Thursday, May 14, 2009

Hallelujahs for the Hell-bound, Verses for Vengeance, Jumping for Judgement By Beach Boy & Co (Exodus 15:1-21)

Song of Moses and The Stolen Guitar Pick
Music-centric conversations these past few weeks have included: one on the football music of Basque country, lingering for a time on a macho cheer concerning dried cod fish; badger-ment about playing some Bach please leading naturally to the Glenn Gould discussion on the vulgarity (on the part of the pianist) and the sick voyeurism (on the part of the audience) of performance; a colleague's husband agreeing that non-Christmas carol/congregational song/pop ditty piano-playing is a very private affair done most authentically, if one didn't have a soundproof room to lock oneself in, on an electric piano with weighted keys and the earphones plugged in; guitar accompaniment in quiet time prayer; music as performance in far too many congregations; the ipod (plugged-in) generation being immersed in a continuous soundscape so that specific song-associated experiences of yesteryear will be alien to them, as will the sound of silence; the hyperreality of denizens of developed countries actually vocalising trite telly/movie sounds to accompany their daily lives... then, the soaring strings backing tender Benedick-Beatrice moments at Singapore Repertory Theatre's Shakespeare in the Park: Much Ado About Nothing leading to some giggling amongst certain members of the audience (though Shakespeare's outright plundering of biblical themes cause even more mirth).

A question for the blockbuster-weaned generation then: what music ought to accompany God's judgement, God's vengeance, when in wrath and righteousness, he condemns his enemies to everlasting death?

Music? Surely an event so horrible and fearful can call forth no words or music fit to describe or convey the terror felt by the damned - the screaming, the weeping, the gnashing of teeth, the heartrending pleas for mountains to fall on them to hide them.

If pressed (possibly not by the Revelation 14:19-20 winepress) to provide music, the amassed musical types might vote for a lone mournful bugle or Mozart's Dies Irae (for context*) played sotto voce, and respectfully, after the last scream has gurgled away. (Poor Verdi's Dies Irae** would probably be overlooked for great-tragedy-has-arrived obvious-ness.)

The ideal response, however, is set out in Exodus 15: joyful music and dancing at the mass deaths of the Egyptians.

This is terribly un-PC in this day and age. As a sign of her progressiveness, our school principal once banned announcements about "trashing" another school at this or that match or any mention that our opponents had in fact been ineffectual limp pushovers. What more rejoicing at the deaths of fathers and husbands and lovers. And oh, those poor horses too!

But there is a difference between dancing on graves in acapella groups Schadenfreude-ly smirkingly singing Sink Like An Egyptian while miming actions of people drowning and indulging in the flippant precursor (luggage notwithstanding) to Belgian Central Train Station mass dancing, and singing and dancing in celebration of what God has done. The difference is that is not done for the sake of the flash mob thrill of doing per se, nor the exaltation of self, but the exaltation of God.

God's Self-Revelation
Previously, God had told Moses that he would reveal himself to his people so that they would know him in a way that their forefathers would never have known him. And this revelation would be in his rescue of his people from slavery in Egypt. While it might be all very well to academically list his good qualities, God wanted the Israelites to taste and see and so understand his very goodness. A personal subjective experience of God was not what God wanted, he wanted to objectively unmistakably reveal himself through his works. Afterall, the most amazing fantasies of all the humans in the world from creation onwards could never approximate his real magnificence. And the goal of his self-revelation was to get glory.

God's Concern for His Glory and His Name
Earlier chapters of Exodus had already made clear that God's main aim was to get glory for himself. His self-revelation to the Israelites and to the Egyptians was to achieve just that. So the drowning of a good portion of the studly men of Egypt should not primarily elicit cries of pity for the dead creatures but cries of victory for the living God in vindicating his own name.

For if we know anything about God, it is that he was (and is) passionate about his glory and hence his name.

Therefore, he cannot be the accidentally tarred-and-feathered god that Steve Chalke has made up whose "unwillingness to distance himself from the people of Israel and their actions meant that at times he was implicated in the excessive acts of war that we see in some of the books of the Old Testament" (Steve Chalke, The Lost Message of Jesus). God has always been so concerned with his name that any erroneous implication would have been quickly and publically set straight.

We know how the LORD opposes everyone who does not acknowledge his perfect goodness, perfect trustworthiness, perfect might. This, rather than the tasty fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil itself, was the temptation in the Garden of Eden. Anyone who thinks and speaks badly of him and so fails to honour him is his enemy; anyone who thinks and speaks badly of perfect good is evil. Pharaoh and the Egyptians would not listen to God's words even though God had shown them signs and wonders. Instead they hardened their hearts and thought so lowly of God that they fancied they could easily defeat his people. Already they had visions of victory:"I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil, my desire shall have its fill of them. I will draw my sword; my hand shall destroy them." (Exodus 15:9). What baseless swaggering self-confidence; what epitome of evil - standing against God over and over and over again. But when the chips were down, they failed to deliver.The destruction of Pharaoh and the Egyptians was therefore the destruction of evil.

Chips Down, Prive Bakery Cafe, Keppel Island
the chips were down

God the Winning Warrior
And so far from being the unfortunate father having to sit through accusations of poor parenting at yet another PTA meeting, it was the LORD himself who was the perpetrator; he was the warrior, the man of war (Exodus 15:3), who fought for his own name. He was personally and directly involved in the destruction of the Egyptians - the horse and his rider he threw into the sea (Exodus 15:1), Pharaoh's chariots and his host he cast into the sea, Pharaoh's specially chosen elite officers were sunk in the Red Sea (Exodus 15:4); it was the LORD's right hand that shattered the enemy (Exodus 15:6).

