The Joy of Exegeting the Psalms

Ask most high school students what kind of literature the enjoy the least, they’ll likely say poetry. Its symbolism and patterns often create a sense of tedium for many readers. Of course, poetry is a beautiful form of writing, and as I say to my own students when we memorize poetry throughout the school year, appreciating the mastery of a single word can bring joy and satisfaction far beyond  merely reading a poem.

I have noticed a tendency of Christians, myself included, to sometimes take the same perspective on the Psalms. Originally written in Hebrew, English translations of the Psalms appear in different forms and try to encapsulate the beauty of the original language in a number of ways. A helpful way to explore these Biblical songs and poems is through an exegetical study, clarifying some of the ways the Hebrew text stresses and highlights ideas and concepts. If, like me, you’re not a Semitic languages scholar, then a nice commentary is a good place to start.

Dr. Allen P. Ross has 9780825426667authored a three-volume set of exegetical commentaries on the Psalms for Kregel Academic. I have reviewed two other entries in the Kregel Exegetical Library (Exodus and I & II Chronicles), and was fortunate enough to get my hands on the final entry in Dr. Ross’s trilogy. While I do hope to eventually acquire the rest, examining Psalms 90-150 proved a great adventure in and of itself.

The format is simple, with substantial background and contextual information before each psalm that demonstrated the immense amount of study that has been spent on the poetic parts of Scripture. I will use Psalm 119 to detail some of the highlights of Ross’s work.

While it is the dominant psalm of the Biblical collection, Psalm 119 has cause some to despair over its apparent repetition of ideas and words. Ross, however, concludes that this is the result of a poor reading of the text. First, the Psalm should be seen as a literary work. In terms of dating, Psalm 119 seems to have been written prior to the Exile (461) and is written in such a way that a preacher could approach the text from various ways to preach through it either by stanza or theme or both (463). After drawing the background information together, Ross works through the Psalm using its acrostic format as the outline. Each section is translated, followed by a brief content summary and exegetical outline. This outline also serves as the main points for the commentary, which is delivered in an expository form making it easy for pastors to work through the content in small sections.

As a result, Ross gives a work that any Christian could pick and work through, while also being a wonderful aid to a pastor who wants to lead their congregation through the Psalms.

The Christ-Filled Life

“When the holy day of Pentecost came 50 days after Passover, they were gathered together in one place,” – Acts 2:1, The Voice

Imagine waiting for the Holy Spirit. Can you envision what it would have been like, to watch as our Savior ascended into heaven promising to send His Helper? 50 days. It must have seemed like forever. The work was done! Jesus had not only paid the ultimate cost of sin on the Cross, but He had defeated death when He walked out of His tomb. With God’s kingdom seeming so close at hand, did those 50 days drag on and on?

We will not know this side of eternity, but the ending of Acts chapter one give us a clue: “Back in the city, they went to the room where they were staying—a second-floor room. This whole group devoted themselves to constant prayer with one accord…,” (1:13-14). This group did what is contrary to our nature: they waited. So often we rush to the finish. We see that, as the school year dwindles down, we are so near to the end that we can taste it. But, as with all things that are a part of God’s kingdom, we must not rush the Holy of Holies.

Why didn’t the Apostles run out and start evangelizing? Why weren’t they proclaiming the new kingdom of God, fulfilling the Lord’s prayer of “on earth as it is in heaven”? Because it was not their work to do! At least, not in the traditional sense.

We have the immense blessing of being a part of God’s coming kingdom here and now, but this is not something we do in our own strength. Think of Paul’s words to the Ephesian church, “Now to the God who can do so many awe-inspiring things, immeasurable things, things greater than we ever could ask or imagine through the power at work in us,” (3:20). Did you catch that? “the power at work in us…” Oh what a burden that has lifted! We don’t do God’s work on our own, but rather, as the Apostles before, we devote ourselves to God in prayer, and He will give us the strength to finish well.

This idea was said best by a teacher I once had: “Christ can do it, and He always said He would.” As we come to the end of the year, some of us moving on and some of us moving up, it is pertinent to remind ourselves that we serve a living God and it is only by His power that we accomplish anything. In order to be effective in this world, we must always be drawing on the only source of Water that gives life, and life abundantly.

May we live the life God has called us to, and may we always remember that we do so in His strength.

Papa Hemingway and Valentine’s Day

This is a slightly modified version of an article I was asked to submit to a local magazine, Vero’s Voice. The article was not picked up because it “wasn’t American enough,” (and to be fair, that is what they had requested) so I figured I would push it off on my unsuspecting readers.

