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Thanksgiving Psalms for the Season

Praise the Lord!”  And so begins one of the glorious types of Psalms (Ps. 111) from the Psalter, built on a recognition of God’s many blessings.  What a perfect time of year to consider the Thanksgiving Psalm more deeply and maybe even write your own!

David dictating the Psalms.  Codex binding in ivory, from the Treasure of Saint-Denis, France, end of 10th century.

There are many types of Psalms, but two predominate:  the praise psalm and the lament.  The former is often sung as a hymn and the latter, a lament, is a prayer.  Both types of Psalms are found applying to either individuals or whole communities.  The Thanksgiving Psalm begins where the lament leaves off– the gratitude expressed for the very thing or situation that had before seemed so insurmountable.

Thanksgiving Psalms are complements to laments because they provide concrete testimony to answered prayer.  Just as laments are cries for help during a crisis, Thanksgiving Psalms are their natural corollary because they declare:  “My prayer is answered.”

Yet Thanksgiving Psalms are more than hymns of praise because they relish the language of proclamation of what God has done and is doing for both the individual and community.

The Psalter has long served as one of the most loved portions of the Hebrew Scriptures, treasured by Jew and Christian alike, and quoted more in the New Testament than any other Old Testament book. Perhaps one reason for the Psalms’ timeless appeal is that all 150 Psalms teach us how to pray, how to feel God’s presence.  They show why we can have unwavering confidence in God’s power to deliver men, women and children from every kind of evil that would intimidate, threaten or bully.

An example comes from one of my earliest childhood memories.  My mother, brother and I were shouting the 23rd Psalm together as we held hands in our Oklahoma home’s small hallway, the only room where flying glass couldn’t reach us. It was our way of remembering that God’s power is greater than any tornado funnel, including the nearby one which sounded like a freight train about to come through the house.  Not just that year but all our growing up years, we experienced protection and safety from diseases, accidents, school challenges and sports, and the Psalms were a significant part of those prayers.

Here are some Thanksgiving Psalms you might enjoy reading this season (Ps. 30, 46, 48, 66. 76, 126, 135, and 147), along with an extended portion here of Ps. 111.

*Praise the Lord!

I will thank the Lord with all my heart

as I meet with his godly people.

How amazing are the deeds of the Lord!

All who delight in him should ponder them.

Everything he does reveals his glory and majesty.

His righteousness never fails.

He causes us to remember his wonderful works.

How gracious and merciful is our Lord!

He gives food to those who fear him;

he always remembers his covenant…

All he does is just and good,

and all his commandments are trustworthy.

It is always a joy to hear from you, our thoughtful readers.  Please share how you think about these Thanksgiving Psalms, or better yet, share a verse of one you’ve penned to capture your own gratitude this beautiful season of giving thanks.

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A Surprise Lesson from Joshua

The burning bush and Red Sea parting may be some of the most well-known stories of the Hebrew Bible.  But do we realize Joshua had his own exceptional signs of God’s guiding presence?  This came to light recently while rereading Joshua.

Some quick background:  Moses had finished his role leading the Children of Israel from Egyptian slavery, guiding them through the wilderness for a generation.   Finally, the twelve tribes were within sight of the land Yahweh promised and, in one of the tougher parts of the Bible, Moses’ story abruptly ends.  This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there (NRSV, Deut. 34:4).

Brass serpent sculpture at top of Mt. Nebo. Photo courtesy of Travelfeatured.com

One of the special joys of traveling to Jordan is seeing this site of commemoration at Mt. Nebo.   An immense snake sculpture stands as tribute to the Hebrew lawgiver recalling one of the many ways Moses’ obedience saved his people.   As Numbers 21 relays, Moses followed God’s directive to create a brass serpent fixed on a pole for the people who had serpent bites for their disobedience.  Then anyone who was bitten by a snake could look at the bronze snake and be healed!  (NLT, Num. 21:9

And now, it’s Joshua’s turn.  As second in command under Moses, we read:   Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the Lord had commanded Moses (NRSV, Deut. 34:9)

That ‘spirit of wisdom’ Joshua demonstrated included exceptional leadership qualities we need in today’s leaders as well:   courage, strength, humility, obedience, and single-minded focus on mission– to name just some the text cites.  Reading Joshua is a handbook in leadership development – whether in a family, school, community organization, church, business or politics.

