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|Contents|||||Promise and fulfilment: Psalm 116|
Today’s second reading is one we probably think of as an Easter reading, but since we’re not too far past Easter, and even less far past Ascension Day and Pentecost, I thought I would make use of it tonight to think about the whole issue of promise and fulfilment that we see displayed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. This was prompted by hearing someone recently mention some verses near the start of 2 Corinthians, in which Paul says “however many promises God has made, they are all ‘Yes’ in Jesus”. This started me thinking about Old Testament prophecies in general, and more particularly Old Testament passages like the psalm we heard earlier.
These are not really prophecies in the strict sense of the word – by which I mean the numerous places we read “thus said the Lord” followed by some details – but rather looser, less obvious things. As people who know the things the Lord Jesus did, we recognise this psalm, and other passages like it, as having profound reference to the events of his life, but on the other hand the psalmist most likely wrote it as a purely personal matter. I strongly suspect that it was not originally thought of as something related to the future life of the Messiah, but was an immediate outpouring of feeling. There is nothing in the psalm itself which gives a clue that its point of reference is in the future rather than in the present.
Temporarily trying to read this psalm without the benefit of the New Testament passage, we might decide that the psalmist had just avoided some kind of imminent death, most likely at the hands of some enemy or other. Early on the psalmist speaks of how the cords of death had entangled him, sufficiently so that he felt acutely the immediate anguish of the grave, but at that point the LORD had come to the rescue. This rescue, presumably unexpected, had so moved the writer that he commits himself to thank-offerings and the fulfilment of vows. Now, we are shown this as a demonstration of the character of the LORD – gracious, full of compassion, willing to save – but we also have an unexpected mention in verse 15 of the death of someone faithful: “precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints”.
The word used that is translated “saints” here has the meaning of behaving in a good and godly manner. When this is directed towards God, then we could use the word “pious” or “saintly”: when towards other people then we typically translate it as “kind” or “merciful”. Many of us have perhaps heard of the Micah Challenge that churches are presenting to governments in connection with right conduct towards the Third World. The name is based on Micah 6:8: “act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God”. The “mercy” part of that is exactly the same word as we have here, directed towards people rather than God. The word is haçid, from which some Jewish groups have called themselves Hassidic to highlight the importance of a godly lifestyle. In passing, it’s fair to say that Hassidic groups have had a very mixed reputation over the years, so they clearly have not always lived up to their ideals.
Anyway, back in our psalm, then since the psalmist clearly did not die, we have to assume that someone else did, and it makes most sense to suppose that this person’s death somehow meant the survival of our poet. Perhaps the two were in one of Israel’s battles, and this Unknown Soldier sacrificed himself to save the life of the writer. Battles are usually terrible things, but they sometimes are the occasion for great acts of selflessness and heroism on behalf of other people.
Of course we don’t know for sure what the exact situation is – as the Holy Spirit was guiding the mind and the pen of our poet, He chose to draw a veil over the details of the sacrifice that one person had made for another. The Old Testament is frequently like this – we are given some of the picture but very rarely the whole thing, and so we are able, and are called upon, to think about the things that are left unsaid. These unsaid things allow us to each individually find points of personal relevance, of personal resonance, in the middle of passages of universal significance. If the psalmist had gone on to describe in detail his exact crisis, and exactly how this other person had been the instrument of his deliverance, then I’m guessing that most of us would have said, “How interesting… but that’s nothing to do with me”. The restraint of the Biblical authors, and of the Spirit who inspired their writings, means that passages like these can have meaning for each of us. We can focus on the fact of salvation from near-death, on gratitude, on the making and keeping of vows, without getting caught up on things that for us are not of central importance.
Having done that, if we now return to our perspective as followers of Jesus who have read the New Testament, we make all kinds of additional connections. If we refer this psalm to the death of Jesus, then several things that the psalmist kept separate all flow together. With New Testament eyes, then the person who was in immediate peril of death, the godly person who died, and the one who kept the vows in Jerusalem in the presence of all God’s people are all one and the same person – the Lord Jesus Christ. As we look back in time then the whole psalm starts to come together as a picture of Jesus from several different angles. He is the one who was entangled by the cords of death, upon whom the anguish of the grave descended. He is the one who was heard when He called on the name of the LORD, whose soul was delivered from death in a more complete and comprehensive sense than anyone before or since. He was the one who even now walks before the LORD in the land of the living. He is the one who lifted up the cup of salvation for us all – and what a terrible cup it was – who fulfilled all his vows in the presence of all God’s people in Jerusalem. His was the authentically godly and merciful life – directed towards both God and mankind – that was most truly precious in God’s sight, that was most completely a thank-offering acceptable to God when offered in the courts of Jerusalem.
