Psalm 88:1–6; Isaiah 42:10–43:21; Philippians 2:19–30

Originally published 7/21/2017. Revised and updated 7/20/2019

Psalm 88:1–6: This psalm’s superscription dedicates it to the Korahites, who were a choir based, I presume, at the temple in Jerusalem. A certain Heyman the Ezrahite, perhaps the choir director, is also included in the dedication.

However, I’m not sure I’d want these dark and even terrifying verses dedicated to me in this rather desperate psalm of supplication. The psalm opens in the usual anodyne manner of most psalms of supplication, although we sense an underlying fear as the psalmist “cries out:”
Lord, God of my rescue,
by day I cried out,
by night, in Your presence.
May my prayer come before You.
incline Your ear to my song. (2, 3)

The next verse is much darker as our psalmist describes his perilous state that has brought him close to death as we encounter “evil,” “Sheol,” and “the Pit” in just three lines. These lines are almost like a suicide note.
For I am sated with evils
and my life reached the brink of Sheol.
I was counted among those who go down to the Pit. (4, 5a)

“Sated” suggests that like a stomach stuffed with food, his being overflows  with evil thoughts—perhaps some form of depression. While he does not identify the nature of the evil, it has robbed him physically and spiritually of the strength and even perhaps the will to live:
I became like a man without strength,
among the dead cast away,
like the slain, those who lie in the grave,
whom You no more recall,
and they are cut off by Your hand. (5b, 6)

For me, what is most ominous here is the idea that after we die, God forgets about us and we are “cut off.” Most Jews did not believe in an afterlife, so from that perspective these words are  quite logical. However, I’ll take Jesus’ many promises of life after death and the many mansions God has prepared for us.

Isaiah 42:10–43:21: Now I see why the Moravians ended yesterday’ reading where they did. The first 10 verses today are a hymn to God beginning with the famous line, “Sing to the Lord a new song.” (42:10) Like many other OT hymns, all God’s creation joins in the singing:
Let the sea roar and all that fills it,
    the coastlands and their inhabitants.
Let the desert and its towns lift up their voice,

    let them shout from the tops of the mountains. (42:10b, 11)

This idea of creation singing reminds us that human’s are not God’s only creative act, but also so are all creatures and even nature itself. This should serve as a warning against our arrogant tendency exploit and “subdue” creation at great risk to upsetting God’s good order.

This song is not all sweetness and light. There is God’s promise to destroy enemies and lay waste to nature itself.
I will lay waste mountains and hills,
    and dry up all their herbage;
I will turn the rivers into islands,
    and dry up the pools. (42:15)

Perhaps these lines were written following some kind of natural disaster. But as usual, people—particularly those in leadership—aren’t listening to Isaiah’s warning:
He sees many things, but does  not observe them;
    his ears are open, but he does not hear. (42:20)

The song becomes even darker as it describes Israel’s plight:
But this is a people robbed and plundered,
    all of them are trapped in holes
    and hidden in prisons;
they have become a prey with no one to rescue,
    a spoil with no one to say, “Restore!” (42:22)

Not surprisingly, their current situation has doubtless been brought about by Israel’s intransigent disobedience:
Was it not the Lord, against whom we have sinned,
    in whose ways they would not walk,
    and whose law they would not obey? (24)

Despite their—and our—sins, God is a rescuing God and the next chapter brims with the hope of redemption:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
    I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;

    and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
    and the flame shall not consume you. (43:1b, 2)

But as always, God loves them—and us—not because of anything they (we) have done:
Because you are precious in my sight,
    and honored, and I love you, (43:4a)

For Israel, there is one of God’s great promises that one day the nation will be restored:
Do not fear, for I am with you;
    I will bring your offspring from the east,
    and from the west I will gather you;
I will say to the north, “Give them up,”
    and to the south, “Do not withhold;
bring my sons from far away
    and my daughters from the end of the earth— (43:5,6)

As we’ve noted before, many Evangelicals and a few Zionists believe that the modern state of Israel is the fulfillment of this promise. I am less confident about that. What’s important here, I think, is that God’s mercy extends to every person, not just to the inhabitants of Israel as our poet writes in God’s voice:
everyone who is called by my name,
    whom I created for my glory,
    whom I formed and made. (43:7)

Later, we read how God is indeed the source of all salvation:
I, I am the Lord,
    and besides me there is no savior.

I am God, and also henceforth I am He;
    there is no one who can deliver from my hand;
    I work and who can hinder it?” (43:11, 13)

Of course we Christians see the fulfillment of this promise in the Incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In addition to our salvation I think the other great promise is that God, through the Holy Spirit, is active in our lives, continually recreating and restoring:
I am about to do a new thing;
    now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
    and rivers in the desert. (43:19)

The question is, am I allowing God to do new things in my life or am I resisting change with my own will preferring to be stuck in the status quo?

Philippians 2:19–30: Right in the middle of his essay on Christology, Paul interjects a couple of personal notes. He is sending Timothy to them, whom he obviously holds in the highest regard: “I have no one like him who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare.” (20) He makes it clear that most of the others around him “are seeking their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ.” (21) Wow. This certainly does not speak well of the majority of Paul’s retinue of hangers-on.

As he has done before, Paul promises to come to Philippi, although we have no evidence that he did: “I trust in the Lord that I will also come soon.” (24)

Paul also “think[s] it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus—my brother and co-worker and fellow soldier, your messenger and minister to my need.“(25) Epaphroditus is obviously well known in the church at Philippi and probably came originally from there. He has recovered from a serious illness and “he has been longing for all of you.” (26) It sounds like he is due some serious R&R back home. By sending Epaphroditus back to Philippi, Paul accomplishes two goals: “I am the more eager to send him, therefore, in order that you may rejoice at seeing him again, and that I may be less anxious.” (28) Paul doesn’t reveal the source of his anxiety. But inasmuch as Paul is sending Epaphroditus along with Timothy is it because despite his endorsement, he doesn’t fully trust him?

We finally discover that Epaphroditus’ illness apparently arose from some duty Paul had him perform—and it sounds as if Paul is feeling a little guilty and feels obligated to send his servant back home: “because he came close to death for the work of Christ,  risking his life to make up for those services that you could not give me.” (30) Again, it would be fantastic to know what duties Epaphroditus undertook that brought him so close to death. But as usual when it comes to personal matters, we are left only with Paul’s tantalizing but cryptic statements.

I have to say that I like personal intermezzos like these that give us a respite from Paul’s relentless—and lengthy—theological discourses.

Psalm 87; Isaiah 41:8–42:9; Philippians 2:5–18

Originally published 7/20/2017. Revised and updated 7/19/2019, OUR 50TH WEDDING ANNIVERSAY

Psalm 87: This short celebratory psalm seems to be a recollection by a pilgrim who visited the temple at Jerusalem (Zion) and who enjoyed a literal and figurative ‘mountaintop experience.’ As far as he is concerned, the temple (Zion) is the most profound place in all Israel (Jacob):
The Lord loves the gates of Zion
more than all the dwellings of Jacob
Splendid things are spoken of you,
O town of God. Selah.” (2,3)

I presume the “town of God” refers to Jerusalem, the host city of the temple, reflected in the glory of the temple itself.

