Archives for November 2018

Psalm 129; I Kings 11:26–12:24; John 16:5–16

Originally published 11/18/2016. Revised and updated 11/19/2018.

Psalm 129: The tone of this song of ascent is much darker than its predecessor. All Israel has been oppressed but remains defiant, strongly suggesting it has been written from exile:
Much they beset me from my youth
   —let Israel now say—
much they beset me from my youth,
yet they did not prevail over me.” (1,2)

A grim agricultural metaphor suggests torture—psychological if not actually physical. We can almost feel the pain on our own backs:
My back the harrowers harrowed,
they drew a long furrow.

Despite the oppression and the torture, Israel continues to stand in defiance because “The Lord is just.” (4a) Those who would oppress are defeated and Israel is freed from them: “He has slashed the bonds of the wicked.” (4b)

A malediction follows that not only will Israel be freed, but the roles of oppressor and oppressed will be reversed. Those who oppress Israel become those who are shamed:
May they be shamed and fall back,
all the haters of Zion.

Given the political opprobrium directed to modern Israel, there is certainly a contemporary feel to this verse.

The curse that follows is a simile of dry grass used as thatch connotes an image of the intrinsic unworth of Israel’s captors:
May they be like grass on rooftops
that the east wind withers.

Moreover, this grass, like the oppressors it represents, is worthless:
with which no reaper fills his hand,
no binder of sheaves his bosom.

This simile calls to mind Psalm 1: They have become like the “chaff that the wind drives away.” Totally absent of meaning or worth.

Perhaps worst of all, the wicked are separated from God as indicated by the absence of even an acknowledgement they exist: The lack of a blessing becomes a curse:
and no passers-by say, ‘The Lord’s blessing upon you!’
We bless you in the name of the Lord.
” (8)

Is there a greater sign of abandonment than to be simply ignored by those who pass us by without even looking? Without relationship with God or with others, the psalmist is telling us, the wicked are worse than worthless; they have simply ceased to exist.

I Kings 11:26-43: Because Solomon has foolishly begun to worship other small-g gods, God has told him that his kingdom will be taken from him, although not until after he dies. A certain Ephramite named Jeroboam decides to rebel against Solomon. Industrious Jeroboam has been appointed by Solomon to supervise forced labor of the house of Jospeh. One day as he leaves Jerusalem, Jeroboam encounters a prophet named Ahijah, whom we meet only here. Ahijah takes the coat he’s wearing a tears it into twelve pieces and hands Jeroboam ten of them, telling him, “thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, “See, I am about to tear the kingdom from the hand of Solomon, and will give you ten tribes.” (31) The prophet goes on to say that one tribe—Judah— will remain under Solomon’s (and his successors), as will the city of Jerusalem, “for the sake of my servant David and for the sake of Jerusalem, the city that I have chosen out of all the tribes of Israel.” (32) Our authors, writing hundreds of years after these events, certainly know the outcome of what Ahijah is “predicting.” But it’s equally clear that above all else, the authors want to make sure the name of David is to remain unsullied despite the sins of his successors.

Ahijah tells Jeroboam that God will give him the ten tribes, but not until after Solomon dies. However, he reminds Jeroboam that “to [Solomon’s] son I will give one tribe, so that my servant David may always have a lamp before me in Jerusalem, the city where I have chosen to put my name.” (36) As for Jeroboam himself, God promises, “I will take you, and you shall reign over all that your soul desires; you shall be king over Israel.” (37) Even more remarkably, God, through Ahijah, gives Jeroboam exactly the same promise as David and Solomon: “If you will listen to all that I command you, walk in my ways, and do what is right in my sight by keeping my statutes and my commandments, as David my servant did, I will be with you, and will build you an enduring house, as I built for David, and I will give Israel to you.” (38) We will find out later how well JeJeroboam sticks to this covenant.

Solomon hears of this and attempts to have Jeroboam killed, but he flees to Egypt.

