Psalm 44:1–9; Exodus 38; Matthew 27:45–56

Originally published 4/2/2016. Revised and updated 4/3/2018:

Psalm 44:1–9: The first person plural pronouns that open the psalm indicate this is a “group supplication” that suggests the nation has suffered a defeat in battle. They are recalling how God assisted in past victories of Israel, probably the original conquering of Canaan:
God, with our own ears we have heard,
our fathers recounted to us
a deed that You did in their days,
in days of yore.
 (2)

In fact they give God complete credit for that previous victory:
You, Your hand dispossessed nations—and You planted them [Israel].
You smashed peoples [Canaanites] and sent them away.
 (3)

Our poet continues on the theme of how it is God who brings victory and the people and/or the army are only the means by which victory is accomplished:
For not by sword they took hold of the land,
and it was not their right arm that made them victorious
 but Your right hand and Your arm,
and the light of Your face when You favored them.” (4)

In short, Canaan was conquered because God—as he had promised—was on Israel’s side.  The poet then moves on to point out how the present nation/army can conquer the present enemy of God would be on their side now if they but acknowledge God as their true leader:
You are my king, O God.
Ordain the victories of Jacob [Israel].
 (5)

Then we encounter the uncomfortable implications of human war conflated with God:
Through You we gore our foes,
through Your name we trample those against us.
 (6)

This verse makes it clear to me anyway that wishing God’s assistance in battle exposes a side of God that I’d rather not think about. Does God really help armies eviscerate their foes. It seems an outright contradiction to our mage of a loving God. But perhaps we need to be reminded that God possess many qualities. Or is this psalm just completely off base in asking God to gore one’s enemies? I think when we examine the words more closely, that is not what the psalmist is saying at all.  When we say “God is on our side,” we are in effect saying that God is assisting us in our quest for victory. “Nice to have you along with us, God, now please deliver exactly that victory we have in mind.”  Rather, here, whatever victory that has been achieved has been done though human beings acting as God’s agents. Our poet emphasizes that it is neither he nor his tools of war that accomplish victory, but God himself who receives the all the credit:
For not in my bow do I trust,
and my sword will not make me victorious. 
(7)

The deep faith of the psalmist—and we presume the entire army— is what ultimately will lead them to victory:
God we praise all day long,
and Your name we acclaim for all time.
 (9)

The lesson seems clear: We need to place our trust in God, who then uses our gifts, skills, tools to carry out the task at hand.  When we fully trust  God, we are not asking God to be our aide de camp (to continue the military metaphor), but exactly the opposite.  Of course, as the psalmist acknowledges, that means not only admitting that we need to let go, but to actually relinquish our desire to control.  Easier said than done…

Exodus 38: Bezalel’s skills continue to be on display as he builds the large (7.5 feet square, 4.5 feet high) altar of burnt offering also built of acacia wood. He builds not only the altar itself, but all its tools and accessories as well: “all the utensils of the altar, the pots, the shovels, the basins, the forks, and the firepans: all its utensils he made of bronze.” (3) plus the grating—and moreover, it’s built for portability. But we should also give credit to the women who gave up their mirrors so he could fabricate “the basin of bronze with its stand of bronze.” (8)

Even though our authors persist in using the third person singular pronoun, “he,” indicating, I presume Bezalel, one has to assume that many talented hands were involved in the actual construction of the furnishings and the tabernacle itself. This is not dissimilar to today’s practice of giving the architect credit for the entire building as e.g. “Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall.” even though its design and construction involved the labor of thousands of people.

We have observed previously that our authors are sticklers for detail and nowhere is that more evident than in the final inventory: “These are the records of the tabernacle, the tabernacle of the covenant, which were drawn up at the commandment of Moses.” (21) Which goes on to account for the overseers of the project: Aaron’s son Ithamar, as well as Bezalel and Oholiab. Then the materials list:

• “gold from the offering, was twenty-nine talents and seven hundred thirty shekels, “(24)
•  “silver from those of the congregation who were counted was one hundred talents and one thousand seven hundred seventy-five shekels.” (25) which came from the head tax on everyone “from twenty years old and upward, for six hundred three thousand, five hundred fifty men.” (27)
• “The bronze that was contributed was seventy talents, and two thousand four hundred shekels.” (29)

So why all this detail, which we will encounter later in the OT when it comes to building Solomon’s temple? I believe the detail lends historical authenticity to the fact that the tabernacle was doubtless a physical—and therefore a historical—reality. It is also a vivid demonstration of the idea that “God is in the details”— a theme that Jesus took up when he spoke of the lilies in the field and God knowing the number of hairs on our head. This makes God much more real, a God who operates in real space and real time. Which has implications for us today: God is assuredly not the dreamy abstraction we would prefer him to be. God cannot be pushed aside. He is real and he is here.

Matthew 27:45–56: Matthew’s Jesus utters only one sentence the entire time he hangs on the cross and that only moments before he dies: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (46) This is the first line of Psalm 22, and yet another demonstration of how Matthew connects Jesus to the fulfillment of Scripture.

Matthew’s description of the crucifixion is dark, but more importantly, he shows how the crucifixion of Jesus was an earth-shattering event which changed the course of history: “At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split.” (51)

But then he writes what I believe to be the most mysterious sentence surrounding the events of Jesus’ death: “The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.” (52, 53) OK, but if this actually happened why do none of the other Gospel writers describe what has to be a mysteriously profound event? Or did Matthew just make this up as further demonstration of the profundity of what just happened: an event so enormous that not only was earth itself affected, but under the earth and in heaven as well? 

Matthew does not record the reactions of the Jews to these extraordinary events.  Only the Roman centurion speaks, “(54)   And it is the realization of the Gentile soldier that makes Matthew’s key point about the crucifixion—and a point that has been made many time in the Hebrew scriptures, but Jews of Jesus’ time tended to forget:.  God is not the exclusive domain of the Jews; God, through Jesus Christ, is for every man and woman in creation.  The old order has passed away; the new order has begun.  Right here on Good Friday.  Which is one more reason why Sunday cannot really be celebrated without Friday in mind.

Finally, in a passage that is often overlooked on Good Friday, Matthew tells us, “ Many women were also there, looking on from a distance; they had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him.” (55) Notice the all-important phrase, they “had provided for him.” It is the women who have sustained Jesus’ physical needs throughout his ministry up to the point of his betrayal. And as we will learn, it is the women who will first learn the news of the Resurrection.  If we needed a clearer message of the important role of women in Jesus’ life and therefore their co-equal role in the life church, it is surely here. Alas, patriarchy has lived on too long in the church.

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