Exile and the Kingdom: Psalm 137

The context behind this Psalm is that it’s a community lament, probably written in the post-exilic period (that is, around the time of Nehemiah and Ezra, or in the years after that)- the people of God would recite this Psalm and remember the time they were in exile, and how chastening an experience that was. It is important to understand that this Psalm (like others eg 51) probably started out as a personal prayer to God from someone whose emotions were red raw- and this is key to understanding what’s going on. It can probably be inferred that the returnees would have been painfully aware of the reasons they were taken away into exile in the first place (not keeping the covenant they made with God in the first five books of the Old Testament, see Leviticus 26 in particular). Therefore, the Psalm could be seen as perhaps an additional call to remember the covenant, and also God’s grace in taking them back from exile again (see Leviticus 26:40-46). There are three sections: remembering the devastation of the exile; a pledge of loyalty to Jerusalem; and a petition (in exceptionally strong terms) for God to bring justice on the Israelites’ enemies. Happily, the Psalm splits into 3 chunks of 3 verses each.

Psalm 137

1 By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. 2 There on the poplars we hung our harps, 3 for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
The first section remembers the miserable state of the exiles, and the humiliating way they were treated in captivity. This is more than mere homesickness: being removed from Zion (another way of saying Jerusalem), they were removed from the temple, and being removed from the temple meant they were removed from the daily sacrifice as atonement for sin and ultimately from God himself. Sitting down to cry is a perfectly understandable response, then, though the story of Daniel shows that God was still with the people in exile. To top it off, the Babylonians seemed to behave abominably towards their captors, asking them to sing for their amusement. The Psalmists recalls the protest of hanging up their harps in trees as a way of saying “no”. The consequences of these actions are not recorded.
4 How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land? 5 If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill. 6 May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.
The next three verses are a further response to the taunts. They refuse to offer up the Lord’s songs when they are so far from him. So much so, that the psalmist would prefer to become mute or lame if he was to forget the holy city. Why is this so important? Isn’t God with them anyway? Yes he is. But the Psalmist is remembering God’s promise that they would return (Jeremiah 29:10), and to start worshipping the Lord in such a way in Babylon would be to forget God’s covenant. If we suppose that the Psalmist had created a temple in Babylon, set up a priestly system, started sacrifices etc., then that would essentially have been him saying “Yes God, I see your promise, but we can do it just as well here”, thus attempting to do things on his own bat and not under God’s grace. We see time and again throughout scripture that this just doesn’t work.

7 Remember, Lord, what the Edomites did on the day Jerusalem fell. “Tear it down,” they cried, “tear it down to its foundations!” 8 Daughter (of) Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us. 9 Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.

The tone is much darker in the final three verses, and it is here we must remember that this is the prayer of someone who’s deeply distressed at his current situation. This is how the Psalmist feels, and he’s bringing his emotions to God, no holds barred. In a sense, it’s a demonstration of how we should pray, bringing everything to God and holding nothing back.

The Psalmist is asking for justice. First, he starts with the Edomites- Israel’s neighbours and closest relatives (they are descended from Esau, Jacob’s brother), who offered no support when the Babylonians came and took Jerusalem, and appeared to take some glee in their neighbours’ demise, and finally Babylon, the nation that ultimately did for them. The Psalmist would have known Judah’s punishment was due to them, but also that the barbarism shown by the Babylonians was excessive (Isaiah 47). He brings this to God in prayer (possibly with emphasis on the your in your infants) in the hope that God will provide a medium for justice (the blessed individuals) whether or not this medium is actually aware they were carrying out God’s will (as was the case with the Babylonians).

The method he specifies is the most difficult aspect- why is the Psalmist endorsing such an extreme retribution? Alas, infanticide was relatively common in the ancient world (see 2 Kings 8:12, the start of Exodus, and most famously, King Herod) and it’s probable that this is what happened to Judah, so this gives a context to why this is being said. The key verse to remember here is Isaiah 13:16, where it is said of Babylon:

Their infants will be dashed in pieces
before their eyes;
their houses will be plundered
and their wives ravished.

God had made a promise and the Psalmist is remembering this and asking for this to be fulfilled. Therefore, he is not necessarily endorsing the action in of itself, but seeing God’s promises and hoping them.

How do we apply this Psalm after Christ? Should we pray for our enemies to face judgement?

