Preliminary sermon thoughts on Jeremiah 2:1-13

I’ve been working on preliminary sermon study of Jeremiah 2:1-13 today. Here are my study notes.

Jeremiah 2:1-13 Study Notes

Context

In the book of Jeremiah as we have it (which is not necessarily in either chronological or thematic order) this chapter follows on of course from chapter 1. Chapter 1 tells the story of Jeremiah’s call, his sense of fear (“Ah, Lord Yahweh! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy” – v.6), and God’s assurance of his presence with Jeremiah. Then follow two pictures: the almond tree [shaqed] (calling to mind God’s watching [shoqed] over his people), and the boiling pot tipping from the north, representing the threat of invasion.

Chapters 2:1 – 4:2, which follow, seem to be a tight literary unit. The thought progresses from Israel’s earliest time of devotion to Yahweh as his new bride in the desert (2:1-3), to Israel’s abandoning Yahweh in favour of other gods – ‘cracked cisterns that can hold no water’ (2:4 – 3:5), to the call to repentance and restoration (3:6 – 4:2). Our lectionary passage for this week is 2:4-13, but I am looking at 2:1-13, to give the context. The passage begins, then, by recalling Israel’s ‘honeymoon’ period in the wilderness as Yahweh’s newlywed bride (1-3), and then describes Yahweh’s shock at her unfaithfulness (4-13).

Exegesis

         1The word of Yahweh came to me, saying: 2Go and proclaim in the hearing of Jerusalem, Thus says Yahweh:
I remember the devotion[1] of your youth,
      your love as a bride,
how you followed me in the wilderness,
      in a land not sown.
3 Israel was holy to Yahweh,
      the first fruits of his harvest.
All who ate of it were held guilty;
      disaster came upon them,
            says Yahweh. (NRSV)

Yahweh’s message comes to Jeremiah, but it is intended to be ‘proclaimed’ ‘in the hearing of Jerusalem’ – i.e. it will be preached in a central location, probably the Temple, where people are gathered. We’re not told how the message came to Jeremiah – dream? vision? audible voice? – simply that ‘Yahweh’s word came to me’.

The message begins by recalling the time in the wilderness after Yahweh delivered Israel from Egyptian slavery. Israel is described in two metaphors in these verses. First, she is ‘a bride’, a newlywed bride at that. In other words, this is the honeymoon period, and there were no limits to Israel’s devotion to her divine husband.

‘I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown’ (v.2b).

This of course is not an entirely literal recollection of the wilderness story! As we read Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, we can see many instances of the people’s grumbling, lack of trust in God, and dissatisfaction with the leadership of Moses. Large scale worship of other gods, however, is largely absent; with the one exception of the golden calf incident – which could possibly be interpreted more as a mistaken attempt to make an image of Yahweh than as a move to abandon him.

All in all, then, Israel was a joyful and faithful bride, happy with her husband and happy to follow him through some rather unpromising country on the journey to the home he had promised her.

The second image is of the ‘firstfruits’:

‘Israel was holy to Yahweh, the first fruits of his harvest. All who ate of it were held guilty; disaster came upon them, says Yahweh’ (v.3).

The ‘first fruits’ were the earliest part of the harvest which was to be offered each year to Yahweh as his portion of the crop; it was his property, and to refuse to give it to him was robbery. Tremper Longman comments:

‘Israel is the firstfruits of the harvest. According to Pentateuchal legislation (Exod. 23:19, Lev. 23:10-14, Num. 18:12-13, Deut. 26:1-11), the firstfruits belonged to God for use by the priests. They are not to be eaten by non-priests, but rather given to God as a gift. After all, God provides all the harvest. Indeed, there was a special offering of the firstfruits when the Israelites entered the land for the first time (Deut. 26:1-11), so this metaphor as well as the marriage relationship may be reminiscent of God’s early relationship with Israel’.[2]

Israel, says Jeremiah, was God’s ‘first fruits’ of all the nations of the earth. She was ‘holy to Yahweh’; to be ‘holy’ is to be given exclusively for the service of another, to belong to that other without reservation. Not everyone knew this about Israel; some nations tried to attack them on the way to the promised land, but they were not successful against the people God had claimed as his own possession: ‘All who devoured her were held guilty’ (v.3 NIV 2011).

Here then is a picture of Israel’s earliest devotion to Yahweh: faithful to him, committed enough to follow him through the dreadful wilderness to the promised land, claimed by him as his own particular people, and protected by him from others who tried to steal them from him and devour them.

But then comes the change:

         4 Hear the word of Yahweh, O house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel. 5Thus says Yahweh:
What wrong did your ancestors find in me
      that they went far from me,
      and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?

 

Jeremiah’s ministry took place in the context of the southern kingdom of Judah with its centre at the city of Jerusalem, seat of the Davidic kings and of the Temple of Yahweh. It has been approximately a century since the northern kingdom of Israel, centred on Samaria, was destroyed and its leaders taken into exile by the Assyrians. So it seems strange that this oracle is addressed in terms that recall either the united monarchy of the time of David and Solomon, or the now-extinct northern kingdom: ‘Hear the word of Yahweh, O house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel’. Tremper Longman comments:

‘It is unlikely that (Jeremiah) addresses the northern kingdoms in exile or even the remnants that are still in the land. This epithet for the people of God at Jeremiah’s time may be because Judah now stands for Israel, that is, they are all that is left. Another possibility is that the oracle refers to Judah in this way because it will now recall an experience from before the divided monarchy – the exodus and the wilderness wanderings’.[3]

‘Was there something I did wrong?’ So many jilted spouses have said this, or at least thought it! ‘Didn’t I love you enough? Was it something you wanted me to do that I didn’t do? Was it something I said? Tell me, and I’ll make it up to you!’

In this passage Yahweh is boldly taking this imagery of the jilted spouse and using it for himself. This is not the impassive god of the philosophers, the one who is immune to any pain caused by others. This God has taken the risk of binding himself in covenant relationship – in marriage – to a nation of human beings. To act like this is to take the risk of being wronged. Yahweh has been wronged, and he is in deep pain because of it.

What is the wrong? They ‘went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves’. Idols of course are in view here. Israel was rescued from the gods of Egypt, but now – irony of ironies – she has abandoned the one who rescued her and returned to the worship of ‘the works of (her) own hands’ (1:16).

Furthermore, it is an inevitable fact of human life that we become like the things we worship. Psalm 115 spells this out:

‘Our God is in the heavens; he does whatever he pleases. Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; they make no sound in their throats. Those who make them are like them; so are all who trust in them’ (Psalm 115:3-8).

In Psalm 115 it is the insensibility of the idols that is in view; they have all the instruments of the senses, but they can’t use them, because they are not alive. To Jeremiah, it’s the worthlessness of the idols that is in view. Idols are worthless because they can’t actually do anything; they have no life, so they can’t help those who worship them. But this worthlessness is now shared with their worshippers as well; they ‘went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves’ (v.5). The Hebrew word is actually the same as the one used it Ecclesiastes 1:2 and variously translated there as ‘vanity’, ‘emptiness’, ‘meaningless’, ‘useless’, ‘pointless’. A more literal translation here might be ‘they pursued emptiness and became empty’, but the NRSV and NIV translations make explicit what is implicit in the text, that the ‘emptiness’ is actually idolatry.

6 They did not say, ‘Where is Yahweh
      who brought us up from the land of Egypt,
who led us in the wilderness,
      in a land of deserts and pits,
in a land of drought and deep darkness,
      in a land that no one passes through,
      where no one lives?’
7 I brought you into a plentiful land
      to eat its fruits and its good things.
But when you entered you defiled my land,
      and made my heritage an abomination.
8 The priests did not say, ‘Where is Yahweh?’
      Those who handle the law did not know me;
the rulers transgressed against me;
      the prophets prophesied by Baal,
      and went after things that do not profit.

 

The people ought to have responded to God’s invitation to seek him. Does verse 6 presume a situation where the people feel abandoned for one reason or another? If that was the case, they ought to have asked ‘Where is Yahweh, who brought us up from the land of Egypt?’ Jeremiah assumes that Gods absence was a result of the people’s idolatry. Tremper Longman comments:

‘They (Israel) did not even know that God was gone. The form of the question indicates that they should have missed him, considering how gracious he had been to them in the past’.[4]

In the past God had done wonderful things for them, leading them through all the hardships and terrors of the wilderness. He brought them through those desert wanderings ‘into a plentiful land to eat its fruits and its good things. But when you entered you defiled my land, and made my heritage an abomination’ (v.7). Of course, before Israel arrived the land had been full of idolatry, and it is the belief of the Old Testament writers that one of the reasons for the conquest of Canaan was God’s judgement against the idolatry and wickedness of the Canaanites. How ironic, then, that God’s own people have themselves now turned to this same idolatry, defiling the land again. The leaders (the Hebrew actually says ‘shepherds’), who ought to have known better, are the worst offenders: the priests and scribes don’t known Yahweh and so cannot teach his law, the rulers sin against him, and the prophets prophesy in the name of the Canaanite god Baal. Longman explains, ‘Baal is named for the first time in the book. Baal is a Hebrew/Canaanite word that simply means ‘lord’ or ‘master’. Baal, along with El, was the focus of worship of the Canaanites who were in the land when the Israelites first entered it’.[5]

9 Therefore once more I accuse you,
                  says Yahweh,
      and I accuse your children’s children.
10 Cross to the coasts of Cyprus and look,
      send to Kedar and examine with care;
      see if there has ever been such a thing.
11 Has a nation changed its gods,
      even though they are no gods?
But my people have changed their glory
      for something that does not profit.
12 Be appalled, O heavens, at this,
      be shocked, be utterly desolate,
                        says Yahweh

 

This whole section is phrased as a lawsuit; Jeremiah is a covenant lawyer, arguing the case in the name of Yahweh, whose people have broken their sacred agreement with him. This language comes clearly in verse 9, where the NIV 2011 says, ‘Therefore I bring charges against you, declares Yahweh’.

