Category Archives: History

The passionate genius, Simone Weil

Français : Bourges - 7 place Gordaine - Plaque...
Français : Bourges – 7 place Gordaine – Plaque commémorative Simone Weil (1909-1943) professeur à Bourges en 1935-1936 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Who is, or was, Simone Weil? If increasing attention in the way of books and a newer documentary mean anything, particularly considering her death was some 70+ years ago, then she’s obviously “somebody.” At least two meanings of the word “prodigy” apply to Simone: (1) she was known to be a genius from a very young age and is a recognized philosopher, and (2) by her short, painful, yet beautiful and selfless life. Being a Christian mystic and having been “adopted” by Catholics (Simone never became a member of any church), had perhaps contributed to a certain level of obscurity until more recent years.

All books that bear Simone’s name were published after her death (1943), with one of the most well-know being Waiting for God (WfG; 1951), a collection of spiritual letters and essays. Much has been made of her spiritual life – and rightly so – but for a biography that focuses on her philosophy, see Palle Yourgrau’s Simone Weil (Reaktion Books 2011). A 2010 documentary made the film festival rounds and is now on DVD: An Encounter with Simone Weil. The odd film focuses on life, death, suffering generally, and on these words of Simone’s specifically: “Attention is the rarest form of generosity.” (I wrote a fairly in-depth review of the documentary here: Secular Girl Activist meets Christian Girl Activist . . .)

Simone was born in France in 1909 to agnostic Jewish parents. At the age of six she could quote classic poetry, and despite interruptions in her education (and the onset of migraines), she received her baccalaureate at the age of 15. Simone had a deep desire to know “truth,” so she attended graduate school and became a teacher of philosophy.

Do not think that she lived comfortably from the “ivory tower.” As early as age five she refused to eat sugar because the French soldiers could not have it, and she maintained this practice of food-denial all of her life. She chose not to turn the heat on in her rented rooms since the unemployed could not afford it themselves, and gave much of her salary to the poor and to workers’ causes. She was very politically active, striving to secure better conditions for factory workers, and was involved with the defense of her country during World War II.

Simone seemed to apply her whole self towards realizing her convictions. Even though frail, she was always working, thinking, writing—incessantly doing. She even went so far as to travel to war-torn Spain, in 1936, to fight against the Fascists. She was a pacifist but felt so strongly about the cause that she volunteered for the most dangerous assignments. Because of a severe cooking-related accident, however, Simone did not stay there for very long. And her witness of an execution of a 15-year-old boy by the people she supported, among other things, caused her to not return.

Perhaps the personal experience of war caused a crack in Simone’s idealism that became an entryway for God. In 1937, Simone wrote of an encounter while at Assisi: “something stronger than I was compelled me for the first time in my life to go down on my knees” (WfG pp 67-68). Then in 1938, while having severe migraines during Holy Week services, Simone had the experience of separating herself from the pain to enjoy the beauty of the service and to receive understanding of the passion of Christ. That same year, while reciting a Christian poem about accepting Christ—which she claims she hadn’t understood as such—Christ indeed “came down and took possession of me” (WfG p 69).

Though she accepted Christ, Simone’s writings are controversial. Some do not believe Simone was really a Christian; she had consideration and respect for other religions, and some fairly unorthodox theological views. In her “religious” writings, she often wrote of wrestling with God over truth. Though she wrote about spiritual truths found in other religions, or even myths (CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien held similar views), in the final analysis only Christ is truth: “Christ likes us to prefer truth to him because, before being Christ, he is truth. If one turns aside from him to go toward the truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms” (WfG p 69).  A useful work in this regard is Simone Weil’s Apologetic Use of Literature (Marie Cabaud Meaney 2008).

Her friends in faith were Catholic, but she refused to enter the church because of its history and its exclusionary practices. Despite being an “outside Christian,” she wrote conventional ideas like: “It is not my business to think about myself. My business is to think about God. It is for God to think about me” (WfG pp 50-51), and “. . . I think that God himself has taken it [her soul] in hand from the start and still looks after it” (WfG p 73). Going deeper into her thought we find: “Only obedience is invulnerable for all time” (WfG p 63), and “. . . I always believed that the instant of death is the center and object of life” (WfG p 63). Significantly, and counter to some who attempt to claim that Simone was not a Christian, she told a friend a few months before she died: “I believe in God, in the Trinity, in the Incarnation, in the Redemption, in the teachings of the Gospel” (from Simone Weil, by Stephen Plant, p 33).

[If you’re interested in more of Simone’s words, I wrote a “found” poem with her words–it is the 2nd poem on that linked page.]

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© Vicki Priest 2014, 2012 (this was published at Examiner.com 2011, then at withchristianeyes.com)

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Review: “Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate”

Reason, Faith, and Revolution by Eagleton, cover
Reason, Faith, and Revolution by Eagleton, cover

by Terry Eagleton (Yale University Press 2009)


“This straw-targeting of Christianity is now drearily commonplace among academics and intellectuals—that is to say, among those who would not allow a first-year student to get away with the vulgar caricatures in which they themselves indulge with such insouciance”
(p 52).

Terry Eagleton’s invective against anti-theist’s claims about religion, and Christianity in particular, is one of wit, humor, and sauce.  One hopes that those that are curious about the popular anti-God rhetoric, but who are basically outsiders—neither informed and faithful Christians or card-carrying anti-theists—will be the prime readers and beneficiaries of this “lecture series” book.  Not that there isn’t a good deal that those in the other groups can get out of it.  Indeed, as the Booklist review asserted, “serious Christians may be [Eagleton’s] most appreciative readers.”  But on the opposite side Eagleton himself opined that there was not a “hope in hell” that Ditchkins, that is Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, would read his work or be moved by it.

Eagleton, who is a professor both of English literature and culture theory, and who also writes philosophically (in fact, this book has been rated as important in philosophy), presents how the various arguments against religion that Dawkins and Hitchens vehemently espouse are very seriously misinformed and flawed.  “. . . the relations between these domains [poetry and other language types] and historical fact in Scripture are exceedingly complex, and that on this score as on many another, Hitchens is hair-raisingly ignorant of generations of modern biblical scholarship” (p 54).  He shows how Dawkins’ views, which reflect Victorian era progressivism, are simply unreasonable and unrealistic.

“We have it, then, from the mouth of Mr. Public Science himself that aside from a few local hiccups like ecological disaster, ethnic wars, and potential nuclear catastrophe, History is perpetually on the up.  Not even beaming, tambourine-banging Evangelicals are quite so pathologically bullish.  What is this but an example of blind faith?  What rational soul would sign up to such a secular myth?” (pp 87-88).

Regarding Ditchkins and science, Eagleton discusses how “Dawkins falsely considers that Christianity offers a rival view of the universe to science” (p 6), and that “His God-hating is by no means the view of a dispassionate scientist commendably cleansed of prejudice.  There is no such animal in any case” (pp 65-66).  “[Scientists] are peddlers of a noxious ideology known as objectivity, a notion which simply tarts up their ideological prejudices in acceptably disinterested guise” (p 132), and Dawkins, for example, “castigates the Inquisition . . . but not Hiroshima” (p 133).  While anyone is welcome to criticize superstition, the current culture has sunk into scientism, which refuses to take anything seriously that “cannot be poked and prodded in the laboratory” (p 72).  “Ditchkins does not exactly fall over himself to point out how many major scientific hypotheses confidently cobbled together by our ancestors have crumbled to dust, and how probable it is that the same fate will befall many of the most cherished scientific doctrines of the present” (p 125).

