Singing justice for the poor: Praising God for His just acts


I proclaim the power of God: You do marvels for your servants;

Though you scatter the proud-hearted  And destroy the might of princes.

To the hungry you give food,  send the rich away ——empty.

In your mercy you are mindful  Of the people you have chosen.

Refrain: And holy is your name through all generations. (verses 2 & 3 “My Soul is Filled With Joy”. (#13 Sing the Journey). See also, “I’ll praise my maker while I’ve breath” verses 2 and 3 Hymnal, a worship book #166 and “Hail, to the Lord’s Anointed” Hymnal, a worship book #185).

Where can we find similar praise to God for caring for the poor and hungry in contemporary and traditional worship music? The results of the search I’ve done show few examples of helping the marginal and bringing down the powerful in praise and worship music.   Early 2015 the Mountain States Mennonite Conference concluded an Anabaptist songwriting contest. They asked for “New songs with lyrics that espouse Anabaptist/Mennonite values: (e.g. Non-violence, love for enemy, reconciliation, communal life, etc.), musically spanning from traditional forms to non-traditional genres, styles and cultural expressions.” Specific mention of the social justice theme is not made, but perhaps it is implied in “Anabaptist/Mennonite values”. The link below identifies winners and includes their lyrics and music. One of the six mentions attention to the poor. * The 2015 Mennonite World Conference Songbook, Walking with God includes at least three of fifty-six selections that specifically praise God for his attention to the oppressed and poor. January 4, 2016, MennoMedia announced Project 606, intended to produce a new hymnal by 2020. Will this project include work on identifying elements of Anabaptist-flavored, Bible-based worship music?

 What Biblical models warrant placing a strong emphasis on praising God for social justice, especially in praise music? “Social justice” here is short hand for God’s act in delivering an immigrant/slave people from the super power of the day. It is a social act because a group of people, the children of Israel, was rescued. A new people with a new plan for living (the Torah) were established. God’s rescue of an oppressed people was “just” because it showed God’s love and mercy, not because Jacob’s descendants deserved it.

The contest (see above) reminded me of my quest of some years to find references to discipleship in worship music, narrowed here to social justice. Some 40 years ago I had a period of illness that resulted in a significant loss of hearing. Gradually I lost additional hearing until today I am nearly deaf. Hearing aids and now a cochlear implant. Cochlear implants are engineered to help with the hertz range of conversation level, but do not cover high and low notes of music. So, I give my attention to the words of the song. This has led me to ask questions about the theology behind the music used in worship. As a non-musician I make no claim to expertise in evaluating musical quality of any of the songs mentioned. I need a welcome help in identifying the quality of lyrics and music featuring attention to God’s interest in the oppressed.

Worship music in the evangelical churches I am familiar with usually includes what can be categorized loosely as contemporary Christian music (CCM), traditional hymns, and gospel songs. These types of music have some overlap. I will not attempt to fully distinguish between them. Each type has its focus. They are not fully listed here. Contemporary and traditional music praises God for many attributes and deeds, gives many invitations for re-dedication to Christian living, and rejoices in the promise of future life with God, but seldom praises God for concern for the poor and oppressed. My focus on the marginalized in this essay is very narrow.

Christian contemporary music

Several writers have noted the lack of attention to social justice issues in CCM. Jay Howard writes: “There are few [contemporary Christian worship] songs concerned with social justice because there are few songwriters from the Anabaptist tradition.” He analyzes 77 Contemporary Worship Songs –those most frequently requested of the licensing service CCL–and finds only one that gives direct attention to social justice issues. John L. Bell, songwriter argues that CCM is mainly about the birth and death of Jesus and ignores his life. Have I missed some CCM titles that give attention to Jesus’ life, especially to his attention to the poor, the widow, and the outsider?

 Traditional ‘gospel songs’ and hymns

Praise and thanksgiving in traditional hymns and gospel songs (I will not define these here, but look at that category the Mennonite Hymnal for examples) give little attention to social justice. “Gospel songs” are strong in their emphasis on grace, God/Jesus’ companionship and love. I have not found any of these that praise God for his love and care of the “widow and fatherless”. There are a number of hymns in Hymnal, a Worship Book (HWB), that include an interest in the poor and oppressed and justice for them. One that praises God for this attention is “I’ll Praise My Maker”, verses three and four (HWB, #166). Some encourage us to follow Jesus’ example in caring for the marginalized. Did I miss hymns that specifically praise God/Jesus as Miriam and Mary did for God’s championing of the oppressed?

