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Testwood Baptist Church - Old Testament survey Session 3 - “The Writings”


"The Writings"

This week sees the start of looking at life in the everyday seasons of life. Last week we were focusing on making our commitment to God, our covenant with him. This is one of the pivot-points of our life, one of the key decisions. In the first week we looked at how the life of the nation of Israel consisted of a few major changes of direction, with lengthy periods in between in which the people lived out the consequence of their decision. The same is true of our personal lives. Now, God knows how we are made, and part of that making is that we take time to absorb new things. We make these big decisions ... but we then take time to take them on board and comprehend what they mean for our lives. So he gives us everyday life to soak in the consequences of our choices. The Old Testament shows us people facing the key decision-points, and it shows us people seeking to live their everyday lives in a godly way, in the light of those decisions.

Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly...


the signs which you have learned here


will not look at all as you expect them to look.

This week's quote is from CS Lewis' Narnia books. In "The Silver Chair", Jill has been given four signs by which she is to recognise what to do, how to make the right choices in her life ahead. In her excitement she is convinced she understands them, and what we have here is Aslan's reply. He is gently warning her that ordinary life is difficult to manage. At the times of a vivid encounter with God, it can seem so very clear what we have to do, it can seem all too easy to make resolutions and be convinced of our ability to carry them out. But, as Aslan says, down in the valley, the words that seemed so clear beforehand become blurred. We don't recognise situations for what they are, and before long, likely as not, we become disappointed with our actions. The Wisdom literature - which consists of Psalms, Proverbs, and the shorter books of Job, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs - is there to help us follow through in everyday life the decisions we have made on the heights. They are supremely practical in their approach to life, and they span an enormous range of feelings, attitudes, and situations.

As we've been looking in some depth at the Book of Proverbs in our morning sessions, tonight that will only make up a small part of our time together. Most of the time we'll be looking at the Psalms.

The wisdom literature was written for us over a period of many years, and like the covenant literature we talked about last week, it is a form of literature shared across the ancient world. Before we get to that, let us briefly think about what we have in these books and when they originated. Unlike some of the other Old Testament books, there are few historical pointers within them - only on some occasions in the Psalms do we have a clue from the title what the event behind the song was. And in most cases the author doesn't really matter. If Solomon did or did not write the book of Ecclesiastes (and people have debated this for many years) - it doesn't really matter. The point of these books is not the identity of the author, but the value of the book in terms of helping a follower of God to learn the practicalities of the spiritual life. We have here, what you might call operations manuals for the people of God. Different people over the years added things of value as they went along - a song here, a poem there, or a snippet of advice there. People debate extensively about the authorship and time of composition of the books of Job, Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes. We won't be looking at these in detail, but the traditional view is that Job was written very early, and both of the others by Solomon. However, there are few solid clues in the books to really pin them down, and people differ considerably as to their understanding of when the books originated. They are interesting in their own right, but are focused more on resolving one particular issue than the books of Psalms and Proverbs, which tackle a wide variety of matters.

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The book of Psalms

Dating psalms First, the book of Psalms. The earliest Psalm in this book (Psalm 90) is attributed to Moses, many are by King David or from his time, and a fair number are from the time of the Exile in Babylon. We are told the names of some of the composers, and others are anonymous. We always feel that many of the Psalms were originally songs, and indeed there are comments here and there which are best understood as musical or performance directions. Over the years, many people have set them to music, have tried to capture the mood of the words in lyrical form. Some of them, I am sure, were more like poems, meant to be read or recited rather than sung. Some have a sense of having been composed for a special ceremonial occasion, either at the king's palace or the Temple, while others perhaps grew out of personal devotion and only slowly came to the attention of a wider audience. Some, we feel, were intended as a shared response, like an act of worship of a whole congregation, while others catch the mood of a solitary person.

So the contents of this book span about 1000 years. But Psalm writing as a style spans a much longer period of time. The same style is found elsewhere in the Bible, in the Song of Deborah in Judges 5 for example. Some of the prophets used poetry and song to impart their message. It spills over into the New Testament too - the same tradition surfaces found in Mary's song of rejoicing at the news she was to be the mother of Jesus, at the start of Luke's gospel. We see it in Paul's writings, where he sometimes breaks off from a careful and systematic exposition of some truth, into a poetic exclamation of joy. We see it in the book of Revelation, probably the Bible book written last, in about 100 AD. From beginning to end they were an affirmation of the fact that the people of Israel were called to follow one God in all times and in all circumstances, good and bad. Even the Psalms that express anger, or grief, or depression, never lose sight of the fundamental truth that the God of Israel was the only true God.

