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Learning Things (10/3/15)

I have some book quotes sitting in my ‘drafts,’ but haven’t had time to actually write posts about them. This morning I have some time, so I thought I’d make a broader post on what I’ve learned so far this semester.

A Canonical Approach to the Psalms
I am taking a class on ‘the Writings’ of the Old Testament (Psalms-Chronicles in the Hebrew order of the Bible). My professor did his Ph.D work Book 4 of the Psalms – particularly on how Book 4 advances a ‘canonical’ understanding of the Psalter.

The Canonical Approach to the Psalms is intriguing, and I’ve found it helpful. The basic idea is that Psalms is arranged in an intentional order for the purpose of advancing a narrative. Psalm 1 introduces us to the Psalter as ‘torah,’ written in five books, like the Torah of Moses. Martin Luther called the Psalms a ‘little Bible’ within the Bible. The Canonical Approach sees it this way as well. Psalm 2 introduces the Messianic King whom the Psalter is written about. Books 1 through 3 show the decline of the messianic kingship, culminating in the final psalm of Book 3, which finds the kinship cut off and the people of Israel in Exile.

Book 4 (Ps. 90-106) finds the people in exile, ‘wandering in the wilderness’ like Moses in days of old (see Ps. 90-91). By Book 5 (Ps. 107-150) the people are ascending back up the mountain to Jerusalem and worshiping God. They still reflect on their captivity (Psalm 137), but they are mostly in a posture of worship, anticipating the restoration of the throne of David.

This theory of the Psalms as a ‘canon’ may have some holes, but it’s fairly compelling and gives us a macro way to demonstrate that aside from the experiential and worship aspects of the psalms, they are meant to have a narrative force that points us to Christ.

The Shepherd Hypothesis in Song of Solomon
We haven’t covered Song of Solomon in the course yet, but my reading has touched on this. The Shepherd Hypothesis, also called the ‘three person hypothesis,’ contends that the Shulammite (Songs 6:13) had two suitors in Song of Solomon. The story, in this theory, is that the Shulammite is in love with a simple shepherd man from her own territory, but is also being courted by King Solomon. Hence the back and forth action between the garden and the city.

I don’t have time at present to flesh this out completely, but if you take this approach, here’s a good example of what it entails. The palace scenes of someone knocking on her door actually describe her true love, the shepherd, traveling to the palace to find her and reclaim her love. He is in danger and flees, she chases him and is thus beaten by the guards. It makes a good deal of sense:

Song of Solomon 5:7 The watchmen found me as they went about in the city; they beat me, they bruised me, they took away my veil, those watchmen of the walls. 8 I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, if you find my beloved, that you tell him I am sick with love.

In the end, love prevails. The Shulammite turns down the advances of Solomon, in all his pomp and splendor, and returns to the country to be with her true love, the simple shepherd.

The most amazing thing about this approach is that it turns the ‘allegory’ of the story in a fascinating new direction while also allowing for literal interpretation that doesn’t involve Solomon as the prototypical lover (if you know anything about Solomon, that has difficulties). If you’re interested in seeing more about this you can read more about it HERE.

Christian Education
I’m taking a course on the educational ministry of the church. The main idea so far is that education is vital to the task of the church (as it’s included in the Great Commission). Nothing major to report on as of yet. I had to wrestle with the differences between preaching and teaching this past week. It’s one of those situations where there are clear distinctions but a lot of overlap.

A.D.D. Environments
I’ve spent the last six months in my new job staring at computer screens for hours upon hours each day. I’m working on curriculum, doing technical work, answering emails, answering texts, and trying to work on sermons and school work from time to time. I feel it changing me. I feel my brain gravitating toward attention deficits. It’s interesting.

Douglas Coupland, one of my favorite authors, has made the claim somewhere that we are all going to be forced into living in a state of attention deficits. He tends to think this is something we’ll simply adapt to, and that it won’t necessarily be a bad thing. I have my concerns, as longtime readers of this blog will know.  I have been thinking about writing a post called ‘A.D.D. Environments,’ that would details how our environments deeply affect our ability to concentrate. I haven’t managed to do it yet, and others have certainly written about this. (By the way, in the time I’ve written this post I’ve had a dozen text messages, the phone ring, and some American Heritage girls come to my door selling cookies).

