MM: An inviting invitation (musical settings of Matt 11:28-30)

[This is an installment in the sporadic Monday Music series which deals with topics related to Christian music.  Other, related posts may be found here.]

In mid-2016 and again in early 2017, I was invited, in a manner of speaking, to reconsider an invitation from Jesus’ own lips, as recorded in Matthew 11:28-30.

Even if it didn’t possess an intrinsically openhearted quality, this passage would stand out because it has been memorized a lot.  It was also “my” passage to recite during my college chorus’s scripture-and-hymns program, performed every evening while on tours.  At the time, despite my sometimes having to stutter out the initial plosive consonant on “Come to me,” I was complimented on my delivery and the perceived match of my vocal timbre with a preconceived idea of the Jesus behind the saying.  Now, however, I have negative associations with a couple of people from that time, and I definitely had a less mature understanding of the text back then, so it’s with mixed feelings that I recall the experience.

At some point, I became acquainted with the Leonard Burford song “Come Unto Me.”  The legally blind “Brother Burford” was director of the chorus at Abilene Christian College and had studied at Juilliard.  This song is available in only one of my hymnals.  I suppose it was sung in only a very few churches and would hardly be known now.  It is an inviting, near-choral-type setting and is of good technical quality (speaking musically and poetically), but it seems to excel in terms of musical form and harmony more than in communication of a text (and context).  Here is a sample:

Another setting, used several times a year in the church of my youth, was more accessible to large, untrained groups.  Both of these songs employ a good deal of repetition, but the latter is more approachable and singable.  The stanzas below, written for soprano-alto duet, are only indirectly related to the text.  The men’s voices enter emphatically at the chorus, which was the actual setting of the Matthew text.  This version, in my estimation, is somewhat better than the Burford one.  Given its era, the quasi-instrumental-accompaniment setting of the refrain here was effective.  The textual emphasis at primary cadence points (ends of lines 4 and 6) seems to be on “rest for the soul.”

It might even be supposed that the writers of many other “invitation” or “altar call” songs had Matthew 11:28 in the backs of their minds—loosely and implicitly if not explicitly.  I think here of the likes of “Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy,” “Jesus Is Tenderly Calling You Home,” and “Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling.”

Years transpired after my college choral days, and I became less interested in choral music.  Incidentally, I became increasingly averse to the whole churchy “invitation” thing during that time.  Nevertheless, in 1996, I wrote my own “Come To Me,” tied more directly and strictly to the passage—and specifically spurred by Gary Collier’s book The Forgotten Treasure:  Reading the Bible Like JesusA sketch history of this song goes something like this:

At what I might say was just the right time of my life, I read The Forgotten Treasure.  Bothered as I was by what I took as legalistic, un-grace-filled approaches to people within certain churches, I felt a deep impact from much of the book and keyed in on the middle of Matthew (including chapter 11), based on Gary’s emphases and structural suggestions.  Compelled, I wrote the song and shared it with the author of the book, having been in touch with him through a Bible discussion e-mail group.

A group called Lights, audiowhich I directed and sang with through the 1990s, was available to me, and I naturally went in the direction of a musical arrangement that played to that group’s strengths and resided in its comfort zones.  Lights ended up using the song in performances at youth events, church retreats, etc.  Lights made two recordings, and both recordings strike me now as acceptable, given what I had to work with, but dated.  A bass voice is heard on the solo, and my younger sister’s voice and mine are heard in countermelodic bursts in the final chorus of the recording stored here.  I am still pleased that the overall demeanor of the song is different from that of the run-of-the-mill, more churchy appeals the Matthew text with which I had been acquainted.  This song is more targeted, more insistent . . . and even the conclusion is a comparatively forceful invitation, with a half-cadence that suggests the Son of Man’s unending, energetic interest, not a namby-pamby “just lie down and go to sleep with gentle Jesus.”

I moved on from Lights, but I never forgot the song and still periodically turn to it for personal devotional use.

Last summer, a conference was held, organized in connection with the Institute for the Art of Biblical Conversation.  When the theme was announced as centering in Matthew’s gospel, an obvious opportunity arose to revisit my song that had also been based in that document, so I did just that.  It turned out to be the 20th anniversary for my “Come To Me.”  Having become largely disenchanted with the a cappella medium of the first version of the song (excerpt shown here)—and particularly with the accompaniment style I had used for the Lights performance group—I knew it was time to abandon that approach.  Few really sing that way anymore, and the group was perhaps even in a time warp during part of its history, too.  In trying to function within the niche-world of a cappella church music, Lights appealed to some but perhaps outlived our usefulness.  I digress.

Looking back, I’d say the song is conceptually and creatively among my 10 or 15 best.  (There were many others written during that decade—some, barely mediocre.)  Gary’s book had pointed me in a focused way to Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus, so I think the song carried an authentically scriptural, strong message.  Since 1996, my understanding of Matthew (and of texts in general, and the newly inbreaking reign of God, and more) have grown immeasurably.  Here are sections of the sheet music for the updated version of “Come To Me”:

A home recording of this version is here, for what it’s worth.  It might need to be downloaded before playing it, depending on your setup.   The pre-recorded keyboard part is 5-10% too fast, and my out-of-shape voice is found wanting.  (A more in-shape female solo voice would have been better on this song!)  This 2016 update incorporated several minor musical and lyrics changes—plus adding a bridge that solidifies and significantly strengthens the whole, I think:

Hear and learn from the Master.
Understand the reading of the Old and the New.
Go and follow the Master of mercy!
He brings the Kingdom into view!