Models and sources:

The preliminary Biblical models I would propose for praise songs are Miriam’s song (Exodus 15) and Mary’s song in Luke 1. The book of Psalms was Israel’s “praise and worship” book. That requires some attention to psalms that praise God for his attention to disadvantaged and those who prey on them.

Miriam’s Song

While God the warrior image usually makes Anabaptist uncomfortable, God is first called holy when he rescued the Israelites from the Egyptian cavalry and foot soldiers.

Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods?
Who is like you?—majestic in holiness, fearful in praises, working wonders?
 You stretched out your right hand,
the earth swallowed them. (Ex. 15:11-12 (New English Translation)

God is praised for delivering the immigrant/slaves God chose to become his covenant people.

 

The Psalms

In his work on the Psalms, Walter Brueggemann says that the things we praise God for shows the way we view the world and our place in it.  Many Psalms praise God (see also Miriam’s Song) for delivering a slave/immigrant people from the Egyptian superpower whose religion favored politically powerful and the rich. We are sometimes tempted to assign God’s action here to a special category, rather than see it as a model of what God does.  Psalmists praise God (and kings) for their concern for the poor and marginalized.  God is praised for being a just judge and for making wars cease.  See the following Psalms: 9, 10, 29, 35, 65, 66, 68, 69, 72, 74, 81, 82, 94, 96, 97, 98, 99, 102, 103, 105,106, 107, 109, 123, 124, 135, 136, 139, 140, 146.

Phrases from Psalms 72 and 146 capture a king’s and God’s attitude and action and are characteristic of the other Psalms:

 

Ps. 72: The King:

— takes pity on the weak and the needy
— saves the needy from death.
rescues them from oppression and violence,
— for precious is their blood in his sight.

Ps. 146. The Lord

–upholds the cause of the oppressed
–gives food to the hungry.
–sets prisoners free,
gives sight to the blind,
— lifts up those who are bowed down,
— loves the righteous.
watches over the foreigner
–sustains the fatherless and the widow,
–frustrates the ways of the wicked

Praise the Lord.

Repeatedly God gives attention to the oppressed and provides security and safety to victims of violence. To what extent should words and phrases like these from the Psalms be present in our worship music?

 Prophets

Attention to the needs of the orphan/widow/poor is identified more with prophets than the Psalms and I was pleased to find significant attention to this topic in the Psalms. Prophetic critiques of worship do not contain comments on purity of sacrifices, social justice content of Psalms or the quality or frequency of Psalm recitation. The prophetic critiques point out that Sabbath worship by the people of the covenant should be reflected in covenant behavior during the week.

Mary, Jesus, Paul

Mary’s prophetic vision of her son’s work is captured in the song “My Soul is Filled With Joy”. (#13, Sing the Journey, verses 2 and 3 above). Jesus inaugural sermon repeats these themes.

The prophetic focus is reflected in Paul’s statement in Romans 12:1-2:  “So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering [as your worship]. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him.” (The Message-my emphasis). Perhaps an important aim of worship music should be to help us connect thanksgiving and praise with covenant living.

Today our world is one of increasing disparity in wealth. God’s rescue of an immigrant/slave people makes clear to us what kind of God he was/is. Jesus affirmed this nature in his work and teaching by giving significant focus to healing, feeding the hungry and caring for the sick. Can God’s people today teach and act less like the world and more like our lord? Are there songwriters addressing this need?

 

Miriam’s Song, many Psalms, the prophets’ reminders all tell us that connecting worship and living is crucial.   The New Testament contributions of Mary’s song, Jesus life and teaching, and Paul’s take on worship in Romans 12 all point to the worship-discipleship-concern for poor and marginalized as an essential element in our praise and life. I have found very few songs in CCM and “gospel songs” with this focus and only a few in traditional hymns that praise God as a champion of the down and out. (Perhaps additional research and help from knowledgeable persons will locate songs with a social justice focus.) Eugene Peterson’s (The Message) take on Psalms 65:1 provides an appropriate conclusion:

Silence is praise to you,
Zion-dwelling God,
And also obedience.
You hear the prayer [praise] in it all.

