In the caravan with Caravaggio.

Caravaggio’s Supper on the Road to Emmaus at the National Gallery, London. I don’t think any of the titles for this painting are ‘official’, so this is mine!

In a Faraday Institute interview published in February 2022, Ruth Bancewicz asked Professor Alister McGrath (the Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford) to speculate on the sorts of questions he might be asking in future decades; what questions might be raised by future scientific discoveries. I find his response to be particularly pithy in terms of worldview- a worldview that is at once Christian, and yet also open as a way of thinking that can be offered to those without such commitments, whether scientists or otherwise.

I don’t know! I often find myself circling old questions, gradually giving better answers than those I found ten or twenty years ago. I have no doubt that new questions will arise about human nature and destiny, and our place within the natural world – questions that we need to engage, rather than to avoid or hope that they will just go away. But I am confident that Christianity will be able to offer us ways of engaging these new questions, and helping us to think them through.

Alister McGrath

McGrath began by saying, very straightforwardly, that he doesn’t know what questions the future may hold, which is clearly the only correct answer to give to such a cheeky question. But then again, this is too simplistic. Subtly and gently, I think, he then implies that the important questions are already known- at least in broad brush- and so it is less likely there will be really new types of questions. He puts these enduring questions somewhat like this: What is the nature of being human? What is our place in the natural world? What is our destiny as humans in the cosmos? Without fixing these down rigidly in a sequence on a timeline, nevertheless we might take these as (i) ‘what were we, as humans?’ (ii) ‘where do we find ourselves now?’ and (iii) ‘where are we going?’ or perhaps, ‘what are we becoming?’ Having engaged in such a clumsy deconstructive analysis, you too may appreciate the poetry of McGrath’s answer rather more than at first reading. And to continue: for McGrath, such a continuing ‘inquisition’ is exciting, because while questioning is the core of science, it is no enemy of faith, properly understood. McGrath knows that many Christian folk consider certain questions, particularly those stemming from scientific discoveries, to be unwelcome in their life of faith, but there is truly no grounds for such fearfulness. McGrath takes the contrary and very positive view, because he has learned that human flourishing emerges from a robust interaction between his Christian faith and science. As I wrote in my last post, atheists Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins choose to look back at the vastness of the cosmos from the perspective of our diminutive human scale and short lifespan, drawing only pessimistic conclusions. Alistair McGrath left that intellectual workhouse long ago, as he found that the Christian worldview embraces all the demonstrated facts of science, and enriches them. Hope, not despair, this way lies! So I note that Ruth Bancewicz’s question proved rather fruitful, against my expectations.

Long ago did the gallery of ‘Christian Art’ burst at the seams, at least if you insist on counting up all the depictions of the Annunciation, Nativity, the events of Holy Week and especially the Crucifixion. It is the stuff of orthodoxy to esteem the central place of these key episodes in the gospel accounts, and quite proper that our meditation on them ought to be spiritually enriching. By far the majority of well known examples, the principal exhibits in the canon of art for which the Masters are rightly famed, have a visual quality that is less-of-this-world, saints adorned with prominent shiny halos, the figures over-stylised , depicted in idealised and romanticised settings, while too often chubby cherubs gambol around in the skies above tugging at modesty cloths like puppies with very strong toilet roll. It’s not very realistic, is it?! The solution to one problem, viz: how to make the picture sufficiently epic that it does justice to the great claims made in the scenes of conversation between angels and mortals, the birth of God, or the death of the God-man Jesus Christ, then becomes the cause of a new problem. Now the image is so abnormal that it has little of the appeal of normality about it- it has transported us to another world, perhaps very effectively, but to such an extent that we have left this world completely behind. Some maintain this is the point, for eschatologically, that is a key aspect of the hope that Christianity offers. However, if the world that Science wonders at, is awestruck by and seeks to interrogate in order to know it better, to know it well, and to savour it, is lost by such a transport, then this is no longer Christianity, for the Nativity profoundly speaks of Incarnation. The God who Christians claim to know in Christ came into this world. There may be a place for art that is other-worldly, ethereal and evocative of the spiritual, High Art that takes our imagination to the heavenlies, but at this point we might heed the Jewish sanction against idols and images of the Divine. They are likely to be a distraction from the real God and the sort of world that God made, and thus, quite simply, heretical.

We need better art, by which I mean, theologically better art, that might bring heaven and earth, and thus God and humankind, together.

Enter Caravaggio.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. 1601. Supper after the walk to Emmaus. NG172

Caravaggio (1571-1610) would have seen Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling (completed in 1512) in its novel glory, Exhibit Number One in my roll call of unrealistic artistic depictions of spiritually significant scenes. Caravaggio was commissioned to paint altarpieces for grand churches, and thus on the approved list of artists to produce work for traditional and sacred purposes. He was also reputed to be a bit of a rebel, which I take to mean that he didn’t necessarily paint what he was told to, or how to paint it, more to the point. Which is why we love creative types. Unpredictable, impossible to control- you just don’t know what you are going to see next. And sometimes that is exciting in the same way as science is exciting. A creative and perceptive artist can show us something that may have been there all the time, but we just hadn’t seen yet. They give us a viewpoint that is less invention and not at all fantasy, but rather discovery and description- an accurate description, exactly as prized by the scientist. This is how the world is, and how we are in it.

Which is what is going on in Caravaggio’s 1601 painting of a meal served in a public house in a Jewish village called Emmaus, just after Passover to three guys who’d just trekked across country and now need a wash, a good meal and bed. The second of those requirements is taking place before our eyes. Their cook has served a feast of bread and poultry, presented to restaurant standard, along with a bowl of fruit burdened and overspilling with figs, plums, apples, pears and others I don’t recognise. The grapes are so fresh the unwilted vine leaves are still attached, further adorning this succulent table decoration.

You may know the scene from Luke’s gospel account. The resurrection appearances of Jesus in the days following the first Easter are described in various ways- his followers are caught by surprise, in stunned amazement, shock, disbelief, and so on. In this case, Luke gives us the comic treatment. Two disciples, who are not part of the Twelve, are walking away from Jerusalem, disconsolate, on the road toward Emmaus, engrossed in their grieving, trying to come to terms with the apparent defeat and tragedy of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. Then Jesus himself comes alongside them, for all the world seeming as a normal traveller. He is greeted and joins their conversation- yet they don’t recognise him!

13 That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles[a] from Jerusalem, 14 and they were talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. 16 But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, “What is this conversation that you are holding with each other as you walk?” And they stood still, looking sad. 18 Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” 19 And he said to them, “What things?” And they said to him, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened. 22 Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning, 23 and when they did not find his body, they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.” 25 And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.

Luke 24: 13-27 ESV (28-35 below)

I can imagine that Simon and Cleopas were rather embarrassed when they told their story afterwards. They knew perfectly well what Jesus looked like- they had listened very attentively to his teaching and would have known his mannerisms well. So we have the claim that another miracle took place which explains this: ‘their eyes were kept from recognizing him’! God was hiding in plain sight before them. Not for the first time. Or the last…

The scene described at verses 30-31 is the focus of Caravaggio’s depiction:

28 So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He acted as if he were going farther, 29 but they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. 31 And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” 33 And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem. And they found the eleven and those who were with them gathered together, 34 saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!” 35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.

In so many ways this encounter takes place at the threshold of reality and experience. The two men think their friend and Lord is dead, but he is very much alive and with them, in the extended moment of their journey. They can see Jesus, and yet they can’t see Who it is at all. They think they know what has happened with Him in recent days, and yet there is so much they do not know. They thought that they knew the scriptures- what the meaning of the teaching and the prophecy was- yet their mysterious companion shows that they still hadn’t got the half of it. What they thought it was to be a member of God’s family community, and what that might become- so much of their understanding proves to be, so near and yet so far- a misunderstanding. And yet they come to understand at last, as the One of whom those scriptures speaks, and to Whom that tradition points, showed them Himself, in person. All this realisation and revelation comes to them in the flesh and blood encounter of a regular walking trip to an otherwise unknown village a few hours walk from Jerusalem, and is rounded out at an unremarkable meal table with bread and water and the other common fare that would have been served to passing folk, day in and day out.

Not that that is how Caravaggio does it. He embellishes the details for aesthetic effect, and to make full boast of his painterly prowess. He deploys the full range of his artistry to do justice to the scene and the climactic moment when the two disciples’ eyes are opened, but what our painter-guide shows us is still absolutely real.

Caravaggio transports us to a much more luxurious setting, where the table is covered by a richly woven cloth, itself overlain with a pristine white covering, on which delicate glasses, an exotic pitcher and a highly decorated plate hold the provender. The woven fruit basket has a delicate bowed handle, far too small to be of practical use if to be carried when filled. The chair we can see is a particularly fine example of carpentry, its depiction a work of graphic genius. The clothing of the four figures samples the range of adornments typical of the various classes that reflect the whole of society- well, male society, anyway. Jesus is nobly enrobed in scarlet and cream, while the man seated on the left has a prominent and suggestively working class hole at the elbow of his still-prized green coat. The other disciple and their cook both sport finely cut short leather jackets. There is no sign of the dust and dirt that we might imagine – that has been banished at this moment of making new. Illumination- light!- is everywhere in the picture, and not at all limited to the face of Jesus, on whom the three are fixed at this Eureka moment. Light is falling from above, and yet reflects as luminously from cloth and clothing all around the picture. The message of the picture is not only the revelation of the light of the world. The life of Jesus bursts forth from his person, and all is alive as a result. As he reaches forward over the bread toward us, all that was static surges into motion. Is it Cleopas on our left? He thrusts back toward us in his chair with surprised delight. Opposite, Simon throws his arms aside, his left hand reaching out to include the viewer, his gesture caught in fine focus, while his right reaches out to grasp his Lord with an out of focus but strangely enlarged right hand- as though to get a better hold of what he had thought he had lost. Even the fruit basket is now tottering toward us over the table edge, as perhaps Simon has knocked it forward as he reacts – another comic detail.

By all these means, and more subtleties I have not noticed, there is transformation and transubstantiation depicted in this wonderful painting. And this is the point- the wonder is filling the painting- it is not elsewhere, in some different place. The eucharist that is taking place is transforming what was earlier perceived only as the body of a mere man into the God-man Jesus. If the bread and wine are transformed it is only because Jesus is present with them; with us. The light is the same light that illuminates our lives, and now we see the Light of the World, which is the empowering, the dunamis, of all Being and Life. And yet in Caravaggio’s handling, everything that was in the world before this ‘revelation’ is still there now, but all is enobled. The textiles and garments, the foodstuffs, the collected crafts and artistry of humanity, and the bounty of the natural world- all are celebrated and now are in praise of the One who is Alive and gives Life to all. This whole world is charged by Caravaggio’s brush with the grandeur of God, while the gaze of the cook, Cleopas and Simon all command us to attend to the outstretched hand of Invitation, even as our shared foodstuffs are blessed at the common table. As Jesus’ own glance is directed downward to the stuff on which His blessing rests, the whole scene speaks to us, material, men and Master, all.

Don’t get me wrong now. In common with other resurrection appearances, something very much out of our ordinary will take place. Jesus is about to vanish right before the wondering disciples at their table eucharist. Nothing ‘this worldly’ about that, you might say. But that event conveys the meaning that Sagan and Dawkins do not see. Science creates a view of the cosmos that is defined by two aspects only: (i) us as human observers, and (ii) the natural world of which we are part and which we inhabit. But what is dismissed as fancy by the atheist may yet be true, and this is the claim evidenced in Christ. Therefore the Christian worldview is in three aspects:

Two depictions of the Tripartite worldview. (P) Stephen Thompson

So the crucial difference is thus. God is, and furthermore, God choses to be in the world, and to interact with it, and with us. So the scientist who insists on describing and admitting only what is evidenced by repeatable sense perceptions is, by unjustifiable assumption, excluding a crucial part of what is in fact reality, and denying experience, at least of some witnesses. If we are investigating the behaviour of a falling bowl of fruit, the momentum of a shifting chair, or the reflected gleam of coloured light from a rinsed bunch of grapes, then science is up to those tasks. But if this world is in fact God’s world, the cosmos of God’s own and entire creation, then there must likely be data and realities and experience that lie beyond the purview of the scientist, but within the reach of the theologian, and it is not nonsensical to say, within the grasp of the scientist-theologian, who looks with more eyes than the materialist, and may see things that would otherwise be missed. And some things that God does in God’s world have not happened before, which breaks no rules at all, least of all the so-called rules of science. Jesus came back from death in physical, not incorporeal form. So testify Simon and Cleopas and the rest. And then he also transcended simply human form, they also testify, as he ‘vanished from their sight.’ Similar repeated temporary appearances testified to in the gospels address our collective rational concerns: was this a one-off phenomenon? It would surely be suspect if it was. No, proclaim the collected witnesses. And so the apostles go on to assert by the inspiration of God’s Spirit amongst us: We shall all be raised incorruptible.

So there are undoubtedly new questions to face across the boundary of science and religion/theology, but these are perhaps more likely to be inspired by grappling with the worldview of the Christian faith, taking it as the source of inspiration, rather than from the disciplines of the sciences, in their pure forms. It’s not so much the new data from the progress of science per se that we should be looking out for (surely an implicit acceptance of the god-of-the-gaps fallacy), but the excluded and forbidden data from the testimonies and experience of those who journey with the God who invites us to live with Him by faith. And we can be confident that this will not destroy any proper science, though we may appreciate it more, being properly grounded in both awe and humility, and then go on to demonstrate consistency in the claim that it is the same God who makes light to shine in the world and Light to shine in our hearts. And I think Caravaggio would be pleased to join us on that adventure.

(c) 2022 Stephen Thompson

A prison of possibilities.

I hope you are appreciating the art featured in this blog, as well as the text. I find the combination synergistic- the product is greater than the sum of the parts. Is it inevitable that words, in however careful a way their combination may be contrived, will trigger certain images in the readers’ mind that are not so precisely what the author wishes for? The addition of an appropriate image can add a different sort of stimulus which guides the reader in a novel direction, and, importantly, away from other well-worn paths. Personally, I think this is as much true of my own invention and creation process: a particular image provokes my imagination and stimulates a specific line of thought. This post results from such an occasion. My list of broad and eclectic tastes includes architecture and architectural drawing. In trawling through Pinterest recently, I stumbled on this wonderful piece of work by Saif Mhaisen, who trained as an architect but moved sideways into being an artist because, as he kindly explained in correspondence, he sought the greater creative potential of visual imagery under the artist’s control. A full page displays 8 projections of a room featuring one inhabitant, each one beautifully contrasting spaces and the walls that are their boundaries, light and dark, windows and shadows- occupied by the same figure, shown in various poses, sometimes in motion, often static- yet very alive. What at first appears to be a thorough architectural exercise, laid out with mathematical formality, turns out to be rather more than the professionally objective depiction of a singular space merely adorned with a symbolic figure. As Saif says, “I draw people and paint things. Sometimes I paint people and draw things, but mostly I draw people and paint things”1. In this single room, the figure is the actual inhabitant of the space, not merely a graphic adornment as is usually the case in architectural drawings. I discern a particular individuality in this figure, very much a posed manikin, and yet somewhat removed from ideal proportions. The neck is a little extended, enhancing the suggestion of emotional state, which is resigned. And then it dawned on me2.

‘Design of a Prison Cell’ Saif Mhaisen. Pencil on paper. 2012. As I meditate on the life depicted in these drawings, the room so carefully rendered in nuanced tones, I realise that the figure is without shading, as if it maintains its own internal light, perhaps derived from the light that is allowed to beam in from outside- both from the generous window and the skylight above. Can there be an institution called ‘Hope Prison’? I think Saif has drawn it. [My thanks to Saif Mhaisen for permission to reproduce this image.]

The reason that Saif Mhaisen’s figure is so organically part of this room is because this is the only place where they live and exist: it is their prison cell- and not a hermitage or a garden outhouse; neither a shed nor a private hotel room. It is part of this world- or at least it could be, if it were built- but shown completely detached from the rest of the building it must be part of, and likewise, the life of the inmate is absolutely separate from the rest of society.

And I still love this picture- these pictures. Perhaps, I now love them more. A prison is a creative place, is it not? I imagine that this would be an exercise for architecture students. They design rooms for all sorts of purposes, and a prison cell is a technology of incarceration that should be as much about rehabilitation as it is about punishment. A return to the womb of society, so that in that concentrated solitude the person within might be reformed and developed. The constraint is for a purpose, and in Mhaisen’s hand, the pencil describes a grid and a network of viewpoints that could be, we might hope, a renewing and humanising influence on the less-than-human, flawed individual that has been (temporarily) locked within. As I researched Mhaisen’s background, I found a New York Times article about artistic reflections on prison and imprisonment, evocatively titled, ‘The pencil is a key.’ If I ever were to be a prisoner, may it be in Mhaisen’s cell, for he has drawn a lock-up in which the man within can find the way to a new life, and real freedom. I get the impression that Mhaisen has progressed to a glittering career in art, and perhaps this epithet speaks of his visual artistry more broadly, equivalent to the literary proverb, ‘The pen is mightier than the sword.’

The thing is, a room is not just a room. One room may seem to be very much like any other, a bounded space in which life is possible. But all rooms are not the same, and certainly, the dimensions are significant, as is the matter of one’s freedom. A room with an open doorway is a very different thing from one in which you are locked, permanently, or at the whim of a jailer. A small space is limiting to human creativity and human becoming, while a large space, especially a house that one is free to do as one wishes, a place of vigorous life. Yet we might prove curiously adaptable to the contours of the social environments we find ourselves in. While some princes may be famed in their imprisonment, a humble peasant might become a philosopher. Of greatest importance in this is the companionship that we may or may not enjoy. What use is unfettered freedom on a richly provisioned island without other persons to share it with? The song lyric refers to more than love when it proclaims, ‘How wonderful life is while you’re in the world.’ There is more to being human than the dimensions of our bodies, the spaces we live in, or even the duress we might endure.

Which brings me to space and science. Our understanding of our place in the universe has developed by twists and turns as we have slowly come to understand that there is a universe, and that we live on a planet, with a star nearby, and some planetary neighbours that are so far away that at best they are only more mobile specks of light in the circling night sky. Not so long ago astronomy was more a matter of fantasy than of fact, when Ptolemy had the Earth at the centre of the geocentric system and drew fanciful circles within circles (they were called epicycles) to match the observed motions of the planets with his ideology that everything in the heavens could only move in perfect circles- there could be no other kind of orbit, the ancients were convinced. Nearing his death, Nicolas Copernicus finally published his worked-up heliocentric theory, moving the Earth to its proper place as a satellite of our blazing Sun, but he still had Ptolemy’s epicycles. Despite Galileo’s discoveries of the orbiting moons of Jupiter and the phases of Venus, it would take Tycho Brahe’s precise observations and Kepler’s mathematics to drag astronomical theorising into the proper realms of what we now call science. If it looks like a planetary body is orbiting in an ellipse, rather than a circle, then that is actually what it is doing!

Now this is all head-above-the-clouds stuff, obviously, and we might wonder what difference this made to the average Jane and Joe back then. It matters because, inevitably, we are very much influenced in our view of ourselves by our perceptions and evaluations of our our surroundings. Is it right to criticise the past folk for accumulating ideas of their own significance, bolstered by the sense perception that the sun and moon and stars give all the appearance of going around us and our world? Such intuitions may be recognised as being naïve and very wrong now, but they were not stupid.

Fast forward to the Moon Race in the 1960s, and December 24th 1968. I was 3 months old, so would not have known that Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders was far away on the other side of the moon, and very much surprised by the sight of our Earth appearing over the lunar horizon as they were scoping out possible landing sites for the later missions. By the marvels of modern technology, we can now go back in time to join them in this moment when the most reproduced photograph in history was taken- the view of our blue and cloud wreathed planet revealed against the inky blackness of deep space. If you scoot over all the links I’ve placed in my posts up to now, fair enough, but please go and see that one.

As you may now appreciate, this printed picture, a spread of black and blue and green ink on a white sheet of paper, was the stuff of which new dreams of our significance could be made of. It is no less true to say now that the Apollo missions were about mankind’s adventuring to the moon- going there, coming back, going again and landing, and then coming home safely again. And what a great adventure it was, which succeeded in placing 12 men on the lunar surface, and returning all who set out to their homes again. But there was another adventure that was not foreseen- to show all of us our Earth, our Home, from the perspective of another place entirely. Though perhaps T S Eliot could claim to have done so.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

—T.S. Eliot, from “Little Gidding,” Four Quartets, 1943.

It seems that we have all become different as human beings because a few of us went away on this brief journey. I didn’t get to go on that exploration- though perhaps now I have, as I have seen the NASA reconstruction. This knowledge is not final, but it is different and more than we had before. Some refuse it; others embrace it. Several astronauts have become more outspoken in defence of our planet after seeing this singular jewel-like Earth from space- our only life support system. One Apollo veteran tells of how he went to the shopping mall after his return simply to sit and watch regular folk going about their common business. He was doing nothing except savouring the epiphany of our existence on this extraordinary rock.

One of the scientists who briefed the Apollo crews was Carl Sagan, more famous today perhaps as sci fi author and TV presenter. Sagan is rightly considered an intellectual giant in our era because he understood, and could articulate with artistry, that we needs must generate narratives about our place in the universe, and consider what meanings might emerge from the facts we learn. He said that we learn much about ourselves in the process of considering if there might be life out there. Sagan had the vision to attach a message to the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecraft, and after them, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, so that should these probes meet ET in the distant future, they would have an advanced letter of introduction. The Golden Records contain the music of Bach and Chuck Berry, photographs of people living their regular lives, and a scaled map of their launching point. But surely it is we who have more to learn from these snapshots of Earth and humanity, and their selectivity. A story may be composed and told in one way at first, but in the retelling, there is reconsideration, and the meaning of the narrative might change significantly.

So proved to be the case. Voyager 1 was finally leaving our Solar System in 1990, and it was Sagan who proposed a new project that was not originally envisaged. The camera was turned back to look toward Earth, now only the tiniest star-like speck of light, tinged a little blue- perhaps? Twenty two years after Earthrise we now had The Pale Blue Dot. Let’s see what Sagan had to say as he absorbed these images and sought to guide our reflections on our Place of Birth. The first excerpt is from Cosmos, the second and longer one from ‘Pale Blue Dot.’

Pale Blue Dot is a photograph of planet Earth taken on February 14, 1990, by the Voyager 1 space probe from a record distance of about 6 billion kilometers (3.7 billion miles, 40.5 AU), as part of that day’s Family Portrait series of images of the Solar System.
In the photograph, Earth’s apparent size is less than a pixel; the planet appears as a tiny dot against the vastness of space, among bands of sunlight reflected by the camera.[1]
Voyager 1, which had completed its primary mission and was leaving the Solar System, was commanded by NASA to turn its camera around and take one last photograph of Earth across a great expanse of space, at the request of astronomer and author Carl Sagan.[2] The phrase “Pale Blue Dot” was coined by Sagan in his reflections on the photograph’s significance, documented in his 1994 book of the same name.[1]

“The Earth is a place. It is by no means the only place. It is not even a typical place. No planet or star or galaxy can be typical, because the Cosmos is mostly empty. The only typical place is within the vast, cold, universal vacuum, the everlasting night of intergalactic space, a place so strange and desolate that, by comparison, planets and stars and galaxies seem achingly rare and lovely.” —Cosmos

“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space

There is much at stake in these passages, and I am happy to appreciate the profound insights and nuances in reasoning that Sagan pens with his considerable erudition. It is quite proper that following the flush of excitement that greeted ‘Earthrise’, there has been precious little repentance regarding our collective despoiling of our precious and singular planet, from which we cannot expect to escape to somehow try again. Sagan’s cajoling, including his rubbishing of inadequate religion, corrupting politics and exponentially increasing collective greed, sum up in a justified tirade. If it is such that a religion continues to deceive and mislead in regard of our collective thriving and the sustainability of our ways of life on this Good Earth, may I be found first in line to agree with Sagan in calling that out. I suspect Sagan may have thought so of such as me, but I do not, in fact, believe in such a God or hold to such a faith.

But I would turn this analysis around. Is it not the case that Carl Sagan makes unjustified claims of his own that are, frankly, ideological if not outright religious in nature. His naturalism/atheism is in clear view, and he is entitled to hold whatever point of view he wishes. But his category errors are clear and egregious. A careful study of the lines above leads us to discover the sound and simple claims that we are biological beings made of matter that can only survive on a body composed of the same matter. Our Earth is the third rock in orbit around our sun, and it is perfectly fine to stand afar off and describe this as a speck of dust. Its quite a big lump from where I’m sitting right now, and it must be big so some can fool about pretending that its flat. What is more, this rock must be bathed in sunbeams, as that is the necessary source of energy. And within a suitable range of intensity, as Goldilocks prefers. Finally, we need a life sustaining watery atmosphere. And there it is- the Chinese have spring onion, garlic and ginger, from which to construct every delicious menu. The planetary astronomer wants only for rock, light and air, in decent proportions.

But it is plain that Sagan will not stop here. He seems very exercised by the scale of things. The size of the stage, our Earth, compared with the scale of the surrounding darkness, seems to matter a great deal to Sagan. Our self-esteem as a species and as individuals seems in question when the vastness of the cosmos is recorded on the other side of the balance sheet. The fact that we find ourselves, at this time, to be physically alone in the universe- the only forms of life are earthly ones- is taken as a great strike against our being significant. But the question must be put to this esteemed and accomplished scientist: who composes such a balance sheet, in which the values of physical variables are supposedly collated on the credit side, while the qualitative judgements of human opinions are placed on the debit side? What scientific assumptions are being drawn on? To be brief: there are none- these are only the unscientific opinions of a Ptolemaic ideologue. Sagan is committing serial category errors. He is mixing up considerations of scientifically discovered facts with questions of meaning, big questions of human value, that are beyond physics. Sagan manages to allow that there is still some sort of meaning, value, kindness and love, but will only allow their existence within the bounds of materialism, and he is committed to a calculus in which their value is outweighed by the scale of the cosmos. Sagan says that whatever brief loves we may be fortunate to celebrate, we are surely drowned by loneliness even as we enjoy them.

