A Good Book Book

I’ve been re-reading a wonderful book by American historian Benson Bobrick, Wide as the Waters: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution It Inspired.

This is quite a weighty title. You might not expect it, but for quite a while it appeared on the New York Times bestseller list. This was surprising and intriguing enough for me to read it the first time, but this second time has been even more engaging.

Bobrick traces the genesis of the English Bible from John Wycliffe through William Tyndale and Miles Coverdale through figures like Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, and James VI of Scotland, who became James I of England, France, and Ireland. Most of us know (only a little) about him principally because of the Bible version that bears his name.

There were of course many other nearly equal or lesser names intimately involved in the striking drama of how English Bibles came to be, particularly the work known as the Authorized text – the King James Bible. For those details I simply recommend Bobrick’s book.

If you read it you’ll be compelled to take a broader view of the Holy Spirit’s prevenient work. Within the context of political and theological conflicts between Roman Catholics and Protestants, between high church Anglicans and Puritans, and between British monarchs and Popes, you’ll discover that people were literally burning each other at the stake over matters of Bible translation! Apparently the Lord can use any of us anytime, anywhere, in any way to accomplish his purposes.

Bobrick begins by saying, “The first question ever asked by an Inquisitor of a “heretic” was whether he knew any part of the Bible in his own tongue. It was asked of a man who belonged to a dissident religious sect known as the Waldensians. They emphasized Bible study, lay preaching, and the priesthood of all believers. In time, the same question would be asked of thousands of others before the course of history would render its dark and cruel implications null and void.”

Bobrick goes on to say, “Next to the Bible itself, the English Bible was (and is) the most influential book ever published. It gave every literate English-speaking person complete access to the sacred text. This helped to foster a spirit of inquiry through reading and reflection. These in turn accelerated the growth of commercial printing and ever-widening circulation and production of books. As one contemporary put it, ‘Books formerly imprisoned in the libraries of monasteries were redeemed from bondage to freely walk about in the light.’

Once people were free to interpret the Word of God according to the light of their own understanding, they began to question the authority of the inherited institutions, both religious and secular. This led to reformation within the church, to the rise of constitutional government in England and elsewhere, and to the end of the divine right of kings. Although efforts to translate the Bible into English had actually begun in support for England’s monarchy and its independence from the Pope, in the end it contributed to and justified defiance of the monarchy itself.”

The value I think of Bobrick’s argument rests only partly in its historical weight and plausibility. There’s also a deep appreciation in it for the (sometimes barely perceptible) role of the Holy Spirit in and over human affairs.

The story of the English Bible is frankly as shocking as it is beautiful. It’s filled with moments of deep faith and courage, but also debilitating, discrediting pride, and demonstrable wickedness. To help make sense of it all, we remember the first verse of Proverbs 21, “The heart of the king is in the hand of the Lord; like rivers of water he turns it wherever he will.”

The King James Bible that ultimately evolved and emerged was indeed used by the Holy Spirit to convey the truth of the gospel in ways that changed the hearts and minds of many and, in many ways, the course of history.

Whatever currency this venerable version still has in our own lives, we do well to conclude here with portions of the preface to early editions of the KJV. It was written by Miles Smith, one of the translators and editors, for the group as a whole. It goes some distance in revealing the heart of the matter that these all-too-human but faithful scholars at least tried to bear in mind:

But now what piety without truth? What truth without the Word of God? What Word of God without the Scripture?

The Scriptures we are commanded to search…If we be ignorant, they will instruct us; if out of the way, they will bring us home; if out of order, they will reform us; if in heaviness, comfort us; if dull, quicken us; if cold, inflame us.

Tolle lege! Tolle lege! Take up and read! Take up and read! But how shall we meditate on that which we cannot understand? How shall we understand that which is kept close in an unknown tongue?

…Translation it is that openeth the window to let in the light; that breaketh the shell that we may eat the kernel; that putteth aside the curtain that we may look into the most Holy place; that removeth the cover of the well that we may come by the water…

Ye are brought unto the fountains of living water which ye digged not; do not cast earth into them… If light be come into the world, love not darkness more than light; if clothing be offered, go not naked, starve not yourselves…

It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. But a blessed thing it is, and will bring us to everlasting blessedness in the end, when God speaketh unto us, to hearken; when he setteth his word before us, to read it; when he stretcheth out his hand and calleth, to answer, here am I.

Michael Denham

Watched Over

Just last week our church family lost a cherished member, a relatively young man who leaves behind a loving wife and children, and literally hundreds of friends who felt loved by him, and loved him in return. His passing leaves a void in many hearts that only God in his mercy and comfort can fill.

