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Let’s Talk Idolatry (An Invitation to Dialogue)

May 20, 2012

I grew up in a very Protestant household. Not terribly devout, but steadfastly Protestant. In third grade, all the kids were invited to wear something green for St. Patrick’s Day. My father insisted I wear orange instead, because we didn’t want to be seen supporting the papists.

My father’s biggest problem with “the Catholics” (and he always used a definitely article; it served to make them a cohesive group, one he could distance himself from even further) was not their “slavish obedience” to the pope, though that irked him mightily. It was that they were “idolaters, every one of them!” He saw the religious iconography, and particularly the many statues which, especially in that era, decorated Catholic churches and homes as being nothing short of idol-worship. When, many years later, I tried to express the notion of veneration as being distinct from worship, or of using an object as a means of focusing one’s attention and faith, it fell on deaf ears. My father, who was nearly a reprobate in most respects, could prooftext on idolatry with the best of them.

As I moved into Episcopal circles, I found a curious balance between the Protestant and the Catholic. Some Episcopal parishes were “low church” (fairly austere and unflowery in their liturgy) and some were “high church” (lots of “bells and smells,” rife with liturgical excess and theater). A priest once told me, “As long as Catholics keep marrying Baptists, there will always be Episcopalians.”

The church I attended was a mixture. Our 8 a.m. service was low church, our 11 a.m. was high. And there were some seasonal services which only a few people attended, like the Veneration of the Cross during Holy Week, which were so “Catholic” that they made me feel a tad uncomfortable. These special services were mostly staffed and promoted by a coterie of Anglo-Catholics in the congregation, one of whom was a retired Episcopal priest known for his overwhelming devotion to Mary—nearly to the exclusion of all other religious sentiment. It was joked that when he died, Jesus would meet him with a smile and a handshake and say, “Father George, so nice to meet you at last! Mother has told me so much about you!”

Many of my neopagan, or at least pagan-ish, friends have small altars in their homes on which they place objects and images that have some spiritual resonance for them. This week I suddenly flashed on the notion of household gods—not so much the deities, but the small statues or shrines that people in nearly every culture on earth have used. They seem, in my postmodern way of looking at things, not as actual objects of worship, any more than people might worship the household deities themselves. The spirits were helpers, connections to Spirit, tools to grease the wheels of fate or luck, and the images were simply a touchpoint. As such, they seem mostly benign.

Which made me start wondering about the tremendous antipathy toward idolatry that Judaism and Islam have. The apocryphal tales of Abraham almost always seem to be about his crusade to smash polytheism and establish monotheism—sometimes in rather violent ways.

The Decalogue is interesting in this regard. Various traditions have numbered the ten commandments in different ways. The Philonic division (from the writings of Philo and Josephus in the first century) has the First Commandment as the call to have no other gods besides, or at least in primacy over, YHWH, with the Second as the prohibition against the making or worship of graven images. The Talmudic division (third century) combines them into a single commandment, which seems to reflect the understanding that the prohibition is really about worshiping the image instead of the reality, of getting caught up in the concrete instead of seeing the truth as being ineffable. It is, to borrow the Zen koan, the finger pointing at the moon: people spend so much time looking at the finger that they forget all about the beauty that lies behind and beyond.

So my question for our readers, and especially for my fellow commentators, is this: Is the ancient prohibition against idolatry nothing more than one tribal people’s attempts to distance and distinguish themselves from the polytheist cultures that surrounded them? Is the veneration of objects as a spiritual practice what the anti-idolatry commandments were all about? If we lived plain and austere lives, without Things that drew our attention, would we be more focused on God? Idolatry is such a huge deal in the Bible, yet we either dismiss the emphasis on chopping wooden idols to bits as belonging to a primitive past, or else spiritualize it beyond recognition and talk about “putting God first.”

All right, that wasn’t one question but several. I just need to know if I should get rid of my statue of Ganesh. And that carving of Buddha.

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28 Comments leave one →
  1. May 20, 2012 1:19 pm

    It is very difficult to define idolatry. For example, I’ve watched Hindu worshipers bow down to idols, anoint those idols, and then had them turn around and tell me that they believe in one god.

    So, look again at Exodus 32:2-4. Now, doesn’t this remind you of a lot of church (or a non-profit charity) fund raising drives? Or families that spend fifty thousand plus on a bar mitzvah?