The same is surely true of Professor Dawkins, who opines thus when considering the tangle of ecological realities:

“The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”

― Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life

Dawkins will doubtless have considered the exact phraseology he wishes to use, and he is certainly qualified to speak to the science of this matter, as a behavioural ecologist and geneticist. He will have considered the likely objections of academics and religious adherents whose criticisms he expects. Yet the faults are clear: category mistakes abound. Physical forces are ‘blind’, the natural state of biology is ‘misery’, while the universe as a whole has the property of ‘pitiless indifference.’ But these are unscientific anthropomorphisms and metaphysical claims smuggled into what purports to be a scientific perspective on the world and ourselves.

There is, it seems, a shameless honesty in this position. Here is Sagan doubling down on his claims, baldly stating that in the face off between beliefs and values on the one hand, and science on the other, the proper winner is Science:

“The universe is a pretty big place. If it’s just us, seems like an awful waste of space.”

“If we long to believe that the stars rise and set for us, that we are the reason there is a Universe, does science do us a disservice in deflating our conceits?”

― Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

It is all to the good that Sagan and Dawkins and others vigorously make the case that Science should inform our consideration of the Ultimate Questions about human existence and meaning. It makes a difference to our evaluations when we know what the cosmos is really like, what living things are like, how all this comes to be, and what means we have to gain objective evidence about the cosmos our adventuring and learning takes place in. It is right to call out the wooden thinking and obfuscations of inherited ideologies, whether old religious ones or the new religions of money and avarice.

But when such caveats are completed, the core complaint remains. For Sagan and Dawkins, we are imprisoned. We are imprisoned in space, on this lonesome rock called Earth. We might have each other, as playmates and families and lovers and colleagues and so on, but we are still all, collectively and individually, alone in an empty universe- and if there are others, it makes no difference, as they are too rare and too far away, beyond communication of any sort and in any timescale that matters to us humans. We may succeed in significant space travel in some distant era, but only at a miniscule scale. I think that we do better to focus on the aspects of Sagan’s complaints that pertain to the rescue of planet Earth from self inflicted disaster. His points are well made in this regard, and we would do well to amplify his alarm calls. He points us to the human value of kindness, which I agree would be a sound enough meeting place for peoples of all opinions and creeds.

And Sagan and Dawkins agree. We are imprisoned in time: born to live but ever so briefly, and then all too soon, to be completely and permanently snuffed out, after such a brief stay. There is again an honesty and rationality to this confession, for so many press on in wilful denial of the reality of our mortality. There is a light to be shed into our lives by such an embrace. Sagan puts it well, when, laying aside his appeals to scientific authority he speaks plainly as a poet:

“Far better it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides.”

And now the stage is cleared of stumbling blocks, so we can contemplate with a clearer mind whether there are any other bases on which we can consider our existential questions. In the prison cell, the inmate’s welfare is partly dependent on food and water and daylight and exercise, certainly, but also on other matters that are not so easily enumerated. As I mused over these things, I considered how much it is the case that the Earth and our lives on it could constitute a prison, or perhaps a place with potential. Your answers will depend on the perspectives you decide to adopt. I fell to considering how I might modify Saif Mhaisen’s artwork, and decided that I would transform it into a diptych. Next to the original I have pasted artwork from science texts, which provide particular views and perspectives on the nature of our world. The first is the interior exploded in an architectural drawing fashion, showing the mantle and core within the rocky sphere. The layers of the atmosphere, more complex than we might first expect, are shown below. There are some perspectives on Earth from space, some with astronauts in their temporary suit- prisons, without which they would not survive. Other views evoke the contrasts of light and dark at different times of day, such a key part of our experience. A solar eclipse sometimes produces the so-called ‘diamond ring’ effect, but in this image, the Earth has been substituted for the Sun, as this is the real gem in the Solar System, forged from the generations of stars that preceded us all. And lower left is the ‘Earthrise’ picture from 1968 which I described earlier.

‘Design of a Cell of Creative Possibilities, 2022. Stephen Thompson. Digital collage-montage based on and responding to Saif Mhaisen’s ‘Design of a Prison Cell’, 2012

So what do you think? Is this Earth a prison, and even if you say, Yes, is that a bad thing? The science is clear: the gravity of this 12 742 km diameter rock holds down both us and our atmosphere- without this forcefield, all the means of sustaining life simply drift away. And the same keeps us in orbit around our benign star, the Sun. Aside from the vital realisation that we must collectively change our behaviour to take better care of our unique and irreplaceable world, what other responses might you make? Sagan and Dawkins seem to agree to progress further on their adventure of discovery of what the world is like. They express anger and frustration, both at the way they see the cosmos/world to be, and especially at the irrationality of many powerful people, past and present (with which I would agree). They are resigned to certain findings and conclusions that they draw. There could well be purpose and value in a life lived even in a prison from which there can be no ultimate escape. Is it enough to accept that the only legacy we leave is that which remains in the passing memories of those who lived with us and knew us?

Here is where Sagan, Dawkins and I part company. Sagan is right to say that no-one and nothing is going to come to save us from ourselves, from the growing predicament of our climate emergency and the environmental destruction we are wreaking on this our home planet. No alien extra-terrestrials are nearby to help us fix this mess. But the proper embrace of my intellectual elders for Science has spilled over into Scientism, a love of reason into materialism, and their rejection of the possibility of Revelation is irrational. Science and reason have no authority to give final judgement on such a question, and recall that Dawkins did tell us that he appreciates the potential reach of justice.

In short, the Biblical claims of Revelation ought to be taken seriously, and I am one who has tried to do so, and have concluded that the biblical claims pass the tests and scrutiny of reasonable sceptics, who properly apply the tests of science, as far as they are justified, but not further. The faith of the apostles Peter and Paul in the Incarnate One known as Jesus of Nazareth was severely tested- it passed the ultimate tests, even up to death, and this was not a sudden surprise. There were many acute trials before that, some of which involved imprisonment for their faith. Here are two key episodes rehearsed in the book of Acts:

So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church. Now when Herod was about to bring him out, on that very night, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries before the door were guarding the prison. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood next to him, and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him, saying, “Get up quickly.” And the chains fell off his hands. And the angel said to him, “Dress yourself and put on your sandals.” And he did so. And he said to him, “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me.” And he went out and followed him. He did not know that what was being done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision. 10 When they had passed the first and the second guard, they came to the iron gate leading into the city. It opened for them of its own accord, and they went out and went along one street, and immediately the angel left him. 11 When Peter came to himself, he said, “Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.”

Acts 12:5-11 ESV

16 As we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners much gain by fortune-telling. 17 She followed Paul and us, crying out, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” 18 And this she kept doing for many days. Paul, having become greatly annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour. 19 But when her owners saw that their hope of gain was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the rulers. 20 And when they had brought them to the magistrates, they said, “These men are Jews, and they are disturbing our city. 21 They advocate customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to accept or practice.” 22 The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates tore the garments off them and gave orders to beat them with rods. 23 And when they had inflicted many blows upon them, they threw them into prison, ordering the jailer to keep them safely. 24 Having received this order, he put them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks. 25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, 26 and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s bonds were unfastened. 27 When the jailer woke and saw that the prison doors were open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul cried with a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” 29 And the jailer[a] called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas. 30 Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32 And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33 And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family. 34 Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God. 35 But when it was day, the magistrates sent the police, saying, “Let those men go.” 36 And the jailer reported these words to Paul, saying, “The magistrates have sent to let you go. Therefore come out now and go in peace.” 37 But Paul said to them, “They have beaten us publicly, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and do they now throw us out secretly? No! Let them come themselves and take us out.” 38 The police reported these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Roman citizens. 39 So they came and apologized to them. And they took them out and asked them to leave the city. 40 So they went out of the prison and visited Lydia. And when they had seen the brothers, they encouraged them and departed.

Acts 16:16-40 ESV

I hope you find the contrasts and parallels between these accounts, and with the artwork we have considered, to be instructive. I will leave you to draw your own conclusions, for the most part, saying just this. The claims of the Biblical accounts of the people of faith, who followed as disciples of Jesus Christ, are that while there are physical features of this world that sustain life and enable us to enjoy freedom in community, there is on offer a different mode of life that considers that the common life of flesh and blood, or family and business and reproduction and even creativity are not exhaustive criteria. Very simply, Peter’s story shows that prayer changes things, even engineering a dramatic release from prison, while Paul and Silas show that praise to God might also cause a transformation in society- note that they refused to run away quickly from their own incarceration but stayed put, tending to the welfare of their own jailer and then gave the opportunity to reinforce their further imprisonment on the authorities who had put them into jail in the first place. All this is simply foolishness to the rationalising man who considers science to be the only means to reliable knowledge about the cosmos. But the Christian says that the cosmos is in fact God’s own cosmos, and though unseen, He may be the guest at every meal, the One who blesses us with food and water and all manner of increase. He is, in fact, the God who raised Christ from the dead, showing the great victory of light over darkness. In so many words, Peter, Paul and Silas might say in our day, “How wonderful life is, as You have come into our world!” With great sadness, we observe that it is the wilfully blind and scientistic man who is imprisoned, remaining without hope.

I hope you agree that the important question should not be, ‘Are we in a prison?’ but, ‘Might we receive Visitors?’ Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins think that we are, for all our trivial freedoms, ultimately imprisoned in a cosmos of vast emptiness in which we have a painfully short time to absorb the meaningless wonder of our all-too-brief existence. In their proper enthusiasm for the power of the sciences to enlighten our collective understanding and expand the reach of our finding out about the remarkable universe which we find ourselves in, they unreasonably limit the boundaries of valid evidence pertinent to the Questions, ‘Are we alone?’ and, ‘Might our lives have hope beyond death?’ Do you agree, or am I merely indulging the wishful thinking of every imprisoned convict?

All of us are in the gutter. Some of us are looking at the stars, some of us are wondering, “Why did we build such a big gutter?”

Luke rollason, Edinburgh Fringe 2022
  • References:
  • ‘Design of a Prison Cell’ Saif Mhaisen. Pencil on paper. 2012. https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/637963103481799607/ See https://tashkeel.org/artists/saif-mhaisen, and…
  • 1. https://digitalcommons.risd.edu/masterstheses/283/
  • [POST PUBLICATION ADDITION] Saif Mhaisen has been very kind to correspond with me after the drafting of this article. He explained that while many have responded to his ‘Design of a Prison Cell’, usually for professional architectural purposes, my response was the first that gave an interpretation in terms of hope. I find this instructive. Despite the best efforts and competent skill of a practitioner, the viewer/recipient may not acknowledge what is clearly depicted before them. There again, it may simply underline the powerful synergy between verbal and visual modes of communication. While against this is the matter of freedom. In viewing Saif’s architectural-artwork without additional commentary, the viewer is left with greater freedom to make a personal and independent interpretation. Likewise, in his response, Saif was very happy to give his appreciation for my perspective, but also careful not to say whether that was what he had intended in the first place, or what he might think now. This too is freedom- the freedom of the artist to depict and to create and to represent, but to maintain a distance from the work so they retain their own dignity and free agency.
  • 2 Technical paper for teachers:https://uk.sagepub.com/sites/default/files/upm-binaries/27832_Ch_1.pdf & https://www.onestopenglish.com/professional-development/advancing-learning-the-fifth-skill-viewing/557577.article This is one example of the pedagogical insight that we learn more effectively if the teaching process stimulates our brains in multiple ways, through words/ auditory means AND through images/visual means. In contrast to the now discredited notion that learners prefer ONE of the visual/auditory/ kinaesthetic modes. Later I will extend this by analogy to the EI approach that debunks Sagan and Dawkins: the questions they claim to answer in fact demand an EI ie multidisciplinary approach, marshalling the powers of science and also other disciplines to address big questions about the meaning and significance of human life at the cosmic scale. Further, the Biblical record of Acts specifically demands this in a causal manner, explicating the overlap of physical explanation (earthquakes that undo prison doors) with supernatural ones (angelic appearance and intervention). [NB I do not simply mean that ‘A picture is worth a thousand words’ as is said by many. I am referring to the combination of thought conveyed by words and well chosen images together in the service of a narrative or argument.]
  • https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/12/arts/design/the-pencil-is-a-key-review-drawing-center.html
  • https://www.instagram.com/saifmhaisen/?hl=en
  • ‘How wonderful life is while you’re in the world’ from Your Song, Bernie Taupin and Elton John https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/eltonjohn/yoursong.html I extend this allusion (from the realisation of fellowship and society as impairment of the life of the prisoner) to our spiritual fulfilment in God: How very wonderful life is if You are in our world.
  • https://www.planetary.org/worlds/pale-blue-dot Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot, 1994 Copyright © 1994 by Carl Sagan, Copyright © 2006 by Democritus Properties, LLC.

These Easter Days: A Week of New Creation

Unbounded God, All in All

Withdrew from a space to give us Free

Then the first days made open, Empty

into which God spoke fulness; thus Complete again.

Sealed with a sabbath Rest,

Transcendent through Incarnation into this Creation Garden

with us and the weeds.

On the first Day, the would-be king came humbly on a donkey

Hosannas and waving fronds filled the air.

Now saddle and streets are empty.

Another Day, the would-be Lord washed dusty feet and dried them with a towel

Now bowl and cloth lie abandoned, while others wait for service.

He broke the Bread, and passed The Cup

That supper now is eaten.

On this Day the olive Garden was filled with fellowship

Son of Man with man, God with God, and in that evening, sleep. Awake!

Here comes the deceived accuser

offering false kisses.

The children of the night work in the darkness, pushing the son of Man into cells and

court rooms, filled with tricksters and false testimony.

But the fruit of evil can be uncreated by a word with the Father

For-give them, for they know Not what they are Doing.

On This Day the crown of thorns was filled with his sacred Head

yet that circle now is empty, the wounds become a font of Healing.

The road to the east of Zion filled with the persevering steps of God and Man made One

Son of Man and Simon of Cyrene.

And this Week was made complete by the seven sayings. Not

by temporary nails.

It was the fulness of His Love that put him there. And now

It is Finished!

And now the cup of wrath is emptied.

His spirit given Up

Cross emptied; His body broken

Blood and water

Separated

The Arimathean tomb is filled and sealed before the Feast

for this is Very Good, they said.

The next Day seemed to be filled with doubts and death

but one and then the other will surely be Undone

On the great Day of Easter Light

speaks and says Behold

The sealed tomb is emptied

He is not here. He is risen!

This new week of Freedom from deception and despair

now begins with Hope that we now glimpse and understand:

Our Immanent God will now be Present with us

filling All in All

in every Day.

What can we co-create with Christ?

In the fulness of His Spirit,

God and Man brought together, One

sealed to the end.

(c) 2022 Stephen Thompson

The Apocalypse comes to Ukraine- scaling up faith in the worldview of Daniel 7.

As I start to write this, over 7.1 million people have been internally displaced since the invasion of Ukraine, according to the second Ukraine Internal Displacement Report issued by the International Organization for Migration. The UNHCR say that almost 3.7 million persons have become refugees from Ukraine since the invasion on 24 February 2022, while Ukraine’s border force further records that 537,000 have returned to the country. The scale of tragedy ensuing from the continuing sins of commission of Vladimir Putin, Putin’s willing circle and the mostly willing military forces under their instructions has passed imagination. Western news media is doing us a service in showing faces and telling some of their names, helping us to grasp something of the individual challenges and tragedies that befall the Ukrainian population. They are but a tiny sample of the suffering, most of whom will remain unknown to us, whether now alive or dead.

A similar sense of being overwhelmed by the sheer scale of events builds through the Book of Daniel. In the early chapters we are introduced to Daniel and also to his three companions, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, though they quickly pass from our attention. We are beckoned along through various episodes in Daniel’s story of leadership, a singular representative of the Jewish exiles in Babylon, and should be amazed by the potential for co-creative partnership that he discovers is possible as a child of Yahweh God, the Jehovah of Israel. Though the nation and the state apparatus does its darndest to squeeze Daniel and all the Israelite exiles into its mould, swallowing them up to be Babylonians, sequestering their talents and efforts and erasing their culture and personality, this dastardly intention fails. Instead, it is Daniel who is the putty that becomes the mould, the form into which first Nebuchadnezzar, then Belshazzar, and then Darius and Cyrus are themselves manipulated and transformed. The very kings of Babylon, the monarchs of greatest nation in the earth under God! They, and we, find out where the power really lies. It is accessed through the life of faith.

But in these ages such triumphs are temporal- temporary signs of a victory yet to be realised- and still, even after the great Resurrection we celebrate again at this coming Eastertide, the ages of ‘now but not yet’ are not completed. Chapter six draws to a close with this blunt conclusion. “So this Daniel prospered during the reign of Darius and the reign of Cyrus the Persian.” Then we turn the page and, instead of some further tale of the exploits of the man of God in the court of Cyrus, there is an altogether different sort of scene laid out before us.

Hans Holbein, the younger (c. 1497 – 1543): his Old Testament illustrations, Dance of death and other woodcuts. London: William Heinemann, 1912. Coloured version; though perhaps not a scheme Holbein would have recognised. Do these pastel shades suggest a rather more sanitised atmosphere than the text demands? Holbein seems to prefer that the ‘ribs’ of Daniel’s vision would be better portrayed as (not for long) whole people, each sporting crowns as kings or young princes might wear, though two of these are rendered in green above.

In the first year of Belshazzar king of Babylon, Daniel saw a dream and visions of his head as he lay in his bed. Then he wrote down the dream and told the sum of the matter. Daniel declared,[a] “I saw in my vision by night, and behold, the four winds of heaven were stirring up the great sea. And four great beasts came up out of the sea, different from one another. The first was like a lion and had eagles’ wings. Then as I looked its wings were plucked off, and it was lifted up from the ground and made to stand on two feet like a man, and the mind of a man was given to it. And behold, another beast, a second one, like a bear. It was raised up on one side. It had three ribs in its mouth between its teeth; and it was told, ‘Arise, devour much flesh.’ After this I looked, and behold, another, like a leopard, with four wings of a bird on its back. And the beast had four heads, and dominion was given to it. After this I saw in the night visions, and behold, a fourth beast, terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong. It had great iron teeth; it devoured and broke in pieces and stamped what was left with its feet. It was different from all the beasts that were before it, and it had ten horns. I considered the horns, and behold, there came up among them another horn, a little one, before which three of the first horns were plucked up by the roots. And behold, in this horn were eyes like the eyes of a man, and a mouth speaking great things.

Hans Holbein’s woodcut is one of a small number of attempts to depict the four beasts in visual imagery. Few other examples of these strange figures have been attempted, possibly because a majority of those who have tried found any verisimilitude even less plausible than their attempts to give a believable depiction of the dreamy descriptions in the text of the Hebrew Bible. Something more convincing could be achieved in our day through animation, for everything is in flux: the beastly creatures, the scenes that are played out before us, and, indeed, the very experience of the seer, who we are told is the same Daniel of chapters 1 to 6. It is all too much to ask of one medieval-Renaissance artist.

Deformed animals would have been known, in principle, to the ancients, and studies predate modern genetics and our understanding of mutations and foetal abnormalities. L Pig with two bottoms, and four legs to boot. CL Cyclops pig: only one eye in its skull. CR Abnormal foetus drawings. R Two headed deer. See reference paper. Taking the cyclops trait as an example, Homer’s Odyssey which features a monster with one eye was written around 700BC. This is well before the reign of Nebuchadnezzar (reign 605-562BC ?). I take this as prima facie evidence that such phenomena were known, however vaguely, and allusions to them would be expected to be incorporated into literature in some form or another.

Should we detect several deliberate allusions to the Genesis narrative in this account? I think so: there are winds moving over waters, and a series of strange creations emerging from the deep. There is speaking of command and with power, though by whom? However, the creatures emerge from the water, not the land, and they are each one of a strange kind, not two by two, and thankfully unable to breed. They are, rather, described as being neither this nor that– both mammal and bird in chimeric form, asymmetric, part formed, and not quite complete, eating flesh rather than fruit or seed. The second monster is already eating its fill before the command to eat flesh has been given. Compared with Genesis 1, everything is out of order, chaotic and confused. The first beast is subject to some supernatural operation, as before our gaze certain parts are removed and then a further transmogrification takes place. Into a man! In Genesis, the Human is the final glorious creation, but here, in some crude pre-Frankenstein surgery, the first beast is immediately contorted while very much awake into the shape of enash (In the Aramaic section of Daniel: man, mankind, directly equivalent to the Hebrew ha’adam), a man; and as this animal-human lifeform is completed, a mind is given to it, the mind of a man. Our current world of science and rationality rightly asks, ‘What is it to be human?’ The answers often settle around a list of measurable characteristics: upright stance and two-footed gait freeing the hands, lack of body hair, opposable thumbs, a significant capacity for language, and a cranial capacity making possible an intellect and sociability far beyond the scope of other primates, singing whales or the few birds that use tools. Well, perhaps that is the human man that is described here in Daniel 7:4. But it is not quite the same ha’adam of Genesis 1 and 2, moulded by God’s own fingers and thumbs from the red clay earth, life breathed in by God’s own pneuma. This enash is a fake image-idol, a counterfeit. There is no partner for this man or any other of the beasts. Do I discern a dark emphasis of this point in the second beast? The bear-like creature has ribs in its mouth as it is elevated from the waters- the part of ha’adam that God took once asleep in gentle surgery to transform into the woman- now the ribs are only evidence of a crudely consumed meal. What does ‘raised up on one side’ mean? Holbein draws a deformed hump on the back of his bear, but I think that something very much more wonky is intended. In Genesis, there are neat spaces of creation in days 1-3, which are tidily filled in days 4-6. As creation proceeds, there is an organised separation of spaces and things, which are then populated and completed as everything is drawn together into a beautifully pleasing whole; habitats and organisms, ecosystems and biosphere, in the parlance of biologists. In Daniel 7, all this ordering from chaos is disturbed, and so are we, as we read this vision which severely tests Daniel’s credulity. Even as he dreams, we sense him rubbing his eyes in disbelief and growing disquiet. There are no proper names for what he sees, and nothing here is ‘very good.’

Daniel rubs his eyes, ‘After this, I looked…’ scanning back and forth, trying to make sense of what he sees. After the lion-eagle and the monstrous bear comes the third beast, a fast and strong big cat, a leopard, crafty at hiding, lightning quick to pounce. And yet it too has wings, too many wings; and then Daniel looks back- Oh, it has four heads! Of what powers and abilities might such a creature boast? In a horrifying twist to Genesis 1: 26 and 28, the dominion that was at first given to ha’adam is now summarily conferred on this one.

So it seems that Daniel’s dream vision in 7:1-8 is a very significant change in genre from what has been told up to this point in chapters 1-6. We are no longer in the marketplace life of the Jewish exiles in Babylon, or even the counter-intuitive position of privilege of the co-creating people of God given divine favour in the courts of dictatorial kings or the offices of oppressive foreign rulers. Daniel’s vision suddenly offers a cosmic perspective where constrained and mortal humans cannot really see, where time and place, persons and powers can only be represented to us by metaphor and allegory. Later in the New Testament these agents would be called principalities and powers by Paul and the other apostles.

All pretence at realistic depiction is lost from verse 7. Daniel rubs his eyes even harder this time, “After this I saw in the night visions, and behold, a fourth beast…” He cannot even attempt to name what this thing is, referring only to its feet and teeth, which are of iron, apparently, and the feet stamp: both teeth and feet are said to consume and destroy. It has horns, and like the earlier creatures, parts are detachable. The form and nature of this monstrous thing changes before us, and readers of a certain age are likely to think that this description resonates with that of a ‘Transformer’ from a cartoon or a Michael Bay film. And I find to my great surprise that ‘Transformers 7, Rise of the Beasts‘ is slated for release on June 9th 2023.

I recall reading one commentator many years ago who suggested that the description of the fourth beast matches that of a tank, with caterpillar tracks and various guns and projectiles, though I can’t find anything to this effect on the web presently. However, I am not sure that one tank would really fit Daniel’s description, or that tank designers took that vision explicitly as their template.

But I think this line of reasoning is suspect, not having anything much to do with proper exegesis, hermeneutics or application. Reading our biases into texts is all-too easy to do, (this is the error of eisegesis) and I daresay you’ll catch me at it sometime or another. No, I think it is more responsible to read these lines through lenses that respect the allegorical and metaphorical rather than attempt the literal or realistically representational. Just as in Genesis! There is spiritually enlightened logic at work here, where the cosmological perspective is inclusive of things and persons and events that we can see and do participate in agentially, but also that there are further realities which we do not see- which we cannot see, unless God reveals them. What Daniel takes pains to carefully describe and record is rather obviously on this borderline of sense perception and spirit perception, and by spirit perception, I only mean what the Spirit of God choses to let us in on, not what some might surmise they can find out through some mysterious or Gnostic discernment- the idea that certain folk can develop their spiritual senses to work out for themselves what is invisible to others. This is important, because otherwise we fall through Gnosticism to magic and a Christianised view of the escape from Plato’s cave, where only certain (spiritually) clever people come to know stuff hidden in principle from lesser mortals, believers or otherwise. Such ‘spiritual elitism’ is not orthodox biblical Christianity. Nevertheless, those who study the scriptures and commit to a rich life of prayer should expect to come to a fuller view of reality as God makes it possible for us to know and understand it, and especially as that Reality is God. “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” There are also examples for us of men and women of faith who have lived such a deep life of prayer that they have changed the course of world events, including wars. Rees Howells is surely foremost amongst them, and you can download and read the whole of Norman Grub’s 1952 biography here, which in its last few chapters includes testimony that God called Howells and the team of intercessors he led into co-creative partnership at vital and specific occasions during World War 2. If Admiral Sir Tony Radakin’s remarks on 31 March are to be taken at face value, rather than as propaganda, then we may already be able to point to significant answers to such prayers today.

What is most fearsome about the fourth beast? Surely it is not so much in its hypothetical likeness to a tank, or to a dragon, or some other fanciful monster. What is most horrifying is told at the close of the description in 7:8. Its final horn has eyes like the eyes of a man, and a mouth speaking great things. It is like us, the worst of us, on a very bad day. As some have put it, ‘All monsters are human.’