In chapter 1, Eagleton presents basic Christian beliefs not only to show that Ditchkins does not have an understanding of them, but to also promote them as quite respectable.  Of course, throughout his book Eagleton gives little quarter to “fundamentalists;” he praises Jesus and his radicalness, and those who actually follow His teachings to help the poor and seek justice.  He also contrasts this Christian mandate to love socially to the liberal humanist (of which Ditchkins is an example) legacy of love being kept private.  Yet another significant difference between Christianity (and for persons like Eagleton who hold a more socialist view) and the liberal humanism of Ditchkins is the matter of sin and redemption.  To Ditchkins, there is nothing to redeem.  Humanity is steadily progressing, even if catastrophes like World War II have happened.

“In my view,” Eagleton writes,  “[scriptural and orthodox Christianity] is a lot more realistic about humanity than the likes of Dawkins.  It takes the full measure of human depravity and perversity, in contrast to . . . the extraordinarily Pollyannaish view of human progress of [Dawkins’] The God Delusion” (p. 47).  Christianity believes that there are “flaws and contradictions built into the structure of the human species itself,” and so violence in history is not just due to historical influences; and Christianity is hopeful.  It is “outrageously more hopeful than liberal rationalism, with its apparently unhinged belief that not only is the salvation of the human species possible but that, contrary to all we read in the newspapers, it has in principle already taken place.  Not even the most rose-tinted Trotskyist believes that” (pp 48-49).

There are all kinds of fun passages like those already quoted in Eagleton’s book.  It can be very useful to Christians who want to be able to cite a seemingly non-Christian critique to the anti-theist crowd.  Conservatives be warned, however, that Eagleton presents and is supportive of Liberation Theology (he is a Marxist who aligns himself with “tragic humanism”), and is very critical of modern capitalism and western foreign policy.  He has good, though general, arguments for the atheism of capitalism and the disconnect between the West’s religious rhetoric and its actual practices (which, interestingly, he often places on liberal humanism).   Indeed, Christianity’s lack of following its leader has brought much criticism upon itself, “Christianity long ago shifted from the side of the poor and dispossessed to that of the rich and aggressive” (p 55).

Eagleton points out the good that historic Christianity has done, which Ditchkins refuses to acknowledge, while pointing out hypocrisies of some liberals.  Some examples:

“The values of the Enlightenment, many of them Judeo-Christian in origin, should be defended against the pretentious follies of post-modernism, and protected, by all legitimate force if necessary, from those high-minded zealots who seek to blow the heads off small children in the name of Allah.  Some on the political left, scandalously, have muted their criticism of such atrocities in their eagerness to point the finger of blame at their own rulers, and should be brought to book for this hypocrisy” (p 68).  

“Such is Richard Dawkins’s unruffled impartiality that in a book of almost four hundred pages, he can scarcely bring himself to concede that a single human benefit has ever flowed from religious faith, a view which is as a priori improbable as it is empirically false . . . . and this by a self-appointed crusader against bigotry” (p 97). 

Speaking of empiricism and truth, I found chapter 3 more interesting the second time I read it.   It’s really a pleasant read and borders on the mystical in places.  Eagleton writes lucidly on how we understand truth and what is reasonable and rational.  A set of examples about what is reasonable and rational, relative to what is true, is (1) that of humans previously thinking that the sun circled the earth – since it certainly looked that way it was rational to think – and (2) what we know of certain nuclear particles in our present time.  These particles are said to go through two different spaces at one time.  This is not rational or reasonable, yet we think that it is true.  He continues with a discussion that promotes the concept of “love” being a precondition of understanding, concluding that “The rationalist tends to mistake the tenacity of faith (other people’s faith, anyway) for irrational stubbornness rather than for the sign of a certain interior depth, one which encompasses reason but also transcends it” (p 139).

“Yet the Apocalypse, if it ever happens, is far more likely to be the upshot of technology than the work of the Almighty. . . .  This, surely, should be a source of pride to cheerleaders for the human species like Ditchkins.  Who needs an angry God to burn up the planet when as mature, self-sufficient human beings we are perfectly capable of doing the job ourselves?” (p 134).

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© Vicki Priest 2012 (previously posted by author at Examiner.com, 2011, and at withchristianeyes.com)

Is it Rational to be a Christian? (2 of 2)

Anastasis, symbolic representation of the resu...
Anastasis, symbolic representation of the resurrection of Christ. Panel from a Roman lidless sarcophagus of the “Passion type”, ca. 350 CE. From the excavations of the Duchess of Chablais at Tor Marancia, 1817-1821. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Below is the second half of a relatively long (but actually concise) treatment of evidences or evidential steps for the view that the Christian faith is rational, and even desirable, to hold (the first half is here).   The introductory paragraph is repeated for clarity.  Thanks for reading, and may the God of all creation bless you.

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For the person who wants to know that there is reason to believe a holy book–that there is evidence to back it up–different areas of apologetics have those answers.  In fact, there is more evidence for the truthfulness of the Bible today than ever before, excepting when the events actually occurred.  This essay assumes that the person searching for a legitimate holy book already believes that there is a deity of some sort; it does not cover arguments for the existence of God.  What this essay does cover, in concise form, are the issues of reliability of the Old and New Testaments, fulfilled prophecies, miracles, and Christ’s resurrection.

Miracles

What is a biblical miracle, and what is its purpose and meaning? In the Judeo-Christian context, a miracle is a work of God outside of the patterns of normalcy. Miracles of healing and of being saved from death obviously show the intervention of a God who loves. Biblical miracles consistently show three things. One, they display God’s glory (they also have the effect of showing to God which persons react faithfully to His glory, and which do not). Two, they are proof that the person “performing” the miracle is from God (the source is God, not the person). And Three, they display God’s benevolence. Some examples of such miracles are found in Exodus 14:13-18, Daniel 3:16-30, Mark 2:1-12, and John 11:38-44.

Do miracles happen today? Yes, they do! Most people think they don’t because they aren’t reported in mainstream media. I knew a lady personally, one of the most stable and intelligent ladies I have ever met, who told me the story of her daughter being healed from a terminal illness. The Lord did an emotional healing of myself, and I felt His work in my whole body (I will not explain further here). Open Doors USA reported on its website, in 2002 (April 7), a cancer completely healed in China: “one young woman was healed from cancer. The doctor treating her had fainted from the shock of seeing the cancerous growth gone. We all laughed at that.” Pastor Andrae Crouch was healed of cancer (Nappa  1999). In September 2001, The Voice of the Martyrs wrote of a healing in its magazine/newsletter: a young Pakistani Muslim man was hit by a car while riding his bike, and his leg was broken. A woman came out of the crowd and prayed for him, in Jesus’ name. He felt energy move throughout his body and his leg was healed (later, she gave him a bible and was never seen again, and he became a follower of Christ).  I have read of many other miracles, too, occurring at the time of a person’s salvation and others that happen that save a person from death.  Some medical miracles can be read about at the World Christian Doctors Network.

What about miracles outside of the Judeo-Christian faith? There are some amazing and unexplained things that happen in the world that people might say are miracles, but which do not meet the criteria that show that they are from God. Some of these may not be explained yet, and others may be the activity of fallen angels. The magicians of Pharaoh’s court in Exodus 7 performed seeming miracles. A girl had a spirit that told the future in Acts 16 (16-24), but the spirit in her was not from God. The book of Revelation foretells of someone who will perform ungodly miracles (13:11-14). So, if “miracles” happen that do not seem like they are from God, that may in fact draw people away from God, we should not be surprised.

There are some Buddhist scriptures with interpretations that record possible miracles, but since the miraculous activities are self-aggrandizing and do not point to God (such as the changing of physical things to other physical things, flying, reading minds, passing through solid matter, etc.), they are not Godly miracles.   A modern day Hindu “miracle” happened in 1995, which was apparently reported from all over the world (Hinduism Today, November 1995 [as cited in Powell 2006]). A man in New Dehli dreamt that the Hindu god Lord Ganesha wanted milk. So the man went to the temple and told a priest, who then gave the statue of Ganesha some milk. The statue “consumed” the milk. People heard of it and started offering milk to Ganesha statues all over, and the statues “consumed” the milk. This went on for 24 hours in India, but longer elsewhere. The “miracle” seems useless and it lacks benevolence; indeed, God is not transcendent in Hinduism belief and so any such displays are supernormal, not supernatural. In the Quran, it is written that Muhammad did not perform any miracles.


