The Bible in a Year – 21 August

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

21 August. Lamentations chapters 4-5

In chapter 4 the focus turns from the loss of community identity and shared experience that defined the people of Jerusalem, to the present suffering of its inhabitants. The symptoms of malnutrition are, sadly, familiar to us today as we regularly see pictures of drought in parts of Africa – shrivelled skin, protruding bones, children begging in vain for food.  But again, it is not mere physical pain that afflicts them.  From living in a thriving economy city in a rich nation, they are now living from hand to mouth and experiencing the humiliation of being insignificant in the world.  Poetically, “the precious children of Zion, worth their weight in fine gold, are reckoned as earthen pots, the work of a potter’s hands!” (4:2)

The writer poses a dilemma (4:6-9) – which would be worse, to die suddenly in an “act of God” such as the sulphurous destruction of Sodom or by an enemy’s sword – or to cling on to life in the misery of hunger and disease? Both forms of suffering still afflict the world. Some religious traditions would say it is better to cling on to life whatever happens. Others would support the natural human reaction that says that those who die suddenly have suffered for only a short time and therefore less, adding that they will experience God’s presence all the sooner.  But can we really compare the duration of earthly suffering with the timeless existence of the soul like that? There is no easy answer.


In chapter 5 the voice changes from that of the city itself to that of the people within it.  They cry out to God with a catalogue of their sufferings, which once again are not all physical, but communal: “The old men have left the city gate, the young men their music. The joy of our hearts has ceased; our dancing has been turned to mourning” (5:14-15). The cry at the end of the book (5:19-22) is not for wealth but for God to restore them to a relationship with him. But this is not a happy ending like that of the story of Job: the book of Lamentations, like Tchaikovsky’s sixth symphony, ends with a whimper rather than a bang, and with their prayers of Jerusalem unanswered.

The Bible in a Year – 20 August

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20 August. Lamentations chapters 1-3

The book of Lamentations is set at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, although probably written some time later.  In the first two chapters, the “voice” is that of the city itself, personified as a female character. She is grieving for the Jewish people who used to live in her and have now been taken away, apart from the poor who are reduced to selling their possessions and maybe even eating their own dead children to survive (2:20).

What comes across strongly in this poetry of lament is that what matters to the spirit of the city is not the wealth that built it – there is no mention of that – or even principally the buildings themselves, but the people and their activities.  “The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to the festivals; all her gates are desolate” (1:4); “hear, all you peoples, and behold my suffering; my young women and young men have gone into captivity.” (1:18).

Too often these days we hear references, especially to “the City of London” with dire warnings about what will happen if the bankers leave it to go to Germany after Brexit.  Whatever your political views on Brexit, this is the wrong understanding of a city.  London (or any other city) is not its wealth, it is its people, their common memory, the traditions they have established, the relationships that have been formed and lived out there, and the worship of God that has taken place.  It is the loss of those things that is to be mourned, not the diversion of foreign investments. The Babylonians thought they were “investing” in Jerusalem by capturing it” with no thought for its people!

She has suffered terribly from foreign invaders – people without respect for God – entering the Temple: “She has even seen the nations invade her sanctuary, those whom you forbade to enter your congregation” (1:10). But the greatest wound is God’s anger itself – “The Lord has become like an enemy; he has destroyed Israel.” (2:5). If the God who had chosen this people as his special envoys to the rest of humanity and promised never to leave or forsake them, now sends armies against the Temple that Solomon had built as “God’s house” and removes his holy people from their holy place, then what hope is left?  Could anything good ever happen again?

At the very deepest point of Jerusalem’s despair, suddenly the mood changes: “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end” (3:21-22). This is, not surprisingly, a ‘favourite’ Bible verse for many people. For it reminds us that although God may sometimes seem to have abandoned us, that is never true.  Suffering may not be the result of our own sin (as the book of Job made abundantly clear) but if we end up having to suffer indirectly from the sin of other individuals or humanity as a whole, God is still present if we only listen out for him. Our physical, emotional and financial circumstances may all fall apart, but God still loves us. Always.