    The midrash explains that the golden calf actually was a magically animated statue. Of course, today, we all contend with animated statues. For example: our cars, our computers, our televisions — all key household gods. How much more susceptible we are than the Israelites in the desert to “whoring after foreign gods.”

    Even the study of religion is no protection against idolatry — one remembers the words of Abulafia warning against the “folly of those who study Sefer Yetirah in order to make a calf; for those who do so are themselves calves.”

  2. May 20, 2012 1:38 pm

    But look at the next verse, Exodus 32:5. “When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before the idol, proclaiming, ‘Tomorrow we will have a feast in honor of YHWH!’”—as opposed to a feast in honor of the idol itself. Aaron seems to view the calf not as a rival power, or even an object of worship in itself, but as a symbol of YHWH God.

    While the Golden Calf was indubitably an idol, were the people practicing idolatry, or merely finding a way to praise this new God who appeared as a thundercloud on a mountaintop—since their only referent was the familiar Ba’al, the god of thunder and mountains, who was frequently represented as a bull? (They were also familiar with the Egyptian goddess Hathor, who sometimes appeared as a cow.)

    In this passage, the calf particularly represents fertility, an idea borne out in the following verse: “In the morning the people rose early, sacrificing burnt offerings and bringing communion offerings, and then they sat down to eat and drink, and lost themselves in debauchery.” Worship of a false god? Or worship of the new god who appears suspiciously like the old ones, so why not use the old, familiar rituals?

  3. May 20, 2012 2:03 pm

    There are two things here: (a) worship of multiple “powers” rather than the one creator (God) and (b) use of images to represent God. If so then your Hindu might be correct in claiming to worship one God, but still “guilty” of b. But conversely a “modern” person who performs some superstitious rituals (or attributes agancy and benevolence to the “market”?) might not commit b but is clearly “guilty” of a…

  4. May 20, 2012 2:08 pm

    What defines “worship”?

  5. May 20, 2012 2:11 pm

    How long is string?

    For the moment I don’t know, my point is that there are two (I think) different things and confusing them as one is unhelpful.

  6. May 20, 2012 2:19 pm

    Except that “confusing them as one,” as you say, is exactly what the Talmud does in presenting them as a single commandment, no?

  7. May 20, 2012 2:20 pm

    Yes 🙂

  8. May 20, 2012 2:21 pm

    That is often what iconoclasts do…

  9. May 20, 2012 2:56 pm

    This so difficult because worship of the One God occurs at a balance point between the two unacceptable extremes of atheism and pantheism, both of which totally negate the possibility of a personal relationship with the Creator of the world. Since human beings cannot comprehend God, we can’t focus on that point precisely. But the more we allow our intended focus to swing, even with the best of intentions, the further away we get. Prohibitions against idolatry help guard against that.

  10. May 20, 2012 3:20 pm

    I heartily disagree with your statement that pantheism negates the possibility of a “personal relationship” with the Creator. Many pantheists see the gods as facets of a single Great Mystery, the way a single prism splits a beam into countless brilliant bits of color and light. A devotion to Shiva in no way negates a devotion to the Hindu Trimurti, the triune expression of deity. It’s like telling a Christian trinitarian that his or her worship of Jesus negates a worship of God the Father.

    However, much of Hebrew thought seems to agree with your last statement—that prohibiting idolatry helps guard against losing focus on the incomprehensible God. YHWH told Moses to keep the people from touching Mt. Sinai on pain of death, so Moses commanded a fence be built. The commandment says not to “take the Name in vain, to misuse it,” so Jewish tradition goes one step further and doesn’t even speak the Name. The Talmud says the often complex oral tradition of laws is a “hedge around the Torah,” to keep us far from sinning even accidentally.

    Me? I’d rather risk a misstep and have a full-blooded experience of the divine, than lead a life of scrupulous adherence to rules and rituals and miss the heart of the matter. Which brings me back to the original conundrum: Is having some tangible, physical representation of this marvelous internal relationship in fact idolatry? Or is it a sacrament, as the Book of Common Prayer defines it: “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace”?

  11. May 20, 2012 3:41 pm

    Maybe I don’t understand what “pantheism” is, since what you are describing in your comment is what I thought would be called “polytheism.” Could you elaborate on that distinction? Because I thought your question in the original post was about where a monotheist draws the line of idolatry. Theophrastus shows us how difficult it is to draw that line. I was attempting to expand on his point, noting that human relationship to God exists on a spectrum. This is not so different from what it sounds like you’re saying in the first paragraph here.