A responsible interpretation of Matthew 11:28-30 must not merely take some poetic expressions and make them sound sweet in a song.  One ought to consider those words of “invitation” apart from the “altar call” or “invitation” dynamic in traditional congregation settings.  Further, one ought to pay attention to Matthew 11:28-30 within the striking contextual arrangement of Matthew’s gospel.  No song could succeed in every detail, but in pursuing such a biblical text contextually, in this way, what Matthew’s gospel says about the Master can become clearer.

Whatever its strength or weakness of this song, I hope that you are taken further, or maybe just a little differently, into Matthew’s riches and Jesus’ invitation.

A birthday of sorts

I’m not much on birthdays (or any holidays, for that matter).  I do remember the birthdays of all those in my family of origin, of three of my grandparents, and of my own, little nuclear family.  That’s about where it ends.  I only know birthdays for one niece, one nephew, one aunt, so I probably ought to be embarrassed that I do remember the birthday of my childhood baseball hero every year.  That guy is a year younger than my father, but let’s just say Dad’s character and life patterns are infinitely more admirable than the former Major Leaguer’s.  I have once again not mentioned the baseball player’s name on his birthday, because I don’t want to call any more attention to him.

April 30, though, is a birthday anniversary of something I will call attention to:  the initial invitation for Eugene Peterson to write The Message. 

Portions of The Message were published serially for a period of about ten years, starting in 1993, and I intentionally purchased each new volume until the whole was at last published in 2002.  It was difficult for me to divest myself of the separate volumes such as The Pentateuch and The Prophets, but it didn’t make sense to keep them all.  I now have only a complete hardback edition, a separate hardback copy of The Wisdom Books, a paperback Psalms, and a full electronic, versified edition.

Speaking of “versification,” one helpful-yet-annoying feature of the original work is that it does not contain traditional “verses.”  I say “helpful” because not having those little numbers can guard against the breaking up of thoughts as one reads longer passages.  I say “annoying” because the lack of verse numbers makes it difficult to find a particular spot and to compare with other versions.  There is a place for both, so I’m glad to have non-versified editions in print but also glad that my Logos software contains a versified version for easier pinpoint access.

I could not presume to add what so many others have said in praise of the translation, and I don’t care to expend effort refuting or responding to its judgmental detractors.  (No translation is above criticism, and I’d rather be more granular in my approach to this one and all others.)  Rather, I just want to recognize this milestone.  Here, I’ll allow Peterson’s own introductory words to speak for themselves.  He tells of the time in which the seed of The Message took root:

     I lived in two language worlds, the world of the Bible in the world of Today.  I had always assumed they were the same world.  But these people didn’t see it that way.  So out of necessity I became a “translator,” . . . daily standing on the border between two worlds, getting the language of the Bible that God uses to create and save us, heal and bless us, judge and rule over us, into the language of Today that we use to gossip and tell stories, give directions and do business, sings songs and talk to our children.
     And all the time those old Biblical languages, those powerful and vivid Hebrew and Greek originals, kept working their way underground in my speech, giving energy and sharpness to words and phrases, expanding the imagination of the people with whom I was working to hear the language of the Bible in the language of Today and the language of Today in the language of the Bible. . . .
     The Message is a reading Bible.  It is not intended to replace the excellent study Bibles that are available.  My intent here . . . is simply to get people reading who don’t know that the Bible is read-able at all, at least by them, and to get people who long ago lost interest in the Bible to read it again. . .  So at some point along the way, soon or late, it will be important to get a standard study Bible to facilitate further study.  Meanwhile, read in order to live, praying as you read, “God, let it be with me just as you say.”

– Eugene Peterson, Preface to The Message, 2002, © Eugene Peterson, published by NavPress

Now, especially if you have never read from The Message, you might try it once in a while.  Try it for a change.  Try it for a perk.  Try it for a comparison.  Try reading long passages.  You might be surprised at how quickly one of Paul’s letters goes, or how marvelously new one of the gospels or the books of Hebrew history sounds.  Whether or not you get into The Message, read, consider, and study the message by any helpful means.

Happy creative birthday to Eugene Peterson for his distinctive accomplishment in The Message, with thanks to the editor who wrote the invitation letter received more than a quarter-century ago on April 30, 1990.  No translation is perfect, but this one went a long way in making scripture come alive for readers.

For more Bible Anniversary reading . . . another translation of note, now more than four hundred years old, celebrated a birthday in 2011.  The KJV was a massive achievement in its time and was deserving of celebration and praise for 200-300 hundred years, I figure.  Read my anniversary farewell wishes to the Authorized Version (KJV) here.

Issues with literalism

Some literalism is a good thing, but I’m afraid my son is now in training for the ranks I unwittingly joined long ago—those or us who are often over-literal (and who are hindered in life because of the trait).

Image result for literal wordsThinking and hearing and reading over-literally can keep me from understanding things.  I’m not dealing here with the overuse of the word “literally” in common speech.  No, it’s more of a sometimes-exaggerated sense of what isolated words mean within a passage of text or in a spoken message.  In the middle of a conversation, my brain can get hung up on a word, trying to make sense out of it and wondering about its strict meaning . . . and going into an exploratory hermeneutical limbo while the unsuspecting person finishes her sentence.

When I read the redundant, presumably erroneous phrase “recapitalizing the operating capital,” I wonder if I need to adjust my literal understanding of at least one of the instances of the root “capital,” or perhaps the phrase wasn’t written well.  (And I miss the rest of the paragraph.)

