Archives for February 2017

Psalm 24; 2 Chronicles 20:20–21:17; Acts 22:3–16

Psalm 24: As is the case with many others, this psalm opens with a reference to the creation story and here also with the clear assertion that all creation belongs to God: “The Lord’s is the earth and its fullness,/ The world and the dwellers within it.” (1) God began the act of creation in water: “For He on the seas did found it,/ and on the torrents set it firm.” (2)

Then, in an image that evokes a liturgical procession to the temple, the psalmist poses the question:
Who shall go up on the mount of the Lord,
and who shall stand up in His holy place?” (3)

The response is what we would expect:
The clean of hands and the pure of heart,
who has given no oath in lie
and has sworn not in deceit.” (4)

Those who seek after God are the ones who “shall bear blessing from the Lord/ and bounty from his rescuing God.” (5)  Notice that it is we who seek and it is God who rescues—which is certainly the underlying structure of psalms of supplication

Arriving at the temple entrance, the crowd shouts,
Lift up your heads, O gates,
and rise up, eternal portals
That the king of glory may enter.” (7)

I have to think that these words were very much on the people’s hearts and minds on Palm Sunday as Jesus entered through the gates of Jerusalem.

The liturgical question—Who is the king of glory?— is answered immediately (and the chorus in Handel’s Messiah comes instantly to mind):
The Lord most potent and valiant
The Lord who is valiant in battle.” (8)

Of course for those of us living under the New Covenant, it’s even better than that: the King of Glory is Jesus Christ himself.

2 Chronicles 20:20–21:17: Jehoshaphat is a faithful follower of God and he is also an inspiring leader as he encourages the troops before battle, “Listen to me, O Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem! Believe in the Lord your God and you will be established; believe his prophets.” (20:20) This proclamation is followed by worship. While they are worshipping God, the enemies of Judah, the Ammonites, Moab, and inhabitants of Mount Seir all ambush each other, managing to destroy each other without the army of Judah having to raise a hand. As always, this has been God’s work.

Jehoshaphat and his troops come to the battleground and spend three days recovering booty from the armies who has annihilated each other. At this good fortune there is once again worship: “On the fourth day they assembled in the Valley of Beracah, for there they blessed the Lord;” (20:26) With the assumption that Judah had soundly defeated the Ammonites et al, even though in actuality, the army of Judah had done nothing, news of this immense victory spreads to neighboring countries and, “The fear of God came on all the kingdoms of the countries when they heard that the Lord had fought against the enemies of Israel.” (20:29)

Peace comes to Judah, and credit goes to Jehoshaphat because “he walked in the way of his father Asa and did not turn aside from it, doing what was right in the sight of the Lord.”(20:32a) One exception is noted: he once mistakenly tried to do business with evil King Ahaziah of Israel, a shipbuilding venture which came to naught because, as Eliezer the prophet tells him, “you have joined with Ahaziah, the Lord will destroy what you have made.” (20:37)

Jehoshaphat may have followed God, but all was not well in Judah as “the high places were not removed; the people had not yet set their hearts upon the God of their ancestors.” (20:32b) A sign of bad things to come.

Jehoshaphat is succeeded by his son Jehoram who begins his reign by killing his brothers—never a good sign. He marries Ahab’s daughter and “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.” (21:7) Our authors note that the only reason God did not destroy Judah is “because of the covenant that he had made with David, and since he had promised to give a lamp to him and to his descendants forever.” (21:7)

But God finds other ways to punish Jehoram. Edom, which had been ruled by Judah, rebels and sets up its own kingdom, which is a consequence of Jehoram having “forsaken the Lord, the God of his ancestors.” (21:10)

Things are going poorly in Judah and Elijah sends Jehoram a letter, telling him the because of his evil deeds—especially killing his brothers—”the Lord will bring a great plague on your people, your children, your wives, and all your possessions” (21:14) as well as terminal diarrhea for the king himself. Ugh.

Jusrt when it seems things can’t get worse, God “aroused against Jehoram the anger of the Philistines and of the Arabs who are near the Ethiopian.s” (21:16) They invade Judah and “carried away all the possessions they found that belonged to the king’s house, along with his sons and his wives, so that no son was left to him except Jehoahaz, his youngest son.” (21:17)

Our authors continue to hammer home the moral of Judah’s story under both good and evil kings. Follow God and all will be well. Worship idols and commit the kinds of evil that Jehoram did and God will ensure an unhappy end.

Acts 22:3–16: Paul testifies before the crowd that would kill him. Luke uses Paul’s speech as biography with him beginning with his early history of how he persecuted the Jesus followers and provides a dramatic recounting of his Damascus Road conversion: “I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ I answered, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ Then he said to me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth whom you are persecuting.’” (7,8)

Paul describes his healing by “a certain Ananias” and gives him credit as the man by whom God gave Paul his mission: “Then he said, ‘The God of our ancestors has chosen you to know his will, to see the Righteous One and to hear his own voice; for you will be his witness to all the world of what you have seen and heard.” (14, 15) Which of course is exactly what Paul has done.

I have to admit that Paul’s testimony is compelling and this is the clearest statement we have in Acts of his exact mission. Paul is telling all who will listen that this is a completely new way of approaching God through Jesus Christ. By giving his personal testimony I think he feels that the Jews in audience will see both the logic and the passion of being a Jesus follower and not only release Paul but also follow Jesus. But will he succeed?

 

Psalm 22:29–32; 2 Chronicles 18; Acts 21:17–30

Psalm 22:29–32: In this concluding stanza, our psalmist describes the immense breadth of God’s kingship: “For the Lord’s is the kingship—/ and He rules over the nations.” (29) And then, in an unusual movement downward, he asserts that God’s rule extends to the the realm of the dead:
Yes, to Him will bow down
all the netherworld’s sleepers.
Before Him will go down to the dust
whose life is undone.” (30)

In every other psalm the inhabitants of the “netherworld”—Sheol—cannot worship God because they are dead. So I will take the poem here as hyperbolic that in the psalmist’s enthusiasm to describe the unimaginable breadth—and now depth—of God’s reign, that he includes the “netherworld” simply as a poetic device.

The final verse of this remarkable psalm brings us back to the surface of the earth and rushes forward in time as the poet, speaking here as David, proclaims that “My seed will serve Him.” This eager anticipation of obedience and worship of God by David’s progeny is underscored as “It [worship] will be told to the Master for generations to come.” (31) Moreover, God’s story and manifold blessings will be carried down through history by each succeeding generation: “They will proclaim His bounty to a people aborning,/ for [all] He has done.” (32)

And that is exactly what has happened. Today, we worship God and tell his story through Jesus Christ some three millennia after this profound poem was written. Despite our individual suffering, God’s glory suffuses the earth and all that is in it.

2 Chronicles 18: Flush with success and wealth, king Jehoshaphat of Judah has arranged an alliance via marriage with Samaria (aka the northern kingdom of Israel). Our authors are silent on who that was. Ahab, king of Samaria, asks Jehoshaphat to ally with him in battle against the Arameans.

