Robin Parry, Lament and the Role of Israel in Salvation History
Robin Parry is an editor for Wipf and Stock Publishers. He received a PhD in 2001 from the Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education in England.
In this interview, Dr. Parry discusses the importance of "lament" and the role of Israel in salvation history.
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Jesus’ lament on the cross
J. Michael Feazell: We’ve been talking about lament in Scripture. When Jesus was on the cross he says, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Many times people look at that and see the despair included, but doesn’t that imply the entire Psalm from which it comes, with its conclusion that resolves a sense of despair?
Robin Parry: Absolutely. When in the New Testament someone will quote from the Old Testament, often they might just quote a verse or even a phrase, but the hearers will know the Scriptures; they were immersed in the Scriptures, and the hearers will call to mind the whole context, the whole story, the whole Psalm or whatever. When Jesus says, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” we need to remember that Jesus would have known how the Psalm ended, and the Psalm ends with deliverance.
The book of Hebrews chapter 2 quotes from the salvation part of the Psalm and applies that to Jesus. In the early church, the Christ-followers saw it as appropriate to take the second part of the Psalm as applying to Christ and the resurrection, and Christ as the one who praises God in the congregation.
But we need to be careful not to collapse or to downgrade the despair or the lament of Christ on the cross as if he knew it was going to come out all happy in the end anyway, so he wasn’t really lamenting. Christ isn’t just putting on a show. He isn’t feigning lament. He really is suffering in our humanity, he really is lamenting on our behalf. He is expressing precisely how he feels. It’s the positive part. In Mark and Matthew, “why have you forsaken me?” comes right near the end. This has been building up through the whole experience on Calvary. It comes out near the end, “why have you forsaken me?” It’s not just a passing thing and then he gets over it.
We need to beware of somehow collapsing the hope and the despair together — so he’s despairing, but actually he’s happy. He’s lamenting, so we need to take that seriously, but also to recognize that Jesus has not given up on God. He says, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” This is lament within a relationship with God where he knows… for the joy set before him, as it says in Hebrews, he endured the shame of the cross.
This is an important tension to hold onto, that we have cross and resurrection. Alan Lewis does this wonderful thing on the theology of Holy Saturday where he says, Holy Saturday is situated between cross and resurrection. In a way, it holds them apart, and it holds them together. On one hand, Holy Saturday means we can’t have the cross without the resurrection, or the resurrection without the cross. We have to have the two, we have to hold them together, but we don’t want to collapse them into some smudge. So it gives a bit of distance between the two. We need to hear them, he says, in stereo.
On one hand, we need to hear the cross almost as it would have sounded, as it would have felt, without looking back in retrospect from the perspective of the resurrection. But on the other hand, if that’s all you do, that can’t be a Christian way of looking at the cross. At the same time, you have to hear the cross through the resurrection, seen from that perspective.
This is instructive for how we should understand lament, and lament within the Christian life. On one hand, there’s a space for lament. We don’t want to collapse lament and salvation together, so that the lament isn’t really lament. We need to give it space to be itself. In a biblical theology, it never has the last word. We are a people who believe in the cross and the resurrection. If you let lament have the last word, it’s like saying, “Go there, but there’s no empty tomb.”
If you look at the biblical book of Lamentations, this comes out nicely in that Lamentations ends with the one voice that they’re desperate to hear. The people in the book of Lamentations are saying, “God, come, save us, rescue us.” The one voice that does not speak by the end is the one voice they want to hear, the voice of God. The book ends (in the canonical form, the form in which God has seen fit to preserve it for us) without the salvation. They’re looking, they’re calling, they’re begging, and it hasn’t come. But the book of Lamentations is also preserved for us in a canonical context, and we can’t read it as if it’s not part of these other Scriptures, which proceed and follow it.