Psalms of other nations Now in terms of literary style, other nations in the area produced very similar poems. From Egypt, from Mesopotamia, from a Canaanite city called Ugarit just north of Israel in present-day Syria, we have examples of their own psalms. The style of writing is immediately recognisable. But these Psalms were, naturally, expressed to their own gods. Many of those from Ugarit form a series of battle-Psalms, describing epic conflicts between the gods to see who would emerge victorious. There are echoes of this in the Old Testament psalms, such as in Psalm 29 -

"The voice of the LORD is over the waters,
the God of glory thunders,
the LORD thunders over the mighty waters,
the voice of the LORD is powerful,
the voice of the LORD is majestic,
the voice of the LORD breaks the cedars"

- but rather than the God of Israel having to prove his superiority over other gods, this shows him master of the natural world. So other nations had their own psalms, although those that have survived down the years do not show the same diversity and freedom of emotion as the Israelite ones. So it is fair to say that some Old Testament psalms are of a similar style as those from other countries, but the overall span in the Bible is wider and more varied.

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The book of Proverbs

Biblical proverbs Moving on to the book of Proverbs, this is in several chunks. The greater proportion is attributed directly to King Solomon, who ruled after David, say around 950 BC. The portions attributed to Solomon, however, are not all identical. CS Lewis wrote once about Proverbs that one's first impression was of "bearded Orientals uttering platitudes as if in a parody of Arabian Nights". But of course when you persevere, you realise there's actually great variety of style and content going on. There are narrative sections and poetry in addition to the lengthy blocks of wise sayings. As well as Solomon's parts, there are others too. One section is dated to the time of King Hezekiah (about 250 years after Solomon), though the individual sayings are again said to originate with Solomon. Other sections - well, we simply do not know who the authors were - this is the only occurrence of the names Agur (chapter 30) and Lemuel (chapter 31) in the entire Bible, so we have no clue as to their identity! So this book is made up of different portions, all seemingly from the monarchy period of Israel's history, between say 1000 and 500 BC in round figures.

Proverbs of other nations Once again, other nations produced their own proverbs. It seems to have been part of showing yourself to be a wise ruler, that you caused proverbs to be written down in your name. I have picked out a couple of examples, one from Egypt and one from Mesopotamia, and both from the same period in history as the Biblical book of Proverbs. The same kind of practical wisdom can be seen here. However, what we read in other countries tends to be more materialistic. The practical nature that proverbs always express, has turned into shrewd advice for getting your own way in the world. Or rather, it is the other way round - a writing form that in other nations was focused on how to turn everyday situations to your advantage, became in the Old Testament a description of the practical aspects of living a godly life. The worldliness of the other writings has been turned into practical godliness here in the Bible. Only right at the end of the Egyptian era, when as a nation it was declining and dwindling away, do we find a more humble, more spiritually-orientated outlook. Scholars debate whether this Egyptian change of attitude was in fact the result on influence from Hebrew ideas and writings such as Proverbs.

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I want to turn now to applications of these ideas. One of the key themes of this study series has been that the national life of Israel consisted of a few key decision-points, separated by longer periods of trying - sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing - to put these decisions to work in everyday life. Our own personal lives follow the same pattern. Last week, with Covenants, we looked at decision-points. This week, and next week, we are looking at the in-between times. How are we going to put into practice the key choices we have made? In general, we are not very good at simply getting on with the job without continual reminders. Any of us who have worked with younger children know just how short a person's attention-span can be. But it is not just children for whom this is true! We all need regular boosts to our resolve, regular reminders to get back to what we should be doing. We all need diaries, knots tied in hankies, alarm clocks, and so on. How many people here have been convinced they would remember an important date or time without some sort of artificial aid ... and then forgotten. However, crucial something seems to us at first, the reality is that we do forget, and we do need aids to our memory.

The Wisdom literature refuses to let us separate wisdom from morals. In modern times we like to do this, we like to draw a line between a sensible choice and a moral choice. But the authors of Psalms, Proverbs and the rest will not allow us to do this. To them, wisdom and goodness were inextricably tied together. The words "folly" and "wisdom" that occur many times through these books do not just mean "silly" and "sensible". They include the idea of moral goodness and badness. So when we read the word "fool", we should not be thinking of someone lacking education or intelligence, but rather a person who lacks moral integrity. It's moral deficiency, not a lack of training or academic ability, that is at stake. Similarly, the "wise man" is not the one who is gifted, or well trained, or clever, but the one who is putting into practice godly principles for living.

