Joy in Salvation

Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018
Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018

Sermon given in Lenten Service, 7:00 p.m. April 3, 2019 at Centreville Presbyterian Church, Centreville, Virginia.

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Prelude

Good evening. Welcome to the CPC Lenten series on the Hallel Psalms. For those of you who do not know me, my name is Stephen W. Hiemstra. Since graduating from seminary in 2013, I have been a Christian author and volunteer in Hispanic ministry.

This evening we focus on Psalm 116, a thanksgiving psalm that celebrates our personal salvation in the midst of a dangerous world.

Scripture

Psalm 116:1-4

Invocation

Let’s begin with prayer.

Merciful father,

All praise and honor are yours, because you hear our prayers, comfort us in our afflictions, and rescue us from death itself.  

We confess that we are unworthy of your affections and we thank you for teaching us to love. 

Draw us now to yourself. In the power of your Holy Spirit, open our hearts, illumine our minds, and strengthen our hands in your service. In Jesus precious name, Amen.

Story

What brings you joy? (2X)

In 2012 I worked at Providence Hospital as a chaplain intern and requested assignment to the Alzheimer’s unit in Carroll Manor. There I met a man who I will call Albert.

Albert spent his days wandering up and down the halls in the lock-down unit.  Albert would come up to you and attempt to talk, but could only blather incoherently, which disturbed him greatly. Other patients could talk; Albert could only blather.

One Friday afternoon, I recruited some patients to attend Happy Hour. Happy Hour was mostly a punch and cookie affair, but they often invited musicians to entertain the guests. 

So being the trouble-maker that I am, I recruited about a dozen patients, including Albert, and headed for the door. As I punched us out, a nurse ran up to me.

Steve, Steve. Where are you going? 

We’re going to Happy Hour.

But you can only take three patients.

So, I recruited several reluctant nurses and headed again towards the door.

Again, the nurse approached me. Wait a minute—you can’t take Albert. He will wander off.

I will keep a special eye on Albert!

So finally, with my dozen patients and the reluctant nurses I took the elevator up to Happy Hour.

Well, we had a blast. The jazz saxophonist playing that afternoon was just wonderful. My patients all got up and started dancing to the music, including Albert. Alzheimer’s patients, unlike other seniors, always have fun because they have forgotten what it means to be shy and embarrassed.

Before we were done, Albert had danced with at least three different women and he came back to the unit speaking in complete sentences. (2X) His awakening lasted another six weeks that I know about. His joy at hearing Jazz music again healed him of his former blathering, which I took as a bonified miracle. IT REALLY WAS A MIRACLE.

Well, if a little joy can bring the absent-minded Alzheimer’s patient back to earth, how much more can the joy of salvation in Jesus Christ change human lives, our lives?

Text

What brings joy to our psalmist this evening?

The first four verses of Psalm 116 tell his story—

I love the LORD, because he has heard my voice and my pleas for mercy. 2Because he inclined his ear to me, therefore I will call on him as long as I live. 3The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish. 4Then I called on the name of the LORD: “O LORD, I pray, deliver my soul!” (Slide 1)

Verse one here explains his joy—“I love the LORD, because he has heard my voice and my pleas for mercy.” Actually, English translations insert the word, LORD, which does not appear in the original Hebrew or in the Septuagint Greek. The Hebrew simply reads: I have loved because he has heard my voice…We hear an echo of the original Hebrew in John’s first letter: “We love because he first loved us.”(1 John 4:19)

Moving on to verse two, the psalmist reiterates the importance of being heard and takes a vow: “Because he inclined his ear to me, therefore I will call on him as long as I live.” This vow is interesting because if you pray or sing this psalm, as is the custom, you also repeat this vow.

How many of us haven’t repeated this vow? I certainly have. My call story began back in 1992 when I cried out to the Lord in Georgetown University hospital over my ten-week-old son, Reza, as he waited for risky emergency surgery for a blocked kidney. God heard my prayer. The surgery succeeded; today my son works as an engineer in Phoenix and here I am as a testimony to answered prayer.

Why is listening so important to the psalmist? Verse three reiterates the answer three times: The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish.” In other words,death had surrounded me; hell had opened its doors to pull me in; and I was terrified. The repetition assures us that the psalmist’s vow in verse two is not to be taken lightly.

Verse four then closes the loop by returning to the second half of verse one. Verse one talks of “pleas for mercy, while verse four cites the psalmist’s actual prayer: “O LORD, I pray, deliver my soul!”

So what brings joy to the psalmist? The Lord rescued him from death.  Commentators believe Psalm 116 is a crib notes version of Psalm 18 where King David recounts his own brush with death. Even more bone-crushing details can be found in 2 Samuel 22.

Reflection

Let me pivot at this point to reflect on the backstory to Psalm 116. In this respect, let me draw your attention to the pattern in Psalm 116 that relates to the promise of Moses in Deuteronomy 30. 

Hear the word of the Lord:

“And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the LORD your God has driven you, and return to the LORD your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the LORD your God has scattered you.”(Deut. 30:1-3) (Slide 2)

This passage in Deuteronomy is known as the Deuteronomic cycle. The cycle can be summarized as committing sin, earning the curse, crying out to the Lord, and, then, being redeemed. This cycle appears repeatedly in the Book of Judges.

