The Bible in a Year – 20/21 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.

20/21 July. Psalm 119.

Psalm 119 is, famously, the longest of the 150 psalms, and an acrostic, being set in 22 sections, the verses of each section all starting with the same letter (in the original Hebrew – not obvious in most English translations).


In it, the writer or singer lists all kinds of difficulties and temptations that he faces: he feels like an alien (immigrant), people plot against him and slander him, he feels persecuted and hounded almost to death. He sees all kinds of wicked deeds being done by other people, which angers him.   He is also tempted by lust, greed, and “vanities” (trivial things).


Many psalms include some or all of those elements. What is distinctive about this one is that there is a repeated refrain (with variations) on the theme of obeying God – that is, keeping what are variously described as his ordinances, statues, decrees, precepts, laws and commandments.  Whatever life throws at him, whatever other people think about him, being obedient to God is the most important aspect of his life.


The “statutes” etc. are more than the obvious moral commandments of the bible – “Thou shalt not kill” and so on.  The term refers to the whole body of Jewish teaching, all the ways in which people build a relationship with God, such as praying, fasting and worshipping, as well as being honest and loving in all relationships, just in trade and generous in giving.  These statutes are eternal and divine principles, not man-made laws which vary from one place to another.  We are reminded in verse 89 that “The Lord exists for ever; your word is firmly fixed in heaven”.


Verse 18 is also a key one: “Open my eyes, so that I may behold wondrous things out of your law”. Verse 125 adds “give me understanding, so that I may know your decrees”. Just reading the words of the Bible is never enough: we need to have spiritually open eyes, so that we can see beyond the words on the page or screen, to the love of God that lies behind them.


The Bible in a Year – 19 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.

19 July.  Psalms 115-118

I will look today just at the last of this set – Psalm 118.

Titled “a song of victory”, it seems to mix elements of the personal – one person thanking God for his support in times of trouble (v. 5-14, 17-21) – and the corporate (v. 1-14,  15-16 and 22-27 read like a choral or congregational response).   That indicates the tension always found in corporate worship between the “I” and the “we”. If I go to a church service is it in order to deepen my own faith, pray for my own family, thank God for what he has done in my life?  Or is it to join a community that has its own journey to travel, its own story to tell, and become part of a group of people expressing a common faith, praying for common concerns, thanking God for his deeds for all people?

The answer, of course, is both, but it is a matter of getting a balance right.  That is the challenge that faces me as I get re-licensed tomorrow as a Reader (lay minister) in my local church, having moved from another part of the country a couple of years ago.  As one of the team leading worship I need to be aware of the congregation’s story, its preferences, its challenges, the gifts that are found within it, and the needs of the local community for us to support them in prayer and action. But at the same time I still need to find spiritual nourishment though the worship, prayers and Bible readings.

The same challenge must have faced Jesus Christ, only in a far bigger way.  Yes, he was the Son of God and could work miracles and give wise teaching to the thousands of needy people he met, but he also needed to sustain himself both in private prayer and the worship of the synagogue.  Perhaps that is why at least two verses of this Psalm are found in the New Testament accounts of Jesus.

According to all the “synoptic” gospels, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone” (v.22) was quoted by Jesus, referring to himself.  Rejected by the Temple authorities as a misfit, he had become the cornerstone to the ordinary people, the one on whom they could build a new life.  Paul and Peter, in their letters, also refer to Jesus as the “cornerstone”.

“Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” (v.26) is one of the congregational responses in this psalm, and was chanted by the crowds who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.  Christians still repeat this phrase week by week as part of the common liturgy.  But for Jesus, hearing it at this point in his journey when he knew he was entering Jerusalem for the last time to face trial and death, it must have been a huge relief to feel the love and encouragement of his crowds of supporters.

As cornerstone, he was bearing the burdens of others.  As the recipient of their praise, they were sustaining him.  So it is for a priest (or Reader) – usually we are there for other people – if not as the cornerstone (which is always Jesus), at least as one of the foundation stones. But sometimes we have to let them be there for us.