The book of Isaiah picks up on Lamentations on numerous occasions. In Isaiah we see God’s speaking, God’s solution. To give one example of this: in chapter 1 of Lamentations, over and over again, we see there’s no one to comfort her. Jerusalem is desolate, and there’s no one to stand by her, no one to offer consolation. Isaiah picks this up. Chapter 40 begins, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.” Over and over again God says, “I am Yahweh, your comforter.”
On one hand, you need to hear Lamentations to give it space to be itself, because God preserved it in that form, and the Bible doesn’t rush in and say, “Quick, quick, quick, let’s get to the hope, let’s rush to the hope.” It leaves the pain, the breathing space. But it can’t let it stay there, and it wouldn’t be a Christian, it wouldn’t be a Jewish, it wouldn’t be a faithful hearing or recension of Lamentations to hear it just in its canonical form but not in its canonical context. We need to hear it in stereo.
Lamentations, in a sense, is Israel’s reaction to its exile. It’s looking back to the exile and it’s looking forward to the restoration. It’s a bit like Holy Saturday as we look back to the cross and forward to the resurrection. In some ways, as Christians, we can see Lamentations as the Holy Saturday literature of Israel. It’s a way of trying to look back at what was, and what’s been lost and what’s been destroyed…it’s looking around at the grave, at this destruction that surrounds them, and it’s looking forward to a salvation that is to come but has not yet come.
Jewish worship does this brilliantly, because every year in the Jewish liturgical cycle, on the ninth of Av, the book of Lamentations is recited. On that day in the synagogue, people sit on the floor. There is no celebration, there are no readings from the Torah, it’s a day of mourning and fasting. The next day it begins with the comfort thing from Isaiah, and it moves forward then, towards the liturgical cycle of Atonement. So Jewish people have brilliantly captured this insight of saying there’s a time to weep and there’s a time to rejoice, and we need to give space for the two, but we need to realize that the time to weep is situated within a bigger story, and that story doesn’t end with weeping.
As Christians, we want to say the reason we have hope… We recognize that there’s a cross, and that the creation is marked by brokenness, and that our own lives are often broken, but we know that it can’t end that way. We know that it ends with resurrection, because the tomb is empty. As Stanley Hauerwas says, we can never be hopeless people even if we might despair (maybe despair is the wrong word)…even if we might lament, even if we might feel pain, even if we might cry out. To have an honest and integrated and faithful relationship with God, we need to do that. That’s the appropriate human response on certain occasions, but if it’s a Christian response, it is never hopeless.
The imprecatory psalms
JMF: In the Psalms, there’s an honesty of a feeling, of expression… Often it comes across as anger toward someone who has hurt the psalmist in some way. It gives the freedom to feel what we actually feel, knowing that God has already dealt with sin, both ours and others, so there’s a freedom to know that he’s not going to condemn us for expressing how we actually feel. Yet the freedom to express that isn’t an end in itself, and it doesn’t leave us alone in our lament.
RP: No. The Psalms of lament usually move through that and beyond that. Not always, but there are situations within a bigger context, and in a bigger context we move beyond that. Some of the Psalms are troubling — the imprecatory Psalms, particularly Psalm 137, smashing the children on the rocks and so on. How could that be an authorized kind of prayer? We could say various things about that, but one of them is, that it is how the psalmist feels, and it is a sense of honesty. Walter Brueggemann brings this up well in his work on lamenting Psalms. There’s a brutal honesty in these Psalms — not one we feel comfortable with, but he thinks it’s important to have space for that kind of thing even if you can’t end with that, if that can’t be where you stop.
JMF: I’ve had people ask about that… Sometimes it’s attributed to David…he’s “a man after God’s own heart” and yet he’s talking like this. How can that be part of the Bible and how can it be okay to feel that way? I think I’ve said worse than that. I don’t publish it for everyone to read, but sometimes when I’m in the car alone and there’s a traffic situation, I can get like that. Sometimes when I think of things that someone has done, not necessarily to me, but outrageous things that have happened of injustice, I feel these things. I’m not David, but I don’t think when we ask a question like that, that we’ve never felt like that. We’ve all said things that we would be embarrassed if they would be played back to a full auditorium.
