Archives for April 2015

Psalm 51:1–6; Job 22,23; 1 Corinthians 3:1–11

Psalm 51:1–6: Alter questions the historical reliability of this psalm’s superscription–“upon Nathan the prophet’s coming to him when he had come to bed with Bathsheba.” However, I prefer to believe that this is truly David’s remorseful psalm of confession as he begs God for forgiveness for the awful crimes of adultery and murder.

In any event it is an eloquent and moving psalm of confession that has become part of the liturgy for both Jewish and Christian worship. This psalm does not require parsing, it requires only that as we read it (preferably aloud) that it moves our heart as we come before God knowing we have sinned and being willing to confess those sins to the Father who loves us:

Grant me grace, God, as befits Your kindness,
with Your great mercy wipe away my crimes.
Thoroughly wash my transgressions away
and cleanse me from my offense.
For my crimes I know,
and my offense is before me always.
You alone have I offended,
and what is evil in Your eyes I have done.
So You are just when You sentence,
You are right when You judge.  (3-7)

The question for me is, am I willing to come in humility before God and confess? Even though I know that my sins will be forgiven, too often my pride blocks confession. And we know that in the larger culture, and even in the church itself, we are so consumed by not denigrating self-worth that even the concept of sin itself is becoming muddied and foreign.

It’s too bad this psalm is no longer a part of the liturgy at Saint Matthew. We are all the poorer by skipping its heartfelt beauty, confessing as a worshipping body only at Lent and then only with anodyne phrases that do not convey half the self-aware agony that lies behind these verses.

Job 22,23: Eliphaz the Temanite is not convinced by Job’s description of God in the previous chapter as he accuses Job of continuing to fail to recognize that God punishes the wicked. End of story.

Again we hear only sarcasm from the would-be friend: “Is it for your piety that he reproves you,/ and enters into judgment with you?” (22:4) ‘Come on, Job, admit your sinfulness; that’s why you’re being punnished!’  He then moves from sarcasm to outright accusation: “Will you keep to the old way/ that the wicked have trod?” (22:15) He’s telling Job to just give up and admit his wickedness: “Agree with God, and be at peace;/ in this way good will come to you.” (22:21) Upon that confession, God will deign to “deliver even those who are guilty.” (22:30)

Job refuses to take Elihaz’s advice. Instead, he would rather come before God directly in God’s courtroom: “I would lay my case before him,/and fill my mouth with arguments.” (23:4) And by confronting God directly, “I would learn what he would answer me,/ and understand what he would say to me.” (23:5) It is by confrontation and reasoned argument that God would “give heed to me.” (23:6)

Job knows in his heart that he has not sinned against God: “he has tested me, I shall come out like gold./ My foot has held fast to his steps;/ I have kept his way and have not turned aside.” (23:10, 11) But then, as Job reflects, the idea of coming before God is too much to bear: “I am terrified at his presence;/ when I consider, I am in dread of him./God has made my heart faint;/ the Almighty has terrified me;.” (23:15, 16)

Job’s argument that he could come before God in innocence and argue his case is remarkably sophisticated. Where Eliphaz argues for Job to simply throw in the towel, Job wishes to come before God. But as a mere mortal the thought of standing in God’s court is terrifying. I’m sure this is where the concept of the Judgement Seat of God comes from. And what Jesus is talking about in the Olivet Discourse: That someday we will all come before God to be held accountable is terrifying–exactly as Job asserts.

1 Corinthians 3:1–11: Paul turns from the theology of God’s wisdom compared against man’s wisdom to the issue at hand: divisions within the Corinthian church. Paul speaks with a bluntness that has all but disappeared form today’s church: “For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations?” (4) Alas, the same all-too-human motivations and jealousy that created the divisions at Corinth trace down through the quarreling and divisions that have divided the Church for the past 2000 years.

Right on down to today to the people who decide to skip worship when a pastor they don’t like is preaching. Or withholding an offering because they don’t like the music. It’s a clear warning to churches that are founded on personalities–the Schullers, the Osteens, among others–where it’s more about feel-good self esteem than on carrying out the hard work of the Great Commission. To extend Paul’s metaphor, these are shallow-rooted organizations that have depended on personality rather than God to fuel temporary growth. If there are not deep roots in Jesus Christ they will fade after the personality that drove them leaves the scene.

This is also a reminder of the awesome responsibility laid upon any who have a leadership role in a church. Paul reminds them, “Each builder must choose with care how to build on it.” (10b) But there’s a straightforward metric to measure how well the leader is carrying out his or her job: all must build on the foundation that is Jesus Christ. (11) Those who drift from that foundation have doomed their work.

 

Psalm 50:16–23; Job 21; 1 Corinthians 2:3–16

Psalm 50:16–23: God now turns his attention to the wicked, citing a long list of offenses. At the top of the list is the hypocrisy of a false faith: “Why do you recount My statutes/ and bear My pact in your mouth,/ when you have despised chastisement/ and flung My words behind you?” (16-17) In today’s culture, where the ascendant movement of “progressivism” attempts to sweep faith out of the public square, hypocrisy seems less of the issue it once was. People no longer pretend to have faith; they reject it publicly.

