Archives for March 2015

Psalm 35:19–28; Nehemiah 4; Romans 3:19–31

Psalm 35:19–28: As happens so often in the psalms, voices and speech figure prominently. First we hear the “unprovoked enemies,” who “rejoice over me” (19) and then the psalmist tells us that “they do not speak peace/ and against the earth’s quiet ones plot deceit.” (20) Out of conspiratorial whispers the enemies begin shouting, as “They open their mouths wide against me./ They say, ‘Hurrah! Hurrah!…” (21)

But frustratingly, God seems to be silent as the poet pleads, “You, Lord, have seen, do not be mute.” In fact God seems to be asleep, as the psalmist says, “Rouse Yourself, wake for my cause/ my God and my Master…do not let them rejoice over me.” (23, 24) He asks God to silence his enemies, “Let them not say in their heart, / ‘Hurrah for ourselves.'” (25) The poet stands in the dock, as his enemies testify against him. But if God will but act, they will “don shame and disgrace” (26). And the poet’s supporters will finally be able to speak. And not just speak, but sing aloud, “May they sing glad and rejoice,/ who desire justice for me.” (27a)

The voices of the enemy have been drowned out by the voices that praise God, as the psalm ends with the friends saying, “Great is the Lord/ who desires His servant’s well-being.” (27b) And the psalmist himself can finally speak, praising God, “my tongue will murmur You justice,/ all day long Your praise.” (28)

Conspiracy, accusation, testimony, praise. All these in just these few verses–and all of them oral. In an era where little was written down, that was said and sung was of utmost importance. And the lesson for us is that regardless of all our other forms of written and electronic communication, what we speak aloud is still of utmost importance.

Nehemiah 4: Sanballat “was angry and greatly enraged, and he mocked the Jews” for their effrontery of attempting to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. His buddy, Tobiah the Ammonite, joins in, “That stone wall they are building—any fox going up on it would break it down!” (3). But Nehemiah and the Jews are resolute and pray, “turn their taunt back on their own heads,” (4)

But it’s a tough job as Judah observes, “The strength of the burden bearers is failing, and there is too much rubbish so that we are unable to work on the wall.” (10) And now enemies are plotting against them. BUt Nehemiah, brilliant leader that he is, reminds them that God is on their side, encouraging them, “Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your kin, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes.” (14).

The plot of their enemies has been foiled and new defensive measures are put in place, “half of my servants worked on construction, and half held the spears, shields, bows, and body-armor;” (16) and even “burden bearers carried their loads in such a way that each labored on the work with one hand and with the other held a weapon.” (17)

Even though they are beset by enemies, the project continues because Nehemiah does two things: (1) he trusts God to provide and protect and (2) he continues to be a brilliant leader, adapting to the situation and encouraging everyone involved in the work. Again, a terrific example of putting “feet” on one’s prayers: believing what God says and acting accordingly.

Romans 3:19–31: As Paul continues his argument that while legal circumstances may be different, every human–whether Jew or Greek–is ultimately under the same law. In short, “the whole world may be held accountable to God.” (19)

Now, he turns his argument to the righteousness of God, which has already “been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets” (21) and that it points directly at the person of Jesus Christ. But the brutal reality is that under this law, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God;” (23)–a verse I learned at an early age in a church where it was till fashionable to speak of one’s intrinsic sinfulness.

But God is merciful and wants a relationship with every human, so we “are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” (24).  But this gift has been bought at a high price: Jesus, “whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.” (25).

So, we are saved through Jesus’ atoning sacrifice (a concept that seems to come from Paul rather than out of Jesus’ mouth–at least as I read the Gospels). But we cannot boast that we’ve gotten salvation by our good deeds, our works. Indeed, “No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” (27, 28). Which seems like a verse Martin Luther would have clung to enthusiastically.

Nevertheless, even though we are saved through faith and not our good works, the law remains in force–but in a completely new and unexpected way through the atonement of Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, grace does not allow lawlessness. Sin may not abound. It remains the standard which defines our sinfulness.

Psalm 35:11–18; Nehemiah 2:11–3:32; Romans 3:3–18

Psalm 35:11–18: Our poet reflects on the too-often asymmetry of relationships; of how even when we do good for others, they repay our kindnesses with contempt when the shoe is on the other foot. First, there are those who simply lie about what happened: “Outrageous witnesses rose,/ of things I knew not they asked me.” (11) And, more directly, “They paid me back evil for good–/ bereavement for my very self.” (12)

He describes his personal sacrifices for them; how “when they were ill, my garment was sackcloth, / I afflicted myself with fasting” (13). And how, “I went about though mourning a mother,/ in gloom I was bent.” (14) Yet when affliction comes to our poet, they not only don;t return his favor, the mock him instead: “Yet when I limped, they rejoiced, and they gathered,/…against me,/ like strangers.” (15).

Not only no sympathy, but derision instead, “With contemptuous mocking chatter/ they gnashed their teeth against me.” (16). It is so bad that the psalmist feels even God, who clearly sees what’s going on, has abandoned him: “O Master, how long will You see it?” as he prays for rescue. And if God answers, the poet promises, “I shall acclaim You in a great assembly,/ in a vast crowd I shall praise You.” (18)

So, is this mere whining about how tough life is; about how unfair it all is? Does the poet have a legitimate case here? In the end, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that here in a few verses, the psalmist has directly and precisely reflected our own feelings. How often do I feel that my generous behavior toward someone else is ignored and worse, having given them bread they gave me a stone?  This is the brilliance of the Psalms: that basically every feeling I’ve ever felt has been recorded here millennia ago. There is truly nothing new under the sun. And in reading of the psalmist’s woes, I can find succor from my own troubles.