I get stuck on the list of “principal parts” of Greek verbs, because I try to figure out what the parts are parts of, literally speaking.  (And I remain confused about, say, imperfect middle/passive vs. aorist middle, and pluperfect middle/passive.  [I know.  Who wouldn’t be confused?  But my comprehension issues can be partly related to over-literalism.])

I hear the prophetic phrase “every mountain will be brought low,” and I wonder just how the figure of speech might have been intended 3,000 years ago, and how it should be understood today.  Is it topographical mountains or conceptual ones?  Maybe both?  And what does it mean to be “brought low,” exactly?  A given interpretation might be more or less literal, and more or less related to mountain type.  (And I try not to worry too much, for many greater minds have read and understood prophecy in terribly different ways, to each other’s chagrin.)

I rather randomly turned to a page of scripture in a supposedly “literal” translation and found these phrases without even trying:

  • “deserting Him who called you” (not a physical desertion; and, except in Paul’s case, not likely an audible calling)
  • “beyond measure” (a phrase that expresses extreme actions, not literal measuring)
  • “advancing in Judaism” (a verb that suggests physical motion used with reference to some kind of conceptual progress)
  • “He who had set me apart, even from my mother’s womb, and called me through His grace” (I count four figurative expressions here—two actions and two prepositional phrases)

– Galatians 1, NASB

Literalism in scripture reading and interpretation can actually be a bad thing, although the phrase “take God at His word” is generally meant as a positive notion.  It is possible to read some expressions of scripture (and, verily, to understand common phrases spoken in daily life) quite figuratively, thinking all the while that one is reading literally.  Even the idea of taking words in the Bible “at face value” can be a smokescreen for taking them as some individual wants you to take them. 

It is often a particularly bad idea to take prophecy literally, but even phrases in the epistles and sections in ostensibly narrative texts can involve symbolism and figurative meanings.  Quite a few of scripture’s idiomatic expressions, if understood truly literally, would make an exegete bark up the wrong tree.  (See what I did there?)  Poetry appears in scripture, too (sometimes, right alongside historical narrative!); surely it is clear that poetically conceived words should not be confined to “literal” interpretation.  Ponder Peterson’s preface to poetry in prayer:

Poetry is language with used with personal intensity.  It is not, as so many suppose, decorative speech.  Poets tell us what our eyes, blurred with too much gawking, and our ears, dulled with too much chatter, miss around and within us.  Poets use words to drag us into the depth of reality itself.  They do it not by reporting on how life is, but by pushing-pulling us into the middle of it.  Poetry grabs for the jugular.  Far from being cosmetic language, it is intestinal.  It is root language.  Poetry doesn’t so much tell us something we never knew as bring into recognition what is latent, forgotten, overlooked, or suppressed.  The Psalms text is almost entirely in this kind of language.  Knowing this, we will not be looking here primarily for ideas about God, or for direction in moral conduct.  We will expect, rather, to find the experience of being human before God exposed and sharpened.

– Eugene Peterson, Answering God:  The Psalms as Tools for Prayer
(c) 1989 Harper & Row

I wish I had at hand a similarly provocative introductory piece on prophecy.  Failing that and staying with poetry, please consider a few songs with me.  These are examples of song lyrics that I once took literally and decided, at least for a while, that I could not conscientiously sing:

1.  “I know not when my Lord may come—at night or noonday fair, or if I’ll walk the vale with Him or meet Him in the air.”  – st. 4 of I Know Not Why God’s Wondrous Grace

Sometime in my twenties, I decided not to sing that stanza.  The either-or statement in the second half of the stanza appears to preclude the possibility of interpreting “vale” as “valley of the shadow of death (if one takes the grammar literally).  The only remaining possibility is allowing for the possibility of a millennial reign on earth, and that is not part of my eschatology.  These days, although I still don’t expect that kind of reign, I don’t really care how it eventually turns out for the good of those on God’s side, so I suppose I could go with a less literal approach to the song and sing along.  The thing is, I think I’ve missed the chance, because this song really isn’t sung much anymore.  I can still remember the strength of its chorus.  When discouragements run rampant, it’s a good one (and pretty literally taken from scripture, at that):

“I know Whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep that which I’ve committed unto Him against that day.” (2Tim 1:12)

2.  “Through this world of toils and snares, if I falter, Lord, who cares? ” – st. 3 from Just a Closer Walk With Thee

When my college chorus sang that song, I would confidently clam up during those words.  I wouldn’t sing them.  I felt quite justified in my literalism, but I was stupid (or, if you’re into showing grace, “stupid” could be paraphrased as “befuddled by college-aged, pseudo-spiritual passion”). 

As with pretty much everything, the idea in that verse is better interpreted in context (wait … what? context? like, it matters in songs as well as in scripture?).  The verse continues, “Who with me my burden shares?  None but Thee, dear Lord.”  I now think the entire verse means something like, “If I falter in this world, I won’t let it cloud my overall view that you are with me!”

Thinking that the expression “Lord, who cares?” should be taken literally is as dumb as thinking that Ps. 51:5¹ is proof of the Calvinists’ hallmark doctrine of total depravity.  Here is an excellent example of Peterson’s suggestion of “intestinal” import of language, of expressions that leave the “experience of being human before God exposed.”

It’s poetry, people, not literal doctrinal instruction.

