Study No. 9: Studying a Bible Story

Holy Bible  1. Stories and education

The story is the most basic of all educational forms.

I  recall a humorous comment made by one of my students after the birth of our first child.  He said he wondered how she would react when I read her a section of my Systematic Theology lectures after I had put her to bed.  I replied that he would be a good judge as to whether or not this was likely to send her to sleep!

With small children we always start with the story and we are careful in our choice.  We chose something that relates to their experience.  So, for example, if she or he has a pet rabbit or dog we will probably tell a story about an animal.  It may contain references to other animals outside the child’s experience, and this will give us an opportunity of extending the little one’s knowledge of the world.

This too is how we get much of our early moral education.  We find there are “baddies” as well as “goodies” in the stories we are told and this teaches us that we live in a social environment where moral choices need to be made.

If we are Christians, we will introduce our children to Bible stories at an early stage, again choosing at first stories that engage with their experience of life, that extend their knowledge, and that have a moral.  This too is how they will learn about God, about Jesus, about the gospel.

A good story draws us in.  We find ourselves living in the world of the story, and identifying with one or more characters in it.  The best stories of all we find we cannot put down.  Not only so, but we enjoy reading them over and over again.   Read a familiar story to a small child at bedtime and deliberately stop at a crucial point in it.  The child will probably call out, “Please go on – I must know how it ends!”  She has heard it many times before and so certainly knows its ending but the story has an emotional dynamic that demands the repeating of the conclusion.

Such qualities of the story are preminently true of those to be found in the Gospels, and also, of course, in the narrative books of the Old Testament.  The parable Jesus told of the Good Samaritan takes less than a minute to read aloud, but once you have heard it, you will never forget it.  No wonder that central to the New Testament and in fact to the whole Bible (central in importance, not in their canonical location) are the four Gospels.

Serious reflection on the nature of the story-form seems to have started with Aristotle’s book, Poetics, written in the fourth century BC.  Homer’s stories had been used by philosophers to teach philosophical ideas, but in Aristotle’s day drama was very much in vogue.  He well knew the importance of the ideas, the plot and the characters in the plays that were popular in his day.

This kind of reflection has come to special prominence with the advent of post-modernism, with its preference for the arts over the sciences, for the concrete over the abstract.  Theology has not remained unaffected, and a new type of theology, narrative theology, has emerged.  Major scholars dealing with the interface between theology and philosophy, like Anthony Thiselton and Kevin Vanhoozer, have thought deeply and written helpfully about the dramatic element in the Bible and theology.  Because ministers do courses of theology, this has led to a strong interest in the stories of the Bible, and many series of sermons on the parables of Jesus or the stories of Genesis or the Books of Samuel or the Acts of the Apostles have been preached as a result.

At the same time, television has become a major educational force, and not simply in programmes that may actually be labelled “educational”.  The “soap operas” are arguably more generally influential than anything else, for they are watched by many millions on a regular basis.  Particularly dramatic story-lines will be discussed the next day at tea-breaks in offices and in public houses in the evenings, but a great deal is simply absorbed without discussion or much serious thought.  Because of this, the morality of the stories may more and more influence the morality of society, for it is what we take in uncritically that often affects us most as it becomes part of what we take for granted.

All this shows only too clearly the great importance of the Bible story in communicating the gospel today.  We must, of course, remember that all Scripture is divinely inspired and none should be ignored, but, as I hope we will see in a later study, some parts of the Bible are especially relevant in particular situations.  I will suggest later that the Gospel of Mark might be entitled, “a Gospel for the television age”.

It is for this reason I decided to devote a whole study to Bible stories.

2. The Bible’s appeal to the imagination

The imagination is a great gift of God.  The ability to picture people and scenes we have encountered in the past or from the books we read or the stories people tell us can never be over-estimated.  Because the imagination can pwerfully induce action, Satan so often makes an assault on people through the imagination.  This is often where sexual and other forms of temptation begin.

