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The Cross, the Psalms, and Babies Heads Smashed Against the Rocks

November 30, 2012

Two of my readers, Bruce Hamill and Jeff Chan had a mini-discussion on my Facebook page regarding my post on the NZ national anthem and the contrast between the Psalms calling for the destruction of ones enemies and Jesus calling us to love our enemies. I was going to make a one sentence reply to them but then I started doing some research and reading and now I have a whole mini essay here :p If you hear the voice of Greg Boyd and one of my old profs Randal Rauser in this blog post, it’s because large chunks are their’s mashed together which you can find at the links provided in their names. I’ve taken passages from their posts and comments, sprinkled some of my own in, and arranged them in a certain order so as to make my case.

The interesting thing Boyd suggests we can do as Christians (and I personally think *should* do) is read the Bible through the lens of Jesus on the cross. If we truly believe the cross is the quintessential revelation of what God is really like, then the cross must serve as our interpretive lens whenever and wherever we see, or believe we see, God in action. Knowing that God’s true character looks like Jesus voluntarily dying on the cross for his enemies, we will always know that something else is going on if God appears to act in ways that are contrary to this enemy-loving, non-violent character.

And this is especially the case with the OT. We should also realize that just because something is in the Bible doesn’t mean the Bible approves of it. For example, I’m pretty sure most of the stories in Judges are there as negative examples, even without taking Jesus on the cross as the interpretive lens.

So with these assumptions in mind that 1) We should read the Bible through the lens of Jesus on the cross and 2) not everything in the Bible is meant as a positive example but may be there as a negative example and 3) I don’t believe that we who follow Jesus are necessarily obliged to accept the interpretation authors in the OT give to events, what can we say about the Psalms that have the Psalmist petitioning God for things that seem contrary to Jesus on the cross? For example, how about Psalm 137 which has the Psalmist praising about how happy he would be to bash Babylonian children’s heads against rocks? When read in the context of the cross I think this Pslam serves as an example of the wrong attitude to have in prayer and the grossness of the human heart among other things.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not promoting some sort of Marcionism (Marcion was an early church person who wanted to get rid of the OT). I believe the OT is the inspired Word of God in the same way I do the NT. I believe we should strive to find out what the OT meant in its original context as well. But I wonder if the OT is more often than not for the Christian meant as a contrast to the message of Jesus on the cross?

So then like Randal Rauser I would be advocating for a type of inspiration like Nicholas Wolterstorff’s where divine discourse can be constituted by appropriated human discourse, perhaps human discourse that is used differently than the human speaker ever intended. Thus, in the case of Psalm 137 and others like it one could say that they were included in the canon not to affirm them but to show how disgusting the human heart can be? This of course becomes clearer when one reads the Psalms in the greater Christian canonical context, in particular in regards to the life and teachings of Jesus who taught us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.

Now a potentially undermining NT passage that could affect reading the Psalm in the Christ-and-cross-centred way suggested above is Revelation 2:18-29. Here we have Jesus saying he will strike the children of Jezebel dead. So how do we interpret that in light of the cross? I would contend that the cross teaches us that God judges sin by withdrawing from it, thereby allowing people to suffer its death consequences. God “delivered Jesus over” to suffer at the hands of wicked humans as well as Satan and other fallen powers. And when Jesus became our sin (2 Cor 5:21) and our curse (Gal 3:13), God the Father withdrew his presence from him, which is why Jesus experienced genuine God-forsakenness (Mt 27:46). The cross reveals, and a wealth of biblical material confirms, that the essence of God’s “wrath” against sin is simply allowing evil to run its self-destructive course. The essence of sin is pushing God away, and since God is the source of life, sin is, by its very nature, choosing death.