The Resurrection of Jesus Christ

I wonder if other Christians feel the same as I, that for some odd reason Jesus’ resurrection does not need explaining? The reality of Christ’s resurrection is a very significant topic in apologetics, however, since it is such a hard to believe event for the unbeliever. A subissue is the disharmony of the differing gospel accounts as to what happened at the empty tomb. (This issue had led me to read Mary Magdalene and Many Others: Women Who Followed Jesus [Carla Ricci 1994], and I highly recommend it!) Women were very involved in Jesus’ ministry, he taught them much as disciples, and women were the first witnesses of His resurrection. This happens to play an important role in showing the reality of the resurrection, explained below, along with other rationales for accepting the resurrection as fact.

If the resurrection did not happen, how can anyone explain the beginning of the church? That may seem like an overly simple question–after all, there are many religions today that begin and grow for what seem to be very shallow (and unreasonable) reasons. Well, today, people in the Western World, at least, do not become lion chow in a public arena, are beheaded, or are crucified, for having beliefs counter to those of the government or religious elite. In conditions like that, one would be much more careful about choosing one’s beliefs!

Today, Muslims die (kill themselves) for a belief they think is true. People will die for the truth (and, in fact, Christians do die perhaps every day in countries that are hostile to their faith). But if some critics are correct that the Apostles were promoting false beliefs, why would they die for a lie (almost all were killed for their faith)? Who would do that?  The Apostles and very many early believers died for their faith, knowing it to be true; it would be absurd to die for a cause that you knew to be false. Paul, as an apostle, is very hard to explain indeed, if the resurrection had not happened. Paul was not one of Jesus’ followers, but an ardent persecutor of Christians! He had a great education and was a Roman citizen—in short, he had a privileged life and his future was bright prior to his conversion. Because of his encounter with the living God and after convincing the other apostles that he was sincere, Paul served His Lord (and thus His church), and for this he was eventually beheaded by Nero.

So there was an empty tomb . . . that doesn’t prove Jesus was resurrected, or does it?  A lot of people must think the evidence pointing to Jesus’ resurrection is good, since they try and come up with all kinds of explanations countering the event. Some, like the alien theory, are down-right silly. But what of the evidence? It’s interesting that the Jews tried to cover up the resurrection right from the beginning, knowing that Jesus’ body was gone. This is more significant when one considers that the tomb had been guarded by Roman soldiers who would forfeit their lives for this kind of negligence, and, that the Jews never did find Jesus’ body (you can bet that they tried) (Matthew 27:62-65, 28:11-15).

Another bit of evidence comes to us in a less obvious way. Some critics try to claim that the story of the resurrection was made up and developed through some time by the gospel writers. Even though there is good argument against this in general, we know that in fact Paul wrote of the resurrection early on, within 20 years, at the most, after Jesus died (and prior to the gospels being written). This is in 1 Corinthians 15:3-6, where Paul tells of the many witnesses to the resurrected Jesus, many of whom were still living at that time (readers and hearers of his letter could go and ask these people if what Paul said was true).

One of the evidences is of a type that people of today cannot appreciate unless they know the historical context of New Testament times. At that time, women were held in very low regard amongst the Jews. Sometimes it is hard to see or fathom this from the texts, since women do not seem to have trouble following and supporting Jesus. But women at that time did not testify in court as the men deemed them unworthy witnesses. Yet here, women are indeed the first witnesses to the resurrection. The men at first dismissed what the women had to say about the resurrected Jesus. One can imagine, in this social context, that the men had a very hard time writing the gospels with the women’s stories included. At that time, including their witness would be the opposite of what one would present in order to prove something, and something as important as Christ’s resurrection. The fact that the women’s accounts in each of the gospels varies is also telling—it shows that the writers did not collaborate to try and come up with a totally coherent and slick story that sounded official and convincing (Matthew 28:1-10; Mark 16:1-8 [and perhaps 9-11]; Luke 24:1-12).

Sir Lionel Luckhoo, who during his lifetime won 245 consecutive murder trial acquittals (for this he is in the Guinness Book of World Records), is not alone in his thinking and assessment of Jesus’ resurrection:

“I have spent more than 42 years as a defense trial lawyer appearing in many parts of the world and am still in active practice. I have been fortunate to secure a number of successes in jury trials and I say unequivocally the evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is so overwhelming that it compels acceptance by proof which leaves absolutely no room for doubt” (Anon 2012).

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© Vicki Priest 2012 (this is a modified and edited version of a series of articles published by the author at Examiner.com, 2011)

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Bibliography and Recommended Reading (for both article parts)

Anonymous. “Why should I believe in Christ’s Resurrection?” GotQuestions.org. http://www.gotquestions.org/why-believe-resurrection.html (accessed March 2012).

Arlandson, James. “Do Miracles Happen Today?” American Thinker. January 13, 2007. http://www.americanthinker.com/2007/01/do_miracles_happen_today.html (accessed March 2012).

Chong, Timothy. “Bible, Canonicity.” In The Popular Encycolopedia of Apologetics, by Ergun Caner Ed Hinson, 101-102. Eugene: Harvest House Publishers, 2008.

Copan, Paul. Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011.

Dowley, Tim, Editor. Eerdman’s Handbook to The History of Christianity. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1977.

Garrett, Duane A, General Editor. NIV Archaeological Study Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005.

Geisler, Norman, and Ed Hindson. “Bible, Alleged Errors.” In The Popular Encyclopedia of Apologetics, by Ergun Caner Ed Hindson, 97-100. Eugene: Harvest House Publishers, 2008.

Gleghorn, Michael. “Ancient Evidence for Jesus from Non-Christian Sources.” bethinking.org. 2001. http://www.bethinking.org/bible-jesus/intermediate/ancient-evidence-for-jesus-from-non-christian.htm (accessed March 2012).

Hart, David Bentley. Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2009.

Keller, Timothy. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. New York: Dutton, 2008.

Kennedy, D. James. “Christ: The Fulfillment of Prophecy.” In The Apologetics Study Bible, by Ted, General Editor Cabal, xxviii-xxix. Nashville: Holman, 2007.

MacDonald, William. “Prophecies of the Messiah Fulfilled in Jesus Christ.” In Believer’s Bible Commentary, by William MacDonald, xviii-xxiii. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995 (1989).

Nappa, Mike. True Stories of Answered Prayer. Carol Stream: Tyndale House, 1999.

Powell, Doug. Holman QuickSource Guide to Christian Apologetics. Nashville: Holman Reference, 2006.

Ricci, Carla. Mary Magdalene and Many Others: Women Who Followed Jesus . Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1994.

Sailhamer, John H. Biblical Prophecy. Grand Rapids: ZondervanPublishingHouse, 1998.

Yates, Gary E. “Bible, Transmission of.” In The Popular Encycolopedia of Apologetics, by Ed, and Ergun Caner Hindson, 107-110. Eugene: Harvest House Publishers, 2008.

Lessons in the Psalms: Summaries of C.S. Lewis’s Thought (3 of 3)

Psalm 21, Initial D. In: Albani-Psalter
Psalm 21, Initial D. In: Albani-Psalter (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This post, which is the third of three, is a summary of sorts of C.S. Lewis’s work, Reflections on the Psalms (1955; the edition of this book used here is found in The Inspirational Writings of C.S. Lewis, published in 1994 by Inspirational Press). Note that word spellings as found in the book are kept in this essay.  I hope you are blessed by Lewis’ insight and these easily accessible summaries (click here for the first in the series and here for the second).

[This is a slightly edited version of the article I originally published at Examiner.com.]

