Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Right Hand of God

**Your right hand, O LORD, glorious in power, your right hand, O LORD, shatters the enemy. (Exo 15:6)
**You stretched out your right hand; the earth swallowed them. (Exo 15:12)
**And to which of the angels has he ever said, "Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet"? (Heb 1:13)
**...looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Heb 12:2)
**Then I saw in the right hand of him who was seated on the throne a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals. (Rev 5:1)

The "right hand of the Lord" appears throughout the Bible, in over a hundred verses. What are we to make of this? Is God right-handed? Does He have a body? Does this reflect some primitive conception of God as Man-writ-large, like Zeus or Thor?

Though it might be argued that, in one sense, since the Incarnation of Jesus, God does have a body, yet that is not the notion behind these verses. Rather, this use of "God's hand" is the condescension of God in speaking to us, and in accepting our speaking of Him, in terms that have meaning to us who are embodied and finite. To us, "the hand is that part of the body which enables man to be a doer, a tool-making and tool-using being; thus it is associated with power or control." (ISBE, "Hand") It is with our hands that we make things and control things. Short of losing our minds, the loss of our hands is most disabling. Even within our brains, the amount of space given to sensation and control of our hands is larger than any part except that given to our mouths and speech. We are, essentially, speaking and making beings, made in the image of a speaking and making God.

For whatever reason, the vast majority of humans are right-handed; our right hands are more easily controlled. (It would be interesting to speculate about why God created us in this assymetrical manner. Why, when we appear to have bilateral symmetry, are we actually, inside, assymetrical?) So when we speak of God's power to do things, when we speak of him as a maker or controller, we speak in terms of his right hand. It is not because he is right-handed, but because most of us are. This demonstrates a fact about the Bible that it is critical for a reader to understand: The Bible is written for us humans, and uses all the aspects of human language and literature. To take the Bible "literally" means to read it as it was meant to be read, not woodenly or concretely, but as "literature" ("writing"). We humans use metaphor, simile, hyperbole, and many other non-concrete forms of language, and our most expressive and well-loved literature is most filled with such non-concrete language. The descriptors "poetic" or "lyrical" are generally taken to indicate praise, while "prosaic" is generally a criticism. The Bible speaks of God's mouth, his eye, his arm, his feet, his heart, his sword, his breath. God speaks to us in terms that we understand, as beings that have our powers located in those organs. He uses our own manner of speaking, so that we will understand him clearly.

So, the "right hand of God" usually speaks of his power and control. Standing or sitting at a ruler's right hand associated one with his power, and hence was a place of honor. When blessing children, the right hand was normally placed upon the firstborn, symbolizing the favored status of being firstborn. (See the scene where Jacob blesses Joseph's children, Ephraim and Manasseh) Jesus is the "firstborn among many brethren". He is our elder brother; the Father's right hand is upon him.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Praying the Psalter

In his lectures on Wonder, Heartbreak and Hope recommended previously, Gideon Strauss observes that the chief reason he was able to avoid complete emotional and spiritual disintegration during his participation in South Africa's Commission for Truth and Reconciliation was that he had begun to pray the Psalter in the years immediately preceeding. He therefore already possessed a language for expressing to himself and to God the deep pain, personal brokenness, and agonizing thirst for justice that the endless accounts of violence and loss effected in him. Dr. Strauss is a learned man, and at the time already had his PhD in philosophy and had been many years a Christian. Nevertheless, it was these poems and songs, these works of literary art that preserved his soul and sanity, rather than the didactic, factual portions of scripture.

There is a sense in which we live in our songs and poetry more deeply than in our intellectual knowledge. This is most obvious in our youth, during which time we seek refuge in our music, even identify ourselves by our music. But I think it is true throughout life. Our hearts resonate with poetry and song more deeply than with other forms of expression.

Praying the Psalter gives language to our hearts, a vocabulary for every occasion in life from the most sublime joy to the deepest personal agony. The Psalms are especially human, and sometimes raw; they express even those feelings that we might otherwise feel are forbidden. They sing of feeling abandoned by God, of feeling jealous of the good fortune of people who seem not to deserve it, of hatred for enemies, of confusion, of sickness and fear of death, of the desire to be avenged. They are songs of human beings sitting honestly before a patient and understanding God, who is Himself a Man of Sorrows and acquainted with grief and betrayal. They lay it all out, even the twisted bits, and ask God to see and to respond, or even just to sigh with us. Praying these songs, seeking to identify with and understand the Psalmist, prepares us to meet these emotions and to see them as common to man if and when they come upon us.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Wonder, Heartbreak and Hope

My friend Gideon Strauss has posted three powerful lectures containing his reflections upon insights he gained in the months and years surrounding his service as a translator for South Africa's Commission for Truth and Reconciliation. (Click on the title of this post to go there and listen, or you can download them for iPod use by right-clicking the links there.)

Be warned: this is hard, sad stuff. Dr. Strauss found himself praying Psalm 137 for two years after the experience (that's the Psalm that ends, "O daughter of Babylon, happy is he who repays you...who seizes your infants and dashes them upon the rocks." If you have had trouble with this Psalm, (as I hope you have), these reflections may help you understand why it is there in the Psalter, how real and violent and dark is the darkness in this world, and how our wonderful and weeping saviour may draw wonder and hope even out of such darkness.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Born in Zion: Psalm 87

Over the past year, I have been spending a lot of time reading in Isaiah, in preparation for a Sunday school class I have been teaching. In that book are many oracles "against the nations", in which the Lord punishes them for their idolatry and for oppressing his people. There is a lot of doom and gloom in Isaiah, far more than those know who merely read the Christmas prophesies and the Suffering Servant segments, which are the climactic Good News that comes only after a lot of very bad news laid out in the preceding forty or fifty chapters. And it is not only the gentile Nations that are in trouble, but Israel and Judah especially, for they of all the nations should have known better, but behaved no differently.

How delightful then to find, again and again, in Isaiah and throughout the old and new testaments, that the delight of God rests, finally, not only in Israel but also in all the other nations of the world, even those who were her particular enemies. Zion is more than simply a hill in Jerusalem, but becomes figuratively that place, that city to which all of God's children eventually come.

In Psalm 87 we see a list of countries who were at one time enemies of Israel, and some of them her chief enemies: Egypt, Babylon, and Philistia. These are among "those who know Me", and it seems that God is pleased to say that they know Him. Furthermore, though being born in these countries granted one a certain panache in the ancient world, such as being from New York or Moscow or Beijing today, yet all those who know God are said to be "born in Zion." She is the central City, the only City in the end, after the fall of the only other city, Babylon. Once you become a citizen of Zion, that identity gathers into itself all one's other identities. When we are born again, this is the city in which we are born, so that it will be said, "this one and that one were born in her...."

That City will gather into herself all that is good, all that is beautiful and worthy in all the cultures and peoples of the world, and make it her own, because, of course, it was hers all along. As God makes his rain to fall upon the wicked and the righteous both, so His beauty is shed abroad among the nations, even to those who persecute His people and suppress his truth. All will bear fruit that will be gathered in again at the end, into his holy city for His pleasure and the pleasure of His people.
By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their
glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day--and there will be no
night there. They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.

(Rev 21:24-26)

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Reading Through the Bible

Some old friends from "Kairos" have begun to read through the Bible together, and have started a blog in which they reflect on their reading. What a great format through which to wrestle with the truth! Click on the heading of this post to go there, and be sure to read the comments...I have asked one of their writers to see if she can post the reading schedule, so that anyone so inclined could join the group and read along. I have also placed a link in the margin at left, so you can easily jump there from this site.