The Hopes of Modernity

September 22, 2014

One hopeful promise of the modern era is that improved communication between different cultures and nations will lead to greater international understanding. This expectation is closely tied to technological advancement: as the world grows smaller, due to airplanes and radio and television and internet, we can become closer neighbors. Greater understanding will naturally lead to greater peace.

Thus, for example, the enduring faith in foreign-exchange programs. If young people from countries around the world experience each other’s families and communities—and thanks to modern air travel, they can–they will return home with a more sympathetic understanding of the Other. If this happens often enough, there will be no more war.

It hasn’t happened like that. I’m reading The War that Ended Peace, by Margaret MacMillan, a history of how the enlightened nations of Europe (and ultimately America too) stumbled into WWI.

She includes a passing observation that in the years before the war “railways, telegraph lines and then telephones and radios transmitted domestic and international news at unprecedented speed….. Increasingly, newspapers preferred to use their own nationals [as foreign correspondents] rather than rely on locals.” As a result, public opinion became better informed and increasingly involved in foreign policy. Governments began to try to manipulate the press in order to form public opinion. And popular newspapers learned to publish alarmist interpretations of events, to “stir up public emotions and elevate patriotism into jingoistic nationalism.” Lord Salisbury, the British Prime Minister, “complained that it was like having ‘a huge lunatic asylum at one’s back.’” [112-113] Ultimately this public opinion became a force pushing for war—a force that statesmen had to appease.

So better communication did not lead to greater understanding; it actually worked to accentuate differences. Sound familiar?

It’s striking that the lunatics and killers running ISIS are very savvy at internet communications. It’s very high on their list to broadcast quality videos of their savagery. The internet offers almost unlimited possibilities for communicating across differences. Yet as many have noticed, we tend to find an echo chamber for our own ideas and prejudices; and the internet also offers almost unlimited possibilities for hearing from people who agree with you, and recruiting them to your cause.

Technology does nothing to civilize or humanize us. It offers possibilities for both good and evil. What we make of them depends on other humanizing forces—parents, teachers, writers, broadcasters, pastors. But there is not such a good market for them! Apple sold ten million iPhones in three days. There is no similar demand for thoughtful and humane books, schools, churches, families or news shows.

The Future of IS

September 13, 2014

I’m no expert on Islam or the Middle East, but my thoughts on the threat posed by IS were greatly influenced by a book I read a few years ago, God’s Terrorists: The Wahhabi Cult and the Hidden Roots of Modern Jihad, by Charles Allen. Here’s a short post I wrote reviewing the contents.

Allen’s book chronicles the history of IS-like groups going back to the 13th century, with considerable emphasis on their persistence and fanaticism in the 18th and 19th centuries when the British held sway in India and the Middle East. It’s extremely clear that IS is not a new phenomenon. Very similar Islamic theologies have persisted for centuries, and though their institutional life has waxed and waned, you can trace them through specific people and places during all that time. They have created considerable havoc.

While such extremism has persisted, it has never triumphed for long simply because it has never won the minds and hearts of ordinary Muslims. The reason the Taliban and their fanatical offspring have flourished of late is mainly Saudi oil money, which has paid for weapons and schools and relief efforts all over the Middle East.

And so it has done for IS. It’s possible that the Saudi money is drying up, but now IS has money of its own from its captured oil fields, banks, and extortion rackets. But how long can it last? IS cannot build an economy. Money stolen from banks is not a renewable resource, the sale of oil can only get more and more difficult as the US puts the screws on, and extortion tends to be a poor long-term business plan. Even captured weapons, of which IS has many, tend to run out of ammunition and spare parts. Like the Mongol invaders of the 13th century, IS depends on capturing new territories that it can loot. I doubt they will capture any more, now that US drones and aircraft are patrolling their movements. Surely IS extremism will put off any potential grassroots support. Sunnis may want to stick a finger in the eye of the oppressive Shia in Iraq, and in the US eye as well, but they will soon discover—if they have not already—the overwhelming dedication of IS to fanaticism. You can’t co-opt these people any more than you can co-opt a scorpion.

