Archives for April 2017

Psalm 44:18–27; Job 8; Romans 13

Psalm 44:18–27: Despite God’s apparent unfaithfulness in causing Israel to be shamed before its neighbors, our psalmist asserts that they have remained faithful to God in their times of trouble—the clear implication being, “So, where were you, God, when we were being faithful to you?? Huh? Speak up! Goodness knows we’ve all asked that question more than once. Our psalmist is almost plaintive:
All this befell us, yet we did not forget You,
and we did not betray Your pact.
Our heart has not failed,
nor have our footsteps strayed form Your path…” (18, 19)

Then, he becomes bluntly accusatory because God has allowed them to be placed in a situation of great peril:
…though You thrust us down to to the sea monster’s place
and with death’s darkness covered us over.” (20)

After all, he goes on to argue, if they had betrayed God he certainly would have noticed—and responded to—their unfaithfulness with his usual punishment:
Had we forgotten the name of God
and spread out our palms to an alien god,
would not God have fathomed it?
For he knows the heart’s secrets.” (21, 22)

Yet, even though they have been faithful to him, God has remained silent while “For Your sake we are killed all day long,/ we are counted as sheep for slaughter.” (23) Our psalmist is pretty worked up by this time and basically is trying to shake God awake from his unfair slumber:
Awake, why sleep, O Master!
Rouse up, neglect not forever.” (24)

We can hear the desperation in his voice as he shouts at God, reminding them of their grim situation:
Why do You hide Your face,
forget our affliction, our oppression?
For our neck is bowed as dust,
our belly clings to the ground.” (25, 26)

He concludes with one final plea for God to respond, appealing to God’s justice and kindness:
Rise as a help to us
and redeem us for the sake of Your kindness.” (27)

So, when we are discouraged and in desperate straits ourselves and God seems silent, here is a prayer we can pray. Yes, I know the old cliche about the footsteps of God and when there is only one pair of footsteps and God seems missing it’s because he’s carrying us. But for me, the desperate honesty of this psalm as the poet cries out to an absent, silent God is far more compelling. Where is God when you really, really need him? This psalm allows us to onestly ask that question.

Job 8: Job’s second erstwhile friend, a certain Bildad the Shuhite, reacts to Job’s mournful complaints and his desire to die. What he says is the same thing people tend to say when they think we are being wrongly harsh about God—such as the complaints of the psalmist above. They, like Bildad here, go immediately to pointing out how wonderful God is—which is not exactly what Job—or we—want to hear at times of great distress. But Bildad knows it all:
Does God pervert justice?
    Or does the Almighty pervert the right?” (3)

It’s the old deuteronomic code of justice: you sin; you’re punished. In this case he opines that even though Job has not sinned his plight must be because his children sinned:
If your children sinned against him,
    he delivered them into the power of their transgression.” (4)

All Job has to do to make things right, Bildad claims, is “seek God/ and make supplication to the Almighty.” (5) After all, he continues,
if you are pure and upright,
    surely then he will rouse himself for you
    and restore to you your rightful place.” (6)

Would it were just that simple.  As we learn from Paul in Romans, it’s actually impossible for us to live “pure and upright” lives. But this fact does not deter Bildad who then gives a long speech about the mistaken confidence of those who forget God and his goodness:
While yet in flower and not cut down,
    they wither before any other plant.
 Such are the paths of all who forget God;
    the hope of the godless shall perish.
 Their confidence is gossamer,
    a spider’s house their trust.” (12-14)

His implication is clear: Job has obviously deluded himself about his faithfulness. His protestations notwithstanding, Job has failed to have a meaningful relationship with God.

Bildad winds up his sermon with the tired argument that as long as we’re pure, God will like us:
God will not reject a blameless person,
    nor take the hand of evildoers.
 He will yet fill your mouth with laughter,
    and your lips with shouts of joy.” (20, 21)

We’ve all heard these sermons. God is God; we just have to be good. Yet, if ever we needed an exemplar of intrinsic human goodness, it is Job. And yet he is suffering. Bildad’s superficial analysis and advice are not helping.

Romans 13: In this infamous passage Paul argues that we are “to be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.” (1) He goes on to assert that “whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” (2) Moreover, he argues, “rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.” (3) Uh Huh. Especially those benevolent Roman emperors who styled themselves as gods. Paul appears to believe that those in authority will wield their power justly: “It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.” (4) Which is a somewhat ironic statement in light of the amply unjust crucifixion of Jesus.