I read Moonwalking with Einstein recently and found it helpful. I’ve actually used some of the memory techniques Joshua Foer describes there.  (You can watch his TED Talk HERE). Aside from the ‘memory palaces,’ my wife has a nice picture of me studying with my large soundproof earmuffs and my blacked out glasses on. They actually help to fight distraction quite well if you find yourself in a situation where you absolutely have to concentrate.  Adapting doesn’t simply mean capitulating to A.D.D. environments; it means finding ways to fight back.

Reading for the New Year

At the beginning of each new year I read the same three things:

1. Psalm 90

2. Ephesians 5

3. The Resolutions of Jonathan Edwards

I also remind myself of the words of Charles Spurgeon: ‘He who marries today’s fashion is tomorrow’s widow.’

I would also encourage readers (if you aren’t already working through the Bible systematically) to start a plan to read the Bible at least once this year. There are multiple resources available to help you. For those who really want to get after it, I recommend the three month plan HERE. I followed this plan through a few years ago and managed to read the Bible four times that year. I eventually figured out that I could do this without the exact plan so long as I read about 25 minutes a day. I have settled in on three times a year for the past couple of years, that seems to work best for me. I am to the point where I do this by feel, and don’t need to follow a concrete layout, but there  is a structured four month plan available HERE. I will also provide a link to Robert Murray M’Cheyne’s one year plan HERE.

Whatever you do, be persistent. Expect setbacks, and do not let them deter you. This is not something that you do in order to be accepted by God, so there is no external pressure. This is something for the good of your own soul. If you miss a meal, you just eat a little more at the next one. That’s the way it works.

Music of the Spheres: The Heavens as a Hymnbook

I will say up front that this is one of the most helpful paragraphs I have ever read:

The unreasonable creatures are in some sort said to glorify him: [Psalm 19:1] ‘The heavens declare the glory of God.’ How? They give occasion and afford matter whence we may take hints to glorify him. As in music there are the notes set out in the book, and the tongue that sins, or hand that play, which makes the music. The creatures are the notes, or music, that is set, and have the notes, the keys, and characters of the harmonious glory of God stamped upon them, Rom. i. 20. But then there must be an understanding creature, that hath skill and ability, to utter forth the music and harmony of all these.

(Thomas Goodwin, The Work of the Holy Spirit in Our Salvation, p. 498).

Goodwin uses the analogy, we could say, of a hymn book in relation to the shining of the glory of God in creation. The heavens declare the glory of God like a hymnbook declares music. That is, if the heavens are to effective in God’s purposes, they must be read and sung.

I cannot read music. But I can read words. And so I get maybe half the benefit of a hymnbook. I use one every Sunday, and sometimes during the week, and I am able to sing songs that I do not know by heart because of it. A pianist, however, is able to play songs that he or she does not know by heart. I see circles and lines in black ink, she sees music. I see glory, but she sees more glory. And so, in some ways, she is more able to glorify God with that book, because, in light of her knowledge, she can use her instrument to make something that I cannot, and therefore glorify God in a way that I cannot.

The heavens, Goodwin says, are like that hymnbook. There is glory in them. Can you read it? Can you make music out of them? Do you look at the winter sky and, as it were, hear the ‘music of the spheres’? Or, at least, does it cause you to sing?

I was never interested in the planets until I started reading C.S. Lewis, and especially after reading Michael Ward’s book Planet Narnia. But since then I have studied the planets as an interested layman. And so, as I was having a dull drive home from work one night, a bright star, just beside the crescent moon, caught my eye. I began to pan the sky for other stars. I couldn’t find any. And so, I thought to myself, ‘that must be Venus!’

Though Venus had stared at me many nights, I had never really seen her. And there she was, the Evening Star, otherwise known as the Morning Star. I thought of how the Book of Revelation calls Jesus Christ the Morning Star. I thought of how he promised to give us the Morning Star. I thought of the amazing fact that Earth’s sister planet was there, suspended in mid-air, circling around the sun at great speed, but appearing as a still star. I found myself praising God for, and in, this train of thought. For the first time, I understood something of that note in that heavenly hymnbook. Venus was declaring the glory of God. That moment has stuck with me now for over a month. I even wrote a poem about it (HERE).

I have learned not to look at space as space. The Bible calls it ‘the heavens.’ Space is empty. The heavens are full – full of fascinating things, and full of God’s glory.

But the hymnbook analogy has its limitations. I once heard someone, I can’t remember who, ask this question: If a beautiful tree grows deep in the rainforests, where no man has set foot in man years, does that tree glorify God? It almost sounds like the old dilemma of a tree falling when no one is there to hear it. The answer to that dilemma is simple. Who cares if we are not there to hear it, God is there. A lonely tree glorifies God because it is not really lonely – it has a heavenly audience. God sees all, and rejoices in the works of his own hand.