Tomorrow I shall have to promise the Bishop, among other things, to “conduct myself as becomes a worker for Christ for the good of his church and for the spiritual welfare of all people”.  In return, the congregation will promise to support me with their “prayers, love and loyalty, with the help of God”. May we get the balance right!


The Bible in a Year – 18 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.

18 July. Psalms 108-114

Three of these are classed as Psalms of David (108-110), and show a wide range of attitude, from confident praise and joy to anger, fear and despondency.  Even allowing that they were written at different times in an eventful life, they seem to have been written by someone with wide mood swings (possibly what we would now call bipolar?)


The other four in this set (111-114) turn back to exploring God, his character and his dealings with people. I will focus on Ps.112. It deals with “those who fear the Lord, [and] delight in his commandments”.  ‘Fear’ of God in the Bible does not mean trembling and anxiety, like fear of an earthly enemy or bully, but rather a healthy respect for God’s power over all aspects of our lives, including life and death, and an awareness of the consequences of rebelling against him.


So what is promised to those who fear God?  There is a promise of material prosperity in verse 3, but the more important reward is righteousness before God and “being remembered for ever”, in contrast to the “wicked” who “gnash their teeth and melt away; their desire comes to nothing.”  This “Being remembered for ever” is possibly by their descendants, but maybe this refers more to God himself “remembering”, i.e. acknowledging them in eternal life.


It is not only such people themselves who obtain blessings; their “descendants” and their “generation” will also be blessed. How? Because those who fear the Lord are “gracious, merciful, and righteous” (attributes of God himself), they are generous and honest.  But they are also  characterised by stability: consistent in their faith, not afraid of evil, nor of anyone.


So the lesson seems to be that fearing God and being generous to others seems to be a win-win strategy: you will be blessed, and so will they and your descendants.

The Bible in a Year – 17 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.

17 July. Psalms 106-107

Psalm 106 is titled in the NRSV “A confession of Israel’s sins”.  Confession of sin is something strange to many people nowadays, something only done in religious ritual.  But even then, the focus tends to be on our own personal sins.  Even when a church congregation says a prayer of confession together using the word ”we” rather than “I,” most people will be thinking of their own shortcomings rather than daring to do so on behalf of anyone else.

Sometimes there is a call for national leaders to acknowledge the wrongdoings of their predecessors – to “apologise” for treating immigrants as slaves, women as mere property, or indigenous peoples as animals to be culled.  But apology stops short of confession and repentance.  That’s not to say that today’s leaders would endorse those practices, but they merely distance “us” from our ancestors who behaved so badly.

The Biblical form of national confession is different.  Verse 6 puts it clearly: “Both we and our ancestors have sinned; we have committed iniquity, have done wickedly”.  That is, our sins may be different (there is no suggestion of child sacrifice or idolatry in the later centuries of Jewish history) but we are no better than them.

But is that being too harsh on our leaders?  What is needed is a national repentance, a collective turning back to God. We cannot expect politicians or even bishops to achieve that.  What they could do, though, is be bold enough to challenge their fellow citizens to examine their own consciences and seek to “do justly and love mercy” as Micah put it. In a pluralist society “walk humbly with your God” is not a phrase that politicians can use without accusations of bias, but bishops can.


The first 32 verses of Psalm 107 consist of the potted stories of unnamed people (although the writer probably had well known folk heroes in mind) who suffered in various ways – exiled, lost, starving, thirsting, imprisoned, enslaved, sick and dying, and in peril on the sea.  In each case they cried to God, he saved them and they gave him thanks.  It is the ever-repeated pattern of encountering God and his saving power in the darkest times of life.

The following six verses go further and tell of how God actively works for the benefit of his people – he provides springs in the desert, so they can build towns to live in, farm the land and become plentiful and numerous.  This is a story of co-operation between the Creator and his people, in which he provides the resources, and the skills with which to use them.


