Psalm 136; 1 Kings 20:1–21; John 19:12–24

Originally published 11/28/2016. Revised and updated 11/28/2018.

Psalm 136: This rather odd thanksgiving psalm seems to be a Hebrew “call and repeat” hymn of the kind heard in African-American churches. Every one of its 26 verses ends with the same line, “for His kindness is forever.

Following an introduction wherein the psalmist calls on the singers to “Acclaim the Lord, for He is good;” (1) “Acclaim the greatest God” (2); and “Acclaim the greatest master” (3) the remainder of the hymn recounts a history of how God intervenes for Israel, beginning at the creation story.

First, there is creation. God is the one “Who makes the heavens in wisdom” (5) and “Stamps firm the earth on waters” (6) Then to the Passover. God is the one, “Who strikes Egypt in its firstborn” (10) and “brings Israel from their midst.” (11). Then to the escape into the wilderness, “Who split the Reed Sea into parts,” (13) and “Who led His people in the wilderness.” (16).

The forty years of wandering is not mentioned as the psalm comes directly to the conquest of Canaan: “Who struck down great kings” (17) and “killed mighty kings” (18) including “Sihon the Amorite” (19), and “Og, king of the Bashan.” (20) These victories result in God’s gift of “their land as an estate.” (21)

For me, the most significant aspect of this litany is that the psalmist remembers God’s forgiveness after Israel’s many sins and that God rescues them again and again:
Who recalled us when we were low,
for His kindness is forever.
And delivered us from our foes,
for His kindness is forever. (23, 24)

As God did for Israel, so, too, through Jesus Christ, God does exactly the same for us today. While it is definitely over-reading the psalmist’s intent, there is even a hint of the Eucharist:
Who gives bread to all flesh,
For His kindness is forever. (25)

Indeed, as we know some 2500 years after this psalm was written, “His kindness is forever.”

1 Kings 20:1–21: Ben-hadad, the king of Aram and his 32 allies decide to attack Israel. He sends a message to Ahab demanding his wives, children, and all his worldly treasures as the price of Samaria to avoid being attacked. Ahab consults with his elders about what to do and they advise the king, “Do not listen or consent.” (8) Ben-hadad replies that he has as many soldiers as the number of handfuls of dust in Samaria (an interesting comparison), Ahab shoots back, “Tell him: One who puts on armor should not brag like one who takes it off.” (11)

Ben-hadad, now drunk, instructs his soldiers to take their positions and invade. Meanwhile “a certain prophet” (Obidiah? Elisha?) tells Ahab that God has told him: that Ahab can be victorious, “Look, I will give it into your hand today; and you shall know that I am the Lord.” (13) But this victory will come only if Ahab initiates the battle. Ahab, brilliant army commander that he is not, asks the prophet who should go out and fight. The prophet tells him the “young men who serve the district governors.” (14) Then he asks, who should start the attack. The prophet relies with a single word, “You.”

Ahab musters 232 governors and 7000 Israel soldiers. And they go out. Ben-hadad and his 32 allied kings are drunk. When Ben-hadad’s scouts report that soldiers have emerged from Samaria, he instructs them to take the soldiers alive whether they have come out for peace or for war. Clearly, this king’s head was befuddled by alcohol.

The district governors kill the 32 allied kings, but Ben-hadad escapes. Finally, Ahab himself goes on the attack and Israel enjoys a victory, and they “defeated the Arameans with a great slaughter.” (21) But it appears that Ben-hadad has escaped to fight another day

So, the question hangs in the air: if Ahab is so evil, why does God give him this victory over a drunken enemy? I guess there’s more to the story to follow.

John 19:12–24: Pilate is desperate to release Jesus because he realizes a gross miscarriage of justice is about to occur on his watch and he will be viewed in Rome as the governor who at best screwed up—or at worst, has committed treason by denying the Roman emperor’s authority. The religious leaders cleverly exploit this reality by reminding Pilate that If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor.” (12)

All of Pilate’s efforts to deflect having to condemn Jesus or to placate the chief priests have come down the fact that he has no course but to condemn Jesus to death. Pilate’s honest attempt at avoiding the world’s most famous miscarriage of justice has come to naught. He orders Jesus to be taken away and be crucified.

Of course, Pilate’s fear was exactly correct as his infamy has been remembered down through the —including every time we cite the Apostle’s Creed..

Our gospel writer omits the gory details of the crucifixion, focusing instead on the placard Pilate had placed on the cross, whereby in one sense he gets the last laugh over the Jewish religious authorities. Written in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek, the sign reads, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” (19) The chief priests are incensed and demand that Pilate have the sign edited to read, “‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.’” (21) But Pilate refuses, saying only “What I have written I have written.” (22) For our gospel writer, of course, this sign has a much deeper meaning because Jesus is indeed the davidic Messiah, the king of the Jews. Alas, in their hatred, the Jewish religious authorities denied what the rest of the world now knows to be reality.

Contrary to all the paintings of the crucifixion, Jesus was naked when crucified. Jesus’ clothes were ripped up into four parts and distributed among the soldiers, except for the seamless tunic. The soldiers cast lots to see who gets the robe.  John tells us that this was to fulfill Ezekiel’s prophecy, They divided my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.” (24)

Our gospel writer does not tell us who won the tunic, but that incident becomes the launch point of one of the most famous novels of the 19th century, Ben-Hur, written by Lew Wallace, and in 1942, The Robe, by Lloyd Douglas and the eponymous 1953 movie starring a young Richard Burton as the soldier who wins the robe.

 

 

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