The Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy)
Books of History, Poetry and Wisdom (Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs)
Reflections (Creation, Rainbow, Angels, Remembrance, Neighbour, Jubilee, Psalm, Selah, Songs of Praise, Suffering, A Time to Embrace, A Strong Tower)
The Pentateuch – the first five books – dealing with the early origins of the people and God’s laws given to Moses.
God began everything by creating heavenly order and earthly abundance
Eden was our perfect home, but through disobedience we spoilt it
Noah alone was righteous and survived the flood of God’s wrath
Even then, men preferred Babel sounds to angel voices, until Abraham,
Sarah and their descendants heeded God’s promise to become a holy nation.
In jealousy, Jacob’s sons sold Joseph into Egyptian slavery, yet he
Saved them from famine and found them a home in Goshen.
Egypt proved to be a cruel cradling for the Israelites
Xenophobic Pharaoh tolerated them as forced labour
Only when Moses and Aaron brought God’s wrath on Egypt’s firstborn
Did Pharaoh let them go, and then his pursuing army foundered
Under the Red Sea. In the desert God provided for Israel and on
Sinai’s heights gave them commands and laws befitting a holy people.
Laws given to Moses on Sinai were a blessing, not a yoke –
Establishing a way of living in safety, fairness and abundance.
Vines and fields were to be rested, and servants and property redeemed,
In Sabbath and Jubilee years. Israel was not to live according to
The customs of other nations (though they were to care for the alien).
If laws were broken – even unintentionally – sacrifices were required;
Contamination and disease were to be carefully cleansed;
Unholy conduct would turn God’s blessings into curses. Each year a
Scapegoat was led to a desolate place, to bear away the people’s sins.
Naming and counting Israel’s tribes was in God’s plan for the promised land.
Unless the people obeyed God’s laws they would remain in the wilderness.
Moses faced rebellions: only Caleb and Joshua believed Canaan could be entered.
Balaam the prophet was prevented from cursing Israel by his donkey.
Even though food came from Heaven and water gushed from rocks, the people
Repeatedly rebelled. Israel was decimated after being seduced by Moab, so a
Second census was needed before Canaan’s lands could be allocated to tribes.
Disobeying God’s command to take possession of the promised land,
Even though their spies had found it fertile, the people remained fearful.
Unwilling to face the enemy they rebelled and turned back toward the desert,
Therefore that generation, even Moses, was not allowed to cross the Jordan.
Exhorting Israel to be obedient, Moses urged remembrance of the LORD’s covenant,
Reminding them that no other nation had such righteous laws and decrees.
O Israel! – fear the LORD, walk in His ways, serve Him with heart and soul;
Never deprive the alien, the fatherless or widow of justice, nor neglect your tithes;
Observe the festivals, judge impartially, uproot detestable practices; choose life.
Moses set out blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience
Yet he could only gaze on Canaan from Mount Nebo, and he died in Moab.
Books of History, Poetry and Wisdom
Jordan’s waters were stemmed and Jericho’s wall tumbled
Over as Joshua’s armies swept across the promised land;
Southern cities fell and northern kings conceded defeat;
Hebron was given to Caleb and the lands allotted to tribes.
United, all Israel assembled to echo Joshua’s vow –
As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.
Joshua died, and the following generation forgot the Lord.
Unlike other nations, Israel had no king; instead, God raised judges,
Delivering them from their foes. Deborah defeated the Canaanites;
Gideon, the Midianites; Jephthah, the Ammonites; Samson, the Philistines.
Every time, though, they reverted to idol worship and wicked ways:
Surely a lapsed nation, everyone just doing what was right in their own eyes.
Returning from Moab with her widowed daughters-in-law, widowed Naomi
Urged them to stay in their homeland. But one, Ruth, clung to her, and
Touched the heart of Boaz in whose fields she gleaned. They married,
Had a son Obed, who fathered Jesse, who fathered King David.
Samuel, Kings and Chronicles are so good they named them twice! I’ve taken two bites of the cherry at Samuel and Kings because I need as many letters as possible to cover the key events. I have only made one entry for Chronicles because it gives me ten letters and repeats a lot of ground previously covered.
Shiloh’s temple was where childless Hannah prayed for a son
And where her firstborn, Samuel, heard God calling in the night:
Mightily he led Israel, but they demanded a king and he anointed Saul.
