Tag Archives: Mesopotamian

Beginning the End of a Shaky Year

Beginning the End of a Shaky Year (CaD Ps 175) Wayfarer

When the earth and all its people quake,
    it is I who hold its pillars firm.

Psalm 75:3 (NIV)

It is the first day of December, and the end of the year approaches. This is the month when news and media outlets release lists of the best-and-worst, highs-and-lows, and the top stories from the past year. This is the month we collectively reminisce about the year that has been, hit the reset button for a new trip around the sun, and make resolutions for the year to come. I have a feeling that most of the collective conversation this year will be a giant good-riddance to 2020 and desperate, hopeful pleas for better times ahead.

Today’s chapter, Psalm 75, was a liturgical song of thanksgiving, likely used as part of worship in Solomon’s Temple. You can tell by the fact that the four stanzas have different voices. It’s possible that different individuals, choirs, or groups were appointed to sing the different voices of the song:

The congregation proclaims corporate thanks to God in the first verse.

God’s voice then speaks from heaven in verses 2-5, proclaiming that He will bring equity and judgment at the appointed time.

The voices of the people then faith-fully affirm God’s authority in verses 6-8, proclaiming that the wicked will ultimately be brought low and made to drink the dregs of God’s judgment.

The song ends with a personal pledge to praise God forever, trusting that He will bring down the wicked and raise up the righteous.

The tone of the song suggests that it is a time when the Hebrew people felt particularly insecure. Scholars believe that it may have been written when the Assyrian empire was threatening to lay siege to Jerusalem. Ironically, the Assyrian army was mysteriously wiped out over night. One of the explanations scholars suggest for this historical event is a sudden and deadly viral pandemic within the Assyrian camp.

Ancient Mesopotamian cultures envisioned the earth as flat and held up by giant pillars in the underworld. In times of trouble and threat, they metaphorically spoke of the world “shaking” as in an earthquake. The pillars holding the world up were unstable. When Asaph, who is attributed in the liner notes with writing the song, gave voice to God saying, “I hold the pillars firm” it had tremendous meaning for the Hebrew people singing it and hearing it. When their entire world was threatened, they were trusting that God would be their stability, just as David called God his “rock” and “fortress.”

Which brings me back to 2020 with all of its uncertainty and chaos. I certainly feel like the world has been shaken up in multiple ways. And while it has undoubtedly been the most tumultuous year of my lifetime, history and today’s song remind me that it’s one of a number of “shaky” moments that routinely dot the Earth’s timeline. Or, as Motown psalmists the Shirelles put it: “Momma said there’d be days like this.”

In the quiet this morning, I find my heart welcoming December and, with it, the annual reset button that comes with New Year’s Day. No matter where I’ve been on this life journey and no matter where God leads me, I will echo Asaph’s ending refrain: “As for me, I will declare this forever. I will sing praise to God.”

Thin Places

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Walk about Zion, go all around it,
    count its towers…

Psalm 48:12 (NRSVCE)

Throughout the history of the Jesus Movement and Christendom, there have been various geographic locations around the world that have come to be known as “thin places.” The concept is a very simple metaphor. It is a specific location where the divide between temporal and eternal, heaven and earth, matter and Spirit, is thin. The power of the Spirit seems to flow more palpably. “Thin places” might be locations where spiritual revivals have occurred, miracles have occurred, or where people experience God’s presence in extraordinary ways.

One of the things I’ve noticed in moving from Book I of the Psalms (Psalms 1-41) to Book II (Psalms 42-72). The songs in Book 1 are mostly songs of David expressing his personal emotions and faith. In the first six songs of Book II we’ve had a variety of songs that were written with specific liturgical purposes. There’s been a diplomatic wedding of royalty to another nation’s princess, a song celebrating a king’s enthronement, and a community plea/prayer after suffering military defeat.

Today’s chapter, Psalm 48, is a song that celebrates Jerusalem as the center of Hebrew worship. It celebrates Jerusalem as an ancient thin place where people find joy, where God has done great things, where the things of God are pondered, and spiritual guidance is found.

It was very common in ancient Mesopotamian cultures for major cities to have patron deities and temples to those deities. The Hebrews would have experienced this while in slavery in Egypt. They would have been familiar with the concept, and way back during the Hebrews flight from Egypt God made clear that a city would be established as the place where Yahweh would dwell and be worshipped (Deut 12:5). How fascinating that over 3000 years later pilgrims from all over the world continue to flock to Jerusalem and pray at the Western Wall of the temple ruins. It is still considered by many to be a thin place.