As we look at this psalm from our New Testament perspective, it can be read about Jesus from beginning to end, without in the slightest negating its original setting about a thankful man whose life was saved by another, and who wanted to make sacrifices to God in gratitude. That is, of course, one of the great glories of the Biblical writings – they are plentifully rich enough to have meaning at more than one level at once. The psalm really is about a grateful man whose friend saved his life… and it also really is about the supreme example of the saviour who saved the lives of others. We don’t have to choose one or the other, we can hold gladly onto both the human dimension and the divine one, just as in Jesus we can celebrate his genuine humanity while at the same time worshipping his true deity. The written word of God, just like the incarnate Word of God, keeps both human and divine aspects in front of us at one and the same time. Just as the person of Christ cannot be divided into two separate parts, so too we cannot separate this verse of the psalm as being about man and that one about God.
Let’s think a little about our New Testament reading from John’s gospel. Of course John would have been deeply familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures, and although the disciples seemed not to have made many of the connections during Jesus’ earthly life and work, in the time between the events described in his gospel, and the actual writing of it some years later, John had had much, much more of the meaning of scripture explained to him by Jesus before His ascension, by the Holy Spirit at and after Pentecost, and no doubt by means of his own personal reflection and conversations with fellow believers over the years. Out of the four gospels, John’s shows most clearly that careful planning and selection went into the writing. Whereas the earlier three gospels each in their own way try to give a fairly full picture of those three years of ministry, John picks out a small number of events which he feels most clearly reveal the identity and character of our Lord, and then gives us much more in the way of explanation and interpretation than any of the others.
Now, there are a great many ways in which John shows his familiarity with what we call the Old Testament throughout his gospel. Of all the gospel writers, he uses more expressions that are obviously of Hebrew origins, although like the other three gospel authors he actually wrote in Greek, so far as we know. He also, by means of his careful selection and arrangement of material, makes links that are less obvious but nevertheless are there to be found. So for example, the first miraculous sign that John reports, at the wedding of Cana in Galilee, involves the transformation of water into wine. This is an echo of the first sign of Moses to the Egyptian Pharaoh, which involved the transformation of water into blood. In the case of Moses the transformation was destructive; it was a threat that worse could happen. In the case of Jesus, it was constructive; it was indicating that he was bringing life to the full. But there is also an ominous echo in this choice; a foreshadowing that the life that Jesus would give to others would involve the shedding of blood.
However, that being said, it is unusual for John to put so much overt stress on the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy as he does in the portion we read earlier. We normally think of Matthew, apparently writing originally to Jews, as doing this, and indeed Matthew’s gospel is filled with quotations and allusions to various Hebrew Scriptures. But here, John chooses to make the connections with writers of the old covenant more obvious, more explicit, than is his usual practice. Twice in the few verses we read, and again twice more a few verses later referring to Jesus being pierced but his bones not broken, we read John making clear connections – “this happened that the Scripture might be fulfilled” and again, “so that the Scripture would be fulfilled”. John is bringing to the foreground of our attention here something that he has mostly kept until now in the background.
Now, the first of the references we read tonight is a quotation from Psalm 22. The second is probably also to that psalm, although it is not made as clear in the sense of a direct quote. We know from the other gospels that that psalm was very much on Jesus’ heart and mind at this critical moment, but just like Psalm 116 that we read, although we have come to link it very strongly with the passion of our Lord, it is not in the manner of its writing an obviously prophetic poem. Just as we said about Psalm 116, it makes good sense as a lament and outcry in the life of King David, whether written personally by David or by someone else meditating on his life and experience. Of the later two references, which we did not read tonight, one is to a passage in the book of Exodus giving instructions about the preparation of the Passover lamb, and the other is to a passage from the prophet Zechariah. So, three out of the four times in this chapter that John indicates are fulfilments of Scripture, we find pieces of writing that do not advertise themselves as being prophetic. Only the last one, from Zechariah, is very obviously a prophetic word – the passage from which it is taken is full of phrases like “this is the word of the LORD… I will make… I will keep… I will pour out… on that day” and so forth. You can’t read that part of Zechariah without realising the prophet is talking about the future, not his own situation.
Now, that should make us alert while reading the Old Testament. Only a fairly small proportion consists of passages that are clearly and unambiguously statements about the life of a future Messiah. There are such passages, of course, and we do well to take note of them as we read them, but much of the Old Testament is not written in that way. As we are reading psalms or other passages, let’s stay alert to the possibility that there is another dimension here. As well as the immediate situation of the poet, does this piece of inspired writing shed any light on the person or work of Jesus?
I think there is a need to keep a good sense of balance here. On the one hand, we need to affirm that the Old Testament writings first and foremost relate real experiences of God’s people struggling to walk with God – sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing. We must be careful not to diminish their experiences as though all they were was some kind of prototype or outline draft of the real story coming later. Sometimes you read books suggesting that the Old Testament is nothing more than a kind of picture book for illustrating parts of Jesus’ life: I believe that a view like that is disrespectful of the rich and complex lives of those people, whose thoughts and choices were every bit as fraught with anxiety or relief as our own.
