Psalm 135:13–21; 1 Kings 19; John 19:1–11

Originally published 11/26/2016. Revised and updated 11/27/2018.

Psalm 135:13–21: The latter half of this psalm contrasts the power of the living God with the sheer impotence of idols. Our psalmist first acknowledges God’s everlasting power which transcends history:
Lord, Your name is forever,
Lord. Your fame for all generations.
 (13)

God is not only dynamically active among his people, but is the ultimate source of righteousness and justice:
For the Lord champions His people,
and for His servants He shows change of heart.
” (14)

But, alas, much of Israel worships man made idols:
The nations’ idols are silver and gold,
the work of human hands.
 (15)

Although the idols are fashioned in human form with human features they are merely mute, blind, deaf, and ultimately powerless simulacra:
A mouth they have and they do not speak,
eyes they have and they do not see.
Ears they have and they do not hear,
nor is there breath in their mouth. (16, 17)

Our poet loses no time in hurling imprecations at the idol makers:
Like them may their makers be,
all who trust in them
. (18).

While most American homes do not have figurines which people worship, our society is awash in mute, blind, deaf idols of our own making. In America, the relentless trajectory of unbridled “individual rights” obtained at the cost not only of belief in God, but to the detriment of the community at large is perhaps the biggest idol of all.

The psalm concludes with praise to the living God, who brings us life with a benediction that enumerates the power structure of Israel:
House of Israel, bless the LORD,
House of Aaron, bless the LORD.
House of Levi, bless the LORD.
Those who fear the LORD, bless the LORD.” (19, 20)

1 Kings 19: Queen Jezebel is none too pleased with Elijah’s destruction of the Baal priests and sends a threatening message to the prophet: “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” (2) Elijah understandably flees to Beersheba. Resting under a tree, Elijah clearly regrets his murderous action and asks God’s permission to die right there “for I am no better than my ancestors.” (4b). Falling asleep, an angel comes to him and offers Elijah food and drink, which the prophet consumes. This angelic ministering occurs each day for forty days.

Fortified, Elijah moves on. Arriving at a cave on Mount Horeb, God comes and asks Elijah what he’s doing. Elijah replies despondently that he has completed God’s mission as commanded but now faces only death at the hands of Jezebel. God replies with a dramatic display of his power over nature in the form of wind, earthquake, fire and finally, silence. [Our authors are careful to point out that God is not “in” these forces, only that they are initiated by him.] Then God speaks, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (14) [This is a question that I think God asks of each of us. What is our purpose? How are we to serve God?

Elijah answers exactly as he did before: “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” (15)

God chooses to ignore Elijah’s depressed state and instructs him to anoint Hazael as king of Aram; Jehu as king of Israel; and Elisha as his prophetic successor. God has a rather grim plan in mind: “Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall kill; and whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall kill.” (17) But as always, there is God’s promise that the few faithful in Israel—a mere 7000 in number—who have not worshipped the Baals, will be spared.

Many can identify with Elijah’s deep depression. They desire to go no further but only to lay down and die. But God sends ministering angels in the form of caregivers to restore life. And sometimes, as with Elijah, there is a display of God’s power, and one’s life heads off in a new and completely unexpected direction.

Elijah finds Elisha at the plow behind 12(!) oxen. Elijah, in a sign that Elisha is to become his successor throws his cloak over Elisha. The young man then asks Elijah for permission to “Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you.” (20) after which he kills the oxen and the family has a giant going-away barbecue comprised of the meat of the same 12 oxen. If we ever needed a symbol of a radical career change, this is certainly it. Elisha then “followed Elijah, and became his servant.” (24)

John 19:1–11: Pilate, in another desperate move to appease the Jewish authorities who are really annoying him, sends Jesus off to be flogged and humiliated by the soldiers. Our gospel writer writes ironically that the soldiers “kept coming up to him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” and striking him on the face.” (3) John’s readers understand the irony here: Jesus is in fact king of the Jews—and of the Gentiles.

Pilate brings Jesus back out, and announces “Here is the man,” which is the second of our gospel writer’s ironies: Jesus is indeed “the man” of all men. Unappeased, the mob shouts, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” (6) In a final attempt at quieting the unruly mob, Pilate tells them they can go ahead and do so, clearly implying that the responsibility for his death rests on their shoulders, not his. But the angry Jews shout back, “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God.” (7)

Now that theology has entered the debate, things are truly starting to get out of hand and “when Pilate heard this, he was more afraid than ever.” (8) This single sentence gives us deep insight into Pilate’s true character: at heart he is a coward. He questions Jesus again, asking “Where are you from?” (9) Jesus remains silent. Pilate’s question is John’s third irony, since we know that as we read in the first chapter, Jesus is from God.

Jesus refuses to answer and Pilate shouts at him, “Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” (10) Now Jesus answers, but to Pilate it must have sounded like religious gibberish: “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above.” (11a) This is John’s fourth irony: Pilate thinks Jesus is referring to the Roman emperor, but Jesus is referring to God who controls all things, whether Jewish or Gentile.

It is Jesus’ final statement that Pilate thinks gets him off the hook: “therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.” (11b)  So, who is “the one?” Pilate and history conclude it is the Jews who are guilty. And out of this statement has arisen two millennia of blaming the Jews for Jesus’ death—and worse,  two millennia of persecution of the Jews. At one level, of course, Jesus’ answer is factually correct: the Jews present in Jerusalem that day demanding his death were certainly guilty. But the sins of the father were indeed visited on the sons down through history. But is it not sinful for Christians to have sought revenge on the Jews over and over down through history? If we believe that God is a God of justice, righteousness, and yes, love, then I think Christians have committed the greater sin against the Jews.

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