 

*Text and music of six winners can be found at:

http://www.anabaptistsongwritingchallenge.org/

 

Thanks to Julia H. Alleman and Ray E. Horst for sharing their music knowledge with me.


My original  This blog has been reposted to allow comments such as

Kate Kortemeier has listed many excellent songs and hymns that reflect in various ways a concern for the poor and oppressed that is part of the Anabaptist tradition. (“Anabaptist music” Letters, The Mennonite 21 No. 4, April 2018).  My blog at https://uplandweb.wordpress.com/2017/05/23/singing-justice-for-the-poor-looking-for-anabaptist-flavored-worship-music/ ” will be reposted to clarify its focus on praising God for his work in caring for the poor and oppressed. Kate, will you (or anyone) list there examples of the emphasis on social justice in contemporary worship music?  Additional discussion appreciated.

                                                                                                                             

 

 

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Immanuel: A warning to Joseph about power politics

Isaiah and Ahaz

The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.  He will be eating curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, for before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste. Isaiah 7:14-16

What if Ahaz (king of Judah) had believed Isaiah’s word from God that God was with him?  Isaiah gave Ahaz a timeline for the future of the kings of Israel and of Aram.  A young woman/virgin would conceive, give birth to a son who would be named “God with us”.  That boy would reach the age of knowledge of right and wrong, probably twelve years.  By that time the neighboring kings of Israel and Aram, who Ahaz feared, would no longer be a threat. But, only if Ahaz believed God was with “us” [and not trust in a military alliance with Assyria].  Read verses 17 and following to discover the terrible things that would happen if Ahaz did not listen to the word from God.

What happened:  Ahaz made an alliance with Assyria and traveled there.  He liked the altar he saw there and had one made to use in Jerusalem—he may have been required by the treaty to erect an altar for Assyrian gods.  Israel became a dependent of Assyria.  During the time it took the young woman’s son to reach twelve, the kings threatening Ahaz and Judah were defeated and, one of them, Israel, ceased to exist as a nation.

What would have happened if Ahaz had trusted in “God with us”?

Five hundred years later

 “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son and you will name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 22 This all happened so that what did the Lord through the prophet speak would be fulfilled: 23 Look! The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will name him immanuel,” which means “God with us.” Mt. 1:20-23 (NET) [Emphasis from NET]

Was the angel was reminding Joseph of Isaiah’s word to Ahaz (Joseph’s ancestor) of the importance of trusting “God with us”?  (I am not dealing in this essay with the questions of the nature of Jesus’ birth and the incarnation.) Then we might conclude that part of the message was that Joseph’s trust in God (Immanuel) was essential in the days to come. Challenges included social disapproval due to Mary’s pregnancy, immigration to Egypt under the threat of death, and a son would be born into a world hostile to the message of “God with us.”

Warning about power politics

For Isaiah, “Immanuel” meant trusting God, rather than turning to military alliances (violence).    Joseph was in Bethlehem because of the Roman occupation of his country.  The occupation came in part because of a choice of violence over trusting God.  The freedom fighters of a century and a half before Joseph, the Maccabees, decided that only by violent revolt against Syria and a military alliance with Rome could the people of God practice their religion as they should. Their contemporary, compiler of the Daniel experiences, opposed that call to violence.  The Daniel writer called for faithful living like Daniel and friends, teaching wisdom, and trusting the visions of God’s control of history. The “chief priests and rulers” of Joseph’s time were part of the ruling class that gained power after the successful revolt against the Seleucid (Syrian) government.  The Jewish leaders had chosen violence as a way to protect the temple and their way of worship.   After the Hebrews gained their independence, the Romans used the treaty with them as a pretext to take over Judah.  Some of the chief priests and legal experts maintained their alliance with Rome for personal economic advantage as well as to protect their religious freedom.

During Jesus ministry, the legal experts or “chief priests and rulers” were frequent opponents of Jesus.  At the time of Jesus’ torture and execution, we know that the chief priests worked with the Romans to seek the death of Jesus – Immanuel.  Did the angel bring a word of warning to Joseph because they, like Ahaz, had made accommodations with the superpower of the day, rather than trusting Immanuel?