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February will see a spike is candy sales and flower deliveries as people celebrate Valentine’s Day, the American holiday devoted to love. While the holiness of such a day is certainly up for debate, the value placed on Valentine’s Day by the average American is evidenced in stores and malls everywhere. Apparently, we are a nation who loves to be in love. Ernest Hemingway, the quintessential American author, was known more for his personal exploits at times than for his literary prowess. In Hemingway’s breakout novel, The Sun Also Rises, the central character Jake Barnes discovers a profound concept for life through his new acquaintance the Count. “I am always in love,” Mippipopolous explains. It is a short scene, and if you are not paying attention you can easily miss it. Yet, these five simple words set Jake off on a pilgrimage, where he begins to grasp what it means to love truly.

The kind of love the Count is advocating is not restricted to the arena of romance, but rather reflects a holistic approach to living, which advocates for the proper flourishing of humanity. This idea, found in a “profane” piece of American literature, finds a corollary in the Christian Scriptures: “…I came to give life with joy and abundance,” (John 10:10, The Voice). Despite the surface differences between the two works, the idea is a sound one. A life lived without love can hardly be called a “life” at all. However, it must be about more than a fleeting emotion, or devotion to some particular hobby. To be fully human is to find the ultimate love, to rest fully in what our hearts long for. To put it another way, our hearts make us a restless people until they are filled as they were always intended to be. There is an aim that each of us is built to seek, and it is only there that we can fully be “in love.”

It is sometimes hard to picture such a fulfilling notion of life emerging from “Papa” Hemingway. His penchant for drinking and his reputation as a scoundrel with women certainly throw a damper on any impression that he fully grasped the very knowledge he was touting. But is that not the case with so many of us? Millions of Americans will pour into shops this Thursday to purchase candy, buy roses and pick up singing cards; but it is important to take stock. While Hemingway may not have found a way to apply this kind of love to every aspect of his life, his zeal and passion for things like fishing and bullfighting prove that he did the best he knew how. Can the same be said for you? For me?

21 Days of the Voice

I spent the last 21 days working through a reading plan found here. Similar to other reading plans, such as this one or one found in the Book of Common Prayer, selections of Scripture are presented in a connected fashion helping the reader to engage with the Word of God. This is especially helpful to someone who doesn’t know where to start in this great big book called the Bible, and to people like me as well, who are in need of something outside of the standard mold.voice_full

The Voice is something different. To clarify, it is not, however, something new. Translations have abounded for the last century, and there have been abundant translations prior to the Bible wars of the 20th century. Thomas Nelson’s newest rendering of the Bible is truly something to invest your time and money in (but if money is tight, you can read it for free online). David Capes, one of the main scholars who worked on The Voice, spends a good amount of time blogging about how this Bible came about. In order for me to explain why this 21-day journey was so wonderful, allow me to share a little of Capes’ perspective:

I remember a conversation I had with a friend years ago.  He was lamenting the fact that modern Bible translations like the New King James Version and the New American Standard Version had dropped words like “Thee,” “Thou,” “Thine,” “art” (as in the Lord’s prayer: “Our Father, who art in heaven . . . “) and “hast.”  These words were typical of the 16th and 17th centuries but have long since fallen out of use with most English-speaking people…Modern translations, he felt, had left behind the formal language of heaven (God’s language) preferring instead the mundane language of “this world.” The translation he loved sounded more “spiritual” to him than the newer ones, so he was against them, pure and simple.  Like many people, my friend had a deep emotional connection with the King James Version of the Bible based on all the years he spent in church and Sunday School…Translation is not about exchanging this Greek word for that English word or this Hebrew word for that English word.  Translation is not that easy. It involves knowing both the source and target languages well enough to be able to move back-and-forth between them.  It entails an understanding of culture—then and now—and recognizing how language is one of the key vehicles of culture.  Translation, I have come to understand, is not a science; it is an art…I’d be disappointed to learn that my friend had lost his deep, emotional connection with the KJV.  The KJV is a great, historic translation, even if it is no longer in our language.

One of the reasons I think The Voice resonates so clearly with me is the viewpoint that helped shape it. This new translation isn’t trying to be new; it’s trying to be true in a culture that has indoor plumbing and air conditioning units outside. But more than that: it is once again trying to put the Word of God into the language of the common people. This is why William Tyndale was burned at the stake, and why John Wycliffe was removed from his tomb in order to have his body destroyed. So Capes is in good company (not to mention he is occasionally called a heretic, just like Wycliffe and Tyndale before him).