God does promise that those opposed to Him and His people will be subject to judgement. However, Jesus says in Matthew 5:44 to pray for your enemies. Their repentance is to be desired above all else. Is it unfair? In Romans, Paul says no (Romans 3:25-26)- God shows his righteousness by overlooking sins so that people can look on the cross for forgiveness.

I think the key lesson of this Psalm is remembering God’s promises and praying through them when times are difficult.

[Note: this has been sitting in my drafts for about 5 years, I am just pleased to have finally got it out the door, hence the rushed ending]

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The Case for Leviticus

I think it’s fair to say that Leviticus isn’t on everyone’s top 10 Bible books. I’ve heard it cited as boring, irrelevant, and barbaric. It’s true that not a great deal of action happens in it, bar two of Aaron’s sons being punished for offering improper incense (chapter 10), and on the surface there’s not much of a message of hope beyond a sometimes frightening list of rules. Some of these laws do indeed seem from modern Western eyes little short of barbaric, while others are just plain weird.

However, there is definitely merit in reading it, which I will attempt to briefly outline below. I’m not going to go into great detail or explain every law, but I hope to at least give enough of an outline to kindle your interest!

The law itself actually starts in Exodus 20, with the 10 Commandments:

“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery”.

By Exodus’s end, Israel had set up the tabernacle, a sort of temporary moveable forerunner to Solomon’s temple, and the glory of the LORD descended on it (Exodus 40), meaning that God had made his dwelling with them. As such, Leviticus can be regarded as a sort-of lease- if a holy God was going to dwell with them, they had to be holy too (11:44, cited in 1 Peter 1:16).

The first seven chapters go into the (often pretty graphic) details of the sacrificial system. Sacrifices in of themselves were nothing new (see Cain, Noah, and Abraham) but the Mosaic law formalised them.

They were atonements for sin, aids to prayers of petition, and symbols of peace with God. For Christians, all this should sound familiar! Indeed, these chapters enhance our understanding about the sacrifice on the cross in a way we don’t get elsewhere.

After this we have a section on the ordination of the Jewish priesthood, starting with Aaron and his sons (who, as mentioned before, don’t seem to take their job seriously).

This precedes a difficult section on cleanliness and uncleanliness (11-15). There is a temptation to conflate “unclean” with “sinful”, but this is not the case, for example, a husband and wife having sexual relations would be unclean (though such an act is clearly not sinful). The state of cleanliness or uncleanliness dictates what you can or can’t do, such as give peace offerings (7:19-20). In most cases, uncleanliness occurs when there is some kind of bodily fluid or risk to health involved, which would suggest that these laws are at least in part designed to avoid spreading disease. It effectively meant that you were in a temporary state of being unable to approach God or be with his people, and would have affected everyone at some time of their life.

What is most interesting is that these states of uncleanliness were often resolved by bathing, which I speculate is what evolved into the Baptism that John the Baptist was giving (I could be wrong, please say!).

Then comes the day of atonement (chapter 16), in which the sins of the nation were forgiven. Again, this is full of symbolism, pointing to the cross (Hebrews 9:7-14), not just from the sacrifices but also in the role of the priests, who intercede for the nation in the most holy place.

Chapters 17-22 elaborate further on what it means to be holy. Most of the laws in these chapters are designed to show that Israel is distinct from other nations because God is with them (18:1-4). It is in Chapter 19 we find the second part of Jesus’ golden rule “Love your neighbour as yourself” (19:18), which would suggest that there are strong implications, in this chapter at least, for us as Christians.

A description of holy times (23-25) precedes perhaps the most important section of the book, that is the covenant promises and warnings (26). They point forward to the future blessings they would get if they kept the law, and the curses they would get if they did not, which ultimately came true in the Babylonian exile.

But even there we see that God is gracious even before this happens (26:40-45), saying that if there are some among the remnant who believe, that he will remember the covenant, and not destroy them completely.

Chapter 27 concerns vows about dedicating things to the sanctuary and seems somewhat out of place, given the previous material. However, it does give context to figures such as Samuel later on.

Once you’ve read Leviticus, it becomes clear that God is holy, holier than you can possibly imagine. It is difficult and hard work, but I think it deserves a chance. It might lift the veil a little.

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Stumbling Along

I met up with one of the guys from my small group a month or so ago, someone I have known many years and who has been a great source of encouragement to me.

I told him that I had met up with a guy from my small group and felt like I’d failed him because I wasn’t able to answer his question about God’s sovereignty, or that I had pushed him away from God.

