Psalm 74:18-23: Numbers 30:1-31:12; Luke 1:67-80

Psalm 74:18-23  The psalmist has moved into full giving-advice-to-God mode as he asks God, “Remember this: the enemy insulted, / a base people reviled Your name.” (17) And particularly, God, please remember us, Israel, “Do not yield to the beast the life of Your dove, / the band of Your lowly forget not forever.” (18)  (This may be the only place in the Psalms where Israel is referred to as “Your dove” and “band of Your lowly.”)

Then, God, please remember your Covenant because things are going from bad to worse: “Look to the pact, / for the dark places of earth fill with groans of outrage.” (20) And, then, because God is always reminding Israel (and us!) to never forget the poor and lowly, the psalmist turns the idea around on God, asking, if all other appeals fail, to “Let not the poor man turn back disgraced. / Let the lowly and needy praise Your name.” (21)

At this point our psalmist has outlined many different lines of argument that God could/ should take in order to remember Israel and protect them from their enemies.  And in an astounding (to me, anyway) move, he then asks God, “Arise, God, O plead Your cause,” (22a) as if God Himself is the defendant in the dock, or the defense lawyer (or both).  One is tempted to ask, OK, to whom exactly would God, being God, plead his case?  So yes, our psalmist is being hyperbolic.  But it is passionate, straight-from-the-heart hyperbole.

And when we are in extremis, as the writer is here, God will not object to being reminded of who He is, what He does for us, and to remember His Covenant with us. We can be as direct and even accusatory as we want.  Surely God values passionate prayers above wimpy ones because they come directly from the heart.  For in reminding God, we are above all reminding ourselves of who we are: God’s children seeking refuge and escape from our enemies, “the din of those against You perpetually rising.” (23b)

 Numbers 30:1-31:12  Once again, the narrative flow is interrupted by an editorial insertion, this time about vows–and the critical importance of keeping them: “Should a man take a vow or make an oath to the LORD, to take upon himself a binding pledge, he shall not profane his word.” (30:3)

Because of their status as essentially chattel, either to her father or to her husband, the rules are different for women.  It is the father or husband who speaks (or doesn’t speak) for the woman. If the male remains silent, the woman’s vows stand, but if the male speaks, the father’s or husband’s vows trump hers, a;though “the LORD will forgive her, for her father restrained her.” (30:6)  (Seems like small solace for the woman…)

The issue of vows–whether uttered by a man or woman–goes to the very heart of civilized society, and that they are spoken (30:13) is crucial.  Like the naming of names and of prayer there is something sacred when words are spoken rather than written.  Spoken vows remain serious business even today–a great connection to civilizations across the millennia– as anyone who has testified in court after saying, “so help me God” can attest.

The narrative picks up again in chapter 31 with the grisly incident (and many more to come) of the God-ordained “vengeance of the Israelites against the Midianites.” (31:1), which will be the final event in Moses’ life–and his penultimate command: “Moses sent them out, a thousand for the tribe to the army— them and Phinehas son of Eleazar the priest, to the army, and the sacred vessels and the trumpets for  blasting were in his hand. And they arrayed against Midian, as the LORD had charged Moses, and they killed every male.” (6-8).

So, Israel is victorious in this dress rehearsal for the battles yet to come in Canaan.  Why, one wonders, is Moses’ last major activity in his life so negative, so bloody–and as we shall see tomorrow–so repulsive?

Luke 1:67-80  Zechariah, his voice unleashed after 9 months, bursts into a psalm/ song of praise and prophecy. Luke is careful to note that “Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit,” so we can take Zechariah’s words as prophetic words from God. 

Zechariah sings about how his son has come from God, a promise of the deliverance of God’s people that will at last be fulfilled.  The song frames John’s arrival in the terms of God’s covenant with Israel: “he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,/ and has remembered his holy covenant, / the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham.” (72-73a).  More crucially, Zechariah understands that his son John is not the Messiah himself, but “will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, / to give knowledge of salvation to his people / by the forgiveness of their sins.” (76-77)  Which of course is exactly what John does.

For me, the concluding lines of this song are sublime in the depth of their benedictory tenderness and understated promise of something unbelievably great to come:

By the tender mercy of our God,
    the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
    to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (78-79)

It is night, but the dawn is coming; it is dark, but the light is coming. Like the overture to a great opera, Luke has set the stage brilliantly in the Holy Spirit-inspired words of this song, preparing us for something astounding yet to happen.  All is silence for a moment. The prelude concludes; the curtain is about to rise on the most astounding event in all history.

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