Tuesday, 8 January 2019

Psalm 88 - 'the Darkest Psalm'

Hans-Joachim Kraus denominates Psalm 88 ‘The darkest of all OT Psalms’,[1] and few would disagree. Equally important is the fact that, in spite of its gloomy content, this is a prayer addressed to God. It is marked out as a prayer by the first two verses:
O LORD, God of my salvation,
                When, at night, I cry out in your presence,
Let my prayer come before you;
                Incline your ear to my cry.[2]
We are often told that ‘all human experience’ is reflected in the Book of Psalms. This claim would be proved false if bitter experiences and darker emotions were excluded.
Some have suggested that these words arose from a situation of mortal illness. That is certainly one way to read them. But the psalm can ring true to any experience of ultimate threat or affliction.
The psalmist’s experience is described in verses 3-10. He feels close to Sheol, the world of the dead, where people are shadows of their former selves and live an attenuated existence. Sheol is also called ‘The Pit’ (verses 4, 6) and Abaddon, the place of destruction (verse 11). The inhabitants of Sheol are cut off from God; God remembers them no more (verse 5). Such a picture of the future life was current in the ancient world, before Christ came and brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel (2 Timothy 1:10). The shadow of Sheol can fall on the living, bringing an intimation of death.
The psalmist feels that he is under God’s wrath (verse 7). Elsewhere in the book of Psalms God is present even in Sheol (see Psalm 139:8), but apparently not here. A negative answer is clearly expected to the rhetorical questions of verses 11 and 12:
Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,
                Or your faithfulness in Abaddon?
Are your wonders known in the darkness,
                Or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?
The psalmist not only feels forsaken by God; support from other people is apparently completely lacking.
You have caused my companions to shun me;
You have made me a thing of horror to them...
You have caused friend and neighbour to shun me;
                My companions are in darkness (verses 8, 18).
The prayer ends on a note of relentless terror and desolation. The psalmist feels deserted by God and humans alike. Such feelings can be experienced by anybody. This psalm shows us how to bring them to God when we ‘cry out’ to him. Even in his darkness, the psalmist addresses the LORD as ‘God of my salvation’.  The Christian claim is that Jesus Christ himself mysteriously plumbed the depths of human and divine abandonment (Mark 14:50; 15:34)[3], and is now the light of the world (John 8:12).

[1] Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalms 60-160. Tr Hilton C. Oswald. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993. Page 193.
[2] Bible references are from the New Revised Standard Version (Anglicized Version)).
[3] Compare Kraus, page 195.

Monday, 13 August 2018

Psalm 87              The Glories of the City of God.                                                               Keith Innes
Zion (a name for Jerusalem) is admired, not as a brilliant architectural achievement but as a place where God’s honour dwells. H-J Kraus comments that Jerusalem is ‘drenched in glory’.[i]  Holy places, set apart and honoured by God, are infused with God’s glory.
On the holy mount stands the city he founded;
The LORD loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob.
Glorious things are spoken of you, O city of God’ (verses 1- 3).[ii]

The surprise comes in verses 4-6: ‘Among those who know me I mention Rahab [a symbolic name for Egypt] and Babylon; Philistia too, and Tyre, with Ethiopia – ‘This one was born there’, they say.’ The surrounding nations in this list are outside the people who stand in a special covenant relationship with God. Yet they are said to have been born in Jerusalem! Of course this cannot be a statement of literal fact – they were not literally, physically born in Jerusalem.

1.     I am reminded of the well-known question in Blake’s Jerusalem: ‘And did those feet in ancient time Walk upon England’s mountains green?’ In a wooden, literal sense the answer has to be ‘No’. Blake’s meaning lies in his mystical worldview.

So we are prompted to dig deeper to discover the psalmist’s meaning. James Mays explains that ‘[t]he theme is a theological metaphor that means that those who acknowledge the LORD have birthright status in Zion, no matter where they live.’[iii] Their status is assured by being written by the LORD in a book (6).

Seen in this light, the psalm falls into a pattern set by a whole group of Old Testament passages that envisage all nations finding their spiritual home in Zion. Marvin E. Tate adduces, among many passages, Isaiah’s vision in which all nations stream to ‘the mountain of the LORD’s house’ (Isaiah 2:2, paralleled in Micah 4:1); Isaiah 19: 23-25 with its promise that ‘Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth’; and Zechariah 2:11 in which ‘Many nations shall join themselves to the LORD on that day, and shall be my people...’.[iv]

This Old Testament witness foreshadows the New Testament vision expressed in Revelation 7:9-10: ‘...a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’

That membership of the people of God is open to all people in Christ is central to the New Testament. ‘And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.’ (Galatians 3:29). To find such a clear anticipation of this promise in the Old Testament psalm is remarkable. Well may Psalm 87 end with the words, “‘All my springs [The New international Version has ‘fountains’] are in you.’”.