The charges make use of two vivid images. In the first, Yahweh invites Israel to look around and see the faithfulness of the other nations to their idols. Go as far as you like! Go across the sea to Cyprus, or east to Kedar (in northern Arabia), and you will not find such a thing. These idols are not really gods at all; they are false and worthless, and yet their people are stubbornly loyal to them! Israel, on the other hand, is the people of the real God who made heaven and earth, the glorious God, the Lord of all. And yet Israel has not been loyal to him; they have ‘changed their glory for something that does not profit’.

Yahweh calls on the heavenly assembly to witness all this folly: ‘be appalled, O heavens, at this’. A similar appeal to the heavens as witness can be found in Isaiah 1:2: ‘Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth; for Yahweh has spoken: I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me’.

 

13 for my people have committed two evils:
      they have forsaken me,
the fountain of living water,
      and dug out cisterns for themselves,
cracked cisterns
      that can hold no water.

 

Here is the second image. The one true God is ‘a fountain of living water’. ‘Living water’, in the Old Testament, means ‘moving water’ – a spring, a stream, a river, that sort of thing. But the idols are like cracked cisterns; you put water in them, but it runs out through the cracks. You’re parched with thirst and you go to drink from them, but there’s nothing there. What a vivid image for the futility of idolatry!

Application

Many Christians can remember a time when they were on a honeymoon with God. Those who have had a crisis conversion – or even a slow, gradual movement – can often look back on their ‘greenhouse days’, when their love for God was passionate and there was no limit to what they would do for him!

I can certainly remember that. I became a committed Christian at the age of thirteen in the context of the charismatic renewal. I can remember the passion of those early days: I read the Bible constantly, prayed, went to home groups for prayer, study, and fellowship, and did my best to talk about my faith to others. There was a lot of naivety, of course, and no doubt a lack of wisdom, too, but all in all those were days of passionate devotion to Christ.

Sooner or later things start to cool down. This is natural, of course; eventually God brings us out of the greenhouse and into the cold world. Maybe God’s presence isn’t so real to us any more, and we find ourselves asking ‘Where is Yahweh who brought us up from the land of Egypt?’ (v.6a).

Or maybe we don’t. Maybe instead we start to compromise. The idols that were of no interest to us in the early days gradually start to look good again. Everyone around us is getting more wealthy, going on expensive vacations, driving expensive cars. Some of our friends are putting huge amounts of energy and passion into business success. Some are channeling their passion into a fierce love for ‘their country, right or wrong’. These idolatries and many others like them are completely acceptable in our society. And we’re tempted. And maybe we give in to the temptation.

Jeremiah calls us to remember. Don’t you remember how God worked in your life? How much you loved him? How vivid the sense of his presence was? How enthusiastic you were about serving him? Was that only good for as long as he kept you in the hothouse? What sort of love is it that only loves when the going is easy?

And Jeremiah also calls us to consider our present experience. How’s it going, this new idolatry? Those false gods, are they delivering for you? Have you got enough money yet? Are you successful enough that you can let go of the need to succeed? How are your perfect spouse and children dealing with your need for them to be perfect?

Perfectly good things are destroyed – cracked – by the need to be gods for us. The biblical call is to turn away from these false gods and come back to the one true God. This is what happened to Paul’s converts in Thessalonica:

‘For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead – Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming’ (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10).

The Thessalonians’ conversion experience was a turning from false gods to the one true God revealed to us in Jesus. But of course, idols don’t go away; they continue to tempt us throughout our Christian life. This is why Christians as well as non-Christians need to continue to hear the gospel message. As we experience the failure of our false gods, we need to hear again the voice of Jesus calling us back to the one true God, the fountain of living water, who even leads us in safety through the barren desert on the way to the promised land of the kingdom of God.

[1] The Hebrew is hesed, often translated ‘steadfast love’ or ‘lovingkindness’ in the psalms.

[2] Tremper Longman III, Jeremiah, Lamentations (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series), Grand Rapids, Baker, 2008, 2012, p.27.

[3] Tremper Longman III, Jeremiah, Lamentations, p.29.

[4] Tremper Longman III, Jeremiah, Lamentations, p.30.

[5] Tremper Longman III, Jeremiah, Lamentations, p30.

‘The Glory of God and the Glory of Humanity’ (a sermon on Psalm 8)

It’s said that the philosopher Immanuel Kant was once attending an astronomy lecture on the topic of humanity’s place in the universe. The lecturer concluded with these words: “So you see that astronomically speaking, man is utterly insignificant”. Kant replied: “Professor, you forgot the most important thing: astronomically speaking, man is the astronomer!”

Humans are the astronomers. Do coyotes look up at the sky and indulge in philosophical speculation about their place in the great big scheme of things? It seems unlikely. Do birds wonder if their life has any significance after their deaths? Probably not. Of course, we can’t know for sure, but it seems very much to us as if we humans are the only beings on the planet who wrestle with things like this. It’s as if we have in our hearts and souls a longing for the infinite, a longing for eternity, for eternal significance – a longing, in fact, for God.

The writer of Psalm 8 felt this longing. I want to explore this psalm with you this morning under two headings: first, the glory of God, and second, the glory of Humanity.

First, then, the Glory of God. In 1952 J.B. Phillips wrote a book called Your God is Too Small. Today I think that many of us still have that problem, a problem we share with our ancient ancestors. In the time of the Bible many people believed in local, territorial gods. The early Hebrew people probably thought of their god in the same way; in fact, he’s often called ‘Yahweh the god of Israel’ in the Old Testament.

We have no right to look down on our ancient ancestors for this; I suspect that many of us have small views of God as well. In Sunday School we were taught about God in simple ways, but often we still speak of God as if he were our personal assistant, dedicated to our well-being and pleasure – a sort of divine butler, who comes to us every morning and says ‘What can I do for you today?’ – or a heavenly pharmacist whose greatest desire is to find the right spiritual aspirin to take our pain away.

The author of Psalm 8 is not content with these puny views of God. Look at verses 1-2 in your pew Bibles.

O LORD, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.
Out of the mouths of babes and infants
you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
to silence the enemy and the avenger.

Our Book of Alternative Services psalter translates the first line ‘O Lord our governor’; the NRSV has ‘O LORD our Sovereign’, with the word ‘LORD’ written in block capitals, to alert us to the fact that the Hebrew is ‘Yahweh’. Actually, in Hebrew this first line combines two names for God: ‘Yahweh Adonai’.

‘Adonai’ is often used for God in the Old Testament: it’s the Hebrew word for ‘lord’, ‘master’, or ‘owner’. ‘Yahweh’ is the name for God that God gave to Moses in Exodus chapter 3. God had called Moses to go down to Egypt and tell the Hebrew slaves that he was going to set them free. Moses said, “If I tell them, ‘God’s going to set you free’, and they ask me, ‘Which god?’, what shall I say?”

God said to Moses, “I am who I am”. He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you’” (Exodus 3:14).

‘I am’ in Hebrew is ‘Yahweh’, but it’s a very strange name, one that almost defies definition! “I am who I am! I will be who I will be! So don’t think you can tie me down or figure me out”. In later years the name was often wrongly written as ‘Jehovah’; most modern translations use the word ‘LORD’ in capital letters.

So what does our poet have to say about ‘Yahweh Adonai’? Well, the first thing we see is his appeal to God’s creation as evidence of God’s glory.

‘You have set your glory above the heavens…
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them? (vv.1b, 3-4).

For many of Israel’s neighbours, and some people in Israel too, ‘the moon and the stars’ were gods themselves. Today, of course, we know what they are, and we also know all about the ‘vast expanse of interstellar space: galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home’ (B.A.S Eucharistic Prayer #4). As people of faith in one Creator God, we don’t see these heavenly bodies as rival gods, but neither do we see them as random bits of rock and gas that just appeared out of nowhere by chance. Our poet says they are ‘the work of God’s fingers’; in Psalm 33 the image shifts: ‘By the word of Yahweh the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth’ (Psalm 33:6). Yahweh’s fingers, Yahweh’s mouth – we’re using images for God, of course, none of which are entirely adequate! But the point is clear: the vast, mighty heavens above our heads are well within God’s creative capacity!

Today, of course, we know far more about the wonders of creation than our poet did. We know about the enormous distances of space, and the enormous stretches of time too – over fourteen billion years since the universe came into being – approximately 4.5 billion years since our Earth was formed. We know about the wonder and mystery of DNA – the intricacies of the human eye – the instincts that guide birds for thousands of miles on their migrations. We know about the incredibly beautiful creatures that live in the depths of the oceans, where no light penetrates – ‘Who are they beautiful for?’ Philip Yancey asks! We see the grandeur of the mountains, the beauty of the forests, the peaceful lakes. For us as believers, all of these things speak to us of our God – of his wisdom, his creative power, his artistic skill, his love of outrageous colour combinations – have you looked at a sunset lately? – and his fondness for extravagant variety.

Glory be to God! God is the creator of all that exists; it was all planned and made by him, and he continues to love and care for it. Our poet sees the stars and planets as praising God, and the little children and infants on earth are joining in as well! We humans can never fully understand him – our minds aren’t big enough to take him in. St. Augustine is reputed to have said, “If you think you understand it, it’s probably not God!” As we try to describe God, we’re a bit like people looking up into the sky at the sun – our eyes are almost completely screwed tight shut against the brilliant light, so we can’t see too well to be absolutely clear about what we’re looking at! But we can worship our glorious God, and we can follow his instruction for our lives – including the particular call he has given to human beings as we seek to live for his glory. And this leads us to the second part: the glory of humanity.

In Donald Coggan’s little book about the psalms he has this to say about Psalm 8:

‘In my mind I see a man in the desert, sleepless one night. He gives up trying to sleep and emerges from his tent. He sniffs the night air and fills his lungs. He looks up into the sky and gazes at the heavens, the moon and the stars which his God has set in place. He knows nothing of what scientists many years later will discover about the immensity of an expanding universe – telescopes are things of the far distant future. But even so, something of the vastness and mystery of the night sky dawns on him. Its blackness is dotted with points of light, seen with a clarity denied to those who live in cities. What he sees is enough to frighten him – there is a dreadful silence – no answering voice comes from the stars. How frail and transitory is humankind! How frail is his own little life – ‘what is a frail mortal?’ (v.4) – ‘what am I?’