The commentaries are in general agreement about the historical and political allusions that are being made in these four beastly figures, at least to begin with. As Babylon is known from archaeology for its lion gate motifs, and Nebuchadnezzar was the high-flying king-man made crawling beast, before recovering his humanity- his ‘heart’, so is the first beast. The second is the succeeding reign of the Medes and Persians- a federation in which the Persians were the superior force, thus making it unsymmetrical. Things are less clear after this. The Greco-Macedonian empire followed next in history- but is it Alexander the Great and his exploits we are reading about, or rather the Seleucid King Antiochus Epiphanes, who was a highly oppressive influence in Jerusalem? More probably the latter. By the time of Jesus, the secure consensus would have been to identify the fourth beast as the Roman empire, with its many horns signifying the line of Caesars. The final conclusions one reaches will be significantly influenced by one’s view of the text. Is this purely prophecy before the fact, or are we reading post-redaction by later editors who knew what had happened? Some modern readers suggest that the timescale of the fourth beast extends to the New Testament Apocalypse of St John of the Revelation, as they suppose the next part of the vision is about the final judgement. But all such considerations in this paragraph are predicated on the timeline being of prime importance, with historical referents, and I suspect that is not so much the case. What is important in reading Daniel 7 and following? Humanity now shows it has a profound flaw in the will to power, to endless acquisition and accumulation, to empire building, to hoarding and oppression of all sorts, and if unchecked and unrepaired, it is this that creates dragons that fight and consume one another, one after another. Daniel was such a means and method in God’s hands to counsel kings, man to man, as I have reflected on previously, but what the kings of empires create tends to be much larger than what most individuals could dream of achieving in a lifetime. The ages and empires are often known by the names of their leading figures, but their products can become a behemoth of inhuman proportions, somewhere on a scale between magnificent and monstrous. More often monstrous.

In our so-called ‘modern’ world, making judgements about leaders comes with extra layers of complexity, especially in so-called ‘democratic’ countries. Most folk likely to read this blog will have been able to exercise their right to vote for a local candidate on just one day in the election cycle, and perhaps we are happy that we backed the winner, or maybe we are aggrieved because our preferred candidate fell short. After this, decision making then tends to concentrate in an isolated executive, who tend to change their commitments and policies with impunity. The distance between each of us as voters and the Prime Minister or President makes it relatively easy for a majority to come to the view that our great leaders are more monsters than men. The longer they are in office, the more that evidence to support a cynical judgement tends to accumulate, even if the person in power is more an incompetent than a tyrant. Our media encourages our less mature tendencies to monsterise those with power and influence, with variable degrees of justification.

Boris Johnson and Donald Trump being lampooned in the popular press and party propaganda. (Left: the faces of both leaders have been morphed together into a chimera.) (Centre: Trump as both architect and subject of his own monsterisation.) As the #MeToo movement gathered steam, and Harvey Weinstein was arrested and finally successfully prosecuted for sexually abusive behaviour, apparently on an industrial scale, it is now acceptable as part of social orthodoxy to monsterise Weinstein, as he has been so judged in a court of law following due process. According to the actor Elijah Wood in recent interviews, Weinstein had attempted to impose himself on the design and direction of the planned Lord of the Rings trilogy, so Peter Weir went independent and then took revenge by basing the face of Gothmog the orc on Weinstein’s. See above. Gothmog is on the far right.

There has been a long tradition in social commentary to roll together cynical judgements about our leaders with (dark) humour in the form of the political cartoon. ‘You’ve got to laugh- or else you’d cry,” we remark. N T Wright says that something like this is going on in Daniel’s dream vision as described in Daniel 7, where the beasts represent not simply individual leaders, but represent a larger collective, what we would call the government of a country. (On the face of it, that contradicts the text at 7:17. But I do I agree with Wright: ‘kings’ can be read as equivalent to collective government in this context.)

L. An etching from 1782. A lion (right) stands facing four animals standing opposite to him in a row; his right paw is held up, his tail is erect, and he says, “You shall all have an old English drubbing to make you quiet”. The head of a fox (C. J. Fox) appears from the lower right corner of the print, saying, “I counsel Your Majesty to give Monsieur the first gripe”.… R. ‘The Lions Just Share’, 1882. The British Lion stands proudly on his Egyptian captive. He is watched by Italy, a French poodle, the Russian Bear, Spain, Germany (an eagle) and the two headed eagle of Austria. Turkey is depicted as a cowering fox. There had recently been an uprising in Egypt led by Colonel Arabi in protest at European intervention in Egyptian affairs. Turkey had recently been excluded from an agreement that left the six European powers to protect the operation of the Suez Canal. Britain had led the way in putting down the uprising. From Punch, or the London Charivari, September 30, 1882.

Depending on who is telling the story, and the extent to which the intention is to take the mickey, or to call out what is perceived to be a monstrous regime, we will come to a view on whether we should be laughing or crying out in horror. I am certainly provoked to deeper thought when it is my own country that is being made the butt of the joke.

L. Papagallo no.15 la Piovra Russa Anno VI by Augusto Grossi (1835-1919), a cartoon depiction of Europe in 1878, using caricatures and monster kraken. R. Poster from Argentina celebrating the military recovery (temporarily, as it turned out) of the Falklands from British control on April 2 1982. Argentinians today are drawing parallels between the UK and Russia in commentary on the current situation in Ukraine.

But we are not reading political commentary in Daniel 7, or some other humanistic genre such as history. A key leitmotif of this blog is worldview, a biblical worldview, and this perspective is the antidote to misreading verses 1-8. To simply ask, ‘what exactly are the four beasts?’ or, ‘what relevance does the fourth beast hold for us today?’ is to make a profound error. A proper perspective is to be gained from the vision as a whole, not from giving imbalanced attention to certain dramatic elements, to the exclusion of the holistic view. A text out of context makes for a pretext.

Daniel, (who is not awake), rubs his eyes again.

“As I looked,

thrones were placed,
    and the Ancient of Days took his seat;
his clothing was white as snow,
    and the hair of his head like pure wool;
his throne was fiery flames;
    its wheels were burning fire.
10 A stream of fire issued
    and came out from before him;
a thousand thousands served him,
    and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him;
the court sat in judgment,
    and the books were opened.

Silo’s apocalypse. Daniel chapter 7, verses 2-10. Daniel’s vision of the four beasts from the sea and the Ancient of Days. British Library digital collection. One of 106 bible images made at the Spanish Monastery of San Domingo de Silos, near Burgos,  between 1091–1109, copying originals from 800AD

What a glorious vision! I wonder if you agree that too much attention has been given to speculations on the beastly creatures of Daniel 7, at the expense of our focus on this insight into spiritual realities. While using archaic modes of artistic expression, for me, the illuminated manuscript known as Silo’s Apocalypse gets it exactly right. The four beasts are given a rather naïve treatment, more like lap dogs than dread monsters of nightmares. Three are more grinning than growling, but all are equally transfixed by what they can see is important- the heavenly court arrayed in ordered majesty above them. All the creatures’ eyes, including the pair belonging to the final horn, are giving complete attention to the final seat of accountability, the Ancient of Days, enthroned and glorious, surrounded with the splendour of angels.

What does Daniel record for us? Every detail is significant.

‘The Ancient of Days took his seat’

God, being Divine, is eternal, perfect and unchanging, but this does not mean stasis. When asked why he swayed back and forth while in prayer, one Jewish man answered, ‘Because my God is alive.’ The term is shuckling, and this article is fantastic, including the references. G_d is indeed Alive, as well as Ancient, so G_d is seen to move: He comes in to the court as though to acknowledge what is happening in the earthly realm, and that He wishes to give a constructive response. God sees, God notices, God understands, and God says that this all matters, and He will give an answer. He sits, which the Jews recognised as the sign that God’s Word would be both declaimed and enacted.


‘his clothing was white as snow,
    and the hair of his head like pure wool’

Hope should rise in our hearts, because God comes to bring heaven and earth together on the grounds of His overcoming Light and unimpeachable Purity. The vision that Daniel is given is more constrained than the Apostle Peter speaks of (1 Ti 6 :16) but no less awesome. God is bringing his divine detergent to make things whiter than white, and when He does, Bang, the dirt is gone!

‘his throne was fiery flames;
    its wheels were burning fire.’

The dirt of immorality, especially on the scale of unjust war and war crimes, demands the ultimate purification. These things should not be in the good cosmos that God has made and gifted to us. They are destined for fire, a consuming and annihilating fire that comes from Godself; utterly irresistible. First the fire is seen in the throne of God, with its wheels, far mightier than the stamping feet of the fourth beast, that moves to where injustice will be righted and Shalom brought to supplant aggression.

‘A stream of fire issued
    and came out from before him;
a thousand thousands served him,
    and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him…’

Daniel’s vision is attuned as he looks: within the throne of God is the source of Fire. It is Godself! Elsewhere we are told that rivers of water flow from the throne and temple of God, but greater executive powers are called for here. Some tourists have been injured of late when they were caught by explosive bursts of the volcanoes they had climbed to gaze at- an urge I can understand, but what peril to risk. Notwithstanding Peter’s words, for those who God admits to His court, this is friendly fire. It consumes wickedness utterly, but the righteous will stand, just as was proven to Nebuchadnezzar II by Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. Such it is to be a friend of God.

‘the court sat in judgment,
    and the books were opened.’

Each week we have a political interview programme on the BBC called ‘Question Time,’ where Archbishop Justin Welby joined the panel to respond to questions put by a selected but balanced audience. When asked about bringing justice to Putin and the Russian invaders, he quickly sidestepped any talk of the Final Judgement. ‘You would expect me to mention that,’ he said. But what matters is justice now, the cessation of violence now, and yes, there can then be justice done on earth, through war crimes trials and suchlike. This drew the sting of the critic who went on to pour scorn on the idea of Putin ‘facing his god.’ You may have read of the disastrous alignment of significant parts of the Christian church in Russia with Putin’s project, and of Patriarch Kirill’s explicit support. This was anticipated in Ukraine, where the Orthodox very properly broke relationship in 2019, which was acknowledged to pose a threat to Russia. Such churches and their leaders have also been in the firing line.

I think that Daniel would agree with Justin Welby. It is a mistake to limit the interpretation of the vision of the heavenly court to the far distant future. Our God is not the deist God who stands afar off, hands off, eyes elsewhere, attention anywhere but here, just leaving things ticking over, or not, as the case may be. Even the God of Israel, the God of the Hebrews in exile is the True God who sees and acts now. For sure, there was a succession of godless kings. But Daniel discovered that God would walk with him here, and would address injustices, within boundaries of God’s determination, but more widely than we would have guessed. For sure, there were and will be not one but four great and dreadful beasts- and the vision tells us that God will act at the End and also before, also maybe even Now. God shows Daniel this, and thus and so God shows us. This ‘showing’ is what God does first of all. He wants Daniel to know what is going on, however mysteriously, and Daniel discovers that he is, in some small but meaningful way, an agent. This agency is not set out so much in this vision, but it certainly comes in chapter 9. I said before that the timeline is perhaps not to be taken too seriously; see here in v 12. What we may have seen as a succession of rulers in literal history, who do not live concurrently, is spoken of here as if they are living at the same time. And what is said about them? Their lives are prolonged. God has mercy for monsters, which may be a challenge to your theology and mine. Many of my Christian friends are rather too quick to say, when circumstances are difficult and the situation not quite tickety-boo: ‘God is in control.’ This glib way of talking is theologically lazy and all too often lacks compassion for the suffering. Or denies ones own legitimate emotions in the face of genuine heartache and real tragedy. In ultimate terms, we are right to hold on to our final hope. But there is no simple equation even in the light of the throne room of God for the rectification of earthly wrongs or the swift accountability for egregious sins. At Easter, we look to the Cross. And not just at Easter.

I repeat: God is, I believe, indicating to us through the suspension of time in Daniel’s vision that God is willing to act now, to intervene, to change things. God, being transcendent, is outside of time, and not limited by it. Some may say, “Che sarà sarà” (“Whatever will be, will be”) or, in even more current parlance, ‘It is what it is’, and that we will just have to be patient for the final judgement. I think that the whispering of the Spirit is that it ain’t necessarily so at all. Again, I agree with Desmond Tutu: in God’s cosmos, ‘Oppressors must fail.’ That means that we really can seek for an accounting and justice from God that He brings forward towards us from the future. It is not futile to keep records of war crimes in Ukraine, or to work for hearings at the Hague, and to plan for the apprehension of perpetrators long after the events they ordered and carried out. God too has a court, and the books shall be opened. Maybe even sooner than we might expect.

Let’s read on.

11 “I looked then because of the sound of the great words that the horn was speaking. And as I looked, the beast was killed, and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire. 12 As for the rest of the beasts, their dominion was taken away, but their lives were prolonged for a season and a time.

13 “I saw in the night visions,

and behold, with the clouds of heaven
    there came one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days
    and was presented before him.
14 And to him was given dominion
    and glory and a kingdom,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
    should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
    which shall not pass away,
and his kingdom one
    that shall not be destroyed.

15 “As for me, Daniel, my spirit within me[b] was anxious, and the visions of my head alarmed me. 16 I approached one of those who stood there and asked him the truth concerning all this. So he told me and made known to me the interpretation of the things. 17 ‘These four great beasts are four kings who shall arise out of the earth. 18 But the saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever, forever and ever.’

19 “Then I desired to know the truth about the fourth beast, which was different from all the rest, exceedingly terrifying, with its teeth of iron and claws of bronze, and which devoured and broke in pieces and stamped what was left with its feet, 20 and about the ten horns that were on its head, and the other horn that came up and before which three of them fell, the horn that had eyes and a mouth that spoke great things, and that seemed greater than its companions. 21 As I looked, this horn made war with the saints and prevailed over them, 22 until the Ancient of Days came, and judgment was given for the saints of the Most High, and the time came when the saints possessed the kingdom.

23 “Thus he said: ‘As for the fourth beast,

there shall be a fourth kingdom on earth,
    which shall be different from all the kingdoms,
and it shall devour the whole earth,
    and trample it down, and break it to pieces.
24 As for the ten horns,
out of this kingdom ten kings shall arise,
    and another shall arise after them;
he shall be different from the former ones,
    and shall put down three kings.
25 He shall speak words against the Most High,
    and shall wear out the saints of the Most High,
    and shall think to change the times and the law;
and they shall be given into his hand
    for a time, times, and half a time.
26 But the court shall sit in judgment,
    and his dominion shall be taken away,
    to be consumed and destroyed to the end.
27 And the kingdom and the dominion
    and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven
    shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High;
his kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom,
    and all dominions shall serve and obey him.’[c]

28 “Here is the end of the matter. As for me, Daniel, my thoughts greatly alarmed me, and my colour changed, but I kept the matter in my heart.”

Daniel chapter 7, ESV

Three things strike me at this time, and perhaps you will see more in the conclusion of the account. God’s answer to the Four Beasts is the coming of one ‘like a Son Of Man.’ The correction of all ills, from the beginning of time with our first parents until the time of the exile, and so on, is, under God, brought together under the mysterious coming of ‘one like…’ You will perhaps know that the heart of the mystery of the salvation of humanity of our sinful state before God is in the person and coming to earth of Christ Jesus, the Messiah of God. He is God made flesh, God with us, God in human form; completely God and completely human, born of woman, conceived by the Spirit, approved by the Father. I don’t pretend to understand this, and nor do I need to. For Daniel, the word ‘like’ was good enough, and it will have to be good enough for all of us. In Christian theology there are many big words and deep concepts that try to encapsulate the Incarnation and the Trinity, but you don’t get to encapsulate God. The clue is in the term, transcendent. Look it up if you need to. And also immanent. Same applies. So Christian theism, properly figured, is neither pantheism nor panentheism. We don’t get to understand, but who wants to? Do we ever fully understand another person? We can get to know God, but when it comes down to it, our best relationship will remain wonderfully out of balance.

But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God…

Galatians 4:9 ESV

Secondly, we note that the ‘dominion’ which was recovered from the beasts (and was part of the original creation mandate in Genesis 1) is now bestowed on ‘the Son Of Man.’ (v 14) Is this effectively the same thing as the ‘glory’ and ‘kingdom’ that are also spoken of? I imagine so. And everyone is brought within his sphere of influence. Here, with underlining, is God telling us that He hears the prayers of all who cry out that ‘Something must be done!’ This will be the final state of things, and this destiny is secure.

Thirdly, and quite extraordinarily, I think, having bestowed dominion and glory and a kingdom on the One who is presented before the Ancient of Days, the very next thing we are told is that (v27) ‘the kingdom and the dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High; his kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey him.’ A number of interpretations could be given, but I will simply say this here. The scripture is making very plain that it should not be our default position to leave everything up to God. Surely our capacity in this Age to influence the path and destiny of nations is limited, even if we happen to have been voted into high office. I don’t argue for the Church to nurture ambitions of another Christendom or Christian, theocratic government. But collectively, at grassroots level and beyond, we each have an active and agential role to play, in both prayer and service. Perhaps, through teamwork and larger strategic cooperation (including with folk of any or no faith), we can also undertake missions of service in myriad means that exercise benevolent, creative and fruitful dominion in God’s world, doing what Jesus would do, imitating our One Father in heaven. Our work is worship too.

Is the time of judgement that this vision describes yet to come, or has it come? Without getting into minute detail about the translation from Aramaic to English, it is uncontroversial to observe that the picture is constructively ambiguous. (Like Genesis 1-4…) The message is that God’s victory over this wickedness is both ‘now’ (v22) and ‘not yet’ (v26). In v22, the Son of Man ‘came’ (past tense) while in v26, that coming has not yet occurred. This ambiguity is very much what the vision wants to tell us. Daniel might be criticised for not dwelling on the good news of the heavenly vision in vv13-14, but that doesn’t happen. Rather, what seems important to him is resolving what he has seen of the fourth beast, and he is given audience with a messenger of the heavenly court, who gives some reassurance. I say, ‘some’, for it is clearly not final. The vision comes to a close leaving its readers asking the same question in two different ways. How long will the oppression/suffering/violence continue? When will ‘the Son Of Man’ come to bring judgement and put things to rights?

Past the matter of interpreting how Daniel’s vision perhaps reaches as far as the Roman Empire is the question that, if that is correct, then what of the period that follows? It seems best to consider this prophecy to deal with the period up to the coming (presentation) of the Messiah. That is why the Apocalypse of St John says different things, though incorporating many themes and ingredients from the book of Daniel.

What is wrong with the theory that the vision of the court and the judgement only speaks of the final judgement is that it discounts the coming of Christ to our earth in human form. Can we see a suggestion of that in the ‘presenting’ of the one like a son of man, yet he is not said to come to sit down as the judgment is begun. Another sense of ‘now but not yet.’

Yet before He finally sits, the books are opened.

May God hear our petitions to bring many judgements: rescue, relief, escape and safety, arming and deliverance, successful negotiations for peace, the suppression of pride and a great turning away from violence.

What should we now say in view of the events in Ukraine? At the conclusion of his dream-vision, Daniel does not specifically say that he ‘woke up’, but he is quite clearly deeply affected by what he has seen- the shock of the implications of four iterations of oppressive and godless leadership. “As for me, Daniel, my thoughts greatly alarmed me, and my colour changed, but I kept the matter in my heart.” In some way he has been given a snapshot overview of significant episodes in history under God’s heaven, a sense of God’s sovereign position and intention to overrule, and yet also the need to come to terms with the fact that things are going to get worse, not better, because the judgement, though it is certainly coming, is still afar off. There will be conflict between earthly kings and heavenly intentions, Daniel is told. Amongst others, the saints of God will pay a great price, in life and blood for many. Yet in the end, as we keep reading, Daniel returns to prayer, and in chapter 9 he joins Moses and David and Nehemiah and others who do significant intercessory business with God on behalf of others.

1. This child went out with his parent and was photographed cuddling an empty Smerch MLRS cluster weapon casing. I wonder what his mother said when they showed her this photograph. 2. Destroyed Russian BM-21 Grad MLRS 23 3 22 3. A railway station in Poland where a line of child buggies is left ready for arriving refugees.5 3 22 4. Captured MSTA-S howitzer at Trostyanets, Sumy Oblast. 26 3 22

As we have joined many millions who have prayed earnestly over the conflict in Ukraine, we have seen some news that encourages us. Putin’s armies are proving to be much less effective that he imagined. Russia is not so much of a superpower after all, its dominion is being undermined. Putin’s regime is being significantly denuded of connections, cash, commerce and its toy yachts at foreign berths. The Ukrainian forces are proving more agile, courageous and effective, partly because of the arms their new found friends are providing. We were told that society is falling apart and that no-one cares about anyone else any more. It turns out that there is a great deal more kindness for strangers than was suggested.

Left ISOW 4 4 22 liberated villages and towns. Right Redeployment by Russian forces

As of the 4th April, for us in the UK the horrors of this unjust war have been transformed from imagined to very literal. Metaphorical stamping of iron feet has given way to actual video footage of BBC correspondents walking down a couple of village streets packed with the debris of war. Depending on where and when you source your viewing, the corpses lying as the folk fell in the road may or may not be pixelated out on your screen, as you hear journalist Jeremy Bowen giving his mostly dispassionate account of murders and rapes. At the moment, these are numbered in the tens and twenties- horrific, but still on a scale that we might grasp.

Russian Kalibr Cruise missiles launched from a ship on the Black Sea on 26 3 22, fired at Lviv or Odessa.

But this war is not at all at a scale that we can or should at all be expected to grasp. In the earlier days there was video of tank columns under fire, soldiers toting weapons, men digging a trench, and the drone footage, which gives a higher vantage point than we saw in the grainy films from ‘The World at War.’ Before TV film crews were admitted to Bucha and Borodyanka, what we saw were images of multiple cruise missile firings, as huge payloads of explosives were sent on precision journeys of hundreds of kilometers, falling suddenly from the sky to cause immense damage and often death. But these are all tiny snapshots of a larger and more horrific reality that is yet unrealised. Most of us alive today only know of large wars by education, not experience, but this is something else. Rather as Daniel says of the fourth beast he saw, it was different to all the beasts that were before it.

The destruction caused by the missiles launched in the Black sea at oil tanks at Odessa on the morning of Sunday April 3rd.

How do the visions of Daniel 7 and beyond assist us as we attempt to process what is happening in God’s world? I am suggesting that the whole of Daniel’s dream offers us an holistic worldview that will equip us in this regard. On the one hand is the overview of history that Daniel (and therefore the reader) is in the middle of. Great injustices have been done in the past, some at the behest of rulers we can name, others lost in the mists of time. In this world of freedom and sin, further ghastliness will be done, and the narrative is that things will get worse before they get better. In Daniel, the focus is on the people of God, His ‘saints’, but I see no reason to exclude anyone in this commentary. Persecution comes particularly to those who resist, and less so to those who acquiesce, but oppression is still oppression, and some of it is deadly, whoever you are.

And on the other hand, there is a High Court that will meet, a timeless reality that has been and will be and must be manifest in time, in our time, as well as at the End of All Things. This court will be convened through God’s freedom, properly and according to His will. Final justice can only be measured and meted out from the highest and widest perspective, once all the facts are established and all wisdom can be exercised. Who is fit for such a task? The Ancient of Days. There must be a competent advocate for both sides in this prosecution, a One capable of empathy and a full grasp of what is at stake on both sides, and especially on the side of justice and righteousness. Who is fit for such a task? The One like a Son of Man. Now the court session can begin, and the Books will be opened. Only after this, but certainly, ‘All will be well.’ (Julian of Norwich, 1343-1413+)

These two are sides of the same coin, necessary ingredients both in the functional worldview of Daniel. And he himself is also crucial in the functioning of this stereo view of reality in toto. The view of the moral chaos on earth and the view of order and justice in heaven cannot be integrated- at least, not yet. Is it good enough that God is seen to be God in heaven but not on earth? Daniel says ‘No’. The vision of heavenly order is not enough for him. He is down here, and he is disturbed, and he complains. He energetically searches for explanation, and he is heard! On behalf of all who cry out, Daniel protests. Heaven listens. He does not get a complete answer- a messenger intermediary is sent to speak with him- but at least he gets an audience. It is Daniel and his God-given agency that make this happen. I have suggested that while the prophesied course of history is not interrupted, the coming presence of both the Son of Man and the prophetic intercession of the Man of God has meant, does mean, and will mean that God Presences Himself in present history with us, before the End, as well as at the End. The cosmos groans, and some pains may yet be alleviated.

There is, I believe, a further spectacular emphasis that should encourage us further as we study with Daniel. Following the opening six chapters, in which Daniel’s personal dealings with four rulers are described, there are five chapters of apocalyptic prophecy. Now is it surprising to you that the heavenly vision is not to be found at the end of this section, but rather, it comes at the beginning, in what we know as chapter 7. There is nothing comparable in the next four chapters, which all concern events ‘down here’ as it were. For me, this serves to emphasise the suggestion I made earlier, that there is a shortcutting of time, as we know it, in the prophetic life of Daniel as it is accounted to us. In the heavenly vision we are given a ‘fast forward’ preview, a flash forward, but also a conduit into a downpayment on the final justice of God. Or in the modern parlance of cosmology, a wormhole into God’s future, the New Creation, in which the very good can come about rather sooner than we expect. This is not a time tunnel of escape, but a supply line to draw back God’s provision from the not yet to the now.

Ukraine-Russia border, east of Mariupol. Prewar view from Google Maps. What is striking about this overview is that everything is the same on both sides of the borderline. Huge rectilinear fields divide the fertile landscape both left and right of what is presumably a flimsy fence, crossed by local roads with minimal checkpoints, running down a winding valley and across an open plateau to the sea of Azov. All the landscape is green, where good things grow, save only where the plough has just turned the soil one more time. Yet right here a horrific squabble has been unleashed.

What is this war for? My newspaper is filling up with wise heads opining on the inner workings of Putin’s mind, enquiring into the deeper and darker recesses of his motivations. Putin would be a new Tsar of the Russian Federation, the saviour of all Slavs of Ukraine and Russia, the power broker of a new Rus, a Russian Orthodox Christian (!!!) , a leader of one of the world’s nuclear and space powers. He says that his special military operation is not a war, but ‘noble and pure’. He does not say that he wants to own the breadbasket of Europe, along with its coal and titanium ores and access to the warm waters of the Black Sea with its channel to the Mediterranean and all the world, which is apparently the mistaken view of blinkered Western humanists who don’t understand him or Russia. However, it is clear enough that just denying that you are a war criminal does not stop you being one.

