Psalm 88:13–18; Isaiah 44:24–45:25; Philippians 3:12–4:1

Psalm 88:13–18: The psalmist gets down to brass tacks, making the logical observation that if God desires worship as Creator, but then consigns his worshipper–the poet– to Sheol, how “will Your wonder be known in the darkness,/ Your bounty in the land of oblivion?” (13)

Then, the psalmist notes how faith he’s been, “As for me–to You, Lord, I shouted,/ and in morn my prayer would greet you.” (14) So,why God won’t at least return the quid pro quo? “Why, Lord, do You abandon my life,/ do You hide Your face form me?” (15) This seems a fair point. Throughout the OT, there’s the deuteronomic Covenant: If we follow God, he will watch over us. Here, the rules of the covenant seem to have been broken by God himself.

Now, the psalmist becomes downright accusatory. This is certainly no loving God who follows the psalmist through the valley of the shadow of death: “I have borne Your terrors, I am fearful,/ Over me Your rage has passed,/ Your horrors destroy me.” (16b, 17). God’s horrors “surround me like water all day long/ they encircle me completely.” (18) And unlike most supplication psalms, it ends in despair and accusation: “You distanced lover and neighbor from me. My friends–utter darkness.” (19)

What are we to make of this psalm? For me, it seems we can descend to such anger and despair that we accuse God of our every woe. And that some prayers of desperation seem to go unanswered. This is certainly not the God of the saccharine and sentimental sayings we find on sympathy cards.

Isaiah 44:24–45:25: In this remarkable passage, Isaiah positions Cyrus the Mede, who conquered Babylon, and thereby ended the Jewish captivity as the instrument of the Jewish God.

First, Isaiah establishes who is the greatest, which of course is God: “I am the Lord, who made all things,/ who alone stretched out the heavens,/ who by myself spread out the earth;” (44:24) Then, there’s the clear hierarchy that God is greater than any king. Cyrus, even though he does not know it, is subordinate to God, and will be God’s instrument: “[God], who says of Cyrus, “He is my shepherd,/ and he shall carry out all my purpose.” Cyrus will be the means by which God will restore Jerusalem: “and who says of Jerusalem, “It shall be rebuilt,” and of the temple, “Your foundation shall be laid.” (44:28)

Then, according to Isaiah, God uses Cyrus to carry out God’s plan: “Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus,/whose right hand I have grasped” (45:1) Moreover, God promises Cyrus assistance, “I will go before you/ and level the mountains,/ I will break in pieces the doors of bronze/ and cut through the bars of iron.” (45:2) The promise also includes wealth: “I will give you the treasures of darkness/ and riches hidden in secret places.” Ultimately, Isaiah writes, must come the realization by Cyrus that God is behind his success: “so that you may know that it is I, the Lord,/ the God of Israel, who call you by your name. ” (45:3) The remainder of this passage describes the relationship between God and Cyrus, and the futile efforts of Babylon and its idols to resist being conquered.

Isaiah uses the story of Cyrus as a means to clarify that for Israel, it is God who directs every moment of history. Many today tend to do the same by positioning the US, like Cyrus, as God’s special emissary. I’m personally not convinced, But at its heart, I think the real purpose of this passage is to make it clear that whatever happens, our role is to worship and rejoice that God is in charge of our lives: “In the Lord all the offspring of Israel/ shall triumph and glory.” (45:25)

Philippians 3:12–4:1: Paul launches one of his memorable sports metaphors: that life in Christ is like a race, a process: “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” (14). This is a reminder to all of us that the Christian life is a process; it is dynamic, ever-changing. As we engineers would put it, being a Christian is not a static state. Too many believe once they are “saved” they can just go on with their lives as before. These people receive only Paul’s contempt: “Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things.” (19)

By following Christ, we are no longer citizens of the world, “but our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” (20) Christ will have his way with us: He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.” (3:21)

In other words, as Oswald Chambers repeatedly reminds us, becoming a citizen of heaven requires abandoning our self-centered pleasures, our world, and above all, our desire to retain control, and turning everything over to Christ. But as Paul puts it, this is an unrelenting process of “stand[ing] firm in the Lord in this way.” (4:1) Far easier said than done. At least for me.

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