Psalm 37:23–26; Nehemiah 10:28–11:36; Romans 6:5–16

Psalm 37:23–26: It is God who gives us strength to endure. Even more important for me is that when those strides result in tripping and falling (as happened to me quite literally the other day), it is God who watches over me and as the psalmist notes, holds my hand and picks me up again:
By the Lord, a man’s strides are made firm,
and his way He desires.
Though he fall, he will not be flung down,
for the Lord sustains his hand.” (23, 24)

The phrase, “he will not be flung down,” tells me the psalmist believes that it is not God who causes us to fall. Many people think it is God’s will that we suffer. But I want to side with the psalmist here. There are plenty of obstacles in life that trip us up because we are caught unaware or more typically, for me anyway, we are not paying attention. God does not intervene and fling us down. The brokenness of the world and our own sinfulness (see Paul below) is is plenty capable of that.

This idea that it is not God who creates circumstances in which we suffer or that God abandons us is amplified in the next verse:
A lad I was, and now I am old,
and I have never seen a just man forsaken…(25a)

Nor, in the opinion of the psalmist, do the man’s offspring suffer because of God’s intervention:
…and his seed breaking bread, 
all day long lending free of charge
and his seed for a blessing.” (25b, 26)

However, as we shall soon see in the book of Job, not everyone is convinced that God does not create suffering or the circumstances of suffering. Is our psalmist correct here? Or is Job? Unfortunately, the answer to that question will always be problematic.

Nehemiah 10:28–11:36: There is an oblique reference here to the rather disturbing events recorded in Ezra that to return to the Jewish fold, all Jewish men who had married non-Jews were required to give up their wives and children. The reference is in the middle of one of the longest sentences I’ve yet encountered in the Bible:

The rest of the people, the priests, the Levites, the gatekeepers, the singers, the temple servants, and all who have separated themselves from the peoples of the lands to adhere to the law of God, their wives, their sons, their daughters, all who have knowledge and understanding, join with their kin, their nobles, and enter into a curse and an oath to walk in God’s law, which was given by Moses the servant of God, and to observe and do all the commandments of the Lord our Lord and his ordinances and his statutes.” (10: 28, 29)

This covenant is permanent: “We will not give our daughters to the peoples of the land or take their daughters for our sons.” (10:29) A long paragraph follows—essentially a precis of the Mosaic law—and describes the detailed means by which the covenant will be kept. And given their history, it is the final element of the oath that rings loudest: “We will not neglect the house of our God.” (11:39)

Chapter 11 is essentially a descriptive organization chart of the the restored Judea, Jerusalem and the temple itself. We find out who the leaders, priests, Levites, Benjamites, gatekeepers, warriors, and administrators are. At this point, Judea is a fully restored, fully functioning nation. And once again, we are struck by Nehemiah’s attention to detail and his engineer’s thoroughness.

We also learn the interesting fact that Jerusalem comprises only 10% of the total population of Judaea, but the Jerusalem is definitely headquarters both administratively and religiously.  Apparently living in Jerusalem was somewhat fraught since it would obviously be the first target of enemy attack: “And the people blessed all those who willingly offered to live in Jerusalem.” (11:2)

Romans 6:5–16: Paul elaborates on the key idea that we are united with Jesus who died for our sins. But that having died with Jesus, we will also experience resurrection,—the gift of eternal life: “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (5) What’s key here is that through Jesus’ death and resurrection we have abandoned our former sinful selves so that “we might no longer be enslaved to sin.” (6)

I can see his readers and listeners down through the centuries trying to wrap their head (as I am tying to wrap my head!) around this unprecedented theological concept of Christ dying for our sins: “But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.” (8, 9)

Regardless of the complexity of the theology, our response to Jesus’ death for our sins and his resurrection is really extremely simple: “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” (11) In other words, our old selves die and we become new creatures through Christ’s salvific power.

So what does being “dead to sin and alive to God” mean in practical terms? Well, Paul is happy to explain: “therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions.” (12) In short, he concludes, “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” (14) Bottom line: Jesus’ death and resurrection is the final great sacrifice that brings out from under the confining dominion of the law into wide open spaces of the dominion of grace. (Frankly, I think this is a concept that the author of Hebrews makes clearer than Paul.)

OK, so if we’re free of the requirements of the law how do we actually conduct ourselves in day-to-day life in the regime of grace? Needless to say, Paul has the answer: “Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!” (15) In the end it’s the conscious choice that we make that determines how we live’ We choose to be either slaves to sin or slaves to God. If we choose to be slave to our personal desires, we are a slave to sin, “which leads to death.” Or we are an obedient slave to God “which leads to righteousness.” (16)

While the idea of being a slave to either sin or God may seem somewhat remote in our culture, we do not have to think very long or hard about what Paul is getting at here. It’s a binary issue and we are the ones who, regardless of the gift of grace that has been given to us, choose the path we will follow. Jesus comes to us but we can choose to turn away. But there is always the hope that at some point we will choose to turn back to Jesus. Which is what repentance is all about.

 

 

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