But also, as Aslan reminded Jill in Narnia, things in the everyday world don't look the same as how we see them in the clarity of our big-moment choices. It is like seeing somewhere on a bright, clear, summer day, and then having to navigate around it in a gloomy, foggy winter evening. Or perhaps, getting a clear set of directions to someone's house through the post ... and then having to find it for real. Somehow the map that seemed so precise when you first saw it just failed to mention how confusing the road junctions were. The Wisdom literature is there in the Old Testament to help us do two things. First, we get little life-snippets to jog our memories about how to act. Of course our own situations are slightly different - but they're near enough that the reminder does its job. Second, we get introduced to people facing life situations not unlike ours. How did they feel? How did they express themselves to God? How did they resolve the difficulty they faced?

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Looking closer at the Psalms

To explore this, we're going to look closer at the book of Psalms. One thing that strikes you about them is the intensity of feeling expressed.

"How lovely is your dwelling-place,
O LORD Almighty,
my soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the LORD,
my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God" (Ps 84:1,2) ...

or alternatively

"Pay back into the laps of our neighbours
seven times the reproach they have hurled at you, O Lord" (Ps 79:12),

"Strike all my enemies on the jaw, break the teeth of the wicked" (Ps 3:7).

We read some of these and think, "is it really acceptable to think that sort of thing, let alone say it to God?" The Old Testament shows us people in all walks of life who were intense about their devotion. To be sure they could be wise in their speech and conduct, they could be humble and keep silent - as Jews in every age have had to learn to do - but in their relationship with God, their passion emerges. Part of the message of Psalms is that intensity of relationship with God is good ... but intensity about what? Of course intensity can mean all kinds of different things, different attitudes and feelings and desires. What we want to know is what the intensity is directed towards. In Christian terms, it is not good to seek the downfall of others, to desire that punishment come to them, and it is easy to feel a little disturbed by some of the feelings being expressed in the Psalms. The bad ones - well they just seem bad, and even the good ones are a little scary. Let's look first at what we might call the 'anger' Psalms. There are two points I want to emphasise here:

First, God is aware that you have these feelings. There really is very little point trying to conceal them from Him. It's easy to think that God is only aware of the things we volunteer to tell him, and has no idea about the things we would like to conceal. Of course it's not really true, but we often conduct ourselves as though it was like that. During one particularly trying time of life, when it seemed that whenever I prayed about something it got worse, I started getting into a pattern of thought "if I don't pray about it, perhaps God will let it alone..." Of course I knew it wasn't the right way to look at things, but that was where I was, and I suspect it is where many of us get to at times. At some stage we have to get past this and start working with God with the situation - rather than hoping he won't get involved.

Secondly, we need to look further at the feelings in the Psalms. What we find is in fact that they are not asking that the Psalmist himself would be allowed to personally take revenge. We do not find "I am going to pay back my enemies", or "I am going to smash their teeth", nor even "please let me do this to them". We find these people longing for God to enact judgement on their behalf. We may well feel that the psalm-writers are a little too sure that their cause is right and the other person's wrong, but at least they are appealing for justice to be served by God rather than going out to get it for themselves. When we think of it like this, the situation is a little different. These psalms that seemingly are all about a bloodthirsty desire for revenge are not like that - they are based on a profound conviction that injustice is wrong, and that God can be relied upon to act against injustice. Also, when you read most of these more brutal-sounding psalms right to the end, you find something changes. As a rule (and there are exceptions) the angry parts are earlier on, and the development of the writer's thought shows him working with this feeling towards a more balanced approach. Take for example Psalm 56.

The early verses show us the writer's circumstances - "men hotly pursue me... my slanderers pursue me... many are attacking me". His anger is expressed in the middle of the Psalm - "On no account let them escape; in your anger, O God, bring down the nations". He works his way through to trust - "in God I trust, I will not be afraid" and closes with remembering the basis for this trust "I am under vows to you, O God, I will present my thank-offerings to you... that I may walk before God in the light of life". I would like to propose this as a good strategy for coping with difficult circumstances.