He said

Pastoring isn’t about giving people the right answers. It’s about being there while they wrestle with God.

There is more to it than that, sure, but this was extremely liberating. I thought of Job, after he lost everything, his friends came and sat with him for 7 days and 7 nights without saying a word, before putting their foot in it.

The friends did so much more for Job just by being there rather than trying to offer him ill-informed solutions about a God they didn’t really know. We know more about God than Job’s friends did, but there is still so much that is a mystery, and sometimes it might just be the best thing to sit with someone and say “I don’t know either. Why don’t you tell me how it’s bothering you, and we can stumble along together?”.

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Psalm 42

I was led to John Piper’s sermon on spiritual depression in Psalm 42, so I guess you should go there if you want a more thorough breakdown, but I was reading Psalm 42, and thought I would share some thoughts.

Jesus never promised that Christian life was going to be easy- indeed both he and, later on, Paul, make it abundantly clear that their will be times of distress for all believers. This is why it is important that Psalms like 42 (and 43, which was probably removed from the end of 42 for some reason) exist.

We don’t know what the cause of his sadness was. I could speculate that, depending on when the Psalm is written, the verse 

For I used to go with the multitude;

I went with them to the house of God,

With the voice of joy and praise,

With a multitude that kept a pilgrim feast.

 suggests that he might be far from the Temple (maybe during the exile to Babylon), and hence it would make sense that people are asking him “Where is your God?”. In any case, I don’t think that detail is too important, but what is clear is that whatever is bothering the Psalmist is causing him no end of distress and inner turmoil.

He’s crying. The comments of his enemies hurt. In verse 7, he suggests his current condition feels like drowning. He’s not just “down”, he’s in serious trouble. 

However, he’s fighting it. Verse 5:

Why are you cast down, O my soul?

And why are you disquieted within me?

Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him

For the help of His countenance.

 He doesn’t answer his own question here (in hindsight, it’s probably rhetorical),  rather he is persuading himself of the truth that one day he’ll be in a state again where he can be close to God. He doesn’t attain this state during the Psalm, but while sadness permeates every verse, this message of hope is there. And that is what we must fight to keep in mind.

It’s interesting that instead of wallowing in self-pity (he doesn’t ask “why me?” until v9), a lot of this Psalm describes how his condition has left him longing (thirsting) for God. He remembers great things God did for him and his people in the past. He sings God’s praise.

At low points, it’s easy to think God is far away or uncaring, but this Psalm reminds us that God is still there, and He is sovereign, and that there is always hope, as long as we remind ourselves of this fact.

One of the most striking verses in the Old Testament occurs in Genesis 37:20-21: when Joseph had been wrongly accused of attempting to rape his master’s wife in Egypt, he’s sent to jail, and the author has this to say:

Joseph’s master took him and put him in prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined.But while Joseph was there in the prison, the LORD was with him.

Despite everything, God was still there.  He doesn’t change.

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Summer of ’98

In 1998, Britain was in turmoil. No one knew how to cope with the disastrous news.

Geri had left the Spice Girls.

I know it was hard for anyone living through that time, so apologies for bringing up bad memories- but other stuff happened that summer too, namely a World Cup in France. What follows are my memories of the tournament, what I was up to and a few bits of French football and geographic vocabulary to help you along the way.

To lighten the mood, Baddiel, Skinner, and the Lightning Seeds re-recorded their smash hit from two years prior Three Lions which was again a chart-topper, though featuring an unfortunate reference to Gazza being “as good as before” (he was dropped, and didn’t take it very well). We also had Vindaloo to chant along to, in an era where sensible lyrics were at a premium (Life by Des’Ree anyone?).

Scotland were there too, with a tame Del Amitri effort called “Don’t Come Home Too Soon” being oddly prophetic.Screen Shot 2018-06-11 at 20.50.00

Contre son Camp (own goal)

June 10th 1998 was a warm day in Newtownards, but alas it was also a school day and Brazil v Scotland (Le Brésil contre l’Ecosse) kicked off at 4:30. No chance I was getting back in time, not when I have to wait half an hour for a bus to drive past that wasn’t full. So I had a radio with me, where I heard Cesar Sampaio score the tournament’s first goal, a rather ignominious deflection of his shoulder. Not that he cared. I got to my house in time to hear that Scotland were awarded a penalty, and got to the TV just as John Collins tucked it away.