But then God cites other sins. Our psalmist seems to be anticipating the problem of gangs: “If you see a thief, you run with him,/ and with adulterers is your lit.” And as usual, in this mostly pre-literate society, there’s the problem of wicked speech: “You let loose your mouth in evil,/ and your tongue clings fast to deceit.” Now we’re talking (so to speak!) about a sin that is rampant both inside and outside the church. And family warfare, as well: “You sit, against your brother you speak,/ Your mother’s son you slander.” (20)

But above all, I think, is the sin of pride, where we forget or reject God, or even if we believe, we view ourselves as being equal with God. Our ultimate comeuppance is not a pretty sight. “Understand this, you who forget God,/ lest I tear you apart, with no one to save you.” (22).  Only those who are faithful will find salvation. Those are the ones to whom “I will show God’s rescue.”

The message seems clear: those individuals who reject God and the larger culture that rejects God will all come to a bad end. To me, it seems our decadent American culture is well on the way.

Job 21: Job, on the other hand, is far less confident than the psalmist that the wicked will inevitably receive their just desserts for their wickedness. This is the beauty of this book being in the Bible: one of it’s major purposes is to fly in the face of conventional wisdom–and theology.

Job compares his present state–“Look at me, and be appalled,/ and lay your hand upon your mouth.” (5) with that of the wicked: “Why do the wicked live on,/ reach old age, and grow mighty in power?” (7) Which to be blunt certainly seems a more accurate description of the state of the world. For Job, the wicked never receive what they’re due. Instead, he states with bitter sarcasm,

12 They sing to the tambourine and the lyre,
    and rejoice to the sound of the pipe.
13 They spend their days in prosperity,
    and in peace they go down to Sheol.

The prosperous wicked reject God outright and get away with it: “They say to God, ‘Leave us alone!/  We do not desire to know your ways.” (14) Job points out that his interlocutors have asserted that the children of the wicked will suffer, but he rejects this theology outright:

19 You say, ‘God stores up their iniquity for their children.’
    Let it be paid back to them, so that they may know it.
20 Let their own eyes see their destruction,
    and let them drink of the wrath of the Almighty.

Which I think is a really good point!  Job understands in ways his friends can never understand. Yes, the wicked don’t necessarily get what they deserve. There is rampant injustice in the world.

In the end, Job recognizes his friends speeches for what they are: “How then will you comfort me with empty nothings?/ There is nothing left of your answers but falsehood.” (34) This is a definite warning to those who pretend to know what their friends are experiencing. I know from my own experience with cancer that some people came to me, assuming they knew how I felt, but made it all about themselves, comforting me with “empty nothings.”

 1 Corinthians 2:3–16: Paul shifts form the shortcomings to human wisdom to the grandeur of God’s wisdom: “But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory.” (7). Unlike men who flaunt their “wisdom,” only to have it revealed as shallow and ephemera;, God’s wisdom is far deeper. It is mysterious, and unlike the Gnostics of the age that would claim to be able to eventually uncover that wisdom, God’s wisdom is hidden from human sight. As much as we try–and I’ve tried a lot–there’s no way to unlock the core mystery of our faith. And rather than that reality being a source of frustration, it can become a source of joy.

There is absolutely no way that any human could ever have conceived of God’s plan of Jesus’ incarnation, sacrificial death, and Resurrection. It is truly “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,/nor the human heart conceived.” (9)

We may not come to understand the mystery, but we really have something better that mere understanding: the gift of the Holy Spirit, the means by which we come to understand as Paul puts it later in this book, “through a glass darkly.” I like how Paul phrases it here: “we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God.” (12) What’s clear in this statement is that there is no room in our hearts for both. The Holy Spirit completely displaces the “spirit of the world.” And if we attempt to hang on to the spirit of the world, we are not opening ourselves up to the Holy Spirit residing in us. And without the Holy Spirit we will indeed never have “the mind of Christ.”

Psalm 50:7–15; Job 20; 1 Corinthians 1:21–2:2

Psalm 50:7–15: God’s assertion, “Not for sacrifices shall I reprove you,/ your burnt offerings always before me.” (8) seems to fly in the face of the complex sacrificial system that was set up in Leviticus. Is God now saying that sacrifices are no longer required?  It’s a little more subtle than that. Rather, God seems to be saying, ‘I really don’t need your sacrifices’ since all the animals in existence are already his: “For mine are all the beasts of the forest/ the herds on the thousand mountains.” (10) Evoking what Jesus said about God’s intimate knowledge of creation, the psalmist reminds us that God “know[s] every bird of the mountains,/ creatures of the field are with Me.” (11).

The next verse, however, illuminates what God is really talking about: “Should I hunger, I would not say to you,/ for mine is the world and its fullness.” (12) God is making the point that he does not require sacrifice in order to satisfy his hunger, as was the case of other local idols to whom people brought their gifts to provide sustenance for their small-g gods.  This difference becomes clearer as God asserts, “Would I eat the flesh of fat bulls,/ would I drink the blood of goats?” (14)

Rather, our sacrifices to God devolve to our own benefit: “Sacrifice to God a thanksgiving, and pay to the High One your vows.” (14). We do not sustain God; God sustains us, especially in our troubles: “And call on Me on the day of distress–/ I will free you and you shall revere me.” (15)

I don’t think we appreciate just how radical the idea of a God who cares for his people and does not demand sacrifice for his own sake really was in that time. All those small-g gods were jealous, hungry, and demanded sacrifices for their own sake. Israel’s God sees sacrifice as an act for our own sake. That’s what thanksgiving to God is all about.