This remarkable psalm is a reminder that God’s blessings are for all people. The initial promise to Abraham was: ‘in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed’ (Genesis 12:3). In the words of the ancient hymn known as Te Deum, Christ ‘overcame the sting of death and opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers.’ Now that really is good news, and the Church’s task is to pass it on!                                                                                                                                                      

[i] Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalms 60-150, Tr. Hilton C. Oswald. Minneapolis: Fprtress Press. 1993. Page 187.
[ii] Biblical quotations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version (Anglicized Edition) unless otherwise stated.
[iii] James L. Mays, Psalms. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994, page 281.
[iv] Marvin E. Tate, Psalms 51-100. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991. Page 389.

Friday, 17 February 2017

Main Writings and Books

I am making my two main works available free online.
The first of these is based on my M Phil dissertation for the University of Bristol: Wilderness in the Old Testament: Narrative, Environment and Interpretation. I attempt to relate the wilderness theme in the Bible to some contemporary ideas about wilderness. The second document is a series of reflections on the Book of Micah. This book of the Old Testament has been a main feature of my own study of the Bible, to which I have returned at intervals throughout my life. I would like to hope that my work might help others to understand its background, to appreciate its riches and to hear its challenges and promises.

Links to the documents as PDF files can be found here:
The Old Testament Wilderness in Ecological Perspective
The Holistic Message of Micah

Ebook and HTML formats may be available at a later date where practical.

The Old Testament Wilderness In Ecological Perspective

This work is an expansion of my M Phil dissertation, Wilderness in the Old Testament: Narrative, Environment and Interpretation (Unpublished dissertation by D K Innes, University of Bristol, 2000). My stated aim in that essay was 'to examine the biblical wilderness in its own terms and proportions', although I also glanced at the contemporary meaning and use of the wilderness idea.

In this expanded version I have tried to strengthen the dialogue between the biblical and the contemporary, secular ideas about wilderness. I also give considerably increased attention to the post-biblical Christian thinking on the subject.

A direct link to the PDF can be found here, or see the embedded file below:

The Holistic Message of Micah

The Book of Micah has been a focus of my Bible study and reflection for about fifty years. As my interests have broadened and deepened I have seen new depths and applications in its pages. We tend to see theology, politics, ecology and justice as separate concerns; Micah and the other Old Testament prophets saw everything as a whole in the context of God's justice, God's covenant and God's loving purpose for the world.

Human nature does not change. We can trace behind many contemporary problems the same human failings that Micah saw. As our numbers and the power of our technology increase, the effects of our flaws are magnified. Yet in many earthly experiences the glory of God, proclaimed in the Bible, is still revealed to those whose spiritual eyes are opened. Through Jesus Christ,  God's righteousness and  redemption, promised and proclaimed by Micah, are at work in the world today.

A direct link to the PDF can be found here, or see the embedded file below:

Friday, 27 May 2016

Living in Time

Living in Time

  Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
   bears all its sons away;
they fly forgotten, as a dream
   dies at the opening day.

So runs one verse of Isaac Watts’s imaginative paraphrase of Psalm 90. The image here is that we are carried along the stream of time from past to future, via the shifting present. An alternative way of thinking about time is to see it as flowing past us, each moment imperceptibly changing us as it does so.

Dogs and Humans

The novelist Alexander McCall Smith imagines the difference between the human consciousness of time and the supposed canine experience: ‘The past for a dog is just that: the past. A dog sees no point in dwelling on things that have happened: the important thing is that they are not happening now. In that respect, they have something to teach us: we so often feel that then is now, and this leads us to prolong the suffering of yesterday into the suffering of today. Dogs do not do that.’ 1

How We Experience Time

Richard Bauckham and Trevor Hart explain that philosophers of time speak of ‘A-series time (past, present, future) and B-series time (earlier and later)’. The B-series has come to dominate philosophical and practical thinking in recent times.2 However, in our experience of living the boundaries of past, present and future are blurred, for we live in a ‘thick present’ affected – sometimes oppressively – by memories of the past and imaginings of the future.3
Does time progress from the past to the future, or the other way around? That may seem a stupid question, but it bears pondering. Why do some people speak of putting the date of an engagement back when they mean making it later, and others when they mean making it earlier?
The theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg envisages ‘an anthropological movement towards the future, and a divine movement from the future into the present.'4 'Pannenberg believes that God stands in the future, drawing creation to the fulfilment of the Kingdom of God.'5 The essence of everything is defined by what it becomes ultimately, at the end that is anticipated in Christ.6
By proclaiming the present coming of God's rule, Jesus enables those who believe his message to live now already in communion with God. This is most clearly manifested in the forgiveness of sin which Jesus grants: It liberates people from the burden of their past and opens up for them the horizon of the future.7

A Time for Everything
The Old Testament book Ecclesiastes declares: 'For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.'8 And, 'He has made everything suitable for its time' (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 11). In between these two verses, the writer lists the variety of human actions, and their opposites. They are the matters that occupy us as we get on with 'the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with' (Ecclesiastes 3:10). The implication is that wisdom will lead us to the suitable use of our time, even though we cannot see the whole picture of what is going on in the world, or even in our lives.

