Psalm 77:17–21; Song of Solomon 2:8–4:16; Galatians 1:13–24

Psalm 77:17–21: At first glance, the last verses of this psalm seem to be something of a non-sequitur as it recounts the story of God parting the waters as Moses and the Israelites escape the Egyptians. But unlike Exodus, which tells the story from a narrative point of view, this account dramatically speaks from nature’s point of view:
The waters saw You, O God,
the waters saw You, they trembled,
the depths themselves shuddered.
The clouds streamed water.
The skies sounded with thunder.
You bolts, too, flew about.
Your thunder’s sound under the wheel—
lightening lit up the world.
The earth shuddered and shook.” (17-19)

As far as the psalmist is concerned, this miracle was the sure sign of a theophany as the parting of the sea is preceded by God’s unfathomable power expressed through the metaphor of a violent thunderstorm in the desert. Anyone who was in that storm would be convinced that a supernatural event was about to occur.

Following this dramatic introduction, God acts and parts the waters so the people can cross:
In the sea was Your way,
and Your path in the mighty waters,
and Your footsteps left no traces.
You led Your people like a flock
by the hand of Moses and Aaron.” (20, 21)

The line, “and Your footsteps left no traces” stands out for me as a beautiful description of how God acts in our quotidian lives but then tends to disappear back into the mists of memory. Which is also how the psalm itself ends with quiet abruptness, disappearing into the mists.

Song of Solomon 2:8–4:16: For the remainder of chapter 2 the woman speaks of her lover with gorgeous imagery that evokes the beauty of nature as winter gives way to springtime. She begins with a simile of her love as a gazelle standing as it looks over the verdant countryside:
My beloved is like a gazelle
    or a young stag.
Look, there he stands
    behind our wall,
gazing in at the windows,
    looking through the lattice.” (2:9)

I don’t think there is a lovelier description of love blossoming in the springtime than these verses:
Arise, my love, my fair one,
    and come away;
for now the winter is past,
    the rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth;
    the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove
    is heard in our land.
The fig tree puts forth its figs,
    and the vines are in blossom;
    they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my fair one,
    and come away.” (2:10-13)

The mental images produced by these lines are fragrances that are almost overpowering.

[Many authors have used lines in this poem as their titles, e.g. “Catch us the foxes,/ the little foxes,” the second line being the tile of Lillian Hellman’s play.]

The woman seeks her lover that he might come to her bed. At first she is unsuccessful as she searches through the city. But then,
Scarcely had I passed them,
    when I found him whom my soul loves.
I held him, and would not let him go
    until I brought him into my mother’s house,
    and into the chamber of her that conceived me.” (3:4)

Suddenly, though, a warning to women to remain chaste:
I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem,
    by the gazelles or the wild does:
do not stir up or awaken love
    until it is ready!” (3:5)

Good advice in our own sexually-charged culture. Infatuation and hormones are not the same as true love.

Chapter 4 is a series of remarkable similes as the male lover describes the beauty of his beloved, comparing parts of her body to a striking image:

Your eyes are doves…
Your hair is like a flock of goats,…
Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes…
Your lips are like a crimson thread,…
Your neck is like the tower of David…

Moving down from her head and neck, he arrives at her breasts:
Your two breasts are like two fawns,
    twins of a gazelle,
    that feed among the lilies.”  (4:5)

And finally to his ultimate goal sheathed in aromatic metaphor:
I will hasten to the mountain of myrrh
    and the hill of frankincense.” (4:6)

But our groom is chaste. Sexual consummation cannot come just yet:
A garden locked is my sister, my bride,
    a garden locked, a fountain sealed.

Wondrous pleasures await inside this locked garden as the metaphors of fruit and scents become more explicit:
Your channel is an orchard of pomegranates
    with all choicest fruits,
    henna with nard,
nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon,
    with all trees of frankincense,
myrrh and aloes,
    with all chief spices—” (4:13, 14)

The woman speaks at last as she grants her lover permission to enter:
Let my beloved come to his garden,
    and eat its choicest fruits.” (4:16b)

Would that we lived in an age where this beautiful poetry of description and anticipation were the rule rather than the exception. And that romantic love would wait outside the locked garden rather than too many men’s efforts to pry open its door.

Galatians 1:13–24: Apparently Paul has never personally visited the church at Galatia so he provides a brief CV and his mission statement:  You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles.” (13-16)

He’s especially careful to note that he did not enter into competition with the other apostles at Jerusalem, but headed off to other realms, carrying the Good News: “nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.” (17)

He points out that three years after his conversion he went back to Jerusalem, but that he saw only Peter and James. My guess is that since his reputation as a gifted missionary precedes him, Paul was careful to avoid making it appear he had arrived in Jerusalem to take over the work of the other apostles there. Paul emphasizes this point, making it crystal clear that his missionary efforts were to “the regions of Syria and Cilicia,” (20) and that he was “still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea that are in Christ; they only heard it said, “The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.” (22, 23) His reputation in Jerusalem is quite different among the Christians there compared to just three years earlier: “And they glorified God because of me.” (24) As far as they were concerned, if Christ could change a man like Paul, he could do anything. As he can for any of us if only we allow the Holy Spirit to work inside us.

 

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