Mark Hamilton's Archive

Whose Marriage Is It Anyway? The Psalms in Our Worship 36

by   |  08.12.11  |  Uncategorized

Psalm 45 is one of those texts that means different things to different readers.  It seems to have begun its life as an epithalamium, a poem for a wedding between an Israelite king and a foreign queen.  Later readers connected it to Jesus, not just because they connected most things to Jesus, but because of the psalm’s statement, “your throne O Elohim is forever and ever.”  Whatever the later associations are, and they deserve their own treatment and consideration, the first reading is the one I’ll reflect on at the moment.

First, a digression.  All of us know two things about marriage.  The first is that it can be beautiful as two people come together, based on shared values and commitments and not just emotional attraction, and many of us have experienced that blessing.  The second is that marriage is difficult, not because we expect too little of it but we because we expect too much.  Or rather, we expect too little and too much at the same time.  We expect our spouse to offer us happiness, physical satisfaction, avoidance of mortality, and continuous ego-stroking.  In short, we expect the other person to complete us, not a very realistic or healthy view.  At the same time, we often do not demand of ourselves the same vigorous commitments, the same sacrificial love, or the same investment in personal growth that we expect of our spouse.  From this paradox — too much and too little — comes the marital turmoil all too familiar to our times.  And when we combine the desire for the beautiful with the hard reality of what it takes to get the beautiful, we end up with challenges.

But of course marriage has always been challenging, even in ancient times when love was supposed to be the byproduct rather than the precondition of the union.  (Ancient Israelites would’ve found the Bachelor and Bachelorette tv shows as incomprehensible as some of us do!)  This is where at least one thing in Psalm 45 could help us.

Of course, much of this psalm is difficult to translate to our experience, not merely because of its antiquity, but mostly because it concerns marriage between a king and a queen and therefore all the political aspects of that relationship.  The needs to provide an heir to the throne and to bring about peace with foreign neighbors weigh heavily in this psalm, strongly influencing its language about each marital partner and their new roles.

But there is one thing that might help us.  Notice verses 13-15  (Hebrew 14-16): “How splendid is the king’s daughter [i.e., the bride] inside, decked with golden robes… with rejoicing and celebration they are led along; they come to the king’s palace.”  There is a joy here, a sense that something important is happening in this marriage, and it is not just about politics or the pragmatics of royal life.  There is a sense of wonder here at the beauty of human beings entering into marriage.

Perhaps the sense of wonder is what is lacking from marriages when they’re in trouble.  Isn’t it an extraordinary thing to know that I can have a lifelong relationship with my spouse (my wife, in this case!) through good times and bad, through triumphs and tragedies, and even through the ordinariness of much of life?  Isn’t it amazing that the initial euphoria can give way to far deeper and more beautiful emotions, attitudes, beliefs, and actions?  Maybe if we learn that much from this psalm, that would be enough.  More than enough.  As the psalmist says in opening this song, “My heart overflows with a good word.”  There is none better. More »

Reputations and Memories: The Psalms in Our Worship 35

by   |  08.01.11  |  Uncategorized

After a bit of a break, this post marks a return to the Psalms.  Welcome back!

Reputation.  The legend is that at his trial for cheating in baseball, Shoeless Joe Jackson was accosted by a young fan who said, “Say it ain’t so, Joe!  Say it ain’t so.”  Legend or not, the saying has stuck because  we all want to believe the best about our heroes, and we never want them to disappoint us.  Their failures are our failures at some level, if for no other reason than that we believed in them.

Psalm 44 is a “say it ain’t so” kind of psalm.  It opens with an address to God speaking of how the ancestors had spoken of the deity’s mighty saving deeds in the past (notably the exodus and the settlement in the land.  The opening address also claims that Israel has been faithful, a fact that should motivate God to be faithful to them.

Then comes the big shift.  In verse 9 (Hebrew v. 10), the accusations begin.  God, says, the psalmist has abandoned Israel to its enemies, making them like “a flock for devouring” and “people sold for no price.” Israel’s fate has become the stuff of foreign proverbs (v. 14 [Hebrew 15]).  The psalmist summarizes the horror and confusing nature of the people’s fate by saying, “All this has befallen us, yet we have not abandoned you, nor have we betrayed your covenant” (v. 17 [18 Hebrew]).  Such a fate would be understandable if the people had abandoned God, yet they have not.  Say it ain’t so!

What do we make of such a psalm?  It is not unique in its frank criticism of the Almighty (see, for example, Ps 89).  The refusal to admit guilt or to pretend away the horrors of the present are at once intimidating and refreshing.  Intimidating because the sort of gall — if it is — required to say such a thing seems unusual, and refreshing for the same reason.  Few of us ever rise to such a level of honesty in our expressions of outrage, pain, and confusion.

Now, for those who believe that we must always spin our feelings when bringing them to God, such a psalm seems to present a serious problem.  For some readers, it seems arrogant or downright disrespectful.  Yet here it is in the Bible, a book not known for valuing such qualities.  So perhaps we should reconsider what we think proper speech to God is.  The claim of the psalm is that Israel has not deserved its fate, and that the suffering it experiences constitutes a violation of the covenant with Yahweh.  God, says the Psalmist, has not kept His side of the bargain.  A serious charge, if true. More »

Spirituality for Religious People: Old Testament Perspectives

by   |  07.12.11  |  Uncategorized

Here are some thoughts on spirituality in the Old Testament, which I take to be spirituality for those of us who don’t make good mystics but would like to make good Christians.  This is from a talk given a few months ago to our faculty.  I’d welcome your comments.  (Mark Hamilton)

How do we speak of spiritual formation in the Old Testament?  It is much like talking about the wetness of water or the automobileness of Bugatti.  It seems redundant.  After all, the Old Testament is full of prayers, wise sayings, stories of exemplars and antiheroes, in short, of all the raw materials of a grammar of assent to the presence of God.  Still, if I must try to say something about all this in a few moments, the best and most obvious place to begin would be the Psalter, that magnificent collection of 150 laments, hymns, wisdom meditations, and so on scanning the spectrum of human emotions from anger to zaniness – or if not that, then at least delirious joy.  In these ancient songs, we see shiny bits and pieces of the human encounter with God, all of them merging together in a gorgeous mosaic of faith.

And what a faith!  The basic conviction of the Psalter, and indeed of all biblical faith, is that the race before us is not too long, nor the foes besetting us too fearsome, nor our own strength too small that we cannot finish with success.  Evil does not win, despite all appearances.  This is so because we tread the path laid out by the one who accompanies us through the valley of gloom, the God who created the cosmos and from time to time shakes it up a bit so as to leave Mount Zion secure and its citizens confident.

Perhaps a way to begin to understand the Psalms’ sense of the presence of God is to notice how the various psalms themselves begin.  It is never, of course, easy to begin a poem.  The only things harder than the beginning are the middle and the end!  I am often glad that I have been given a way to start prayers “Dear God” or “Our Father in Heaven” so that I didn’t have to think of one.

The beginnings of the various psalms say something about their spirituality: “blessed is the one”; “Why do the heathen rage?”; “Oh Lord, how numerous are my enemies!”; “when I call, answer me”; “Hear my utterances O Lord”; “O Lord, in your anger do not rebuke me”; “O Lord our God, how majestic is your name in all the land”; “I will praise the Lord with my whole heart”; “Why, O Lord, do you stand far away?”  Those are the first ten entry points.  We could go on: “O Lord, I called you; notice me”; “I cry with my voice to the Lord”; “O Lord, hear my prayer, listen to my petition”; “blessed be the Lord my rock”; “I shall exalt you, my God the King”; “Oh my soul, praise the Lord”; “for it is good to praise our God”; “praise the Lord from the heavens”; “sing to the Lord a new song”; and “Praise God in his sanctuary.”  Those are the last ten.  In between the Psalter moves those praying it from the desolation of life seemingly without God to ecstasy – all without escapism or sentimentalism or the life-denying pseudo-piety that so often passes for spirituality in our own time.  The Psalms are a nonsense-free zone. More »

Whose Tragedy? Whose Redemption? Reflections near the Tenth Anniversary of 9/11

by   |  06.27.11  |  Uncategorized

In only a few weeks, America and the world will commemorate the tenth anniversary of the infamous day in which airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, triggering a global war against terrorist organizations and their supporters, real or imagined.  Many American Christians will no doubt remember the event in the context of worship, wrapping the day and its aftermath in the language of the gospel and the trappings of the church’s worship.

