Psalm 78:65–72; Isaiah 8:1–9:7; Galatians 4:28–5:6

Psalm 78:65–72: Up to this point in Israel’s history in Canaan the Ark of the Covenant had resided at Shiloh. The sins of the people and the priests have resulted in a stunning military defeat with God having abandoned the Ark itself. But God is not finished with Israel, and as our psalmist relates, he dramatically returns to Shiloh, triumphing over Israel’s enemies:
And the Master awoke as one sleeping,
like a warrior shaking off wine.
And He beat back His foes,
everlasting disgrace He gave them.” (65, 66)

But in the usual deuteronomic twist, God remains angry with the unfaithfulness of Israel and is not about to restore the status quo ante. The Ark’s previous custodians, the priests from the tribes named for Jospeh’s sons, are displaced in favor of a new tribe and a new location for the Ark:
Yet He rejected the tent of Joseph,
and the tribe of Ephraim He did not choose.” (67)

God approves of moving the Ark to Jerusalem, Judah’s headquarters, where he is taking up residence. No longer is God peripatetic, but now resides for all time in Jerusalem, the eventual site of the temple. And God can now be found only in that one place:
And He chose the tribe of Judah,
Mount Zion He loves.
And He built on the heights His sanctuary,
like the earth He had founded forever.” (68, 69)

Of course this is an ex post facto declaration by the psalmist, who obviously is from the tribe of Judah. As always, history is written by the victor and the psalmist retrospectively justifies God’s choice Judah over the other tribes. Moreover, this change of God’s residence becomes the psalmist’s justification for the Davidic dynasty as being God-ordained:
And He chose David His servant
and took him form the sheepfolds.
From the nursing ewes He brought him
to shepherd His people
and Israel His estate.” (70, 71)

Of course the metaphor of David shepherding his people becomes the key metaphor of Jesus shepherding us who follow him. This lengthy psalm concludes with the psalmist celebrating God’s choice of a wise leader, the greatest of Israel’s kings, with an extension of the shepherding metaphor:
And with his heart’s innocence he shepherded them,
with skilled ands he guided them.”  (72)

For me, this concluding verse speaks directly of Jesus, who is truly the Good Shepherd—the culmination of the Davidic line—and the savior not just of Israel but of all humankind.

Isaiah 8:1–9:7: God informs Isaiah that the apostate northern kingdom of Israel is about to be overrun by the Assyrians. Of course it could never be as simple as Isaiah simply telling people what is about to happen. Instead, God commands Isaiah to name his son of a certain prophetess, who I believe to be his wife, with what’s got to be the longest name in the Bible: “Maher-shalal-hash-baz.”

God uses the metaphor of a flood to describe the coming invasion: “therefore, the Lord is bringing up against it the mighty flood waters of the River, the king of Assyria and all his glory; it will rise above all its channels and overflow all its banks.” (8:7, 8) God tells Isaiah not to fear the enemy but rather to fear God himself: “But the Lord of hosts, him you shall regard as holy; let him be your fear, and let him be your dread.” (8:13).  This is good advice for all of us, although in the midst of battle, fearing God rather than the enemy in the here and now can be rather difficult!

As with most prophecy, I think it can be interpreted at two levels: the near term, which here is the impending invasion of Assyria, and the the longer term of events farther out in time yet to occur.  God tells Isaiah that he [God] “will become a sanctuary, a stone one strikes against; for both houses of Israel he will become a rock one stumbles over—a trap and a snare for the inhabitants of Jerusalem.” (8:14)  Here I think we can read this as a long term prophecy of the Jews’ rejection of their Messiah, Jesus and the consequences that follow that rejection: “And many among them shall stumble; they shall fall and be broken.” (8:15)

Chapter nine is an even more direct prophecy of the coming of the Davidic Messiah. There’s the intriguing note that “in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.” (9:1) Of course Galilee is where Jesus did most of his ministry.

This magnificent passage opens with the familiar refrain:
The people who walked in darkness
    have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
    on them light has shined.” (9:2)

And it reaches its apotheosis in the even more familiar lines describing the coming Messiah:
For a child has been born for us,
    a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
    and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (9:6)

Handel’s music rings in my ears whenever I read this verse. The tragedy of course is that Jesus is rejected by his own people. But these breathtaking words are ours to claim as they describe the incarnation of the Messiah who came to save us.

Galatians 4:28–5:6: Paul continues his disquisition on the differences between slavery and freedom as the overarching metaphor for the freedom Christ has brought to us compared to the slavery of those who insist on adhering to Jewish law: “But what does the scripture say? “Drive out the slave and her child; for the child of the slave will not share the inheritance with the child of the free woman.” So then, friends, we are children, not of the slave but of the free woman.” (4:30, 31)

And then the famous verse: “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (5:1) It’s as if Jesus has flung open the door of the small prison cell (here, the Jewish law) and we refuse to get up and walk outside to freedom because that freedom means abandoning our own self-centeredness that believes we can come to God on our own efforts and good works.

Paul gets down to the specific, which of course was the giant issue of wether or not Gentile Christians had to be circumcised. He’s pretty direct in his disapproval:  “if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you.” (5:2) At first glance I’m sure the Galatians (and us) respond with “Huh? How can that be.” So Paul immediately reveals that “every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obliged to obey the entire law.” (5:3) Oh. So circumcision as an adult is not just a symbolic act but a life-long commitment to Jewish law.

Paul’s logic chain moves inexorably forward. Therefore, by accepting the law, which is expressed through the act of circumcision, Paul asserts that we are rejecting Christ’s grace: “You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.” (5:4)  As far as Paul is concerned, it’s a binary choice: the law or grace.

Paul concludes by telling us that as Christians, whether or not we’re circumcised is irrelevant: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.” (5:6) This is a pretty good definition of our response to Christ’s grace. Yes, like the law, working is involved in the Christian life. But here it is our faith that works, not our hands. More importantly, faith works through love. Faith is not just an intellectual stance; it is the evidence of the transformation of our lives when we love Jesus and love each other.

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