Psalm 78:65–72; Deuteronomy 4:1–31; Luke 5:1–11

Originally published 6/25/2016. Revised and updated 6/26/2018

Psalm 78:65–72: After describing God’s various punishments of a rebellious Israel, our poet turns to the final section, which begins as if in a dream:
And the Master awoke as one sleeping,
like a warrior shaking off wine.
 (65)

I have to admit the image of being in a deep sleep like a drunken soldier is certainly original if running counter to one’s perception of omnipotent God. Newly awakened, God finally acts:
He beat back His foes,
everlasting disgrace He gave them
. (66)

So who are these foes? Israel’s traditional Canaanite enemies? The Philistines? The Amorites? No. It’s political rivals within Israel itself:
Yet He rejected the tent of Joseph,
and the tribe of Ephraim He did not choose.
 (67)

Our poet continues with no little smugness:
He chose the tribe of Judah,
Mount Zion He loves.
 (68)

Mount Zion is of course Jerusalem, which is where the temple is located:
He [God] built on the heights His sanctuary,
like the earth He had founded forever.
” (69)

The subtext here is that Jerusalem will always be the seat of power for Israel because it is God-ordained. There’s a great irony here: even absent its temple “on the heights,” Jerusalem remains the ever-controversial center of three world religions—and where the United States has recently moved its embassy, implicitly acknowledging the longevity of this verse. Our poet turns out to be less hyperbolic than we thought!

We finally arrive at the underlying theme of this psalm:
And He chose David His servant
and took him from the sheepfolds.
” (70)

This psalm turns out to be an endorsement and celebration of King David and of the Davidic dynasty that follows as being God-ordained. It must have been written after David has apparently overcome significant political infighting following the death of King Saul, who was himself a Benjaminite. In the end, it’s David and the tribe of Judah that has—and retains—political power over all Israel.

Our psalmist concludes with a paean to King David, noting that David has come from shepherding sheep to now shepherding people:
From nursing ewes He [God] brought him
to shepherd Jacob His people
and Israel His estate. (71)

In other words, David has been chosen by God himself. This gives him the authority to rule. This lengthy psalm ends with praise for David’s leadership:
And with his heart’s innocence he shepherded them,
with skilled hands he guided them.
 (72)

Personally, I buy the line about guiding with skilled hands. There’s no question David was Israel’s greatest leader after Moses. But an innocent heart? I think not. The story of Bathsheba suggests otherwise.

Deuteronomy 4:1–31: Moses’s great speech continues as he turns to giving his instructions to Israel: “So now, Israel, give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the Lord, the God of your ancestors, is giving you.” (1) He’s quite explicit that his words define the totality of the precepts by which Israel must live: “You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it, but keep the commandments of the Lord your God with which I am charging you.” (2) and notes in passing that if they stray they have seen God’s power fully on display in the matter of the Baals of Peor and they can expect a similar fate.

Moses moves into full didactic mode, telling them, “You must observe them [the law] diligently.(6) Keeping the law requires awareness and self-examination: “take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life.” (9a). And they have a deep responsibility to train their children and grandchildren in these rules as well: “make them known to your children and your children’s children.‘” (9b) For me, these two aspects—self-awareness and raising children in the same moral framework—are the foundation of western civilization. Without these qualities, chaos ensues. Something I’m afraid we see increasingly today.

Moses goes on to warn the people of the consequences of worshipping small-g gods such as wooden idols and even the sun and moon—practices that were certainly widespread then. He reminds them, “For the Lord your God is a devouring fire, a jealous God.” (24)

He is especially concerned about the great danger of time passing and the commandments slipping into disuse: “When you have had children and children’s children, and become complacent in the land, if you act corruptly by making an idol in the form of anything, thus doing what is evil in the sight of the Lord your God, and provoking him to anger.” (25) The consequences will be dire: “you will soon utterly perish from the land that you are crossing the Jordan to occupy; you will not live long on it, but will be utterly destroyed.” (26) Moreover, “The Lord will scatter you among the peoples;.” (27) Again, I think the consequences of losing our moral framework are increasingly on full display today.

But amidst the warnings there is a beacon of hope: “ In your distress, when all these things have happened to you in time to come, you will return to the Lord your God and heed him.” (30) Because God is not only jealous and given to fiery anger, but he is also “the Lord your God is a merciful God, he will neither abandon you nor destroy you; he will not forget the covenant with your ancestors that he swore to them.” (31)

One has the feeling at this point that our authors are writing retrospectively. They have seen how Israel went astray and was scattered “among the peoples,” but in the end there is always hope.

This passage also sets out the incredibly important qualities of God for Israel, as well as for us: God is indeed jealous, but even more so, God is merciful. All the people of Israel needed to do was to repent and return to God. And that is all we need to do as well. Repentance brings us the experience of God’s inexhaustible mercy.

Luke 5:1–11: Up to this point, Jesus has been preaching, exorcizing, and healing on his own. Now it’s time to build his team. Only in Luke do we have the story of Jesus seeing two boats, getting into one—apparently Simon’s—and preaching (from a sitting position!) to the crowds on the shore from it. Inasmuch as Jesus was already famous, Simon certainly offered no objection to Jesus’ presence. What we know of Peter’s personality that is subsequently revealed we know he enjoyed basking in Jesus’ reflected charisma. When Jesus is finished preaching he suggests to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” (4) Simon responds that they’ve been fishing all night without success. Nevertheless, he agrees saying, “Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” (5) Unsurprisingly, it’s the most successful fishing expedition ever. But Simon Peter’s response is somewhat unexpected. Hw doesn’t say, “Wow, that’s cool, Jesus.” Instead he recognizes his own shortcomings and “he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (8).  Jesus’ reply is of course one for the ages,“Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” (10) Jesus’ presence and offer is so compelling that Simon Peter, James and John, sons of Zebedee, “left everything and followed him.” (11)

As usual, Luke is operating at two levels. There’s the narrative itself, but then there’s the metaphor that there are millions of people “in the sea,” waiting to be caught. Just as with the fruitless night the fishermen had spent, human effort alone is insufficient to “catch” people.

That’s why I’m generally repelled by people who buttonhole others, asking if they’re saved and telling them they’ll go to hell if they don’t “accept Jesus as their personal savior.” That’s the same as fishing all night and catching nothing. It is only through the power of Jesus Christ as it’s communicated through the Holy Spirit that has the capability to capture another’s person’s heart. As Peter did, we realize we’re sinners, but then we turn and see Jesus beckoning us, telling us, as we hear so often, “don’t be afraid,” and we follow. Our hearts are captured just as Jesus captured the heart of his first three disciples.

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