3.  Farther Along (Tempted and Tried)

This one may not fit in the same category.  It wasn’t the same type of question of literalness that kept me from singing this song, really.  It was the whole idea of the song.  It just bothered me to be so whiny.  At some point I allowed myself to lead and sing only the final stanza and chorus—and that only after one of the darkest discouragements of my life—but I still didn’t want to whine through all the whiny stanzas.  The fourth sufficiently expressed the negatives of this life in perspective:

“When we see Jesus coming in glory, when He comes from His home in the sky, then we will meet Him in that bright mansion.  We’ll understand it all by and by.”

These days, I’m not so sure I wouldn’t heartily sing the whole song.  There have been many times since that I have been “made to wonder why it should be thus all the day long” and have dealt, on a pretty literal basis, with other questions the song raises.  At this point, despite the ostensibly bad attitude and the hick-ish musical style, I suppose the whole song is okay by me.

Maybe you think I’ve caved with respect to my later decisions on the above songs.  On the other hand, maybe I’ve succeeded, in these few cases, in not being an over-literal interpreter.

¹ Ps. 51:5:  Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me . . . (KJV)

For more on literalism and literal interpretation:

Literal instructions (1/30/10)

Do we really take it literally? (Leroy Garrett) (12/11/09)

Interpretations and ironies (B) (interpretation of prophecy—pretty heavy) (12/8/15)

Strike That:  A Take on “Battle Hymn of the Republic” in Hymnals (today!)

BONUS:  A fresh Logos Academic Blog writer on words, semantic range, context, and more.  This is not for the faint of heart, but it’s also entertaining, mixing Humpty Dumpty, Japanese missionary humor, linguistic instruction, and context.

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A scant few: “religion” words and passages

In the last post (“Religion?“), I tried to spotlight a line of demarcation between religion on the one hand and Christianity on the other.  I do believe there can be such a thing as true religion—i.e., a practice of religion that in some sense really is Christ-ian.  Here, I think not only of the aphoristic wordings of James 1:26-27, but of all those souls, far more devoted than I, who go about doing all sorts of good because of their devotion to Jesus.

On the other hand, I do try to pay attention to the definition of terms (see here and here for other examples) whenever anything is discussed, and I want to be clear on what I am (and am not) seeking to denigrate in these posts on “religion.”  So, toward a clearer definition—in terms of scripture—we find in one reputable English version (ESV) that the word “religion” or “religious” appears seven times:

  1. Acts 17:22
  2. Acts 25:19
  3. Acts 26:5
  4. Col 2:23
  5. James 1:26/27 (3x)

But an English word’s presence only tells us so much.  I mean, who cares what the English says unless it can be shown to be a reliable translation of the original language?  (And the ESV is certainly one of the more reliable translations available today.  I’m just making a general point here.)  We must either know something about the original or trust that the translators are handling the language correlation well.  Here, on a level that barely scratches the surface, I’ll refer to the original language….

The Greek term θρησκεία | threskeia and cognates serve as antecedents for the Acts 26, Col 2, and James instances.  In other words, the Greek antecedent is different in Acts 17 and 25.  A good hunt would eventually involve appeal to reputable lexicons to determine the range of meaning of that word in all period literature.  For purposes here, we’ll keep the definition at a “gloss” level:  it means, roughly, “religious observance.”

That is one level of investigation, but let’s dig down into another layer.  What about any other passages that began with the same Greek word but do not show up as “religion” in English?  There is only one additional instance of threskeia not translated as “religion” by the ESV:  Col 2:18, where “worship” is the English rendering.  (I think the choice of “worship” here can throw off even the most pure-spirited bloodhound on the trail of angel, religion, or worship “creatures”!)

The results of such searches may be different in other English versions.  For instance, the HCSB chooses a word other than “religion” in both of the Colossians 2 verses.  The NASB opts out of one of them.  The KJV actually skips both of them but chooses to give “religion” in two additional verses (Gal 1) in which the Greek original is different.  Consideration of all of these translations may serve either to clarify or to blur.  An illuminating sidelight here is that the KJV’s choice of “Jewish religion” for Ἰουδαϊσμός | judaismos in Galatians 1:13 and 1:14 is fairly close to current English usage, at least as I hear it.  In other words, the “Judaism” or “Jewish religion” referred to here might be a direct ancestor of some observant-but-less-than-centered manifestations of Christian religion today.

In Colossians 2:23, Paul might have been intentionally distinguishing between whatever had been genuine in Jewish religion and something false.  He might even have coined a term, because this compound word is found nowhere else in scripture:


The Abridged Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (a/k/a “Little Kittel”) has this to say about Col 2:23:

The word ethelothreskeia . . .  seems to denote, not an affected piety, but a piety that does not keep to its true reality, to Christ, but is self-ordered.

Surely there is a distinction to be made between genuine religion and self-made (or other un-admirable types of) religion.  If I were a better person, I’d aim for stronger association with the former.  For now, I’ll have to be content with distancing myself from the latter.

Repertory breadth: of Bruckner and the Bible

Anton Bruckner is an interesting figure in 19C music history.  I have only a general impression of his music and have never participated in deep study of his works as either a conductor or player.  I once considered programming at least a movement of one of his symphonies, but that never occurred.  At the intersection of Bruckner and the Bible, there would be much to inquire about.  I won’t be analyzing Bruckner’s faith or his life, though.  I’m going somewhere different (and won’t be probing very deeply).