‘We might expect that his answer to these questions would be ‘a mere nothing, here today and gone tomorrow, a man in transit, with a life liable to be snuffed out at any moment, a breath…’ The great God up there can hardly be expected to notice him. After all, he has a universe to run. How could (God) be expected to be mindful of him, or, for that matter, any of his fellows?’

You’ve probably felt this sometimes too; I know I have. I’ve felt it when I was hiking in the mountains; I’ve felt it when I was out on the barren lands of the Arctic, in the immense silence, looking up at the night sky. “Space is so huge, and I’m so small! O God, does my life really matter?’ Or, as verse 4 says, ‘What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?’

What are human beings? The Book of Genesis has an answer:

‘Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth”. So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them’ (Genesis 1:26-27).

What does it mean for humans to be created in the image of God? Well, exactly the same language is used in the fifth chapter of Genesis when Adam has a son of his own: ‘When Adam had lived one hundred and thirty years, he became the father of a son in his likeness, according to his image, and named him Seth’ (Genesis 5:3). So the idea of the ‘image of God’ is a parental metaphor: we’re God’s kids! We parents understand this – for good or for ill, we often see ourselves in our kids. God has made many different kinds of creatures – millions of different species, down through the millennia – but in the fullness of time it was all leading up to the arrival of his children: human beings, made in the image of their Father God.

Now one of the things about kids is this: they don’t just want to be helped or provided for. They want a role! They want to help, to contribute, to be valuable in the household! ‘I want to do it myself!’ And so the Psalm tells us that as a good parent, God doesn’t just care for human beings or provide for them; God also gives them a vital role to play.

What is that role? Part of the answer to that question is found in verses 5-8:

‘Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honour.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,
all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the sea’.

This is royal language – to ‘have dominion’. The one who really has dominion over the whole creation is the Creator God, but he chooses to share that dominion with his human children.

So what is it that we’re called to do, exactly? Verses 6-8 talk about us being given ‘dominion over the works of God’s hands’. Older generations tended to see this in terms of taming the earth and subduing it; human life was seen as a life of conflict with the forces of nature. Of course, there are times when we still feel that: when great forest fires rage, for instance, fires so fierce we call them ‘the Beast’! But nowadays we’re also aware of the awesome power of humans over our environment; we’re aware of the possibility that our activity may even be doing something that would have been unthinkable a century ago: changing the climate of the earth. We’re aware that we have created weapons so terrifying in their power that using them might well have lethal consequences, not just for us, but for our planet as well.

And so in our time we’ve begun to notice another strand of this Old Testament teaching. In Genesis 2:15 we read, ‘Yahweh God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it’. ‘To keep it’ has the old sense of ‘to guard it’. The Common English Bible has a wonderful translation: ‘to farm it and to take care of it’. Here is our call as human beings to be good stewards of the earth. And in our time, a time of climate change and of massive extinctions of wildlife species, it has become an urgent matter that we respond to this call.

We Christians don’t always think of this as being part of our call to discipleship; it wasn’t such an urgent issue in Jesus’ day. But let’s not forget that in Romans chapter five St. Paul calls Jesus ‘the Second Adam’. In Paul’s imagery, the first Adam failed in his calling and was unfaithful to God. But now Jesus has come, and where the first Adam failed, he has succeeded. So the call given to the first Adam – ‘to till the earth and keep it’ – has also been given to the second Adam, and as we follow Jesus, it’s given to us as well.

This creation call to humankind has never been revoked; we have been placed on the earth to till it and to guard it. God our Creator took great care when he first made this home of ours, and he continues to take great care as life here continues to evolve and develop. If we are made in his image, sharing his dominion over his creation, can we do any less? I think not.

To sum up, then: what is it that makes our lives significant? We humans are frail, and short-lived in terms of the life of our planet; why are we important? Why is your life important? Why is mine?

We’re important because we’re made in God’s image and created for relationship with God. It’s significant that in this psalm God is addressed throughout in the second person: ‘Yahweh our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!’ Many psalms speak about God in the third person – ‘Come, let us sing to the Lord – but in this psalm we address God directly, because we’re called into relationship with God, as his beloved children.

This psalm calls us to reflect on the wonder and majesty of God. One of the best ways to do this is to get outside, into God’s natural creation. You’ve heard me say before that if we do all our praying indoors, we’ll end up thinking of God as a being who lives in small rooms. But if we get out into the river valley, or go walking in Elk Island National Park, or hike in the mountains – or even just go out into the country regularly and look up at the night sky, undisturbed by street lights – we’ll learn a different view of God. We’ll walk there with the great Creator, and our hearts will be full of praise for him.

And of course, our lives are important because God has chosen to share his care for creation with us. He’s not going to do it without us! He’s not going to revoke our job description! His rule over creation is not the rule of a despot, a tyrant who exploits the world to feed his own self-centred greed. God rules and cares for his world with love, patience, and skill. And he calls us to learn to do that too.

So maybe, as we think about these things, the question we ought to ask ourselves is this: is God’s natural world a better place because of me, or not? And if the answer is ‘not’, then we’ve got some thinking and praying to do. One day we’re going to be asked to give account for our stewardship. On that day, I don’t think, “I just did what everyone else was doing” will be an acceptable answer.

Let us pray:

O Lord our God, how majestic is your name in all the earth! Today we join in the praise and worship offered to you by all created things. Today we thank you for making us in your image and calling us to be stewards of this wonderful, beautiful earth which you have made. Help us to care for it as you care for it, our God, that we may truly live our lives to your honour and glory. This we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Psalm 8: A preliminary study

I plan to preach on Psalm 8 this coming Sunday. What appears below is not a sermon; it is my study notes as I have been digging into the psalm over the past couple of days. Hopefully it might be helpful for any other preachers who may be thinking of preaching on this psalm.

Text (NRSV, slightly amended according to John Goldingay’s translation[i])

To the leader: according to The Gittith. A Psalm of David.

  1. Yahweh, our lord,
    how majestic is your name in all the earth!
    You have set your glory above the heavens.
  2. Out of the mouths of babes and infants
    you have founded a bulwark (‘barricade’ – Goldingay) because of your foes,
    to silence the enemy and the avenger.
  3. When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
    the moon and the stars that you have established;
  4. what are people that you are mindful of them,
    human beings that you pay attention to them?
  5. Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
    and crowned them with glory and honour.
  6. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
    you have put all things under their feet,
  7. all sheep and oxen,
    and also the beasts of the field,
  8. the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
    whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
  9. Yahweh, our lord,
    how majestic is your name in all the earth!

Exegesis
Donald Coggan introduces his comments on this psalm with these words:

This psalm begins and ends with identical words: ‘Lord our sovereign, how glorious is your name throughout the world!’ It is within this framework of adoration that the rest of the psalm is set. God in his majesty is praised in the vastness of the heavens and even babes and infants (v.2) chip in! The God who elicits the praise of his universe is a God of justice, concerned for his creation, and concerned about those who flout his laws (v.2b).[ii]

This psalm holds in tension two amazing truths. On the one hand, there is the wonder and the glory and majesty of the eternal God, Yahweh, whose glory is even higher than the heavens. On the other hand, there is the care that God takes of human beings, who are so small in comparison, and yet have been given dominion over the works of God’s hands. This creates another tension: what are the limits of that dominion?  When does God stop respecting the free will he has given to humans in order to prevent them doing evil to ‘babes and infants’? Where is the bulwark, the barrier, which he has established ‘because of your foes’?

All ‘God-talk’ runs out into mystery in the end. We little humans are tiny in comparison with God, and so we can’t grasp the full wonder and magnificence of his presence and his glory and his love. Neither can we grasp how he balances his respect for free will with his desire to protect those who are vulnerable. We know that God has given us a high calling, crowned us with glory and honour, and made us to rule over the works of his hands. But we also know that we have fallen from our high position by our own pride and sinfulness, and often dispute Yahweh’s ownership of the things he has set under our feet. We can only praise God for his goodness and also pray that he will restrain us from doing irreparable damage to the world he has created and to precious young lives that he has made.

 

 

  1. O Yahweh, our lord,
    how majestic is your name in all the earth!
    You have set your glory above the heavens.

The Hebrew of verse 1 has ‘Yahweh Adonai’, which presents a problem for translators who don’t want to use the name ‘Yahweh’, and prefer to use ‘Lord’ instead, because ‘Adonai’ means ‘lord’! The New Jerusalem Bible has no such scruples and simply translates accurately ‘Yahweh our Lord’.

‘How majestic is your name’; the ‘name’ stands for the person, so ‘how majestic is your name’ is a poetic way of saying ‘how majestic you are in all the earth!’ We’re going to read about Yahweh’s glory being set above the heavens, but this doesn’t mean that he is not present ‘in all the earth’ as well. Indeed, he is above heaven as well as earth; his glory is not ‘in’ the heavens, but ‘above’ it.

We humans sometimes take our pictorial language too seriously. In our minds we may have a renaissance painting of God as an old man with a long beard floating in the sky, and maybe reaching down to us so that his finger touches ours. ‘The heavens’ thus become the home of God; God is one being in the heavens, the Son is another being, the angels are others. In this picture, God is contained by the heavens, in the same way that we humans are contained by the earth.

But the reality is far different, and is well described by the writer of 1 Kings in the words of Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the Temple:

“But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built” (1 Kings 8:27).

That author knew a thing or two about God! We talk about inviting God into our hearts; the reality is that it is God who holds us in his heart! ‘In him we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28). God plus a human being doesn’t equal two; God is sometimes called ‘the ground of being’, the one who makes all other beings possible. We cannot possibly adequately imagine him; every picture we create of him, even the picture of Christ, is a partial representation of the reality of God’s greatness and justice and love. 

2. Out of the mouths of babes and infants
     you have founded a bulwark (‘barricade’ – Goldingay) because of your foes,
     to silence the enemy and the avenger.

John Goldingay points out that babes and infants in the Bible are usually on the receiving end of atrocities; they are the ones who are crying out to God for help. So the sense of this verse might be that this mighty God, who is far above anything we can conceive or imagine, is so concerned for us that he even hears the cries of the least significant of people – babes and infants. And he founds a barricade, a bulwark, to protect them from their foes, who are his foes as well, ‘the enemy and the avenger’: ‘Thus far you may come, and no further’, to use a military metaphor.