IS is a scourge on the face of the earth. To oppose it forcefully is a worthy cause, I believe. Its greatest enemy, however, will not be in opposing armies but in itself. It cannot sustain itself because it lacks any creative or positive power. Practically speaking, the only way IS can survive long term is to draw in the US  as an invading army. I am sure that is what they are attempting to do by murdering innocent US citizens and broadcasting the event on TV. We should resist their attempts to manipulate us into another Iraq (or Syrian) War.

Two Kinds of Justice

September 11, 2014

In my last post I made the point that we typically use the word “justice” differently from the way the Bible uses it. Our justice is limited to the ideas of fairness and just desserts. Everybody gets treated the same, and everybody gets what’s coming to him. This is justice suited to the courtroom.

God’s justice is much broader, incorporating mercy and charity. Its aim is to set the world right, by all means. Care for the poor is not voluntary, it is a requirement —as justice always is.

What practical difference does this expanded understanding of justice make?

First, though this may not seem very “practical,” a wider view of justice enables us to understand the Bible as a unified book. How many times have you heard the remark that “there are [pick a number] 900 verses about caring for the poor in the Bible?” One Bible highlighted all such verses in orange—a sort of red-letter edition for justice.

Indeed, if you pay close attention you will be overwhelmed by how much of this kind of “justice” can be found in the pages of the Bible. But most of us read Scripture as mainly about God and personal salvation, and it’s hard to say what those verses on justice have to do with that. Justice appears to be just a seasoning to flavor the main meal.

If you accept the broader meaning of justice, however, you see that justice is the main story line of Scripture. God is setting the sin-sick world right. He is in the business of causing all his creation to flourish, and doing away with all evil. And we are to join him in that! There is no real division between personal salvation and creation care or the welfare of the vulnerable. They are all part of God setting the world right, doing justice at every level: personal, social, ecological, spiritual, physical, economic.

As I say, not everybody will see Bible comprehension as very practical. But these different views of justice permeate politics and society. It makes a very large difference which definition you adopt.

The attraction of narrower justice is the ease with which it can be applied. It’s useful in court. You can adjudicate it according to rules. Fairness and equality can be defined with some precision. Crimes and punishments can be codified. Whereas, wider justice is imprecise. To set the world right—who knows exactly how to do that? It’s like carrying water in a leaky bucket. You are always drizzling, and you never can get enough water where you want it.

You see both kinds of justice in our debates about illegal immigration in America. One kind of response takes its cues from the law. Undocumented aliens have done wrong; they should be punished. The illegality of illegal immigrants overwhelms every other response. Christians who make this kind of response—and I suspect the majority of American Christians do—hunt the Bible for texts to reinforce their viewpoint. The main thing they find is Romans 13: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.”

Indeed, Paul (and Jesus) were not rebels; they obeyed the law unless it was deliberately counter to God’s word, and so should we. But Romans 13 doesn’t say too much about illegal immigrants; it tells me I ought not to be one, but nowhere does it say (nor does Paul or Jesus hint anywhere) that I should be vigilant to make sure that my neighbor isn’t one.

Yes, we are to obey the law. No, legality is not the sum of everything good. Love is.

Does wider justice help me know what to do with illegal immigrants? Yes and no. The problem with wider justice is that it merely tells me I ought, with God, to set my community right. It tells me to be kind and generous to those in need, particularly the immigrant. It doesn’t specify policy. If my job is to figure out how to set right the mess we are in—to help create just communities—that’s a very difficult assignment, with perhaps 12 million undocumented aliens, some of who came here when they were in diapers. I don’t know anybody who has a policy that claims to perfectly set that situation right. It’s all messy. In that respect, wider justice—God’s justice—isn’t morally satisfying. It never leaves me thinking that I know exactly what to do, nor do I feel justified after I’ve applied it.

Consider the parable of the prodigal son. Who ends up with clarity and righteousness? The older brother, I would say. He knows it is not fair that his brother gets a party, while he never did. He knows that his brother should be treated as he deserves. His brother, you might say, is the illegal. The older brother knows he is in the right and his brother in the wrong.

The father’s idea of justice doesn’t really disagree—he’s not defending the prodigal as though he were innocent. But something larger is at stake. The father knows that the prodigal is wrong, but he also knows that he is his son; he knows that the older brother’s justice won’t set their family right. There’s no hint that the father has a clear policy in mind, but he knows that love is the right response. Who stands for justice in this story? The older brother stands for our justice; the father stands for God’s.