In or near my CD player right now are these discs:

  • Anton Bruckner—Symphony No. 3
  • Doobie Brothers—Takin’ it to the Streets
  • Phillips, Craig, & Dean—Where Strength Begins
  • Frank Bridge—Orchestral Works vol. 3
  • Edgar Meyer/Yo-yo Ma/Mark O’Connor—Appalachian Journey
  • Carter Pann—The Piano’s 12 Sides
  • Fernando Ortega—Home

A nice smattering, yes?

I like variety.  I suspect many people think they’re getting variety these days when they listen to two different rappers or three pop-country “singer-songwriters.”  Ah, the choices we make.  Maybe I should have substituted some Stan Kenton, Miles Davis, brass ensemble or choral music for the Phillips, Craig & Dean or one of the two orchestral CDs . . . but the above list nonetheless provides a good deal of diversity.

pandoraSince I also like high-quality sound reproduction (not to mention valuing my hearing), I don’t use earbuds very much, and I’ve never had an iPod.  I have rarely used my smartphone or small tablet as an .mp3 player.  On the other hand, I have been streaming Pandora through speakers a lot lately and would like to recommend that some of you Pandora users try out the channels marked in blue to the right.  I was very happy to find the “Classical Complete Performances” channel; it seems to have little to no commercial interruptions.  The “Chamber Winds” channel is a favorite of mine, and I’m working to refine it more.  The offerings here so far are really only about 1/4 true-blue “chamber winds,” but it still makes for transparent listening.  “The Folks” consists in gentle, folk-ish songs; it and “Acoustic New Age” “and “Classical Guitar” are all very good streams, too.

Back to Bruckner and the point I started out to make.  There’s this ongoing thing with the so-called Three Bs:  the powerhouse music of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms.  A few have added other Bs such as Bruckner and Britten.  For whatever reason, I once programmed two entire orchestral concerts of “B” music with only marginal recourse to one of the original Three.  Instead, I used music of Bax, Britten, Beach, Barlow, Brouwer, and Bernstein (Elmer, not Leonard).

For grins, I’m going to make a hypothetical exercise a little more challenging here by pretending my CD stack had been this one full of various “B”-composed art music:

  • Brahms—Symphonies No. 2 and 3
  • Boccherini—String Quintets
  • Bridge—Orchestral Works vol. 3
  • Beethoven—Symphony No. 7
  • Bruckner—Symphony No. 3
  • Borodin—Symphonies No. 1 and 2; Prince Igor
  • Bax—Tone Poems

Now, I rarely use the “Random” or shuffle functions, since I tend to like hearing one style or genre for a while before moving on.  What if I had pushed the “Random” button and then found myself in another room when the next track started playing?  Could I have identified the composer as Brahms or Borodin?  Bax or Bruckner?  (Boccherini, Beethoven, and Bridge would be a bit more distinct and easier to identify here.)

There’s been this other thing occurring in music appreciation and music history classes through the decades since the invention of the phonograph.  It was at first called the “drop the needle” test.  The professor would actually drop the needle of the record player in a random groove on the record, let the music play for a few seconds . . . and then the students being tested were required to identify the piece:  composer, title, and sometimes more.  The tough profs might play only an obscure section of the second movement of a symphony, and you almost never got the first few notes, so you really had to know the piece in order to succeed on the test.  (The last time I did this for a class, I edited some .mp3 files with the precise excerpt I wanted to play and collected them into a playlist.  It worked fine, but it took way too much time to prepare.  The record player would have been easier!)

As an undergraduate student, I think I experienced this type of test three or four times.  On the graduate level, the method was brought back with a vengeance.  There, our esteemed professor would inflict on us entire exams that consisted of a few pages of each of several scores.  The title and composer were blacked out, of course.  Based on other clues in the score, we were to write our analytical thoughts that led us to a guess as to the style, the genre—and the composer and title, if possible.  As with certain math tests, we were graded mostly on “showing our work.”  The reasoning was more important than the correct answer.  Although I made good grades in those courses, I never really aced one of those tests.  It’s difficult to know a whole repertory (body of music literature) so well that you can make a very educated guess as to the composer and style after hearing or seeing a small bit of music.

So, earlier today, when I heard some music coming from my study, I knew immediately that it could not be Bridge and had to be Bruckner.  That particular comparison really wasn’t that difficult, but I could probably be tripped up if presented with early Bruckner passages vs. late Beethoven ones.  Some Bax might sound like some Bridge—unless I knew the work of each of them very well and could identify the musical language used by each.

Here’s where all this connects to the Bible.  Does any one of us know the biblical texts—the entire repertory—well enough to succeed on a “drop the needle” test?  If we were presented with a few sentences, could we identify them as having come from

  • Paul’s letter to the Colossians as opposed to the Galatian or Ephesian letters?
  • Matthew’s gospel vs. Luke’s?
  • Ecclesiastes vs. Proverbs?
  • 2Timothy vs. Titus?

Many of us could nail many passages from Genesis onto a reasonable place on the wall, but can I hear Isaiah and know it’s neither Jeremiah nor Amos?  Can I distinguish where the history of Joshua leaves off and where 1Samuel begins?  If 1Peter sounds like Hebrews to me, I don’t know either of them well enough.

Maybe I need something more than a Bible app . . . something more than background biblical Pandora.  I also need more devotion—both to the texts and to the God their authors served.

B. Casey, 1/7/17

An e-response to e-opinions about e-giving

I’m all for ease and efficiency, and I love systems that work.  I am not, however, in favor of weekly church contributions that are electronically set up on a recurring basis—for more than one reason.  A recent article brought up this question, and several official church leaders were interviewed.  Below is an expanded version of the original comment I made under that article.