Acknowledge the reality of your circumstances
Be honest about your feelings with God
Invite God's involvement
Allow God's input to change you
Accept the help of others

We see the initial pain, anger and desire for revenge changing to peace and trust by the end of the psalm. This is not self-deception, or an attempt to simply cover over legitimate feelings at a bad situation. It is not just self-help. This is a way in which we make real the work of Jesus in our own lives. This is a practical way of handling everyday life between the big decision-points. In New Testament terms we call this the Divine Exchange - allowing the work of Jesus on the cross to permeate our daily lives and difficulties - but as we have seen it is an approach advocated in the book of Psalms.

So, this is a pattern we can follow. There will most likely be things that we are worked up about, things where we feel justly - or perhaps unjustly - that things are wrong and something ought to be done about it. So the psalmist's way of dealing with this is to start working with it, with God. Rather than what might be our normal response, either to just go for the other person or else try and ignore the feelings, the psalmist's way is to take them to God. In these psalms, he starts with wanting God to take revenge on his behalf, but the process of going to God about the problem changes him.

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How do I best relate to God?

By hearing?
By seeing?
By participating?

By being with others?
By being alone?

But of course there are other kinds of Psalm as well as the anger ones. We have celebrations of the events in a single person's life, or telling the great stories of the nation. We have expressions of sorrow over disasters - again either personal or national. As a second example, I want to focus on some of the worship psalms. I wonder what situations cause you to feel closest to God? For some, it will be moments of solitude. For others, it will mean being with others. Some of us are deeply moved by what we see or hear, while others need to participate actively in something to really seize hold of it. Those who wrote the Psalms are the same. There are the most wonderful pictures painted for us by people who respond best to vision:

My heart is stirred by a noble theme as I recite my verses for the king...
All glorious is the princess within her chamber,
Her gown is interwoven with gold,
In embroidered garments she is led to the king;
Her virgin companions follow her and are brought to her (Ps 45:1,13-14).

There are celebrations of God's word in a plainer, more straightforward light:

I meditate on your precepts and consider your ways.
I delight in your decrees, I will not neglect your word (Ps 119:1,13-14).

And there are active, vigorous demonstrations of worship:

Let Israel rejoice in their Maker,
Let the people of Zion be glad in their king.
Let them praise his name with dancing
And make music to him with tambourine and harp. (Ps 149:2,3).

There are Psalms that are rooted in a personal experience:

I love the LORD, for he heard my voice,
He heard my cry for mercy.
Because he turned his ear to me,
I will call on him as long as I live (Ps. 116:1-2)

And others that are expressions of collective response:

Praise, O servants of the LORD,
Praise the name of the LORD.
Let the name of the LORD be praised,
Both now and evermore!
From the rising of the sun to the place where it sets,
The name of the LORD is to be praised. (Ps. 113:1-2)

So we see that whoever you are, and however you best relate to God, the Psalms describe all kinds of styles of relationship with God. Now in terms of human development, people do tend to fall into three main groups, depending on how you most readily absorb new information. These are:

  1. Auditory (hearing) learners - retain an accurate memory of what they have heard. They can remember conversations well, but might easily forget what the other person was wearing at the time.
  2. Visual learners - need to see something for it to make sense. Hearing on its own doesn't really sink in. They will be distracted from something if the visual setting is out of line with the content, and will respond more to a person's manner than their words.
  3. Tactile-kinaesthetic (movement and dynamic) learners - need to associate learning with movement. This may be active personal participation like role play, or it may be seeing something dramatically played out in front of them, but some sort of activity is needed to capture their attention.

Now, part of the way we work is that each of us is best at one of these, each of us receives and explains best along one of these channels of communication. The Psalms give us all of them, according to the different talents of the song-writers responsible. This is one reason why God inspired many people to contribute to the Wisdom literature in general and the Psalms in particular - so that each of us would find portions that we most naturally respond to. As Paul says in his first letter to the church in Corinth, "if the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be ... But God has arranged the parts of the body, just as he wanted them to be ... Now you are the body of Christ". Our aim as 21st century Christians should be to foster the same kind of wealth of ability to relate to God as we find in the Psalms ... and the human problem we face is that it is easy to find fault in those who do it differently. We can all benefit from understanding better how we learn things, and how best to communicate them to other people who have different talents to ourselves. It's the sort of thing that, having been made aware of it, you may well simply sort out on your own, but equally you may well want to talk it through with others.

On a Sunday, we come together to worship God collectively. This has been part of the activity of God's people from early in the Old Testament, and the Christian Church has happily continued the pattern. Yes, there are difficulties associated with church life, but neither Old Testament nor New encourages us to permanently plough a solitary furrow. We have seen that there are numerous Psalms that give every appearance of being festival music. Ancient and modern song-writers have often set these to music, and we use some of them as part of our regular worship here.