Of course, this raises questions in our minds, because we know of many instances where it is not true. Prayers for help have sometimes been answered, but often not: children have been abducted as child soldiers, or sold into sex slavery, or simply been bombed or raped or murdered, or treated cruelly in a whole host of ways. Prayers for their protection have apparently not been successful.

The reality of course is that, for a God who has apparently decided to respect the free will of human beings and allowed us to make decisions that have real consequences, it is not a simple thing to both respect that free will and also protect the innocent victims of it. I personally can’t understand how God can possibly do it. That he manages to do it at all is a mystery to me. It’s a little like a Doctor Who episode, where the Doctor goes back in time and is given the opportunity to remove a great evil, like the Daleks, from the time line of history. But he is always slow to do so, because he is afraid that their removal would also remove the good things that have happened as a consequence of their great evil. Changing time to erase all evil would be a very complicated thing, and maybe we humans would not like all the results of it. So where is the ‘bulwark’? Where exactly in the mind of God is ‘Thus far, and no further’? I don’t think we humans can know that.

Not all commentators agree with Goldingay’s interpretation, however. Rolf Jacobson prefers to see this obscure verse as ‘a reference to the foes that God overcomes in the process of creation’. He says,

But v.2bc may also reflect the creation motif, as Nahum Sarna has argued. The enemy and avenger in v.2c are best explained  as a reference to the foes that God overcomes in the process of creation. As is well known, the mythic concept of creation as a conflict was commonly held among Israel’s neighbors. Within the Old Testament, vestiges of this mythic idea are found. In Ps. 74:13-14a, 16-17, for example, the psalmist writes,

You split, by your might, the sea;
You broke the heads of the sea monster on the waters.
You shattered the heads of Leviathan;

Yours is the day, also yours is the night;
You fixed the light and the sun.
You set the boundaries of the earth;
summer and winter, you formed them.

It is particularly enlightening that both Psalms 8 and 74 refer to God’s might (‘ōz; cf. Is. 51:9, Ps. 89:11). The term is part of the vocabulary of the creation conflict myth, lending support to the view that the phrase you have established might because of your foes, to put an end to enemy and avenger is another reference to the act of creation.[iii]

 

 

3       When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
            the moon and the stars that you have established;
4       what are people that you are mindful of them,
            human beings that you pay attention to them?

Rolf Jacobson comments:

What sort of ecstatic event or experience has caused the psalmist to cry out in praise? The answer is given in the first full stanza of the psalm. As v.3 indicates, the psalmist has wandered outdoors at night, gazed up at the heavenly wonders, and been moved to praise the Creator…[iv]

We have all felt this at one time or another. We’re walking out in the country at night, and we look up at the sky and see the countless numbers of stars spread out across the heavens. We see the vastness of creation, and as 21st century people we are even more aware of just how vast it is, stretching out for millions of light years, millions of galaxies, far vaster than anything we can ever imagine. We also think about the vastness of time: 14 billion years since our universe came into being through the big bang – about 4.5 billion years since our earth was formed. For the great majority of the history of our planet we humans were not even here; we arrived at 3 seconds to midnight. We are tiny in terms of our size, tiny in terms of the length of our existence as a species, and almost infinitely tiny in terms of our individual span of life.

Donald Coggan says,

In my mind I see a man in the desert, sleepless one night. He gives up trying to sleep and emerges from his tent. He sniffs the night air and fills his lungs. He looks up into the sky and gazes at the heavens, the moon and the stars which his God has set in place. He knows nothing of what scientists many years later will discover about the immensity of an expanding universe – telescopes are things of the far distant future. But even so, something of the vastness and mystery of the night sky dawns on him. Its blackness is dotted with points of light, seen with a clarity denied to those who live in cities. What he sees is enough to frighten him – there is a dreadful silence – no answering voice comes from the stars. How frail and transitory is humankind! How frail is his own little life – ‘what is a frail mortal?’ (v.4) – ‘what am I?’

We might expect that his answer to these questions would be ‘a mere nothing, here today and gone tomorrow, a man in transit, with a life liable to be snuffed out at any moment, a breath…’ The great God up there can hardly be expected to notice him. After all, he has a universe to run. How could (God) be expected to be mindful of him, or, for that matter, any of his fellows?[v]

But I’m reminded of a well-known anecdote about the philosopher Immanuel Kant. He was attending a lecture by a materialistic astronomer on the topic of humanity’s place in the universe. The astronomer concluded his lecture with: “So you see that astronomically speaking, man is utterly insignificant”. Kant replied: “Professor, you forgot the most important thing: man is the astronomer”.

Do coyotes look up at the sky and indulge in philosophical speculation about their place in the great big scheme of things? It seems unlikely. Do birds wonder if their life has any significance after their deaths? Probably not. Of course, we can’t know for sure, but it seems very much to us as if we humans are the only beings on the planet who wrestle with things like this. It’s as if we have in our hearts and souls a longing for the infinite, a longing for eternity, and eternal significance – a longing, in fact, for God.

Commenting on the psalmist’s mention of ‘the moon and stars that you have established’, Jacobson adds:

Many in Israel and among her neighbours worshipped the heavenly bodies as divine bodies. In this pagan conception, the heavenly orbs were endowed with sentience, power, and identity. Here, they are merely objects that testify to their Creator’s glory – indeed, the psalmist belittles them by calling them the works of your fingers.[vi]

“What are people that you are mindful of them, human beings that you pay attention to them?” The author of Genesis has the answer, of course: human beings are made in the image of God and are of tremendous significance to God. And the psalmist goes on to reflect on the creation story and what it means in terms of humanity’s place in the world.

 

5       Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
           and crowned them with glory and honour.

The familiar translation of the King James Version has ‘For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour’. The NRSV footnote indicates that the Hebrew word for ‘God’ here is ‘elohim’, a plural word, which could be translated ‘God’, ‘gods’, ‘divine beings’, or ‘angels’. The note in the New Oxford Annotated Bible says, ‘God, better, ‘heavenly beings’ (Heb “elohim” [lit. “gods”]. …As the heavenly world is ruled by heavenly beings, so the earthly world, parallel to it, is ruled by earthly beings’.

So we have here an enormous leap in the writer’s imagination. In the previous verse he was stressing the smallness of human beings; compared to the vastness of God’s heavens, they are tiny creatures indeed. But now we see that God assigns them a very different position; they are still lower than the elohim, to be sure, but only ‘a little lower’, and God who has ‘set (his) glory above the heavens’ (v.1b) has also ‘crowned them (humans) with glory and honour’. The glory of God has been shared with his human creations; we are made in God’s image and we reflect God’s glory to the world around us. Small, yes, but far from insignificant!

Jacobson comments:

Far from being insignificant, human beings are but a little lower than heavenly beings. Indeed, the king of creation has made humanity into royalty who are to govern creation responsibly. What is notable about the start of the second stanza is that even though the topic is the worth of human beings, the poet stresses the actions of God. In each of the four lines that comprise verses 5-6, the subject of the verbs is God: You have made, you have crowned, you have made them to rule, and you have set. What gives human beings dignity and value is not anything that humans have done for themselves, but rather something that God has done for them. Our worth comes to us from outside of ourselves (extra nos). That which God confers upon us is the key to our status, not that which comes from inside of us.[vii]

Perhaps a Shakespeare quote is appropriate:

What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form, in moving, how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals![viii]

 

6       You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
            you have put all things under their feet,
7       all sheep and oxen,
            and also the beasts of the field,
8       the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
            whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

Here there is a conscious reflection of the language of the first creation account in Genesis chapter 1:

‘Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth”’ (Genesis 1:26).

The one who naturally has dominion over the works of God’s hands is God himself; he has made everything, and everything owes its continued existence to him. Furthermore, as far as we can tell there is absolutely nothing to be gained, in the strict sense, for God to delegate this dominion to his human creations. God is quite capable of looking after everything that he has made; indeed, he could probably do a much better job of it, even if human beings had not fallen into sin! So we can only speculate that it was for our benefit, not for his, that God chose to delegate this job to us. ‘Yahweh God took the human and settled him in the garden of Eden to farm it and to take care of it’ (Genesis 2:15 CEB). As we humans developed our skill and ability to take care of God’s good creation, the growth would be ours; we would be growing into maturity as the mature adults God had longed for when he created us. For this reason, it seems, he shared his glory and dominion with us: so that we could grow and become all he dreamed for us to be. Jacobson comments,

Any person who has been around small children may be helped to relate to the message here. Children do not only want to be helped and provided for. Children want to help, to contribute, to be valuable to the household. They want to do things themselves. The powerful message of this psalm is that God does not merely care about human beings, but values them so much that they are given a role in God’s economy.[ix]

‘Whatever passes along the paths of the seas’ (v.8, NRSV) seems a little strange; maybe the meaning is ‘not just the fish, but all the sea creatures that travel through the sea’. It seems unlikely that human commerce on the sea is in view here; that would give the strange meaning that humans have dominion over their own sailors (and why only their sailors?). So I think it’s better to stick to a non-human meaning here: not just fish, but also whales and shellfish and everything that lives and moves in the seas.

Jacobson points out that there is an interesting special movement in the poet’s language here. Through the first six verses of the poem, the poet has included a subtle motif of vertical descent: ‘above the heavens’ (v.1b) > ‘heavens, moon and stars’ (v.3) > ‘but a little lower than heavenly beings’ (v.5a) > ‘crowned them’ (a reference to the head) (v.6a) > ‘hands’ (v.6a) > ‘feet’ (v.6b). Having come down to the earth, the poet now changes direction and moves horizontally outwa4d from human society: ‘Sheep and oxen’ > ‘beasts of the field’ > ‘birds’ > ‘fish’ > ‘whatever passes the paths of the sea’.

