Throughout the series On The Up And Up, I have been telling the people of Good Shepherd that the Songs Of Ascent (Psalm 120-134) are some of the most vivid examples of how the books of the bible (in this case, the “book” within a book!) had a life before they were ever collected into the bible.
In the case of the Songs Of Ascent, these fifteen psalms were sung by pilgrims marching “on the up and up” to Jerusalem three times a year for the major feasts of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. They were Hebrew folk songs, functioning much as did We Shall Overcome in the Civil Rights era and This Land Is Your Land during the Dust Bowl: people actually sang them as they marched.
So with the Songs Of Ascent, we see that the bible did not plop down from heaven in between two leather covers with your name stenciled on the front and study notes included on the inside. Littered throughout the pages of the biblical library are self-evidentiary examples of how these books and songs and poems had a life prior to their canonization. In fact, in most cases the reason the books were included in Scripture is that their life and use and import bore the unmistakable imprint of God’s hand. Here are five:
1. The cadence, rhythm, and poetry of Genesis 1 lets you know it was a hymn of Creation before it was connected to the stories of Adam, Eve, Noah, Abraham, and Jacob that followed. Read Genesis 1 out loud — as it was designed to be experienced — and you will hear the hypnotically beautiful pattern of verse, chorus, verse, chorus, all leading to the breathtaking conclusion: “and it was VERY good.”
2. In 2 Peter 3:15-16, the apostle says this about his fellow Alpha Male leading the early church:
15 Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. 16 He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.
See that? Paul’s letters were circulating in the early church and even those first readers were alternately offended and confused. It makes me think of the friend who told me recently, “I Corinthians kicked my butt.” Let it kick!
3. In Acts 1:1-2 we read this:
1 In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach 2 until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen.
Well, who is writing? Luke. What was his “former book”? The Gospel that bears his name. Who is Theophilus? Most likely Luke’s benefactor, the man who funded his excursions during which he researched the Jesus story. Luke is an intrepid reporter and an exhaustive note-taker, and look how he describes his own Gospel in its beginning:
1 Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled[a] among us, 2 just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. 3 With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.
So before Luke was a “Gospel” it was a gift of investigative reporting to Theophilus and before Acts was the travelogue of the early church it was Volume 2 of Luke!
4. Paul concludes his letter to the Colossians with these instructions in 4:16:
16 After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea.
Note: Paul does NOT say “after you read this letter.” Why? Most people couldn’t read! It was read TO them by one of the few in that congregation who had the ability to do so! The Colossians were then to ensure that the parchment (or a copy of it made by one of their scribes) was carefully transported to Laodicea. And that meeting, they’d trade letters from Paul. No word on whether or not the transaction included a draft choice to be named later.
5. In 2 Kings 22 King Josiah and his priest Hilkiah find a ‘book of the law’ that had been either buried, hidden, or forgotten (you know, like a lot of us do with our bibles.) Most experts believe that the document uncovered was the book of Deuteronomy. Read 2 Kings 22 and you’ll see that not only did biblical books have a life, some even had a death before being resurrected to authority over the people.