Psalm 33—An Invitation

Psalm 33 sounds the call to worship, inviting righteous people to praise the Lord, busting out the lyres and harps, creating new songs and shouting of the Lord’s character. And then the psalmist offers the warrant for such a praise summons:

For the Word of the Yahweh is upright,
all his work is in faithfulness;
loving justice and righteousness,
the love of Yahweh fills the whole earth.

Psalm 33:4-5

That last line filled my imagination this morning—what does it mean to say that creation is full of the love of God? Everything God does evidences God’s faithfulness to the love-soaked creation. The love is everywhere, laid open. Mary Oliver’s poem, “I Wake Close to Morning”, captures the sentiment:

Why do people keep asking to see
God’s identity papers

when the darkness opening into morning
is more than enough.1

The psalm adds some color by invoking images of creation, and then invites humanity to stand in awe of a God who “spoke, and it came to be; he commanded and it stood firm.” When God speaks the word, creation comes into order, obeying the Lord’s voice.

Then the contrast: this isn’t like the people in charge of the nations. rather, their plans end up being frustrated, and their armies don’t have the power to save them. Their war horses [read: technological innovations] are “vain hopes for victory”, unable to save them [read: sustain their dominance].

And yet, those who are attentive to the Lord, who fear Yahweh and who hope in God’s love, are delivered from death, and rescued from famine. They can survive scarcity and violence, in other words.

The whole Psalm plays on the contrast of world leaders who seek their own good and scheme to sustain their own power, but ultimately fail to do so, and the Lord who fills the earth with gifts, signs of love, and whose rule is marked by righteousness and justice: those great Biblical words signaling care for vulnerable, marginalized people.

Ultimately, this is what the Psalm calls us towards. Not simply praise for God’s righteousness, but for imitation of it. It calls us to recognize the difference of God, who has true power but uses it generously, and enthroned people who use their incomplete power to inflict harm on others. The psalmist invites us to see such fools from the divine perspective—to watch God watch them—and to see what God sees. Those powers may inflict real harm, but ultimately they turn out to be pretenders, unable to master even their own inner lives, much less order the world.

God sees it all, and invites us to wipe the sleep from our eyes, and see too. Seeing is believing, after all. And all good and true believing becomes doing—in this case, the humble doing of just and righteous people, attentive to the way of God.

  1. This is the opening poem in Oliver’s collection Devotions which is almost cover to cover a meditation on this theme. ↩ 

A Missional Reading of Nahum

Nahum: A Missional Reading

An Angry Poet

Nahum is a vicious book.

It begins with a quote from Exodus 34, which includes the divine self-revelation:

“The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:6–7 NRSV)

In contrast to Jonah’s citation of this text, Nahum attends to the more wrathful bits1:

A jealous and avenging God is the Lord,
the Lord is avenging and wrathful;
the Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries
and rages against his enemies.
The Lord is slow to anger but great in power,
and the Lord will by no means clear the guilty.
(Nahum 1:2–3 NRSV)

The wrath of the Lord is focused in this text on Judah’s imperial enemy Assyria. the burning poetry flows from the trauma of the Assyrian destruction of the northern tribes and near destruction of Jerusalem. The prophet’s message is that though the Empire is still “at full strength and many”, their reign is coming to an end.2However, the good news Nahum envisions being proclaimed is the destruction of Nineveh—a destruction which is imagined in vivid detail.

Because of the countless debaucheries of the prostitute,
gracefully alluring, mistress of sorcery,
who enslaves nations through her debaucheries,
and peoples through her sorcery,
I am against you, says the Lord of hosts,
and will lift up your skirts over your face;
and I will let nations look on your nakedness
and kingdoms on your shame.
I will throw filth at you
and treat you with contempt,
and make you a spectacle.
(Nahum 3:4–6 NRSV)

Nahum is a challenging book for missional readers, providing no easy forgiveness or reconciliation for Assyria, no word of hope for the poet’s enemy. It is revenge poetry, much like Obadiah, written in solidarity with a victimized people.

One way of reading it is to enter into that solidarity. Reading Nahum alongside those who have received trauma and exploitation prepares us to be allies of the oppressed in our own age.

When Bad News is Good News

Readers might be surprised to read the familiar text of Nahum 1:15 in its context. In Romans 10:15, Paul alludes to this text, which is a parallel of sorts to Isaiah 52:7. Nahum’s version reads:

Look! On the mountains the feet of one
who brings good tidings,
who proclaims peace!

However, here there is no real word of a full, Messianic peace. The only peace Nahum can envision comes from the impending destruction of Assyria. The utter flattening of this imperial power is Good news for her victims.