Jehoshaphat suggests that before undertaking the project of war that they “Inquire first for the word of the Lord.” (4) Ahab complies and gathers 400 prophets who affirm the king’s plan to go into battle. This is all a bit too sycophantically unanimous for Jeh. who asks “Is there no other prophet of the Lord here of whom we may inquire?” (6). Ahab replies, “There is still one other by whom we may inquire of the Lord, Micaiah son of Imlah; but I hate him, for he never prophesies anything favorable about me, but only disaster.” (7) Which certainly supports Jeh’s thesis that Ahab’s 400 prophets were skilled only in telling Ahab what he wanted to hear.  As proof of this sycophancy, one of the 400, a certain Zedekiah who is apparently the lead prophet, even goes to far as to forge iron horns, telling the two kings, “Thus says the Lord: With these you shall gore the Arameans until they are destroyed.” (10) We can see the other 399 prophets enthusiastically shaking their heads in assent to Zedekiah that victory would be the king’s.

The messengers sent to bring Micaiah back to the king tell the prophet it would be in his interest to fall in with the majority: “let your word be like the word of one of them, and speak favorably.” (12). As proof that Micaiah follows God rather than other humans, he replies, “As the Lord lives, whatever my God says, that I will speak.” (13) Which of course is the mark of a true prophet.

Ahab demands Micaiah’s prophecy. At first the prophet answers sarcastically, “Go up and triumph; they will be given into your hand.” (15) But Ahab asks for Micaiah’s true and honest answer, which is much more dire: “I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains, like sheep without a shepherd; and the Lord said, ‘These have no master; let each one go home in peace.’” (16) Ahab turns to Jeh and remarks, “Did I not tell you that he would not prophesy anything favorable about me, but only disaster?” (17)

Micaiah underscores his prophecy by telling the kings that a lying spirit has infected the other prophets, which causes Zedekiah to slap him angrily, “Which way did the spirit of the Lord pass from me to speak to you?” (23) Since Micaiah was the bearer of bad news, Ahab orders him to be imprisoned. As he is led away we can see Micaiah turn and shout at Ahab, “If you return in peace, the Lord has not spoken by me.” (27) In this exchange we have one of the great constants of history: kill the messenger who tells us what we don’t want to hear. Denial is a powerful human drive, especially among leaders—right down to the present day.

Needless to say, things do not go well in battle. To escape, Ahab demand that Jeh and he exchange robes, thinking the enemy will kill the Judean king instead. But “Jehoshaphat cried out, and the Lord helped him. God drew them away from him.” (31) The enemy turns away and pursues Ahab, who is promptly speared through a gap in his armor. Mortally wounded, Ahab “propped himself up in his chariot facing the Arameans until evening; then at sunset he died.” (34)

This chapter drives its point home dramatically: Beware of false prophets telling us what we want to hear.

Acts 21:17–30: Writing in the first person, Luke tells how “the brothers welcomed us warmly.” (17) Paul visits James and the other elders of the church. They tell of the perception float that the Jews in Jerusalem “have been told about you that you teach all the Jews living among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, and that you tell them not to circumcise their children or observe the customs.” (21) The elders suggest that Paul undergo a rite of public purification and that therefore the Jews “all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself observe and guard the law.” (24) Paul agrees and “having purified himself, he entered the temple with them, making public the completion of the days of purification when the sacrifice would be made for each of them.” (26)

However, things don’t go well there. The Jews from Asia stir up the crowd and falsely accuse Paul as “the man who is teaching everyone everywhere against our people, our law, and this place; more than that, he has actually brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.” (28) The mob “seized Paul and dragged him out of the temple, and immediately the doors were shut.” (30)

This begins Paul’s captivity as he is about to be brought up on false charges.

Psalm 22:9–21; 2 Chronicles 14,15; Acts 20:32–21:4

Psalm 22:9–21: Our psalmist’s feelings of abandonment abruptly fade to the background as he recalls the gifts of faith in God: that our rescue and freedom come as a gift because God delights in us:
Who turns to the Lord, He will set him free.
He will save him, for He delights in him.” (9)

After all, the psalmist writes, we are God’s created beings from the very moment of our birth:
For You drew me out from the womb,
made me safe at my mother’s breasts.
Upon You I was cast from birth,
from my mother’s belly You were my God.” (10, 11)

And because of that close relationship with God he is the only place we can turn in times of trouble: “Do not be far from me,/ for distress is near,/ for there is none to help.” (12)

Now the psalmist describes the plight in which he found himself and why he felt abandoned by God. Confronting a powerful army—”brawny bulls”—who like lions “gaped their mouths at me” (14) David loses all courage in a breathtaking description of physical fear that envelops his entire body, bringing him close to death:
Like water I spilled out,
all my limbs fell apart.
My heart was like wax,
melting within my chest.
My palate turned dry as a shard
and my tongue was annealed to my jaw,
and to death’s dust did You thrust me.”  (15, 16)

Of course this description is also a detailed description of Jesus’ death by crucifixion. The line “like water spilled out” immediately evokes the image of the sword thrust into Jesus’ side. The image of Jesus’ suffering is intensified in the next verses:

For the curs came all around me,
a pack of evil encircled me.
they bound my hands and feet.
…It is they who looked, who stared at me.” (17, 21)

Can there be anything more desperately evil than dying on a cross while those around him stare up and mock Jesus? But it is the next verse that convinces us that the psalmist was unknowingly prophesying about Jesus death still hundreds of years in the future:
They shared out my garments among them
and cast lots for my clothes.” (19)

There is a final, gasping prayer, not unlike Jesus’ final gasping breaths on the cross:
But You, O Lord, be not far.
My strength, my aid O hasten!” (20)

Did our psalmist know he was writing of things to come? No. But this psalm is proof for me that God was already preparing an audacious plan to send Jesus to earth to die for us.

2 Chronicles 14,15: Abijah’s son, Asa, becomes king of Judah and “Asa did what was good and right in the sight of the Lord his God.” (14:2) He tears down all the idols and ‘high places,” and by following God, “the kingdom had rest under him.” (14:5) During this time of peace, Asa rebuilds fortified cities and defends Judah with “an army of three hundred thousand from Judah, armed with large shields and spears, and two hundred eighty thousand troops from Benjamin who carried shields and drew bows; all these were mighty warriors.” (14:8)

When the Ethiopians attempt to invade Judah, Asa wisely calls upon God for protection: “Help us, O Lord our God, for we rely on you, and in your name we have come against this multitude.” (14:11) The Ethiopians are soundly defeated as the army pursues them “as far as Gerar” collecting nice booty along the way.

The prophet Azariah tells Asa and his army, “The Lord is with you, while you are with him. If you seek him, he will be found by you, but if you abandon him, he will abandon you.” (15:2) As an example of this, the prophet reminds them about what happened to Israel when they followed idols instead of God.

As a result Asa and all of Judah take an oath that’s more than a little disturbing to our modern senses: “They entered into a covenant to seek the Lord, …with all their heart and with all their soul. Whoever would not seek the Lord, the God of Israel, should be put to death, whether young or old, man or woman.” (15:12, 13) But Judah is happy and “the Lord gave them rest all around.” (15:15)

Asa even took the idols away form his own mother. And even though every idol was not taken down, “the heart of Asa was true all his days” (15:17) and Judah enjoys 35 years of peace under his reign.

