Come with newly written anthems

Today’s hymn, “Come with newly written anthems” is by the same composer as yesterday’s and is another psalm setting (this time Ps.98).  Although it has its own tune called “St Paul’s Cathedral” I sing it to a better known one, Abbot’s Leigh (likely to be in any popular hymn book).

The first verse praises God for his qualities – mercy, strength, holy kindness – and the fact that he never forgets or breaks his promises. The last verse speaks of God coming with justice, although more literal translations of Psalm 98 speak of God coming to “judge the world with righteousness and the peoples with equity (or truth)” which is a bit scarier.  Some hymns, as we will no doubt see later in the year, are less about joyful praise and more about engaging with the righteousness and truth (i.e. being faithful to God in our actions and words).

In between these two, the middle verse focuses on our response to God, exhorting each other to be ‘creative’ in our worship as well as skilful. It also speaks of rejoicing, of having a thankful heart and cheerful voice. And most important of all, to “focus on the wonders of God’s greatness as you sing”.  If hymn singing becomes just a routine, part of a sandwich of activities making up a church service in between readings and prayers, it can be easy just to go with the flow and not pay much attention either to the words or the emotions they seek to evoke.  Which is one reason for this year-long challenge, in itself an exercise in being creative: to look at unfamiliar hymns as well as well known ones, ponder the words and sing them outside the context of church services.  That way, I hope I can get ‘under the skin’ of them and a bit closer to ‘worshipping God with righteousness and equity’ as well as joyfully.

The Bible in a Year – 20 October

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

20 October. Romans chapters 1-3

The letter to the Romans deserves its reputation for being both probably the most important of the New Testament letters for an understanding of Christian belief, and at the same time the most difficult to follow.  For it consists of one long philosophical argument with many interwoven strands. It is written in long and complex sentences and uses may technical theological terms such as ‘law’, ‘sin’, ‘justified’ and ‘righteous’. Each of these may mean something quite different from their common English usage, and need careful explanation. Therefore a brief ‘thought’ on a long excerpt of this work can never do justice to all the themes that appear in it. Today, I will try to explain in my own words what Paul is aiming for in his writing to the Christians in Rome. This covers all these opening chapters, but especially chapter 3.

The church in Rome consisted of both Jewish Christians and converts from paganism, or agnostics.  Wherever that happened in the early church there was a tendency for the Jewish Christians to think themselves better, because they knew the jewish scriptures – the “Law” – and their men were circumcised in accordance with the tradition started by Abraham over a thousand years earlier.  In some places they even tried to insist that the converts should also be circumcised if they were going to follow Christ (who, let it not be forgotten, was a Jewish rabbi who probably did not intend to found a new and different religion).

Paul, although a Jewish rabbi himself (as he had explained to the Corinthians), was thoroughly convinced that in Jesus the distinction between Jews and Gentiles had been abolished. Until now, he says, the Jews have had the Law to show them how to live rightly in relation to God and other people; but that did not ‘justify’ them unless they actually kept the Law, and in practice no-one ever did, for (as Paul puts it in one of the most famous verses of the Bible), “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23).

It was always true, Paul says, that anyone could have been righteous (i.e. in an unblemished loving relationship with God) by living in a way compatible with Jewish laws, even if they were unaware of them, “for it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified” (2:13).  The second half of his argument is that the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus, unique in human history, have opened the way to a completely new understanding.  Anyone, whether or not they are Jews by family descent or circumcision, whether or not they know the details of the Law, can be declared righteous simply by having faith in Jesus.

The problem with that is, that as soon as you tell anyone that they don’t have to obey the rules, they won’t bother.  That is human nature, at every level of our lives. So Paul also has to explain that while failing to keep the Law does not stop you from being righteous, deliberately not bothering even to try to keep it does break that righteous relationship with God.  Love for God, as with love for another person, must include at least the intention to act in a loving way, even if we sometimes fail.

The Bible in a Year – 11 August

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

11 August. Job chapters 21-23

In the first of these chapters, Job responds to Zophar’s charge that his suffering must be the result of sin. His argument boils down to the fact that many wicked people live safe and prosperous lives, therefore there is no causal connection between the two.  That was an insight ahead of its time.


Eliphaz takes his turn next, arguing that Job has in fact “exacted pledges from [his] family for no reason, stripped the naked of their clothing, given no water to the weary to drink, withheld bread from the hungry, sent widows away empty-handed,  and crushed the arms of orphans” (22:6-9).  These are serious charges, with no evidence provided, and Job refutes them in the next chapter by reaffirming that he has kept all God’s commandments.


But we do know from the opening of the book that Job was very rich. Had he in fact become rich at the expense of others?  Was he in reality a hard-headed businessman profiting from impoverishing others? In modern capitalist societies that is often the case – it is difficult for a business to be both ethical and profitable.  So maybe there is some truth to the charges of his accusers, and his protestations of innocence do not hold up. Jesus condemned those who thought they were righteous because they obeyed the letter of the Jewish law yet actually broke it in spirit by exploiting others; maybe Job was like them.  Not the hero he appeared to be at the start of the story.


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.