Let’s not scoff at this vengeful spirit too quickly—it needs to be heard. The corrupted, devastating power of Assyria had to be stopped, and the word of Nineveh’s collapse could only be received as good news by those victims who had struggled under her power and longed for relief. To read this text in solidarity with the victimized means celebrating the end of terror. Is there any other way to enter into communion with those who have been broken by others than to stand with them as they ask for justice?

Is There Any Room For Mercy Towards Assyria?

But what about the other side? Is there any place for solidarity with Nineveh? Nahum (justifiably) cannot imagine it. God will have a hard time lining up mourners at the funeral:

Then all who see you will shrink from you and say,
“Nineveh is devastated; who will bemoan her?”
Where shall I seek comforters for you?
(Nahum 3:7 NRSV)

Nobody sheds a tear for the oppressor. Indeed, Nahum recognizes that Assyria’s cruel reach has been universal—and celebration over her downfall will surely be so as well.

All who hear the news about you clap their hands over you.
For who has ever escaped your endless cruelty?
(Nahum 3:18–19 NRSV)

Only after we have read this text in solidarity with the victims, wept for them and stood with them while they have we lashed out can we understand what it means to reach toward the oppressor. It’s hard to find a leverage point for mercy, a place where we can begin to see that they have been broken, too. Though they have exercised agency in the process, they have also been acting out a role, been victims of the corrupted structures of the world, the game laid out for them. Did they truly understand their own evil? What forces were they swept up in?

Eventually we might find a way to ask, “Is there any hope for their redemption?” We may struggle towards an imagination of what repentance might look like for them. The struggle is a good sign, an indication that we are reading Nahum on its own terms. But ultimately, Nahum needs a conversation partner, and the Minor Prophets oblige us, bringing Jonah to the table.3Nahum’s Conversation Partner: Jonah

Although Jonah is the more familiar book, it makes sense to me to read NAhum first, absorbing its pathos before turning to Jonah. The dissonance of Jonah emerges more clearly when we read Nahum, absorbing the trauma and finding solidarity with the victims. Then, all of a sudden, Jonah doesn’t seem like simply a foolish, begrudging simpleton. His response, even if comically tragic, makes sense coming from the perspective of Nahum. The big differences between the prophet Nahum and Jonah?

  1. Nahum received a word for Judah, Jonah was sent to Nineveh.
  2. Jonah gets eaten by a fish and vomited.

The perspective of the two prophets towards Nineveh are likely in alignment with each other. Jonah shouts Amen all through Nahum’s sermon, and Nahum screams in protest when God sends Jonah to the Assyrians.

On the other hand, the books Nahum and Jonah are pointed in different directions. Jonah is an astonishing, dumbfounding, stupefying answer to Nahum’s rhetorical question, “Nineveh is devastated; who will bemoan her?”. The whole book points towards a final question: “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

Who mourns over Nineveh’s destruction? God does.

Is Judah’s pain real? Yes.

Does Nineveh need to be stopped? Yes.

Is retribution in order? Yes.

Does God care? Yes.
God cares for the Jew and the Assyrian.

Reading Like an Assyrian

One last thing. Nahum expresses Judah’s anguish over Nineveh’s oppression and to provide hope for relief from that oppression. As readers from afar, I think that reading in solidarity with the oppressed Jews is the primary mode of reading the text, we should also consider another perspective: reading as Assyrians. It’s worth considering whether our position is most naturally that of the underdogs in the story. We might, rather, be the empowered empire that inflicts suffering on others and exploits them for our own ends. There are certainly those in the world that see the tribes that I belong to (American, White, Christian) in that light. This angle too can be over simplified, but it’s worth considering.

It may be that, as I learn to read in solidarity with the oppressed who cry out for justice, I have to own my role in the empire. It may be that such a reading provokes me to really see my own complicity with violence and runaway power, and calls me to repent.

The missional way stretches towards justice in the whole world, longing with God for all of creation to flourish, with each human freely obeying God, receiving God’s grace and mercy. We long for each person and every nation to experience the abundance of creation, God’s love, and the community of loving, just humanity. Following such a way demands that I continually repent, gaining new self-understanding and turning again to follow God.

When I read with the possibility that I am more likely Potiphar than Joseph, Pharaoh than Moses, Nebuchadnezzar than Daniel, it opens up my heart to repent of corruption and the exploitation of the less powerful. Nahum stands in that space, and I can either cry out with him, or I can hear the prophet call out against me from a distance, and seek change. It may be that a different moments of my life, I need to do both.