In the quiet this morning, Psalm 48 has me thinking about thin places. I have been to Jerusalem, I have walked its streets, and I have prayed at the Western Wall. Personally, I didn’t find Jerusalem to be a thin place but a dark place, despite knowing that the Great Story makes clear it still has a role to play in history’s climactic events.

I have, however, observed that our place at the lake is what I’ve experienced as a thin place. It is a place people have found peace. It is a place where both myself and others have found healing of both body and soul. It has been a place of retreat, of soul-searching, of life-changing conversation, of joy, of love, and of Life.

In my spiritual journey, I’ve come to believe it vital to identify and regularly visit a thin place. I’m reminded that Jesus regularly slipped away alone or with his closest followers to the top of a mountain along the shores of Galilee to pray. Interestingly enough, when I visited that mountain-top location in Israel, I found it to be the thinnest place I personally experienced in my tour of many, many sites in the Holy Land.

This world bombards me ceaselessly with data, information, opinions, advertisements, and pleas for my time, energy, and human resources. My spirit needs a thin place to recharge, even if it’s a thin place just to me.

Hope and the Pit

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O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol,
    restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.

Psalm 30:3 (NRSVCE)

A couple of weeks ago I gave a message among my local gathering of Jesus’ followers and spoke about Hope in Death. I’ve been doing a lot of meditating on death recently, mainly in conjunction with that message, but also because of the pandemic. Fear of contracting the virus and not surviving is very real.

In my meditation, I’ve observed how prevalent death is in most all of our stories. Antagonists are trying to kill protagonists. Protagonists are trying to avoid being killed. Writers of films and television shows love to stir our emotions by allowing us to witness what had to have been the death of our favorite character and then stir them again when it’s revealed the character actually survived. In the ending of Yellowstone, one of our favorites the writers left us with the classic season cliffhanger and we’ll have to wait a year to find out if a character survived. Wendy and I binged all ten season of the British whodunnit Vera this summer (loved it!) and of course all classic mysteries are predicated on death. The shows start with a dead body.

In short, I’ve observed that death is everywhere we turn for both news and entertainment, even though I don’t really think about it that much.

Today’s psalm, once again penned by King David, tells a story. David thought he was going to die. Whether it was sickness, war wound, or a combination of both is not known. In the opening verse he cries out to God for healing because God “brought up his soul from Sheol and restored him from those who go down to the Pit.”

Human understanding and belief systems with regard to death and the afterlife have evolved over time. In Part 1 of my podcast on Time I talked about how human history is like a life cycle. Humanity itself is growing, maturing, and changing just a you and I grow, change, and mature on this life journey. The Hebrews in David’s day believed a lot like other Mesopotamian cultures. After life was a shadowy, uncertain state of existence. The underworld was known as Sheol and it was considered to be a dark pit in the deepest recesses of the Earth. For David, there really wasn’t hope of an afterlife. There was just fear of death. In escaping death, David writes this song of joyous praise for God’s deliverance.

Fast forward roughly 1,000 years from David to the time of Jesus. In Jesus’ day, the Hebrews’ beliefs had evolved but there was still vastly divergent views on what happens when we die. One school of thought (the Sudducees) believed there was no afterlife at all. The most prominent school of thought (the Pharisees) believed there was an afterlife or resurrection. Jesus certainly believed in resurrection. In the Jesus’ story He predicts His death and resurrection on multiple occasions. Before raising his friend Lazarus from the dead Jesus tells Laz’s sister, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me will never die.” (see John 11). While in Jerusalem, the Sadducee scholars approach Jesus in an attempt to debate Him on the subject (see Matthew 22).

In the quiet this morning, I couldn’t help but feel the joy of David’s escape of death, but the unbridled praise is rooted in his absolute fear and hope-less despair at the prospect of dying. As I mull this over, I can’t help but think about what a game-changer Jesus was. In his letter to believers in the city of Corinth, Paul doesn’t quote from David’s fear of the Pit, but this verse from the prophet Hosea:

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
“Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?”

I realize that one of the things that has grown and matured in me as a follower of Jesus are my thoughts and feelings about death. Though earlier in my journey I feared death a great deal, I’m no longer afraid to die. I’ve heard and read the stories of those who have gone and have been sent back. The further I get in this journey the more fully I believe that this earthly life is about me fulfilling my role in the Great Story. When my role is finished I will make my exit to that which is more real than this 19,848 days of physical existence.

I will sing with David his words from today’s psalm:

You have turned my mourning into dancing;
    you have taken off my sackcloth
    and clothed me with joy

Not because I escaped physical death to live another day, but because Jesus conquered death and I’ll escape this this earth-bound life for eternity.

In the meantime, it’s another day in the journey. Time to press on.