Sunday, July 07, 2019

A Closer Look

I did not grow up with liturgy. The closest thing was probably the occasional corporate reading of scripture from the back of a beat-up hymnbook with a busted spine, where at least you could be sure everyone was looking at the same translation for once.

Agreed, that’s not very close.

The Upper and Nether Millstones

Of course there were always very sincere, older, conservative Christians around who prayed out loud in religious clichés so hackneyed and distinctive you could see them coming several sentences in advance. But that’s not really liturgy either; it’s more like chronic failure of imagination. My brothers and I would mouth these pieties to one another as they rolled off the speaker’s tongue in amusement at our own rather profane cleverness in anticipating them.

I didn’t really encounter liturgy proper until a series of weddings and funerals in my late teens and early twenties; three Catholic and one Orthodox. Here I am talking not just about a predictable form of service (almost every group of religious devotees develops those), but specific sets of phrases intended to trigger prearranged responses from everyone initiated into the ritual. Naturally, I had no clue what was going on. I didn’t know the routine and couldn’t join in. It was a little jarring to find hundreds of people around me dutifully responding in unison while I tried to puzzle out how they all knew what to say without any visible prompts.

Peace Be Upon Whom?

Liturgy is not specifically Christian in character. Muslims have their own liturgical forms, such as appending the phrase ‘alayhi s-salām [or “peace be upon him”] to the names of anyone Islam considers to be a prophet as a near-mandatory gesture of respect.

People who love liturgy appreciate the predictability, I suppose. There is probably something to that, though I’m not sure the “something” is always spiritual in nature. In any circle, religious or otherwise, feeling oneself among the initiated often goes hand-in-hand with an unappealing smugness and an inability to distinguish form from reality. This is not always the case, of course, but it’s common enough to be worrisome.

The Bible itself gives us surprisingly few examples of anything we might consider innately liturgical. One obvious exception is Psalm 136, which is manifestly intended as an exercise in call-and-response. The phrase “for his steadfast love endures forever” occurs 26 times in 26 verses, and its use often appears quite unrelated to the phrase it follows. If you did not know that the repeated tagline refers back to verses 1 and 2 (the “Lord, the God of gods”), you might think for a moment it referred to Sihon, king of the Amorites or Og, king of Bashan — not the most “loving” or “enduring” duo in Bible history.

Purposeful Repetition

Other than that one psalm, we come across few obvious examples of liturgy in the Old Testament “hymnbook” or elsewhere. Other psalms, the Lord’s Prayer and the “love chapter” of 1 Corinthians have been made quasi-liturgical by diligently training them into congregants, but they do not come across as natural mantras. There is little repetition to aid the memory. Remove them from their imposed ritualistic context and they read more like personal pleas to God or passionate exhortations to fellow believers rather than droning chants to be memorized and unthinkingly regurgitated on cue.

All this is by way of pointing out that when we find the same phrase repeatedly employed in scripture, most of the time it is not there for the expected liturgical reasons. It may be repetitive, but it is absolutely not without some useful purpose. God put it there for a reason. It is not simply showing up mid-sentence because it’s praise time, after which we can return to talking about the various pagan kings slain by Joshua. God intends it to remind us of something important.

“I Am the Lord”

An example: the phrase “I am the Lord” occurs on its own over sixty times in the books of the Law alone. That does not include constructions like “that the Egyptians might know that I am the Lord,” where the intent is obviously not liturgical at all, but simply describes God’s purpose in performing a particular action (such as holding back and then releasing the waters of the Red Sea). No, I mean that the words “I am the Lord” occur over sixty times in situations where at first glance it might appear they are being used the way we use exclamations like “Amen!” and “Gesundheit!”, usually tacked on to the end of a sentence or sometimes as a parenthesis: “And you shall take the Levites for me — I am the Lord — instead of all the firstborn.”

As common as the phrase is in the pages of the Pentateuch, I do not believe a single occurrence is without immediate relevance to the text around it. It is not repetition for repetition’s sake, repetition merely to establish a mood, or repetition for the sake of indicating the beginning and end of particular subjects.

Some examples:

A God to be Trusted
“I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. I will give it to you for a possession. I am the Lord.”
In the absence of any other obvious point the Lord may be making, this seems to be the default purpose God has in mind. It is a reminder of the covenant obligation the people of Israel had incurred through their forefathers and the covenant promises God has bound himself to fulfill for them.

The phrase calls the attention of the Israelite people back the way God identified himself first to Abraham and then Jacob when he confirmed his covenant with them. In each case the revelation that “I am the Lord” was a response to an act of faith. Abraham believed God. Jacob left his home in obedience to his parents to seek a wife from approved stock, unlike his brother who married locally and without consideration for God’s will.

There is great security in those four words. The strength of the covenant is not its iron-clad legalese or the enforcement power of the judiciary, it is the unchanging character of the One doing the covenanting.

A God to be Feared
“For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord.”
Here the emphasis is markedly different. The statement is not about faithfulness, it is about naked power. Here is a God who towers over the feeble Egyptian pseudo-deities. In the beginning, Pharaoh’s magicians mimicked the miracles Moses performed with God’s power by their “secret arts”. So God upped the miracle stakes until the Egyptian posers could no longer keep pace. Commanded to produce gnats, they could not, and confessed to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God.” Later, not only were the magicians unable to produce boils, but they too were covered with them. From this point on, we hear no more about magicians.

It is this God to whom our attention is drawn. The Israelites are warned to keep the Passover, because Israel’s God is a god of judgment, and can surely be counted on to act in irresistible power against his enemies. He is not just a God to be trusted, but a God to be feared.

An Uncommon God
“You shall not give any of your children to offer them to Molech, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord.”
This one occurs in the middle of a chapter about unlawful sexual relations. All sorts of possibilities are referenced, and all are roundly condemned. Why? Because Israel’s God is not like the gods of the nations. There is nothing common about him. He does not exist to indulge people’s desires, and he cannot be bribed into allowing what the gods of the nations allow. Moreover, he is not delighted with the most precious of sacrifices. He does not want your children. He needs nothing from you. The world and its fullness are already his. He is entirely set apart. There is no one like him.

Here, “I am the Lord” means “I am definitely not like them!”

In Summary

Perhaps you get the idea. This is not liturgy. It is not meaningless repetition. It is the furthest thing from thoughtless chanting. It is a complex and fascinating way of bringing out God’s character in its different dimensions, of calling our attention to his marvelous uniqueness and perfections. The commands or promises which surround this little four-word statement in various places in scripture only serve to better display other facets of his character.

You could do this all day. I picked three occurrences of a single four-word phrase at random. There are 57 more, and not too many of them cover the same material, if you are prepared to look closely.

He is the Lord. That is a statement that cannot be unpacked in a few quick sentences. No one legal provision or scenario can do him justice. He requires the whole revelation of scripture to fully exposit his glories.

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