirit on his people.

In the meantime, I’d be happy to settle for seeing people grow in their faith. For hearing the person who said, “That’s just me. I’ll never be any different,” saying years later, “I’m enjoying my quiet time with God each morning. I don’t lose my temper now like I used to. I am more positive about life. I’ve patched up my relationship with my neighbour/friend/relative. I believe I’m seeing the fruit of God’s Spirit working in my life!”

And perhaps that’s where it starts, at a personal level, with your everyday relationships. Your non-Christian neighbour may, in the deepest recesses of her heart, desire spiritual experience and some purpose and significance in life, but won’t venture into the alien world and language of the local church. But she may notice the way you have changed and venture to ask, “What do you believe?” or share her own woes, presenting you with the opportunity to expectantly pray with her and watch what God does! The question is, “Will you know what to say?” That is an area of training that a growing church will want to engage in.

A Christ-filled life, even an imperfect one, is a stepping stone for others to seek and find Jesus Christ. It is the way to experience the reality of God from day to day. To push back the negativity of a meaningless cycle of life and to touch that eternity (if only partially) that God has placed in our hearts.

So don’t give up. God is powerfully at work in the world at large. Invite him, each day,  to work in your life and that of your fellowship… and see what happens!

*  [I take “spirituality” to mean those practices and experiences associated with knowing God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit (as opposed to just knowing about them). You may have a better definition.]

Gleanings from the Bible: Ecclesiastes.

If ever there was a wisdom book for our western world, this is it! It is a sober wake-up call about life without God and, coincidentally, to a society living to excess!

The message has been ascribed to Solomon, and while the authorship is debated there is no doubt that he would have been in an ideal position to sample all that life had to offer and comment on its meaning, or otherwise.

The author’s point is simple but depressing. What goes round, comes round. Pleasure has no point to it, no productive purpose. Most of our work is done to make others envious. We’re all going to die and we have no control over the time. You can’t take anything that you’ve worked for with you. We will then be forgotten by following generations.

How are you feeling?

We know these things are true but we tend to push them to the back of our mind, only to be brought out of mothballs briefly when we attend a funeral or find that a loved one has contracted cancer, or when the business collapses. In the extremities of life we think about purpose and mortality, but as the author of this book records, They seldom reflect on the days of their life, because God keeps them occupied with gladness of heart. (5:20)

Never has this been so true as it is today, when every form of entertainment and every piece of information is at our fingertips via phone, tablet, TV and whatever else our technological world has in store. We are constantly distracted from thinking about the significance of life, and not just by binge-watching TV, or wallowing in the addictions associated with pornography, sex, drugs and alcohol, or even food! Many people’s lives are consumed by their work, or a sport or hobby, or the acquisition of power and wealth. Their time is spent in travelling and the collection of new experiences. We all look for some sort of significance, even if it only the proverbial “fifteen minutes of fame” – or five seconds of fame if it is Facebook or Twitter!

The author of Ecclesiastes tried it all. Well, everything that was available in his day. And do you know what? He found that when he stopped to think about it, he was left feeling emptiness and I think rather bitter — It’s all meaningless and it doesn’t ultimately satisfy!

So did he have an answer to it all?

I think he did. And I think that there are two aspects to it, both summed up in the following verses…

     A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This        too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?  To the
person who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness… (2:24-26)

The first is to acknowledge that life is from God. It is he who gives it meaning. He has set eternity in the human heart. The writer’s advice in chapter twelve  is…

     Remember your Creator
     in the days of your youth,
     before the days of trouble come
     and the years approach when you will say,
     “I find no pleasure in them”

With God as the focus of life, the pleasures of life have a context, a meaning and a fulfilment. In other words, pleasure is most enjoyable when God is at the centre of the way you live.

So the other aspect to this advice is to live a life that is balanced. Like a bicycle wheel with God as the hub. In a western world, that seems to be frantically trying to live life in excess, stop a moment and smell the roses, enjoy the simple things of life, find enjoyment in your work, meditate and pray, fear God and keep his commandments (12:13).