Probably the most familiar example in Judges is the story of Gideon. The cycle starts with sin and the resulting curse. In Judges 6:1 we read:

“The people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, and the LORD gave them into the hand of Midian seven years.”(Jdg 6:1) (Slide 3)

After being persecuted by the Midianites, the people cry out to the Lord in verse 6 and the Lord sends an angel to call on Gideon, who is busy hiding wheat from the Midianites in a winepress (verse 11). 

Gideon then assembles an elite team of three hundred men to fight against the army of the Midianites described as too numerous to number, like locusts ravaging the land. Responding to a vision in a dream, this team woke the Midianites in the middle of the night with trumpets and torches (2X). Frightened in the night, the Midianites began slaughtering each other in the dark (Jdg 7:22). 

In this manner, the Lord freed the Israelite people from the oppression of the Midianites and brought them the joy of salvation.

Summarizing

Interestingly, the Deuteronomic cycle usually applies to the Nation of Israel as a whole and brought salvation from oppression. Following the pattern established in Psalm 18, however, Psalm 116 applies salvation to the individual rather than to the nation (2X).[1]

Note that the Deuteronomic cycle starts with the commission of sin—the curses of Deuteronomy are a consequence of disobeying the Mosaic covenant.[2]Thus, the cycle can once again be summarized as committing sin, earning the curse, crying out to the Lord, and, then, being redeemed.

Our redemption in Christ follows this same pattern. We sin; we get into trouble; we ask for forgiveness; Christ offers us redemption. 

The key to understanding this parallel is to see sin as a form of oppression (2X). We all experience besetting sins—addictions small and great–that we cannot shake on our own. If gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins, it is also a besetting sin that can destroy our self-esteem, ruin our health, and undermine our relationships. Just like the Midianites oppressed Israel, we can be oppressed by besetting sins and we need to cry out to the Lord for our forgiveness and salvation.

Thus, Psalm 116’s personalized the Deuteronomic cycle and directly anticipated the New Testament and our salvation in Christ. In fact, if Jesus and the disciples sang Psalm 116 after the Last Supper, they took this very same vow and, in the resurrection, Jesus experienced God’s deliverance, as the Apostle Paul described in his letter to the Colossians:

“And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.”(Col. 1:18-19)

What brings you joy?

Closing

Let’s pray.

Merciful Father,

Thank you for listening to us, forgiving our sin, rescuing us in perilous times, and bringing joy to our lives. Be with us now as we return to our homes and daily work. In Jesus’ precious name. Amen.

References

Brueggemann, Walter. 2016. Money and Possessions. Interpretation series. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press. (Review)

Groseclose, Win. 2015. The Egyptian Hallel Psalms: An Exposition of Psalms 113-118—Observations: Practical, Exegetical, and Theological. New Sewickley Township, PA (Review)

Tucker, W. Dennis Jr. and Jamie A. Grant. 2018. The NIV Application Commentary: Psalms, Volume 2. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Wenham, Gordon J. 2012. Psalms as Torah: Reading Biblical Song Ethically. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic. (Review Part 1, Part 2)


[1]While in the Old Testament salvation focused on the Exodus from Egypt, in the Testament salvation focused on the return of the exiles from Babylon. Judea was a Babylonian vassal nation that had rebelled so the New Testament focus on salvation from the sin of rebellion, which was an analogy to the original sin in Genesis where Adam and Eve rebelled against God’s rule by eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. 

[2]In the New Testament, the only citation of Psalm 116 appears in a context of persecution in 2 Corinthians 4:13.

Also see:

Blackaby Expects Answers to Prayer 

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

Other ways to connect:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/Transcendence_2018

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Groseclose Studies the Hallel Psalms

Win Groseclose. 2015. The Egyptian Hallel Psalms: An Exposition of Psalms 113-118—Observations: Practical, Exegetical, and Theological. New Sewickley Township, PA

Reviewed by Stephen W. Hiemstra

At Passover, the Egyptian Hallel Psalms are sung before (Ps 113-114) and after (Ps 115-118) the Passover meal. This implies that hymns sung after the Last Supper, as recorded in Matthew 26:30, were likely Psalms 115-118 (1).In his commentary, The Egyptian Hallel Psalms,Win Groseclose cites these objectives:

“My hope, as you reflect upon these psalms is that they encourage you in your worship life, but that they cause you to think and reflect upon how you can live out your praise and worship of our God in a way that draws outsiders into worship alongside of you.”(2)

The purpose of an expository commentary is more generally to describe and explain the passages under review.

