Treasures of the Heart - Simon Cheung Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies
Interviewed and Written by: Mimi Tang (MDiv 96)
In the preface of his commentary on the Psalter, Martin Luther wrote, “The Psalter is the book of all saints; and everyone, in whatever situation he may be, finds in that situation Psalms and words that fit his case, that suit him as if they were put there just for his sake, so that he could not put it better for himself, or find or wish for anything better.” Simon Cheung, Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies, also discovered in Psalms the life that the Lord has so meticulously weaved for him while he was still in his mother’s womb.
Simon was aspired to be a teacher since he was a child. Whenever he studied he would imagine his own room to be a classroom, writing on make-do whiteboards the main learning points for a group of imaginary students sitting in front of him. Of course, the highlight of the study was the quizzes which he set and marked himself. In retrospect, these silly acts were only signs of his budding interest in teaching. Due to various reasons, he chose to do business administration for his undergraduate studies. Though not studying his subject of choice, he took those college years as the time to explore and discover his academic potentials and his interpersonal styles. As soon as he finished his bachelor degree, he pursued his studies in teacher training.
As he reminisced about the good days of being a teacher, Simon recalled the tickling of an empathetic heart within himself. “I love to hear about other people’s stories. I love to walk alongside and grow up with them—when they go through challenging times. I know that the Lord has put this in my heart. ” He wanted to listen because he had been listened to. A counselor, now his life-long mentor and a friend, first helped him go through the many humps and bumps of growing up when he was in college. “It is an immense blessing that someone is willing to accept me as I am, willing to listen and embrace my story, to be with me when I am in fear and misery, and allow me to cry.”
After six years of teaching, Simon recognized the fact that while counselling could identify the issue and try to provide solutions, only faith can answer and solve the fundamentals of life. That’s when he left the classroom and started theological studies. “When I studied at CGST, I just wanted two things. One is going back to serve my mother church to express my gratitude to them for building up and nurturing me all these years. Second is to continue serving youngsters, my passion.” Simon never would have thought of his love for biblical studies went far beyond in such a way that he is willing to devote his life to it. “After serving in church for a while, I once told a fellow student: if I may will one thing with a pure heart, that thing will be to interpret the Word of God for the rest of my life.”
Simon, his wife Bonnie, his son Lucas and daughter Eleanor.
Exhilaration on discovering “her”
When studying at CGST, Simon found biblical interpretation the most gratifying subject. The book of Psalms particularly struck his heart. “I am lost for words in front of her! Her depth, her richness, her beauty …… all are very attractive to me!” Out of his love for Psalms, he preached quite often from this book. To write a thesis on Psalms became a natural choice when he began his postgraduate research in England. His thesis was about a group of ‘wisdom psalms’ in the Old Testament. He then became steeped into the kind of research called genre studies. “Over the years, biblical studies have been greatly influenced by historical criticism approach. The context and purpose of each type of psalms have been investigated. I support such notion is important to the church. However, we would have lost, in the process, the communication purpose of the psalmist as a communicator using that particular genre. Literary style and rhetoric are signposts for receivers to understand the theology behind the psalms. I then introduced “communication purpose” to replace historical background approach as the criterion to determine psalmic wisdom in the Book of Psalms.
Simon points out that what really matters is the communicative intention of a psalm which the psalmist laid down. “There are two things that are very important when interpreting the Psalms today. Firstly, we ought to observe the clues left to us by the psalms, such will help us understand the psalmist’s communication purpose. Secondly, during the communication process, we should see a psalm more than a preaching resource—simply reciting the psalm within the community can erupt great power. When teaching and nurturing the congregation through psalms, it is certain that one ought to be literarily competent in reading Hebrew poetry in order to comprehend its genre, so as to observe accurately and analyze the clues left by the psalmist, then to understand the underlying theology.”
Lament for the Wicked being in Power
People are not mistaken that praise and thanksgiving form the main hub of the book of Psalms. Even at the end of a fervent petition, the psalmist always turns toward praise and thanksgiving and concludes with a positive note of faith. Yet, a detailed reading of the 150 psalms reveals that is not the case. “When we sing praise and thanksgiving hymns, our faith is confined within a bright and positive dimension. In fact, over 50 or so of the psalms are laments. They were written in the darkest days of the psalmists’ faith journeys, asking why the Lord was not with them. It is a pity that those psalms are rarely preached from the pulpit. Still, life has its portion of difficult times. When we preach and lead worship, are there any biblical resources for us to turn to?” Simon then delved into the tradition of lament Psalms and discovered a whole new world.
Aaron Collier Like the Watchman Waits for the Morning (Psalm 130)
Oil on canvas | 2007
One of the 15 paintings created by Collier on the Psalms of Ascents.
“The significance of ‘laments’ has been reinforced in English and German academic discipline in recent decades. Unknowingly since when the churches have lost this invaluable treasure, leaving a missing piece behind in nurturing the spirituality of believers. Western academic world was then awakened to start looking into the importance of ‘laments’, while we seem not having a sense of importance about laments among Chinese churches.” Returning to where he belongs after his academic study, Simon identified with the needs of today’s churches and the current situation of Hong Kong and becoming more worried. “I was furious about the situation in Hong Kong since March last year. As I preached, I chose Psalm 5 which is a lament. ‘When the Wicked is in Control’ was the topic of my sermon. I used the words of the psalmist to teach myself and the congregation how not to despair and keep praying. A brother came to me after the worship and said, ‘I know how to walk ahead from this day onwards.’ His response reassures me that laments can lead and guide us into the domain of God that we are not familiar with. It is exactly right there that we are told how we can still seek God and keep our faith.” Simon is convinced that when a lament knocks on the deepest part of our soul, moving it to respond to the struggle and outcry of the people of this age. “Faith is not just repeating the goodness and faithfulness of God in our doctrine, but to teach us that our faith can also be shown at times when we find it difficult to talk about it, and doubt it or even resist it.”
The book of Psalms, as a writer puts it, is the “prayerbook of a cloud of witnesses”. Reading and musing on its words, we are like sitting among a majestic choir in a heavenly cathedral, singing and listening to the journeys of faith of an endless line of pilgrims. Their songs become our songs, pointing us to look afar to the One who founds and perfects our faith.
 William L. Holladay, The Psalms through Three Thousand Years: Prayerbooks of a Cloud of Witnesses (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996).