God the Magnificent Majesty
Of course God as Warrior was metaphor in that it put a pictorial in puny minds as to what God was doing. God was also a father providing for his firstborn son, a rescuer redeeming his people from slavery... But God was still more than all that combined because, well, since he made everything, he could/can easily do anything he wants to, to anything in the world.

The People of This God
Faced with such massive revelation of God's power and majesty, the people gave God glory not by joining hands, swaying, and hypnotically singing "I glorify your name, O Lord" 1000 times but by fearing and trusting God (Exodus 14:31).

Pig Trotters and Groundnuts, TurfCity
not a trotter left behind

God does not change. He is still concerned today about his glory. Because he is perfect, he cannot take lightly the people who defame him.

And the image of the warrior God showing his might and bringing death to his enemies isn't just an Old Testamental bit of anger here, a flare up there, blood and gore everywhere embarrassment in these enlightened times. 'Gentle Jesus meek and mild" Jesus of the trinitarian Godhead was not. While Jesus was still in the womb, Mary, dewy-skinned and glowing with baby, sang of the fearsome judgement of God (Luke 1:46-55). And the child she would bear would be the executor of this judgement:
He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him. (Colossians 2:15)

Then comes the end, when he [Jesus] delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. (1 Corinthians 15:24-25)

Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.

Then I saw an angel standing in the sun, and with a loud voice he called to all the birds that fly directly overhead,"Come, gather for the great supper of God, to eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of captains, the flesh of mighty men, the flesh of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all men, both free and slave, both small and great." And I saw the beast and the kings of the earth with their armies gathered to make war against him who was sitting on the horse and against his army. And the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who in its presence had done the signs by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped its image. These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur. And the rest were slain by the sword that came from the mouth of him who was sitting on the horse, and all the birds were gorged with their flesh. (Revelation 19:11-21)
Jesus is presented as a man of war, a warrior. At the cross, he triumphed over evil, over Satan, and rose victorious from the grave. All who are against God/him will face certain obliteration at the end of days.

This is our God, not just the God of Christians or Jews but the God of the world. This is who God has revealed himself to be. To reduce him to a pocket-sized tchochtke is to defame him. And Revelation 19 is pretty clear what happens to defamers.

If God is jealous for his name, if God has absolute power and nothing can prevent him from executing justice, then their end is certain and rather bloody. Arguments against (eg. on the basis of "human rights") are laughable because the only rights any creature has are those given by their Creator. And temporal distractions are useless because if judgement is really coming for those who do not honour God as God, we must repent and believe now, and we must evangelise not to win top honours in another MLM game but like those who yelled frantically "come inside! come inside!" to those wandering obstinately in the open Egyptian fields before the hailstorm came and crushed every tree, animal, person. And that shelter that protects us is Christ.

But when judgement comes, the time for weeping and warning will be over and the time for unabated rejoicing will be ushered in.

In the penultimate verse of the mass sing-along song by the sea, the Israelites sang as if Philistines, Edomites and Canaanites were already defeated. Seems like a set-up for a hubric fall akin to that of the Egyptians? No, it was never about hubris per se but hubris in the face of God, against God. The Hebrew verses of certain victory, being in line with God's plan and in fact, displaying trust in God's promises and preserving care and protection, instead brought glory to his name.

The triumphant victory song to be sung in the last days, however, like that sung in Revelation 19 will not look forward to a future event but back to victory consummated, and faith fulfilled.

Choong Chee Pang often told the story of an earnest young man from China who'd asked him: Will we still have our memories in heaven? CCP replied that he thought we might. Then the young man said, with tears in his eyes,"Then how can we be rejoicing in heaven if we remember everyone we have loved on earth and know that they are in hell?" CCP said he did not have an answer for him.

Perhaps the answer is this: this is not unconsidered by God; it is not a point that has slipped past the hard heart of God, for Jesus wept for an unbelieving Jerusalem and Paul agonised in Romans 9 over his unbelieving kinsmen. But perhaps in that Day, our love and our loyalty will finally be centred solely on the person on which they were made to center on - God and God alone.

Yet meanwhile, while God's patience has not yet come to an end, while our loved ones still live, God does not want any one to perish but desires that all be saved through the blood of his Son. But the offer is for a limited time only.

Sunset, Keppel Bay

*Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Requiem, Dies Irae

**Verdi, Requiem, Dies Irae

Dies irae
Dies illa
Solvet saeclum en favilla
Teste david cum sybilla

Quantus tremor est futurus
Quando judex est venturus
Cunta stricte discus surus

Dies irae
Dies illa
Solvet saeclum en favilla
Teste davidcum sybilla

Quantus tremor est futurus
Quando judex est venturus
Cuncta stricte discus surus

Quantus tre-e-mo-or e-est fu-u-turus
Dies irae, Dies illa
Quantus tre-e-mo-or e-est fu-u-turus
Dies irae, Dies illa
Quantus tre-e-mo-or e-est fu-u-turus
Quando judex est venturus
Cuncta stricte discus surus

Cuncta stricte
Stricte discus surus
Cuncta stricte
Stricte discus surus

Current Read/Think-through of Exodus

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