In the case of the children in Revelation 2, we have to wonder in the apocalyptic language of Revelation whether these are literal children or metaphorical children of the obvious metaphorical name of Jezebel. David Aune in his Word Biblical Commentary on Revelation (p.206) takes the phrase τὰ τέκνα αὐτῆς, “her children,” as referring to the group that should probably be identified with the disciples of “Jezebel” or members of her prophetic circle. Thus, if they are the metaphorical children of “Jezebel”, then they will die by their sin being allowed to run its course in their lives and we don’t have Jesus here exacting vengeance on children.

Anyway, what turned into a sentence response has now turned into a little essay! Thanks Bruce and Jeff! Also, I’m still wrestling with this whole topic though so I would just refer you to my blog post “Mr. Wrong” in the mean time 🙂

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7 Comments
  1. Hi Mark, I find your theology of hermeneutics persuasive but have questions about your theology of the cross. Right now I don’t have time for a full response but Ill email you my readings of both Galatians and 2 Corinthians 5:21. I have some thoughts on Jesus’ Psalm citations re the Father’s forsaking too. Perhaps I write about that some time too. My immediate puzzlement lies in why you say God withdraws from sin when it is in fact God on the cross suffering sin. However I guess this hinges on how we interpret Jesus use of the Psalm. It seems to me though that both the Father and the Son are “allowing sin to run its course” not by withdrawing but by suffering. And precisely by suffering and raising the suffering one, defeating sin. In Barths language the judge judges by being judged.

    • Good question Bruce! I haven’t read your email yet, but I’ll respond to this question first:

      My immediate puzzlement lies in why you say God withdraws from sin when it is in fact God on the cross suffering sin. However I guess this hinges on how we interpret Jesus use of the Psalm. It seems to me though that both the Father and the Son are “allowing sin to run its course” not by withdrawing but by suffering. And precisely by suffering and raising the suffering one, defeating sin. In Barths language the judge judges by being judged..

      I said in the blog post:

      I would contend that the cross teaches us that God judges sin by withdrawing from it, thereby allowing people to suffer its death consequences. God “delivered Jesus over” to suffer at the hands of wicked humans as well as Satan and other fallen powers. And when Jesus became our sin (2 Cor 5:21) and our curse (Gal 3:13), God the Father withdrew his presence from him, which is why Jesus experienced genuine God-forsakenness (Mt 27:46). The cross reveals, and a wealth of biblical material confirms, that the essence of God’s “wrath” against sin is simply allowing evil to run its self-destructive course. The essence of sin is pushing God away, and since God is the source of life, sin is, by its very nature, choosing death.

      I’m (Re: Boyd) assuming the Trinity here (not that you aren’t!). God the Father is judging the Son by withdrawing from Jesus and allowing Jesus to feel the full weight of our sin. So yes, Jesus is the suffering one. And yes, God the Father is suffering. Jesus is suffering by feeling the weight of the consequences of sin and the Father is feeling the suffering of having to judge his Son by withdrawing from the situation. So I would agree with Barth that “the judge judges by being judged.”

      Does that make sense? Or am I missing something? I have the strange feeling that I am!

  2. yourothermotherhere permalink

    “The essence of sin is pushing God away, and since God is the source of life, sin is, by its very nature, choosing death.”

    Well put.

  3. So, the more I read and learn, the more I think that we do a disservice to the OT, and subsequently to what God is trying to say to us, when we read the OT through the lens of Jesus on the cross.

    In many ways, I think that even in protestant evangelical scholarship, we don’t follow our own ‘rules’ of hermeneutics far enough, in order to understand OT passages. I agree that we should “strive to find out what the OT meant in its original context as well,” but I think that that must ultimately determine how we understand Jesus and the cross. So, in fact, to better understand Jesus and the cross, we perhaps must read it through the OT lens rather than the other way around.

    Here’s maybe a better way of trying to explain what I mean…(warning…this is long)

    If we attempt to understand the context of the Israelite people and their Torah, we have take into consideration setting, economics, people, life situation (eg. in or out of exile), etc. I think the part that we often miss is to include also their worldview. How did the Israelite people see themselves and identify themselves? Where do they find their purpose and identity? I think that it is very clear even in the OT, regardless of how anthropological studies have shown and concur with, the historical identity of the Israelite people is communal.