How should we do so?  Given the power of ritual to transform minds and hearts, to unite or separate, to heal or harm, how should we Christians commemorate such a day?

For many evangelicals, in particular, the temptation to merge the claims of the nation-state with those of the ecclesia will be all but irresistible.  Flags will fill worship space, patriotic anthems will ring from congregation and choir, and the solemn words of remembrance will merge almost seamlessly the words of Scripture with the words of American exceptionalism.

Such events will no doubt occur.  That they will occur, however, can only be a continuation of the tragedy of 9/11, for one of the casualties of the event, besides the nation’s all but lost capacity for self-criticism, has been the church’s ability to see itself as a counter-culture free of the impulses of the state.  For some Christians, the demands of patriotism are almost indistinguishable from those of the gospel.  In many cases, therefore, our worship services commemorating 9/11 may be less about Christianity than about civil religion.  And so for those who take the gap between the impulses of culture and the call of faith in Jesus Christ, the “worship” that day will be nothing less than a sacrilege.

How do we avoid such an outcome?  Surely our desire to remember the day in a Christian way makes more sense than simply ignoring it or pretending that the anniversary is not upon us.  How can we proceed?  Perhaps there is a way forward. More »

Longing for the Presence of God: The Psalms in our Worship 34

by   |  06.20.11  |  Uncategorized

Longing for the absent lover — this is the stuff of romance.  Memories of the smells and sounds of the lost relationship, memories of times shared together, memories of the last moment of touch all cascade through the mind of the one who longs for the return of the one who has gone away.  Longing for the absent lover also describes the life of faith, for the elusive God whose presence brings life seems distant and yet ever present.  Out of the tension created by this absence that is not absence comes something we call faith.

It is fitting, then, that the second book of the Psalter opens with  Psalms 42-43, once a single poem only later split apart.  Unlike many laments, which concentrate on either physical or social suffering, this one concentrates upon the source of suffering, the absence of God.  Thus it opens with the arresting image of the thirsty deer anxiously searching for water, and closes (43:5) with an address to the very life force of the psalmist: “why are you prostrate, O my soul, and why are you troubled upon me?  Trust Elohim, for I will yet praise him.  Deliverance (comes from) my ‘Face’ and my God.”  (“Face” is sometimes a name for God, or more often, for an aspect or manifestation of God, so I am offering here a very literal translation of the Hebrew text.)  These verses bracket the lament material between them, thus moving the reader from an expression of desire to one of confidence in the Almighty.

The core of the psalm works by setting up a series of contrasts: times of celebration versus times of disquiet and anxiety, drought-stricken land versus gushing springs, and mourning for God’s absence versus hope in God’s imminent presence.  The spiritual dryness and isolation characterizing life without God elicit metaphors of ecological dryness and social isolation, a nice poetic turn.  More to the point, the refrain that recurs in 42:6 and 12 (5 and 11 in English) as well as 43:5 works to undermine, or perhaps to place in its proper perspective, the expressions of isolation and despair.

Finally, it’s not very surprising that the opening of this psalm should have been set to music in our own times (my church frequently sings at least two different tunes set to it).  Our age senses keenly the absence of God.  Choked by war, fenced in by economic insecurity, despairing before ecological degradation and leaders’ denial of the plain facts, we all sense the absence of the transcendent One.  This psalm, therefore, does not belong merely to a past age.  It belongs to us, as well.  For just as the psalm details lost confidence in ancient verities, so also it sings about a God who transcends all the truths about God and has a life beyond our ideas, no matter how cherished.  The psalmist longs for God to be God so that we all can be human beings.  I’d like to join the ancient poet in this timeless desire.  Perhaps you would too.

An End, and Thus a Beginning: The Psalms in Our Worship 33

by   |  06.08.11  |  Uncategorized

With Psalm 41, we come to the end of the first book of the Psalter.  When the collectors of the Psalms, working sometime in the 4th-2nd centuries BCE with older hymns and collections of hymns, put the finishing touches on their work, they divided it into five sections, mirroring the five books of the Pentateuch.  It was their way of saying, this collection of poems counts for something in the life of Israel.  We respond to the story of divine salvation by praising, lamenting, recounting, reflecting, and, in short, using all our artistic skills and emotional capital to express our innermost thoughts about life with the God of Heaven and Earth.

Psalm 41 makes several moves.  First, verses 1-3 (Hebrew 2-4) offer a beatitude or macarism, a statement of what it means to be in a right state.  The wise speaker of the psalm is one who cares for the poor and distressed.  To identify with those in trouble is to speak the truth about oneself, since we are all in trouble at one time or another, and we are all vulnerable.  The alternative to such an identification is a self-deluding attempt to distance ourselves from the destitute, sick, isolated, or otherwise vulnerable people in an effort to make ourselves more than they are.  Such an attempt always fails because we are not really different from “them.”

The second move comes in verse 4 (Hebrew 5) and continues through verse 9 (Hebrew 10).  Here the psalmist laments his or her own vulnerability, identifying with the suffering of others by acknowledging the hostility of others and seeking God’s help.  Lament is thus intimately connected with the wise view of the previous section.  Only the wise know how to lament properly!  (Think about that a bit.)

The psalm’s third move stretches from verses 10-12 (Hebrew 11-13), with the final verse being the editorial marker of the end of Book One of the Psalter and thus a closing for all the first 41 psalms.  The psalm itself originally ended with verse 12 (Hebrew 13), the conclusion of a three-verse statement of confidence in the Lord.  The only way that wisdom’s recognition of life’s tragedies can escape a cynical or despairing view is through the realization that, despite all appearances, God is in charge of the world.  Thus the psalmist expresses a trust that God delights in him or her and thus that God can be approached on that basis.

The psalm, though neither elaborate not especially innovative, marks a fitting end to the first section of the psalms.  It deftly connects lament and hope, much as the first 41 psalms do as a collection.  In the world of this psalm, God has not yet acted to save, but the psalmist believes that such salvation is only a matter of time.  God will, at the right moment, work to save.  Of this, the singer of the psalm, ancient or modern, can be confident.

A final set of thoughts: reaching this point in the Psalter allows me to take stock of where this series of posts has come so far.  We have seen a wide range of ideas, images, and emotional states in the first 41 psalms.  The diversity will only grow from here.  But for now we can ask the simple questions, “what is a psalm, and why did the poems in this book get to be in it?”  Part of the answer — not the whole — has to come from reading the entire collection, one after the other.  When we do that, we see the effect that the collectors were seeking.  What effect?  To answer that, notice that both Psalm 1 and Psalm 41 begin with a benediction, “blessed is the one.”  In the former case, the blessing extended to everyone who faithfully sought God’s presence by contemplating Torah.  In the latter, things are even more concrete: the blessed, hence wise, person cares about the poor and vulnerable. Of course, there is a connection, because careful reading of Torah would lead one to care for the poor, and care for the poor would lead one to the God who is revealed in Torah.  Psalms 1-41 close this loop, so to say.  Now the reader must decide whether he or she does too.  With that we find an end to the first set of posts, and the beginning of a new one.  Stay tuned. More »

Of Cabbages and Kings: The Psalms in Our Worship 32

by   |  05.31.11  |  Uncategorized

Mark Hamilton, PhD - Associate Dean, Associate Professor of Old Testament, ACU Graduate School of Theology

Mark Hamilton, PhD - Associate Dean, Professor of Old Testament, ACU Graduate School of Theology

It’s interesting how things converge in your brain.  Impressions, ideas, and reflections on both stream through seeking to stick together before something else roots them out.   Yesterday, I spent time working on a survey instrument for David Miller of Princeton University, who is a leader of the “faith at work” movement, an attempt to help men and women have more integrated lives.  See his website at http://www.princeton.edu/faithandwork.

Then comes today’s self-appointed assignment, to reflect on Psalm 40,  a thanksgiving hymn praising God for an integrated life.  What have these two assignments in common?  A lot, as it turns out.

The psalm has two basic parts: verses 1-11 (Hebrew 2-12) are a straightforward hymn of thanksgiving expressing trust and hope in God, and verses 12-17 (Hebrew 13-18) step backward to the time before God’s salvation and thus offer a retrospective petition, a flashback so to speak.  Yet the two parts connect closely to each other, because salvation is never far away from the one seeking it from God, and the memory of trouble is never far away even from the most secure of us.  Life, after all, hits us in this great stream of impressions, ideas, and reflections on both.