  12. May 20, 2012 3:59 pm

    Courtney, my apologies. I blew it. Yes, of course I was talking about polytheism there, not pantheism. However, even then my main point would be the same, though my examples would be very different!

    There are three “theisms” that seem to be shadings of a similar concept: pantheism says that the universe or nature and the divine are essentially the same thing; panentheism says that God is both within the universe but also existing outside it; and animism says that everything in nature embodies some kind of life-principle or spirit, that everything (even rocks) are alive. So for me, even this doesn’t feel contradictory to the notion of God as that which infuses and unites and creates all things, and in whom we live and move and have our being, as the book of Acts puts it.

    Now, you articulate my post very interestingly as where a monotheist draws the line of idolatry. I don’t think I really conceived of it in that way, though I can certainly see how that conclusion was reached! And I truly don’t think anyone is really arguing over anything. I’m just seeking to get a handle on what idolatry really means, or meant. And now it seems as elusive as landing on a decent definition of worship.

    As to that, I’ve always thought of worship as losing oneself in love and adoration for the divinity—though that hardly describes most “worship services,” and I daresay very few have ever had that experience with a carved and decorated piece of wood.

  13. May 20, 2012 4:10 pm

    I’ve always liked the description of worship as the ascribing of worth. (I know there are discussions around etymology jostling around but ignore them!) One needs to add some element of “to a high degree” or something, for few of us worship our cars – though some do – or our computers… but many of us worship our spouses… I.e. worship is a continuum. Idolatry is the expression of inappropriate degrees of worship, and worshiping a creature in place of the creator…

    This approach has the advantage of including even the most turgid “service” while allowing also a recognition of its limits and inappropriateness.

  14. May 20, 2012 4:34 pm

    I’d rather risk a misstep and have a full-blooded experience of the divine

    But that’s the rub, isn’t it? What is a real experience of the Divine, as opposed to a false experience? You’ve read the Varieties of Religious Experience, I am sure. What is true mysticism, and what is the ersatz version?

    Did Todd Bentley at his Lakeland Revival have a direct line to heaven? Does a dose of LSD help hasten divine visions? Which of the following had true divine visions?

    * Saul of Tarsus
    * Joan of Arc
    * Sabbatai Sevi
    * Joseph Smith
    * David Berkowitz
    * David Koresh

    What is a true vision anyway? (Consider the old Christian debate in the attempt to reconcile Acts 9:7 and 22:9.)

    If you criticize the rabbinic program, I think you need propose a way to address the issue of distinguishing divine visions from hallucinations. (Full-blooded experiences of the latter are easy to come by.)

  15. May 20, 2012 5:05 pm

    A doctor was asked the difference between a shaman who hears the voices of spirits guiding him, and a schizophrenic who hears voices telling him to “cleanse the city of sinners.” The doctor replied, “The voices a schizophrenic hears causes him to become dysfunctional, while the voices a shaman hears causes him to become more functional and help heal others.”

    It seems to me that the test of any spiritual experience is the quality of the life it enables one to lead. The more creative, loving, and giving you become, the better: “By their fruits shall ye know them.”

  16. May 20, 2012 5:14 pm

    It seems to me that the test of any spiritual experience is the quality of the life it enables one to lead

    That begs the question, though, doesn’t it? By at least one common measure of “quality of life,” this maxim would put the so-called prosperity gospel at the top, and would make Carlos Slim Helu, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffet the most spiritual people of our age.

  17. May 20, 2012 5:23 pm

    One could also add that many religions emphasize the suffering of their prophets — e.g., Jeremiah, Jesus, Mohammed. Indeed, many religions, e.g., Buddhism, some forms of Hinduism, some forms of Calvinism, etc.emphasize that this world is based on suffering.

  18. May 20, 2012 6:08 pm

    One more example — drawn from our times.

    One of most poignant books I have ever read is Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light. This incredible woman had a tormented, painful spiritual life — one full of existential suffering. As a review of the book put it:

    A new, innocuously titled book, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light” (Doubleday), consisting primarily of correspondence between Teresa and her confessors and superiors over a period of 66 years, provides the spiritual counterpoint to a life known mostly through its works. The letters, many of them preserved against her wishes (she had requested that they be destroyed but was overruled by her church), reveal that for the last nearly half-century of her life she felt no presence of God whatsoever — or, as the book’s compiler and editor, the Rev. Brian Kolodiejchuk, writes, “neither in her heart or in the eucharist.”