Drone footage over Mariupol 23 03 2022

I am not writing here in any particular attempt to enlighten you about politics or to add needless weight to the burden of the daily reports of disaster in Ukraine. But I learn from Daniel’s account that there is an imperative to look, and keep looking. To see in full, and to write down and tell the whole of the matter. The saints of God will be assailed, along with others, by the tribulations now and that may yet come, but while there may be many kinds of martyrs, in God’s cosmos, all loses need not be futile, and each one may be surprised to find that they are equal to the task. War crimes are being documented, and the books of the heavenly court are being written. And present history is not, I am coming to believe, closed to heavenly intervention. While the acts of egregious evil are being done in plain sight, the acts of the life of faith may be effective through their subtlety. How many times do we read in the life of Jesus that he waited for the right time? In the Spirit of God we can find we are led to the right place at the right time for the best opportunity to show mercy and to do good.

During and after. The Mykolaiv mayor slept in that morning, so he wasn’t in his office when the missile strike happened. Nevertheless, at least 20 people were killed by this blast. 29 3 22 For those seeking to rescue their loved ones, it may be simply to seek God’s blessing on their perseverance.

Daniel’s vision comes from the Spirit of God. Despite the allusion, we should not take the image of the four winds over the waters in Dan 7 as an admission that God raised up the four kings by design. Rather, these are the winds of change, a symbol of the stuff that happens at all points of the compass in the world of sinful men that is God’s world, pressed into injustice by our collective moulding. There are no devils in this passage- not anywhere- any such talk is delayed until later in the book of Daniel. No, before the great tribulations that were to come after the exile in Babylon, and yet to come in our Age, God says that He sees how some men have unmade what He made to be good. God sees the kings and kingdoms and dominions in all of human time, and some are indeed terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong, with great iron teeth that devour and break in pieces and stamp what is left with their feet.

The new technologies of chemistry and electronics have made life and the destruction of life possible out of all proportion to what has gone before. It is now estimated that some 75 000 people, a portion though not all of the inhabitants of Judah at the time, were captured and carried away into exile in Babylon. Undoubtedly this was a great misfortune, yet the scale of disasters that Daniel 7-12 go on to describe would only feature as episodes in the account of the last 150 years. Of course, there is no valid arithmetic to add up and then rank suffering. The cold books of history tell us that ‘an estimated total of 70–85 million people perished, or about 3% of the 2.3 billion (est.) people on Earth in 1940. Deaths directly caused by the war (including military and civilian fatalities) are estimated at 50–56 million, with an additional estimated 19–28 million deaths from war-related disease and famine.’ Only a small proportion of Ukraine’s population of 44.13 million were in uniform in February 2022, but it quickly became evident that Putin’s words and Putin’s deeds were far removed from each other, and so huge numbers of civilians began to move, with the total leaving the country reaching a million in the first week. That rate is equivalent to the Israelite exile to Babylon taking just 12 hours. It turns out that whatever electronic warfare is now being deployed by Russia is mostly only enhancing their killing of non-combatant civilians, rather than limiting the impact on active fighters, which was the theoretical supposition. There have been times when we have been surprised by just how much we have been told about what has taken place within Ukraine, as some reports would be rather useful to Putin’s assistants. It seems that lessons have been learned in this regard. But remote sensing and satellite imagery still gives us a heaven’s eye view of certain significant facts. We can easily see the tents where Ukrainian persons have been taken by Russian forces from besieged cities like Mariupol, before they are apparently taken far away to the east of Russia. This corroborates reports of the forcible adoption of thousands of children ‘rescued’ from the war zone. MAXAR have also released time stamped images of towns and villages while under Russian occupation which refutes the claims from Putin’s regime that allegations of war crimes are fake news, merely NATO propaganda. As we know, Russian TV is now a single horn speaking only the great things that Putin has scripted, even as the pace of military funerals increases at home.

L. MAXAR satellite image of Bezimenne refugee camp east of Mariupol. The building with the red roof is clearly visible in current Google maps imagery- a municipal building on the main street through this small town. 27 3 22 R. Newly released satellite image of Bucha before Russian forces left.

Some have chosen to create the world with tanks and guided missiles and state propaganda, and we all live in it together, invested to some degree or another in the ongoing collective decisions. It turns out that some guided missiles make for rather effective defence. It also turns out that space technology and electronics can become the iron teeth of justice against oppressors.

Meanwhile, since Putin invaded in winter, we’ve quickly forgotten that the world was on fire last year and we were supposed to reducing our usage of fossil fuels as fast as possible to meet the Paris COP2015 target of no more than 1.5 degrees of warming.

L. BBC News. Praying Ukrainian with icon 6 3 22. R. Charlie Mackesy cartoon for the occasion. https://mobile.twitter.com/charliemackesy/status/1498626120614387716/photo/1

You will not be expecting a particularly comforting conclusion to this reflection, but I close now with these remarks. It has been striking that ‘God talk’ has broken out on our TV screens. It is perhaps easy for our secularise media channels to broadcast images of ruined Orthodox church buildings, or to tell the stories of martyrs in the cause for peace when their photographs show them in strange robes. Did their strange God help them? Apparently not. It is less easy to dismiss the live testimonies of refugees who look very much like us and who can’t help telling journalists that they are very specifically grateful to God for their escape, despite the loss of their possessions and livelihoods. I wonder how much more we will hear from devout Ukrainians and their impacts in the places near to us where they recover their lives. Let us continue to pray for the success of large scale evacuations of civilians along agreed humanitarian corridors (see 5:07) This seems to be an ongoing need, along with the delivery of substantial quantities of aid. And what of the welcome we give to the refugees who arrive on our shores, after our governments have sorted out their paperwork and made proper checks on volunteers for safeguarding purposes? If God puts it in our hearts to pray at the scale of Daniel and the like, then so be it. In any case, it will be our responses at a human and personal level that will matter to those we meet, and will go on shaping our becoming as communities in the world as we now find it. The new US President was criticised for his unapproved remarks in Warsaw, Poland just a few days ago (26th March). “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power, ” he closed after reading his script from autocue. Joe Biden did not recant, and after the accumulating and corroborated evidence from Bucha (see 12:52)of the murder and abuse of civilians, he claims vindication. {We note the brazen denials from Russia’s spokesman (see 9:30)} Our Catholic brother did indeed stick his neck out in making a challenge that should be understood as an appeal for regime change. I cannot say if the way this was done was politically wise, but it does speak to me of the message of Daniel, where the prophet of God struggles with his whole being to reconcile the freedom of despotic regimes in this world (who may well have popular support) with the justice of God in heaven above.

On April 12th, the US embassy in Kyiv tweeted this very forthright statement: “After each death of a child – mother, father, family, lives are changed forever. Each assassination was committed by a Russian soldier, commander and Vladimir Putin, whose crimes will not be forgotten.” I think that in his Warsaw speech, President Biden did what Daniel did, which was to reach out further than this humanistic statement, to seek a bridge for peace and justice between earth and heaven. We should not be surprised if some disapprove.

In Constantinople, or Istanbul, if you prefer, is a great building that was put up (around 537AD) as a Christian cathedral, was then repurposed as a mosque, then became a non-religious museum for 85 years, and has just become a mosque again in 2020. Its four lives have so far mostly survived numerous earthquakes, though quite a lot of its art has been taken to exile in distant places. One of its internal doorways is the Imperial Gate, a massive orifice through which only the emperor and his retinue were once allowed to pass, and sometime in the 9th-10th C AD a grand mosaic was added to the archway above it. I feel that Daniel would approve, as we see Christ, the Son of Man, now seated on his cosmic throne. As the great man walked though, he might have looked up to see his forerunner (Leo or Constantine?) kneeling in worship before Christ Pantocrator, Almighty Ruler of the cosmos. On our right is Gabriel, the angel who interprets Daniel’s later visions, though he is not named as such in chapter 7.

Caption from Wikipedia: The Imperial Gate mosaic is located in the tympanum above that gate, which was used only by the emperors when entering the church. Based on style analysis, it has been dated to the late 9th or early 10th century. The emperor with a nimbus or halo could possibly represent emperor Leo VI the Wise or his son Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus bowing down before Christ Pantocrator, seated on a jewelled throne, giving his blessing and holding in his left hand an open book.[253] The text on the book reads: “Peace be with you” (John 20:1920:26) and “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12). On each side of Christ’s shoulders is a circular medallion with busts: on his left the Archangel Gabriel, holding a staff, on his right his mother Mary.[254]

Let’s turn finally from Daniel to St Paul, and his instructions to the young leader Timothy. God will certainly hear us as we pray robustly in this encouragement: 1First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, 2for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. 3This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Saviour, 4who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 5For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the mana Christ Jesus, 6who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time. 7For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth. (1 Ti 2:1-7 ESV)

“Jesus answered with these words, saying: ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.'”

Testimony from visions of Julian of Norwich. 13th chapter of ‘Showings’ 1373

(c) 2022 Stephen Thompson

Interceding with the men of Issachar.

James Tissot. 1836-1902. David’s Valiant Men. ref 1

It’s not even a month since Putin issued the orders he has been brooding over for years, turning intimidation and tank manoeuvres into what he still describes in Orwellian terms as a ‘special military operation.’ Is it just me, or do I detect that the news agenda is already beginning to drift into post-invasion fatigue and a whole raft of ‘Now what?’ questions that are more concerned with us and our new problems, rather than the constantly imperilled Ukrainians? We got bored with lockdown and all things COVID, and now we don’t care and we aren’t grateful. COP 26 and the ‘Climate Disaster’ went the same way, and we’re not bothered. Really not bothered. Perhaps mercifully, war mongers are not in fashion in the West, as, apparently, that would mean nuclear weapons- or chemical, or biological weapons. Except we certainly have all three without firing any shots- the new ‘energy crisis’ now means that nuclear power is being pushed back onto the table, we need more oil from Arabs and Venezuelans and probably the Scots too, and fracking, and as sanctions now mean you can’t buy wood chips from the Russians the good folk who installed wood chip boilers will have to chop down local timber instead. Its hard to know who has and who has not lost the plot.

Jesus came to bring the Kingdom of God, and that revelation announced by God Himself was slow to gain traction. Understatement? Profoundly so, perhaps. Even the Lord Jesus was surrounded by the small minded and wilfully blinkered. The scripture records that those who did not ignore him brought their ‘petty’ distractions to bother him with instead. “Tell my sibling to divide the inheritance with me. I’ve just bought a field- I need to get the wheat in so there is a harvest and a profit when this mission is over and its back to business as usual. Please would you fix it for my sons to be leader and deputy of the Council? I’m getting married- I’ll come to the Revival meeting after my honeymoon, and I’ll bring my missus. I need to organise a funeral- my dad just died. That is important, isn’t it? Sorry Lord- I will be back. Promise!”

There is a time and a place for all these things, as I said a couple of posts ago, and this is not an awkward admission for the simple reason that the Kingdom of God is Incarnate, through the Son of God made flesh, and through our lives, showing faith by our good working in God’s world. But this is surely a time for urgency and prioritising in partnership with the Spirit of God, for the reasons I’ve alluded to, and more besides.

Several of us met for prayer this Monday morning, as is our habit, and we collated a bunch of concerns and priorities. Someone (all the rest were ladies!) mentioned the men of Issachar, a scriptural nugget beloved by intercessors, from the middle of a fascinating passage from 1 Chronicles chapters 11 to 13, at the crucial season of transition from the rule of Saul to David. The text is full of ‘trivial’ details, though certain phrases should make the unwary jump up like stepping on a land mine. [I hope you don’t consider that in poor taste.]

For from day to day men came to David to help him, until there was a great army, like an army of God.

These are the numbers of the divisions of the armed troops who came to David in Hebron to turn the kingdom of Saul over to him, according to the word of the LORD.  The men of Judah bearing shield and spear were 6,800 armed troops.  Of the Simeonites, mighty men of valour for war, 7,100.  Of the Levites 4,600.  The prince Jehoiada, of the house of Aaron, and with him 3,700.  Zadok, a young man mighty in valour, and twenty-two commanders from his own fathers’ house.  Of the Benjaminites, the kinsmen of Saul, 3,000, of whom the majority had to that point kept their allegiance to the house of Saul.  Of the Ephraimites 20,800, mighty men of valour, famous men in their fathers’ houses.  Of the half-tribe of Manasseh 18,000, who were expressly named to come and make David king.  Of Issachar, men who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do, 200 chiefs, and all their kinsmen under their command. 

1 Chronicles 12: 22-32 ESV (my emphases)

As I say, this is just the section that shows the immediate context of the ‘men of Issachar’. All the folk who come to David’s camp have a very clear sense of the new Kingdom priorities– not only of national pride and personal commitment to David as God’s anointed king, but the conviction that loyalty to King David is very much loyalty to David’s God, YHWH God of Israel, far beyond any sense that was the case with Saul. In the same way, we prayed together this morning that God raises up and empowers intercessors in this moment. As even the enemy of our souls unwisely conceded, in attempting to tempt Christ at the end of His Lenten Fast, God indeed gives angels charge over us, and over the nations.  The realisation of this great privilege and great calling is surely a realisation that such a burden for intercession cannot be a part time hobby.

In my waking dreams today, I was alerted to pray against saboteurs and for the failure of assassins in Ukraine. In the Name of God. Amen.

We each brought different priorities, and reflected more widely on the implications as each one shared their tentative insights. As I posted last time, another noted that the people smugglers and traffickers who were exposed on the French side of the Channel are turning to the refugees- women and children without their menfolk, by and large. We hear reports in past years that the unwary and desperate in Moldova have been trafficked to the UK, perhaps even to particular streets in our town, and we pray that those who seek to do such wickedness will be frustrated, caught and properly penalised- especially the leaders, the ‘big’ criminals who reap the profits of such immoral trade in the vulnerable. We asked God for wisdom and good intelligence for Police forces and strategic insight for governmental authorities who seek to oversee the safe passage of the new refugees. We plead for the besieged and captured Ukrainians who Putin plans to ‘relocate’ deep into Russia, a different scale of dastardly trafficking more akin to that of the original Nazis Putin now claims his special military operation is intended to defeat.

L. Southern Moldovan town of Comrat, (pop 25000) about 50km from the Ukrainian border. R. Jubilee Square, Maidstone 2015 ref 2

One of the effects of globalisation, and especially of the removal of borders locally in the EU, is that no one government can exercise effective authority over international criminality, so we perceive a particular value in praying for divine intervention for the disruption of people trafficking, be it from Moldova to Manchester and Maidstone, or wherever else. After the mass fraud of COVID furlough payments, it ought to be commonly appreciated that there are limits to the extent that local authorities can be speedily effective in vetting the many thousand of people who have signed up with the government last week, volunteering to house refugees from Ukraine who must be brought here in haste. Who knows who else will try to get around these vulnerable people, seeking to exploit both the innocent and those of good will? We pray for God’s sovereign oversight over all this.

We pray for wise heads to be enabled to apply their relevant experience and to speak truth to power where it is needed; for new relationships and effective channels in administrative government to be opened to accomplish this.

Extending our GCSE Geography, we realise the very significant implications for food supplies and infrastructure challenges stemming from this widespread conflict. Even in the west of Ukraine, reports from farms are that the workers are not available to plant wheat this year. Energy disruption to the cold storage facilities means that seed potatoes are rotting, curtailing that harvest as well. Last night, Putin’s missiles destroyed another oil depot, so Ukrainian tractors will be without sufficient fuel. The majority of tractors that the Russians themselves use are sourced from the EU, so they are now cut off by the sanctions from spare parts, as well as imported fertiliser. The Russians will be hungry too.

In all these things we see the corporate effects of individual greed and selfishness- the ways in which small minded anxieties, unholy worrying about tomorrow, all now coalesce into a catastrophe on the global scale. We pray for pivotal people in positions of influence, for the raising up of wise leaders and politicians with wisdom and compassion. 

In short, we pray for the emergence of many Josephs, each appropriate to their more local situations, as I wrote here and here and here during the challenge of COVID, which has not, for most of the world, passed at all. The same lessons are also relevant to the developing circumstances.

Jean Bondol 1373. Illuminated manuscript; the Book of Nehemiah. L. Nehemiah and Hanani appoint Levites as guards on the wall. R. The wall of Jerusalem is repaired. ref 4

Nehemiah also offers us a long list of object lessons in these circumstances. The communities in Africa I visited told me that they had not before noticed the practical helps that are to be found in abundance in this book of the Hebrew bible, and were excited by many of the discoveries in Nehemiah’s journey from exile to homeland-made-safe. In contrast to the Joseph account (Gen 36ff), Nehemiah has to deal with significant political opposition, threats of war, and all that comes with international jealousy and rivalries. Joseph’s relational challenges were within his own family, which was test enough for him. God gave Nehemiah and Ezra a great victory through their trials, along with the people they led in God’s grace, and this did not result in war.

But when Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite servant heard this, it displeased them greatly that someone had come to seek the welfare of the people of Israel.

Nehemiah 2:10 ESV

As God’s people together- the entire Body of Christ- we can step forward to protect and build spiritual walls to promote the welfare of the whole world, each in our own calling.

Matthäus Merian  (1593–1650)  Daniel’s Vision of the Four Beasts 1630 ref 5

Another insight draws on the legacy of the prophet- administrator Daniel, whom I have written on here and here and here. Our intercessory friend referred us to the later section of Daniel’s final vision, a very difficult text which I guess we will only make complete sense of after its all over. What strikes me here is the way in which the powerful who do not act in righteousness, whose motives are for ill rather than for good, are able to act freely up to a point, but God sees and God restrains and God decrees that there will be an end to their working of wickedness. We know the names and see the deeds of many of the key agents at this time, including Putin, and we can make sound judgements about what is right and wrong in regards of his deeds.

And as for the two kings, their hearts shall be bent on doing evil. They shall speak lies at the same table, but to no avail, for the end is yet to be at the time appointed.  And he shall return to his land with great wealth, but his heart shall be set against the holy covenant. And he shall work his will and return to his own land.

Daniel 11:27-28 ESV

We have not examined what the moral state of Ukraine became prior to the recent turn of events, (though we do know that Donald Trump tried to exploit them and significantly hindered their safety). I am content to accept that there have been corrupt leaders there in the recent past. Some parts of the community may well have been mistreated, without implicating causes from the Russian side, and no one need pretend that the current Ukrainian president was, or is a saint. But the principle facts are clear: Putin has invaded without just cause, and the vast majority of Ukrainians are certain that they do not want to be Russian on Putin’s current terms. Both soldiers and civilians are prepared to stay, even to fight and perhaps to die, in circumstances I thought had been consigned to never-ending reruns of grainy film footage from the 1940’s. The World at War isn’t showing on my TV now. Meanwhile, Volodymyr Zelensky has been heard skilfully addressing many parliaments over recent days, in terms specifically tailored to their various cultural perspectives, and yesterday (Sunday 20th) he spoke to the leaders of Israel.

In remarks that at several points compared Russian aggression to the Holocaust, Zelensky said that “Ukraine made the choice to save Jews 80 years ago.” He went on to say (referring no doubt to Premier Bennett’s meeting with Putin at the Kremlin on March 5), “We can mediate between states but not between good and evil.”

SWIFTTELECASt.com (editted)

I understand that Zelensky is himself of Jewish heritage, though I know nothing of his personal faith commitment. What I do believe is that God is generous towards us all, and that if we are prepared to engage with Him in terms of righteousness and justice, then God will extend mercy and grace far beyond what we deserve, individually and corporately. Nevertheless, the most profound changes will be wrought in society when leaders are people of profound integrity (note I did not say perfect- and the Spirit of God knows what He is comfortable with), as our prayer partner recalled;

At this, the administrators and the satraps tried to find grounds for charges against Daniel in his conduct of government affairs, but they were unable to do so. They could find no corruption in him, because he was trustworthy and neither corrupt nor negligent.

Daniel 6:4 NIV

Some of us listen to or participate in networks of intercessors across this nation and further afield. My friend notes that there have been accounts even from the USA of prophetic words regarding community food banks and power ‘outages’ which were uttered long before the COVID or cyberattacks that led to these phenomena, in a part of the world that seemed to have consigned such things to their grainy past. (Some did hear and obeyed when God told them to prepare suitable resources, including online church resources that were ideally placed for seekers to find in lockdown.) But they and we now all see together that our apparent daily comforts and the blessings of our modern technological lifestyles give us no immunity from a more ‘third-world’ experience, which can arrive in very short order.

We are being called to catch up to God and the current moving of His Spirit to seek supernatural gifting and resourcing, with prophetic direction.  The lesson is that God is speaking well in advance of events, giving us ample time to prepare, if we are listening. Instead, we may discover that as we didn’t wait on God, pressing on to work out the present and future by ourselves, we are now empty handed to share in love with those we could and should have helped and served. As Samuel reminds us, God requires obedience rather than striving.  Thus we interpret what it means by saying that the sons and daughters of Issachar knew the signs of the times, and could see what Israel should do.

In our meeting of praying people today, we saw that the lessons of preparedness for war (from David and the men of Issachar), for famine (from Joseph), for wise politics in nation building (from Nehemiah) and for spiritually informed moral and ethical service (from Daniel) all synergise in the wisdom of God.

We concluded with the reflection that the Gospel of Mark closes with our Lord’s instruction, “Go, make disciples of all nations.., and these will be the signs…” For the most part, we’ve not walked in the second part, while we can say with joy that there is a new evangelistic ministry in our town.   As we witness and as we are open to be used by the Lord in such signs we may fulfil what Jesus prayed for, that each person lights up this present darkness, as bright stars in the blackness in our locality.  The challenge is to take our light to shine in all the dark places- perhaps that we Christians (and again, it was the ladies who were making this point) go to the nail bars in town, where the poorly paid recently arrived ladies have found work (whether it turns out they are trafficked or not) so that the place will no longer be spiritually dark because we are there, and we took God in with us!

Jesus, as recorded in Matthew 5:14-16, says that it is we believers who are the light of the world. We may be shocked and surprised by this statement. Being the Light of the World is supposed to be Jesus’ job. I can have a little light of mine, I suppose… but no! You have faith in Jesus- quite properly so. Now we discover that Jesus has faith in us, said Desmond Tutu. Shocking, and wonderful! God’s plan is that people will see Jesus when they see us, because the Body of Christ is Jesus with skin on. We are also to be the City of Lights on the hill.

Or in terms of creation and new creation, its like this. The God Who first proclaimed, ‘Let there be light!’ now proclaims,  ‘You are the light of the world!’ And if we will allow it, if those lights come together and shine as one, then the whole world can be full of light that will overcome the darkness completely. In the Name of God.

Amen.

Holman Hunt. The Light of the World. Christ stands at the door of our hearts and knocks, but there is no handle on this door- it can only be opened from the inside. We alone can choose to be bathed in the Washing Light of the Word of Christ. In such willing embrace of the Light of Christ, we each come to make our contribution to the corporate expression of Church that Jesus had in mind when he said, to our astonishment, that WE are the light of the world! ref 6

(c) Stephen Thompson 2022

Pray for Ukraine.

Urgency with God: struggling in our faith to co-create with God through Vision and Word.

A re-envisioned depiction of Ben Hadad’s seige of Samaria in 2 Kings 6-7. Ref 1

I hazard that few of us would be able to accurately locate Samaria on a blank map of the Middle East, or many other sites in Israel or its neighbours, come to that. We are all getting a crash course in Ukrainian geography right now, though as quickly as we come to recognise the names of their towns and cities, too many are swallowed up by growing seas of red on maps from the Institute for the Study of War. Above is an illustration typical of artistic impressions produced to accompany Bibles and commentaries ever since the printing press made mass production of scripture possible. The forces of the ancient Syrian king Ben-Hadad are shown encircling the city in which King Jehoram (reign ~850-840BC, and during the period 912BCE-612BCE when what the Bible calls ‘Syria’ was part of the Neo-Assyrian Empire) and his people are holed up. The Syrian strategy is simple; not really to engage militarily, but simply to starve the trapped populace into submission, or wait for hunger and disease to finish them off. But the account in 2 Kings 6-7 is not the same sort of report that we are seeing in our current media reports- as we read carefully certain similarities do emerge, but the scriptural priorities are somewhat different. Let’s see what it says:

24 Afterwards Ben-hadad king of Syria mustered his entire army and went up and besieged Samaria. 25 And there was a great famine in Samaria, as they besieged it, until a donkey’s head was sold for eighty shekels of silver, and the fourth part of a kab[a] of dove’s dung for five shekels of silver. 26 Now as the king of Israel was passing by on the wall, a woman cried out to him, saying, “Help, my lord, O king!” 27 And he said, “If the Lord will not help you, how shall I help you? From the threshing floor, or from the wine press?” 28 And the king asked her, “What is your trouble?” She answered, “This woman said to me, ‘Give your son, that we may eat him today, and we will eat my son tomorrow.’ 29 So we boiled my son and ate him. And on the next day I said to her, ‘Give your son, that we may eat him.’ But she has hidden her son.” 30 When the king heard the words of the woman, he tore his clothes—now he was passing by on the wall—and the people looked, and behold, he had sackcloth beneath on his body— 31 and he said, “May God do so to me and more also, if the head of Elisha the son of Shaphat remains on his shoulders today.”

The king inspects from the wall and vows against Elisha, though everyone in this picture appears to be in a rude state of health compared with what must really have been the case, 2

32 Elisha was sitting in his house, and the elders were sitting with him. Now the king had dispatched a man from his presence, but before the messenger arrived Elisha said to the elders, “Do you see how this murderer has sent to take off my head? Look, when the messenger comes, shut the door and hold the door fast against him. Is not the sound of his master’s feet behind him?” 33 And while he was still speaking with them, the messenger came down to him and said, “This trouble is from the Lord! Why should I wait for the Lord any longer?”

Elisha recognised by the Elders at Jericho ( an earlier episode, recounted in 2 Kings 2:18-22), 3

1 But Elisha said, “Hear the word of the Lord: thus says the Lord, ‘Tomorrow about this time a seah[a] of fine flour shall be sold for a shekel,[b] and two seahs of barley for a shekel, at the gate of Samaria.’” Then the captain on whose hand the king leaned said to the man of God, “If the Lord himself should make windows in heaven, could this thing be?” But he said, “You shall see it with your own eyes, but you shall not eat of it.”

