Psalm 72:12–20; Numbers 23; Mark 16:1–13

Originally published 6/4/2016. Revised and updated 6/5/2018

Psalm 72:12–20:  The first half of this psalm celebrates the majesty and overarching power of King Solomon. In the second half, our psalmist comes down a level of abstraction and describes the reasons why the king deserves these encomia. Solomon may be great and mighty, but like God himself, he cares about the poor and oppressed and bringing justice to them:
For he saves the needy man pleading,
and the lowly who has none to help him.

In short, Solomon practices what God has been commanding all along: that those in power must be  righteous and work tirelessly to bring justice to those who cannot get it on their own: the poor, the widows and the orphans.

To make sure we get his point, the psalmist recapitulates that the king’s key duties are to protect the poor from the rapacious schemes of the wealthy and powerful:
He pities the poor and needy,
and the lives of the needy he rescues,
from scheming and outrage redeems them,
and their blood is dear in his sight.
 (13, 14)

Here we are some three millennia later and our current leaders speak of these noble truths, but do they take effective action? There’s no question that in the psalmist’s eyes Solomon acts rather than merely talking.

The reminder of the psalm expresses a wish that under the king’s effective leadership, the kingdom will prosper economically, which in this society is that it prospers agriculturally:
May there be an abundance of grain in the land,
on the mountaintops.

May his fruit rustle like Lebanon,
and may they sprout from the town like grass on the land. 

This image of never-ceasing fecundity also applies to the king himself:
May his name be forever.
As long as the sun may his name bear seed.
May all nations be blessed through him, call him happy. 

As we know, this wish on the part of the psalmist has indeed come true. Even today, Solomon is celebrated as the wisest of kings and leaders.

This is the end of the psalm proper. The final verses are a general benediction for the conclusion of this, the second book of Psalms—and a benediction that would be wonderful to hear at the end of worship:
Blessed is the Lord God, Israel’s God, performing wonders alone.
And blessed is His glory forever, and may His glory fill all the earth.
Amen and amen.

Numbers 23: Hewing to the word of God, Balaam tells king Balak, “Build me seven altars here, and prepare seven bulls and seven rams for me.” (1) Balaam, who seems to have the same direct access to God as Moses, goes and again speaks to God, “I have arranged the seven altars, and have offered a bull and a ram on each altar.” (4) God replies, “Return to Balak, and this is what you must say.” (5).

The words God has put in Balaam’s mouth is an oracle or song of blessing on Israel. The angry king shouts, “What have you done to me? I brought you to curse my enemies, but now you have done nothing but bless them.” (11) Balaam’s answer is succinct: “Must I not take care to say what the Lord puts into my mouth?” (12)—something to which Balak had already assented.

Balak, thinking that a different location will change the outcome, takes Balaam to “the field of Zophim, to the top of Pisgah.” (14) Another seven altars are built; another seven bulls and rams are sacrificed. Balak asks Balaam, “What has the Lord said?” (17). This time (the “second oracle”) pronounces an even more distinct blessing on Israel:
     “Look, a people rising up like a lioness,
        and rousing itself like a lion!
       It does not lie down until it has eaten the prey
        and drunk the blood of the slain.” (24)

An extremely frustrated Balak thinks the third time will be the charm and tells Balaam, “Come now, I will take you to another place; perhaps it will please God that you may curse them for me from there.” (27) We’ll see about that.

Balaam sets the standard for the prophets yet to come to Israel: they speak what God has put in their mouth. I think our authors are using Balaam’s example here to remind Israel that like Balak, they cannot force a desired outcome and expect God’s blessing. Since they are speaking for God, like Balaam they must say what God has told them. Prophets will not do or say what we want them to. Just as God will not necessarily respond or act in the way we want him to when we pray.

Mark 16:1–13: The women continue to be the central actors in the Mark’s recounting of the death and resurrection of Jesus: “When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.” (1). Mark has already told us they know where the tomb is, but it occurs to them that their mission may be hampered by the large stone they knew covered the tomb’s entrance: “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” (3). Happily, they arrive at the tomb and discover the stone has already been rolled back.

There’s a “young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side” (5) who utters the most startling and amazing statement in all of human history: “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him.” (6)

The young angel then tells them to tell Peter to meet the resurrected Jesus in Galilee. But what they have just witnessed and heard is far more terrifying than joyful, “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them.” (8a). Mark completely understands how human nature would react: “and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” (8b).  Which I think is a more psychologically realistic picture than the happy reunions that we read about in the other gospels. Mark could easily have a PhD in psychology.

In fact, in Mark’s traditional ending, we don’t even get to see Jesus. We only see the empty tomb.  Mark’s “shorter ending” ends his narrative with the abruptness of his reportorial style: “And all that had been commanded them they told briefly to those around Peter. And afterward Jesus himself sent out through them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.” Which is Mark’s rather cryptic take on the Great Commission. The Good News is the resurrected Jesus. Mark is telling us that the good news of the resurrection is sufficient. For Mark the details of who he saw and what he said after this amazing event are irrelevant.

Obviously, this rather anticlimactic ending bothered somebody somewhere, for we now have “the longer ending of Mark,” which provides a some more details. Again, the women—and the cause of much speculation about the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene—are at the center of the story: “he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons.” (9) But even when Mary carries the news to the men, “when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it.” (11)

This theme of disbelief at the news is driven home further, as Mark’s longer ending gives his a brief take on the Road to Emmaus episode described in far greater detail in Luke: “After this he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country.” (12). But again, the news is greeted only with skepticism: “And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them.” (13)

It’s clear to me that Mark is writing to a community that was pretty skeptical about this whole Easter thing. I think he’s showing them (and us) that skepticism is perfectly OK: it is the most natural reaction of all to an event that was—and remains—the most incredible story ever told. Faith, Mark is telling me, anyway, includes skepticism. If the disciples didn’t believe at first, then why should we believe at first? Faith is a never-ending process, not a static state.


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