The Bible in a Year – 31 July

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this, and also my introduction to the Proverbs.

31 July. Proverbs chapters 16-18

We continue with three more chapters of Solomon’s brief sayings.  I am going to focus on a few that tie in with the book I am reading at present.


“Those who are attentive to a matter will prosper, and happy are those who trust in the Lord. “ (16:20); “A cheerful heart is a good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones. “ (17:22) “The human spirit will endure sickness; but a broken spirit—who can bear?” (18:14). These all address the problem of human happiness.  The book I am reading is “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind “by Yuval Noah Harari.  Towards the end, he considers whether human progress and civilisation have made people happier.


By looking at happiness as a relative concept (experience relative to expectation) rather than something absolute, he concludes that it is not.  On that view, the people of Solomon’s time, most of whom lived what we would now call a deprived existence (unheated homes, untreated water, no sewerage, high infant mortality, and the ever-present threat of war) would actually be no less ‘happy’ than an ordinary worker living in Britain today. That is because, if his understanding of psychology is correct, each person is genetically predisposed to be either happy (the “cheerful heart”), unhappy (the “broken or downcast spirit”), or somewhere in between.   Temporary circumstances such as a birth or marriage on the one hand, or illness or bereavement on the other, may make a short term difference, but after a while we revert to our default level. Fortunately I am one of the happy ones.


These proverbs seem to be saying something similar, with one difference.  Harari, although of Jewish background, takes an agnostic and utilitarian view of religion, seeing religious beliefs as myths that help people get through life and form communities, rather than representing any real truth. But for those who do believe, happiness is associated not just with a genetic predisposition but with “trust in the Lord”. To believe that there is an ultimate power who created you, loves you and guides you through good and bad times – that is more than even a “cheerful heart” can bring

The Bible in a Year – 30 July

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this, and also my introduction to the Proverbs.

30 July. Proverbs chapters 13-15

Another three chapters of the short sayings of Solomon.  One of the Bible readings in church this morning (from the Revised Common Lectionary which many churches use) was from 1 Kings chapter 3 (see my notes for 13 April).  In that reading, the Lord appears to Solomon at Gibeon, the principal place of worship in Judah in those days, and offers him anything he wants.  Rather than “absolute political power” or great wealth, or the death of his enemies, Solomon requests “an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil”. Although obviously already a respected ruler (he had just married the daughter of the Egyptian Pharaoh) he was aware that many skills are needed to become a great leader, with discernment of people’s motives among the most important. That is one of the aspects of “emotional intelligence” that I suggested in my introduction to the Proverbs are what this book is really about.  God commends him for this wise choice and adds riches and honour as a bonus.

Again, it is difficult to single out particular verses, but let’s look at those that refer to relationships between parents and children. To our culture in which corporal punishment is frowned on or even illegal, “Those who spare the rod hate their children, but those who love them are diligent to discipline them” (13:24) seems shocking, but at the time it would have seemed sensible advice. Even now, the dangers of over-indulging children are evident in rising obesity, children addicted to smartphones and youngsters attacking their teachers. That leaves us with the question of how children should be disciplined if physical chastisement is ruled out.  It only leaves leading by example, which is tough, but ultimately the best way to pass on a pattern of righteous living.

Take another verse: “A fool despises a parent’s instruction, but the one who heeds admonition is prudent” (15:5). No mention there of the rod, but the emphasis here is on the child’s responsibility to accept instruction and correction, rather than on the parent’s responsibility to teach them. It’s not clear in Proverbs what the age of the intended audience is, but there are many references to “young men” so probably teenagers are in mind – in later Judaism, 12 is the age of Bar Mitzvah when a boy becomes an adult and responsible for his own actions under the law of God. I guess these sayings may have been taught in classes for boys approaching or following their initiation as young adults.

Another relevant verse is 15:20, “A wise child makes a glad father, but the foolish despise their mothers”. Why does on half of the saying refer to fathers and the other to mothers, other than to make a literary symmetry?  Maybe the point is that fathers rather than mothers were responsible for discipline, while the mother provided emotional support. Many young men find their relationship with their father difficult in adolescence, but retain an affectionate relationship with their mothers, and who would go so far as to say they despise their mother?


Lessons learnt as adolescents are, of course, still relevant in later life, so whatever age you might be now, these teachings are still worth hearing. A good relationship with your parents is still to be prized, even when they are elderly; and most people as they grow up will sooner or later be parents themselves and will need to put these lessons into practice.

The Bible in a Year. 29 July

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this, and also my introduction to the Proverbs.