How, according to this psalm, does one praise God rightly?  One way to answer the question is to track the verbs used for the psalmist and for God.  The psalmist trusts, stands in awe, and invites others to do the same.  God, meanwhile, turns to the pray-er, listens, lifts out of the clay pit, sets feet on firm ground, and puts a new song (the psalm itself!) in one’s mouth.  The active God makes it possible for the formerly passive, overborne human to become active again and to resume a communal role.

Another way to track the pursuit of integration is to follow the structure of the psalm, which seems loose at first, but proves to be comprehensive in scope.  The thanksgiving turns in verse 4 (Hebrew 5) to benediction: “blessed is anybody whose refuge/place of trust is Yhwh.”  It then moves back to direct address to God, praising the Almighty for doing miracles (nifla’ot are often associated with the events of the exodus, though the concept is wider — the term means less suspension of the laws of nature, than simply actions that reorder the human world so that the righteous prosper as they should).  The psalmist then considers, and rejects or at least relativizes, an alternative form of praise, namely, sacrifice.  Yhwh does not need sacrifice.  Words are enough when they bear fruit in life.  Words and deeds, divine and human, all fit together somehow.

Among the most interesting lines are those in verses 7-8 (Hebrew 8-9): “Then I said, ‘Indeed I have come.  In the book it is written about me to do what pleases you, O God.  This is what I delight in.  So your law is in my inner being’.”  The lining out of the verses is a bit unclear, or rather, debatable, here, but you get the drift.  Many commentators associate the scroll in which the psalmist reads with the one written for the king in Deuteronomy 17:14-20, and thus argue that the psalm as a whole is a royal psalm.  This thesis is possible, though far from certain.  It seems also possible to think of the psalm as fairly late and thus as a specimen of a type of piety that emphasized the importance of the Law of Moses.  There is nothing obviously kingly about the psalmist (in contrast to the case with a number of other psalms), though we cannot rule out the possibility that we are supposed to imagine here a king delivered from national trials. More »

Guests and Hosts, Strangers and Aliens: The Psalms in Our Worship 31

by   |  05.20.11  |  Uncategorized

Mark Hamilton, PhD - Associate Dean, Associate Professor of Old Testament, ACU Graduate School of Theology

Mark Hamilton, PhD - Associate Dean, Professor of Old Testament, ACU Graduate School of Theology

Psalm 39 continues the theme of repentance begun in Psalm 38 by reporting the remorseful sinner’s internal thoughts: “I said [to myself], let me keep my ways from sinning by means of my tongue; let me keep my mouth from violence [emending the Hebrew from m-ch-s-m to m-ch-m-s, a minor change] while the wicked are before me.”  The penitent person seeks to avoid social solidarity with cruel, sadistic, thoughtless people, preferring social alienation to such company.  The psalm ends on a closely related theme by asking God to “Hear my prayer, O Yhwh, listen to my cry.  Do not be silent about my tears.  For I am an alien with you, a sojourner like my ancestors.”  Why this self-portrayal as an outsider who needs divine hospitality?  Why appeal, as the psalmist does, to the age-old convention that those who wander through the land must receive support from those who live there, and most of all from the God who does?  Isn’t it an odd way to describe the condition that the sinner faces when, cognizant of wrongdoing, he or she seeks a remedy?

The answer, of course, is that this sense of alienation is precisely what we feel in such a circumstance.  Where do we turn?  How do we get over the humiliation that we must go through?  Here we have a profound insight from the Psalter, according to which the only place to turn is to the God who welcomes aliens, the God who understands.

I recently came across a story by Juergen Moltmann in his 2008 autobiography, A Broad Place (Fortress Press).  There he talks about his experiences as a nineteen- and twenty-year old prisoner of war at the end of World War II, during which he had been drafted into the Wehrmacht while still a teenager.  Sometime at the camp, a chaplain came and brought the men Bibles.  In the course of reading the Bible he encountered the gospel of Mark and near its end the plaintive cry of Jesus, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Moltmann writes about that discovery, “I felt growing within me the conviction: this is someone who understands you completely; who is with you in your cry to God and has felt the same forsakenness you are living in now.  I began to understand the assailed, forsaken Christ because I knew that he understood me” (p. 30).  He understood me.

The singer of Psalm 39 also assumes that God understood him or her and was ready to heal.  The psalmist assumes that a request for information about the length of his or her life (or as the medieval commentator Rashi thinks, the length of suffering to be endured as punishment) is reasonable and will find an answer.  Appealing to the temporary nature of human existence and thus the inappropriateness of prolonged divine discipline (verses 5, 11 — they form an envelope around the central idea, verses 7-10), the psalm asks for the removal of sin through suffering, seeking to find meaning in the dislocation caused by sin.  (The psalm does not assume that all suffering comes as punishment for sin, so we can’t draw too many conclusions here!)  The restoration of health and happiness will allow for a meaningful life before God, not a return to sin, because the psalmist has understood reality better and has become a better person.  The hospitable God who receives sinners can count on this psalmist to live the gracious life he or she had earlier forsaken.

There is much else to say about repentance, but it is always useful to remember the nature of the One with whom we repent.  The God of Israel is neither a cruel tyrant eager to find fault, nor a cavalier ruler ignoring the behavior of now abandoned subjects.  Rather, this is a God who cares deeply about humankind and seeks its betterment.  Repentance is part of that process of betterment.  Hence this psalm and others like it.

Join me next week at the Sermon Seminar of the Austin Graduate School of Theology.  The congenial, thoughtful group there is always worth being with! More »

Why God Loves the Penitent: The Psalms in our Worship 30

by   |  05.11.11  |  Uncategorized

Repentance — such an old-fashioned, churchy word, so reminiscent of unctuous preaching and Elmer Gantry hucksters.  Or so some of us think.  Yet, even if the word has fallen on hard times, the idea of change, of renouncing bad habits and poor commitments, of rethinking what we love still makes sense to most of us, and rightly so.  Few people outside the confines of the world’s privileged elites of power, wealth, and celebrity are so convinced of their own perfection as not to acknowledge the need for repentance now and then.

Psalm 38, one of the Psalter’s penitential psalms, lays out both the need for repentance and the steps such an action requires.  As in most laments, the poem expresses the suffering of the poet (and all subsequent singers of the song) in terms of bodily pain and decay (verses 1-14 sound like a hypochondriac’s dream world, though in this case, the description is true), and in terms of social isolation (verse 11’s [12 in Hebrew] “those loving me and my neighbors stand before/apart from my affliction; those formerly near me stand way back”).

Unlike most lamenters, however, the psalmist takes responsibility for sin, as in verse 18’s “for I recount my inquity and have remorse for my sin.”  At the same time, this psalmist does not cower before a distant God who remorselessly punishes sin.  Rather, the psalmist associates God with his or her suffering, not only by pointing out to God that the arrows of the Almighty have already brought enough pain to get the sinner’s attention, but also by commenting on the performance of the psalm itself, describing it as a way of reaching out to God.  So verse 9 [Hebrew 10] says, “O Lord, before you is all my desire, and my sighing is not obscured from you.”  The psalmist has done all he or she can do and now awaits salvation.

Hence the poem’s conclusion: “Do not abandon me, O Yhwh my God.  Do not be far away from me.  Hurry to my rescue, O my saving lord.”  For the psalmist, the most devastating consequence of sin is its isolation from God, its capacity to shatter hope in a meaningful and orderly world, and thus its capacity for utterly crushing the soul of the sinner.  Other texts, of course, talk about other consequences.  But here the radical individualism of repentance comes to the fore.  I, and not someone else, am a sinner.  I must change.  I must find my way back to a merciful God.  Individuality is both a blessing and a curse.  The naked “I” is most manifest as a consequence of sin; the aloneness of the individual is the result of our capacity for evil, not the highest good.  And yet I cannot shift responsibility from myself to another, for in doing so I erase myself and lose all opportunity to be part of a relationship with others.

But then again, repentance in this text and in general rests on a key assumption about the nature of the human being and thus of God.  That assumption is that God desires human beings to change, grow, mature, and live according to justice.  Repentance is not a futile begging for mercy, nor is it a way of appeasing an otherwise stubbornly hard-nosed God.  Repentance is not a way of crushing human independence, as the Romantics of the modern and postmodern period often understand it (see, for example, Shelley’s poem “Prometheus Unbound,” and in some ways Aeschylus’s ancient original, “Prometheus Bound”).  Repentance is a way of keeping us from crushing ourselves.  It is an act of turning back to the course of goodness and life, for our own sakes.  Repentance matches our deepest desires with our outward actions.  And as such, it is a gift of mercy we give ourselves.