Scotland were spirited, having a couple of decent chances, until Cafu had a shot in the penalty area, taking Jim Leighton by surprise. It hit off his chin, hit the unfortunate Tom Boyd as he was running back and went in. Brazil held on for a 2-1 victory.

At school, it was exam time; we had exams twice a year, I think to get us used to it before doing ones that actually counted for stuff. It was competitive; in prep school, you got ranked according to how you did in your exams and where you sat in the class depended on your rank. I had finished 5th in my class the previous year (up from 22nd out of 24 the previous term) , and was determined to improve on that; unfortunately, the “big school” didn’t have rankings, preferring instead to just tell you your mark privately. There were still prizes up for grabs for coming top of the class though.

My maths teacher had taught us about matrices. Personally, I found the whole multiplication thing a bit stressful and wasn’t sure what the point of it was. Not sure what happened with that. Anyway, the World Cup, being in France, gave me a lot of vocabulary to show off with and (I think) I got 98%. To my horror, I came third. Disastre. After that, it was pretty much plain sailing until the end of term. Some of the teachers allowed us to watch the football instead of teaching us. Frankly, learning about World War I might have been a bit more interesting than the Paraguy v Bulgaria (Le Paraguay contre la Bulgarie). We saw a bit of England v Tunisia  (L’Angleterre contre la Tunisie) too in the random 20 minute maths lesson we had on a Monday. Better than learning anything, I guess.

Hors-jeu (offside)

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Two games stand out from the second group stage: USA v Iran (Les Etats-unis contre l’Iran) and Romania v England (La Roumanie contre l’Angleterre). There was a lot of hype surrounding the former, but I didn’t know why as both sides were fairly rubbish. My mum explained that it was all political, which explained the awkwardness of the pre-match joint team photo. Iran won 2-1 and celebrated like they had won the whole competition; such were their celebrations, they didn’t seem to be all that bothered about turning up for their next game against Germany (L’Allemagne), which, if they had won, would have seen them qualify.

Romania v England was more interesting as it mattered for something. Viorel Moldovan put Romania ahead following some woeful defending; it was all England thereafter. A teenager called Michael Owen took the field with 15 minutes to go and hit an equaliser 6 minutes later. With 9 minutes to go co-commentator Kevin Keegan exclaimed that

There’s only one team that can win this now and that’s England!

In fairness, this wasn’t such a daft thing to say as England were easily on top, but the commentator’s curse (also the ITV curse) saw a long ball reach Dan Petrescu at the other end and he was able to slot it in through Seaman’s legs from a tight angle. 2-1. Michael Owen had a late shot hit the post but it was done with goals.

Elsewhere, Zinedine Zidane was sent off (sadly, not for the last time in a World Cup match) for reacting badly to a foul committed on him against Saudi Arabia (L’Arabie Saoudite). He would redeem himself later, but not the best of starts.

School was keeping us busy by getting us to do various football-related tasks, but in truth, most of the teachers were phoning it in at that point. My younger brother had to write a report on the Scotland v Norway (L’Ecosse contre la Norvège) match and wrote extensively about a player called “Jury” (actually Gordon Durie) who had an eventful game.

Coup Franc (Free Kick)

The last round of group games was eventful. Chile (Le Chili) managed to qualify by drawing all three games, while Austria (L’Autriche) had a curious record of scoring only three goals, all in injury team: it did not help them progress against Italy (L’Italie) though.

Later that evening, we watched Scotland get hammered 3-0 by Morocco (Le Maroc) who were unfortunate to still get knocked out by virtue of Norway’s surprise victory over second-string Brazil.

Spain (L’Espagne) had a similar fate, stuffing Bulgaria 6-1, but going out due to Nigeria’s  (La Nigeria) 1-3 defeat to Paraguay.  There was a power cut at our house on the night England played Colombia (La Colombie). We listened to the first few minutes on the radio, meaning we missed seeing Darren “sicknote” Anderton’s goal. It came on a few minutes later to see David Beckham put a free kick away, meaning England coasted through.

Plucky underdogs Jamaica managed to get a win over fellow minnows Japan (La Jamaïque contre le Japon) but by that stage they were both gone, with Argentina (L’Argentine) winning the group over Croatia (La Croatie)to set up a clash with England. Group Stage done.

We went back to our wall-chart predictions, and the less said about mine the better. Still, there wasn’t long until the holidays so banter chances were minimal.

