Psalm 76; Ecclesiastes 7:15–9:18; 2 Corinthians 12:14–13:4

Psalm 76: This psalm of thanksgiving chockablock with military imagery looks back into Israel’s history (and as Alter suggests, was perhaps composed to celebrate some victory). Whatever it was, the event has reminded Israel of its God, who has once again led them to triumph: “God becomes known in Judah,/ in Israel His name is great.” (2) All Israel becomes God’s military camp and Jerusalem his headquarters as “in Salem was set His pavilion,/ His dwelling in Zion.” (3) The enemy has been defeated as God “did shatter the bow’s fiery shafts,/ the shield and sword and the battle.”

At the end of the battle God stands bright and shining and greater than any other: “Refulgent You were,/ mightier than the mountains of prey.” (5) Even brave enemies have fallen, seemingly by dint of God’s mere presence as he basically paralyzes them in fear: “The stout-hearted were despoiled,/ they fell into a trance,/ and all men of valor could not lift a hand.” (6) God needs merely to shout to conquer: “By Your roar, O God of Jacob,/ chariot and horse were stunned.” (7) God’s military qualities are neatly summed up: “who can stand before You, in the strength of Your wrath?” (8) At the end of the battle God speaks: “From the heavens You made judgement heard,/ the earth was afraid and fell silent.” (9)

But what God does is unexpected from any military other victor: “when God rose up for judgement/ to rescue all the lowly of earth.” Here, once again, is the running theme of the Psalms and the OT: God’s care for–and rescue of–the poor and downtrodden.  Here is where God is completely the opposite of any human military victor: he does not pillage the land and rape the poor, rather he rescues them from the depredations of other men.

So, when we are tempted to assert blithely that “God is on our side,” we must remember that it carries a great responsibility in victory: to turn to those who have been downtrodden and rescue them. God achieved victory over evil through Jesus Christ, who was always on the lookout for the poor and oppressed. Will we do the same?

Ecclesiastes 7:15–9:18: When people ask why a loving and perfect God would allow evil to win out over the good, they are making exactly the same observation Qoheleth made three millennia ago. There is truly nothing new under the sun: “there are righteous people who perish in their righteousness, and there are wicked people who prolong their life in their evildoing.” (7:15) His attitude is quite different than the psalmist’s who assert that God will always rescue the oppressed in the end. Fine sentiments, but they don’t comport with reality–now or then.

Our philosopher offers some advice: “Do not be too righteous, and do not act too wise; … Do not be too wicked, and do not be a fool;” (7:16, 17) In short, hew a middle road and don’t show off either your wisdom or your foolishness!

He also advises, “Do not give heed to everything that people say,…our heart knows that many times you have yourself cursed others.” This is particularly good counsel when it comes to making and responding to Facebook posts where foolish comments and ad hominem arguments are routine.

It all boils down to our free will and immutable ability to make bad choices. After all, he observes, “God made human beings straightforward, but they have devised many schemes.” (7:29) But even in this dark brooding Qoheleth nevertheless finds hope: “yet I know that it will be well with those who fear God, because they stand in fear before him, but it will not be well with the wicked…” (8: 12,13) But beyond that it is fairly pointless to try and understand God’s inscrutable ways: “I saw all the work of God, that no one can find out what is happening under the sun. However much they may toil in seeking, they will not find it out;” (8:17)

Unfairness will still abound: “there are righteous people who are treated according to the conduct of the wicked, and there are wicked people who are treated according to the conduct of the righteous.” (8:14) This seems to be the great unrealizable goal of our post-modern society: to make life fair. But should we just ignore the problems and blithely accept Qoheleth’s advice: “there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat, and drink, and enjoy themselves?” (8:15)

I think what he’s getting at is not hedonism but a realistic way of living. As the cliche goes: one day at a time, since “the same fate comes to all, to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to those who sacrifice and those who do not sacrifice.” (9:2)  After all, he says, “The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no more reward, and even the memory of them is lost.” (9:5). I fear that most of us live in denial that one day we will die and yes, eventually be forgotten by the living (and there’s nothing like giving a eulogy at a memorial service to be reminded of our own mortality). Which is why he advises us to seize each day, to “eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do.” Mere striving leads nowhere but to the grave. As the old saying goes, no one on his deathbed says, “I wish I spent more time at the office.” God wishes for us to enjoy life and to enjoy our time in his loving company.

2 Corinthians 12:14–13:4: In these concluding words of this second letter Paul asserts, “Here I am, ready to come to you this third time.” (12:1) Which he repeats later: “his is the third time I am coming to you.” (13:1)

At first read this entire epistle comes of as Paul being defensive and he is aware of this: “Have you been thinking all along that we have been defending ourselves before you?” (12:19a). But, he says, this is not my defending myself, but “We are speaking in Christ before God. Everything we do, beloved, is for the sake of building you up.” (12:19b)

This entire epistle is a warning to a church gone astray, that when he arrives back at Corinth, “I fear that there may perhaps be quarreling, jealousy, anger, selfishness, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder.” (12:20) And he warns them again, “ I warned those who sinned previously and all the others, and I warn them now while absent, as I did when present on my second visit, that if I come again, I will not be lenient”(13:2). The Corinthians should be quaking in their boots because they are dealing with someone far greater than Paul: “Christ is speaking in me. He is not weak in dealing with you, but is powerful in you.” (13:3) The final verse of this letter, which omits any of the friendly and personal greetings found at the end of other epistles, seems especially ominous: “For he was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God. For we are weak in him but in dealing with you we will live with him by the power of God.” (13:4) Paul’s implication is clear: Watch out, Corinthians, here I come with the power of Christ, which is also in you, but you keep ignoring.

That’s a clear warning to all of us in the church: we are not to assume we’re in charge and can do anything we want. We tamper with the power of Christ at our own risk.

But Paul, as far as we know, never made it back to Corinth. What became of that benighted, quarreling church? We have enough benighted quarreling churches around us today to guess the probable outcome.


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