  1. The first part of that language also points us towards the decalogue itself. The second command reads: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Exodus 20:4–6 NRSV)
  2. Nahum 1:12
  3. This is a great example of the kinds of conversations bouncing between the prophets. If we read them like something of a symposium, rich connections emerge. Obadiah, and Habakkuk, come to mind as equally rich conversation partners for Nahum.

Pride and Fall

The Setup

For the Jews to whom Daniel was written, the Exile was the grief of griefs. Babylon swept in to Judah like a flood, drowning any sense of their ability to defend themselves and shattering any illusion of safety that Judah clung to. Nebuchadnezzar’s troops dismantled the city, robbed the temple, and stole every last ounce of pride that they could find. What they left behind was a deeply broken people.

The pain of the moment was so severe that it created generational trauma, passed down from parent to child, and eventually to grandchildren. The devastating impact reverberated through decades, and created a fundamental challenge to their self-understanding and their identity as God’s people.

As is often the case, such pain carried with it terrible bitterness—much of it deserved—towards those who had been the agents of death and chaos. The babylonians were the villains of the story, and Nebuchadnezzar was their king.

The book of Daniel is written with the backdrop of all that pain. All of the suffering which didn’t need to be spelled out is captured by the short prologue to the book, which simply says :

“In the third year of the reign of King Jehoiakim of Judah, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. The Lord let King Jehoiakim of Judah fall into his power, as well as some of the vessels of the house of God. These he brought to the land of Shinar, and placed the vessels in the treasury of his gods.” (Daniel 1:1–2 NRSV)

Daniel then begins by with a story about what it means to survive in such an empire without losing your head or your heart, a story of savvy subversion in which Daniel gets his foot in the door as the interpreter of the visions the pagan king has but cannot understand, and a tale about what it means to worship God alone, even when threatened by a king who worships himself.

The Story

Whether in a courthouse scene or in the life of faith, it is always dramatic when an odd character all of a sudden emerges to give incredible testimony. In Daniel 4, the crazy twist is that the person giving the testimony of the greatness of Israel’s God is Israel’s greatest Enemy!

The story opens with Nebuchadnezzar receiving a terrifying dream, and desperately searching for its meaning. He recounts the dream to Daniel, hoping he will interpret it:

“Upon my bed this is what I saw;
there was a tree at the center of the earth,
and its height was great.
The tree grew great and strong,
its top reached to heaven,
and it was visible to the ends of the whole earth.
Its foliage was beautiful, its fruit abundant,
and it provided food for all.
The animals of the field found shade under it,
the birds of the air nested in its branches,
and from it all living beings were fed.”1

Note that the image here is not only of the emperor’s power, but of the capacity of that power to bring the flourishing of life. Of course we know that imperial power also holds a capacity for great harm, and such was the experience of the Jews at the hands of the Babylonians.

At any rate, the dream moves on, and regardless of how the emperor was going to use his power, he finds that it is to be taken from him, as a watcher comes and proclaims: “Cut down the tree and chop off its branches, strip off its foliage and scatter its fruit…”2 The poetic proclamation of judgment goes on to tell of the dehumanization of Nebuchadnezzar, who is going to revert to an animal state for a while.3 Far from being purposeless suffering, though, this is all with a particular intent: that “all who live” would know the sovereignty of God, and that God gives power “to whom he will”, and gives it to even the lowliest of human beings.”

Daniel, understanding the dream, reacts surprisingly: he was “severely distressed for a while”, and “his thoughts terrified him”. The shocking truth is that this story evokes empathy for Nebuchadnezzar. While one would expect an exiled Jew to be elated that the oppressor would be humiliated, in this story the news distresses Daniel—and the story is designed to evoke that same empathy in the reader as well.

The Surprise

However, the story isn’t done messing with its readers yet—and the biggest surprise is how it concludes. after his dehumanization, the narrative actually takes on Nebuchadnezzar’s voice.

When that period was over, I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me. I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored the one who lives forever.

For his sovereignty is an everlasting sovereignty,
and his kingdom endures from generation to generation.
All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing,
and he does what he wills with the host of heaven
and the inhabitants of the earth.
There is no one who can stay his hand
or say to him, “What are you doing?”4

Nebuchadnezzar, the arrogant oppressor of God’s people, comes to repent and acknowledge God’s sovereignty. The shocking message: Even Nebuchadnezzar can change.

The Old Testament is full of the enemies of God’s people, but the most powerfully oppressive empires were Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon5. Get this: the Hebrew Bible contains a story where each of them comes to their senses and acknowledges the rule of Israel’s God. In each, God uses an unlikely and humiliated spokesperson—Moses, Jonah, and Daniel—to call the king to acknowledge God.