At first glance, the next verse is rather cryptic:
Let me recall Rahab and Babel to my familiars,
Look, Philistia and Tyre together with Cush,
—this one was born there.” (4)

Alter tells us that ‘Rahab’ is another word for Egypt. With that in mind, the verse appears something like a one-verse summary of Israel stretching all the way back to Babel; the escape from Egypt (Rahab); and its various battles with enemies (Philisitia) and its historical economic (Tyre) and diplomatic relationships (Cush). It appears that the psalmist was born at one of those locations. Of course I could be just making this up…

But what’s definite is that it is at the temple at Jerusalem that true spiritual transformation occurs:
And of Zion it shall be said:
every man is born in it,
and He, the Most High, makes it firm-founded.
The Lord inscribes in the record of peoples:
this one was born there. selah.” (5, 6)

To me, it appears that the psalmist views his pilgrimage to Zion as a form of rebirth, ‘born again,’ if you will. He was born physically at one of the locations mentioned in verse 4, but he was reborn spiritually at Zion. With this interpretation in mind we can observe a context for Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in John 3 about being ‘born again.’ Doubtless both men were quite familiar with this psalm.

Isaiah 41:8–42:9: God continues speaking, reminding Israel/ Judah how he has chosen them and assuring them he will never abandon them:
do not fear, for I am with you,
    do not be afraid, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you,
    I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.” (41:10)

In the midst of various trials this poem must have been of great comfort to the author—as it is to us:
For I, the Lord your God,
    hold your right hand;
it is I who say to you, “Do not fear,
    I will help you. (41:13)

There is a clear promise of a Messiah here called “the Holy One of Israel.” (41:14, 16) and that via the messiah, God will come to their rescue:
When the poor and needy seek water,
    and there is none,
    and their tongue is parched with thirst,
I the Lord will answer them,
    I the God of Israel will not forsake them. (41:17)

Following these wonderful promises, there is a disquisition that compares God with small-g gods in the form of idols. Still speaking, God challenges the idols to perform as he can:
Tell us what is to come hereafter,
    that we may know that you are gods;
do good, or do harm,
    that we may be afraid and terrified. (41:23)

But as always, there is only silence from the false gods. To worship them is futile:

But when I look there is no one;
    among these there is no counselor
    who, when I ask, gives an answer.
No, they are all a delusion;

    their works are nothing;
    their images are empty wind. (41:28, 29)

We need to call these verses to mind in our own time and culture, which is chockablock with the idols of wealth, power, sex, and a zillion other false gods. Above all we ned to remember that the promise of the small-g gods is mere delusion.

Chapter 42 is straight-out messianic prophecy of the One who will come to rescue Judah. The Messiah has been chosen and empowered by God:
Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
    my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
    he will bring forth justice to the nations. (42:1)

The Messiah will bring much-needed justice, not just to Judah, but to all nations. Moreover, he comes essentially in secret, but his acts will have profoundly public consequences:
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
    or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
    and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
    he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be crushed
    until he has established justice in the earth;
    and the coastlands wait for his teaching. (42:2-4)

As Christians, we know exactly to whom the prophet is referring: Jesus Christ. And the Messiah brings justice in a marvelous promise to turn the world upside down:
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
    a light to the nations,
   to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
    from the prison those who sit in darkness. (42:6b, 7)

And isn’t this also exactly what Jesus has done for us? We have certainly been sitting in darkness, imprisoned in our own self-centered desires. Jesus Christ has released us from the prison of our own egos.

Today’s reading ends with the famous promise of renewal—again exactly what God does for us through the the redemptive power of Jesus Christ and the action of the Holy Spirit. The old passes way; all things are made new:
See, the former things have come to pass,
    and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
    I tell you of them. (42:9)

I personally think this verse is as profound as anything Paul writes about how our lives are transformed through Jesus Christ.

Philippians 2:5–18: Today’s reading includes the famous verses that most scholars believe was an early hymn of the church. The first section describes the Incarnation of Jesus Christ:
who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,

    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
    he humbled himself

    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.  (6-8)

To me these verses are much like the middle section of the Apostle’s Creed: a tight summary of what Jesus’ sacrifice has accomplished for us. The last stanzas of this hymn describe our human response to this great gift from God:
Therefore God also highly exalted him
    and gave him the name
 that is above every name,
     so that at the name of Jesus
 every knee should bend,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
 and every tongue should confess
    that Jesus Christ is Lord,
  to the glory of God the Father. (9-11)

Above all, the hymn affirms the fact of Jesus’ divinity, having been sent straight to earth from God. And that our response must be exactly as it has always been: worship suffused in gratitude.

Not surprisingly, Paul uses this hymn as a launching point to describe just how that worship—every knee bowing; every tongue confessing—affects our long-term faith journey. Paul makes it clear that he is not the source of this inspiration but rather it is God himself: Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (12, 13)

What does it really mean to “work out our own salvation,” the process which theologians call ‘sanctification?’ Well, Paul has an answer for that, too: “Do all things without murmuring and arguing, so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world.” (14) 

So the challenging question is, as it always is, am I working out my salvation and remaining blameless like an innocent child? I guess the most honest answer is, ‘Sometimes.’

Psalm 86:11–17; Isaiah 40:6–41:7; Philippians 1:23–2:4

Originally published 7/19/2017. Revised and updated 7/18/2019

Psalm 86:11–17: After reflecting on God’s greatness and acknowledging that “You alone are God,” our psalmist asks that God would instruct him:
Teach me, O Lord, Your way.
I would walk in Your truth.
Make my heart one to fear Your name. (11)

We should note that we do not absorb God, nor is relating to God based solely on our feelings—which seems to be the currently popular method of knowing God. It is about being taught. It is about the discipline of sitting down and studying. In the super-emotional age in which we live it’s too easy to forget that a relationship with God involves the mind just as much as the heart.

What is the desired outcome of God’s teaching? It’s worship and it’s telling others:
Let me acclaim You, O Master, my God, with all my heart,
and let me honor Your name forever. (12)

We worship because we know God’s ways, but we also worship because God has rescued us not only from hell but from the depredations of our enemies:
For Your kindness to me is great,
For You saved me from nethermost Sheol.
O God, the arrogant rose against me,
a band of the violent sought my life
and did not set You before them. (13, 14)

Personally, I have not had a band of “the arrogant” come after me, but I know that God has rescued me from other things such as disease. And in that rescue we must acknowledge with our psalmist who famously says:
You, Master, are a merciful and gracious God,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast kindness. (15)

Here I disagree somewhat with Alter’s translation. I far prefer the more traditional translations that assert God is “abounding in steadfast love.” God’s love never fails and never abandons us even though like the psalmist, we may think God is absent. But as the old cliche has it about the footsteps in the sand, God may be silent, but he is there carrying us through life’s trials.

As far as I’m concerned, “abounding in steadfast kindness” would have been a good place to end the psalm. Our psalmist goes on to ask God for grace and strength and rescue and even the shaming of his enemies But sometimes we should just be quiet and wait. God will indeed supply our every need without us necessarily verbalizing it.

