Psalm 119:121–128; 2 Samuel 22:1–25; John 11:1–16

Originally published 10/31/2016. Revised and updated 10/31/2018.

Psalm 119:121–128: Our psalmist prays to God for the infamous quid pro quo:
I have done justice and righteousness;
do not yield me to my oppressors.
Vouch Your servant for good.
Let not the arrogant oppress me.” (121-122)

These verses describe  our natural human tendency in our relationship with God: “I’ve been good, so I therefore deserve God’s protection.” This quid pro quo is at certainly superior to the more common theme of God as Santa Claus that we encounter in those who believe the heresy of the prosperity gospel: “I’ve been good, so shower me with blessings.”

Now having gone on for 120 verses, I have to accept the sincerity of our psalmist. Nevertheless, IMHO, he’s beginning to be just a bit too overwrought:
My eyes pined for Your rescue
and for Your righteous utterance.

Once again, our psalmist reminds God of the quid pro quo, hoping to partake of God’s inherent generosity:
Do for Your servant as befits Your kindness
and teach me Your statutes.

And just to make sure God gets his point, he repeats himself:
Your servant I am, grant me Your insight,
that I may know Your precepts.

However, I really should not be too hard on him. He is not asking for wealth or power; he is asking God for insight and ultimately, wisdom. I suppose that is the more noble supplication.

This wisdom seems to instill the psalmist with nascent courage. Rather than mere contemplation, it appears he is actually prepared to act on God’s behalf against the people he’s identified as God’s enemies:
It is time to act for the Lord—
they have violated Your teaching.

Nevertheless, what intrigues me here is the very didactic framework of the psalmist’s intended action: people are evil not because they have done bad things, but that they have “violated [God’s] teaching. Yes, in the abstract violation of God’s law what sin is all about, but let’s call wrongdoing for what it is, rather than effectively whitewashing it as straying from God’s teaching.

2 Samuel 22:1–25: One of the really cool things about our authors is how they concatenate poetry and history. They remind us that there were human beings like David who were in close relationship with God, and that history is not just about intrigue, battles, and conspiracies. Here, we encounter this beautiful psalm as a bookend to David’s career—a psalm the authors attribute to David as emblematic of his unshakable relationship with God.

In lines that are reminiscent of the 23rd Psalm and for me, more poignant and powerful than even that psalm, David opens his prayer with a description of the solidity of his relationship with God:
The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer,
   my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge,
my shield and the horn of my salvation,
    my stronghold and my refuge,
    my savior; you save me from violence.” (2,3)

David’s prayer of gratitude is the essence worship itself:
I call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised,
 and I am saved from my enemies. (4)

Notice how much more powerful these words are than the scholastic entreaties of the Psalm 119 writer. While I have never been confronted by armies of enemies, I can say these lines with the same gratitude as God has been at my side, rescuing me from disease.

David’s supplication is equally powerful:
The cords of Sheol entangled me,
the snares of death confronted me.
In my distress I called upon the Lord;
to my God I called.
From his temple he heard my voice,
and my cry came to his ears. (6,7)

This poem includes a wonderful description of God as the God of creation. He is not some kindly bearded old uncle.  God’s apocalyptic power is on full display:
Out of the brightness before him
    coals of fire flamed forth.
The Lord thundered from heaven;

    the Most High uttered his voice.” (13)

It is verses like these that describe God’s ineffable power that keep me from casually referring to God as ‘daddy.’ Yes, he is that, but I think far too many Christians would rather ignore the thundering power of the God who created all things; the God who speaks through the forces of nature, and who created us. Reflect on these words:
…at the rebuke of the Lord,
at the blast of the breath of his nostrils” (16)

We realize in these words that God cannot be placed into a safe little box of our own making.

David recapitulates what God has done for him in direct, powerful language, fully aware that he could not have defeated his enemies on his own:
He delivered me from my strong enemy,
    from those who hated me;
    for they were too mighty for me. (18)

Before Jesus, there is also the inevitable acknowledgement that as our psalmist keeps asserting, there is a quid pro quo—even for David:
The Lord rewarded me according to my righteousness;
    according to the cleanness of my hands he recompensed me.
For I have kept the ways of the Lord,
    and have not wickedly departed from my God. (21, 22)

In fact the poem ends on this note that David, having been righteous, has been redeemed by God:
Therefore the Lord has recompensed me according to my righteousness,
according to my cleanness in his sight. (25)

As always, I am grateful that the terms of the New Covenant have brought me salvation through Jesus Christ rather than through my own failing efforts at strict obedience.

John 11:1–16: We come to the story of the famous resuscitation of Jesus’ friend, Lazarus— a story found only here because our gospel writer not only wants to give the most dramatic example of Jesus’ salvific power, but where I think our author wants to puts neoplatonism on full display.

We all know the straightforward theological implications of the Lazarus story: Lazarus is ill; Jesus declines to go heal him for two days. Hs friend dies and is buried. Jesus has a specific plan and asserts that “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” (4)

Yet another socratic dialog occurs, once again around the theme of sight and blindness, light and darkness. Noting that it’s far easier to see where we’re going during daylight hours, Jesus observes, “Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” (9, 10) This statement of course operates not only at the physical level, but at the spiritual/philosophical level as well.

So when Jesus says, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him” (11) our gospel writer is making it clear that Jesus is not only talking about a healing, but also that the risen Lazarus will be fully awake and fully sighted through the salvific power of the risen Christ: “Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep.” (13) For me, this is very similar to Plato’s concept that we humans are stumbling around in a cave where the darkness prevents us from fully comprehending actual truth. For John the gospel writer, Jesus is the light that illuminates both reality and truth. And as Jesus will observe in the Upper Room Discourse, he is the sole source of truth (John 14:6). 

Jesus now turns to head back to Judea and ultimately, to Jerusalem. This is a strategically dangerous move as Thomas, who so far has not spoken in this gospel, observes to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (16) As usual, this line operates at both the physical level—after all, the authorities want to stone Jesus and presumably his disciples—but also at the spiritual level: That for all who follow Jesus, our old “Adam” dies through baptism so that we become new creatures in Christ.

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