The first animals, sheep and oxen, are the domesticated animals that share space in the midst of human society. The trajectory described then proceeds outward until it ends in the sea, which in the ancient near east was conceived as the place of chaos, least hospitable to human society. But that is all the more reason to marvel at the assertion made here in Psalm 8: the fish of the sea and even those mysterious creatures that pass in the depths of the sea are realms of human responsibility! God has placed even these wild and unknown creatures under our care! [x]

 

9       O Yahweh, our lord,
      how majestic is your name in all the earth!

The psalm ends with a repeat. This is the first hymn of praise in the psalter; Psalm 1 is a reflection on the blessedness of the one who meditates on the Torah, and Psalms 2-7 are complaints, both individual and communal, about human injustice, oppression and sinfulness. But this wonderful psalm turns to God in praise, and addresses God directly, in the second person: ‘You’ (other psalms of praise don’t do this; they speak of God in the second person: “O come, let us sing to Yahweh’ (Psalm 95:1). CEB Study Bible says, ‘Psalm 8 is unique among the songs of praise because it addresses God directly; that is, it is actually a prayer of praise’.

Jacobson comments:

Most of the Psalter’s hymns begin with an imperative call to a congregation to praise God. Psalm 8 begins differently – with an exclamation of praise spoken directly to God. The first word out of the psalmist’s mouth is ‘LORD’ (‘Yahweh’). No other hymn begins in this fashion. To begin a psalm with God’s name is a characteristic way for a prayer for help to begin; this connection is appropriate, for as a prayer for help begins with a passionate cry for help, this psalm begins with a similarly passionate cry of praise. The import of this nuance is that Psalm 8 is not just a poem about God. Psalm 8 is a poem about God and us and about our relationship with God.[xi]

It’s also notable that the previous psalm, 7, ends with the words ‘I will give to Yahweh the thanks due to his righteousness, and sing praise to the name of Yahweh, the Most High’ (7:17). A person praying the psalter all the way through will make this commitment – ‘I will…sing praise to the name of Yahweh, the Most High’ – and then go immediately to ‘O Yahweh our lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!’ (8:1).

Summary
I think that this psalm is about the glory of God and the glory of humanity. It is a prayer of praise addressed to God, who has set his glory far above earth and heaven; the entire creation, from the moon and the stars in the heavens to the lowliest babies and infants in the earth, joins in praising and worshipping this glorious God. But this glorious King of creation has invited human beings to reign with him; he has given us dominion over all living things. So far from the glory of God diminishing our own glory, it enhances it: this unimaginably great Creator has called created and called us to be his fellow-workers! We are his children, and like a good parent he involves the children in the work of the house!

So what is the psalm calling us to do? It is calling us to worship God as the creator of all, and it is calling us to be faithful in our work as stewards of God’s good creation. Science helps us in both these callings: it gives us a bigger picture of the immensity of the created world (and therefore, by extension, of the greatness of the Creator), and it also gives us a better understanding of the world and how we can care for it, as God has called us to do.

References

[i] John Goldingay, Psalms for Everyone Part I, Westminster John Know Press, 2013, p.27.

[ii] Donald Coggan, Psalms 1-72 (The People’s Bible Commentary), Bible Reading Fellowship, 1998, p.38.

[iii] Nancy deClaissé-Walford, Rolf A. Jacobson, and Beth LaNeel Tanner, The Book of Psalms (New International Commentary on the Old Testament), Eerdmans, 2014, p.123-4.

[iv] Jacobson, p.123.

[v] Coggan, p.38.

[vi] Jacobson, p.123.

[vii] Jacobson p.124.

[viii] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2.

[ix] Jacobson p.126.

[x] Jacobson pp.125-126.

[xi] Jacobson, p.122.

Psalm 47: Preliminary Sermon Explorations

I plan to preach on Psalm 47 this coming Sunday. Here it is in the New Revised Standard Version translation (more or less!):

Clap your hands, all you peoples;
shout to God with loud songs of joy.
For Yahweh, the Most High, is awesome,
a great king over all the earth.
He subdued peoples under us,
and nations under our feet.
He chose our heritage for us,
the pride of Jacob whom he loves.

God has gone up with a shout,
Yahweh with the sound of a trumpet.
Sing praises to God, sing praises;
sing praises to our King, sing praises.
For God is the king of all the earth;
sing praises with a psalm.
God is king over the nations;
God sits on his holy throne.
The princes of the peoples gather
as the people of the God of Abraham.

For the shields of the earth belong to God;
he is highly exalted.

And here are some preliminary thoughts I’ve written down as I’ve been studying the psalm today.

‘Clap your hands, all you peoples; shout to God with loud songs of joy’ (v.1). Come on now – we’re Anglicans! That’s way to demonstrative for us! Seriously, that sort of exuberant worship is not something we Anglicans do very often. It’s a temperamental thing, but it’s important for me to remember that the national temperament of the Jewish people who wrote the psalms was apparently way more open to this sort of communal joy than we are. Years ago I read the story of Michelle Guinness, a young English Jew who became a Christian, and eventually married a Church of England minister. She had been raised in a community that sang that psalms in a very lively fashion, and was very disappointed when she discovered Anglican chant. ‘What have you done to our psalms?’ she complained to her husband!

Nancy deClaissé-Walford comments:

‘Christians brought up in more traditional, rather staid worship environments often find the ideas of ‘clapping hands”, “shouting”, and “singing praises” too boisterous for the context of the formal worship of God. But in situations of utter joy and thankfulness, the raucous “joyful noise” to God is not only appropriate, but the only response that fully expresses the heartfelt gratitude of communities of faith’. (Nancy deClaissé-Walford, Psalms in the New International Commentary on the Old Testament.

The words ‘nations’, ‘peoples’, and ‘all the earth’ are repeated seven times in this psalm. These are the pagan nations, the ones who surround Israel and are worshippers of Baal and Ashtaroth and Marduk and Osiris and all the other ancient gods of the Middle East (Greece and Rome weren’t on Israel’s radar screen yet). The psalmist summons these pagan nations to leave behind the worship of their ancestral gods and worship Yahweh, Israel’s God, because he isn’t just one god among many – he’s ‘the great king over all the earth’ (vv. 2, 7) and ‘God has become king over the nations’ (v.8). Note that the psalm does not yet assume that the gods of the nations are unreal – just that they are inferior to the god of Israel, who is actually the king of them all.

Nancy deClaissé-Walford comments:

‘In verses 2-5, the worshippers are told why they should shout. Because (kî) the LORD Most High is…a great king over all the earth (v.2). The appellation Most High is a term often used to describe the God of Israel when people other than the Israelites alone are being addressed. Thus, from the outset, the psalm celebrates the enthronement of the LORD Most High as a great king over all peoples’. (Nancy deClaissé-Walford, Psalms in the New International Commentary on the Old Testament.

The evidence that Yahweh is the great king over all the earth is found in verse 3: ‘He subdues peoples under us, nations under our feet’. I expect that this is referring originally to the Exodus, where Yahweh defeated the gods of Egypt and drowned their armies in the sea. But it may be, if this psalm comes from the time of David, that the writer has some contemporary application in mind as well: God defeated the Philistines through David, and he also defeated the Moabites and Ammonites and made them pay tribute to David.

So this is not an evangelistic triumph we’re celebrating here – as if Jewish missionaries went out and preached to all the pagan nations, and the people abandoned their gods and turned to Yahweh. In the original context it seems to be a military conquest that the writer has in mind. God has been enthroned as king of all the earth because of his triumph over the enemies of Israel, and the people of all the nations must now bring tribute to him.

Verse 5 says, ‘God has gone up with a shout, Yahweh with the sound of a trumpet’. Is this referring to a particular historical event? One candidate might be the story in 2 Samuel 6 of how David brought the Ark up from the house of Abinadab (at first) and (later) the house of Obed-Edom, and brought it into the city of David with joy and dancing. But in fact the enthronement of Yahweh as supreme over all the earth and all gods is common in the psalms, and enthronement psalms are a recognized genre. J. Clinton McCann comments:

‘Mowinckel’s theory of an annual celebration of God’s enthronement at the New Year festival (as part of the Feast of Booths) is questionable; however, it cannot be doubted that the theological heart of the psalter – God reigns! (see Psalms 29, 93, 95-99) – was celebrated liturgically upon some occasion, perhaps in a procession involving the Ark (see 2 Samuel 6, Psalms 24:7-10, 132:8). It is simply impossible to know whether such a liturgical enactment took place as part of a New Year festival, as part of one of the three pilgrimage feasts, or as Gerstenberger has suggested, as a regular part “of early Jewish worship liturgy that jubilantly records the history of Israel’s election by Yahweh (vv.4-5) and glorifies his supreme, as yet unrealized, power over all the earth (vv.3, 8, etc.)”. Given this uncertainty one must conclude that more important than the original setting of Psalm 47 is the actual content of the psalm: God rules the earth!’ (J. Clinton McCann, Psalms in The New Interpreter’s Bible).

He also says,

‘To borrow Mowinckel’s words, v.5 itself is a “preeminent visible centre”. In contrast to Mowinckel, however, we may conclude that what is celebrated – God’s reign – lay at the heart of all Israelite worship, just as the proclamation of God’s reign lies at the theological heart of the psalter’ (J. Clinton McCann, Psalms in The New Interpreter’s Bible).

Verse 9 says,

‘The princes of the peoples gather
as the people of the God of Abraham.
For the shields of the earth belong to God;
He is highly exalted’.

In Genesis 12:3 God says to Abraham: ‘I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed’. So the idea from the beginning was not that Abraham’s call was about his family and his people only, but that he would be a blessing to all nations – that his journey of worship and holiness with Yahweh the God of Israel would be a light he could share with the people around him, and that this would be true for his descendants as well.

So verse 9 says ‘The lords of the peoples have gathered, the people of Abraham’s God’ (Goldingay’s translation) – or (NRSV) ‘the princes of the peoples gather as the people of the God of Abraham’. This envisions a time when the God of Abraham will be worshipped outside the ethnic and geographical boundaries of Israel, and pagan peoples will be included in ‘the people of Abraham’s God’.

