For various reasons I’ve been doing a fair amount of reading in the Old Testament lately. I could get distracted here in itemizing some the reasons for that or in struggling to avoid alienating non-Christian readers here by taking time to justify my use of the Christian term for the books in question, but I’ll leave those aside for now. I’ll just say that when I went to church last Sunday and the text for the Second Advent Sunday’s sermon was Psalm 96, it pricked my interest because it related to things I’d been thinking about.
The Psalms are a fascinating literature collection on all sorts of levels. I don’t pretend to be either a great scholar of such literature (I passed my basic classes in Biblical Hebrew and then forgot all of it) or a great mystic who gets regular messages from God via these texts. It’s just a fascinating game for someone with my level of knowledge to try to put together a reasonable guess as to when each of them might have been written and what the writer was going through at the time. Then from there it is interesting to consider how many of the very human emotions, reactions and self-assurances given there relate directly to life as I know it, and how many are exercises in empathy with those with an entirely different range of experiences. This game (or exercise) is directly relevant to the faith of Jews, Christians, Muslims and Baha’is in particular, who all officially recognize these writings as reflecting “prophetic” experiences of men (and perhaps some women) who had direct contact with the one true God, but they are really of interest to anyone who is interested in exploring the “spiritual” aspects of the human experience.
This isn’t to say that everything in the Psalms should be taken as a benchmark for spiritual experience. The most obvious example to the contrary is Psalm 137: 8-9: “happy is […] he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.” Anyone who would take that as a standard for their own behavior is not what I would call a spiritual person, or even a moral or psychologically healthy person. Justifying baby bashing and other such practices on the basis of such a scriptural precedent is the worst form of aggressively non-thinking religious observance. Let each reader examine his/her own heart to determine how he/she might avoid such barbarism in the name of faith.
The way I take such verses, in context, is as an honest reflection of how it feels for even the most spiritual person to be in a state of total oppression; or in other cases being overcome by feelings such as victorious jubilation, profound guilt, bitterness over unfair treatment, sublime thankfulness and/or awe at the majesty of the world around us, to name a few. The message I take from these psalms is that faith isn’t something reserved for spiritual supermen. The most profoundly spiritual people were often the most confused and messed up of individuals by other standards. Thus the threshold for being a prophet really wasn’t all that high in terms of emotional intelligence and all that. The primary virtues required were honesty and openness to the importance of things beyond oneself –– and even in those the prophets and psalmists failed miserably at times. But even in their failures they were doing exactly as God had planned because in doing so they were providing the sort of hope that a basket cases like me needs not to give up.
One of my Old Testament professors at the University of Helsinki claimed that the Psalms probably represent the oldest writings in the Bible, at least in terms of their taking the final shape they each have. When challenged on that, however, she acknowledged that the Psalms also include some relatively recent writings by biblical standards. In fact it would be fair to say that the Psalms as a whole cover the full historical scope of ancient Israel and Judah, starting with works credited to Moses and running all the way through to the post-exilic period. The bulk of them seem to have been written during the time of ancient Israel being a united kingdom but then without warning you can find some from way earlier or way later tossed in here and there. Sometimes the clues to the changed time perspective are very subtle, and easy to miss. So it was for me with Psalm 96 last weekend.
This particular Psalm is in the middle of a section called Book 4 within the Book of Psalms. One of the pieces there (#90) is attributed to Moses and another (#101) to David, but the rest are open to scholarly guessing as to exactly who wrote them when. In Psalm 95 the only historical reference points are in verses 8 and 9, rephrasing God’s message about not screwing up the same way that the Israelites did back when Moses was running things. That would seem to indicate that it was written pretty early on, before any particular scandals or tragedies of the kingdoms needed to be explained away, but there’s no guarantee there. Psalm 97 in turn refers to other nations seeing God glorified in Zion and the villages of Judah in particular. That would seem to indicate that it would have been written after the “northern kingdom” had already been taken over by Assyria, but while Judah was still autonomous and worshiping “the God of their fathers”; perhaps during King Hezekiah’s reign. But none of this gives a clue as to when Psalm 96 would have been written.
The key to finding the historical context for Psalm 96 comes down to its very last verse: “…for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in truth.” That would indicate that this poem was written during the time of messianic expectation, after the Babylonian Captivity. That would also explain why some Anglican bishop decided that this text would be appropriate for the Advent season. Allow me to unpack that a bit.
There’s a fair amount of truth to the cynical summary of world religions that came out sometime in the 1980s, which I’ve seen in many different versions since. It always starts with the message of Taoism being “shit happens” and always ends with the message of Rastafarianism being “let’s smoke this shit.” In between, among other things, it summarizes the essential message of Judaism as being a question: “Why does this shit always happen to us!?”
This was something that the Jews had to start asking themselves after, in spite of claiming that their god was the all-powerful creator of the universe, over and over again they got their asses kicked in battle. If they had such a big god, why did they keep losing?
The essential answer which they eventually arrived at for this question is that they lost because God let them lose because they weren’t taking their submission to him seriously enough, and once they would get their act back together in that way God would send them a hero to put things right and restore the glory that they had back in the good old days –– when David was king –– only somehow better.