Advertisers are well aware of the value of the imagination.  Some years ago, I noticed the side of a van belonging to an egg distributing company.  It carried two slogans.  The first was clear but unimaginative. It read, “All our eggs are fresh.”  The second was a masterly piece of communication, for it said, “Tomorrow’s eggs are still in the hens.”  Full marks!

The neurological discovery of the different functions of the left and right sides of the brain was quite revolutionary.  Although their differences can be exaggerated, the left side tends to be rational and analytical while the right is more  imaginative and creative.  Both are to be found in full measure in the Bible.

We may argue the pluses and minuses of the coming of postmodernism, but one of its features is the recognition of the importance of the arts.  Good education has always recognised this.  I had two teachers of English at school.  They contrasted greatly with each other.  The man who taught us Shakespeare was preoccupied with the differences between the English of his day and present-day English and he gave us endless explanatory notes.  The man who taught us modern literature encouraged us to read with our imaginations fully focused.  I recognise that the first of these had a more difficult task than the second, for there had to be some explanations, and it would be easy for us to play down the importance of the left side of the brain too much.  Nevertheless it took me years to get over the one-sidedness of this teaching.  The study and teaching of literature needs to be imaginative, and the Bible is literature, great and inspired literature.

3. Different kinds of biblical stories

The story takes many forms and has many purposes in the Bible.  It is good to seek to become sensitive to this element in Scripture.  Let us consider some of them:

a. The story as part of an historical record 

This is frequent in Scripture. It occurs in the Pentateuch, in the Old Testament historical books, in the Gospels and in the Acts of the Apostles.  There is no evidence that such stories are meant to be taken anything but seriously as factual history, and they should be interpreted as such.

b. The story as part of a sermon

This occurs both in both testaments.  The prophets recount part of the story of Israel, sometimes literally and sometimes by the use of symbolic names, as in Ezekiel 23 where Israel and Judah are named Oholah and Oholibah.  The preachers in Acts concentrate, of course, on the story of Jesus although sometimes, most notably in Acts 6, they set it in the context of the history of God’s dealings with Israel.

Sometimes these stories are profoundly theological, explicitly so. Perhaps the supreme example of this is found, not in a sermon, but in a somewhat sermonic section of an epistle, in the great passage where Paul tells the story of Christ in the language of theology (Philippians 2:5-11).  You might also note, in studying Philippians 3:4-11, that Paul may well have regarded himself, as a Christian believer, as one God intended to identify with Christ in his attitude.  Christ left everything behind for our sakes, and Paul, for his sake, felt the challenge of this for his own life.  You too?

c. The story as told by a participant

Some of the psalms are in story form, most frequently the psalms of lament or of thanksgiving or those that pass from the one to the other.  They are sometimes in very general terms, as when the psalmist says,

“This poor man called, and the LORD heard him; he                              saved him out of all his troubles” (Psalm 34:6).

There are other times however when the psalmist is much more specific.

When I was a student, a lecturer in homiletics, which is concerned with preaching, asked the whole class to produce an outline for preaching on Psalm 40:1-3.  I have forgotten all of these outlines, including my own, but I have never forgotten his. Here it is:

1. In a pit sinking (v. 1)

2. On a peak standing (v. 2)

3. Along a path singing (v. 3)

This was simple and highly effective. It employed alliteration and a series of prepositions, but what made it particularly memorable was the fact that it did not move into abstractions but retained the story-form of the text.  Preaching could then move into contemporary situations relevant to the hearers through the use of analogy.

Then there are the story sections of Ecclesiastes, particularly Ecclesiastes 1:12 to 2:26, where a man’s search for wisdom is vividly presented.  Also there is the Song of Songs, which consists largely of the story of Solomon and his Shunnamite bride, told by the woman herself.[1]

Some of the prophetic books give stories about the prophets.  So Amos tells of his encounter with Amaziah, the priest of Bethel (Amos 7), and the book of Jeremiah tells of the way he was treated by his contemporaries, particularly his royal contemporaries.

d. The fictitious story with some significant meaning

As we see from the use of parables by Jesus, there is a place for the fictitious story in the communication of God’s truth.  It also occurs in the Old Testament; some notable examples are Jotham’s fable in Judges 9:8-15, Nathan’s story which he used in confronting David with his sin, and two parables in Isaiah.  We will consider these when we come to the parables of Jesus.

eVisions in story form         

These occur markedly in Zechariah, Daniel and Revelation.