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Psalms and the Christian: The Law and Second Meanings

Sweeter Than Honey (the law)

How can God’s laws, His statutes, be truly thought of as “sweeter than honey,” as stated in Psalm 19:10, or something that “rejoices the heart” (19:8), when a starving person is told not to steal? Lewis could not understand this at first. To say that obeying the law brought about these joyful thoughts and feelings, as some have suggested, is to miss the psalmist’s intentions.

By “the law” is meant all that is in Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, not simply the Ten Commandments. Psalm 1:2 says that the law is a delight and to be exercised day and night (in more modern translations, the word used is “meditate”). This is not referring to constant obedience, but continual study and meditation. So what is meant by delight in the law is akin to loving a certain subject, like astronomy, for instance.

Of course, there can be a danger in having your favorite subject be something sacred. It can lead to spiritual conceit. See John 7:49. The pride that grew amongst Israel’s leaders led them to attach more and more conditions to the laws until finally no one could do them all. Or, if some claimed to fulfill all the conditions, then this bred self-righteousness.

Moving on from this note of warning, another aspect of the psalmist’s understanding of Gods laws is that they’re “true.” They aren’t “true” in the same sense that “apples grow on trees” is true, but that they are righteous and rock solid: “Their delight in the Law is a delight in having touched firmness; like the pedestrian’s delight in feeling the hard road beneath his feet after a false short cut has long entangled him in muddy fields” (162-163). This has more meaning when viewed in the light of Israel’s neighbors and enemies. Pagan practices abounded, like ritual sodomy and the burning to death of babies. But when horrific danger pressed in on the Israelites, say from the Assyrians, many were tempted to appeal to the “gods” of these rituals. To the person who saw the harm and horror of these pagan practices, God’s laws indeed would be “sweet.”

Second Meanings: Writings in General, and in Scripture

In the last three chapters of Lewis’ book, he presents ways to view second meanings in (1) pagan writings, (2) how second meanings may be viewed in scripture generally, and lastly, (3) second meanings in the psalms. The purpose of this exercise is to determine if it is legitimate to even consider meanings apart from what the writer apparently intended. And if so, how can we know a second meaning is something we should take seriously?

In relation to pagan writings, Lewis explains how Virgil’s poem Eclogue IV* (written shortly before Christ was born)–which uncannily resembles the birth of Christ and its meaning–can be considered an amazing “coincidence.” Whereas Plato’s description of what the world would do to a man of perfect goodness, where he describes a scene like Christ’s passion before the event came to pass, is akin to a very educated guess. Plato was in tune with the subject because of his teacher Socrates’ execution, and after contemplating it all, perfected his thoughts on the matter. And so it happened that Plato was quite correct in his assessment! (While reading Lewis’ work one can surmise that he did not think, really, that Virgil’s poem was mere coincidence or that Plato’s work lacked divine inspiration, but Lewis is making an argument apart from immeasurable heavenly influence.)

Lewis reasons: “If even pagan utterances can carry a second meaning, not quite accidentally but because, in the sense I have suggested, they have a sort of right to it, we shall expect the Scriptures to do this more momentously and more often. We have two grounds for doing so if we are Christians” (187). The two grounds are:

(1) Aside from direct prophecy, the OT is filled with all kinds of different writings. Ecclesiastes is basically pagan, so why is it scripture? The Song of Songs is basically secular, so why is it scripture? Lewis describes those OT as having been worked upwards, or divinely upgraded. “All [have been] taken into the service of God’s word. . . . On all these I suppose a Divine pressure; of which not by any means [the authors] need have been conscious” (188).

Just as not all see (believe) that the human animal has been up-graded to hold the divine, not all will see the divine in the up-graded words of the Bible. “For what is required, on all these levels alike, is not merely knowledge but a certain insight; getting the focus right” (190). He likens this to the printed page: for those who do not know what it is, apart from ink markings on paper, a person who tells them it is a poem may not get far in convincing them.

(2) The second ground for acknowledging other meanings in scripture is far easier to explain: Jesus Himself said so. He had scolded the disciples going to Emmaus for not realizing, from scripture, that the anointed one would suffer. He told them of the scriptures that referred to Himself in the OT (Luke 24:25-27). From NT verses, we know positively that the following OT passages referred to Jesus: Isaiah 53 (Acts 8:27-38), Psalm 22 (Mark 15:34), Psalm 110 (Mark 12:35-36), Psalm 91:11-12 (Matt 4:6), Psalm 118:22 (Mark 12:10), Psalm 16:[10] (Acts 2:27). As Lewis states: “He [Jesus] accepted—indeed claimed to be—the second meaning of Scripture” (191).

* Lewis had not provided the name of the poem, but I include it for the readers’ information.

Second Meanings: The Psalms

“Here (to speak in ludicrously human terms) we feel that it needed no Divine guidance to give the old texts their second meaning but would rather have needed a special miracle to keep it out” (196).

As Lewis explains it so clearly, and as I think that clarity is necessary here, I will quote him at length concerning the overall view of “second meanings” in scripture:

“In a certain sense Our Lord’s interpretation of the Psalms was common ground between Himself and His opponents. [The example of] how David can call Christ ‘my Lord’ (Mark 12, 35-37), would lose its point unless it were addressed to those who took it for granted that the ‘my Lord’ referred to in Psalm 110 was the Messiah, the regal and anointed deliverer who would subject the world to Israel. This method was accepted by all. The ‘scriptures’ all had a ‘spiritual’ second sense. Even a gentile ‘God-fearer’ like the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8, 27-38) knew that the sacred books of Israel could not be understood without a guide, trained in the Judaic tradition, who could open the hidden meanings. Probably all instructed Jews in the first century saw references to the Messiah in most of those passages where our Lord saw them; what was controversial was His identification of the Messianic King with another Old Testament figure and of both with Himself.

Two figures meet us in the Psalms, that of the sufferer and that of the conquering and liberating king. In 13, 28, 55 and 102, we have the Sufferer; in 2 and 72, the King. The Sufferer was, I think, by this time generally identified with (and may sometimes have originally been intended as) the whole nation, Israel itself—they would have said ‘himself’. The King was the successor of David, the coming Messiah. Our Lord identified Himself with both these characters (193).

So, as Lewis remarks, allegorical readings have been viewed as normal and this by the highest authorities–but, not all interpretations are fruitful or even rational. One has to be discerning and open to the possibility that an interpretation can be wrong, based on historical blindness or wishful thinking.

He finishes the chapter, and his book, with examples of second meanings in some psalms based on interpretations in the NT itself (not all are summarized here). The first is Psalm 110, and Lewis explains it in the context of it being used for Christmas day in his church’s prayer book. This psalm is about a coming king who will be victorious over his enemies, and not about a sweet helpless newborn. We already know that David’s “Lord” is Jesus (verse 1), from Mark 12, and this Psalm is wholly messianic. It is about conquering in wrath the kings of the earth, not about individual salvation. Verse 4b says, “You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek,” which is discussed at length in Hebrews 7. For a Jewish convert this is very important, since Jesus could not be a priest in the order Aaron; right there in a psalm of David, a messianic psalm, is the reference to a priestly order prior to Aaron’s. But regarding Jesus as conqueror and king, see also psalms 45, 89, and 132 (for Lewis’ fantastic treatment of Psalm 45, where Christ is also bridegroom, lover, and father, see pages 197 – 198).

Psalm 68 was read on Pentecost. It rejoices at the Lord’s victories over His enemies as well, but also presents how God loves and defends those in need. This is truly an astonishing messianic psalm! In verse 2, there are said to be a great host who spreads the word that the Lord gave; this suits Pentecost and seems to refer to all His followers. In the NT, Paul (Eph 4:7-8) gave a meaning to verse 18 that was no doubt new to many, and that was of the giving of the Holy Spirit (which of course Jesus told them about in John 16:7).