Isaiah 40:6–41:7: This famous chapter reminds me of God’s speech at the end of the book of Job: God is far greater than we can even imagine. By comparison, we humans and our actions that we think to be so consequential are as evanescent as springtime grass:
All people are grass,
    their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
    when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
    surely the people are grass. (40:6, 7)

In the end, we must accept our mortality while God lives eternally.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
    but the word of our God will stand forever. (40:8)

The Isaiah poet (I think someone other than Isaiah, son of Amoz, has written this) reminds us that while God is unimaginably powerful, he also cares for us. And here we encounter the beautiful metaphor of God—and Jesus—as shepherd:
He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
    he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
    and gently lead the mother sheep. (40:11)

Even though God is our shepherd, we must never forget that God is far greater than we humans and all our works. Our poet memorably draws the comparison to frail humanity:
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
    Has it not been told you from the beginning?
    Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,
    and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
    and spreads them like a tent to live in;
who brings princes to naught,
    and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing. (40:21-23)

God is eternal and we can never fully comprehend his greatness:
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
    the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
    his understanding is unsearchable. (40:28)

Even though we will never fully comprehend God (although many have tried!) and even though God could snuff out humanity in an instant, he is unimaginably generous to us, his creatures. And as always, it is the weak and powerless whom God especially favors. The chapter concludes with the beautiful promise that has inspired so many (and so many songs):”He gives power to the faint,
    and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
    and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
    they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
    they shall walk and not faint. (40:29-31)

In those times when we feel discouraged and abandoned by God, this magnificent promise still stands. Whatever may confront us, God will give us the energy and strength to carry on.

I don’t know why the Moravians didn’t end today’s reading on this high note, but they make us continue to ramble through Isaiah. The opening verses of chapter 41 lack the grandeur of the previous chapter, but the themes remain constant. God is more powerful than all the nations that surround Israel:
He delivers up nations to him,
    and tramples kings under foot;
he makes them like dust with his sword,
    like driven stubble with his bow.

I, the Lord, am first,
    and will be with the last. (41:2, 4)

There is a fascinating note here at the end of the reading—and very consistent with what Paul keeps talking about. It is in a community of people with different skills and gifts whereby great things are accomplished:
Each one helps the other,
    saying to one another, “Take courage!”
The artisan encourages the goldsmith,
    and the one who smooths with the hammer encourages the one who strikes the anvil,
saying of the soldering, “It is good”;
    and they fasten it with nails so that it cannot be moved. (41:6,7)

There’s no question: we cannot fully be God’s creatures in isolation. God made us social creatures so that together we can accomplish far greater things than one person’s efforts.

Philippians 1:23–2:4: Paul, having noted that “my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better,” (1:23) convinces himself that he needs to stay around because to “remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. ” (1:24) To me, that statement seems a little over the top. But at least he finds a rationale for remaining on earth, “so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again.” (1:26)

Unlike the other churches to which Paul has written, it appears that there are external rather than internal opponents in Philippi—one suspects the Jews— that are causing pain to these young Christians. Paul is especially encouraging in his confidence that they will withstand these trials: “I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. ” (1:27, 28) Of course the question for us is, would we stand firm in the face of similar adversity? As we enter an increasingly post-Christian age where some Christian beliefs are seen as as “intolerant” and even “hateful” (you know what they are), will I succumb to the world’s beliefs or like Paul, hew to Christ’s?

Happily we do not have to struggle on our own. As at Philippi, “this is God’s doing. For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well.” (1:29) What’s especially important here is that we do not avoid suffering, but are given the strength to endure. Far too many Christians have come to Jesus trying to escape from their woes or the consequences of their stupid actions. On the contrary, Paul tells us we will be encouraged and comforted, but we will still suffer. 

Whatever suffering we in the church endure is made easier because of unity of spirit: “If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” (2:1,2) And we can endure only when we support each other. Once again, Paul reminds us that we must abandon our egos: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.” (2:3) It’s all about generosity of spirit and teamwork: “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” (2:4) 

Psalm 86:1–10; Isaiah 38:1–40:5; Philippians 1:12–22

Originally published 7/18/2017. Revised and updated 7/17/2019

Psalm 86:1–10: This “David prayer” has a familiar ring because, as Alter points out, “A reader who has been going through the Book of Psalms in sequence by this point will have encountered almost every line of this poem, with minor variations, elsewhere.” While the psalm may be formulaic, it certainly is a classic example of a prayer of supplication.

It opens in humility and reverence but at the same time is clear about the supplicant’s faithfulness. He does not hesitate to approach God and ask for his help in very direct terms, repeating his plea with different words:
Incline Your ear, Lord, answer me,
for lowly and needy am I.
Guard my life, for I am faithful.
Rescue Your servant who trusts in You
—You, my God.
Grant grace to me, Master,
for to You I call all day long.
Gladden Your servant,
for to You, O Master, I lift up my being.
For You, O Master, are good and forgiving,
abounding in kindness to all who call to You.
Hearken, O Lord, to my prayer,
and listen well to the sound of my pleas. (1-6)

Unlike many other psalms our psalmist is completely confident that God is listening and will respond:
When I am in straits I call You
for You will answer me. (7)

This confidence is built on worship—a formal acknowledgement that God is lord of the universe—the true God above all the other small-g gods:
There is none like You among the gods, O Master
and nothing like Your acts.
All the nations You made
will come and bow before You, Master
and will honor Your name.
For You are great and work wonders.
You alone are God. (8-10)

Our poet can pray with confidence because he has set aside his own ego and all the other things such as wealth and power that are too easily turned into small-g gods. He knows there is only one source of rescue because only God can act. Above all, he prays confidently, knowing God will indeed come to his rescue. Can we pray with that same confidence? I know I don’t.

Isaiah 38:1–40:5: King Hezekiah is ill and Isaiah delivers the bad news: “Thus says the Lord: Set your house in order, for you shall die; you shall not recover.” (38:1) Following the example of the psalmist above, Hezekiah prays fervently, reminding God that “I have walked before you in faithfulness with a whole heart, and have done what is good in your sight.” (38:3) Isaiah returns, telling hezekiah that God has heard his prayer and will add 15 years to his life. Moreover, “I will deliver you and this city out of the hand of the king of Assyria, and defend this city.” (38:6) Just to prove that God has spoken, “the sun turned back on the dial the ten steps by which it had declined.” (3:8) Uh huh. Really? Regardless of violations of the laws of physics, it’s a beautiful master that as Creator of the universe, God can do whatever pleases.

Hezekiah writes a long poem that describes his journey from bitterness at his impending death to deep gratitude. First he acknowledges his bitterness in his supplication to God:
My eyes are weary with looking upward.
    O Lord, I am oppressed; be my security!
But what can I say? For he has spoken to me,
    and he himself has done it.
All my sleep has fled
    because of the bitterness of my soul. (38: 14, 15)

But then he realizes that there is a lesson in that bitterness. God who has not only extended his life, but has forgiven his sins, as well:
Surely it was for my welfare
    that I had great bitterness;
but you have held back  my life
    from the pit of destruction,
for you have cast all my sins
    behind your back. (38:17)

How often have I thanked God for extending my own life? And for forgiving all my sins through Jesus Christ? Not enough.

News of Hezekiah’s illness makes it to the king of Babylon, who sends a delegation “with letters and a present to Hezekiah.” (39:1) Hezekiah rather naively shows them “his treasure house, the silver, the gold, the spices, the precious oil, his whole armory, all that was found in his storehouses. There was nothing in his house or in all his realm that Hezekiah did not show them.” (39:2)

Upon hearing this, Isaiah rather frantically asks the king, “What did these men say? From where did they come to you?” (39:3) Hezekiah says he showed them everything. Unlike naive Hezekiah, the more worldly wise Isaiah knows the visit by Babylon has been by spies sent to assess Judah’s strengths. The prophet tells Hezekiah that “Days are coming when all that is in your house, and that which your ancestors have stored up until this day, shall be carried to Babylon; nothing shall be left, says the Lord. ” (39:6) adding the grim prophecy that his sons will be captured and castrated. But ever optimistic, Hezekiah thinks this prophecy will not affect him personally and that “There will be peace and security in my days.” (39:8)

There’s a good warning to us here. As Jesus noted, we need to be as gentle as doves but was wise as serpents. Being a follower of Christ does not mean we have to naive about what’s going on the world around us.