29 July. Proverbs chapters 10-12

These chapters are headed “the proverbs of Solomon”.  They consist of a large number of pithy sayings, nearly all of which consist of a single couplet contrasting good and bad behaviour or attitudes.  These are what are more commonly understood as “proverbs” than some of the earlier material.


It’s difficult to pick any one out for examination, as any of them are worth pondering for a minute or two, but one of the more common themes in these sayings in the use of words. Let’s look at a few of them:


“Lying lips conceal hatred, and whoever utters slander is a fool. / When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but the prudent are restrained in speech. / The tongue of the righteous is choice silver; the mind of the wicked is of little worth. / The lips of the righteous feed many, but fools die for lack of sense.” (10:18-21)   “Whoever belittles another lacks sense, but an intelligent person remains silent. A gossip goes about telling secrets, but one who is trustworthy in spirit keeps a confidence.” (11:12-13)  “The words of the wicked are a deadly ambush, but the speech of the upright delivers them.” (12:6)


The good or wise person, then, is urged to keep words to a minimum and keep confidences, unlike the fool (unwise person) who talks more than they should, gives secrets away, criticises other people and tells lies. This, like much in the Proverbs, is timeless good advice that serves us equally well today.



The Bible in a Year – 28 July

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this, and also my introduction to the Proverbs.

28 July. Proverbs chapters 7-9

We first saw mention of the “loose woman” in chapter 2, and she appears also in chapter 5 (part of yesterday’s reading that I did not comment on). In chapter 7 she takes centre stage.  Although most translations use the word “prostitute”, the woman here is not like the modern “sex worker”, rather she is portrayed as a married woman who dares to go out in the streets looking for a lover while her husband is away.


Given the number of references I found in the prophets to prostitution, which were nearly always metaphors for idolatry, it might be the same here – is the word of wisdom really about not being lured away by exotic religions, and attractive-sounding philosophies (which nowadays might include some of the self-help crazes and health fads that actually harm people rather than help them)?   Possibly, but I think it is probably meant literally.  Even in our libertarian society where adultery is not a crime, it is still socially frowned on and an acceptable ground for divorce.  Not only does it lead to jealous partners who might turn to violence in revenge, but affairs rarely last long and only end up damaging everyone involved.


There is also a clear parallel between the adulteress of chapter 7 roaming the streets and charming young men astray, and Wisdom as presented in the first half of chapter 8, likewise as a woman roaming the streets, but this time offering to share her virtues such as prudence and honesty.  Which way will a young man turn?  To the obvious but harmful attractions of a promiscuous lifestyle, or to a more virtuous and ascetic one that leads to wisdom?  Fortunately, many people who try the former when they are young do end up happily and faithfully married, but not everyone.


In chapter 9, Wisdom is contrasted again (v.1-9) with another woman, this time Folly (v.13-18). Both invite people into their houses – to eat either the bread and wine of insight, or the or the “stolen water” and “secret bread” of death.


In the second half of chapter 8, Wisdom is presented, astonishingly, as having existed before Creation itself. It is for that reason that Christians have often understood her to be the personification of the holy Spirit, or of the Word of God who became incarnate in Jesus, who is acknowledged in the Nicene Creed as “begotten, not made … through him all things were made”.



The Bible in a Year – 27 July

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this, and also my introduction to the Proverbs.

27 July. Proverbs chapters 4-6


From these chapters I will pick only one verse (4:18): “The path of the righteous is like the morning sun, shining ever brighter till the full light of day” (NIV translation).

The main reason for picking this verse is that it reminds me of a trip to India eleven years ago, to see the work of the Christian development charity Tearfund and their Indian partners EFICOR and ESAF. For part of our time there we stayed in a hotel on the very southernmost tip of the continent, where you could see the sun rise in the east and set in the west from the same point.  This photo was taken from the hotel bedroom at dawn (about 6am), and the dawn was marked by loud worship from both the Hindu temple and the Catholic church nearby.

Offering praise to God at the start of the day is common to most religions. While a scientist may prosaically say that the earth is simply rotating on its axis so that the sun comes into view each morning, the idea of the rising sun banishing the darkness of evil and heralding the coming of God’s goodness and protection – what we might call a sacramental view of cosmology – is a common one.  Similarly, right living is compared to living in the light, and sinfulness to walking in darkness.

In the original context of this verse, the “way of the righteous” is contrasted with the “way of the wicked which is deep darkness”.  In other words, the more you live according to the way of wisdom, following the ethical teachings of your religion, and living honestly and openly, the clearer you will see the world; whereas if you get enticed into sin and crime, which naturally lead to secrecy, fraud and lies, the world will become dark to you and you will lose your moral compass.  In that context, the dawning of the sun is like the moment of conversion when you realise that following Christ (who called himself the “light of the world”) is the only way to a life lived in the full light of day.