Background and Organization 

Win Groseclose is the Senior Pastor, St. John’s (Burry’s) United Evangelical Protestant Church, Rochester, PA, an Adjunct Professor of Theology, International Theological Seminary of Donetsk, Ukraine, and graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi.[1]He writes in these chapters:

  1. Praise Yahweh, You Servants of Yahweh (Psalm 113)
  2. When the Mountains Leapt (Psalm 114)
  3. Glory in God Alone (Psalm 115)
  4. For a Thousand Tongues to Sing (Psalm 116)
  5. Oh, For a Thousand Tongues to Sing (Hymn)
  6. The Nations Should Praise (Psalm 117)
  7. For He is Good (Psalm 118) (vii)

The first chapter is preceded by an introduction. Because Grosdeclose organizes his book around the Psalms, let me sample two of them, Psalms 113 and 116, as examples.

Psalm 113

Grosdeclose’s exposition organizes his comments primarily verse by verse following his own translation of the Hebrew.  For example, in verse 1 we read:

“Praise Yahweh, praise him you servants of Yahweh! Praise the name of Yahweh.”(Ps 113:1, Grosdeclose’s translation)

“Praise the LORD! Praise, O servants of the LORD, praise the name of the LORD!”(Ps 113:1 ESV)

“αλληλουια αἰνεῖτε παῖδες κύριον αἰνεῖτε τὸ ὄνομα κυρίου”(Ps 112:1 BGT)

‎הַ֥לְלוּיָ֙הּ׀הַ֭לְלוּעַבְדֵ֣ייְהוָ֑ההַֽ֜לְלוּאֶת־שֵׁ֥םיְהוָֽה (Ps 113:1 WTT)

For purposes of exposition, I have cited Grosdeclose’s translation along with the English Standard Version, the Greek Septuagint (BGT), and the original Hebrew (WTT). Several observations can be made:

Grosdeclose uses God’s covenant name, Yahweh (יְהוָ֑ה), while normally Jewish tradition substitutes the word, Lord. Yahweh is too sacred in Jewish tradition to use outside of a worship context. Most translations, starting with the Greek, use the word, Lord (κυρίου). 

In his discussion of verse 2 (6), he notes the focus on the sacredness of the name and relates it back to the Second Commandments:

“You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.“(Exod 20:7 ESV)

We see an echo of concern about the name in Philippians 2:9 (7).

In his discussion of verse 3, he relates the phrase—“From the rising of the sun to its setting”—to Joshua 1:8: 

“This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it.”  (Jos 1:8 ESV)

Grosdeclose, like the Psalmist, is clearly interested in the Law of Moses and its careful study. We note that veneration of the name (of God) is a theme in all three of these verses. We also observe that the Greek Septuagint (the first translation of the Old Testament that took place in 200 BC) frequently organizes these verses differently than the Hebrew—in this case, verse one of Psalm 113 is found in a different chapter in the Greek. 

Psalm 116

Grosdeclose observes that the Hallel Psalms frequently appear in the hymns. In this case, he finds a parallel with the hymn, O For A Thousand Tongues to Sing, written by Charles Wesley. Wesley’soriginal edition had noneteen stanzas, just like Psalm 116 and with a similar theme—Thanksgiving. Grosdeclose is so impressed with this hymn that he devotes an entire chapter to reviewing it.

Grosdeclose’s attention to translation shows up again in verse where he depresses theologically from common translations:

“I have loved because Yahweh will hear; my prayer of supplication.”(Ps 116:1, Grosdeclose’s translation)

“I love the LORD, because he has heard my voice and my pleas for mercy.”(Ps 116:1 ESV)

“αλληλουια ἠγάπησα ὅτι εἰσακούσεται κύριος τῆς φωνῆς τῆς δεήσεώς μου.”(Ps 114:1 BGT)

‎אָ֭הַבְתִּיכִּֽי־יִשְׁמַ֥ע׀יְהוָ֑האֶת־ק֜וֹלִ֗יתַּחֲנוּנָֽי  (Ps 116:1 WTT)

Again, we observe Grosdeclose sticking closely to the exact wording of the Hebrew. The key phrase is: I have loved because. I have loved is one word in the Hebrew (אָ֭הַבְתִּי) followed by the word because (כִּֽי). The Greek (and the Vulgate) agrees on this point, but also adds the word hallelujah (αλληλουια). 

The English Standard Version and most other translations insert a reference to God, presumably because the parallel cited in verse 2. The parallel mimics only the phrase starting with because. Thus, Grosdeclose’s New Testament cite—

“We love because he first loved us.”(1 John 4:19 ESV)

–seems like a direct quote of Psalm 116 verse 1.

Assessment

Win Groseclose’s book, The Egyptian Hallel Psalms, is an interesting exposition of

Psalms 113 through Psalm 118 with special attention to the translation from Hebrew. It is interesting both to those looking for a devotional reflection on these psalms and those interested in underlying translation issues.


[1]https://preacherwin.com.

Groseclose Studies the Hallel Psalms

Also see:

Thompson: Paul’s Ethics Forms Community

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/Lent_2019b

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Complete Spirituality. Monday Monologues, April 1, 2019 (podcast)

Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018
Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In today’s podcast, I will be Praying to Look Up and talk about Complete Spirituality.

After listening, please click here to take a brief listener survey (10 questions).

To listen, click on the link below:

Hear the words; Walk the steps; Experience the joy!