Nehemiah 2:11–3:32: Nehemiah, having arrived in Jerusalem, conducts a secret nighttime tour of the destroyed city walls. He has been careful not to tell anyone else “what my God had put into my heart to do for Jerusalem.” (2:12) He even lists all the people to whom he has not revealed his plan: “The officials did not know where I had gone or what I was doing; I had not yet told the Jews, the priests, the nobles, the officials, and the rest that were to do the work.” (2:16). Nehemiah is the perfect example of the wise and discreet man, who does not announce or brag beforehand what he plans to accomplish. And why I believe Nehemiah is an engineer: he carefully assesses the “on-the-ground” situation first in order to fully understand the nature of what will have to be done. He is a careful observer.

Only after Nehemiah understand sthe nature and the magnitude of the task does he go to others, telling them, ““You see the trouble we are in, how Jerusalem lies in ruins with its gates burned. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, so that we may no longer suffer disgrace.” (17) Only then does he reveal what God laid on his heart and how he has been diligently careful to obtain permission from King Artaxexes.

His listeners here Nehemiah’s plan and preparation, and respond enthusiastically, “Let us start building!” (18). Of course no project can be planned and accomplished without opposition and “Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official, and Geshem the Arab heard of it, they mocked and ridiculed us, saying, “What is this that you are doing? Are you rebelling against the king?” (19) Nehemiah replies that the project is God-ordained and for their mockery, they will “have no share or claim or historic right in Jerusalem.” (2:20)

Like Ezra, Chapter 3 describe by name, who accomplishes what. Again, this long list of peope and what they did is a testament to Nehemiah’s organizational skill and effective leadership. There are interesting little asides such as, “the Tekoites made repairs; but their nobles would not put their shoulders to the work of their Lord.” (3:5) and the fact that women were engaged in the work, as well: “Shallum son of Hallohesh, ruler of half the district of Jerusalem, made repairs, he and his daughters.” (3:12).

No detail is too small for Nehemiah, no contribution by anyone is overlooked. This list of the people involved demonstrates the generosity of his spirit. He gives credit where it is due–yet another mark of outstanding leadership–and a Biblical model for anyone, especially a leader in the church, who undertakes a project and generously does not claim it as strictly his own, but of God and many other people.

Romans 3:3–18: Paul continues grappling with human unfaithfulness–sin–and the faithfulness of God. But if God is all forgiving, and we are sinners, why not just leave it as the status quo ante and keep on sinning? After all, we’ll be forgiven, right? Paul poses the famous rhetorical question, ““Let us do evil so that good may come.” (3:8), answering it immediately, “Their condemnation is deserved.”

He then asks, “Are we any better off?” and then answers immediately, “No, not at all.” (9) He employs extensive quotes from Psalms 14, 5, 10, and 36 and then a quote form Isaiah to remind us that we are failed beings at heart: “There is no one who is righteous” on down to a perfect description of the human condition from Isaiah 59: “Their feet are swift to shed blood; /ruin and misery are in their paths, /and the way of peace they have not known.” (16-18)

Every person who believes in the intrinsic goodness of human nature and that, yes, we may occasionally fall off the straight and narrow, but our hearts and intentions are pure, needs to reflect on the overwhelming evidence form Scripture that Paul presents here. It’s as if Paul is saying that the real statement should be “Let us do evil so that evil may abound.” Alas, events all around us today continue to prove the truth of Paul’s point.

Psalm 35:1–10; Nehemiah 1:1–2:10; Romans 2:17–3:2

Psalm 35:1–10: This psalm of supplication begins with full military imagery as the poet asks, “Take my part, Lord, against my contesters.” (1) And, “Steady the shield and the buckler,/ and rise up to my help.” (2) Then, it becomes more aggressive: “Unsheathe the spear to the haft/ against my pursuers.” (3)

But these are metaphorical as we arrive at the real topic of the psalm: “Let them bye shamed and disgraces,/ who seek my life.” (4) So, are these military aggressors or simply personal enemies? If we take this as a Dvid psalm, it may be plotting and conniving within his won ranks or in his court: “Let them retreat, be abased,/ who plot harm against me.” (4b)  The conspiracy theory seems reasonable farther along as the poet proclaims his innocence: “For unprovoked they set their net-trap for me, / unprovoked they dug a pit for my life.” (7)  Better that his enemies be hoisted on their own petard, “”Let disaster come upon him unwitting/ and the net that he set entrap him./ May he fall in disaster.” (8)

The poet is certain that God will act and in his assurance the verses turn to praise: “But I shall exult in the Lord,/ shall be glad in His rescue.” (9)>

So, the question remains, can we pray to God for the destruction of our enemies? I think that the words of Jesus about loving our enemies trump those of the psalmist. We can certainly pray that conspiracies against us are defeated, and we can be confident that God will see to it that evil ultimately fails. But to pray for an enemy’s destruction? UI leave that to our psalmist.