The covenant with Israel is really all quite simple isn’t it? Follow God and God alone and all will be well. Unfortunately, Asa turns out to be the exception to the rule.

Acts 20:32–21:4: Paul competes his valedictory speech to the Ephesians, noting that he had no ulterior motives—”I coveted no one’s silver or gold or clothing.” (33)—beyond showing them the “message of God’s grace.” Moreover, he supported himself without gifts from others: “You know for yourselves that I worked with my own hands to support myself and my companions.” (34) And he reminds everyone that as Jesus said, “‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” (35)

When Paul finishes speaking he kneels and prays. The emotion of his speech is intense, especially the realization that his friends from Ephesus will never see him again: “ There was much weeping among them all; they embraced Paul and kissed him, grieving especially because of what he had said, that they would not see him again.” (37, 38) 

This passage has great resonance for me at this point in my life. Soon, I will be leaving friends and family—the place where I grew up and where I worked and where I have been in Christian community for almost 40 years—for a new adventure 2000 miles from here. There are indeed friends whom I may never see again. But like Paul, I feel led by the Spirit to a new place.

Which happily is not the hostility and potential disaster of Paul traveling to Jerusalem. They sail by a circuitous route from Miletus, eventually winding up in Tyre. Paul remains there for a week while his friends and disciples, who, “Through the Spirit they told Paul not to go on to Jerusalem.” (21:4)  We know Paul refuses to be deterred in his call to Jerusalem. But were it not for Paul going to Jerusalem and eventually ending up a prisoner in Rome the world may never have received his epistles, which are so essential to understanding and accepting the Good News of Jesus Christ.

 

 

Psalm 22:1–8; 2 Chronicles 12:13–13:22; Acts 20:17–31

Psalm 22:1–8: This psalm opens with the words uttered by Jesus in his final agonizing throes on the cross: “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” (2) In all the Bible, I think there is nothing that so poignantly conveys the hopelessness of abandonment and loneliness as these nine words. And in the centuries since our psalmist ascribed these words to David and being the words that Jesus spoke, (albeit in Aramaic rather than Hebrew) at the end of his earthly life, how many thousands of others have come to this psalm and found that it so perfectly describes their emotional and physical state?

The verses that follow amplify the despair of God being far away and indifferent to our plight:
My God, I call out by day and You do not answer,
by night—no stillness for me.” (3)

Beyond abandonment there is the underlying feeling that God has betrayed him. Where is the God in whom David’s ancestors put their trust and the God who blessed Israel? After all, God came to their rescue, why has he abandoned me?
In You did our fathers trust,
they trusted, and You set them free.
To You they cried out, and escaped,
in You they trusted and were not put to shame.” (5,6)

Following abandonment and betrayal is self-loathing—the only possible human explanation of why the God who aided others has refused to rescue David:
But I am a worm and no man,
a disgrace among men, by people reviled.
All who see me do mock me—
they curl their lips, they shake their head.” (7,8)

For us Christians there is no way this final couplet cannot instantly evoke the scene at the foot of the cross as the crowd howls in execration at this self-proclaimed “King of the Jews” who cannot even save himself, much less others.

But also for us Christians, we realize that in this moment of God’s seeming abandonment of Jesus, his death has assured us that we will never be abandoned. Even though we may find ourselves in circumstances that seem as if God has decided we are not worthy of redemption, we know deep down that we will never be abandoned. God may often seem far away and uncaring, but in Jesus the hope to which we cling never fades.

2 Chronicles 12:13–13:22: Rehoboam reigns over Judah 17 years, but there is no eulogy from our authors upon his death: “He did evil, for he did not set his heart to seek the Lord.” (12:14) May this never be part of my eulogy!

The kingdom of Israel had split upon Solomon’s death and Jeroboam reigns in the north, what in Jesus’ time has become Samaria. In the 18th year of Jeroboam’s reign, Rehoboam’s son, Abijah, becomes king of Judah. There has been great tension between the northern and southern kingdoms and war breaks out between them: 400,00 men from Judah, who are vastly outnumbered by 800,000 men from Israel to the north.

Abijah challenges Jeroboam by telling him he is the mere son of David’s servant, while he is David’s blood. He shouts, “Do you not know that the Lord God of Israel gave the kingship over Israel forever to David and his sons by a covenant of salt?” (13:5). He goes on to accuse Jeroboam of treason as he “rose up and rebelled against his lord; and certain worthless scoundrels gathered around him and defied Rehoboam son of Solomon, when Rehoboam was young and irresolute and could not withstand them.” (13:7)

Then just before the battle commences, Abijah accuses Jeroboam of abandoning God by driving out the legitimate priests and appointing “Whoever comes to be consecrated with a young bull or seven rams becomes a priest of what are no gods.” (13:9) But, Abijah continues, “as for us, the Lord is our God, and we have not abandoned him. We have priests ministering to the Lord who are descendants of Aaron, and Levites for their service.” (10) Therefore, he concludes, “See, God is with us at our head, and his priests have their battle trumpets to sound the call to battle against you.” (12a) Abijah issues his final warning: “O Israelites, do not fight against the Lord, the God of your ancestors; for you cannot succeed.” (12b) The battle commences.

At first it looks as though Israel’s superior numbers will soundly defeat Judah as Israel surrounds them on all sides. But in their desperate moment, they “cried out to the Lord, and the priests blew the trumpets. Then the people of Judah raised the battle shout.” (15a) an Judah is victorious. However, our authors are quick to point out that it was “God [who] defeated Jeroboam and all Israel before Abijah and Judah.” (15b) They go on to editorialize, “thus the Israelites were subdued at that time, and the people of Judah prevailed, because they relied on the Lord, the God of their ancestors.” (18) 

The moral of this story is clear: even when we are outnumbered in whatever battle we may be fighting, if we have been faithful as Abijah was we can call upon God to aid us. However, unlike this internecine battle, victory may not always be ours even when our faith is great.

Acts 20:17–31: Before Paul departs Miletus to sail to Jerusalem, he asks the leaders of the Ephesian church to make the 63 mile trek from Ephesus to Miletus to meet with him.

Paul gives his valedictory speech to the church at Ephesus, but his message would certainly apply to all of the other churches in Europe and Asia that Paul founded. He reminds them that he has been serving “the Lord with all humility and with tears, enduring the trials that came to me through the plots of the Jews.” (19)

Despite those trials, he has accomplished much as the first missionary: “I did not shrink from doing anything helpful, proclaiming the message to you and teaching you publicly and from house to house, as I testified to both Jews and Greeks about repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus.” (20, 21)

Paul says, “as a captive to the Spirit, I am on my way to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there.” (22) So, we know he is headed to Jerusalem because of the tug of the Holy Spirit but also that this same Holy Spirit “testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and persecutions are waiting for me.” (23) But Paul’s call is far greater than his life. Which brings us to the question every Christian must as at some point in his or her life: Are we willing to work to carry the good news to others as Paul did. And more crucially, lay down our life for Jesus? I have doubts about me…

I’m sure Luke was writing at a time when there was nascent persecution of the church—persecution more severe than a mere riot in the streets of Ephesus. Paul warns the Ephesians directly of persecution to come—both within and outside the church: “I know that after I have gone, savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Some even from your own group will come distorting the truth in order to entice the disciples to follow them.” (29, 30)

In the end, Paul’s words are an encouragement to follow where the Spirit leads—no matter where that may take us. As we know, thousands of Christians have accepted their Spirit-led fate and laid down there life in the name of Jesus—right up to the present day. We also know that persecution can come from within the church itself.  Paul concludes with the same warning Jesus gave to his disciples at the end of his earthly ministry: “Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to warn everyone with tears.” (31)

The questions for me are: Am I alert to the working of the Holy Spirit? Would I be willing to follow the Holy Spirit into danger? And would I be willing to call out deviance from the Gospel within the church?