RP: Often when you see in a Psalm the psalmist will say, “Lord, strike my enemies down and destroy them, wipe them from the face of the earth,” or something… Often, it’s not a sense of personal revenge that they’re after. The psalmist is speaking from a place of powerlessness. What the psalmist is not doing is they’re not saying, “I’m going to take vengeance into my own hands.”
RP: The psalmist is saying, “I am not going to take vengeance into my hands. I’m not in a position to do so, and I’m not going to do so. That is God’s role.” The Psalm is a stepping back by the psalmist saying, “I cannot do anything about this and I’m not going to. This is God’s place to do something about this.” That’s an important theological lesson for Christians to learn — as Paul says, “Do not seek vengeance, for the Lord says, it’s mine to repay.” Christians, like the Psalmist, need to learn that, even from those imprecatory Psalms.
The second thing we need to realize is, it’s not personal vengeance. They’re seeking deliverance and salvation. They’ve been persecuted by Assyrians or Babylonians… When they pray destruction on them, what they’re saying is, “Lord, save us.” The political reality is, what salvation would entail would be for our enemies to be removed. It reflects a sense of God’s justice and judgment. These people have acted terribly, and what they have done is inhuman, and it is not inappropriate for God to judge them.
For a Christian to pray this, a Christian couldn’t take it up in an unreflective way — we would have to read it through Christ, and we’d have to read it in the light of Christ saying, love your enemies, forgive those who persecute you, and so on. But there are still important lessons that Christians need to draw, even from these Psalms that at first sight seem so outrageous — they’re actually prayers of powerless people who need God to deliver them from people who are treating them inhumanly, and they’re being realistic about what that might look like.
JMF: In many cases historically, the enemies of Israel, didn’t they do some of those kinds of things to the Israelites?
RP: It would depend when and who, but there were some atrocities; the Babylonian destruction is one instance. The people are kept in the city under siege, they’re dying of starvation and disease, the cities are ravished, people are killed, exiled. It’s devastating — not least psychologically, not least in the way they understood their sense of relationship with God and, “We’re the people you’ve chosen, this is the land that you’ve put us in, this is your city, this is your temple, this is your king and now the king is captured.” Their whole world is falling apart. It’s incredibly traumatizing.
Even aside from the issue of people starving to death and people being killed, the Bible tends to be very down on imperialism. This comes out in many ways, but here we see the military, imperial power imposing itself on this little nation. The prophets and psalmists don’t tend to warm to that. It’s a critique of that kind of militarist expansionistic empire-building thing.
Israel in salvation history
JMF: Let’s switch gears for a moment and talk about Israel in salvation history. Is the church a replacement for Israel in salvation history?
RP: No — although I have to say that for most of my Christian life, and for most of my theological life, I would have answered yes. I now think it’s one of the things that has blighted Christian theology and Christian history, is this idea that the church somehow replaces Israel — that the people of Israel have been abandoned, they were faithless and now we’re the people who are doing it properly, fulfilling their mission and so on.
This is disastrous not simply for the Jewish people — and it has been disastrous for them, as any study of the history of Jewish-Christian relations will show that Christians have treated Jews despicably over the centuries and often still do — not merely that, but it’s been terrible for us, because we have lost the sense of who we are.
I will give a brief summary of how I would understand what the church is. Not all Christians agree with this, but the way I think it comes out scripturally is that here you have this story, of God creates the world and his desire in Genesis 1-11 is for humanity as a whole, it’s for the nations, but creation has fallen, creation has broken, how is God going to deal with that? The way that God chooses to deal with this is through electing a man, Abraham, and the descendants who come from him — not simply for their own sake, but also for the sake of the world, that through this nation and through what this nation is about and their ministry, it’s going to be somehow (and it’s not clear how, at the start), God will bring redemption for the created order.
