Archives for January 2015

Psalm 4; 1 Chronicles 5:1–22; Acts 9:36–10:8

Psalm 4: This psalm of supplication–“When I call out, answer me, my righteous God.” (2)–possess a quietude and inner peace that we don’t encounter in other supplication psalms. There is a peaceful assurance that suffuses it: “In the straits, You set me free” (2b) and “But know that the Lord set apart His faithful./ The Lord will hear when I call to Him.” (4)

This assurance reflects a person (David?) with an existing strong relationship with God. There is no air of desperation of the sense that God has abandoned the psalmist. Instead he reflects with great confidence, You put joy in my heart.” (8).  And having prayed, the poet can sleep in peace: “In peace, all whole, let me lie down and sleep. / For You, LORD, alone, do set me down safely.” (9)

My prayer is that I can possess the inner peace that arises form the inner confidence that God is always nearby. And to know that this confidence arises from an active and close relationship with God my Father.

1 Chronicles 5:1–22: Here we meet the descendants of Reuben and Gad. Obviously many more generations have passed than even our very detail-oriented historian cares to list, so we have a list of the various “greats” of each family. Reuben, although the eldest son of Jacob, lost his right to primogeniture and “because he defiled his father’s bed his birthright was given to the sons of Joseph son of Israel, so that he is not enrolled in the genealogy according to the birthright,” (1) thus explaining why he is so far down the list.

It’s interesting that for both these sons, as well as the others, the historian notes the geographic territory in which they resided, e.g., “He also lived to the east as far as the beginning of the desert this side of the Euphrates, because their cattle had multiplied in the land of Gilead.” (9) And, “sons of Gad lived beside them in the land of Bashan as far as Salecah.” (11). In this primarily agrarian society, the geographic space these families occupies is almost important as their names. In our highly mobile society, where most of us have long departed the places where our families grew up or even where we grew up, this rootedness seems almost foreign. Yet, we must never forget that God has given us the earth and it is our responsibility to care for it.

Above all, our author is impressed with these families because they were warriors and with characteristic attention to detail even tells us how many there were: “The Reubenites, the Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh had valiant warriors, who carried shield and sword, and drew the bow, expert in war, forty-four thousand seven hundred sixty, ready for service.” (18) Once again, God was on their side because “they cried to God in the battle, and he granted their entreaty because they trusted in him.” (20) even though “Many fell slain, because the war was of God.” (22) It is easy to see why even today warriors are pretty convinced God is on their side: there is ample historical precedent.

Acts 9:36–10:8: In an almost eerie parallel to Jesus’ resuscitation of the officer’s daughter, Luke describes how Peter resuscitates Tabitha. It’s extremely important to note that Peter performs this miracle in private and he prays before commanding Tabitha to “get up.” When we ask why these events don’t happen today (and this is controversial) it’s worth noting that Luke is always careful to add that the response to these miracles is increased faith and growth of the early church: “This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.” (42).

My own belief is that these early miracles were acts of the Holy Spirit to build the early church and give it strong roots.  Once established, and as the original disciples died, “church establishing miracles” became less necessary. There was sufficient mass and energy within the church for it to grow by the means it grows and flourishes today: the faith of men and women activated by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The second echo to Jesus’ healing of the officer’s daughter is the very next event surrounding another officer, “Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort,” (10:1). What we notice immediately is that up to this point, the witness has been to Jews and Samaritans. Now, Luke’s focus shifts to Caesarea and the most gentile of gentiles: An officer in the Roman army.  We also know that something profound is afoot because this man of God is visited by an angel, who tells him to send for Peter, who is living in Joppa, some 36 miles down the coast.

Notice also, that Cornelius assigns this mission to an underling, who is “devout soldier from the ranks of those who served him,” (10:7) and that “after telling them everything, he sent them to Joppa.” So, why does the senior officer tell his junior “everything?” I think this is a good example of why faith and the intervention of angels or the Holy Spirit is not just a private matter, but is to be shared within the community.

Psalm 3; 1 Chronicles 4:24–43; Acts 9:23–35

Psalm 3: The editors of the Psalms asserts “when David fled from Absalom his son.” Alter notes that “such ascriptions have no historical authority.” Nevertheless, the desperation of being pursued by one’s enemies certainly makes a logical case for this being a David psalm appropriate to the king’s flight as Absalom pursued him.

What is striking about this psalm is its blunt directness: “LORD, how many are my foes, many, who rise up against me.” (2) There are no soaring metaphors, no introductions that approach the central issue delicately. This is a prayer that could be uttered literally on the run.

Nor is God frustratingly silent. Indeed, his response is immediate: “With my voice I cry out to the LORD, / and He answers me from His holy mountain.” (5) This assurance of God’s answer allows refreshing sleep and the absence of fear, even in the face of overwhelming odds: “I fear not from myriads of troops / that round about set against me.” (7) Because in the end there is only one source of rescue: “Rescue is the LORD’s! / On Your people Your blessing.” (9) The lesson here is clear: If we pray with confidence, God will indeed respond confidently. And sometimes the bluntest, most direct prayers are best.

