Psalm 103:6–18; Jeremiah 23:1–32; 1 Timothy 5:9–16

Psalm 103:6–18: The central section of this psalm is all about God’s justice expressed as forgiveness of our sins—and by implication our response in forgiving others. Moreover, as far as the psalmist is concerned, this is one quality of God that is on full display:
The Lord performs righteous acts
and justice for the oppressed.
He makes known His ways to Moses,
to the Israelites, his feats.” (6,7)

And then the deservedly famous centerpiece of this psalm—and the centerpiece of God’s merciful goodness to us:
Compassionate and gracious, the Lord
slow to anger and abounding in kindness” (8)

I prefer the NRSV here that translates the Hebrew as the stronger “steadfast love” rather than Alter’s more anodyne “kindness” because I think ‘steadfast love” better communicates the resoluteness of God’s unfathomable love for us, who screw up daily.

Moreover, God, who rightly should cast us into outer darkness, will forgive us no matter how heinous our sins. His forgiveness trumps it all:
He will not dispute forever
nor nurse His anger for all time.
Not according to our offenses has He done to us
nor according to our crimes has requited us.” (9, 10)

In fact, he creates an immeasurable gulf between us and our sins—both vertically and horizontally in every direction:
For as high as the heavens loom over earth, 
His kindness is great over those who fear Him.
as the east is from the west,
He has distanced us form our transgressions.
As a father has compassion for his children
the Lord has compassion for those who fear Him.” (11-13)

So why is God so generous? The psalmist answers that it has to do with our mortality, our brief time on earth:
For He knows our devisings,
recalls that we are dust.
Man’s days are like grass,
like the bloom of the field, thus he blooms—
when the wind passes by him, he is gone,
and his place will no longer know him.” (14-16)

We would do well to pause and reflect on these verses that are such a magnificent and apt description of our mortality. Given our brief existence in the framework of God’s eternity, our psalmist is arguing that there is no reason whatsoever to withhold forgiveness.

And as God does, so should we. After all, not only are we forgiven in the metaphor of spacial dimensions, but in in the dimension of time as well:
But the Lord’s kindness is forever and ever
over those who fear Him
and His bounty to the sons of sons…” (17)

But notice: God forgives those who acknowledge God and acknowledge they are sinners as the psalmist reminds us:
“...for the keepers of His pact
and those who recall His precepts to do them.” (18)

For our psalmist it was all about keeping within the boundaries of the law; for us it is acknowledging and believing in what Jesus Christ has done for us…

Jeremiah 23:1–32: After 22 chapters of the desert of seemingly endless catalogs of sin and destructive punishment to come, we arrive at a small oasis that tells us that all is not lost. After God punishes those—the Assyrians, Babylonians and others— who have destroyed Israel and Judah, he promises restoration of his people: “Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply.” (3)

In a clearly messianic prophecy, God promises that “I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” (5) Moreover, there is the promise of return from exile: “Then they shall live in their own land.” (8) Of course, Israel pretty much blew it on the Messiah front by rejecting Jesus.

Jeremiah places these promises on hold while he then engages in a long poetic disquisition, once again in God’s voice, about the fate of false prophets who have prophesied in the name of Baal rather than in the name of God, i.e. everybody but him:
Both prophet and priest are ungodly;
    even in my house I have found their wickedness,
says the Lord.
 Therefore their way shall be to them
    like slippery paths in the darkness,
    into which they shall be driven and fall;
for I will bring disaster upon them
    in the year of their punishment,
says the Lord.” (11, 12)

Their fate is sealed:
Therefore thus says the Lord of hosts concerning the prophets:
“I am going to make them eat wormwood,
    and give them poisoned water to drink;
for from the prophets of Jerusalem
    ungodliness has spread throughout the land.” (15) 

Once again we see the theme of leaders, here priests and prophets, being held to a high standard and deservedly punished for leading astray those for whom they had responsibility to lead toward—not away from—God.

But Jeremiah is not yet finished with the false prophets. Had they followed God (as Jeremiah has) things could have turned out quite differently:
But if they had stood in my council,
    then they would have proclaimed my words to my people,
and they would have turned them from their evil way,
    and from the evil of their doings.” (22)

After all, Jeremiah (still speaking in god’s voice) argues, God knows and sees everything: “Am I a God near by, says the Lord, and not a God far off?  Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them? says the Lord.” (23, 24) Which of course is something we—prophet or not— should all bear in mind at all times, especially when we’re tempted to do something unwise…

The chapter concludes, “See, I am against those who prophesy lying dreams, says the Lord, and who tell them, and who lead my people astray by their lies and their recklessness, when I did not send them or appoint them;” (32)

This chapter is a good warning to those in the church today who claim to have the gift of prophecy. They need to be careful as they are playing with fire. I’m pretty sure God has no greater tolerance for “prophets”—especially the ones on TV—than he did back in Jeremiah’s time. Moreover, it’s not just prophets in the church but also those outside it; those gurus who claim to have special gifts and spiritual insights to create a “fuller life” for their followers while all the while mainly taking their followers’ money.

1 Timothy 5:9–16: Our “Paul” seems strangely obsessed with the problem of false widows claiming rights they do not have. There must have been a rampant problem at the church Timothy is going to. He draws some very stern and clear boundaries about which widows will receive benefits from the church and which will not. And the widow requirements are pretty stiff: “Let a widow be put on the list if she is not less than sixty years old and has been married only once; she must be well attested for her good works, as one who has brought up children, shown hospitality, washed the saints’ feet, helped the afflicted, and devoted herself to doing good in every way.” (9, 10)

Our “Paul” seems to believe that younger widows drift away from belief because of untrammeled sexual desire: “for when their sensual desires alienate them from Christ, they want to marry, and so they incur condemnation for having violated their first pledge.” (11, 12) There is certainly not much compassion here. Our author needs to reread today’s psalm.

“Paul’s” excoriations continue as he generalizes about young widows who are drifting from belief but may be receiving assistance from the church. With so much time on their hands “they learn to be idle, gadding about from house to house; and they are not merely idle, but also gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not say.” (13) Nice… Who knows what psychic harm has been done to young widows ever since? To assume that every young widow behaves this way is simply misguided, IMHO.

But our “Paul” is not yet finished with dispensing advice: “So I would have younger widows marry, bear children, and manage their households.” (14) In other words, keep them occupied. There’s certainly truth that raising children is a full-time occupation and will leave very little time for idleness. But I find the generalizations here disturbing.

Oh, and by the way, our author concludes, don’t take advantage of the church’s generosity: “If any believing woman has relatives who are really widows, let her assist them; let the church not be burdened, so that it can assist those who are real widows.” (16) I confess I have to agree with this assertion. I’m sure that every pastor has encountered people—and not just widows—who tell sob stories with the objective of getting the church to give them money or even support them.

Nevertheless, this passage is certainly one of the less grace-filled ones in the New Testament.

 

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