That’s why the reading plans available at The Voice’s website are so wonderful. The 21 Day plan, which I completed today, immerses you in the text and guides you towards connecting the dots of God’s grand story. I’ve read the Bible before, from front to back, multiple times. And I love my New American Standard Bible (even if it is falling apart). But revisiting familiar passages in a refreshing language can breathe new life into what has become routine or mundane.

“What?! Reading Scripture is mundane? You pagan!” If that’s what you think of me, my apologies for falling short of your standard. But I’m being honest. Sometimes, I know the next word before it comes, and truthfully that can make me apathetic when reading. I become overly comfortable, and I parrot Scripture rather than absorbing it and applying it accordingly. The Voice has raised the banner for me again, inviting me to treat Scripture as something fresh.

Of course one day, I’ll acclimatize to this version too. I’m not advocating a “new = better” sort of equation where I change translations every couple of years so I don’t get “bored.” That misses the point entirely. Reading through this translation of the Bible over the last three weeks has reminded me of something: I love reading God’s Word. There used to be a time when I would just pick it up at any time of day and read. I treated it like a letter from a friend, and read it over any time I wanted to connect with my friend or be comforted by their sage advice. But after years of reading, and educating myself into certain habits of reading, the Bible had become less of a letter and more of a textbook. It’s not that God didn’t still speak to me through His Word, but I had to listen much harder to get past my questions about ancient culture and Greek idioms. But no more.

Whether I will permanently adopt The Voice as my new “letter” remains to be seen. The red, worn leather back NASB sitting upstairs holds a special place in my heart. But The Voice has reminded me why my heart inclines to my old Bible. And for that awakening, I will be grateful in the years to come.

Broken Hearts

Hillsong UNITED sing a song that has been weighing heavily on me of late. Feel free to listen to it now, or skip below. But really, it’s a good song.

The line in particular that has been replaying in my mind this week is this: break my heart for breaks Yours. This fits in nicely with Micah 6:8, which has also been on my mind lately. I like the way The Voice renders it:

He has told you, mortals, what is good in His sight.
What else does the Eternal ask of you,
But to live justly and to love kindness,
and to walk with your True God in all humility?

I don’t think my heart breaks for the same things that break God’s heart. I wish I could say otherwise, but if I have learned anything over the past week, it is that I am still a ways off from holiness. Oh, I’m set apart. In fact, I think God has called me specifically, and by name. But my character is not always Christ’s. Which is a shame, because it’s His life at this point.

So over the next couple of months, I’m going on a journey. Metaphorically speaking, of course. I want to know what breaks God’s heart. I plan on digging through Scripture, and probably consulting some Church Fathers, until I feel like I have some kind of grasp on what really moves God. Because I want my heart to break for the same reason that God’s breaks.

I invite you keep coming back as I will undoubtedly post about all of this. Welcome to the madhouse!

Fruitful

The school I teach at offers a rather rigorous academic program. It is by no means a perfect program, but it definitely pushes the students to think for themselves (as opposed to thinking for a test). Aside from the senior thesis defenses, and the junior apprenticeship projects, I don’t shirk from asking my students to engage with what they’re learning. In my Church History class, for instance, they’ve been assigned a research paper connecting an event from what we’ve studied with a concern in the Church today. One of my students did his paper on styles of worship, comparing Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli. Here’s a little excerpt:

…I would like to believe they would have agreed to disagree. I believe that if we are mature in our faith, petty things like style preference in worship should not come between us especially considering we are called “brothers and sisters in Christ.” If there is a superior worship style it is irrelevant because the only thing that matters is the worship itself offered to the One who is superior.

Papers like this make me very proud of my students. Its not an issue of agreement (because I agree with some students, and I disagree with others), but it is about taking the subject matter and understanding that it is more than a text book or a set of notes. The moments where the classroom encounters real life are the moments where I feel fruitful, in the truest sense of the word.

They have so much potential for God to unlock, that it is often times surprising. Whether they know it or not, I expect great things from each of my students this year.

Music in the Air

Undoubtedly, a tradition that sparks intense feelings for me is Christmas music. Listening to someone soulfully pine for Christ through songs like “O Holy Night” and “O Come O Come Emmanuel” cause my heart to stir in ways that I have difficulty putting into words.

As someone who is more interested in mysticism from an academic perspective, Advent is a wonderful season for me because for a few weeks I cross the threshold from observer to partaker. The music and the weather and the lights and the smells…it all draws me into a beautiful time of praising my Lord and Savior.

