Psalm 88:14–19; Isaiah 44:24–45:25; Philippians 3:12–4:1

Psalm 88:14–19: The concluding verses of this dark psalm convey the bitter hopelessness of the poet’s feeling of being utterly abandoned by God. He makes one last attempt to get God to hear and respond. The psalmist has used anger, raising his fist at God; he’s used prayer. But alas, nothing avails. Only the existential question remains:
As for me—to You, Lord, I shouted,
and in the morn my prayer would greet You.
Why, Lord, do You abandon my life,
do You hide Your face from me?” (14,15)

In the face of a silent, unresponsive God, our psalmist recapitulates his woeful situation, which seems to be some kind of chronic disease dating back many years. There is on last outburst at God that echoes not only deep anger but an even deeper fear, as he blames God for his dreadful fate—all because God has first punished him and then in a final betrayal, has remained silent:
Lowly am I and near death from my youth
I have borne Your terrors, I am fearful.
Over me Your rage has passed,
Your horrors destroy me.” (16, 17)

In one of the saddest, most hopeless conclusions in the Psalms, our poet has not only been abandoned by God, but also by his human friends and family as well. He is utterly alone and the simile of drowning conveys this dreadful solitude and silence as he feels he is dying alone:
They [God’s horrors] surround me like water all day long,
they encircle me completely.
You distanced lover and neighbor from me.
My friends—utter darkness.” (18, 19)

So when some optimistic Christian tells me that God always answers his or her prayer in a positive manner or that God makes for a happier life, I need only refer them to the final verses of this dark psalm. Sometimes it does not feel that way at all. The dreadful reality is that we can encounter states of being where God, family, and friends have apparently abandoned us to a dark and lonely fate. This psalm gives brilliant testimony to the depth of these overwhelming feelings. But we also need to remember that the psalms reflect every human emotion rather than pure theological principles.

Isaiah 44:24–45:25: In verses reminiscent of God’s final speech in the book of Job, our Isaiah poet reminds us that God is the source of all creative energy:
Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer,
    who formed you in the womb:
I am the Lord, who made all things,
    who alone stretched out the heavens,
    who by myself spread out the earth;” (44:24)

When Paul writes of the folly of human wisdom in I Corinthians, I’m quite sure he had the next verse in mind:
“[God] who frustrates the omens of liars,
    and makes fools of diviners;
who turns back the wise,
    and makes their knowledge foolish.” (24:2)

Evidence of this reality is particularly on display in Washington DC.

Our poet appears to be writing at a time when Cyrus the Great of Persia was threatening Judah. He attempts to reassure his listeners that Cyrus is actually God’s agent of both destruction and rebuilding:
[It is God] who says of Cyrus, “He is my shepherd,
    and he shall carry out all my purpose”;
and who says of Jerusalem, “It shall be rebuilt,”
    and of the temple, “Your foundation shall be laid.” (44:28)

In fact, Cyrus pretty much gets an entire chapter devoted to him as God’s special agent of conquest:
Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus,
    whose right hand I have grasped
to subdue nations before him
    and strip kings of their robes,
to open doors before him—
    and the gates shall not be closed:” (45:1)

Now writing in God’s voice, our poet goes on to promise that every thing that comes to Cyrus, be they treasures or entire nations, are the work of God in order that Cyrus will come to an understanding that it is Israel’s God who truly rules over creation:
I will give you the treasures of darkness
    and riches hidden in secret places,
so that you may know that it is I, the Lord,
    the God of Israel, who call you by your name.” (45:3)

What’s intriguing here, however, is that God makes himself known to those who do not even know who he is. This applies not only to Cyrus, but to every human being:
I call you by your name,
    I surname you, though you do not know me.
I am the Lord, and there is no other;
    besides me there is no god.
    I arm you, though you do not know me,” (45:4b, 5)

Others may not know God by name, but they are witness to both his creative handiwork and his actions among the nations:
 I arm you, though you do not know me,
so that they may know, from the rising of the sun
    and from the west, that there is no one besides me;
    I am the Lord, and there is no other.
I form light and create darkness,
    I make weal and create woe;
    I the Lord do all these things.” (45:6, 7)

These verses seem awfully relevant to our time where many have rejected the idea of God altogether, much less not knowing his name. Even in the midst of a rampant materialist philosophy God remains at work—and we can see evidence of God’s work if we just look hard enough. But this is no easy task, as our poet observes:
Truly, you are a God who hides himself,
    O God of Israel, the Savior.” (45:15)

I’m pretty sure our psalmist above would agree with this verse! Perhaps the greatest evidence of God as creator is the order of the universe itself. As physicists look into the quantum world and astronomers look billions of years into the past in the heavens there is one common reality. Nothing is random; there is magnificent order through all creation form the Higgs boson to the black holes in distant galaxies. Our poet puts this reality into a beautiful (‘beautiful’ being the way physicists describe the order of nature) verse”
I did not speak in secret,
    in a land of darkness;
I did not say to the offspring of Jacob,
    “Seek me in chaos.”
I the Lord speak the truth,
    I declare what is right.” (45: 19)

Indeed, God is the God of created order not of chaos, even though chaos (e.g., fractals) is an important element of an ordered universe. Were it not fo God’s order we would not have come into existence.

Philippians 3:12–4:1: In one of his most famous and beloved metaphors, Paul describes his life—and he hopes, our lives as well— as an athletic contest with one clear goal: “Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” (13, 14)

I think it’s too easy to forget that within these verses is the all-important admonition to look ahead, not to rehearse the past: “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead.” We can do nothing about the past, and there’s not too much we can do about the future. But if we are living in the present, then we can “hold fast to what we have attained.” The well-lived Christian life means always pressing on ahead. Sanctification is a spiritual process, not a static state. The well-lived Christian life is dynamic and yes, even though I don’t necessarily like it, it is always changing. But it’s important to make sure it—and we—are changing for the better.

Paul switches metaphors from athleticism to citizenship in the next paragraph as he draws a stark contrast between those who are citizens of their own egos and we who are citizens of heaven: “For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ…Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things.  But our citizenship  is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” (18-20)

As is always the case for Paul, our spiritual destiny is binary: we are either enemies of the cross of citizens of heaven. I know that I much prefer to live in ambiguous gray, oscillating between following Jesus or following my the dictates of own ego. But Paul is clear. There is really only one choice: “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.” (4:1)

As always, this firm stand, like everything else in the Christian life, arises out of love. In this case, it’s the love of God flowing through Paul and expressing itself as love for the people at the church at Philippi. To paraphrase Paul, without love, it’s all quite pointless.

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