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Hallo again to all.

A cedar of LebanonAs children, we learned to sing a wonderful American hymn with the following lines:

Ye joyful mountains skip like rams
While Edom melts away
And all the little hills like lambs
Shall clap their hands and play!
Join in their song, ye joyful souls,
For this great burning day.
By love we're known in heav'n above,
Love bears our song away.

The music itself jumps and hops like the rams and lambs — and, presumably, the mountains and hills — in the words. It is an ideal and fun song for children to sing, even if its allusions to the Psalter are probably lost for some time (as they were on us) on young people. The joyful mountains meant to clap their hands and play are none other than the scene of intense fighting as we write this evening. A modern version of Coverdale's translation of Psalm 29 gives them the names we know better today:

The voice of the LORD breaketh the cedar-trees; yea, the LORD breaketh the cedars of Lebanon.

He maketh them also to skip like a calf; Lebanon also, and Sirion, like a young unicorn.

In our mind's eye, they are still places of earthly delight: with snow not far from deserts, massive trees 'full of sap' 'which [God] hath planted,' singing mountains with echoing valleys, and, of course, skipping livestock. In a passage familiar to anyone who has prayed through the psalms even a few times, the Psalmist tells us that the 'righteous shall flourish like a palm-tree, and shall spread abroad like a cedar in Lebanon.' In the world of scripture and Christian prayer, the mountainous eastern edge of the Mediterranean is strikingly lovely, a place of transfiguration.

And so the dissonance between the headlines of recent weeks and our usual delight at encountering a mention in print of Lebanon has been doubly distressing. The hills of Lebanon are shaking not with plenty or the mighty power of God as in the psalms, but with rockets, tanks, fleeing civilians, and fear.

Claimed as homelands by an array of different peoples, they remain as fixed features of the heartland of daily Christian prayer. How, then, can we come to their word-pictures afresh in the daily office this month and next as newspapers and television show us very different pictures? It is a difficult question, and one with which we have grappled before; it is all the more important because of the way in which our churches structure our reading of and prayer with scripture. Even if we never have a glance at or in a given month, Anglicans will have encountered Jerusalem, Tyre, Lebanon, Syria and Egypt dozens of times in the course of their life with the Book of Common Prayer.

One of the most satisfying approaches comes from the devotional writings of Richard Meux Benson, who referred very memorably to the psalms as War Songs of the Prince of Peace. In this reading, the violent passages of the psalms are understood not as encouraging the actual slaughter of the wicked (or their children) in the name of God, but rather as typological references to the already-accomplished vanquishing of death by Christ in the resurrection. Taking a Christological view again for the joyful passages of the Psalter, it draws its exuberant moments of happiness likewise from the resurrection and its incomprehensible message that Love is stronger than death.

To meet the Psalter, then, with a war-torn biblical geography in our minds, is to pray for the peace of the region, with the knowledge that Christ has died even for this new round of violence. In such truth and reconciliation as he requires of his followers, further destruction can still be averted; the Psalmist's paradise of mountains, flocks, valleys, trees and joy can be restored in fact and not just in our prayerful recitation.

The LORD shall give strength unto his people; the LORD shall give his people the blessing of peace.

See you next week.

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Last updated: 23 July 2006

(Click for the 19 July update on Cynthia's cancer.)

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