The four lepers from Samaria carry goods away from the abandoned camp to conceal them, 4

Now there were four men who were lepers[c] at the entrance to the gate. And they said to one another, “Why are we sitting here until we die? If we say, ‘Let us enter the city’, the famine is in the city, and we shall die there. And if we sit here, we die also. So now come, let us go over to the camp of the Syrians. If they spare our lives we shall live, and if they kill us we shall but die.” So they arose at twilight to go to the camp of the Syrians. But when they came to the edge of the camp of the Syrians, behold, there was no one there. For the Lord had made the army of the Syrians hear the sound of chariots and of horses, the sound of a great army, so that they said to one another, “Behold, the king of Israel has hired against us the kings of the Hittites and the kings of Egypt to come against us.” So they fled away in the twilight and abandoned their tents, their horses, and their donkeys, leaving the camp as it was, and fled for their lives. And when these lepers came to the edge of the camp, they went into a tent and ate and drank, and they carried off silver and gold and clothing and went and hid them. Then they came back and entered another tent and carried off things from it and went and hid them.

The weak and famished survivors of the seige plunder the abandoned camp, 5

Then they said to one another, “We are not doing right. This day is a day of good news. If we are silent and wait until the morning light, punishment will overtake us. Now therefore come; let us go and tell the king’s household.” 10 So they came and called to the gatekeepers of the city and told them, “We came to the camp of the Syrians, and behold, there was no one to be seen or heard there, nothing but the horses tied and the donkeys tied and the tents as they were.” 11 Then the gatekeepers called out, and it was told within the king’s household. 12 And the king rose in the night and said to his servants, “I will tell you what the Syrians have done to us. They know that we are hungry. Therefore they have gone out of the camp to hide themselves in the open country, thinking, ‘When they come out of the city, we shall take them alive and get into the city.’” 13 And one of his servants said, “Let some men take five of the remaining horses, seeing that those who are left here will fare like the whole multitude of Israel who have already perished. Let us send and see.” 14 So they took two horsemen, and the king sent them after the army of the Syrians, saying, “Go and see.” 15 So they went after them as far as the Jordan, and behold, all the way was littered with garments and equipment that the Syrians had thrown away in their haste. And the messengers returned and told the king.

The people trample the king’s man in the gateway, 6

16 Then the people went out and plundered the camp of the Syrians. So a seah of fine flour was sold for a shekel, and two seahs of barley for a shekel, according to the word of the Lord. 17 Now the king had appointed the captain on whose hand he leaned to have charge of the gate. And the people trampled him in the gate, so that he died, as the man of God had said when the king came down to him. 18 For when the man of God had said to the king, “Two seahs of barley shall be sold for a shekel, and a seah of fine flour for a shekel, about this time tomorrow in the gate of Samaria,” 19 the captain had answered the man of God, “If the Lord himself should make windows in heaven, could such a thing be?” And he had said, “You shall see it with your own eyes, but you shall not eat of it.” 20 And so it happened to him, for the people trampled him in the gate and he died.

How might it be appropriate to read and apply this passage with regard to current events in Ukraine? How might we draw on God’s resources to respond to such challenges?

In WW2 there was very limited dissemination of information about the progress of the fighting to the folk back home, and what was printed in the daily newspapers was highly censored. I was a schoolboy when the 1982 Falklands ‘conflict’ took place, and I devoured what was printed in the following day’s newspaper- still very limited of course, including the nature of what photographic and film imagery was broadcast. Now we can see real-time footage from Ukraine and beyond, while social media is showing us almost current footage of bomb damage and even fighting, or its shocking uncensored aftermath. Editing does inevitably constitute bias, and propaganda may also be rife, but for the Christian believer the question is also different: What does God want us to see? What should we be looking for? The account of Elijah at Samaria suggests that while we should – of course!- be seeing the same things as everyone else, we might gain a broader perspective that will lead us to judge and act differently. There are other powers and forces at work, some godly, and some not. The Bible tells us VERY LITTLE of these, and speculation, though nearly irresistible, often proves UNWISE. Frank Peretti readers take note! ref 7

The prophet Elisha is a key character in the account of the breaking of the siege of Samaria.  I wonder what else strikes you as having particular significance?  Elisha, you may recall, was successor to the great prophet Elijah, and his ministry was extraordinary.  By which I mean extra-ordinary, lived within the stuff of God’s created cosmos as a mortal man, yet also living as much in the reality of the unseen realms of God’s cosmos- that which lies beyond the reach of science and its measuring instruments. (Which I wrote about here.)

To use the technical terminology, science does not provide full epistemic insight in regard of all the worlds that God has made [Hebrews 11:3]. In the Church Age, where God in Christ ascended and gave gifts to men, words of wisdom and of knowledge are to be sought in partnership with the Spirit of God.  (Such knowledge and wisdom is not contradictory to good science- but beyond, over and above. Hence the category of super-natural.) I think our Hebrew bible passage hints at this.  Elisha sought a double portion of Elijah’s spirit- you have asked a hard thing, Elijah said when Elisha asked for this.  But if you see me when I am taken… and immediately Elisha’s prayer was answered! We would see Jesus (John 12:21), said the Greek men who met the first disciples.  ‘Come and you will see’ was the standard response (John 1:39). It still is.  And the disciples saw Jesus taken up into a cloud (Acts 1:9-11) just as Elisha did when God took Elijah on the fiery chariot, and so the tongues of fire followed in the Upper Room soon afterwards. We can all receive the answer that Elisha secured!

The mighty acts that Elijah did with God are numerous (1 Kings 17 to 2 Kings 2)- they did include a war of a kind- the war between people and apostate king Ahab; the war between true prophet and the false prophetess queen Jezebel and her coterie of Baal’s minders.  Exposed and bested, by Elijah’s mortal submission to the One True God, and by God’s awesome Answer, the pillar of conflagrating Fire from heaven- a guide to the submissive in the wilderness, and agent of destruction for the unrepentantly idolatrous.

The way the Gospels speak, Elijah is the Prophet whose reputation is assured into the future. Is Jesus Elijah, come again, they asked? ( or is it John the Baptiser, wondered Herod?) Elisha did receive the double portion that he sought, and the scripture testifies to twice as many miracles and prophetic wonders. But its Elijah who gets the plaudits, not Elisha. I wonder if this is speaks to the human psychology of ‘the old guys’ and ‘the old days’. The real heroes were in the past, and we can’t possibly keep up. The truly great deeds are behind us- we can’t compete, or escape their long shadows.

Messerschmitt Bf 109 and two Spitfires in formation over Headcorn Airshow, Sept 27 2020. (c) Author’s photograph.

My own father didn’t fight in the War; he was shuffled out of school to make room for refugees from London (evacuees they were called then, escaping the German Blitz) and sent to basic training with the Fleet Air Arm, but the war ended before he was old enough to be mobilised. The only ‘action’ story I ever heard from my Dad was a semi-comic tale from sometime around 1939-40 when he was hanging around in the back garden of their house in Melton, near Ipswich, looking up at an aeroplane flying towards him above the treeline. He wasn’t as sharp as schoolboys are supposed to be at distinguishing friend from foe by the approaching silhouette- it was an elder brother who rugby tackled him into the coal shelter as the German ME 109 roared overhead. Now as I write this I wonder for the first time what his mother’s response was when she heard what had happened.

I could continue to explore the extent to which my parent’s generation lived in the shadow of the generation that made the ultimate sacrifice in that conflict, or even the one before (World War 1: 1914-19). I might also reflect that I grew up in the later years of the Cold War, with its dark adult talk of spying and multiple nuclear threats. But that would not be profitable here: the point is that Elijah has gone up to God, as He determined, and now its Elisha’s moment. The lesson for us all should be clear. Immanuel is not so much God with them but rather God with us! And God is with us all, whether in Ukraine or Uxbridge, in this Now. Such a scene of ‘now’ is painted here for our instruction.

In 2 Kings 6-7 there is what seems to be a final war for King Jehoram, who is surrounded and besieged in Samaria.  All the people – those who are not already dead- are in famine and thirst, in fear of starvation, dehydration and disease.  We are parachuted down into the city, first at the side of the king, who is carrying out a futile inspection, though with some residual sense of competence. From the walls he can see that the situation inside continues to be ghastly, while outside, the fortified positions of the besiegers are as imposing and immovable as they were yesterday, and the day before… and to confirm all this, the leader is hailed by a woman who enquires if he has brought any supplies to share. He responds from deep despair, and also with a rather British and black sense of humour: ‘God has not helped us, so what can I do?’ And then he adds, ‘Would you like something from the delicatessen – some blinis and salmon perhaps, with a nice bottle of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc, no? Or would Madam prefer the Argentinian Malbec?’ Captain Blackadder would have got on with Jehoram famously, I feel.

King Jehoram should get some credit I suppose; he does not ride on away from this awkward encounter, but engages the woman with a further question. But he soon comes to regret that too, as he is faced with a tragic moral dilemma that even Solomon the Wise would have been stumped by. Already we hear that civilians in besieged Ukrainian towns and villages are squabbling over supplies and stealing from one another. Truly the slide from civility to chaos can be swift.

The king has maintained some semblance of dignity and character so far- he is not hiding in his palace, he is taking stock of the situation within and without the walls, he is connecting with his people. And while the scripture is not very complimentary about Jehoram in its final analysis, we can see that he has made some effort to take the covenant God of Israel seriously, for as he tears his clothes in despair, he is seen to be wearing a sackcloth undergarment- a sign of penance and prayerfulness, we may surmise. And then, at this moment of insight, we hear his final backlash against the God Who -he thinks- has abandoned them, as he vows to finish off God’s own prophet, the man Elisha. I guess if you set out to murder God’s prophet you are probably saying that you’d like to murder God.

Amongst the last desperate acts of the condemned – to make an attempt to stave off final disaster, the infectious lepers have been banished from the community outside the city walls.  And of course, God sides with them- with the outcasts! The later narration takes us outside the city to tell us of the lepers who behold the fate that will befall them all – they are the ones who are the chief actors at the climax of this account.

However, we are missing something if we only read from the human level; the level of the weak and helpless, the orphan or the widows reduced to cannibalism, or the fatherless whom God sees and attends to.  There is also the question of the Man of God.  It is Elisha who emerges front and centre of the account, in parallel with the perspective of the lepers.  Did you notice that Elisha is the only character recognised by name in this whole episode?

Of course, if it is the man of God who is in the central focus of the narrative, then it must also be that God is at the true centre. Will the Centre hold, we may wonder?

What is really at issue is the status of the Creator Himself, and the creative word of God, the Word of the One who made and sustains- the Creator and Providential God of all. [Now friends of mine note that I have changed my views about aspects of this matter. I was taught that the Hebrew language of Genesis for ‘creation’ has a straightforward significance: God ‘creates’, bara out of nothing, ex nihilo, or God ‘makes’, asah from things that God has already made previously. There is some logic and soundness in this in terms of the text, but I now realise that it is a mistake to confound these textual observations with matters of science- what God actually made out of nothing, and what God has endowed with the capacity to evolve. I will explore this further another time. Suffice to say, I now say that it is too simplistic to try to separate God’s creation acts from God’s providence.] We are introduced to a further character in the 2 Kings narrative, and it is this ‘captain on whose hand the king leaned’ who is heard to speculate in disbelief about God’s ability and power to provide in an instant – even if there were windows made in heaven, could there be plentiful provision for everyone? 

What are we to make of the concept of ‘windows of heaven’? It is surely best to consider this in the whole context of the ‘Biblical worldview’ which I am considering in this blog. If we stick with the ‘traditional’ ideas of the Ancient Near East, then surely we are limited to the twee and kitsch imagery on the left, or a nature-romanticised view, (2nd left). Now all this can be improved by embracing post-ANE mysticism, such as the Celtic talk of ‘thin places’ where heaven and earth come closer together than usual. William Barry SJ describes this here. My thesis is different. The ANE cultures had their own worldviews and world pictures, for sure, and these evolved under their own agencies. The Jewish culture(s) matured in that environment, drawing on their ingredients in early formation, and cross-fertilising with them subsequently, no doubt, in the forgotten past. But I propose that while the Hebrew Bible emerges from such ground with a strong polemical dynamic against their neighbours cultural constructs, there is also de novo creativity. Indeed, I would assert, dogmatically, that there is revelatory impartation. There are no places where the contact between ‘heaven and earth’ is thinner than anywhere else, but rather simply that God is willing to make contact and make interplay between heaven and earth a reality by partnering with His people- his People as a whole and with each of His people. It was so in the time of 2 Kings, and it is simply more widely so today, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear. It is the heart of faith and obedience that makes divine traffic possible; God is immanent in God’s created cosmos, but God chooses to make Godself revealed in Presence in the presence of God’s people. We only have to invite Him. “Lift up your heads, O gates! And be lifted up, O ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in.” Ps 24:7 ESV

In the brief scriptural account, we can struggle to grasp the precise meaning of the king’s captain. Some have suggested that he imagined a watering can ‘rose’, suddenly emitting showers of rain that could nurture accelerated growth of new wheat and barley. Jesus did exactly this kind of accelerated creative production at Cana at the wedding, but commentators don’t think that’s what is intended here. The word is properly translated as ‘windows’ in all the modern versions, but that is to minimise the scope of the Hebrew. Arubbah also translates as lattice- the thin and delicate wooden separation constructed before glazed windows were possible, through which light streams, or wind flows, or even birds might enter, such as a dove loft. Or again, as a sluice or floodgates, which is how we find arubbah rendered in Genesis 7:11 and 8:2, when God allows the waters above to come down to flood the whole earth below. So ‘arubbah’ refers to much more significant portals between heaven and earth- the very doors of intercourse between God’s realm and our earthly realm.  Now in the great Church Age we ought to understand that God’s intention is to bring Heaven and Earth together into One- that’s what Paul’s letters say (Ephesians 1:10), though too often it seems we are all stubbornly wedded to the inferior Platonic myth that heaven is far above and far from us all, while we are marooned in this slough of despond, far below on this miserable Earth. 

We may well need to be rebuked to think more biblically about these things, and that is also exactly what is going on in 2 Kings 7:2. As well as the rebuke of the prophet Elisha we might readily recall the words of Psalm 78, themselves a blunt rebuke:

11 They forgot his works
    and the wonders that he had shown them.
12 In the sight of their fathers he performed wonders
    in the land of Egypt, in the fields of Zoan.
13 He divided the sea and let them pass through it,
    and made the waters stand like a heap.
14 In the daytime he led them with a cloud,
    and all the night with a fiery light.
15 He split rocks in the wilderness
    and gave them drink abundantly as from the deep.
16 He made streams come out of the rock
    and caused waters to flow down like rivers.

17 Yet they sinned still more against him,
    rebelling against the Most High in the desert.
18 They tested God in their heart
    by demanding the food they craved.
19 They spoke against God, saying,
    “Can God spread a table in the wilderness?
20 He struck the rock so that water gushed out
    and streams overflowed.
Can he also give bread
    or provide meat for his people?”

Psalm 78:11-20 ESV

The King’s captain is making the same mistake as the doubters in the desert. The same mistake as the King himself, of course. Without a doubt, this is not a mistake that has at all gone out of fashion. Let’s also catch the subtlety of what is depicted in 2 Kings 6-7. We might recall from elsewhere that this King, Jehoram, is unlikely to be a reliable guide- his parents were Ahab and Jezebel. What can his upbringing and schooling have been like? Yet the scripture is understanding and merciful- this king has one to lean on, a captain, brought up, we might speculate, outside the close circle of the House of Ahab. (I explored that experience here.) The text does not criticise Jehoram directly- I have already shown that in fact it casts him in quite a positive light. And there is more- as soon as the King has uttered his murderous intention to do away with Elisha, he follows up the message with a possible reprieve, drawing back from violence to ask Elisha the question, “This trouble is from the Lord! Why should I wait for the Lord any longer?” Perhaps Jehoram imagines in a dark whim that he will rouse God’s attention by sending the heavies round to sort out Elisha- permanently if it comes to it. But his heart isn’t in it, though Elisha has the door barricaded to begin with, and wisely so.

The good people of Kyiv and Mariupol and Kharkiv are asking themselves a similar question, and would perhaps also say so to us, as they find themselves under a far more apocalyptic assault than the one described in 2 Kings. Jehoram’s people didn’t face Cruise missiles, laser guided artillery fired from some 10 miles distance, or remote drone ‘loitering munitions.’ But just as then, the invading army still intends their destruction, and by whatever means, dead is dead. Plenty of God’s people are praying beyond Ukraine’s borders, as well as within them, and others pray in desperation in basements and underground stations, but the noose around Kyiv is slowly tightening all the same. Where is God’s answer? If this trouble isn’t from Him, why should any of them wait for Him?

Kharkiv under attack on 24 2 22. Kevin Rothrock.

Though not a journalistic report, 2 Kings also notes the state of the economy in Samaria at the crucial time. Donkey’s heads and bird dung are now on the shopping list, and business for these is brisk, it would seem. Against the background of this report, Elisha’s rebuke to the unbelief of the King’s walking stick man is couched in the same terms. Tomorrow, grain will be cheaper than you can imagine- Elijah gives the exact price per kilo- while the same shekel will get you twice as much barley. Barley is always cheaper at the market because its harder to separate the husks from the inner seed. Cereal bars have always had their drawbacks.

https://uk.news.yahoo.com/commodity-prices-surge-russias-ukraine-125526692.html

But I think the message is clear enough. By reporting on the state of the economy, the writer of 2 Kings is showing us in unequivocal terms that God does indeed see the Big Picture, in all times- past, present and (near) future. The commodities prices are significant because in these graphs is the prosperity or poverty of whole communities. Not everyone ate pigeon dung or their children, but they were all in the trial together. Some coped better than others, and some who coped yesterday died today. At such a moment in the history of Israel and Samaria the stories of some came to a premature and tragic end, and my religious sensibilities won’t make much difference to that. It may be true that God did not change the situation for this one or that one, but God is God and I am not. You already knew that bad things happen to people, some of whom are ‘good’ and some not, though they were minding their own business well enough I guess.

The most extra-ordinary spectacle of a 40 mile convoy of Russian would-be invaders photographed from space for days and days going absolutely nowhere. They say the the Lord works in curious ways. Who is to say what the multiple explanations are for this turn of events? Perhaps this gives some pause to consider what might be meant by Jeremiah 10:23; “I know, O Lord, that the way of man is not in himself, that it is not in man who walks to direct his steps.” Or, again, the old Yiddish proverb, “We plan, God laughs.” 

Perhaps I speak too soon. Who’d have credited that Putin’s army wouldn’t even be able to drive down the A roads to Kyiv (or Kiev as the Russians had become accustomed to calling it) without getting stuck in mud, blowing their tyres or running out of fuel? Perhaps it was wholesale sabotage by the reluctant soldiers. Go on- say you thought that would happen. You simply can’t. It’s ridiculous, frankly. But it happened, and as I said before, this meant that Western leaders discovered they had time to discover their consciences and found the time to grasp an opportunity to act before it becomes too late for many many people. As with Jehoram, we discover something of the true qualities of our leaders in these testing circumstances, and we may even be pleasantly surprised. Some hasty decisions may be reconsidered and even corrected. Perhaps we discover that we can work for justice together.

March 10 2022. Ukrainian artillery attack a bunched Russian tank column moving slowly down the main highway towards Kyiv. Russian tank commander Colonel A. Zakharov is believed to have been killed in action, as overheard on the tank-to-tank radios during their U-turn and retreat.

Other broadcast footage shows the timely impact of the significant quantities of ‘defensive’ hardware that EU and other countries, including the UK, have managed to squirrel into the hands of the Ukrainian defenders. You may conceded that God has used us to extend a meaningful hand of friendship to the Ukrainians in their time of great need, though a no-fly zone is still off the table.

But what is of most significance I think is the information war. In stark contrast to the situation in 1945 and even in 1982, we now realise that wars are fought with information in the electronic realm, and that the control of information back home is of great significance. Significant though decreasing numbers of protestors are showing up on the streets in Russia, and Putin’s government is desperately trying to control the narrative to maintain his support at home. Some Christian leaders are imitating the example of Bonhoeffer in an earlier era. We can pray for all Russians who look for the courage to speak truth to power.

L. Ukrainian forces capture Russian Borisoglebsk-2 electronic warfare system. C. Electronic warfare by Ukrainian military personnel. R. Captured Russian Eleron-3 UAV drone in operating condition.

Which is what we see with Elisha in these circumstances. I cannot explain or defend all the facets of the events in the biblical account, and certainly not the detailed rights and wrongs in Ukraine. How could I possibly make sense of all the conditions and consequences of freedom, Divine freedom in creation, or human freedom in response, in responsible action, and the myriad interactions of all these things? But within the boundaries of this episode, a spectacular realisation emerges. In the extreme circumstances of international warfare, a complete war where the whole population and community are in ultimate peril, where leaders and advisers, men and women, children and babies, the old and sick- and men of God are all cheek by jowl with one another under God’s heaven, God sees them. God is close by. They can discover that they are, if you like, in a ‘thin place’ where the gates and doors and windows and sluice gates of heaven can be thrown open in an instant. The King of Glory may come in, and when He does, He can make anew- salvation, release, redemption, liberation- all of these and more. In the case of Jehoram and Elisha, God’s bursting through the curtain between heaven and earth came with in the sound of an invisible army- of chariots and horsemen. In those days, that sound was the equivalent of today’s main battle tanks, attack helicopters and the incessant rain of rockets from afar. Putin is not afraid of the tanks from Germany, France and Britain, for the simple reason that we have, collectively, fewer than 600, to his 13000. The Ukrainians themselves have several thousands, older ex-Soviet era models for the most part. But the size of Jehoram’ s army was not relevant. God made the sound that scared the besieging soldiers away, and I note that the account does not inform us as to how the author even knows that. There are many things that only God knows, and God does things we don’t know about. News got out somehow. And so we find that what was a question for the King’s Captain, uttered in unbelief and despair, turned out to be an invitation Godself was oh-so-ready to accept. How did God make connection between the provision in heaven with need on earth? When Elijah walked on earth, God used him to prophecy over flour and oil (1Ki 17:14), but not this time. Nor did God accelerate the growing of crops. Rather, once the gospel testimony of the lepers had been tested by the (overly?) cautious Jehoram, the Israelites found the supplies they desperately needed left in tents, with gold and other loot from the earlier campaign- all abandoned in plentiful supply, at greater scale even than the armaments that unwilling and reluctant Russians in Ukraine have themselves run away from. Jehoram had seen a great deal from the city wall, but Elisha saw into the future with God- a better future that comes pressing forward to meet those in disaster. This is the real ‘information war’, not the electronic warfare in the skies or in the internet, but the seeing and knowing that God is willing to share with His people about what is happening between heaven and earth, and what New things can come about here in earth as we learn and align with God’s will in the unseen Tomorrow that God is creating.

You may have been amused by the realisation that the lepers are caught in some moral ambiguity after their desperation turns to relief and delight. In their excitement at discovering food and other loot, they begin to carry off armfuls of stuff- a stash of shiny metal in a security deposit box here, a tax free off-shore bank account there… the keys to superyachts at the Tyre marina. Then they have a crisis of conscience. ‘I can see what will happen to us if we stay silent and keep this stuff for ourselves,’ one says to another. But they don’t mention these goodies when they get back to announce that the army has suddenly departed. Horses, donkeys and tents are all that they list. God sees this, and so can we. It is not merely the matter of what means of war are just at this time. There are more ethical challenges that will face us, individually as well as corporately, as and when this chapter comes to an end.

Who is to say how God will work with His faithful intercessors, prophets and leaders to do justice and mercy in Ukraine, in this war, and, please God, after it? It’s high time we found out. Let us not rest until shalom has come, as the enemies of peace and the doers of violence have run away over the horizon of God’s world, and as those who instruct and order them are escorted to appointments at The Hague.

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Post script: “Grinning George Osborne marched on to the Tory conference stage yesterday and announced plans for savage cuts that will hammer millions of families… Mr Osborne said his measures would save £7 billion and would be a crucial part of plans to cut the £175 billion public debt built up during the battle against recession. He told Tory delegates that all sectors of society must share the burden, adding: “We’re all in this together.”” [Daily Mirror, 7th October, 2009]

George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer to PM David Cameron was widely mocked for uttering the phrase “We’re all in this together,” both in 2009 when announcing the Conservative Government’s austerity policies and again in 2014, when he tried to argue he’d been morally sound and technically accurate in their implementation. The well off paid much more tax than the less well off, Osborne maintains.

Whether you agree with the critics who continue to mock Osborne or not, very similar things were said of Elijah after he prophesied that there would be no rain except by his word, as God’s judgement on the idolator Ahab and his queen.  ‘Is that you, you troubler of Israel?’ Ahab said when Elijah finally showed up again at court.  It had not rained for three and a half years.  Elijah was at the Brook Cherith drinking best ‘Stream Fresh’ mineral water and eating at ‘Chez Ravens’ (feathered waiter service included) at least until the stream dried up.  Was Elijah really ‘in it’ together with the rest of God’s people during the long drought and famine?  Reading the account now, we can see that he was very much sharing in the same privations for a significant period, before going off to Zarephath. There was a bounty on Elijah’s head, you will remember, so this must be taken into account.

What does the ‘double portion’ look like for Elisha?  The Syrians are besieging the whole city of Samaria- king and people without distinction, and Elisha is in there with them, inside a house with the city Elders.  Yes, absolutely he is ‘in it’ with everyone else.  The king eventually gets to breaking point and sends out to have Elisha beheaded, just as own parents (Ahab and Jezebel) intended for Elisha’s prophetic forerunner, and it proves to be a close run thing before the stay of execution.

The people of the city could very much see that the man of God was with them in their distress, vulnerable in humanity, just like them.  This is why his words count.

So it is all very well that I am writing this in such assured terms about the wonders of divine prophecy and developing a spiritual perspective.  We are all instructed by the scripture, but let’s be quick to pray for God to prosper His prophetic Word inside the cities and lands where the siege is actually happening.

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PPS If you have children, or you are moved to pray for children, please note these media stories.

https://www.womanalive.co.uk/opinion/how-to-pray-with-your-children-for-the-war-in-ukraine/12654.article

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-60692442 Ukraine: Thousands of vulnerable children unaccounted for. By Sue Mitchell. BBC News 11 3 22

© Stephen Thompson 2022 (except where credits shown)

Digital tracking data from open source e-sites, correlating to military activity in Ukraine from Feb 24th to March 14th Amongst other things, such data will be of value in the ongoing work to collate evidence for war crimes investigations.

