Archive for October, 2011

This, too, shall pass: The Psalms in our Worship 40

by   |  10.25.11  |  Uncategorized

Sometimes, you read something that you know is true, but it puzzles you anyway.  An example comes in Psalm 49, a wisdom reflection that calls itself a mashal or proverb.  Notice the line in verse 16 (Hebrew 17): “Do not be afraid when a man becomes rich, when glory/splendor grows in his house.”  Why would anyone be afraid of such a thing?  It’s easier to understand the poem’s final observation that wealth is no substitute for understanding or wisdom.  But still, why be afraid?

Perhaps the text’s anxiety reflects a specific historical setting, for in a precapitalist society, growing affluence in a given family often came through illicit means (political corruption, for example).  And the new economic differentiation could mean that the local village’s carefully balanced social relationships unraveled.

But maybe something deeper is at stake as well.  There is something to fear in the acquisition of wealth.  Most wealthy believers — those who are thoughtful and self-reflective anyway — I know will tell you that they had to work hard to keep their own friends, to pass on sane values to their children, and to make sure that they weren’t being used by overly deferential people or that they used others who respected their wealth too much.  It’s a problem.  Maybe fear is sometimes appropriate.

What replaces fear in the world of this text is neither envy nor revolution but a new orientation to life: a new confidence in God’s ability to rescue us from the power of death, in whatever form it takes.  One of the ways God does that is by allowing to see through the structures and pretensions of the world in which wealth, status, and power take precedence over virtue.  Knowing that God works in such a way offers the psalmist a door to another way of life.  It’s a door worth entering.


Back to Beauty: The Psalms in our Worship 39

by   |  10.10.11  |  Uncategorized

Christians and Jews have acquired unusual views of what constitutes beauty.  We tend to start with the idea that God is, by definition, beautiful.  I’m sure that’s true, as far as it goes.  But even that’s a difficult concept, since the God of the Bible seems at times difficult to call attractive (mysterium tremendum et fascinans: the mystery both attracts and repels, remember).  Perhaps we could argue that our language about God is beautiful, and it certainly can be, though even there the beauty can be a painful one.  So it would be an interesting challenge to work out an entire Christian aesthetic.  And some have done so in various ways: maybe I’d point you to the work of Hans Urs von Balthasar as a fine recent example.

Sometimes, however, things are more straightforward, and religious sensibilities do lead one to beauty.  Think of Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel or da Vinci’s “Last Supper” or, in literature, Dante’s Inferno/Purgatorio/Paradiso or Milton’s Paradise Lost, just to name the most obvious examples.  Or in more recent times, Bernstein’s painfully powerful Kaddish or the hymns of Ralph Vaughn Williams.  The quest for God, and thus for a true appreciation of ourselves, produces a desire for beauty.

The author of Psalm 48 certainly shared such a quest.  The elegant little celebration of the beauties of Jerusalem opens and closes with praises of the incomparable God who is known through the blessings falling to Israel.  In the middle come a complex description of what sounds like an imagined appearance of foreign tributaries in Jerusalem.  (I say imagined, because such kings, as far as we know, never did this in real life.)  Instead of being a place under threat, Jerusalem is a place of security, justice, hopefulness, and joy.

Note the various ways in which the psalm refers to Jerusalem:

  • City of our God
  • His holy mountain
  • Beautiful
  • The praise of all the land/earth
  • Mount Zion at the ends of the North (a reference to the old Canaanite idea in which the mountain of the deity was in the far north; hence another way of saying “city of our God”)
  • Town of the great king (God? the human king?)

Verse 4 (Hebrew 5) introduces a new section, according to which the rulers of the world gaze upon the splendors of Jerusalem and are overawed at the majesty of Elohim.  This idea of the attraction of the nations to God takes many forms in the Old Testament, beginning with Exodus 15’s certainty that the neighbors of Israel will fear their God to Isaiah 40-55’s belief that the Gentiles will come to seek peace with Israel and its god to the later New Testament view that the nations should enter the path of salvation alongside Israel.  Psalm 48 has a place along the path of the history of this idea, and a very pleasant place it is!  Jerusalem, the psalmist believes, will become a symbol for every virtuous person in the world.