Redeeming the Time

In Paul's Letter to the Christians at Ephesus he exhorts them to live wisely, 'making the most of the time, because the days are evil.' (Ephesians 5:16). The Greek word translated 'make the most of' means literally to redeem, or buy back. We are asked to 'rescue' our time from misuse or waste. We should use each moment in ways that serve God and other people, and should also glorify God by thankfully enjoying the gifts God has given for our own needs and enjoyment. The verses before and after this in Ephesians – the whole section Ephesians 5:1-20 in fact  – show in greater detail what such a practice will mean. The right use of time requires conscious effort and is one aspect of a Christian lifestyle. How we use our time could be as important as how we spend our money.

1 Alexander McCall Smith, A Conspiracy of Friends (London: Abacus, 2012).
2 R. Bauckham and T. Hart, ‘The Shape of Time’, in D. Fergusson and Marcel Sarot (eds),  The Future as God’s Gift: Explorations in Christian Eschatology (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 2000), 42-43.
3 Ibid., 57-59.
4 Luco J. Vanden Brom, ‘Eschatology and Time: Reversal of the Time Direction?’, in David Fergusson and Marcel Sarol (eds), The Future as God’s Gift: Explorations in Christian Eschatology (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 2000), 160.
5 Keith Innes, 'Towards an Ecological Eschatology: Continuity and Discontinuity', Evangelical Quarterly LXXXI, 2009, 130.
6 W. Pannenberg, Jesus – God and Man (London: SCM, 1968), 391.
7 Christoph Schw√∂bel, 'Last Things First? The Century of Eschatology in Retrospect', in David Fergusson and Marcel Sarol (eds), The Future as God’s Gift: Explorations in Christian Eschatology (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 2000), 229.
8 All biblical references are taken from the New Revised Standard Version (Anglicized Edition).

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Christianity, Conservation and Spirituality

I have set myself the satisfying, daunting and long-term project of reading N.T. Wright’s monumental work on St Paul – Paul and the Faithfulness of God (SPCK, 2013). The challenge of its sheer length (two volumes, 1,500+ pages) is offset by Wright’s gift of combining great learning with an engaging and accessible style. I will not disclose how many pages I have read, except to say that I have made a good start!

The main lesson I have learned so far is how complex and many-sided the world of Paul was. Many influences swirled around him – not only from his Jewish heritage, but also from Greek philosophy and Roman religion. Scholars have argued that his thought shows more or less likeness to one current of thought or another. But on the whole he does not seem especially interested in philosophical debate except where the integrity of the Gospel was threatened (Colossians 2:8-9) or, according to Acts, when he wished to connect with the thinking of his hearers in order to lead them to Christ (Acts 17:16-31). His overriding concern was to proclaim Jesus as the only Lord and Saviour, who through his death and resurrection has opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers.

Our culture, like that of Paul’s day, is subject to many and varied influences: our Christian heritage, recently affirmed in principle by leading political figures; other religious traditions; a blind reliance by many on the acquisition of goods to bring happiness; and a variety  of philosophies and techniques aimed at self-realisation. Many and varied strands of thought and culture are present also in the world of ecology.
I find the journal Resurgence and Ecologist interesting, thought-provoking and challenging. In the issue of May/June 2014 (No. 284) we are reminded that the journal’s aim is ‘to practice, pursue and promote Truth, Goodness and Beauty’. Philosophy, art, science, technology, conservation, politics, and lifestyle all find a place in this pursuit; and a thread of spirituality runs through many of the articles.

To many Christians this spirituality might appear to be ‘spirituality but not as we know it’. That is to say, it is not about prayer in the name of Jesus, or a worldview determined by belief in the triune God as the creator, preserver and redeemer of creation. And yet Christians who have been sensitised to the pain of creation, and feel part of the community of all created things, will find in this spirituality much that resonates with their faith. We should follow the example of Paul by being open to those who follow other paths but who share the same territory.

A great many people – Christians and others – would testify that time spent interacting with nature brings a sense of peace, wholeness and restoration. Are these experiences not gifts of God? And the Giver of these gifts is also the God we know as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and the sender of the Holy Spirit.
I was interested to read recently Bruce Stanley’s book Forest Church: A Field Guide to Nature Connection for Groups and Individuals (Mystic Christ Press, 2013). See also www.mysticchrist.co.uk/forest church, and www.oxford.anglican.org/forest-church (both accessed 09.06.14). The Forest Church movement claims to be open to anybody, including Pagans, but to be based on the ‘Christ tradition’.

I have had no direct contact with this movement. But perhaps, just perhaps, they could be alerting us to an important aspect of Christian witness. At any rate we should be willing to learn from those Christians who, like Paul, are in touch with varied philosophical and cultural traditions but who, like him, are willing, humbly but faithfully, to take their stand on the truth as it is in Jesus.

Keith Innes