I don’t know what policy exactly will solve our immigration dilemma. But I know that an older-brother response will not heal us. It will simply further tear apart our communities.

Narrow justice has a very deep appeal in our human psyche. It is what animates every child who ever wailed and moaned over perceived unfairness. And it is not wrong! Evil must be punished. Fairness should be rigorously applied. The law should be obeyed. But in the Bible it coexists with a larger justice known for forgiveness and mercy and kindness and humility. How do the two fit together? I know of only one point where they do: at the cross. There mercy and judgment meet, absorbed in the sacrifice of the Son of God. If we want justice, that is where we have to begin. We have to follow Jesus, and become like him.

What Is Justice?

September 9, 2014

If I have learned anything from working on biblical justice over the last two years, it is that the word “justice” can be confusing. The problem, I believe, is that the Bible means something different by the word than we typically do in contemporary English.

In our language, justice has two components: fairness, and just desserts. That’s the way we want it in a courtroom: everybody gets treated the same, and everybody reaps what they sow. If you are a criminal, you should pay. Whether you are rich or poor, black or white, you should be held liable for your crimes and be punished accordingly. Victims should be compensated, where possible.

Similarly, outside the courtroom, we want treatment to be equal and rules to be enforced. The teacher should grade every kid by the same standard. Cheaters should be punished. That’s justice.

Of course, that’s a pretty limited view. It focuses on today’s classroom, but it ignores whatever happened before class began. There’s no way that a kid born to a poor single mother has the same chances to do well in school that my kids do. In reality, life isn’t fair, and injustice begins before birth.

We may acknowledge that injustice, but we don’t want to think about it too much. It happens. You can’t prevent it. You just try to be just and fair where you have an opportunity. If that disadvantaged kid shows up in your workplace, you make sure he gets every opportunity to succeed. But you can’t change the conditions he grew up in, nor do you feel responsible for them.

Justice is an ideal that shapes our society to an extent, but we’re also pretty comfortable shrugging our shoulders at injustice.

The biblical idea of justice is a lot broader. It includes our ideas of fairness and just desserts. Again and again, God promises to pay back evildoers for what they have done. They will reap what they sow, he promises. But God’s justice also demands something more than fair play. A just man takes care of his hurting neighbors. Charity and mercy are part of justice too.

Listen to Job:

If I have denied the desires of the poor
Or let the eyes of the widow grow weary,
If I have kept my bread to myself,
Not sharing it with the fatherless—
But from my youth I reared them as a father would,
And from my birth I guided the widow—
If I have seen anyone perishing for lack of clothing
Or the needy without garments,
And their hearts did not bless me
For warming them with the fleece from my sheep,
If I have raised my hand against the fatherless,
Knowing that I had influence in court,
Then let my arm fall from the shoulder,
Let it be broken off at the joint.
For I dreaded destruction from God,
And for fear of his splendor I could not do such things. (31:16-23)

Job is defending his character, but he is not exactly totaling his credits. His rhetoric suggests that what he did for the vulnerable were not acts of charity—deeds done above and beyond the call of duty. He implies that he owed such behavior. Had he not sheltered orphans or provided clothing for the needy, God would have rightfully punished him. No, more than punished—destroyed him.

This approach, which is consistent throughout the Bible, is very puzzling to our modern thinking about justice. By our narrower definitions, to act mercifully has nothing to do with the demands of justice. When we donate food to the poor, we go beyond the demands of justice. We don’t owe it; we give it. When we forgive someone who did us harm, we actually forswear demanding justice. Justice and mercy are not the same thing at all; they are competitors.

That’s the chief complaint about affirmative action: it’s unjust to those who don’t receive it. To treat anybody better than they have earned may be very nice, but it is not justice, as we think of justice.

But that’s because we want to limit justice to the here and now—not delve into the unfairness of our births. Affirmative action tries to take a deeper history into account.

The biblical approach goes a step further, considering not just the injustice of our births, but the liberating justice done for us long before our present situation.

It’s perfectly caught by Jesus in his parable of the unmerciful servant. (Matthew 18:23-35) A king forgives a huge debt to one of his servants, who promptly goes out and throttles someone else for the debt he owes him. When the king learns what has happened, he is furious. He punishes the unforgiving servant in the most severe way. Jesus comments, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”

That last line always made me uncomfortable. I wanted Jesus to say: “God has forgiven you a lot, so out of gratitude you should forgive others. God will be pleased if you do.” But in Jesus’ telling, forgiveness is not optional. You have to forgive or you will be severely punished. That is because forgiveness is justice. It is absolutely required of you. It is not charity.