Sincere individuals will frequently have very nice, spiritually minded ways of working something like electronic contributions out for themselves.  The folks interviewed for the article, for instance, presented a nicely balanced, thoughtful view of the e-giving conundrum.  Thinking about the masses, though, I would put forward three reasons not to move in the direction of e-contributions:

  1. As pointed out, it tends to be neither very personal nor very communal to click or tap in a charity app—especially if that click/tap is for a one-time setup for a recurring transaction that it’s so easy to be unaware of later.
  2. Some of the “pro” rationale strikes me as very institutionally motivated rather than Reign-of-God-motivated.  Contributing to building upkeep and salaries as a member of an institution may be fine for some, but it is not as compelling for those of us more interested in simple/organic concepts and missions.
  3. Giving charitably is good, but the tithe, after all—and we simply must realize this—is not a New Covenant thing.  A payment service calling itself “easyTithe” is perpetuating the problem.  Other e-giving options may be less problematic in terms of overt nomenclature and illegitimate association with ancient Israel’s priestly tithe system, yet the very idea of regular contributions appears more connected to paying dues in a club than to the goals of the apostolic church.

I found it interesting that a (pretty good!) translation of 1Cor 16:2 was included in the above-referenced article.  It bears emphasis here that the import of the first few verses of 1Cor 16 is not a little ambiguous.  This passage certainly cannot be inextricably linked to weekly contributions to today’s church treasuries, though.

For more on this topic, please see the following posts:

In the second of the above posts, this on-target quotation appears:

There is no indication given whether this is meant to be a tithe (no such prescription occurs in the New Testament); but is is implied that it is proportional and substantial.  It seems this is to be done on a family basis and the funds kept at home.”  (emphasis the authors’, not mine)   – Orr and Walther, The Anchor Bible Translation and Commentary, v. 32, 1 Corinthians (1976), p. 356.

One can object to my objections on any one of several grounds (e.g., community-based, tradition-based), but the simple fact is that habitual, institution-supporting weekly giving to a church treasury is not explicitly supported—or dealt with at all—in canonical Christian scripture.

The open God of ancient Israel’s history

Yesterday, I posted some fairly lengthy material on Judges 8 and 1Samuel (“Summary from the 8s:  Observations from Ancient Israel’s History“).  Here is the conclusion, followed by a short expansion on the point of what I take as God’s concession in granting Israel a King.

Two realities seem clear:

  1. Judges 8:  The record of the time of the Judges starkly shows Israel’s faithlessness and lack of loyalty.
  2. 1Samuel 8:  The origin of Israel’s Kings reveals the beginning of what became a progressively bad scenario:  God’s people were looking (a) less to God and (b) more to humans as their leader.  Having essentially forgotten the Exodus with its Red Sea, the cloud-by-day and fire-by-night, the manna and quail, and the initial conquests, the people wanted a human king.  And God conceded.

I present the following as a pretty good summary of an underlying concept:

God is sovereign ruler of His people.  When His people reject Him in one way or another, negative things occur.  His sovereignty will be seen, but not always in the way the people expect or desire.

On the point of “concession” as suggested in point #2 above:  many reader-interpreters have inferred God’s approval, thinking that He must’ve looked favorably on the idea of a human king, or He would not have allowed it.  God, though, is in some senses an “open” God, listening to humans, interacting, and even “changing His mind” on occasion.  He allows many things He does not approve of.  His sovereignty is not threatened by human decision or input; the fact that He allows our discretion does not change the ultimate reality that He is God.  On the contrary, His actual sovereignty is enhanced because He does not force it on people.

I believe that God did not want His people Israel to develop into a kingdom with a human king—but that He allowed that development, anyway.  He yielded, in a sense, acceding to the people’s will and granting them another king.

Other examples of God’s allowing bad decisions (but continuing to work despite them) can be seen throughout biblical literature.  Consider these examples, and add your own:

  • the choices of Lot and his wife
  • the actions of Joseph’s brothers
  • the hardening of Pharoah’s heart
  • the murderous rampage of Herod
  • the treachery of Judas

For a bit more on an “open” view of God, see here:

Summary from the 8s: observations from ancient Israel’s history

The Weather Channel™ has its local weather forecast “on the 8s,” occurring every ten minutes, starting with 8 minutes after the hour.  Those are usually pretty good summaries of local weather (as I recall . . . we haven’t cable or any other such TV service for more than three years).

In paying recent attention to chapter 8 of Judges and chapter 8 of 1Samuel, I’ve observed substantial historical weight.  Here in these chapter 8s, we seem to find pretty good summaries of negative aspects of historical Israel.

Judges 8
After the account of Gideon’s unusual army and a resounding defeat of the Midianites,

The men of Israel said to Gideon, “Rule over us, both you and your son, also your son’s son, for you have delivered us from the hand of the Midianite. . . .”  But Gideon said to them, “I will not rule over you . . . the Lord shall rule over you.”

Aspects of the leader (and some of his actions) and not appropriate for emulation today, but oh, for Gideon’s spiritual acuity and his devotion to God’s sovereignty.  His insight stands in contrast to the people’s desires.  Those desires, unfortunately, are to progress with time. . . .

1Samuel 8
This chapter 8 begins with this event:

When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel.