Solomon reigns over a united Israel for 40 years, and I sure wish we had the “Book of the Acts of Solomon” to read about more of his adventures and hopefully, more examples of his wisdom. But alas, we do not have that book. Our authors tell us only that “Solomon slept with his ancestors and was buried in the city of his father David; and his son Rehoboam succeeded him.” (43)

So, what do we take away from the story of Solomon? That even the wisest man will fall prey to temptation and drift away from God. Our authors tend to blame the many wives and concubines that caused Solomon to drift away from God, but in the end, it is a question of personal responsibility. Solomon must face the consequences of his own choices. As must we.

Upon Solomon’s death, Israel gathers and asks Rehoboam for relief, “Your father made our yoke heavy. Now therefore lighten the hard service of your father and his heavy yoke that he placed on us, and we will serve you.” (12:4) Rehoboam tells them to come back in three days and he’ll answer. He seeks the counsel of the elders who advise him,“If you will be a servant to this people today and serve them, and speak good words to them when you answer them, then they will be your servants forever.” (12:8) However, his young companions tell him to lay it on even heavier.   Rehoboam, being young, believes he knows everything and ignores the advice of his elders, giving one of the most evil speeches in the Bible: “My father made your yoke heavy, but I will add to your yoke; my father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions.” (14)

Unsurprisingly, the people of the ten tribes rebel and make Jeroboam their king. Only the tribe of Judah follows Rehoboam. Thus, the united nation of Israel is sundered forever. All because one man thought he knew better than his older and wise counselors. Such are the fruits of arrogance and political immaturity.

John 16:5–16: Our gospel writer implies through Jesus words that “sorrow has filed [the disciples] hearts.” (5)  I’m guessing they’re also confused and doubtless not a little angry that their leader appears to be abandoning them. Needless to say, they hadn’t yet figured out about Jesus’ impending betrayal, mock trial, and execution. So, Jesus once again explains the business about the “Advocate,” this time asserting that “if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.” (7) Which sounds like the disciples can have one or the other but not both simultaneously. Or does it?

Jesus makes the intriguing if somewhat opaque statement, “And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment.” (8) I take this to mean that Jesus will turn the existing order and philosophy upside down and inside out, not only in Israel, but in the world at large. Which of course is exactly what happened as the church grew and a few centuries later the western world itself became Christendom.

The Holy Spirit will be transformative in many ways. First, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” (13) Then, “He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” (14) Together with Jesus’ next words, “All that the Father has is mine” (15) we get a glimpse of the complex relationship that we call the Trinity—a relationship that in the end is beyond human understanding.

Jesus concludes his soliloquy with a clear prediction of his death and resurrection: “A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me.” (16) Very soon, the world will be changing forever.

Psalm 128; 1 Kings 11:1–25; John 15:18–16:4

Originally published 11/17/2016. Revised and updated 11/17/2018.

Psalm 128: This “song of ascents” celebrates the qualities of a “good life.” Unsurprisingly, the first key to genuine happiness is obedience to God at the center of one’s life:
Happy all who fear the Lord,
who walk in His ways.

Next come the benefits of honest labor:
When you eat of the toil of your hands,
happy are you, and it is good for you
. (2)

I take this is that we are here on earth to do: work, or more generally, by dint of our efforts to contribute in some meaningful way to the betterment of the world into which we were born. I think it’s also worth noting is that the benefits of a good life does not necessarily produce wealth, but rather the reward is the honest fruits of honest labor.

Of course this psalm was written in a paternalistic age, where women had one clear purpose: to bear children while remaining generally out of sight. (In fact, the wealthier the man, the less like his wife was to be seen in public.) A wife’s fecundity is her greatest achievement:
Your wife is like a fruitful vine
in the recesses of your house.

The agricultural metaphor continues: A fruitful wife enabled a man’s greatest purpose, which is to be a father of many children:
Your children like young olive trees
around your table
. (3b)

A wife and children—the family—are a man’s greatest reward for following God since this is aligned to—and a reflection of—God’s creative power:
Look, for it is thus
that the man is blessed who fears the Lord.