Why so? Simply because you have been forgiven a lot. The justice situation changes after you have a huge debt forgiven. For you to be forgiven a lot and then fail to offer the same treatment to others would be unjust.

Actually, this is not really an original idea Jesus had. It is entirely congruent with the basic stance taken repeatedly in the Old Testament. The Law is prefaced by the statement of the mercy God has shown. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.” (Deut 5:6,7) The Law demands, among other things, that you treat the poor and vulnerable with great kindness. It is not an option; it is the law. If you fail to do it, you will be punished. What is the logic for this demand? God brought you out of slavery. His act of liberation has altered the justice situation. You must treat others the way you have been treated. Grace is the antecedent for everything required of you.

For the same reason, foreigners must be treated just the way you treat the native-born. “Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:23) God has treated you far better than you deserve; so you owe love to foreigners. Not, “it would be nice.” Rather, “you must.” It is a matter of justice.

In this formal sense, justice is altered by God’s acts of mercy. However, there is a much broader sense in which justice is transformed in the Bible. That is because demands for justice are embedded in a narrative. That narrative begins with the whole world in trouble. Sin has created a situation so bad that it would be right and proper—perfectly just—for God to destroy everything. “The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. So the Lord said, ‘I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created.’” (Genesis 6:6,7)

Instead, he set out to remake the world, beginning with Noah, going on to Abraham, and of course, finally to Jesus. That is his justice: setting the world right. God’s justice is not fundamentally in punishing wrongdoing. It is in setting the world right, remaking it to match God’s original intentions. And so when we act to set the world right—by fighting evil, or by displaying kindness and mercy—we do God’s justice.

In a future post I’ll point out some of the implications of this.

Body and Spirit

September 6, 2014

I don’t have time right now to add my two cents, but I want to encourage you to read David Brooks’ column on beheadings–specifically why they are so horrific, more so than a shooting. 

Epic Day

August 29, 2014

Today is an epic day: I finished up my editorial work for God’s Justice: the Holy Bible. I’ve been working on this project for the last two years. It’s been intense, especially in the last eight months. On a number of occasions I wasn’t sure it would come together on time. But it did. Hallelujah!

God’s Justice is a Bible with notes on justice. I am working with a team at Biblica, the international Bible translators and publishers. We developed a prototype, and then I recruited 55 writers from all over the world to write introductions and notes on the theme of justice for every book in the Bible. I don’t think anything like it has ever been done before—both focusing on justice, and working as a global team with such diversity.

Most of the difficulties I have faced came with that international cast. The biggest issue is that people are so extraordinarily busy in the developing world—busy in a way that westerners can hardly imagine. An educated, competent person is under obligation to serve in many ways beyond their job. And then there is their extended family, who depend on them. It’s not acceptable in most of their cultures to say you’re busy, of that you have other priorities. If your nephew comes needing help with school fees, you have to stop and help. If your father-in-law is sick you must provide for his care. Many of these are “what’s-happening-now” places, where the event occurring this moment has a much stronger hold than some plan or deadline or commitment that is currently out of sight.

So, I had lots of woes getting things done on time. One woman got sick and was in and out of the hospital for months. One writer just stopped answering emails—he disappeared without explanation. And many people were late—usually for very good reasons.

Not to mention that few of my writers had extensive experience as writers. They all had things to say, but some needed help saying it.

Nevertheless, if the global character of the project was the source of much stress for me, it was also the source of much joy. It gave a sense of heaven in preparation—so many kinds of people. I count it a very great privilege to be involved in one of the very first projects of any kind in the entire history of Christianity to actively involve the whole breadth of the world. Wow. This is a new era, when people of every culture can join in working together.

I have a little breathing room now, and hope I can post to this blog more often. In the next week or so I’ll try to articulate some ways I learned and grew from living and breathing the subject of God’s justice.


Irrational exuberance

August 19, 2014

I find that I am exuberantly, irrationally happy at the news that my daughter Katie has a contract to publish her first book. I suppose this is the writer’s equivalent of having a grandchild.