On the other hand, we need to avoid the idea that Jesus was walking the land of Israel in a rather cold, calculating way, carefully picking his words so as to tick off another prophecy fulfilled. The things he said and did must be seen as genuine, sincere responses to the pressures surrounding Him. When we read John, or one of the other writers, saying things like, “this happened that the Scripture might be fulfilled”, then this comes out as a kind of “wow” statement. It is not something they saw at the time, or expected to see as they moved about with Jesus – it is something they realised was true with the benefit of hindsight. It is like the kind of feeling you get reading a detective novel or similar, where you suddenly realise – perhaps at the second, or third, or tenth time through – that some little clue you had been given really is important.
A few years ago it was fashionable to talk about these kinds of Old Testament events or people as types – signs pointing forward to the life of Christ, and representing in miniature some profound reality that He also displayed on a grander scale. I think that is a good expression to use, so long as we don’t go on to think of these types as sort-of cardboard cut-out imitations. One could put it the other way – perhaps the very fact that the Messiah, when He came, relived those kinds of experience actually imparts a deeper dignity to them. It honours the struggle and suffering that those earlier people participated in.
Anyway, why does John, here at this point in his account of the life of Jesus, choose to bring up to the surface this link with the Old Testament? I think it is because he, like the other gospel writers, used the way in which they wrote to mirror the events. When Jesus first appeared on the Galilee scene, who he was and what he had come to do was only apparent to John the Baptist. When the first disciples started to follow him, then this seems to be because they felt on a kind of intuitive level that here was a man worth following, and not because they understood in clear terms the nature of his person and work. John begins his gospel with the transformation of water into wine, at an event where he was supposed to be only a guest. His words to his mother indicate that he really did not want to be recognised at this stage. As his ministry proceeds then who He is becomes gradually clearer, although naturally many people do not read the clues correctly. To some of the authorities, he is a trouble-maker. To some of the crowds, he is a provider of food and health. To Herod, he was one of the former prophets revived. Gradually the issue becomes clearer, and as his real identity sharpens into focus, opinion divides. Some want to continue following or listening, but others don’t. The revelation is too difficult; the changes in thinking and action called for are too radical.
Now, I think John makes the whole business of connections with Old Testament prophecy steadily more obvious as a kind of parallel to this. At the start of his gospel, the links to the Hebrew Scriptures are rather hidden. You can get them by thinking about it, but they are not on the surface. As we read through the selection of key events that John chooses to relate, we see the connections coming more to the surface. Jesus starts to refer to some Old Testament passages, such as when manna was given as heavenly food, or Isaiah spoke of a spring of water which would never fail. He drew on several of the various images of shepherding given – both positive of himself as the Good Shepherd but also of some others as bad shepherds who wanted death and destruction. When we get to the Triumphal Entry then we get to the place where John wants these links open, on the surface – we find the phrase “as it is written” with another prophecy from Zechariah, with the comment “at first his disciples did not understand this… only after Jesus was glorified did they realise”. And then, almost at the end of what John has to say, we get to chapter 19, with its four-times-repeated mention of fulfilment. I’m sure you see what I am saying here – just as the real identity and the real work of Jesus is gradually unveiled as we work through the book, so also the links with the Old Testament message are also unveiled. What John has done through his writing is to tear the veil of the Temple in two, top to bottom, so that what was initially hidden is not made clear to everyone. He chose not to relate this particular incident in so many words, but instead he presents it in the way he structures his account. The things that were under the surface, hidden from direct view early on, are now revealed plainly.
I want to finish with a few thoughts about what these two passages might mean for us, in terms of our own life. It can be quite difficult, I think, when we get to parts of the Bible that speak of the really big events of history – like the crucifixion – to see how we can find application. To be sure these feed the content of our faith, since it is of supreme importance to us that Jesus died and rose again to life, but sometimes it can be hard to see how they can shape our personal actions and attitudes. To me, one of the things that emerges from both passages is the conduct of the central character in the midst of crisis. It is often said that in order to see what a person is really like, put them in a difficult situation and see what comes out. John carefully records for us – and we know that he was extremely selective in choosing his material, so we can safely assume he thought this of great importance – the fact that even while Jesus was in extreme anguish of body and soul, with soldiers gambling for his clothing, he ensured that his mother was in good hands. He ensures that his mother and John himself are placed in adoptive relationship to each other, so that each can be cared for in good ways by the other. The psalmist writes of how in the depths of his own difficulty, he recalled to mind the character and ability of his God to save. It is all too easy in a crisis to be completely caught up in it, to just dig in and keep struggling away, and Psalm 116 reminds us that part of our task in such a situation is to look out of ourselves for help. That help may from time to time come from God Himself, but more often – as in the case of the psalmist in question – it is mediated through another person. We are called to carry each other’s burdens, and the psalmist is describing for us such a time. The psalm also goes past the moment of crisis into aftermath, and reminds us to acknowledge before God and before people the kind of help we have received. “How can I repay the LORD for all His goodness to me? By lifting up the cup of salvation, by making thank-offerings, and by fulfilling vows in the presence of God’s people.”