Psalm 106:13–23; Jeremiah 40,41; Philemon 1:1–11

Psalm 106:13–23: In the last verse of yesterday’s reading, the Israelites “trusted His words..and sang His praise.” (12) Today, we open at the next verse and things have changed: “Quickly they forgot His deeds,/ they did not await His counsel.” (13) Singing and trust have become complaining about the manna “And they felt a sharp craving in the wilderness,/ they put God to the test in the waste land.” (14) This is one of those places where we realize human nature has not changed one whit in 5000 years. Singing becomes complaining in virtually an instant. I have a feeling many pastors can identify here.

But their complaining produces results: “And He gave them what they had asked,/ sent food down their throats.” (15) This is a reference to the quail that God sent and they had to eat until they were sick of it. Yes, God sometimes gives us what we ask for, even if it isn’t very good for us–a reminder of our own complaining and lack of wisdom. I have a feeling that our prosperity can be like the quail. We are rich and still we complain.

The following verses cover notable incidents in the wilderness: the complaining and plots against Moses and Aaron; the “earth opened and swallowed Dothan,” (17), the horrific fire and the “flame [that] consumed the wicked. (18) They “made a calf at Horeb/ and bowed to a molten image.” (19) And worse, “they exchanged their glory for a grass-eating bull.” (20) Above all, “They forgot the God their rescuer,” as the poet reminds them of God’s marvelous interventions; God “Who did great things in Egypt,/ wonders in the land of Ham,/ awesome deeds at the Sea of Reeds.” (21, 22).

How we are so like them! Forgetting what God has done for us; how God has blessed us and complaining and then turning away from God to worship our own idols: objects, yes. But our priorities also. We stuff God into a Sunday morning closet and even when that’s not convenient due to our other recreational plans, we ignore Him altogether.

God would have wiped out Israel “were it not for Moses…who stood in the breech before [God.]” (23) So, too, we would be lost had it not been for our Moses: Jesus Christ.

Jeremiah 40,41: The captain of the guard, who was to bring Jeremiah in chains to Babylon, realizes that what has befallen Jerusalem was because “the Lord has brought it about, and has done as he said, because all of you sinned against the Lord and did not obey his voice.” (41:3) and releases Jeremiah, telling him to go to Gedaliah, who is the governor of what’s left of Judah. It’s fascinating that it is the captain of the Babylonian guard who realizes what happened was not Babylon’s tactical brilliance that brought about Judah’s defeat, but God. Did no inhabitant of Judah ever come to realize that what happened was the consequence of their sin?

Gedaliah is the governor and tells the people to obey the rule of the Babylonians and “all will go well with you.” Things seem to be OK, but a certain Jonanan comes to the governor, asking permission to kill Ishmael because he is plotting to assassinate Gedaliah. But the governor forbids this telling the would-be rescuer, “Do not do such a thing, for you are telling a lie about Ishmael.” (41:16)

Alas, the plot was true and Gedaliah is assassinated by Ishmael. Others are killed as well. Eighty men in mourning show up in Jerusalem “with their beards shaved and their clothes torn, and their bodies gashed, bringing grain offerings and incense to present at the temple of the Lord.” Seventy are slaughtered, but ten tell Ishmael they have stores of grain hidden away. There is a gruesome scene where Ishamael fills an empty cistern with the bodies of those he had slaughtered. The rest of the survivors are taken in chains as captives to the Ammonites.

But when Jonanan “heard of all the crimes that Ishmael son of Nethaniah had done” (41:11) he follows Ishmael and rescues the people and “they were glad.” (41:13) Ishmael tries to escape, but is hunted down and killed by Johanan. The remnants of Ishmael’s gang flee.

Why is the story of Johanan and Ishmael here in the middle of Jeremiah? For us, I think it is symbolic of how Jesus comes to warn the Judah of his day, but just as Gedaliah didn’t believe Johanan, the religious officials scoffed and eventually killed the messenger. And Israel paid dearly in AD70. The real question is, do we believe what Jesus has to say to us, or will we merely scoff? Jesus has a much to say about the consequences of disbelief in his Olivet discourse in the Gospel of Matthew.

Philemon 1:1–11: This lovely letter is certainly Paul at his finest–and it is the one personal letter we have as he writes to Philemon. (And I think the compilers of the NT canon purposely placed this sweet letter immediately following the didactic harshness of Titus to illustrate the contrast–perhaps they knew that Paul had not really written the pastorals…) Paul does not preach at Philemon, instead he lifts him up: “I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus.” (5) Unlike the Paul of Titus, here he is an encourager: “I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ.” (6) And ever generous, there is beautiful symmetry as he acknowledges how “I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.” (7)  Wow. What a feeling it must have been for Philemon to receive this letter from a famous leader of the church.

Paul is a master psychologist. He builds up Philemon with words of praise and then eventually comes to the purpose of his letter. He first reminds Philemon that as a leader of the church he has the right “to command you to do your duty,” (8) But, appealing to Philemon’s generous nature instead, “I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love.” (9) and Paul subtly reminds Philemon of his present circumstances  “also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus.”  Brilliant: Paul notes that he could command Philemon but is asking out of love and by the way, reminding Philemon of his grim circumstances as a prisoner. Who could possibly turn down any request from Paul at this point?

The reason for the build-up is clear. Paul’s request is a hard one: that Philemon release his slave Onesimus, noting “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me.” More brilliant psychology. Not that the slave is just useful just Paul, but to Philemon as well. Paul is essentially inviting Philemon into a partnership if he is willing to give up his slave. Let’s see where this goes…


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