Isaiah 40 is justly famous as a prophecy of the coming of the Messiah, and these words are part of the Advent lectionary. They are also a memorable section of Handel’s Messiah. Rather than deconstructing these magnificent lines, let’s just immerse ourselves their glorious promise and the beautiful poetry:
In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
    make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
    and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
    and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
    and all people shall see it together,
    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken. (40:3-5)

Philippians 1:12–22: We do not have the letter that the church at Philippi wrote to Paul while he was in prison in Rome, but it certainly must have expressed their sorrow and sympathy at Paul’s grim situation. But Paul, being Paul, has not been deterred by his circumstances. Instead he has turned imprisonment to a wonderful advantage: “I want you to know, beloved,  that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard  and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ.” (12, 13)

Moreover, Paul’s own boldness has inspired others around him to be equally bold: “and most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word  with greater boldness and without fear.” (14)

The lesson is pretty obvious for us. Regardless of circumstances, we should stand and speak (and act) boldly for Jesus Christ. In all my Christian life, I think this has been my greatest failing. I have not been courageous in proclaiming Christ to others—either by word or deed.

Paul tells us how we can do that. Once again, the foundation is love for others: “These proclaim Christ out of love, knowing that I have been put here for the defense of the gospel.” (16)

However, not every proclamation for Christ has been made out of love: “the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment.” (17) But this really doesn’t matter to Paul. His point is that regardless of the motivation behind the proclamation, “Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice.” (18) I confess I am not where Paul is on that. I will never match his generosity of spirit and his intensity of vision in proclaiming the Good News. Nor am I a generous at giving people the benefit of the doubt as Paul was. Given our present cultural climate of hostility and never-ending outrage, Paul’s words should be transmitted regularly to everyone, whether Christian or not.

There were doubtless friends who questioned Paul’s enthusiasm, probably asking him if he wasn’t careful about what he said he would be executed. To those who cautioned him he famously replied, “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.” (21) Paul has given his life over to Christ and he knows that whatever happens, it is God’s will. Even to the point of death.

Psalm 85:8-14; Isaiah 37:14–38; Philippians 1:1–11

Psalm 85:8–14: The the first half of this psalm has been a bold imagining of what Israel will become when God responds to the psalmist’s supplications. God speaks and the psalmist listens. And that having heard God speak in peace, the people will respond in turn and repent:
Let me hear what the Lord God would speak
when He speaks peace to His people and to his faithful.
that they turn not back to folly. (9)

God’s voice instills a new confidence that he will return and rescue:
Yes, His rescue is near for those who fear Him,
that His glory dwell in our land.

In a display of the psalmist’s literary boldness, he creates one of the more arrestingly beautiful metaphors in the Psalms by personifying the qualities that God brings in his rescue:
Kindness and truth have met,
justice and peace have kissed. 

It’s hard to imagine a more wonderful and succinct description of what peace on earth might look like.

Our poet extends this metaphor by imagining heaven and earth meeting:
Truth from the earth will spring up,
as justice from the heavens looks down.

For me this means that truth is like a plant, springing to life as God’s justice rains down on the earth. The agricultural metaphor continues as we learn that the harvest is far greater than mere wheat or grapes:
The Lord indeed will grant bounty
and our land will grant its yield.

Truth and justice are now regnant in the land as God’s return is actuality:
Justice before Him goes,
that He set His footsteps on the way.

O, Lord, in this era where truth and justice seem so far away and evil stalks the land, we pray with the psalmist for you to again cause justice and peace to kiss. For we know that there cannot be peace without justice. And humankind lacks the will and the power to bring about justice and peace in a world that ignores you or pretends you don’t exist.

Isaiah 37:14–38: Amidst the years of corrupt leadership, Hezekiah is one of the few good and noble kings of Judah. The Assyrians stand outside the gate of Jerusalem, threatening its imminent destruction. Even worse, they have mocked Israel’s God, as Assyria’s military leader, the Rabshakeh, sends messengers to Hezekiah, challenging, “Do not let your God on whom you rely deceive you by promising that Jerusalem will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria.” (10) and naming all the other lands Assyria has conquered and kings they have deposed.

In response and with the letter in hand, Hezekiah goes to the temple and prays, reaffirming his and Judah’s faith in God, “who are enthroned above the cherubim, you are God, you alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth; you have made heaven and earth.” (16) He beseeches God, to “Incline your ear, O Lord, and hear; open your eyes, O Lord, and see;” (17) observing that all the gods of those defeated kingdoms “were no gods, but the work of human hands—wood and stone—and so they were destroyed.” (19) He concludes by asking God to save them and thus demonstrating that “all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you alone are the Lord.” (20)

Isaiah, whose prophetic insight has apparently informed him of Hezekiah’s prayer, sends word back to the king that God has replied “concerning King Sennacherib of Assyria.” (21) The king and all the Assyrians have mocked God and in their overweening pride have taken sole credit for all their accomplishments. But God, omniscient creator of all, knows exactly what they’ve been up to:
“I know your rising up and your sitting down,
    your going out and coming in,
    and your raging against me.” (28) 

But their pride goes before a great fall as Isaiah, speaking in God’s voice, announces,
Because you have raged against me
    and your arrogance has come to my ears,
I will put my hook in your nose
    and my bit in your mouth;
I will turn you back on the way
    by which you came. (29) 

Isaiah assures Hezekiah, that the Assyria “shall not come into this city, shoot an arrow there, come before it with a shield, or cast up a siege ramp against it.”  (33) Instead, God sends and angel to kill 185,000 troops outside Jerusalem and while worshipping his own small-g god in Ninevah, King Sennacherib is assassinated by two of his sons.

This is certainly a lesson of holding strong to our faith, especially when things look darkest. And it is certainly a testament to the power of prayer. As the culture around us continues to decline into eventual anarchy and enemies surround people of faith, we need to remember Hezekiah’s faith and his prayer that God is indeed more powerful than our enemies.

Philippians 1:1–11: This book is certainly one of Paul’s more uplifting letters written from his Roman imprisonment. After his epistles of cajoling and correction to Corinth and Ephesus, we come to this most upbeat of all Paul’s letters. It’s clear from the outset that he really, really loves the church at Philippi: “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you,” (3, 4) But his gratitude has a firm foundation and it’s not just because the Philippians are nice guys. They have captured Paul’s vision for telling others the good news—and then have acted on that vision: “because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” (5, 6)

Paul also loves them because they love him. Which is understandable. Perhaps most importantly, they have not been led theologically astray by other purveyors of a false gospel. They have remained fiercely loyal to Paul even though he’s been imprisoned: “It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.” (7)

Unlike those other churches, there’s no question that in Philippi love is the foundation of their every action. Even though Paul’s greatest essay about love is in his letter to the Corinthians, it is here that we see how Paul envisioned that love to be acted out in the church: “And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight  to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ.” (9, 10a)

Just reflect on that for a moment: knowledge and insight about Jesus Christ cannot possibly occur without it being based in love for Christ—and for each other. Too bad that sort of  love is on such scarce display in the other churches to which Paul wrote—and in most churches today. I personally certainly have not said and acted in very much love within my own church community.