Nehemiah 1:1–2:10: Nehemiah is among my favorite books in the Bible because he is an engineer. When he is still at Susa in his important role as cupbearer to the king, messengers bring him word of the broken walls of Jerusalem and its general destruction. His reaction is, “I sat down and wept, and mourned for days, fasting and praying before the God of heaven.” (1:4). He prays fervently, beginning with a confession that admits all the wrongdoing of his people.But then he reminds God of his promise to the Jews, “but if you return to me and keep my commandments and do them, though your outcasts are under the farthest skies, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place at which I have chosen to establish my name.’” (1:9).

As he brings the cup to king Artaxerxes, the king notices Nehemiah’s sadness and observes, “This can only be sadness of the heart.” (2:2) Nehemiah humbly reports that his ancestral home has been destroyed. The king responds, “What is your request?” Nehemiah does not hesitate to ask boldly, “I ask that you send me to Judah, to the city of my ancestors’ graves, so that I may rebuild it.” (2:5) As long as Nehemiah agrees to return, the king agrees to his request, equipping Nehemiah with letters of passage, as well as permission to obtain “timber to make beams for the gates of the temple fortress, and for the wall of the city, and for the house that I shall occupy.” (2:8)

Nehemiah is the perfect combination of God-fearing humility and boldness. He prays before acting. And in acting he is well prepared to ask for exactly what is needed. I think Martin Luther would have liked Nehemiah: A man of God who prays and then recognizes that God answers prayers (here, the response of the king to Nehemiah’s sadness) in such a way that it requires bold action on our part. God is not a prayer-answering vending machine dispensing gifts. Rather, many times prayers are answered as opportunities.

Romans 2:17–3:2: Paul turns his attention to the Jews in his audience. His Pharisaical background is surely on Paul’s mind when he notes that those who follow the law are very skilled at instruction and guiding others–“a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of children”– (19,20) but if you “teach others, will you not teach yourself?” (21) In other words, are you not a hypocrite every time you sin. You pretend to teach others but haven’t learned the lessons yourself.?

Paul drives his point home by telling his audience that the physical mark of circumcision is only that: a mark. And “if you break the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision.” (25)  And then in what had to be a revolutionary idea, Paul moves circumcision from its physicality to its true reality as a spiritual mark by asking rhetorically, “if those who are uncircumcised keep the requirements of the law, will not their uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision?” (26). And then, most radically of all, this allows him to completely redefine what it means to be a Jew: “a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual and not literal.” (29) Which is to say, that if we follow God in our hearts that is “circumcision of the heart.”

Paul then poses another rhetorical question, “what is the value of circumcision?” (3:1) And answers immediately, “Much, in every way.” He has laid the foundation for some very radical redefinitions here.

Psalm 34:19–22; Ezra 10:7–44; Romans 2:5–16

 Psalm 34:19–22: These last verses are the distillation of hope because they are the distillation of God’s promise to us: “Near is the Lord to the broken-hearted,/ and the crushed in spirit He rescues.” (19) As we endure the vicissitudes of life, there is the assurance that even in the darkest places, God is very near. Near enough to rescue us.

These are extravagant promises: “Many the evils of the righteous man,/ yet from all of them the Lord will save him.” (20) We will encounter evil times and evil people, but we will always be rescued. It’s worth noting that rescue can be a messy business. If I fall off a boat into the sea and almost drown, but am rescued, it’s not like I was able to avoid getting wet or gasping for air. Bad things will happen, but God will rescue me in the end.

The bad guys will get theirs in the end: “Evil will kill the wicked, / and the righteous man’s foes will bear guilt.” (22) Even when things are at their darkest and the enemy seems to have the upper hand, God will win out And so will we. Because it is “The Lord [who] ransoms His servants’ lives.” (23a). And through the saving power of Jesus Christ, “we will bear no guilt, all who shelter in Him.” (23b). Each of us will experience desperate times but like so many other psalms, we are reassured again and again, God is our protector, our very present help in trouble.

Ezra 10:7–44: To solve the problem of intermarriage and to restart Israel as the Jewish people they were before the exile, Ezra sends out the world that everyone must gather in jerusalem within three days or forfeit his property and “they themselves [would be] banned from the congregation of the exiles.” (10:8)

Everyone duly shows up, and “sat in the open square before the house of God, trembling because of this matter and because of the heavy rain.” (9) Ezra demands that the assembly must “make confession to the Lord the God of your ancestors, and do his will; separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives.” (11). Just about everyone agrees, but there are logistic problems in undertaking the confession of each man there: “it is a time of heavy rain; we cannot stand in the open. Nor is this a task for one day or for two, for many of us have transgressed in this matter.” (13), so it’s agreed that judges will instead come to each outlying town and take confessions.

Ever precise, Ezra records exactly how long this process takes, “On the first day of the tenth month they sat down to examine the matter. By the first day of the first month they had come to the end of all the men who had married foreign women. (16, 17) A list of those who confessed follows. Why this precision and detail? I think it was because it was essential to know exactly how Israel’s national identity was reestablished. Jesus tells us that God is in the details, and the names of those involved in the re-founding of Israel is a crucial matter.

And we cannot forget how difficult it must have been for these men to give up their wives–and their children. Would I have obeyed this command in order to preserve the racial purity? We certainly know how modern society–where individual rights trump all else– would view this act.

Romans 2:5–16: For the psalmist above, the acts of God that Paul is describing here would be the lower level of abstraction of just how God will deal with both those who follow God and those who do not. For God “will repay according to each one’s deeds:” (6) For those “who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life;” (7) And “those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury.” (8) And These rules apply to both the Jew and the Greek (Gentile): “For God shows no partiality.” (11) Like the psalmist, Paul makes it clear that God will judge us by our deeds.

