Psalm 103:19–22; Jeremiah 23:33–25:14; 1 Timothy 5:17–6:2

Psalm 103:19–22: The concluding verses of this magnificent psalm leap from the relationship between God and us to the glories of heaven as the scene opens Revelation-like at the Throne of God: “The Lord set His throne firm in the heavens/ and His kingdom rules over all.” (19) This is also one of those places that causes us to believe the Kingdom of God is “up there” above us.  I also suspect that Milton picked up some of his themes for Paradise Lost right here in these verses, particularly the part about angels as an powerful warriors and an army: “Bless the Lord, O His messengers,/ valiant in power, performing His word,/ to heed the sound of His word.” (20)

One of the things about angels (here “messengers”) is that unlike we humans they never fail to carry out God’s orders. They are the always obedient servants and messengers: “Bless the Lord, all His armies,/ His servants performing His pleasure.” (21) This tells me that angels lack that essential component that makes us humans imago deo: free will. In short, to be an angel means at once to possess other-worldly power but the inability to act on his own. And as the OT makes clear elsewhere, seraphim and cherubim are quite different than humans, what with bodies of lions and the like. Clearly, they were not created in the image of God. I’ll take my humanity, thank you very much.

And I think it is the wonderfulness of our very humanity that for all its flaws the psalmist is ultimately getting at here. Unlike the angels we can stand and decide of our free will to dedicate the entirety of ourselves to God: “Bless, O my being, the Lord.” (23) For the psalmist there is no higher calling and he has dedicated his entire being to God. Is it the same for me?

Jeremiah 23:33–25:14: One of the fascinating things about the OT and here in Jeremiah in particular is how God keeps giving object lessons. Here, “Lord showed me two baskets of figs placed before the temple of the Lord.” (24:1a). Our author is careful to note, “This was after King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon had taken into exile from Jerusalem King Jeconiah son of Jehoiakim of Judah, together with the officials of Judah, the artisans, and the smiths, and had brought them to Babylon.” (24:1b)

To make sure Jeremiah gets the point, God asks, “What do you see, Jeremiah?” and Jeremiah logically replies: ““Figs, the good figs very good, and the bad figs very bad, so bad that they cannot be eaten.” (24:3) God goes on to explain that the good figs are those who have already been taken captive to Babylon, while the bad figs is the corrupt administration, “King Zedekiah of Judah, his officials, the remnant of Jerusalem who remain in this land, [Judah]” (24:8) And they are about to meet a grisly end: “I will send sword, famine, and pestilence upon them, until they are utterly destroyed from the land that I gave to them and their ancestors.” (24:10)

We tend to think that God thinks subtly about all the complexities of us humans, but at the core it’s really quite binary: good figs vs. bad figs. In the end we we can decide to listen to and obey God or or we can go our own corrupt way. And now, through Jesus, we have an even more straightforward way to end up in the good fig basket (or perhaps to use Jesus’ metaphor: sheep vs. goats). But absent looking to and trusting God, our self-centered drive ensures that we will always end up in the bad fig basket.

At this point, Jeremiah abandons poetry for straight up narrative as he warns the people of Judah of what is coming: the Babylonian captivity. He starts off reminding his listeners, “For twenty-three years, from the thirteenth year of King Josiah son of Amon of Judah, to this day, the word of the Lord has come to me, and I have spoken persistently to you, but you have not listened.” (25:3) Jeremiah reviews how all the prophets who have come have given fair warning but, “Yet you did not listen to me, says the Lord, and so you have provoked me to anger with the work of your hands to your own harm.” (25:7)

That phrase, “you have provoked me to anger with the work of your hands to your own harm,” leaps off the page. Of course this is a reference to the incessant idol-making that Judah engaged in. But it is also a greater statement: that we attempt to become creators ourselves rather than remembering our status as God’s creatures. There’s noting wrong with us creating stiff. After all, God has given us the smarts and the resources to do that, But as soon as we hold our own creations to be greater than God himself we get into deep trouble. Now that our culture has declared itself not only to be greater than God, but in fact has decided there’s no God in the first place, I fear will will only see further corruption God’s created order. Certainly the physical world, but the corruption of social order that results from spiritual emptiness. Jeremiah’s message is just as relevant to us as to Judah.

The prophet predicts the Babylonian captivity will last 70 years. What will our own Babylonian captivity look like?

1 Timothy 5:17–6:2: This compendium of practical advice about church organization and leadership gets down to finances: “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching;  for the scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves to be paid.”” (5: 17, 18).  Absolutely. And there are lessons in basic church polity: “Never accept any accusation against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses.” (5:19). Although the next verse, “As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest also may stand in fear.” has led to lawsuits in the US when members of a church have been publicly ostracized. Once again, I am struck by the Jeremiah-like sternness here. It’s as if there’s a list to be checked off. Where is the grace? This list sounds too much like a corporate HR manual and too little like inspired Scripture to me.

Then, to further emphasize the checklist nature of this passage we have the complete non-sequitur: “ No longer drink only water, but take a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.” (5:23) Ive always wondered what the tee-totaler denominations do with this verse other than to note that wine may be OK as a medicine but not as a drink.

Far more troubling to our modern ears is, “Let all who are under the yoke of slavery regard their masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be blasphemed.” (6:1). This is one of those places where we be ned to be careful not to inject our contemporary mores on an ancient culture (the practice of “presentism.”). As ugly and distasteful as this verse is to us now, it doubtless reflects the reality that slaveholders viewed the early church as likely source of a slave rebellion and if the church was to survive in that culture it had to remain quiet and squeaky clean, by being honorable above all else.  What does this say about our role as the church in the present cultural reality?

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