These often contain symbols so that they need to be treated as a special category.

Some of these symbols are easily understood.  Reference to a dragon inevitably produces horror, while all the beasts used as symbols in Daniel 7 are ferocious and suggest the aggressive use of power  There are however others which cannot be so easily understood.  What this means is that the interpretation of the stories here often depends on knowledge from elsewhere.  Where do we find this?

Some writers have suggested that the chief source of the symbols in the Book of the Revelation is the Jewish apocalyptic literature which was written largely in the First Century BC and the early part of the First century AD and which does not appear in the Old Testament canon nor, most of it, in the Apocrypha. Certainly many of the symbols can be found in this literature, but the probability is that the writers were doing what John in the Revelation also does: they were taking their symbols from the Old Testament.

When I first began to study Revelation seriously, I constantly rebuked myself for the paucity of my Old Testament knowledge.  Each of its symbols should have immediately struck a chord in my memory, but often they did not.  If this is true for you too, do not be discouraged but persevere with your study of the Old Testament.  When you come back to Revelation later, it should be more meaningful to you.

The most important symbol is the Lamb, standing of course for the exalted Christ, and constantly reminding us that his exaltation came by way of his atoning sacrifice, for the lamb was a sacrificial animal.

Chapters 12 and 13 are often regarded as the heart of Revelation and as the centre from which other parts of the book are to be interpreted, and it should be noted that it is in story form, a story in which symbols appear.

NB. I do not intend dealing at all fully with the Book of the Revelation in this series of studies, as it requires much fuller treatment than could be given in such a series.  Those especially interested will find much help in a book by Richard Bauckham.[2]

f. The Parables of Jesus 

These deserve a category of their own.

Jesus did not use just one method of teaching, but the parabolic method was highly characteristic of him.  In it a story, based on something in the culture of the time and place that was familiar to his listeners, was used to communicate spiritual truth.

The prophets occasionally used this method themselves.  Two of their parables are particularly notable.  There is the parable of the ewe lamb that Nathan told to David, as recorded in 2 Samuel 12.  In telling this story Nathan first gained David’s sympathy for the family whose ewe lamb had been appropriated and slaughtered by the rich man, and then he turned the parable into a sharp sermon directed at David himself.  This brought such deep conviction to him that he immediately acknowledged his sin.

There is also the sung parable of the vineyard addressed to sinful Judah in Isaiah 5:1-7.  This begins very gently, and even the sound of the words (in the Hebrew) is reassuring to the listeners as there is a marked absence of guttural and other harsh sounds.  Then, however, the whole tone both of the language and of the thought changes, and the hearers, who had perhaps relaxed in order to listen to a beautiful song, find themselves in the dock before God their Judge.

In both of these there is an element of surprise, even shock, which, as we shall see, we find also in some of the parables of Jesus.

The Rabbis also sometimes used the parabolic method, but Jesus made especially frequent use of it.  Because of this, it is not surprising there has been considerable study of his use of this method.

Parabolic interpretation has gone through a number of phases.  In the early Christian centuries there was a tendency to over-interpret parables, with each item given some spiritual meaning.   So, for instance, there were debates as to the meaning of the two coins given by the Good Samaritan to the innkeeper.  We considered this is an earlier study.  This kind of interpretation (which is not completely dead!) was of course highly subjective, and often, as in this instance, those who employed it tried to interpret details which were really simply part of the “furniture” of the parable.