Job 20: One thing we know about Job’s friends. As soon as Job finishes speaking they do not allow a moment of silence. Rather, they rebut Job’s words almost instantly. Like many modern conversations it seems that rather than actually listening to what Job said and reflecting thoughtfully on his words, Job’s friends are thinking about what they’re going to say next while Job’s still speaking. I know that I personally tend to do this…

So, “Zophar the Naamathite answered.” (20:1) Like his buddies, Zophar shows not a shred of sympathy to Job’s plight. In fact, he’s pretty annoyed with Job as he begins his speech like a stern schoolteacher: “Pay attention! My thoughts urge me to answer,/ because of the agitation within me.” (2)

Zophar’s theology is pretty much the same as his two friends as he implicitly upbraids Job, 

“Do you not know this from of old,
    ever since mortals were placed on earth,
 that the exulting of the wicked is short,
    and the joy of the godless is but for a moment?” (4,5)

OK, we’ve heard this story before. Zophar continues in exquisite detail that the wicked get just recompense for their wickedness, as e.g., “They swallow down riches and vomit them up again;/ God casts them out of their bellies.” (15) and later, “from the profit of their trading/ they will get no enjoyment.” (18b)

And in the end, “God will send his fierce anger into them,/ and rain it upon them as their food.” (15) and “The possessions of their house will be carried away,/dragged off in the day of God’s] wrath.” (28)  This is the deuteronomic theology that suffuses the OT and the Psalms. The wicked will prosper for a while, but in the end they receive their just desserts for their sins. Zophar does not have to directly accuse Job of wrongdoing, but his implication is all too clear that Job has sinned mightily since he is being punished mightily.

But in our hearts, isn’t this really how we want things to work? Zophar’s speech is an operational definition of the human concept of justice. This seems how the world should operate.

1 Corinthians 1:21–2:2: Paul puts his finger directly on why the Gospel message is anathema to most of the world: “For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom.” (1:22) But the message of Christ crucified is neither a sign nor wisdom–at least in the terms the world prefers to define those things.

To human eyes it’s all nonsense. And in today’s culture it seems that more and more people are coming to this conclusion.  If we want to be seen as “wise” in the framework of the world at large, we better stop spouting off about this “Jesus loves me” business or even more offensively, “Christ died for your sins.” What Paul said close to 2000 years ago is still resoundingly pertinent. God does not operate on human terms and therefore his message will be seen as foolish. But as we are slowly learning in reading Job, “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” (1:25)

Paul turns to the people of the church at Corinth as his proof: “not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.” (26) And then in my favorite verse about how God operates in the opposite to what our logic says God should do, Paul makes it clear that the Good News has turned human logic on its head: “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are.” (27)

If I were really courageous, I would not care a whit what the world thinks of what I have to say. And at least as I grow older, I am finally coming to realize that what the world thinks really does not matter one iota. In the end, accepting God’s logic rather than human “wisdom” has become ultimately freeing.

Finally, Paul turns to himself, saying that despite what the people at Corinth would like to think about the depth of Paul’s theological insights, “I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” (2:1,2). The Gospel message is really that simple. If we accepted Paul strictly at his word, there would have been a lot of unemployed theologians!

 

 

Psalm 50:1–6; Job 19; 1 Corinthians 1:10–20

 Psalm 50:1–6: In this prophetic psalm God himself takes center stage and speaks. The poet introduces God, noting he is Creator, “He spoke and called to the earth/ from the sun’s rising place to its setting.” (2) God is in residence at “Zion, the zenith of beauty,” whence the pyrotechnic theophany commences as “God shone forth.” (2b) God is both sound and light as the poet tells us, “Let our God come and not be silent./ Before Him fire consumes,/ and round Him–great storming.”

This appearance is by no means a quiet tete-a-tete with a single prophet, but God is visible to everyone as “He calls to the heavens above and to earth to judge his people.” (4) His first words are, not surprisingly, to Israel, reminding them of their covenant as acted out in the temple: “Gather to me My faithful,/ who with sacrifice seal My pact.” (5)

The poet intervenes with an editorial comment, “let the heavens tel of His justice,/ for God, He is judge.” (6). The noun “judge” may provide a clue about what is coming.

A brief pause (selah) and God begins the speech that occupies the remainder of the psalm, “Hear, O My people, that I may speak…” First, he reminds them of who he is: “God, your God I am.”  The words, “I am” are the words Moses heard from the burning bush. And here again, God is “I am.”  This introduction is a brilliant reminder that yes, God is our father, and yes, God loves us more than anything. But he is also God, the great “I am,” creator and ruler of the universe.

Job 19: Job responds in one of the most eloquent chapters of the book to Bildad’s simple-mined black and white theology–and to the essential cruelty of his supposed friend’s endless lecturing: ““How long will you torment me,/and break me in pieces with words?” (2).

This verse has great personal significance to me because through much of my relationship with Susan, when we have had arguments, I have tried to use endless words and lecturing to get her to see things my way–the “right” way–exactly as Bildad has.  

Job then says, “And even if it is true that I have erred,/ my error remains with me.” (4) In the end, when we err, we own the wrong. Those who would attempt to correct us us do not. The issue is between God and ourselves.

Job continues to assert that it is not his errors that have resulted in this disaster, but “that God has put me in the wrong,/ and closed his net around me.” (6) God remains silent, “Even when I cry out, ‘Violence!’ I am not answered;/ I call aloud, but there is no justice.” (7)  

But in the end, Job is not asking for theological discourses from his friends; he is seeking something else from them: “Have pity on me, have pity on me, O you my friends,/for the hand of God has touched me!” (21) Because despite whatever God has done or allowed to be done, his faith still remains as he utters one of the most famous lines in this book: “For I know that my Redeemer lives,/ and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; (25). The beautiful Handel aria on this verse rings in my ears.

