Archives for July 2015

Psalm 85:1–7; Isaiah 36:1–37:13; Ephesians 6:10–24

Psalm 85:1–7: This psalm is both retrospective and prospective as we encounter the phase “turn back” several times.The psalmist looks back to the original restoration of Israel to Canaan, “You favored, O Lord, Your land/ You restored the condition of Jacob.” (2) More importantly, i think, the psalmist recognizes that God has forgiven them: “You forgave You people’s crime,/ You covered all their offense.” (3) Not only forgiveness, but God “turned back from Your blazing fury.” (4)

Now, once again, the people are in dire straits and once again God is angry with them, and once again, the psalmist asks God to “Turn back, pray, God of our rescue/ and undo Your anger against us.” (5) Will God, the psalmist asks almost plaintively, “forever be incensed with us/ will You draw out Your fury through all generations?” (6) If God will turn back from his anger, the psalmist promises, “Your people will rejoice in You.” (7)

We Christians define repentance as “turning back,” which is exactly what is being described here. If God will “turn back” from his anger, Israel will “turn back”–repent–from its sins. What’s fascinating here is the idea of God “turning back,” in essence, repenting from his anger. There is much more a sense of quid pro quo here than we Christians sense. We view God as unchanging, ever-loving, but here, God is far more emotional, and as the psalmist asserts, abandoning Israel in anger because of its sins. We can be grateful that through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, God never leaves us and we always have a way, through Jesus, of “turning back.”

Isaiah 36:1–37:13: The army of King Sennacherib of Assyria has already captured several cities in Judah and arrives at Jerusalem, taunting the court of Hezekiah, “Do you think that mere words are strategy and power for war?” (36:5), and telling them that Judah’s alliance with Egypt is useless. Sennacherib’s captain, the Rabshakeh, even invokes Israel’s God, saying, “The Lord said to me, Go up against this land, and destroy it.” (36:10).

Hezekiah’s officials are mortified and beg the Rabshakeh, “Please speak to your servants in Aramaic, for we understand it; do not speak to us in the language of Judah within the hearing of the people who are on the wall.” (36:11). But the enemy refuses and tells Hezekiah’s army standing on the city wall that they are doomed. King Hezekiah’s servants consults Isaiah, who responds, “Thus says the Lord: Do not be afraid because of the words that you have heard, with which the servants of the king of Assyria have reviled me.” (37:6) and promises that God will cause the Rabshakeh to hear a rumor and “to fall by the sword in his own land.” (37:7)

But the king of Assyria responds to Hezekiah, “Do not let your God on whom you rely deceive you by promising that Jerusalem will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria.” (37:10) arguing, “ Have the gods of the [other] nations delivered them, the nations that my predecessors destroyed?” (37:12). Will Israel’s God stand the test, or like all the small-g gods of the other nations simply fall by the wayside? Will Isaiah be vindicated?

Ephesians 6:10–24: I well remember the Sunday School flannel graphs of “putting on the whole armor of God,” truly one of Paul’s most memorable metaphors. What I didn’t appreciate then as I do now was that even though we are holding the “sword of the Spirit,” our posture is defensive, not aggressive. As Paul tells us that although we are to be strong, the point of the armor is so we “may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.” (10). With the shield of faith, we are “able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one.” (16)

In fact the only “offensive action” we are to take is to “Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication.” (18) And, “To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints.” (18b) Prayer is the Christian’s offensive weapon.

However, as I look around at the response of many Christians in the wake of the gay marriage decision by the Supreme Court and the general ongoing rejection of Christianity by the larger culture, I see lots of “woe is us” defensiveness, and even some very ugly lashing out. However, I suspect many of us are not praying as Paul has asked us to do. If we truly have faith, Paul is telling us, we will indeed stand firm against the “wiles of the devils” (as I learned the words in the King James version.) Our duty is simple and it is clear: we are to pray, not to lash out and not to whine.

Psalm 80:12–19: Isaiah 15,16; Ephesians 1:11–23

Psalm 80:12–19:  This psalm is a cri de couer to God asking, begging really, why God after all he has done for Israel, would abandon them now. (Of course, we know the answer: they abandoned him first, but that is not the point here.) The overarching metaphor is Israel as a growing vine, which has spread greatly: “You sent forth its boughs to the sea/ and to the River to the sea.” (12) (The river is presumably the Jordan.)