In more modern times, the idea has been widely promoted that each parable has just one central point to make.  This led to a distinction being made between the parable, characteristic of the Synoptic Gospels, and the allegory, to be found in  the Gospel of John.  Thus the Good Samaritan was a parable and the Good Shepherd an allegory.  Allegories, it was said, can be given much more detailed interpretation than parables.  Yet this distinction will not altogether hold; for instance, the parable of the Wedding Banquet (Matt. 22:1-14) moves on from one point, the welcome given to the poor in place of the well-to-do who rejected the invitation, to the rejection of the man without a wedding garment.  The principle that a parable should not be over-interpreted is however an important one.

It is interesting that Jesus rarely gave an interpretation of the stories he told.  They made their own point and an explanation would have been an anticlimax.

The really important thing to grasp is that the main function of a great number of the parables is not illustration, although that is obviously one feature of them.  They are not just simple stories to teach profound truths, but mini-sermons in their own right, and many of them, as “Tales of the Unexpected”,  deeply disturbing sermons. They upset the thinking of the listeners, in some cases greatly antagonizing them.

At this point you can do with some background, some knowledge of the culture, especially the religious culture, of the Holy Land at that time.  A reference volume like the New Bible Dictionary[3] will give you access to much valuable information.  The parable of the Good Samaritan was told to people who respected priests and Levites and loathed Samaritans.  The Prodigal Son would have amazed the hearers, whose every instinct would have been to despise the prodigal and admire the elder brother.  They would have been astounded at the father’s conduct.  In another parable (Matthew 20:1-16), the idea that those hired at the end of the day should have received the same as those who had worked all day would have struck them as not only unjust but stupid.

At a very important point in his ministry, shortly before his Passion, Jesus told a a parable about the tenants of a vineyard.  This seems to be built on two earlier parables, both told by Isaiah and recorded in Isaiah 5 and Isaiah 27.  We have already noted some features of the first of these.  Read them through and note that the first is a parable of judgement, while the second one of hope.  One difference in his version is the fact that the judgement is not simply on the vineyard but on those who have been given responsibility for it.  Read the parable and see who it was that saw themselves identified in it.  Perhaps the parable Jesus told was an indication to his hearers that judgement still had to be faced by the people of his generation.

In these ways and many others, Jesus was showing that he came to preach a revolutionary message, in line with the teaching of the Old Testament (what disturbers the prophets were!) but out of line with much of the outlook of First Century Judaism.

It is always important to read parables in their contexts. Sometimes this does not seem particularly significant, but at other times it most certainly is.  Note, for instance, the introduction to the three parables in Luke 15.  Read through this chapter now.  As we read the first two parables in the light of it, we begin to see that the lost sheep and the lost coin represent the tax collectors and sinners, and so does the younger son in the third parable, but the older son clearly represents the religious leaders.

The hearer of the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14) might have been troubled at the thought that the taxman might have been forgiven, simply by grace, and that he might have gone away unchanged in character.  But not only does the parable itself give evidence of a penitent attitude in him but just a chapter later Luke tells the story of Zacchaeus, in which we see that a taxman brought into contact with Jesus could be transformed in his character and consequent actions by that contact.

There is of course an historical as well as a literary context to the parables.  One writer, Kenneth Bailey,  an American,  has laid particular emphasis on this.[4]   He has lived and worked in theMiddle East all his life.  He studied the writings of the Crusaders and came to the conclusion that the very conservative culture of the Middle East had not changed much from their day to ours, a period of nearly one thousand years.  It seemed likely therefore that little had changed over the previous thousand years, since New Testament days.

Because of this, Dr. Bailey, in telling to Middle Eastern village people some of the parables recorded in Luke, particularly noted their reactions because these could well reflect the way those who listened to Jesus would have reacted.  They often saw what he had not noticed.  In the parable of the Prodigal Son, for instance, they saw special significance in the fact that the father sent for the ring, the robe and the shoes for his son rather than waiting until they got home.  This was probably because he needed to have these tokens of his acceptance on him before going up the village street to his home, as, without them, the incensed neighbours of the wronged father would probably have set upon him and killed him.

