Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Isaiah 5-8

Of all the scenes, word pictures, and images in the book of Isaiah, the call of the prophet in chapter six is the most vivid to me. In his vision, the prophet sees the Lord seated on a throne, high and lifted up. The Lord is so large that the simple hem of his robe fills the earthly Temple that was still standing in Jerusalem when Isaiah had his vision.

In Isaiah’s vision, seraphs are in attendance above the Lord. A seraph is “an angelic being, regarded in traditional Christian angelology as belonging to the highest order of the nine-fold celestial hierarchy, associated with light, ardor, and purity.” Each of the seraphs has six wings. With two wings, they cover their faces, presumably because they cannot look on the holiness of God. With two wings, they cover their feet. “Feet” are a euphemism for genitals. Again, there seems to be the suggestion that the Lord is so holy that even the angels cannot appear naked before him, or they are afraid to so appear before him. Then, with the final two wings, the seraphs are able to fly. There is the suggestion, throughout Scripture, that angels are able to move rather quickly from place to place. Angels do not have the attribute of omnipresence like God, but they are ubiquitous.

The words of the angels make explicit that which is implicit in their body language: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” The angel voices are so powerful that the “house” (presumably the Temple) is shaken. Obviously, these seraphs are not like the cute little cherubs we are familiar with from so much “Christian” art.

There is also an element of mystery to this vision of Isaiah. Thus, the entire Temple fills with smoke (from incense perhaps).

Isaiah’s response to this vision is instructive” “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.” I prefer the translation where Isaiah says, “I am undone,” instead of “I am lost.” The words, “I am undone,” connote that Isaiah is “coming apart at the seams,” which I think he was.

As C. S. Lewis says somewhere, when we come into the presence of the Lord, we become aware of God’s holiness. Our natural response is either an awareness of our own sinfulness, or no awareness of ourselves at all. True humility is the only proper response to the holiness of God.

However, the response of one of the seraphs to Isaiah’s cry is also instructive for us. The angel brings a burning coal from the altar in the Temple and touches Isaiah’s mouth with it. This action removes Isaiah’s guilt and blots out his sin.

It is interesting to me that Isaiah’s sense of sin has to do with his mouth. His immediate instinct in the presence of his holy God is to realize that his sins have to do with speech. Perhaps each of us, were we in Isaiah’s sandals, would be immediately aware of a different sin in our lives. However, it is not surprising that Isaiah would be most aware of sins of speech. Often, the area where we are most gifted is also the area of our lives where we can be must subject to temptation. Isaiah had a talent for speaking. Thus, this was also the area in his life where he experienced the most temptation and sin.

However, at the point of Isaiah’s awareness of his unworthiness, grace comes into play. This always, it seems to me, is God’s response to our shame and guilt. God wants to forgive us and take away our sin—whether that sin has to do primarily with our mouths, or with other parts of our bodies or our souls.

Once Isaiah has his sin taken away, it is then that he is able to hear God speak for the first time. “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’”

Isaiah overhears the call of God. This call is not directed to him, but is voiced within the divine court. The “us” in this passage refers, most likely, not to the “Trinity,” a concept unknown to Isaiah, but to the members of the divine court, including the angels.

Isaiah’s response is unlike any other in the Hebrew Scriptures. When God called Moses, Moses pleaded with God to send someone else. However, Isaiah says, “Here am I; send me!” This is a wonderful response and it is also an appropriate prayer for each of us to have upon our lips every day.

These words of Isaiah have, to my mind, been beautifully rendered in this song of praise….

Monday, July 28, 2014

Isaiah 1-4

Isaiah, who experienced a vision and call from God in the year that King Uzziah died (740 BC), has provided us with many of the most memorable images in the Hebrew Scriptures. The first one comes in Isaiah 1:18. Barry Webb writes of this passage…

This is deservedly one of the most famous expressions of the grace of God in the Bible.

The theme of rebellion has been progressively developed through verses 2-17. The guilt of the accused has been amply established, and they are reminded of it here in vivid language: their sins are scarlet, red as crimson, the colour of blood (cf. 15b). We have reached a point of crisis.

But at the very point when judgment is expected, grace intervenes. The divine judge reasons with the accused, and makes an offer which is truly amazing in its generosity: nothing less than total pardon (18)! What they had wrongly tried to achieve by cultic manipulation is now offered to them freely, on the one condition that they cease their rebellion (19-20a). The alternative is certain destruction: they can eat the good from the land (19b) or ‘be eaten’ by the sword (20a). The choice is theirs. The Lord is gracious, but he is not to be tribled with.

The just basis for the forgiveness freely offered here will be unfolded later in the book. But it did not require the suffering of the exile to make it possible. It was always possible if only the people would repent. But grace is always hard for rebels to understand; their view of God is too small.