Paul wrote of another Psalm, 8, that had a new revealed meaning (Hebrews 2:6-9, 1 Cor 15:20-28). Instead of the psalmist meaning humanity in verse 5, “You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor,” it became known to the early church (maybe through Christ Himself) that that verse referred to the Lord Jesus Christ. Psalm 8 also speaks of the “son of man,” which Christ so-often called Himself. Lewis observes,

“And it is this, I believe, that most modern Christians need to be reminded of. It seems to me that I seldom meet any strong or exultant sense of the continued, never-to-be-abandoned, Humanity of Christ in glory, in eternity. We stress the Humanity too exclusively at Christmas, and the Deity to exclusively after the Resurrection; almost as if Christ once became a man and then presently reverted to being simply God. We think of the Resurrection and Ascension (rightly) as great acts of God; less often as the triumph of Man. The ancient interpretation of Psalm 8, however arrived at, is a cheering corrective. . . . As I have already indicated, there seems to me to be something more than analogy between the taking up of animality into man and taking up of man into God” (199-200).

 

Sources

Kaiser Jr, Walter, et al. “Does God Seem so Angry in the Old Testament & Loving in the New?” In Hard Sayings of the Bible. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996.

Lewis, C. S. “Reflections on the Psalms.” In The Inspirational Writings of C.S. Lewis. Inspirational Press, 1994 (1955).

 

Lessons in the Psalms: Summaries of C.S. Lewis’s Thought (2 of 3)

KJV of 1611 (Psalms 23:1,2): Occurrence of &qu...
KJV of 1611 (Psalms 23:1,2): Occurrence of “L ORD ” (and “God” in the heading) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This post, which is the second of three, is a summary of sorts of C.S. Lewis’s work, Reflections on the Psalms (1955; the edition of this book used here is found in The Inspirational Writings of C.S. Lewis, published in 1994 by Inspirational Press). Note that word spellings as found in the book are kept in this essay.  I hope you are blessed by Lewis’ insight and these easily accessible summaries (click here for the first in the series)!

[This is a slightly edited version of the article I originally published at Examiner.com.]

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Psalms and the Christian: Death and Seeing God

Death in the Psalms

Do you know what the Pharisees and Sadducees believed about the afterlife during Jesus’ time? Do you know what the Jews believed about this 1000 years earlier? When it comes to interpreting the Psalms it’s important to know that the Jews, through time, had differing beliefs about life after death. This is because God chose to reveal his plan for our eternal souls slowly.

“. . . in the Old Testament the idea of an afterlife was only partially revealed and even that revelation comes toward the end of the Old Testament period. Most of the time people thought of death as going down to the shadow world of Sheol where there was no praise of God and at best only a semi-life. What they hoped for was to die at a ripe old age with a good name, having seen their children and grandchildren . . .” (Kaiser, et al., p 46).

So this was basically the idea of the afterlife when most of the Psalms were written, which was between about 1400 BC and 430 BC. By the time of Jesus, the Jews were split in their beliefs. The Pharisees believed in an afterlife that included a resurrection, the Sadducees did not. As my old pastor occasionally said, “That’s why they were sad, you see.” At this point I think it well to make a note that while this is the view that Lewis took, and many or most scholars still take (i.e., the quote above), other scholars disagree. They argue that based on (1) the taking of Enoch and of Elijah, (2) the views expressed in some of the psalms, and (3) on the book of Job, that the Jews believed in an afterlife directly with God. While some references to Sheol say that God is present there, others do not, and in any case Sheol did not represent what we understand as heaven.

Here are some examples of the ancient Jews’ views on the afterlife: Psalm 89:47 – “Remember how fleeting is my life. For what futility you have created all men!” Psalm 30:9 – “What gain is there in my destruction, in my going down to the pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it proclaim your faithfulness?” Psalm 6:5 – “No one remembers you when he is dead. Who praises you from the grave?” Psalm 88:5 – “I am set apart with the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave, whom you remember no more, who are cut off from your care.”

Lewis does not deny that there are some verses in the Psalms that speak to us today about God’s plan of redemption, but he is pointing out in this topic that we have to be careful about applying Christian theology to ancient texts. Lewis feels that God kept thoughts of the afterlife to a minimum with His chosen people so that they wouldn’t get too caught up in it. The pagan nations around them, like the Egyptians, were very much concerned with the afterlife, indeed. One can be TOO concerned about it, where it becomes simply a selfish ambition. It was enough during this time that people sought after God to help them simply survive in a difficult world. God also wanted the Jews to learn to love Him for what and who He is, not just for what He could do for them. When they learned to love Him, they then would begin to desire to be with their God forever. It is only when God is at the center that the desire for heaven or the fear of hell really make sense, or any lasting sense, anyway. If we try to imagine what either heaven or hell is like, we don’t get very far; in the end it is a choice of whether one wants to be with God or not.

Worshiping God, Seeing God

Lewis finds that it is useful to think about how Jews worshiped God when the view of heaven was absent, which would be so foreign to us. He says the worshipful aspect of the Psalms is one of mirth, and “If we think ‘mirth’ an unsuitable word for them, that may show how badly we need something which the Psalms can give us perhaps better than any other book in the world” (p.154). What tempers our mirth relative to the Jews’ is that while we believe that the Messiah has already come, he died a gruesome death for us which we are called to remember every time we have communion.

Which brings us to important differences between the Temple and the synagogues, and how they relate to our current church practices. When the Temple existed, it was the place of worship and festivity, slaughter and barbeques. The synagogues were different, being local places for scripture readings and education. In our churches, we combine all: worship, slaughter (the Eucharist), scripture readings and education – we may even have an occasional barbeque.

But there’s a difference between the Temple festivals and our weekly services. Lewis says, “The most valuable thing the Psalms do for me is to express that same delight in God which made David dance” (p. 155). When people came to the temple for a holy time, it was also a fun time. If you didn’t live in Jerusalem, then it was kind-of an adventure (at least for kids). You socialized, had roast meat, listened to music and danced. You might come to think of God in that way, that he equaled those things. This is what Lewis tries to get at. Probably for the “common man” God was all of those pleasant things; the ancient peasant Jew was not an analytical Greek – all was one with him, and that one was God (however, do not think that he was a pagan or pantheist, either).

So when the psalmist talks of seeing the Lord, or longing to see him, he most often meant seeing him through worship in the Temple. Psalm 68 is an example: “Your procession has come into view, O God, the procession of my God and King into the sanctuary. In front are the singers, after them the musicians; with them are the maidens playing tambourines” (vv. 24-25). He wouldn’t say, like we might today, that he “felt” the presence of the Lord, but that what he saw was the Lord’s presence.

Considering the historic contexts shown in the essays so far, Psalm 27 (vv. 4-6) takes on new or added meaning:

One thing I ask of the Lord,
This is what I seek:
That I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord
and to seek him in his temple.
For in the day of trouble
He will keep me safe in his dwelling;
he will hide me in the shelter of his tabernacle
and set me high upon a rock.
Then my head will be exalted
Above the enemies who surround me;
at his tabernacle will I sacrifice with shouts of joy;
I will sing and make music to the Lord.

And make music they did. The psalms are full of the longing for God and for declaring it through music. Examples can be found in: 9(2); 42; 43(4); 47(1); 50(2); 57(9); 63(2); 65(4); 81 (1-2); 84(3); 97(1); and, 150(5). Since the writers of these psalms did not know the salvation of the Lord like we do, it is all the more amazing that they worshiped with such gusto. Granted, our worship has the somber counterpoint of Jesus’ death, but we should be able to seek the beauty of the Lord and the “pleasures” of his house today. (It seems that the church as a whole actually has moved more in this direction since Lewis wrote his work in 1955.) Lewis concludes: “. . . I find [in the Psalms] an experience fully God-centered, asking of God no gift more urgently than His presence, the gift of Himself, joyous to the highest degree, and unmistakably real” (p.158).

 

Sources

Kaiser Jr, Walter, et al. “Does God Seem so Angry in the Old Testament & Loving in the New?” In Hard Sayings of the Bible. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996.