Rather than the chastisement that characterizes his letters to Corinth, Paul asks only that they continue on their current path— that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless. (9, 10). What strikes me here is that growth in faith can happen only in an atmosphere of love for each other.

Love. Knowledge. Full insight. These are the crucial elements that help us “determine what is best” (10b). And having discerned what is best, we reap the greatest reward: “having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.” (11)


Psalm 85:1–7; Isaiah 36:1–37:13; Ephesians 6:10–24

Originally published 7/13/2015. Revised and updated 7/15/2019.

Psalm 85:1–7: This psalm is both retrospective and prospective as we encounter the phase “turn back” several times. The psalmist looks back to the original restoration of Israel to Canaan. More importantly, I think, the psalmist recognizes that an angry God relented and forgave his ancestors:
You favored, O Lord, Your land
You restored the condition of Jacob.
You forgave You people’s crime,
You covered all their offense.
You laid aside all Your wrath,
You turned back from Your blazing fury. (2-4)

Now once again, the people find themselves in dire straits and once again God is angry with them, and once again, the psalmist begs God:
Turn back, pray, God of our rescue
and undo Your anger against us. (5)

Our psalmist asks almost plaintively if God’s anger is now permanent:
Will You forever be incensed with us,
will You draw out Your fury through all generations? (6)

If God will turn back from his anger, the psalmist promises, “Your people will rejoice in You.” (7)

We Christians define repentance as “turning back,” which is exactly what is being described here. If God will “turn back” from his anger, Israel will “turn back”—repent—from its sins. What’s fascinating here is the idea of God “turning back,” in essence, repenting from his own anger. There is much more a feeling of quid pro quo here than we Christians would ever sense. We view God as unchanging, ever-loving. But here, God is far more emotional, and as the psalmist asserts, has abandoned Israel in anger because of its manifold sins. We can be grateful that through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, God never turns his back on us and we always have a way, through Jesus, of “turning back” ourselves.

Isaiah 36:1–37:13: We move from prophecy to historical narrative. The army of King Sennacherib of Assyria has already captured several cities in Judah and arrives at Jerusalem, taunting the court of Hezekiah, “Do you think that mere words are strategy and power for war?” (36:5), and telling them that Judah’s alliance with Egypt is useless. Sennacherib’s captain, the Rabshakeh, even invokes Israel’s God, saying, “The Lord said to me, Go up against this land, and destroy it.” (36:10).

Hezekiah’s officials are mortified and worry that the Rabshakeh’s will negatively affect the morale of the Jewish soldiers. They beg him, “Please speak to your servants in Aramaic, for we understand it; do not speak to us in the language of Judah within the hearing of the people who are on the wall.” (36:11). But the enemy refuses,  telling Hezekiah’s army standing on the city wall that they are doomed. King Hezekiah’s servants consults Isaiah, who responds, “Thus says the Lord: Do not be afraid because of the words that you have heard, with which the servants of the king of Assyria have reviled me.” (37:6) Isaiah promises that God will cause the Rabshakeh to hear a rumor and “to fall by the sword in his own land.” (37:7)

But the king of Assyria responds to Hezekiah, “Do not let your God on whom you rely deceive you by promising that Jerusalem will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria.” (37:10) arguing, “ Have the gods of the [other] nations delivered them, the nations that my predecessors destroyed?” (37:12). Will Israel’s God stand the test, or like all the small-g gods of the other nations simply fall by the wayside? Will Isaiah and his prophecy be vindicated?

Ephesians 6:10–24: I well remember the 5th grade Sunday School flannel graphs of “putting on the whole armor of God,”—truly one of Paul’s most memorable metaphors. What I didn’t appreciate then as I do now was that even though we are holding the “sword of the Spirit,” our posture is defensive, not aggressive. Paul tells us that although we are to be strong, the point of the armor is so we “may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.” (10). Truth and righteousness are our body armor: Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. (14) We are to surround ourselves with these two essential qualities. Without truth and righteousness metaphorically covering our bodies we will fall when injured by Satan’s slings and arrows. And our greatest defensive protection is our faith in Jesus Christ , allowing us to stand tall against evil that is all around us. With the shield of faith, we are “able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one.” (16)

In fact the only “offensive action” we are to take is to “Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication.” (18) And, “To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints.” (18b) Prayer is the Christian’s only offensive weapon.

However, as I look around at the response of many Christians in the wake of social upheaval being promulgated by those who reject all the qualities  and the general ongoing rejection of Christianity by the larger culture, I see lots of “woe is us” defensiveness, and even some very ugly lashing out. However, I suspect many of us are not praying as Paul has asked us to do. If we truly have faith, Paul is telling us, we will indeed stand firm against the “wiles of the devils” (as I learned the words in the King James version.) Our duty is simple and it is clear: we are to pray, not to lash out and not to whine.

Psalm 84:9–13; Isaiah 33:17–35:10; Ephesians 6:1–9

Psalm 84:9–13: This psalm gives us a real sense for a pilgrimage journey as our poet anticipates his eventual arrival at the temple in Jerusalem. He prays for God’s protection as he travels:
Lord, God of armies, hear my prayer.
Hearken, O God of Jacob. selah

He also asks God to see how eager he is to worship at the temple:
Our shield, O God, see,
and regard Your anointed one’s face.

His enthusiasm transforms into sheer joy as he arrives at the temple entrance, singing those familiar words:
For better one day in Your courts
than a thousand I have chosen,
standing on the threshold in the house of my God,
than living in the tents of wickedness.

This comparison is a dramatic assertion that true worship trumps all else in life. The question becomes of course, would I prefer one day in worship to all the other distractions (“tents of wickedness”) that the world has to offer?

The remainder of this psalm is pure worship song as our pilgrim is overcome with joy at being able to express pure worship of a generous God who especially loves righteousness:
For a sun and shield is the Lord,
    God is grace and glory.
    The Lord grants, He does not withhold
    bounty to those who go blameless. (12)

The last line says it all about our relationship with God: “happy the man who trusts in You.” (13) God is indeed the ultimate source of joy and like the pilgrim here, worship is our automatic response.

Isaiah 34:1–35:10: Our prophet’s vision of the end of history continues as he describes God’s anger at the wickedness of the nations that have oppressed and conquered Israel:
For the Lord is enraged against all the nations,
    and furious against all their hordes;
    he has doomed them, has given them over for slaughter. (34:2)

God’s punishing wrath is as gruesome a sight as he can imagine and put into writing:
Their slain shall be cast out,
    and the stench of their corpses shall rise;
    the mountains shall flow with their blood. (34:3)

We have to assume that John of Patmos had fully absorbed Isaiah’s prophecy of doom, adding dramatic flourishes to these woes that will befall Edom:
For the Lord has a day of vengeance,
    a year of vindication by Zion’s cause.
And the streams of Edom[b] shall be turned into pitch,
    and her soil into sulfur;
    her land shall become burning pitch. (34:8,9)

What was once Edom is now an uninhabitable wilderness,—a complete reversal of the weather and power it once possessed:
They shall name it No Kingdom There,
    and all its princes shall be nothing.
Thorns shall grow over its strongholds,
    nettles and thistles in its fortresses.
It shall be the haunt of jackals,
    an abode for ostriches.
Wildcats shall meet with hyenas,
    goat-demons shall call to each other; (34:12-14a)

Chapter 35 describes the eventual and glorious return of Israel to the Promised Land:
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
    the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
    and rejoice with joy and singing. (35:1,2)