The Bible in a Year – 16 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.

16 July. Psalms 103-105

Going through the psalms we have seen how they cover a wide range of human experience, sometimes calling on God in desperation for his help, sometimes invoking his vengeance against enemies, and in between thanking him for his goodness.  But these three psalms are pure concentrated praise, a setting aside of all personal concerns to focus on the nature and acts of our Creator.


They are best read, I think, I the order 104-103-105, for this then mirrors the pattern of the days of creation in Genesis, and also the modern understanding of evolution and human history.


Psalm 104 considers the relationship God has with the creation as a whole: sun and moon, the earth as a whole, its mountains and oceans, its plants and animals, its weather patterns.  The harmony of the whole is portrayed here: each species has its natural habitat, they respond to the times and seasons, even “acts of God” such as earthquakes and lightning have their place in the natural order.  We forget at our peril that all this is God’s creation, and intended to work in harmony. It is not to be exploited by mankind beyond what we need for our food and shelter.


Psalm 103 celebrates God’s relationship with men and women as individuals.  We are exhorted not to forget all God’s “benefits”.  What are those?  Healing, forgiveness, redemption, love and mercy for a start (v.2-4).    If that were not enough, added to the list are vindication, justice, grace and compassion (v.6-13).  Why does God shower all these blessings on us?  The answer is in verse 14: “For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust”. The one who made us, and knows how weak we are, how short our life in the context of eternity, how small we are in the context of the universe, will give us every help he possibly can – even when we have messed things up “by our own deliberate fault” as the prayer book puts it.


Psalm 105 goes on to describe the way God works with human society.  It focuses, as so many books in the Hebrew bible, on God’s covenant with Abraham and subsequent Exodus from Egypt, that defining moment when God used every power at his disposal, from natural plagues and floods to miraculous provision of light, food and water, to rescue the Israelites (the forerunners of the Jews).   But the Jews were not the “chosen people” only for their own sake. They were the tribes to whom God had given the special responsibility for bearing the good news of his love from one generation to the next until all humankind could hear it.


So in these three songs of praise we have the fullness of God’s relationship with creation, with humanity in particular, and most of all with those sent to proclaim his love to his creation.  Bless the Lord, O my soul!


The Bible in a Year – 15 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.

15 July.  Psalms 96-102

I noted yesterday that Psalm 90 invites us to consider how God is timeless, making no distinction between the most ephemeral and most long-lasting things in creation.  If that is so, then he is also sizeless, intimately involved with the complexity of the world at its miniscule scale, as well as a cosmic level.


That is not obvious from Psalms 96 to 100.  The Lord is understood here to be a powerful being totally in control of the world, though somewhat detached from it in his “sanctuary” or “courts”.  This is understandable when you remember that the composers of these songs lived in a world with sharp division between rulers and ruled, and with a not unreasonable assumption that the world was at the centre of God’s creation. Despite massive shifts in politics and science in the last 3000 years, many people’s understanding of God is still of “him up there”.   But many thinking Christians would now reject the notion of God being physically remote from the world, rather he (or s/he if you prefer) is “here and now” – always and everywhere.



The other thing to note about these psalms (96-100) is that they are all songs of praise to God, with hardly a hint of personal problems (unlike 102, or many of the other psalms).  This word cloud shows that Lord, God, earth, peoples, praise, and righteousness are the most commonly used. Sometimes we have to set aside our problems and devote ourselves to positive activities such as singing (including praising God) or giving attention to other people (showing practical love).  For people of faith, that is not just about a feel-good factor or boosting endorphins, it is connecting with the ever-present God.

The Bible in a Year – 14 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.

14 July. Psalms 90-96

Psalm 90 is unlike most of the others.  For a start, it is described in the heading as a prayer rather than a song, and attributed to Moses rather than to David or one of his contemporaries. Presumably by their time (several hundred years after Moses) it had been handed down orally before being written down and set to music.   Also, it seems quite different in its theme, more in line with the “wisdom books” of the Bible such as Ecclesiastes.   If Moses did compose it himself, it may have been at the end of his long life, looking back on the generations he had seen born and die in Egypt and then in the wilderness.