Upset at Saul’s sins, Samuel perceived that God had now chosen David
Even tho’ he was the youngest of Jesse’s sons. Saul sought David’s life, yet
Lost his own, along with his sons, fighting the Philistines.
Saul’s death left a power vacuum – David reigned in Judah;
Abner (Saul’s army chief) installed Ish-bosheth over Israel.
Many battles later, David brought unity and returned the ark to Jerusalem.
Uriah’s beautiful wife, Bathsheba, was David’s downfall, and thence
Everything turned to treachery and secession before re-unification.
Loyal man of God, David was flawed yet great, Israel’s singer of songs.
Knowledge and wisdom should have defined Solomon’s reign –
Instead, he strayed after the pagan gods of his many wives.
No stopping the rot now: the nation divided and kings forsook the Lord.
Gilead’s Elijah sent Baal’s prophets packing at Mount Carmel, but
Still Ahab, Jezebel and Ahaziah continued to sin grievously.
Keeping the prophetic line, Elijah passed his mantle to Elisha;
Isaiah came later, but still the people continued to worship idols;
Nefarious kings shed innocent blood, and God withdrew his protection.
Good king Josiah’s reforms proved too little, too late
So the people were taken captive – Israel to Assyria, Judah to Babylon.
1 & 2 Chronicles
Consider a nation’s remembrance of its identity:
Histories of tribes and clans and their land allotments,
Records of priests, Levites, singers, gatekeepers, musicians,
Overseers, treasurers, army commanders and, of course, kings.
Not willing to risk Philistine capture, Saul fell on his sword;
Israel then crowned David, popular victor, ark-returner, flawed but faithful.
Celebrate Solomon’s wisdom, temple and prayers, but rue his backsliding;
Learn of the wars and divisions consequent on successive kings’ sins;
Examine how reforms by Asa, Hezekiah, Uzziah and Josiah brought peace;
See how sin led to enslavement, leaving the land to recover for seventy years.
Exiled, the people of Judah were allowed by King Cyrus to return to their homeland;
Zion lay desolate so the re-settlers rebuilt the altar and the temple;
Royal decree authorised the work to continue after it had been thwarted by opponents;
Artaxerxes resourced its completion, whilst Ezra led a repentance of the people.
Not only was Jerusalem’s temple in ruins, but also its wall and gates.
Exiles sent a message of distress to Nehemiah, cupbearer to King Artaxerxes.
His face was sad as he approached the King, but the King was gracious,
Expressing concern that he should return to restore Jerusalem’s defences.
Many resources were availed to Nehemiah and many men supported him.
In the face of opposition, he provided armed guards for the builders.
After the works were completed, he proclaimed the law and celebrated.
He became governor and sought God’s favour for his many reforms.
Enraged when Queen Vashti snubbed his lavish party, King Xerxes
Selected beautiful Esther, adopted daughter of Mordecai, as his new queen.
The king’s advisor, Haman, sought the life of Mordecai and his fellow Jews.
Have you become queen for such a time as this? Mordecai asked his ward;
Esther persuaded Xerxes to reverse the decree and execute Haman instead.
Rescued from genocide, the exultant Jews instituted the festival of Purim.
Justice seemed in short supply when virtuous Job met the direst misfortunes,
Otiose friends at first comforted him, then judged him as self-righteous
But when God showed up, Job learned that redemption lay in worship and surrender.
Praise and adoration for God’s righteousness and goodness;
Singing, rejoicing and thanksgiving for what God has done;
Asking for guidance on living a life of Godly wisdom;
Laments for times of crisis, grief and suffering;
Mercy and restoration sought for sins committed;
Supplication for our needs, desires, healing and wholeness.
Prudence, insight, instruction, discernment,
Righteousness and justice are proclaimed by Lady Wisdom.
Oppression, sloth, adultery, vanity – like a dog returning to its
Vomit – are the ways of Dame Folly.
Exemplary behaviour, fairness and a heart for the poor
Reveal the wise person and will lead to honour.
Bear with the strange culture and didactic style of Proverbs:
Search these sayings and you will encounter the mind of God.
Everything is meaningless, proclaims the preacher –
Chasing the wind is how we spend our time on earth.
Cultivating knowledge, seeking pleasure, gaining wealth
Lead equally to the same fate for all, both good and bad.