A TIME FOR WAR and a time for Shalom

The Motherland monument in Kyiv, Ukraine, completed and ‘opened’ in 1981 attended by Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev. This image has been enhanced with the colours of the Ukrainian flag as a commentary on the current ‘Russian crisis’ as the Permanent Representative of Ukraine to the United Nations Sergiy Kyslytsya described the invasion after the General UN Assembly this week. It is a memorial to the Soviet war dead of WW2.

The purpose of this blog is to explore the thesis that God wants us to co-create the future in partnership with His Spirit. This is a fundamentally constructive and life-affirming mission. God’s very good future, according to the biblical vision of Shalom peace. Wars, invasions or ‘special military operations’ are not my intended brief. But since Vladimir Putin sent his massed soldiers and missiles across the border into Ukraine on February 23rd 2022, there can be no ignoring what is taking place. At the time of writing, nine days later, it must be the case that some tens of thousands are dead and injured within the borders of what we have come to recognise as the independent country of Ukraine, both natives and invaders, and the world is certainly no longer the same as it was ten days ago. It will not ever be the same again. ‘Events’ have transpired. ‘Stuff happens,’ in more trendy parlance. Tragic and horrific stuff. Are these appropriate words to use? Its hard to know- who is to say? At times like this its hard to find the right words. The Bible has some sort of a solution to the question of how to talk about some of the crazier things that humans get up to when our thinking gets out of control- its the Book of Ecclesiastes.

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

What gain has the worker from his toil? 10 I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. 11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. 12 I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; 13 also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.

14 I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him. 15 That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away.[already been pursued.]

16 Moreover, I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, even there was wickedness, and in the place of righteousness, even there was wickedness. 17 I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time for every matter and for every work. 18 I said in my heart with regard to the children of man that God is testing them that they may see that they themselves are but beasts. 19 For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity.[vapour, mere breath.] 20 All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return. 21 Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth?

A million people have now left the Eastern borders of Ukraine to Poland and its other neighbours. Where even is Ukraine? Most of us have had to improve our eastern European geography in the last week, and so perhaps now recall that Belarus, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, Moldova and the Black Sea form its other borders, in addition to Russia. Not to mention that Crimea was also Ukraine until 2014. As the map below makes clear to those of us who were not experts on the local political history, pre-Gorbachev Ukraine was not a landmass with a singular pedigree. How many countries are? My country, the UK, certainly is not. But while democracy may be a contested concept in some details, it is commonly conceded that the post Empires-Stalin-Hitler era in which the United Nations and Human Rights are now ‘things,’ launching salvoes of unguided rockets into civilian districts of multiple cities is not at all the right way to behave. Even if some people groups find themselves separated by current international boundaries, as seems to be the case in what was the Donbas region of SE Ukraine. Yes, we know the Ukraine military have been shooting there before the recent invasion- its complicated. Life usually is.

Since the demise of the Soviet Union and the ‘fall’ of the Berlin Wall, all I knew about Ukraine was that it was a place for demolition men to go about their business with oxyacetylene torches and big hammers. The USSR had nuclear-tipped ICBMs in underground silos which were finally removed and decommissioned, while other trappings of the communist war machine were sent for scrap, gobbled up by yellow diggers on caterpillar tracks armed with hydraulic cutters. The circle of life for such monstrous machines continues with the recycling of their base materials. The Ukrainians were told that their safety was ‘guaranteed’ by their big brothers next door in Russia, especially because they had agreed to give up their nuclear armaments, so they could now go about their peaceful business of farming and modern development without disturbance. Which is sort of what happened, though the country remained desperately poor in so many ways. Friends of mine began to visit a community just over the border into Ukraine from Romania in recent years, to assist with various sorts of children’s and church work, as even a little help turned out to be vital help. Today our friends there are running a free soup kitchen for the escaping women and children and lorry drivers.

Key on the list of ‘things’ we should be talking about in 2022 are the distribution of COVID vaccines to the rest of the developing world, and making up for loss and damage in many parts of the world where climate change is having such widespread and profound effects. But suddenly we aren’t doing either of those things. Putin’s ‘special military operation’ turns out to be a full scale invasion that he has been secretly plotting for months, at least, if not, quite possibly, even before 2014. There will be ‘wars and rumours of wars,’ which is to say, these things happen: not at all that God wants them to happen, or that God is promising us further doses of trouble, in our days or in whatever days are to come, as if there is some kind of divine purpose in it. ‘There is a time for war’, as Ecclesiastes has it, is rather similar to the phraseology of the gospel of Matthew.

What are the contours of a biblical, a Christian response, to these ‘things’? I offer these very few and brief considerations. Much more must and will be said, by wiser folk than me. Firstly, there is no place for super-spiritual whimsy. Other friends of mine are grasping for Christianised versions of the popular trend for ‘colouring in,’ with all things Ukrainian now tinted in yellow and blue. Nothing at all wrong with that gentle support for the proper national spirit of a sovereign country. But spotting shapes of angels in the clouds is not going to add weight to the burden for prayer and intercession- our proper business that God calls His people to in the heavenly realms. That comes from a secret source, though a secret we can all come to know. “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” It’s not clouds making shapes in the sky that will change the world- it is God’s people, ‘blown’ by the Spirit of Jesus, as He said to Nicodemus. “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.  God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” As Jesus went on to say to the woman at the well in Samaria.

Social media posts from Feb 26 and 27 claiming to show clouds above Kyiv, and in the shape of angels. Quite a lot of imagination in the first case, and the second is clearly plagiarised from a much earlier photo- I found one in 2020 on Facebook, while others who have tested this image say that it dates back to at least 2016. The angel in question seems to be as much of fan of Pizza Hut as it is of righting significant wrongs in Ukraine. The stern lessons of Ecclesiastes include warnings about the shallow depths of human insight and ‘wisdom.’ Nevertheless, we should not despair of gaining wisdom from God- He instructs us to seek it.

Make no mistake, Christian friend- while our eternal struggle is not against flesh and blood, the calamity in all the cities whose names begin with ‘K’ in Ukraine this week is most certainly about flesh and blood. The bombs and bullets fired, the missiles and mayhem worked by Russian forces, whether prosecuted by naïve boys or committed military officers, are the very evil and physical acts of human people on other human people, most tragically, their actual close blood relations. We can see clearly enough that Putin’s dream of a lightning victory over a supposed ineffectual military defence has given way to embarrassment, anger, and now the utterly shameless blitzing of houses, hospitals, schools and railway stations, shopping centres and civilian administrations. As well as fuel depots, water supplies, energy links and, incredibly, even radioactive waste sites. It is no surprise that hard and credible evidence is already emerging of Russian soldiers refusing to advance, retreating, demobbing, openly breaking down in tears. Of surrendered young boys calling home to their mothers to tell how they were deceived by their commanders, told to shoot at civilians, or led deliberately into an anticipated hail of opposing gun fire. As fast as Putin’s regime now hurriedly attempts to cut off the supply of uncensored news to all the Russian people, such accounts are reaching them by various means, and we can pray for a just response that emerges from their collective and sound conscience. Thousands of protesters have already gone out onto their streets and given themselves up for arrest, grandmothers and children amongst them. There will and must be many more. Our steadfast prayers may encourage them significantly .

L. Arrow shows the descending missile bringing sudden destruction to the main administrative building in Kharkiv centre on Tuesday morning. C: the shockwave and fireball caught on CCTV R: Footage from a residential street in Irpin (satellite city of Kyiv) on 28th Feb. Burning Russian vehicles ambushed by lightly armed Ukrainian defenders, which may or may not have included the use of ‘Molotov cocktails’. All footage from https://twitter.com/WW3updated.

This is not at all what the people of Russia wanted after That War ended. The one we British people simply won’t stop going on about. You can’t eat bullets, but Russia and Ukraine and all the rest could be the source of huge amounts of food- enough grain for themselves and plenty to sell for honest profit, if you will. Soviet era tanks were turned into tractors, and the metal from swords of all kinds turned to ploughshares, just as Isaiah suggested. The Ukrainian born Soviet sculptor Yevgeny Viktorovich Vuchetich, born in Dnipro, Ukraine, designed and cast ‘Let us beat swords into plowshares’ in 1959, which was celebrated in a Soviet era stamp in 1970, before the sculpture itself was donated to the United Nations garden in New York, where it stands today. What a profound symbolic contribution to the greater peace and Shalom of the world! How tragic that the metal that was repurposed for tools yesterday may all too easily become tank tracks again tomorrow. Or the motivation of a man’s heart may change, and claims of preparation for defence are finally revealed as plans for attack.

Jesus’ disciples were no strangers to arms. At the end of the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, (the sandal-wearing leader of ex-Zealots and fishermen who’d gutted plenty of fish in their time), Peter was still able to find a sword to carry along to the prayer meeting on the Mount of Olives, as he was expecting the kind of trouble that might well warrant that sort of equipment (John 18). When a crowd of the very human and flesh-and-blood opposition turned up to arrest his master, he wasted no time in setting about the High Priest’s servant with what he had to hand.

Guérard, Grégoire, 1520. Peter strikes off the ear of Malchus, when the troops come to arrest Jesus. See John 18:10

A whole mob of military guys have been sent to do the authorities’ dirty work, as John tells us in his gospel account, but our artist narrows our focus to one particular confrontation. While Malchus is depicted by Grégoire Guérard in a splendid set of articulated armour and chainmail, rounded off with a fetching set of knee protectors, he is evidently not at all expecting the sudden ferocity of Saint Peter’s attack with a very large and pointy sword. Perhaps it was the blinding halo that Guérard is careful to include in his painting that makes Malchus loose both his cool and his night light and then fall to the ground, giving himself a nasty concussion on his own shield. ‘Don’t send a boy to do a man’s job‘, you can just hear the older soldiers saying. Peter is evidently not looking for angelic assistance, being suddenly fully motivated by his sense of justice in his cause. My beloved leader isn’t going to be arrested by anyone on my watch. Especially not this skateboard boy! But our attention is then wrenched away by all the rest of the activity in this busy scene of scenes.

Grégoire Guérard, 1520. The Capture of Christ. Oil on Panel. Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon   Note Judas Iscariot, the keeper of the moneybags, and holding the thirty pieces of silver he has just received for betraying his leader to the authorities, right in the middle of the painting. Upper left is said Master in meaningful prayer to His Father in Heaven. Guérard depicts a vision of an angel in response to Jesus’ petitions, and this is no artistic whimsy on his part. Luke 22:43 tells us straightforwardly, “And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. ” Whether this was a vision in clouds or lights or flashes or whatnot is not described, as the artist, journalist or scientist might enquire. What is told is the source and authority of the intervention, and its certain effect.

It’s not just about the confrontation- the cause for violence in this particular moment. What is at stake? What are the deeper values, the meaning of things that are in frame here? The Ecclesiastes passage asks a big question- is the life of a child in Kyiv really no different to the life of a dog running outside in the street, both driven to panic by the irregular scream of falling Iskander missiles? If they are different, on what basis do we come to such a conclusion? You’re not going to be surprised by my opinion on that subject, and could only be influenced to change your own view on the basis of some thing wielding considerably more influence… authority… power… than little old me. Such a One is shown kneeling top left of our picture, His arms aloft. In the dark heavens above, the curtain is drawn back and we are shown a secret view into the other bright realm, where a mighty angel holds up the invitation to self-sacrifice. The Way on for Life is the cross, through surrender to the crucifixion. It is for this reason that Jesus turns to Peter and tells him to put away his sword- because it is the wrong weapon for this particular fight. The fight that Christ embraces for us all: and so he regally and supremely submits to ropes and tying and all the rest of the worst that man can do to Him. The lamp that Malchus carried is dashed and its light gone out, as all the mortal hopes of man must surely do sooner or later, but the symbol of True hope is clear- through the holy divinity of Christ, the power of an incorruptible life, the Truth that He alone has authority to lay down His life and to take it up again. This is what the aura around the head of Christ is pointing to- if we learn to interpret the symbol correctly. It is not a mere trick of light in the clouds.

The Bible does not offer simple formulae for the pursuit of peace in the face of violence. So called Just War theory, and situational ethics are post-biblical constructs which may inform our modern thinking. As a result of the unexpected delays in Putin’s cruel plans, the leaders of Europe and the wider world have discovered that they have had too much time to pretend there was nothing they could do, and as a result, are now coordinating an extraordinary effort to supply both weapons and humanitarian aid to the Ukrainians. Those who, like Judas, suddenly find they are the centre of attention because their hands are filled with more money than they know what to do with are considering the sale of football clubs, super yachts and the other trappings of their kleptomania- if their assets have not already been frozen in unexpected retribution. The soldiers who were dispatched to carry out their masters’ bidding are also examining their own consciences, as they discover the One they were told was their enemy is, in fact, their Truest Friend. Most immediately, Malchus, who has looked Jesus in the face as the Saviour of All reaches out His hand of instant and powerful healing. His heart was surely changed, and thus we know his name.

There is perhaps a time for pacifism, and an affirmation that the past enthusiasm for conscientious objection was rational and morally sound. The way in which a few privileged leaders sent millions to die pointlessly in trench warfare in Europe in 1915 was itself unjust, and demanded refutation. But today, it is time to arm the Ukrainians, supplying them with whatever swords we can muster on their behalf, and some cunning may be called for to deliver such weaponry. Yet the risk of nuclear confrontation may well be too great to allow further large scale intervention. Perhaps that judgement will change if the conflict is not soon resolved. In any case, as well as supporting the war on the ground, those of us who confess the great name of Christ and look for heaven’s answer must be quick to support the struggle for justice a long thousand miles away with our prayers. It is a time for us to raise our arms as well.

Aaron and Hur hold Moses’ arms aloft as the army is fighting the Amalekites in the valley down below. Exodus 17. Only as they persevere in this mission does the fight below reach a successful conclusion. JOSEPH F. BRICKEY 

(c) 2022 Stephen Thompson

PS Nine days after this post was published, I found this from Jeremy Bowen (BBC)

Jeremy Bowen reporting from Kyiv on 12th March. War in Ukraine: Uni to uniform – Ukraine’s new teenage army recruits I wonder what Grégoire Guérard would make of the similarity between the attire of these lads and his depiction of the servant of the High Priest.

PPS I note this article in Premier Christianity, also sounding a note of caution about claims of miracles. https://www.premierchristianity.com/news-analysis/miracles-in-ukraine/12696.article?utm_source=Premier%20Christian%20Media&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=13083177_Voice%20of%20hope%2023.3.2022&dm_i=16DQ,7SF1L,PX7C4A,VRSH8,1


The arrest of Christ: the kiss of Judas; Malchus is healed by Christ; St. Peter denies Christ before a servant and soldiers

Psalm 144: What is man, and what are our sons and daughters? Forming the people of God in action.

Psalm 144 (‘Of David’) opens with the bold praises and declarations of a man- a king, indeed- who sounds supremely confident in who he is, and Whose he is. Moses talked back to God at the Burning Bush, protesting that he wasn’t half as competent at public speaking as the job description seemed to demand. There’s no such modesty here: “I am David- that’s King David to you,” he seems to say, as the subheading of the psalm subtly advises us. This is the eternally famous and supremely esteemed King of Israel, the very regent who followed Saul (whom God certainly did not want His people to have as monarch, since apparently his very presence would distract attention from their true Divine King) through the blessed flight of a single stone of war into the Philistine champion’s forehead, then elevated to the iconic status of kingship par excellence. Christ the Messiah was still being hailed as ‘the son of David‘ at his final and triumphal entry to the city of Jerusalem on what we now call Palm Sunday (Matt 21:9). St Paul is still going on about King David as Christ’s titular ancestor in the opening address of his Letter to the Romans (Ro 1:3). “Concerning his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, which was made of the seed of David according to the flesh…” So one man in one generation seems to have helped change the very mind of God. The anti-monarchist Deity has become a devoted fan.

Psalm 144 ‘Of David’

Blessed be the Lord, my rock,
    who trains my hands for war,
    and my fingers for battle;
he is my steadfast love and my fortress,
    my stronghold and my deliverer,
my shield and he in whom I take refuge,
    who subdues [my] people[s] under me.

O Lord, what is man that you regard him,
    or the son of man that you think of him?
Man is like a breath;
    his days are like a passing shadow.

Ps 144:1-4 ESV, but with verse 2 modified according to the MT

By the close of verse 2 we’ve got into a theological argument. In the NIV and ESV, very typically of the English translations, David tells us that God ‘subdues peoples under [him].’ All the translators seem to want to stick with the traditional reading that David is referring to the ‘orrible foreigners he explicitly mentions later in verse 11 (ESV); “Rescue me and deliver me from the hand of foreigners/ whose mouths speak lies and whose right hand is a right hand of falsehood.” But actually it seems that Gentile folk are not who verse 2 is considering. Most original manuscripts and the MT say, ‘subdues my people.’ So might find that translation even more challenging in these times of ‘political correctness’. But remember the context of David’s life. The kingship of Saul was not a success, rather as God had cautioned Israel would be the case when they asked for a king. The consequences for Saul’s son Jonathan were most tragic. And even as David aged and passed away, relational strife at all levels of society, from his own sons and far beyond, again began to multiply. If we take subdue to mean bring into order, then that would indeed be a fitting prayer. I think we are brought back to the same questions of exegesis and hermeneutics that face us in Genesis 1:28,

And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” 

There is unresolved conflict in this phrase. To subdue is necessarily to assert and value one set of rights over another. (I’m assuming here, for the sake of argument, that animal rights are a given. You may not be patient with that assumption. Let’s keep that for another day!) This is a challenge to the life of faith and action, where ‘can’ does not seamlessly lead to ‘should’ and certainly not to ‘must’. God in creation establishes a hierarchy of life in giving one set of organisms as food to another, and then later this is modified when Noah leaves the Ark (Gen 9:3). What then are we supposed to take as our model, even more so in our day when the very question of consuming meat is understood to have significant ecological consequences? To combine the conceptualities of subduing and dominion and then bring them under the heading of stewardship may be useful, but does not answer all challenges. But I begin to digress.

One significant feature of the account (1 Sa 17:38-39) of David and Goliath is David’s refusal to use Saul’s military armour or weapons. He is diplomatic about it, saying ‘I have not tested them,’ but what he really means is that he doesn’t need any of it, because his equipment- his being equipped– is internal and invisible. His fitness and readiness to be God’s man for the job is in his self-image, which is rooted in God {i.e. David’s self image and the imago Dei are one and the same} . 1 Samuel 17 makes this clear, as David is the only one who has a worldview that actually includes God- that inheres in God. Read the passage, and you will see that everyone else speaks in humanistic and materialistic terms. [David and Saul (Ernst Josephson) 1878 – National museum of Sweden. As with the earlier engraved image, I find the theological exposition in this depiction to be profound. After prosecuting final victory over the Philistines, Saul takes David into his court to bathe in the borrowed glory of this youthful man of God. But here we see Saul still trusting in his armour and pomp, with his gleaming weapons close at hand, and utterly lost, not knowing who or what he really is. Crystal clear and life-giving water is in reach of his open hand, but remains untouched. The ‘ruddy and handsome’ boy stands to his side, attending to his needs for comfort with his skilful music, but David is in a different world to King Saul, eyes lifted to the heavens, where his worship connects him with the transcendent King of Israel. Goliath, the chapter tells us, sees the external appearance of the boy without armour, and this is also what we are shown in this painting, although the milky white non-tan of David’s torso is not quite what is called for. David’s mortal and physical humanity spills out in this image of the sheep-herd suddenly brought up in the world, adorned with gold earrings under his clean curly hair swept up with a decorated headband, befitting his presence in the royal chamber, while his loins are still crudely concealed by a heavy and doubtless rather smelly sheepskin, strapped on by three loops of cord to stop it all falling down. What we are really seeing here is the lone boy David singing under the stars while the flocks slumber – the worshipping psalmist- rather than a court performer held on a retainer.]

This then is David. Youngest son of Jesse, not at all suitable to be leader of his family, never mind of his tribe or country- yet anointed at God’s command ahead of time. Boy who speaks his mind regarding religious and political certainties far above his station in life, bluntly rebuked by his eldest brother Eliab (1 Sa 17:28). Shepherd lad, not suitable material for accession to monarchy. Practised only in the pastoral care of goats; hardly a suitable candidate for prosecuting warfare against Goliath, the Philistine Giant.

I expect you know all this, and you may concede that we must learn to see things from God’s point of view if we are to walk the walk of faith with our God. Don’t judge books by covers, or persons by outward appearances. “And YHWH says to Samuel, “Do not look at his {Eliab’s} appearance, and at the height of his stature, for I have rejected him; for [it is] not as man sees—for man looks at the eyes, and YHWH looks at the heart.” (I Sa 16:7 Literal Standard Version) And in verse 3 of Psalm 144 it may be that David himself is brought up short by the same awareness and realisation, for his gleeful reverie on the extraordinary place of privilege and agency he has under YHWH God as king and victorious warrior is brought to a shuddering halt:

O Lord, what is man that you regard him,
    or the son of man that you think of him?
Man is like a breath;
    his days are like a passing shadow.

‘WHO DO I THINK I AM, talking like this? God as my armourer and shield-bearer?? Am I really that special?!’ Finally, David is asking God, ‘What do You see?’

There are moments in our lives, and we can choose to make them happen more often if we wish, when the veil of prosaic normality is pulled back. The spell of the ‘same old same old’ is broken, and we stop to contemplate the existential wonder and curiosity of our existence. Scientists who speak in the everyday public domain are wont to remark how very small and very insignificant we all are in the big scheme of things- as we are in the early stages of realising just how BIG the big scheme of things really is. Its coming up to 100 years since Edwin Hubble ‘resolved the Shapley–Curtis debate by finding Cepheids in the Andromeda Galaxy, definitively proving that there are other galaxies beyond the Milky Way’ in 1923 (so says Wikipedia). Then there’s the Big Bang and the inflationary universe, doing its thing, we now estimate, for some 13.7 billion years. A big bang, and a very big universe. And that’s just the bits we can see with our telescopes, powerful as they are. But really HOW BIG IS IT?

There’s the thing- if you really want to bring emphasis, pose a question. Which is what the psalm does. We don’t get a definition of the nature of being human, or a reductionist description of our key characteristics, but a Big Question. “What is man[kind]…?” David draws back, and so we draw back with him, to see, that is, to imagine, what the larger perspective of our place in the cosmos might be. Putting the Question allows that our previous assumptions might be inadequate, even plain wrong. What we think we know might be misleading- our day to day experiences so often are just that, no different in kind to the mode of life of the animals. David is looking for something different, more meaningful, of ultimate value, and we are prepared to be surprised, to be unsettled in our prior comforts. We move as far back as we dare to see ourselves on the stage of life, to behold what else might not have been visible at such close quarters, and what our relations to all that might be.

In approaching such Big Questions, Paul Tillich spoke in terms of one’s ultimate concern. Is the focus of our loving worthy of our attention, or are we perhaps absorbed with the profane and that which is not worthy of our being, our creation. Leadership, kingship, nation and community within a morally cogent framework are all well and good, but for the biblical authors, these are never abstractions that can meaningfully exist apart from the One who gives and sustains their being-The Ground of Being. Whatever might pass muster as being of ultimate concern can only be such in relationship with the Ultimate- the God of Israel Whom David proclaims to the quaking Israelite soldiers, even his own brothers, and this is his only theme when singing for King Saul.

Jesus later promises His disciples that every one who builds on His words is like one who builds their house on a rock, rather than on sand. And this Rock is solid indeed, and the foundation indeed strong. Yet this is still a metaphor. Such a secure dwelling place –fortress and stronghold says David in his psalm- is not an immediate escape from mortality for any of us. It is however a secure hope that looks beyond our human lifespan, a perspective that comes into view when we step back from the whole of life and take in what God is pleased to reveal. Truly, we are- each and every one- fragile, a passing breath, a moving shadow through the short day, says David, but this is not the complete answer to his Big Question.

We don’t need to be concerned about the apparent little-ness of our lives. The answer is plain on the page before us, the answer duplicated in the words of the psalm in verse 3. ‘What is man?’ is answered thus: “We are regarded by God.” ‘What is the son of man?’ is answered thus: ” The LORD thinks of us.” This is the basis of Creation, and of our creation; of our birth and of Providence that sustains us through our lives. God first breathed into dust- He made it, so He knows how to make it work; and he does know that even dry bones can live again. Those God regards He remembers, and those He thinks about He does not forget.

God will surely remember you.

God is remembering you.

    David’s psalm continues:

Bow your heavens, O Lord, and come down!
    Touch the mountains so that they smoke!
Flash forth the lightning and scatter them;
    send out your arrows and rout them!
Stretch out your hand from on high;
    rescue me and deliver me from the many waters,
    from the hand of foreigners,
whose mouths speak lies
    and whose right hand is a right hand of falsehood.

I will sing a new song to you, O God;
    upon a ten-stringed harp I will play to you,
10 who gives victory to kings,
    who rescues David his servant from the cruel sword.
11 Rescue me and deliver me
    from the hand of foreigners,
whose mouths speak lies
    and whose right hand is a right hand of falsehood.

After dealing with the massive theological-philosophical question in vv3-4, David seems satisfied with the results. I wonder if you are likewise satisfied by our considerations. What other thoughts do you have? David returns to the here-and-now world he finds himself in; that is, God’s world, in which God is Here-And-Now with you and me. From verse 5 we are back into the colourful metaphors of God’s involvement with this world of stuff- of matter and process that is less impressive than God. David is impressed by the stars in the heavens (Ps 147:4) but they are not the ultimate fixed points in the cosmos, God is! God bends the heavens to the divine Will, and is certainly not constrained by ‘the way the heavens go’. Rocks may be firm, but God makes them burst into flame and smoke with a passing touch. Storms are impressive, but the God who spoke light into being commands the lightning. Seas may rage and floods sweep all before their flow, but the God of David is not challenged. He is a prayer call away. At the climax of David’s rehearsal of potential obstacles are the Gentile foreigners whose words and godless actions can really cause trouble. Without ultimate knowledge of the Creating Covenant God, they are without wisdom and restraint, potentially more powerful and disruptive than animal or nature.

So it has proved to be.