He considers how even a long human life – 70 or 80 years – is a mere moment in God’s eyes, as fleeting as dust, and “a thousand years are as a day”.  In fact, if God is eternal, the creator of time itself, then there is no difference to God between the nanosecond lifespan of the most unstable atom, and the several-billion-year existence of a star.


What matters, says Moses, is not quantity of life but quality.  The life of 80 years may be “all toil and trouble” (v.10), but more important is that we ask God to “satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days” (v.14).  He is concerned more for the next generation (v.16) than his own.


Psalm 91 is about God’s protection, and includes the image of God guarding us under his wings. Surely that should be “her wings” –  it is the mother bird who protects her young, as I saw only recently with this 2-week-old-chick.  Even so, it is hard to have faith that “Because you have made the Lord your refuge … no evil shall befall you” (v.9-10), as experience shows that people of faith suffer no less than others.  Even Jesus, when he was tempted by the Devil to put into practice verses 11-12 “For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you … so that you will not dash your foot against a stone”, he sent the Devil packing with a retort that we must not put God to the test. God’s protection is not to be treated link a cloak of invisibility or some other super-power, but rather about him not letting anything destroy what really matters – faith itself.


Psalm 94 has a similar theme, that true wisdom takes the long view that faith and obedience are a better way of achieving long-term justice and peace than going along with short-sighted fools in violence and short-term gain.  But Psalms 92, 93, and 95 are joyful songs of praise.  In fact Psalm 95, known from its opening word as the “Venite” (“come!”) is still said or sung at morning prayer every day in the Anglican tradition.


The Bible in a Year – 13 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.

13 July. Psalms 86-89

Psalms, patterns and petitions

Part of my work for the Church of England is checking the “Statement of Significance and Needs” which any church council has to provide if they want to make changes to their building. It accompanies another document called the ”petition” and it is expected to follow a set pattern, in which the actual request (“what do you want to change?”) is only a small part that has to be set in context.  The pattern is:


  • Introduction to the history of the building
  • What’s special about it
  • What would be improved or spoilt if the changes go ahead


  • What is the building used for?
  • What do you want to change?
  • What are the reasons for the chosen option?
  • Why is change needed now?
  • Justification for any alteration to the building

That is fairly clear (although some people still need help getting their thoughts into this format). A similar structure can be seen in traditional “collect” prayers of the Church of England, which always follow the same pattern:

  • A form of address to God
  • A reminder of what God does or has done for us
  • A specific request for God’s support
  • The purpose resulting from that support
  • An expression of praise.

The pattern is not always obvious until you see it broken down. Often the “request” – also called a “petition”, as above, is also only a small part of the whole.  Take as an example the Collect for this week:

  •  Form of address-  O God, the protector of all who trust in you,
  • What God does- without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy:
  • Petition- increase and multiply upon us your mercy;
  • Purpose- that with you as our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal that we lose not our hold on things eternal; grant this, heavenly Father, for our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake,
  • Expression of praise- who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

Many of the psalms follow a comparable structured pattern, although the order is not as fixed as in Anglican prayers.  Again, often the elements of praise and recounting of God’s goodness are longer than the actual request for help. Take for instance Psalm 86, which can be considered as follows:

  • A call to God to hear [me/us] (verses 1-4)
  • Praise for God’s nature and/or his previous deeds (v. 5-10)
  • A pledge to serve God in return for his help (v.11-13)
  • A more detailed statement of the problems (“petition”) (v.14)
  • Reasons why God should offer help (v.15-16)
  • A final element of praise or thanksgiving  (v.17)

So we can see a wider pattern to all these patterns.  Whether asking God for help in our personal or corporate prayers, or in sung forms such as the Psalms, or seeking permission for work to the church building, the actual petition, the bit we might really think of as prayer or request, should only be a part of the overall statement, much more of which should be about the purpose of the request and the wider context in which our Christian lives, worship and mission are set.  Prayer should never be just “help me!”, except perhaps in the most urgent moments when God will of course hear that heartfelt cry. Normally it should be linked with praise, thanksgiving and a wider concern for the work of God’s people.