Complete Spirituality. Monday Monologues, April 1, 2019 (podcast)

Also see:

Monday Monologue On March 26, 2018 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/Lent_2019b

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Praying to Look Up

Oak Tree in Oakton, Virginia

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Heavenly Father,

How majestic is your name that over the ages men and women have looked up confusing your face with the sun in the morning and the stars at night because you above all the things that we can imagine and we praise you.

Forgive our tiny perspectives, our tendency to look at our feet, and the petty things that occupy our hearts and minds. Forgive our preoccupation with day-to-day worries and many obsessions. Forgive our selfish desires to control things and people and, most of all, our time.

Thank you for being available, for listening to our rants and prayers, and for not leaving us to our own desires.

In the power of your Holy Spirit, enlarge our perspectives. Give us hearts for the things you love. Let us know the times and seasons as you see them.

In Jesus’ precious name. Amen.

Praying to Look Up

Also see:

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/Lent_2019b

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Toward a Complete Spirituality

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In my personal journey to understand the depth of Christian spirituality I have frequently cited the need to consider the four questions typically posed in philosophy, which are:

1. Metaphysics—who is God?

2. Anthropology—who are we?

3. Epistemology—how do we know?

4. Ethics—what do we do about it? (Kreeft 2007, 6)

As an author, my first two books—A Christian Guide to Spirituality and Life in Tension—address the metaphysical question and my third book—Called Along the Way—explores the anthropological question in the first person. My fourth book, Simple Faith, examined the epistemological question. In this book, I have focused on ethics, the fourth question. While seeking a complete spirituality may seem like an arbitrary decision, serious problems arise when any one of these questions is neglected.

Neglect of Metaphysics

Postmodern culture’s almost exclusive focus on the physical world neglects the metaphysical. Metaphysics literally means above physics or, better, beyond physics. Postmodern people struggle to understand God, especially his transcendence.

Having created the known universe, God stands apart from it or, in other words, he transcends the universe. For us as mortal human beings, there is no path up the mountain, God must come down to us. As Christians, we believe that he came to us in the person of Jesus Christ.

Evidence of the neglect of metaphysics shows up in the popular expression: I am spiritual, just not religious. Here spirituality is defined as limited to the human experience, especial feelings of ecstasy—great joy or happiness, even if drug induced. While this is nothing new, postmodern people seem stuck in moment of time believing that everything is new. More to the point, however, is the observation that the neglect of metaphysics is rampant in our time.

Neglect of Anthropology

For Christians, the neglect of anthropology manifests itself in the acceptance of Greek anthropology where heart and mind are separate. Emotions are more valued or thinking is more valued, depending on who you talk to, but the two are held to be distinctly different. This separation poses a problem for faith because faith requires heart and mind to be considered together.

While this subject is timely, it is not new. Theologian Jonathan Edwards (2009, 13), writing in 1746 about the effects of the Great Awakening, noted that both head and heart were necessarily involved in effective discipling. He coined the phraseholy affections to distinguish the marks of the work of the Spirit from other works and associated these holy affections directly with scripture.

More recently, Elliott (2009, 46-47) distinguishes two theories of emotions:  the cognitive theory and the non-cognitive theory. The cognitive theory of emotions argues that “reason and emotion are interdependent” while the non-cognitive theories promote the separation of reason and emotion. In other words, the cognitive theory states that we get emotional about the things that we strongly believe.

Elliott notes that the God of the Bible only gets angry on rare occasions when people have disobeyed the covenant or expressed a hardness of the heart, as in the case of Pharaoh (Exod 4:21). Our emotions are neither random nor unexplained because they are not mere physiology. Elliott (2009, 53-54) writes: “if the cognitive theory is correct, emotions become an integral part of our reason and our ethics” informing and reinforcing moral behavior.

Neglect of anthropology is perhaps the single, most important reason that the Christian faith has been hard to understand and accept in our time.

Neglect of Epistemology

The neglect of epistemology is closely related to the neglect of anthropology. Few people come to faith because of intellectual arguments (epistemology is the study of knowledge or how we know what we know), but many people who have come to faith for emotional reasons later fall away because their faith appears to lack substance. When heart and mind are not engaged together, the absence of one affects the durability of the other.

The anti-intellectualism of American culture appears like the great enigma of the postmodern age. The advances of technology that have led to the convenience of communication and the extension of life through new medical discoveries, yet the thought processes required to develop and sustain these technologies are known to a tiny number of people. Instead, youth culture, which focuses on hedonistic entertainments and moral laxity, appears parasitic relative to this great intellectual heritage.

Neglect of epistemology leaves people apprehensive of the faith that they have seen in others and makes it hard for them to understand the logic of faith and to accept the lifestyle changes required to join the Christian community.

Neglect of Ethics

The neglect of ethics is the problem that theological principles are in tension with one another and always have been, something that is so obvious that it cannot be overlooked and requires serious discernment. For example, how do you love a sinner who refuses to confess their sin and forces you to pay their consequences? How do you practice forgiveness? Ethics training may not answer the question, but it will help you frame it appropriately for further reflection and future action.

Ethics is never devoid of a context for acting out our faith, be it character formation within our own lives, being mentored within the community of faith, or learning to assume leadership. It is therefore useful to review case studies of each of these contexts both in scripture and in our present circumstances. If our spirituality is lived theology, then it is informed by our theology and, in turn, our life informs our theological reflection.