    As a people, each individual’s identity is defined by the group. Hence, they are each a child of God only because they are, as a group, the chosen people of God, called his children. This contrasts with a North American individualistic society where the group is defined by the individuals who make it up. We as a group are children of God, because we are each individually a child of God.

    Though it sounds similar, they are very different. Here’s the reason…for the Israelites, an individual’s sin becomes the sin of the entire group, because they are as a group, the chosen people of God. For us in North America, our individualistic notions would most likely rail against this…I do not want to be identified with that other crazy person over there even if they call themselves a Christian as well.

    Now, you’re probably wondering why this matters at all… using the example of the psalmist and Jesus saying seemingly opposing things, but really, it’s actually based on the same worldview that the entire people are a chosen people of God. The psalmist might say (paraphrased), “God, protect me, and destroy my enemies.” He would be seeing himself as a representative, a spokesperson of the entire people of God. He is calling upon God to be the loving and just God that he has said that he is, that he will love and protect those whom he calls his people.

    Now when Jesus cries out, ‘forgive them for they know not what they do,’ he speaks this because he is pleading on behalf of the people of God…not the enemies of the people of God. He is pleading that God would stay faithful to his covenant and forgive his chosen people, the Jews, for they did not know that they were crucifying their own Messiah, the ultimate, quintessential (if you will) outflowing of the love of God for his chosen people, as spoken about, prophecied, and awaited since the OT. It was because the people who caused his crucifixion were not his enemies but his brothers that Christ calls to God to forgive them and place upon himself, the identity of enemy of God. The chosen people of God have broken their covenant with God and have become enemies of God, but Jesus takes that upon himself, and basically calls out a reminder to God that these are his own chosen people. So he takes it upon himself to become the enemy of God, who, because of the love God has for his chosen people, he is crushed and forsaken, in order to once again bring God’s chosen people back to himself.

    For Jesus, not only is the worldview the same as that of the Jews, that they are the people of God, but the Scriptures are also the same, the Torah. His ‘canon’ would have been that of the OT Scriptures. Therefore, his coming and his teaching were based exactly in the Torah. He didn’t come to abolish Torah, but to fulfill it, to make it whole, to bring it to its completion.

    The God of the OT isn’t the judgmental, vindictive, ‘step out of line and I’ll punish you’ kind of God that people often think. It’s only because we (1) read the NT through the lens of our individualistic society and mistakenly over personalize the ‘gospel’ as being for ‘me’ and (2) then read the OT through this individualized (almost selfish) lens (of the cross) that we, in my opinion, do poor hermeneutics and exegesis.

    Don’t get me wrong, I do think that the gospel is personal and for me individually, but I know that as a result of the gospel being for his people as a whole. Because God has made a new or renewed his covenant to his people in the birth, life, death, resurrection, and continued work of his son, through his people, I am also called a child of God.

    Let me try to draw this to a bit of a close with an explanation how this view might alter my perception of how I interpret Judges… If I am part of the chosen people of God and as Judges states, we as a people have sinned and turned away from God, the right and just punishment is that we are conquered by another nation. The people of the time, Israelites and other nations, all claimed identity from the god they worshipped, and when they were defeated or conquered, it is because they forsook their specific god. This part of the cycle, spoken about in Deuteronomy (blessings and curses) are not all that different than the world and people around them. Them being conquered is not a sign of a vindictive God, it was a fact of how they viewed and gave reason and purpose to their circumstances. What makes the Israelite God the one true God above all other gods of their day was the second part of the cycle, where God hears his people’s cry and raises up a judge for them to deliver them. He delivers them because he still considers them his chosen people. All the other gods of the day, left their people and never came to their rescue. Yahweh however honored his covenant even when his people did not.

