Sunday, 21 June 2015

God's wash-basin

God has spoken from his sanctuary: “In triumph I will parcel out Shechem and measure off the Valley of Succoth. Gilead is mine, and Manasseh is mine; Ephraim is my helmet, Judah my sceptre. Moab is my washbasin, upon Edom I toss my sandal; over Philistia I shout in triumph”. Psalm 60:6-8.

The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. Romans 16:20

Have you ever heard a sermon on the words “Moab is my washbasin”? No, neither have I - nor preached one either. 

There are parts of the Bible which we Christians (including us preachers - perhaps especially us preachers!) tend to avoid. Sometimes the reason is that, in all honesty, we just don’t really like what it says, or can’t see what possible relevance it has to us today. Other times it’s because it just seems plain odd, like here - Moab God’s washbasin? Edom a place where God tosses his sandal? What on earth is this all about?

As always, when we read the Bible, we need to set it in its context. Psalm 60 is described as a psalm of David. Verses 1-3 make it clear that Israel has been going through a hard time; it’s as if God is punishing them for some sin or failure. So in verse 5 David cries to God for rescue, and in verses 6-8 comes God’s rather startling reply. 

And the basic message is simple enough: “I am in control!”

God picks out six places which are part of the nation: Shechem, the Valley of Succoth, Gilead, Manasseh, Ephraim and, of course, Judah, David’s home territory. He declares that he, God, and no-one else, has power to decide how these territories fit into his plan, and what purpose they will fulfil.

But then come three places famous for being enemies of God’s people: Moab, Edom and Philistia. There were times when Israel was in dire fear of these nations. But God sees them as virtual non-entities; hence the dismissive mention of washbasins and places where sandals are tossed. 

God is depicting himself as a military leader. We can piece together the train of thought...

The general of the army comes to his tent at the end of a hard day on the field of battle. He is tired, hot and dirty. So as he eases off his sandals - tossing them aside onto the shelf where they usually lie - he calls out to his servant for his washbasin to give himself a good freshening up.

As if to say: “You are frightened of these enemies? You needn’t be! As far as I am concerned they have this simple menial position in my purposes. Oh, and as for Philistia, don’t worry - it won’t be long before I am shouting in triumph over them”. 

According to verses 9-11 David still isn’t quite convinced. But in the final verse his confidence comes surging back: “With God we shall gain the victory, and he will trample down our enemies.” Yes!

See it like that and perhaps it isn’t quite so odd after all.

There is a vital lesson here about how we should read the Bible. Put simply, we need to read any given passage according to the kind of literature it is. This psalm, like all the psalms and much of the prophets, is poetry. And poetry contains figures of speech, images, word-pictures by which it makes its meaning vivid and compelling.

Does God need a wash-basin? Of course not! Does God wear sandals? Of course not! But God is a heavenly warrior! And God is in control of the affairs of the nations. And God will ultimately prevail.

All books are books. But we would be very silly if we read them all in the same way. Would you read the telephone directory in the same way you read a detective novel? Would you read a car maintenance manual in the same way you read a book of poems?

And in this respect the Bible is no different. Some parts are intended to be read as straight, factual accounts - 1 Kings, say, or the Gospels. But others certainly aren’t - Proverbs, for example, or the Book of Revelation. Paul’s writings are letters. Ecclesiastes is an account of one person’s attempt to fathom the mystery of life. Job is a long dramatic poem, indeed almost a play.

Burrow behind the form of the passage, and search for the basic meaning. And in the case of Psalm 60 that message is as relevant to us today as it was to David and his nation...

In our world there are many things we quite naturally feel afraid of. But if our trust is in God we need not be afraid. He is in control, though it may not always seem like it. The day will come when his reign will be supreme. 

And those things we were so afraid of? Pah! - of no greater significance than a mere wash-basin!

Father, thank you for the promise of your word that the God of peace will soon crush Satan under our feet. Please help me to believe it. Amen.

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