And so, I think, perhaps, Goodwin pushes the analogy too far, as if the hymnbook had no value in itself were there no one to read it. For God can read it. And God can make music of his own. Analogies are never perfect.

And therefore, it is good to see the heavens as a heavenly hymnal of sorts. The black sky is God’s staff. The planets are his bass clef. The stars are his treble clef. We need pianists, violinists, organists, etc. now to read and play. And a gospel to make us a sing.

You can read related thoughts HERE and HERE.

To Gaze at the Beauty of the Lord

I offer my translation of Psalm 27:4:

One thing I have asked of the LORD:
To make my abiding in the house the LORD,

Each day of my life,

To gaze at the beauty of the LORD
And contemplate in his temple

David was a poet, the sweet psalmist of Israel. He had one desire – to abide in the Lord’s house, to behold his beauty, to reflect in his temple – and these three are one.

But he was no romantic.

David, where do you see the beauty of God? Answer: Amidst the people of God. Amidst the smell of the smoke of the burnt offering, mingled with the smoke of incense. Amidst the blood of the sacrifices, and the water of cleansing. Amidst the priests and their vestments. Here I see beauty, the very beauty of the LORD. In the worship of the LORD, with the people of the LORD, in the way of the LORD.

To abide, to gaze, and to reflect in God’s house is to abide in, gaze upon, and think about Jesus Christ. He is the Tent of God that covers us in the day of trouble (v. 5a), the  rocky Summit that lifts us from adversity (v. 5b). He is the sacrifice that brings shouts of joy (v. 6a). He is our song (v. 6b).

Why do we gather together and sing? Why do we lift our voices? Why do we make melody? The beauty of Christ demands it. Not that his beauty demands it in the sense of law, but in the sense of fittingness. It is fitting to sing praises to One so great, so glorious, so beautiful.

He is our answered prayer (v. 7), the Yes and Amen of God. He reveals to us the glory of God in his own face (v. 8). Why do we gather together? To seek the face of God, the beauty of God, which he has revealed to us in his own person and work.

He is the friend that sticks closer than a father or mother, much less a brother (v. 10). He is our hope that, like Job said of old, we will see God in resurrected flesh (v. 13). Why do we gather together? To behold the face of a friend, a beautiful friend, and find hope in the resurrection.

We come together to wait upon the LORD (v. 14a), to receive our marching orders, to find strength and courage to bear our weakness and the week (v. 14b).

In all of this – as we abide, gaze, reflect; as we celebrate atonement, find refuge, shout for joy, sing, voice our amens, seek his face, find a friend, hope in the resurrection – in the midst of the smoke and blood and shouts – we worship. Our worship should be aimed at abiding in him, gazing at him, thinking about him. And as we abide, gaze, and think, we shall be more like him.

That’s why we gather together for worship. Not out of tradition, not for fun, not for entertainment – but to gaze at his beauty and respond appropriately.

Wanderers in the Wilderness though we be…

Psalm 90 is a portion of Scripture that I return to over and over again. The inspired wisdom of Moses is distilled in this psalm to, perhaps, its most potent form. The words of verse one inspired Isaac Watts to write,

O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, our shelter from the stormy blast and our eternal home.

C.H. Spurgeon  comments on verse one (read the whole thing HERE):

Verse 1. Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations.

We must consider the whole Psalm as written for the tribes in the desert, and then we shall see the primary meaning of each verse. Moses, in effect, says – wanderers though we be in the howling wilderness, yet we find a home in thee, even as our forefathers did when they came out of Ur of the Chaldees and dwelt in tents among the Canaanites.

Years ago I rearranged the words of that Spurgeon a bit and formed a sentence that I constantly repeat:

Wanderers in the wilderness though we be, yet we find a home in thee.

Whose Name Was Writ In Water

I am not a poetry expert by any means, but my favorite stanza of all the poetry I have read is from John Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale:

Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
         No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
         In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
         Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
                She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
                        The same that oft-times hath
         Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam
                Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.
I read a short biography of Keats this past week and learned for the first time of the words he requested to be written on his tombstone:

Here lies one whose name was writ in water.

Keats died at 25 years old. His accomplishments as a writer are amazing when you consider how young he died. He had a strong sense of the brevity of life, and his epitaph reflected that. His skylark was immortal but he knew that he was not. Consider therefore the shortness of your life and where your name is written:

  • So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom (Ps. 90:12).
  • He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it (Rev. 2:17).