Psalm 21; 2 Chronicles 11:1–12:12; Acts 20:4–16

Psalm 21: This royal psalm opens with the psalmist speaking in the third person about the king who rejoices in God’s strength and “in Your rescue how much he exults!” (2) The king’s reason for rejoicing is that, as our poet notes, “His heart’s desire You gave to him,/ and his lips’ entreaty You did not withhold.” (3) The obvious question is, when God rescues us are we sufficiently grateful, or do we merely ascribe a happy outcome to good circumstances, or worse, something we accomplished on our own? In this psalm there’s no question that David’s rescue and his subsequent successes were strictly God’s doing because David trusted God.

God indeed rescued David from his enemies and now rescued our psalmist wishes him a long life, albeit with a bit of hyperbole since evenKing David was not immortal:
Life he asked You—You gave him,
length of days for time without end.” (5)

Not only did God rescue David from his enemies, he then et David above everyone else:
Great is his glory through Your rescue.
Glory and grandeur You bestowed on him.” (6)

We may not become kings after God rescues us, but often times of trial have a way of bettering our lives when we come out the other end. This psalm reminds us that is not exclusively of our own doing, but of God.

God rescues David and David reciprocates—as we all should do—by trusting and worshipping God:
For the king puts his trust in the Lord,
through Elyon’s kindness he will not fail.” (8)

For David—and as we have read in many psalms up to this point—his trust in God results in the utter destruction of his enemies: “The Lord will devour them in His anger,/ and fire will consume them.” (10) Even worse for persons in that time, in addition to physical loss their ancestral line is blotted out as our psalmist describes the ultimate fate of those who fought David: “Their fruit from the land You destroy/ and their seed from among humankind.” (11)

But God does not act capriciously. These people have committed woeful sins against David and they will pay: “For evil they plotted against you,/ devised schemes they could not fulfill.” (12) The message here for us is that God is watching out for us and when awful things happen, at some point evildoers will pay for their sins. Unlike David, however, that recompense from God in punishing those who have hurt us often seems to be a very long time in coming. Sometimes, justice seems too long denied.

2 Chronicles 11:1–12:12: All of Israel has rebelled against Rehoboam. The king assembles an army of 180,000 “chosen troops of the house of Judah and Benjamin to fight against Israel, to restore the kingdom to Rehoboam.” (11:1) But a prophet warns the king, “Thus says the Lord: You shall not go up or fight against your kindred. Let everyone return home, for this thing is from me.” (11:2) Happily, internecine warfare is avoided.

Not everyone is against Rehoboam. Other parts of Israel have begun idolatrous worship practices under Jeroboam, who has set himself up as the alternate king of Israel. This prevents the Levites and priests from conducting worship and they come to Jerusalem, and they ally themselves to Rehoboam. Our authors [who obviously came form Jerusalem] note that Jerusalem is where “Those who had set their hearts to seek the Lord God of Israel came after them from all the tribes of Israel to Jerusalem to sacrifice to the Lord, ” (16) and “they made Rehoboam son of Solomon secure, for they walked for three years in the way of David and Solomon.” (17)

During this time of peace as Rehoboam followed God, we learn that he loves Maacah, Absalom’s daughter, more than any other wife. But this love does not prevent him from taking “eighteen wives and sixty concubines, and became the father of twenty-eight sons and sixty daughters.” (21) [Our accountant authors at work once again providing us with more detail than we probably need…]

However, good things rarely seem to last and “When the rule of Rehoboam was established and he grew strong, he abandoned the law of the Lord, he and all Israel with him.” (12:1)  We are all rehoboam. How easy it is to find salvation through Jesus, be enthusiastic for a while and then eventually drift away, thinking our power has come from us rather than from God.

In the fifth year of Rehoboam’s reign, “King Shishak of Egypt came up against Jerusalem with twelve hundred chariots and sixty thousand cavalry.” (12:2,3) The Egyptians, along with Libyans, Sukkiim, and Ethiopians, capture the fortified cities of Judah, arriving at the walls of Jerusalem. The prophet Shemiah comes to Rehoboam and tells them, “Thus says the Lord: You abandoned me, so I have abandoned you to the hand of Shishak.”  (12:5)

Happily, Rehoboam and the officers of Israel realize the prophet is right and they humble themselves before God. God preserves Jerusalem from the Egyptians but tells them that via Shemiah there will be a high cost for their sins: “Nevertheless they shall be his servants, so that they may know the difference between serving me and serving the kingdoms of other lands.”  (12:8) Humility arrives in Jerusalem as the Egyptian king makes off with most of the wealth that Solomon has amassed. The gold shields are taken, but a chastened Rehoboam replaces them with bronze shields—“Because Rehoboam humbled himself the wrath of the Lord turned from him, so as not to destroy them completely; moreover, conditions were good in Judah.” (12:12)

This is a great story about the terms of God’s covenant with Israel. Follow God and all will be well. Abandon God and things will deteriorate. Repent and God will save you, but having wandered away form God comes at a very high price.

Acts 20:4–16: Unable to sail to Syria, Paul and his companions—”Sopater son of Pyrrhus from Beroea, by Aristarchus and Secundus from Thessalonica, by Gaius from Derbe, and by Timothy, as well as by Tychicus and Trophimus from Asia” (4)— head to Troas, where they stay for a week.

There, unobstructed by angry silversmiths, Paul manages to hold a discussion with some of the believers in Troas from breakfast until midnight(!) One of the believers, a “young man named Eutychus,” falls asleep while sitting in the open window and falls 3 stories to the ground below. Paul rushes down and happily, finds that Eutychus has survived. Undaunted by this “minor incident,” Paul returns upstairs and then talks until dawn(!) Paul certainly was a gifted speaker that he could hold his audience’s attention for almost 24 hours. Obviously, as Eutychus proved, not everyone could stay awake, though.

Luke then gives us an itinerary whereby his companions leave by ship from Arros and Paul meets up with them and boards the ship at Mitylene, arriving two days later at Miletus. Paul avoids returning to Ephesus because he wants to get down to Jerusalem in time for Pentecost. As we will find out, this is a fateful decision by Paul.

One of the things this seemingly odd itinerary passage reminds us of is just how authentic this history is. And since it’s history we will always wonder about the “what ifs.” For example, what would the church look like if Paul had returned to Ephesus instead of heading to Jerusalem?