It’s very clear here: an intact family—man, woman, children who recognize that God is their creator is the foundation of a civil (in all senses of that word) society.Unfortunately, our culture seems headed in the opposite direction as it redefines not only what a “family” is, but is now redefining genders as well. “Fluidity” is the polar opposite of stability.

The song ends with two benedictory blessings. The first is for the continuation of this good life:
May the Lord bless you from Zion,
and may you see Jerusalem’s god
all the days of your life
. (5).

The second blessing resonates deeply with this grandfather, for I have been so blessed:
And may you see children of your children.
Peace upon Israel!

My children’s children have brought me true happiness—exactly as this psalm promises.

1 Kings 11:1–25: It’s almost a relief to learn that even though Solomon was wise beyond all others and wealthier and more powerful than anyone who has ever reigned in Israel, he is also a human, i.e., a sinner. And in a foreboding of what is to come in Solomon’s successors he committed what I think we could call the ur-sin of ancient Israel: loving women who worshipped other gods. Like everything else about Solomon he commits this sin in orders of magnitude greater than any other Israelite. In addition to the Pharaoh’s daughter he had 700 princesses and 300 concubines. [If we assume one sexual act per night, it would take Solomon almost 3 years to lie with every woman!] But what happens is exactly what “the Lord had said to the Israelites,You shall not enter into marriage with them, neither shall they with you; for they will surely incline your heart to follow their gods.” (2) 

Solomon’s ultimate tragedy lies in this single sentence: “For when Solomon was old, his wives turned away his heart after other gods; and his heart was not true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of his father David.” (6) Worse, Solomon begins building altars to these small-g gods.

And it is this ur-sin that our authors find the rationale for Israel’s long decline. God appears to Solomon and tells him, “Since this has been your mind and you have not kept my covenant and my statutes that I have commanded you, I will surely tear the kingdom from you and give it to your servant.” (11)  However, God will hold off on punishment until after Solomon dies. Which seems quite gracious. God also will preserve one tribe for Solomon’s successor, which I assume is Judah—the tribe of our authors writing centuries later.

Solomon’s troubles begin shortly thereafter: “the Lord raised up an adversary against Solomon, Hadad the Edomite,” (14) who takes revenge served cold because of David’s general, Joab, killing the males of Edom many years earlier. The king of Aram also joins the fray against as he “was an adversary of Israel all the days of Solomon, making trouble as Hadad did.” (25)

Lesson: Even those who appear to be preternaturally wise, even the very symbol of wisdom himself, are sinners at heart. And sins that ignore God will always bear bitter fruit.

John 15:18–16:4: For our gospel writer all things are binary. We believe or we don’t believe. There is love or hate; the world, or the Way to God through Jesus. He warns his disciples—and us— that if they and we believe and follow Jesus, “be aware that [the world] hated me before it hated you.” (18) And more ominously in the next sentence, “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you.” (20) Jesus followers will be persecuted “on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me.” (21)  And conversely, “Whoever hates me hates my Father also.” (23) One suspects that when this gospel was written some 90 years after the events it describes, societal rejection, if not outright persecution, of the followers of “the Way” had already commenced.

Here is where we read more clearly than anywhere else in the gospels that Jesus has changed the terms of the Old Covenant. His arrival on earth has made them aware of their (and our) inherent sinfulness: “If I had not done among them the works that no one else did, they would not have sin.” (24) In short, when we hear the message of Jesus and then consciously reject it, we are in denial about our own fallenness. And no sacrifice will justify that person before God. Jesus has replaced the old system, which is the overarching theme of the Epistle to the Hebrews.

But all is not lost, for the third person of the Trinity will arrive soon: “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf.” (26) in other words, the followers of Jesus will receive comfort and new power through the Holy Spirit.

Nevertheless, hard times are surely coming. This is John’s Olivet Discourse: “They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God.” (16:2)

In this gospel the key issue is not eschatological at the end of history, but right in the here and now. People have consciously rejected Jesus and therefore rejected God, and “they will do this because they have not known the Father or me.” (16:3)

Jesus is speaking in an age where everyone believed in God or in their small-g gods. Our small-g gods such as status, power, and wealth are more subtle but just as deadly to our souls. The choice is very clear. Believe or don’t believe in Jesus and his message.