But there's more to a relationship with God than a Sunday morning, and for many people their points of feeling closest to God come outside these walls. Well, there are Psalms for you as well. The Wisdom literature recognises that the great assembly is not the place where everyone meets God most readily. We find psalmists whose times of closest approach to God are when they are on their own, people for whom their personal moments of being caught up with God happen in the early morning: "Awake, harp and lyre, I will awaken the dawn!" (Ps. 108:2). We often speak of people having a quiet time ... but for you personally maybe being quiet in the literal sense is not how you most naturally meet with God. A quiet time is in essence a time for you to get out of the necessities of life and relate to God - a little Sabbath, if you like, like a way-station you halt at temporarily. Now, if your best way of relating is not sitting down and being quiet, that's not a problem to the writers of the Old Testament Wisdom literature and I don't see why it should become a problem for you. If your best way of understanding a piece of Scripture is to move around and enact it in the privacy of your room, or to read it aloud rather than just quietly, or to go outside and share it with the natural world - that's fine. If you learn best by reading a big chunk rather than the half-chapter that your current Bible reading notes give you, or by spending time looking things up in a Bible Atlas, dictionary, or Hebrew lexicon, that's great. The Psalmists show us that personal diversity in approaching God is a fine thing, a thing to celebrate in each other. When we come together to meet with God in a corporate sense, we are then bringing with us something of personal value as our sacrifice of praise.

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Life between the key decisions

Suspensions I have talked during this series about how the Old Testament life of the Israelites is - like ours - made up of occasional key decision-points, with stretches of time in between where the consequences of those decisions have to be lived out. Covenants, which we looked at last week, are key decision-points. How does the Wisdom literature help us live in between? Well, first, what is our image of these in-between times?

When I use the phrase "everyday life is strung between the decision-points" I wonder what comes to mind? Do you see the decision-points as like towers at either end of a bridge, with a chain stretched between them? The chain is working hard, carrying a heavy load suspended below it. It's a solid thing, a serious, functional sort of thing, earning its keep, as it were. Or do you see two ends of a necklace, with a string of pearls between them, a light, delicate thing whose purpose is to give beauty?

Maybe it's neither of these, maybe it's something else altogether - maybe you don't really have a picture of this in your mind at all. But either way, the main point of the Wisdom literature as it has bearing on our theme for tonight, is that it is there to help us make the in-between times more like a string of pearls and less like a burden. Yes, we are introduced to people contending with very difficult circumstances, coping with rejection, persecution, guilt, or feelings of distance with God ... as well as people at a real high point of their relationship with God. Wherever you are tonight, or tomorrow, or next year, chances are you will find a Psalmist or other writer in these books who was experiencing just the same as he was writing as you. Their experience, and how they resolved the personal aspects of it, can assist you. In God's economy, the everyday portions of life are not intended to be simply a place where you mark time and wait for the next key moment - still less places where you slip backwards. They are intended to be times of consolidation, times in which the full reality of your choice can sink in and grip you in new ways. He knows that we are human, and that we need to take time to really take hold of things we have been given. The everyday times need not be wastelands, or dreary rooms in which you sit waiting for Him to take notice of you again, but rather new countries to explore, new opportunities to try out whatever it is that He has shown you of himself.

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Personal exercise

How do I best relate to God?

How do I prefer to learn something new?

How would I describe the times I have felt closest to God?

If I could have a place entirely of my own choosing to have a special time with God, with whoever or whatever I wanted, it would be...

Tonight's activity gives you a chance to explore your personal preferences for finding out more about God. There are three parts - you are welcome to think about them in any order. As with other weeks, this is something just for your personal benefit - you may well want to review it with another person at a later date, as part of helping each other on in our Christian lives.

The first section looks very briefly at how we most readily learn new things. There's much more that can be done in this respect, ways of exploring your aptitudes more thoroughly, but this will suffice for tonight. The second is a way of seeing something about your personal preference for getting to be with God. I want to emphasise with both of these two that there is no right or wrong answer. Each of us has different talents and qualities, and this is one way we can celebrate these differences. We should not expect to all conform with each other, nor necessarily with friends, family members, or loved ones. This is just about you.

The final section is where you can let your imagination run a bit wild. Imagine there are no constraints of money, convenience, realism or anything else. If you could be anywhere, with anyone and anything you chose, what would be your ideal place for being with God?

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