My own sins often stand out to me in blood red colors. How amazing that God would change the color of them to white, a color representing cleanliness, a fresh start! Of course, as a Christian I know that changing my sin from scarlet to something white as snow did cost blood, the blood of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. What can I do but thank him for his indescribable gift, and simply accept that gift every day? It is as we receive that gift of grace that God himself enables us to turn from our rebellion and walk in his grace day by day.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Song of Songs 5-8

As we consider the various dimensions of human love expressed in the Song of Songs, I think it is good to keep in mind these words from C. S. Lewis and his book, Mere Christianity….

What we call “being in love” is a glorious state, and, in several ways, good for us. It helps to make us generous and courageous, it opens our eyes not only to the beauty of the beloved but to all beauty, and it subordinates (especially at first) our merely animal sexuality; in that sense, love is the great conqueror of lust. No one in his senses would deny that being in love is far better than either common sensuality or cold self-centredness. But, as I said before, “the most dangerous thing you can do is to take any one impulse of our own nature and set it up as the thing you ought to follow at all costs.” Being in love is a good thing, but it is not the best thing. There are many things below it, but there are also things above it. You cannot make it the basis of a whole life. It is a noble feeling, but it is still a feeling. Now no feeling can be relied on to last in its full intensity, or even to last at all. Knowledge can last, principles can last, habits can last; but feelings come and go. And in fact, whatever people say, the stae called “being in love” usually does not last. If the old fairy-tale ending “They lived happily ever after” is taken to mean “They felt for the next fifty years exactly as they felt the day before they were married,” then it says what probably never was nor ever would be true, and would be highly undesirable if it were. Who could bear to live in that excitement for even five years? What would become of your work, your appetite, your sleep, your friendships? But, of course, ceasing to be “in love” need not mean ceasing to love. Love in this second sense—love as distinct from “being in love”—is not merely a feeling. It is a deep unity, maintained by the will and deliberately strengthened by habit; reinforced by (in Christian marriages) the grace which both partners ask, and receive, from God. They can have this love for each other even at those moments when they do not like each other; as you love yourself when you do not like yourself. They can retain this love even when each would easily, if they allowed themselves, be “in love” with someone else. “Being in love” first moved them to promise fidelity: this quieter love enables them to keep the promise. It is on this love that the engine of marriage is run: being in love was the explosion that started it.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Song of Songs 1-4

Lawrence Boadt provides this excellent, though brief, introduction to the Song of Songs:

The third book attributed to Solomon is the Song of Songs, mainly because his name is mentioned in chapters 3 and 8. In both cases he seems more of a model to follow than an author, and we can safely say that the famous king did not write these songs. Like so many other wisdom books, The Song of Songs shows signs of being worked and reworked through many centuries. At the oldest level are love poems, perhaps wedding songs, many of which could go back to the time of Solomon. At the latest level are Persian and Greek phrases that indicate additions made after the exile. There seem to be hints of a dialogue between a young lover and his beloved (bride?), and perhaps even a chorus of the daughters of Jerusalem. At least the tradition identifying different speakers goes back to the Greek translations before the time of Christ. But there is not enough unity among the different songs to say more than that it is a collection extolling the undying power of love between two people.

The close parallels between the language of The Song of Songs and Arab wedding songs from Syria were discovered in the late nineteenth century. The wedding customs included a dance with a sword by the bride on the day before her wedding in which she described her own beauty (Song 1:5; 2:1). For the week after the wedding, the couple is treated as a king and queen with much feasting and still more songs extolling the bride’s beauty (Song 4:1-15; 5:10-16). Such village customs last over many centuries and can help us discover the original setting and use of the Song of Songs. The religious use of such love songs may even go back to the hymns and ceremonies surrounding the sacred marriage rituals of the Canaanite followers of Baal. Certainly, Israel was not the only ancient nation to sing the beauties of the female body (and sometimes of the male). We have examples from both Babylon and Egypt (see ANET 467-69), and Psalm 45 is also a wedding psalm.

But the lusty nature of the songs gave scandal to many of the Jewish rabbis, and as late as the second century A.D. they still had not fully agreed that the book should be in the sacred canon. One of the deciding factors was the belief that it described allegorically the love of Yahweh for Israel as a beloved bride. The Christian Church accepted it quickly for the same reasons—it could easily describe in allegory the love of Christ for the Church, or for the soul of the believer. St. Bernard of Clairvaux in the twelfth century wrote a great number of sermons on the Song of Songs describing the love of Christ for the soul and the mystical union that came from this love. They habve become the classic source of such a mystical spirituality. Other Christian writers of the Middle Ages saw an allegory of Christ’s love for his Blessed Mother. In all of these cases, the later interpretations have gone far beyond the original Old Testament book with its rather graphic desciption of sexual love as a joyful and positive ideal. But they also underline the power of the book to lead people in all ages to discover that love, sexuality, and creation are gifts of God’s goodness.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Ecclesiastes 9-12

“Of making many books there is no end…” Ecclesiastes 12:12

Ecclesiastes reminds us, with its unique message, that the Bible is a library of books containing many voices. The author of this book, whoever he was, offers one voice among many. If we take this voice as an example of absolute truth then it certainly contradicts other voices within the Bible with its level of pessimism. However, if we regard it as just one voice, then, if we are wise, we will also understand that this book contains a voice we need to hear from time to time.

