If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.
22 February. Judith chapters 14-16
These final chapters following the murder of Holofernes recount how the Jews took their revenge on the Assyrians, and then celebrated their victory. It is notable that Judith, clever strategist that she was, warned her own soldiers against engaging the enemy in combat, as she judged correctly that the panic ensuing from discovering their commander’s headless body would be enough to send them running. So without any fighting, the Assyrians were defeated.
The victory song attributed to Judith, like several others in the Old Testament, combines celebration of human achievement with praise for God’s power and protection. If there is a lesson to be learned from this story, it is that both faith in God, and willingness to take risks in his service, are needed to achieve great things. If the Jews had trusted in conventional military power they would have been overwhelmed by the Assyrians. If they had merely prayed to God in their distress at being besieged, but done nothing, would he have saved them by a miracle? But the combination of the people’s faith in God, their willingness to listen to a woman with gifts of prophecy and leadership, and her boldness and cunning, was enough for the victory to be achieved.
As I wrote at the start, Judith is almost certainly a fictional character. But her story can still inspire us to faith and action.
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.
29 June. Psalms 17-20
Reading these four psalms is a game of “spot the odd one out”. It is not difficult. Numbers 17, 18 and 20 are all about God giving victory to one person or army against another – although there are differences, as they seem to be responses to quite different circumstances.
PS 17 is the cry of a man under pressure, who calls on God to be on his side because he is the underdog, he is the one trying to do what is right while all around him are unscrupulous people who will do anything to get the better of him. Ps 18 is a song of relief, written from the safe place after being rescued by God, looking back on how he did in fact deliver the righteous person from their enemies. The imagery used to depict God’s saving power is that of storm and earthquake when the battles is at its height, and that of one soldier training another for victory. Ps 20 is written from the sidelines of battle, or perhaps before approaching the enemy, quietly confident that God will give victory to one’s own side.
In between these is Ps 19, very different in character. It celebrates how God is found in both the natural order and in the Law (that is, sacred writings). Joseph Haydn famously set the first verse (“The heavens are telling the glory of God”) to music in his choral masterpiece The creation. Many people testify that it is in contemplating the natural world, whether galaxies or the equally amazing scenes viewed in a microscope, that they have come to understand the divine presence behind the visible world.
Others find their inspiration in meditating on the Bible or other religious writings, which lead not towards the outer world but the inner world – contemplation of one’s own spiritual life. And that naturally leads to self-examination: “But who can detect their errors? Clear me from hidden faults”. The last verse is often used by preachers to ask God to guide their thoughts and words: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer” (19:14).
So whether in the heat of conflict, before or after it, whether gazing up at the stars, down into a microscope or into one’s own mind and heart, God is to be found in many ways. He is never entirely absent from us and will take any opportunity to reveal himself.