The Bible in a Year – 12 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.

12 July. Psalms 80-85

Psalm 80 uses the metaphor of a vine for the people of Israel and Judah.  God had planted it in the Promised Land, had fed and watered it so that it grew to cover a large area like a spreading cedar tree.  But enemies had come and pruned it back and burnt it.  It survived, damaged, but they called on God to come and deal with their enemies, and care for his vine again so that it could grow back.


The same metaphor is used in many places through the Bile, including in some of Jesus’ parables.   The image of a vine is of a plant that spreads out in all directions – randomly by nature, but easily trained.  From a single root, if well watered, fruit can emerge a long way from its origin, and all that fruit will be the same because it depends on a common source of nourishment and belongs to the same plant (as we would say today, shares the same DNA).    Viens also live a long time – centuries, sometimes.


Some of these Biblical images are positive like that, others are negative – Paul wrote of gentile Christians being “grafted in” to the original vine, while Jesus for good reason used the juice of the vine – wine – as a symbol of his blood that was about to be shed for our salvation.  But he also spoke of a vine that is under threat of being cut down for not producing fruit, and a whole vineyard planted by God that has been neglected by those who were meant to be tending it.


The lesson from this is that individual believers or congregations who think only of their own spiritual life, their own experiences, are cutting themselves off from the root and source of nourishment, and also from the others who share it.  “You can be a Christian without going to church” may be true in one sense, but it is like saying “you can be a grape without growing on the vine”.  You may look nice in the fruit basket one day, but a week later you will be shrivelled and spiritually dead.


The constant call of Scripture and the Church is to remain in the vine, to draw from the roots of our faith in the Bible, but also to draw water through the vine that is the network of Christians in our own area and connected throughout the world.  Yes, there will be divisions in the Church over many issues, and sadly this has resulted in there being many different plants in Christ’s vineyard that are no longer connected with each other, but they still draw their nourishment from the same source, and share the same DNA. As the common liturgy puts it, “We are one body because we all share the same bread” (and drink the same wine, the fruit of the vine).





The Bible in a Year – 11 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.

11 July. Psalms 78-79

Psalm 78 is one of the longest, and yet mostly covers a single theme: the re-telling, as found in so many places in the Hebrew scriptures, of the story of the Exodus. Once again the stories of the plagues of Egypt, the crossing of the Reed Sea and God’s miraculous provision of food and water in the desert are recounted with pride, as the truth that has to be passed from generation to generation.


But this is no mere tale of national glory. Within this story is the dark side, bits of history that most writers would leave out.  How the Israelites failed to keep the covenant with God (10), rebelled against him and tested him by demanding food (17-18), made a token repentance but in their hearts flattered God and lied to him (36). And that was only in the desert.  Things were no better after the conquest of the promised land, when God was so angry with the people of Israel that “he abandoned his dwelling at Shiloh, the tent where he dwelt among mortals” (60).  And to understand that we have to realise that the Psalms were written in Judah at a time when the two halves of the nation had split, so that the remainder of Israel was seen as at best an estranged brother, at worst an enemy.  And the psalm ends with a clear statement that God “did not choose the tribe of Ephraim; but he chose the tribe of Judah … he shoes his servant David” (67,70).


So what seems at first like an honest account of the failings of the writer’s ancestors is in fact more of a criticism of “them” – the other tribes – by the one – Judah. The fact is, of course, that God was just as displeased with Judah as with the rest, and they all ended up being taken into captivity.  It is always a temptation to think that one has the moral high ground over one’s rivals, but to quote an English saying, “pride comes before a fall”, or the Biblical original “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18).