But in what way can God be King of all the earth when so many people ignore and disobey him? Well, God is not king of all the earth in the sense of a tyrant who forces people to obey him. He is king of all the earth because he has created it out of nothing and it belongs to him; he has never given it away or shared it with anyone. Likewise, ‘It is he that made us, and we are his’ (Psalm 100:3), so he is our king in an objective sense, whether we acknowledge the fact or not. We are all accountable to him, and one day we will have to give account to him for our obedience or disobedience to his will – or, more appropriately, for our response or lack of response to his loving invitation to know, worship and obey him.

Still, Christianity also teaches that ‘God is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year’. Human beings have free will and our decisions have real consequences, so God is not the cause of all the events that happen on earth – far from it. But nonetheless, in his mysterious way he is at work, bringing good out of evil and making even the evil acts of human beings a part of the mysterious process by which his will is fulfilled (e.g. the acts of Judas, and of the Jewish leaders and Pilate who crucified Jesus).

John Goldingay comments:

‘In church yesterday we made our usual outrageous confessions, such as the declaration that Jesus is Lord. They are outrageous because the day’s news seems to belie them. Dozens of people have died in an attack on a mosque in Pakistan. Car bombs have exploded outside a British cultural relations centre in Kabul. In the United States, many people with cancer cannot get the drugs they need, partly because the drug companies don’t make enough profit out of making them. Radiation has been discovered in rice near Tokyo. Scores of people have been killed in anti-government demonstrations in Syria. Jesus is Lord?

‘When Israel declared that Yahweh is God, that its God is king of all the earth, it made its equivalently outrageous confession, and when it challenged all the peoples of the earth to join that declaration, its confession was the more outrageous. How could it make such a confession?…

‘…Psalm 47 looks back to the events that made Israel Israel – that is, it refers to Yahweh’s original subduing of the country’s inhabitants and his gift to Israel of its mountain country, which Yahweh loves. Israel settled in this mountain country on God’s coat tails as God made his ascent there like a warrior with a shout and with the sound of a horn signalling the moment for advance. So Israel’s outrageous statement is that Yahweh is “the great king over all the earth”. The title is one the king of Assyria claimed (it comes in the story of Isaiah 36-37 about the Assyrian attempt to take Jerusalem…). It would be a plausible claim. But Psalm 47 says with great chutzpah, “You know who is the real king of all the earth? I will tell you”’ (John Goldingay, Psalms for Everyone: Part 1).

So this psalm calls on people all over the earth to acknowledge the Yahweh, Israel’s God, is not just one God among many, but the ‘great king over all the earth’, the one supreme God. And in the same way, for us New Testament believers, we are called to see our Lord Jesus Christ as not just one lord among many, but as God’s anointed king, the one to whom ‘all authority in heaven and on earth’ has been given by God (Matthew 28:18).

Jesus sent his disciples out into all the world to preach the Gospel, make disciples, baptize them, and teach them to follow him. All of those people already had allegiances to other gods, or to the god of Israel. I don’t think this means that everything about their ancestral religions was bad – God was present everywhere, and he had not left himself without light in any corner of the earth. But in Jesus, God himself has come among us, and so he is the clearest and most accurate picture we have of what God is like and of what his will is. Also, his life and death and resurrection have provided the means of deliverance from sin and death. This Gospel need to be proclaimed to all the world, and everyone should be invited to follow Jesus.

Verse 9 of our psalm envisions the kings of all the nations around Israel coming to worship Yahweh. The New Testament has a similar vision when it talks about people from every tribe and language and people and nation coming to serve God.

‘You (the Lamb) are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals,
for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God
saints from every tribe and language and people and nation;
you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God,
and they will reign on earth’ (Revelation 5:9-10).

There is no hint here of conquest, unless it is God’s conquest of the powers of evil, the devil and his hosts. Just as Yahweh defeated the gods of Egypt and ransomed his people from slavery, so Jesus has ransomed a holy people for God through his death, a people from every nation and language and tribe. They are a kingdom with Jesus as their King; they are priests worshipping God and interceding for the whole world. This is the true fulfilment of Psalm 47:9, but it is an entirely different kind of fulfilment than the one the psalmist envisioned: not conquest, but men and women and children from all over the world freely accepting Jesus’ offer of salvation and through him becoming God’s holy people.

John Goldingay connects the Old and New Testament interpretations of this verse:

‘The description of the nation’s leaders, their lords or shields, gathering to acknowledge Abraham’s God is an act of imagination, but it is a vision whose fulfilment is guaranteed by what this God has done already. At the beginning of Israel’s story people such as the Gibeonites were compelled to make this acknowledgement of Israel’s God; they are a first stage in a process which will eventually come to completion. Once again the psalm shows how Israel knew that Yahweh’s involvement with Israel was not focussed merely on Israel for its own sake. Precisely because Yahweh is the king of all the earth, Israel’s faith involves an interest in the whole world. The lords of the peoples gather as the people of Abraham’s God or with the people of Abraham’s God (the terse sentence doesn’t make clear which is the right translation, but it makes little difference). The point is not merely that they should be ‘saved’ but that they should recognize God as God. Analogously, what God has done with and through Jesus is the guarantee that the world will recognize that Jesus is Lord’ (John Goldingay, Psalms for Everyone: Part 1).

I think the Ascension Day application of this psalm is very powerful. Just as God is enthroned as king of all the earth in this psalm, and the nations are gathered as his people, so Jesus, God’s anointed king, has now been enthroned as Lord of all, ‘king of kings and lord of lords’. He has not ‘subdued peoples’; he has subdued the powers of evil and conquered them by his faithful death and his glorious resurrection. And so, on Ascension Day, God lifted him on high and gave him the place of authority, ‘seated at the right hand of God’, from where he was able to pour out the Holy Spirit on his people and send them out into all the world to proclaim that the world has a new King: not Caesar or the corrupt gods of Rome that he represents, but the Lord of love who washed his disciples’ feet, and who gave himself for them and us on the Cross.

So it is appropriate for us to sing and shout and praise the Lord!

J. Clinton McCann says,

‘It was a persistent temptation for the people of Israel, and it has been and is a persistent temptation for the church to make our God too small. We are quick to recall that God “chose our heritage for us” and loves us (v.4), but we are quick to forget that God loves the world and that all the world’s rulers and people “belong to God” (v.9). The Christian practice of speaking about Jesus as a personal Saviour may be symptomatic of our forgetfulness, for often we seem to mean that we own God rather than that God owns us. To worship the God of Abraham and the God revealed in Jesus Christ is to worship a universal sovereign, and it means claiming every other person in the world as a sister or brother…

‘…In accordance with Psalm 47 and in accordance with the proclamation of Jesus (see Mark 1:14-15), we say that God rules over all and thus that the world is the sphere of God’s sovereignty. Our profession is eschatological, because it does not appear that God rules, and the world is full of opposition to God’s sovereignty…But our profession is no less real. In liturgy, we say and act out the reality that our lives and our world have been shaped by God’s loving rule. At the same time, our speaking and acting contribute to the further shaping of ourselves and of our world in conformity to God’s claim. For us, the “real world” exists insofar as God’s sovereignty is acknowledged in word and in deed…

‘Psalm 47 is traditionally used by the church on Ascension Day. The church thereby claims that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus represent the essential claim of Psalm 47: that God rules over the world and lovingly claims all the world’s peoples’ (J. Clinton McCann, Psalms in The New Interpreter’s Bible).

 

 

‘Reading and Meditating on the Word of God’ (2016 Lent sermon series #6)

For the past five weeks we’ve been on a Lenten journey together. We’ve been thinking about how we can experience for ourselves what Jesus says in Revelation 3:20: “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me”. As we think about how to open the door to Jesus, we’ve been guided by some words from the Ash Wednesday service in the B.A.S.: ‘I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Lord, to observe a holy Lent, by self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and by reading and meditating on the word of God’.

So we’ve been thinking about these six practices we can build into our lives as a way of deepening our relationship with Christ. This week, the last Sunday in Lent, we’re going to turn our attention to the sixth habit: ‘reading and meditating on the Word of God’. So this is not going to be a traditional Palm Sunday sermon, thinking about the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on a donkey. Instead we’re going to be thinking about the entry of the Word of God into our hearts and lives as we read and meditate on the Scriptures.

Let’s think for a minute about this phrase ‘the Word of God’. Nowadays when Christians use that phrase we tend to think immediately of the Bible. But I would argue that we need to be careful about making a hard and fast identification between the written words of the Bible and the living Word of God.

What do I mean by that? Am I meaning disrespect for the written Scriptures? Not at all; I love the Scriptures, I thank God for giving them to us, and I read them every day. But I also know that as Christians we don’t read them ‘flat’, giving every book the same authority. We don’t, for instance, refuse to profit from our pension plans because they are based on the lending of money at interest, even though this practice is forbidden in parts of the Old Testament. We don’t see it as a compulsory religious duty to circumcise our sons, and we don’t punish sons who curse their fathers by putting them to death. Neither do we believe that God calls people today to wipe out the entire populations of cities, including women, children, and helpless babies, as the people did in the Old Testament book of Joshua.

We also know that, in the Bible, the title ‘The Word of God’ is applied first and foremost to Jesus himself; as the B.A.S. says, “He is your living word, through whom you have created all things”. In the famous words of John’s Gospel:

‘And the word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14).

So as faithful followers of Jesus we pray for God’s help to read the Bible through the eyes of Jesus. We know that Jesus stood in continuity with the Old Testament, but at the same time he felt quite free to modify some of its ideas; in the Sermon on the Mount he says several times “You have heard that it was said…but I say to you…” This is particularly clear with the command to love our enemies; Old Testament people felt quite free to hate their enemies and even commit acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing, but Jesus does away with that for his followers:

“But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:44-45).

So yes: as Christians, we read the Bible through the eyes of Jesus. We interpret everything else written in the scriptures according to his teaching and example. St. Paul certainly knew this. In 1 Corinthians chapter 7 he is giving some guidance to the Corinthian Christians about matters of marriage, divorce, celibacy and so on. Several times in the passage he clearly distinguishes between commands he is issuing on his own authority as an apostle, and commands he has received from Jesus in the tradition that was later written down in the gospels. He says things like ‘To the married I give this command – not I, but the Lord’ (meaning ‘the Lord Jesus’) (1 Corinthians 7:10), and ‘to the rest I say – I and not the Lord’ (7:12). He obviously feels he’s on much firmer ground when he has a recorded command of Jesus on which to base his teaching.