A special form of this neglect of ethics arises when people start to see the church as a holy huddle a kind of shelter from the storms of life, rather than as a team meeting of the faithful, searching together for answers in the midst of the struggles of life. This holy huddle can take the form of an entirely intellectualized faith or of a faith focused entirely on service to the neglect of the interior life. Either way, the hard tradeoffs implied in limited time, energy, and resources are overlooked and growth in discipleship remains frozen in time.

Neglect of ethics becomes obvious in the life of the church and community more widely when political views replace honest discernment and the focus on God melts away amidst senseless conflict.

Life in Tension

Considering all four of the questions taken from philosophy does not lead to a trouble-free Christian life, but it prevents the neglect of important aspects of our faith. Tension will always exist between to the life of the Christian and the culture that we find ourselves in. We need to accept this tension and learn to live with it because without tension our lives cannot be transformed into the image of Christ and we cannot be a witness to that truth.

References

Edwards, Jonathan. 2009. The Religious Affections (Orig Pub 1746). Vancouver:  Eremitical Press.

Elliott, Matthew A. 2006. Faithful Feelings: Rethinking Emotion in the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic and Professional.

Toward a Complete Spirituality

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/Lent_2019b

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Wenham Outlines Law in Psalms, Part 2

Gordon J. Wenham. 2012. Psalms as Torah: Reading Biblical Song Ethically. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Most Christians have a longstanding, often personal relationship with the Psalms. 

In my case, when I went to Germany as a foreign student in 1978, I carried a New Testament with Psalms—the only book in the Old Testament (OT) that I spent much time with at that point in my life. Later, I took an active interest in the entire OT and added a Psalm to my daily devotions.

As a chaplain intern at Providence Hospital in 2011-2012, when I asked patients their favorite Bible verse, six out of ten answered Psalm 23. Pentecostals often answered Psalm 91, but many times mentioned even more interesting verses. Chances were good, however, that these other verses were also Psalms.

Introduction

In his book,Psalms as Torah: Reading Biblical Song Ethically, Gordon Wenham notes that the Psalms and Isaiah are the two Old Testament (OT) books most often cited in the New Testament and as many as 121 out of 150 Psalms are cited or alluded to (181-182). Examples cited by Wenham include:

  • Luke’s Gospel amplifies the Psalter’s concern for the poor and women (182). 
  • The New Testament focuses on the righteous suffering highlighted in the laments that pervade the Psalter (185). 
  • First Peter has been described by some as a sermon based on Psalm 34 (186-189). The first three chapters in Paul’s letter to the Romans draws heavily on the theology of the Psalms, particularly regarding the nature, effects and consequences of sin (193).

He takes other examples from the Book of Hebrews (194-197) and Revelation (197-201).

In part 1 of this review, I gave an overview of Wenham’s argument. In part 2, I will look more closely at three of his arguments: the focus on law, reading the psalms, and comments on the precatory psalms, such as Psalm 137 cited in part 1.

Law in the Psalms

The relationship between the law and the Psalms is highlighted as a theme for Wenham’s book in its title: Psalms as Torah. Torah is the Hebrew word for law, but it also means instruction, as Wenham reminds us (7). Using the poetry of the Psalms to teach the law is a bit like using stained glass windows to teach the illiterate stories from the Bible in years past or, today, coming out with a comic book edition of the Bible for the functionally illiterate.[1]

Wenham argues his case for the law being found in psalms first through the structure of the psalms. The Psalter divides into five books just like the Pentateuch and the first psalm (1) and the longest psalm (119) both focus on law. In the first sentence of Psalm 1, we read:

“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.”(Ps 1:1-2 ESV)

Likewise, we read in Psalm 119:

“Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the LORD!” (Ps 119:1)

In both topic sentences, the first word is blessed and it is related to delight and walking in concert with the law, which is an obvious source of emphasis to a postmodern reader. 

Less obvious is why Psalm 119 is highlighted in the Hebrew requires some explanation. Psalm 119 stands out in the Hebrew for three reasons: It is the longest psalm, it is an acrostic psalm, and it is found in the middle of book five. The first two reasons are related—an acrostic psalm has strophes beginning with each letter of the Hebrew alphabet—aleph to tau. The last reason—being in the middle—is the point of emphasis in a chiastic literary structure. Think of a chiastic structure as a journey where you go (ABCD), then return by the same route (DCBA), and the purpose of the journey is focused on your destination (D). Each of these three reasons highlight the importance of Psalm 119 to the overall purpose of the Psalter and Psalm 119 focuses on the law.[2]

Wenham make two other interesting points about the law in the psalms. First, the law appears in the Psalms often stated in positive terms rather than prohibitions found in the Ten Commandments. Instead of talking about adultery, for example, the psalms emphasize the blessedness of family. Second, Psalm 119’s acrostic structure pictures the law encompassing widely God’s will for humanity, not narrowly, as found in the Ten Commandments which anticipates Jesus’ interpretation of the law, not the compliance attitude adopted by the Pharisees.Just like Psalm 1 talks about delighting in the law, Psalm 119 expands rather than contracts the Ten Commandments.