Since Paul is addressing both Jewish and Gentile believers here, he draws the interesting distinction that for the Gentiles, “ All who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law” but for Jews, “all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law.” (12) But, regardless, all will be judged.

So how does Paul know that this is how things will operate? First, it doesn’t have to do with hearing or knowing the law, but it’s all about doing–how we act. Paul is saying that the extensive written code of the Jewish law is in effect written on the heart of the Gentiles, and it’s called conscience: “They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness;” (15) Because Gentiles, “who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires,.” (14)

So, what’s going on here? Clearly, at the church in Rome, there were two classes of people: Jewish converts and Greek converts, and the Jews may have lorded it over the Gentiles because they were possessors of the written law. Paul is telling them, “Hey, guys, it doesn’t matter who’s got the written law; we each and everyone of us have the law, whether written down or written on our hearts. We are all the same in God’s eyes and will be judged the same.” Paul’s project here is to crush  the old cultural distinctions and telling us (as he does later) that we are all “new creatures in Christ.” This theme of we are the same in the eyes of God recurs over and over.

Psalm 34:8–18; Ezra 8:21–10:6; Romans 1:26–2:4

Psalm 34:8–18: Our 21st century concept of God tends to be that he is far off and should be approached with caution even though his love for us is deep and abiding. Yet, “Taste and see that the Lord is good,” (9a) is almost sensual, and the reward, “happy the man who shelters in Him” (9b) guaranteed. Lest he get a little too carried away, our poet reminds us that God is still God and that we  should “Fear the Lord, O his holy ones,” (10a), but in doing so, there is a sure reward: “for those who fear Him know no want.” (10b).

With our relationship to God established, the psalmist takes on an avuncular tone–“Come, sons, listen to me,” (12a) stating that fear of the Lord is teachable. Now, the verses sound more like Proverbs than Psalms: “keep your tongue form evil/ and your lips from seeking deceit.” (14) and just to drive his point home, he amplifies the same advice in the next verse: “Swerve from evil and do good,/ seek peace and pursue it.” (15)

The reason to take this advice is quite simple in the psalmist’s deuteornomic world: “The Lord’s eyes are on the righteous/ and His ears to their outcry.” (16) As over against the fate awaiting wrongdoers: “The Lord’s face is against evildoers,/ to cut off from the earth their name.” (17) All we need do, if we are God-followers, is “Cry out and the Lord hears, / and from all their straits He saves them.” (18)

These are indeed encouraging words: that God rescues those who have tasted the Lord and follow in His ways, avoiding evil. God is looking out for us. But woe to him who missteps. For the psalmist there are two classes of people: those who fear the Lord and evildoers. But are we really all that clearly defined as good or evil?  The reality of our personalities is a good deal more complex, I think.

Ezra 8:21–10:6: Ezra is now speaking in the first person. Following a fast at the Ahava river, “that we might deny ourselves before our God, to seek from him a safe journey for ourselves, our children, and all our possessions,” (8:21), the band, led by Ezra, sets out for Jerusalem. They have prayed for a safe journey because they are traveling without a security detail as Ezra had told the king that “the hand of our God is gracious to all who seek him, but his power and his wrath are against all who forsake him.” (22).

In other words, they had to put their money where their mouths were: they had to trust God completely. A good lesson for us: we talk about how we trust God, and even, like Ezra, declare it to others. But do our actions tangibly reveal that trust?

So, they safely arrive at Jerusalem and offer a sacrifice of praise. But all is not sweetness and light. Ezra learns the dreadful news that the Jews who have gone on before him, “The people of Israel, the priests, and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands with their abominations” (9:1) and mixed marriages are running rife. Ezra tears his clothes in distress, “while I sat appalled until the evening sacrifice.” (9:4).

Ezra prays desperately to God,  “O my God, I am too ashamed and embarrassed to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens.” (9:6) and “We have forsaken your commandments.” (9:10) and “Here we are before you in guilt.” (9:15). This is truly one of the most heart-rending confessional prayers in the Bible. Ezra has been faithful, but he finds he is leading a faithless people.

Ezra’s plan to rectify this is drastic: “let us make a covenant with our God to send away all these wives and their children.” (10:3)  This is not just a concept to be executed later, but now: “Take action, for it is your duty, and we are with you; be strong, and do it.” (10:4) Families are about to be torn apart. This is one of those places where I would probably compromise, but Ezra will not.

Romans 1:26–2:4: This is one of those hard passages where Paul condemns sexual immorality. One of them is homosexuality: “Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.” (1:27) It’s worth noting that it’s not just the men: “women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural,” (26) But Paul’s arc here does not stop with homosexuality. Rather, I think he sees it as an unnatural act that has severe consequences because at its heart it’s a failure to acknowledge God as master and the beginning of the inevitable slippery slope down into practices that comprise Paul’s first (of many) long list of wrongdoing: “They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.” (29-31).

How quick we have been to condemn the homosexual perosn without admitting ourselves that we, too, are full of those same sins. Paul makes it clear that we are hypocrites: “you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.” (2:1).  So, to those who condemn homosexual acts and then stop, read on, as Paul nails pious self-righteous sinners as well: “You say“We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth. Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God?” (2:2,3) In short, “hypocrite, heal thyself.”