 

Psalm 20; 2 Chronicles 9:13–10:19; Acts 19:32–20:3

Psalm 20: This “royal psalm” prays or the welfare of the king, presumably David. It opens with what we normally think of as a benediction:
May the LORD answer you on the day of distress,
the name of Jacob’s God make you safe.
May He send help to you from the sanctum,
and from Zion may He sustain you.” (2, 3)

The psalmist prays that God will remember the king’s grain offerings and burnt offerings (4) and the God will indeed “grant [to the king] what your heart would want.” (5)

The psalm has apparently been written shortly before or after God has rescued the king—perhaps from the straits that are described in the preceding psalm. This is or will be a cause for rejoicing by all the subjects of the king: “Let us sing gladly for Your rescue/ and in our God’s name our banner raise.” (6)

Halfway through, the psalm moves from benedictory wishes to the assurance that God has indeed fulfilled all the things prayed for. [We need to be careful here with the psalmist’s overuse of pronouns.  The capitalized ones refer to God.]
Now do I know
that the Lord has rescued His anointed [the king].
He has answered him from His holy heavens.
in the might of His right hand’s rescue.” (7)

The psalm goes on to note the joy that God’s rescue has brought to the previously despairing subjects of the king:
They have tumbled and fallen
be we arose and took heart.” (9)

But then this rejoicing seems contradicted by the very last verse, which is again a plea for rescue, suggesting that the rejoicing of the previous verse is either premature or a description of rejoicing yet to come:
O Lord, rescue the king.
May He answer us on the day we call.” (10)

It’s important to remember that the psalms are poetry and that timelines through them are not necessarily linear but have poetic twists and loops. In any event, God will rescue the king and there will be rejoicing.

2 Chronicles 9:13–10:19: This final chapter about Solomon is, as we would expect from our accountant authors, basically an inventory of Solomon’s unimaginably great wealth that has flowed into Israel under the wise kings leadership:

  • 666 talents of gold (8:13)
  • 200 large shields of beaten gold (8:15) each containing 600 shekels of beaten gold (16)
  • Another 300 shields, each containing 300 shekels of gold (16)
  • A gold-covered ivory throne (17 with a footstool of gold with decorative lions on either side (18, 19)
  • Drinking vessels of pure gold with the amusing note that “silver was not considered as anything in the days of Solomon.” (20)
  • 4000 stalls for horses and chariots and 12,000 horses (25)
  • Our authors make it clear that no one on earth was wealthier than Solomon as Israel is at its apogee of influence, wealth and power and the extent of its territory: “He ruled over all the kings from the Euphrates to the land of the Philistines, and to the border of Egypt.” (26)

Again, we sense the regretful nostalgia as our authors write of this grandeur, fully aware of just how low Israel has sunken.

Depsite his wisdom, power, and wealth, Solomon is a mortal like other men and he dies. Solomon’s son Rehoboam ascends to the throne and trouble commences immediately. Rehoboam famously rejects the plea to “lighten the hard service of your father and his heavy yoke that he placed on us, and we will serve you.” (10:4) because he ignores the wise counsel of the older men and foolishly follows the advice of the young sycophants that surround him. This is also a reminder that life as a commoner under Solomon’s “enlightened” rule was no bed of roses.

Our authors editorialize on the consequences of Rehoboam’s unwise decision: “So the king did not listen to the people, because it was a turn of affairs brought about by God so that the Lord might fulfill his word.” (10:15) As a result, the people of Israel withdraw their loyalty to the king and “departed to their tents.” (16) Rehoboam sends his taskmaster to oppress the people of Judah, who promptly stone him to death.

And so, as our authors observe, “So Israel has been in rebellion against the house of David to this day.”  (19) And Solomon’s once-great empire begins its centuries-long decline under a series of evil and incompetent kings offset by only one or two kings that follow God.

Acts 19:32–20:3: Ephesus is in chaos over the potential economic damage to the silversmiths that build Artemis idols caused by increasing numbers of adherents to “the Way” preached by Paul and others. Alexander, who is Jewish, attempts to calm the crowd but they “recognized that he was a Jew, for about two hours all of them shouted in unison, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” (19:34)

Finally, the city clerk quiets the crowd by pointing out that Ephesus is world famous for the temple to Artemis and they should not do anything “rash” to sully Ephesus’ reputation as a pilgrimage destination. He correctly suggests that Demetrius and his silversmith colleagues use the justice system “since there is no cause that we can give to justify this commotion.”  (19:40)

Clearly, nothing has changed in 2000 years. Do we have rioters at Berkeley, damaging the reputation of the university, or do we pursue our vision of justice using the courts as witness the current lawsuits over Trump’s immigration order? The question answers itself.

Once the Ephesian riot is quelled, Paul  heads off to Macedonia. There he “had given the believers much encouragement” (20:2) and arrives back in Greece, probably Corinth. After three months his plans to sail directly to Syria (Antioch) are disrupted by “a plot was made against him by the Jews, and so he decided to return through Macedonia.” (20:3)

In this Ephesian incident we see a more mature Paul who seems to have finally figured out that not everyone is going to accept his message about Christ—or himself—with enthusiasm. Which is also a lesson for Christians today, who feel oppressed by the culture in which they live. Sometimes you just have to accept reality on the ground and move on to more welcoming climes.

 

Psalm 19:8–15; 2 Chronicles 8:1–9:12; Acts 19:21–31

Psalm 19:8–15: The concluding half of this psalm gives us a mini version of Psalm 119 as it speaks to God’s faithfulness and the effect of six all-important qualities that are in essence the roadmap to a well-lived life by following God and hewing to his qualities. The first quality is “The Lord’s teaching is perfect,/ restoring to life.” (8a) That teaching and learning is restorative is not how we usually think about the process of education, But what God teaches us is essential to our lives.

Second, God never fails to keep his covenantal promises: “The Lord’s pact is steadfast,/ it makes the fool wise.” (8b) In other words, if we are steadfast in what we promise to others, even in our foolishness, we too will become wise.

Third, keeping God’s law is a source of joy: “The Lord’s precepts are upright,/ delighting the heart.” (9a) Fourth, God’s perfect commands are what bring us true life as symbolized here by the light in our eyes: “The Lord’s command unblemished,/ giving light to the eyes.” (9b)

Reverence toward God keeps us holy throughout our lives and beyond: “The Lord’s fear is pure,/ outlasting all time.” (10a) Finally, God is the very definition of justice because in God truth and justice are the same thing: “The Lord’s judgements are truth,/ all of them just.” (10b)

Our psalmist knows that these qualities are “More desired than gold,/…and sweeter than honey.” (11) And by following God in all these aspects, “In keeping them—[there is] great reward.” (12)

But even the most pure God-following life can be marred, even unknowingly: “Unwitting sins who can grasp?” (13a) But our psalmist seeks forgiveness for these two and asks God to protect him from the depredations of evil men around him: “Of unknown actions clear me./ From willful men preserve Your servant,/ let them not rule over me.” (13b, 14a) Only through God’s mercy can the pure life even begin to be lived: “Then shall I be blameless/ and clear of great crime.” (14b)

How grateful I am for the grace that comes form Jesus Christ. Leading a steadfast blameless life as described here is nigh unto impossible. How much better to follow God, knowing we will sin either overtly or unknowingly, but then to be able to confess and to be forgiven.