In a wider biblical context we can see that God has given us the purpose of knowing him and sharing in his glory. The People of God are called to make God and his Son, Jesus Christ known to all humanity. And when we do so God gives us the ability to properly and maximally enjoy the life that he has given us, even as we look forward to the next life he has prepared for us.

Have a joyous New Year!

Gleanings from the Bible: Proverbs.

Here’s wisdom for a new year! This is another book which I think should be taught in schools –  a collection of wise insights on human behaviours and their outcomes. Perhaps it could be produced in an abridged form, because as a collection I notice a good deal of repetition.

Some tend to understand these proverbs as cast-iron promises but in fact they are largely observations born out of experience, producing a number of generalisations. If you do this, then this is what will usually happen, if you neglect to do that, then experience shows that this will be the result.

Years ago I remember teaching my 5th class (10-11yr old primary school children) some of the proverbs I had learned as a child and finding that they had never heard of them – Things like,  “A stitch in time saves nine,”  “A rolling stone gathers no moss.” (ambiguous!) and so on. The Bible’s Book of Proverbs presents in part as a parent teaching a young person, warning and equipping him for his future wellbeing.

Here are a few of them. As you read try to imagine the benefits to society, to churches, to families, if these were taken seriously and taught by parents and schools…

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,
but fools despise wisdom and instruction (1:7)

 This is the underlying supposition, that listening to Yahweh underpins an understanding of the way life works best. It has to do with grasping a worldview that is centred upon God. It is the sorting of truth from error, not just determining moral right and wrong. Wisdom, thus grounded, is the guide to how we live out our talents for the good of all. Intelligence is good, knowledge is similarly important, but wisdom is the good oil which will guide you to use them productively rather than destructively. I have come across people who may not be particularly bright academically but display a wonderful and endearing wisdom, which makes them socially and spiritually brilliant!

This is why wisdom is personified in chapter two as one to be most sought after… then you will understand what is right and just and fair – every good path. (2:9)

Trust in the Lord with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him,
and he will make your paths straight. (3:5-6)

Two great verses for the New Year and one of my favourite passages in the Bible. My wife, Susan, and I have found them to be true throughout our lives. I have noticed that when I have pushed ahead with my own plans, without consulting God, then things either unravel quickly or simply and quietly fail to work. When we have prayed, particularly at times of momentous change of direction, then things have fallen into place in remarkable ways. I can say the same even on a day to day basis. The day begun with prayer, asking for the filling of the Holy Spirit and overall guidance in what I say and do seem to somehow work out better!

Here is some more good advice…

Drink from the water of your own cistern
running water from your own well. (5:15)

…  part of an extended warning against adultery.

I hate pride and arrogance
evil behaviour and perverse speech. (8:13)

… wisdom speaking!

If you are a mocker, you alone will suffer (9:12)

… beware, social media trolls!

When pride comes, then comes disgrace,
but with humility comes wisdom (11:2)

For lack of guidance a nation falls,
but victory is won through many advisors (11:14)

… Leaders! Listen to wise people!

Do not say, “I’ll do to them as they have done to me;
I’ll pay them back for what they did. (24:29)

And some other general observations…

A kindhearted woman gains honour,
but ruthless men gain only wealth. (11:16)

Those who are kind benefit themselves,
but the cruel bring ruin on themselves.  (11:17)

Whoever corrects a mocker invites insults;
whoever rebukes the wicked incurs abuse. (9:7)

The righteous care for the needs of their animals (12:10)

Fools show their annoyance at once,
but the prudent overlook an insult. (12:16)

The words of the reckless pierce like swords,
but the tongue of the wise brings healing. (12:18)

Where there is strife, there is pride. (13:10)

The one who loves their children
is careful to discipline them. (13:24)

Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker,
but whoever is kind to the needy honours God. (14:31)

Even fools are thought wise if they keep silent (17:28)