The great theme of the teaching of Jesus was the kingdom of God and many of the parables indicate the nature and characteristics of that kingdom.  See, for instance, those recorded in Matthew 13.  You should note however that when a parable begins, “the kingdom of God is like” or, as often in Matthew, “the kingdom of heaven is like”, this expression does not apply simply to the words immediately following (e.g. “a man going on a journey” in Matthew 25:14), but to the whole parable.

So, what about ourselves?  We need to feel the force of the teaching of Jesus so that it comes  home to us in our situations and challenges our outlooks.  Am I the taxman or the Pharisee, the younger or the elder brother?  Who for me is the “good Samaritan,” whose religious outlook is at variance with mine, who may surprise me by his actions?  Are the values of God’s kingdom my values?  When I have answered these questions, how should my outlook and my actions change?  And when I see all this in the light of the gospel, what does the good news of Jesus say about God’s gracious power to effect such changes in me?

4. The Bible stories as vehicles of God’s truth for us today

a. Reading them carefully and prayerfully

Bible stories are always a “good read”.  They are well written and appeal to the intellect, to the imagination, and to the spirit.  In other words they make us think, they give us mental pictures, and they teach us truth about God and about ourselves.   Sometimes we may find ourselves, quite uncomfortably, in the story.  Is the story of doubting Thomas or of denying Peter also about me?  It is important to take this seriously as God’s word to me and if the answer is “Yes!” then to seek God’s grace at that point in my life.

When they have made their immediate impact on us, we should then re-read them carefully, looking at all the details and asking what they teach about God, his nature, his purposes and his ways.  We may need a larger context for this.  So, for example, the story of God’s special provision for Elijah when he was fed by ravens (1 Kings 17:1-6) needs to be set in the context both of the famine which was a judgement of God on Israel and of the fact that he was God’s messenger who needed to be given sustenance to continue his prophetic ministry.  It does not mean that every believer will be miraculously sustained in times of hunger.  It does however show that when we are doing God`s work we can look to him for the provision of all our needs.

In this connection, it is worth reflecting on an interesting contrast between two stories in John’s Gospel.  The first is the raising of Lazarus by Jesus.  As was customary, there was a large stone covering the entrance to his tomb.  The stone was rolled back by the onlookers (John11:40), for doubtless there would have been plenty of strong young men present who were well able to do this.  On Easter Sunday morning, however, after Jesus rose from the dead, the first visitors to the tomb were a small group of women, who may well have had great difficulty in shifting the stone, so it was rolled away miraculously (John 20:1).  God does not perform a miracle when the needs of the sitation can be met by our own action.  Incidentally, this shows that the context of a story should never be thought of simply as the verses immediately before and after it, although these are obviously of special importance, but the whole book in which it is set.

b. The little stories and the Big Story

We have already seen (in Study No. 4) the great importance of the Big Story in the Bible.  It is a grasp of this that gives us a sense of perspective when we are reading Scripture.  How do the little stories relate to this Big Story?

They relate to it, of course, in a number of different ways.  Some of them are both little stories and part of the Big Story.

Take the story of the exodus, for example.  The actual event of the crossing of the Red Sea does not take up much space, and it can be simply told.  Its main details concern the Israelites and the Egyptians, Moses and Pharoah, and, of course the opening of the sea.  It was however the fact that this was a great act of God in thus delivering his whole people from severe bondage and setting them on course for the Promised Land, thus anticipating the great redemptive act of Jesus, which constituted this an important part of the biblical metanarrative.  Certainly many later little stories like, for instance, those in the Bookof Judges, were also tales of deliverance, but the exodus furnished a kind of paradigm for them.

It is easy to miss the significance of particular stories, or else to misunderstand them if we do not keep the Big Story constantly in view.  Graeme Goldsworthy has very helpfully emphasised this in his book,According to Plan.[5]  So, to take a story with some parallels with the story of Elijah and the ravens, we may treat the story of the miraculous provision of manna to Israel in the wilderness simply as a lesson in the ability of God, if he desires to, to provide for us, his people, in unusual ways.  Certainly such an application is legitimate, but the main point of the story is missed if we do not go on to say that thus God secured the continued existence of his people because they were to be the people of the Christ, who would be the living Bread, giving himself for the sustenance of all who would trust him.

c. The little stories and the great Theme

In our overview of the Bible (Study No. 4) we noted the value of studying, not only the Bible’s Big Story, but also its leading themes.  This applies therefore to its stories.  We can think about how the stories we have been considering relate, for instance, to the sovereignty of God, God’s redemptive purpose and so on.   We should also relate them to the great Theme of God`s purpose in Christ.  The whole Bible is meant to teach us about him, and we need to see how the particular story we are reading teaches us something about him.