    That absence seems to have started at almost precisely the time she began tending the poor and dying in Calcutta, and — except for a five-week break in 1959 — never abated. Although perpetually cheery in public, the Teresa of the letters lived in a state of deep and abiding spiritual pain. In more than 40 communications, many of which have never before been published, she bemoans the “dryness,” “darkness,” “loneliness” and “torture” she is undergoing. She compares the experience to hell and at one point says it has driven her to doubt the existence of heaven and even of God. She is acutely aware of the discrepancy between her inner state and her public demeanor. “The smile,” she writes, is “a mask” or “a cloak that covers everything.” Similarly, she wonders whether she is engaged in verbal deception. “I spoke as if my very heart was in love with God — tender, personal love,” she remarks to an adviser. “If you were [there], you would have said, ‘What hypocrisy.'” Says the Rev. James Martin, an editor at the Jesuit magazine “America” and the author of “My Life with the Saints,” a book that dealt with far briefer reports in 2003 of Teresa’s doubts: “I’ve never read a saint’s life where the saint has such an intense spiritual darkness. No one knew she was that tormented.” Recalls Kolodiejchuk, “Come Be My Light”‘s editor: “I read one letter to the Sisters [of Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity], and their mouths just dropped open. It will give a whole new dimension to the way people understand her.”

  19. May 20, 2012 6:25 pm

    Craig, thanks for this post — it prompted me to finally write a long-delayed followup post on idolatry in Catholicism that I’d promised someone back in March, as an initial entry into this dialogue. I hope you’ll join me there, and I’ll be back later to join the conversation here as well.

  20. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    May 20, 2012 6:38 pm

    I feel such sorrow that Mother Teresa felt compelled to keep her despair to herself. If she had been a member of some community who could affirm that they also felt no presence of God, she may have been comforted by the fact that what she felt was normal.

    I am surrounded by those in professional life who feel no compulsion to ever think of God at all, and have no desire to express atheism either. They do not experience a struggle on this level. They do not experience the presence of God, or the lack of the presence of God. They are often thoughtful people dedicated to a peaceful and whole life.

    (Not on topic for the post, but thinking of those who lose the traditinal belief in which they were raised and experience this as loss. I feel that Craig is trying to express the opposite, experiencing the paradigm shift as a gain, and not a loss.)

  21. May 20, 2012 9:44 pm

    By at least one common measure of “quality of life,” this maxim would put the so-called prosperity gospel at the top, and would make Carlos Slim Helu, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffet the most spiritual people of our age.

    Except, of course, that you skipped the meat of my sentence: “The more creative, loving, and giving you become, the better.” You’ll note I didn’t include “absurdly wealthy” in that list. Love of money / root of evil, and all that.

    At least you used “begging the question” properly!

  22. May 20, 2012 9:47 pm

    Indeed, many religions, e.g., Buddhism, some forms of Hinduism, some forms of Calvinism, etc.emphasize that this world is based on suffering.

    Well, the Buddha taught that suffering was caused by desire, and offered a means to end that suffering. So I’m not sure he counts.

  23. May 20, 2012 10:45 pm

    Except, of course, that you skipped the meat of my sentence: “The more creative, loving, and giving you become, the better.” You’ll note I didn’t include “absurdly wealthy” in that list. Love of money / root of evil, and all that.

    Well, to be ridiculously literal, that was a separate sentence in your comment.

    More to the point, I don’t understand how the terms “creative,” “loving,” and “giving” are more explanatory than “spiritual.” For example, I would argue that creativity was a completely independent quality to spirituality — some creative people are spiritual and some are not (as an example of the latter, Baudelaire.)

    Since history is written by the victors (or at least the survivors) there seems to be a great argument about who is “loving” and “giving.” I can point to a great deal of Soviet agitprop, for example, that described Joseph Stalin as loving and giving. The followers of Jim Jones described him in saint-like terms. As another example in the other direction, Christopher Hitchens argued that Mother Teresa was a terrible human being, contrary to the way most of us see her.