2 Chronicles 8:1–9:12: Following the completion of the temple, Solomon continues to do great things, not least of which is to rebuild cities and to build new ones: “He built Tadmor in the wilderness and all the storage towns that he built in Hamath. He also built Upper Beth-horon and Lower Beth-horon, fortified cities, with walls, gates, and bars, and Baalath, as well as all Solomon’s storage towns, and all the towns for his chariots, the towns for his cavalry, and whatever Solomon desired to build, in Jerusalem, in Lebanon, and in all the land of his dominion.” (8:4-6)

We encounter one of those practices, common to that time, that make us squirm uncomfortably today: “All the people who were left of the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, who were not of Israel,…whom the people of Israel had not destroyed—these Solomon conscripted for forced labor, as is still the case today.” (7, 8) But we need to be careful not to impose our value system on a historical culture, committing the fallacy of “presentism.”

A through Solomon’s reign vassal kings continue to bring wealth to Solomon: “Huram sent [Solomon], in the care of his servants, ships and servants familiar with the sea…four hundred fifty talents of gold and brought it to King Solomon.” (8:18)

Solomon’s most famous foreign visitor is of course the Queen of Sheba, who “came to Jerusalem to test him with hard questions, …[and] she discussed with him all that was on her mind.” (9:1)  Solomon answers every question, and she could not trip him up in any way.

The queen believes she is superior to Solomon in wisdom and wealth, but when she “observed the wisdom of Solomon, the house that he had built, the food of his table, the seating of his officials, and the attendance of his servants, and their clothing, his valets, and their clothing, and his burnt offerings that he offered at the house of the Lord, there was no more spirit left in her.” (9:2)

The queen nicely sums up the magnificence of Solomon and the kingdom of Israel, telling Solomon that she had not believed all she had heard about his glories, but is now a true believer. It is through Sheba that our authors pronounce the reasons why Solomon and Israel have achieved the glory. It has been the work of the “Lord your God, who has delighted in you and set you on his throne as king for the Lord your God. Because your God loved Israel and would establish them forever, he has made you king over them, that you may execute justice and righteousness.” (9:8) At that point Sheba presents Solomon with even more gifts, including exotic spices before returning to her own land.

The Sheba story is a wonderful way for our authors to tell the story of how great Israel was under the wisdom of Solomon. We can almost hear the regret in their words as they describe a wonderful kingdom that followed God and was rewarded mightily. But alas, it is now history and in Babylon’s exile it seems that all greatness has been lost. Or has it?

Acts 19:21–31: Paul’s radical message of Jesus Christ—the “Way”— has substantial social and economic consequences. Paul continues his sojourn in Ephesus when it dawns on a silversmith named Demetrius, who makes his loving crafting “silver shrines of Artemus” realizes that his source if income is fading away as everyone flocks to the idol-free “Way.” He gathers his colleagues together and warns them, “there is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be scorned, and she will be deprived of her majesty that brought all Asia and the world to worship her.” (27) Which is to put a religious marketing spin on the very real fact that the silver shrine market is quickly fading away.

So the silversmith guild starts a riot, and as Luke tersely notes, “The city was filled with the confusion.” (29) The mob drags Paul’s companions, Gaius and Aristarchus, into the theatre. Paul of course sees this as a great opportunity for preaching. However, cooler heads prevail and keep Paul out of the theatre. Even officials “of the province of Asia, who were friendly to him, sent him a message urging him not to venture into the theater.” (31)

What’s clear here is that the spread of Christianity is beginning to have a profound impact on the culture at large—which of course is exactly what has happened down to the present day. A few hundred years after the turmoil at Ephesus, Constantine will establish Christianity as the sate religion and Christendom will be born. Out of that those so-called “dark ages” will emerge western civilization as we know it. Today, alas, we see western civilization in decline but the message of Jesus Christ that Paul delivered is still as powerful as ever—and it still causes protests and riots, as witness the culture war” that continues to inflame both sides.

Psalm 19:1–7; 2 Chronicles 6:24–7:22; Acts 19:6–20

Psalm 19:1–7: The wonderfully contemplative psalm opens with a celebration of the glories of God’s creation: “The heavens tell God’s glory,/ and His handiwork [the] sky declares.” (2) The next verse is perfect for our scientific age of discovery as creation contains all there is to know and understand: “Day to day breathes utterance/ and night to night pronounces knowledge.” (3) I have to believe that more than a few astronomers have taken up the second line of this verse—”night to night pronounces knowledge“—as their watchword as the nights have brought us the ability to see the stars back to the very beginning of time.

Our psalmist knows that there is an unspoken language of the universe that is beyond mere words: “There is no utterance and there are no words,/ their voice is never heard.” (4) It’s wonderful to see how the Bible has anticipated that one day we would seek to understand the language of creation, particularly the idea that the laws of physics apply everywhere in the universe, as well as DNA being the basic building block of life. These are the voiceless words of which he speaks: “There is no utterance and there are no words,/ their voice is never heard.” (5) While creation may not speak human language, it speaks in words that are so much more profound.

Our psalmist employs a marvelous metaphor of the sun as a groom sleeping at night in a tent and rising with eager anticipation and great energy on his wedding morning:
For the sun He set up a tent in them—
and he like a groom from from his canopy comes,
exults like a warrior running his course.” (6)

From our poet’s perspective it is the sun which transits the sky, moving in its eternal rhythm:
From the ends of heavens his going out
and his circuit to their ends.
and nothing can hide from his heat.” (7)

This last line is a perfect description of a summer day in semi-arid Israel. What strikes me most about this passage is its untrammeled energy and out of that energy emrges a marvelous undercurrent of joy.

2 Chronicles 6:24–7:22: Solomon’s rather lengthy prayer before the newly-completed temple outlines the deuteronomic terms of the covenant between God and Israel.

There is confession for sins: “When your people Israel, having sinned against you, are defeated before an enemy but turn again to you, confess your name, pray and plead with you in this house, may you hear from heaven, and forgive the sin of your people Israel.” (6:24) This of course becomes the key to all that follows as Israel constantly abandons God under the rule of evil kings. But God is a God of forbearance, and as history shows, answers Solomon’s prayer each time Israel repents.

The operating assumption is that the people’s sins will have natural consequences: “When heaven is shut up and there is no rain because they have sinned against you, and then they pray toward this place, confess your name, and turn from their sin, because you punish them, may you hear in heaven, forgive the sin of your servants, your people Israel.” (6:26) Similar repentance is called for in times of “famine in the land, if there is plague, blight, mildew, locust, or caterpillar; if their enemies besiege them in any of the settlements of the lands; whatever suffering, whatever sickness there is.” (28) While we may no longer be under these deuteronomic terms, we do well to remember that our actions—our sins—always have consequences, just as they did in Solomon’s time.

What’s especially fascinating in these xenophobic times we no live in is how Solomon especially asks for the welfare of “foreigners, who are not of your people Israel, come from a distant land because of your great name, and your mighty hand, and your outstretched arm, when they come and pray toward this house.” (6:22) Of course it’s worth noting that the foreigners come to worship Israel’s God not to bring a foreign belief system with them.