He also provides the biblical basis for the IRS: “Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.” (7)

This passage seems to be an obvious sop to the ruling authorities at Rome and elsewhere to convince them that Paul and the Christian church are not fomenting rebellion against the secular government. Given the tenor of the times, with plots and conspiracies abounding, this is an understandable and sound strategy, even though Paul comes off sounding more preachy than usual.

Being on an advice-giving roll, Paul goes on to remind his listeners in that pre-credit era, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” (8) Then, to cover every circumstance, he then tosses in a restatement of Jesus famous statement, “any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (9)

Paul concludes this chapter with a defensive military metaphor that is expanded on in Ephesians 6: “Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light;” (12) The way we do this is to live honorably in love and “not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy.” (13) In the end we turn our lives over to Jesus as the way to avoid these sins: “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” (14)

In fairness to Paul, the foundation of everything he has to say in this chapter is love. And if we love our neighbors as ourselves, we will surely carry out the other commandments, including honoring the authorities. After all, neither Jesus nor Paul said only to love your fellow Christians. We are to love everybody. Good advice indeed. But pretty difficukt to execute consistently.

Psalm 44:10–17; Job 7; Romans 12:9–21

Psalm 44:10–17: Even though God favored the Israelites as they conquered Canaan and they have faithfully worshipped God, our psalmist is still pretty upset at God at an apparent defeat in a more recent battle:
Yet You neglected and disgraced us
and did not sally forth in our ranks.
You turned us back from the foe,
and our enemies took their plunder.” (10, 11)

Alter informs us that the battle referred to here is impossible to date, although it may be from a battle during David’s time or even centuries later under the Greek oppression. Whatever happened it was a loss that indicated that God was no longer a supported of Israel. Even worse, our psalmist continues, it appeared he was indifferent to their plight and made them the object of national humiliation:
You sold Your people for no wealth
and set no high price upon them.
You made us a shame to our neighbors,
derision and mockery to those round us.
You made us an object of scorn among peoples.” (13-15)

The psalmist takes God’s absence in this desperate time of need quite personally:
All day long my disgrace is before me,
and shame has covered my face…” (16)

I think the most remarkable aspect of this bitter passage is that the psalmist felt entirely free to shake his literary fist at God and accuse God as having abandoned them. So, following the psalmist, why should we try to be so polite to God when something awful has happened to us? We tend to mumble cliches like “it was God’s will that this awful thing happened,” or, “This is a lesson from God.” Balderdash! God did no such thing and with the psalmist we are perfectly justified in directing our deepest anger toward a seemingly indifferent God.

Job 7: Like the psalmist, Job cries out against the unfairness of life and God’s apparent indifference to the plight he created for Job:
Do not human beings have a hard service on earth,
    and are not their days like the days of a laborer?
  Like a slave who longs for the shadow,

    and like laborers who look for their wages,
  so I am allotted months of emptiness,

    and nights of misery are apportioned to me.” (1-3)

Job goes on to describe his restless nights and his physical misery that have led to hopelessness:
My flesh is clothed with worms and dirt;
    my skin hardens, then breaks out again.” (5)

By this time he has abandoned all hope:
My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle,
    and come to their end without hope.” (6)

Given life’s brutal ephemerality, Job feels free to shake his fist at God:
Therefore I will not restrain my mouth;
    I will speak in the anguish of my spirit;
    I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.” (11)

His nights are full of terror: “you scare me with dreams/ and terrify me with visions,” (14) and he comes close to suicide:
so that I would choose strangling
    and death rather than this body.
  I loathe my life; I would not live forever.” (15, 16a)

In fact, he shouts, why does God even give a rip about humans? Are they merely God’s playthings which he enjoys testing?
What are human beings, that you make so much of them,
    that you set your mind on them,
visit them every morning,

    test them every moment?” (17, 18)

Job comes the questions that everyone who is enduring a trial must ask at some point. What did we do to God to deserve this punishment?
If I sin, what do I do to you, you watcher of humanity?
    Why have you made me your target?
    Why have I become a burden to you?” (20)

What’s fascinating here is that Job’s questions are the exact opposite of the deuteronomic Covenant articulated elsewhere in the OT and by the Pharisees of Jesus’ time that it is our sin which result in God’s punishment. For Job, God’s action (or inaction) are a far more existential issue. In Job’s eyes we humans are merely God’s playthings and suffer for no good reason. Even though this book was written centuries ago the questions Job asks are completely modern—and completely relevant.

