Psalm 78:56–64; Isaiah 6,7; Galatians 4:17–27

Psalm 78:56–64: Our psalmist is sounding pretty frustrated. No matter what God has done for the Israelites, they invariably turn away from him. Even though they have now arrived at the promised land they refuse to follow God’s law or keep their side of the Covenant:
Yet they tried God the Most High and rebelled,
and His precepts they did not keep.
They fell back and betrayed like their fathers,
Whipped around like an untrusty bow.”  (56, 57)

Generation after generation returns briefly to God but then always falls away. Unfaithfulness seems to be our human watchword. Now that the Israelites are in Canaan they fall under the malign influence of the idol-worshiping Canaanites and in a new blasphemy, they build idols to small-g gods:
They vexed Him with their high places,
incensed Him with their idols.” (58)

In turn, God responds, his patience having been taken beyond the breaking point. He seems to break his side of the Covenant and give up on Israel—or at least that’s how it looks to our psalmist:
God heard and was angry,
wholly rejected Israel.” (59)

As far as the psalmist is concerned, the sure sign of God’s abandonment is his exit from the Ark of the Covenant:
He abandoned the sanctuary of Shiloh,
the tent where He dwelled among men.
And he let his might become captive,
gave His splendor to the hand of the foe.” (60, 61)

Having abandoned them, God leaves their fate up to the marauding hordes and in a final insult shows up on the side of the enemy by allowing himself (the Ark) to be captured. Israel meets its fate for having broken the most important commandment of all—putting small-g gods before God. Here the poetry briefly ascends above its usual pedantry and expresses the horror of what happened in a few compact yet affecting lines:
He gave over His people to the sword,
against His estate He was enraged.
His young men the fire consumed
and His virgins no wedding song knew.
His priests fell to the sword,
and His widows did not keen.” (62-64)

The theological question here is, God almost seems like a vengeful adolescent. Yes, the sins of the people are great, even perhaps unforgivable. But would God fly into such a burning rage as to allow his people to be destroyed? I think we need to always bear in mind that the psalms are written from a human perspective. And what looks like abandonment and vengeance may indeed be something quite different: a sorrowful God who despairs at a capricious and sinful people. It’s just too easy to blame God for the things that go wrong in our lives—the things that are indeed very much our fault and whose consequences we want to blame on God rather than ourselves.

Isaiah 6,7: Isaiah has a vision and our authors attest to its historical accuracy by noting it occurred “in the year King Uzziah died.” (6:1) Isaiah’s vision is an appearance before God in all his enthroned glory, attended by six-winged Seraphs worshipping God—in a scene we see again in Revelation 4. Needless to say, this is a pretty frightening scene to Isaiah, a mere mortal.  Like all orderly worship, Isaiah immediately confesses his sinfulness: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (6:5)

One of the Serpahs touches a burning coal to Isaiah’s lips and declares, “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” (6:7) At this point Isaiah hears God speak, asking,“Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” (8a). Without hesitation, Isaiah replies, “Here am I; send me!” (8b) Thus is Israel’s greatest prophet anointed. (And the source of a popular worship song…)

God instructs Isaiah to speak to the people with deep sarcasm, already knowing that they will reject Isaiah’s words directly from God:
Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.’
  Make the mind of this people dull,
    and stop their ears,
    and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
    and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
    and turn and be healed.” (6:9,10)

As far as God is concerned, the people will keep rejecting him until “until the Lord sends everyone far away, / and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.” (6:12)

The scene shifts from God’s throne room to the throne room of Uzziah’s son, Ahaz. Warfare is afoot and it creates enormous fear in Jerusalem, beginning with the king himself: “the house of David heard that Aram had allied itself with Ephraim, the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.” (7:2)

God tells Isaiah to go to Ahaz and calm his fears, “say to him, Take heed, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smoldering stumps of firebrands, because of the fierce anger of Rezin and Aram and the son of Remaliah.” (7:4) God, speaking through Isaiah, goes on to promise that regarding the conquest of Jerusalem “It shall not stand,/ and it shall not come to pass.” (7:7)

But there is a requirement being made of Ahaz: “If you do not stand firm in faith,/ you shall not stand at all.” (7:9) We may think these prophecies are somewhat irrelevant to us, but here is a simple truth that stands down through the ages: if we are not firm in our faith we will ultimately fail. I think the same thing applies to cultures, as well.

Isaiah goes on to promise the destruction of Samaria by the Assyrians and Egyptians.In the midst of that prophecy we encounter perhaps the most famous prophecy in the book: “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” (7:14) Did Isaiah know he was predicting the Incarnation of Jesus? I very much doubt it, but here are the prophetic words that lie at the heart of Christianity.

Galatians 4:17–27: Paul is distressed at the demands for strict adherence to Jewish law that seem to be emanating form the church at Galatia. However, he is more gentle in chastising the Galatians than he was with the Corinthians. “My little children, for whom I am again in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, I wish I were present with you now and could change my tone, for I am perplexed about you.” (4:19 20)  He realizes that they are immature Christians and goes on to challenge those at the church who are hellbent on following Jewish law, asserting they don’t really know the law as well as he—a top-flight Pharisee—does: “you who desire to be subject to the law, will you not listen to the law?” (21) 

He uses the example of children born to Sarah and Hagar: “Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and the other by a free woman.” (22) Then in what to me is a tremendous leap of the kind of interpretation that Paul seems to get away with, he informs the Galatians that “this is an allegory: these women are two covenants. One woman, in fact, is Hagar, [who] corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children.” (24, 25) By “slavery” I think Paul means “slavery to the Law.” The irony here of course is that in this allegory, Paul has set Hagar as the mother of the Jews, when of course Sarah is their ancestral mother.

Paul blithely continues, “But the other woman corresponds to the Jerusalem above; she is free, and she is our mother.” (26) The “Jerusalem above” is of course the New Jerusalem that we encounter in Revelation. For Paul, Christianity is a completed Judaism that begins anew under the rule of the Messiah, Jesus Christ.

And in the New Jerusalem ruled by Jesus Christ, there is true freedom.  I don’t think we reflect very often on what true freedom in Christ is. We tend to think “freedom” is being able to do whatever our self-centered selves want to do. True freedom is giving up that self-centeredness and trusting Jesus all the way.

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