Psalm 118:1–9; 1 Samuel 30,31; John 6:25–42

Originally published 10/10/2016. Revised and updated 10/9/2018.

Psalm 118:1–9: This thanksgiving psalm—”Acclaim the Lord, for He is good,/ forever is His kindness” (1)— looks to be a liturgical psalm used in collective worship:
Let Israel now say:
forever is His kindness.
Let the house of Aaron now say:
Forever is His kindness.
” (2, 3)

We could take these verses as being a responsive reading (something still done at a decreasing number of churches): one line spoken by the laity (Israel) and a response by the priests (house of Aaron). And then spoken together by all:
Let those who fear the Lord now say:
forever is His kindness. (4)

WIth the invocation completed, the tone of the psalm shifts to a recollection of a prayer of supplication:
From the straits I called toYah.
Yah answered me in a wide-open place.
 (5)

In that answer, the psalmist—and we—can take immense comfort, no matter what trials we may face in one of the truly memorable verses in the Psalms:
The Lord is for me, I shall not fear.
What can humankind do to me?
 (6)

I am sure that it is in this verse where many Christian martyrs found their peace. And in these politically fraught times, it’s a verse we wold do well to remember ourselves.

For the psalmist, God is on his—and our—side:
The Lord is among my helpers,
and I shall see defeat of my foes. 
(7)

It all boils down to where and in whom we place our trust. As our psalmist observes quite correctly:
Better to shelter in the Lord
than to trust in humankind
. (8)

Yet, I tend to do the opposite: I place my trust in the tangible works of humankind and in my own wits rather than in God’s protection.

Finally, in a verse particularly appropriate to this fraught political season:
Better to shelter in the Lord
than to trust in princes.
 (9)

No matter how noble the prince  may be—and God knows there is barely a scintilla of nobility out there right now—they, too, are mere fallen humans. In the end, only God is worthy of our trust because he never fails us.

1 Samuel 30,31: After a 3-day journey, David and his men came to the town of Ziklag, which has been utterly destroyed by the Amalekites and the sons and daughters kidnapped by the invaders, including David’s two wives. In one of the saddest verses in the Bible: “Then David and the people who were with him raised their voices and wept, until they had no more strength to weep.” (30:4)

Those left in the city want to stone David, “because all the people were bitter in spirit for their sons and daughters.” (30:6)  But one of the marks of a great leader is his or her response to adversity. Reflecting the theme of today’s psalm, David turns in prayer to the only one he knows he can trust: “David inquired of the Lord, “Shall I pursue this band? Shall I overtake them?” (30:8) God’s answer is affirmative, and off he and his 600 soldiers go.

A third of his band drops by the wayside from exhaustion, but David and 400 men trudge on. They encounter a starving Egyptian, who, when fed by David, leads them to the Amalekite army. As the Amalekites are enjoying a bacchanalia with the spoils of war, David “attacked them from twilight until the evening of the next day. Not one of them escaped, except four hundred young men, who mounted camels and fled.” (30:17)

Returning with the spoils of war, David and the 400 encounter the 200 who had been too exhausted to continue to the place where the Amalekites were. Those “corrupt and worthless fellows among the men who had gone with David” (30:22) refused to share the spoils with the 200 who had remained behind. But David reminds them that the spoils are from the Lord, who “has preserved us and handed over to us the raiding party that attacked us.” (23) He commands that all shall share and our authors note that, “From that day forward he made it a statute and an ordinance for Israel; it continues to the present day.” (25)

David’s actions call to mind Jesus’ parable of the workers in the vineyard, where no matter what time they showed up, whether dawn or late afternoon, all would receive the same pay. His parable is merely an extension of longstanding custom in Israel, so I don’t know why everyone was so surprised by Jesus’ words. Of course the message to us is that our wealth is not ours, but God’s and it’s there to be shared with those less fortunate.

Meanwhile over on Philistia, Saul’s army is fighting on. In distinct contrast to David’s successful exploits, “The Philistines overtook Saul and his sons; and the Philistines killed Jonathan and Abinadab and Malchishua, the sons of Saul.” (31:2) Saul is badly injured and he begs his armor-bearer to run him through and finish the job. But the armor-bearer is terrified and understandably will not murder his master. “So Saul took his own sword and fell upon it.” (31:4) And his armor-bearer does the same. [Whence the saying, ‘to fall on one’s sword.] The remainder of Israel’s army flees for the hills.

The victorious Philistines behad Saul’s corpse and hang it in the town square, “but when the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead heard what the Philistines had done to Saul, all the valiant men set out, traveled all night long, and took the body of Saul and the bodies of his sons from the wall of Beth-shan.” (12) They bury Saul and his three sons “under the tamarisk tree in Jabesh, and fasted seven days.” (13)

What a tragically wasted promise that it comes to this. Saul was chosen for his fortitude and apparent wisdom by Samuel to become king. Alas, his early successes went to Saul’s head. he believed that he, rather than God, controlled Israel’s destiny. And it all came to naught. How many men have let power go to their head and ignore God and reap the consequences? Our authors have brilliantly juxtaposed David, who seeks God’s guidance continually with Saul’s fecklessness. The lesson of who to follow: God or man is crystal clear. As our psalmist has it, “Better to shelter in the Lord/ than to trust in princes.

John 6:25–42: The crowd finds Jesus on “the other side of the sea.” Having not seen him depart, they’re surprised to see him there and ask, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” (25) As usual, Jesus does not answer their question, but tells them they followed because they had received food from him. Our author shows us the spiritual side of a physical act as Jesus goes on to say, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” (27)

This being the gospel of John, a philosophical/ theological discourse follows. Jesus tells the crowd about how their ancestors ate manna, and reminds them, “it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven.” (32) The crowd, thinking they’re about to latch onto a never-ending source of physical sustenance, understandably replies,“Sir, give us this bread always.” (34)

Jesus then makes his startling assertion that it’s not about physical bread, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (35). [This is the second “I am” in the gospel; the first was Jesus telling the woman at the well that he is the living water.]

As always with this gospel writer, it’s all about belief: “I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe.” (36) Understandably, the crowd does not fully comprehend his rather dense conclusion that includes an eschatological assertion: “This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.” (40) It’s the quintessential conflict that I find myself in all too often: Like the crowd, I’m having trouble with what I know—the physical world around me— and what Jesus is telling me about the world to come.

Unsurprisingly, there is skepticism: “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” (42) It’s easy for us to poo-poo the crowd, but I know in my heart, I’d be asking the same question.

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