Even though I ave never suffered the woes of Job, I know that despite all that can go wrong that our Redeemer lives. And out of my Christian faith I know exactly who my Redeemer is.

1 Corinthians 1:10–20: Things are clearly quite messed up in Corinth as the church has divided into factions. Paul’s first plea to al of them is “by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” (10)  He immediately puts his finger on the problem: people are making the preacher greater than the message: “each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.”” (12)

We continue to do exactly the same things as the folks at Corinth when we talk about preachers we like and those we don’t like. There are even people who will not come to worship if they know a pastor they don’t care for is speaking that morning. But even worse are the preachers who come to believe their own press releases and allow personality cults to be built around them. When that preacher dies or leaves, the congregation follows him to the next church or dies with him–proving exactly Paul’s point here.

With these divisions in mind, Paul reminds us that at its core, “the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (18) I think Paul’s not only talking about the wisdom of the world “out there” beyond the church, but within the church as well. Leaders or preachers who pretend to have all the answers  or are pretending to be wise are practicing the foolish wisdom of the world. (Just like Job’s friends!)

As soon as a preacher–or anyone leading a Bible study, for that matter–begins to make his own theological insights more important than the foolish simplicity of the unvarnished Gospel message he has lapsed into foolishness. It is indeed, “all about Jesus.”

Psalm 49:13–20; Job 17,18; Romans 16:21–1 Corinthians 1:1–9

Psalm 49:13–20: When the end comes, the rich are no different than the poor: “Like sheep to Sheol they head–/ death shepherds them.” These words are followed by the tantalizing idea that “the upright will hold sway over them in the morn.”  (15)It’s as if the rich, newly arrived at Sheol, wake up to find the poor and righteous are now their masters. This is the same kind of upside down image that Jesus used in so may of his parables.

Given the fate of the rich at the end, our poet is saying, we do not need to fear them while they are alive: “Do not fear when a man grows rich,…/For in his death he will not take all.” (17, 18) And not only will he not take his riches with him, he also won’t take whatever fame he’s accumulated during his life: “…his glory won’t go down behind him.” (18).  We need only think of deaths of celebrities to understand what the psalmist is saying here.

The rich man is centered on his own accomplishments, basically seeing himself as the source of blessings: “For his own self he blesses when alive”– even though he may give God the credit publicly: “…and acclaims You [God] for giving him bounty.” (19). But in the end it doesn’t really matter: “He will come to the state of his fathers–/forevermore will not see the light.” Or as economists are wont to put it: in the long run we’re all dead.

But the real theme here is that the rich are deluded in their riches as the poet ends this psalm in the style of the author of Ecclesiastes: “Man will not grasp things in splendor. / He is likened to beasts that are doomed.” (21) Except that this last verse applies to everyone of us, not just the wealthy: we are kidding ourselves if we think our accomplishments will accompany us to the grave. It’s far better to focus on other people, not on accumulation.

 Job 17,18: Job is exhausted to the point of death: “My spirit is broken, my days are extinct,/ the grave is ready for me.” (17:1) HIs friends are of no use: “Since you have closed their minds to understanding,/ therefore you will not let them triumph.” (4) Even the “upright are appalled at this,/ and the innocent stir themselves up against the godless.” (8)  But now that they have seen what has happened to Job, all their preconceived notions of God being fair are shattered and “I shall not find a sensible person among you.” (10)

For Job’s world has been turned upside down: “My days are past, my plans are broken off,/ the desires of my heart./ They make night into day.” But even death itself may not provide relief: “If I look for Sheol as my house,/ if I spread my couch in darkness,…/where then is my hope?” For to die is to lose hope. And here in his most desperate hour, Job clings to that one last hope. This is an amazingly sophisticated thought: that to die, to pray for death, is to have lost all hope. For Job: hope is all that remains. And hope is what keeps him alive.

At this lowest point, Bildad the Shuhite speaks.  He, too, is not particularly sympathetic, viewing Job’s lament as a mere “hunt for words.” (18:2) Bildad’s theology is very black and white and cannot admit subtlety. He tells Job it’s really very simple: God punishes the wicked: “Surely the light of the wicked is put out,/ and the flame of their fire does not shine.” (18:5) He then gives a long sermon about the woes that the wicked enjoy, including some of what has happened to Job: “By disease their skin is consumed,/ the firstborn of Death consumes their limbs.” (13) Everything that has happened to Job is, whether he wants to admit or not, a result of Job’s sinfulness as he ends with the flat out declaration: “Surely such are the dwellings of the ungodly,/ such is the place of those who do not know God.” (21)

There are lots of Christians out there who see the world in these same black and white terms–exactly as the Pharisees saw before them: There are consequences. You did bad things and bad things happen to you. But I think the book of Job is in the Bible to prove that it’s not as simple as that. Sometimes bad things just happen in spite of our righteousness. And with Job, we are bereft of logical explanations; only hope remains.

Romans 16:21–1 Corinthians 1:1–9: Intriguingly, the Moravians bridge the end of Romans to the beginning of 1 Corinthians. We have the final doxology in Romans that uses very familiar words, “Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ,…” (16:25) that leads inevitably to the greeting to the church at Corinth. I think this is an interesting way to remind us that Paul was a generous and gracious man, who gave others the credit, but at the center of it all is Jesus Christ himself. The last words of Romans: “… to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen.” stand in perfect symmetry to the first words of I Corinthians: “ Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God.”

