Psalm 34:8–18; Exodus 14:19–15:21; Matthew 22:15–22

Originally published 3/8/2016. Revised and updated 3/8/2018

Psalm 34:8–18:
Taste and see that the Lord is good,
happy the man who shelters in him. (9)

We’ve read the line so often that its “sensory concreteness” (as Alter puts it) no longer startles us: But what does it mean to “taste the Lord?” It connotes the intimacy of a French kiss, yet the image of kissing God is both startling and for me, anyway, somewhat off-putting. We’ll just take it that the poet is trying to express how it feels to be in such a close relationship with God and to experience God’s innate goodness so personally.

Absent this close relationship and experiencing God’s beneficence, even the king of beasts, “Lions are wretched, and hunger.” (11a) but “those who fear Him know no want.” (10b).

At this point, the thrust of the psalm shifts from awed worship to almost didactic instruction and advice—all of it good—as our poet advises,
Come sons, listen to me,
the Lord’s fear I will teach you. (12).

First, if you wish to experience a good long life, he advises,
keep your tongue from evil
and your lips from speaking deceit. (14).

As always, the number one sin to avoid is speaking (and texting or posting in our modern age) evil of others. In these days of degraded political speech, one could be inclined to attend a political rally with this verse printed on a large poster that could be seen by the candidate speaking ill of his or her rivals.

Second, if we’re inclined to execute bad deeds we need to catch ourselves before we act:
Swerve [great verb!] from evil and do good,
seek peace and pursue it.(15)

This implies that we make conscious decisions—our free will—in deciding what course to take. That is, we are responsible for our actions—what seems to be an increasingly rare quality in these days of victimhood and blaming others or circumstances created by forces outside our control for our own bad decisions.

If follow these precepts, the poet assures us that God is nearby and is both seeing and hearing us:
The Lord’s eyes are on the righteous
and His ears to their outcry. (16)

The evildoer, on the other hand will meet his or her inevitable bad end, abandoned by God:
The Lord’s face is against evildoers,
to cut off from the earth their name. (17)

As we’ve observed many times in the Psalms, there is no worse fate than being forgotten by one’s descendants.

This section ends on the optimistic note missing from most psalms of supplication that God does indeed both listen and act:
Cry out and the Lord hears,
and from all their straits He saves them. (18)

Exodus 14:19–15:21:

At this dramatic moment when the Egyptian pursuers are about to catch up with their former slaves, “the angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them.” (19). In other words, God’s power inserts itself between the Egyptians and Israelites, protecting them. Which is a nice image for all of us when we feel beset by enemies pursuing us to know that God has our back.

Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided.” (21) The Israelites walk across on dry ground while the horses and chariots of the pursuing Egyptians  become clogged in the mud, to which our authors give God all the credit. This is also a good example where advanced technology (the Egyptians’ chariots) becomes a hinderance rather than a help.

Cecil B DeMille has made it impossible for me to read the passage of crossing the sea on dry land and most memorably, of Moses raising his arm and the waters crashing back in over the Egyptians without running his movie in my mind’s eye.  But in the words here, there’s a definite tinge of God’s creative power that we see in Genesis 1 and also in the Psalms: “He made the sea dry ground, and the waters were split apart.” (14:22)

Arriving at the other side of this sea (which I agree with scholars who assert this is not the Red Sea, but the much shallower Sea of Reeds in the same area), Moses again stretches out the famous staff—”and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth” (27)—and probably still struggling to get their chariot wheels out of the mud, the Egyptians drown.

Here, God is in the process of creating a nation, of transforming a complaining, ragtag crowd [recall “Was it for lack of graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the wilderness?” (14:13)] into a God-fearing nation that finally “gets it” about what God has been doing through Moses. This dramatic act of God—to whom the authors are repeatedly careful to give all the credit— has a profound impact on the Israelites as they look across and see the bodies of their enemies: “So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.” (14:31). At last! At least for the moment, anyway, Moses has their complete attention and more important, their complete loyalty.

As is so often the case, especially in the Psalms, the act that follows rescue is worship, and “Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord” (15:1). “This song” is what we know as the Song of Moses, and it is as beautiful and emotionally meaningful as any psalm as it praises God and recounts in verse what God has just done for them:
The Lord is my strength and my might,
       and he has become my salvation;
     this is my God, and I will praise him,
        my father’s God, and I will exalt him.” (15:2)

The same story we have just read in narrative is now retold in verse, ending on the glorious note: “The Lord will reign forever and ever.” (18)

The important reality here is that at long last, all Israel gives credit for its rescue to God. And just to make sure that we get the message, the authors again remind us, “When the horses of Pharaoh with his chariots and his chariot drivers went into the sea, the Lord brought back the waters of the sea upon them; but the Israelites walked through the sea on dry ground.” (15:19)

In a lovely coda to the song, we hear a short but beautiful precis’ from Miriam, Aaron’s sister (and therefore Moses’s sister, too) that sums up this famous story in just a few words:

Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.” (21)

I presume this is the same Miriam who featured in Moses’s rescue as a baby so many years ago. In any event it is warmly satisfying that this story of war, blood and guts ends on a soft feminine note that gives God all the credit.

Matthew 22:15–22: The Pharisees accelerate their efforts to demonstrate to the crowds that Jesus is a fraud and therefore he can be taken and done away with. So they finally arrive at what I’m sure they thought was the perfect trap.

If they couldn’t get him on Jewish theology, then they would expose Jesus as a traitor to Rome. We can see the Cheshire cat smiles on their faces as the use false praise—“Teacher, we know that you are sincere…” (16) —the Pharisees smugly ask , “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” (17)

Jesus has them figured out long before they even pose the question. He famously asks for a Roman coin, and asks the Pharisees whose head is on it. When they answer, “Caesar’s,” he responds with his famous dictum: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (21).

The Pharisees, for the moment, anyway, “When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.” (22)

The Bible is chockablock with warnings against the smooth words of those who would do evil, and we have no finer example than the Pharisee’s oily words we read here.  As Matthew makes clear,  Jesus, “aware of their malice,” is not fooled.  But how many people have been taken in by unctuous televangelists  pretending to speak for Jesus, but whose hearts have indeed already turned to deceit?

Also, what are we to do with Jesus famous aphorism? It’s been pulled and pushed to all kinds of dubious ends over the years. The problem seems to be that different people have different definitions of just who Caesar and God are. For me, though, it is the perfect definition of the boundary between this earth and the Kingdom of God. And I for one straddle that boundary in constant unresolved tension.

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