The surprise that stood out in this reading is an event that occurs after the Jordan crossing into Canaan.  Joshua needed ‘signs’, indicators that he wasn’t alone but being guided by the unseen power the Israelites knew to be God.  The people also needed it.  The Lord said to Joshua, “This day I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, so that they may know that I will be with you as I was with Moses (NRSV, Joshua 3:7).  The parting of the Jordan, so similar to what they had either seen firsthand or learned from their parents’ generation, was one of those.

But now that they have crossed into a land filled with tribes and Joshua’s leadership is far from over.  Suddenly Joshua has a vision:

“…he looked up and saw a man standing before him with a drawn sword in his hand… “Are you one of us, or one of our adversaries?” 14 He replied, “Neither; but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped, and he said to him, “What do you command your servant, my lord?” 15 The commander of the army of the Lord said to Joshua, “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy.” And Joshua did so (NRSV, Josh 5:13-15).

This was one of those sweet surprises that come when we’re quietly reading our Bibles.  I realized Joshua needed his own version of the burning bush Moses had seen, his own unique assurance he was never alone.  He must have heard Moses share the story of suddenly seeing a bush that wouldn’t burn and then hearing that directive voice to leave the desert and confront Pharaoh to free his people.  Joshua knew that was the beginning of Moses’ journey that would change not only the Hebrew people’s lives, but the world – with the Ten Commandments becoming the basis of Western civilization’s law codes for centuries.

Now Joshua needed his own sign, knowing his role was to clear the land of Canaan and fulfill the Biblical promise harking back to Abraham, the covenant promise of not only ancestors but of a land where they could live.  An image of someone with a sword must have been exactly what Joshua needed to boost his courage and forge ahead.

And that’s how Biblical signs continue:  precisely suited to meet our individual needs.  I hope every reader of this column has discerned at least one such sign created just for you, on which you are building your life.  Such signs have been for me, the greatest treasure and encouragement.  Reinforcement of the importance of these spiritual markers in our lives is one of the many reasons that daily Bible reading brings such appreciable joy.

Example of markers for Horner Reading Plan.

We offer a specific reading plan on the Bibleroads website.     If you’ve tried reading the Scriptures straight through, beginning in Genesis and getting bogged down around Leviticus, perhaps the Dr. Horner reading plan is also for you.  Here’s the Bible I’m reading through this year with its markers as an illustration of how simple it is to set up. Please let all of us know how you’re doing with any reading plan and what it has meant for you—especially those surprises, tailored for your unique spiritual journey just as they were for Joshua.

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The Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran: Why they’re important

Most Bible students are familiar with the archaeological discovery in 1947* of the Dead Sea Scrolls but may not be clear as to why this was such an important find.   It’s because this discovery – called the greatest manuscript uncovering of all time — provides a priceless look into the history of Judaism, how the Hebrew Bible developed and the beginnings of Christianity.

After Bedouin shepherds happened upon some of the jars containing the papyrus and leather scrolls (primarily written in Hebrew, with some in Aramaic and Greek), the manuscripts went through a process of being authenticated.  Now most scholars tend to agree that they date from about 250 B.C. to 68 A.D. , and their thousands of fragments are still being poured over with the latest scientific techniques, to learn their content.

This cache of scrolls, now referred to as “The Dead Sea Scrolls”, has come from a number of caves in the area and simultaneously gone through a circuitous journey of ownership.  A number of them are now safely ensconced in museums such as Jerusalem’s Shrine of the Book, and the Jordan Archaeological Museum in Amman.

The over 900 manuscripts are divided into three major categories:  those that are part of the Hebrew canon (or Old Testament to Christians);  the sectarian, applying to those peculiar to the residents of Qumran in terms of their doctrine; and other texts that range from legal documents to prayers to comments on Biblical books.

Entrance to Cave 11, Qumran. Photo courtesy of The Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library.