  24. May 20, 2012 11:10 pm

    Let me put my concerns more directly, and less rhetorically: the definition creative/loving/giving would seem to exclude hermits and ascetics that are often associated with mysticism (think of the Christian Desert Fathers, for example.)

    It seems that mystical contact with God in the context of the Hebrew Bible (think of the Prophets) has very little to do with being creative/loving/giving except in the broadest use of those terms.

    We can make bad jokes about Solomon being loving (with his thousand wives) but in fact, none of the major Biblical figures were warm and cuddly in the modern sense.

    We can make similar comments about the figures in scriptural and literary traditions of polytheistic religions, e.g., the gods and humans of the Mahabharata, Homer, Milarepa, etc.

  25. May 21, 2012 12:26 am

    So, an off-topic beginning: I was thoroughly amused by the joke about Fr. George.

    I think the use of shrines containing “objects and images that have some spiritual resonance” is quite different from either idol worship or the veneration of sacred images. It’s more like a three-dimensional collage of “things that matter to me”, where the intensity and quality of what “matters” means can vary. I’d venture to say that most Americans have something that functions as this kind of a shrine in their home: a mantlepiece with family pictures, or a display case with travel souvenirs, if nothing else.

    When examining the treatment of idolatry in the Shared Scriptures, do we need to distinguish between texts that were written in henotheistic and monotheistic times? And also perhaps consider the possible animistic roots of all religion at the time of the earliest texts. By animistic here, I mean the notion that local gods were tied to local places. By contrast, the revelation that the LORD was a God that transcended place and time was a pretty big deal.

    I’ve also read somewhere — Gil Bailie, I think — that “idolatry” should be interpreted as a figure of speech that clearly, to the original audience, would have symbolized the actual practice of those other religions, complete with practices such as child sacrifice that were abhorred by the LORD. If that’s the case, then focusing too hard on the actual idols is missing the point.

  26. May 21, 2012 3:15 am

    I just need to know if I should get rid of my statue of Ganesh. And that carving of Buddha.

    Craig,
    My own parents were none too happy that I brought home from Borobudur a little statue of Buddha; nor is my mother happy that one of my daughters has an artful poster of Buddha on the wall of her room.

    Is the ancient prohibition against idolatry nothing more than one tribal people’s attempts to distance and distinguish themselves from the polytheist cultures that surrounded them? Is the veneration of objects as a spiritual practice what the anti-idolatry commandments were all about? If we lived plain and austere lives, without Things that drew our attention, would we be more focused on God? Idolatry is such a huge deal in the Bible…

    Well, in your many questions here, there are two different things. First, the “should I get rid of” and “the ancient prohibition against” presuppose YHWH in particular (presumably through the Torah of Moses) may be speaking to you (and me perhaps) in particular. Interestingly, the atheist turned theist turned Christian theist turned Anglican Christian theist named C. S. Lewis does not include this particular command or prohibition in his “Illustrations of the Tao.” Lewis has compiled these in the Appendix to his book, The Abolition of Man to show how universal “the reality beyond all predicates,” or the Tao. But the absence of the prohibition against fashioning idols or the command against worshiping deities, NOT the One, is a striking absence indeed, and the lack suggests that this law is one derived from the Tao.

    (Lewis defines the Tao as follows: “The Chinese also speak of a great thing [the greatest thing] called the Tao. It is the reality beyond all predicates, the abyss that was before the Creator Himself. It is Nature, it is the Way, the Road. It is the Way in which the universe goes on, the Way in which things everlastingly emerge, stilly and tranquilly, into space and time. It is also the Way which every man should tread in imitation of that cosmic and supercosmic progression, conforming all activities to that great exemplar. ‘In ritual’, say the Analects, ‘it is harmony with Nature that is prized.’ The ancient Jews likewise praise the Law as being ‘true’.This conception in all its forms, Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Christian, and Oriental alike, I shall henceforth refer to for brevity simply as ‘the Tao’.“)