I think Paul’s real concern is that when we become occupied in wrongdoing we are”despis[ing] the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience.” Our focus is in completely the wrong place because we forget the crucial reality that we “God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance.” (2:4) God has kindly given us free will. But the best and highest use of that will is to choose God, not wrongdoing.

Psalm 34:1–7; Ezra 8:1–20; Romans 1:13–25

Psalm 34:1–7: The superscription to this psalm, which Alter renders as, “For David, when he altered his good sense before Abimilech, who banished him and he went away,” is a direct reference to the story in 1 Samuel 21 when David, who has been captured, plays the madman before the Philistine king. The king wanted nothing to do with a crazy person, so he releases David and his men.

So, why this detailed superscription, when most introductions to psalms, including the David ones, are quite abstract? Perhaps it’s because the psalm–like many others–has to do with crying to God in desperate straits and being rescued: “I sought the Lord and He rescued me,/ and from all that I dreaded he saved me.” (4) This theme of rescue from one enemies suffuses these first verses: “When the lowly calls, God listens/ and from all straits rescues him.” (6). There is a wonderful sense of God’s power being put to the single purpose of protection: “The Lord’s messenger encamps/ round those who fear Him and sets them free.” (7). This is one of the rare references to protection by angels–and like the introduction far more specific to how God protects people in peril: with an angel, the “Lord’s messenger.”

And for us, a good reminder that in this hedonistic world that believes we are here by mere chance, that those of us who fear God are under a mighty cloud of protection.

Ezra 8:1–20: One of the differences between the histories on the OT and how we read history–and even in the NT in the Gospels and Acts, is that they do not always proceed in strict chronological order. Here in Ezra, we’ve already read about how a number of Jews are released from Babylon and are back to Israel rebuilding the temple after no small effort. But here in chapter 8, Ezra interrupts the narrative to relate the detailed story of the return to Jerusalem, beginning as usual with the preparations and a list of those who went back to Jerusalem plus their genealogy, including a head count.

Compared to the hundreds of thousands listed in the history of the early kingdoms of David and Solomon, this is a relatively small crowd, with families usually of less than two hundred members. E.g., “ Of the descendants of Bebai, Zechariah son of Bebai, and with him twenty-eight males.” (11)

Following the head count, Ezra “reviewed the people and the priests, I found there none of the descendants of Levi.” (15), which would make it impossible to have temple worship once the temple was rebuilt. So, Ezra “sent for Eliezer, Ariel, Shemaiah, Elnathan, Jarib, Elnathan, Nathan, Zechariah, and Meshullam, who were leaders, and for Joiarib and Elnathan, who were wise,” (16) and sends them to a certain Iddo “and his colleagues the temple servants at Casiphia, namely, to send us ministers for the house of our God.” (17).

Ezra is pleased with the results: “Since the gracious hand of our God was upon us, they brought us a man of discretion, …namely Sherebiah.” (18) And the group is now ready to set out for Jerusalem.

These verses demonstrate both Ezra’s organizational skills, but also that the journey back to Jerusalem is above all, a return under God’s guidance. There is nothing random or spontaneous; good order, careful accounting, and reliance on God are how the journey back home will occur.

Romans 1:13–25: Paul is anxious to communicate with the Romans and describes his mission already as “a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish” (15) as preparation for what he is about to write and “reap some harvest among you.” (14)

His introduction to his theological writings could serve as the introduction to all Paul’s letters as he explicitly states the Gospel is for everyone: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” (16) (This is a verse I remember memorizing as a 5th grader at Lake Avenue Congregational Church Sunday School back in 1957.)

Paul begins by summing up the state of humankind form the Creation forward, making it clear that the wicked have suppressed truth because “what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.” (19). But having ignored this plain evidence, “they are without excuse.” (20)

And then the line that sums up the state of the present world just as well as the ancient one: “Claiming to be wise, they became fools;” (22). This of course is the sin of human pride: our willful ability to ignore God’s truth while claiming our own is superior. And in the end, our wisdom is dust.

Paul is not in a good mood about this willful foolishness: “God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves,” (24) Which is a pretty good description of the present cult of celebrity and the narcissistic behavior of those who claim to be our leaders. And how dd this happen? “because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (25). We decided to worship ourselves, and thus we have come foolishly to our present pass. We forget to our peril that we are creatures, not creators.

Psalm 33:12–22; Ezra 6:13–7:28; Romans 1:1–12

Psalm 33:12–22: Our psalmist switches the point of view from earth to heaven where “the Lord looked down.” And God’s focus here in not on creation in general but specifically on human kind. God looks down and “saw all the human creatures” (13) Notice “creatures,” making it clear that even though we forget, we are indeed God’s creation. As is the nature of Hebrew poetry–and to make sure we get the point–the idea of God looking down on us is repeated: “From His firm throne He surveyed/ all who dwell on earth.” (14) God is looking at all of us, not just a few; none of us can escape God’s gaze.

And what does God see? He sees more than just humankind’s outward appearances and actions; he sees right into us, for in being created, so too are our emotions and motivations God’s creation: “He fashions their heart one and all./ He understands all their doings.” (15)

And with the reality that we are his created beings, God sees humans performing acts that they believe are their own accomplishments, when they are not: “The king is not rescued through surfeit of might,/ the warrior not saved through surfeit of power.” (16) The unstated answer to the unstated question of “who, then?” is obvious: God is our rescuer.  This is a fine definition of pride: we operate under the delusion that we are independent beings, forgetting that we are God’s creatures, his creation.