In making that appointment, perhaps Samuel felt he was acting according to established pattern¹ (see Eli, 1Samuel chapter 2), but his poor judgment led to the people’s distrust of the system of judges—and to their desire for a progression to something new.  With hindsight, I wonder why Samuel, who was clearly sanctioned and blessed by Yahweh throughout the narrative (see 1Sam 3:19-21, to start), didn’t also call to mind a striking double-negative in Israel’s recent history:  (1) his predecessor Eli’s sons Hophni and Phinehas had been killed when (2) the ark of God was taken by the Philistines.  If Samuel had been superstitious, he might have been afraid to install his sons as priests.

And the story continues:

Yet his sons did not walk in his ways, but turned aside after gain; they took bribes and perverted justice.  Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, “Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways; now appoint for us a king to govern us like all the nations.”  But the thing displeased Samuel. . . .

And it should have displeased Samuel.  But the Lord told Samuel to listen anyway, because the people were not rejecting Samuel, after all; they were rejecting God Himself (1Samuel 8:9).

God told Samuel to warn the people what would happen.  And warn them he did:

[The king you want] will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots . . . and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and fifties . . . and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make implements of war and the equipment of his chariots.  He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. . . .

This king-like-other-nations’-kings would . . . well, he would be like all the other kings!  He would conscript, and he would tax, and he would build up the “empire”—his own royal reign.  According to the ancient text preserved in this chapter 8, Samuel concluded his warning with the dire prediction that the people would bemoan the resulting situation, crying out because of this king they had chosen for themselves.  We ought to note who is doing the choosing—and for whom.  And the most terrible thing of all?

. . . the Lord will not answer you in that day.

But the people persisted:

No!  But we will have a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.”

And the Lord made it happen.  And the Lord knew what was going to happen.  I’d say there is a rather solid prediction in chapter 8, and it’s not about fair weather.

Other 8s
Now . . . maybe it was boredom, but I became curious about the chapter 8 thing and started to look other chapter 8s in the Hebrew Bible.  Starting with Genesis . . . .

Genesis 8:  At the outset of this chapter, it is reported that “God remembered Noah” after the flood—or, as the New Jerusalem Bible has it, God “had Noah in mind.”  The covenantal aspect of God might be said to begin here.

Leviticus 8:  Here we find the ceremonial “setting apart” of Aaron and his sons in a “priestly” class—and an atonement ceremony that involved Aaron, his sons, and Moses the deliverer, too.  I haven’t thought previously about possible leadership connections (for lack of a better term) between Israel’s priests, judges, and kings.  I don’t know that there is any dark light shed on the Aaronic priesthood at the outset, but it is curious to me that God set in this role the family of the man who had overseen the making of the golden calf.

Deuteronomy 8:  Here, too, is a major section about the covenant between God and His people.

Joshua 8:  The destruction of Ai is founded on the “word of the Lord” . . . see 8:8:  God makes a point of saying “I have commanded you.”  It is God’s doing.

I’m not thoroughly familiar with the storyline of Joshua, but I have the general impression that things began to deteriorate after his death.  If the people, in the eras of the Judges and Kings, had had both the faith and perspective of Joshua, perhaps redemptive history would have played out differently.  I can conceive of an entirely different, 1000-year historical progression in which the scenario would not have included kings at all . . . and perhaps the mission of the Redeemer Christ would have looked a bit different when He came, as well.

Postlude on the 8s
Back to documented events and observation over hypothesis.  Two realities seem clear:

  1. Judges 8:  The record of the time of the Judges starkly shows Israel’s faithlessness and lack of loyalty.
  2. 1Samuel 8:  The origin of Israel’s Kings reveals the beginning of what became a progressively bad scenario:  God’s people were looking (a) less to God and (b) more to humans as their leaders.  Having essentially forgotten the Exodus with its Red Sea, the cloud-by-day and fire-by-night, the manna and quail, and the initial conquests, the people wanted a human king.  And God conceded.²

I present the following as a pretty good summary of an underlying concept in at least those two chapter 8s:

God has always been the sovereign ruler of His people.  When His people reject Him in one way or another, it is not pleasing to Him.  Since the beginning of Israel’s “kings” era, the people’s loyalties were divided, and as a result, things proceeded differently.

God will always be sovereign, but not always in the way the people expect or desire.

¹ A cynical view might query whether Samuel felt entitled, based on political clout, to pass on his exalted standing to his descendants.

² Not at all incidentally, I see God’s response as an open concession, not approval or pleasure.  Tomorrow’s follow-up will append a brief expansion on this point.

Three 4s

Chapter 4.  In three books.

I notice the significance of chapter 4 in three of the four gospels:  Matthew, Mark, and John.  I have no mystical sense of numerology about it, and chapter divisions weren’t in the original manuscripts, after all, so the number element doesn’t really matter.  Still, I thought this might make for an interesting trivia piece.

1. In Matthew, chapter 4 includes an extended treatment of the testing of Jesus before beginning to describe His earlier “ministry” and setting up the so-called Sermon on the Mount.  In my younger years, I was led to tuck away neatly the three “temptations” (probably not the best term, given our usage today) as representative of all human temptation in any time:

  1. the lust of the flesh
  2. the lust of the eyes
  3. the pride of life

Although I’d say those characterizations have moderate worth, I now see chapter 4 more in its context.  There is more to the specific tests as it figures in to the whole of Matthew.

Side point:  “pinnacle” (of the temple) in the 2nd testing is probably not the best translation of the Greek πτερύγιο | pterugio.  It was probably not a spire or high point per se.  According to numerous scholars, the reference is probably to the edge of a “wing” or extremity of the temple compound that essentially overlooked a valley.