The work of ESAF (Evangelical Social Action Forum), and other Christian agencies in the region including the Salvation Army, that we saw included working in local villages with fishermen and coconut growers who had lost their livelihood as a result of the 2004 tsunami; provision of clothing, food and medical treatment for homeless people; reconstruction of damaged houses and building new ones; supporting “Sangrams” (self help groups”; and starting an orphanage and Sunday schools. They also ran a micro enterprise scheme which offers insurance, a savings bank and capital investments for income generation projects.  All this was truly bringing light into the darkness of some of the poorest people of India.


The Bible in a Year – 26 July

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

Introduction to the Proverbs

In common usage, the English word “Proverb” usually means any kind of popular saying or idiom, such as “Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight”. In the Bible the meaning is a bit different.  It refers to a short teaching in the “Wisdom” tradition.

“Wisdom” also has a different meaning. Whereas in everyday English it means having a lot of practical or intellectual knowledge, in the Bible it is something more like the contemporary concepts of “life skills” or “emotional intelligence” – how to succeed in dealing with other people, rather than how to pass an exam. The prologue to the Proverbs in chapter 1 lists some of the qualities of a “wise” person: “wise dealing, righteousness, justice, equity, shrewdness, knowledge and prudence”.

Wisdom – written with a capital W – is in these teachings a personification of the “life skills” or “emotional intelligence” that I mentioned above. Such qualities are often associated more with women than men, so it is not surprising that Wisdom is a female figure.  Some Christians associate her with either the Holy Spirit, or the Word of God that later became incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth.  But that’s not a fundamental doctrine, so feel free to disagree.

Even more than the Psalms, the Proverbs are so diverse and rich in meaning that it is going to be difficult to write just a few paragraphs about each batch of them.  Some days I may write a summary of a whole chapter, other days pick one or two short verses to explore.  If I have missed your favourite, do let me know why you like it!

With that in mind, let’s get started.

26 July. Proverbs chapters 1-3

The first section after the Prologue warns young men (who are the target audience of many of these sayings) not to get involved in gangs or criminal activities.  The advice may be obvious, but sadly all too many youngsters do still get led astray in this way, especially if they lack a strong parent or if they are from deprived backgrounds with little prospect of employment. By contrast to these feckless youths lacking parental guidance, we are then introduced to the feminine figure of Wisdom who is seen as calling out her wise words to those who will listen, but with a warning that those who fail to follow her advice will not find a welcome when they reap the results of their folly.  This is true to life: the further someone strays from the path of wise living, the harder it is for them to get back.  Criminals go to prison and come out ready to commit worse crimes; those who turn to drugs get hooked and drawn further into self-damaging lifestyles and turn to crime to pay for their habit.

Chapters 2 and 3 expand on some of the themes of the Prologue, but we are also introduced briefly to the characters of the “loose woman” (2:16-19) and the idea that Wisdom is better than riches (3:13-18).  There will be a lot more to come on those topics.

The Bible in a Year – 25 July

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this, and the introduction to the Psalms for this book of the Bible in particular.

25 July. Psalms 146-150

The last five of the 150 psalms are all songs of praise.  Each of them begins and ends with the phrase “praise the Lord!” or as sometimes rendered closer to the original language, “Alleluia!”.


Between them they give many reasons why God is to be praised, ranging from his infinite power and wisdom, his creation of all the heavenly bodies (as we would now say, the universe) and all living beings, down to his loving concern for the most basic aspects of everyday life (he sets prisoners free, opens the eyes of the blind, lifts up those who are bowed down and upholds the orphan and the widow, 146:7-9).


In response to that, Psalm 148 calls on every aspect of creation to praise its maker.  Not only angels, people and animals, but also sun, moon and stars, mountains, even weather systems.  There is a commendable equality in this: “Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth! Young men and women alike, old and young together!” (v.11-12). All these are to “praise the Lord”.  St Francis, that most loved saint who showed love equally to God, people and all of nature, paraphrased this as his “canticle of the creatures”, an original painting of which by an artist from Assisi hangs on our wall as a reminder of our honeymoon.


The psalms finish with a written finale as loud as that of any symphony.  To do justice to God’s immense love and power requires us to praise him, not only with our voice but with instruments of all kinds – wind, string and percussion are all identified.  Most religious traditions find music aids worship, and singing key texts makes them easier to remember.


The call to worship also includes dancing, an activity frowned on by more conservative Christians.  But actually, true worship must involve the body as well as the mind.  And when stirring music is played, who can resist at least tapping their feet?  So dance has also been part of many religious cultures, though not commonly so in Christianity today.  At the very end the Psalms are summed up with “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!”