Solomon’s prayer has a dramatic impact: “When Solomon had ended his prayer, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices; and the glory of the Lord filled the temple.” (7:1) God’s glory is so intense here that no one can enter the temple. The awestruck crowd can only bow down “with their faces to the ground, and worshiped and gave thanks to the Lord, saying, “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.” (7:3)

The dedication of the temple lasts a full week and “and all Israel [was] with him, a very great congregation, from Lebo-hamath to the Wadi of Egypt.” (7:8) Following the dedication, God appears to Solomon and promises that when Israel is in distress from natural catastrophes or enemies, if Israel calls on his name, “then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” (14). God also reaffirms the covenant he made with David, repeating his promise to Solomon that, ‘You shall never lack a successor to rule over Israel.’” (18) Which of course for us Christians is the promise fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

However, it’s not all sweetness and light as God warns Solomon that Israel will be brought low should it “ turn aside and forsake my statutes and my commandments that I have set before you, and go and serve other gods and worship them.” (19) If they abandon God, God will abandon them. We can be grateful once again that we live as Christ-followers under the terms of the New Covenant rather than the old for God never abandons us. 

Unlike Solomon, our authors writing from Babylon, know all to well that with the exception of only a few people, Israel did indeed abandon God.

Acts 18:24 —19:20: Perhaps the reason that Paul did not spend much time in Ephesus the first time he was there is because Apollos, “an eloquent man, well-versed in the scriptures” (18:24) was preaching there. In an example that Paul was not the only one with proper theology, when “Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained the Way of God to him more accurately.” (18:26) Thus, Apollos becomes an effective preacher and arriving in Corinth, “he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the scriptures that the Messiah is Jesus.” (18:28) We’ll hear more about Apollos in 1 Corinthians 1.

After some peregrinations around the Mediterranean, Paul returns to Ephesus and discovers some folks who believe in John the Baptist, but know nothing of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Paul tells them that “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.” (19:4) Upon hearing such good news, this group of twelve(!) is baptized and “the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied.” (19:6)

After speaking (and arguing) in the Ephesus synagogue for three months, Paul gives up on some of the more stubborn Jews and repairs to the lecture hall of Tyrannus, where he holds forth for two more years(!) As Paul’s fame spread people must have come from far and wide to hear him, “so that all the residents of Asia, both Jews and Greeks, heard the word of the Lord.” (19:10) Unlike today’s televangelists, however, Paul did not ask for hefty “freewill offerings” in order to build a big house in the suburbs and enjoy a plush lifestyle, (I’m talking about you, Joel Osteen).

The Holy Spirit is definitely at work in Paul and Luke tells us, “God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that when the handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were brought to the sick, their diseases left them, and the evil spirits came out of them.” (19:11, 12) Seven itinerant Jewish exorcists, “sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva,” try to use the name of Jesus to accomplish the same thing, but are overtaken by an evil spirit, which Paul exorcises. This results in many magicians burning their books and “the word of the Lord grew mightily and prevailed.” (19:20)

Luke’s point here, I think, is that we re not free to use the power of the Holy Spirit to our own (sometimes nefarious) ends. I wish that Benny Hinn and all the other fake TV healers would have read and taken this passage to heart. The Holy Spirit will work where it will; it cannot be commanded.

 

 

Psalm 18:38–46; 2 Chronicles 3:1–5:1; Acts 18:8–21

Psalm 18:38–46: Our psalmist now shows us how he put God’s training to work. It’s not very pretty:
I pursued my enemies, caught them
turned not back till I wiped them out.
I smashed them, they could not rise,
they fell beneath my feet.” (38, 39)

But what I think is important here is that David gives God all the credit for his achievement—gruesome as it was:
You girt me with might for combat.
You laid low my foes beneath me,
and You made my enemies turn back before me,
my foes, I demolished them.” (40, 41)

This would have been an excellent opportunity for David to think the victory was all his accomplishment, but he seems to be unfailingly humble before God. He understands that he is God’s instrument. While our own pursuits and activities may not be as drastic, we must still ask the question: Am I being God’s instrument or am I taking all the credit for whatever is accomplished?

In their final desperate hour, David’s enemies “cried out—there was none to rescue,/ to the Lord—He answered them not.” (42) This is certainly one of those times where foxhole prayers were unavailing. Our poet, speaking as David, continues with two brutal similes of what he accomplished on the battlefield: “I crushed them like dust in the wind,/ like mud in the streets I ground them.” (43)

Having conquered the enemy, David now rules over them: “You set me at nations’ head,/ a people I knew not served me.” (44) And having experienced David’s (and his army’s) ferocity on the battlefield, those who have been conquered are grovelingly obedient as they trudge in line behind the conquering army:
At mere ear’s report they obeyed me,
aliens cringed before me.
Aliens did wither,
filed out from their forts.” (45, 46)

I think the main takeaway from these verses is that sometimes, war is justified. David placed his trust in God and he became God’s agent of victory. But he did not forget who the real Victor is.

2 Chronicles 3:1–5:1: My, we are really rushing through these chapters…

Well, I have to admit the detailed description of the temple Solomon built, along with the lengthy inventory of its furnishings is impressive. We can see our authors relishing every detail especially wherever gold is involved: “So [Solomon] lined the house with gold—its beams, its thresholds, its walls, and its doors; and he carved cherubim on the walls.” (3:7) And then, “The weight of the nails was fifty shekels of gold. He overlaid the upper chambers with gold.” (3:9)

What I didn’t realize is that Solomon named the two great 35-cubit (~50 feet) pillars at the entrance to the temple: “the one on the right he called Jachin, and the one on the left, Boaz.” (3:17) That’s one way to honor your ancestors, I guess.

For me, the most impressive piece of furniture in the temple is the giant “molten sea; it was round, ten cubits from rim to rim, and five cubits high” (4:2) that was mounted on “twelve oxen, three facing north, three facing west, three facing south, and three facing east.” (4:4) And of course there are the ten golden lampstands, which reappear in the heaven described in Revelation.

Besides furniture, there is vast number of utensils, which were made “ in great quantities, so that the weight of the bronze was not determined.” (4:18) Not surprisingly, our authors close out their inventory by focusing once again on gold: “the snuffers, basins, ladles, and firepans, of pure gold. As for the entrance to the temple: the inner doors to the most holy place and the doors of the nave of the temple were of gold.” (4:22)

At the temple’s completion, “Solomon brought in the things that his father David had dedicated, and stored the silver, the gold, and all the vessels in the treasuries of the house of God.” (5:1) Were there historians back then keeping track of these things, there’s no question that Solomon’s temple would have been one of the seven wonders of the world.

Acts 18:8–21: Even though Paul has basically said, ‘screw you,’ to the Jews, “Crispus, the official of the synagogue, became a believer in the Lord, together with all his household” (8) along wth a lot of other Gentiles. Paul has a vision where God says to him, Do not be afraid, but speak and do not be silent; for I am with you, and no one will lay a hand on you to harm you, for there are many in this city who are my people.” (9, 10) Thus encouraged, Paul remains in Corinth for 18 months. 