1 Chronicles 4:24–43: Our scrupulous accountant, who authored Chronicles, continues his ledger of genealogies of the original sons of Jacob, this one of Simeon. Many of them have settled in the east side of the valley as shepherds when they are attacked by “the former inhabitants there [who] belonged to Ham…in the days of King Hezekiah.” (39, 40) These are repulsed along with the “Meunim who were found there, who were exterminated” (41). Some 500 Simeonites then hike to Mount Sier where “destroyed the remnant of the Amalekites that had escaped, and they have lived there to this day.” (43). Which of course is what God had in mind when he gave Canaan to Israel and Judah.

This passage reminds me that the story of Israel is not just about its great (and less great) leaders, but about the many yeomen who did the hard work of settling the land. They are fortunate to be remembered by the author of Chronicles.

Acts 9:23–35: Saul’s former Jewish colleagues are understandably upset by his conversion to “the other side.” As usual, they forego any attempt at dialog but send assassins to kill Saul. Happily for history, Saul discovers the plot and escapes Damascus in the famous basket.

Again we have evidence for the authenticity of Luke’s story because it hews so closely to human nature. Despite Saul’s miraculous conversion, his arrival at Jerusalem is greeted with more than mere suspicion by the disciples. Barnabas argues Saul’s case before the disciples and he is (reluctantly, I think) accepted and goes “in and out among them in Jerusalem.” (28) However, it’s clear that Saul’s rather aggressive preaching style is not what the other leaders have in mind as “He spoke and argued with the Hellenists; who were attempting to kill him.”  Once again, he has to be rescued and believers send Saul back to his home in Tarsus.

With Saul no longer riling the populace, “the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was built up.” (31)

The lesson here seems to be that despite Saul’s conversion and his doubtless eloquence at attempting to convert the Hellenists, he had not yet learned the essential lesson that it is “Living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit” (31b) that builds up the church, not just one man’s enthusiastic preaching. Nor are people necessarily persuaded by the power of argument and logic along. Persuasion occurs through the power of the Holy Spirit. I also think that Luke is making it clear that Saul’s eventual role will not be in Jerusalem, but as we find out soon eneough, it will be elsewhere.

Psalm 2; 1 Chronicles 4:1–23; Acts 9:10–22

Psalm 2: Israel, here identified as Zion, is surrounded by “Kings of the earth take [who] their stand, / and princes conspire together against the LORD and against His anointed.” (2) certainly has a contemporary feel to it, since that is precisely the position Israel finds itself in today. Alter tells us that scholars have never been able to identify the exact circumstances that are addressed by this psalm, but Israel’s (or maybe Judah’s) king knows that God is definitely on his side since it is God himself speaking, “And I—I appointed My king on Zion, My holy mountain.”(6)

Then the king speaks, “He said to me: “You are My son. I Myself today did beget you. / Ask of me, and I shall give nations as your estate, / and your holdings, the ends of the earth.” (7) There is certainly a  Christological suggestion here with Jesus being the Son of God. On the other hand, it may simply be the bold assurance of the king who knows God is on his side and victory will be theirs: “You will smash them with a rod of iron, like a potter’s jar you will dash them.” (9)

Whatever its deeper meaning, this psalm is a reminder that we can be confident in God who watches over us.

1 Chronicles 4:1–23: Reading this seemingly endless list of names of the descendants of Judah is reminiscent of the pages at the back of my various alumni magazines that list the names of donors, which can consume a number of pages. The reason is the same: the naming of names means that at some level we are remembered for our deeds.

One thing I had not noticed before is that even before the Israelites left Egypt there was intermarriage: “These are the sons of Bithiah, daughter of Pharaoh, whom Mered married; and she conceived and bore Miriam, Shammai, and Ishbah father of Eshtemoa. (17). One wonders then about the strict prohibitions of intermarriage with the Canaanites, which rule was of course observed in the breach.

Acts 9:10–22: Ananias is one of the unsung heroes of the NT. Obviously, he had heard nothing about Paul’s conversion experience on the Damascus road and he had every right to resist the call of God. His logic is impeccable: “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” (13,14) God reveals that he has big plans for Saul. Ananias’ instincts notwithstanding he obeys and lays hands on Saul, and Saul sees again–both literally and of course spiritually. Ananias then disappears from the stage, but he has performed one great act by obeying the command of God. A reminder that most of us are Ananias, not Paul. But also a reminder that the Church cannot thrive without the Ananiases of the world. Each of us has an important God-directed role to play. Our duty is to listen and discern.

For Saul it was not all conversion sweetness and light, for God says also, “I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” (16) And as we will read, Paul suffers physically and psychologically for his witness of Jesus Christ. That with great joy comes great suffering is why I am suspicious of preachers who claim that God delivers only prosperity. The great truth of living the Christian life is that while we experience great joy we will also suffer. To pretend otherwise is a sham religion.