As so often, C.S. Lewis has wise things to say on this subject. In a letter written to one of his many correspondents in 1952, he says, ‘It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, who is the true Word of God. The Bible, read in the right spirit and with the guidance of good teachers will bring us to Him’. And Martin Luther, in a beautiful image, says, “Scripture is the manger in which the Christ lies. As a mother goes to a cradle to find her baby so the Christian goes to the Bible to find Jesus. Don’t let us inspect the cradle and forget to worship the baby.”

To sum up then, for us followers of Jesus ‘reading and meditating on the Word of God’ means reading and meditating on the Scriptures in the light of the things that Jesus said and did. If we read the Scriptures in this way, we will not be so easily led astray.

Now, how can we do this? Let me offer you some suggestions.

First, let’s always remember that the book we call ‘the Bible’ is not actually one book; it’s a library of books, written over a period of at least thirteen hundred years, in languages that no one speaks any more. If you went down to your local library and borrowed some books from the shelves, you’d pay careful attention to the genre of those books. Let’s suppose you borrowed a copy of Dante’s Inferno (which was first written in Italian in the 14th century), a novel, a biography, a book of letters by a famous person, a history of the first settlers to come to Canada, a copy of the criminal code, a book of poetry written by Wordsworth in the 19th century, and a book by Stephen Hawking about the origins of the universe.

Would you read all those books in exactly the same way? Of course not! Many things in the Criminal Code would not be relevant to you. The novel might well contain truth, but it would be a different kind of truth than the history book, and different again from the poetry. Dante’s poetry from the 14th century would be very different from Wordsworth’s from the 19th. In other words, you would pay careful attention to the genre of the books, and adjust your reading expectations accordingly.

The Bible is like that. It begins with what looks very much like a poem or hymn about the creation of the universe, written in seven verses with a common refrain at the end of each verse. There are stories about famous heroes from Israel’s past, sermons from great Old Testament preachers who we call ‘the prophets’, usually collected without giving us much background information about the original occasions when they were preached. There’s a hymn book – the Book of Psalms – collected and used by the Jewish people before the time of Jesus. There are four biographies of Jesus, each written from a different point of view, and there are letters written by early Christian leaders to guide churches they had started. These are just a few examples of the kind of thing we’ll find in the library we call ‘the Holy Scriptures’.

The library has two floors. There’s a ground floor, that most Christians call ‘the Old Testament’; it was written in Hebrew and Aramaic, and it collects together books written about God’s dealings with the people of Israel from ancient times up to a couple of hundred years before the coming of Jesus. Then there’s an upstairs floor, the New Testament, written in Greek, that tells the story of Jesus and of the early Christians who followed him and spread his message around the Mediterranean world after his resurrection and ascension into heaven. Some Bibles also contain a sort of stairwell between the two floors, a collection of books called ‘the Apocrypha’, written between the end of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New; not all Christians are agreed about the authority of those books – but that’s a subject for another day!

So how shall we explore this library? How shall we ‘read and meditate on the Word of God’ that comes to us through these books? Let me give three suggestions, based around the three words ‘read’, ‘study’, and ‘meditate’.

First, read. I think this is the most pressing need among Anglican Christians today when it comes to Bible knowledge: familiarity with the big picture. If I were to ask you how many of you have read the Bible all the way through, from start to finish, I suspect that only a very small minority would be able to say that you had.

When I was the rector of St. Anne’s Church in Valleyview, I mentioned this in a sermon one day, and one of the people present took me up on it. He wasn’t an especially scholarly guy, but he decided he would read the Bible through from start to finish. He had a Good News Bible, which is a fairly easy translation to read, and he decided to start at the beginning and read every night for fifteen or twenty minutes until he was done. His Bible included the Apocrypha so it was a bit longer than some, and it took him eight months to get through it.

I was actually a little surprised that he stuck with it; a lot of people start out and then give up in Leviticus or Numbers, which are pretty heavy going. But my friend kept on going. I remember that when he was about half way through, he and I went out for coffee, and he confessed to me that he was a little disappointed in the Bible. “I thought it was going to be full of inspiring and uplifting stories”, he said, “but it’s full of awful people who do awful things to each other, and thousands and thousands of animals getting slaughtered in sacrifices. And all those wars!”

Yes, I replied – the books of the Bible are about sinners just like us! Sinners are the only people God’s got to work with! The people in the Bible were tempted like we are, they gave in to temptation like we do, they misunderstood God and got things wrong just like we do. The big picture of the story of the Bible is the story of a God who doesn’t give up on us when we go wrong: he keeps trying to guide and teach his people, and eventually he comes among us as one of us to live and die and rise again for our salvation.

We need to know this big picture a lot better than we do. I think many Anglicans know a few passages of the Bible quite well; we’ve heard them read in church as isolated passages, but we don’t have much idea about where they come from, what comes before and after them, and how they fit into the big picture of the story of the Bible. No wonder we feel so nervous about guiding our kids in their Christian education! No wonder we feel so badly equipped to share our faith with others!

So I would encourage all of you, if you haven’t done so already, just to read the Bible through. Make no mistake – if you do, you’ll hit some passages that are hard to understand, and some passages that annoy you intensely. Don’t worry about that. Just keep on reading. Fifteen minutes a day will take you through the whole Bible in six to eight months, depending on how fast a reader you are. If you come across passages you want to find answers about, or verses you want to meditate on at your leisure, just mark them so you know where to find them. And then carry on reading.

So that’s the first word – read. The second word is study. Studying is our attempt to come to a better understanding of what an individual passage means. In fact, you could say that in these three words – read, study, and meditate – we’re asking three questions: ‘What does it say?’ ‘What does it mean?’ and ‘What does it mean to me?’

In the modern English-speaking world, there are some incredibly helpful resources to help us understand what the Bible means. The most important one, I suggest, is a good study Bible. Study Bibles are simply editions of the Bible with supplementary notes prepared by good Bible scholars. There will be introductions to the books, to tell you when the individual books were written, what we think the historical context was, who the author was (if we know), what we know about him – or them – and what we know about the process by which the book was written. Then at the bottom of each page there will be notes explaining difficult passages, or pointing out allusions to other places in the Bible, and stuff like that. Talk to me afterwards if you want some recommendations for good study Bibles; I’ve got a few!

There are also big fat Bible commentaries, or smaller commentaries on individual books of the Bible. But in my opinion, the best way to start studying is just to get a really good study Bible and become familiar with it.

Also – don’t forget the benefit of studying with others. Some of us in this church belong to Bible study groups. Years ago, a lot more Christians were part of groups like that. Not many years ago, actually; my last church, St. Anne’s Valleyview, had an average Sunday attendance of less than thirty, and it wasn’t unusual for us to get ten or twelve people out to a midweek Bible study group – some of them parents with school age children. Nowadays people seem to have lots of other things to do, and of course our life is busy and stressful. But I think we miss out on something good if we don’t take advantage of opportunities to come together with other Christians to study the Bible.

So we read, we study, and then the last word is ‘meditate’. This is when we ask ‘What does this passage mean to me?’ In other words, how is my life going to be changed by reading it? Personally, I find it helpful to do meditation with a pen in my hand, so that I can write down my thoughts. I’m not good at thinking inside my head; I find it a lot easier to think with my pen.

Here are some helpful questions we can ask the passage we’re reading. What’s the main theme of this passage? Have I learned anything new about God, about Jesus, about the Holy Spirit, about the world, about myself? What surprised me? What shocked me? What annoyed me? Was there a command for me to put into practice, and if so, what would it look like if I tried to live by it today? Was there a good example for me to follow, or a bad example for me to avoid? Was there someone in the story I identified with? If so, why? Was there something that puzzled me, that I’d like to ask someone about?

These are just a few questions that can help us apply a passage of the Bible to our own lives. As we meditate on it, we receive the Word of God into our hearts and we begin to live it out in our daily lives. And that will bring transformation.

Let me close with a word of personal testimony. I’ve been reading the Bible daily since I was about thirteen. A lot of people assume that the reason ministers know so much about the Bible is because they’ve been to seminary to study it. Well, I can’t speak for my clergy colleagues, but I’d have to say that for me, it wasn’t like that. The most important factor in my own Bible knowledge wasn’t studying it in college; it happened long before that. It was when my parents bought me a copy of The Living Bible, one of the early paraphrases, or easy to understand versions of the Bible. I don’t remember exactly when that happened but I’m guessing I would have been about fourteen.

Nowadays I don’t really recommend The Living Bible, because it’s not too accurate, although there is a modern version of it, The New Living Translation, that’s a lot better. But what The Living Bible did for me was to encourage me to read it through, just like a book. I’m sure I read it all the way through two or three times before I was out of my teens. And that’s what laid the foundation for all my Bible study since then.

So – let’s read it, let’s study it, let’s meditate on it and put it into practice in our lives. If we do that, the living word of God will transform us, and that will make all the difference.

Ruth, the Faithful Outsider

Not long after Marci and I were married we moved to a little town in northeastern Saskatchewan, where I worked as parish assistant in three little Anglican congregations – Arborfield, Red Earth, and Shoal Lake, one white community and two Cree reserves. In the little town in Ontario where I’d been living and working before we were married, we’d come across a little Gospel Hall with Sunday evening services, and since I didn’t work Sunday evenings and we liked to try different things, we went along to their services. We found them to be a warm and friendly little church and we went back to worship with them several times. So when we moved to Arborfield, we were pleased to discover that there was a Gospel Hall there too, and we looked forward to joining them from time to time.

That’s when we found out that not all Gospel Halls are the same! We went to a Wednesday evening prayer meeting that we saw advertised on their notice board, but we quickly discovered that they weren’t really expecting visitors from another church. At the front of their meeting hall the chairs were set around in a square, facing each other, and then the rest of the chairs at the back of the room were in rows facing the front like an ordinary church. When we walked in, the regulars were all sitting in the square at the front; they were surprised to see us, and when we told them who we were, we were quickly ushered into a seat in one of the rows, outside the square. We got the message loud and clear: we were outsiders, and they were suspicious of outsiders. Not surprisingly, we never went back.