Eat, drink and find satisfaction in labour all your days,
Seasons come round for every activity under heaven;
In truth, we will not understand what happens “under the sun”.
As a man comes so he departs, and in the end gains nothing,
Seek wisdom, cast your bread upon the waters,
Turn away from evil, value friends and family.
Eternal mysteries are beyond us and are known only to God
So fear God and keep his commandments: this is our whole duty.
Song of Songs
See how the beloved yearns for her lover;
O daughters of Jerusalem, rejoice and delight in this couple.
Nightly she searched the city and finally found him –
Glancing at him, she stole his heart.
Over her he spread a banner, his banner of love.
Friends of the bride and groom,
See the beloved and her lover
Overwhelmed with passion one for another.
No ordinary love story is this, but
God yearning for his beloved Israel,
Shepherd and flock trysting in the garden.
An acrostic written for the World Day of Prayer a few years back, when the theme was All God’s Creation is Very Good (Genesis 1:31).
Cosmos called out of infinite dark,
Restless void roused by wisdom’s spark
Emergent shapes formed in deepest night
A piercing voice summoned primal light
The sun and moon obeyed its command
Infinite life teemed through water and land
On ground that had been mere dust, Adam stood.
Now, for a time, all was very good.
The rainbow symbol has been widely used in different contexts, but it has a particular meaning in the Bible as the sign of the covenant that God established with all life on the earth (Genesis 9:17) after the Great Flood.
Recalling an eternal promise, a covenant sign
Arched over the earth, God’s valentine.
Ineffable light made visible in refraction,
Noah knew that it meant ‘God in action’.
Being ever alongside us, the Ancient of Days
Occupies our hearts, inhabits our praise –
Wavelengths of God illuming our ways.
Whatever our view on angels, we have to admit there’s a lot of them in the Bible, starting in Genesis, when Abraham is visited by the Angel of the Lord. They continue throughout the Old and New Testaments – and we may entertain them unawares (Hebrews 13:2).
Announcing glad tidings to God’s chosen heirs
Never ceasing their praises, Heaven’s glories are theirs
Guarding us, ministering, hearing our prayers
Emissaries of God in our worldly affairs
Leading us through life’s darkest thoroughfares
Sometimes we entertain them unawares.
An acrostic written for Remembrance Sunday, but also as a more general reflection on the centrality of remembrance in the Bible. In particular, the children of Israel are repeatedly reminded to remember how God had delivered them from Pharaoh’s armies as they crossed the Red Sea. (Exodus 15:1-21; Psalm 77:19-20; Deut 6:20-23; Joshua 24:5-7).
Recall, O Israel, your deliverance
Escaping Pharaoh’s army, brought safe to shore;
Moses’ song of triumph, Miriam’s victory dance.
Each day a fiery pillar going before
Multitudes wandering in Sinai’s expanse,
Becoming a special people under a perfect law.
‘Remember’ cries the psalmist, ‘and cast a glance
At how God saved us in peace and war’.
Nations delivered from direst circumstance,
Captive souls plucked from Sheol’s jaw,
El Shaddai, God of victory, God of the second chance.
Although we perhaps associate neighbourliness with the New Testament and especially the parable of the Good Samaritan, it has been an integral part of God’s law since Canaan was settled and people had to live with neighbours. Fair treatment of foreigners in the land was inseparably linked to this (Leviticus 19: 18, 33). In Advent 2021, Tearfund ran an online “Advent Calendar” of daily reflections on the theme of neighbourliness, especially our global neighbours. Two of the contributors chose Romans 15:2 as their verse for reflection – Each of us should please our neighbours for their good, to build them up.)
Neither the priest nor the Levite any compassion showed
Even though a fellow Jew lay maimed across the road,
In time a Samaritan – not of their ilk – passed that way,
Gave comfort, dressed his wounds, found him a place to stay;
Hospitality prevailed over centuries of bad blood.
Build up your neighbour, please them for their own good –
Old or young, rich or poor, our turning worlds collide,
Unsung acts of kindness ensure trust is multiplied,
Roads must be crossed if need calls from the other side.
The Year of Jubilee, which came every 50th year, was a year full of releasing people from debt, releasing slaves, and returning property to its original owner (Leviticus 25:1-13). More recently, the term has been applied to the release of nations from unrepayable historical debts.