This week, there are some things I need to repent of.  Maybe it’s the same for you.  And next week, there will be more.  Let us have the courage to receive forgiveness and healing through the honest discipline of repentance. More »

Do We Ever Really Move? A Book Review

by   |  05.03.11  |  Uncategorized

Mark Hamilton, PhD - Associate Dean, Associate Professor of Old Testament, ACU Graduate School of Theology

Mark Hamilton, PhD - Associate Dean, Professor of Old Testament, ACU Graduate School of Theology

Review of Susan Campbell, Dating Jesus (Boston: Beacon, 2009).  By Mark Hamilton at the 2010 Christian Scholars Conference, Lipscomb University

On picking up this book, I frankly expected to hate it.  What could be more clichéd than a story of a self-conscious young person growing up in a suffocating, oppressive conservative religious group and then coming of age (read: becoming secular and successful back east)?  Such memoirs have become a sort of rite of passage, a passport to the guild of the literati, and whatever artistic merit or intellectual bite they may once have had has long since sunk into the swamp of the smugness and overweening ignorance of what passes for our culture’s post-Christian elites.  Had my fears come true, my own pitiable role as reviewer would then be either to defend practices and beliefs I have worked my adult life to correct or at least temper, or I would have had to join in the flagellation of the unwashed – or, in this case, fully immersed but still unenlightened – an even more contemptible form of life to which the odious word quisling might well apply.

Fortunately for me, and for you, Susan Campbell’s book is not exactly what I expected.  It is better than that.  She speaks honestly of the struggles of her childhood growing up in churches of Christ (small c, big c) in Missouri, her incipient feminism that could not see why a loving God would silence half the human race in God’s own house, her struggles with family and with the vagaries of what she calls, with a refreshing refusal to be apologetic, hillbilly culture.  Though sometimes meandering and repetitive, this memoir of a life tells well the story of a woman who loves Jesus but is mighty uncomfortable with some of his followers.

Any reviewer must ask why he or she should review another person’s work.  I can only assume that my assignment does not derive solely from my having been raised on the other side of the Boston Mountains as Ms. Campbell or having been, like her, a Bible bowl champion at Green Valley Bible Camp (where, by the way, I was baptized in June, 1977 at the age of 12), or my also having been bitten by a German shepherd while door knocking (I was door knocking, not the German shepherd).  I can only assume that my role is to represent those who experienced many of the intramural debates and mad restrictions she describes but stayed around anyway.  It’s not just that fundamentalism broke off inside of me, as she says her brother put it to her about them both, but that I have become something other than a fundamentalist but found a home here anyhow.  At least I hope that’s why I’m here.

Let me explore that role for awhile, then.  Campbell’s work raises for me a number of questions.  The first and most obvious is, why do some people stay and others leave? It is tempting to reduce the answer to the differences in our genders and the roles gender plays in Churches of Christ.  It would never have occurred to me, for example, to entitle any memoir of my life so far in this movement with the overtly, if self-mockingly, erotic way for which Ms. Campbell opts.  Here, however, Campbell is in good company with Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich, whom she mentions, and Teresa of Avila and a host of others she doesn’t.  Also, to be honest, I remember my distinct discomfort as a teenage boy in singing the hymn “Safe in the arms of Jesus, safe on his gentle breast,” and feeling more than a little threatened – can you unman a boy? – by that.  Eros’s strange affair with logos, and especially the Logos, plays in more than one way.

Yet life is never simple, and gender has never been as simple as an outsider would imagine by reading Campbell’s book.  It’s not just that we boys who were clumsy or bookish were at least as uncomfortable at the sports-oriented world of Green Valley as Campbell could ever have been.  It’s also that strong women did the most vital work of our congregation.  Many of them felt that the work of waiting the Lord’s table and all the rest was somewhat beneath their dignity.  Good enough for the men, important, but not all that crucial.  And I have often heard some of those women dissecting sermons and pointing out the mistakes the preacher made, not unkindly, but as a sort of warning to us men, especially us aspiring preacher boys, to get it right.  There was, and is, even in the most restrictive and closed environments in our churches, a sort of leaven at work, a clandestine theological discourse that is often richer than the public one and often at cross-purposes to it.  No, things are never quite as clear-cut as they seem. More »

Podcast: Life After Easter

by   |  05.02.11  |  Uncategorized

Mark Hamilton, PhD - Associate Dean, Associate Professor of Old Testament, ACU Graduate School of Theology

Mark Hamilton, PhD - Associate Dean, Professor of Old Testament, ACU Graduate School of Theology

Life After Easter

Podcast: How Does the Old Testament Relate to Christian Ministry?

by   |  05.02.11  |  Uncategorized

Mark Hamilton, PhD - Associate Dean, Associate Professor of Old Testament, ACU Graduate School of Theology

Mark Hamilton, PhD - Associate Dean, Professor of Old Testament, ACU Graduate School of Theology

How Does The Old Testament Relate to Christian Ministry?

What do we see? The Psalms in our Worship 29

by   |  04.27.11  |  Uncategorized

You may have seen the movie “Joyeux Noel,” about the 1914 Christmas truce on the Western Front.  Young men from Germany, Scotland, and France stop fighting for a day or two in order to sing from trench to trench and then play soccer and even celebrate mass together.  The Scots priest who led that worship service notes about it that it was a sort of altar by which even those who weren’t devout warmed themselves.  He and his men — all the men on both sides of the No Man’s Land — are later disciplined by higher-ups who find human contact across walls of hate to be bad for discipline.

The movie ends when the priest’s superior, a particularly unctuous and sanctimonious bishop, tells the new soldiers come to replace the fraternizers that they must remember that “The Germans are not like us.  They are not the children of God.”  An understandable sentiment in the heat of war, but a tragic one nonetheless.  We choose what we see, whether the face of the human being behind the mask of the enemy, or just the mask itself.  The choice is ours, and it matters.

For some reason, Psalm 37 reminds me of this movie, just a bit.  The elegant little acrostic, which works better than some do because it is more fluid, is a wisdom psalm.  It edifies its reader or singer or hearer by painting a sharp contrast between the wicked and the good.  Perhaps the text was designed to help young people remember more easily some basic moral precepts and their religious underpinnings.  Many of the lines can stand on their own, almost as proverbs do.  But together, they form a fairly comprehensive picture of well- and ill-formed human character.

The contrast between good and evil here is sharp.  The good trust God, avoid undue anger, find satisfaction even in a little, give generously and lend readily, speak about justice, and so on.  The evil do the opposite in every respect.  And the fate of each is sure.  Perhaps most striking are verses 8-11 (the he and vav verses), especially the off verses, 9 and 11. (EXPLANATION ALERT: often in Hebrew acrostics some of the verses start with the successive letters of the alphabet, aleph, bet, gimel, etc., but between each of these letter verses is a verse or two starting with some other letter but explaining the main verse that begins with the next letter in the alphabet; Lamentations 1 and 2 are good examples.  I hope this explanation is not more unclear than what it explains!)  Verse 9 says “For the evildoers will be cut off, but those trusting in Yhwh will inherit the land/earth,” while verse 11 repeats and then expands on the idea by saying, “the poor will inherit the land/earth and will delight in the abundance of peace” (Hebrew: shalom; NRSV’s “prosperity” is somewhat unfortunate as translations go).  The New Testament’s Beatitudes clearly allude to verse 11 when they say that the “meek will inherit the earth.”

The text thus claims that, while we may see the profound evil that exists in human relationships and structures, as well as in every individual, evil is not the last word.  It is possible to live as people of integrity and therefore to receive the validation of the Almighty.  That is, the Germans really are like us, caught up in sin but also susceptible to redemption.  We have before us real choices about good and evil, not merely a fated imprisonment in a world of woe.  Morality is a hopeful thing after all.

So what do you see?  The soldiers in the movie, and one may assume in the real trenches almost a century ago, learned to see in the scared young faces of the men across No Man’s Land a vision of themselves.  We are together in our sins and in our redemption.  The land’s ultimate owners will not be those who grasp it by force or deceit, but those who recognize its true lord and live as that lord made us to do.   Maybe that is the thing most worth seeing of all. More »

The Psalms in our Worship 28

by   |  04.06.11  |  Uncategorized

Evil is an odd word.  It often gets used for all sorts of things we dislike, though I would like to reserve it for truly horrific violations of human dignity (bombing civilians or using food as a weapon or depriving the poor of the medical care others receive).  Some things truly are evil, and we need to name them.  You can’t adhere to the good unless you know and avoid the evil.