The Bible in a Year – 24 July

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this, and the introduction to the Psalms for this book of the Bible in particular.

24 July. Psalms 140-145

Psalms 140-143 are all said to be prayers by King David for deliverance from his enemies.  He lived in troubled times when he constantly faced rebellions and plots, often of a violent nature. Three of them speak of his enemies laying snares, nets or traps for him. Probably not in a literal sense, but perhaps ambushes, or surprise attacks when he least expected them.  It is in the nature of human conflict to plot and entrap other people so as to have an advantage over them – surprise has often been a winning strategy in battle, and an individual caught off-guard has little chance of overcoming his assailant.  But traps and snares are also the work of the Devil, who can catch us off-guard when we think we are doing well.  Prayer for protection against the Devil’s wiles is a traditional part of night prayer (compline), along with those prayers I mentioned from Psalms 121 and 132.


Psalm 144 is also a prayer of David for protection, but now that of the nation rather than himself.  It is not so much a desperate cry for help as a hymn of praise, beginning with a reminder of God’s strength and eternal nature. God is pictured as “fortress, stronghold, deliverer, and shield” (v.2). Common trust in this God would give the people confidence.  The psalm ends with a request for divine blessing on people, animals and crops.  There is however a brief call for help in the middle of it (v. 10-11), where the dangers are listed as “the cruel sword, [and] aliens [i.e. foreigners], whose mouths speak lies, and whose right hands are false.”

The Bible in a Year – 23 July

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this, and the introduction to the Psalms for this book of the Bible in particular.

23 July. Psalms 133-139

Most of the psalms in this batch are communal songs of praise. The first two are the remaining “songs of ascent” – see yesterday’s post.

The next two (135 and 136) are longer, and similar in scope, each being in three parts, praising God first for his acts of creation, then for his acts of redemption (saving Israel from Egypt) and then for his acts of protection (enabling them to defeat their enemies).  The two psalms are very different in style, however, as 136 is written in cantor-and-response format, such as is found today in some of the popular Taize chants, where one singer calls out short phrases of praise and thanksgiving, and the chorus responds with the same line each time, in this instance “for his steadfast love endures for ever”. The point of such repetition, as with any prayer mantra, is to get the concept deep inside one’s thinking.  If you repeat many times that “God’s steadfast love endures forever” it becomes part of your thinking, and this is a good basis for a confident faith.


The last of these, psalm 139, is one of the best known, and very different in style.  It is a personal and intimate prayer, a conversation with the God who wants each one of us to know that we are loved by God as by a parent, indeed more so, for God knew us before we were even conceived!




The Bible in a Year – 22 July

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this, and the introduction to the Psalms for this book of the Bible in particular.

22 July. Psalms 120-132

The fifteen psalms numbers 120 to 134 are known as the “songs of ascent”. They are presumed to have been said or sung by pilgrims travelling up to Jerusalem (famously a city on a large hill).

Even today many popular pilgrimages involve difficult walking, whether to a mountain shrine such as Sinai or Montserrat, or across hills such as St Cuthbert’s Way in northern England.  The physical challenge is intended to aid spiritual reflection, to “lift up” the pilgrim’s mind and heart to God.

These psalms use Jerusalem as a symbol of peace and security, and also of God’s presence. Ps. 121 in particular urges us to pray for the peace of Jerusalem, a prayer that is still much needed for a divided and disputed holy place. Ps. 120 complains of the problems of being a peace-living person among those who prefer conflict.

In order to ascend, you need to start off from a lower place. Physically, anyone starting their pilgrimage to Jerusalem from Jericho would be below sea level – truly “from the depths” (130:1). But the psalm more likely refers to the depths of depression, guilt or pain. Sometimes it is necessary to sink below what one might term psychological sea level in order to recognise that one is in need of help.  The psalmist here calls on God for forgiveness (130:3-4); in other psalms in the set he calls for mercy (123:2-3),or for joy to replace tears (126:5-6).


A couple of these psalms are particularly associated in Christian tradition with prayer at night. Psalm 121 tells of God who “never slumbers or sleeps” and who will protect us so that “the sun shall not harm you by day, nor the moon by night”.  Clearly sunburn or sunstroke is a risk in a hot country, but I have yet to work out what danger is posed by the moon – unless it is the association in some cultures between the full moon and madness.  But the point is, that God will protect us even when we are not awake to ask for his protection or sense it.  Ps. 132:3-5 is a vow not to go to sleep “until I find a place for the Lord”. Many people find it helpful to pray before going to bed, to release to God any bad experiences, guilt or frustrations of the day past, and to commit any worries about the following day to his care.