Romans 12:9–21: By contrast, Paul ignores the existential crisis and focuses on the practical aspects of living the quotidian Christian life as he unleashes one of his famous lists: “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.” (9-12)

He continues to summarize the sayings of Jesus as he echoes much of what Jesus said at the Sermon on the Mount—only here it is about how we as Christians must live with each other in the community of the church: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.” (14-16)

All of this is strikingly good advice and it boils down to keeping our emotional outrage when we are wronged under control: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” (17, 18) Paul reminds us that we cannot strike out in vengeance because “it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” (19) True enough. But of course if any of this were easy to do Paul would not have had to write it down.

Paul doubtless understood that he was posing an enormous challenge to ordinary human beings. So he engages us by noting that there is a nice psychological reward in treating our enemies kindly. Kindness will drive them crazy and cause them to realize their wrongdoing: “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” (20)

And then the famous words that summarize it all: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (21)

The reality of course is that we as Christians are generally quite bad at heeding Paul’s advice. So when I’m upset with something that has happened to me, especially at church, I need to bring this section of Paul’s letter with me and read it several times before responding when I feel I’ve been wronged. Perhaps this section of Romans should be made into a poster and placed at several locations in the church—and here at home…

 

Psalm 44:1–9; Job 5,6; Romans 11:33–12:8

Psalm 44:1–9: I’m not sure that it’s an official psalm category, but this one is historical as it recounts the “days of yore” when Israel conquered Canaan in the time of Joshua:
God with our own ears we have heard,
our fathers recounted to us
a deed that You did in their days,
in days of yore.” (2)

For our psalmist, God is the root cause in both the establishment and disestablishment of entire nations. The humans who carry out these deeds are merely God’s instrument of action:
You, Your hand dispossessed nations—and You planted them.
You smashed peoples and sent them away.
For not by their sword they took hold of the land,
and it was not their arm that made them victorious
but Your right hand and Your arm.” (3,4a)

If ever we need reminding that Israel was convinced that God was on their side (as long as they followed and obeyed God!) it is right here: “and the light of Your face when You favored them.” (4b)

The psalmist’s focus shifts from God as prime mover to the details of how men carry out God’s will as he employs a pretty violent image:
Through You we gore our foes.
through Your name we trample those against us.” (6)

My more cynical self begins to wonder if our poet is using God as a bit of hyperbole, as the cover for man’s violent actions:
For not in my bow do I trust,
and my sword will not make me victorious.” (7)

Nevertheless, there is true faith that underlies this psalm as the poet gives full credit to God:
For You rescued us form our foes,
and our enemies You put to shame.” (8)

Therefore, the psalmist asserts, it is God whom we worship:
God we praise all day long,
and Your name we acclaim for all time. selah.” (9)

My takeaway here is that even for those of us who do not go to war to gore our enemies, we should praise God for all that he does for us in our lives. We may not agree with the psalmist about God being “on our side,” but that in no way diminishes God’s power and action on our lives—and therefore we praise and worship him.

Job 5,6: Regardless of our feelings about the underlying story of Job, its author expresses truths that we would do well to remember each day as we read the depressing news from around the world as Job’s erstwhile friend, Eliphaz, states some profound truths that are certainly applicable to our own time:
For misery does not come from the earth,
    nor does trouble sprout from the ground;
but human beings are born to trouble

    just as sparks fly upward.” (5:6,7)

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it is we humans who create our own problems. For Eliphaz, however, there is no reason to avoid following God:
As for me, I would seek God,
    and to God I would commit my cause.
He does great things and unsearchable,

    marvelous things without number.” (5:8, 9)

And, he continues, it is God who protects the innocent and brings justice:
But he saves the needy from the sword of their mouth,
    from the hand of the mighty.
So the poor have hope,

    and injustice shuts its mouth.” (5:15, 16)

If along with Eliphaz, Job we would acknowledge that we humans and our pride and ceaseless desire for power and control are at the root of humanity’s problems, we would instinctively turn toward God.