How do we know which things are evil?  Psalm 36 takes on that question.  It describes itself as an “oracle” (Hebrew: ne’um; v. 1), a label that usually shows up in the books of the prophets.  (Many translations obscure the Hebrew word here.)  Perhaps we should think of it more as a meditation of a prophetic kind.  In any case, the psalmist paints a sharp contrast between the person whose mind focuses only on evil and the God who focuses only on the good.

In a text reminiscent of such intense moral reflections as Job 29-31 or even the Sermon on the Mount, the psalmist speaks of one about whom it can be said

There is no dread of God before his eyes, for he uses his eyes to divide up things for himself [i.e., is always calculating  personal gain] to find his iniquity in hatred.  The words of his mouth are folly and contentiousness.  He quits thinking about the good.  He thinks about folly when he lies down, he stands in the not-good way.  He does not reject evil.

The business of lying and standing reminds one a bit of Psalm 1, and this psalm illustrates what the earlier one means by the “wicked.”  There is a human character that is so self-absorbed that it can only focus on its own good.  Such a focus leads to the destruction of social bonds, the crushing of the vulnerable, and soon even the destruction of the soul of the wicked person himself or herself.  Sometimes we can repent of such an approach to life, but sometimes we become enmeshed in it that repentance becomes a practical impossibility.

Now the contrast.  Unlike other psalms, this one does not appeal to an ideal human type (often embodied in the composer himself!) but to God.  First come several images of permanence and knowability.  Yhwh’s “steadfast love” is in the heavens, righteousness is like the lofty mountains (Hebrew: har’re-El or “mountains of God”), judgment is like the great abyss etc.  Not only is God’s loyalty to human beings unshakeable, it is known by everybody.  And it is comprehensive, for “you save human and beast.”  In the astonishing moral world of God, even animals can expect deliverance from their foes, at least in appropriate ways! More »

The Shalom Blues: The Psalms in our Worship 27

by   |  03.30.11  |  Uncategorized

On some days, it’s hard to get your thoughts together.  The allergy medicines and the crush of routine conspire to prevent it.  On such days, it is easy to treat even the dramatic and beautiful lackadaisically. Here are a few observations, as tightly woven as the meds permit!

Allowing such a thing to happen when considering Psalm 35 would be a pity.  So let me begin with a text, not just my feelings about it.  Many individual lines of the psalm seem cliched, leaving an initial impression of a fairly hackneyed composition.  But this superficial impression changes on closer investigation.  The psalm begins familiarly enough with a cry to God for help against oppressors.  The psalmist asks God to join him or her in court (“oppose my opponents” or even “sue those suing me”) and then offers a series of synonymous pleas (“strengthen the shield,” “rise up in help of me,” “brandish spear and dart,” “speak to my inner being,” “let them [the foes] be ashamed” and all the rest).  It is the language of conflict, or as the Greeks would say, of agon.  Life is portrayed as conflict, struggle between the good and the evil.

Of course, it is tempting to hear such an opening as the ultimate in self-serving behavior.  What could be more narcissistic than to believe that the infinite sovereign of the universe would take my side in my petty quarrels?  (Nothing, that’s what!)  But what if the psalmist really is under assault by evil?  Does our suspicion of the text reflect our own discomfort with sham religion (“woe to you Bible professors, hypocrites!”).  Or does our suspicion reflect the cynicism borne of privilege.  No one is hunting us.  Our quarrels are petty.  Our complaints are those of the powerful who don’t get every single thing we want.  But what if some complaints are legitimate and some are truly oppressed?  What prayer should they pray?  How should the rest of us hear their prayers?

The long indictments of the psalm (vv. 1-8, 11-18) describe a world in which some people use all their resources to acquire more, regardless of whom they run over in the process.  The empirical observations of the psalmist — who can deny the existence of such practices? — depict a cast of characters that could be lifted off today’s newspaper.  Wickedness is defined as antisocial behavior that leaves the vulnerable in the dust for the sake of the convenience of the powerful.

Yet amid the indictments, there is another theme, the character of the defender of the vulnerable.  It first appears in verses 9-10.  Notice the description of God as “the one rescuing the poor from the one stronger than he or she is, yes the poor and the need from the one cheating/swindling him or her.”  A major touchstone in the Bible’s reflection on social solidarity is that God defends the vulnerable by opposing the greedy.

The thread appears twice more, as the psalmist considers the character of human beings.  He or she depicts himself or herself as the one who prayed for all the sick, including those who too greedy and self-absorbed to care for anyone else (vv. 12-14).  The commitments normal to the social bonds of family extend to others beyond the family, and this extension marks a critical distinction between the righteous and the wicked.  (The wicked just focus on their own families!) More »

The Tales we Tell: The Psalms in our Worship 26

by   |  03.24.11  |  Uncategorized

You are what you narrate.  When I was a little boy, I loved to hear my grandmothers tell  about their childhoods.  One was born in 1900, the other in 1907.  Each had seen hard times and good, had brought children into the world, and had led lives of integrity.  I believed them because of who they were, and their stories were interesting and orienting because their very strangeness still made sense in my very different life through them.   (My grandmother Hamilton had once heard William Howard Taft speak, for example, and both she and my grandmother Sullivan knew how to hitch up a wagon and wash clothes on a washboard, among many other now forgotten skills.)  You are the stories you tell and the stories to which you listen.

If this is so, then choosing the right stories and the right ways of telling them becomes crucial.  This is why I am struck today by the opening lines of Psalm 34.  This elegant little acrostic psalm (each verse starts with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet, except the final, summarizing verse) celebrates the fact that, as the conclusion puts it, “Yhwh redeems the life of his servants, so that none who seek refuge in Yhwh are ashamed.”  The end of humiliation is the sign and result of Yhwh’s saving work.

Who are those ashamed?  The opening of the psalm makes the answer very clear:

I will bless Yhwh all the time;  Yhwh’s praise will be in my mouth perpetually.

My very life praises Yhwh.  The poor hear it and rejoice

They will praise Yhwh along with me, and we will exalt his name together. More »

Two Upcoming ACU Events

by   |  03.22.11  |  Uncategorized

We are excited about two upcoming ACU events.

First, you are invited to hear Dr. Abraham J. Malherbe, Buckingham Professor Emeritus of Yale University, on the topic “What Has Athens to Do with Jerusalem” this Thursday, March 24, at 3:00 p.m. in room 114 of the Onstead Packer Biblical Studies building. Dr. Malherbe is one of the world’s foremost New Testament scholars; he is the author of many books and articles, including major commentaries on the Thessalonian and Pastoral epistles.

Also this Thursday, at 7 p.m., Professor Elaine Heath, McCreless Associate Professor of Evangelism at Southern Methodist University, will give the annual Broom Lecture in Hart Auditorium. She is the author of, among other works, The Mystic Way of Evangelism: A Contemplative Vision for Christian Outreach. She will offer strong reasons why we need to rethink evangelism and its central role in Christian practice. The word has fallen on hard times, in part because of the ways in which Christians have abused it. But her lecture will help us think in fresh and exciting ways.

I am sure you will want to be part of these events. Admission is free, but the learning will be priceless. We hope to see you for both of these outstanding speakers! More »

The Praiseworthy God: The Psalms in Our Worship 25

by   |  03.08.11  |  Uncategorized

One of the most useful words in Hebrew is the little particle ky (sounds like “key”), which means either “because” or “so that” (causal either forward- or backward-looking), or sometimes “when.”  Maybe I like it because I always want to know why something is so or at least why people think it’s so.  “Because” is a good introduction to further conversation and reflection.  It takes you somewhere.

In Psalm 33, “because” in verse 4 introduces a long list of reasons for praising God.  The psalm opens, like a typical hymn, with a call to praise (verses 1-3).  And then it recognizes the potential for doubt in the minds of worshipers by offering reasons.  Let me stop on this point a moment.  Hymns always assume that those of us singing them both believe and question the ideas, values, and commitments we’re singing about.  We sing the songs in order to reinforce our convictions, and sometimes to deepen and challenge them.  Hence “because.”

So what is it about God that is praiseworthy?  The psalmist lists some remarkable character traits.  Some of the epithets of God include “lover of righteousness and justice,” “gatherer of the sea waters,” showing that this psalm, like many others, thinks of creation and the enactment of justice as two closely related divine activities.  God brings order and purpose.

