Psalm 68:28–36; Numbers 13:17–33; Mark 13:28–37

I am now writing from the porch of our house in Massachusetts.

Originally published 5/24/2016. Revised and updated 5/24/2018

Psalm 68:28–36: Our psalmist descends in levels of  abstraction from “Israel” to name several tribes:
There little Benjamin holds sway over them,
Judah’s princes in their raiment,
Zebulon’s princes, Napthali’s princes.
” (28)

Benjamin, Zebulon, and Napthali are the tribes mentioned in Judges 5 as the the ones that joined the battle against the Canaanites and their participation may be why they’re mentioned here. Judah is the house of David, Solomon and the subsequent kings of the south, so that’s probably why it’s included too.

In any event they are part of ceremonial procession to the temple, thanking God for bringing them victory,
Ordain, O God, Your strength,
strength, O God, that You showed for us
. (29)

The conquered nations also bring tribute to victorious Israel and therefore are required to do obeisance to Israel’s God:
To You the kings [of other nations] bring gifts. (30b)

The first nation mentioned is shown symbolically as “the beast of the marsh,/…cringing with offerings of silver,” (31) Which we presume to be Egypt. The following verse clarifies this:
Let notables come from Egypt,
Cush raise its hands to God.
” (32)

Now that all the nations are gathered, they worship in unison in a prophetic vision of every nation worshipping God as our psalmist reminds us that God is the God of all nations and the God whom all nations must must acknowledge:
Kingdoms of earth, sing to God,
hymn to the Master.
To the Rider in the utmost heavens of yore.
Look, He makes His voice ring, the voice of strength
. (33, 34).

We assume God’s ringing voice is heard as thunder. Needless to say, as far as our psalmist is concerned, Israel is certainly the nation that is primus inter pares here:
Acclaim strength to God,
over Israel is His pride
and His strength in the skies.
” (35)

And it is Israel that concludes this worship—and this psalm—as it circles back to acknowledging the favor God has bestowed on Israel:
Awesome, O God, from Your sanctuaries!
Israel’s God—He gives strength and might to His people.
Blessed is God.
” (36)

As a theocracy, Israel’s every victory becomes God’s victory. The question for me is, have I acknowledged and worshipped God in the victories he has brought to my own life?

Numbers 13:17–33: Moses gives the twelve leaders, who he now acknowledges as spies, some very specific instructions when they arrive in Canaan. He instructs them to evaluate the land, the people and the cities:  “see what the land is like, and whether the people who live in it are strong or weak, whether they are few or many, and whether the land they live in is good or bad, and whether the towns that they live in are unwalled or fortified.” (18, 19)

This being Numbers, our authors report every detail, noting that the spies covered Canaan quite thoroughly: “they went up and spied out the land from the wilderness of Zin to Rehob, near Lebo-hamath. They went up into the Negeb, and came to Hebron; and Ahiman, Sheshai, and Talmai, the Anakites, were there.” (21, 22) When they arrive at the “Wadi Eshcol, [they] cut down from there a branch with a single cluster of grapes, and they carried it on a pole between two of them. They also brought some pomegranates and figs.” (23). In other words they are bringing evidence that Canaan is truly the promised land, infinitely  better than the wilderness in which the Israelites are presently camped.

Which is exactly what the spies report back to Moses: “[Canaan] flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit.” (27) referring to the grapes on the pole. However, the spies also report that there is a big problem and eleven of them give the majority opinion: “the people who live in the land are strong, and the towns are fortified and very large; and besides, we saw the descendants of Anak there.” (28) They go on to state that every corner of Canaan is already occupied by someone: “the Amalekites live in the land of the Negeb; the Hittites, the Jebusites, and the Amorites live in the hill country; and the Canaanites live by the sea, and along the Jordan.” (29)

Caleb gives the minority report, and “quieted the people before Moses, and said, “Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it.” (30). But the other eleven are adamant that “We are not able to go up against this people, for they are stronger than we.” (31) And to prove their point: “we saw the Nephilim (the Anakites come from the Nephilim); and to ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.” (33) These would be the giants who we will meet as the Philistines that Saul and David confront many years hence.

Thus it ever is. Only Caleb is willing to risk fighting in Canaan, but his voice is drowned out by eleven other [probably louder] voices. Why is Caleb willing to risk all? Because I presume he understands that Israel has God on its side and God will aid Israel, just as he has so far on this journey out of Egypt. But the other eleven look only at their worldly strength, which pales in comparison to the occupants of Canaan.

For me, this passage is all about understanding exactly what we confront, but also trusting God that we can take the risk and go for it.

Mark 13:28–37: The lesson of the fig is Jesus’ final apocalyptic pronouncement:  From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.” (28) And he proceeds to put what has turned out to be a very controversial timeframe on when these events will occur: “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” (30)

If we go with the conventional interpretation that Jesus is referring to the coming destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by Titus in CE70, this statement makes sense. We also need to remember that this gospel was written after CE70, so Mark may simply be making Jesus appear to be prophetic about an event that has already occurred.

However, at the same time Jesus may be referring to the end of history, as he seems to indicate in his next statement: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” (31) To me, this means that Jesus and his words transcend history. And of course it is John the gospel writer who picks up on this theme of Jesus’ words, expanding the idea to Jesus being the eternal Word himself.

Jesus, being the psychological master that he is, doesn’t just predict the end of the ages and stop. Rather, he gives very clear instructions as to what his disciples—and all of us—are supposed to do in the meantime: “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.” (33) We are like the slaves of the household and we are to keep working in the Kingdom while the Master is away: “each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch.” (34) As usual, Jesus is blunt: “Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn.” (35)

In fact I think this is Jesus’ next-to-greatest commandment: that we keep on working and remain awake and alert for the end of history—and as we recite in the Creeds, that Jesus will come again. But Jesus is equally clear about what we should be doing in the meantime: don’t waste our time speculating about the end of history.

Despite Jesus’ clear instructions, there’s a entire cottage industry out there that specializes in reading Jesus’ Olivet discourse and the symbols of Revelation in a never-ending attempt to predict his return. While Jesus’ words may be obscure about when history will end, he is extremely clear about what we’re supposed to be doing in the meantime: stay alert and to employ the over-used Britishism: Keep calm and carry on.

 

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