What if the Persian astronomers had continued to look for the star they had seen in the East and gone directly to Bethlehem, rather than to Jerusalem?  Although Bethlehem was only five miles from Jerusalem, it is possible to plot a path from “the East” directly to Bethlehem.  One could conclude that they gave in to popular notions of kingship and went Jerusalem because it was the center of political and military power.  If the Persian astronomers had continued to seek the star’s guidance, would the deaths of the boy children around Bethlehem have been avoided?  The “chief priests and keepers of the law” were more concerned with maintaining their alliance with Herod than seeking “God with us”.  Could the astronomers have refrained from telling Jesus’ location to Herod?  What did Joseph learn from the Persian astronomers that prepared him to quickly respond to the Spirit’s warning to leave Bethlehem ahead of Herod’s search?

A dark shadow extends from Ahaz, through the Maccabees and their descendants, the “chief priests and rulers” of Joseph’s time and to Herod.  It continues through Caiaphas and his allies who were willing to allow the Romans to kill Jesus to protect the place of the ruling classes in Palestine.  We are compelled to ask whether it extends to “collateral damage” of drone strikes and assassinations by order of governments ostensibly seeking peace, freedom and order.  Does it extend to the displacement of Palestinian Arabs and Syrian Arab Christians from land owned by their families for many generations?  The question must be asked even if we acknowledge some moral distance between Herod’s massacre of Judean boys and drone strikes.

Consider, then, the line, connecting Isaiah’s understanding of Immanuel with the wisdom teachers in Daniel-who anticipate shining like stars if death came (Dan. 12:3)-rather than doing violence.  The line extends to the angel’s challenge to Joseph to trust Immanuel and to the angel’s message of peace at Jesus’ birth. The line extends to and beyond Jesus’s weeping over Jerusalem: “If only they knew what made for peace.” *

For Joseph, the “Immanuel” message was a warning of difficulties leading to violence, but also the assurance that God was with him.  But he was encouraged to be faithful.  Today many people of God argue that goodness/justice/freedom of worship can only continue through ultimate reliance on military solutions (although some acknowledge the need for development and diplomacy).   Christians want to use political power to protect, ensure and enforce Christian practices on society.   The consequences of this choice in Isaiah’s time, in Joseph’s time, and Jesus’ time should challenge us to reexamine these texts for guidance today.  The answer begins with our willingness to hear the Isaiah and the angel’s message, Immanuel:  God with us.

 

*[Isaiah, the Daniel editor and the gospel writers see faithful covenant living as an essential base for trusting Immanuel.  I hope I have not obscured that base by focusing on the issue of political/military alliances and the reliance on violence versus trust in God.]

[revised blog reposted from November 2017]

Not Slaughtered bulls or scorched grain: Sacrificial living according to Romans 12

Sometime during his growing up years, son Nathan asked: “Why did people have to kill animals to make God happy?”  I do not remember what I answered then, but I have thought about the question since.  Recently, I have looked at the question of sacrifice in the Bible again. Due to the complications of the different types of sacrifices, especially in Leviticus, I decided to look at a reference to sacrifice in the New Testament and try to understand what I needed for living the Christian life.  Romans 12:1 and following provides an opportunity to better understand sacrifice, at least, its implications for today. Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. (NIV).

God’s Mercies

Paul first reminds that we can enter God’s presence (that’s what a sacrifice helps us do) only because of “the mercies of God”.  We can enter God’s presence, experience forgiveness and come to a right relationship with God only because of God’s “steadfast love”.  What does Paul write elsewhere about God’s love and mercy? “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19).  “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom. 5:8).  We have been brought into God’s presence through His love and mercy shown in Christ. In Romans 9-11 Paul writes of mercy and compassion, especially to Israel, but also to Gentiles as he explains how they can be part of the people of God.    At one time, you Gentiles rejected God. But now Israel has rejected God, and you have been shown mercy. And because of the mercy shown to you, they will also be shown mercy.  All people have disobeyed God, and that’s why he treats them as prisoners. But he does this, so that he can have mercy on all of them. Romans 11:30-32 (Contemporary English Version)