But if, as Jesus says, God’s eye is on the sparrow, so too is his eye on us as those of us who seek after God are protected: “Look, the Lord’s eye is on those who fear Him,/ on those who yearn for His kindness/ to save their lives from death/ and in famine keep them alive.” (19,20) As this psalm concludes, the poet reminds us that it is this awareness of God’s faithful watching over us us why “in Him our heart rejoices,/ for in His holy name do we trust.” (21)

Ezra 6:13–7:28: Despite the obstacles thrown in their way, and protected by the decree of King Darius, the rebuilding of the temple is complete: “They finished their building by command of the God of Israel and by decree of Cyrus, Darius, and King Artaxerxes of Persia.” (6:14) A great celebration takes place and Passover is celebrated, as Ezra gives credit to God, but to the king of Assyria, as well: “for the Lord had made them joyful, and had turned the heart of the king of Assyria to them, so that he aided them in the work on the house of God, the God of Israel.” (6:22).  This is a good reminder that God’s work is aided through human agency. No miracles are required here, but it’s clear that as the psalm above would have it, God “fashioned” Darius’s heart.

Suddenly the book turns autobiographical (or, assuming someone else wrote this book, biographical) and we learn that Ezra “was a scribe skilled in the law of Moses that the Lord the God of Israel had given; and the king granted him all that he asked, for the hand of the Lord his God was upon him.” (7:6) And in return, “Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach the statutes and ordinances in Israel.” (7:10). Notice that Ezra studies the law, but he also does it and teach it. A good reminder that just reading and writing about the Word of God, as I do here, is not sufficient. My knowledge must be translated into action.

King Artaxerxes writes a letter granting Ezra full access to whatever “the priest Ezra, the scribe of the law of the God of heaven, requires of you, let it be done with all diligence.” God has impacted Artaxerxes’ heart to make sure Ezra has what he needs and is obeyed for a very practical reason. The king clearly has read the history of the Jews and understands God’s wrath for disobedience: “Whatever is commanded by the God of heaven, let it be done with zeal for the house of the God of heaven, or wrath will come upon the realm of the king and his heirs.” (7:23). Artaxerxes isn’t taking any chances here.

Ezra becomes the defacto ruler–not king–of Judah. And Ezra gathers his courage to go visit the king: “I took courage, for the hand of the Lord my God was upon me, and I gathered leaders from Israel to go up with me.” (7:28) Ezra knows that these honors being shown and power given to him are not the result of his work, but God’s.

Romans 1:1–12: And so, we leave the Gospels and Acts and enter the realm of theology. I don’t think that given how Luke’s history ended–with Paul preaching in Rome, that it was any accident that whoever determined the order of the NT, logically places Paul’s letter to Rome immediately following.

Paul’s salutation is a remarkable summary of the the Gospel–and lays out the themes he will be taking up in detail in the themes of this letter, as he writes, “the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord,” (3,4). And then Paul’s restates his own great commission to “to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles.” (5)

It’s clear in Paul’s introduction that the letter was written well before he actually arrived in Rome. He tells the people in Rome “I remember you always in my prayers, asking that by God’s will I may somehow at last succeed in coming to you.” (10). Which wish we know by virtue of reading Luke’s history was finally been granted.

Paul reminds us of the crucial importance of community, and why our faith cannot be practiced in isolation: “For I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you—  or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.” The journey with the Lord, has not only Jesus at our side, as on the road to Emmaus, but our friends in the faith as well. Mutual encouragement is so crucial, so important in building up each other’s faith.


Psalm 33:6–11; Ezra 5:1–6:12; Acts 28:17–31

Psalm 33:6–11: The second stanza of this new song takes up the reality of God as Creator, who spoke creation into existence: “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made,” (6a), including a very creative description of God separating the waters form the dry land: “He gathers like a mound the sea’s waters.” (7a).

But then the poet skips right over all the other steps of creation, landing on mankind’s response to this God: “All the earth fears the Lord,/ all the world’s dwellers dread Him.” (8) And in this case given the second line of the couplet that includes “dread,” I think the psalmist is using “fears” as in “afraid of,” not the usual Biblical sense of “reveres and worships.”)

Why is humankind afraid? Because they are getting their minds around the fact that God simply speaks and creation happens: “For He did speak and it came to be,/ He commanded and it stood.” (9).

Then, a marvelous comparison of God’s wisdom and might compared to man’s puny efforts: “The Lord thwarted the counsel of nations,/ overturned the devisings of peoples.” (10) It would be difficult to think of a more compact and direct way of expressing the arrogance of our assumptions and the futility of our attempts to control outcomes–our belief that if we do “A” then “B” will happen. This ranges from men trying to control their wives and children on up to treaties between nations. (E.g., between the west and Iran currently in the works.)

Only one thing stands through time: “The Lord’s counsel will stand forever,” (11a) There is only one plan that endures and it comes straight form God’s heart, straight form his love for us humans, his greatest creation: “His heart’s devisings for all generations.” (11b)

Ezra 5:1–6:12: We meet “the prophets, Haggai and Zechariah son of Iddo, prophesied to the Jews who were in Judah and Jerusalem, in the name of the God of Israel who was over them.” (5:1). While Ezra does not say so directly, they apparently prophesied that things would be OK if work on restoring the temple resumed, which has happened because “Tattenai the governor of the province Beyond the River and Shethar-bozenai and their associates” (3) object to the resumption of work and send a letter to Darius, the new king of the Persians, that when they asked the Jews who gave them permission to resume work, they replied that it was Darius’ predecessor, Cyrus. Tattenai et al are challenging the veracity of that claim.