So, after all that growth, why did God “break through its walls [the vineyard]/ so all passers-by could pluck it?” (13) Worse than mere plucking has been the depredations of Israel’s enemies: “The boar from the forest has gnawed it,/ and the swarm of the field fed upon it.” 914)

The psalmist is not even asking God to rescue them, just to return from wherever he is and observe what has happened: “God of armies, pray come back,/ look down from the heavens and see,/ and take note of this vine,” (15)

The metaphor grows suddenly starker, more desperate.  Now Israel is not only vine, but God’s son: “…and the son You took to Yourself–/burnt in fire, chopped to bits,/ from the blast of your presence they perish.” (17)

In these awful straits, the plea is simple: “May your hand be over the man on Your right,/ over the son of man You took to Yourself.” (18) We need to be careful here about metaphors. I think it would be over-reading here to presume the “son of man” is a reference to Jesus. The psalmist is simply reaffirming that Israel is God’s chosen people, his son in the metaphorical sense.

And inevitably, the promise that if God will “Restore us to life and we shall call on Your name/ Lord of armies, bring us back.” And a final plea, “Light up Your face that we may be rescued.” Which of course, God has done over and over. For Israel, For us.

Isaiah 15,16: These chapters are “an oracle concerning Moab.” Like Israel in the psalm above it is in desperate straits: “On every head is baldness,/ every beard is shorn;/ in the streets they bind on sackcloth;/ on the housetops and in the squares/ everyone wails and melts in tears.” (15: 2b, 3)

The poet says, “My heart cries out for Moab.” (5) but the prophecy promises only more disaster: “For the waters of Dibon are full of blood;/yet I will bring upon Dibon even more—/a lion for those of Moab who escape,/ for the remnant of the land.” (9)

Chapter 16 opens with a plea for the rescue of Moabites to be allowed to see asylum (In Judah?): “hide the outcasts,/do not betray the fugitive;/ let the outcasts of Moab/ settle among you;” (16:3,4). Peace will eventually come and the promise is messianic: “a throne shall be established in steadfast love/ in the tent of David,/ and on it shall sit in faithfulness/a ruler who seeks justice/ and is swift to do what is right.” (16:5)

But Judah answers derisively: “Therefore let Moab wail,/ let everyone wail for Moab.” (16:7), which, if we assume Jesus, root of Jesse and ultimately of Moab through Ruth, is exactly the rejection he experienced. And indeed, for the Jews of Jerusalem who condemned him, “Joy and gladness are taken away/ from the fruitful field;/ and in the vineyards no songs are sung,/ no shouts are raised;” (16:10)

Regardless of whether or not these chapters are a metaphor for Jesus’ rejection or simply a prophecy about the actual Moab, we feel the pain and desperation of those who who have sought asylum. This truth stretches to the present day when those of us who are already here seek to reject those who would cross our borders. Unfortunately, many of them are God-fearing Christians–not unlike Judah who rejected Moab.

Ephesians 1:11–23: Paul is in a much better mood in his letter to the Ephesians. (Some scholars reject Paul as the actual author, but I see no reason to do so at this point.)

Paul assures us that we become heirs–what he calls the “pledge of our inheritance” through a very simple process: “when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit” (1:13)

Clearly, the Ephesians to whom Paul writes have done this, making Paul very happy: “I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.” (16) And since he does not have to deal with the issues of Galatia and Corinth here, he writes on how the Ephesians (and us) having become heirs to Christ, we have everything we could possibly want: “ the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.” (19, 20) 

And this great power resides on place: in Jesus Christ: “God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places.” (20) The power of Christ is greater than anything on earth or anything we can imagine, transcending both space and time: “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.” (21)

I think we should reflect on these verse when we’re tempted to bemoan the “triumph of secularism” or that the culture continues to abandon God. Christ’s power trumps all of this. And if we take a moment and examine the past 2000 years of history, we see that all these empires that seemed unstoppable and eternally on the ascendant have become dust. As will our own culture. Yet the church remains. If we need a demonstration of Christ’s power we really don’t need to look very far.