As Saul found when he brought David to strum and serenade at his court, there is the potential to create both peace and paradigm shifts through worship. Plucking a lyre or, in our day, strumming guitars may seem to be ineffectual activities, but David knows better, and we should learn from him. What begins as a new song can likely become New Creation. Extraordinary things happen when God is singing along. Here is the source of deliverance that righteous leaders seek. This is what we need to bring transformation in our society at all levels, from our local neighbourhoods to international relations. And we should be serious about this, because God does not offer us any other solution or means. Whenever you are reading this, you will know of news of tsunamis, volcanoes and fires, and the multitude of consequences of human mismanagement that continue in our age. And it will likely still be the case that the burden of misery is mostly down to oppression and distress caused by the rotten state of humanity and its systems.

David’s prayerful and energetic meditation does not continue to focus on success in war, and metaphors of that kind. In joining him in realising our mortality, the Kingdom direction for our thoughts and visions of the future is in our families- in the children. Since the time of David we have learnt the ways of stars and seas, tectonism and meteorology, and understand the ecological cycles on which sustainable community must depend. In the latter case, sadly, much of this understanding has come from how much we have mucked it all up so very recently. Yet we surely have sufficient knowledge to strategise what to do next, to undo, and to do better.

But the real mystery is in how we reproduce ourselves in wisdom. Now there are a number of important medical and philosophical challenges we face given our new capabilities in regulating reproduction-contraception and fertility and so on, but that’s not what I mean here. Rather, how do we best bring up our children, facilitating their development and maturity into a generation to succeed us as citizens of earth and heaven, as disciples and leaders. As children of ours and Children of God? So much has changed in society in the last century or so, and so much that was accepted and traditional has been binned. There is some progress, and grounds for hope even in wider society- I am happy to affirm much that I see in schools that is good practice in our training of young people. But there is a fundamental problem in that we don’t explicitly teach ‘growing up’, partly because we respect cultural and community freedom, but also because we cannot confront what is patently bad life-practice in the face of the idol of individualism. When I was a child, I would hear any errant child being rebuked by a passing adult if their behaviour was seen to be antisocial. That is unlikely to happen today. Freedom is a two sided coin- on the one side, there is freedom to do as we will, and then on the other, there is freedom from the impositions even of others’ freedom. Or would it be better to say, freedom is a double edged sword? Liberty with responsibility. Sure, the fruit looks attractive, but what are the consequences, for me, for you, and for all of us?

In the closing section Psalm 144, David has high hopes for the fruitfulness of the land of Promise in which God’s people now live- that the grain stores will be overflowing, and that all manner of produce will abound. And further that the hills will resound with the bleating of sheep- perhaps he was dreaming of Wales (they’ve got 10 million, as we speak, for just 2.9 million people), or New Zealand (26 million apparently, which is five times the human population). And then, more soberly, that there would be peace, at home, and abroad. No war, no civil war, no strife, and especially no exile.

Amen to all of that.

But listen to where David starts this concluding prayer:


12 
May our sons in their youth
    be like plants full grown,
our daughters like corner pillars
    cut for the structure of a palace;
13 may our granaries be full,
    providing all kinds of produce;
may our sheep bring forth thousands
    and ten thousands in our fields;
14 may our cattle be heavy with young,
    suffering no mishap or failure in bearing;[b]
may there be no cry of distress in our streets!
15 Blessed are the people to whom such blessings fall!
    Blessed are the people whose God is the Lord!


May our sons in their youth /     be like plants full grown…

One of the most gifted and anointed leaders I have known taught me this simple lesson: ‘Success without a successor is failure.’ Which is why one of the most precious hallmarks of our church stream is the principle of fathering and sonship. Disciples must become leaders, which is to say, fathers, and you are only a father if there are sons learning in life with you. As we quip darkly, if you think you are a leader but no one is following you, then you are just taking a walk. David’s version of these principles is perhaps more winsome. In Ps 144 we have a multiplication of Ps 1. The single tree planted by streams of water has spread its seed far and wide, and now uncountable ‘sons’ have germinated and are growing in swathes of green growth in many garden borders and fields. The new forest is springing up, and there is a healthy synergy in the community network. You might say that there is competition in the race of life, with a struggle between individuals to succeed, but the horticultural metaphor is richer than that. Neighbouring plants do draw their own nutrients from the common supply, but they also support one another. As the trunks rise in the woodland, the grouping of the trees serves to protect them all from the damaging influence of wind and storm. They do compete for light, but they adapt and adjust, often keeping a margin from one another, to avoid friction and damage. We know much more than they did in David’s day- trees use chemicals and even interconnections by roots and fungal hyphae to communicate together in furtherance of health and avoiding disease or attack from pests. All the while the entire ecosystem is developed and enriched because the trees develop the environment so that a whole community of organisms can be created, in a network that is more resilient and sustainable than was the case before there are trees. As the human community develops, diversifies and grows, there is creative enrichment that exceeds the sum of its parts- a true synergy. Subtly, new phenomena emerge from the more complex network that we could not predict. With strategy and consideration, based on the wise appreciation of the impact of various developmental initiatives, what might have been subdued could be enhanced. The horticultural metaphor is very powerful, and I note that it gives us an opportunity to reflect on different modes of masculinity from, for example, the warfare mode that characterises much of this psalm.



‘our daughters like corner pillars/ cut for the structure of a palace…’   Caryatids of the Erectheum, Acropolis, Athens, Greece.

We will be quick to note that David is attentive to the need for inclusivity with regard to gender- as sons have been specifically highlighted as a determinant of long term success, so also must daughters be. [Alternatively I could say that ‘sons’ is the poor English for children, as I like to give ha’adam as humanity in Genesis 1-2. But given David’s specific identification of both genders here, that’s not necessary.] In terms of the ancient and classical cultures, this is even more significant than we might appreciate today, as for many, females and children and slaves were, to varying degrees, not equal to men, perhaps not even thought of as ‘persons’ at all. The biblical text, even in the Hebrew Bible, asserts radical claims that we might otherwise be ignorant of. I won’t waste your time commenting on how nonsensical such inequitable ideologies are, simply from a biological point of view. However, someone might observe that we must try not to stumble into the is-ought fallacy in moral reasoning. I’m drawn in by David’s characterisation of daughters as being structural, that is, strong, permanent, supportive, and absolutely vital to the maintenance of the roof, which will otherwise fall on one’s head, which are qualities which might otherwise have been associated with the masculine category. But there is no such stereotyping here: the males are the blossoming and tender plants, while the females confer architectural solidity. Perhaps David and the psalmists also mean what the Greeks in Delphi and Caryae understood, which is that a draped female figure makes an attractive as well as architecturally effective column- multitasking if you will. I read that Vitruvius, writing three centuries after their construction, said that the female Caryatids were depicted immobilised into the temple frontage as a punishment for picking the wrong side in the Persian war. This would fit the more familiar pattern of the oppression of women in peace as well as war. We might suggest that the psalm prefigures that more liberating metaphor used by Peter in the New Testament, with persons as living stones, where the next generation of daughters are explicitly included in the structure of the palace/temple in which God’s people are joined and live in full community with God as well as with one another. In this metaphor, being a member of this community is focussed on the participation in life and fellowship and not at all on the bearing of unreasonable loads.

We continue today in an extended season of flux with regard to gender and identity, fuelled in no small degree by the potential for change provided by science and medicine. The so called sexual revolution, beginning in the 1940-1950s and spreading significantly from the 1960s+ was, in part, a consequence of the development and common supply of effective contraceptives. My oldest aunt, a spinster, continued her working life as a Primary School teacher without marrying; when she began work, if a women became engaged she was expected, that is, obliged, to leave the workplace to make a home as a housewife. There is much cultural baggage in the sentence I just wrote, and much has changed for the better since then. However, under half of the current generation of children in school now live with both of their birth parents, and many parents cannot greet their children when the school day ends because so many are obliged to work for many more hours in the day. Now I guess many would prefer to be free from such obligations. Choices entail costs, some less anticipated.

The scripture does not prescribe ‘best practice’ in these things, and certainly not in detail. The texts I am discussing with you have open-ended metaphors, the vocabulary is multivalent, open to multiple creative possibilities, and multipotent in implication. We can look at ourselves through these powerful lenses, or perhaps prisms would be better, to discover more with our ancient friends, and with God, what human being is and what human becoming might be.

The historians are vociferously arguing with the theologians about the evidence for David and his kingdom. It is fairly usual to read that the archaeologists can’t find any/many remains in Jerusalem or elsewhere that they are happy to label as Davidic or Solomonic- the palace and temple may well be later cultural expressions that were erected by others. Be that as it may, as Israel became more prosperous, they began to build, and thus to subdue the land. Which is something of a universal in civilisations the world over. The growingly powerful populus, and especially its elites, seek to make their mark on their environment, and to construct culture. What we do to make it home. Some of these marks are more permanent, while some expressions of creativity leave less evidence for future archaeologists to find. Boys like building, and you will find all sorts of decorations adorning grand buildings at all times in history, but of all the forms, that of the (barely clad) female seems to occur rather more frequently. What does this say about us, and what does it say to us? Who figures out these things, and what dialogue is there in society about the way women are figured in public spaces? I recall it was was mildly scandalous to leave an unclothed mannequin in a shopfront when I was a schoolboy, but now it is a commonplace. In the early 2000s teenage girls would arrive in classrooms at the Catholic school I worked at toting fluffy pink pens and pencil cases adorned with Hugh Hefner’s Playboy logo, and it struck me as odd at the time that, of all the ‘minor’ issues that the pastoral management would lay down the law on regarding children’s appearance and behaviour, that this went without comment. I take it as a positive that it was schoolgirls themselves who gained media attention for protesting against this particular example of the sexualisation of children, which, several years later, finally resulted in the main UK High street stationers WH Smith finally removing these highly profitable products from sale. The public sector has taken great steps forward in terms of the safeguarding of children and the way adults are now explicitly directed to take responsibility for children’s wellbeing, particularly in our schools. Wider society is still a hostile environment for youngsters, profoundly inimical to their healthy development, especially considering the prevailing open sexualisation of visual media and the failure of government to regulate internet access to pornography.

Kirwan says the teenage girls in her school “are aware of what the Playboy icon is” and “were saying that, even though the pencil cases feature no blatant pornographic images, the bunny symbol represents pornographic images. The girls are able to acknowledge that symbols have a deeper significance than that which is on the surface. For stockists and manufacturers to deny this is shockingly disingenuous.”

Mr Mayo, co-author of Consumer Kids: How Big Business is Grooming our Children for Profit, said “Youngsters did not really understand the images and ideas they were often confronted with.” WH Smith would not be drawn on whether the decision to withdraw the Playboy merchandise was because of pressure.

Kirwan quoted in the Guardian in 2005; Mayo quoted in the daily Mail, followed by journalistic commentary in 2009

After such a long period in which male choices and influence had such impact on the behaviour and depiction of women, the argument is made that adult women can and should decide for themselves how to dress and behave in public and in private, regardless of who might be looking or what they thought. Women should be able to go about wearing whatever clothing they like without being assaulted and then blamed by society, and especially the law, because certain men don’t control themselves. Freedom to dress; freedom from victimisation. But is it all as simple as that? In 2022 the #MeToo movement has finally got around to re-evaluating the history of the women who ‘chose’ to associate with Hefner and his much lauded Playboy mansion, and the wider network of contacts and influencers. Liars and lies are being exposed, while the cries of those who found freedom hard to distinguish from captivity are, at last, being heard. The exercise of feminist freedoms proves to have been a far rockier road than has typically been admitted.

Perhaps the pendulum is swinging back the other way in some respects, as there is growing recognition of the nuances and complexities in this debate. There is wider acknowledgement of the dangers of pornography and ‘sexting’ on the mental health and wellbeing of people, of women and men, and of children. It is mainstream to recognise that there must be clear standards in advertising and that these should be robustly upheld. This must apply especially in regard to children, where the lines of safety must not be blurred, because young people are not yet become sufficiently to exercise freedom to or from. A child’s dress should not be marketed with a name suggestive of child sex abuse, as John Lewis did recently. What we call things matters- the man Adam named the animals, which makes us different from animals.

In my attempt to write a brief commentary much can be challenged. Nothing here is black and white. What is certain? This psalm, like the rest of the scripture, does point to rock hard principles for us to base life and our lives on, illuminating our nature and purpose. It aids us in discerning what the boundaries are, and bringing issues to our attention. Progress is not a futile dream, though pilgrims find the road more arduous in places. Christian people must give more attention to the live issues of gender and sexuality and engage positively in the public dialogue. I am excited by David’s insight, that a vision of gender empowerment can be the foundation for a progressive and sustainable economy.

The Bible translators all conspire together against the text of Ps 144:2b, making out that God empowers David to subdue foreign peoples. We have seen this is incorrect: the text actually says David subdued his own people, under God. Is this a ‘post-colonial’ correction? (They are all God’s created people, aren’t they?) Perhaps so, and the same principle would seem to apply in our relationship with God’s natural world, of which there are not two sorts, here at home, versus over there. What’s the difference between deforestation for oil palm monoculture in Indonesia, producing palm oil for my shower gel, and deforestation for ‘rural management of upland grazing in the Lake District’ to produce lamb and wool? We need to subdue the subduing, I think, now that we better understand the costs of ancient choices. There are many good reasons for deliberately reforesting large areas of the UK, such as the less ‘productive’ uplands of the Lake District, but this is not easy to achieve, as roaming sheep eat everything that emerges from the rough grassy sward. New fencing will be needed to exclude them, to prevent continued ‘sheepwrecking.‘ However, such terminology can be taken as an attack on rural farming communities- they are already crying out in distress in their streets and fields, and the transition to more sustainable form of management requires that they will need aid in adapting to such a new form of economy.

When I began composition of this blogpost, my intention was to focus on the Big Question about the nature of human beings in relationship with God, and then to draw on David’s realisation that our best legacy will be found in the quality of the children we bring up behind us- if indeed they are following in the good and godly principles we come to treasure, as David shows us. Sheep with brains, led by shepherds with brains and hearts. Just as David was the boy brought up to shepherd Israel by his fathers, both Jesse and God, the Father of us all. I will admit that verses 3-4 struck me first as an interruption to the rest of the psalm, and perhaps it is now more obvious to me that this might not be so, at least not in such crude terms. David begins by celebrating his youthful discovery that God indeed strengthens his hand in his human struggles against godlessness, wherever it is found, and there sure is plenty of it. We can join in with David in his exultation, as he squeals with delight in the arms of his father, as they play together in the garden. Dad is throwing him around in near-safety, and the laughter and delight is doubtless mixed with the odd grimace when they tumble together off the side of the trampoline. David’s God subdues the Earth, and the wicked people in it, we are told. David follows in His example, subduing his people, in the same pattern. God’s righteousness and justice remain inviolable, but there is a shift in perspective through the psalm. The sons and daughters of which David speaks- the generation of all the children in the community, not just his own- are not compelled into growth and healthy development by the exercise of subduing force and obligation. Even plants exercise a limited degree of agency in their search for light and nutriment, and the attention of the gardener-farmer-husbandman must be with the most delicate ethos of nurture. A bruised reed He will not break. Then I wonder if David was oblivious to the realisation that a nation burgeoning with sheep and cattle would be a sheepwrecked nation, devoid of trees and thus waiting for disaster? Frankly, I suspect so, though I am also sure he would understand all this, and learn quickly.

Psalm 144 ends with an exultation of blessing- a melding of dispensing blessing and acknowledging blessing, an acknowledgement that the proper use of the gifts of God will bring us to a blessed state, and an acknowledgement that it is likely to happen in the context of being a community intimately and corporately committed to the shared values we have rehearsed, supremely of relating with our Sovereign God, the Creator of all, and with one another- and those one anothers must include the stuff and the creatures of God’s created cosmos. Jeremiah says that the pot cannot speak back to the potter. The clay cannot argue with the hands that form it into what they will. And yet, at a different level, clay and pot and potter must be in a dialogue. For God formed us to be the formers and shapers of this garden world, which is what we have done at scale, and in many ways made a right mess of it. Not as much blessing as David had in mind, in short. But if the pot is marred, the potter can start again, and that’s not God, that’s us! But He will sing along, setting the beat as we strum.

“If working apart we are a force powerful to destabilise our planet, surely working together we are powerful enough to save it.”

Sir David Attenborough, COP26.

There are six more psalms to go before we reach the end of the psalter. If there is an overall narrative trajectory to the whole, then what have we learned in Ps 144? The way I have carried out this investigation, I have made the emphasis in the Big Question in verse 3 about us, ‘man’. What is man? Its the sort of question, and the form of question that you expect to find in a book of philosophy, or a theological encyclopaedia that was written by a philosopher. It is fair, I daresay, to allow some emphasis in this way, but the text really poses a bigger question. A question of the sort that Martin Buber would commend, because it has not one but two points of focus, God as well as us. [cf. I and the Eternal Thou] Indeed, in the first line of the doubled Hebrew structure, we are held securely in a God sandwich:

Lord, what is man that You regard him…

[my emphasis; and I’m ignoring ‘him’ at the end. If there’s too much mayo in the filling, it can get out when you squeeze the sandwich into your mouth.]

Lord… man… You.

Something similar could be said for the concluding sentences: the people are considered in connection with God, their Lord [I & Thou connected with the Eternal Thou, after Buber]. God is mentioned last, for He is the Omega. He was the first to be blessed by David in verse one, for He is the Alpha. And the cosmos, the whole realm of God’s materials and provision for blessing, and the processes by which Providence and Redemption are carried forward are held within the Ultimate, the brackets if you will, that are God, the ground and energising of Being. Near the end of Israel’s ‘hymn book’ we can see many themes and strands being brought together, including, I suggest, what I characterise as the Tripartite Model (of God, God’s cosmos and God’s co-creating human creatures), exemplified in objective and subjective terms by David, King of Israel, and offered to us for our application.

 Blessed are the people to whom such blessings fall!
    Blessed are the people whose God is the Lord!

Psalm 144:15

(c) 2022 Stephen Thompson

On the threshold of Life: Death in Genesis.

Are the tombs portals to the New Creation?
What is our fate as human beings? Are we really all that different to the animals? Whether our years are many or few, and despite whatever efforts we may make in our lives while we have this inestimable gift, we cannot finally escape the certainty of death. It seems the prime fact of our existence, and the small mark we make in the world is likely to crumble into wind-blown sand all too soon after our departure. So I ask: does the message of Genesis substantially alter any of that narrative? I suggest here that it does. There are aspects of the nature of God’s cosmos that God created as covenantal expressions subtly hidden and interwoven into the biblical narrative that close reading can reveal. Even in Genesis, at the beginning of the Biblical revelation, the death of mortal humans is contextualised by the broader creative partnership of Creator God with God’s creatures and cosmos.

The God who self-reveals as the Creator of Life in Genesis 1 is also the One who announces death. But this revelation is given in the prior context of the gift of Life and a mode of living that could, in principle, surpass death even before such an ending is contemplated. At the first God makes the plants and creatures, within an ecological cycle of growth and consumption,

Gen 130 And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.”

But with the formation of ha’adam by God’s intimate hand working in the red earth in Genesis 2, we are at once alerted to an eternal context for our existence that is marked by the presence of the Two Trees in the Garden. First, the tree that somehow symbolises wisdom even before it is eaten (perhaps, especially if it is not eaten), and the second tree that signifies a greater Life that might be ours, which offers an eternally retreating horizon. Even Life everlasting. Only once we are shown these mysterious and wonderful signposts are we told that mankind is dust, and to dust thou shall return. (Gen 2:19) And as we all indeed fall again to dust, behind the shadow of our memorials remain the longer shadows of these Two Trees, especially the second.

This insight is reinforced in the lineage of the patriarchs. The covenant God of Creation is firstly the God of Abraham, and then of his son Isaac, and then the God of Jacob, father of Judah, Joseph and all the progenitors of the twelve Tribes. I AM the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, declaimed the faithful Jews in Jesus’ time, and Jesus himself preached this Name. I AM the God of the Living, not the dead, says the Messiah to the Sadducees, who had somehow fallen for a spiritual conspiracy theory that their God Yahweh wasn’t really the God of Life at all, but only the God of a paltry sort of human life that constrains meaning to this physical existence, the life of man as a mere creature, not much different to that of the animals and the rest of material biology. But Genesis holds out a greater hope and prospect, and we are foolish to give it up. St Paul bluntly said as much.

Genesis does not shy away from the mortality of even a large number of its minor characters. Certainly the genealogies are as much a record of their passing from this life as they are of birth and giving birth. A few are memorialised in more detail in the scripture, and some are given physical memorials.

The most prominent of these is surely the account in Genesis 23 where the story is all about Abraham’s purchase of land east of Mamre from the Hittites, including the Cave of Machpelah, in order to bury his wife Sarah. It is hard to know how to tell the background narrative in a way that does justice theologically to what we are made joint witnesses of in Genesis 22. Perhaps like this: Abraham was summonsed by God to go to a distant mountain to offer a sacrifice. He takes his son with him, who turns out to be the sacrifice. OR Abraham is told to sacrifice his son, who is naively taken along. OR Isaac is the willing partner to his father’s journey of worship, carrying his own sacrificial fuel. OR Abraham proves yet again that he does not consider is wife to be an equal partner in the promises of God because it seems that Sarah is not informed or consulted about this crazy and murderous plan. OR… you can fill in this blank with some other hypothesis.

Perhaps our misgivings and dread in rehearsing the akedah story of Gen 22 [the ‘binding of Isaac’] are assuaged as we come to realise that God really has no intention of requiring Isaac’s life, though we do not find this out until the deadly knife is lifted high by his own father, ready to be plunged down in the fatal stroke. The very thought of child sacrifice never crossed my mind, says God, elsewhere. You might say this doesn’t really solve the puzzle, because it really did sound like it. Instead, and all the while the boy and his dotting father are making their ascent, a ram is being led up the other side of the mountain to get caught so conveniently in the brambles- now we see what God really has in mind once Abraham’s willing and obedient intentions have been established. Is credulity stretched in these questions, in searching for a sound version of the story? It seems the test of faith is here for us who read as much as it was for Abraham in the doing of the deed.

There are good answers to this mystery in the New Testament, but that is too far off for poor Isaac’s mother Sarah. We don’t know whether she finds out about this outing for a father-and-son worship weekend to the mountain, when they finally return. All the next chapter tells us is that she has died. Mothers will probably speculate that it was the shock that did for her.

They might continue to imagine what Sarah might have to say to God about all this in the afterlife- would she be even more angry with God than with her husband? But such an approach would be completely anachronistic. The worldview of Genesis does not allow this possibility. The death of an individual in the Pentateuch is a boundary of finality beyond which there is no admission of personality. Dead is dead, and God is keeping His counsel. All that remains is for dignity in burial and the ongoing respect of their descendants when ancestors are recalled. Genesis 23 is not about Sarah at all. There is no eulogy or remembrance of the wife and mother, but rather a lengthy account, with repetition for emphasis, of the business dealings that take place to secure the burial plot which will become the memorial place for all the patriarchs and some of their wives in the following generations. It turns out this is the only plot of land that Abraham actually takes legal possession of, following God’s initial call and promise in Genesis 12.

You can read the whole account here. [Text of Genesis 23 English Standard Version]

We are given no details of the ceremony, or what might have been said about Sarah my husband or son. We are simply told of fields, of trees, and a cave in the ground. We are told that the site is near Mamre, which is where Three Visitors once came to Abraham and Sarah (click the link for my article about that prophetic encounter). And it is made very clear indeed that though Abraham was offered all this for free, he insisted on paying for it, and paid in full.

Vincent van Gogh depicted the scene this way:

Vincent van Gogh 18 1931 The Cave of Machpelah 1877

If it ever did, it hasn’t looked anything like that for many centuries. Trekking to Hebron today will reveal this scene:

Cave of the Patriarchs, Hebron.

Whether genuine or not, the caves that were identified as the ones in question have been considerably modified and buried under further generations of architectural improvements, by both Jews and Muslims, as they both claim great significance for those remembered here.

Caves of Machpelah
https://hebronfund.org/inside-the-caves-of-machpela/

This is no different to the experience of modern pilgrims to Jerusalem, nurturing hopes of walking around in the footsteps of Jesus and his disciples. But even the flagstones of the Via Delorosa are several feet above the first century ground level, while every site of significance in the account of Holy Week has been thoroughly concealed under the biggest ecclesiastical edifice that could be afforded, flanked by receptacles for issuing holy water and receiving entrance fees.

I ought not complain too loudly about Jewish memorials in Hebron, for that is at least consistent with what Jesus told the Sadducees: that the living should remember Sarah and Abraham and all the rest, for the God of the Living is the God of resurrection. But my point is this: at the time in Genesis, the cave of Machpelah was a graveyard, for the dead, and this does not appear, on the face of it, to be a place of hope.

It is very difficult to find sites in Israel that might conjure up for the modern viewer a sense of what it was like back then, in Bible times. Perhaps impossible. But not so far distant from Hebron and Jerusalem and all are many relatively undisturbed remnants of some of the neighbouring civilisations, and those of the Nabateans are notable in this regard. Where thousands did manage to forge a civilisation and a sustainable community with sufficient supplies of water and food for at least a few centuries has then been preserved by desert sand and abandonment until much more recent times. You have likely heard of the carved city of Petra in Jordan, developed in the decades and century following the time of Christ, though the full extent of the Nabatean kingdom is less well known.

‘Petra’ is the Greek name for the Nabatean capital. It was originally known to its inhabitants as Raqmu or Raqēmō.
As the links above give more detail about, the significance of Petra is as the crossing point between international trade routes, so materials for survival and investment arrive in this desert place from afar.

Further south from Petra on the Incense Road to Medina and modern Saudi Arabia are the remains of the Nabatean city of Hegra (Meda’in Saleh) near Dedan (modern Al Ula) which the Saudis are now developing as a major new tourist centre also welcoming Western tourists. Famously, there are some one thousand burial chambers at the capital of Petra, some spoilt by later Roman modifications, while there are a number of other types of buildings still in evidence.

There was no such vandalism in evidence at Hegra, where there are one hundred and thirty one tombs carved into the prominent sandstone formations, left pretty much as they were abandoned in the second century AD. New archaeological excavations of the area are at very early stages and significant finds are being made, perhaps a consequential benefit of the exclusion of westerners from all regions near the holy Muslim sites in Saudi Arabia for most of the last century.

Aerial view of the carved sandstone landscapes of Hegra. Note the unfinished tomb, bottom right.