C. S. Lewis says about this book:

Nor would I (now) willingly spare from my Bible something in itself so anti-religious as the nihilism of Ecclesiastes. We get there a clear, cold picture of man’s life without God. That statement is itself part of God’s word. We need to have heard it. Even to have assimilated Ecclesiastes and no other book in the Bible would be to have advanced further towards truth than some men do. (Reflections on the Psalms)

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Ecclesiastes 5-8

Out of today’s reading, these words from Ecclesiastes 5:1-2 stood out to me the most:

Guard your steps when you go to the house of God; to draw near to listen is better than the sacrifice offered by fools; for they do not know how to keep from doing evil. Never be rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be quick to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven, and you upon earth; therefore let your words be few.

How much easier it is for me to talk to God than to listen! It is far easier to study the Bible even, than to really hear what the Lord wants to say to me. The cacophony of my own thoughts shuts out that “still small voice” that Elijah heard on the mountain (1 Kings 19:12).

Not too long ago, I saw this rendition of Psalm 46:10….

Be still and know that I am God.
Be still and know.
Be still.

Sometimes, the hardest thing for me is simply to be still. It is not hard to still my body, but it is often difficult to still my mind, to empty my mind, to quiet my soul, and just listen.

If we did that, what might God say to us? Why not take time today to quiet all the noise, both external and internal? Then, when we get to that point of stillness we can say with Samuel, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” (1 Samuel 3:9) We might be surprised by the good, encouraging words the Lord will have for us….

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Ecclesiastes 1-4

As we begin our study of Ecclesiastes today, Lawrence Boadt, once again, helps us to find our footing….

No one has ever challenged the Book of Ecclesiastes’ right to the title of the most skeptical book in the Bible. Ecclesiastes, also called Qoheleth, has a unified approach to the value of wisdom: pessimism. While Proverbs sought to provide guidelines on what to do and not to do, and confidently summed up the way to wisdom as “fear of the Lord,” Ecclesiastes has its doubts whether such confidence has any basis in human experience. The author’s theme song is sounded at the beginning and again at the end of the book, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity—and a striving after wind” (Eccl 1:2, 14; 12:8). Futility and emptiness result from the constant human search for the meaning of life. He is particularly aware of the useless attempts to understand the mystery of divine purpose behind the order of the world as it is, the tragic finality of death, the reasons for success and failure, and the justice of rewards and punishment for good and evil behavior. These are beyond our capabilities to discover.

The word Qoheleth is Hebrew for a “preacher,” “head of the church assembly,” or something similar, although no other example of the word exists in the Bible. The more traditional title of the book, Ecclesiastes, is nothing but a direct Greek translation of the Hebrew word. That the author was Solomon is implied by the first verse when it says Qoheleth was the son of David in Jerusalem, but cannot be taken as fact. The book shows the development of Israelite thought that comes after the exile, especially in its doubts about old answers and its attacks on the rational approaches of Greek thought that began to influence the Near East at that time.

The book has much in common with other wisdom literature, however. The author undertakes the investigation of experience at all levels, and asks questions about creation, justice, the wise versus the fool, just and unjust, and even quotes a large number of proverbs that he actually thinks will work in life. But certain things are clear to him that others have never allowed. While admitting that God does direct all things, he insists that we cannot know what God is doing or why, and so our proper human response is to enjoy what God gives us now and use it the best we can. As Ecclesiasts 5:17 puts it: Here is what I understand as good: it is well if a person eat, drink and enjoy all the fruits of work under the sun during the limited days that God gives to one’s life, for this is a person’s lot.” For Qoheleth, everything has its proper time: “a time to be born and a time to die…a time to weep and a time to laugh” (Eccl 3:2-4), but the “why” is known only to God and not to us. His advice to enjoy life as it is may not seem very religious, but he tempers it with warnings “to fear God” (Eccl 5:6).

The Jewish rabbis fought a long time over whether the book was fit for the sacred canon of Scripture. The positive decision was made possible because Solomon was thought to be the author, and an editor added a pious afterword in Ecclesiastes 12:9-14 that summed up his message as “fear God and keep his commandments” (Eccl 12:13). It was fortunate that they recognized its inspired nature, for it teaches the great gulf between the transcendent God and our human striving to understand and so control him. In the end, Ecclesiastes’ message is one with that of Job—trust and surrender yourself to God’s loving care even if you cannot know where it will lead.