The book (I know you are curious) is about the aftermath of the Spanish civil war and how hideous memories were processed in various realms of Spanish culture–fiction, art, film, photos.

Death and Disappearance

August 16, 2014

A friend of mine, Steve Morris, disappeared last week. He was in the Trinity Alps on my church’s annual men’s backpacking trip . On Saturday he and a few other men took a day hike to a nearby peak. On the way down, Steve got separated from the others. He never came into camp. Search parties have been looking ever since, using dogs, helicopters, GPS mapping. They scoured the area, which is not that large and not that rugged. (I’ve hiked there.) They found not a trace. Nothing. Not a footprint, not a water bottle, not a trail for dogs to follow. The sheriff called off the search this week, there being nowhere left to search.

It’s extremely unnerving. Steve is an experienced backpacker. He wasn’t despondent or depressed. Where has he gone? Why can’t they find some sign? Where is his body? Death itself is devastating to family and friends. Disappearance is worse. Earlier this year I read Rick Atkinson’s three-volume history of the western theater in WWII. He mentions how difficult it was for family and loved ones to deal with soldiers who went down in a ship or were shot down out of the air–who went missing. Family longed for some tangible proof of death, or at least a grave where they could mourn. Steve’s disappearance is worse by a factor of ten. No one saw him go. No one can say how he left.

I’m not sure I understand why disappearance is so upsetting, but I think it’s probably related to the insult that death poses in all its forms. It’s not just adolescents who expect to live forever. We all do. It’s really impossible to imagine that we will cease to be. Me! A known fact! My death seems as impossible as the moon blinking out one night.

At least when we see the body there’s some story of continuity we can tell ourselves. But it’s not a very convincing story. One moment, personality in full flower. The next, nothing but meat and bone. You are gone. That’s the aching surprise that greets anyone who watches a loved one die. They really are gone. That body left behind is not them, not much. It reminds you of them. But in reminding you, it reinforces the reality: they are no longer here, and you do not know where they have gone.

Is it easier to lose Robin Williams because we can still watch his funniest moments again and again on video? I don’t think so. I think it makes it harder. They remind us of him. They remind us that he will never again walk into a room.

Steve’s disappearance makes us feel this in a different, more bewildering way. We have nothing to mourn over, no focal point for our desolation. Truthfully, though, we never really do. Death obliterates all that in an instant. There is life, then there is no life. If you cannot believe in resurrection life, you are left with no reason to get up in the morning.

The Community of Marriage

August 5, 2014

Weddings come in waves. At one time I went to my friends’ weddings. Now I go to the weddings of my friends’ kids, or my kids’ friends. This summer I’ve been to three, feeling very lucky to be invited. I am pretty sure that when young people imagine the most fabulous of weddings, they do not think of populating it with people of my age.

I had a really good time at all three weddings. They were happy and reverent occasions, with good food and drink. What’s not to enjoy? It’s meaningful to reflect on marriage, to contemplate the distance Popie and I have traveled together, and to take joy in another young pair showing the faith to embark on such a journey. When I went to my friends’ weddings, years back, I felt intense excitement, as of a crucial contest. Now I look on as though from a high mountain. I know all about the risks, the uncertainties, the thrills. But I am far from playing the game myself. I have become more a philosopher.

In my community, people hardly ever marry in church nowadays. They use wineries or parks or “event facilities.” My own church sanctuary, which once booked space months in advance, hardly ever has a wedding any more.

Furthermore, lots of weddings aren’t performed by pastors or priests; the couple get a friend or a relative to lead the service.

Furthermore, I think it is pretty unusual for the marrying couple to be anxious to get into bed that night. They have generally been doing that for a while.

All the same, my impression is that weddings have not really changed foundationally. They represent the same hope that they did when I was young–the hope of loving and ecstatic partnership, of home, children, permanence. The trappings have become more elaborate (and considerably more expensive), but they aim at the same kind of ritual celebration.

For me, what has changed is more substantial. Not being in the game, I approach weddings with a quiet mind. I enjoy the service, the food, and the happiness, but what I feast on are the conversations–with old friends, and occasionally with someone I meet. In my current stage of life weddings are not just about marriage, they are about community. We come together for the wedding and we affirm, not just the ecstatic dreams of the couple, but the gentle, sustaining community that surrounds them. We are the background. We are the binding threads. I am not invited to the day because I am so terribly important to the celebrating couple, but because it is fitting to have the wider community present. I see old friends, I establish who is related to whom, I have a stray encounter with someone I have never met and may never meet again but who is also significant to this community of which, however partially, I am a part.