Is this a far-fetched idea?  No, for Jesus himself clearly saw that the Old Testament was a book about him (see Luke 24) and this is more evidently true of the New Testament.  We also note that all the preaching in the Acts of the Apostles is the preaching of Christ.  Even Stephen’s message in Acts 6 was clearly meant to be this for it is clear that he was just coming to the application of it to Jesus when he was cut short by his stoning.

If the whole Old Testament is testimony to Christ, this will occur in some form in each of its stories.  This needs to be carefully thought through and not treated artificially in some sort of contrived way.  In the story of Rahab in Joshua 2, for instance, some have seen significance in the fact that Rahab was told to put a piece of scarlet cord in her window, suggesting an anticipation of the cross.  The two Israelites who told her to do this may have recalled the red blood of the passover lambs whose blood covered the houses of the Israelites, so making a link with the theme of blood sacrifice which finds its great climax in the sacrifice of Christ.   We are however on even more certain ground when we note that salvation from death came to this woman when she reflected on the story of God’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt and believed the word of command and promise which came to her through the two messengers.

Christ – he is the Bible’s great Theme. It is him we should seek to know as we study the stories of the Bible.

5. The place of imagination in our telling of Bible stories

Many Christian parents and Sunday School teachers have become adept at telling Bible stories to children, and I do not want in any way to put a damper on this but rather to encourage it.  It is good, however, to reflect on one aspect of this, the extent to which we may use our imagination to fill in details or to relate the stories to the experience of the children.

An example of this occurred in a series of programmes shown on British Television in December, 2010, and named “The Nativity”.  The story of the Virgin Birth was reverently presented, superbly acted and directed, and in many ways, I am sure, will have done much good.  It was not put together especially with children in mind but was for the general viewer.

One feature of it, however, gave me pause for thought.  At no stage was there any denial of the facts as presented in the Bible, nor was anything mishandled in an irreverent way.  What did happen, however, was an embroidering of the story.  We were shown what Mary did in preparation for the coming of the Baby, and we listened to conversations between Joseph and his relatives and friends when news of Mary’s pregnancy began to be circulated.

Without doubt, all that was presented was feasible, but it was not actually in the biblical accounts.  I think we need to exercise some caution and be careful how we handle Bible stories.  When what we are wanting to incorporate seems probable because of what we know of human nature, we can indicate this in some way, perhaps by saying, “Maybe then something like this happened…”  In this way we are being faithful to the text but also provoking thought through a reverent stimulating of the imagination.

What then of the way artists like Rembrandt have sometimes pictured biblical stories, including the Nativity, as taking place in a setting familiar to contemporary viewers of the pictures, with clothing and architecture from their place and period?  To my mind this is different, because everybody knows what is happening.  It is not unlike two famous poems, Francis Thompson’s The Hound of Heaven in which he refers to Jacob’s ladder as “pitched between heaven and Charing Cross” and Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy’s poem Indifference where after “When Jesus came to Calvary they hanged him on a tree …” he wrote “When Jesus came to Birmingham they simply passed him by.”   Such juxtaposition of ancient and modern makes a powerful point and could hardly be misunderstood.

6. Two sets of stories and an exercise in interpretation

Psalm 107 opens Book 5 of the Psalter.  It is a psalm of thanksgiving and is an “orphan” psalm in that it has no author assigned to it in its heading.  On the face of it, it is a relatively simple psalm, most of it taken up with four stories of deliverance by the Lord.  It is so simple, so memorable, so beautiful; like so many works of art (and there is inspired artistry here) it has rhythmic form but variety of content.