Our friend was a singer—a soloist in every respect, but one who felt just as “at home” in the collective confines of the choir as he did on the leading edge of a concert platform. He was that kind of humble. He could sing Bach or bluegrass, highbrow or hoedown. That choice didn’t matter to him. He loved it all, and he sang in a way that helped us love it all. His heart was in his voice. He was one of those all too few singers whose gifts capture what a few poetic lines of Longfellow convey:

            God sent his singers upon earth

                 With songs of gladness and of mirth

            That they might touch the hearts of men

                 And bring them back to heaven again.

We first met fifteen years ago when our choir was preparing a Palm Sunday concert of Schubert’s magnificent Mass in E Flat. Part of the “Credo” of that stunning work unusually calls for two tenor soloists and one soprano to interface with the whole choir. One tenor had already been chosen. Since he was a member of the renowned United States Army Chorus, I simply asked him if he would bring along one of his colleagues to join him—one whom he felt would closely complement his own voice.

Little did I know then how their voices would mesh and meld in a whole that was far greater than the sum of its parts. One simply emerged barely distinguishable from the other, eventually joining with the soprano in striking trio to convey the musical and theological impact of our Lord’s incarnation”

Et incarnatus est de Spiritu Sancto ex Maria Virgine. ET HOMO FACTUS EST.

And he was made flesh by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary,

and became fully human.

This central Christian doctrine was thus tenderly and memorably proclaimed.

Nor in those moments did I know that such a fruitful fifteen-year partnership and friendship were being inaugurated. He became part of our larger church family that very night, a follower of Jesus Christ who came to think dearly of our congregation as his church home. This is why his loss is such a loss. Those who love deeply hurt the most.

All this got me to thinking about Psalm 116.  Some of this psalm says,

            I love the Lord because he has heard my voice

                 and my pleas for mercy.

            Because he inclined his ear to me,

                 therefore I will call on him as long as I live…

            What shall I render to the Lord

                 for all his benefits to me?

            I will lift up the cup of salvation

                 and call on the name of the Lord.

            I will pay my vows to the Lord

                 in the presence of all his people…

            Precious in the sight of the Lord

                 is the death of his saints…

            I will offer to you the sacrifice of thanksgiving

                 and call on the name of the Lord.

            I will pay my vows to the Lord

                 in the presence of all his people,

                 in the courts of the house of the Lord,

                      in your midst, O Jerusalem.

            Praise the Lord!

“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” Here, “precious”not only conveys the sense of something “highly valued,” but also of someone “carefully watched over:”

            The One watching over Israel slumbers not nor sleeps.

Allen Ross reminds us that the Lord cares intensely about the death of his saints. It is never something the Lord considers cheap. God does not let his people die for no reason.[1]

There is always an element of praise in the Psalms, even in psalms of lament, even when we are pouring out our fearful or our broken hearts to God. The deliverance of a saint from mortal danger in Psalm 116 leads ultimately to God’s praise and to edification of all his saints for ages to come—even us today. The psalm thus ends with a “Hallelujah!”

It is because God “carefully watches over” us that even at the grave we still make our song: Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

Michael Denham

[1] Allen Ross, “Psalms,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, edited by John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck (Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1985), 877.

The Open Gate

“Look, teacher, what wonderful stones! Mark 13:1

As Jesus and his disciples are walking in the temple grounds in Jerusalem, one of them says, “Look, teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” For all Jews the temple was the defining center of their religious, cultural, and social identity. For Galileans like the disciples, Herod’s grand structure must have seemed all the more magnificent. Jesus’ countering comment puzzled and probably jarred them, when he said, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” This of course was borne out literally not long afterwards with the Roman destruction of the temple in 70 AD, but the disciples had no way of foreseeing this. It would have seemed impossible to them that something so evidently solid and central to their lives would be so short lived.

In a later private conversation on the Mount of Olives, Peter, James, John, and Andrew ask Jesus, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are accomplished?” Jesus’ ensuing teaching focuses on the close of the age, the end of the world, but with a clarion call of hope: the Son of Man will come “in clouds with great power and glory.” He will “send out his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.” We thus recall Charles Wesley’s striking second-Advent hymn,

            Jesus comes with clouds descending: See the Lamb for sinners slain!

                 Thousand, thousand saints attending join to sing the glad refrain:

            Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Christ the Lord returns to reign!

At the very least this points to Jesus Christ’s sovereign authority and principal role in God’s eternal plans. If there is any permanence to be found, it is not in the grand tonnage of the temple stones, but in his messianic person and work as cornerstone. The locus of divine revelation and human response is no longer to be found on the temple mount or—as the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4 thought—on Mt. Gerazim, but in Jesus Christ himself.

The implication for worship is that no building, institution, or location defines the gate of heaven. This is now centered in the incarnate, crucified, risen, ascended, mediating, and advocating Son of God. He is seated “at the right hand” of the Father whose essential nature is spirit. To all who love, trust, and follow him, the gate is open.