Eliphaz asserts even that God’s punishment serves a larger, better end:
How happy is the one whom God reproves;
    therefore do not despise the discipline of the Almighty.
For he wounds, but he binds up;

    he strikes, but his hands heal.” (17, 18)

Really? Here I disagree with Eliphaz as I don’t believe God acts malevolently to teach us lessons. We humans are sinful enough to screw up things without any assistance from God.

Job also disagrees with Eliphaz as he replies in Chapter 6. Rather justifiably, IMHO, Job believes that God is indeed malevolent:
For the arrows of the Almighty are in me;
    my spirit drinks their poison;
    the terrors of God are arrayed against me.” (6:4)

In fact things are so bad, Job would rather die:
O that I might have my request,
    and that God would grant my desire;
that it would please God to crush me,
    that he would let loose his hand and cut me off!” (6:8, 9)

Moreover, Job cannot help himself out of his God-allowed predicament:
In truth I have no help in me,
    and any resource is driven from me.” (13)

And his friends are also no help and while they were confident they could help, Job knows their words are ultimately useless:
My companions are treacherous like a torrent-bed,
    like freshets that pass away,

“Teach me, and I will be silent;
    make me understand how I have gone wrong.
How forceful are honest words!
    But your reproof, what does it reprove?
Do you think that you can reprove words,
    as if the speech of the desperate were wind?” (6:15, 24-26)

Job is expressing a great truth: in the end, rhetoric has no power. Words are like the wind. This truth is worth bearing in mind as we read the rants and outrage in a Facebook feed.

Romans 11:33–12:8: Paul’s words are the answer to Job’s dilemma and at the root of Eliphaz’s misconceptions. No matter how much we think we can understand God, we never will:
For who has known the mind of the Lord?
    Or who has been his counselor?”
“Or who has given a gift to him,
    to receive a gift in return?” (11:34, 35)

In the face of God’s inscrutability we can respond in only one way as Paul famously tells us, “by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” (12:1) He follows immediately with the explanation of how to actually be a ‘living sacrifice:’ “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (12:2) Easy to say; hard to do.

What I particularly like here is that Paul tells us that being a living sacrifice requires constantly renewing our minds. As my father used to say, he could identify any non-Christian cult by the requirement to “leave your brains at the door.” To be sure, being a Christian is a matter of the heart, but it is equally a matter of the mind, which is also discernment.

Underlying all this is Paul’s assumption that as Christians we are in community and we need to be careful not to set ourselves up as being better than our peers: “I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.” (12:3)

And then perhaps most importantly, as a community we need to recognize that while we are each different with different gifts, each of us an essential part of the body. As such, we each “have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us.” ( 6) Which of course Paul cannot resist listing: “prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.” (7, 8)

Churches that succeed recognize that each individual is an important contributor to the life of the body. Churches that ultimately fail are those led by someone who sets him or herself above others and devalues the contributions made by others.

 

 

Psalm 43; Job 3,4; Romans 11:19–32

Psalm 43: Even though there’s no superscription for this psalm, its opening verse certainly suggests the psalmist is writing in David’s voice. [Alter suggests that given the absence of the superscription, Psalms 42 and 43 may have once been a single psalm and we’re at the second half here.] In any event, the speaker must be a man in high office against whom others are conspiring:
Grant me justice, O God,
take up my case against a faithless nation,
from a man of deceit and wrong free me.” (1)

As we often do as well, he feels abandoned by a silent God:
For You, O God, my stronghold,
why should You neglect me?
Why should I go in gloom, pressed by the foe?” (2)

I’m sure that all of us have felt neglected by God, especially in our times of greatest need. Yet, like the psalmist, we need to maintain our faith that God will eventually answer. With the poet, we must continue to appeal to God:
Send forth Your light and Your truth.
It is they that will guide me.” (3a)

That this psalm is written in David’s voice is substantiated here in his appeal to be able to come out form hiding and back to the altar and worship God in song:
And let me come to God’s altar,
to God, my keenest joy.
and let me acclaim You with the lyre,
O God, my God.” (4)

The question I have to ask myself is, am I persistent when I feel abandoned by God; does my faith that God will indeed answer remain strong as David’s seems to do here? For in the end it all boils down to hope, as it is expressed so beautifully here:
Hope in God, for yet will I acclaim Him,
His rescuing presence and my God.” (5)

This is the challenge for all of us: that out faith in God remains even in the face of God’s silence. For in the end, as David and our psalmist must have intuited, we know that in the Holy Spirit we have an advocate who will bring our deepest thoughts and fears directly to God.

