So, I was googling around for information on the song in Exodus 15, trying to think up an introduction for today’s post, when I happened to play the song “When You Believe” from The Prince of Egypt. I suddenly found myself crying over the song’s duet and its picture of faith. Twenty years ago, I loved the song, but considered its contrast between faith and rationality overwrought; now, I’ve kind of come around to it. Trust in God doesn’t always make sense to us, yet here I am, like Miriam and Zipporah, seeking faith and speaking words I never thought I’d say. And as I listened to the song and read the Hebrew lyrics of the bridge, taken from Exodus 15, I laughed out loud through my tears. Of course they didn’t include lines like “Pharaoh’s chariots and his army He has cast into the sea” (15:4) and “You send forth Your burning anger, and it consumes them as chaff!” (15:7) Can you imagine a DreamWorks movie with such a celebration of–to put it as tactfully as possible–retributive justice? Now that would be a real miracle.
One of my favorite Bible verses is Hebrews 12:2. It describes Jesus as “the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” I’ve said before that there’s a fine line between Christianity and masochism, and it’s not difficult to fall into spiritual self-flagellation (or physical, if you’re a 13th-century monk). At times, to varying degrees, I’ve succumbed to the temptation to embrace and pursue suffering for its own sake.
Here’s another psalm that uses the word “thanks” a lot, at least compared to other psalms, which tend to only use it once or not at all. In the NASB’s translation, it’s 460 words long, and “thanks” appears five times. That’s just slightly more than 1% of the words, but gratitude is central to Psalm 118, to the point that the NASB summarizes it with the header “Thanksgiving for the Lord’s Saving Goodness.” I expect we could learn something about our topic of choice here, so let’s dig into the text and find out what thanks is all about.
Let’s talk about Axiom Verge again. Axiom Verge is a retro action-adventure computer game, and one of its weapons is called the Firewall. It launches a short-range bomb which, on impact, erupts in a vertical pillar of flame. Literalism! It’s a play on words, because computers! But God made the same play on words thousands of years ago, long before digital firewalls were even a thing.
Ezra is a book about getting back in touch with your roots. Its events take place around 460-450 BC, generations after Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed. King Cyrus of Persia sends a sizeable party of diaspora Jews to return to Jerusalem, reunite with the survivors, and build a new temple to their God in their holy city. And it would seem Ezra, who chronicled this expedition, took a few cues from the book of Chronicles, because when he uses the word “thanks,” he too pairs it with the word “praise.” In the scene from today’s passage, after the foundation for the temple is complete, the priests lead the Hebrew people in praise and thanks. All in all, it’s an extremely Hebrew scene, so let’s get Hebrew.
Earlier this week, I was talking with a minister friend who shared with me a problem that he termed “the separation of Church and Christian.” In modern, individualistic America, people become Christians but remain isolated from the body of Christ and the communal practices that allow us to grow and work together for God’s purposes. To a large extent, I think that this phenomenon stems from a short-sighted, single-moment understanding of salvation: say the right prayer, believe the right things, and get your “get out of hell free” card, because once saved, always saved. We’ve got evangelistic rallies that measure success by how many people crossed that line of belief that we’ve drawn; we’ve reduced grace to mere forgiveness without transformation or growth, as if God would pardon us and then leave us in the pits we’ve dug.
As I read through Luke 15’s parables of lost things yesterday, they readily brought to mind Relient K’s song “The Last, the Lost, the Least.” I considered mentioning it, but as I reflect further, I’m glad I didn’t. Relient K’s song is more about the dignity of human beings as created in God’s image, particularly those we dismiss as worthless because of their poverty or weakness. Jesus’ parables in Luke 15, on the other hand, underscore God’s love for sinners and his desire to bring them to repentance and restoration. While there’s some thematic overlap, for the most part the extent of the song and the chapter’s commonality is the word “lost,” and even then, they’re using the word in two different senses. It’s unjust societal marginalization vs. genuine spiritual neediness.