It has become common in weddings I attend for the congregation to join in vow-making, stating their commitment to support the couple. In my day this was a novel and striking development. From my view now, it is merely a symbolic utterance of a bodily truth: we are here, we represent the warp and woof of your lives, and we know that what you the couple do in marrying is the sharp exclamation point jutting out of a common reality. We belong to each other.

The Amazing, Mysterious Psalms

July 23, 2014

I’ve spent a lot of time studying the Psalms in the last few years, and every time I study them I see more. That’s the basis of these seven studies, which have been field-tested in my own small group. They start with thoroughly unmodern topics we usually gloss over, such as the king, or the absolute difference between the righteous and the wicked. They go on to Anne Lamott’s three types of prayer (I love this list): Thanks, Help, and Wow! And they end with two psalms that, though adjacent in the psalmbook, take opposite approaches to the assessment of trouble.

Feel free to spread these…. You should be able to copy them and print at home.

Seven Studies on the Psalms

Study 1: The Righteous and the Wicked

We are accustomed to thinking of people in shades of gray. Nobody is all good, nobody is all bad. For the psalmists, and for the Bible writers in general, however, there is a fundamental division between the righteous and the wicked. The two kinds are at odds with each other, and ultimately God is on the side of the righteous and will destroy the wicked. How do we gray thinkers understand this?

Psalm 1
1. What does the blessed person not do? Why?
2. What does the blessed person do? Why?
3. What is the law (Torah) of the Lord? What does it mean to delight in the law? Why should it be the key mark of the blessed person?
4. The opposite of a well-watered tree would seem to be a drought-stricken tree. How is chaff different?
5. How does v. 5 explain/illustrate that? What can the wicked not do?
6. According to v. 6 what is God’s role?

Psalm 10
7. According to v. 1, what is God’s role? Does this accord with 1:6?
8. The description of the wicked in vv. 2-11 is very strong. What strikes you most?
9. Do you know anybody who meets this description? Where in the world might you expect to find people like this?
10. Does verse 11 accord with v. 1? What is the difference?
11. What, according to the psalmist, does God do? List the activities attributed to him.
12. According to verse 18, what is the aim of what God does? What does this say about God’ interventionist goals? How closely does he want to be involved in everyday affairs?

Psalm 11
13. Assuming the NIV is right, that vv 1b-3 quote a skeptic, what is this skeptic’s view of the righteous and the wicked?
14. What is God actually doing?
15. What will God do?
16. What does it mean that God is righteous? (v. 7)
17. Given what we have discussed, what does it mean that he loves justice?
18. What is the reward for the righteous?

Study 2: Who Are These People?

Even when the psalms focus on an individual’s relationship to God, they do so in the context of the nation of Israel. When the past is described, it is less likely to be about a personal decision to follow God, than about God’s act of claiming his people in the exodus. In the present, not only individuals are called to worship God, the congregation of Israel is urged to worship. The future, as we shall see, belongs to the people of God.

Psalm 47
1. Verses 1-4 call on the nations of the world to joyfully celebrate God’s greatness, which is expressed in his special treatment of Israel, putting the nations under their feet. What kind of people want the rest of the world to celebrate their own subjugation?
2. What else should the nations celebrate? (v.4)
3. Why did God love Jacob (v. 4)? Why does he treat Israel so well?
4. Verses 4-6 accelerate the praise for God as King over all the earth. What circumstances would make people find this a source of such extravagant delight?
5. Verses 8-9 describe the great apocalyptic throne scene, where the king is surrounded by all those who serve him. What is the great surprise? What does this say about Israel’s understanding of the pride expressed in verses 1-4? What are the dangers of this mindset? What are the strengths?
6. Note the final line of the poem. What is the significance of that?
7. If the church is the renewed Israel, how can we apply this poem to ourselves? Can we really take joy in God’s favoring of us? Can we joyfully appreciate the kind of future assembly that is described?

