Psalm 39:7-14; Exodus 31:12-32:29; Matthew 26:36-46

Originally published 3/26/2016. Revised and updated 3/27/2018

Psalm 39:7-14: Our philosophical poet continues to echo his despair at the brevity of life, similar to Qoheleth, the author of Ecclesiastes:
In but a shadow a man goes about.
Mere breath he murmurs—he stores
and knows not who will gather
.” (7)

Nevertheless, he is not so resigned as to abandon his desire for God to rescue from the derision of his enemies:
And now, what I expect, O Master,
my hope is in You.
From all my sins save me.
Make me not the scoundrel’s scorn.
” (8, 9)

The theological crux of this section of the psalm is here:
I was mute, my mouth did not open,
for it is You who acted. (10)

It is God who acts. The psalmist knows that he has far less control over his fate, and above all, he knows that he cannot force God to act. God will determine where and when he will act in response to our fevered prayers.

Even though God as acted on his behalf, our poet does not take a very optimistic view of God’s benevolence. Rather, he envisions a punishing God:
Take away from me Your scourge,
from the blow of Your hand I perish.
” (11)

In fact, we see the arbitrary and even destructive God such as the God that Job encountered—a God, who from our earthbound point of view possesses the means to punish rather than rescue. God is eternal; it is we who are unworthy and ephemeral:
In rebuke for a crime You chastise a man,
melt like the moth his treasure.
Mere breath all humankind.” (12)

But under these existential cries there lives the man of faith, who despite his manifold sins still wants to believe God will still hear his weeping cries:
Hear my prayer, O Lord,
to my cry hearken,
to my tears be not deaf.
” (13a)

Like the psalmist we want nothing more that to walk alongside God through life’s journey:
For I am a sojourner with Your,
a new settle like all my fathers
. (13b)

But then we hear his final, closing sigh. God is far too great for him—and for us. God extracts too much from us and we can only cry in exhaustion,
Look away from me, that I may catch my breath
before I depart and am not.
” (14).

This is a man who honestly admits that a relationship with God is a fraught thing. To which I can only write, Amen.

This psalm is a long distance from the peaceful assurance of the 23rd Psalm. One wonders if this psalm is a reflection on Job—or perhaps it is the launching point for the poet who wrote the book of Job. The God of this psalm is neither our lover nor our “daddy.” This God is distant, aloof, unhearing even to those who believe deeply. In the face of all that is awry in the world, he seems to be a God perfect for the existential angst of the 21st century. A

Exodus 31:12-32:29: Moses’ has been up on the mountain for forty days, listening patiently to God as he received instruction after instruction regarding laws, sacrifices, design and construction of the Tabernacle and the priestly vestments, anointing and consecrating priests, and hearing which men will be in charge of building and assembling all this. God arrives at the end of this 40-day seminar by enunciating the law of the Sabbath: “You shall keep the sabbath, because it is holy for you; everyone who profanes it shall be put to death; whoever does any work on it shall be cut off from among the people.” (31:14) Inasmuch as this is the last instruction given to Moses, we naturally conclude that the issue of worshipping God is the most important responsibility of all.

One hopes that Moses took good notes about all these instructions because now that God has completed these complicated instructions, he hands Moses the “two tablets of the covenant, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God.” (31:18), which we believe to be only the Decalogue.

For Moses, this mountaintop experience alone with God has doubtless been awe-inspiring, invigorating, and a wonderful time alone away from all those Israelites who were constantly bothering him.

Unfortunately, things down on at the foot of Sinai have not been going all that well. The people have grown restless and impatient. Poor Aaron is now the object of their complaining as they conclude, “as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” (32:1) Aaron, lacking the fortitude of his brother to stand against the mob, tells the people to bring him all the “gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” (32:2)

The infamous golden calf is constructed, which mainly serves as an excuse for the entire nation to have a bacchanal. God instructs Moses to “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely.” (32:7) We get a clear glimpse of the anger of the OT God, who much more like the God of the Psalm above—definitely not the loving God we prefer to imagine: I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them.” (9). Moses implores God to relent, asking God  to remember his original promise, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’” (13)

And then in one of the more remarkable passages about God, “the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.” (14) We don’t often think about God ‘changing his mind,’ what with our idea that an omnipotent God would always make the correct decision. 

Having persuaded God to change his mind, Moses comes down off the mountain, stone tablets in hand, and witnesses the chaos. He throws the tablets down, breaking them, which is certainly a dramatic symbol of how Israel has broken its side of the Covenant. Confronting Aaron, Moses asks, ““What did this people do to you that you have brought so great a sin upon them?” (21) Aaron proceeds to give perhaps the lamest excuse in the Bible, telling Moses that the people gave him the gold and “I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!” (32:24). I only wish the authors had recorded Moses’ reaction to this absurdity.

Moses asks for volunteers to bring order out of chaos and we can hear him shouting,“Who is on the Lord’s side? Come to me!” The sons of Levi answer Moses’ call for “each of you kill your brother, your friend, and your neighbor.’” (32:27) and promptly slay 3000 of their brothers, friends, and neighbors. For their efforts, Moses tells them,“Today you have ordained yourselves for the service of the Lord, each one at the cost of a son or a brother, and so have brought a blessing on yourselves this day.” (29) Which seems almost like a priestly consecration itself.

This is simply one of those places where all I can do is shake my head in puzzlement as to the nature of this seemingly immature God who flares up in anger but whose mind can be swayed by a smooth-talking Moses. But one thing is for sure: It’s the Levites who wrote this history. Our authors uses this story to establish the claim for the priesthood. Not only are they religious, they also cast out the apostate and restore order—which we see rear its head in Jesus’ time as the Levitical religious leaders conspire to kill Jesus.

Matthew 26:36-46: Is this another Moravian coincidence or did they plan it this way? We read of Jesus’ agony in Gethsemane. And there is no doubt in my mind that he would have been much more likely to pray in the rather bleak, almost doubting tone of Psalm 39, which he surely knew as well as Psalm 23.

I think it is in Gethsemane where we see Jesus at his most human and vulnerable: “and began to be grieved and agitated,” (26:37b).  In this state there is only one thing—and one thing only—that Jesus can do: pray.  He prays with the same desperation we read in today’s psalm, asking God to relent from the punishment about to be meted out—the punishment we each deserve.  

While he is never in doubt as to God’s nature or the fact that God is listening to him, he nevertheless prays in what I believe to be honest desperation, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” (39). Here, only in this Gospel, Jesus prays them returns to find the disciples sleeping. He does not seem disturbed by their slumber, but goes back two more times to pray exactly the same prayer.

I’m struck that Jesus prays the same prayer three times. Is it an echo of the three temptations of Satan at the beginning of his ministry? Is it a signal to us that when we are in desperate straits we can pray the same prayer over and over?

If nothing else, it is a clear sign that Jesus was fully human and that he fully comprehended the dark and painful road he was about to follow. In this way, the prayer is a form of preparation, which is exactly the point he makes as he wakes his slumbering disciples, “See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going.” (45, 46) We have heard only Jesus’ side of his prayer. Did God answer him? We’ll never know. But this we do know: having prayed he is ready to face the trials of the darkest day in history. Even unanswered prayer is essential preparation for the journey to come.

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