God’s words are put to the test when “the Jews made a united attack on Paul and brought him before the tribunal.” (12) They try to use the old argument that a religious practice is against the secular law [Sounds awfully familiar these days.], telling the proconsul of Achia, “This man is persuading people to worship God in ways that are contrary to the law.” (13) But just as Paul is about to speak, the proconsul—obviously a firm believer in separation of church and state—dismisses the charges. The Jews are pretty angry and they take it out on “Sosthenes, the official of the synagogue,” who obviously persuaded the others to bring charges against Paul. The proconsul declines to intervene.

Obviously, Paul felt God had protected him and was doubtless encouraged to speak even more boldly—of which we will see dramatic examples later in Acts.

After his pleasant stay in Corinth, Paul returns to Antioch, his missionary trip to Europe complete. He stops off in Ephesus and is encourage by the believers to remain, but says only, “I will return to you if God wills.” (21) Ever onward, that Paul.

 

Psalm 18:31–37; 2 Chronicles 1,2; Acts 17:29–18:7

Psalm 18:31–37: Our psalmist asks the all-important question that every person on a serious spiritual journey must ask at some point during his or her lifetime: For who is god except the Lord,/ and who is the Rock except our God?” (32) We are surrounded by many things that can easily become our small-g gods: power, wealth, social acceptance; the list is endless. But if we do not ask this all-important question and then answer as the psalmist has, that there is only God alone, then we have doubtless succumbed to following a different god.  In the same way that Luther realized that in some ways we must be baptized daily, I think we must ask—and answer— this question about who is our God on a daily basis.

Our psalmist answers his question by reflecting on how God has so positively impacted his life:
The God who girds me with might
and keeps my way blameless,
makes my legs like a gazelle’s,
and stands me on the heights,
trains my hands for combat,
and makes my arms bends a bow of bronze. (33-35)

God is the source of David’s physical strength, his impressive skills, and his spiritual well-being. God has given him physical might and he can run like a gazelle. God provideds him with the motivation to train for battle and the ability to shoot with a heavy bow. It’s the same for us: God gives us strength for the day and the desire to never stop learning new things. Above all, my desire for delving into scripture comes not from some inner motivation but it is a gift from God.

David says it best as he acknowledges that every thing he is—his very being—comes form God: “You gave me Your shield of rescue,/ Your right hand did sustain me.” (36) And while we may not be training for a physical battle, God continues to train us for daily life. Indeed, it is God who “lengthened my strides beneath me/ and my feet did not trip.” Without faith in the one true God—our Rock—we will only trip, stumble and fall, and make a mess of our lives.

2 Chronicles 1,2: This second history book opens with Solomon as king and more importantly, the relationship between God and Solomon. One night, God appears to Solomon and “said to him, “Ask what I should give you.” (1:7) Solomon replies, “Give me now wisdom and knowledge to go out and come in before this people, for who can rule this great people of yours?” (1:10) God is quite pleased, and tells the king that because he has “not asked for possessions, wealth, honor, or the life of those who hate you, and have not even asked for long life,” (1:11) God will indeed grant him wisdom and knowledge. As a bonus, God will “also give you riches, possessions, and honor, such as none of the kings had who were before you, and none after you shall have the like.” (1:12)

The moral of this encounter is clear: besides our very salvation through Jesus Christ, God’s greatest gift, if we but ask for it, is wisdom and knowledge. But it’s wisdom and knowledge that comes from God; it is not generated within ourselves. Only when we are willing to submit our will to God do we even have a chance at making it through life with a modicum of wisdom and knowledge.

As they love to do so often, our authors proceed to give us a description of the wealth that comes to Solomon: 1400 chariots and 12,000 horses. A wise leader brings bounty to his subjects and not just to himself. Thus, Solomon “made silver and gold as common in Jerusalem as stone, and he made cedar as plentiful as the sycamore of the Shephelah.” (1:15)

Now that Israel itself has become a strong and wealthy nation, Solomon turns his attention to the great project that confronts him: building the temple. Many of the materials required for this great structure must be imported. Solomon establishes an alliance with King Huram of Tyre. He asks that king provide skilled labor, “an artisan skilled to work in gold, silver, bronze, and iron, and in purple, crimson, and blue fabrics, trained also in engraving, to join the skilled workers who are with me in Judah and Jerusalem.” (2:7) He then asks to import materials—”cedar, cypress, and algum timber from Lebanon” (2:8)—along wth the skilled labor to work the timber. Solomon entices this labor to Israel with an attractive reward: “I will provide for your servants, those who cut the timber, twenty thousand cors of crushed wheat, twenty thousand cors of barley, twenty thousand baths of wine, and twenty thousand baths of oil.” (2:10)

The king of Tyre agrees to the deal and effusively praises the “God of Israel, who made heaven and earth, who has given King David a wise son, endowed with discretion and understanding, who will build a temple for the Lord, and a royal palace for himself.” (2:12) Not to be cynical but one suspects the King of Tyre did well financially in this trade deal with Solomon.—a lesson lost on current leadership in Washington.

Then Solomon takes a census. Uh, Oh. But avoiding his father’s grievous error, Solomon doesn’t count the citizens of Israel, who belong to God, and bring God’s wrath down on his head. Rather, he counts but the resident aliens. There are 153,600 of them. 70,000 laborers, 80,000 stone cutters and 3600 overseers “to make the people work.” (2:18) With the mention of “overseers” we’re left with the impression that not all the labor was voluntary…

Acts 17:29–18:7: Paul continues his sermon on the Areopagus with the interesting angle that historically, God has been overlooking “the times of human ignorance.” (30) He goes on to tell his listeners that they need to repent “because [God] has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (31).

To the Athenian philosophers, everything has probably seemed an interesting new idea, but then when Paul mentions resurrection from the dead he loses much of his audience. According to the received philosophical wisdom in Greece, people don’t rise from the dead, so to their ears this Paul is speaking foolishness.

I think Paul’s experience in Athens must be what led him to write in the opening chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians that God’s wisdom will seem like foolishness to human ears.

On balance, Paul’s time in Athens did not yield the fruit of many believers that he had seen in other places. Athens was the New York or the Bay Area of the day—far too blase’ and sophisticated to give much credence to what this bumpkin from Tarsus had to say. As Jesus made clear, the Good News will often fall on rocky soil.

Paul heads south to Corinth and meets up with Aquila and his wife Priscilla, also newly arrived at Corinth “because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome.” (18:2) Happily, Paul and Aquila share the same tent making trade, so Paul basically moves in with them.

Silas and Timothy rendezvous with Paul  in Corinth and find him in the synagogue “proclaiming the word, testifying to the Jews that the Messiah was Jesus.” (18:5) However, the Jews of Corinth “opposed and reviled him,” and Paul leaves the synagogue. We can almost see him walking out, turning his head over his shoulder and shouting, “Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.” (6) And Paul heads next door to the house of a Gentile, a Titus Justus, whose eponymous book we will come to later in the New Testament.

It is truly one of the tragedies of the early church—and the church today— that Jews could not be persuaded that Jesus was the Messiah. But in abandoning the Jews for the Gentiles, Paul’s impact on the world became immeasurably greater.