    The second thing you ask, or say, is “Idolatry is such a huge deal in the Bible.” Now, I’m really fascinated with how you’ve translated the Hebrew Bible. In Genesis 31, you render as “household idols” not only תרפים (in verses 19, 34, and 35) but also אלהים (both times in verse 32). That is, you have by a single English phrase conflated the Hebrew phrases teraphim and elohim. For both Hebrew phrases, I think there is a tremendous amount of interpretation going on. What I mean by that is this: The Septuagint translator(s) must interpret to render teraphim as εἴδωλα (“idol”) in 19, 34, and 35. Then the LXX interpreters go on in 32 to render elohim as θεούς (“THeous” or Gods). I see your footnote in Genesis 21 getting at how the ancient monotheistic Hebrews would take on their neighbors’ worship practices which posed a “problem” in intermarriage as if the pragmatics and the practicalities of these arrangements were the issue, or were at least the primary concern. The prohibition(s) must come, of course, as against εἴδωλον (a singular “idol”) in Ex 20:4, Dt 5:8, but I’m talking about the LXX again. In the Hebrew, it is פסל, but you have “carved image.” So what the Greek interprets as the same, by the lemma εἴδωλον, you separate by “household idols” and “carved image” in English. No doubt you mean these as synonymous, and should agree that the Greek is by a single phrase glossing two Hebrew phrases that are synonymous.

    But I’m wanting to tease out a couple of things. On the one hand, there are interpretations here of what the Hebrew phrases must mean, whether the different ones share the same meaning and whether these apply in exactly the same way in Genesis and to Exodus and for Deuteronomy, where they are respectively found. On the other hand, you are doing the interpretations not just for readers of your English translation, but also for yourself. You are applying these (or not) to your own upbringing and now the blog questions. “Idol” in Greek, in Homer, in the Illiad and in the Odyssey, for example, have this meaning, naturally, that has nothing to do with YHWH at all of course. And yet, there the notion is, the crafting of images of gods. Is this what Isaiah’s YHWH was referring to in 45:16? As Theophrastus notes, Shalom Paul translates following “The Targum (צַלְמִיָא) and many of the medieval commentators [who] translate צירים correctly as ‘idols.'” But why does the LXX seem not to call εἴδωλον צירים? Shalom Paul is using the Greeky English phrase “idol” for something hardly Greeky here at all. In your translation of the Hebrew into English you do the same; you say “All the makers of idols are confounded.” My point is not that the LXX is doing a good job of interpreting (because it doesn’t here)’ but that what is so very different in Homeric Greek is brought in as some universal singular notion or construct or concept for the Hebrew Bible (when it’s so varied in Greek in the first place).

    Not for religious reasons and not for biblical reasons per se but for philological, linguistic, and epistemological reasons, I sympathize with why you have to ask your questions! It’s not that we all can’t agree what we’re talking about. Rather, the ranges of “idol” make us wonder whether this is what YHWH must mean and must mean for me here and now. How much does YHWH care about your statue of Buddha, or mine?

    (Sorry that this is more monologue than dialogue! I’m not able to be on the blog much these days, so please pardon me for interjecting a number of quick thoughts in a single comment.)

  27. May 21, 2012 12:51 pm

    Little children – keep yourselves from idols. (1 John 5:21) Thanks Craig for this stimulating question – razor sharp edge to it. Why in this intricately woven poem on love, sin, etc would John end with such a simple sentence?

    It is our habit to sing Byrd’s Non Nobis Domine as grace. We used to have this three-part round at the octave and the fifth in numes on our kitchen table (40 odd years ago).

    When I look at the psalms, which is about all I do these days :|, I find idols and hardship linked through the stem עצב. So the mysterious verse 4 of Psalm 16 – speaking of libations and reflecting the appointment (=libation) of the king in Psalm 2, is balanced by ‘the way of hardship’ in Psalm 139, a psalm one might associate with the Most Holy Place. Psalm 56:6 uses the root in the sense of ‘torturing’ words, and Psalm 78:40 with the ‘pain’ in the heart of HaShem caused by the provocation of the people in the wilderness. The ‘pouring out’ (libation) of innocent blood is not far away, as Psalm 106.36, 38 make clear. Ps 115 (non nobis) and 135 (following the ascent to the Holy) pick up the ‘idol’ gloss of Ps 106. Psalm 127 (לִשְׁלֹמֹה to pick on the king’s son and link in ps 72) – halfway up the steps – almost reflects 1 John 5 in warning about working too ‘hard’, effectively posing the question – wherein does faith lie? In the work of our own hands? Psalm 147:3 has the final word on such self-imposed ‘hardship’ – that God imposes a boundary effectively allowing healing of the broken heart. This of course reflects David’s fall into idolatry in Psalm 51. So the whole Psalter ends with the same request that John makes explicit in the last word of his letter.

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