Unlike at Petra, the majority of the visible remains are all tombs, though some have been incorrectly described as ‘castles‘. The largest of the tombs are catalogued here. The only alterations made over two millennia are the damage caused by weather, earthquakes and the brief attentions of graverobbers. The desire to bring travellers from afar to this area of Arabia was recently renewed with the increasing numbers of Muslims desiring to complete the Hajj, so from 1900 the Ottomans built a steam railway down the western side of Arabia from Palestine, stocked with German engines and rolling stock, but it too fell into disuse. Now, just like Hegra itself, the southern reaches of the Hejaz railway has become a graveyard- for trains. Passengers would have seen the Hegra tombs from their carriage windows, and you can see the railway station at Hegra marked at the top of the aerial map shown above.

Overturned train at the turnaround siding, Haddiya station, the next stop south of Hegra towards Medina. Other photos from 1989 show this very train in its proper position on the rails, so this ‘accident’ is recent. You can tour the site virtually here If you are like me, and love trains, then there are more details in an appendix to this article after the references.

But since the tombs at Hegra are carved into the rock faces, they are very much still standing, and withstanding the ravages of time. Many seem as fresh today as they surely did the day they were finished.

Nabataean Tomb, Mada’in Saleh, Saudi Arabia. Tomasz Trześniowski CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

It is immediately striking that such impressive monuments should be found in such dry and inhospitable conditions. Around the tombs are some visible remains of extensive aqueducts and channels that once brought precious water from nearby sources, now long exhausted and broken. Wells on the west of the city reached down some 20m to the water table below.

Nabataean irrigation system at Jebel Ithlib, Mada’in Saleh, Saudi Arabia CC BY NC SA 2.0

Scientific skills are being deployed by archaeologists to discover and understand more of the way of life of the Nabateans. The preserved remains of seeds and cooking fires shows the various plants that were on the menu over a couple of centuries of occupation, and the late adoption of cotton as a profitable crop that doubtless generated much of the surplus cash to pay a multitude of stonemasons. {link to ‘Agrarian legacies and innovations in the Nabataean territory’ 2015 by Charlène Bouchaud. Open access paper.}

Nabataean Tombs, Mada’in Saleh, Saudi Arabia 17 3 2015 Tomasz Trześniowski CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

But isn’t it extraordinary that so much effort was put into the carving out of these monumental structures, simply for the internment of the mortal remains of the deceased? Archaeologists note the significance of burial and accompanying grave goods as signs of the presence of human society and civilisation- here is the fuzzy boundary between animal biology and anthropology. But isn’t this an extraordinary investment of time and treasure!? Further lessons jump off the cliffs at the modern viewer, in a present far removed from those who carved them. There is a very limited palate of designs deployed with such effort and energy. A single doorway leads into the dark, flanked by a flattened panel of stone either side, windowless, usually with symmetrical pillars in relief, one or two profiles above, and a pair of staircases, facing one another. The hold of tradition over this creativity is highly evident; there are variations which perhaps reflect the technical assessment of what the stone would bear in specific instances, as well as the design urges of client and/or creator, but nevertheless there is considerable uniformity. Whatever messages about passing on, about death as seen with hindsight by its temporary survivors, what cause for hope might be symbolised in these constructions is highly stylised and constrained to very fixed traditional conceptions that do not change. It seems it is very much about what is beheld from outside that is significant, for the interior architecture is technical, functional and showing none of the aesthetic sensibilities on display in the facades. Crude chambers are hacked out within the mountains, unsmoothed surfaces left without decoration as far as we can see today, while individual niches and shelves are chopped out of the walls in a piecemeal fashion, with little attention to regularity in design. This is the behind the scenes view equivalent to our modern crematorium operator. The curtains are closed, and we don’t pay attention to what happens next.

Perhaps as many as a third of the tomb fronts are left incomplete, which betrays the way that the family budgets were often stretched in their construction. The masons began their work from above, standing on the stone that they chopped away as they crafted their way down the rock face. But if the cash was exhausted, they would be instructed to forego completion and simply cut the doorway as a rectangle into the rock at the correct position. Maybe later generations of the family would complete the job- clearly many did not. Their cultural habits did not change even as the financial pain became commonplace. Somehow these uniform facades spoke to the community of a strongly held complex of beliefs that death was not the final reality. These became embedded in this tradition for tomb facades which maintained the attention of the living community onto the generations past. Not everyone attempted to afford this outlay; the archaeology has discovered simple rectangular pits carved into stone plateaus in the same area in which the dead bodies of the less well off were placed to be picked clean by the raptors and corvids before gathering up the bones for a simpler interment of some kind- some two thousand simpler burials have been identified. Yet it is still reasonable to suggest that the more elaborate tomb architecture alluded to beliefs that the community held in common.

Qasr al-Farid, or “The Lonely Castle”

Even this most spectacular and massive tomb- a truly monumental structure- remained unfinished, yet after so much expense had been lavished on it. The final sections of stone that ought to have been cleared from the base remain to spoil the visual impact of the Al Farid tomb, though we do thus gain insights into the means of craftsmanship from these remnants. We may also conclude that the masons were clever enough to avoid contracts that only offered cash on completion of works, whoever they were working for!

I have not discovered any record of other clues from Nabatean culture that would help us to interpret the symbolism of these facades, and I might refer you to students of ‘Dr Death’, a.k.a. The Reverend Professor Douglas Davies of the University of Durham, Director of the Centre for Death and Life Studies from 2007. The details, should they be known, or become known, would be significant, but not detracting from my present purpose. I submit that the language of architecture is sufficiently universal that some simple speculations can navigate us safely to my conclusion. In evaluating the meaning of these tombs, the focus is on the outside, not the inside. This is a book we are to judge by its cover. Burials are safely done at a distance from the centres of dwelling for hygiene, and rocky places give a sense of permanence and security- a natural memorial. If there are caves, then well and good, but the sandstone of Jordan and Arabia provides an easy substrate for making your own caves aplenty. For those in Petra and Hegra, there is a further opportunity. The sandstone outcrops are themselves a statement of permanence and longevity, and a ready canvas for artistic adornment. The mason is not impeded by the need to reattach his stones or bricks together- just carve it straight in where you are commissioned! Modifying existing rocks means your work is less likely to be disturbed by the earthquakes that are common at this meeting of multiple tectonic plates.

As I say, there is a simple palette of design ingredients deployed in these tomb frontages, irrespective of which particular religious or cult narratives may have pertained at the time. World pictures typically include supporting pillars, so we find those. A doorway with architraves and lintels indicates welcome homeliness, a key moment in a journey, or arriving at a desired destination. The regular forms and smooth surfaces bring order and control to nature, asserting our influence, even dominance, perhaps somewhat beyond what is warranted given our mortality- and yet we believe that we are meant to hope for more. We feel that we can come to belong in this cosmos, and to play our part, and so we should not have to leave in a hurry, having only just arrived: we should be able to stay in it. The scale of the tombs is massive, often much larger than any dwelling people actually lived in- a claim to our significance in the world and in its history. At Hegra, this is spectacularly so: the monument can become as large as the geology. The classical allusions and ornamental borrowings say that it is not just for the fabled gods that there should be memorials, but for all us folk too. Common folk are also uncommon, special, warranting attention, and aspiring to a destiny that outlives them, and calls them back from beyond the grave. Back to life.

Above all this, and the first thing that the masons would actually have started to carve, evident in any memorial that was started, even if not completed, is the inverse of a pitched roof, with steps leading upwards to the left and right. Now I freely admit that I have no idea if I am interpreting this correctly. For experts at Petra this design is now described as a key part of the Hegra style, which is to say, it is rather unique as an expression of Nabatean culture, and so we all may be indulging a fantasy to see two flights of stairs leading to the heavens. Might they go to different places? Or a common destination, yet maintaining a sense of symmetry which is yet distinct from the here-and-now functionality of a roof? So I can’t prove what I am asserting: as the community look across from their dwellings and the activities of their daily lives, they see the memorial to their ancestors, the house of their dead, and their eyes are drawn upward by pillars and steps to the sky above by day, and the starry heavens by night. In the cultural language of Hegra’s burial tombs, the passing of the living to the dead, of mortals to the ever-remembered afterlife, of quick flesh to dry bones, of day and night, the very earth, sky and heavens are all brought together in one cosmic meeting. Just like the commercial centres themselves, the tombs can be seen to lie at the junction of so many meetings and thoroughfares, and in this doubtless is the substance of human hope.

I am happy to hold these speculations in an open hand, and I daresay you will concede I am not claiming much that is controversial. What is important are the comparisons and contrasts between this general narrative and what we see in the Genesis accounts. The plot that Abraham secures for his wife is generously proportioned, a significant footprint in the land, yet secured through a simple business deal, recognised as a valid and full transfer of property from the Hittites to the Patriarch of God. Other than paying up what he considers the proper and full price, Abraham does not invest any particular efforts in lavishing further attention on his dead. Later references simply make clear whether or not the key figures of future generations are or are not brought to the same spot. The site is accorded no further significance other than being recognised as the collective place of dignified burial. No other symbolism is accorded to the site in the texts. It is sometimes referred to as the plot bought from Ephron the Hittite seller (Gen 50:13)- a detail we might think would be glossed over in subsequent references, if it was considered to now be exclusively Abraham’s property. But the fact that it was purchased and transferred to the first patriarch in this way is itself headlined in later remembrance.

All three primary patriarchs are said to be ‘gathered to his people’ when they died. (Abraham Gen 25:8 , Isaac Gen 35:29 and Jacob Gen 49:33) but not Joseph. Genesis 50 concludes in this way:

24 Joseph said to his brothers, “I am about to die, but God will take care of you. He will lead you out of this land to the land he promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” 25 Then Joseph had the sons of Israel make a promise. He said, “Promise me that you will carry my bones with you out of Egypt.”

26 Joseph died when he was one hundred ten years old. Doctors prepared his body for burial, and then they put him in a coffin in Egypt.

Genesis 50: 24-26 ESV

We can see the inspiration for illustrations like that above in the 1890 Holman Bible, but this is another anachronism, as the imagery evokes expressions from what must surely have been much later Egyptian culture. The Genesis text helpfully precludes such confusing mixing of cultures. In verse 25, Joseph makes clear that his remains will simply be ‘bones’. What follows is a functional and technical description. ‘Doctors’ are persons characterised by their humanistic function, whether the Egyptians might have ascribed them priestly functions or not (and what we now know about ancient Egypt suggests that they did). This processing for burial is a physicalist, we might say, sanitary affair, rather than a religious one. And the final words quite literally consign the human remains of this extraordinary man, the co-saviour of Egypt under God’s sovereign blessing, the reconciler of the divided sons of Jacob, into a box, and slam it shut.

These mortal remains are buried, without fanfare, as far as Genesis is concerned. The man Joseph is no more, in the terms of the text, just as for the three generations before him.

A similar functional perspective is suggested by the picture below, imagining the scene in Israel when modern day soldiers on expedition arrive at the simple grave to which Joseph’s bones have indeed been carried and consigned to their final resting place in Shechem (Josh 24:32). Now in the land of Promise, Joseph’s mortal remains can at last be said to have been ‘gathered to his people’, though curiously not at the family cave tomb in Hebron.

Site of the tomb of Joseph at Nablus. Coloured lithograph by Louis Haghe after David Roberts, 1842.

And yet…

…we read between the lines. The covenant God whose name is YHWH promised to Abram that his name would be made great, given permanent significance, and that through his name the nations would be blessed, just as all are blessed who know the name of Yahweh. The texts draw our attention away from any features of death and burial other than the practical details, and yet maintain our attention that in God, the God who is the God of the Living and yet also still the God of the (passed) patriarchs, death is, somehow, not so final. In the nexus of life and death that is held in the words, deeds and promises of God with and to God’s people, there is the strong and certain intimation of hope beyond the grave. Through burial at Machpelah, and in Joseph’s coffin in Egypt, the decay back into dust that God spoke of in Genesis 3:19 is arrested. Humankind may be kept from the Tree of Life in Gen 3:24, yet God keeps the Tree.

These tombs are portals to the New Creation. The grave shelves in Hegra and Petra now lie empty, the dark tomb doorways completely open to all students of the past- archaeologists and tourists alike. In Genesis, the opening volume of the Biblical Story in search of an Ending, the doors to the future remain shut, though only ‘on the latch.’

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, 20 but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Matthew 6:19-21 ESV

(c) Stephen Thompson 2022

References.

APPENDIX on the Hejaz railway.

LEFT: “This scarce map charts the route of the Hejaz Railway in red down the Western side of the Arabian Peninsula, featuring the Sinai Peninsula, the Mediterranean and the Red Sea.” RIGHT: Enlargement of the southern end of the Hejaz railway route in English.

“This map was produced following the loan of 100,000 lira from the Ziraat Bankasi to the Ottoman Empire in 1900, which propelled the ambitious project into action. The enormous financial undertaking led to Abdulhamid II enlisting all Muslims around the world to contribute toward the project, which had monumental religious, as well as military, significance. Medallions were presented to donors (see Lot 89 shown below), and no foreign investment was accepted, making the railway symbolic of Muslim identity.” “The railway was bereft with problems from the outset, with construction conditions being extremely harsh. During World War I, it became the target of both Arab rebels and T.E. Lawrence, which led to the ultimate collapse of the project.” Sotheby’s auction website. The map shown sold for twice its £3000 estimate in 2021.

A Hejaz railway locomotive is shown on the medal.

Lawrence of Arabia’s lost hero scientist By Sean Coughlan BBC News education correspondentPublished4 December 2012 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-20594835

Psalm 113: The LORD in action in God’s cosmos.

Praise the Lord!
Praise, O servants of the Lord,
    praise the name of the Lord!

Blessed be the name of the Lord
    from this time forth and forevermore!
From the rising of the sun to its setting,
    the name of the Lord is to be praised!

The Lord is high above all nations,
    and his glory above the heavens!
Who is like the Lord our God,
    who is seated on high,
who looks far down
    on the heavens and the earth?
He raises the poor from the dust
    and lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes,
    with the princes of his people.
He gives the barren woman a home,
    making her the joyous mother of children.
Praise the Lord!

Psalm 114 is unusual in this section of the book of the psalms of Israel as it does not feature the phrase, ‘Praise the LORD’ either at its beginning or end. Instead, we are arrested in verse 7 by ‘Tremble, O earth!’ Psalm 113 is unusual because it is both topped and tailed with ‘Praise the LORD.’ The programme of this psalm is cosmic in scale, and yet its scope also reaches down to the local, even lowest level of concern. By which I mean, the locality is that of God, and also the concerns are God’s concerns- which the psalm reveals to us here.

And we are not addressed from afar, in an overly formal or aloof message from God’s private office, mediated through a series of faceless bureaucrats. That’s not at all how this works.

In verse 1, ‘Hallelu Yah,’ the reader is immediately included- as we read, it is we who utter the revelation.

In verse 1b, the utterance itself is broadened to include all peoples, in principle, if we will admit to being ‘servants of the LORD’. And at once, we all can be brought into a relationship of familiarity with God, for together we may ‘praise the name of the LORD’!

As we continue to read and proclaim and include other human creatures in this blessed invitation and declaration, we find that all of time is included; not merely this present moment but all time following. ‘Both now and forevermore’ as the NIV puts it.

We won’t be surprised to find that all possible boundaries are brought under the covering of God’s sovereign reach and influence. From the rising of the sun to the place where it sets. Quite plainly, that’s everywhere. These are the times and places in which we live, and in which we proclaim the praise of God, whose Name is knowable to us- can be known by each of us.

All people and peoples. All times. All places.

Some criticise the biblical message for being too human-centred. ‘Its not really about God, its about you.’ Others worry that the way God is portrayed in the bible is overly anthropomorphised, such as the Jewish commentator Onkelos. ‘God in your own image!’ In sum, the product of arrogant God-botherers, full of hubris. Both criticisms betray an inadequate grasp of the worldview of the scripture, and the revelation this offers to us of a biblical worldview that is a meaningful description of the view God wants us to have of God, or ourselves, and of our relationship with God in God’s cosmos. God made us for His love, and so quite reasonably wants us to know Him- so He must be knowable in human terms. This desire of God to be known divinely sanitises the use of ‘He’ and ‘Him’ in such sentences in what must be human language. And our knowing is also sanitised so it is more personal rather than merely abstract if our knowing is expressed in praise and appreciation, not overly-objectified ‘knowing about’. And all this with reverence.

Genesis told us that God placed the lights in the sky as signs- but signs must be interpreted, and some interpretations are more light-giving than others.

The position of the sun in the sky changes gradually throughout the year, giving the sequence of the ‘signs’ of the seasons. Photographer Sam Cornwell placed a “matrix” of 27 Solarcan cameras in a frame overlooking Williestruther Loch in the Scottish Borders, with all 27 exposures were started at the same time. Following the 2018 winter solstice Cornwell then visited the site once a week until the 2019 summer solstice, retrieving one of the cameras from the matrix (and ending that camera’s exposure) each time. This is one of the processed composite images showing the seasonal changes collated together.

Verse 4 grandly proclaims that God, the LORD, is mightily exalted over all this- all the nations of people, in all times and places. All is summed up in this manner: ‘over all the nations… [and] above the heavens.’

As we read, we are addressed by the singular rhetorical question of the whole of the book of Psalms- it only occurs in such a direct form here in Psalm 113,

Who is like the Lord our God, the One…?

Surely, there are other instances where the same general sentiment is expressed, but in Ps 113:5 the question itself is brought to front and centre of our attention – the ultimate challenge, in the most serious philosophical terms. And yet even here, the question is not about God alone, as Godself, considered independently. The question ‘Who is like God?’ is asked with reference to God’s own recognised servants- the ones He is pleased to call, ‘the servants of the LORD.’ Thus: Who is like the Lord OUR God?!

The ancients had their various ways of depicting the imagined relationship between divinities and we earthlings. Atlas or Hercules/Herakles standing mightily and manfully, concentrating furiously to maintain the balance of the globe above his shoulders, was the way the Greeks and Romans did it. The Jews would concur: truly God upholds the world in all respects, though the God of the Psalmists was not about to loose His footing in a momentary lapse of concentration. In this psalm, even that recognition does not do justice to the full-orbed reality: the Lord is above even more than He is sustaining all from below or within. Yet this aboveness is not described as being at a great remove from creation, from earth or creatures. God is bot above and transcendentally beyond and all-at-once nearby. Recalling the Babel incident, our God enthroned is also our God who stoops down to look (NIV) on everything and especially on us. This is not the looking of the dispassionate scientist, but the attentive seeing of the Creator Father.

St. Patrick’s Cathedral from behind Atlas. The seven-ton, 15-foot tall cast bronze statue of the colossal Titan Atlas has stood at the 630 Fifth Avenue main entrance frontcourt to Rockefeller Plaza since it was installed in January, 1937.

Artists in the Christian tradition have themselves struggled and, dare I assert, failed to do justice to these greater truths. Here is an eighteenth century example in the Renaissance-Baroque tradition, depicting the Triune God gazing down on the earthly landscape and, simultaneously, God the Father has a guiding hand on an orb (with a misplaced axis), perhaps representing His sovereign control of the worlds He has made.

God, Jesus & Holy Spirit with angel and cherub on a cloud above the world. (My title) Illustration from Book Die Betrubte Und noch Ihrem Beliebten, Austrian Empire, 1716. Artist is unknown.

Depicting the mystery of God both transcendent and immanent, God who is allowed to be God-the Great Other, beyond and above, and yet also present with us, the creatures who are the chosen and privileged objects of His love, is an impossible task for the artist. The psalm puts so well in the tension of words in verse 5 what is completely beyond the capacity of the visual artist. But perhaps the sculptor can achieve something in three dimensions of what is beyond his painting colleague in just two. A sculpture is both a stone, a rock, that is a fixed reference to what is other, and at the same time is very much here, in our now. You really can touch it, and you may live in the same space that it is in. And a sculpture can be big- really big. Other than ‘Christ the Redeemer’ above Rio de Janeiro, (which I write about here) I was not familiar with many of the monumental sculptures that have been erected in Catholic majority countries in the last century. You can see a survey of ten of them here. The ‘Saviour of the World’ (1942) in El Salvador is notable as Jesus is standing aloft with a raised hand and pointing finger, atop both cross-pillar and globe, in contrast to the struggling Atlas images of classical Europe. As the monument is here with us in this world of our lives, sculpture has, as it were, stepped out of the gallery into life with us, into the seasons and changes of day and night. Which also offers rich comic potential for patient photographers.

However, for me, it is in this photographic combination of light in the dark world with ‘Christ the King’ at Santuario Nacional de Cristo Rei in Lisbon that captures the power and presence of God-in-Christ with the most eloquence of all of these iterations:

Cristo Rei. Overlooking the city of Lisbon, this statue (1959-1969) was inspired by the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil following the visit of Cardinal Patriarch of Lisbon.

Of course, in our psalm, it is the God of Israel, the One God of the Hebrew Bible, who is revealed and declared as preeminent and glorious in v5. It is the insight of the Christians that we might connect this rule and reign to that of the revealed Servant King, the yet-to-come-again Christ in glory. But make no mistake: God who is the LORD in Ps 113 is the true God whose sovereignty and omnipotence are directed toward us, to His chosen affairs with humans, made according to God’s sovereign will in the image and likeness of Godself. We do not have to read the second testament to find out what the core concerns of the God who is truly enthroned, not so much in heaven as above all heavens truly are: God’s true concerns are amongst us all, for the poor, the needy and the barren. God’s concern is indeed for the prosperity of our lives, but expressed in a focus on those at the bottom, not those for whom the natural and easy blessings of their lives have already lifted them to the top of the pile.

I live in a brick house, with a thickly insulated roof, and efficient double glazing, and a serviced boiler. I have steady and well-paid work. I pay my sewage and water bills and have never given thought to being able to afford them. My family is blessed with children who are or are nearly adults, with soon-to-be realised hopes for independence. I am sitting here typing about an ancient book and publishing to a niche audience whose personal concerns are largely unknown to me. So I am rather like the king in the book of Daniel (4:29) standing on his rooftop, idly surveying his kingdom, without cares and with too much time on his hands.

God does see me, I am sure, but God is really paying attention to some different people, say verses 7-9, and perhaps I am looking with Him. The really poor folk live in the world, that is to say, outside. Not much use for vacuum cleaners there- its all dust. Whatever clothes you have are never really clean, and if for a minute they are clean, they certainly won’t stay that way. It is a life never far from open fires and the ash that remains, nor from barely drinkable water, and sewage that is barely contained. Both the NIV and ESV translate the Hebrew as ‘dust’ and ‘ash heap’ but ‘dung heap’ is more accurate. Why won’t they say it as it is? Jan Luyken’s 1710 etching (below) of ‘Two men at a dung heap on which a pig and the world lie’ shows a scene long forgotten in my neighbourhood and across western Europe, where carts of dung were driven barely beyond the community boundaries to dispose of wastes of all kinds. Interesting subtexts emerge from this picture- is the man remonstrating with the misdirected cart driver? Why has a dead pig been discarded rather than butchered? And what symbolism is meant by a globe of the world being added to this pile of rotting excrement? Are there intimations of protest against unsustainability in this preindustrial scene?

Such theoretical horrors are still a common reality in our day, as summarised in the photographs I have added to this montage of tragic poverty. And it is these realities that Godself addresses in our passage: Having stooped to look down on us, God has really seen. As we look, He sees.

There is no hesitation. The God who might sit at ease on a throne, who might be thought to gaze dispassionately across the realm of His creation immediately acts:

He raises the poor…

He lifts the needy…

He seats [them]…

and settles…

The verbs jump out of the page at me.

How profound is the rectification that God desires to bring, Who acts with immediacy to make real? The poor and needy are lifted up as high as it is possible for them to be lifted- to the place of princes, of kings, of the place of Godself:- onto a throne. In our day some of us may make real a dream of this kind for just a moment. If you go to the right event, and get there early enough and wait, you might meet royalty, for just a moment. You might even grasp their hand, exchange a word and a smile; perhaps even get a photo op.

Prince Harry speaks with a Team U.S. family during the road cycling events of the Invictus Games Sydney 2018

But it will pass, with pictures on Flickr or Facebook as the only memorials of the occasion. The psalm says God will seat the poor with the princes of their people– that is an altogether more permanent and meaningful promotion. This speaks of the permanent mending of an entire community- the lives of the princes are also transformed in this unified seating plan. Now we really are all in it together. Beyond the trappings of life- thrones and whatnot- this speaks of a unity in sustainability. There may still be ‘princes’, but there is also justice in the collective modes and means of life. The weak are not permanently left out, living sub-humanly in dust and dirt.

Meeting of village in Rajgir region of Bihar state, India. December 2016. The whole community are considering where latrines will be placed and used to raise the standard of living for all.

Not only do we see the whole community brought together in the photograph above, but justice-in-living is being done, as a map is drawn of the neighbourhood on the ground in view of all and agreement being sought as to where the activities of clean living will be kept free of open defecation, a hitherto accepted habit in the community. In the toilet, not in the fields. Now that’s a godly enthronement!

God’s blessing gives us ‘a hope and a future’ says Jeremiah 29:11, in words that might seem to be rather abstract for many of us. Ps 113 concludes by showing us exactly what that looks like, in terms meaningful to the poor and downtrodden, in preference to kings and princes whose shareholdings and off-shore investments separate them from more common folk. If we were blessed to have children, and then as those children grow up, our thoughts turn to their futures, and the longer term legacy of our lives. What a difference it is for those who see their poverty in not having children, or whose poverty means that the children they have have such poor prospects; communities with inaccessible healthcare and inadequate schooling. And especially for women, for a whole variety of complicated reasons, less empowered in so many ways through history and across cultures- perhaps infertile, or unmarried, or widowed. The text and verse 9 does not dwell on the causes, the history, the reasons- God sees and acts: the ‘barren woman’ is settled into her home as the happy mother of children (NIV) and grandchildren, she would no doubt add.

God is not describing the palace or the dreams of princes- those with their heads in the clouds. This is the panorama God is describing:

This is the worldview of Psalm 113. Note the scriptural rebuttal to those who say that God does not promise us happiness. At least in the NIV, it seems they are wrong.

Praise the LORD!

PS. Perhaps the central rhetorical question can also be answered.

Who is like the Lord our God? Well, in absolute terms, no-one. Obviously.

But perhaps He wants us to be like Him.

Doing that stuff He does.

More people would be minded to say ‘Praise the LORD’ if we did that. Just saying.

(c) 2022 Stephen Thompson