Psalm 119:137–144; 2 Samuel 23:18-24:25; John 11:31-44

Psalm 119:137–144: This stanza is a good reminder for all of us living in what has become a post-Christian society. Those who reject God are no longer indifferent,  many are actively hostile to hearing anything having to do with God’s word. Especially over-enthusiasm, as our psalmist notes;
My zeal devastated me,
for my foes forgot Your words. (139)

His zeal for God has exacted a substantial social cost but our psalmist soldiers bravely onward:
Puny I am and despised,
yet Your decrees I have not forgotten. (141)

Despite his trials, he remembers what we all need to remember. God is still here and his righteousness and justice are immutable:
Your righteousness forever is right,
and Your teaching is truth. (142)

For the psalmist, it’s all a question of focus. Whatever oppression he may be enduring, there is just one place to look for succor:
Straits and distress have found me—
Your commands are my delight. (143)

It is on this solid rock he stands–and we stand. Even better than the psalmist, for us it is God’s capital ‘w’ Word–Jesus Christ–that is the source of life. As the psalmist has it, “Grant me insight that I may live.” (144) For us, it is living in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit that is life, no matter what oppression we may eventually face. We do not have to arrive here at this safe place though insight and knowledge; rather, we arrive by grace.

2 Samuel 23:18-24:25: Joab’s nephew Abishai is the commander of Israel’s special forces under David–“the Thirty.” One of the Thirty, “Benaiah son of Jehoiada was a valiant warrior from Kabzeel, a doer of great deeds” (23:20), who “won a name beside the three warriors. He was renowned among the Thirty, but he did not attain to the Three. And David put him in charge of his bodyguard.” (23:23)  These verses and the catalog of names that follows give us insight into the sophisticated hierarchical organization of the Army under David and his general, Joab. 

For reasons our author doesn’t specify, “the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go, count the people of Israel and Judah.” (24:1). Joab resists this task. An angry David insists that the census be conducted and the it reveals that “in Israel there were eight hundred thousand soldiers able to draw the sword, and those of Judah were five hundred thousand.” (24:9)

David suddenly realizes that he did a bad thing by taking the census (Alter informs us that taking a census had negative folkloric connotations and that the people would feel cursed by virtue of being counted.) A suddenly arbitrary God offers David three choices: 3 years of famine, 3 months of warfare or 3 days of pestilence. David chooses pestilence, but God’s anger is averted by David’s purchase of a threshing floor and offering a sacrifice there “and the plague was averted from Israel.” (24:25)

This is a very confusing story. The character of God demanding such severe punishment by virtue of David taking a census seems arbitrary and very much out of character of the God whom David has been following–and speaking with–up to this point. One is left with the impression that this story has been tacked on at the end of 2 Samuel by a different author.

John 11:31-44: Ever the brilliant author, John reveals a new dimension of Jesus’ character as he arrives at Lazarus’ house and finds Mary weeping. Up to this point Jesus has been pretty much focused on the rather didactic lesson he wishes to communicate by eventually raising Lazarus. He has an important lesson to teach about his own life and impending death, and even the protests of his disciples have not deterred him. He was willing to let Lazarus die in order to facilitate this lesson.

But when he arrives and Mary falls at his feet weeping, saying (I think plaintively, not angrily), “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” (32) Jesus sees the very real anguish that his delay has caused. And then when he actually arrives at Lazarus tomb, Jesus weeps. This is one of those places where we realize that Jesus is indeed fully human. Yes, as he’s been saying for the last chapter, he has followed the will of his Father, but as we will see in Gethsemane, it has come at the price of real human suffering; Jesus’ humanity is fully expressed here.

And not everyone is happy. Since some in the crowd chide Jesus–certainly a disciple or two, one of them probably Thomas–“Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” (36)

But then the great surprise. Yes, Jesus could certainly have prevented Lazarus’ death, but now by raising Lazarus he offers his greatest miracle recorded in the Gospels. I think if the disciples had really been paying attention–and it’s even a difficult thing for us to see–is that Jesus is making the final statement about why he’s really here; he’s revealing why his Father has sent him. It’s not to set himself against and overcome the political authorities of the time. It is neither Israel nor Rome that he has come to earth to conquer. He has come to conquer death itself.

Of course for us who have the privilege of knowing the outcome of Jesus’ story, the point of the Lazarus story is easy for us to see. But for the crowd there it can only be confusion and wonderment.

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