The Bible in a Year – 19 August

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19 August. Ruth 1 to 4 (entire book)

The short book of Ruth contrasts with yesterday’s reading (the Song of Songs).  They are both stories written down (and maybe even composed) centuries after the time in which they were set.  Both tell of relationships between men and women: the Song of Songs was about passionate but unrequited love, whereas this is a tale of family relationships, bereavements and an arranged marriage.  Ruth may or may not have been a real person (we have no way of telling) but like any Biblical story, indeed any good story, it is intended to make a point.

The story starts with Ebimelech emigrating from Bethlehem to Moab (at that time very much enemy country) due to a famine.  No doubt many others did the same.  In those days there would have been no refugee camps or international aid, and immigrants from Judah would not have been welcomed.  So it is perhaps surprising for a start that Ebimelech’s sons married local girls – that would have made them unclean under Jewish law, although the story does not make that point.  But in fact the marriages are successful, so much so that when father and sons have all died, Naomi and Ruth return together to Bethlehem.

Now the boot (or sandal – see chapter 4 verse 7) is on the other foot.  Although Naomi has been welcomed back by her relatives in Bethlehem, Ruth as an immigrant from an enemy country has to establish herself as one of the community.  Gleaning left-over ears of barley after the harvest is the only way for her to gather food to eat or sell.  By a series of coincidences (or God-incidences as many people prefer to say) she meets her late father-in-law’s relative who owns the field, and with careful negotiation by Naomi, what starts as a master-servant relationship quickly becomes a marriage.  Boaz has no hesitation in taking this non-Jewish widow as his wife, and it seems that unlike some arranged marriages, this one was a love match a well.

The lesson here seems to be that welcoming, and even marrying, people from another country, whether they come as refugees from famine or as part of an existing multi-ethnic family, is quite compatible with God’s plans (despite earlier religious laws against such intermarriages). Indeed, little did the characters in this story know that, as we are told in an epilogue, Ruth is said to have become the ancestor of the great king David. Today’s asylum-seeker may herself, or through her descendants, become a great leader of our people. This book therefore makes a welcome change from the black-and-white laws of other parts of the Old Testament, reminding us that there is no place for racism in the Kingdom of God.

The Bible in a Year – 18 August

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18 August. Song of Songs chapters 1 to 8 (entire book)


This book, also known as the Song of Solomon, has always intrigued readers of the Bible.  Is it merely erotic poetry? Or is it intended as an allegory of something else? One interpretation is that the male lover and his female beloved represent respectively the Word of God and the divine Wisdom (or Holy Spirit), in which case this is about the loving nature of God himself as expressed in the relationships within what Christians call the Holy Trinity. Another version of this allegory is that the lover and beloved represent Christ and the Christian Church.  Given that it is not at all certain that Jesus intended to form a new religion, that seems unlikely.  Another view is that that the desire between the lovers represents the passion with which God seeks to bring individuals to himself, and with which the true believer in turn seeks intimacy with God.  That makes more sense to me.


The refrain “do not arouse or awaken love until she so desires” can likewise be taken literally, as an understanding that feminine sexuality is more complex than the masculine equivalent, more in need of being wooed and seduced.  Or, taking the allegorical view, it might mean that each of us has a “right time” in our lives at which we will respond to God’s loving call. To try and force religion on someone who is not ready for the divine love is like trying to seduce a girl who is not yet ready for a relationship with a man.


Whichever way you like to read it, it remains one of the most beautiful of love poems, a reminder that the human body is something to be celebrated and admired, and not to be ashamed of.




The Bible in a Year – 17 August

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17 August. Job chapters 40-42

In these final chapters, God continues his proof of being greater than man’s understanding, by describing in detail two awesome creatures called Behemoth and Leviathan (sometimes identified as the rhinoceros and the crocodile) that only he can deal with. How can man think of himself as master of creation when he cannot even tame these animals?  That is enough to bring Job to a level of humility where he can acknowledge that he has understood the nature of God.  He is pardoned, as are his companions, and in the ultimate “happy aver after ending” Job lives another 140 years, through four generations of a new family. We hear no more of Satan, who obviously lost his bet that he could cause Job to curse God.