Fools… delight in airing their own opinions. (18:2)

… wonder if this applies to bloggers? L Well perhaps not always if you take into account the line before… Fools find no pleasure in understanding…

The purposes [read motives] of a person’s heart are deep waters,
but one who has insight draws them out. (20:5)

Without wood a fire goes out;
without a gossip a quarrel dies down.(26:20)

Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting;
but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. (31:30)

J And some observations that made me smile…

“It’s no good, it’s no good!” says the buyer—
then goes off and boasts about the purchase. (20:14)

 Better to live on a corner of the roof
than share a house with a quarrelsome wife. (21:9)

 The sluggard says, “There’s a lion outside!
I’ll be killed in the public square!” (22:13)
… Any excuse!

 Like one who grabs a stray dog by the ears
is someone who rushes into a quarrel not their own. (26:17)

There is, of course, far more. Pure gold to reflect on! As I read I find myself thinking over and over, “Now ain’t that the truth!”  But now, the hard part – trying to apply it!

Gleanings from the Bible: Psalms 127, 135, 137 and 139.

Psalm 127

There is peace in knowing God and being able to commit your future, your dreams and desires into his hands because, unless Yahweh builds the house, the builders labour in vain. There is no gain in driving yourself into the ground to increase your wealth. God knows what you need and grants sleep to those he loves.

Children are a heritage from Yahweh… a reward…

When you observe western society you would wonder whether it had ever realised this truth. The message our society sends is a mixed one. On the one hand we seek to make the welfare of the child the centre of our educational systems (almost to the point of encouraging them to be self-centred). We probably seek to protect them from harm more than at any other time in history. And yet they are becoming less and less exposed to the truths about God, they are becoming more exposed to violence and pornography and the unborn child has little or no chance if the parent decides to terminate his or her life.

If we really believe that children are a gift from God then it should mould the way we think about them and nurture them. It should dictate our and their priorities in their involvements and exposure to the world. Particularly we will want to introduce them to the Creator, who gave them life and who will build their house if they will commit themselves to his ways.

 Psalm 135

15 The idols of the nations are silver and gold,
      made by human hands.
16 They have mouths, but cannot speak,
      eyes, but cannot see.
17 They have ears, but cannot hear,
      nor is there breath in their mouths.
18 Those who make them will be like them,
      and so will all who trust in them.

I don’t notice too much political correctness with the prophets! They tell it as they see it, or rather as God shows it to them.

We don’t come across too many idols of wood and stone, though they are not unknown in some migrant families in Australia. Assuming that idols are the things which replace the worship of God, we may ask what constitutes idolatry in the wider community these days?

It must be those things which we treasure the most, above God. The things to which we devote most of our time and energy. The things that replace prayer, reading the Scriptures and our corporate worship. So it could, in fac,t be almost anything!

Verse 18 – Those who make them will be like them – is, I think, proposing that idolaters will become as lifeless as the things they worship. Another aspect to that is that we can become like the things we love the most – they change us – they turn us into something else.

However, to spend time with God in worship, prayer and praise, is to become  more like him, whose name endures for ever (v13).

Psalms 137 and 139

Psalm 137 is a lament of people who have lost everything and who now dwell, mocked and despised, in a foreign country with alien gods. Their experience is one of abandonment by Yahweh. But, even knowing that, it is hard for us to read verse 9. The talk of dashing infants against rocks makes us wince. At worst it expresses an anguished abundance of violence, hatred and vengeance. At best it is calling for justice and the non-perpetuation of a people who have already dealt so cruelly with the Judeans, now living in captivity. It also puts the task of vengeance into the hands of God, who has the right to mete out justice. However, Jesus has taught us a better way. Though we may find ourselves initially responding to situations in anger, it is grace and forgiveness that transforms both perpetrator and victim for the better.