Sacrifice

Several things I have learned that sacrifice is not:  1. A mechanical means of making God like us again.  Sometimes we get the impression that the performance of a one of the sacrifices describe in Leviticus required God to be gracious to us again and that doing the sacrifice automatically turned on God’s grace.  Hosea 6:6 says that God is interested in mercy, primarily.  2. Sacrifice is not about suffering (however much it “costs” to give one’s best animal), because in Jewish practice having a very sharp knife is important so that the animal does not suffer.  3. Sacrifice is not primarily about death.  In the case of the grain offering which was burned, of course, that is evident.  In the case of the “sin offering” ((Lev. 16) one of the two goats used was driven into the wilderness, rather than killed.  In the peace or fellowship offering (Lev. 3), parts of the animal were burnt, but the rest eaten by the family and friends of the one offering the animal.  In this case, the death of the animal was not much different from any other butchering of an animal.  4. Sacrifice is not the only or even the primary image or metaphor for the work of Jesus in life and death. What kind of sacrifice did Paul have in mind?  Other terms used are reconciliation, fellowship/peace, purification and sin.  Did he have a particular one in mind?  What definition of ‘sacrifice’ did Paul have in mind when he wrote Romans 12?  We know the purpose of the sacrifice was to bring reconciliation between God and humans (I prefer reconciliation to “atonement” which is used for reconciliation in some translations.  The word “atonement” was coined in the 16th century and may not clearly translate the words ‘reconciliation’, ‘expiation’ and ‘propitiation’.)  Leviticus, especially, provides many details about proper enactment of the worship service of sacrifice.  Sacrifice, a reconciliation worship service, expects that repentance has already taken place, confirms forgiveness and restores the humans involved to the community of God.  Also, participation in sacrifice carries with it the expectation that the participant will live his or her life according to the previously agreed upon covenant with God.  Could Paul have been thinking this of sacrifice?  It is a ‘worship service’ that affirms that we have repented (and are repenting of) our sins and are seeking forgiveness from God that confirms that we have been restored to membership in the family of God and will be living our lives according to God’s covenant.  Not only that, but we will be living the kind of ‘sacrificial’ life that Jesus lived:

and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.  (Ephesians 5:2)

Reasonable Worship

Paul tells us that our living sacrifice and reasonable worship will lead to being transformed by renewal.  What does the Hebrew Bible Paul used tell us about sacrifice and covenant living?

“You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” Psalm 51:16-17. “With what shall I come before the LORD and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Micah 6:6-8: For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings (Hosea 6:6) “When you offer me holocausts, I reject your oblations and refuse to look at your sacrifices of fattened cattle…but let justice flow like water and integrity like an unfailing stream.”(Amos 5:21,22,24 JB) For I did not speak with your fathers, Nor, did I command them in the day of My bringing them out of the land of Egypt, Concerning the matters of burnt-offering and sacrifice, Jer. 7:22  Young’s Literal Translation 

Paul would have remembered these verses that point out that right relationship with God and living according to the covenant is more important than performing sacrifices.  So, I find the slant that we get from Peterson makes this point.

So, here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life–your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life–and place it before God as an offering.  Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. (The Message)

Everyday worship

How we live our lives is determined by our “continuing gift” of our “reasonable worship” and also ourselves.  (It has been helpful to me to substitute the words “continuing gift” for “living sacrifice” in Rm. 12.  How does that help or hinder us in understanding Paul’s meaning?)  Most commentaries note that the NIV translation “spiritual service” does not provide the most direct translation of the Greek word used here which is usually translated “logical” or reasonable.  The “reasonable” translation connects to the word “mind” in the verse following.  Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will. Rm. 12:2 (NIV) (Perhaps I should remind Nathan that a Sunday-morning-only faith comes under the same kind of censure that the prophets and Paul had for “sacrifices”.)  Transformed living (spiritual service, nonconformity, reasonable worship), then, is the subject of Paul’s writings in Rm. 12:2 through 15:13.  He writes about the variety of worship of God we should be doing from brotherly love to joyful hope to fervent prayer to making love, rather than government requirements our highest value.

