Psalm 107:33–43; Jeremiah 50:41–51:23; Hebrews 5

Psalm 107:33–43: In a rather abrupt change of tone and theme our psalmist notes God’s destructive power in nature as punishment of wayward humans:
He turns rivers into wilderness
and springs of water into thirsty ground,
fruitful land into salt flats,
because of the evil of those who dwell there.” (33, 34)

I presume this screed is a reference to Israel’s wanton sinfulness and idol worship. My own observation is that humans themselves are perfectly capable of destroying nature without any kind of godly intervention.

But when there is righteousness, God reflects his approval by restoring nature—of which water is the central element:
He turns wilderness to pools of water,
and parched land to springs of water,
and settles there the hungry,
firmly founds a settled town.” (35, 36)

The righteous farmers go straight to work and the result is fecundity—both in agrarian results and human and animal reproduction:
And they sow fields and plant vineyards,
which produce a fruitful yield.
And He blesses them and they multiply greatly,
and their beasts He does not let dwindle.” (37, 38)

In contrast to the noble efforts of the hoi polloi, our psalmist displays only contempt for the corrupt leadership of the land, who are receiving their just desserts as their progeny—the earmark of God’s favor—diminishes:
He pours contempt upon the princes,
and makes them wander in trackless waste.
And they dwindle and are bowed down,
from harsh oppression and sorrow.” (39, 40)

As always, it is the poor and oppressed whom God favors—and we are left with the strong message that if God cares for the poor, so should we who consider ourselves to be righteous:
And he raises the needy from affliction,
and increases his clans like flocks.
Let the upright see and rejoice,
and all wickedness shut its mouth.” (41, 42)

The psalm concludes with advice that we should follow even today:
He who is wise will watch these
and take to heart the Lord’s kindnesses.” (43)

But I confess that in the noise of our culture I too often fail to pause and appreciate God’s manifold blessings in the many little things that do indeed go right. God’s hand is active even today.

Jeremiah 50:41–51:23: Our prophet is certainly making a big deal about the imminent destruction of Babylon by the Persians as the subject comes up once again:
They wield bow and spear,
    they are cruel and have no mercy.
The sound of them is like the roaring sea;
    they ride upon horses,
set in array as a warrior for battle,
    against you, O daughter Babylon!” (50:42)

If Jeremiah didn’t get his message across in poetry, there is always prose that again employs the sheep metaphor: “Therefore hear the plan that the Lord has made against Babylon, and the purposes that he has formed against the land of the Chaldeans: Surely the little ones of the flock shall be dragged away; surely their fold shall be appalled at their fate.” (50:45)

Chapter 51 seems very much a rerun of chapter 50 as it prophesies Babylon’s doom. One feels like there was a writing contest among the Jews in exile in Babylon and that all the many entries have each received their own chapter in this endless book:
“Thus says the Lord:
I am going to stir up a destructive wind
against Babylon
….and I will send winnowers to Babylon,
    and they shall winnow her.
They shall empty her land
    when they come against her from every side
    on the day of trouble.” (51:1, 2)

Unsurprisingly, the fall of Babylon is nothing but good news for the Jewish remnant:
The Lord has brought forth our vindication;
    come, let us declare in Zion
    the work of the Lord our God.” (51:10)

Once again, if we didn’t get the meaning in the poetry, there’s always explanatory prose: “The Lord has stirred up the spirit of the kings of the Medes, because his purpose concerning Babylon is to destroy it, for that is the vengeance of the Lord, vengeance for his temple.” (51:11)

I think it is here where we see the real reason for Babylon’s ultimate fate: it was their wanton destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Babylon was God’s instrument for punishing the Jews, but certainly the temple—God’s very dwelling place—that would be off limits. But the Babylonians exceeded their brief and now they will be punished.

What is different in this chapter is the prophet’s assertion that Israel will be God’s instrument of destruction—and I’m pretty sure other authors are writing as “Jeremiah” here:
You are my war club, my weapon of battle:
with you I smash nations;
    with you I destroy kingdoms;
with you I smash the horse and its rider;
    with you I smash the chariot and the charioteer;
with you I smash man and woman;
    with you I smash the old man and the boy;
with you I smash the young man and the girl;
with you I smash shepherds and their flocks;
with you I smash farmers and their teams;
    with you I smash governors and deputies.” (51:20-23)

This short poem is at once bizarre and as far as I am concerned, a non-sequitur. I thought it was the Persians from the north that would be the instruments of God’s struction of Babylon. So what is this grimly graphic poetic aside doing here? If this is truly the God of Israel using the Jews to wreak his vengeance on young men and girls, I sure do not want to have anything to do with him.

In the end, I’m left with the impression that it is a military poem that was chanted as soldiers marched in cadence into battle.

Hebrews 5: Our author uses this chapter to compare Jesus Christ against the very mortal high priests who served in the temple at Jerusalem—and then to see how God has established Jesus as our new High Priest.

First, we know that the high priest at the temple in Jerusalem “is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins” (1) In other words, the high priest is the intercessor between man and God—which was the whole point of the sacrificial system in place in Jerusalem at the time this epistle was written to new Jewish converts to Christianity.

Second, as a human “subject to weakness,” he is empathetic, “able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward.” (2) As a mortal, he is also subject to sin and therefore, “he must offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people.” (3)

Third, he is called to his post by God: “And one does not presume to take this honor, but takes it only when called by God, just as Aaron was.” (4) One does not just decide to become a high priest.

WIth these boundary conditions defined, our author turns to a complex logic chain to show how Jesus is our new High Priest, supplanting the high priest at Jerusalem.

First, like his Jewish counterpart, Jesus is human. Second, Jesus did not appoint himself as high priest, but has been called by God, his father. Jesus “was appointed by the one who said to him, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you;”(5) (which is a quote from Psalm 2).

Then things get mildly confusing. Jesus is not of the Aaronic order of Jewish priests, but “as [God] says also in another place, “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.” (6) This reference to the non-Jewish king/priest who blessed Abram back in Genesis where “King Melchizedek of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High” (Gen 14:8) is a revolutionary concept for Jews. It means that Jesus is high priest to everyone—both Jew and Gentile.

Finally, Jesus, being mortal, suffered as other humans. In fact he endured even greater suffering in our author’s oblique reference to his death on the cross: “In the days of his flesh, Jesus  offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.” (7)

Thus is Jesus our new High Priest before God. And with the explicit Melchizedekian line of succession, Jesus trumps the Aaronic priests in Jerusalem and has become High Priest for every person both in the present and yet to come.

Our author implicitly admits this is complicated stuff as he insults his readers: “About this we have much to say that is hard to explain, since you have become dull in understanding.” (11) and then accuses them of theological immaturity: “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic elements of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food; for everyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is unskilled in the word of righteousness.” (12, 13)

So I guess at this point were are all milk drinkers…

 

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