Psalm 139 is such a contrast in attitude. Wherever the Psalmist may be, God is there, holding him fast! God knows him intimately, better than he knows himself and before he even came to birth and gained self-consciousness. God sees the unborn and knows what they will do, say and achieve. He has plans for them. Of course they have responsibility to respond to God’s will for them, and to walk in the ways that he has set before them. This is why the Psalmist prays that God will search him, not so that God will discover things he hadn’t noticed, but rather that God will reveal to the writer what he already knows about his unwarranted anxieties and offensive thoughts and actions. Once known the Psalmist can embark on correction with God’s help.

It is in this sort of intimate walk with God that we can learn to weather the storms of life and respond appropriately to the people who cause them.

 

Gleanings from the Bible: Psalms 106, 115 and 119.

Psalm 106

But they soon forgot what he had done
and did not wait for his plan to unfold.

This Psalm outlines the failure of Israel in the Wilderness and is a recipe for backsliding  and spiritual discouragement. They forgot… and did not wait!

Conversely a way of staying on track must be to remember what God has done, in Israel’s, in the wider world’s and in our personal history. And then to “wait”. Not rushing ahead with our own plans but first praying. Not becoming impatient when we don’t see things happening quickly.

The results of forgetting and not waiting are borne out in verse 35. They mingled with the nations and adopted their customs. Israel’s separation was bound up with her spiritual life and identity as God’s People, demonstrating his good laws and upholding his name as Creator and God over all nations. The customs were not those innocent cultural differences but the practices that signified an entirely different worldview, explained from verse 36 onwards: They worshipped their idols, which became a snare to them. They sacrificed their sons and daughters to false gods…

This is certainly not a call for Christians in this age to separate themselves from the rest of the world, but it is a warning to avoid relationships and practices which would undermine our faith. We may like to think we are spiritually strong, but our strength lies in remembering and waiting on God. If we see that slipping away, we need to stay off the slide!

Psalm 115

Our God is in heaven:
He does whatever pleases him.

Underlying many of the Psalms – in fact the whole of Scripture – is the proposition that the God of Israel is the Almighty Creator, Yahweh, The One Who Is, The Great I Am, The Eternal God. He is contrasted with impotent, man-made, worthless idols of wood and stone, which are powerless to do anything. The fact that God can do whatever pleases him is not to describe a capricious dictator but one who is well able to save and deliver. One who may not always be understood but who acts according to his plans, which are elsewhere described as just, as well as merciful. We may on occasions shake our fist at him because we don’t get our own way or see events unfolding as we would like, but in the end God will do what is right. It is his world and his plan and, remarkably, he is doing what is best for humanity as a whole (See also Psalm 118:14, 22-23 for example).

Psalm 119

We don’t usually associate law with stimulating and edifying reading. Perhaps more as a cure for insomnia. We may also think that the proliferation of laws is a sign of a sick society, since love ought to guide us into doing what is right from the inner compulsion of God’s Spirit. Now there is some truth in that but it doesn’t mean that we don’t need guidelines and clear boundaries. ‘Good fences make for good neighbours.’

There is security in knowing what is right and wrong. There is revelation in knowing what God requires of us as we relate to him, to one another and to the world in which he has placed us. Reflecting on and obeying these requirements will, furthermore, help us to know peace within ourselves.

When we understand these things we can appreciate this extensive poem in twenty-two sections, each starting, in the original Hebrew, with a new letter of the alphabet. Let me leave you with just a few quotes to ponder and apply and to use in prayer…

Beth (pronounced ‘bait’)
How can a young person stay on the path of purity?
      By living according to your word.

Gimel
         18 Open my eyes that I may see
      wonderful things in your law.

Daleth (pronounce ‘dar-let’)
         27 Cause me to understand the way of your precepts,
that I may meditate on your wonderful deeds.

He (pronounced ‘hay’)
37 Turn my eyes away from worthless things;

Teth (pronounced ‘tate’)
      72 The law from your mouth is more precious to me
than thousands of pieces of silver and gold.