Sacrifice and life

Paul understood, I believe, that dead sacrifices did not accomplish God’s purposes for humans.  Animal sacrifice was not effective in helping God’s people live according to the covenant.  The prophets realized that a new heart and mind were required.  God’s love and mercy in sending us Jesus taught us that a “continuing gift” of oneself is what God desired.  In Heb. 10:7-10 we are assured that doing God’s will is better than sacrifice. So, what should I have told Nathan about God and animal sacrifice?  My current understanding is that God used what people were doing anyway (sacrificing humans, animals and grain is nearly universal) to prepare us to understand Jesus life, death and resurrection.  I would remind him also, that there are five major metaphors or images used in scripture of give us a glimpse of what God has done in Christ.  1. Redemption (from the world of war and commerce), 2. Reconciliation (from world of personal relationships); 3. Sacrifice (from the world of religion and worship); 4. Victory (from the world of national/international relationships and the battlefield; and 5. Justification (from the world of law and the courts).  None of these images is sufficient in itself to lead us to God or help us understand how becoming what God created us to be happens.  Even if we understood all of these Biblical images, we would not fully comprehend “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.”

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Nothing separates us from God’s love

God has taken charge; from now on he has the last word.”  Ps. 22:28 (Message)

 

Psalms of lament usually begin with the psalmist’s declaration that he is in a really bad place.

Psalm 10

Why, Lord, do you stand far off?
Why do you pay no attention during times of trouble?
The wicked arrogantly chase the oppressed;
the oppressed are trapped by the schemes the wicked have dreamed up.
Yes, the wicked man boasts because he gets what he wants;
the one who robs others curses and rejects the Lord.
The wicked man is so arrogant he always thinks,
“God won’t hold me accountable; he doesn’t care.

 

Other Psalms such as Psalm 34 and 69 have similar beginnings.  But, when we read a psalm, we have an expectation that things will change; that God has been present throughout the difficulties, that God will provide help. We read the whole Psalm to understand and interpret and understand the beginning of it.

The first words from Psalm 22 are much more familiar in the King James.  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  What from this Psalm would Jesus have us understand?  On the cross, nailed in such a way that he could hardly breathe, he spoke no more than that first line.  Surely Jesus, just as the Psalmist, was speaking from his immediate pain and isolation.  Soon he would be thinking about remembered trust and confidence in God.  Had Jesus not been nailed to the cross in such a position, I believe he have quoted the whole psalm with the movement from a sense of distance from God to full confidence that God was with him.  Consider the context of the scripture to see if there is support for this view.

Context is everything:

An insurance company’s lawyer was questioning an old farmer in court.  The company did not want to pay his claims for injuries. These occurred when their client ran a stop sign and hit the farmer’s trailer that contained his favorite mule.

Lawyer: “Didn’t you tell the police officer “I fine” when he arrived?

Farmer:  Well, that morning I loaded Old Bessie into the trailer and started down the road.  Hadn’t gotten far . . .

Lawyer (interrupting): “Just answer the question.  Did you say, “I’m fine”?

Farmer:  I loaded old Bessie into the trailer  … .

Lawyer:  Just answer the question.  Judge, please instruct the witness to answer.”

Judge:  Why don’t we let the witness continue?  I want to hear what he has to say.

Farmer:  I had Old Bessie in the trailer and we were driving down the road to the vet’s when this red car came zipping through the stop sign and hit the truck and trailer.  I was trying to get out of the truck to check on Bessie who I heard moanin’ and groanin’.  I was afraid she was a goner.

About that time a trooper came up and saw Bessie was a goner so he pulled out his gun and shot Bessie.  I was still trying to clear my head and get over to Bessie when the trooper came up to me with his gun still in his hand.  He said, Hey, old guy, how are you doin’?

I said: “I’m fine, I’m fine”!

Context!

Jesus’ Context:

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  So, what is the context?