Fairy-tale endings apart, what has the book of Job got to teach us?  It has covered many themes such as God’s discipline shown through suffering, but not as a punishment for our sins; the impossibility of being morally perfect; the finality of death and reality of judgement; the emptiness of atheism; the dangers of criticising other people, for judgement must be left to God; the impossibility of knowing God, yet the importance of accepting the righteousness that he offers.  It is a work of moral philosophy, of theology, and of practical wisdom, an attempt to explain the elusive “meaning of life”.  Having some grasp of the meaning of life may be the only way that a person can be prepared for the sort of disaster that befell Job.

The Bible in a Year – 16 August

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16 August. Job chapters 38-39

Most of this book has covered the arguments between Job and his companions, and of course God would have been aware of their sometimes heated philosophical discussions about the nature of the relationship between God and men.  But now God intervenes.  He answers them “out of the whirlwind”, maybe metaphorically “in their confusion” or “in the heat of the argument”.  In a wonderful series of poetic images we are taken through all the aspects of creation – stars, sun, light and darkness, the sea and land, rain and snow, living creatures of all kinds.  How can any human understand their workings? Only God does, who created them, and so these men have no right to talk about God as if they understood him.


Here is one of the basic difficulties of religion, and whoever wrote this part of the Bible – a master storyteller, but anonymous – was not afraid to tackle it.  For if one believes in a creative power, by definition it (or he or she, for all these pronouns are inadequate) must be beyond the understanding of the created, else we would be equal in knowledge and power.  So how can anyone claim to know anything about God?  That, essentially, was the basis of what Job’s companions have been saying. Even prophets usually start by acknowledging that they are only human, and merely passing on what limited understanding they have been given beyond what they could naturally have known.   The Jews (and Muslims) have always taken seriously the commandments not to make any image of God, because any image is inevitably partial, inadequate and misleading.


This is what makes Jesus’ statement so shocking when he says in John 14:9 “anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (i.e. God the Creator). Was he claiming to be an image of God and therefore breaking the commandment by his mere existence?  How can a mere man claim to represent the maker of all things, the one beyond time and space?  Christian writers and preachers have tried grappling with this in many ways over the centuries and I can’t offer to add to their consideration. I would commend C S Lewis’s book “Mere Christianity” if you have not read it before.  But briefly, Jesus must have known that he had within him something that others did not, an understanding of the world that came from outside it. He knew as a good Jew that to claim equality with God in any way was blasphemy under the law that God was said to have given, yet in breaking that law he also fulfilled it. In giving us an image of God by the way he loved, healed, accepted and taught, he put an end, in one sense at least,  to arguments about what God is like.


The Bible in a Year – 15 August.

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15 August. Job chapters 35-37

Elihu continues his speech uninterrupted. Now he turns his attention to the nature of God, who was considered in those days to dwell above the clouds and to be directly responsible for phenomena such as thunder, lightning, rain and the hot south wind.  How could such a remote God be interested in humans? Elihu does claim that God “teaches us more than the animals of the earth, and makes us wiser than the birds of the air” (35:11), but considers that what people do – right or wrong – has no effect on God (“Your wickedness affects others like you, and your righteousness, other human beings”, 35:8).

It is wrong, therefore, (says Elihu) for Job to be so bothered about whether other people, have kept God’s commandments or not (“you are obsessed with the case of the wicked; judgement and justice seize you”, 36:17).  However, that does not mean that God is unobservant of human activity. Elihu accepts that God brings judgement on those who do wrong.  But we humans have no part in Gods judgement. All that matters is one’s own relationship with God.

Nowadays no-one (presumably) believes in this God-in-the-clouds. Partly because of the progress of science in explaining the way the world works, but also because Jesus established himself as “one of us” and preached that “the Kingdom” [the presence of God] “is within you”.  Whatever concept of God we have has to begin with ourselves, our place firmly within the rest of Creation, by no means “wiser” than the birds of the air, and God as somehow within our universe, not outside it.    Such an understanding helps us to realise that “no man is an island” – every thought as well as action is connected in some way with everything else, and all we do has consequences.