Job 3,4: The deal between Stan and God to use Job as an object lesson in faith is done:“Very well, he is in your power; only spare his life.” (2:6) As Job is afflicted with sores and sits among the ashes,  Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite, join him. For a week, no one speaks.

Finally, Job opens his mouth and curses the day he was born:
Let the day perish in which I was born,
    and the night that said,
    ‘A man-child is conceived.’
  Let that day be darkness!
    May God above not seek it,
    or light shine on it.

Why did I not die at birth,
    come forth from the womb and expire?” (3:3, 4, 11)

When ever we think that we have thoughts that we dare not utter aloud, we need only turn to this magnificently dark poem that asks the most profoundly existential questions of God that we can possibly ask when tragedy pursues us:
Why is light given to one in misery,
    and life to the bitter in soul,
 who long for death, but it does not come,

    and dig for it more than for hidden treasures;
who rejoice exceedingly,

    and are glad when they find the grave?” (3:20-22)

Lest we think we are the first persons who feel abandoned by God in dark dark times we need only echo what Job said millennia ago—doubtless long before our psalmist above composed his lines:
I am not at ease, nor am I quiet;
    I have no rest; but trouble comes.” (3:26)

With these profound questions on the table, Job returns to silence and “Eliphaz the Temanite answered.” (4:1)  Candidly, Eliphaz does not cut Job much slack:
Your words have supported those who were stumbling,
    and you have made firm the feeble knees.
But now it has come to you, and you are impatient;

    it touches you, and you are dismayed.” (4:4, 5)

Eliphaz is telling Job that even though he’s been a great support to others, now in his time of trial he’s asking the wrong questions. It’s really quite simple for Eliphaz, who tells he’s a mortal and depsite his protestations of pure faith in God, Job’s a sinner who deserves to be punished:
‘Can mortals be righteous before God?
    Can human beings be pure before their Maker?” (4:17)

The rhetorical question answers itself. Besides the impossibility of a sin-free life, Eliphaz continues, God does not even place his trust in angels, never mind mere mortals:
Even in his servants he puts no trust,
    and his angels he charges with error;
how much more those who live in houses of clay,

    whose foundation is in the dust,
    who are crushed like a moth.” (4:18, 19)

In fact, Eliphaz concludes, we humans are worth nothing and we learn nothing as he observes, “[we] die devoid of wisdom.” (4:21) This line could be uttered today in our culture that views humankind more as evolutionary accidents without souls or transcendence.

Romans 11:19–32: Paul uses the metaphor of a grafted tree to explain how Gentiles can be saved by a Jewish Christ and that it is God’s plan that they be included along with the Jews in salvation. We Gentiles are broken branches—wild olive shoots— that have been grafted to “the rich root of the olive tree,” i.e., Judaism. However, it appears some Gentiles have been boasting that their faith is superior to their Jewish brethren who have rejected the good news. He instructs those folks, “do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you.” (19) He advises, “you stand only through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe.” (20) In other words, mind your own business, not that of others.

Paul makes a point we would all do well to remember: “Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness toward you.” (22a) In turn, we must emulate God’s kindness in our relationship with others: “you [are] continue in his kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off.” (22b)

He continues to tell those Gentiles who believe they are superior to the Jews because of their superior faith that at some point in history God will fulfill his promise that “until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved.” (25, 26). These verses have led to theological speculation that God has a separate plan of salvation for the Jews.

But Paul’s real point here is not to waste our time in speculation about God’s ultimate plan, but to live in the here and now. Yes, the Jews that are oppressing them are “are enemies of God for your sake; but as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors.”  (28) IPaul sounds rather like he’s quoting Eliphaz when he asserts that all humans are sinners. But unlike Eliphaz who leaves it at that, Paul points out that “God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.” (32) Without our intrinsic sinfulness there would be no need for God’s mercy—regardless of whether we are Jews or Gentiles. That’s a far superior fact to worrying about how the Jews who have rejected Jesus will ultimately find God’s salvation.