However, the psalm’s preferred way of speaking of God is through verbs of action, all worth tracing.  Thus Yhwh’s steadfast love fills the earth (v. 5), and Yhwh’s words are the means by which the world was created (v. 6).  (Again, notice how creation and justice-making go hand in hand.)  Verses 6-9 seem to be a summary of Genesis 1 or at least the main ideas there, with creation being simply an act of divine speaking (“he spoke, and it was so”) and thus of divine justice-making.

The actions continue in a new section beginning in verse 10.  Here the psalmist reflects on the futility of the schemes of the powerful nations of the world, noting that neither wise counsel nor military power can ultimately bring stability.  We, of course, know that too, and have received a clear reminder in recent weeks as the Middle Eastern dictatorships have collapsed to be replaced with God-knows-what.  But then again, people of faith never forget this point.  The lessons of history — besides the one that there are no lessons! — surely signal to us the ultimate futility and even folly of human pursuits of power.  The psalmist takes this basic insight a step further by celebrating Yhwh as the God of history, the great maker and unmaker of human rulers.  God here becomes the one working for justice, using whatever human allies are at hand, but also holding them to account.

The conclusion comes in verses 18-22.  God is praiseworthy because of the persistent care for men and women who honor (v. 18) God and await the effects of God’s steadfast love.  When humans engage in trusting praise (and, as the prophets would add, live out the implications of that praise in their moral choices and actions), then God cares for them by rescuing them from death and all its allies and manifestations.  The relationship is reciprocal (both sides have obligations) but asymmetrical (those obligations are not equivalent, since humans are not equivalent to God).  Reciprocity and relationship are the surest tokens of God’s praiseworthiness. More »

The Sweet Joy of Forgiveness: The Psalms in Our Worship 24

by   |  02.24.11  |  Uncategorized

Blessed is the one whose transgression is lifted off, whose sin is covered over.  Blessed is the one to whom Yahweh does not attribute guilt and in whose spirit is no treachery.

One of the hardest parts of writing anything is knowing where to begin.  The Psalmist could hardly have chosen a better opening.  In just 15 words in Hebrew, Psalm 32 offers a picture of a possible reality.  Conceiving of sin as a burden to be carried or a blemish to be hidden, this text enters into the very soul of the follower of Israel’s God.  The faithful life is about the removal of the terrible weights that crush us.  Faith is a search for the lighter, healthier, saner approach to life.  The person who experiences such removal of the weight of sin can now live with confidence in the saving power of the Almighty.  Emotions and actions follow, as well as reinforce and celebrate, the liberation given.  And, in many ways, the actions and feelings of lightness of being are themselves resources for preventing the reacquisition of the weight.

Yet this change of status has not come easily for our author.  Rather, Yahweh has disciplined the pray-er of this psalm (vv. 3-4), leading the penitent human being to acknowledge his or her sins (v. 5: “I made my sin known to you and did not cover up my guilt”).  A curious thing here: verse 1 celebrates the covering over (Hebrew: kasah) of sin by God, while verse 5 recognizes that for human beings to cover over (same verb!) sin is highly inappropriate.  To obscure sin is a divine prerogative.  Repentance, which implies truth-telling about our failures, is ours.

And this is why the righteous praise God.  The removal of the evil in the life of an individual or a group is an extraordinary miracle, and one well worth celebrating.  Nor is the celebration our job alone, for the one who finds God to be a hiding place (v. 7) also hears the divine voice offering illumination and guidance (vv. 8-9).  The conversation about forgiveness includes those who experience it, and the God who gives is.

For me, thinking about sin and forgiveness this way is immensely helpful.  In our conversations in church, we seem too wedded to one image of sin, the judicial one.  The overemphasis makes us say many silly things (such as the idea that all sins are equally bad or that God abhors sin so much he can’t be in the same room with it, making God sound like a paranoid germophobe).  It’s helpful to correct our speech by thinking about other aspects of sin, whether it is weight in this text or debt as in the “Our Father” or disease in other places.  Evil has many dimensions.  And God can triumph over them all.

Postscript: If you want to read more about images of sin in the Old Testament and early Judaism and Christianity, read Gary Anderson’s little, but very learned and readable, book Sin: A History (Yale University Press, 2010). More »

Deliverance 101: The Psalms in our Worship 23

by   |  02.22.11  |  Uncategorized

Having grown up in a family in which my dad had a steady job and our schools were safe and our churches more often encouraging than not, deliverance is a hard concept for me.  What does it look like?  Not everyone has this problem because not everyone has mastered the art of projecting illusions.  But those of us who do imagine ourselves to be self-contained could use a refresher.

Psalm 31 offers such a primer.  It’s an odd psalm really.  It seems to go in several directions at once, almost as though its creator wished to evoke either the mental turmoil of the one seeking deliverance or the ecstasy of the one receiving it.  Some scholars have thought of it as two or even three different psalms welded together (much as one sees in 1-2 Chronicles, for example).  This is possible, but the text has come down to us as a single work.  As the commentator Samuel Terrien puts it, “It is a cry of fear and love for the Lord, which ends with an exhortation addressed to all true adorers of Yahweh.”  Nicely said.

The psalm opens by expressing confidence in the God who provides deliverance, coupled with a plea for further deliverance (v. 1 [2 in Hebrew]).  On the one hand, the psalmist sees God’s rescue as an abiding reality, as one of those anchor points for the life of faith.  Yet, on the other hand, deliverance is also an ongoing need, and thus a future possibility.  It is never a final result, a reality that is fixed and immovable.  Deliverance is a process, and it is also a relationship in which the one delivered recognizes her or his ongoing contingency and thus dependence on God.  (And as Christians aware of the eschatological dimensions of God’s work, we would add that final deliverance comes only when God makes all things new and draws us into the divine being at the end of time.)

The psalm then offers us an anatomy of deliverance that includes the end of shame (or perhaps we would say, alienation), moral clarity about idolatry and the ways it produces disloyalty to God, a deeper awareness of the possibility of humans having a trusting relationship with God, and finally a new capacity for celebration concentrating on the praise of God.

This last part, beginning, in verse 19 (20 in Hebrew), seems to many scholars to be a separate psalm.  Perhaps it originally was a free-standing hymn.  No one knows.  But I am interested in the fact that it has been associated with the cry for deliverance early in Psalm 31.  What is the connection?  Since the association of two such elements appears in many psalms, it would be good to know the answer.

Perhaps part of the answer is that human beings who can celebrate and can give due honor to God (and as appropriate, to other men and women) are free.  They are no longer enslaved to whatever evil had previously shackled them.  Even if they remain in the outward condition of subjection to evil, their capacity for rejoicing marks them as liberated people. More »

Beyond Gratitude: The Psalms in Our Worship 22

by   |  02.13.11  |  Uncategorized

I often hear that the proper response to God’s grace is gratitude.  This is true, as far as it goes, but seems a bit passive.  Worse, in human beings, gratitude often turns to resentment at the humiliation caused by disproportionate, un-pay-backable gift-giving.  So I often wonder if we can say more.

In the Psalms, as we have already seen, the laments and hymns of praise have a close relationship to each other.  The laments often end with a promise to praise God for deliverance, once it comes.  And hymns often refer back to the calamity whose termination and redemption have led the singer of the psalm to praise.  Psalm 30 fits the latter category.  It reminds the hearer that the composer has experienced tragedy (verses 2, 7 [Hebrew 3, 8]) and has sought Yhwh’s help (verses 2-3, 11-12 [Hebrew 3-4, 12-13]).  God has aided him or her  in unspecified ways.  Hence the hymn of praise itself.

But today I am struck by the psalm’s comment on the whole experience of redemption: “For his anger lasts a moment, his favor is lifelong.  In the evening weeping takes up lodging, but rejoicing comes in the morning.”  The faith of the psalmist is not simply a matter of gratitude for services rendered.  It is a deep-seated, radical, existentially transformative  trust in the basic character of God as one who seeks to extend mercy to all.  This God rescues those who ask from death itself, allowing not even the most powerful force in the universe to defeat humanity.  This God works for a culture of respect (“my foes have not rejoiced over me”).  And this God forms a community who testify to their own experiences of grace.  It’s not just gratitude in play here.  It’s deeper than that.

In exploring the theme of grace, a theme fundamental to Christian understanding of the human relationship with the divine, we must come to know and feel the deep sense of responsibility it imposes on us.  As the old hymn says, “O to grace, how great a debtor, daily I’m constrained to be.”  Constrained.  Debtor.  To be.  But to be free of that debt is to have nothing at all.  This too is something for which to be grateful, and so much more.