Isaiah assures those who have not abandoned God that he will wreak vengeance for them:
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
    “Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
    He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
    He will come and save you.” (35:4)

Of course, we can read these lines in a less apocalyptic light because God has sent his son to save us. Isaiah goes on to describe the reversal of misfortune to wonderful restoration of health for the faithful—what heaven may be like:
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
    and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,

    and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. (35:5, 6a)

As the people are restored, so too is nature. This is a reminder that heaven is not “up there,” but it is here on a restored earth, where God has again made his creation perfect:
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
    and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
    and the thirsty ground springs of water; (35:6b, 7)

Isaiah uses the metaphor of a highway (which we will encounter in later chapters) to remind the redeemed that they will eagerly follow God and (unlike the corrupt society in which he writes) will not deviate from his path:
A highway shall be there,
    and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not travel on it,
    but it shall be for God’s people;
    no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. (35:8)

“Not even fools shall go astray.” What a great promise that at the end of history in a restored earth that the God-fearers—we fallen humans— will no longer do foolish things. The chapter ends with God’s people singing a beautiful hymn in God’s restored creation. If we needed a description of what heaven might be like, it’s right here:
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
    and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
    they shall obtain joy and gladness,
    and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. (35:10)

Ephesians 6:1–9: Paul continues in his commands regarding the family, tuning his attention to children—and a line my father used to quote frequently when I as a child: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother”—this is the first commandment. (1, 2) But children have rights too. They are neither chattel nor objects of disrespect: “And, fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” (4) How many children have been lost to their fathers because of both verbal and physical abuse?

We now come to a section that bothers our “enlightened” culture—but for better or worse was a societal reality in Paul’s world. Paul instructs slaves to “obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ.” (5) I’m sure that some slaves who became Christians felt they were freed by Christ even to the point of rebelling against their masters. Were that rebellious behavior to gain traction there’s not question in my mind that the early church would have been annihilated by the societal forces of the Roman empire. For better or worse, slavery was a brutal reality.

But Paul then writes something that I’m sure was a radical thought of the time: “And, masters, do the same to them. Stop threatening them, for you know that both of you have the same Master in heaven, and with him there is no partiality.” (9) Paul recognizes that while slaves and masters may be equal in Christ, they are not equal in a fallen world. But as a slave must obey its master, the responsibility of the master to treat the slaves well is incumbent as well.

This entire section of societal advice be it husbands and wives, children and parents, salves and masters is based on mutual respect for the other and especially respect by those who have the power for those over whom the more powerful man holds sway. (And as far as Paul is concerned, it’s always the man with the power.)

Would there were more mutual respect between the powerful and the powerless in our time. Recent events regarding powerful men who have subjugated and abused weaker women and children prove how right Paul was. In Christ we are equal and that equality is expressed as kindness and respect.

Psalm 84:1–8; Isaiah 32, 33; Ephesians 5:21-23

Psalm 84:1–8: This beautiful psalm—and a welcome respite from the previous two wishing ill for Israel’s enemies—describes a pilgrim journeying toward the temple at Jerusalem. Even though he is still some distance away, he can already  see it in his mind’s eye as he describes his longing:
How lovely Your dwellings,
O Lord of armies!
My being longed, even languished,
for the courts of the Lord.
 (2, 3a)

Our poet’s eager anticipation is suffused with underlying joy:
My heart and my flesh
sing gladness to the living God.

He visualizes the birds that are already present at the temple, even a swallow which has managed to make a nest for itself in the  crevices between its mighty stone blocks (the Western Wall today) and raise its young brood:
Even the bird has found a home
and the swallow a nest for itself
that puts its fledglings by Your altars..
.” (4)

Eager to join them, our poet sings,
Happy are those who dwell in Your house,
they will ever praise You
. (5)

Of course it is not the physical structure of the temple itself that draws our poet closer, it is because that is where God is present. We children of the New Covenant can rejoice that God is everywhere wherever we are, not just at a temple in Jerusalem.

True joy arises from trusting God:
Happy the folk whose strength is in You,
the highways in their heart
.” (6)

What a lovely, felicitous phrase—’the highways of the heart,’—as it evokes a never-ending journey of the love that comes from God.

This section of the psalm concludes with specific geographic references: …who pass through the Valley of Baca,
they make it into a spring—
yes, the early rain cloaks it with blessings
. (7a)

Our mind’s eye can see the lush green landscape surrounding the spring, made all the more gorgeous by the rain. But the greater idea here is that like that gentle rain, we are showered with God’s blessings, if we give but a moment’s reflection.

Isaiah 32, 33: Isaiah envisions a just government that doubtless stands in stark contrast to the corruption that surrounds him:
See, a king will reign in righteousness,
    and princes will rule with justice.
Each will be like a hiding place from the wind,

    a covert from the tempest,
like streams of water in a dry place, (32:1, 2)

The upside down world in which Isaiah present lives (and one that seems awfully similar to our own 21st century world) will be righted by God:
The minds of the rash will have good judgment,
    and the tongues of stammerers will speak readily and distinctly.
A fool will no longer be called noble,

    nor a villain said to be honorable. (32:4, 5)

He then turns to a prophesy that focuses on complacent women, who are the companions of this rampant corruption. Their lives of comfort will soon come to an abrupt end:
Tremble, you women who are at ease,
    shudder, you complacent ones;
strip, and make yourselves bare,
    and put sackcloth on your loins. (32:11)

Interestingly, Isaiah predicts the destruction of the cities, which is where he believes the societal corruption to be centered:
For the palace will be forsaken,
    the populous city deserted;
the hill and the watchtower
    will become dens forever,
the joy of wild asses,
    a pasture for flocks; (32:14)

It is in nature, not the cities, where God’s justice and peace will reign:
Then justice will dwell in the wilderness,
    and righteousness abide in the fruitful field.
…My people will abide in a peaceful habitation,

    in secure dwellings, and in quiet resting places. (32:16, 18)

I certainly agree with the prophet. It is the cities—those engines of commerce and centers of corruption—where chicanery seems to mostly dwell. Even certain politicians recognize this when the speak of “draining the swamp” of government. It is in the wilderness where we can truly experience the wonders of God’s creation and sense both his justice and especially God’s peace.

Isaiah goes on in the next chapter to remind us that justice will eventually come as he predicts the demise of the corrupt:
When you have ceased to destroy,
    you will be destroyed;
and when you have stopped dealing treacherously,
    you will be dealt with treacherously. (33:1)

But before this era of peace occurs, though, things will be darkest for the righteous:
Listen! the valiant cry in the streets;
    the envoys of peace weep bitterly.
The highways are deserted,

    travelers have quit the road.
The treaty is broken,
    its oaths are despised,
    its obligation is disregarded. (33: 7,8)

But there is hope on the horizon. God will destroy the corruption in a rather apocalyptic manner:
“Now I will arise,” says the Lord,
    “now I will lift myself up;
    now I will be exalted.
You conceive chaff, you bring forth stubble;

    your breath is a fire that will consume you.
And the peoples will be as if burned to lime,

    like thorns cut down, that are burned in the fire.” (33:10-12)

In what seems to be a clear reference to foreign invaders, God will conquer:
No longer will you see the insolent people,
    the people of an obscure speech that you cannot comprehend,
    stammering in a language that you cannot understand. (33:19)

In this new world where foreign evil has been banished, God reigns in this restored paradise:
But there the Lord in majesty will be for us
    a place of broad rivers and streams,
where no galley with oars can go,
    nor stately ship can pass. (33:21)

I have to wonder: what was the response of the corrupt and indolent people who must have heard Isaiah’s prophesy? I’m pretty sure he was dismissed as a raving lunatic. But as we know, foreign invaders from Assyria and then from Babylon came and destroyed both the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel. Who are the true prophets—the Isaiah’s— in our midst today? All we know is that warnings from God will be dismissed until ruin overtakes us.