While Romans was about the law, the letter to Corinth opens with grace: “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus,” (1:4) Knowing what comes later in this letter, we can understand why Paul opens with encouraging words.

But again, at the center of everything is Jesus Christ, repeated once again: “so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” (8,9) 

The lexical message is clear: Jesus Christ was at the center of Paul’s message; he is at the center of ours, as well. It is our duty to acknowledge–and live–that reality.

Psalm 49:1–12; Job 15,16; Romans 16:8–20

 Psalm 49:1–12: After introductory verses that establish the psalmist’s bona fides–“My mouth speaks wisdom,/ my heart’s utterance, understanding” (4)–he turns to the theme of the psalm: the foolishness of those who trust in anything besides God. At the top of the list is the persons “Who trust in their wealth/ and boast of their great riches.” (7) –a false trust that we see just as much today as when the psalm was written. Because, at some point, those who have depended on wealth for any sort will come to understand “they surely will redeem no man,/ will not give to God his ransom.” (8).

The foundations and charities of the rich notwithstanding, they too must answer the psalmist’s rhetorical question: “Will he yet live forever?/ Will he not see the Pit?” (10).  The poet sums up this reality of “you can’t take it with you” in a verse that could have been lifted straight out of Ecclesiastes: “For he see the wise dies,/ both the fool and the stupid man perish,/ and they abandon to others their wealth.” (11) Death is the Great Equalizer. Even for those who have known great fame, whose “names had been called upon the earth” (12b) are “likened to the beasts that are doomed.” (13).

Only one thing lives on after us: “in words alone, they show favor.” (14) And even then it will be only the words that we have recorded. Something to think about.

Job 15,16: Eliphaz the Temanite responds to Job’s dark soliloquy accusing Job of undermining belief in God and religion by “doing away with the fear of God,/ and hindering meditation before God.” (15:4)/ And then cruelly to Job, “Your own mouth condemns you, and not I;/ your own lips testify against you.” (15:6) suggesting that he has not “listened in the council of God.” (15:8) and is “one who is abominable and corrupt,/ one who drinks iniquity like water!” (15:16). Eliphaz is saying that all men are corrupt, including even self-righteous Job and cannot therefore approach God or know what God is up to.

Job just needs to realize his innate corruptness before God. If men depend on their own wisdom, if they “ trust in emptiness, deceiving themselves; … emptiness will be their recompense.” (15:31). In fact there is theological truth here. Eliphaz accuses Job of trying to understand the thoughts of God, which leads to a foolish and wrong headed wisdom that is mere emptiness at the end.  Mankind is intrinsically evil, he’s saying, ending his speech with the simple but depressing declaration, “They conceive mischief and bring forth evil/ and their heart prepares deceit.” (15:35) Something we know to be true.

So what gives?

Job responds to Eliphaz in the next chapter. His opening remarks include a statement that all of us have thought when we know that someone has not really listened to what we are saying, but are just lecturing us with their own brand of “wisdom:” “Have windy words no limit?/ Or what provokes you that you keep on talking?” (16:3).  [Definitely a really polite way of saying, “Shut up!”]

Not knowing the original deal between God and Satan, Job continues to insist that it is God who has caused his woes in verse after eloquent verse:

11 God gives me up to the ungodly,
    and casts me into the hands of the wicked.
12 I was at ease, and he broke me in two;
    he seized me by the neck and dashed me to pieces;
he set me up as his target;
13     his archers surround me.
He slashes open my kidneys, and shows no mercy;
he pours out my gall on the ground.  (16:11-13)

Without God, his faith shattered, there is nothing left for Job. And as the psalmist observed about the wealthy, emptiness is all that remains: “For when a few years have come,/ I shall go the way from which I shall not return.” (16:22). This chapter reveals Job’s deep despair of a shattered faith. We talk about “the patience of Job,” but I think that’s a mischaracterization. Job feels not only punished by God, but worse, he feels abandoned by God. There is no darker feeling to have had faith and then to have lost it because we believe God has turned his back on us.

Romans 16:8–20:If Paul were writing today he would have added a final “PSS” after his long list of names of people he commends and asks the recipients of his letter to greet on his behalf.

Since it’s the last thing Paul ever writes to the Romans (that we know about anyway) I have to think it is the one thing that weighs most heavily on his mind. It is not theology, nor is it the relationship of Jews and Gentiles or any of the other weighty matters he’s discussed. Instead, it is simple human behavior: “ I urge you, brothers and sisters, to keep an eye on those who cause dissensions and offenses, in opposition to the teaching that you have learned; avoid them.” (17) Because Paul knows it is dissension in the church that rips it apart. And finally, we are “to be wise in what is good and guileless in what is evil.” (19) If we cannot discern that crucial difference, then we are doomed.

What a challenge for us in today’s world, which is strikingly similar to the Roman world. We can distinguish between good and evil and as Paul says in Philippians 4, embrace that which is good, or we can head down the path of the world, following its evil. Paul’s message to the Romans–and to us–boils down to that crucial distinction. Will we make the right choice?