Finally, the reply from Darius arrives. It is not good news for Tattenai and “his associates.” The letter says that indeed the scroll with Cyrus’ edict was found, and it was exactly as the Jews had claimed. To add insult to injury for Tattenai, he is commanded by the king, “I make a decree regarding what you shall do for these elders of the Jews for the rebuilding of this house of God: the cost is to be paid to these people, in full and without delay, from the royal revenue, the tribute of the province Beyond the River.” (6:8)  Darius adds a postscript: “Furthermore I decree that if anyone alters this edict, a beam shall be pulled out of the house of the perpetrator, who then shall be impaled on it. The house shall be made a dunghill.” (6:11) Cool.

The lesson here is that the Jews stood up for their rights but they did so because they knew the decree had been made by Cyrus. They followed good order. Unlike so many groups and causes today, they did not simply claim the moral high ground without proof. They had the documentation.

Acts 28:17–31: In Rome just three days, Paul “called together the local leaders of the Jews” and explains his case, explaining that the Jews in Jerusalem had accused him but there was no case against him. Nevertheless, having appealed to the emperor, he was now a prisoner in Rome. Paul, being Paul, says, “it is for the sake of the hope of Israel that I am bound with this chain.” (20b). The Jews reply they know nothing about what went on in Jerusalem, but “we would like to hear from you what you think, for with regard to this sect we know that everywhere it is spoken against.” (22).

So, whatever word about “the Way” that arrived in Rome was distorted and Paul begins preaching to the Roman Jews: “testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the law of Moses and from the prophets.” (23) As Luke notes, “ Some were convinced by what he had said, while others refused to believe.” (24) As the skeptics were leaving Paul quotes Isaiah,”You will indeed listen, but never understand, /and you will indeed look, but never perceive./ For this people’s heart has grown dull, /and their ears are hard of hearing,” (26,27a)

Paul’s final recorded words are, “Let it be known to you then that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen.” (28).

And thus, the Good News has indeed come to us, the Gentiles. And what Paul said about the Jews in Rome is just as true today: a missed opportunity that if, as Isaiah said, they would but “listen with their ears,/ and understand with their heart and turn— and I would heal them.’” (27b)

This extraordinary history ends on a  brilliant note, the spotlight on Paul, but for all who followed Paul dow to the present day: “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.” (30)



Psalm 33:1–5; Ezra 4; Acts 28:7–16

Psalm 33:1–5: There seems little question that this psalm is an actual hymn that was probably sung with choir and accompanying instruments. And it is self-referential: a hymn about singing: “Sing gladly, O righteous, of the Lord/ for the upright, praise is befitting.” (1)  The instruments include the lyre and the ten-stringed lute.  Notice that it is the “righteous” and “upright” that are singing. Worship occurs after confession. We praise God with clean hearts.

Then the most famous verse in the psalm: “Sing Him a new song,/ play deftly with joyous shout.” (3) Alter notes that this is the writer telling us that he’s composed a new hymn for this occasion. But it’s also a challenge to all of us to step out in faith and try new things along with new songs. Yes, we are comfortable with the known, but to worship God with only what’s familiar is to miss the excitement, the joy, and the energy in God–a joy that even new songs can only partially hint at.

Because God loves us and “The Lord’s kindness fills the earth,” our response is to step out into the unknown. No matter where we go or what we try, God will be right there with us. A new song is simply a metaphor for new things, new risks taken in God’s name.

Ezra 4: All is not sweetness and light as Israel returns and begins rebuilding. The people, who appear to be displaced Samaritans, and who occupied the land during the 70 years of exile are (somewhat understandably) miffed at the pretensions of those who returned. After they fail to persuade the returning Jews that they, too, “worship your God as you do” and are excluded form the rebuilding project, the inhabitants “made them afraid to build, and they bribed officials to frustrate their plan throughout the reign of King Cyrus of Persia and until the reign of King Darius of Persia.” (5) Resistance to immigrants and attempts to build new things are hardly recent phenomena!

The inhabitants send a letter of protest to King Artaxeres, contending that the Jews will create a defensive headache for the king and fail to pay taxes: “They are rebuilding that rebellious and wicked city; they are finishing the walls and repairing the foundations. Now may it be known to the king that, if this city is rebuilt and the walls finished, they will not pay tribute, custom, or toll, and the royal revenue will be reduced.” (13) Wow. Protests that a certain action will weaken defenses, create a new enemy, and/or reduce governmental revenue are certainly nothing new to our time! 

Unfortunately for the returning Jews, the protests are effective. The king issues an order “that these people be made to cease, and that this city not be rebuilt, until I make a decree.” (21) (This sounds like the process of getting building permits form the city of Walnut Creek to build the new buildings at Saint Matthew!) So, “the work on the house of God in Jerusalem stopped and was discontinued until the second year of the reign of King Darius of Persia.” (24) Even our plans to honor God will be met with worldly obstacles that require patience.

