Psalm 60; Numbers 1:17-54; Mark 9:30-37

Originally published 5/8/2014. Revised and updated 5/8/2018

Psalm 60 Yet another psalm beginning with an angry shout at God, although it’s clear that one way or another, David and his army have gone against God’s will. An earthquake is a direct result of God’s anger:
God, You have abandoned us, breached us.
You were incensed—restore us to life!
You made the land quake, You cracked it.
Heal its shards, for it has toppled. (3, 4)

The psalmist speaks ironically, telling God, “You once gave to those who fear You /a banner for rallying because of the truth.” (6)  ‘Where are you now, God?’ is the unstated question  as our poet asks in a direct supplication, reminding God that they were once his friends:
So that Your friends be set free,
rescue with Your right hand and answer us. (7)

He continues in this theme of a broken relationship, reminding God by speaking in his voice that he once blessed all of Israel. He takes an original route, naming Israel’s geographical components from north to south, ending in Judah, where Jerusalem is:
God once spoke in His holiness:
“Let Me exult and share out Shechem,
and the valley of Sukkoth I shall measure.
Mine is Gilead and Mine Manasseh,
and Ephraim My foremost stronghold,
Judah My scepter. (8, 9)

Still speaking in God’s voice, he continues the geographic angle stating how God despises the lands and tribes surrounding Israel:
Moab is My washbasin,
upon Edom I fling My sandal,
over Philistia I shout exultant. (10)

In any event, God seems to have disappeared as the poet, speaking again in David’s voice, asks plaintively:
Have You not, O God, abandoned us?
You do not sally forth, god, with our armies. (12)

Regardless of their complaint and God’s apparent silence, our psalmist acknowledges that God’s help remains the only way in which victory will come:
Give us help against the foe
when rescue by man is in vain. (13)

Despite the anger and frustration, this  psalm ends where they always do: praising God and assured that “Through God we shall gather strength, and He will stamp out our foes.” (14)

Once again, no matter how angry at or abandoned we feel we have the absolute freedom  to raise our fist and shout to God. And even though we may be angry, with David we know that our faith— indeed our assurance—in God’s power and righteousness remains unquenched.

 Numbers 1:17-54  True to its title, the numbers of adult men of each tribe “who went out in the army of Israel” (33, 37, 43…)  are listed and recorded in the census.  These are not trivial numbers: the tribe of Reuben: 46,500; the tribe of Simeon: 59,300; the tribe of Gad 45,650 and so on through all twelve tribes, totaling a fairly astounding 603,550 men in the Army.  A number strikingly close to the current size of the Israeli military (629,150 per Wikipedia). 

This census does not include women and children, so the actual population was certainly two to three times the size of the army.  So, more than a million people were out wandering in the desert.  No wonder Moses had management troubles!  And no wonder that surrounding tribes were pretty nervous about all those folks out there wandering around and looking for a homeland.

The Levites are excluded from the census, which is another way of saying they were not eligible to be drafted into the army.  This is a long tradition; as I recall, clergy were not drafted into the US military when the draft was in force.

The Levites have other duties: setting up and taking down the Tabernacle.  And only the Levites can do that since a “stranger,” i.e. a layperson, who “who draws near shall be put to death.” (51).

 Mark 9:30-37  Jesus seem to have reached an explanatory impasse with his disciples.  He now tells all his disciples what he told Peter, James and John as they came down from the Mount of Transfiguration: The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” (31)  And once again, “they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.” (32).

So, why were they afraid to ask him?  Were they afraid that Jesus would become angry with them? That’s not unreasonable since Jesus has already shown his frustration in various ways, notably telling Peter, “Get behind me Satan.” (8:33) and more recently, “How much longer must I put up with you?” (9:19)

Or, perhaps they were afraid of his answer.  Jesus has said repeatedly that the Son of Man must die. They are not confused that Jesus must be referring to himself.  The disciples were operating in the human frame of reference and Jesus spoke in the frame of the Kingdom of God. The disciples felt they were riding a cresting wave that would result in a new order and a politically restored Jerusalem.  Why burst that bubble? The disciples are just as human as we. They wanted to dwell in mistaken belief as over against confronting the harsh truth. I know I’ve certainly operated that way throughout my life.

In our human tendency to avoid hard truths, some questions simply should not be followed up on, and this was one of them. Besides, what was that three day business all about?  No one could even imagine something as unprecedented as a resurrection.

So the disciples’ follow-up questions remain unasked and unanswered. Besides, it was much more fun to speculate about who was going to be “the greatest” when this earthly kingdom was established.  In Jesus’ question, What were you arguing about on the way?” (33) and the disciples’ silence, we can see the their abashed and embarrassed faces. Never one to waste a teaching moment, Jesus describes the nature of servant leadership: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”  (37)

How like the disciples we are! Rank and position inevitably outweigh servanthood in our minds.  But true leadership is not about “who shall be the greatest;” it is about serving those whom they lead. Would that politicians understood this reality.

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