Psalm 77:1–10; Numbers 31:48–32:27; Luke 2:21–32

Originally published 6/15/2016. Revised and updated 6/15/2018.

Psalm 77:1–10: This psalm resonates to the tenor of our times when the news is filled with stories of despair and rising suicide rates and social media overflows with political outrage. There is but One to whom we can turn in our sorrow and agony and we hear the desperation in the psalmist’s voice in his opening lines:
My voice to God—let me cry out.
My voice to God—and hearken to me.
in the day of my straits I sought the Master
. (2, 3a).

Up to now all the poet’s own efforts to stanch his sorrow have been unavailing:
My eye flows at night, it will not stop.
I refuse to be consoled
. (3b)

This is a sentiment that I think perfectly captures the current mood following school shootings and even election outcomes. But unlike so many today who simply cry, ‘Why?’ but have no answers, our psalmist knows exactly to whom to turn:
I call God to mind and I moan.
I speak and my spirit faints.

Nevertheless, in his crying out, God seems to be the root cause of his insomnia:
You held open my eyelids.
I throbbed and could not speak
. (5)

But lying awake in bed at night in the stillness when imagination can reflect too heavily on our cares and worries —and this is something I identify with increasingly—leads him (and me) to reflect on what seems to be the better days of the past:
I ponder the days of yore,
the years long gone
. (6)

This remembrance of a better past leads to further reflection as our psalmist wonders:
I call to mind my song in the night.
To my own heart I speak and my spirit inquires.

Will the Master forever abandon me,
and never again look with favor? (7, 8)

Which is exactly what we wonder when confronted with the evil humans are able to wreak on each other. Along with the psalmist, we ask why does God remain silent, thinking that he has abandoned the world:
Is His kindness gone for all time,
His word done for time without end?

Has God forgotten to sow grace,
has He closed off in wrath his compassion
? (10)

This is the great unanswerable question that every thoughtful human must ask. Why does evil abound? Why does God persist in remaining inscrutably silent?

Numbers 31:48–32:27: The conquest of the Midianites has resulted in a remarkable outcome as the army commanders report to Moses: “Your servants have counted the warriors who are under our command, and not one of us is missing.” (31:49). A battle without deaths on the Israeli side suggests the Midianites were weakly defended and had no chance against this ferocious assault. The victorious commanders come to Moses in gratitude and present “the Lord’s offering,what each of us found, articles of gold, armlets and bracelets, signet rings, earrings, and pendants, to make atonement for ourselves before the Lord.” (31:50) Our accountant authors report that the gift of “the commanders of thousands and the commanders of hundreds was sixteen thousand seven hundred fifty shekels.” (31:52)—a sizable sum indeed. As the authors note parenthetically, “The troops had all taken plunder for themselves.” (31:53) This also demonstrates the reality that leaders are held to a higher standard than the led—a concept that extends down to today’s military.

The Israelites are camped across the river from Jericho. With the Midian “dress rehearsal” successfully completed, the time is nearing for Israel to move into Canaan. But as always there are complications: “the Gadites and the Reubenites came and spoke to Moses, to Eleazar the priest, and to the leaders of the congregation,” (32:2) and tell them that the land on the east side of the Jordan is perfect for raising cattle, and these tribes would prefer to remain there. Moses immediately sees this request as an attempt to avoid going to war against the Canaanites: “Shall your brothers go to war while you sit here?” (6) and worse, it will negatively impact morale, “Why will you discourage the hearts of the Israelites from going over into the land that the Lord has given them?” (7) Moses tells them that their fathers did the same thing when the spies went into the land and came back and “discouraged the hearts of the Israelites from going into the land that the Lord had given them,” (9) which resulted in the 40-year delay. Moses is not going to let the same thing happen again for the very good reason that he believes another cowardly incident will result in an “increase the Lord’s fierce anger against Israel!” (14) And worse, he threatens, “If you turn away from following him, he will again abandon them in the wilderness; and you will destroy all this people.” (15)

With this stark reality in front of them, the Reubenites and Gadites propose a compromise. They will “build sheepfolds here for our flocks, and towns for our little ones, but we will take up arms as a vanguard before the Israelites, until we have brought them to their place.” (16). They will also give up their previously allocated land rights in Canaan. Moses agrees on the condition that they may return only after Israel is victorious in Canaan. He gives them permission to “build towns for your little ones, and folds for your flocks; but do what you have promised.” (24) The Reubenites and Gadites agree.

The lesson of this interesting passage is that compromise can lead to acceptable outcomes on both sides. A lesson that seems to have been forgotten in the current political climate.

Luke 2:21–32: Eight days after Jesus’ birth, Joseph and Mary make the five-mile trek from Bethlehem and bring the infant “to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord.” (22).  Ever aware of his Gentile audience, Luke explains the rule set out a thousand years before in the Torah, “it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’” (23) And being poor, Mary and Joseph offer the simple sacrifice of “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.” (24)

The centerpiece of Luke’s story is a “righteous and devout” man named Simeon, upon whom “the Holy Spirit rested.” (25). Rather than the angel who had visited Zechariah and Mary, it is the Holy Spirit who had revealed to him previously that “he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.” (26) And it the Holy Spirit that guides Simeon into the temple, “and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms.” (27, 28). [Notice how Luke explains that this action of taking another’s child is ‘customary under the law.]

Simeon sings the third song in Luke, the “Benedictus,” which summarizes makes it clear that God has sent Jesus to earth. And in perhaps the most important statement of all, that Jesus has come for every person on earth, including Luke’s community of Gentiles:
Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
    according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
    and for glory to your people Israel. (28-32)

Simeon’s song also illuminates another reason why Luke has included the infancy story. Jesus did not suddenly materialize as a 30-year old rabbi as he does in Mark. Luke wants to make it clear that Jesus is God’s gift to us from the very beginning, and that Jesus is indeed the Messiah to the Jews—something John takes even a step further in the prologue to his eponymous gospel.

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