But en Or (Golden Goal)

We got our exam results back and I’d won a couple of prizes, which I don’t remember, but they certainly won’t have been for English or any of the other “waffly subjects that don’t have right answers”. “How does the writer make the passage humorous?” Said the English exam. “It’s not funny” is not a valid answer, apparently.

There was a new innovation at this World Cup, the Golden Goal: the first team to score in extra time (Prolongation) would win the game. The third of the eight knockout games was the first to feature this innovation and it came from an unlikely source: France struggled to break down Paraguay in 90 minutes, with defender Laurent Blanc firing in with 7 minutes to go. There was no chance of a Paraguayan comeback and France were through.

The last day of term saw England face Argentina in an epic showdown. I was supporting England, I think the last time I would do so in a major tournament. The first half had everything. Two dodgy penalties, a fantastic Michael Owen goal, and a well worked free-kick meant the score was 2-2 at half time. My older brother left the room at half time, I presumed to go to the toilet. When he did not return after half time, I was anxious, because he would miss anything that happened. And happen it did. David Beckham got himself sent off for kicking Diego Simeone. I went to find him, and was gutted to find him watching the match in the other room while drinking a hot chocolate. He gave me a look that said “go away”. 13-year-old me couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t want to watch it with us and I assumed it was because I was being annoying. I went back to the front room sad and didn’t say anything the rest of the match.

David Batty missed the decisive penalty in the shoot-out (Kevin Keegan predicted he would score it, doubling down on his bad predicting fortune). I went to bed unhappy for that and what happened with my brother. I thought that somehow I had annoyed him and that he just couldn’t hack me getting excited.

He was 15 so I can guess this was a moody teenager thing but I can still feel how gutted I was when I saw him on his own. But I would follow suit two years later. I think we preferred to experience these things on our own because we wanted to be our own people (three boys four years apart will be like that)- even TV shows we all enjoyed we would avoid watching together. If we did, we would do so in silence. This is such a stupid thing and there’s so much to regret about it.

Tirs au But (Penalty Shoot-Out)

We went off on holiday after that, first to Norfolk, and then to Cumbria, both for a week. I’ll be honest that neither of these holidays was particularly memorable beyond my getting frustrated about Wimbledon being on the TV loads. We did go to Windsor while my little brother went to Legoland. I was more excited that we got to go to a Little Chef on the way back.

We watched the Netherlands (Les Pays-Bas) face Argentina in one quarter-final. We were supporting the dutch since Argentina had put out England, and we were not disappointed. Two quick-fire goals in the first half were eclipsed by two sendings-off in the second: Artur Numan first for two yellows, then Ariel Ortega for a bizarre head-butt of Edwin van der Sar. Both sides down to ten men, but it doesn’t mean that Dennis Bergkamp’s winner was any less special. He killed the long ball with one touch, outwitted a defender with the second, and fired past Roa with a third. Game over.

Elsewhere, the Germans were routed 3-0 by debutants Croatia, which would start the spell of an era of German mediocrity (and I include the 2002 World Cup in this as they got lucky with the draw there).

In the semi-finals, The Netherlands showed that they can be as good a match as England when it comes to penalty shoot-out losses by losing out to Brazil. The other saw Lilian Thuram’s only two goals for France give Les Bleus a comeback victory over a somewhat unlucky Croatia. The final would take place on my 14th birthday.

Jour de Gloire (Day of Glory)

It was a Sunday so we went to a local Methodist church in the village we were visiting- we didn’t leave the apartment the rest of the day because the British Grand Prix was on and it was a good watch as it rained and there was a good dose of controversy on the side (we didn’t often get to watch the British GP as we were frequently out of the country). I got my first electric razor for my birthday, plus a lot of food. And a World Cup final too, that’s not bad going.

There was drama as Ronaldo, Brazil’s golden boy (not to be confused with the Portuguese version who has better abs and isn’t afraid to show it) was initially left off the team sheet and then appeared on it again. He had had a fit and shouldn’t have played, but the rumour was that Nike had insisted that he play. We’ll not know the truth beyond him being out of sorts during the game.

Two corners, and two Zidane headed goals, and France were on top. Petit added a third, and that was that.

“For eternity” said L’Equipe. That night, at least, it was hard to argue.

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Des Lynam rounded it off with the best closing montage I can remember. Even after 20 years, it is a joy to watch, with Kipling and Fauré’s Pavane setting the mood perfectly.

Japan and South Korea (Corée du Sud) would have much to live to.

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