It’s sometimes difficult to really praise God. With all that seems to be broken in this world, it’s hard to praise anyone or anything. And yet, that is exactly what God’s Word encourages us to do:

Bless the LORD, O my soul!
O LORD my God, You are very great;
You are clothed with splendor and majesty,
Covering Yourself with light as with a cloak,
Stretching out heaven like a tent curtain.
– Psalm 104:1-2

Psalm 104 begins with a declaration, a command so to speak. The psalmist tells his soul to bless God, and then launches into a lovely and powerful description of God’s majesty and sovereignty.

Christmas, for many reasons, is a time of year when I see the necessity of this kind of praise more clearly.

So I invite you, join with me over the next couple of weeks. Offer God praise. There’s always a time for requests, petitions, and questions. But I encourage you, set aside a few minutes each day and simply praise God! Need a place to start? Mary’s Magnificat is an excellent beginning.

Try it out. I promise you, God shows up.

Traditions

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Today I took a group of students to a Byzantine church nearby. They had the opportunity to see a part of their own Christian heritage that they didn’t even know existed three months ago.

So tonight, I leave with images. And I ask the question: what traditions comprise your Advent season? Enjoy!

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God, We Have Heard It

God, We Have Heard It
(HERZLIEBSTER JESU 11.11.11.5)

God, we have heard it, sounding in the silence:
News of the children lost to this world’s violence.
Children of promise! Then without a warning,
Loved ones are mourning.

Jesus, you came to bear our human sorrow;
You came to give us hope for each tomorrow.
You are our life, Lord God’s own love revealing.
We need your healing!

Heal us from giving weapons any glory;
Help us, O Prince of Peace, to hear your story;
Help us resist the evil all around here;
May love abound here!

By your own Spirit, give your church a clear voice;
In this world’s violence, help us make a new choice.
Help us to witness to the joy your peace brings,
Until your world sings!

Tune:  HERZLIEBSTER JESU 11.11.11.5 by Johann Cruger, 1640 (”Ah, Holy
Jesus”).

Text: Copyright © 1999 Carolyn Winfrey Gillette. All rights reserved.  Copied
from Gifts of Love:  New Hymns for Today’s Worship by Carolyn Winfrey
Gillette (Geneva Press, 2000). Email:  bcgillette@comcast.net

Advent Season, Part IV: …Redemption.

Oh, how my soul praises the Lord.
How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!
For He took notice of His lowly servant girl, and from now on all generations will call me blessed.
For the Mighty One is holy, and He has done great things for me.
He shows mercy from generation to generation to all who fear Him.
His mighty arm has done tremendous things! He has scattered the proud and haughty ones.
He has brought down princes from their thrones and exalted the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away with empty hands.
He has helped His servant Israel and remembered to be merciful.
For He made this promise to our ancestors, to Abraham and his children forever.
– Luke 1:46-55 (NLT)

This time of year, it’s easy to get busy. It’s easy to forget why we celebrate. And many of us end up not celebrating at all. Browse the Christian blogs on WordPress or Blogger, and the overwhelming notion is that Christians have forgotten what Christmas is about (here are one or two to make the point).

Pick up a Christmas CD by N’Sync, or Garth Brooks, or Kanye West, and you get the impression that Christmas is about feeling something in particular, although just exactly what is fuzzy.

Of course, when Mary offered her song of praise in Luke (see above), I don’t think she worried about sleigh bells or ballin’ at the mall. The promise of her Son was something amazing to her: it was a fulfillment. But not just any old promise was being kept. Read her poem again. Mercy. Hunger. Humility. These are the things that characterized what Mary envisioned through her Son.

Everything we long for, hope for, & even fight for…it’s all about redemption.


My mom had a sister I never met. She is rarely talked about in our family, and until recently I did not even know how she had died. She was 31. In the midst of her varying medical issues, she developed an infection that couldn’t be contained. In an attempt to help her, her doctors wound up killing her. She had been the subject of electro-shock therapy, among other not so pleasant “remedies” during her life. And yet, at the end, her final words were simple. “Jesus,” she whispered. That story still brings my mom to tears, almost 30 years later. It’s a wound that has never quite healed in my family. My grandparents, my mom and her siblings, they go on living despite this pain they still feel.

This is the reason for Christmas.

There are countless other stories. International ones, too. So many in this world seeking redemption, and the healing that comes with it. I tell this one because, well, it hits closest to home for me. But there are others. Some even better, I’m sure.

These are the reasons for Christmas.

This Christmas, rather than bemoaning the lost Christmas Spirit, or demanding that Christmas be “reclaimed,” I think we would do well to remember God’s redemption. It came upon a midnight clear, and it is still offered to those who are weary or downtrodden or hungry or alone.

We worship a merciful God. Let us never forget it.