Psalm 50
1. As with psalm 47, this poem begins with a summons of the whole earth. What is the purpose of this assembly?
2. On what basis does God judge his people?
4. Why would God clarify that he has no charges to make against Israel for their sacrifices? What kind of mindset is he correcting?
5. What kind of behavior does he want to see? What kind of relationship? (v. 14,15)
6. The psalm seems to turn to a different category of people–the wicked. Are these Israelites? How do you know? (v. 16, 17)
7. What behavior is condemned?
7. What is the thought behind these actions? (verse 21)
8. What, exactly, do Israelites need to know? What do they need to do? What does this tell us about Israel’s self-understanding?
9. If we are the renewed Israel, how does this scolding apply to us?

Study 3: The King

The psalms that translate easily into our modern life are personal cries: “help,” “thanks,” “praise God.” Others are not so easy to relate to–for example, those that call for judgment on enemies, those that remember the history of Israel, those that revere Jerusalem and the Temple, and those that revere the king.

The king is crucial to Israel’s hopes. The psalms make it obvious that Israelites think not only individually, as we do, but as a nation. The king embodies their national identity. In that simple fact, you have the kernel of the expectation of the messiah. For “messiah” is simply another way to say, “king.”

Psalm 132
1. In 1-9, what is David (the great king) remembered for? Why is this significant?
2. From the prayer of verse 10, what can you speculate about the situation that propels this psalm?
3. What promises of God are remembered in 11-18? Which are for the king? Which are for the nation?
4. How is the king’s welfare related to the nation’s welfare?
5. If Jesus is the promised Messiah, how does this relate to us?

Psalm 2
1. What is the problem presented in vv. 1-2? Does this have any contemporary reality?
2. What are the kings of the earth calling for?
3. What is God’s response?
4. What has God done? What will he do?
5. What is his relationship to the king of Israel?
6. What should the kings of the earth do? (Note that they can maintain a continued existence.)
7. Has anything changed from the time this psalm was written to today?

Psalm 45
1. What is the occasion of this psalm?
2. In the description of the king (vv. 2-9) what strikes you most?
3. Does it seem odd that the king is addressed as God and that his throne is said to last forever? (v. 6a) Is this just highfalutin’ rhetoric?
4. If the description of the king is climbing higher and higher, why does it end with the gold-decked bride? (v. 9)
5. What advice for the bride on her wedding day? (vv. 10-11) Given that the situation for women in those days is very different from today, is this good advice for her situation? Why or why not?
6. What is the bride told her future is like? What has she done to deserve this?
7. What New Testament passages does this illuminate for you? In particular, what does it say about the church as the bride of the messiah?

Study 4: Praising God

The psalms teach us how to pray–both how to lament and how to rejoice, for they speak about the highs and lows of life, always very actively involved with God as a real and personal presence.

Psalm 33
1. The psalm starts with six imperatives. What are they? Do you do this? When and how?
2. What is the place of music in prayer? Do you use music in your prayers? How?
4. In giving reasons for praise, verses 4,5 speak of God’s character: what he is, how he does what he does, what he loves, how he “fills the earth” as someone (we might say) fills a room. Which of these attributes strikes you most, and why?
5. Verses 6-9–on what do they focus? Why should this make us fear God and revere him? (verse 8)
6. Why does God want to thwart the plans of nations? (v. 10)
7. Why are God’s plans superior? What quality of those plans does the psalmist point out, and why is it valuable. (v. 11)
8. Who is blessed, and why?
9. Verses 13-19 portray God as watching or observing everything on earth. How does he differentiate those he loves and protects and blesses? What does he see in them?
10. The psalmist claims that there is no salvation in great armies, personal strength, or horse power. This goes against everything known in the annals of warfare. How would he justify it?
11. What is the psalmist’s closing petition and how does it relate to what he has previously said?
12. How would you sum up the psalmist’s vision of God? Does it seem to be a good reason to praise him exuberantly, as in verses 1-3? Does this accord with your vision of God?
13 Do you learn anything about prayer from this psalm?

Study 5: Prayers from Desperation

Anne Lamott’s book on prayer is Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers. Last week we did Thanks, and now we turn to Help!

Psalm 17
1. On what basis does the psalmist appeal for help? (v. 1-5) What is he actually claiming about himself?
2. Do you ever pray this way? Why or why not?
3. What kind of help does the psalmist want for himself? What does he want for his enemies?
4. How does he describe his enemies? Can you relate? Where does one encounter such enmity today?
5. What is the psalmist’s ultimate hope? What does this have to do with his situation?