Psalm 48; Job 13:20–14:22; Romans 15:30–16:7

Psalm 48: This psalm has a similar tone and theme as the preceding one as it praises God, this time more specifically in Jerusalem, “in our God’s town, His holy mountain./ Lovely in heights, all the earth’s joy…the great King’s city.” (2,3)

I think we fail to appreciate just how central the idea that God dwelt in Jerusalem was to the Jewish religion. We tend to have a far more amorphous, everywhere conception of God. But for Israel, God had come and dwelt in the Ark and even after the Ark was lost, it was OK, because there was a temple in Jerusalem. This is where God performed his marvelous deeds: “We witnessed, O God, Your kindness/ in the midst of Your temple.” (10)

God’s presence in that single geographical spot brought great strength and protection, as well: “God in its bastions/ is famed as a fortress.” (4)

It is this protective quality of God at Jerusalem that gave military victory to Israel and terror to its enemies: “It is [the enemies] who have seen and so been  astounded,/ were panicked, dismayed./ Shuddering seized them there,/ pangs like a woman in labor.” (6,7).

Perhaps if I thought of God in the concrete terms that Israel did, I would trust him and understand more directly his great love for me.

Job 13:20–14:22: Job’s prayer shakes its fist at God, asking questions that humans still ask. Lest we think that we have any new thoughts when we wonder where God is or why God acts in such an arbitrary and yes, cruel fashion, Job was there ahead of us. Job asks the essential question: “Why do you hide your face,/ and count me as your enemy?” (13:24) Job accuses God directly: “For you write bitter things against me,/ and make me reap the iniquities of my youth./ You put my feet in the stocks…” (13:26, 27). And the result is emptiness, despair and death: “One wastes away like a rotten thing,/ like a garment that is moth-eaten.” (13:28)

He then reflects on the innate corruption of humankind (original sin?), noting that we are born, experience trouble and then die: “A mortal, born of woman, few of days and full of trouble,/ comes up like a flower and withers,/ flees like a shadow and does not last.” (14:1,2)  Job then tells God basically go away and let mortals enjoy what few moment they have in peace, undisturbed by God: “…look away from them, and desist,/ that they may enjoy, like laborers, their days.” (14:6) 

Job observes that “there is hope for a tree,/ if it is cut down, that it will sprout again,” (14:7), but as for mortals, “mortals die, and are laid low;/ humans expire, and where are they?” (14:10) Nevertheless, Job’s longing for an understanding, forgiving God is palpable: “You would call, and I would answer you;…my transgression would be sealed up in a bag,/ and you would cover over my iniquity.” (15:15, 17)

But for Job, that God is not forthcoming. There is only pain and darkness. God has abandoned humankind: “They feel only the pain of their own bodies,/ and mourn only for themselves.” (14:22)

Job’s God is so wildly different than the God we encounter just about everywhere else in the OT (except for Ecclesiastes). This God is exactly our 21st century conception of God, where people have decided that God, if he exists, is not interested in human affairs. We have been abandoned and therefore need live only for ourselves. With Job, we feel only the pain of our own bodies and mourn only for ourselves–unnoticed by the God of the universe.

But above all, whatever thoughts we come with on our own about abandonment, woe and despair, Job has been there before us.

Romans 15:30–16:7: Paul moves from theology to his personal circumstances and asks for the Romans’ prayers: join me in earnest prayer to God on my behalf, that I may be rescued from the unbelievers in Judea, and that my ministry to Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints.” (15:30,31).

And then the personal PS at the end of the letter. This is where we receive insight into Paul’s personality and his self-image, which above all was exceedingly generous. He never claimed all the credit, but spread it generously and joyfully among the saints. He includes a long Pauline list of friends who have helped him, beginning with a woman, Phoebe, a deacon “of the church at Cenchreae,” who “has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well.” (16:2).  (Which forces me to ask: why is it that many churches that want to interpret the Bible literally also prohibit women from serving as deacons or in positions of leadership?)

He also commends “Prisca and Aquila, who work with me in Christ Jesus,  and who risked their necks for my life.” (16:3). Probably rescuing Paul form one of the many riots he seemed to incite.

It would be great to know the individual stories of the many people listed here. But absent that, this list of names gives us a picture of the dynamism of the early church. But we know this: these are the saints on whose shoulders the church stands today.

Psalm 47; Job 12:13–13:19; Romans 15:17–29

Psalm 47: This psalm of celebration, which Alter tells us is sung at the Jewish new year, expresses unfettered joy, and gives permission to all of us to clap our hands when we sing(!): All peoples, clap hands/ shout out to God with a glad song.” (2) The reason for celebration is that “the Lord is most high and fearsome,/ a great king over all the earth.”

The next lines are a bit less comfortable to our “civilized” ears: “He crushes peoples beneath us / and nations beneath our feet.” God does this because God is on Israel’s side and he loves us: “He chooses for us our estate,/ pride of Jacob whom He loves.” (5)

At the second stanza of the psalm the music grows even louder and more joyful as we enter–metaphorically anyway–God’s throne room,”with a trumpet blast,/ …with a ram’s horn sound” (6) as  the assembled multitude sings to God: “Hymn to God, hymn/ hymn to our king, O hymn.” (7) Here, God is not just king of Israel, but “king of all earth is God.” (8)

We have just experienced joy similar to the ancient Israelites here by singing and hearing the music surrounding our celebration of Jesus’ resurrection. The Easter is truly a time for great–and like the psalm here–noisy celebration!

Job 12:13–13:19: Unlike Zophir’s rather simpleminded theology, Job describes a far more complex God. What is remarkable here is how despite his personal woes Job continues to emphasize God as the source of greatness: “With God[a] are wisdom and strength;/he has counsel and understanding.” (12:13) Those who pretend to wisdom–and he lists counselors, judges, kings and priests (13:17-19)–are led away “stripped” of their power and pretense (and perhaps of their clothes as well!). And then, what I take to be a direct accusation to his supposed friend, Job says, “[God] deprives of speech those who are trusted,/ and takes away the discernment of the elders.” (12:20) Which is the most brilliant waythat I have ever read to tell someone to just shut up!