Who were the people of this Qumran area?  Many scholars believe they are the Jewish religious group, the Essenes, such as those two Biblical Jewish groups: the Pharisees and Sadducees.   The Jewish historian Josephus wrote of them in the 2nd century A.D., explaining they were a celibate people but that is still debated.  The longer both the Essenes and these manuscripts are studied the more questions arise, such as were the Essenes’ beliefs similar to those of early Christian groups?  Or were they more devoted to legal rules focused on cultic purity?

One of the outcomes of all this scholarly debate is a new field called ‘social archaeology’ which, according to the Bible History Daily, is ‘an established field of research which uses archaeological records to reconstruct the belief system and social organization of past societies.’

Some of the scrolls’ titles include:   the Rule of the Community, the War Scroll, a copy of the book of Isaiah, Thanksgiving Hymns, the Genesis Apocryphon, the Copper Scroll and a number of the Hebrew Scriptures’ prophetic books such as Nahum and Habakkuk, and more.  And a majority of scholars believe the scrolls to have been written by those living at Qumran who placed them in local caves, vs. being brought from Jerusalem, for example.

An international team of Biblical scholars and linguists have worked decades to make them available now in various published editions.  The main ones have been brought together in Jerusalem at the Shrine of the Book but are also occasionally part of traveling exhibits.  I recall the moment I stood in front of my first glimpse of a scroll at the San Diego Natural History Museum and read the translation of a line from that fragment that exactly matched a Bible verse I had read that morning.  Wow!

The Scrolls reveal how much humanity longs to understand God, writes about God and our experience with the Almighty, encouraging us to acknowledge an unseen Creator who men and women have long recognized and yearned to know, for centuries.

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Psalm 137 and Popular Culture

Gebhard_Fugel_By the Rivers of_Babylons

By the Rivers of Babylon, Gebhard Fugel, 1920

Just when you think popular culture has shelved the Bible as passé, along comes a haunting version of Psalm 137 sung by American singer-songwriter, Don McLean,* and captured on this video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uTnspbSjKVc

A lament over the destruction of Jerusalem, McLean’s version of Ps. 137 captures the ache of those who were taken from their homes and brought to the Babylonian Empire’s capital for slave labor.   This popular version’s lyrics are a summary of the Psalms’ opening four verses, simply but powerfully conveyed for maximum impact.

Beside the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept
    as we thought of Jerusalem.
We put away our harps,
    hanging them on the branches of poplar trees.
For our captors demanded a song from us.
    Our tormentors insisted on a joyful hymn:
    “Sing us one of those songs of Jerusalem!”
But how can we sing the songs of the Lord
    while in a pagan land?

“The rivers of Babylon” was the name Jews used for the whole country, sharply contrasted to their beloved Jerusalem, destroyed when Nebuchadnezzar’s troops invaded. (For that reason, Ps. 137 is considered one of the few that can be dated—either written between 587 -539 BCE, the period of captivity that starts with Jerusalem’s destruction in 587, or just after the Jews’ release in 539 BCE).

Demanding that the captives sing – an act of joy – when hearts are breaking for their many losses (loved ones, homes, country, etc.), smacks of cruelty. It reminds us of Nazis demanding that the classical musicians in Jewish concentration camps entertain captors with their beloved Bach and Brahms.

The Psalm doesn’t shy away from those strongest of emotions in extreme circumstances–grief, anger and outrage. Aren’t these the natural responses to evil? Perhaps this is the way Ps. 137 tells us we must never be complacent when evil tries to gain the upper hand, whether in individual lives or for an entire nation and people.

But the lament doesn’t stop there, providing the reader or listener with a way out of such mental or physical hell. After the opening lament (verses 1-4) expressing grief, verses 5 and 6 turn us to the value of remembering.

I forget you, O Jerusalem,
    let my right hand forget how to play the harp.
May my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth
    if I fail to remember you,
    if I don’t make Jerusalem my greatest joy.