But to take such logic to extremes is to make God redundant, and play into the hands of humanists and atheists.  Human experience is that there is a spiritual realm which science cannot explain; God may be ever-present, but he is yet separate from space and time. God is not so remote that our actions are of no consequence to him, but neither is he changed by our actions – Elihu is right there. Our actions, and attitudes, affect ourselves, other people and our relationship with God.  Job is about to find this out for himself.


The Bible in a Year. 14 August.

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14 August. Job chapters 32-34

A new voice now enters the argument, that of the young man Elihu, who criticises the three elders for not having come up with a strong argument against Job.  He explains that he sees himself as an equal to Job, not a superior (33:6,7). But that does not mean he is taking Job’s side, rather he too seeks to prove that Job’s protestations of innocence are in themselves sinful.


In chapter 33 Elihu argues that God uses dreams, visions and angels to try and warn people of the error of their ways and bring them back into right paths.  It is through penitence and prayer that one is forgiven.  In the following chapter he also asserts, as others did, that suffering must be the result of sin, and that Job, in presenting himself as righteous, is “speaking without knowledge or insight”.


The idea that there is a causal connection between sin and suffering is one that does not go away easily.  Even after 2000 years of Christianity, the gospel message is still shocking – that God does not count our sins against us, and is always willing to accept our repentance. Suffering, far from being a punishment for sin, is something in which God himself, through the incarnation of Jesus, has shared with us.

The Bible in a Year – 13 August

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13 August. Job chapters 29-31

A couple of days ago I considered whether the charge laid against Job by Eliphaz in chapter 22 might hold some truth: was he in fact a heartless capitalist who had become rich at the expense of others?  It is always difficult to be criticised, whether in private or in public, and harder still to hold up one’s head and remain confident of being right, however unreasonable the charges being brought. There is always a tendency – at least among ‘reasonable’ people – to wonder whether in fact the fault might be your own.  Standing up to your accuser and insisting that you are innocent not only in your own eyes and under human laws, but also in the eyes of God and under his divine law, is a bold stance that tends to sound like boasting.


Chapter 29 may give an understanding of how Job could manage, in chapter 31, to utterly refute Eliphaz.  In the former, he recalls how before the start of his affliction, he was not only wealthy but respected by all the important people of his city.  In the latter he uses that positive recollection to support his case. In the latter he lists his virtues – caring for the stranger, orphan, widow and poor – and also the sins that he has avoided – lust, adultery, violence, discrimination, greed.  At the end of the arguments with his so-called comforters, Job is quite sure that he has done nothing to deserve God’s punishment, and everything that he can to remain right with his maker.


The Bible in a Year – 12 August

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12 August. Job chapters 24-28

Nearly all of today’s long reading is attributed to the mouth of Job. Bildad only gets a quick word in! Bildad (in chapter 25) and Job (in 26/27) agree on one thing: God’s majesty is unknowable, he is high above mankind (metaphorically speaking) and we have now way of ever understanding all his purposes.  But they draw different conclusions: Bildad thinks that humans therefore can never be right with God, and must suffer the consequences.  Job, on the other hand, sees God’s majesty as all the more reason to seek to find righteousness in him, and know him as best we can.

Before this exchange, Job paints a clear picture in chapter 24 of the harsh injustices of the world, the suffering of the oppressed and the apparent impunity of the wicked. Afterwards, in chapter 28, he contrasts wisdom with the metals and precious minerals that miners seek: with great difficulty they find riches in the earth, but no-one can find wisdom on earth, for it comes only from God.  It is with these worldviews – God as the only source of wisdom, and the injustice of life on earth – that Job can insist that people can find their righteousness in God, even though we can never know him fully. It is better to be on his side, even though we suffer in this life, than to give up the struggle to be good, and end up being wiped out of God’s memory like the wicked.