Category Archives: Psalms

On a green hill

Image credit: Pixabay

Image credit: Pixabay

When a convicted murderer is condemned to death in the USA, or any other state for that matter, there is more than one way of doing it. When execution is by lethal injection it is supposed to be a more humane method than any other. Whether it is less barbaric than hanging or electric chair or whatever other form execution might take, are not all executions degrading and inhuman? Death by crucifixion in Jesus’ time, was the method used by Rome when slaves or the worst kind of criminals were its victims. The Romans themselves regarded it as the cruellest and most hideous of punishments. Little wonder the first evangelists ran into trouble when they preached the gospel of Christ crucified. It was absolutely ludicrous to suggest Messiah should be condemned to die nailed to a Cross with two criminals on either side of him. For him to die by crucifixion was beyond belief.

Yet, in spite of the ignominy of it, Christians down the centuries have cast a halo of beauty round the cross. In church they sing of the wondrous cross on which the prince of glory died. St Paul explains where he stands in relation to the cross. “I decided to know nothing among you,” he says, “except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” This is no attempt to add a touch of glamour to the appalling circumstances of our Lord’s demise on a green hill outside a city wall. What Paul does is to state in the strongest possible terms the centrality of the cross for us. At the heart of our preaching and faith is the good news that Christ suffered and died for our salvation. Of course, the cross in itself cannot save anyone: Jesus himself is saviour. Nonetheless, the New Testament maintains the cross was not only inevitable but essential. If Jesus had said, “Father, you ask too much, I cannot go through with it,” it would have brought the mission to a full stop, there and then. To submit to this heinous act would signal to those who schemed to get rid of him that they held the trump card! It is not easy for us to appreciate how uncertain he must have felt allowing his prosecutors and persecutors to have their way. “Prove yourself, come down and save yourself”, they taunted. And Jesus’ response, “Father, not what I want, let your will be done”. There must have been considerable turmoil within as he considered the possibility that God’s way just might be the wrong way. Think of the terrific struggle he underwent in Gethsemane! Knowing what crucifixion was like, the thought of its excruciating agony and pain, the record tells us, brought the sweat out of him, “like great drops of blood falling to the ground”! At the end of the day, and we are not telling the whole story, the green hill spectacle defies description. We would be utterly, totally arrogant if we did not feel for him.

Attempts have been made to provide a more acceptable explanation for Jesus’ desolate outburst from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” – a quotation from Psalm 22. It is difficult to see how they have transformed that agonising cry into a shout of trust and confidence! But if we are looking for further enlightenment, does this form of cosmetic surgery enable us better to kneel beneath the shadow of this instrument of cruelty and injustice? William Barclay‘s reaction to what he labels “this fanciful interpretation” – on a cross a man does not recite poetry, even the poetry of a psalm.

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Breathtaking

My help will come from the Lord; who made heaven and earth. Psalm 121.

2008 Jungfrau

Jungfrau seen from near Interlaken
Image credit: Earth Explorer via Wikimedia

I am not a mountaineer, nor am I a hill climber and I have never harboured a restless driving ambition to become either one. When on a holiday in the less popular side of the Lake District, away from the mountains and amidst the challenging fells, my wife and I had a marvellous week of congenial weather for our type of holiday – nothing too ambitious or too strenuous. However much to our own surprise we awoke on glorious summer morning resolved to get to the top of the nearest fell and undaunted we set off. But, please do not get the wrong idea; we took the easy way up – on the Ravenglass/Eskdale Railway. We were glad we had broken the mould, a wonderful experience. We felt great; almost like walking on air; spellbound by the beauty of it all; inspired by the wonders of creation; refreshed as we took our leave. Once on top we realised there was more to it than midsummer madness!

Better still was the breath-taking experience of being on top of the Jungfrau in Switzerland and walking on the snowy glacier with the sun above in a clear blue sky and the magnificent view. A sense of wonder and awe stays with me still. Like the Psalmist? Maybe! As he looked to the hills, whichever they may have been, he found great comfort and encouragement in them. “My help comes only from the Lord, maker of heaven and earth.” The thought of the verse leaps beyond hill and mountain to the Universe, beyond the universe to its Maker. Here is living help, personal, immeasurable; the Lord who is present, to protect ‘”in our going out and in our coming in, from this time forth and evermore.” Not just to the end of time – but into time without end.

O, Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder, Consider all the worlds thy hand has made, I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, Thy power throughout the universe displayed, Then sings my soul, my Saviour God to thee; How great thou art, how great thou art! (Singing the Faith. 82)

A psalm or two

Reading : Psalm 23; Psalm 139 verses 8 – 10

“Familiarity breeds contempt” – it’s true, as many of us know to our cost. Familiarity can convert something so that it becomes almost meaningless. That is the danger of Psalm 23 – the Shepherd’s Psalm – and possibly the reason why in the latter years of my active pastoral ministry I had to force myself to choose it to be sung at a funeral service, or when some other occasion demanded it as a matter of tradition. Another reason for its over-use: it was possibly the only hymn with which a good number of folk, not associated with church, were familiar. Many times the choice was left to me to choose for those families, and almost inevitably I took the easy way out: The Lord’s my shepherd. (Tune: Crimond). I understand it is a different scenario today. Post-Billy Graham’s crusades the song, How great Thou art may have supplanted the 23rd Psalm and similar hymns and songs. Depending on where you live, the “Anfield Anthem”, You’ll never walk alone, could be the one to demonstrate the modern trend. One thing is for certain, choose those two (for example) and the presiding minister is assured that theirs is not the only voice to be heard singing!

Why did I force myself? Why not forget it, leave the Psalm in retirement between the covers of the Hymn Book? Use something not so well-known, something that would serve the purpose equally?

Cover image of Derek Kidner's commentary on Psalms 1-72.Why? Because I believe it still to be a great psalm, misunderstood, misinterpreted, maybe – but a great psalm. A quotation to support my claim – “Depth and strength underlie the simplicity of this psalm. Its peace is not escape; its contentment is not complacency; there is a readiness to face deep darkness and imminent attack, and the climax reveals a love which homes towards no material goal but to the Lord Himself.” ( Derek Kidner.)

Alongside this psalm stands another I find equally helpful: Psalm 139, especially verse 8: “If I make my bed in Sheol (world of the dead; perhaps – paradise) you would be there.” The corresponding verse in the Shepherd Psalm reads “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for you are with me.” Move on to verse 10 and Kidner says, “Verse 10 appreciates that God’s long arm is moved by love alone.” The two verses complement one another. The Psalmist is speaking of overcoming the worst that anyone may experience, not only death but hell.

Hell is not confined to the land of the departed!

Weatherwise

“Give thanks to the Eternal – he is good, his kindness never fails.” Psalm 106: 1 (Moffatt Translation)

On a glorious September morning some years ago, travelling by road in a beautiful part of North East Scotland, the Moray Firth, with scarcely a cloud in the sky, the sun, pleasantly warm, shone brightly. There was a wonderful calm and the North Sea, a deep rich blue, lay mirror still (it could be very boisterous at times). On the one side, the inshore fishermen were busy with the harvest of the sea. On the other side, farmers were making the most of it, bringing the last of the harvest home.

I recall seeing the scene with new eyes. My mind went back to earlier days, my time on the farm, on a rainy morning, chopping firewood and cleaning out sheds, waiting for the hay to be dry and ready for cutting. I began to appreciate a sight with which I was becoming familiar, of crews pacing the quarter-deck of a fleet storm bound in harbour. There was still a reasonable number of fishing vessels based on Buckie and the other ports up and down the coast – it is very different now.

A farmer cannot get on with the harvest, hay, corn and wheat, until the crop is ripe. A fisherman cannot put to sea until the storm abates. For their bread and butter, the farmer and the fisherman depend on nature being kind.

God “has not left you without some clue to his nature in the benefits he bestows: he sends you rain from heaven and the crops in their season, and gives you food in plenty and keeps you in good heart.” (Acts 14: 17, Revised English Version).

It is not that God’s promised benevolence has dried up and is the cause of the appalling and sinful fact that millions of those “created in his image” go to bed night after night with empty bellies; with death the one assured certainty. Poverty (and its consequences) is today’s cardinal sin. We cannot get off the hook by labelling God the “Sinner”. How his heart must grieve!

On a grey morning

Clouds: Eivind Mikkelsen via Wikimedia

Clouds: Eivind Mikkelsen via Wikimedia

When travelling by air I would always try to have a seat by a window. To fly through the clouds and to steal a glance through the window is to feast on an awesome sight. Blue and light all around, the cloud beneath projecting upwards like the peaks of a mountain range blanketed in snow; a glorious sight! One of Nature’s enacted parables. Beyond the cloud the sun still shines! And on a grey morning when one is reluctant to face the demands of the day. . . . . . . . . . God is there in the dimness, all the time.

“How clearly the sky reveal God’s glory

How plainly it shows what He has done!

Each day announces it to the following day; each night repeats it to the next.

No speech or words are used, no sound is heard;

yet their message goes out to the entire world

and is heard to the ends of the earth.”

Psalm 19: 1 – 4 (GNB For Scotland)