Who hasn’t experienced remembering better days–whether prior to a death, divorce, health or financial challenge? And yet the Psalmist points us to far more than just better times. It’s remembering why Jerusalem is our greatest joy, Jerusalem representing the place where God dwells.   For centuries the Jews and Israelites believed their God was a tribal God and lived in Zion (Jerusalem), which was one reason Solomon needed to build a Temple for Him.

But a spiritual breakthrough grew out of their reverse exodus or deportation to Babylon. They might have left Jerusalem, but God would never leave them.   It was in captivity where the Jews began to glimpse how enormous God is, far beyond the tribal deity who protected them on their homeland’s battlefield. Indeed, this is the God capable of saving from fiery furnaces and lion’s dens—even securing the Jews’ national release to return home.

In the midst of their grieving, Psalm 137 turns them to the answer, and it can do the same for us.

Note: For a different musical interpretation of the same Ps. 137, watch this dramatic clip from Guiseppe Verdi’s opera (1841) that launched his artistic career: Nabucco (the short version of “Nebuchadnezzar” in Italian, about the same period of Jewish captivity.  It’s a kind of 19th century version of popular culture.) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oPy_HwOtumU

*The verses were were composed by Englishman, Philip Hayes and McLean recorded it as ‘Babylon’ for a 1971 album.

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Snakes, Mountains and Moses

Mt. Nebo and Kings Hiway

View from Mt. Nebo and King’s Highway, linking ancient Edom, Moab and Amman Kingdoms.

Jordan is a country full of surprises, mainly of how many Biblical sites there are. One of my favorites is Mt. Nebo, the traditional site thought to be where Moses hands over the reins to his number 2 in command, Joshua. Was it because Moses was tired and decided to give up leadership to the next generation? Hardly.

Nothing Moses did seems to have been motivated by anything but his clarity about God’s direction, which he had to learn as we all do. Whether it was leaving the wilderness to return to Egypt where he was a wanted man, or herding his often-recalcitrant fellow Hebrews through a generation of wilderness, Moses listened to God most of the time, and bore the weight of consequences when he didn’t, as in this case.

The decision not to enter ‘the Promised Land’ was based on a Biblical directive he disobeyed. The account (in Numbers 20, NRSV) explains that the Israelites were in the wilderness called Zin, without water. Turning to God in prayer, he got his answer:

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and your brother Aaron, and command the rock (emphasis added) before their eyes to yield its water. Thus you shall bring water out of the rock for them; thus you shall provide drink for the congregation and their livestock.

…but chose to ignore it….

So Moses took the staff from before the Lord, as he had commanded him. 10 Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Listen, you rebels, shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” 11 Then Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock twice (emphasis added) with his staff; water came out abundantly, and the congregation and their livestock drank. 

…and suffered the consequences.

12 But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust in me, to show my holiness before the eyes of the Israelites, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” 

Talk about having a dramatic moment?! Did Moses succumb to that all too modern malady of performing for the crowds? Isn’t it more dramatic to strike the rock for all to see then simply talk to it when few could hear? Perhaps that was Moses’ reasoning– something we’ll never know.

But we do know that Moses learned an important lesson in obedience, as did his brother Aaron who was also disobedient. This is where the Bible is the best literal guidebook for travelers. Numbers 20 and 21 continue the saga of the journey to freedom, how the King of Edom forbade entrance into his territory, even if the Israelites kept to themselves on The King’s Highway (the very road on which our bus traveled!).   Lesson learned: keep going (and listening) despite the obstacles that arise, regardless of how daunting.

God directs them around Edom (near today’s Petra, and part of ancient Edom), along the Red Sea. Aaron goes to die on Mt. Hor, the most prominent peak visible from today’s Petra. Once again the people complain and this time serpents are sent (Num. 21:7-9).

The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

So visitors to Mt. Nebo today are treated to an enormous brass sculpture of a serpent on a pole. One traveler observed how it looked like the medical profession’s symbol, sometimes explained as sourced from the Greek mythology of Hermes, who is given a staff by Apollo, the god of healing. They obviously don’t know their Scripture!

Mt Nebo

Mt Nebo photo credit: “Nebo04(js)” by Jerzy Strzelecki – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons

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