Psalm 11; Genesis 19:1–29; Matthew 7:1–12

Originally posted 1/16/2016—revised and updated 1/16/2018

Psalm 11: This very personal psalm begins with the poet’s assertion of his trust in God: “In the Lord I sheltered” (1a) as he expresses dismay in his fearful friends who have advised him to escape his enemies: “How could you say to me, ‘Off to the hills like a bird!” (1b) Yes, he acknowledges,  his enemies are out to attack the righteous (including himself) just as a hunter aims at that bird in flight:
For, look, the wicked bend back their bow,
they fix to the string their arrow
to shoot from the gloom at the upright.” (2)

The ‘gloom’ suggests the enemies prefer dark and cowardly conspiracy rather than standing up and confronting our poet on in the sunlight.

It appears the wicked have corrupted human justice and given these circumstance, our psalmist really has no other options than to look to God for protection:
The foundations destroyed,
what can a righteous man do?” (3)

This rhetorical question finds its answer immediately:
The Lord in His holy palace,
The Lord in the heavens His throne
His eyes behold,
His look probes the sons of man.”

God’s omniscience means he knows every aspect of human affairs, be they righteous or evil. And it’s clear that, as far as our psalmist is concerned, God is on the side of the righteous and despises those who have corrupted his ordained order.
The Lord probes [both] the righteous and the wicked.
the lover of havoc He utterly hates.” (5)

In the end, the wicked will get their just desserts as the poet employs a clear allusion to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah:
He rains fiery coals on the wicked,
sulphur and gale-winds their lot.” (6)

The psalmist then reminds us that as the embodiment of righteousness, God will always take the side of the righteous man:
For righteous the Lord is,
righteous acts He does love.” (7a)

And it is the righteous who will return God’s downward gaze on humankind as the righteous look back up to God: “The upright behold His face.” (7b)

For our psalmist there is no ambiguity. It is a binary world: you are either on God’s side or you are against him. As a person who basks in the gray areas, this clear bifurcation seems overly simple, but as Jesus’ many words on the subject (e.g., dividing the sheep and the goats) and John’s Revelation makes clear, in the end there is no ambiguity: you and I are either for Jesus or against him.

Genesis 19:1–29: We recall that God is going to check out Sodom and Gomorrah and see if there are ten righteous people left there. Two angels arrive at Lot’s house in Sodom, who invites them in for dinner. He asks them to spend the night with him, where it is obviously safer, but they demur, “No; we will spend the night in the square.” (2) Clearly, the mission God has sent these two on is to directly test Sodom’s level of sinfulness. But they never get the chance. While they’re still in Lot’s house eating dinner, a gang of men pounds on Lot’s door demanding “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.” (5) Of course in this context, ‘know’  is not about getting acquainted.

Desperate to protect them, Lot even offers his two daughters to the crowd: “Let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.” (8) rather than have them harm his guests. [This certainly gives us insight into the depressingly low value that men of that day placed on women.]

The gang of men reject Lot’s offer, shouting “Stand back!” (9a), reminding Lot that he “came here [to Sodom] as an alien, and he would play the judge! Now we will deal worse with you than with them.” (9b) The gang tries to force its way past the door, but the angelic guests strike the men blind so “they were unable to find the door.” (11) [Reminding us that tragedy is awfully close to comedy.]

The angels have been deputized by God to make the decision and there’s no question now how this will turn out. The angels turn to Lot asking, “Have you anyone else here? Sons-in-law, sons, daughters, or anyone you have in the city—bring them out of the place. For we are about to destroy this place.” (12, 13) But Lot’s sons-in-law don’t buy into the warning, thinking Lot was joking. Even Lot is hesitant [“he lingered‘] to leave Sodom and the angels have to forcibly remove him, “so the men seized him and his wife and his two daughters by the hand, the Lord being merciful to him, and they brought him out and left him outside the city.” (16)

Lot is grateful but makes it clear he is a city-dweller and, unlike his uncle Abraham, he cannot live without the urban creature comforts and asks the angels to spare a little city, Zoar, so he can live there. The angels agree and famously warn everyone  not to look back. Also, we know that Lot’s wife disobeyed and became the famous pillar of salt.

If we assume that Genesis was compiled during the Babylonian captivity, I think the story of Lot is a warning to those Jews who too readily adapted to Babylonian culture and were on the verge of being assimilated by it. They had a choice: to stay and ultimately be destroyed (which I take to be assimilation and losing their Jewish identity) or were they willing to go back to the rigors of life in a ruined Jerusalem and thereby remain faithful to God?

For me, this dramatic story is an allegory for each of us: Are we willing to reject the comforts and diversions of our culture’s “city life” with its many hedonistic pleasures in exchange for the austerity and struggles that a life with God entails? Or will we look back longingly and think of how much we enjoyed that former life, regretting that we abandoned it? If the latter is our choice, we become as worthless to Jesus as a mound of salt.

Matthew 7:1–12: Jesus’ entire ethical corpus is contained in his words of the Sermon on the Mount. Once Matthew has finished laying out Jesus’ new standards of thinking, behavior and relationships with each other, the community, and with God, our author will go on to demonstrate how Jesus executes these new standards in his actions–and how we should follow likewise. Jewish author that he is, he lays out this “New Torah” in detail first.

Until recently, the Sermon on the Mount has formed the core of Western Judeo-Christian civilization, and is the foundation of our legal system. Jesus cites a list truths that define human nature that have not changed since Genesis. We know them all—and have done them all:

  • On hypocrisy: “first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” (5)
  • On our failure to distinguish between the holy and the profane: “do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.” (6)
  • On persistence: “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” (7)
  • On the rewards of persistence: “For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” (8)
  • On personal relationships: “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone?” (9)

All of these boil down to the simple golden rule that despite our behavior, we know to be true: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you;” (12a)

But what strikes me here is that is far as Jesus is concerned, his words here on the mountain are simply the practical distillation of all the stories, prophecies, and psalms that have defined Judaism: “for this is the law and the prophets.” (12b) In short, Jesus really has said nothing new or original that everyone in the crowd, including us, do not know already in our hearts to be true. But Jesus has framed these ancient truths in a completely new way. When civilizations and cultures ignore these rules, pretending that in their new and advanced state that they are no longer relevant, the death of that empire is not far behind. As far as American culture is concerned, the writing seems to be already on the wall.

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