    The continual stories of Judges and the decreasing upstanding-ness of the judges themselves (a handicapped individual – Ehud; a woman [viewed as inferior in their day]; a coward; a womanizing adulterer with anger issues) only serve to paint a picture of how even when the chosen people of God continue to fall further and further away from his covenant, God still honors his covenant with his people, to protect and care for his chosen, his beloved. This is radically different from the gods of the other peoples.

    Now forward this to how we might understand Jesus on the cross…the people are in exile and under Roman rule because of their sin…they are living exactly the consequences stated in Deuteronomy (blessings and curses). And once again, God hears their cry, and sends a ‘judge’, a deliverer. This one however, is not chosen from amongst his sinful children, but is himself come down, to do battle and to deliver his people from the clutches of the enemy.

    Why did and do the Jews have such a hard time with Jesus being the true Messiah? Because, they were expecting something akin to the Judges, to David, to Solomon…someone who would deliver them from the physical enemies, someone who, by defeating the Romans and giving them peace in the land once again, would show once again that God keeps his covenant with his people, his chosen group. Of course you all know this…Jesus however, in physical death, defeats the true enemy of God’s chosen people, bringing them once again into right relationship with the Father. They are God’s chosen people by God’s own faithfulness to his people.

    Understanding it in this way, I think, makes Jesus’ ‘Great commission’ that much greater, in that it shows even more so, they great love of God and how he has now, through Christ, called all to be his people, to be in this new covenantal relationship with Him, through the ultimate and final defeat of the enemy. That’s how we can understand even more so, how we as gentiles are grafted into the family of God, the chosen people of God.

    Of course, we can probably arrive at these conclusions without necessarily understanding how the Israelites might have viewed themselves (communally rather than individualistically). However, it does change how we understand the theology of the OT. Furthermore, given that Jesus’, the disciples, and Paul’s understanding of the OT is based still in this communal understanding of identity, they continually use the plural ‘you’ because they talk to the group as the chosen people of God, rather than people as chosen individuals of God.

    And ultimately, I think that if we attempt to understand the OT through the lens of the cross, rather than understanding the NT through the lens of the OT, we miss out on the depth and richness of who God is throughout the entire Bible, and we miss out on the depth and beauty of how we as non-jews have been grafted into the body and how we are now included as part of the chosen people of God. In this way, we can look back at the OT and see how the cross is both a fulfillment of the Torah covenants and it is radically different from what the Jews of the day were expecting, which highlights, in my mind, all the more the greatness of this God, Yahweh.

    Ok. That took forever to write… I’m sorry for this huge long post… Just a lot of thoughts… I want to say that I don’t think I’ve got it all right. I do think that I’ve done some critical, deep, and good thinking, but I also know that I could be way off the mark. There’s obviously implications for theology, specifically systematic theology, given this type of understanding… but i’m not gonna go there at this time…. What do you out there think? Have you thought about it like this before? Am I totally off the mark?

    • Sorry I couldn’t reply earlier – I got incredibly busy after I posted this post!

      Lot’s of good comments here Jeff.I just have a few things to say in response.

      Yes, we need to read and understand the OT context, including the Second Temple Judaism context so as to accurately understand the meaning of what Jesus says and does. But once we have done that, and once one is convinced then that Jesus is who he says he was, then our hermeneutic needs to change. Once we accept that Jesus is our Lord, then he becomes the lens through which we read everything.

      So, most of what you said I can agree with. When I teach Judges, I try to teach what it meant and what it means in its original context. But when it comes to how a Christian ultimately understands the meaning of the passage I am going to read it through the lens of Jesus on the cross.

      As for the communal and individual understanding of things: I agree largely with everything you said. And reading the OT through the lens of Jesus on the cross doesn’t really affect that.

      I’m advocating a two-step process. First, understand the OT on its own terms. Second, read it through the lens of Jesus on the cross. Once I do both, then I can begin to fully appreciate the grace and truth we have in the whole and complete word of God. Does that make sense?

      Thanks again and loved the comment!

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