Reading the Psalms

Wenham offers numerous pointers for reading the psalms, many times simply in passing, in part, because the ethical instruction provided by the psalms frequently is unconscious (1). Many psalms, for example, are written in the first person, addressed to God, and report on events that are outlined very briefly. The fifty-cent theological word that describes this sort of writing is laconic—using very few words—which my Old Testament professor repeated in practically every lecture.

Wenham summarizes speech act philosophy defining these words:

  • Performative acts—words that change our status, like a marriage vow.
  • Commissive acts—words that offer a promise.
  • Expressive acts—words that name an emotion.
  • Declarative acts—words that affect a change.
  • Assertive declaration acts—assertions that carry the weight of a declaration (65-67)

In prayer we often do more than one of these acts, a kind of exchange of vows with God. Noting the use of the first person, the kinds of acts, and the poetic and laconic language highlights the highly personal nature of the psalms and their use in prayer.

Justice and Pecatory Psalms

Pecatory psalms stand out in the Psalter because they are prayers that wish someone ill. Many times critics of the Bible will highlight these psalms in their complaints because they are decidedly not politically correct.

Wenham notes:

“Wheras modern readers see judging primarily as condemning the guilty, the Old Testament views judging primarily as an act vindicating the weak and exploited.”(113)

This point highlights the change in social position between the average first century Christian and today’s Christians in the United States. People routinely experiencing persecution will look on justice differently than those insolated from persecution. Thus, reading the pecatory psalms requires a change in perspective.

Let’s return a minute to Psalm 137, cited in part 1 of this review:

“O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us! Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!”(Ps 137:8-9)

The writer of this psalm is a Jew living in exile in Babylon. When female slaves are taken, their babies are typically murdered so the psalmist here is evoking lex talionis, a eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth (Exod 31:23-25; Lev 24:17-21; Deut 19:19-21) or, in modern parlance, the punishment should fit the crime. Wenham notes that the psalmist does not suggest that they will take revengence themselves—punishment is left to God. In other words, the psalmist is simply asking for justice that has up-to-this-point been denied (112-113). 

If our postmodern sensitiivites have been offended by these pecatory psalms, it is only because we are accustomed to living in a relatively just society.

Assessment

Gordon Wenham’s Psalms as Torah: Reading Biblical Song Ethically is an unusually clear guide to reading and understanding the Psalms, which should be interesting to any serious believer wanting to deepen their faith. I suspect that scholars will be citing this work for a long time.


[1]Wenham notes that most ancient societies encouraged enculturation through memorization and use of music. Hymns, poetry, and songs are memory aids for a periods before the modern era when paper was expensive and people learned their scripture through memorization.

[2]The middle of the first book of the psalms, Psalm 19, likewise focuses on law. 

Also see:

Thompson: Paul’s Ethics Forms Community

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/Lent_2019

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Presuppositional Ethics. Monday Monologues, March 25, 2019 (podcast)

Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018
Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In today’s podcast, I will offer a Confession of Hidden Sin and talk about the Presuppositional Ethics.

After listening, please click here to take a brief listener survey (10 questions).

To listen, click on the link below:

Hear the words; Walk the steps; Experience the joy!

Presuppositional Ethics. Monday Monologues, March 25, 2019 (podcast)

Also see:

Monday Monologue On March 26, 2018 

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Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

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Confession of Hidden Sin

Roses
Photo by Stephen W. Hiemstra

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Merciful father,

All praise and honor be to you for you live in the open and have no sin so that no one can accuse you or slander your name without bearing false witness.

We confess that our sins are both obvious and hidden, secrets that bring shame and grief that is to much to bear.

Forgive our sin, pardon the transgressions that burden us, and the iniquity that tarnish our names even when we appear unaware.

Thank you for the death and resurrection of your son, Jesus Christ, who without sin of his own bore our sin on the cross and deprived our sin of its to power to corrupt and pollute our souls.

In the power of your Holy Spirit, give us thankful hearts and minds focused on you so that our lives may be full and our example might bring others to you.

In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.

Confession of Hidden Sin

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Books, Films, and Ministry

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Presuppositional Ethics

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Much of our ethical training is unconsciously absorbed from our surroundings at home, in church, and in society. Even when we are given formal ethics training in our offices, it typically focuses on the minimum legal requirement for the office to escape legal liability under specific rules, regulations, or laws. The real business of ethical behavior is seldom discussed, taught, or even codified. Even the Christian faith itself is more caught than taught, as an old saw goes. In philosophy, this implicit knowledge is referred to as a presupposition.

Most of the time in philosophy and theology, we assume a cognitive approach to learning. The presumption is that human being are essentially rational and that faith itself is a rational undertaking. The Bible suggests, however, that this cognitive approach has two important limitations when we discuss ethics and faith.

Creation Influences Thought

The first limitation arises because we are created, male and female, in the image of a triune God. Being created to live and reproduce in families implies that we experience the world in community. Much as we want our independence, our thoughts, feelings, and language are not entirely our own.