So a psalm talking about how God was on his way to judge the world and set things right would have necessarily been written around the time that the Jews were coming to those sorts of conclusions about their purpose in life; at the time when the Persians were enabling them to rebuild their temple in Jerusalem. It was a time when –– in terms of an analogy I’ve used fairly often –– they thought they could see a light at the end of their tunnel, but when they couldn’t exclude the possibility that it was an on-coming train.
In the times since, the Jewish people have had many experiences of hope for improvement in both spiritual and political terms, but time after time those hopes have been rather brutally dashed to bits. Yet the true genius of their faith is that for all the times and ways in which this hope has been sickeningly deferred, it has not been lost. They still wait for the Messiah to come and set things permanently right –– just as Christians and Muslims both await the second coming of Jesus, each with the expectation that he will definitively prove to the others that they were right all along.
Years ago, when I was working for an exclusively Jewish retirement resort in the US, there was one old fellow there, Henry, who smoked a rather rare form of tobacco in his pipe. He used to tip fairly well for the favor whenever someone would pick up a pouch of this blend for him from the designer tobacco shop in the city, and whenever he got his fresh supply he would tell the same joke: “You know, David, when the Messiah comes I will never run out of tobacco ever again.” He knew that some people would consider such a jest sacrilege, but in private he didn’t mind. Everyone has their own sort of hopes for how the world could best be made into a better place, he figured, and for him, at his advanced age, as good an improvement as any would be to have an unlimited supply of his favorite pipe tobacco.
Hope can be a wonderful and terrible thing in these sorts of ways. Years and years ago I read a quote in some psychology magazine that has stuck with me. (I’d be happy to give the proper person credit for it if someone could tell me who it is, but I honestly don’t remember.) The quote goes, “Hope is the memory of the future.” I rather like the way that sums up the whole issue. We can only hope for things that we find traces of in our memory. We can only aim towards that which we can see based on where we’ve already been. Thus, for example, much of my experience here in Africa hasn’t at all disappointed me, but it hasn’t been what I’d hoped for, simply because my experience had not equipped me to hope for the sort of things I’ve encountered here. I wouldn’t have been able to hope for or to fear the sort of things that have happened to me here because of how different they have been from all that has gone before.
Hope therefore has a bit of a nostalgic element to it. In that regard the hope that the psalmist reflects in Psalm 96 is based on a type of nostalgia for the peak years of the ancient Israeli empire, back when David was king. Those were the days!
Or were they? We justifiably complain about the continuous state of war that our politicians seem determined to keep us in, but that is really nothing new. In fact I came across a rather ironic verse in the Bible recently describing the status quo during King David’s time: 2 Samuel 11:1 – “In the spring, at the time when kings go off to war…” So the historian who was writing this considered war to be just as inevitable a part of life in “the good old days” as the changing of the seasons. Is that sort of perpetual conflict really what we want to look forward to?
But Psalm 96 doesn’t actually speak directly to what sort of victories are expected or any other specific hopes regarding what “the coming of the LORD” will bring. It doesn’t even say anything directly about whose side God is going to be on. It only says that the Lord is strong enough so that nobody’s going to stop him from doing what he’s decided to do, and he’s going to be perfectly fair about things. In other parts of Old Testament as well, the message of the messianic prophets starts to morph from, “in the end we win!” into, “in the end there will be justice!” So with only those criteria established, if we’re asked if this coming of the Lord is a good thing, some might be inclined to quote Borat in saying, “Not for me!”
What if that’s really what it all comes down to? Rather than waiting for God to do something supernatural to clean up all our mistakes for us, are we ready for God to just start more thoroughly enforcing a principle of kindness, fairness, decency and respect coming back to those who have shown kindness, fairness, decency and respect to others? News flash: that might be all the salvation we have coming; that might be the basic essence of what heaven has to offer. And the fact that we don’t yet know how to hope for this properly because it still falls outside of the realm of our experience doesn’t exclude the possibility.
But then we come back to the general lesson of the Psalms as a whole: even the holiest of men and women screw up every now and again. We all have our basic human tendencies to react badly to certain situations at times, but that doesn’t stop God from caring about us and even helping us out every now and again. We can’t worship a God whose only primary attribute is perfect justice, because such a God would inevitably have to fry us all. We also need to believe that the almighty is also capable of being merciful, which leads to the conclusion that we in turn need to be ready to be merciful to others. So there’s a bit of a balance to be found: we make a point of caring about others with hopes that we too can receive a bit of care when we need it; and we need to acknowledge our error when we get careless towards others and treat them as though they’re less important to God than we are.
This, I admit, is a more directly religious version of the message of hope than I usually post here, but I have to acknowledge that if the point of this blog is to shoot for basic honesty in searching for truth, this too is part of how I personally tend to go about it. If someone wants to challenge my presuppositions here, feel free to have at it. I guess my main point would be, as I was implying last time, religion shouldn’t be a means of justifying ourselves in spite of not caring about others; it should be a means of enabling ourselves to go beyond our natural limitations and start caring more about others. And towards that end, here’s wishing you all a blessed continuation to the Advent season.