In each of the stories there are people in trouble.  In each case they call on the Lord and he delivers them, and they praise him for it.  In some ways, this is not unlike the pattern of the Book of Judges, which is set out in Chapter 2 and which occurs in most of the stories in Chapters 3 to 16.  There the repeated pattern is one of sin, punishment, repentance and deliverance.  In the psalm, though, the “sin” element occurs, at least explicitly, in the second story only.

The stories are simple and uncluttered.  The repeated pattern never becomes tedious, and it makes a most important point for the reader: God is compassionate to those who are in trouble, so they should call on him.  This is not only compassion however but covenant faithfulness and therefore is the product of God’s grace.  These people already have a relationship with the Lord through his gracious covenant with them, and it is on that basis that he acts to deliver them.

In many ways it is also rather like the four deliverance stories that are grouped together in Mark4:35-5:43. T here are enough similarities between the two to suggest that Mark may have chosen incidents from the ministry of Jesus which paralleled those in the psalm, and which therefore showed Jesus as the divine Deliverer.  We cannot be sure because the author has not said so.  Once again, however, the main message is clear: God (this time God incarnate) can cope with a diversity of situations which are completely beyond human ability to deal with.   This becomes part of Mark’s evidence for the divine Messiahship of Jesus, as we will see in a later study.

The stories in Mark (like those in Judges) are clearly to be taken literally.  What about the psalm?  We cannot be absolutely sure.  The interpretation of the first of these is probably the key to the matter.   This looks very much like a story from the wilderness wanderings of Israel or else from their return from Exile inBabylon.  The fact that it would fit either probably itself carries a message: the God of the Exodus had not changed; he had acted again in bringing his people back fromBabylon.  The reference in the second story to rebellion suggests an application to Babylon, for the Exile was a punishment for the people’s sin.

Now we note another feature of the psalm. The words “some” and “others” which occur in verses  ….. in the NIV do not appear in the Hebrew original.  They are really an interpretation, suggesting that the translators thought the stories were all about different people, but the text as it stands in the Hebrew seems rather to suggest that they relate to the same people.

If this is so, then perhaps the first story describes their literal predicament and the other three compare it to imprisonment, sickness and danger at sea.  This is a very strong possibility, for it seems unlikely that these four situations would be experienced by the very same people, and the reference to rebellion in the second story would provide a link with the Exile and the reason why it took place.

Here however we are in a realm where absolute certainty is probably unattainable, but where it does not really matter very much, for the message of the psalm is as clear as crystal, and it is eminently preachable.

This shows that there are some features of Scripture where we have to say “perhaps” (a word those of us who are preachers do not use very much!) rather than “this is so”, but where the main message is unmistakable.  This then encourages us, and our hearers too, to be humble in our attitude to the biblical text.

Finally, we note that the repeated pattern to be found in Judges, in the psalm and in Mark shows the utter consistency of God.  Human situations may change but the God of the Bible is unchanging (which does not mean that his actions do not change but that his character does not), and the theme of deliverance finds its great consummation in the incarnate Deliverer.

Note – John Grogan (31/01/2012) – At the end of the draft version of this study were a large number of notes that my father had made.  They were not in a form that could be published as part of this study – many of them were just Dad putting down some thoughts on paper, no doubt with the intention of revising and adding where appropriate.  I have removed these notes from this study but have made them available, as they may be of interest.

[1]This follows the usual “Two Person” interpretation of the book rather than the “Three Person” interpretation where a Shepherd Lover is the third and Solomon is not so much the hero as the villain.

[2]R. Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation ,Cambridge:Cambridge Univeriy Press, 1993

[3]I. H. Marshall et al, New Bible Dictionary, Leicester:IVP, 1996.

[4]See, e.g., K. Bailey,  The Cross and the Prodigal: Luke 15 through Middle Eastern Eyes

[5]G. Goldsworthy, According to Plan: the Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible, Leicester:IVP, See also his book, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture

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