Being created in the image of a triune God reinforces a focus on community. The Bible portrays God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—a complete community in the godhead, as Jesus references after the Last Super: “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.” (John 15:26) In imaging a triune God, we image a community, something we can neither fully embody nor understand. By contrast, a unitary god is fixed, stable, and offers mostly an opportunity for self-projection, where a triune God is dynamic, engaging, and alive.

In particular, the language we speak shapes our perceptions of reality in fundamental ways, not the least of which is that it reflects the culture we live and worship in. Our attitudes about gender, work, faith, and many other things are embedded in the words that we use and do not use. We are not alone in this world even in our own thoughts and feelings—we carry our community with us wherever we go.

The Hebrew Heart

The second limitation of the cognitive approach arises out of who we are. The Hebrew mindset assumed in the New Testament saw mind and body as different parts of a unified whole, whose center is the heart (cardia) while the Greeks distinguished mind and body as separate. Confusion arises when we assume incorrectly that the New Testament sees the heart as a body part and we treat heart and mind as separated, like the Greeks and most secular people.

This confusion implies that the cognitive approach cannot fully inform our faith because it is based on faulty Greek anthropology. As theologian James K.A. Smith (2016, 2) writes:

Jesus is a teacher who doesn’t inform our intellect but forms our very loves…His teaching doesn’t just touch the calm, cool, collected space of reflection and contemplation, he is a teacher who invades the heated, passionate regions of the heart. He is the Word who penetrates even dividing the soul and spirit; he judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart (Heb 4:12)

Inherent in this statement is the Hebrew view of anthropology cited above—note the two references to heart. What Greek would talk about “the thoughts and attitudes of the heart”? Drawing attention to this anthropology, Smith (2016, 5) asks: “Do you ever experience a gap between what you know and what you do?” If he had the rational mind in view, no such gap would exist but, of course, we all experience this gap.

This line of thought leads Smith (2016, 7) to observe: “what if you are defined not by what you know [the mind] but by what you desire? [the heart]” If our desires are reflected more in our actions than in our words, then this Hebrew anthropology leads us immediately into an inconvenient, but vital, discussion of ethics because our hearts are not lily-white clean as our words. It also forces us to discuss how we know what we know (the epistemology question) because our hearts are not so easily persuaded to follow even our own thoughts. Suddenly, much of the New Testament language sounds less churchy and more informed by an alternative world view, one decidedly not Greek.

Clearly, we cannot talk about thinking independent of feelings and we cannot think entirely independent of the communities that we reside and worship in. We need to proceed to treat them as interdependent, complicated as that might be. Still, as best we can, we need to understand better how we know what we know before we can even talk about our faith.

Ethical Teaching in the Psalms

An important example of ethics being taught through osmosis is found in the liturgical use of the psalms. Wenham (2012, 1-2) writes:

“It is the ethic taught by the liturgy of the Old Testament, the Psalter, that is the focus of this book. The psalms were sung in the first and second temples, and in the subsequent two millennia they have been reused in the prayers of the Jewish synagogue and the Christian church. As we will see, the psalms have much to say about behavior, about what actions please God and what he hates, so that anyone praying them is simultaneously being taught an ethic.”

Wenham (2012, 7) goes on to explain:

“This book, then, is an attempt to begin to deal with a blind spot in current biblical and theological thinking. I have called it Psalms as Torah out of my conviction that the psalms were and are vehicles not only of worship but also of instruction, which is the fundamental meaning of Torah, otherwise rendered ‘law’. From the very first psalm, the Psalter presents itself as a second Torah, divided into five books like the Pentateuch, and it invited its readers to meditate on them day and night, just as Joshua was told to meditate on the law of Moses (Ps 1.2; Josh 1:8).”

A key insight that Wenham offers is the effect of memorization and putting the Psalms to music on ethical teaching. In my own case, I can remember memorizing Psalm 23 and Psalm 100 many times through the years, even in different languages, and I prayed Psalm 8 daily as a centering prayer for about 10 years. I used to joke, be careful what songs you sing because once you get Alzheimer’s, they are the last thing that you forget—you don’t want to leave this world singing the Oscar Mayer Wiener jiggle!

Wenham notes that many Psalms are written in the first person. Repeating such psalms in prayer or song accordingly is like repeating a vow before God, yourself, and others. He writes:

“If we praise a certain type of behavior in our prayers, we are telling God that this is how we intend to behave. On the other hand, if in prayer we denounce certain acts and pray for God to punish them, we are in effect inviting God to judge us if we do the same. This makes the ethics of liturgy uniquely powerful. It makes a stronger claim on the believer than either law, wisdom, or story, which are simply subject to passive reception: one can listen to a proverb or a story and then take it or leave it, but if you pray ethically, you commit yourself to a path of action.” (Wenham 2012, 57)

Because many of us grew up singing hymns and liturgy inspired by Psalms, this tradition helped insulate us from less reflective and negative influences that seem so pervasive today—it’s not just the Oscar Mayer Wiener commercials.

References

Smith, James K. A. 2016. You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press.

Wenham, Gordon J. 2012. Psalms as Torah: Reading Biblical Song Ethically. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.

