Psalm 127; 1 Kings 9:20–10:29; John 15:9–17

Originally published 11/16/2016. Revised and updated 11/16/2018.

Psalm 127: This psalm of ascents is dedicated to Solomon. Its first lines reflect Solomon’s great project to build the temple, remembering that God must be at the center of our human efforts, including temple-building:
If the Lord does not build a house,
in vain do its builders labor on it.

The same goes for community life as well. If we do not acknowledge God as its head, all our human efforts are doomed:
If the Lord does not watch over a town,
in vain does the watchman look out.
” (1b)

Our palmist focuses on God being the necessary center of our own lives. Without God as touchstone and refuge we become bundles of sleep-deprived anxiety as we labor from morning to night:
In vain you who rise early, sit late.
eaters of misery’s bread
. (2a)

On the other hand, those who keep God at the center of their lives are rewarded with peace—and sleep:
So much He gives to His loved ones in sleep. (2b).

If we ever wanted a verse that describes some sizable proportion of the population here in the fast-paced life of most of America and especially in my former home of northern California, this is the one. People go about their business almost 24/7 leading lives rimmed in anxiety, believing they must accomplish every task with their own resources, believing there is not God who cares for them. Failing to place God at the center of our quotidian lives exacts an enormous physical and psychological cost.

The psalmist changes the subject, turning to the reality of Israel’s patriarchal society. A man’s security as he grew older was defended by his fecundity, specifically male sons:
Look, the estate of the Lord is sons,
reward is the fruit of the womb. 

The strength of youth is a serious asset to the family as the poet employs a striking simile that sons are the means of achieving dominance:
Like arrows in the warrior’s hand,
thus are the sons born in youth.

Of course our own culture looks askance at this blatant sexism, but we need to remember that in those tribal days, a family’s security was based in large part on how well it could defend itself. Thus,
Happy the man
who fills his quiver with them.

This is not just about the family’s security, but its honor as well:
They shall not be shamed
when they speak with their enemies at the gate.

But I confess I am not happy with this idea.Well-armed families of many sons defending their honor exists today in the mountains of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

1 Kings 9:20–10:29: Our authors remind us of Israel’s historical failure to rid Canaan of other tribes and “their descendants who were still left in the land, whom the Israelites were unable to destroy completely,” (9:21) Their presence made them handy as slaves, also sparing Israelites from becoming slaves. Rather, they became middle management: “they were the soldiers, they were his officials, his commanders, his captains, and the commanders of his chariotry and cavalry.” (22) In the long run, though, Israel will come to regret the presence of these other tribes among them.

Solomon turns out to be a successful capitalist, who builds and sends out ships in trade on the Red Sea, eventually importing 420 talents of gold—an enormous sum.

Hearing of Solomon’s fame, which the authors point out parenthetically is “fame due to the name of the Lord’ (10:1) the Queen of Sheba arrives with her retinue. Her mission is to test Solomon with “hard questions,” doubtless with the intention of finding out he’s a fake. However, the queen is duly impressed and she loses her combative spirit, telling Solomon in sincere admiration: “I did not believe the reports until I came and my own eyes had seen it..” (10:7)

Rather than finding fakery and vanity—well known qualities of other kingdoms—she realizes that all Solomon is and possesses and has accomplished comes from his God: “Blessed be the Lord your God, who has delighted in you and set you on the throne of Israel! Because the Lord loved Israel forever, he has made you king to execute justice and righteousness.” (10:9) She gives Solomon “one hundred twenty talents of gold, a great quantity of spices, and precious stones.” (10:10) Solomon reciprocates and “gave her out of Solomon’s royal bounty” (13) and she departs in great admiration. For our authors writing centuries later, the Queen of Sheba is simply one example of the admiration in which Solomon was held throughout the world.

Somewhat starry-eyed, our authors continue to describe Solomon’s immense wealth, including shields of gold, an ivory throne, and gold goblets for his house—”none were of silver—it was not considered as anything in the days of Solomon.” (21)

Solomon’s fame and wealth achieves a zenith that has never been surpassed: “Thus King Solomon excelled all the kings of the earth in riches and in wisdom. The whole earth sought the presence of Solomon to hear his wisdom, which God had put into his mind.” (24) But our authors seem more interested in Solomon’s inventory of wealth and spend the remainder of the reading describing his military power and his ongoing trade, providing even the price of an Egyptian chariot (600 shekels of silver.)

Personally, I’d have preferred fewer breathless descriptions of inventory and more examples of Solomon’s wisdom.

John 15:9–17: For our gospel writer, there is One Thing is at the foundation of everything Jesus said and did: bringing God’s deep love for his creatures down to earth: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” (9) This is a covenantal love, encircled by our obedience to God: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” (10) Obedience to God and love are two sides of the same coin.

Out of love famously arises joy: “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” (11)

In our age where love has been so deeply degraded in meaning, we tend to be put off at Jesus conflating love and obedience:  “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (12) Seeing ourselves as individuals of free will and freedom to do as we please, we wonder why we have to give up that freedom and obey God. But why wouldn’t we want to follow this commandment with enthusiasm and dedication? This is a love that famously expresses itself as willing sacrifice: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (13)

Friendship and love are intertwined and Jesus expressed his love for this disciples, who are is friends rather than his servants, by telling them everything: “I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.” (15) Our natural response to being filled with this love is “to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last,” (16) As Jesus says, “I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.” (17)

The question becomes, can I set aside my self-centered will and obey God by putting Jesus in charge of my life in order to experience such an unsurpassed love? Or do I hang on to my own pride and miss out on what real love is all about?

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