Psalm 37:16–22; Exodus 23:27–25:9; Matthew 24:36–44

Psalm 37:16–22: Our psalmist has launched into full wisdom mode, sounding very much like the author of Proverbs: “Better a little for the just/ than wicked men’s profusion,” (16) teaching us that it is better to be poor and righteous than rich and wicked. This is because the just man enjoys God’s protection: “For the wicked’s arms shall be broken,/ but the Lord sustains the just.” (17) Not just protection, but salvation in the long run: “The Lord embraces the fate of the blameless,/ and their estate shall be forever.” (18) Our poet continues to stack up the promises made to the righteous. Under God’s beneficence, it is they who will survive in tough times: “They shall not be shamed in an evil time/ and in days of famine they shall eat their fill.” (19)

But as our poet has told us so often already, the wicked will get what’s coming to them: “For the wicked shall perish, and the foes of the Lord,/ like the meadows’ green—gone, up in smoke, gone.” (20)

Our psalmist finally boils it all down to a very simple formula: “For those He blesses inherit the earth/ and those he curses are cut off.” (22) But does this black and white deuteronomic thesis really hold up? Is it really as simple as all this? We’d really like to think it is, but as the book of Job makes dramatically clear, the issue of God’s moral justice seems much more ambiguous than the simple quid pro quo described in this psalm. The just do indeed suffer unjustly. And the wicked certainly seem to prosper all too often.

But one thing is certainly true: It is better to fear God and follow the path of righteousness than to reject him.

Exodus 23:27–25:9: God’s angel has reassured Moses that all will go well with Israel if they follow God and not the idols of the small-g gods of the existing Canaanites. The angel describes God’s strategy for Israel to take over Canaan. It will not be one big battle driving the inhabitants into the sea because “the land would become desolate and the wild animals would multiply against you.” (23:30) Instead, it will take more than a year because, “Little by little I will drive them out from before you, until you have increased and possess the land.” (31)

The angel concludes with the now-familiar warning: You shall make no covenant with them and their gods. They shall not live in your land, or they will make you sin against me; for if you worship their gods, it will surely be a snare to you.” (32, 33). Alas, we know how that turned out.

It’s worth noting that at this point, Israel is headed directly to Canaan, (or, almost directly via Sinai, anyway), so the angel’s revelations have immediate currency. The 40-year curse is yet to come.

Moses and his leadership deliver this news to the people, who once again affirm,“All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do.” (24:3) At this point Moses “wrote down all the words of the Lord,”  (4) ,which is of course what we have just read. But did Moses really write all this down or is this a literary device on the part of our authors writing hundreds of years later in order to imply Moses’ authorship of these lengthy instructions?

Following an elaborate process of building altars, sacrifice and worship, “Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up” (9) toward the mountain and at last, all of them “saw the God of Israel” standing on “something like a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness.” (10). Happily, this theophany does not result in a bad end, as “God did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; also they beheld God,” (11) In fact, they had a party and “ate and drank.”

God instructs Moses to come further up the mountain, telling him to “wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.” (12). Moses obeys and waits in the clouds for (symbolically enough) six days in an echo of the creation story as God is now going to in essence create the nation of Israel under the Law. “On the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud.” (24:16).

Down on the ground below, “the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel.” (24:17) At this point every man, woman, and child of Israel should be sure that God is with them. Moses disappears into the cloud, “and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.” (24:18)

The conversation between Moses and God is quite a bit more detailed than our popular image of God just handing over the stone tablets. God opens the discussion with an extremely detailed description of the offerings the people are to bring. Then, they are to “make me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them.” (8). At last, God is going to come off the mountain and join Israel on the ground. Which of course is the central point of the theocracy of Israel: God dwelt among them, first in the Ark in the Tabernacle, and later in the Temple itself.

As Christians, this idea of God coming down off the mountain to “dwell among” Israel is exactly the same pattern repeated when Jesus comes down off the “heavenly mountain” and came to dwell among us in the real world as a human being. Once again, the OT gives us a hint of greater things to come.

Matthew 24:36–44: Jesus has described events surrounding the coming of the Son of Man, but he also informs us that their timing is unknown,“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (36)  I’ve always been intrigued that even the “Son” does not know when his own return is going to happen. I suppose the theological point here is to remind us that it is the Father in heaven who remains firmly in control of history.

Jesus uses the example of Noah to remind us that before that particular history-ending event, life blithely went on: “For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark,.” (38). In the same way the Noahic world was ignorant of the flood that would soon sweep them away,  “so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.” Jesus describes how half the population simply vanishes: “ two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left” (40, 41) This has become known as the “secret Rapture,” which remains an article of faith among Evangelicals and was the underlying thesis of the infamous “Left Behind” books.

But wait a minute. Didn’t Jesus just describe a very public return of the Son of Man a few verses back? He described how the Son of Man would come with a trumpet blast that could be heard by everyone on earth, all of who would witness his return. Now he’s talking about a quiet return where believers simply disappear quietly. Are they the same return? No wonder we can’t make complete sense of apocalyptic literature.

That leaves us only one very important option—the one Jesus instructs us to follow. Don’t speculate, wasting time trying to figure out exactly what will happen or trying to predict—as many still persist in doing—the exact time of this event. Even Jesus doesn’t know. Our duty is simply to keep working but always remaining on the alert. “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” (44) Remaining alert rather than clueless is just plain excellent advice for living our quotidian livesregardless of whatever eschatological expectations we may have.

Speak Your Mind