In this story, the great villain of the history of Israel—Nebuchadnezzar—ends up worshipping God!

And you think your neighbor is beyond redemption?

Perhaps you’ve thought that you are?

  1. Daniel 4:10-12, NRSV
  2. Daniel 4:14, NRSV
  3. It’s interesting to read this story in conversation with the Genesis account fo the creation of humanity—perhaps Nebuchadnezzar represents not just imperial power, but humanity in their calling to have dominion on the earth for the sake of creation’s flourishing. But that’s a blog for another day.
  4. Daniel 4:34–35, NRSV.
  5. The scriptures treat Persia with discretion and the resistance to Persian imperial power is written much more subtly into the text than the outright laments over the destruction wrought be the other three.

Psalm 55: A Poem of Betrayal

The scriptures in general often emphasize facets of the story outside our attention, drawing theological pictures that don’t immediately appear to us when we come to them with a different set of theological questions. The phenomenon occurs in the gospels as well as the other parts of scripture, and perhaps it’s particularly poignant in the story of Jesus’s death. Our approach to the story has been so thoroughly conditioned that it’s too easy for us to enter the passion narratives with heavy expectations of the kind of things we’ll find there, and thus miss points that the story itself is giving us.

One such undervalued facet of the story is Jesus’s experience of betrayal and abandonment. The gospel narratives explore the theme thoroughly—I worked on Mark’s depiction in the sermon on the video below, but the theme exists in the other three gospels as well.

The custom in our church is to open each week’s worship with a Psalm, and for me the choice for this week was simple: Psalm 55. The Psalms capture human experiences and emotions, and demonstrate what it means to lay those experiences before God. Psalm 55 captures beautifully the anguish of betrayal, which is a profoundly common (universal?) human experience.

The poem opens with a cry to God, expressing the poet’s distress over “the noise of the enemy”, and the “clamor of the wicked”, and then elaborates:

My heart is in anguish within me,
    the terrors of death have fallen upon me.
Fear and trembling come upon me,
    and horror overwhelms me.
And I say, “O that I had wings like a dove!
    I would fly away and be at rest;
truly, I would flee far away;
    I would lodge in the wilderness;
I would hurry to find a shelter for myself
    from the raging wind and tempest.
(Psalm 55:4-8, NRSV)

Having described the anguish in terms many other Psalms might use, this Psalm then plays its twist: the enemies are actually the poet’s friends.

It is not enemies who taunt me—
    I could bear that;
it is not adversaries who deal insolently with me—
    I could hide from them.
But it is you, my equal,
    my companion, my familiar friend,
with whom I kept pleasant company;
    we walked in the house of God with the throng.
(Psalm 55:12-14, NRSV)

The psalmist begins to call for God’s response before further describing the experience of betrayal:

My companion laid hands on a friend
    and violated a covenant with me
with speech smoother than butter,
    but with a heart set on war;
with words that were softer than oil,
    but in fact were drawn swords.
(Psalm 55:20-21, NRSV)

The cries for help and the poet’s statements of trusting the Lord in the face of distress are similar to what we find in other laments throughout the Psalms. However, this one’s way of evoking empathy from the reader (or worshipper) is by the dramatic unfolding of a painful reality—it is indeed our friends who can hurt us in the deepest way possible. This psalm hold that card and then slaps it down on the table with the authority of experience, and all those who hear it can only wince and grieve alongside of the one who has tasted bitter betrayal.

How might we respond to such a psalm? With empathy for the betrayed for sure, but also I think a deeper commitment to be faithful friends who avoid dealing out this kind of bitterness to others. There is, after all a beautiful reality on display even in the bitter sadness—we experience betrayal only because friendship and faithfulness really do matter to us. The depth of our anguish and sorrow reveals our capacity to love and the role of companionship and community in a full human life. It is the shadow side of something we deeply value—even if we don’t know how to do it right. So in its own way, a Psalm like this with its tragic experience of betrayal is leading us to a more careful, vibrant experience of community, full of the sort of friendship that marks a flourishing humanity.

The Psalm also provides its own way forward, the laying of such a naked human experience before God. It is a raw prayer of pain, but also holding a latent hope that such wrongs will be made right. If the psalmist’s prayers are a bit too vindictive for us, we can at least laud the poet’s trust in the Lord to avenge the harm rather than taking vengeance personally.

Psalm 2 and Power

Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
Be warned, O rulers of the earth.

Serve the LORD with fear,
with trembling kiss his feet,

Or he will be angry, and you will perish in the way,
for his wrath is quickly kindled.

