Psalm 102:1–11 Jeremiah 16:14–17:27; 1 Timothy 2:8–3:7

Psalm 102:1–11: This beautiful but depressing psalm of supplication reveals its theme in its first lines and wastes no time in coming to God and asking quite directly for God’s answer:
A prayer for the lowly when he grows faint
and pours out his plea before the Lord.
Lord, O hear my prayer,
and let my outcry come before You.
Hide not Your face from me
on the day when I am in straits.
Incline Your ear to me.
On the day I call, quickly answer me.” (1-3)

There is no hesitation and only a modicum of reverence in his plea. The reason becomes quickly apparent in the next verses. Unlike so many others we encountered at this point in the Psalms, this psalmist is not asking for God’s intervention in some specific situation such as being assaulted by enemies. It is far more existential as he reflects on life’s ephemerality and his imminent death:
For my days are consumed in smoke,
and my bones are scorched like a hearth.
My heart is stricken and withers like grass,
so I forget to eat my bread.” (4, 5)

What a great simile for a life lived in psychological torment: his days like fire that leaves only smoke of loss and physical debilitation in its wake. I’m sure a therapist would diagnose clinical depression in addition to whatever physical ailments our poet is suffering. He is certainly sounding very Job-like.

He is physically emaciated and his spirit is as small as the birds around him surveying the wreckage of a ruined life:
From my loud sighing,
my bones cleave to my flesh.
I resemble the wilderness jackdaw,
I become like the owl of the ruins.” (6, 7)

Insomnia only adds to his woes while his waking hours are filled with tormenting by his enemies:
I lie awake and become
like a lonely bird on a roof.
All day long my enemies revile me,
my taunters invoke me in curse.” (8,9)

Another striking image of unrelenting sorrow and depression follows:
For ashes I have eaten as bread,
and my drink I have mingled with tears.” (10)

At the end of his rope he lashes out and ascribes all his woes to God:
because of Your wrath and Your fury,
for You raised me up and flung me down.” (11)

Like the psalmist we are quick to blame our circumstances on God. But did God really plan and execute the awful things that have happened to him? I don’t think so. But alas, we live in a fallen world and in our extreme straits we can find no one to blame but God. In those hopefully rare circumstances when we are feeling that our family, our friends and the world has abandoned us, these verses give profound voice to our innermost and almost inexpressible feelings of woe.

Jeremiah 16:14–17:27: While our psalmist may feel things have come to a hopeless pass, we suddenly arrive at a brief but far more optimistic passage in Jeremiah. Despite the content of the preceding chapters, all is not yet lost. God promises a return: “Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the Lord, …“As the Lord lives who brought the people of Israel up out of the land of the north and out of all the lands where he had driven them.” For I will bring them back to their own land that I gave to their ancestors. (16:14, 15)

In the midst of all these threats and warnings and yes, promises, there stands one great immutable truth: the acknowledgement that in the end it is God who provides our protection in these famous lines:
Lord, my strength and my stronghold,
    my refuge in the day of trouble,” (19a)

But this is only a brief respite as Jeremiah dives right back into the morass that is the sin of Judah in a striking metaphor of their intransigence: “The sin of Judah is written with an iron pen; with a diamond point it is engraved on the tablet of their hearts.” (17:1)

Can it be that their sin is so deeply embedded in their hearts that they are irredeemable? It would seem so as Jeremiah makes God’s promise crystal clear: “By your own act you shall lose the heritage that I gave you, and I will make you serve your enemies in a land that you do not know, for in my anger a fire is kindled that shall burn forever.” (17:4) Burn forever? Really? Or are these just the words of an extremely angry God given to making threat that in his love he cannot or will not carry out?

There are two groups in Judah—and today. Those who reject God and:
“...who trust in mere mortals
    and make mere flesh their strength,
    whose hearts turn away from the Lord.” (17:5)

contrasted with “those who trust in the Lord,
    whose trust is the Lord.” (17:7)

There is no comfortable gray area here. We are eith with God or against him. And in the great psychological insight of this book Jeremiah, speaking in God’s voice lays out the source of humankind’s problems:
The heart is devious above all else;
    it is perverse—
    who can understand it?
I the Lord test the mind
    and search the heart,
to give to all according to their ways,
    according to the fruit of their doings.” (17:9, 10)

Our beliefs and our actions have consequences. And simply because people may not believe in God and have placed their trust in mere mortals, vague spiritual concepts, or physical objects, it is God who will have the last word. There are no exemptions. As Jeremiah makes clear over and over, these are the consequences of our own choices. We cannot blame God.

Jeremiah’s own voice comes to the fore as he points out that unlike so many others, e has remained faithful to God and he prays for mercy:
But I have not run away from being a shepherd in your service,
    nor have I desired the fatal day.
You know what came from my lips;
    it was before your face.
Do not become a terror to me;
    you are my refuge in the day of disaster;
Let my persecutors be shamed,
    but do not let me be shamed;” (17:16-18a)

God allows one final test for Judah as he directs Jeremiah to go stand at Jerusalem’s People’s Gate and give them one final test as he announces, “Thus says the Lord: For the sake of your lives, take care that you do not bear a burden on the sabbath day or bring it in by the gates of Jerusalem.” (17:21) Will the people keep the Sabbath holy?

But the threat stands: “But if you do not listen to me, to keep the sabbath day holy, and to carry in no burden through the gates of Jerusalem on the sabbath day, then I will kindle a fire in its gates; it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem and shall not be quenched.” (17:27)

What will the people do? I have a feeling we know.

1 Timothy 2:8–3:7: We arrive at one of those difficult passages that reflect the social mores of the time but which have been put into rigid practice down through the ages in too many churches to the great detriment, I think, of carrying out our evangelical calling of all Christians, regardless of their sex: Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man;  she is to keep silent.” (2:11, 12) As far as I am concerned, this is one more proof that Paul is not the author of this letter. He writes elsewhere of people such as Lydia who financed the church at Philippi and in his various lists there are other women named. I cannot believe that he regarded them as the silent ciphers our author is requiring here.

I realize I am writing from within my own social context and not that of this author’s time. Nevertheless, women have far greater worth than simply to “be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.” (2:15) To be blunt, these verses have done incalculable damage to the cause of Christ down through the centuries to today when only men can be priests in the Roman Catholic church and women cannot be pastors or even sit on church councils in evangelical churches.

Another proof for me that this letter was written some years after actual Paul lived is the reference to a rather fully organized church that now has an established hierarchy as our author lays out the qualifications for bishops: “Now a bishop  must be above reproach, married only once, temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher,  not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way.” (3:2-4)

What’s especially fascinating here is the reference to married bishops—a fact the Catholic church conveniently ignores in its patriarchal rules.

Nevertheless, there is excellent advice about what’s required in leadership: “He must not be a recent convert, or he may be puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil.” (3:6) Given what has happened in the Catholic (and other) churches, this advice has been sadly ignored. Of course the best example of how this advice was ignored at the highest level of the church is the Borgia popes or Renaissance Italy.

 

 

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