Michael Denham

Heaven’s Refrigerator Door

They cast their crowns before the throne… Revelation 4:10

In his apocalyptic vision John was given a magnificent view of God’s heavenly throne room. Surrounding the throne was an array of celestial beings so wonderful as to defy description: crowned elders on thrones of their own, mysterious creatures with multiple wings and eyes, and seven lamp stands representing the very fullness of the Spirit of God.

From the center of the throne came flashes of lightning and peals of thunder, and the One sitting there had the appearance of precious stones encircled by a rainbow. Day and night the assembly cried out, “Holy, holy, holy!” and joined in chorus giving glory to God.

Given this picture of eternal adoration, it is not hard to imagine that God is unimpressed by the quality of our earthly worship. God lives in eternity, in the beauty of utter holiness, and in perfect relational communion of the Trinity. God does not need our ceremony, or liturgy, or music. Yet, amazingly, God wants it. The hymn writer has rightly said, “Praise is God’s gracious choice.”

On the walls of our homes are often tacked and taped our children’s most recent creations of crayon, scissors, construction paper, glitter, and glue. Great artwork? Manifestly not. The delight of our hearts? Doubtless!

Even our best efforts at worship may be like our own sons and daughters bringing rudimentary artistic expressions to us for approval and display. As we often are less impressed by the work itself than by their desire to share themselves with us as a gift, so our worship may be, to God, like children’s drawings on the walls of heaven: the delight of our Father and, in his eyes, the promise of things to come.

Michael Denham

The Lord’s Delight

His delight is not in the strength of the horse… Psalm 147:10

Horses have always figured prominently as symbols of strength. Their value as beasts of burden or as instruments of war was recognized throughout the ancient world. Kings measured their wealth and the swiftness of their armies by the size of their stables.

God had forbidden Israel’s leaders to imitate royal courts of other nations by amassing horses, trusting only in the might of such a formidable arsenal. The Lord himself was their security, and his delight would be in those who recognized his strength and remembered his faithfulness.

Had they not once rejoiced over the destruction of Pharaoh’s forces, singing, “The Lord has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea”? Another psalmist proclaims outright what Psalm 147 maintains obliquely: “The war horse is a vain hope for victory, and by its great might it cannot save.”

Deliverance for God’s people must come ultimately from God himself. Perhaps this is why, in the final pages of Scripture, Jesus Christ is pictured as a conquering rider on a white horse, with the armies of heaven following the only one called, “King of kings, and Lord of lords.”

Michael Denham

Answering Jesus

Who do you say that I am? Matthew 16:15

By all accounts in the Gospels, Peter understood the import of Jesus’ question. His affirmation, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” became bedrock theology for the Church. But Jesus is very clear that Peter had not simply come up with such an answer on his own. It had been revealed to him by God.

To the Jews, knowing someone’s name implied relationship, intimacy, even a measure of control. In the Old Testament, the God of creation willingly revealed himself as the Lord of covenant by carefully identifying himself by name. From the burning bush he told Moses to tell the people, “I AM has sent me to you…the Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob has sent me to you.”

This unique designation gave to the Hebrews both a glimpse of God’s identity and sovereign self-existence, and of his character and steadfast loyal love. But their glimpse was offered to them only by revelation.

When Jesus asked his disciple, “Who do you say that I am?” he was asking if Peter recognized the divine identity our Lord was claiming, but also to realize that such recognition could come only as God made it possible. It seems the Son of God wanted to be clear about that.

Our own answer to this most compelling of questions depends, not on the quality of our search, but on that same revelation of God whereby we come to recognize Jesus’ radical and redeeming claims on our lives.

Michael Denham

Total Need

Take what you have, an offering for the Lord. Exodus 35:5

When the Lord spoke to Moses atop Mt. Sinai, he told the Israelites to bring him an offering, gathered from each one, “whose heart prompts him to give.” These gifts would adorn the Tabernacle – Israel’s center of worship and God’s dwelling place among his people.

The Lord himself had also chosen craftsmen, and had filled them with his Spirit to skillfully follow his blueprint, and build just as he had commanded. God was meticulous in calling for detail.

The worship of God does call for careful attention, but the Bible is clear about two things: God’s people prepare for worship with an offering from the heart, and should remember that even the skills used in so responding are a gift from God.

When Solomon built the great Jerusalem Temple generations later, he said, “Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain.” These words from Psalm 127 would have been an important reminder to the Hebrews that even the great stones of their capital and its temple rested on the security available only through God’s gracious care.

When we respond to God in worship, we also know the success of our efforts rests squarely on remembering our dependence on him. Jesus said, “Without me you can do nothing.” But we spend our whole lives recognizing our need of him is not partial, but total.