Ephesians 5:21-23: This is surely one of the most contentious, misunderstood, and mis-interpreted sections in all of Paul’s writings. It’s clear he was dealing with martial conflict. Paul opens this section with the overarching framework: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (21) In short, if we are truly living in Christ and guided by the Holy Spirit, we will not jockey for power over others.

Paul goes on to draw a parallel between the relationship of the church to Christ with the relationship between husbands and wives: “Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord.  For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church.” (22.23) He immediately amplifies this hierarchy in the next verse: “Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.” (24)

So, what do we do with this? In the culture in which Paul writes, hierarchies of power were the norm. Husbands clearly ruled, too often treating their wives as mere chattel. So, if I were an Ephesian reading this, nothing Paul has said so far is at all radical. He’s simply stating a social reality. But there is something else lurking in the background: Paul is drawing the hierarchal parallels with Christ and his church. Why would  he do that?

The next verses make it clear exactly what Paul is doing: he’s providing the context for the next thing he says, which was probably quite radical in the male-dominated culture of the Roman empire: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her [the church] … so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she [the church] may be holy and without blemish.” (25, 27)

Paul makes it clear that through baptism, the church has been made holy. So, too, what Christ has done for the church in making it holy, so too, Christian husbands must do for their wives: “In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies.” (28a)  The husband’s responsibility in the relationship is not just about power but equally about love.

Paul goes on to offer a profound psychological insight: “He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church” (28b, 29) In other words, husbands are to extend their inherent self esteem to their spouse. This statement also implies that in a marriage relationship, the sheer exercise of power over one’s wife that absent of love is just as debilitating to the husband. Paul is telling us men to extend our self-care equally to the care of our wives—and to our family.

By the end of this passage, Paul has probably figured out that he is wading in deep water as he concludes with a brief but very clear summary of the bilateral responsibility within the marriage relationship: “Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband.” (33)

Psychologists have pointed out many times that in a relationship women desire love above all else and men desire respect. I certainly know that I desire respect and I pray that I always make my love for Susan the highest possible priority.

Psalm 83:14–19; Isaiah 30,31; Ephesians 5:8–20

Originally published 7/12/2017. Revised and updated 7/11/2019.

Psalm 83:14–19: Our psalmist gets back to the important business of cajoling God to obliterate their enemies using a variety of similes drawing on nature:
O God, make them like the thistledown,
like straw before the wind.
As fire burns down forests
and as flame ignites the mountains. (14, 15)

Forest fires and lightning-ignited mountains seem especially appropriate at this time of year. These images lead to a description of God as a thundering storm. Now he writes in the imperative voice, confidently assuming God is going to carry out his prayer request:
so shall You pursue them with Your storm
and with Your tempest dismay them. (16)

There is no sympathy at all, as our poet basically wishes the enemies humiliation followed by a cruel death:
Fill their faces with infamy
that they may seek Your name, O Lord.
May they be shamed and dismayed forever,
and may they be disgraced and may they perish. (17, 18)

But, he continues, these enemies won’t die without realizing that there is only one God with true power—and that is Israel’s God:
And may they know that You, Your name is the Lord.
You alone are most high over the earth. (19)

Happily, Jesus’s command to love our enemies has supplanted this rather dreadful prayer that wishes death on one’s enemies, but not before they realize that only Israel’s God is the one with the power. So, I view this psalm as an interesting historical artifact and an expression of over-heated anger, but devoid of any applicable theological wisdom.

Isaiah 30, 31: Apparently the leadership of Judah has cooked up a plan to ally itself with Egypt against the array of enemies it faces. Speaking as usual as the voice of God, Isaiah points out the plan’s futility because it has been devised by the badly flawed human leaders rather than by God:
Oh, rebellious children, says the Lord,
who carry out a plan, but not mine;
who make an alliance, but against my will,
    adding sin to sin;
who set out to go down to Egypt
    without asking for my counsel, (30:1, 2a)

Don’t trust the Pharaoh, Isaiah advises:
For Egypt’s help is worthless and empty,
    therefore I have called her,
    “Rahab who sits still.” (30:7)

Which is a good reminder for anyone tempted to trust pretty much any politician or to foolishly ally themselves with a power that has a hidden agenda.

A poetic sidebar follows as Isaiah despairs of Judah’s rebellious leaders—and the population of Judah in general because they have abandoned God:
For they are a rebellious people,
    faithless children,
children who will not hear
    the instruction of the Lord; (30:9)

God has promised them respite, but they have refused to accept it, preferring their own ultimately disastrous plan:
For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel:
In returning and rest you shall be saved;
    in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.
But you refused  and said,
“No! We will flee upon horses”—” (30:15, 16)

Nevertheless, God is eternally patient and the covenantal promise still stands:
Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you;
    therefore he will rise up to show mercy to you.
For the Lord is a God of justice;
    blessed are all those who wait for him. (30:18)

That promise the same for us. No matter how disastrously our own futile plans may turn out, God is still there, waiting patiently for our repentance—no matter how long it takes. For God is the only true refuge, the only true ally. And, as Isaiah promises Judah, God will provide and heal: “He will give rain for the seed with which you sow the ground, and grain, the produce of the ground, which will be rich and plenteous. On that day your cattle will graze in broad pastures;…on the day when the Lord binds up the injuries of his people, and heals the wounds inflicted by his blow.” (30:23, 26)

One would think that one chapter devoted to Isaiah announcing that the planned alliance with Egypt will end badly would be sufficient. But this is Isaiah we’re talking about—the prophet who never hesitates to again cover ground he’s already covered…So he continues relentlessly in the next chapter:
Alas for those who go down to Egypt for help
    and who rely on horses,
who trust in chariots because they are many
    and in horsemen because they are very strong,
but do not look to the Holy One of Israel
    or consult the Lord! (31:1)

But also in this chapter, the prophet reminds us of something well worth remembering as we watch the machinations and vacuity of politicians at running for president. These erstwhile leaders and allies are just as flawed and human as the rest of us—many more so:
The Egyptians are human, and not God;
    their horses are flesh, and not spirit.
When the Lord stretches out his hand,
    the helper will stumble, and the one helped will fall,
    and they will all perish together. (31;3)

And for Judah the eternal promise of God’s protection if they would only repent:
Like birds hovering overhead, so the Lord of hosts
    will protect Jerusalem;
he will protect and deliver it,
    he will spare and rescue it. (31:5)

The fact that in many respects Jerusalem is at the center of the world—and its conflicts—is a reminder that despite everything and all the bad motivations and plans of humans, God continues to keep his promise after almost three millennia. The Jewish toast still rings: “Next year, Jerusalem!”

Ephesians 5:8–20: Paul continues to exhort the Ephesians to make their binary choice between light and dark: “For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light—” (8) In fact, it’s our Christian duty to expose sin: “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.” (11) Unfortunately, that verse has been widely misapplied down through history leading awful acts in the name of religion such as the Hundred Years War, the Inquisition, or the Salem witch trials.