The Noisy God: The Psalms in our Worship 21

by   |  02.02.11  |  Uncategorized

If Psalm 28 is notable for its quiet celebration of the mercies of God, Psalm 29 is one of the noisiest texts ever written.  Its evocation of thunder (“the voice of Yhwh on the waters”), earthquake (“Lebanon skips….Yhwh’s voice makes the wilderness writhe”), and splitting trees could inspire terror and concerns about the character of God.  But the Psalmist emphasizes something different: the awe-inspiring nature of God’s interventions in the world.  Whether the reader has something to fear depends on which side of the fence he or she sits on.

As many scholars have noted, the psalm resembles lyrics from Ugarit, the “Canaanite” city on the coast that was destroyed just before Israel became a prominent entity, and whose texts (discovered beginning in 1929) have greatly deepened our understanding of the religion of the entire area.  In those texts, Baal, El, Asherah, and other deities figure as sympathetic (usually!) beings, not the foes of the true God.  The texts remind us that the religion of Canaan was believed by many people, a fact that the Bible recognizes, but we tend to forget because we have accepted the Bible’s views of that set of religious practices.

Psalm 29 takes up the older language of theophany (the appearance of God) and transfers it to Yhwh, indicating Israel’s experience of who the true deity is.  The psalm also extends that language a bit, moving it from the north (Lebanon, Sirion) to the south (wilderness of Kadesh), thus offering a comprehensively Israelite perspective.  By calling on the “sons of El” or “sons of God” (v. 1) to worship Yhwh, the Psalm subordinates all possible rivals to God, thus making a strong theological claim about the unity of the Godhead.  (Note: the “sons of El” were a group of beings that were eventually called “angels,” but at the time of the composition of the psalm were thought of as minor deities [compare Ps 82].)   Yhwh alone can move the world about and reorder it as necessary.

For those of us living in 2011, a psalm like this offers a needed reminder of two things.  One is that God is not simply a nice companion on the journey, or an enabler of whatever our fondest dreams are.  God is immensely, incalculably powerful.  This power is always used for the good of the creation, but that good may catch us out if we ourselves act contrary to that good end.  The second reminder is that sometimes we need a bit of noise in our religion.  We need to confess our own wonderment at the work of God.  The psalmist imagines his or her hearers crying out in the temple (where presumably the psalm was sung) “glory” (Hebrew: kavod), a word expressing their stunned response to the awe-inspiring nature of God’s work among them.  Maybe such words expressing our inability to control or manage God would be helpful to us today.  More than maybe.  Surely.

Ascribe to Yhwh, glory and strength.  Now.  Today.  Here.  With me and you. Amen.

Have Mercy: The Psalms in Our Worship 20

by   |  01.26.11  |  Uncategorized

Mark Hamilton, PhD - Associate Dean, Associate Professor of Old Testament, ACU Graduate School of Theology

Mark Hamilton, PhD - Associate Dean, Professor of Old Testament, ACU Graduate School of Theology

Some days you don’t have much to say because you recognize the extent to which you need mercy.  Silence seems better than speaking.  Words fail to capture the subtleties of thought, the depths of emotions, the intricacies of interpersonal relationships.  Since we must speak, however, we seek the words that draw us back into the silence.  These words are not timid little things peaking furtively around the corners of our souls.  No, they are bold enough, but also realistic enough to recognize their own limitations.

So it is with Psalm 28, a quiet psalm with two parts.  Verses 1-5 cry out to God, who seems all too aloof and silent, for help, and in particular for moral re-formation.  Verses 6-9, in an extraordinary turn of mood, extol the Almighty’s willingness to help and tangible demonstration of that willingness.

Older scholars often described psalms like this as mixed-genre pieces.  Or they supposed that in the performance of the psalm, a priest stepped forward (presumably just after verse 5 was said) to offer a word of salvation.  This all may be true; no one knows for sure.  But what is clear is that the space between the cry to God for help and the answer to that cry is not too wide.  Praise and laments are not opposites, but close cousins.  They both depend on an awareness of the mighty mercy of God.

I am struck today by several of the lines.  Verse 3 asks God to separate the psalmist from those who “speak peace to their neighbors but have evil in their heart.”  There is a pun here in Hebrew: “their neighbors” = re’ehem (resh-ayin-he), while “evil” is ra’ah (resh-ayin-he).  The consonants are the same, but the vowels are different.  And what a difference a few vowels can make!  And how easy it is to hate a neighbor and scheme against that person, at least in our fantasies.  The psalmist wishes to differentiate himself from such persons, especially in the opinion of the God who sees hearts and thus discerns truths behind illusions and appearances.

The other bit to notice is the phrase in verse 6 “blessed be Yhwh.”  One often “blesses” God in the Old Testament.  Usually we translate the expression as “praise Yhwh,” which is an acceptable rendering.  But it is better to recognize that these texts seek to place God in the right place and to recognize that God has superlative qualities that humans ought to recognize.

It’s a short psalm, and I do not wish to break the silence too long today.  The good news is that, beyond the silence, there is One who speaks at just the right time and with just the right words. More »

Sanctuary: The Psalms in our Worship 19

by   |  01.22.11  |  Uncategorized

Mark Hamilton, PhD - Associate Dean, Associate Professor of Old Testament, ACU Graduate School of Theology

Mark Hamilton, PhD - Associate Dean, Professor of Old Testament, ACU Graduate School of Theology

This week I spent three days in New York City on business.  A few hours of touring amid the work took me and a colleague to Grant’s Tomb and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, each a monument in its own way.  One honors a great man and the other seeks to honor God.  Both seem fitting and dignified, though for me, the cathedral offers much more to the soul.  As my colleague put it when he entered the soaring space, “so this is why they call it a sanctuary.”  Open space points ever upward to the great window depicting the Risen Lord.  The light streams in through the picture of Christ and saints, reminding us (if we are of an allegorical bent) that light best enters the darkness through those touched by God’s light.

The author of Psalm 27 would have understood this sentiment, I think.  This little poem has four parts: verses 1-3 express fearlessness in the face of adversity because of God’s protection; verses 4-6 explain why the poet is unafraid — he or she dwells in the house of God, the Temple, which provides refuge both physical and spiritual; verses 7-12 call upon God to continue that protection and express the expectation that God is faithful even when the most cherished relationships in life fail; and verses 13-14 summarize the spirituality of the psalm from two different perspectives, that of the interior state of the psalmist and that of the spiritual life of all who hear the psalm (hence the community of those who trust God).

Three features of the spirituality of the psalm stand out to me today.  One is the emphasis on place, and in particular, the power of the Temple (here, “the tent” or “pavilion”) to protect.  Israelites wrestled with the question of whether the building was itself a sort of magic talisman, as texts like 1 Kings 8 and Jeremiah 7 take pains to correct, but the key to the psalm’s idea is that God exercises a special care in that place.  It is a place of joyful thanksgiving (Hebrew: teru’ah) and thus a living reminder of the wonderful deeds of God.  In other words, it is a sanctuary of the spirit.

A second feature appears near the center of the Psalm, in verses 7-8: “Hear my voice when I call out, O Yhwh, and take delight in me and answer me.  My heart said to you ‘seek my face’; I sought/will seek your face O Yhwh.”  This is what the Hebrew text literally says.  It’s a bit confusing, however, and most scholars offer a slight modification of verse 8a: “my heart says about something related to you,” that is “something you said” etc.  In this case, verse 8a becomes a quotation of what God has said (“seek my face”), and verse 8b becomes the response.  This reading seems to make the most sense in the context.  And it reveals an important insight: the essence of the religious life is the search for God.  But it is not a search originating in the oft-frustrated desires of the human heart.  It is, instead, a search to which God has invited us.  And in that search, and especially in finding its object, we find rest.

A third feature that is striking appears in verse 10: “though my father and my mother abandon me….”  The Old Testament, like the religious traditions springing from it, Judaism and Christianity, highly values family and calls parents to be as trustworthy as humanly possible.  But the psalmist entertains the possibility, too often realized in everyday life, of the failure of parents to provide stability.  The effects of such actions are well-known to all of us.  The psalmist offers an alternative to human social protection: the protection of the God who cares for the orphans and the abused.

