Psalm 129; Daniel 6:19–7:22; 3 John

Psalm 129: This psalm, written in the first person, begins with a complaint about those who have bullied the psalmist: “Much they beset me from my youth.” (2a) but his tormenters did not win in the end: “yet they did not prevail over me.” (2b) Although his tormentors did not prevail, they have nonetheless wreaked damage as we encounter one of the more gruesome agricultural metaphors in the Psalms: “My back the harrowers harrowed,/ they drew a long furrow.” (3) But God has intervened just as dramatically to free him from his torment: “The lord is just./ He has slashed the bonds of the wicked.” (4)

Who are the tormenters? They are the enemies of Israel (and one might suggest, all anti-Semites everywhere.) Now freed by God, the psalmist flings an imprecation at them: May they be shamed and fall back,/ all the haters of Zion.” (5)

Another agricultural metaphor, the curse is that those who hate him “be like grass on the rooftops/ that the east wind withers.” (6) I assume this is a reference to dry thatch. This thatch consists of the sheaves of grain that have been rejected as being useless for their intended purpose and “with which no reaper fills his hand,/ no binder of sheaves in his bosom.” (7) The strong implication here is that his enemies have been rejected by Israel, and denied God’s blessing, as the psalm concludes, “no passers-by say, “The Lord’s blessing upon you!/ We bless you in the name of the Lord.” (8)

So, what do we make of a psalm that includes torture and curses? As is so often the case, the psalms are how the poet can express his deepest feelings and we feel his anger palpably here. We sense the psalmist’s almost perverse joy that his enemies will dry up and blow away like the dead grass on the rooftop. Jesus may have advised us to love our enemies, but psalms like these are under no such constraint.

Daniel 6:19–7:22: We all know and love the happy ending of the Daniel-in-the-lion-den story. The distraught king hurries to the den the next morning and is overjoyed to find Daniel alive. As usual, it is Daniel who speaks the lesson: “My God sent his angel and shut the lions’ mouths so that they would not hurt me, because I was found blameless before him; and also before you, O king, I have done no wrong.” (6:22). Daniel’s accusers–and their entire families–are tossed into the den where “Before they reached the bottom of the den the lions overpowered them and broke all their bones in pieces.” (6:24b)

I think the reason this story resonates so strongly down through the centuries is that justice triumphs over injustice. And those who have committed injustice pay with their lives. It’s a perfect illustration of the theme of God’s justice that courses through the entire Old Testament–and a lesson for those who plot injustice. Too often, it seems that injustice prevails, but as my Dad used to say, “eventually, the chickens come home to roost.” We must have faith that even in the present reign of seeming injustice, God’s justice will prevail in the end.

Daniel is indeed wise and an interpreter of other’s dreams, but in a way, he is cursed with his own dreams and the vision of the four beasts arising out of the sea is particularly dramatic:- a lion with eagle’s wings; a bear with three tusks; a leopard with four wings; and a monster with iron teeth and ten horns and then the appearance of a “little horn”  covered in eyes. That would certainly be enough to wake me up in fright!

An apocalyptic vision of the”ancient one” on his throne and streams of fire caps the dream.  Surrounded by thousands of servants, there is a throne room judgement as “he court sat in judgment, and the books were opened.” (6:10) The beasts are destroyed, and then the great vision of Daniel;
  I saw one like a human being[e]
       coming with the clouds of heaven.
   And he came to the Ancient One
       and was presented before him.
   To him was given dominion
       and glory and kingship,
   that all peoples, nations, and languages
      should serve him.

I think most Christians see this as the throne room judgement of God–the Ancient One– at the end of history and the “one like a human being” as being Jesus Christ glorified. Books have been written about what each symbol and beast stands for, including theories that the ten-horned beast represents Europe and the little horn, the rise of the United States. For me, this is all entertaining but useless speculation. I think that like John’s Revelation, these images are attempts to express the inexpressible. We should just sit back and let them wash over us, knowing that one day their true meaning will be revealed to us.

3 John: This short little letter is one of those that give us insight into some of the personalities of the early church. At a casual level, wonders why this basically personal thank-you note, thanking Gaius for his hospitality, made it into the Canon. But as we read, there is much more here.

John tells Gaius–and us–to provide support those who do the Lord’s work: “Beloved, you do faithfully whatever you do for the friends, even though they are strangers to you; they have testified to your love before the church. You will do well to send them on in a manner worthy of God.” (5, 6) Even though all of us don’t go out, “we ought to support such people, so that we may become co-workers with the truth.” (8) Which is why every church must have a “mission beyond” program. 

The latter half of this letter deals with Diotrephes, who appears to be a church leader, who has rejected John’s authority and and is acting capriciously, having decided that Demetrius is  perosna non grata in the church, and is “spreading false charges against us. And not content with those charges, he refuses to welcome the friends, and even prevents those who want to do so and expels them from the church.” (10)

And once again, John has to make the same point he makes over and over in his epistles: “Beloved, do not imitate what is evil but imitate what is good. Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God.” (11) We need to be reminded of this every day, it seems.

From its earliest days, the church has been beset with conflict. While we should not take encouragement in that when we experience conflict in our own church today, it helps us realize that human nature is pretty immutable–and that it takes serious will to act on John’s command that we not imitate what is evil, but imitate what is good. As Luther said so well, we are simultaneously saints and sinners.

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