Psalm 79:1–8; Isaiah 9:8–10:11; Galatians 5:7–18

Psalm 79:1–8: This is one of the most anguished psalms of all. Jerusalem has been conquered, its inhabitants killed, and the temple destroyed. Clearly, this psalm was written in the period just following Babylon’s conquest of Judah in 586BC. Our psalmist describes the devastation in stark, almost cinematic phrases:
God, nations have come into Your estate,
they have defiled Your holy temple.
They have turned Jerusalem to ruins.
They have given Your servants’ corpses
as food to the fowl of the heavens,
the flesh of Your faithful to the beasts of the earth.
They have spilled their blood like water
all around Jerusalem, and there is none to bury them.” (1-3)

We can see the ruins and smell the rotting corpses that lie scattered and unburied in the streets of what was once a great city. No greater tragedy has ever befallen Israel. The nation is not only ruined, it has become a laughingstock:
We have become a disgrace to our neighbors,
scorn and contempt to all round us.” (4)

It is at this moment of greatest despair that our psalmist understandably turns toward heaven, shaking his fist at God. In this deuteronomic world the poet has no doubt that the invasion and destruction is God’s work because of the irredeemable apostasy of Judah and Jerusalem. Nevertheless, he rails at God, asking the question that has been asked down through the centuries when disaster—whether natural or manmade—occurs:
How long, O Lord, will You rage forever,
Your fury burn like fire?
For they have devoured Jacob
and his habitation laid waste.” (6, 7)

(I presume “they devoured Jacob” refers to the enemies relentless slaughter of the population.)

Our psalmist implores God to not punish them for their ancestors’ wrongdoing, but to show mercy to the present generation that has experienced such profound tragedy:
Do not call to mind against our forebear’s crimes.
Quickly, may Your mercies overtake us,
For we have sunk very low.” (8)

The line, “for we have sunk very low” truly resonates for me as I gaze at the state of our culture. Our psalmist confesses before God; he still believes. But now we live in an age where God is deemed capriciously cruel  at best and non-existent at worst.

Isaiah 9:8–10:11: Isaiah expends considerable energy describing the fallen state of Judah that let inexorably to its destruction. Unlike the psalmist, the people to whom Isaiah preaches do not yet recognize that they have”sunk very low.” Instead they make excuses about the signs of cultural decay in a metaphor of bricks and trees, papering over their wrongdoing with weak justifications:
“...but in pride and arrogance of heart they said:
“The bricks have fallen,
    but we will build with dressed stones;
the sycamores have been cut down,
    but we will put cedars in their place.” (9:9b, 10)

Absent repentance from their blinding pride, God punishes them, especially the leaders who have failed in their responsibilities:
The people did not turn to him who struck them,
    or seek the Lord of hosts.
So the Lord cut off from Israel head and tail,
    palm branch and reed in one day—
elders and dignitaries are the head,
    and prophets who teach lies are the tail;
for those who led this people led them astray,
    and those who were led by them were left in confusion.” (9:13-16)

What a warning for us! As I look around I see very little evidence of responsible adult leadership, especially in our government. Isaiah despairs at the internecine warfare between the northern and southern kingdoms of divided Israel:
Through the wrath of the Lord of hosts
    the land was burned,
and the people became like fuel for the fire;
    no one spared another.
They gorged on the right, but still were hungry,

    and they devoured on the left, but were not satisfied;
they devoured the flesh of their own kindred;
  Manasseh devoured Ephraim, and Ephraim Manasseh,
    and together they were against Judah.” (9:19-21)

Of all possible wars there’s little doubt that civil war is the cruelest of all.

In chapter ten, Isaiah comes down a level of abstraction about the failures of leadership. As we read again and again in the Old Testament, the most profound failure of the leaders is in denying justice to the poor and needy:
Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees,
    who write oppressive statutes,
to turn aside the needy from justice
    and to rob the poor of my people of their right,
that widows may be your spoil,
    and that you may make the orphans your prey!” (10:1, 2)

These verses could certainly describe much of the lawmaking that occurs in our own time. The voiceless are denied justice while the rich can pay their lobbyists. Some things just never change.

Galatians 5:7–18: Paul asks rhetorically of the Galatian church: “You were running well; who prevented you from obeying the truth?” (7) Unfortunately, Paul points out, it doesn’t take much to lead an entire congregation down the wrong path. Or to use his metaphor, “A little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough.” (9) Paul vows punishment for the person or persons who led the church theologically astray: “But whoever it is that is confusing you will pay the penalty.” (10) In fact, as he thinks about it, he just gets angrier at those who have preached the requirement for circumcision. He bursts out in rather harsh terms, “I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!” (12) Ouch.

As he has done many times already in this letter, Paul returns to is theme of freedom. But now he warns them that with freedom comes responsibility: “ For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence.” (13a) Now there’s some good advice for all of us. Freedom does not mean license.

And true freedom must exercised in the framework of love for each other: “but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (13b, 14)

I think that’s the part we have all forgotten—both inside and outside the church. We focus so much on our personal freedom that we forget how our individual “acts of freedom” impact people around us. And when love is absent bad things happen. I certainly see this in the ongoing culture wars on both sides. A gay couple wants to have a baker make a wedding cake but the baker refuses on the grounds that it offends him. The couple in turn takes the baker to court. The baker loses and eventually the case comes to the Supreme Court. Where was love in this scenario on either side?

Paul tells us that if we rely on the Holy Spirit in us we will make the right choices in our new-found freedom: “Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh.” (16, 17a) To which I can only rely, ‘Yes, that’s certainly true.’ But it’s also certainly true that consistently following the Holy Sprit’s side this never-ending internal dialectic between the Spirit and our flesh is easier said than done.

 

Speak Your Mind

*