But today, there is far more indifference to the whole idea of God, never mind belief in God. People do not reject God consciously; they just think God is irrelevant to them. At least when they are young. I think as one ages, there is a growing desire for transcendence. And Jesus’ promise fills that desire.

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?

Psalm 126; 1 Kings 8:54–9:19; John 14:25–15:8

Originally published 11/15/2016. Revised and updated 11/15/2018.

Psalm 126: This psalm anticipates God’s good actions:
When the Lord restores Zion’s fortunes.
we should be like dreamers.

In fact this restoration will be so wonderful (and unexpected) that people will think it’s a dream. And when that actual restoration comes,
Then will our mouth fill with laughter
and our tongue sing glad song
. (2a)

Moreover, God’s action on behalf of Israel will be tangibly visible beyond its borders:
Then will they say in the nations:
‘Great things has the Lord done with these.
‘ (2b)

But as our psalmist writes from Babylonian exile, none of this has yet occurred. He wishes for God’s rescue in a dramatic simile:
Restore, O Lord, our fortunes
like freshets in the Negeb
. (4)

The wadis of the Negev desert are dry, but after a rain they run fast and deep. So, too, will Israel run deep with joy when God finally intervenes.

What that finally happens, what began in sorrow will end in joy in this beautiful metaphor of planting and harvesting:
They who sow in tears
in glad song will reap.

How often have we experienced something that seems hopeless and dark, only to have God transform it into circumstances in which we can rejoice. For me personally, a diagnosis of aggressive cancer is about as awful as it can get. Yet, in the end I have experienced unexpected love and healing such that I have encountered again and again the joy that comes in realizing how precious life and relationships really are.

Our psalmist expands on the sower image, describing his present sorrow;
He walks along and weeps,
the bearer of the seed-bag. 

But God restores his fortunes and restores Israel’s fortunes, and yes, has restored my own fortunes. The final metaphor of this psalm becomes not just one of rejoicing but also of healing as our planter will reap joy from that which was planted in sorrow:
He will surely come in with glad song
bearing his sheaves
.” (6b)

1 Kings 8:54–9:19: Solomon concludes his oration by blessing those assembled around him at the temple: “Blessed be the Lord, who has given rest to his people Israel according to all that he promised; not one word has failed of all his good promise.” (8:56). But as always, there is an obligation on the people to obey God and Solomon reminds them of this. They are to “incline our hearts to him, to walk in all his ways, and to keep his commandments, his statutes, and his ordinances, which he commanded our ancestors.” (8:58)

Solomon puts the temple to its intended purpose as he offers its first—and extravagant—sacrifice: “Solomon offered as sacrifices of well-being to the Lord twenty-two thousand oxen and one hundred twenty thousand sheep.” (62).  I presume a feast of roasted meat ensued shortly thereafter. The people celebrate for a week before departing for their homes.

Now that this project is complete, God appears to Solomon in a dream and tells him, “I have heard your prayer and your plea, which you made before me.” And God will “put my name there forever; my eyes and my heart will be there for all time.” (9:3) Solomon has carried through on what he promised and God is pleased. The question for us of course is do we make empty promises to God, especially in times of trouble, and then neglect to make good on our promises? Or are we like Solomon in taking our vows seriously?

If Solomon continues to follow and obey God, the house of David will endure as God promises,”I will establish your royal throne over Israel forever, as I promised your father David.” (9:5) But as always, there is a warning should Israel turn away from God: “I will cut Israel off from the land that I have given them; and the house that I have consecrated for my name I will cast out of my sight; and Israel will become a proverb and a taunt among all peoples.” (9:7)

Our authors are writing from exile and know all too well exactly what happened. Again and again Israel has turned from God and again and again God has relented. But Israel’s persistence in disobedience finally results in the destruction of the temple Solomon built—and of Jerusalem itself. The house of David goes dormant for centuries until it is unexpectedly restored by the birth of a baby in Bethlehem. But the lesson for us here is that both actions and inactions have consequences. Just as for ancient Israel, so too, for us today.