Lewis, C. S. “Reflections on the Psalms.” In The Inspirational Writings of C.S. Lewis. Inspirational Press, 1994 (1955).

Lessons in the Psalms: Summaries of C.S. Lewis’s Thought (1 of 3)

English: The Psalms scroll, one of the Dead Se...
English: The Psalms scroll, one of the Dead Sea scrolls. Hebrew transcription included. English translation available here. Français : le rouleau des Psaumes, l’un des manuscrits de la mer Morte. Une transcription en hébreu moderne est incluse. Une traduction anglaise est disponible ici. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This post, which is the first of three, is a summary of sorts of C.S. Lewis’s work, Reflections on the Psalms (1955; the edition of this book used here is found in The Inspirational Writings of C.S. Lewis, published in 1994 by Inspirational Press). Note that word spellings as found in the book are kept in this essay.  I hope you are blessed by Lewis’ insight and these easily accessible summaries!

[This is a slightly edited version of the article I originally published at Examiner.com.]

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Psalms and the Christian: Judgment and Cursing?

Judgement in the Psalms

Judgement itself is not too controversial since there are, in fact, many verses related to it in the New Testament. Jesus is the “judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10:42), and we expect Him to return and judge the earth: “. . . He has set a day on which He is going to judge the world in righteousness by the Man [Jesus] He has appointed. He has provided proof of this to everyone by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17:31).

However, the psalmists tend to have a different focus than we do when it comes to judgement. As Christians, we know that we are sinners and that if we had to go before a court to be judged, we would be defendants, not plaintiffs. We look to Jesus to have our “case against us” dismissed, and we speak to others of this salvation. But the Jews rarely used judgement in this context; rather, they were the plaintiffs and they wanted God to bring their enemies into judgement. They wanted justice, if not vengeance, and they didn’t often see themselves as part of the problem.

There is one verse in the New Testament that is more like the Old Testament’s focus on judgement, and that is found in Revelation 6:9-11:

“When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, ‘How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?’ Then each was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed.”

At first, this is pretty shocking (well, it was for me), since the New Testament teaches us to forgive and pray for our enemies, and to leave vengeance to God. The martyrs here do leave vengeance to God, but they do not seem forgiving and they are not rebuked by God. I thought I had a clever explanation for this before I studied what others had to say about it. It is reckoned that these are the prophets of the Old Testament and that the others to be killed are the tribulation saints. If this is correct, then they are expressing the exact sentiments we see in the Psalms and there is no need to reconcile them with New Testament teachings.

Most calls for judgement, however, are very morally sound. Some examples are:

“For he who avenges blood remembers; he does not ignore the cry of the afflicted” (9:12); “A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling” (68:5); “He will judge your people in righteousness, your afflicted ones with justice” (72:2).

The psalmists cried out in this way because, simply put, peoples in biblical times did not have honest judges! Well, a judge may have given a good ruling, but you had to pay him for it. One of Jesus’ parables, which provides some instructing us regarding prayer, illustrates this norm about judges in Luke 18:1-8. A widow kept pestering a particular judge for justice, and he finally gave her a ruling—not because she was wealthy and could pay him, but because he didn’t want to be bothered by her anymore. Normally, only the wealthiest people were able to obtain a judgement and get justice. Of course there were no international courts either; people needed a hero to act on their cries for justice. So justice is sought from God.

What is more difficult to swallow and understand than calls for judgement in the psalms are the cursings, which we look at next.

The Cursings

If God is in all of the bible, how do we take the cursings? As Christians, we are called to forgive, not curse, so how do we use the verses that contain curses? Examples of “curses” are:

“May the table set before them become a snare; may it become retribution and a trap. May their eyes be darkened so they cannot see, and their backs be bent forever” (69:22-23); “May the iniquity of his fathers be remembered before the Lord; may the sin of his mother never be blotted out” (109:14); “O daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us—he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks” (137:8-9).

First, we can look at the culture in which these were written. At that time, it was considered OK to express your anger in this way; it wasn’t considered crazy or rude. Another aspect of their experience is that the times were more violent (at least compared to those of us who live in “the west” today) and definitely more bloody. Remember, blood sacrifice was a common occurrence.

Second, these cursings help us to remember a simple fact: when a person is hurt by someone, the natural reaction is to do a hurt back. A hurt person may never fully recover from the wrong done to them. Even if that person forgives, and forgives again, the hurt is not obliterated and there are consequences or repercussions from the hurt. Though it is a natural feeling to curse or want vengeance, it is wrong for the Christian. It is possible that hurtful actions will cause a lifetime of difficulties for another person, difficulties that can lead them to sin, and this Christians are to avoid.

Another aspect of the cursings shows that the Jews were closer to God than many Pagans, or people today. “What?!,” you’re thinking. Let me explain. Very simply, the Jews expressed indignation: righteous anger. And they expected God to act on it since He is a righteous God. There are many people in the world who, when confronted with evil, shrug their shoulders and say, “Well, that’s just the way things are.” They don’t care about evil much, and they certainly don’t get offended on God’s behalf, as the Jews did. As Lewis stated: “If the Jews cursed more bitterly than the Pagans this was, I think, at least in part because they took right and wrong more seriously” (p. 147).

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To continue, please see Lessons in the Psalms: Summaries of C.S. Lewis’s Thought (2 of 3)

“God’s Battalions”: A Corrective to Revisionist Crusades History

Crosses carved by pilgrims into a wall of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem.  (Yair Talmor, Wikimedia Commons).
Crosses carved by pilgrims into a wall of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem. (Yair Talmor, Wikimedia Commons).

“God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades” by Rodney Stark

“Muslims were [not] more brutal or less tolerant than were Christians or Jews, for it was a brutal and intolerant age. It is to say that efforts to portray Muslims as enlightened supporters of multiculturalism are at best ignorant.” (p 29)

In this reader-accessible but academic book, Professor Stark provides a very much needed corrective to the still accepted myths about the crusades into the Holy Land. Besides addressing the fallacies repeated as fact today (a few are given below), Stark presents a centuries-long history leading up to the crusades. Despite the reputation the Catholic Church earned over its handling of its Inquisition, at this earlier time violence was considered sinful. Even the killing of a criminal by a knight was deemed a bad thing. This may explain why Catholics didn’t respond sooner to centuries of mass murders and church destruction by Muslims in Palestine (see Moshe Gil, History of Palestine, 634-1099).

Fallacy 1: Crusaders were motivated by greed.

Fidelity 1: Piety and freeing the Holy Land, Jerusalem, were the crusaders’ motives. It must be understood that for some time Catholics believed that atonement for sins was gained through a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, for this is what their confessors told them. Obviously, this was spiritually very important to them and had nothing to do with wealth (in fact, pilgrimage was incredibly time-consuming, expensive, and dangerous). So when Pope Urban II announced that regaining Jerusalem would cleanse the liberators, it wasn’t an entirely new concept (becoming sin-free through violence was, however).

Fallacy 2: Muslims were tolerant and allowed conquered people to maintain their faith.

Fidelity 2: Depending on the time and area, conquered peoples were either (1) given the choice to convert to Islam or face death or enslavement, or (2) forced to pay heavy taxes, cease church or synagogue building, and never read scripture or pray aloud (even in their own homes).

More specifically relevant to the impetus for the crusades, and a definite show of Muslim intolerance, are the actions of the Turkish commander Atsiz. Sieging Jerusalem in 1071 or 1073, he promised the inhabitants safety if they relented. But when the city gates opened, “the Turkish troops were released to slaughter and pillage, and thousands died. Next, Atsiz’s troops murdered the populations of Ramla and Gaza, then Tyre and Jaffa” (p 97).

Fallacy 3: The crude European crusaders ruined the higher level culture of the Arab Muslims.

