Lord, set your servant free

Today’s hymn is one of many settings of Simeon’s short song (Nunc Dimittis). What perhaps sets this one apart form others is that the author (Mary Holtby) has departed from the original words in several places.

Instead of referring to Simeon’s ‘departure’ (meaning his imminent death) she has him asking to be ‘set free’ – which could be taken to mean ‘set free from this earthly life’, but is capable of wider application. We all have things that we need to be set free from.

She also drops the last line ‘the glory of your people Israel’, instead following ‘the hope of humankind’ with a parallel phrase ‘the glory of our race’. That worldwide message appears also in verse 2 with ‘on the nations lost in light I see his dawn arise’.

The Christ here is therefore understood as having a universal ministry from the start, rather than understanding Jesus having come first to the people of Israel. Simeon had been promised he would see the hope of his own people, and finds that he has been given a whole lot more, a universal vision of hope. Such is God’s way, offering blessings greater than we had hoped for.

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 – 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 – 8 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.

8 July. Psalms 66-69

Psalm 66 can be summarised by three words: “Turn (verses 1-4), Trust (5-12), Thank (13-20)”.  It speaks of the importance of keeping one’s vows to God.  We don’t often talk of vows these days, except at a wedding, but monks and clergy still have to vow obedience to their abbot/bishop, as well as obedience to the rules of their order or denomination, and may also be required to take vows of poverty and/or chastity.  These are no idle promises, and many struggle with them at times in their ministry, and need the support of their brothers and sisters in their orders, or (in the case of parish priests) their congregation.


The vows mentioned here, though, are the voluntary promises of thanking and praising God (and other people) that are made by individuals.  There is no religious law requiring such vows, but once made they are to be treated just as seriously. They spring out of the experience of seeing God at work.


Psalm 67 is one of the shortest, but most radiant of them all.  It is entirely positive about our relationship with God.  The first verse is much used in liturgy (perhaps with variants): “May God be gracious to us and bless us, and make his face to shine upon us” (67:1).  The following Psalm 68 is, by contrast, much longer and full of references to enemies.


Psalm 69 contains several verses that are taken as pointing to Jesus and his crucifixion: “many are those who would destroy me, my enemies who accuse me falsely” (v.4); “I have become a stranger to my kindred, an alien to my mother’s children” (8); and most of all “For my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink” (21).   But of course such experiences are not uncommon. What we do know is that Jesus, by his own suffering, can identify with all those who experience such treatment themselves.