Psalm 103:6–18; Jeremiah 23:1–32; 1 Timothy 5:9–16

Psalm 103:6–18: Many psalms talk in the abstract about God’s kindness, but this psalm describes exactly what God’s kindness and forgiveness means for us failed humans: “Compassionate and gracious, the Lord, slow to anger and abounding in kindness.” (8) We don’t think much about God’s anger at our sin and the injustice of the world, but our psalmist tells us it is intense but not long-lived, more like a passing thunderstorm than a long drenching rain: “He will not dispute forever/ nor nurse His anger for all time.” (9)

We deserve far greater punishment than God metes out: “Not according to our offenses has He done to us/ nor according to our crimes requited us.” (10) Instead, there is mercy that is far greater than we can imagine: “For as the heavens loom high over earth,/ His kindness is great over those who fear Him.” (11) It is mercy expressed as absolute forgiveness: “As the east is far from the west,/ He has distanced us from our transgressions.” (12) And instead of the punishment we so richly deserve, there is compassion: “As a father has compassion for his children,/ the Lord has compassion for those who fear Him.” And nowhere has God’s compassion been more wonderfully expressed than in sending his Son to die for us. That was the final once-and-for-all east-west separation from our sins.

We often don’t read the verses that follow, but they are crucial in trying to get our minds (and hearts) around this unfathomable mercy. We are God’s evanescent creatures: “Man’s days are like grass,/…when the wind passes by he is gone,/ and his place will no longer know him.” (16) Reflect on that last line: we will live and then die and then mostly be forgotten. But by contrast, “the Lord’s kindness is forever and ever.” God will never ever forget us and his kindness will be expressed over the generations: “…and His bounty to the sons of sons.” (Grandchildren!)

Jeremiah 23:1–32: In a powerful reversal of Psalm 23, Jeremiah stands before the leaders and Judah and shouts, “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord.” (1)  Then he describes the nature of failed leadership that resonates down to today: “It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them.” (2) Despite the evil unleashed by the kings of Judah, a faithful remnant remains and it is they to whom Jeremiah’s attention now turns: “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply.” (3).

Better leaders are in the offing for this remnant: “ I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord.” (4) Like so many prophecies we can read this at two levels: the short term and the long term. It applies first to those who heard Jeremiah’s words: a better leader is coming. But second, it applies to us because we hear a prophesy that gives us a clue of what God has up his sleeve: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” (5) Indeed, Jesus was that Righteous Branch that arose out of the house of David.

Jeremiah is in this alone, surrounded by a host of false prophets, so we can imagine not just Jeremiah’s lack of credibility, but the derision and hatred greeting these words: “Thus says the Lord of hosts: Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you; they are deluding you. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord.” (16). Why? Because like the sycophants they were, they only told the kings and people what they wanted to hear: “They keep saying to those who despise the word of the Lord, “It shall be well with you”; and to all who stubbornly follow their own stubborn hearts, they say, “No calamity shall come upon you.” (17)

This is also a truth that applies across time. False teaching drove Paul (who certainly had Jeremiah-like qualities) crazy. And there is ample false teaching today as e.g., the so-called “prosperity Gospel.” And don’t we like people who tell us only what we want to hear, reenforcing our preconceived notions? Leadership requires hearing the hard truths and acting on them–and it requires a staff person who is willing to say those hard words. Only Jeremiah was willing to say the unvarnished truth and accept the cruel suffering he received in response for what he said “in the name of the Lord.” Would I have the same courage? I think I have too often been the sycophantic courtier.

 1 Timothy 5:9–16: Here’s one of those places where I think it was someone other than Paul writing: “Let a widow be put on the list if she is not less than sixty years old and has been married only once; she must be well attested for her good works, as one who has brought up children, shown hospitality, washed the saints’ feet, helped the afflicted, and devoted herself to doing good in every way.” (9, 10) That’s just a little too specific for Paul, who tended to write more abstractly when it came to behaviors. Then we read about who is to be excluded: “ But refuse to put younger widows on the list; for when their sensual desires alienate them from Christ, they want to marry,” (11). Really?

Then there is substantial and rather harsh judgement: “Besides that, they learn to be idle, gadding about from house to house; and they are not merely idle, but also gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not say.” (13) That seems to be a pronouncement about an entire class of people, not just a few individuals. Even when Paul was at his harshest, as he was for example with the Corinthians, I never sensed that kind of prissy moral rectitude and certainly not the wholesale judgement on classes of people. I think Paul that felt anyone, regardless of his or her position, could be an equal opportunity sinner. 

And in contrast with today’s Psalm, this passage seems more about man’s judgement than God’s mercy. Grace seems pretty absent here.

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