Fidelity 3: There are two related components of this fallacy that have been disproven but still remain in our culture. The first is that the Europeans were brutish children of the “Dark Ages.” As early as 1981 Encyclopedia Britannica refuted the long-held academic view that Europe even experienced a “Dark Ages.” On the contrary, this time period saw both the rise of agricultural

innovations that led to the biggest and strongest population ever, and many technological innovations that made the crusades possible.

Secondly, if you consider legitimate the claiming of conquered peoples’ knowledge as one’s own, then Islam “attained” high levels of it. Consider these very few examples: (1) “Arabic numerals” are Hindu; (2) Avicenna, considered the greatest of the Muslim philosopher-scientists, was Persian (this is true of many others, too); (3) Medical knowledge was from the Nestorian Christians. As conquerors, the Arabs made Arab names necessary and the Arab language mandatory for the intelligentsia.

Everyday sayings from the Bible – There may be more than you think!

Broken heart (base photo by Alex Bruda, Freeimages.com; filtered by author).
Broken heart (base photo by Alex Bruda, Freeimages.com; filtered by author).

Did you know that the everyday expression “broken heart” (or “brokenhearted)” is considered to be derived from the Bible?  Yes, even by secular sources.  If you read your Bible you may already know that expressions such as going to the “land of Nod,” or having “feet of clay,” are not from fairytales or other old works of fiction.

In fact, very many idioms, phrases, and expressions in the English language originated from the Bible.  This post holds a good number of them (but not all)–27–chosen specifically for their commonness.  Some are so common that I not only made the list and checked it twice (see what I did there?  That phrase is from the 1934 song “Santa Claus is Coming to Town“), but thrice.

The blind leading the blind. The biblical meaning may imply willful ignorance, but the saying today refers more generally to the uninformed blindly following the uninformed. “But [Jesus] answered and said, ‘Every plant which My heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone. They are blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind leads the blind, both will fall into a ditch'” (Matthew 15:13-14).

A broken heart; brokenhearted. This ancient term for the depressed is from Psalms 34:18,”The Lord is near to those who have a broken heart, and saves such as have a contrite spirit.” “Brokenhearted” is first used in Luke 4:18: “. . . He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted . . . ”

By the skin of your teeth. Some explain this to be referring to the film you can feel on your teeth when they’re not clean, and thus, being saved in whatever situation by the ultra-slimmest of margins. “My bone clings to my skin and to my flesh, and I have escaped by the skin of my teeth” (Job 19:20).

Drop in the bucket. If something is like one drop in a bucket of water, it’s very insignificant. As Isaiah 40:15 says, “Behold, the nations are as a drop in a bucket, and are counted as the small dust on the scales . . .”

Feet of clay. Today this refers to someone having a secret character flaw that may cause their ruin, and is take from Daniel 2:32-33: “This image’s head was of fine gold, its chest and arms of silver, its belly and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay.”

Fight the good fight. This has come to mean making a purposeful effort to work on behalf of a morally right cause. Originally it referred to the struggle to maintain one’s faith: “Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life, to which you were also called . . .” (1 Timothy 6:12).

Fly in the ointment. This saying alludes to plans that are spoiled by a small thing, but as can be seen by the original verse below, it was meant to convey that bad behavior by an otherwise honorable person can raise questions about their true character. “Dead flies putrefy the perfumer’s ointment, and cause it to give off a foul odor; so does a little folly to one respected for wisdom and honor” (Ecclesiastes 10:1).

Labor of love. When you feel a strong purpose toward non-paid work you’re doing, then it’s a “labor of love.” “God is not unjust to forget your work and labor of love which you have shown toward His name . . .” (Hebrews 6:10, and 1Thessalonians 1:3).

Land of Nod. The Land of Nod is the place where Cain was exiled to for having murdered his brother; it has nothing to do with sleep, which it means in speech today. We can only guess, but perhaps it comes from the idea of being spiritually asleep after being cast from God.  “Then Cain went out from the presence of the Lord and dwelt in the land of Nod on the east of Eden” (Genesis 4:16).

Out of the mouth of babes. The idea of this saying is that innocent people will speak in truth, without pretense, worry, or jadedness. There are two places where this comes from in the Bible, Psalms 8:2 and Matthew 21:16: “. . . And Jesus said to them, ‘Yes. Have you never read, “Out of the mouth of babes and nursing infants You have perfected praise”‘?”

Rise and shine. No, “rise and shine” is not from some teen encouragement flick, but from Isaiah 60:1:  “Arise, shine; for your light has come! And the glory of the Lord is risen upon you.”

See eye to eye. Seeing eye to eye isn’t referring to a staring contest, but that people see something in the same way–that they agree. “Your watchmen shall lift up their voices, with their voices they shall sing together; for they shall see eye to eye when the Lord brings back Zion” (Isaiah 52:8).

A thorn in the flesh. Today, this simply refers to something that is continually annoying. The apostle Paul had a specific irritation, however, when he wrote:   “And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me . . .” (2 Corinthians 12:7). My favorite modern take on this can be found at Redjaw Cartoons.

Wits’ end. When someone is at their wits’ end, they are beyond being able to think about something (and usually quite frustrated about it). The expression comes from Psalm 107:27: “They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man, and are at their wits’ end.”

Writing on the wall. This expression means that something bad is about to happen.   It is from the spooky story in Daniel chapter 5, but here is an excerpt. “This is the inscription that was written [by a supernatural hand]: MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN. This is the interpretation of each word. MENE: God has numbered your kingdom, and finished it; TEKEL: You have been weighed in the balances, and found wanting; [UPHARSIN and] PERES: Your kingdom has been divided, and given to the Medes and Persians (verses 25-28).

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.  This exact expression in its current form is not in the Bible, actually, but a similar biblical phrase is considered to be the first in English that means the same thing.  This may seem a bit wanky, but I’m conveying what at least some etymologists say.  The meaning of this phrase – to have something you know is good is not worth throwing away for things that may or may not be better – has equivalents in many languages.  The phrase from the Old Testament is found in Ecclesiastes 9:4b:  “A living dog is better than a dead lion.”  The oldest written phrase close to its current form is found in an ancient source, but not nearly as ancient as the OT:  “He is a fool who lets slip a bird in the hand for a bird in the bush” (Plutarch, c. AD 100, in Of Garrulity).

As old as the hills.  Meaning “very old indeed,” this expression is a shortened version of Job 15:7:  “Are you the first man who was born?  Or were you made before the hills?”  A similar but more specific expression is “As old as Methuselah.”  This is referring to the oldest recorded person in the Bible, Methuselah, grandfather of Noah, who was said to have lived 969 years (Genesis 5:27).

Apple of my [or his] eye.  This means that the “apple” referred to is the favorite of the beholder’s “eye.”  There are many instances of the expression in the old testament, but notably Deuteronomy 32:10 and Zechariah 2:8

Cast your bread upon the waters.  This is a less common saying nowadays (and is even absent from references), perhaps because it seems too nonsensical and doesn’t convey any meaning by itself.  I love the sound of it, though, so included it here.  It’s from Eccl.s 11:1:  “Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days.”  Though the saying doesn’t seem to make any sense, it is an expression that hopes to invoke patience or diligence.

Set your teeth on edge.  When something is upsetting or making you uptight, you might say that it’s setting your teeth on edge.  This comes from a few verses in the Bible, like Jeremiah 31:29, “In those days they shall say no more: ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge'” (see also Jeremiah 31:30 and Ezekiel 18:2).

Wolf in sheep’s clothing.  This saying is so common, that the meaning seems rather obvious.  In case this is new to you, it refers to a person who has bad intentions who is fooling people by acting innocent of any malice; they have an insincere public face, coupled with ill-will.  The expression comes from Matthew 7:15:  “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves.