Happy are all who take refuge in him.

Psalm 2 is one of the royal psalms (2, 18, 20, 21, 45, 72, 89, 93, 110, 132, 144)  and as such celebrates the partnership between God and the Davidic king. The king becomes an instrument of God’s rule over the earth, not unlike the prototypical humans of Genesis 1, and is given the task of enforcing God’s will among the nations, bending the rebellious forces to submission before the Lord. All of this is a reflection of the divine sanctioning of the king’s power.

And yet, being good poetry, the Psalms also carries a subversive note as well. It calls out to the kings of the other nations to “be warned” and to “be  wise”, calling them to serve the Lord in the realization of their subordination to God’s own power.

Indeed, this call, though posed to the nations, is also before the king who sits in Jerusalem as well. God’s own king is only blessed (or “happy”), when he has taken refuge in the Lord. The form of the beatitude (“Blessed is the man who…”) helps pair the Psalm with the one before it, and Psalm 1 marks out the road that leads to blessing as sharply forked between those who take the path of the “wicked” and those whose attention is given to God’s instruction. the point of all this is that even the king of Judah, who has received power from God in partnership with God, must use that power in accordance with God’s own wisdom. Any power that fails to do this is doomed to “perish” as both of these first two psalms attest (Psalm 1:6, 2:11).

The second psalm, then, does indeed affirm the power of the king, but places that power in a theological context, one which will take on particular ethical flavors in others Psalms as it becomes clear what God expects the king in Jerusalem to do—preserve justice and righteousness. It is this sort of context that enriches the Psalm’s messianic flavor—the Psalm was read by the early church as containing the seed idea of the messiah as a Son of God who will become the true king. We should not miss though, that it also contains a word about what kind of king that messiah would be—one who is not only empowered by God, but who is attentive to God’s way as well.

Those who see their lives as joined to such a messiah, receive here not just an affirmation, but a call to faithfulness as people following God’s way in the world.

Joseph and Jacob’s Story

Your story is not just your storyA few years ago we were getting ready to have VBS and we asked Dr. John Fortner to come and help prep our adults with a theological understanding of the story we were going to work on—the Joseph narrative. One of the best insights for me that came out of that story was how the Joseph story really fits into the larger narrative of the patriarchs, and particularly into the story of Jacob.

For most of Jacob’s life, he is an absolute control freak, scheming for control over virtually everyone in his life. He lies cheats and steals his way to the top. Even though God appears to him, and promises to be with him, he seems to believe that life would be much better if he (Jacob) were in control, and he consistently resists God’s initiative.

Now, I think most people would see and agree with that. Unfortunately, we tend to atomize the text—we separate out the stories of the Bible into individual tales, and lose the intergenerational narrative that Genesis (and the rest of scripture) is telling.  When we do that we lose some insights—for instance, the significance of the Joseph saga.

The Joseph saga is not just about how things worked out for Joseph. It’s about how things worked out for Jacob. It’s about how things worked out for God’s people.  See, the Joseph story is really just a long stretch within the story of Jacob—it’s the definitive blow to Jacob’s mentality that he is in charge. He can’t manipulate God. He can’t micromanage the promise of God. It seems like he’s in control until Joseph (he thinks) dies. That concept completely rocks Jacob’s world, and since he’s not in control, he basically gives up on life and waits to die. He seems to think God has abandoned him.

However, after he learns Joseph is alive, Jacob has another theophany, where God appears to him, reassures him that he is still with him, after all this time. Jacob turns loose of all the control, and it seems to me like he actually reinterprets his life through that insight.  Now he can (for the first time!) tell Joseph about the promise of God. (Joseph will later tell the rest of the brothers.) Now he can refer to God as the one who “has been my shepherd all my life to this day.” Jacob can finally affirm the promise of God and the continual working of God, even in light of his own impending death! Reading Genesis 48 with this insight has been a powerful adjustment to the way I’ve read the Joseph saga before, and indeed the way I see my own life.

Think about the deeper lesson here about reading the scriptures: Anytime we read a text, we need to remember to pull back and see it from a perspective of the broader story of the mission of God. Each story is unique and important on its own terms, but becomes even more incredible when viewed in terms of a longer context. Reading a text like the Joseph saga with a missional perspective allows us to pick up different layers of what’s happening in the moment of the text as well as how that text contributes to (or complicates) the larger story of God and the world.

It’s not just Joseph’s story. It’s not even Jacob’s story. It certainly isn’t simply my story. These are all moments in God’s story.

It's not just Joseph's story. It's not even Jacob's story. It isn't my story. These are moments in God's story. Click To Tweet