Psalm 111; Lamentations 4,5; Hebrews 9:11–22

Psalm 111: Adding to our theological and/or linguistic knowledge, Alter informs us this is a “short acrostic” psalm of praise where the the first word of each line begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet in alphabetical order. Since we neither know Hebrew nor are reading this poem in Hebrew I can only say, “Noted. That’s cool, I suppose.”  As a psalm of praise, opening on the word, “Hallelujah!,” it is basically a worship song about God’s timelessness and the beneficence he bestows on those who follow God, Which is not a bad theme!
Hallelujah!
I acclaim the Lord with full heart
in the council of the upright and the assembly.
Great are the deeds of the Lord,
discovered by all who desire them.” (1, 2)

That last line, “discovered by all who desire” to see the deeds of God, is intriguing. I think it means we will see the evidences of God’s power and greatness if we but only look for them. There’s no question that the evidence is all around us. Certainly in nature, but also in simple gifts such as the one we observed a few days ago: the gift of night and day and our ability to consign a bad day to history and begin afresh the next morning.

Our psalmist goes on in a praise chorus vein, covering the many wondrous aspects of God and his mighty power. There are passing references to the Covenant between God and Israel, the time in the wilderness, and the gift of the promised land:
Sustenance He gives to those who fear Him,
He recalls forever His pact.
The power of His deeds He told His people,
to give the the nations’ estate.” (5, 6)

The clear underlying theme is it is God who created that truth and justice which transcend time and are to be carried out by his people. Nice in concept, but like all nations including our own, Israel pretty much failed at putting action behind the high-flown words of the psalm:
His handiwork, truth and justice,
trustworthy all His precepts,
Staunch for all time, forever,
fashioned in truth and right.” (7,8)

God is our savior and as far as this psalmist is concerned, he is the everlasting foundation of human wisdom and knowledge as the psalm concludes in a famous verse:
The beginning of —the fear of the Lord,
good knowledge to all who perform it.
His praise stands for all time.” (10)

We will come back to this theme of wisdom and knowledge big time when we slog through Psalm 119.

Lamentations 4,5: Chapter 4 passage pretty much covers ground we have already worn down quite well: a poem about the punishment of Judah and Jerusalem. But I think the poetry here does a better job at evoking an emotional response than the more stolid lines in the book of Jeremiah. It is chock full of really brilliant images, beginning with the opening verse:
How the gold has grown dim,
    how the pure gold is changed!
The sacred stones lie scattered
    at the head of every street.” (4:1)

There is immense sadness in the verses about the children who have died in the conquest of Jerusalem:
The precious children of Zion,
    worth their weight in fine gold—
how they are reckoned as earthen pots,
    the work of a potter’s hands!” (4:2)

Our poet understandably blames the adults for their failure to care for their children:
The tongue of the infant sticks
    to the roof of its mouth for thirst;
the children beg for food,
    but no one gives them anything.” (4:4)

As well, there is an intriguing poetic focus on color in a series of similies:
Her princes were purer than snow,
    whiter than milk;
their bodies were more ruddy than coral,
    their hair like sapphire.
Now their visage is blacker than soot;
    they are not recognized in the streets.” (4:7, 8)

And then a terribly grim verse about starving mothers eating their own children:
The hands of compassionate women
    have boiled their own children;
they became their food
    in the destruction of my people.” (10)

Which as far our poet is concerned is one of the many causes for God’s anger and subsequent punishment of his chosen people:
The Lord gave full vent to his wrath;
    he poured out his hot anger,
and kindled a fire in Zion
    that consumed its foundations.

The Lord himself has scattered them,
    he will regard them no more;
no honor was shown to the priests,
    no favor to the elders.” (4:11, 16)

One is left with the impression that our poet was himself a priest. By the end of the chapter our poet is confident that Judah will be redeemed but that punishment is coming to Edom, which evidently escaped the conquest by the Babylonians:
The punishment of your iniquity, O daughter Zion, is accomplished,
    he will keep you in exile no longer;
but your iniquity, O daughter Edom, he will punish,
    he will uncover your sins.” (4:22)

Chapter 5 turns to a new theme describing the grim trials of those who lived under the siege of Jerusalem by the army of Babylon. The poet mourns all that has been lost:
Remember, O Lord, what has befallen us;
    look, and see our disgrace!
Our inheritance has been turned over to strangers,
    our homes to aliens.
We have become orphans, fatherless;
    our mothers are like widows.” (5:1-3)

He goes on to describe the ugly trials of slave-like life in Jerusalem under siege:
We must pay for the water we drink;
    the wood we get must be bought.
With a yoke on our necks we are hard driven;
we are weary, we are given no rest.
We have made a pact with Egypt and Assyria,
    to get enough bread. (5:4-6)

We can hear the poet’s resentment at God’s apparent unfairness in just two lines:
Our ancestors sinned; they are no more,
    and we bear their iniquities.” (5:7)

Really, just your ancestors sinned? Not you too? We’re just like the poet; We’d much rather blame the wrongdoings of our ancestors for our troubles rather than taking personal responsibility for our own sins.

This complaint is followed by grim verses describing the punishments that were meted out by the Chaldeans:
Our skin is black as an oven
    from the scorching heat of famine.
Women are raped in Zion,
    virgins in the towns of Judah.
Princes are hung up by their hands;
    no respect is shown to the elders.
Young men are compelled to grind,
    and boys stagger under loads of wood.
The old men have left the city gate,
    the young men their music.” (5:10-14)

And perhaps the saddest verse of all:
The joy of our hearts has ceased;
    our dancing has been turned to mourning.” (5:15)

Like psalms of supplication, which this poem closely resembles, there is the cry to heaven:
Why have you forgotten us completely?
    Why have you forsaken us these many days?
Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored;

    renew our days as of old—” (20, 21)

But unlike the psalmists who always leave room for hope, this poem concludes on the bleakest possible thought:
unless you have utterly rejected us,
    and are angry with us beyond measure.” (22)

Hebrews 9:11–22: Our author continues to contrast the ineffectual Old Covenant priesthood with the wonderful new regime under Jesus Christ that focuses on the New Covenant’s permanence: “But when Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come…he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.” (11, 12)

He observes that if the blood of goats and bulls provided some temporary absolution, how much better, then, was Christ’s own sacrifice: “how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!” (14)

Relentlessly pursuing his logic chain but also doubling back a bit, our author continues to cite the parallels and differences between the Old and the New Covenants. First, a death is required for redemption. Under the Old Covenant it was the death of animals “that redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant.” (15)

Turning very lawyer-like, our author notes that wills do not go into effect until someone dies and that “Hence not even the first covenant was inaugurated without blood.” (18) This statement moves him to the subject of blood sacrifices. Beginning with the law given to Moses and down through Israel’s history, then, the priests “took the blood of calves and goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the scroll itself and all the people, saying, “This is the blood of the covenant that God has ordained for you.” (19, 20) The reason is simple: “under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” (22)

The whole business about the necessity of blood as a sacrifice is downplayed in the Lutheran church compared to Baptists and others who sing, “Washed in the blood.” As we’ve observed several times already, the Hebrews author was writing to Jews who practiced sacrifice at the temple at Jerusalem. As thrilling as these arguments are, I’m glad to know that Jesus’ single sacrifice has been sufficient for our salvation, and I’m perfectly happy not focusing on all this blood—the sight of which can make me faint.

 

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