Psalm 78:9–16; Song of Solomon 7, 8; Galatians 2:15–3:5

Psalm 78:9–16: Our psalmist makes good on his threat to teach his listeners the lessons of Israel’s history with an emphasis on how they blew it even though God did wonderful things for them. The first group to get the back of his historical hand is the hapless Ephraimites, which appear to be an example contemporary to the time the psalmist is writing:
The Ephraimites, deft wielders of bows,
turned tail on the day of battle,
and did not keep God’s pact,
and His teaching did not follow.” (10)

Not only did they demonstrate cowardice by failing to follow God’s teaching, even worse they had forgotten about what God had done for them in the past:
And they forgot His acts
and His wonders that he showed them.” (11)

We certainly are guilty of forgetting what God has done for us. And I’d argue that our culture has forgotten about God altogether.

The psalmist attributes this forgetfulness as having a long history as he makes his point about generations neglecting their  responsibility to inform the succeeding generation of the wonderful things God has done throughout Israel’s history. He does this by recapitulating key events from the past where God intervened to Israel’s benefit. First, with a reference to the plagues that God brought down on Egypt:
Before their fathers He did wonders,
in the land of Egypt, in Zoan’s field.” (12)

Then crossing the sea:
He split open the sea and let them pass through,
He made water stand up like a heap.” (13)

Then in the wilderness:
And he led them with the cloud by day
and all night long with the light of fire.” (14)

He devotes two verses to God’s gift of water in the desert:
He split apart rocks in the wilderness
and gave drink as from the great deep.
He brought forth streams from stone,
and poured down water like rivers.” (15, 16)

Having provided the examples of God’s grace, I have a feeling that our poet will soon be soon be giving us examples of the Israelites’ lack of appreciation of these marvelous acts of God. I think the challenge for us in the here and now is to look back over our own lives and realize the ways in which God has surely intervened to our benefit. If we forget, then we will stray.

Song of Solomon 7, 8: In these two chapters we are immersed in the expressions of beauty that communicate the love the bride and bridegroom. We have read many of these similes already, but here the bridegroom describes his bride beginning with her feet:
How graceful are your feet in sandals,
    O queenly maiden!” (7:1)

Then in succeeding verses a simile after simile moving up her body: her thighs (“like jewels”); her navel (“A rounded bowl”); her belly (“a heap of wheat”); her breasts (“two fawns”); her neck (“an ivory tower”); her eyes (“pools in Heshbon”); her nose (“a tower in Lebanon”); ending at her head and hair:
Your head crowns you like Carmel,
    and your flowing locks are like purple;
    a king is held captive in the tresses.” (7:5)

A simile describing her person follows, as the bridegroom returns again to her breasts:
You are stately  as a palm tree,
    and your breasts are like its clusters.” (7:7)

And finally to his sexual intentions of passionate holding and kissing:
I say I will climb the palm tree
    and lay hold of its branches.
O may your breasts be like clusters of the vine,
    and the scent of your breath like apples,
and your kisses  like the best wine
    that goes down  smoothly,
    gliding over lips and teeth.” (7:8, 9)

His bride answers with a gorgeous refrain that communicates her own sexual desire with metaphors of budding vines and opening flowers that end in the sexual act itself:
let us go out early to the vineyards,
    and see whether the vines have budded,
whether the grape blossoms have opened
    and the pomegranates are in bloom.
There I will give you my love.” (7:12)

But was this all a dream? Chapter eight opens with a sense of longing for the absent bridegroom and that she has fallen in love too early:
O that his left hand were under my head,
    and that his right hand embraced me!
I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem,
    do not stir up or awaken love
    until it is ready!” (8:3, 4)

The concluding verses of this book appear to be spoken by the bride’s father as he sees her come back alone (from her dreams?) without her beloved bridegroom. He recalls her birth:
“Who is that coming up from the wilderness,
leaning upon her beloved?
Under the apple tree I awakened you.
There your mother was in labor with you;
there she who bore you was in labor.” (8:5)

As the father of a daughter I can appreciate the fond memory he expresses here.

He then speaks what I believe to be the moral of this lovely book, which is that love is the most powerful of human emotions—and in its power also lies danger:
Set me as a seal upon your heart,
    as a seal upon your arm;
for love is strong as death,
    passion fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
    a raging flame.” (8:6)

But, he continues, and as Paul puts it some centuries later, “the greatest of these is love.” True love endures—and that is the key to distinguishing it from romantic infatuation:
Many waters cannot quench love,
    neither can floods drown it.
If one offered for love
    all the wealth of one’s house,
    it would be utterly scorned.” (8:7)

Galatians 2:15–3:5: Having raised the issue of Jewish and Gentile Christians, Paul makes the statement that grabbed Martin Luther while he sat in the outhouse: “we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.” (2:16)

It is this faith in Christ that justifies us before God—and it is this faith that turns us upside down and inside out to become new creatures. As Paul famously puts it, “For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (2:19, 20) Paul uses negative logic to demonstrate  that the law—the Torah for Jews and moral law for Gentiles—is ineffective in justifying us before God. After all, he argues, “if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.” (2:21)

This issue of the law—rule following— being a means of justification is what is apparently causing trouble in Galatia. Although Paul doesn’t tell us directly, it sounds as if some in that church were demanding that others, including Gentiles, follow all the rules of Jewish law. And if the rules were not followed, they were not made righteous (justified) before God.

Paul is definitely into full-on chastising mode regarding this false belief: “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?…The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?” (3:1-3) 

The central issue here is that people seem to think they can retain the Holy Spirit only if they work hard at being righteous and following rules instead of believing, i.e., having faith: “Well then, does God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by your doing the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard?” (3:5). I think this emphasis of works over faith was the fatal flaw of the Roman Catholic Church that Luther rebelled against. The 16th century church had become exactly like the church of Galatia.

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