I think there are three parts to the context.  First, is Jesus’ situation.  Nearly all the disciples have deserted him.  Jesus has pressure on his lungs due to the pull of his arms from his nailed hands.  He feels the burden of the sins of people of all ages have put him on the cross.  As a loving son, he asks John to take care of his mother, Mary.  Jesus knows that like in the parable of the tenants (Matthew 21:28-46; Mark 12:1-12; Luke 20:9-19) we have tried to put ourselves in God’s place.  But, as the loving Jesus still speaks words of forgiveness to the criminal crucified with him.  He includes us in the words “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.”  We were forgiven, not because Jesus was “forsaken”, but because Jesus interceded with a loving God on our behalf.  A contemporary Christian song include the words “the Father turned his face away”.  Another contains the words “The wrath of God was satisfied when Jesus died”. *  Where do those phrases come from in scripture?  Doesn’t scripture say that God wants to forgive?  How can one say that God deserted Jesus without saying that the Trinity was split apart?  When Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they’re doing” he clearly assumes his role as our intercessor in the model of Moses and Ezekiel.  After the resurrection, Jesus would be seated at God’s right hand to continue that intercessory role.  Finally, Jesus concludes with a commitment to the Father.   “Into your hands I commit my spirit.”

That is the immediate context.

Context of the original words

Psalms of lament like Psalm 22 frequently begin with the psalmist in a bad way.  Awake! Why are you asleep, O Lord? (Psalm 44:24) “You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths.” (Psalm 88:6)  Do we conclude that is the whole truth about the Psalmist?  What is the usual way of interpreting a Psalm of lament?  “Reproach hath broken my heart; and I am full of heaviness: and I looked for some to take pity, but there was none; and for comforters, but I found none.”  Psalm 69:20.  Would Jesus use the first words of Psalm 22 in a way to contradict the later verses?

Then look at the context of the words Jesus quotes from Psalm 22, especially the latter part of the Psalm.

28 God has taken charge;
from now on he has the last word.

29 All the power-mongers are before him
—worshiping!
All the poor and powerless, too
—worshiping!
Along with those who never got it together
—worshiping!

30-31 Our children and their children
will get in on this
As the word is passed along
from parent to child.
Babies not yet conceived
will hear the good news—
that God does what he says.

Psalm 22, The Message

 

Broader Biblical context

Several passages in John tell us that Jesus and the Father are one.  Especially note John 10:30 and John 16:32. Jesus speaks further of this identity in John 17.    Paul understood what Jesus meant when he wrote: “God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself.”  God was present with Jesus in his hour of deepest need.  This text, for me, does not say Jesus was forsaken and condemned that I might be forgiven and accepted.2  Therefore we can be confident that God will be with us when we experience great need.  Surely, in this hour, Jesus temptation to despair was greater than any we can experience. The writer of Hebrews assures us, that Jesus was “tempted in every way as we are”.   Did Paul think about Jesus at the cross when he wrote these words?

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor heavenly rulers, nor things that are present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8:38-39 NET

How do we embrace the whole of the Psalm in our understanding?  I would like to believe that Jesus, with the Psalmist would affirm:

God has taken charge;
from now on he has the last word. Psalm 22:28

 

 

*Michael Card, “Love crucified alone”;  Stuart Townsend, “How deep the Father’s Love”.  Other similar:  Natalie Grant, In Christ Alone; Chris Tomlin:  “You Are My King” 2I’m forgiven because you were forsaken” These songs do an excellent job with most of the Gospel story.  But they obscure an important part:  God was always reconciled to us, God always wanted to forgive us and God always wanted to restore us.  It is we as humans that need to change and be changed. I am still working out the implications of this.  Our understanding of God and how he forgives and restores leads to important actions.  Believing in a punishing God leads to sentences for persons guilty of crimes that feature jail first, rather than restorative justice; solitary confinement rather than opportunities for education and improvement; and capital punishment rather than compassionate care.  I am still thinking through this aspect of God’s mercy and forgiveness.

My thinking on this topic was shaped by reading Darren Belousek, Atonement, Justice and Peace.  Any confusion is mine.

 

Other scriptures to consider:

“When you all run away from me and leave me alone, I won’t be alone, because My Father is with me.” (John 16:32).

Corporate Lament

  • Examples include: Psalms 12, 44, 60, 74, 79, 80, 83, 85, 90, 94, 123, 126, 129

Personal Lament  (these psalms fit more than one category)

  • Examples include: Psalms 3, 4, 5, 7, 9-10, 13, 14, 17, 22, 25, 26, 27*, 28, 31, 36*, 39, 40:12-17, 41, 42-43, 52*, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57, 59, 61, 64, 69, 70, 71, 77, 86, 89*, 120, 139, 141, 142