Mem
        98 Your commands are always with me
     and make me wiser than my enemies.
99 I have more insight than all my teachers,
for I meditate on your statutes.
100 I have more understanding than the elders,
for I obey your precepts.

Nun
       105 Your word is a lamp for my feet,
a light on my path.

Gleanings from the Bible: Psalms 86, 90, 95 and 103.

Psalm 86

      Teach me your way, Lord,
      that I may rely on your faithfulness;
      give me an undivided heart,
      that I may fear your name.

It is one thing to know the right way and another to walk in it. Many wise people have made shipwreck of their lives because, while knowing what God requires, they have not had the will power to live up to it. Right teaching comes from Yahweh (the LORD) with the purpose of relying on God for a heart and will that is centred upon him (in contrast to the “double-minded person” of James 1:7).

      But you, Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God,
      slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.

In light of the questioning of the character of God, that occurs when people read about his judgements meted out in the Old Testament,  it’s helpful to remind ourselves that over and over the Scriptures reaffirm that God is patient and overflowing with love. We sometimes forget the enormity of what it takes to bring about God’s judgement and that even then his purpose is to refine and restore rather than to destroy.

Psalm 90

      3 You turn people back to dust,
      saying, “Return to dust, you mortals.”
      4 A thousand years in your sight
      are like a day that has just gone by,
      or like a watch in the night.

Sometimes people have tended to use verse four as some sort of a formula for dating times and seasons. In fact the Psalm is simply a sober reminder of the brevity of our lives compared with the eternal nature of God (see also Psalm 103 below). This is one of the suggested Prayer Book readings for funeral services. It is at such events that we should “number our days” and remember that it is only those things founded in God which have eternal value. It is in such reflection that wisdom is to be found (v12).

Psalm 95

      For forty years I was angry with that generation;
      I said, ‘They are a people whose hearts go astray,
      and they have not known my ways.’
      So I declared on oath in my anger,
      ‘They shall never enter my rest.’ 

Most of the Israelites who had been delivered from Egypt failed to enter the “rest” of the Promised Land. Just because they were Children of Abraham by lineage did not guarantee that they would inherit the promises of the Covenant made with Abraham. It is proposed that this Psalm is the text for the book of Hebrews (which may be the record of a sermon) and is certainly quoted in it. The idea that faith needs to persevere, even for God’s Chosen People is also intrinsic to Romans 10 and 11 and 1 Corinthians 10:1-11. It is in fact woven through the New Testament and seen clearly at the end of each of the letters to the Seven Churches in the book of Revelation. So, Do not harden your hearts as Israel did in the wilderness.

Psalm 103

This is a beautiful Psalm of reassurance for those who have confessed their sins and called on God’s forgiveness. It’s hard to pick out just one or two verses…

Praise the Lord, my soul;  
all my inmost being, praise his holy name.
Praise the Lord, my soul,
and forget not all his benefits—
who forgives all your sins
and heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit
and crowns you with love and compassion,
who satisfies your desires with good things
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

…….

The Lord is compassionate and gracious,
slow to anger, abounding in love.
He will not always accuse,
nor will he harbour his anger forever;
10 he does not treat us as our sins deserve
or repay us according to our iniquities.
11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his love for those who fear him;
12 as far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
13 As a father has compassion on his children,
so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him;
14 for he knows how we are formed,
he remembers that we are dust.
15 The life of mortals is like grass,
they flourish like a flower of the field;
16 the wind blows over it and it is gone,
and its place remembers it no more.
17 But from everlasting to everlasting
the Lord’s love is with those who fear him,
and his righteousness with their children’s children
18 with those who keep his covenant
and remember to obey his precepts.

In light of my comments on Psalm 95 it is worth taking note of verse 18 here. It adds an important condition to God’s blessings!

Verse twelve is often spoken in association with The Confession in the Prayer Book and verses 13 to 17 are found just before the committal in the burial service. The psalm encapsulates God’s gracious dealings with us and, if we truly believe it, then it will transform the way we live and relate, and elicit heartfelt praise towards our Creator.