Justice is worth the candle, even when it costs us dear
Unequal wealth and power create a world of tension and fear
Broken chains and cancelled debts put both sides in the clear
If we but heal wounds slightly, our faith is mere veneer
Let righteousness roll like a river to its outermost frontier
Every hireling, vassal, field and forest awaits the Sabbath year
Even facing awkward truths, still we must persevere.
Whether you feel like rejoicing, crying or venting your anger, the psalmists have already been there before you.
Praising, sing out when you’ve blessings to spare;
Sorrowing, cry out from the depths of despair;
Angry, storm Heaven when nothing seems fair;
Life can be carefree or too much to bear;
Mourning or laughing, a psalm speaks your prayer.
Selah is a term seen in the Psalms which was probably a musical instruction to pause and reflect. If you have been praying and praising, don’t be too quick to rush away.
Still yourself: can you hear the beating of God’s heart?
Even Jesus cherished time to be apart;
Learning to press life’s pause button is a vital art,
As when Martha’s sister chose the better part.
Heaven’s symphonies are pianissimo when they start.
Songs of Praise
The Psalms in particular remind us of the importance of song and music, and singing favourite hymns is an important reason why many people attend church. However, hymns are more than just a good sing, because God inhabits the praise of his people (Psalm 22:3).
Soprano, alto, tenor, bass
Offer thanks to the God of Grace
New hymns, old hymns, anthems raise
Gospel songs and ancient lays –
Sing a sacrifice of praise.
Organs, praise bands, harmonise;
Fanfares echo to the skies!
Powers of darkness: feel despair,
Recoil as worship fills the air! –
Aware that Heaven’s victorious King
Inhabits the very words we sing.
So saints on earth lift up your voice,
Even the hills and trees rejoice!
The book of Job fascinates me because it is the oldest in the Bible yet asks the deepest of questions – how can a just God let good people suffer? It comes up with an answer that has never been bettered – we only see a partial picture and we must trust in a God who sees the full picture. I imagine a narrator sitting by a tribal encampment, telling this story and raising questions that are as old as the idea of God itself. Christians are not spared heartache and difficult times, but we have a God who shared (and still shares) directly in human suffering.
Say it! Rant at God. Tell Him you’re mad.
Unleash the anger you didn’t know you had.
Faith should help, but now it’s hanging by a thread;
Friends speak clumsy words that are easier left unsaid.
Empty. Bereft. Scared by a diagnosis.
Raw emotion lets guilt seep in by osmosis.
In a heartbeat, your known world turns to dross.
No-one feels your pain or comprehends your loss.
God only knows! He went through it on the cross.
A Time To Embrace
The book of Ecclesiastes has a famous passage known as A Time for Everything (‘To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven’). It contains one verse that always used to puzzle me – ‘A time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing’ (Ecclesiastes 3:5) – until Covid-19 struck! This acrostic was written in the summer of 2021, when we were officially allowed hugs once more. It reminded us of the importance of human touch.
At first we thought it would not last very long,
This ‘new normal’ of elbow-bumps – we were wrong.
It became a time to refrain from embracing,
Mouthing our kisses from a two-metre spacing.
Encountering friends, we stopped short and withdrew,
Touching became a luxury, hugs became taboo.
Old folk close to death could not understand
Eye-moist loved ones who would not hold their hand,
Masks covered lips that craved a final kiss –
Bidding last farewells was never meant to be like this.
Relatives and friends severed by borders and oceans
Awaited a chance to share long-suppressed emotions.
Covid’s grip is loosening: soon we’ll re-discover touch,
Embracing friends and family we’ve missed so very much.
A Strong Tower
“The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous run into it and are safe” (Proverbs 18:10). Written when our church tower was needing urgent (and expensive) repairs.
Architects tell us our tower needs repair
Sandstone erodes, grout crumbles, timbers wear
Time takes its toll on brickwork and mortar
Rafters and beams suffer ingress of water.
Once our tower was weatherproof, undecayed;
Now it needs restoration, its structure made
Good once more to withstand the salt-wind’s scour.
The name of the Lord is a strong tower
Offering the righteous a sure salvation
Within an impregnable fortification.
Earth’s proud towers always need to be restored
Rock solid hope rests on the name of the Lord.