So we’re set out in Genesis with this way of understanding what Israel’s mission is about, and Israel is called in some ways like a new humanity. Abraham is a bit like a new Adam and his descendants living in the land, Adam and Eve living in the Garden of Eden. They are to live God’s way in God’s land, modeling righteousness and justice, following the laws; this is the calling they have. As Paul says, “because of the flesh,” actually living the Torah doesn’t happen. Over and over again they’re a stiff-necked people. They can’t do it.
Then the covenant curses come into play. In Deuteronomy and Leviticus, God says if you do not keep the covenant, these curses will come into play. These curses are not the collapse of covenant, they’re not the breaking of the relationship, they’re taking place within covenant. God’s covenant is irrevocable. Paul says as much with regard to Israel in Romans 11. God’s gift and God’s calling and the covenant with the patriarchs is in place, it is irrevocable, and nothing Israel does can break that, but what it can do is incur all the sort of curses that take place within that.
So God starts to say, through the prophets, for Israel to play its role in creation, something has got to happen for Israel. Israel needs saving. So through Jeremiah, through Ezekiel, we learn of this… a new covenant that God will make with Israel where he will put his laws within them. Deuteronomy speaks of circumcising the heart. In Deuteronomy 30:6, it talks about after the exile, God will circumcise Israel’s hearts and enable them to obey him. This is what Jeremiah speaks of as new covenant, and Ezekiel talks about putting the Spirit within you so that you’ll obey my laws.
So we have this solution whereby God will redeem Israel from their exile and then the nations will come on pilgrimage, they will worship the God of Israel, and so on. These Old Testament (or whatever we want to call it) – those prophetic expectations of salvation are the key for understanding what New Testament says of the church and everything we’re about.
Tom Wright put this brilliantly: Christ on the cross is standing in the place of Israel. He is like Israel writ small, I think he puts it like that. He is one man, Israel, and he bears Israel’s exilic curses upon himself. As such, he is bearing the sins of the whole world upon himself because Israel is a microcosm representative of humanity. The sin of the world is focused on him, and in the death and resurrection of Christ we see the exile and restoration of Israel played out and taken to its climax.
In the book of Acts we see this worked out where lots of Jewish people start to come to recognize Jesus as their Messiah and receive the Holy Spirit, which is one of the signs of the new covenant. The Holy Spirit is given and poured out. Here we see Israel being restored in their midst. Somehow in the midst of time, in the midst of the old age, here is the end of exile being played out in the giving in the Spirit.
Then the Gentiles, the nations, with Cornelius and so on, come and worship Israel’s God. This comes out clearly in Acts 15 with James and the Jerusalem Council. We have this picture in Acts and through the other New Testament documents – in the church, you have Jew and Gentile united into a single body, but they’re not blurred together into some mush. They are both one in Christ, both accepted in Christ, because of the saving work of the Messiah.
But Israel is still Israel with its distinctive calling, and the nations, the Gentiles, are like the pilgrim nations in an eschatological foretaste. So the church is like a prophetic anticipation of the end of the age in which we see the promise realized of Israel restored, in Jews who accept the Messiah, and the pilgrim nations coming in, the Gentiles who accept the Messiah united as one body. But the Jews are still Jews. I think that Jewish believers still should be circumcised and follow food laws and so on, Gentile believers should not, because the Scriptures are clear that when the end times come, the Gentiles will be accepted as Gentiles; they don’t have to convert to Judaism. Paul is emphatic about this. If Christ has brought in the new age, then Gentiles not only don’t have to, they must not get circumcised.We have a vision here of the church in which Jew and Gentile exist as Jew and Gentile side by side in one body, but without saying, as has happened in the history of the church, any Jew who becomes a believer has changed their religion and ceases to be Jewish and has to give up anything that looks distinctively Jewish. I think this is a complete misunderstanding of what the New Testament is about. It’s failing to be the kind of church that Jesus aimed to bring about, of restored Israel anticipated — for the end times, when all Israel will be saved, which it says in Romans 11, and all the nations will come and worship, which is anticipated in the church prophetically.