Psalm 104:1–9; Judges 9:1–33; Luke 20:20–26

Psalm 104:1–9: Like the previous psalm, this one celebrates the majesty of God the king: “Lord, my God, You are very great./ Grandeur and glory You don.” (1) This psalm focuses less on God’s justice and more on how he is king over all creation through metaphors and similes evoking nature and in many ways replicating the account of Genesis 1 in poetic form.

Our poet begins with God wearing light as a coat: “Wrapped in light like a cloak,/ stretching out heavens like a tent-cloth.” (2) Water is separated from sky in a metaphor of building construction: “Setting beams for His lofts in the waters, /making His chariot the clouds.” (3). Wind evokes God’s and his angels movements within creation: “He goes on wings of the wind./ He makes His messengers the winds,/ His ministers, glowing fire.” (4).

While the heavens are full of movement, the earth has a solid, immovable foundation: “He founded earth on its solid base,/ not to be shaken forevermore.” (5) [Apparently our psalmist never experienced an earthquake…] A fascinating image follows of the mountains originally being covered by water but becoming dry land, evoking the movements associated with volcanic activity and plate tectonics:
With the deep You covered it like a garment—
       over mountains the the waters stood.
       From Your blast they fled,
       from the sound of Your thunder they scattered.” (6,7)

This movement of water affects all the earth, eventually ending up as the landscape the poet knows: “They went up the mountains, went down the valleys,/ to the place You founded for them.” (8) In these same verses we also see an evocation of the flood story and God’s promise not to rearrange the landscape via flood ever again: “A border You fixed so they [the waters] could not cross,/ so the could not come back to cover the earth.” (9)

Because of our scientific knowledge we have lost the impact and deep meaning of these verses that so forcefully depict God as the creative agent of everything we know. I suppose that it’s good that God has given us the brainpower to seek out and understand how the laws of physics lie behind the movement of creation. But it has been at the tradeoff of losing the awe and wonder that these verses so powerfully communicate.

Judges 9:1–33: Gideon, aka Jerubbaal, has died and his son Abimelech decides that Israel really needs a king rather than the judges that have administered rather than ruled over ISrael with mixed success. He inveigles his mother into going to the leaders of Shechem and present the false choice, “‘Which is better for you, that all seventy of the sons of Jerubbaal rule over you, or that one rule over you?’” (2) Mom is successful as the lords of Shechem follow Abimelech [hereafter ‘Ab’] “for they said, “He is our brother.” (3) They give Ab 70 pieces of silver which he uses to hire “worthless and reckless fellows, who followed him.” (4). These miscreants kill all but one of Ab’s seventy brothers “but Jotham, the youngest son of Jerubbaal, survived, for he hid himself.” (5) The lords of Shechem and Beth-millo crown Ab king.

Side note: One of the fascinating themes of the OT is unending conflict among brothers and how it is the younger brother [Esau/ Jacob; 12 brothers/ Joseph] who comes out ahead of the others

The sole survivor of the massacre, Jotham, warns the lords of Shechem of their folly in anointing Ab as their king with an agricultural  parable spoken as a poem. The parable speaks of trees, representing the people of Shechem, asking an olive tree to reign over them, followed by a fig tree, and a vine. Each of these represents an honorable man who refuses to become king.  Finally, the trees ask bramble—clearly meaning Ab— to reign over them, who agrees to do so: “And the bramble said to the trees,/ ‘If in good faith you are anointing me king over you,/then come and take refuge in my shade;” (15a) But the poem ends as a prediction of battles to come between Ab and those over whom he rules: “but if not, let fire come out of the bramble/ and devour the cedars of Lebanon.’” (15b).

Jotham reminds the lords of Shechem “my father fought for you, and risked his life, and rescued you from the hand of Midian” (17) but they betrayed that heritage and have “risen up against my father’s house this day, and have killed his sons, seventy men on one stone, and have made Abimelech, the son of his slave woman, king over the lords of Shechem, because he is your kinsman.” (18)

Jothem sows seeds of doubt into theminds of the Shechem leaders, teling them that if they acted in good faith, “then rejoice in Abimelech, and let him also rejoice in you;” (19) but if not, then Ab and Shechem will annihilate each other in battle. After making these pronouncements, Jotham wisely flees “for fear of his brother Abimelech.” (21)

After three years peace between Ab and Shechem falls apart as “God sent an evil spirit between Abimelech and the lords of Shechem.” (23) A guy named Gaal shows up and “the lords of Shechem put confidence in him.” (26). Gaal, sensing he can seize power asks the ever-pliable lords of Shechem, “Who is Abimelech, and who are we of Shechem, that we should serve him?” (28) Gaal asserts that he can rout Ab out of his position of power.

Ab’s ally, Zebul hears about this and tells Ab that a coup is being plotted at Shechem. Preparations for battle ensue as Zebul advises Ab, “as soon as the sun rises, get up and rush on the city; and when he and the troops that are with him come out against you, you may deal with them as best you can.” (33)

I think the authors are telling us via the story of Abimelech that leaders must be appointed by God. Plotting and conspiracies arising from man’s sinful nature will always come to a bad end.

Luke 20:20–26: Jesus is now preaching in the belly of the beast at the temple. The conspiracy to entrap Jesus is in full swing, as “they watched him and sent spies who pretended to be honest, in order to trap him by what he said, so as to hand him over to the jurisdiction and authority of the governor.” (20)

The clever spies spring what they think will be a clever trap by asking Jesus, “Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” (22). Perceiving their scheme, “Then give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (25)

Would that the church to come followed Jesus’ advice more diligently.

The church was wholly separate from the state in its early days, which caused it to be viewed suspiciously by the emperors at Rome, often resulting in severe persecution. But the church survived and grew. Then came Constantine who co-opted the church, making it a vassal of the state. And it has behaved politically ever since, eventually becoming the state itself as the Holy Roman Empire. Of course had the church not become the state, western civilization would look a lot different than it does today.

Conflicts between church and state continue to the present day, where many of those in political power seek to displace the church from the public square altogether. Perhaps this is not a completely bad thing. The church in America has certainly diluted Jesus’ message with substantial portions of its evangelical arm seeking political power under the guise of America as being specially blessed by God. The church seems to thrive when it is persecuted, as witness the growth of Christianity in China today.

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