Acts 28:7–16: If I’m not mistaken, even today the people of Malta will say that it was the shipwreck that brought Paul to Malta, who brought Christianity to those people. After Paul heals a certain Publius, a leader on the island, “the rest of the people on the island who had diseases also came and were cured.” (9)

They remain in Malta for three months before setting out for Rome on “an Alexandrian ship with the Twin Brothers as its figurehead.” (11). I’m intrigued as to this particular detail. Why does Luke tell us the name of the ship? Perhaps because he’s grateful that it carried them safely to Puteoli by a route through Syracuse and Rhegium. (Again, so much travel detail!).

Paul, Luke and the others arrive safely in Italy at last and we find out that there are believers scattered all over Italy. They remain among believers in Puteoli for a week, and then they arrive in Rome, where word has spread that the famous Paul has arrived and “The believers from there, when they heard of us, came as far as the Forum of Appius and Three Taverns to meet us.” (15). Luke tells us, that on “seeing them, Paul thanked God and took courage.” (15b).

We can imagine how it heartened Paul that after the hostility in Jerusalem and the dangerous voyage and shipwreck, to be welcomed by new friends. That’s the joy of Christian community. That no matter where in the world we go, we will find brothers and sisters and be welcomed there.

The final line of Acts tells us that when “we came into Rome, Paul was allowed to live by himself, with the soldier who was guarding him.” And Luke’s history ends. God has used Paul, who has traveled with the Holy Spirit from Damascus through the much of the Roman empire spreading the gospel to rejection in Jerusalem to Rome to a new beginning for the church as Paul’s writings help shape a church that changes the world through the powerful message of Jesus Christ.


Psalm 32; Ezra 3; Acts 27:39–28:6

Psalm 32: The underlying theme of this psalm is the joy one feels when forgiven: “Happy, of sin forgiven,/ absolved of offense.” (1) And just to make sure we get the point, “Happy, the man to whom/ the Lord reckons no crime/ in whose spirit is no deceit.”

I’m intrigued by the phrase, “in whose spirit there is no deceit.” It tells me that true confession is exactly that: truth spoken; nothing held back. In fact, the psalmist emphasizes this again: “My offense I made known to You/ and my crime I did not cover.” (5). Nothing is hidden; everything is out in the open. I know I have confessed to wrongdoing, but sometimes only partially, holding back, thinking to myself, OK, perhaps I’m partly at fault, but then rationalizing that it really wasn’t all my fault.

We can think confession, but its real power is saying it aloud, exactly as the psalmist does: “I said, ‘I shall confess my sins to the Lord,'” (5). And the result is “You forgave my sins offending crime.” (5b) This is why confession at the beginning of worship is so powerful (and deserves to be done every Sunday, not just at Lent.” As other psalms have made abundantly clear, there is tremendous power in what is spoken rather than merely thought. And when we confess in the presence of our community, the power of that spoken confession is, I believe, multiplied.

Ezra 3: The Israelites have returned to Judah and seven months later, they gather at Jerusalem. The temple is still in ruins, but they set up an altar and “and they offered burnt offerings upon it to the Lord, morning and evening.” Then, they celebrate the festival of booths “and after that the regular burnt offerings, the offerings at the new moon and at all the sacred festivals of the Lord, and the offerings of everyone who made a freewill offering to the Lord.” (5).

The capital campaign to rebuild the temple has begun and “they gave money to the masons and the carpenters, and food, drink, and oil to the Sidonians and the Tyrians to bring cedar trees from Lebanon.” (7)  The priesthood is reestablished and “When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests in their vestments were stationed to praise the Lord with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, according to the directions of King David of Israel.”

All the people sing, “responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord, “For he is good, /for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.”” The foundation of the second temple is laid, and many who had seen the original temple begin to weep while others shout for joy “so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted so loudly that the sound was heard far away.” (13)

Surely this had to be the happiest day since the dedication of the original temple by Solomon or the discovery of the long-abandoned writings of law of Moses in the temple. But above all it is a reminder that in God, there is always the opportunity to begin again–to start over. Whether it’s personal confession as in today’s psalm, or the joy of an entire nation as it begins to worship as a community once again. God is indeed the God–our God–of second chances.

Acts 27:39–28:6: Speaking of second chances… The plan to bring the disabled ship up onto the beach at Malta goes awry when it gets stuck on a reef. The centurion, realizing that Paul has saved them all, prevents his men from killing the prisoners.  Everyone survives, but as Paul is gathering wood on the beach for a fire, he is bitten by a viper in the woodpile. At first the Maltan natives think, “This man must be a murderer; though he has escaped from the sea, justice has not allowed him to live.” (28:4). But when Paul fails to die, and they “saw that nothing unusual had happened to him, they changed their minds and began to say that he was a god.” (6).

Of course, Paul is not a god, but I cannot help thinking that the viper has a larger meaning here. Paul has just left Jerusalem when the “viper” of angry Jews has failed to kill him. He has just survived a disaster at sea; not even nature can kill him off. The soldiers have been prevented by their commander from killing him. As with his experiences at Phillipi and at Ephesus, Paul is a survivor. And we cannot help but be grateful that Paul survived for our sakes as well. For it is in Rome, where he is headed, where his great epistles will be written. There is no question that the Holy Spirit has watched over Paul–to the church’s–and our–enormous benefit.

When I’m tempted to think that events are random and God is indifferent to our fate, we need only remind ourselves of Paul’s incredible story.