Charity begins at home.  Interestingly, this expression doesn’t come from an obvious notion or ideal, but from a criticism of men (providers of the family) having problems with being a good provider.  1 Timothy 5:8 states:  “But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”  Jesus talks of hypocrisy in a number of places in the New Testament, especially in Matthew 23, but what he says in Matthew 15:1-9 is particularly applicable here:  “But you [scribes and Pharisees] say, ‘Whoever says to his father or mother, “Whatever profit you might have received from me is a gift to God”— then he need not honor his father or mother.’  Thus you have made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition. Hypocrites!” (15:5-7a).

Let Us Swords into Plowshares
Let Us Swords into Plowshares (Photo credit: Singing With Light) At U.N. Headquarters, N.Y.

Beat swords into plowshares. I time of peace when even defensive weapons will not be necessary.   From the yet to be fulfilled prophecy of Isaiah 2:4, “He shall judge between the nations, and rebuke many people; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”

Salt of the earth. From Matthew 5:13:  “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men.”

Don’t cast your pearls before swine. This saying warns of not sharing things that are important to you with those who just don’t care, and who might even belittle you about it. The original meaning is specifically spiritual.  Pigs (swine) will trample what’s thrown in front of them if it’s not ordinary food, so don’t toss spiritual food their way since they’ll only disdainfully muck it up.  From Matthew 7:6, “Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you in pieces.”

Sign of the times. From Matthew 16:3.  Speaking with the Jewish leaders, Jesus said “. . . in the morning [you say], ‘It will be foul weather today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ Hypocrites! You know how to discern the face of the sky, but you cannot discern the signs of the times.”

Twinkling of an eye, In the.  Neither Shakespeare nor Robert Manning were the first to write this expression, but the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:52: “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.”

Note:  Updated August 4, 2014.  A larger part of this article was first published at Yahoo! Voices.  It was integrated with a similar article here after Voices closed shop in 2014 and reverted all rights back to the original authors.  Edited slightly on 10-8-2014.

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Sources:

Expressions & Sayings Index

The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins – Robert Hendrickson (2008)

The Phrase Finder

Scholastic Dictionary of Idioms, Phrases, Sayings & Expressions – Marvin Terban (1996)

World Jews outraged by Christian murders, our own government isn’t

This is the crime against humanity of our time. It is the religious equivalent of ethnic cleansing. It is deliberate, it is brutal, and it is systematic. And I, as a Jew, want to say that I stand solidly with Christians throughout the world in protest against this crime. And I am appalled that the world is silent.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (2013 Erasmus Lecture)

. . . the Jews seem to be the ones most outraged by it. . . . It’s shades of the past that a world that is indifferent to such brutal actions becomes indifferent to anybody’s suffering.

The White House—the whole Western community—ought to be taking action, as we would against any country that engages in this kind of action. Look, overall the West is muted in their response to the killings of Christians by the thousands, from Indonesia to Nigeria to Tehran to Damascus. Where is the outcry? Christians and Copts [are being killed] in Egypt, other countries—and hardly any response to it. . . .  Where are the [United Nations] Security Council resolutions? Why aren’t the condemnations coming from them?

Malcolm Hoenlein, head of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations

The above quotes are from the First Things article, “Jews and the Persecution of Christians” by Tom Wilson; the Hoenlein quotes were taken by Wilson from an interview of Hoenlein in The Time of Israel.

. . . the Middle East [was] once home to countless thriving Jewish communities, only for them to have been decimated in the mid-twentieth century. With the rise of hardline Islam and growing turmoil in many of these countries, Christians risk sharing a similar fate. . . .  A century ago, Christians constituted 20 percent of the population of the Middle East; today, that number stands at just 4 percent.

Jews care.  A lot of Jews get it.  What is with us?  Why does our own country, and the West, not care?  The western media is biased in its reporting when Christians are killed in countries like Sudan.  They seem to be ashamed that Christians even exist and that violent-minded Muslims are justified in doing evil.  But where is the Christian response, the Christian outrage?  If it doesn’t exist, then it can be surmised that Christians don’t really exist.  At least, our own government’s weak response against the atrocities can certainly be viewed as nothing but hot air.  But why should our government do anything about it or care, when we people of faith don’t even seem to??

Churches are our gathering places.  Why aren’t churches organizing anything to raise awareness about what is going on in the world?  If they don’t know . . . what excuse can be given?  Maybe some pastors are writing newspaper editorials and encouraging action by their flock–I don’t know.  Feel free to let me know of examples of such action in the comments below, or provide links there to Christians groups and organizations that are trying to do something about this (I don’t mean groups that report on it only).  Thanks.

Prophecies fulfilled, others set in motion, at Jesus’ birth

Christmas gift box icon on old paper background and pattern
A slightly altered version of a saying floating around the internet.

Christmas is such a secular holiday anymore that a person is made to feel like they’re offending someone if they unselfishly wish someone a “merry Christmas.”  Instead, it’s all about having “happy holidays” or enjoying “the season” (my Christmas cards for this year say that . . . but what “season”?  Winter?  The season of blessing retailers with books in the black?).  It’s gotten so strange that some claim that you don’t need Christ in Christmas.  That makes sense . . . nowhere.  I’m surprised that calling it simply “the giving season” hasn’t caught on, akin to the calling of Thanksgiving “turkey day.”

I’m not complaining so much as noting the secular trend, in full swing now, to eliminate Christianity from public life.  Christmas, however, gives us the opportunity to enlighten people about God’s word, possibly more than any other holiday.  When it comes to Easter, people need to accept the New Testament witness regarding Christ’s resurrection.  With Christ’s birth, however, there are prophecies from the Old Testament (or Tanakh) that are pretty clear, and, there is no good reason to think the prophecies weren’t written centuries before Jesus was born.  These prophecies are from the books of Isaiah and Micah.

First, and no doubt very familiar, is Isaiah 7:14.  With verse 13 for context:  “Then Isaiah said, ‘Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of humans? Will you try the patience of my God also?  Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.'”  This prophecy is announced as fulfilled in Matthew 1:22-23.  Here it is in context (Matthew 1:20b-23):

“an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means ‘God with us’).”

Some critics like to point out that the word “virgin” is not specifically used in Isaiah, but, in the historical and cultural context, a young unmarried woman (a translation of the word used) meant the same thing as “virgin.”  It’s an odd criticism in any case, since, what else would God have meant?  Would an unchaste girl getting pregnant be any kind of sign from God?

Another criticism, and one without merit, is that the book of Isaiah may have been altered later.  There is no end to such criticisms of the Bible generally.  However, Isaiah is consistently viewed as ancient by scholars, even if some moderns like to imagine that it was written by two or three authors during three periods (the youngest being from about 400 BC).  More importantly, the birth prophecy is in the early part of the book, universally believed to be written in the 700s by Isaiah.  Regarding complete authenticity of the writings, a confirmation came via a Dead Sea Scroll of the entire book of Isaiah.  This scroll is from about 150-125 BC.  Having confidence in the authenticity and the ancientness of Isaiah, we can enjoy the related prophecies in Isaiah 9 (1b-2, 6-7):

“. . . in the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan—

The people walking in darkness
    have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
    a light has dawned.

For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given,
    and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
    Wonderful[,] Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
    there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
    and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
    with justice and righteousness
    from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
    will accomplish this.”

There is another prophecy, from Micah 5 (2 & 4), that is quoted in Matthew and is therefore considered fulfilled.  As written in Matthew 2:6:

“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
    who will shepherd my people Israel.”

The book of Micah was written about the same time as Isaiah was.  There are more prophecies regarding Jesus Christ, of course, some fulfilled and some yet to be.  You can view some of them in a linked list at Prophecies Jesus Fulfilled.

Wishing you a warm and love-filled Christmas, I also leave you with a couple of songs for you to enjoy:

It Came Upon a Midnight Clear  (simple and traditional; Bruce Crockburn)

Oh Holy Night (Josh Groban)

Sources:  (1)  NIV Archaeological Study Bible (Zondervan 2005), pp 1055, 1115, 1477.   (2) Rational Steps to Belief in Christ