Psalm 72:1–11; Numbers 22:7–41; Mark 15:33–47

Originally published 6/3/2016. Revised and updated 6/4/2018

Psalm 72:1–11: This magisterial psalm is dedicated to the most magisterial of Israel’s kings, Solomon. It opens with a wish for God to bless the king with the greatest of all kingly responsibilities—judgement and greatest of all kingly qualities—righteousness:
God, grant Your judgements to the king
and Your righteousness to the the king’s son.
 (1)

Like God himself, these are the king’s first duties:
May he judge Your people righteously
and Your lowly ones justice.
 (2)

As always, it is the lowly poor who are most deserving of fair judgement, because in reality it is they who doubtless receive it least.

Our psalmist hammers home this crucial point, making it clear that this is Solomon’s greatest and most solemn duty, this plea for justice for the lowly is repeated with even greater intensity two verses later:
May he bring justice to the lowly of the people,
     may he rescue the sons of the needy
      and crush the oppressor.” (4)

Notice that the issue is not crushing the king’s personal enemies as we read in so many other psalms, but it is to “crush the oppressor,” the enemy of all the people, buts especially the poor and downtrodden. Of course the ugly irony here is that too often in Israel’s checkered history that it was the king himself who became the oppressor.

Turning to the king himself, our poet wishes Solomon kingly longevity using what has become over-used hyperbole:
May they fear you as long as the sun
and as long as the moon, generations untold.
 (5)

The grandeur of this psalm is expressed through its similes and metaphors. The first is comparing the king to the beneficence of nature: “May he come down like rain on new-mown grass,/ like showers that moisten the earth.” (6).

This is followed by the desire that this beneficence at the top propagates and affects the entire nation just as much as the king:
May the just man flourish in his days—
and abundant peace till till the moon is no more.
 (7)

This extravagant sweep for the king to become almost god-like is then expressed in geographic metaphor, first from east to west: “And may he hold sway from sea to sea” (8a)

And then all the way northeast to the Euphrates and beyond: “from the River to the ends of the earth,” (8b). Then to the south, “Before him may the desert-folk kneel,/ and his enemies lick the dust.” (9)  Then to the west along the Mediterranean, including its islands: “May kings of Tarshish and the islands bring tribute.” (10a) Then swinging south again, “may kings of Sheba and Siba bow to him,/ offer vassal gifts.”  (10b)

Finally, to make sure no king or tribal leader was left out of this catalog of those showing obeisance to Solomon, our poet ends this section with a grand sweep of inclusivity: “And may all kings bow to him,/ all nations serve him.” (11)

Numbers 22:7–41: The “elders of Moab and the elders of Midian departed with the fees for divination in their hand; and they came to Balaam,” (7) who is the person they want to contract with to curse Israel. Balaam wisely stalls them, inviting them to “Stay here tonight, and I will bring back word to you, just as theLord speaks to me.” (8) Balaam does not hesitate to tell them that he has a direct line to God. Such divination is forbidden within Israel, but our authors are telling us (1) it was widely used by other tribes and nations, and (2) rather than God disapproving of it; he apparnetly participates in this sort of prophecy.

God is crystal clear to Balaam:“You shall not go with them; you shall not curse the people, for they are blessed.” (12) Balaam tells the Moabite representatives to go home because “the Lord has refused to let me go with you.” (14) King Balak tries again, this time sending a more impressive entourage to Balaam. The seer still hesitates, “Although Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not go beyond the command of the Lord my God, to do less or more.” (18) This time, God comes to Balaam, tells him to go back to King Balak, but to carefully follow God’s instructions. So Balaam eventually goes with Balak’s officials, heading back to Moab.

Then in what appears to be a puzzling change of mind of God’s part, “God’s anger was kindled [against Balaam] because he was going, and the angel of the Lord took his stand in the road as his adversary.” (22). Balaam’s donkey sees the angel and turns off the road. However, Balaam apparently does not see the angel and strikes the donkey for his stubbornness. By the third time it sees the angel blocking its path, the donkey simply lays down in the middle of the road. Balaam angrily strikes the donkey again. Then “the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey, and it said to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” (28)

In perhaps the most amazing part of this story, Balaam replies to the donkey as calmly if he and the donkey have had lots of previous conversations, “Because you have made a fool of me! I wish I had a sword in my hand! I would kill you right now!” (29) Finally, Balaam sees the angel, who asks him, “Why have you struck your donkey these three times?” (32). The angel tells Balaam he could have easily killed him, but has shown mercy. Rather than returning home, the angel instructs Balaam to “Go with the men; but speak only what I tell you to speak.” (35)

For me, this bizarre story of a talking donkey is probably apocryphal, but it carries a crucially important message. God asks for obedience and his demands can come from any source at any time. At another level, Balaam and the donkey are a metaphor for God’s relationship with Israel, which makes the symbolism of the stubborn donkey feel highly appropriate.

Mark 15:33–47: In what Mark clearly describes as a portentous sign, the earth becomes dark at noon—symbolic of the life slipping away from Jesus. Three hours later, Jesus recites the opening line of Psalm 22 in Aramaic. Bystanders mistakenly think Jesus is calling for Elijah, which suggests to me that people didn’t understand what Jesus was saying in death as much as they misunderstood what he was saying in life. One final agonizing scream and Jesus dies. Simultaneously, Mark reports, “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.” (38) For Mark this event signifies the conclusion of the Old Covenant between God and the Jews. The Holy of Holies is exposed to the view every Jew, signifying, I think, that every Jew could now approach God through Jesus. The old temple order is no more. Except that the temple authorities certainly weren’t aware of that yet.

We must never forget that Mark is the master of juxtaposition and the very next sentence is the centurion’s statement,“Truly this man was God’s Son!” (39) which signifies to me that Jesus is now available to every Gentile as well as every Jew. In two sentences, Mark tells us the old order is finished and that a brand new thread of history has begun with Jesus is the center of the Jewish and Gentile universe.

Mark identifies two women standing off in the distance, “Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome.” (40) All the men, notably the disciples, seem to be absent. An observation that is reenforced by Mark’s statement that “there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.”  (41) Which forces me to ask, if Mark tells us that the women were present at this crucial moment, but the men apparently absent, why have women been subjugated in the church in the ensuing 2000 years? I suppose we have the strongly-opinionated apostle Paul to thank for that.

Mark introduces us to “Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God, [who] went boldly to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.” (43) We will forever wonder that if Joseph of A was an ally of Jesus, who was willing to go “boldly” to Pilate, why does he only appear on the scene after Jesus’ death? Was he absent when the Sanhedrin tried Jesus? Or like the centurion, did he only really “get” who Jesus was at the moment Jesus died? For me, that makes Joseph representative of all of us. We tend to not understand who Jesus really is until it is virtually too late.

A small detail I’d not noticed before: “Pilate wondered if he were already dead; and summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he had been dead for some time. When he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the body to Joseph.” (44, 45) We presume this is the same centurion whose life has doubtless been transformed when he saw Jesus die. 

And another detail: “Joseph bought a linen cloth, and taking down the body, wrapped it in the linen cloth, and laid it in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock.” (46) This confirms for me that Jesus truly died naked and alone seemingly forsaken by everyone. But Joseph shows respect and mercy, bringing dignity to the dead body of Jesus at this dark, dark moment.

With only the slightest hint that something may be afoot, Mark notes that “Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where the body was laid.” (47) The story that seems to  its participants to have concluded is indeed not yet over.

 

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