Presuppositional Ethics

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/Lent_2019

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Wenham Outlines Law in Psalms, Part 1

Gordon J. Wenham. 2012. Psalms as Torah: Reading Biblical Song Ethically. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

If you have ever thought of the Psalms as mysterious, you are not alone. The structure and the content of the Psalms can mystify. While no one would quibble over the majesty of passages like:

“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.”(Ps 19:1-2 ESV)

But what do you make of:

“O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us! Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!”(Ps 137:8-9)

Postmodern readers are unlikely to hear such passages advocating child smashing as anything less than praying for God to commit war crimes. So, the Psalms clearly mystify us.

Introduction

Gordon J. Wenham’s Psalms as Torah: Reading Biblical Song Ethically sets forth these objectives:

“It is the ethic taught by the liturgy of the Old Testament, the Psalter, that is the focus of this book. The psalms were sung in the first and second temples, and in the subsequent two millennia they have been reused in the prayers of the Jewish synagogue and the Christian church. As we will see, the psalms have much to say about behavior, about what actions please God and what he hates, so that anyone praying them is simultaneously being taught an ethic.”(1-2)

Wenham goes on to explain:

“This book, then, is an attempt to begin to deal with a blind spot in current biblical and theological thinking. I have called it Psalms as Torah out of my conviction that the psalms were and are vehicles not only of worship but also of instruction, which is the fundamental meaning of Torah, otherwise rendered ‘law’. From the very first psalm, the Psalter presents itself as a second Torah, divided into five books like the Pentateuch, and it invited its readers to meditate on them day and night, just as Joshua was told to meditate on the law of Moses (Ps 1.2; Josh 1:8).” (7)

This relationship between the Psalms and the Pentateuch proved interesting to me and motivated my purchase of this book.[1] 

Background and Organization

Gordon J. Wenham studied Old Testament (OT) at Cambridge University and has worked also at King’s College London, Harvard University, and in Jerusalem at the Ecole Biblique and the Hebrew University. He is the author of OT commentaries on Genesis, Leviticus, and numbers, and several other theology books.[2]

Wenham writes in ten chapters:

  1. Jewish and Christian Approaches to the Psalms
  2. Critical Approaches to the Psalms
  3. The Psalter as an Anthology to be Memorized
  4. The Unique Claims of Prayed Ethics
  5. The Concept of the Law in the Psalms
  6. Laws in the Psalter
  7. Narrative Law in the Psalter
  8. Virtues and vices in the Psalter
  9. Appeals for Divine Intervention
  10. The Ethic of the Psalms and the New Testament (vii)

These chapters are preceded by several prefaces and an introduction. They are followed by conclusions, a bibliography, and several indices.

Memorizing the Psalms

A key insight that Wenham offers is the effect of memorization and putting the Psalms to music on ethical teaching. In my own case, I can remember memorizing Psalm 23 and Psalm 100 many times through the years, even in different languages, and I prayed Psalm 8 daily as a centering prayer for about 10 years. I used to joke, be careful what songs you sing because once you get Alzheimer’s, they are the last thing that you forget—you don’t want to leave this world singing the Oscar Mayer Wiener jiggle!

Wenham notes that many Psalms are written in the first person. Repeating such psalms in prayer or song accordingly is like repeating a vow before God, yourself, and others. He writes:

“If we praise a certain type of behavior in our prayers, we are telling God that this is how we intend to behave. On the other hand, if in prayer we denounce certain acts and pray for God to punish them, we are in effect inviting God to judge us if we do the same. This makes the ethics of liturgy uniquely powerful. It makes a stronger claim on the believer than either law, wisdom, or story, which are simply subject to passive reception: one can listen to a proverb or a story and then take it or leave it, but if you pray ethically, you commit yourself to a path of action.”(57)

Because many of us grew up singing hymns and liturgy inspired by Psalms, this tradition helped insulate us from less reflective and negative influences that seem so pervasive today—it’s not just the Oscar Mayer Wiener commercials.

Assessment

In part 1 of this review, I have given an overview of Wenham’s argument. In part 2, I will look more closely at some of his arguments, especially the innovative form that law takes when presented in the Psalter. I will also go over his view on the precatory psalms, such as Psalm 137 cited above.

Gordon Wenham’s Psalms as Torah: Reading Biblical Song Ethically is an unusually clear guide to reading and understanding the Psalms, which should be interesting to any serious believer wanting to deepen their faith. I suspect that scholars will be citing this work for a long time.


[1]In seminary I did word studies in seminary to track this very relationship and found relatively few direct citations of the Ten Commandments or of Moses because some liberal scholars have alleged that the Pentateuch was a later development contrived by Israelite kings, such as David, to invent an ancient history that did not exist. Why? If Moses did not exist, he could not have authored the Pentateuch and various provocative prohibitions. Likewise, the miracles surrounding the creation of Israel, which liberal dispute, could not have been real. 

[2]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gordon_Wenham.

Wenham Outlines Law in Psalms

Also see:

Thompson: Paul’s Ethics Forms Community

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/Lent_2019

Continue Reading