Psalm 140:1–5; 2 Kings 5:15–6:23; Acts 1:15–26

Psalm 140:1–6: This David psalm of supplication focuses on the straits of a man—doubtless a leader or king—surrounded by conspiracy and violence, something we can well imagine occurring in David’s court—and in the court of every leader since then. The first order of business in this prayer is for God to remove one figure in particular who is creating dangerous chaos in the court:
Free me, Lord, from evil folk,
from a violent man preserve me.
Who plot evil in their heart,
each day stir up battles.” (2,3)

I’m sure these are verses that could be prayed by many today who find themselves in potentially dangerous circumstances at their work.

Speech, both public and private, is a major weapon here and the similes of venomous poison make its danger quite clear: “They sharpen their tongue like a serpent,/ venom of spiders beneath their lip.” (4) David repeats his plea to God to intervene in this dangerous situation which portends serious violence, perhaps assassination: “Guard me, Lord, from the wicked man’s hands,/ from a violent man preserve me,/ who plots to trip up my steps.” (5) We learn that the conspiracy includes not just one man but a cabal that views itself as superior: “The haughty laid down a trap for me,/ and with cords they spread out a net.” (6a) David believes he can too easily fall into their clever trap: “Alongside the path they set snares for me.” (6b).

I’m not sure I’ve ever felt so threatened since I’ve had the good fortune in my career to be surrounded by honest, if occasionally blunt, people. This psalm does a beautiful job of describing the severe emotional and mental stress induced by people conspiring against someone. It is surely one of the ugliest things one can experience. And I am well aware that it occurs all too frequently in churches.

2 Kings 5:15–6:23: Naaman is grateful beyond words to Elisha for healing. More importantly he realizes it is God who has healed him: “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel; please accept a present from your servant.” (5:15) Naaman tries to offer a gift to Elisha but the prophet will not accept. Naaman offers gifts to Elisha’s servant Gehazi, but Elisha refuses to let him accept it.

Gehazi is none too happy about Elisha’s refusal to accept Naaman’s gift: “My master [Elisha] has let that Aramean Naaman off too lightly by not accepting from him what he offered. As the Lord lives, I will run after him and get something out of him.” (5:20) Gehazi catches up with Naaman and lies to him that two prophets have just arrived and have needs. Gehazi asks for two talents of silver and two changes of clothing on their behalf. Naaman happily complies.

Elisha, being the prophet he is, detects that Gehazi is up to something nefarious. He asks Gehazi where he’s been but the servant lies and says he’s been right at home. For his greedy malfeasance, Elisha tells him, “Therefore the leprosy of Naaman shall cling to you, and to your descendants forever.” So he left his presence leprous, as white as snow.” (5:28) The moral is clear: the works of healing are not a financial transaction and lying only makes things worse.

I always think of prophets as being loners. But Elisha has quite a retinue of assistant prophets. The group comes to Elisha and proposes building houses along the Jordan. Elisha agrees. During construction, an ax head flies into the water and being made of iron, sinks right to the bottom of the river. Needless to say, the carpenter is distraught as this is his most valuable tool. Elisha helps out by making the ax head float so it can be retrieved. Why is this story here? I am never happy when the laws of physics are disobeyed so blatantly.

In another incident, Elisha is advising the king of Israel about plans of the Arameans to attack Israel and that the king should avoid certain specific places. Seeing that the king has escaped his grasp, the Aramean king suspects there’s a spy in his retinue. However, an officer asserts that Elisha is the one giving this information to the king of Israel. The Aramean king gives orders to capture Elisha and they head to Dothan. Upon seeing the city of Dothan surrounded by the Aramean army, the prophet’s servant panics: “Alas, master! What shall we do?” (6:15) Elisha tells him not to worry and prays to God for the servant’s eyes to be opened. The servant looks out and “he saw the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.” (17) The servant understands via this vision that God will protect Elisha.

The prophet prays to God for rather direct action, “Strike this people, please, with blindness.” (18) God complies and Elsiha leads the blind army right inside the city of Samaria. He then prays for their blindness to be removed and as they open their eyes they realize they’re right in the city of their mortal enemy. The king of Israel, well aware of Elisha’s power, asks him, “Father, shall I kill them? Shall I kill them?” Elisha replies that the king should show mercy by feeding the Arameans and letting them go home. As a consequence Israel is no longer threatened by Aramea.

I guess the moral here is that having seen God’s power as exemplified by Elisha, and then being shown mercy is a far better way to deal with enemies than attacking and killing them. This story also tells us that Jesus’ words to love one’s enemies and turn the other cheek is based on scriptural roots and is less radical than it first sounds. Anyone who knew this story would understand what Jesus was saying.

Acts 1:15–26: Luke tells us that the band of Jesus’ disciples now numbers 120 (I wonder of the number—10 x 12— has any particular significance?). Peter announces to the assembly that “Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas.” (16) and that a new disciple is needed to fill the gap left by the traitor.

Luke informs us parenthetically that Judas bought a piece of land, which must have had a steep cliff on it since Judas fell “headlong, [and] he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out.” (18) Which, by the way, is not how Matthew describes Judas’ fate: “Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself.” (Matthew 27:5)

Nevertheless, a replacement disciple is needed and there are two candidates, “Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias.” (23) The assembly (all 120 or just the 11?) prays and asks God to “Show us which one of these two you have chosen.” (24) They apparently believed that God would provide his answer via the casting of lots and “the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.” (26)

The question on my mind is why there had to be twelve disciples. Was it because Jesus had specified that? And what about this business of praying and then casting lots? One thing is worth noting though: there are two candidates for a single position. Which is not how some churches “elect” members of its Council.

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