Curiously, the ancient and medieval commentators on this verse had a different take.  Rashi, the great 11th century Jewish commentator, talks in his commentary on the psalms (edited and translated by Mayer Gruber and published in paperback by the Jewish Publication Society in 2007) about the conception of David (who he thought wrote all the psalms).  Jesse and Mrs. Jesse had engaged in sex only for their own pleasure, says Rashi, but the God who superintends everything in the world, including even human sperm, created a human being.  Now as a rendering of the intentions of the psalm’s author for this metaphor, Rashi’s interpretation is pretty far-fetched.  But at the same time, it offers a deepening of the Psalm itself in some ways.  God is able to redeem human intentions without overwhelming the human beings involved.  This insight is worth preserving and reflecting on. More »

Seeking the Just Judge: The Psalms in our Worship 18

by   |  01.03.11  |  Uncategorized

One of the major images of God in Scripture is that of judge.  Yahweh is the God who evaluates and settles accounts, rectifying all the injustices of the world and bringing order where, before, chaos reigned.  As I’ve noted before, it’s a hard image for many of us because it conjures up memories of legalism and human hard-heartedness.  When applied to God, however, the image is appropriate since God can weave together mercy and fairness with a perfection that humans cannot equal.  In fact, the image of God as judge can be very liberating because it means we can turn loose of our felt need to evaluate and measure everything and everyone, especially ourselves and our own actions.  We need not worry whether these actions will “measure up” because they have been committed to God.

The author of Psalm 26 believes all this.  The psalm opens with an invitation to God to “judge me.”  How to translate this?  Does it mean “evaluate me” or “vindicate me” or “put me in my place”?  The second half of the line both answers the question and raises new ones: “for I walk in my perfection,” meaning apparently that the psalmist is confident that God will find nothing amiss in this person’s life.  How to understand a statement that seems to us so startlingly presumptuous?  The answer comes when we consider the alternatives: no one whose life is in tatters could reasonably apply to God for such assessment (there are laments and penitential psalms for such a person to use).  Nor could a person who has no confidence in God’s justice say such things.  We may find the psalmist’s confidence a bit excessive, but perhaps that is because we do not take seriously enough the power of God’s forgiveness and work to bring human beings to a higher state of virtue.  In other words, we may be so impressed by our own sinfulness that we allow it to outweigh God’s power to change our lives.  The psalmist does not make such a mistake.

The real resolution of the problem comes at the end of verse 1: “And I trust in Yahweh.”  One of the earliest theological lessons of my life came one evening when we were sitting in the car outside the grocery store waiting for my mother.  My grandmother Sullivan, for reasons I don’t remember, said to me, “I’m glad that Jesus is my judge and not my brothers and sisters.”  The context doesn’t matter much.  Perhaps it was one of our congregation’s many internal squabbles that she had in mind.  But her point was a profound one.  The God who judges can be trusted with that task, and therefore we have nothing to fear from it.

The psalmist goes on to talk about the implications of such a trust: confidence in the stories of God’s steadfast love, a reformed personality pursuing justice in all our associations, a passion for repose in God’s house, and a sharp distinction between those who trust God and those who do not.  The psalmist has found peace, not in the absence of conflict, but in the knowledge that a providence rides above the storm and shelters all who seek it diligently.

So, happy new year to all.  It would be hard to find a better reminder of why we hope for such a thing than this gorgeous little psalm.

Pain and the Great Physician: The Psalms in our Worship 17

by   |  12.28.10  |  Uncategorized

One of the greatest truths about human existence is that it is painful.  Not always, not to the same degree for all, not always pointlessly.  But to live is to experience pain.  Despite our culture’s almost pathological fear of pain and the extraordinary lengths to which we go to avoid, or at least hide it, it is real.  And it is part of us.

The question is, what do we do about it?  The Psalms speak often of human pain, drawing God’s attention to it artfully and persistently.  Thus Psalm 25, to take only the latest example, squeezes the experiences of alienation and emotional suffering into the mold of art by surfacing the human longing for God’s deliverance.

Take the art first, and then the pain.  The psalm is an acrostic, with each verse starting with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  This artistic form might seem to us a pedestrian one, perhaps because we have only seen it used in bad sermons and puzzles for elementary school children.  However, Hebrew poetry uses it often with extraordinary skill (for example, Psalms 34, 37, 111, 112, 119, 145; Lamentations 1, 2, 3, 4).  It was also used in Mesopotamian poetry at times.  The idea is to see how beautifully the poetry can flow even within such a straitjacket.  Such poetic craftsmanship allows the raw emotions expressed in these words not so much to be tamed as to be made available to ever new audiences.  There are a few glitches in the transmitted Hebrew text, with the waw verse (v. 5b) being two short, the qoph verse gone missing, and the resh verse duplicated (vv. 18 and 19), or rather probably being conflated from two different versions of the psalm.  But no matter: we can still make sense of the psalm.

What are the emotions?  Some are of pain, and some of joy.  The psalmist contrasts shame and humiliation (vv. 2 and 19), which come from contact with human beings, to self-awareness, moral and spiritual enlightenment, and belonging, which come from God.  He or she asks God to remove youthful sins (v. 7).  But much more significant is the psalmist’s trust in God as the source of such forgiveness, as well as a whole series of corollaries.  These include the defense of the poor (v. 9), and divine protection of the righteous (all the language about steadfast love and faithfulness).  There is also a vision of a new person characterized by the diligent pursuit of virtue (v. 12) and repentance (v. 18).  Thus the psalmist moves from a sense of disgrace to a new social location of belonging and trust.

One form of pain is shame, a sense of failure of some sort.  While the complete absence of shame would produce a society of criminal sociopaths, its over-functioning leads to a the break down of social connections too.  By giving up the pain of shame and surrendering it to God, the only accurate judge of human behavior and thus the only trustworthy guide to whether or not we are who we need to be, the psalmist moves from pain to promise.  It’s a resolution worth celebrating during this season of the year.

Mark Hamilton's Comment Archive

  1. I agree that there are many aspects of the Bible that I haven’t touched on, and the quote from Heschel is particularly appropriate. The Bible speaks of God’s search for us, and ours for God. It’s the dance involving both parties that seems so beautiful.

  2. Thanks, Michael. Why is it either/or rather than both/and? How can you sustain service without a sense of the transcendent and humans’ belonging to the transcendent? Can a secular view of life sustain itself (very doubtful, I think)? On the other hand, how can you worship the God of the Bible without caring about the people God created? Or maybe we are defining “worship” differently. I’m defining it as an expression of our awe before God.

  3. Mark Hamilton on Guestbook
    11:06 pm, 05.07.12

    Thank you for your honesty here. I am grateful for the searching spirit, which is what we all need.

    Just let me offer one comment: I believe that the church is a reliable guide to the way to God. The church is not perfect — far from it. We often misunderstand. But I think that we have received something true and reliable enough to help. That is, I don’t think we are groping blindly for God. The key is to get past all the noise and learn what the core of the church’s message is supposed to be.
    For myself, that is my goal, though I often do not measure up to it. Still, it’s worth the effort.

    Again, thank you for your comment!

  4. Agreed! We all continue to do the same.

  5. Thank you, Casey. I really appreciaye you and all you do. Bleasings, Mark

  6. Thanks, Steven! I hope you’re doing well. Let me hear from you sometime!

  7. Hi, Angela. Great question. They do seem to have been used that way, and presumably almost all psalms were. We know from the Mishnah, the second-century collection of Jewish law, that certain psalms were used on certain occasions. The evidence is not completely clear, but it does seem to lean toward public performance. So, yes, you’re right. Our own worship would do well to be a little more diverse and include such language as this from time to time. Thanks for writing!

  8. Thanks, Cole. I’m not sure how Christians would coerce the state to do anything. But I do think religious communities do have a responsibility to enter into dialogue about justice and equity with other people. States, especially democracies, assume some level of commitment to some fundamental principles of justice, and the discourse between church and state seeks overlapping consensuses, not total agreement. I don’t see how you have a non-redistributory state. Any good historian will tell you that the very nature of a state is to redistribute goods (that has been true for 5000 years or more, depending on how one defines “state”). So, to me, the way you’ve lined out the problem is a bit too simple. States can’t help redistributing. The question is how and on what principles, and some of that conversation should be discussable, even by Christians (unless you want to argue that we must check our views at the door of the public debate). The alternative is to assume that societies are simply epiphenomenal and that all that really matters is the individual, a view that strikes me, at least, as completely untenable. Thanks for the discussion!

  9. Laura, I have a copy at home somewhere and would be glad to lend it. Susan is also coming to Summit, so you might get a chance to meet her then. Best, MH

  10. Drew, thanks for this. I was born in the 60s, so I don’t remember segregation (de jure at least) either, though the legacies of it were very alive in my childhood and are, in diminished form, even today. The cure for the segregation of worship today is for all of us to build new relationships, and for us to push our congregations’ leaders to do a better job of interacting with others. Leadership matters here.