Not long after Tom Wright became Bishop of Durham back in the early 2000s the diocese organised a Diocesan Conference. Kim and I attended. It was held in the Swanwick conference centre and involved some pretty impressive speakers: Neil MacGregor (who was then in charge of the British Museum was one of them and spoke memorably about a stone carving of Jonah and the whale as a symbol of the resurrection). Anyhow, it fell to our new Bishop to give the Bible addresses each evening and, playing to his strengths, Bishop Tom had us spellbound as he spoke about some of the parables. What sticks in my mind though was the way in which he ordered what he was to say. Being dutiful vicars we were all scribbling away making notes. Tom gave one address which had 5 main points or headings. But as if that was not enough, each of those headings had beneath it another five points: in effect Tom gave us a 25 point sermon but we were able to follow it because of the structure he gave to it.
Why do I begin this way? Well, last week Kate Stewart pointed me towards a resource called The Bible Project. This is worth looking up online because it combines very clear introductions to particular bible books with some well-crafted graphics that help to explain the text – give it a go: The Bible Project. As it happens, one of the short episodes (just 6 minutes) on the front page of the site is about Psalm 8 – the set psalm for today. So let me pass on what I learned.
I hadn’t given much thought to the way the psalms appear in our scriptures…or for that matter, to how they are ordered. But, just like Tom’s bible studies, (indeed, just as you’d imagine any artist or author pulling together a piece of music, a document or book) structure is important to the Book of Psalms. If you are (say) a composer of an opera you give thought to the structure of the opera you are creating: where you will feature this or that soloist, where a duet or trio will appear or the set piece that will involve all your main characters. Just so with the Book of Psalms. It has been carefully crafted.
For a start the book isn’t just one book. I knew this…but had forgotten it: the Book of Psalms is actually five books: flick through your bible at home and you will find the headings. These headings are in the original text: they haven’t been added by our publishers.
Our Psalm (8) falls into the first of these books and within that book it sits in the centre of a collection that begins with Psalm 1 and runs through to Psalm 14. You will know both Psalm 1 and Psalm 14. The connection between them is wisdom. We sing Psalm 1: Blessed is the man, the man that does not walk in the counsel of the ungodly. Blessed is that man…His delight is in the Law of the Lord. Psalm 14? You think you don’t know it but you do: The fool has said in his heart there is no God. So, topping and tailing our collection we have the contrast between the faithful person – who is like ‘a tree planted by streams of water’ and the foolish who ’have gone astray and are all alike, perverse’.
This first theme: wisdom and faithfulness is followed by a second, introduced in Psalm 2 (which again you will recognise because it speaks of how God will confront the nations that ‘conspire against the Lord and his anointed’. This is the psalm that speaks of God’s Messiah (‘the anointed’) and in which we hear words repeated at Jesus’ baptism ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you.’
So what do we have? We have Psalms 1 and 2 introducing two themes. Wisdom – what it is to live a blessed life. And God’s plan to confront all that might oppose His reign through His anointed one: the Messiah.
Either side of our psalm (Psalm 8) we have psalms that speak of affliction and persecution. Psalms 3- 7 are ‘psalms of David’ – they have headings that tell us this (and again, these are in the original text, they haven’t been added by our modern publishers)and the theme running through them is that David is up against it. He has had to flee from Jerusalem following the rebellion of his son Absalom. The nation has descended into civil war. David is in the desert feeling anything but ‘anointed’ by God and wondering whether he will survive. Psalms 9- 14 are similar but differ in that in these psalms David is joined by others: the poor and needy, the weak and helpless. They too cry out to God for help.
And in the middle of these psalms written out of distress and difficulty we have Psalm 8 which stands out from the psalms either side of it because it is just so different: it is a hymn of praise rather than a plea for help. Notice how the praise of God frames the psalm: verses 1 and 9 use the same words: ‘O Lord our Governor, how excellent is your name in all the earth.’ Notice too just how strange verse 2 is.
The translation we sang reads ‘Out of the mouths of very babes and sucklings thou hast ordained strength because of thine enemies, that thou mightest still the enemy and the avenger’. The translation here that reads ‘strength’ can also be translated as ‘a bulwark or fortress’ but the gist is the same. The way God’s rule is established, the way His enemies are held at bay and defeated is through the praise of His people – and most especially the weak and vulnerable, and to be even more precise – through the praise of ‘children’.
The psalm very clearly picks up themes from Genesis chapter 1. It speaks of creation – the moon and the stars. Gazing out at the night sky, at the galaxies above him, the psalmist feels small, insignificant, overwhelmed and he asks a question that so many have asked too.
‘What is man that thou art mindful of him?’ Or more inclusively ‘What are human beings that you should care for them?’ Before the majesty of creation human beings are as nothing, yet back comes the remarkable answer ‘Yet, you have made human beings a little lower than the angels but crowned them with glory and honour’. As the Bible Project video puts it ‘Babbling babies and creatures made out of dirt’ are chosen by God to give Him praise and, more than this, their praise is the fortress that will confront all that destroys in the world.
The psalm affirms a truth we hold dear because we learned it from Jesus: it is the poor and persecuted who inherit the kingdom of heaven and it is the meek who inherit the earth. As Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians, God chooses what is foolish to shame the wise, the weak to shame the strong, that which is low and despised in the world to reduce to nothing things that are. We worship a crucified Messiah who was raised to the right hand of God so that his praise might fill the earth.
Which is why a month or two ago those who gathered in church to try to discern our next steps were onto something when they highlighted the need for us to always attend to the quality of our worship – it is through our praise that God’s reign is established amongst us.
Which is why I’m delighted that Frances and Joan and Ian will later this week complete the Diocesan ‘Wings for Worship course’ which will enable them to lead acts of worship for us (and Joan and Frances will lead our service in two week’s time).
Which is why I’m glad to hear that a few more folk (Marg and Herb amongst them) have joined the Praise Band – which means that group is now large enough (even if people are away) to support our worship particularly in our Celebrate services at 4.00pm.
Which is why we have experimented with different types of service of the word…and have given that 4.00pm service a lift by focussing on ‘Celebration’…and why some of our services at 10.30 are also being ‘themed’ as we recognise God’s goodness around us.
And which is why a fortnight ago there were a good number here in church from across the deanery talking about children’s work and work with young people ‘because out of the mouths of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength’. How we grow our work with younger generations must never drop off our agenda.
Who are we? Who are we before creation? Who are we when compared to the great forces of nature, the millennia before us and which will follow us? What can we do before the forces that shape the world and which seem to oppose the rule of God? We have been made ‘little lower than the angels. God has crowned us with glory and honour’. We can praise His name and reframe the world as we do so. Amen and Amen.
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