Why?  Note verse 10’s words of praise: “Your praise, Elohim, befits your name until the ends of the earth.  Your hand is full of righteousness.”  In other words, God is praiseworthy precisely because God is righteous.  Worship does not emerge out of fear, but out of the sensible recognition of God’s superlative qualities.  Jerusalem helps people come to that recognition, and so it becomes a symbol of God’s presence among human beings. More »

GST Talent Show, October 22, 6pm

by   |  10.07.11  |  Uncategorized

Graduate School of Theology Talent Show:

Date: Saturday, Oct. 22
Time: 6:00 pm
Location: University Church
Family Room (between main
building and gym)
Food: Dinner provided

Are you talented?
People need to know.
We want to believe.

So bring your talents or come to see the talents of others
in this community at our annual talent show.

If you have a talent, or just plan to attend, please email Eric at
Also, let Eric know how many will be coming with you, so we can get a food count.

Dr. Jack Reese, Dean of the College of Biblical Studies, speaks in Graduate Chapel

by   |  10.07.11  |  Uncategorized

Click on this link to see the video of Dr. Reese’s Graduate Chapel talk.

Things Worth Clapping For: The Psalms in Our Worship 38

by   |  10.03.11  |  Uncategorized

Applause is such a strange social phenomenon.  We clap for bone-crunching tackles, masterful gymnastics routines, six year-olds at their piano recitals and famous virtuosos at theirs, baptisms and bar mitzvahs, speeches (including sermons nowadays), and a range of other activities.  We signify our approval of sterling performance, a fact that assumes (1) that we have in our heads a set of standards about what constitutes excellence in a given field and (2) that the type of endeavor is secondary (so we applaud the open-field crushing of a receiver and a baptism of a young person, often on the same day — whoever said we humans were logical beings plainly didn’t know us!).  Yet surely what we applaud determines what sorts of people we are.

Psalm 47 invites Gentiles to join Israel in its applause of the Almighty, signaling the universal scope of the rule of providence.  Why should they applaud?  Because Yhwh has redeemed Israel, thus keeping age-old promises and insuring that peace and holiness have a chance in the world.  The psalm runs to the old image of God as king (and thus as guarantor of justice and human wholeness) by singing “Yhwh Most High is awesome, a great king over all the land” (v. 2; Hebrew 3) and “for Elohim is king over all the earth…. Elohim reigns o’er the nations; Elohim sits on his holy throne” (vv. 7-8; Hebrew 8-9).  The enthroned ruler is the one who brings about life-giving order.  A few observations:

  • The setting of the song is unclear.  Is it a celebration of a particular national victory, or a song sung in the midst of a festival (Tabernacles?) about a long-standing or recurring history of redemption?  The answer might matter for how we interpret the psalm, but there is no way of knowing for sure.  As it stands, the poem has gotten separated from its original setting and thus functions as a celebration of the world’s very structure as a place under the sovereign care of God.
  • The phrase in v. 9, “Elohim who sits on his holy throne,” evokes a very old theme, seen also in Egyptian theology, of a God who is in charge of the cosmos and keeps all threats to peace and justice at bay.  However difficult such a metaphor might be for us in our democratic age, the idea of God as the perfect ruler operates throughout the Bible and is a basic assumption of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, the religions that sprung from Israel.

Why is God’s kingship, brought to bear in history, worth celebrating?  If you assume that the infinite being cares perfectly for human beings and is incapable of corruption, ignorance, self-interest, inattentiveness, or any of the other frailties that mar human rule, then God’s rule sounds like very good news.  Surely for its beneficiaries this would be so.  Obedience to the dictates of such a ruler would be easy since they so obviously reflect a profound commitment to human well-being.  Obedience would not be experienced as obedience at all, but simply as the movement of the soul in response to virtue (Aristotle’s ideal).

Does the psalm assume that the nations somehow benefit from God’s salvation of Israel?  Certainly the text does not spell out how this would be so, but it is not necessary to assume that the poet was a naive xenophobe who imagined that others would enjoy his happiness, whatever their own condition.  If the non-violent, harmonious world imagined in the Psalms and prophets were to emerge, then surely everyone would benefit.  After all, the ravages of war fall on everyone in their path, not just one group.  So it does not seem too far-fetched to imagine that in the back of the psalmist’s mind — and in the minds of the congregations singing the psalm either in ancient Israel or subsequently — the prospect of divine settlement of wrongs would be an inviting idea.

Of course, the psalm is not engaging in political theorizing.  It is trying to get people to sing and enjoy the prospects of a new world.  In many ways, that option seems even more humanly inviting.  If we celebrated the possibilities of peace and justice, and celebrated the reality of such when we saw it, how would our lives and our world be different?  This week, I think I’ll try it.  Stay tuned for results!