We are considering and expanding a tad on N. T. Wright’s The Case for the Psalms: Why They Are Essential.
I think it’d be helpful to also reflect back on an earlier book by Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense — one of several contributions by Wright that will forever change how we read the scriptures.
This is also a very readable book, excellent for small group studies. And this is where Wright first develops the idea of reading scriptures through the lens of the merger of heaven and earth.
As C. S. Lewis illustrated in the Chronicles of Narnia, heaven is not far away. There’s a wall that separates heaven from earth, but there are times and places where that wall becomes very thin — even disappearing occasionally.
I’m not sure that Wright says this, but I’m sure he’d agree that death is one such place. When our existence transfers from earth to heaven, the wall must be opened to allow us to pass but a very short distance to the afterlife. And so the dead aren’t impossibly far away and out of touch with the earth. Rather, they’ve stepped across a short threshold to a place our mortal senses can’t normally perceive.
In the Garden of Eden, before death, God walked with Adam in the cool of the morning — because heaven and earth were very close. There was no sin — well, no sin accounted to Adam because he was unaware of any laws that he might break. And in his perfect innocence, the wall between heaven and earth became so thin that God could walk and talk with Adam.
[Surely this is time for a Mahalia Jackson song.]
Sin brought about separation, but God worked to restore the connection. He walked the earth to talk with Abraham and establish the covenant by which we’re saved — crediting faith as righteousness.
He visited with Moses in the burning bush, and then he led Israel across the desert as a column of smoke and fire. And when the Tabernacle was completed, cleansed, and dedicated, his Presence entered the Holy of Holies so that, in that small compartment where the ark of the covenant was kept, he could live and walk among his people, the children of Israel.
The Holy of Holies became an opening between heaven and earth, where the two joined, so that the people’s sins could be forgiven on each Day of Atonement. And yet God decided that the Tabernacle would rest outside the camp — with the lepers and criminals. And God dwelled within the Tabernacle through his Glory — a bright, shining presence, too intense to closely approach.
It was as though a hole were punched in the wall between heaven and earth and God’s Glory rushed out to fill the vacuum of this world — so intensely that anyone entering the Holy of Holies would die from exposure to holiness so great and different from ourselves.
The only exception was the high priest, who was allowed in once a year, and then only after a very elaborate cleansing process — undertaken so that he could bear the presence of such Holiness for the few minutes he would be there.
So serious was the risk that the Israelites would tie a rope to the high priest’s ankle in case he died while in the Holy of Holies — as too unclean or if the shock of God’s presence might stop an old man’s heart. Since no one could go in to retrieve the body and live, they had the rope available to drag him out in case he should die.
When God had Nebuchadnezzar destroy Jerusalem and the Temple, Ezekiel described the departure of the Glory or Shekinah of God from the Holy of Holies, leaving through the East Gate of the city, lingering over the Mount of Olives, and finally departing entirely.
70 years later, when Nehemiah built the second Temple, the Shekinah did not return … not until, according to John, Jesus made his first trip to Jerusalem and cleansed the Temple in anger.
In the New Testament, Jesus is often subtly pictured as the Glory of God returning to Jerusalem. It’s no surprise that on his last visit to Jerusalem, Jesus retraced the steps of the Glory, going from the Mount of Olives, into the East Gate, and into the Temple — as God’s special presence returned to the Temple for the last time ever.
And it’s no surprise that Jesus was crucified outside the camp — the place both for criminals and for God’s presence — where in the Tabernacle, atonement was made.
The veil or curtain that hid the Holy of Holies was ripped open by God’s own hand when Jesus was crucified, and soon thereafter, God poured out his Spirit onto his church, so that God now dwells, through his Spirit, within each Christian and each congregation.
Jesus became God’s new Temple, and the church is Jesus’ body on earth. Therefore, the church has become the new Temple, the new place where the separation between heaven and earth is ripped open and God’s presence rushes into the vacuum of this world.
The Spirit’s dwelling within each of us — individually and corporately — means that heaven and earth touch within each of us. We carry around in our hearts our own Holy of Holies — where God’s intense presence dwells, where atonement is made, and where God walks the earth.
And when we gather as a community, we assemble some of the parts of God’s new Temple, the church, and God becomes present with a special intensity. It’s a return to the Garden, to the Tabernacle, to the Temple … even to Jesus himself walking the earth.
And yet the Spirit is but the firstfruits of God’s presence. At the end of time, heaven will descend to earth and God will dwell with man.
(Rev 21:1-5 ESV) Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” 5 And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
And, Wright argues, this has everything to do with the Psalms, because many of the Psalms were written for use in the Temple service. They speak of a time outside of time, and place not of this world, where heaven and earth join so that God is once again specially present in all his Otherness and Abba-ness, both foreign and familiar, filled with wrath and forgiveness — so holy that just to glance at him can kill, and yet he lives in our hearts through the Spirit.