Psalm 12; Genesis 19:30–20:18; Matthew 7:13–23

Originally posted 1/17/2016—revised and updated 1/17/2018

Psalm 12: The David psalm begins with a note of supplication but for the entire culture,  not just an individual:
Rescue, O Lord! For the faithful is gone,
or vanished is trust from the sons of man” (1)

[“Sons of man” in the Psalms usually refers to the entire human race.] Now, there’s a verse that seems especially apropos in increasingly post-Christian America.

The next lines takes on a prophetic cast as it castigates the culture at large:
“Falsehood every man speaks to his fellow,
smooth talk, with two hearts they speak.” (3)

[Although at the moment, I wouldn’t mind some ‘smooth talk’ coming out of the White House…]  As we have observed many times, speech is the crucial medium of communication in this mainly pre-literate age. One’s spoken words were the fundamental instrument of trust—or of destruction. Here, it appears that the culture is awash in con men, ach attempting to dupe each other with “smooth talk.”

But our prophet/psalmist makes it clear that these lying smooth talkers will come to a bad end in a fairly dramatic fashion:
The Lord will cut off all smooth-talking lips,
the tongue that speaks of big things,
those who said, ‘Let us make our tongue great,
our own lips are with us–who is master to us?‘” (4, 5)

As usual, it is arrogant pride that leads to self-delusion that one controls one’s destiny. How many people today assert “who is master to us?” Facebook and Twitter certainly represent a manifestation of these prideful “great tongues.”

Speech occupies the central theme of this psalm and now it is God’s turn to speak. His answer comes quickly via the unexpected image of God arising out of the poor and those who have been duped and oppressed in order to wreak his vengeance on the high and mighty:
“‘From the plunder of the poor, from the wretched men’s groans,
now I will rise,’ says the Lord.” (6)

But God’s word is far different than that of the despicable speech of lying men,
The Lord’s sayings–pure sayings,
[are] silver tried in a kiln…refined sevenfold.” (7)

As usual, the supplication concludes on a note of assurance that appears to refer back to David: “You, Lord, will guard him,
will keep him from this age for all time.” (8).

Alter observes that the last line of this psalm—”All around go the wicked,  they have dug deep pits for the sons of men“—seems misplaced, as if it should go earlier in the psalm, satafter verse 3. Who am I to disagree?

Genesis 19:30–20:18: The editors writing Genesis wanted to make sure to include the reason for the seemingly never-ending enmity between Israel and its neighbors, Moab and Ammon. Not surprisingly it the issue of bloodline plays the central role. Lot’s two daughters make their father drink, have sex with him, and become pregnant. The result is “the firstborn [daughter] bore a son, and named him Moab; he is the ancestor of the Moabites to this day. The younger [daughter] also bore a son and named him Ben-ammi; he is the ancestor of the Ammonites to this day.” (19: 37, 38) Israel’s undying hatred of these tribes is seemingly justified by the sin of incest. 

The story turns to yet another sojourn by Abraham and Sarah, who now residing in Gehar. Even at 100 years of age, Sarah is apparently quite a sexually desirable woman and Abraham once again employs the ruse, “she is my sister,” to protect himself from being killed by King Abimelech of Gerar. But the ruse has no effect as the king “took Sarah.” God shows up once again in dream, this time to the king, and says, “You are about to die because of the woman whom you have taken; for she is a married woman.” (20:3). But the king protests that he did not to have sex with her: “Abimelech had not approached her; so he said, “Lord, will you destroy an innocent people?” (4)

Abimelech asserts his innocence and points out that Sarah confirmed Abraham’s lie: “she herself said, ‘He is my brother.’” Abimelech goes on to tell God that his motive was honorable: “I did this in the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands.” (5) God returns in a subsequent dream and takes all credit for Abimelech’s restraint, saying, “Yes, I know that you did this in the integrity of your heart; furthermore it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her.” (6) He also tells the king to give Sarah back to Abraham, r there will indeed be severe consequences.

Nevertheless, Abimelech is understandably upset at the ruse, telling Abraham, ““What have you done to us? How have I sinned against you, that you have brought such great guilt on me and my kingdom?” and tells Abraham off: “You have done things to me that ought not to be done.” (9). Understandably he asks Abraham, “What were you thinking of, that you did this thing?” (10) Abraham replies that “I did it because I thought, There is no fear of God at all in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.” (11). Which seems to me to be an understandable explanation.

But then Abraham drops the bombshell–not just on Abimelech, but on all of us. Sarah is his step-sister: “Besides, she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife.” (12) Abimelech relents and gives Abraham “sheep and oxen, and male and female slaves, and gave them to Abraham, and restored his wife Sarah to him,” (14) plus 1000 pieces of silver. The king tells Sarah she is completely vindicated; Abraham prays to God, who restores fertility to the women of the kingdom: “God healed Abimelech, and also healed his wife and female slaves so that they bore children.” (17)

So what gives with this story? There’s no question that Abimelech was wrong in taking Sarah in the first place. So, is the point here only to tell us that Abraham and Sarah are step-siblings? If so, why? If nothing else, it demonstrates out just how special this as yet childless couple was in the eyes of God.

Also, Abraham said he was fearful that “there was no fear of God at all in this place.” I think the story demonstrates that God is at work in places that we think are godless.

One last thought: If we assume these stories are being compiled during the Babylonian captivity, I think it’s also a warning to the captors of Israel. Taking and raping Israel’s women will cause the Babylonians to meet the same fate as the one Abimelech barely avoided.

Matthew 7:13–23: Jesus’ sermon, designed to provoke us to really examining what it means to follow him, continues. He tells his listeners that his followers are embarked on a difficult path. I presume he’s speaking directly to his disciples when he says, “the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” (14) One big reason why the path is difficult hits on exactly the problem today’s psalm addresses: smooth talkers who mislead. Jesus gives the warning that we would do well to heed carefully today: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” (15)

His advice to determine whether these prophets are true or false is to judge them by what they do, not what they say: “ You will know them by their fruits…In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit.” (16, 17) In the end it is our deeds—what we do with the gospel—that really matters.

We certainly need to remember Jesus’ warning as we contemplate the popularity of modern day televangelists and those who monger of the prosperity gospel. To use the word’s of today’s psalmist, they are full of “smooth talk” in their charismatic TV appearances and they smooth-talking books. While appearing to be spiritual, they have taken the psalmist’s words to heart:

“Let us make our tongue great, our own lips are with us—who is master to us?”

These false preachers are full of self-pride, make millions, fly around in private jets, and live in mansions. Worst of all, those who follow them are engaging in an empty, ultimately meaningless religion—and giving away their scarce resources to a con man. Even though it appears they are practicing “true religion,” they have deceived themselves. As far as Jesus is concerned, this self deception leads to a miserable fate: “I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’” (22)

Matthew takes this theme of self deception up again in chapter 25 when Jesus talks about the sheep and the goats and those who failed to see Jesus in the faces of the poor, the hungry, the naked, and the prisoners. I suspect Matthew places such emphasis on the narrow gate, the fruit-bearing tree, and the problem of self-deception for still another reason. At the time he is writing late in the first century, there are already plenty of false gospels floating around and he desperately wants his readers/ listeners not to be drawn into the trap of Gnosticism.

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