John 14:25–15:8: Jesus continues his long reassurance to his disciples—and to us—that although he is physically leaving the earth he is leaving the “Advocate, the Holy Spirit” in his place. He also leaves love and peace: “ Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.” (27a) Just as the angels who visited Elizabeth and Mary told them not to fear, Jesus delivers exactly the same message to his —and to us: “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (27b) It is in this promise that we Christians can carry on despite human tragedy such as the fires in California and yes, also the ceaseless depredations and evil in the world when we witness yet another mass shooting.

I think too many Christians today have forgotten this all-important promise in the daily turmoil of their lives and the in our culture, which offers little succor and certainly no salvation. Peace and freedom from fear come from only one source: Jesus. Yes, many will tell us that belief in Jesus is merely an emotional crutch. They go on to state that the resources of courage and ultimately, inner peace lie completely within us if we would only master them. But they are wrong. All that lies within us is a heart and mind rarely at peace and too often fearful.

Jesus continues with perhaps the most famous metaphor in the New Testament: I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.” (15:1) We are the branches and for me, the power of the metaphor lies in the reality that branches are connected to the root but that it is the branches that comprise the vine. The root is basically invisible.

We branches make up the visible church here on earth. But if we cut ourselves off from Jesus we wither and die: “Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.” (15:4) It is Jesus who provides the sustenance and energy of the church. It is why we must gather and worship as community. Jesus makes it abundantly clear we cannot know him as isolated persons. 

I think it is good that we are entering a post-Christian age. This will make the source of sustenance of the church—the branches—far more visible. It is not what we do on our own that matters. It is what Jesus does through us. 

Psalm 125; 1 Kings 8:17–53; John 14:15–24

Originally published 11/14/2016. Revised and updated 11/14/2018.

Psalm 125: This “song of ascents” focuses on the ground on which the temple is built—Mount Zion —rather then the temple itself. [Alter suggests this is because this post-exilic psalm was written after the temple was destroyed.] Like Mount Zion, Israel endures despite attempts to conquer and destroy it:
Those who trust in the lord
are like Mount Zion never shaken,
settled forever.

Just as Jerusalem is protected by a ring of mountains, God encircles his people to protect them: Jerusalem, mountains around it,
and the Lord is around His people
now and forevermore.

What great reassurance! That despite the depredations of its enemies, Jerusalem still stands tall and proud. As it dies 2500 years later. And that is the promise God makes to each of us: that despite the arrows of outrageous fortune; God is nearby; encircling us; protecting us.

However, to enjoy that protection, there must be righteousness. Our psalmist continues, declaring,
For the rod of righteousness will not rest
on the portion of the righteousness,
so that the righteous not set their hands
to wrongdoing.

In other words, there is no need for God to punish with his rod because the righteous will avoid temptations to sin. As is always the case in the OT, there is a reward for those who live righteously:
Do good, O Lord, to the good
and to the upright in their hearts.

On the other hand, God will punish those who deviate from the straight and narrow:
And those who bend to crookedness,
may the Lord take them off with the wrongdoers.

Once again we can see where the Pharisees got their motivation to hew to a righteous path, even to the point of overbearing punctiliousness. What is missing here in all these psalms is grace and forgiveness. I’m glad that Jesus, in coming to earth, brought grace and forgiveness with him.

1 Kings 8:17–53: Solomon continues his dedicatory speech, reminding his listeners that “My father David had it in mind to build a house for the name of the Lord.” (17) but that God promised him that “you shall not build the house, but your son who shall be born to you shall build the house for my name.” (19) Now that promise had been fulfilled via Solomon who has “built the house for the name of the Lord, the God of Israel.” (20).

Solomon makes an important point that the temple does not create boundaries around God: “Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!” (27) God is much greater than the boxes we build for him to try to contain God. Even the temple in all its grandeur cannot contain God.