Our faith must inform our actions—and if it does not we wander astray in our application of exposing “unfruitful works of darkness”: “Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil.” (15, 16) That certainly seems to be appropriate advice as we live in this increasingly post-Christian age. There may not be much I can affect on a large scale, but my quotidian activities on a small scale must arise from my faith in Jesus Christ, not from my own perceived wisdom, but rather from my ability (or lack of it) to discern God’s will for me. This is not a trivial task: “So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.” (18)

At 5:14 Paul appears to quote something from scripture:
Sleeper, awake!
    Rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”

I checked a couple of commentaries and the consensus seems to be that these lines are not from the OT, but perhaps the opening verse to a hymn sung in church. This theory seems supported by Paul’s advice iat the end of today’s reading: “as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (19, 20)

I think it’s worth pointing out that even the earliest church made a distinction among “ psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” “spiritual songs” could probably be interpreted today as “praise songs.” Okay, I concede the point. My take on this is that worship should include all three. 

Psalm 83:10–13; Isaiah 29; Ephesians 4:29–5:7

Originally published 7/11/2017. Revised and updated 7/10/2019.

Psalm 83:10–13: as he pleads for him to intervene now, our psalmist continues to remind God of his assistance in Israel’s history. His catalog of God’s former military assistance is quite lengthy and detailed. The psalmist obviously knew his history:
Do unto them as to Midian, as to Sisera,
as to Jabin at the brook of Kishon.
They were destroyed at En-Dor.
they turned into dung for the soil. (10, 11)

These names rang a bell for me, especially Sisera’s. These battles are recounted in Judges 4 and 5, featuring  Jabin, who was the Canaanite king and his general, Sisera, who was defeated by the estimable Barak, assisted by Deborah.  Aside: I really like the rather pungent imagery of “they were turned into dung for the soil.”

Our psalmist jumps ahead some years and lists the enemies involved in a different battle, again asking God to do the same thing now he did then:
Deal with their nobles as with Oreb
and as with Zeeb and Zebah and Zulmunna, all their princes,
who said, ‘We shall take hold for ourselves
all the meadows of God. (12, 13)

Oreb and the three Z’s were Midianite generals who were defeated by Gideon’s memorable ruse, recounted in Judges 8. It’s nice to be reminded of adventures we read about last year. But I’m not sure God is going to be impressed by our psalmist’s historical recall. Those battles took place in an earlier era before Israel drifted away from God. It’s good to remember history, but what God did in the past is no guarantee that he will do the repeat the favor in the present.

Isaiah 29: Apparently Jerusalem has a nickname, “Ariel.” But whatever name it goes by, Isaiah prophecies that the city will meet a bad end:
Yet I will distress Ariel,
    and there shall be moaning and lamentation,
    and Jerusalem  shall be to me like an Ariel. 
And like David  I will encamp against you;
    I will besiege you with towers
    and raise siegeworks against you.” (2,3)

[And just for beautiful poetic imagery, it’s hard to improve on a couplet like this:
your voice shall come from the ground like the voice of a ghost,
    and your speech shall whisper out of the dust. (4b)]

As usual, Isaiah seems to be the only one among the prophets who sees the coming catastrophe. Everyone else is blissfully unaware of their doom—or as we might suggest in our modern era, they are in denial. It’s as if they are all drunk or asleep:
Stupefy yourselves and be in a stupor,
    blind yourselves and be blind!
Be drunk, but not from wine;
    stagger, but not from strong drink!
For the Lord has poured out upon you
    a spirit of deep sleep;
he has closed your eyes, you prophets,
    and covered your heads, you seers. (9, 10)

The reason for Jerusalem’s ultimate destruction is really quite simple: its inhabitants are first class hypocrites:
Because these people draw near with their mouths
    and honor me with their lips,
    while their hearts are far from me,
and their worship of me is a human commandment learned by rote. (13)

Wow. How often I have come to worship and done so by rote with my heart and thoughts being hundreds of miles away. I’m good at talking about God, but am I good at walking with God?

Pride of course is the deadliest sin. The people of Jerusalem have set themselves above God, declaring him to be superfluous:
You turn things upside down!
    Shall the potter be regarded as the clay?
Shall the thing made say of its maker,
    “He did not make me”;
or the thing formed say of the one who formed it,
    “He has no understanding”? (16)

That sounds just like so-called western civilization today, which believes humankind can address and solve all issues—even altering nature to its liking— without God’s assistance. There’s no longer a need to even worship small-g gods because, like Jerusalem’s citizens, we have set ourselves up as small-g gods ourselves—to our collective peril.

But in the end it is neither the people of Jerusalem—nor we—who will turn things upside down and inside out. It is God who will have the last upside down surprise:
On that day the deaf shall hear
    the words of a scroll,
and out of their gloom and darkness
    the eyes of the blind shall see.
The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord,
    and the neediest people shall exult in the Holy One of Israel. (18, 19)

[The author of Revelation grabs that scroll and gives it a rental place in the book.] Justice will finally occur as the wicked and unjust will exchange places with the deaf, blind, and meek:
For the tyrant shall be no more,
    and the scoffer shall cease to be;
    all those alert to do evil shall be cut off—
those who cause a person to lose a lawsuit,
    who set a trap for the arbiter in the gate,
    and without grounds deny justice to the one in the right. (20, 21)

And finally, a great promise for those who repent and turn back to follow God and seek after righteousness:
And those who err in spirit will come to understanding,
    and those who grumble will accept instruction. (24)

That really is turning things upside down! I’m fascinated that it is understanding and a willingness to accept instruction that are significant outcomes of the prophecy. It is God who answers the deep questions, not we. (Although it keeps a lot of philosophers, including my son, employed in the meantime.) Someday, all that is is shrouded in mystery will finally become clear! Questions like the problem of theodicy and why the wicked always seem to win out will finally be answered.

Ephesians 4:29–5:7: It would seem that like Corinth, the church at Ephesus was submerged in fights and arguments. Paul continues to remonstrate, seeking every way he possibly can to induce the Ephesians to stop arguing among themselves and become kinder, gentler persons: “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.” (4:29) It turns out that arguing and bitterness among Christians negatively impacts the Holy Spirit itself: “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption.” (4:30)

So, Paul says, it’s time to turn over a new leaf, guys: “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” (31, 32) I remember memorizing Ephesians 5:32 in 5th grade Sunday School. Unfortunately, in the ensuing years I’m afraid I have not carried out Paul’s command—and there’s no denying it is a command—very faithfully.

In the opening verse of chapter 5 (one of those badly placed chapter breaks) Paul tells us how to actually accomplish these goals. It’s really quite simple in concept, but immensely difficult in practice: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (5:1,2) After all, if Jesus gave up his very life for us, we should be able to show a little respect and kindness to our fellow Christians.

Our words among ourselves are not Paul’s only concern here. Our deeds matter just as much: “But fornication and impurity of any kind, or greed, must not even be mentioned among you, as is proper among saints. Entirely out of place is obscene, silly, and vulgar talk; but instead, let there be thanksgiving.” (5:3, 4)

Remember that Paul is giving advice and commands for people inside the church at Ephesus. Never mind their (and our) behavior in the larger community. If we can’t get it right among our fellow Christians, then God help us out in the world at large.

Finally, one of the great insights about human nature: if it sounds too good to be true, it doubtless isn’t true. Or, as Paul memorably puts it, “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes on those who are disobedient.” (5:6) The thought that comes immediately to mind is all those TV Evangelists asking for money and making false Prosperity Gospel promises. Depsite Paul’s warning —and the many warnings of others down through the centuries—some things inside the church just never change.