I suspect that if you were a foreigner, moving to Israel in ancient times was a bit like us going to that Gospel Hall. Israel saw itself as a distinct society, worshipping the one true God while all its neighbours worshipped idols. And in the law of Israel there were strong statements about not marrying outsiders and keeping pure from their idolatry and sin. But in the story of Ruth we read about someone who bucked that trend, and, possibly to her surprise, she found a community that was willing to welcome her.

Historically this little story is set ‘In the days when the judges ruled’. In other words, we’re taking about the time after Moses and Joshua led the people out of Egypt and into the promised land, but before the days when there were kings like Saul and David to rule over them. The story starts in Bethlehem in Judea, with a man named Elimelech, his wife Naomi, and their two sons Mahlon and Chilion. There was a famine in the land, so Elimelech took his family to the neighbouring country of Moab to live. This would be rather adventurous for an Israelite, as the Moabites were traditional enemies of Israel. Elimelech died soon after the family arrived in Moab, but the two sons both married Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth – another unusual thing for an Israelite family. They stayed in Moab for about ten years, and then both Mahlon and Chilion also died, leaving Naomi all alone with her foreign daughters-in-law.

Naomi heard that the famine was over in Bethlehem, so she decided to go home to her own country, and her daughters-in-law began to go with her. But she tried to discourage them from doing so: ‘Go back to your own mothers’ houses’, she said, ‘and may the Lord deal kindly with you as you have dealt kindly with me. There’s no point in you coming along with me; even if I were to marry again and have sons, would you wait ‘til they were grown and marry them?’ This refers to a custom in ancient Israel: when a man died without children, his brother was to marry his widow and raise up children, who would then be counted as the dead man’s children so that his family line would continue. From this we can infer that both Mahlon and Chilion had died without producing heirs.

So Orpah turned back and returned to her own land, but Ruth would not. ‘Where you go, I will go’, she said to Naomi. ‘I’ll live where you live, your people will be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and I’ll be buried with you’. And so Naomi accepted her company, and the two returned to Bethlehem together.

Of course in those days, two women living alone without a man to support them would have been in a vulnerable position. How would they earn a living? There was a requirement in the law of Moses that at the harvest time farmers should leave the wheat standing on the edges of their fields so that the poor and needy could ‘glean’ it, and workers who accidentally dropped stalks of wheat were not to pick them up again but leave them for the poor. So Naomi sent her daughter in law to glean in a nearby field; it happened to belong to a man named Boaz. When he heard who Ruth was – apparently her reputation of caring for her mother-in-law had gotten around – he instructed his workers to make it easy for her by intentionally dropping some wheat behind them, and he also invited her to eat with his workers when they took their lunch break. So Ruth did quite well that day, and at Boaz’ invitation she stayed in his fields and gleaned behind his workers all through harvest time.

We need a little background in Jewish law to understand what happened next. As we’ve already seen, there was a lot of concern for the continuation of family lines and family property. If a man died leaving a widow, the law required that a near relative should marry the widow, so that the man’s land would not pass outside the clan or tribe. The nearest relative, the one who had the obligation to marry the widow, was called in Hebrew the ‘goel’, which we could translate ‘kinsman-redeemer’; it was his job to ‘redeem’ the land if it was to be sold to support the widow, and to marry her as well.

It turned out that Boaz was a very close relative to Naomi’s late husband, and so Naomi’s next plan was to try to set him up with Ruth. She sent Ruth to the place where Boaz and his workers were winnowing barley at their threshing floor. ‘He’s going to sleep there tonight’, she said; ‘When he’s fallen asleep, lie down at his feet, and when he wakes, he’ll know what to do”.

Sure enough, Boaz woke up during the night and saw Ruth lying there. When he asked what she wanted, she replied, ‘Spread your cloak over your servant, because you are the goel’. Boaz was very pleased; apparently he was an older man, and she was a younger woman, and he was flattered that she had gone to him rather than someone younger. ‘I’ll do what you ask’, he said, ‘but we’ve got to do this right. It’s true that I’m a close relative, but there is someone who’s closer still, and he actually has the right to redeem your father-in-law’s land. If he’ll do it, fair enough; if not, I will’.

So Ruth stayed the rest of the night, and in the morning Boaz gave her a sack of barley to take home for her and her mother. Then he went into town and took his seat at the gate, which was where business deals and legal matters were transacted in those days. Pretty soon the other man, the closer relative of whom Boaz had spoken, came by, and Boaz invited him to sit down. He then asked for ten elders of the town to sit there as witnesses, and they did so.

Boaz then said to the other man: ‘Our relative Naomi is going to sell the land that belonged to her late husband Elimelech. You’re the goel; you’ve got the right to redeem it. I need to know if you’re going to do so, because if not, I’m the next in line’. The man replied, ‘I’ll redeem it’. Boaz said, ‘The day you buy the field you also acquire the hand of Naomi’s daughter-in-law Ruth the Moabite, to continue the dead man’s name on his inheritance’. The other man replied, ‘Then I don’t want to do it, because I don’t want to damage my own inheritance’. So Boaz said to the people sitting around, ‘You are witnesses that I’ve acquired Elimelech’s land, and also the hand of his daughter-in-law Ruth’, and they agreed, ‘We’re witnesses’.

So Boaz married Ruth, and they had a son who they called Obed. What follows is remarkable: Obed became the father of Jesse, and Jesse became the father of David, the shepherd boy who became the great king of Israel. So David’s great-grandma was a foreigner, a Moabite woman, an outsider. And not only that, but Jesus was a descendant of David, so Ruth took her place in the family tree of the Messiah.

On one level this becomes a lovely romantic story, a strong contrast to all the savagery and killing going on in the book of Judges which is set in the same time period in Israel’s history. But on another level there’s a lot going on theologically in this story.

In the Old Testament we see a discussion going on about what it means to be God’s faithful people. The Israelites saw idolatry as the basic sin. If you worship something that is not God, then you’ve taken the one true God and replaced him with a lie. And worshipping a lie, you then come to believe all sorts of other lies about the sort of life you ought to live. That’s why the Ten Commandments lay such strong emphasis on not worshipping false gods. ‘You shall have no other gods before me’. ‘You shall not make for yourself a graven image’.

Most of the Old Testament authors believed that if you want to keep yourself free from idolatry, the best thing to do is to avoid idolaters. So keep strict boundaries for the people of Israel; don’t allow foreigners in, don’t trust them, and certainly don’t intermarry with them. We see this line taken in two books that were probably written at about the same time as Ruth – Ezra and Nehemiah. In those books, Israelites who have married outside of the ethnic boundaries of Israel have committed a grave sin; they’ve brought Israel into the danger of being tempted toward idolatry again. Ezra and Nehemiah and people like them could point to all sorts of evidence, too: ‘Don’t you remember the story of King Solomon? He started out good, but then he married a bunch of foreign women who worshipped false gods, and the next thing you know, he was worshipping their gods too!’

This disapproving stance toward outsiders is the dominant view in the Old Testament. But it’s not the only view. There’s another strand with a more positive attitude toward foreigners, and the story of Ruth is part of this strand. Here we don’t see any disapproval of Ruth’s status as a foreigner. No one accuses her of being an idol-worshipper who was trying to lead Israel astray. In fact, we’re told explicitly at the beginning of the story that she says to her mother-in-law Naomi, ‘Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God’. In other words, this foreigner, who had been raised to worship the Moabite gods, decided to become a worshipper of Yahweh, the God of Israel – and no one questioned that this was a perfectly right and proper thing for her to do.

But she needed someone to bring her into the family, and in the ancient world the only way this could happen would be if someone in the family married her. A woman couldn’t just up and change her religion without consulting her husband! And so Boaz acted as her goel, her kinsman-redeemer, marrying her and bringing her into the family of God’s people – and into a very privileged place in the family history, as the great-grandmother of Israel’s greatest king.

In New Testament terms, we Canadian Christians are like Ruth. In the Old Testament we would have been seen as Gentile outsiders; the Jews were in, but we were not. But we have a redeemer, a goel, who has brought us into the family. In the Bible the relationship between Jesus and his Church is often seen as a betrothal or a marriage: the Church is ‘the Bride of Christ’. He has extended the borders of the family of God’s people, and now we’re inside.

But you can get too comfortable inside, and forget what it’s like for people who are still on the outside. That’s not a good place to be for followers of Jesus, who was constantly on the lookout for outsiders who he could bring in. And like ancient Israel, we have a choice about this. We live in a culture that is becoming less and less friendly to organized religion. Our society used to be thought of as Christian, but now it definitely isn’t. So what are we going to do? Are we going to circle the wagons, concentrate on our own little religious club, and assume that everyone out there has no interest in God and Christ at all? Or are we going to go out confidently into a world that belongs to God, whether it acknowledges the fact or not, with the message that Jesus gave us: that everyone who is carrying a heavy load is invited to come to him and find rest, that all people are invited to become his disciples?

This, of course, is a very important thing for us to keep in mind as we observe Remembrance Day this week. One of the insidious things about war is that it divides the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’ – ‘us’, who are on the inside, the good people, and ‘them’, the outsiders, the evil people. So the foreigner, the person who is different, becomes an object of fear, and we circle the wagons to keep them out. We might even demonize them, see them as somehow less than human, to make it easier for us to kill them. The tragic story of the twentieth century should have given us an object lesson into where that attitude leads.

The story of Ruth tells us that, to God, there are no outsiders – there are only people made in the image of God, loved by God, people who God wants to draw into the community called by his name. But we need to remember one thing – and I’m going to leave you with this thought. Would Ruth have come into the family of Israel without Naomi and Boaz to bring her in? I suspect not. No matter how interested she was in the God of Israel, the boundaries would have been just too great. And outside the borders of organized religion there are many people like Ruth – people of good will, people who are wanting to know God, people who are curious about Jesus. I suspect that you know some of those people; I know for sure that I know some of them. Are you going to be a Naomi or a Boaz for them – the one who will invite them to come in, the one who will introduce them to Jesus their redeemer?