The major content of Solomon’s speech is in his lengthy prayer of dedication, which is a recapitulation of the meaning behind the Decalogue. The temple is where justice is occurs. God will “hear in heaven, and act, and judge your servants, condemning the guilty by bringing their conduct on their own head, and vindicating the righteous by rewarding them according to their righteousness.” (32)

Where there is confession, there is forgiveness. When Israel as a nation is “defeated before an enemy but [Israel will] turn again to you, confess your name, pray and plead with you in this house…[God will] hear in heaven, forgive the sin of your people Israel, and bring them again to the land that you gave to their ancestors.” (33, 34) Of course as events will show, this act was too often ignored by Israel to its great peril and its final destruction some 400 years later.

Likewise, Israel is to pray for rain in time of drought or when the nation is besieged by famine, it is to come and pray, as Solomon asks God to “hear in heaven your dwelling place, forgive, act, and render to all whose hearts you know—according to all their ways, for only you know what is in every human heart.” (40) This is the centerpiece of Solomon’s prayer: that Israel is come to the temple and confess before God who will hear then and forgive them. For indeed, God knows the thoughts and motivations of every human heart—including ours. This is also why we should make prayer the centerpiece of our lives, as well.

As the author Hebrews makes clear, Jesus Christ replaces the priesthood of the temple as we come to Jesus with our confession of sin. And God forgives us not with bloody sacrifices on the altar as at the temple, but through the person of Jesus Christ who has made this once-and-for-all sacrifice.

Solomon concludes his prayer by reminding his listeners of God’s promise to Israel: “For you have separated them from among all the peoples of the earth, to be your heritage, just as you promised through Moses, your servant, when you brought our ancestors out of Egypt, O Lord God.” (53) Remarkably, this promise still stands today as the Jews remain a set-apart people.

John 14:15–24: Jesus’ valedictory announcement that he is going away to some mysterious place where his Father has prepared many dwellings has created enormous confusion, if not consternation among the disciples. One has already left to go betray Jesus. I’m pretty sure others in the room are considering bolting as well. Jesus reminds them that “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (15) In other words, Jesus has tied the love he knows they have for him to their obedience through love rather than just righteous [too often, self-righteous] rule following—a direct revision of the theme of the psalm above.

The really good news is that neither they (nor we) have to rely strictly on their own willpower to do as Jesus has asked them. In one of those verses in which we glimpse the Trinity, Jesus assures them, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.” (16) This Spirit is exclusive to those who believe in Jesus: “This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him.” (17) Jesus tells them that this Advocate—about whom he will have much more to say later in this discourse—will abide in them. ‘Abide’ is crucial because it means to dwell within not just to come alongside.

To drive his point about comfort being available after he departs, Jesus reassures them, “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.” (18) Through the Spirit they will come to understand (in another Trinitarian reference) that “you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” (20) Again, he drives home the point about the interiority of the Holy Spirit who comes into us to ‘abide’ in us.

Jesus then gives a hint of the regime to come after his earthly departure. For those who believe that Jesus is who he says he is, “I will love them and reveal myself to them.” (21) One of the disciples understandably asks, “how will you reveal yourself to us and not the world?” (22) It turns out the answer is really quite straightforward: Love. “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” (23) In stil another Trinitarian reference: “the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.” (24)

This is deep theology and frankly, impossible to really get our heads around. But theology and understanding is not really Jesus’ point. Rather, it is the love of the Father and of Jesus expressed through the Holy Spirit. We are to get our hearts around love first. Understanding comes later through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

Psalm 124; 1 Kings 7:34–8:16; John 14:1–14

Originally published 11/13/2016. Revised and updated 11/13/2018.