~ ~ ~

2.  In Mark, chapter 4’s parable of the “sower” (and the spots onto which he sowed) is structurally significant within the whole.  Mark appears to have an intentional form that includes these sections:

A Beginning – the “forerunner” (John) points to Jesus (1:4-8)
B Jesus’ baptism (which became figuratively a death in Christian thought and writing), the splitting of the heavens, and the voice saying, “You are my son” (1:9-11)
C Jesus is tested in the wilderness (1:12-13)
D The parable of the sower (4:1-9)
. . .
D’ Parable of the vineyard (12:1-11)
C’ Jesus is tested in the temple (12:13-27)
B’ Jesus’ death, the splitting of the temple veil, and a voice saying, “Truly this was God’s son” (15:33-39) (also note in this gospel other declarations of Who Jesus is)
A’ The “post-runner” (the young man) points to Jesus (16:1-8)

A longtime friend’s master’s work was on the place of the parable of the sower in the overall structure of Mark.  Chapter 4’s sower parable is significant and may be related to the vineyard parable (chapter 12)—both dealing with the response of the people.

~ ~ ~

3.  In music, prolonging an element can result in either drama or montony.  Particularly in art music, the compositional technique known as “phrase extension” and the prolonging of a “dominant” harmony (V chord) have notable effects.

In narrative, an extended passage can have an effect related to the author’s purpose(s).  In John, chapter 4’s encounter with the woman at the well is the longest recorded single conversation of Jesus with any individual.  The reader-interpreter does well in taking note of this incident, assuming its conceptual prominence—or at least the fact that there must be something special about it.

1Samuel 14-15: exegetical points

20161022_075424.jpgMoving beyond a questionable practical theology that arose in connection with exposition of 1Samuel (detailed here on my other blog), I would like to speak to a couple of important findings in the text of 1Samuel.  I myself am not very experienced in OT narrative, but I’m growing more experienced with ancient texts and with literary interpretation in general, so I will hazard a couple of guesses here.  Consider this fairly advised speculation (read I’m not not as sure of myself as I was in this one on 1Cor 11 or this one on 1Corinthians 16) . . . or several on Mark or Philemon or Galatians, for that matter.

One:  hints at irony
In 1Sam 14:49, an interesting name appears.  I had not noticed it before.  One of King Saul’s sons was Malchishua.  Separated, that is Malchi-shua.  Look familiar?  If you know of Melchizedek, the “king of righteousness” who appears in Genesis and is referred to in Hebrews, you might see a phonetic resemblance.  And you’d be onto something there.  Malachi/Melchi/Malchi . . . surely they are all variants of the same “king” name.  And what about the second half?  Doesn’t “shua” look like the second part of “Yeshua” (a Hebrew form of Joshua)?  I couldn’t find much support for my hunch here, but at least one site did corroborate my suspicion that Malchi-shua roughly means “the king helps” or “the king delivers.”  Joshua and Yeshua (later, “Jesus”), of course, are names that roughly mean “God delivers” or “God rescues/saves.”

Now, the upshot:  assuming for the moment that I’m on target, I would say there is some historical irony present in this account.  Just as King Saul is on the decline, his son, named “The King Helps,” is by his very name pointing up that no human king has much power to help after all!

Two:  syntactical emphases
In another 1Samuel spot, the word order caught my eye.  Here’s the text of 1Sam 15:14-15 in the NET Bible version:

14 Samuel replied, “If that is the case, then what is this sound of sheep in my ears and the sound of cattle that I hear? 15 Saul said, “They were brought from the Amalekites; the army spared the best of the flocks and cattle to sacrifice to the Lord our God. But everything else we slaughtered.”

The typically careful, relatively responsible teacher (referred to on my other blog) tried briefly to make a point based on the word order of v15.  I’d say his point here was a generally valid one, namely, that Saul’s leading pronoun revealed a basic human issue— pointing the finger at others by saying “they” did it.  The problem with this is that the word order in both the Hebrew and the Greek (Septuagint) has the Amalekites first, not the pronoun “They,” which refers to the Israelite people.  Actually, in the original, Saul’s response goes like this:

15 And Saul said, “Out of Amalek they’ve brought the things. . . .”

I admit that word order might or might not be significant.  It further interests me here that the only two English translations (of the dozen I looked at) that do that take this word order into account are at opposite ends of the translation spectrum:  Young’s Literal and The Message.  The ASV, the NRSV, the ESV, the NLT, the NASB, the HCSB, and a few others paid no attention to this textual feature.  Not that word order is everything, but I found it interesting that YLT and MSG have the “Amalek” part up front, as it was in the original:

And Saul saith, `From Amalek they have brought them, because the people had pity on the best of the flock, and of the herd, in order to sacrifice to Jehovah thy God, and the remnant we have devoted.’ (YLT)

15 “Only some Amalekite loot,” said Saul. “The soldiers saved back a few of the choice cattle and sheep to offer up in sacrifice to God. But everything else we destroyed under the holy ban.”  (MSG)

What difference could this make?  Well, if Saul were emphasizing that he didn’t do it, but that the army men did it, it comes out the typical English-Bible way.  (This was the public teacher’s general point.)  On the other hand, if he were emphasizing to Samuel that “those nasty Amalekites whose stuff we took had it coming,” it would seem to be a more substantial excuse because, after all, the Amalekites were Israel’s mortal enemies.  I think this latter reading is more likely.