“[God] strips understanding from the leaders of the earth,/ and makes them wander in a pathless waste.”  (12:25) is a superb commentary on today’s politicians and would-be leaders, who pretend to superior wisdom when actually, “They grope in the dark without light.” A glance toward Washington DC confirms again and again the wisdom of this ancient poem.

In his heart, Job knows that God is the source of justice and he wishes to take his God straight into God’s courtroom: “I would speak to the Almighty,/ and I desire to argue my case with God.” (13:3) And, turning to his erstwhile friends, he shouts, “As for you, you whitewash with lies;/ all of you are worthless physicians.” (13:4). And then in possibly the greatest advice ever given to those (including me) who pretend to know what we are talking about: “If you would only keep silent,/ that would be your wisdom!” (13:5)

Job will not allow his friends to speak for God; he doesn’t trust them: “Will you speak falsely for God,/and speak deceitfully for him?” (13:7). Instead, he will speak to God directly, regardless of the consequences: “Let me have silence, and I will speak,/ and let come on me what may.” (13:13) Job is willing to take the risk to defend himself at any cost: “See, he will kill me; I have no hope;/ but I will defend my ways to his face.” (13:15). Would I be as willing as Job to shake my fist at God and be prepared to suffer the consequences?

Romans 15:17–29: Paul has only one purpose for his life: to “make it my ambition to proclaim the good news,” but to do it where the Gospel has not yet come, unsullied by others who may have come before him. He plans to go new places, “not where Christ has already been named, so that I do not build on someone else’s foundation.” To be blunt, this is Paul at his egotistical (in the good sense) best. As an apostle of Jesus Christ he wants to make sure his listeners hear only the unvarnished message, not somebody’s take on complex theology.  God advice for all of us.

It is here that Paul lays out his plan to visit Spain and visit his friends in Rome on the way. Tradition holds that Paul visited Spain, but my own view is that he never made it because as he says, “At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem in a ministry to the saints.” (25). And the last part of Acts tells us what happened in Jerusalem. Paul eventually made it to Rome, trials and shipwrecks notwithstanding. But like all of us, the best laid plans often do not come to pass as we wish.

Psalm 46; Job 11:1–12:12; Romans 15:3–16

Psalm 46: This song returns to the theme of God as protector: “God is a shelter and strength for us,/ a help in straits, readily found.” (2) So when disasters occur “we fear not when the earth breaks apart,/ when mountains collapse in the heart of the seas.” (3)  This beautiful couplet can certainly refer to natural disasters, but its real strength is in the metaphor. God is with us when the world we know seems to collapse in around us through illness, death or personal catastrophe.

Even though “waters roar and roil, [and] mountains heave in its surge” (4) God never abandons us despite the vicissitudes that seem like a tiny raft running class 5 rapids. Indeed, God brings us refreshing water, but it is the peace of “a stream, its rivulets [which] gladden God’s town.” Like the temple at Jerusalem, our lives will not disintegrate. There can be tremendous anxiety and even destruction around us–“Nations roar and kingdoms collapse” (7a)–but God “sends forth His voice and the earth melts.” (7b) The pretenses of humankind are nothing before God.

We can carry the metaphor of God with us even as the psalm evokes military images: “The Lord of armies is with us/ a fortress for us.” (8) And for the world, the promise of a world without war and conflict: God has “caused wars to cease to the end of the earth./ The bow He has broken and splintered the spear,/ and chariots burned in fire.” (10) Whether God brings peace to the nations or not, he can surely bring peace to our hearts.

Although it has become almost a meaningless popular cliche, here in its context it is the best possible instruction for our anxiety- and fear-ridden lives: “Let go, and know that I am God.” (11) because “The Lord of armies is with us.” (12). God may often seem absent, but this psalm reassures us that God is at our side bringing peace to our lives.

Job 11:1–12:12: Of Job’s three friends, Zophar is the cruelest. He replies to Job’s soliloquy with snide sarcasm: “Should your babble put others to silence,/ and when you mock, shall no one shame you?” (11:3) And then promptly implies Job is dissembling, “For you say, ‘My conduct is pure,/and I am clean in God’s sight.’” (11:4) To Zophir, Job’s problem is simple: he just lacks sufficient wisdom to truly understand God: “Can you find out the deep things of God?/ Can you find out the limit of the Almighty?” (11:7)

At heart, Zophir is the fatalist. God is powerful: “If he passes through, and imprisons,/and assembles for judgment, who can hinder him?” (11:10) Job’s problem, Zophir asserts, is simple. He just hasn’t been truly sincere before God: “If you direct your heart rightly,/you will stretch out your hands toward him.” (11:13). Just do that, Zophir says, and “You will forget your misery;” (11:16) and life will get better: “you will have confidence, because there is hope.” (11:18) Everything will be hunky-dory in the end: “You will lie down, and no one will make you afraid;/many will entreat your favor.” (11:19)

Zophir offers the kind of Norman Vincent Peale/ Joel Osteen advice we hear today. Essentially, it’s think positive thoughts and everything will be OK.

Job begs to differ with his erstwhile friend, telling him, “I have understanding as well as you;/ I am not inferior to you.” (12:3) He tells Zophir that everybody seems to believe this trivial philosophy: “Who does not know such things as these?” (12:3b) Rather, Job says, “ask the animals and they will teach you.” (12:7a) It’s really quite simple and has noting to do with one’s attitude or failing to understand God’s intentions. Instead, God is simply in control: 

9 Who among all these does not know
    that the hand of the Lord has done this?
10 In his hand is the life of every living thing
    and the breath of every human being.

