Psalm 36; Nehemiah 5:1–6:14; Romans 4:1–12

Psalm 36: This psalm has a unique opening as “Crime” becomes a character speaking to the evil person in which it resides: “Crime’s utterance to the wicked/ within his heart:” And its utterance is the definition of what comprises an evil man because it is the crime of rejecting God: “There is no fear of God/ before my eyes.” (2). Crime works its wily ways on its host: “For it caressed him with its eyes/ to find his sin of hatred.” (3). What we could call this “anti-conscience,” speaks honeyed words of temptation: “The words of his [crime’s] mouth are mischief, deceit,”

And as Paul would agree, the potential to commit sin resides indeed, inside all of us and when we succumb to crime’s entreaties, “he [we] ceased to grasp things, to do good.” (4) Crime takes over our conscience and “Mischief he [we] plots in his bed,/ takes a stand on a way of not good,/ evil he [we] does not despise.”

Is “crime” Satan? Or is it merely the dark side of each of us fallen human beings?

Standing in stark contrast to Crime and the evil man is God himself: “Lord, in the heavens, Your kindness/ and Your faithfulness to the skies.” (6)  Unlike Crime’s temptations, God brings us “justice like the unending mountains/ Your judgement, the great abyss, / man and beast the Lord rescues.” (7) The rewards of listening to God are infinitely greater than listening to crime: We feast at God’s table: “They take their fill from the fare of Your house/ and from Your stream of delights You give them drink.”  (9)

The psalmist seems to be asking, why would someone listen to crime and its reward of mischief and deceit when by following God, his munificent generosity blesses us with riches beyond imagining? Just one simple reason: to follow God we must abandon the idea of ourselves being at the center of the universe and acknowledge that God is our creator and we his creatures. To do that is to cast away pride. Not an easy task.

Nehemiah 5:1–6:14: Relatives of the Jews who have returned are complaining that they are being oppressed as workers by the nobles and officials to the extent that they are being forced to borrow money at interest and being treated like slaves. “and some of our daughters have been ravished.” (5:5). We hear the cry of the downtrodden: “we are powerless, and our fields and vineyards now belong to others.” (5:5)

Nehemiah brings them justice and demands that the extraction of interest cease instantly and orders, “Restore to them, this very day, their fields, their vineyards, their olive orchards, and their houses, and the interest on money, grain, wine, and oil that you have been exacting from them.” (5:11) Nehemiah notes that this policy stands in contrast to his predecessors, “The former governors who were before me laid heavy burdens on the people, and took food and wine from them, besides forty shekels of silver. Even their servants lorded it over the people.” And he tells us why, “But I did not do so, because of the fear of God.” (5:15) Nehemiah, the man of God, does not oppress others.

I think this chapter is here to remind post-exhilic Israel–and us–that God cares above all for the poor, the widows and the orphans. If we get nothing else out of our reading of the OT, we must get that. And yet, we continue to be able to ignore Nehemiah’s example with such ease.

Nehemiah’s nemesis, Sanballat and his cronies, ask for a meeting but as he observes, “they intended to do me harm.” (6:2). Sanballat tries to plays the sedition card, handing Nehemiah a letter that says, “that you and the Jews intend to rebel; that is why you are building the wall; and according to this report you wish to become their king.” (6:6) Nehemiah tells Sanballat to buzz off, “No such things as you say have been done; you are inventing them out of your own mind” (6:8) They even try to trick Nehemeiah with a false prophet. But as a man of God, Nehemiah discerns this, and his courage in undiminished because he knows God will protect him.

 Romans 4:1–12: Paul continues his discourse on the contrasts between faith and works by citing Abraham–the founder of the Jewish race–as an example of a man who was justified by the unmerited gift of God’s righteousness, not his works. After all, Paul argues, “to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due.” (4). So, how could Abraham receive a gift if he had worked to earn it? God would be depriving him of his due wages. So, too, with David.

Then Paul produces his greatest argument against those who claimed only Jews had received the gift of righteousness with sheer logic (which the Greeks in the crowd must surely have appreciated!):  “We say, “Faith was reckoned to Abraham as righteousness.” How then was it reckoned to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised.” (10). Come on guys, Paul is saying, you’ve got it backwards: circumcision is the sign of having already received the gift; it is not a qualification for the gift. Besides, how could it be a gift if you have to be qualified by something like circumcision to receive it?

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