Psalm 45:1–10; Exodus 40:24–Leviticus 1:17; Mark 1:1–8

Originally published 4/6/2016. Revised and updated 4/6/2018:

Psalm 45:1–9: Alter informs us that this is the only Psalm designated “as a psalm of love.” It is also the only psalm where the poet gives us a literary selfie, referring to himself with an entire verse of introduction:
My heart is astir with a goodly word.
I speak what I’ve made to the king.
My tongue is the pen of a rapid scribe.
” (2)

This verse informs us that he was a poet in the royal court. And as we read on, this psalm becomes a grand celebration of the king to whom the poet is speaking. He opens his paean with words of almost treacly flattery:
You are the loveliest of the sons of man,
grace flows form your lips.
” (3a)

And in a statement of questionable theology, he asserts that since the king is love;y and graceful, “Therefore has God blessed you forever.” (3b) However, we probably shouldn’t be too hard on our poet since poetic flattery doubtless got him this position as court poet in the first place.

The poem moves quickly to the essential quality of a  king in that region at that time: military prowess and the national military might that he heads:
Gird your sword on your thigh, O warrior,
your glory and your grandeur.
” (4).

But the king also represents God’s justice carried out on earth as our poet lists three essential qualities of a king:
And in your grandeur pass onward,
mount on a word of truth, humility, and justice.
” (5a)

I wonder which king the psalmist is referring to? Solomon seems a likely candidate, although I’m not sure he would have cottoned to this over-the-top obsequiousness that characterizes this section of the psalm. In any event, the king is the central symbol of national military might projected against Israel’s enemies:
and let your right hand shoot forth terrors,
your sharpened arrows—
peoples fall beneath you—
into the heart of the king’s enemies.
” (5b, 6)

There was by definition a special relationship between God and king, specifically that the king is God’s anointed agent mirroring God’s qualities on earth:
Your throne of God is forevermore.
A scepter of right, your kingship’s scepter.
You loved justice and hated evil.
Therefore did God anoint you with oil of joy over your fellows.
” (7,8)

I’m not sure why the Moravians ended the reading here, but this final verse tells us that all the kingly qualification matters are out of the way. The tone of the poem shifts to a more romantic image in anticipation of the theme of the latter half of this psalm:
Myrrh and aloes and cassia/ all your garments
From ivory palaces/ lutes have gladdened you.
” (9)

Exodus 40:24–Leviticus 1:17: It is the Moravian habit to ignore the boundary point between one book’s end the other’s beginning, and today is no exception. Especially since there is no break in the action.

The tabernacle is complete and erected. Each item of furnishing—lampstand, lamps, the golden altar with its fragrant incense, the altar of burnt offering, the basin—are carefully put into place as the authors remind us, after each item: “as the Lord had commanded Moses.” (40: 25, 27,29,32)  In short, the tabernacle is now ready to establish the connection between God and Israel via the priests: Aaron and his sons. The final tent walls are erected and at last, “Moses finished the work.

God approves and “Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.” (34) But oddly enough after all that work. “Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled upon it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.” (35) The cloud—which is the physical manifestation of the glory of God—is a signaling device. “Whenever the cloud was taken up from the tabernacle, the Israelites would set out on each stage of their journey.” (40:36) and likewise, “if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not set out until the day that it was taken up.” (40:37) In any event, I think there is great significance here that God has come down from his remote perch on Mt. Sinai to dwell amongst the people. God has moved from distance abstraction to daily presence.

This remarkable book ends as the relationship between God and Israel has now been firmly and quite tangibly established: “For the cloud of the Lord was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in the cloud by night, before the eyes of all the house of Israel at each stage of their journey.” (40:38)

Now that the tabernacle is complete, it becomes the meeting place between God and Moses as the book of Leviticus opens with God giving instructions to Moses regarding exactly what is to go on inside the tabernacle. As in Exodus, Moses is the designated intermediary between God and the people.

It’s worth noting, I think, that ehe authors of the Torah leave Israel with all eyes on God as they suspend the story of the journey in the wilderness with the interregnum that is the book of Leviticus, which is basically unencumbered by any narrative detail at all.  Now ensconced in the Tabernacle, God once again speaks to Moses, ” saying, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them…” (Lev 1:2)  And there follows the almost endless detail of precisely how the sacrifices are to be made.

As Leviticus opens, God gets right to issuing detailed instructions on the burnt offering sacrifices involving livestock: bulls, sheeps, goats. The immutable requirements are: it must be from the herd, not a random animal found wandering alone. It shall be “a male without blemish; you shall bring it to the entrance of the tent of meeting, for acceptance in your behalf before the Lord.” (Lev 1:3) Instructions regarding sprinkling of blood and butchering and what parts are burnt and what other parts are washed follow.

Birds—turtledoves and pigeons—also qualify as burnt offerings and the priests are given the rathe unpleasant duty [to me anyway] of twisting off its head. The body is then eviserated and its crop is thrown into the ash heap as the priest “shall tear it open by its wings without severing it.” (1:17)

Ugh.

This chapter ends on a tantalizing sensory note.  The sacrifices are “a fire offering, a fragrant odor to the LORD.” (1:17).  We know God sees and hears us, but here we are reminded that God possesses all the senses we do. And that what we do for God includes acts that God not only sees and hears, but that they also should be “a fragrant odor to the Lord.”

Mark 1:1–8: We arrive at the beginning of the second gospel. Mark’s style is quite different than Matthew’s. His prose is usually terse, almost staccato. If Matthew is a Victorian novel, Mark is a newspaper. Pretty much just the facts without much editorial elaboration. This terseness is one reason why Mark is seen by many scholars as the earliest of the gospels. Some scholars have opined that the gospel is the transcription of an interview by the historical Mark of a much older Peter.

If we continue with the newspaper metaphor, verse one is the headline: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” But Mark’s beginning is certainly not Matthew’s beginning as Mark omits genealogies and the nativity stories. For John, Jesus’ birth or his theological connection to God and the Word is irrelevant.  This book is about what Jesus did and said.  And for Mark, that is evidence enough.

He opens his gospel message by citing Isaiah’s famous verses,

See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
    who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
    ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight,’ (2,3)

I think this verse operates at two levels. It establishes John the Baptist’s role, but I think more importantly, it establishes Mark’s role. He is also the messenger and he is going to tell us a story that will indeed prepare our way for a new life that will come from our hearing this story.

The first person to appear in this gospel is John the “baptizer.” Mark reels off John’s mission in a tightly distilled litany. First, his message: “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (4); Then his popularity: “And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” (5) Then his clothing: “camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist” and diet “he ate locusts and wild honey.” (6) These are the essentials. No more description is required.

Mark shows John the Baptist as fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. And a mere seven verses into the story, John is ready to remove himself from the stage because “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.” (7)   Unlike Matthew’s habit of citing the scriptural reference, Mark simply has John announce: “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (8)

For Mark, the details that matter are the ones that will impact his ability to convey Jesus’ acts and Jesus’ message.  Everything else is simply setting the scene.

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