Psalm 88:1–5; Isaiah 42:10–43:21; Philippians 2:19–30

Psalm 88:1–5: Alter points out that we know little about Heyman the Ezrahite to whom this psalm of supplication is dedicated. From the psalm itself we can assume he was in very dire straits, perhaps a terminal illness.

The psalm begins with the usual plea for God to listen to his supplications, “Lord, God of my rescue,/ by day I cried out, /by night, in Your presence.” (2) And then the clear statement that “May my prayer come before You./ Incline Your ear to my song.” (3) Then, we hear desperation in the poet’s voice: “For I am sated with evils/ and my life reached the brink of Sheol.” (4). He is near death–or it seems those around him have told him he is dying: “I was counted among those who go down to the Pit.” (5a)

He envisions himself as already being dead: “I became like a man without strength,/ among the dead cast away.” (5b). And then suddenly we have a stark description of hell as I really think it is: eternal separation from God: …”like the slain, those who lie in the grave,/ whom You no more recall,/ and they are cut off by Your hand.” (6)

I know that I tend to take God’s presence in my life pretty much for granted. These verses cause me to pause and reflect on the terrifying possibility of my being separated from God forever. We can sense that terror here. It is horrible to be cast into the Pit, but the most terrifying line of all is, “whom You no more recall.” Hell is being forgotten by God.

Isaiah 42:10–43:21: In stark contrast to the psalm, today’s reading from Isaiah is among the most famous lines in the OT, a joyous hymn of praise:
Sing to the Lord a new song,
    his praise from the end of the earth!
Let the sea roar[a] and all that fills it,
    the coastlands and their inhabitants. (42:10)

Isaiah then describes God as Messianic conquering warrior: “The Lord goes forth like a soldier,/ like a warrior he stirs up his fury;” (42:13) In a wonderful metaphor for what Jesus Christ has done for us, “I will turn the darkness before them into light,/the rough places into level ground,…and I will not forsake them.” (42:16). 

Here, in contradistinction to the psalmist’s fears, we hear God proclaim, “I will not forsake them.” We who follow God will not be separated from him. Even so, Judah persists in separating itself from God. But when it repents, there is the eternal promise: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;/ I have called you by name, you are mine.” (43:1b) Moreover, God will be with us and lead us through trial and tribulation:
“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
    and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
    and the flame shall not consume you.” (43:2)

What we tend to forget in the OT is that God is not only with us, he loves us. Isaiah reminds Judah–and us: “Because you are precious in my sight,/and honored, and I love you,” (43:4) And above all: “I, I am the Lord,/ and besides me there is no savior.” (43:11) We cannot find salvation through our small-g gods. Judah couldn’t. We can’t.

And here at the end of this wonderful chapter, there is the famous promise of something new, something unexpected:
“I am about to do a new thing;
    now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
    and rivers in the desert.” (43:19)

For us Christians, we know exactly how God’s promise was fulfilled.

Philippians 2:19–30: Paul interrupts his message of encouragement to the Philippians with personal notes about Timothy and Epaphroditus. Paul is pretty irritated with many itinerant preachers, who have started believing their own press releases and see themselves at the center, rather than Jesus: “All of them are seeking their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ.” (21) In Paul’s eyes, Timothy stands in marvelous contrast to all those others: “ I have no one like him who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare.” (20)

The message for us is clear: we are to be faithful servants not self-aggrandizing celebrities. I do wish many of today’s TV ministers and self-proclaimed prophets (I’m talking about you, Franklin Graham) would read and ponder these words each and every morning.

Paul is also sending Epaphroditus, “my brother and co-worker and fellow soldier, your messenger and minister to my need” (25) at what we assume is some personal sacrifice. But for Paul the needs of Philippi are greater than his own: “for he has been longing for all of you, and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill.” (26)

Paul’s certainly glad that E. survived his close call with death–not only for E’s sake, but for his own: “so that I would not have one sorrow after another.” (28) This poignant personal note reminds us of Paul’s humanity. He is far more than just a passionate theologian, but has trials and sorrows of his own.

I wish we knew E’s back-story; there is only a clue here: “because he came close to death for the work of Christ, risking his life to make up for those services that you could not give me.” (30). Paul certainly would have preferred to keep E at his side, but as always, he recognizes that the needs of the community trump his personal desires. How frequently am I willing to sacrifice my own needs for the good of those who walk beside me?

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