Psalm 78:17–31; Isaiah 1; Galatians 3:6–18

Psalm 78:17–31: Our psalmist editorializes that despite God’s rescue from the Egyptian army and despite God’s provision of food and water in the desert, the Israelites remained a complaining and intransigent people:
And still they offended Him more,
to rebel against the High One in the parched land.
And they tried God in their heart
to ask food for their gullet.” (17, 18)

Which is exactly what we still do today: we solemnly pray for God to supply our needs and when God does that we still find things to complain about. We don’t think God’s response is sufficient or more often, it’s not the response we were looking for. As did the Israelites. Our psalmist takes them to task, observing that the manna was insufficient and they asked for bread and meat:
Can He also give bread?
Will he ready flesh for His people.” (20b)

God is understandably angry because
they had no faith in God
and did not trust in His rescue.” (22)

In his anger, God grants their latest wishes with a vengeance:
the doors of the heavens opened,
and rained on them manna to eat
and the grain of the heavens he gave to them.” (23b, 24)

The poet does a marvelous job of evoking the surfeit of food that God rained on the Israelites:
[God] rained flesh upon them like dust
and like sand of the seas winged fowl… (27)

[The Israelites] ate and were fully stated,
what they craved He brought to them.” (29)

But in a dramatic reminder of the wisdom of the saying, ‘Be careful what You pray for,” in the midst of their very selfish repast,
God’s wrath went up against them,
and He killed their stoutest fellows.
Israel’s young men He brought to their knees.” (31)

Happily, God no longer takes vengeance against ungrateful people. Or we’d all be dead by now. But the psalmist’s lesson is pretty clear: Israel ignores God at its peril. The lesson for us is also quite clear: We need to be increasingly aware of how God provides for us—and when we complain that our manifold blessings are insufficient, we may not anger God to the point of vengeance, but we certainly cause God to feel sorrow.

Isaiah 1: With today’s reading we spend the remainder of the calendar year among the “major” and “minor” prophets. Of all the major prophets, Isaiah is the most major, which is probably why the editors placed him at the head of the list as they organized this part of the Scriptures.  While Isaiah speaks to Judah, his book also speaks to Christians because of the manifold references to the coming Messiah, who for us is Jesus Christ.

Like the author of today’s psalm, Isaiah wastes no time lambasting Judah for its wickedness as he writes in the voice of God:
I reared children and brought them up,
    but they have rebelled against me.
The ox knows its owner,
    and the donkey its master’s crib;
but Israel does not know,
    my people do not understand.” (2,3)

God asks the eternal question of us humans:
Why do you seek further beatings?
    Why do you continue to rebel?” (5a)

Isaiah interjects here to describe the utter desolation and ruins in which Judah lays following its latest battle. And also to remind his listeners that Judah came within a hairs-breadth of being completely wiped off the face of the earth:
Your country lies desolate,
    your cities are burned with fire;

If the Lord of hosts
    had not left us a few survivors,
we would have been like Sodom,
    and become like Gomorrah.” (7a, 9)

With this depressing introduction, Isaiah commands his listeners:
Hear the word of the Lord,
    you rulers of Sodom!
Listen to the teaching of our God,
    you people of Gomorrah!” (10)

In his pleas for the people to turn back to God, Isaiah summarizes what for me is the entire ethos of the Old Testament—and the lesson for us sinners today— in just two verses:
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
    remove the evil of your doings
    from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
  learn to do good;
seek justice,
    rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
    plead for the widow.” (16, 17)

“Cease to do evil; learn to do good.” The command seems so simple, yet like Judah, we strong-willed, self-centered people cannot do even this. Which is why we can be grateful that God finally had to resort to sending Jesus to earth to rescue us form ourselves.

The chapter ends with a dire warning of what will happen if the people do not heed God’s word spoken by Isaiah:
But rebels and sinners shall be destroyed together,
    and those who forsake the Lord shall be consumed.

The strong shall become like tinder,
    and their work[b] like a spark;
they and their work shall burn together,
    with no one to quench them.” (28, 31)

Isaiah could hardly be clearer. But as we know, Israel didn’t get it. And neither do we.

Galatians 3:6–18: Paul continues his exegesis on justification, aka righteousness, by demonstrating how Jews and Gentiles who believe in Christ are linked together via Abraham: “so, you see, those who believe are the descendants of Abraham. And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you.”  (7,8) Obviously, Paul’s effort here is to get the Christian Jews and Christian Gentiles to stop hating each other because of their conflict between the Law and grace. He reiterates his point by turning reminding them of their common ancestor: “For this reason, those who believe are blessed with Abraham who believed.” (9)

Ever repetitive in making his most important points, Paul recapitulates his argument about the futility of works as the means of salvation: “Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law; for “The one who is righteous will live by faith.” (11) Rather, it is “Christ [who] redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree” (13) Frankly, that business about a tree seems to be a stretch, but Paul never hesitates in quoting Scripture that does not fit as well as we would like.

He then makes the key point about exactly how the Gentiles are blessed in Abraham: “[it is] in Christ Jesus [that] the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.” (14) And with that, Paul dispenses with the Old Covenant that requires the Law to be followed in order to come tom God. There is a new, far better way: through Jesus Christ.

Paul then engages in more Scripture-stretching by stating that when God promised to Abraham that he would have offspring, it was in the singular, not the plural: “it does not say, “And to offsprings,”  as of many; but it says, “And to your offspring,” that is, to one person, who is Christ.” (16) At his lawyerly best, Paul asserts rather boldly that even though the law came to Moses 430 years after Abraham [nice to have that number!] that law “does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise.” (17). In short, the promise to Abraham trumps the Mosaic law.

Got that? Paul makes a rather convoluted argument, but he’s the author of the letter which has become the cornerstone of Christian theology, not me.

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