Friday, 29 June 2012

a preacher's prayer

I am back in Psalm 19. This is familiar territory particularly at such a time as this. 'such a time as this.'? As July begins I am just a month away from a week long residential conference where I am scheduled to be leading the morning Bible readings. Most of the conference attendees will be camping in the fields around a large marquee. I have four one-hour morning sessions and any time now panic will begin to set in. It is not a screaming panic, just enough to make sleep a little fitful, and to present my mind with a thousand reasons as to why I should not be speaking at the sessions!

This is probably an unexpected revelation for many. We tend to see someone preaching and we think they live a charmed life with not a ripple on the waters of their experience. We 'see' the authority with which Paul declares truth in his writings and find it almost impossible to believe his testimony; I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. 1 Cor 2:3 NKJV. Who? Paul? surely not. At one point in his writings Paul repeats an accusation made against him; “For his letters,” they say, “are weighty and powerful, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible.” 2 Cor 10:10 NKJV. His gifting had an impact on his writing but he himself was not a man of supreme presence or self-confidence.

So why Psalm 19? The Psalm seems to have as one of its themes the way that God reveals himself. It begins with the revelation of God in the creation and particularly in the creation above us. The creation constantly preaches 'without words. The old ASV has a different slant on these verses; The heavens declare the glory of God; And the firmament showeth his handiwork. Day unto day uttereth speech, And night unto night showeth knowledge. There is no speech nor language; Their voice is not heard. Psa 19:1–3 ASV. There is no speech, their voice is not heard… nevertheless the message goes out day by day and night by night.

Then the Psalmist, David, moves on to the revelation of God given in the written testimony of the scriptures and the law. These are wonderful verses to savour. The things revealed, by God, through his word, affect powerfully those who receive them into their lives. David then adds his personal testimony; More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold; Sweeter also than honey and the droppings of the honeycomb. Psa 19:10 ASV.

Then we come to the final 3 verses. Who understandeth [his] errors? Purify me from secret [faults]. Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous [sins]; let them not have dominion over me: then shall I be perfect, and I shall be innocent from great transgression. Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Jehovah, my rock, and my redeemer. Psa 19:12–14 DRBY. This is from the JN Darby translation, which is a very literal rendering. The words in the square brackets are not in the original but have been added to make the meaning more clear.

Suppose this passage is not speaking about 'sins' as such but the limited understanding of the Psalmist or anyone who seeks to convey truth about God. (Notice how all the 'sin' words in brackets are not in the original version) He knows there are 'secret things'; things lodged in his understanding that he may have lost track of. Things that may continue to influence his thinking subconsciously. He suspects there may be 'presumptuous things' that are lurking there too. It is so easy to extrapolate Bible truths and to develop ideas that are no longer direct revelation but are the unwitting conclusions of presumptuous thinking. He asks that these secret presumptions will not 'have dominion' over him. He wants God to keep him from untraceable thoughts which may dilute or even pervert the truth.

He is apprehensive about the possibility of 'great transgression'. Peter said that a preacher should preach as an 'oracle of God'. No pressure there then! James said that the teachers will be judged with greater severity. No pressure there either! His only hope is not in the orthodoxy of his theology or the amount of thought he puts into his speaking. His only hope is that God will watch over his thoughts and his words, that God will be his strength and his redeemer.

I return to these words again and again in prospect of preaching. No amount of previous experience can prepare us. No amount of personal, detailed, Bible studies. We have one hope alone; we hang upon our Rock and our Redeemer.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

The Queen and her Diamond Jubilee

Etymology has to do with the origins of words, their historic roots and their development. All words have roots but the meaning of a word is not determined by its root but rather by its use. Language is a living thing and words change their meaning over time. It is sometimes the way of Bible students to refer to a Hebrew or Greek word and then redefine its meaning so that it reflects the original roots of the word. This is an area where a little learning can truly be a dangerous thing. Words don't just have roots, they have histories and histories change the way a word is used and consequently its meaning.

I was thinking about this over the last few days when in the UK we have been taken up with the affairs of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. That phrase shows how the history of a word can change its meaning. The word 'jubilee' has Hebrew roots. In fact, it has to do with the blowing of trumpets and was originally an event which took place every 50 years when debts were cancelled and slaves were set free. So a 60 year, diamond jubilee is an idea that cannot be re-attached to its Hebrew roots. The phrase has other problems, the Anglo-Saxon word 'cwen' which is the root of our word 'queen' actually means the 'wife of a king'. This is beginning to get complicated because the current United Kingdom 'queen' is not the 'wife of a king'. We cannot interpret the phrase 'Queen's Diamond Jubilee' just by referring to the roots of the words, we have to take into account the passing of centuries, remembering that 'words have histories'.

It works in the opposite direction too. When we read the Bible we need to guard against the danger of importing the modern usage of a word back into a Bible passage. Let me illustrate briefly. The word 'guilt' has now come to mean 'shame'. So when we read of 'guilt' in the scriptures we need to remind ourselves that it is not referring to a feeling but to the verdict of a judge. Biblically, to be guilty is to have come under the judge's condemnation, our feelings have no relevance in the matter.

So how can we guard against the twin dangers of going too far back to a word's root or going too far forward to the modern usage of a word? Simply by saturating ourselves in the context of the word as we find it in the scriptures. Remembering that the meaning of a word is determined by its usage, not its original or contemporary meaning but its historical usage. Of course all this takes time and patience, high cost values in an age of quick-fixes and sound-bites. But there is no other alternative, in studying the Bible we have to invest to profit.