Psalm 25
1. The fear of shame preoccupies this psalm. (v. 1-3, 20) What is shame and why is it so terrible?
2. On what basis does the psalmist appeal for help? What is he actually claiming about himself?
3. Do you ever pray this way? Why or why not?
4. What kind of help does the psalmist ask for to begin with? (v. 4-5)
5. What are God’s “ways?” What exactly is he asking God to do for him?
6. From a consideration of help in the future, the psalmist turns to the past. (v. 6,7) What does he want God to remember? What does he want him to forget? What does it mean to ask God “not to remember?”
7. The psalmist returns to considering the future (mostly) in verses 8-14. What more do you learn about God’s ways?
8. What are some characteristics of those who benefit from knowing God’s ways?
9. In the final section (v 15-21) the psalmist sticks to the present. What do you learn about his situation? Do you identify?
10. What does he want God to do for him? Do you identify? On what basis does he appeal?
11. Why is v. 22 stuck on there?

Study 6: From “Thanks” and “Help” we turn to “Wow.”

Psalm 29
1. What function do verses 1 and 2 accomplish in the poem? Where is God to receive glory?
2. What qualities are deemed pre-eminent in those verses?
3. In Psalm 19 the heavens declare the glory of God. What speaks in verses 3-9? How does it speak?
4. The identification of God’s voice with the sound of thunder treads on the edge of pantheism. Is the storm God? If not, how can it have God’s voice?
5. Why does verse 9b bring the temple into it? What does the human voice add to the picture?
6. What are the implications of God’s magnificent glory for us, according to vv 10 and 11?

Psalm 46
1. In vv 1-3, the shaking of mountains and the roar of water are not a signal of God’s presence, as in Psalm 29. What do they stand for? What do they mean to you?
2. What is God in relation to them? How does that affect us?
3. What do verses 4-5 refer to?
4. How can God be identified with a city?
5. What are the external threats to a city? Can you name some contemporary examples?
6. Verse 7 is repeated in verse 11, and seems to be a significant statement. What does it mean?
7. How would you describe the picture of vv. 9 and 10? Is this present or future?
8. With this psalm in mind, how would you interpret the phrase, “a personal relationship with God?” What is personal?

Study 7: Dealing with Trouble

You may have heard it said that God is both the master of everything that happens, including bad things, and also the one who intervenes to help us with bad things. Thus some Calvinists will say that when a tree falls down and crushes a little girl, we should praise God for his mysterious goodness. Others, horrified, will ask why God didn’t intervene to stop the tree from falling. They can’t believe God would ever want (or even allow) such a terrible thing to happen.
While not exactly confronting such issues, these two psalms show very different sensibilities about trouble that comes into our lives. Lots to think about!

Psalm 90
1. What attributes of God does the psalmist (Moses?) pay attention to?
2. How does this God interact with our lives? with our sins? with our troubles?
3. What is the quality of our lives, according to this psalm? Do you resonate with this? Why or why not?
4. What does the prayer of verse 12 mean?
5. Apart from teaching us to number our days, what does the psalmist ask God to do?
6. Some of the psalmist’s requests have to do with seeing God’s love and splendor. How does this fit with the earlier, bleaker experiences?
6. What is the end result the psalmist asks for? What is God’s place in this?

Psalm 91
1. The psalmist begins with qualifications. What kind of life will experience the benefits that the psalm names?
2. Verses 3-7 use metaphor to convey threats and also protection. Which of these metaphors do you relate to best? What do they specifically convey about danger?
3. Are verses 9-10 truth or hyperbole? Why do you think so?
4. Satan quoted verse 11-12 to Jesus. (Luke 4:10-11) How did he distort its meaning? (Or did he?)
5. How does this God interact with our lives? with our sins? with our troubles?
5. What kind of experience can we expect if we are faithful, according to this psalm? Do you resonate with this? Why or why not?
6. What is the end result the psalmist says is promised? What is God’s place in this?
General questions: 1. We all pray to God in time of trouble. Which of these psalms do you relate to best? Which is truer to your experience?
2. Why do you think these two psalms are in the Bible together?


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