God is the source of life and therefore, Job is saying, God is the source of these woes. It really has noting to do with the sincerity of JOb’s beliefs or his attitude. All the platitudes of the world will not change this simple reality.

Romans 15:3–16: These last verses of Paul’s epistle are his cadenza. In ringing tones, he summarizes how the the Gospel is intended for Jew and Gentile alike. We are to “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” (7) Paul cannot resist quoting four more scripture passages that prove his point, this time scriptures that refer specifically to Gentiles, ending with Isaiah’s promise,

“The root of Jesse shall come,
    the one who rises to rule the Gentiles;
in him the Gentiles shall hope.” (12)

And then, what seems to be a benediction, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (13)

But Paul, being Paul, has a difficult time simply ending his letter. His stream-of-consciousness style insists on a few more points as he reminds his readers and listeners of his apostolic bona fides: “Nevertheless on some points I have written to you rather boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.” (15, 16) We are left with the feeling there’s still a few more points Paul wants to be sure to make.

 

Psalm 45:11–18; Job 10; Romans 14:13–15:2

Psalm 45:10–17: Our psalmist now turns his attention to the king’s bride. In a reflection of a patriarchal society, the poet is direct and even a bit peremptory: “Listen princess, and look, incline your ear.” (11a). The poets first advice is perhaps the most difficult for a princess who is part of a negotiated deal between kingdoms: “forget your people, and your father’s house.” (11b). She has a new duty now and an even stronger reminder that this culture is thoroughly patriarchal: “let the king yearn for your beauty,/ for he is your master,/ and bow down to him.” (12)

However, there are a few benefits in this new and unfamiliar role as bride to the king: “Daughter of Tyre, with tribute / the people’s wealthy will court your favor.” (13) (The reference to Tyre suggests, but does not prove, that this princess may have been one of Solomon’s wives). And then there are the riches and the wardrobe: “All the princesses’s treasure is pearls,/ filigree of gold her raiment” (14) as she is brought to the king “in rejoicing and gladness.” (16)

The purpose for her arrival before the king is clear as the poet reminds her again that she has left her father and now has a new master. Her duty is to procreate: “In your father’s stead your sons will be./ You will set them as princes in all the land.” (17). And assuming she successfully executes her duty, she will be rewarded: “Let me make your name heard in all generations./ Therefore do peoples acclaim you evermore.” (18)

As I noted yesterday, this psalm is not about theology and God is not even mentioned. But it gives us a powerful look at the upmost reaches of Israel at the time of its kings. Most tantalizingly, perhaps, king Solomon himself.

Job 10: Whatever anger people may express to God; however much they make shake their fist at heaven, Job was there first. The striking opening line almost stops one from reading further. Yet, I know that many have said exactly the same thing Job says here: “I loathe my life.” But rather than keeping this self-loathing bottled up, Job will speak: “ I will give free utterance to my complaint;/ I will speak in the bitterness of my soul.” (1) I wonder how many wounded souls feeling they have been cheated by God are walking around today who cannot or will not give “free utterance” to their feelings.

Job does not merely shake his fist at God, he castigates God almost sneeringly, reminding God that he is torturing his own creation: “Does it seem good to you to oppress,/ to despise the work of your hands/ and favor the schemes of the wicked?” (3) And then even more boldly he a tells God that “you know that I am not guilty,” (7) and even though “Your hands fashioned and made me,” he accuses God, “now you turn and destroy me.” (8)

Job dares God to execute his justice fairly: “If I sin, you watch me,/ and do not acquit me of my iniquity./ If I am wicked, woe to me!” (14) But his present state is simply inexplicable in every way in which Job (and we!) think we know how God’s justice is supposed to operate. It has been turned on its head: “If I am righteous, I cannot lift up my head,/for I am filled with disgrace/ and look upon my affliction.” (15). In fact what God has done is so unlike the God that Job thought he knew that he asks, “Why did you bring me forth from the womb?” (18). Everything has been turned upside down and inside out. It would be better, Job insists, that he goes,

“…never to return,
    to the land of gloom and deep darkness,
22 the land of gloom and chaos,
    where light is like darkness.”

Light has become darkness and chaos reigns. I think no better description has ever been written of what it feels like to have been abandoned by God and to experience complete injustice; to feel like a victim of a capricious God. Surely, Jesus must have thought of Job in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Romans 14:13–15:2: Paul continues his essay on the harms of judging one another. This is one of those passages that prove (to me, anyway) that human motivations, psychology, and behavior have not changed one whit in at least 2,000 years. What’s striking here is that Paul understands the nature of perception as being the root of judgement, not the object that’s being judged: ” I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.” (14:14)

And, as always, it’s a question of priorities. People are judging others by what they eat and drink, forgetting that “the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (17). On the other hand, Paul argues, don’t just shove bad behavior in other people’s faces: “Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for you to make others fall by what you eat;  it is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother or sister stumble.” (20, 21) Paul’s bottom line for distinguishing between what is good and what is sinful is very simple: “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” (23).

That means that “We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak,” (15:1) not to make ourselves feel good about ourselves (pride, as always!) but that everything we do and say is focused on its effect on our neighbor (and spouse!): “Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor.” (15:2). Which of course is simply Paul’s statement of the Golden Rule.