Michael Denham

The True Face of Worship

Years ago, one of my seminary classmates asked our professor what he thought he’d be doing in heaven. “Standing there with my mouth wide open!” he mused. More recently, John Ortberg unpacked what this notion means for us in his foreword to Mark Labberton’s arresting book, The Dangerous Act of Worship (IVP):

The prophet Micah said a long time ago that the divine requirements for human life are not rocket science: Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly before your God. Worship is that humble walk. It’s the knee-buckling, jaw-dropping acknowledgement of the gap between the creature and the Creator, the finite and the infinite, the sinful and the Holy.

Every time we sing the great hymn Holy, Holy, Holy! or any other song that affirms the same convictions, we’re echoing Isaiah 6 and Revelation 4. These two reverberating, thunder- rumbling scenes of worship in heaven give us narrow but glorious glimpses of the One whose presence we purport to enter and whose blessing we seek. At the sound of unceasing seraphic antiphony, the prophet tells us the very doorposts and threshold of God’s envisioned temple shook to their core as the heavenly throne room filled with smoke:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.”

When Isaiah saw the Lord, high and lifted up, he said, “Woe is me! I am a man of unclean lips!” Recapitulating this reaction at the end of the biblical canon John says his apocalyptic vision of the Lord dropped him to the ground like a dead man.

We may or may not react the same way when we gather before the Lord on Sundays, but perhaps we should. The Creator of heaven and earth has not changed since the prophet and the apostle recorded their visions. It’s still appropriate to lead God’s people into prayer with the words, “Lord Most High…” The fact that Jesus makes available to us a new and intimate way of access to God has not diminished God. It simply and strikingly means that we can now call him “Papa,” “Daddy,” “Abba Father.”

Worship isn’t a performance, but it is a drama. It’s when we tell, re-tell, and re-tell God’s great story, the wonderful story of the Gospel, the unfolding drama of redemption.

Do you remember those times way back in elementary school, maybe on Friday afternoons, when we put away our textbooks and our lessons and we gathered around in a circle on the floor to hear our teacher read us a story? We all loved those times most of all. Everyone loves a good story. And when we tell and re-tell God’s story, what we do may not be a performance, but it is a drama with all the heightened expressive qualities we can muster and engage.

We may be in on the story, we may be part of the story, but ultimately we’re not the audience. Worship finally and truly has an audience of One. God is the audience in worship. This was Kierkegaard’s observation. It’s God who watches the drama.

I sang in a men’s chorus in college. My last year we went on a six-week tour of Europe. Great concert halls! Magnificent cathedrals! Historic churches! Forty concerts in forty-two days. No wonder we were tired!

Toward the end of our trip, as a result of winning first prize in an international choir competition there, we were privileged to sing for Queen Juliana of The Netherlands. We performed a full concert for her. But she wasn’t perched remotely away in the royal box in Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw . She was sitting in her summer palace on a single chair that looked pretty much like a throne—right in front of us. She was the only person there. It was an audience of one, except for her aides—one at each shoulder—and four soldiers with machine guns at every corner of the room. It was a big room.

As you might imagine our conductor had our full attention. After all we were singing for the Queen! Just the Queen! Her face was on the money in our wallets!

Through it all she treated us so graciously, like anyone’s kind and doting grandmother. And she created quite a memory for us. We’ll never forget being in her presence.

In worship we come into the presence of the Lord God of heaven and earth. He is holy. All creation is full of his glory. “Holy” translates a Hebrew word that simply means “set apart, distinct, unique.” It can refer to something as mundane as cookware. We probably use every day dishes for macaroni and cheese. But for Christmas dinner we use the Royal Wedgewood—“holy” dishes set apart for a special purpose.

The whole idea of “consecration” emerges from this. When something or someone is “consecrated,” it’s being “set apart.” This may help us understand the force of 1 Peter 1:15, “Just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do.” We’re not commanded to be everything that God is. We’re called to be set apart to him, even as he is set apart and distinct.

Old Testament scholar Allen Ross asserts that when we say God is holy, “we ascribe a uniqueness to him that is almost incomprehensible,”[1] a singularity that characterizes every divine attribute. We use words like omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, eternal, righteous, and just to describe God, not ourselves. Certainly none of us shares or even fully understands these qualities. There is no one like God. God is distinct and unique—holy.

When we worship—together on Sunday morning, or in the seclusion of a quiet devotional moment—we’re given the privilege of singing for, praying to, learning from, being changed by, and finding true worth in the Lord God of heaven and earth.

His face isn’t on the money, but we do see him in the face of our gracious Savior. Jesus brings us into the presence of the Father. He makes his Father our Father. And in this tremendous and tender encounter we discover what true worship is all about.

Dr. Michael Denham has served over twenty-two years as Director of Music Ministries at The National Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC.

[1] Allen P. Ross, Recalling the Hope of Glory: Biblical Worship from the Garden to the New Creation (Kregel, 2006), 43.