Psalm 124: This psalm gratefully explores the hypothesis of what would have happened had God not been watching over and protecting Israel:
Were it not for the Lord Who was for us
—let Israel now say—
were it not for the Lord Who was for us
when people rose against us,
then they would have swallowed us alive
when their wrath flared hot against us. (1-3)

Our psalmist goes on describing the awful things that could have happened:
Then the waters would have swept us up,
the torrent come up past our necks
. (4)

When we are feeling discouraged and thinking that God is absent or we have prayed for something that has not come to pass the way we would have liked, this psalm is a stark reminder of what our circumstances might have been had God not been there “for us.” We are protected from disaster in ways we so often fail to appreciate. It’s entirely conceivable that we just barely escaped some awful consequence, just as the psalmist has it:
Our life is like a bird escaped
from the snare of the fowlers
The snare was broken
and we escaped.
” (8)

This idea of narrow escapes because God is protecting us is worth reflecting on in light of the awful fires in California. Many have escaped total devastation, although a few haven’t. Was God there for those who escaped? What about those who didn’t? Only God knows. Regardless of what has happened we know one thing stands sure and true:
Our help is in the name of the Lord,
maker of heaven and earth.

Amen. God is sovereign and this reality reminds us that the affairs of we humans are mere ephemera in his eyes.

1 Kings 7:34–8:16: Our authors go on at extreme length describing the furnishings of Solomon’s temple. For me, the gigantic bronze basins and the huge “sea” are the most impressive objects: “each basin held forty baths, each basin measured four cubits; there was a basin for each of the ten stands.” (7:38) The gold lampstands are equally impressive. No detail was overlooked, right on down to “the sockets for the doors of the innermost part of the house, the most holy place, and for the doors of the nave of the temple, of gold.” (7:50)

Once the temple is finished, it is dedicated—something we still do for our own buildings and churches. The priests bring the Ark of the Covenant into the Holy of Holies “in the inner sanctuary of the house, in the most holy place, underneath the wings of the cherubim.” (8:6) After all these years we finally get a clear statement of what the ark contained: “There was nothing in the ark except the two tablets of stone that Moses had placed there at Horeb, where the Lord made a covenant with the Israelites, when they came out of the land of Egypt.” (8:9) Almost sort of anti-climatic…

All of this is quite pleasing to God, and “the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord.” (8:11) As far as Solomon is concerned, this magnificent temple will be God’s dwelling place for all time:
The Lord has said that he would dwell in thick darkness.
   I have built you an exalted house,
    a place for you to dwell in forever.” (8:13)

Given this sign of God’s presence, Solomon begins his dedicatory speech by observing that God “has fulfilled what he promised with his mouth to my father David.” (8:15)

What’s fascinating to me is how our perception of God has evolved from Solomon’s time. While God is omnipresent and omnipotent, for Israel God apparently resides in one place and that is the temple. (Which is pretty similar to other temple cults of that day and later, e.g. the Romans.)

Now of course we tend to think of God as being everywhere, which can too easily lead us into a vaporous pantheism. I think this reading is instructive, reminding us that while God transcends time and space in ways we cannot understand, God also operates in real time and real space. And that at this moment that is the temple at Jerusalem. Jesus’ incarnation is God entering into the world into real time and space, but it is his church that transcends time (the “clouds of witnesses” down through time of Hebrews 11) and also space just as Christianity certainly transcends the boundaries of Jerusalem.

John 14:1–14: We arrive at the chapters 14 through 17 known as the Upper Room Discourse. Jesus opens by say  reminding his disciples (and us) for the umteenth time that it’s all about belief: “Believe in God, believe also in me.” (1)

Jesus makes it clear that “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places” (2) and that he’s going on ahead to prepare a place for them—and by implication, for us. So what are these ‘dwelling places’ and at what level of abstraction do they exist? The traditional interpretation is that they are places in heaven and that every believer will be accommodated there. But another read might be that God, being God, has a variety of ways—the various dwelling places— in which humans can approach and be with God.

Be that as it may, as far as his disciples [and therefore all of us] are concerned, there is but one way, and that is through Jesus as he famously intones, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (6) This verse has led to many asserting that Jesus is the exclusive way to heaven and all other “ways” lead only to dead ends. Personally, I’m not so sure. Jesus does not address that actual subject and we make our conclusions based on what may be incomplete information. Remember, this verse exists in the context of “many dwellings.” Also, as Jesus has been saying for the last several chapters, he and the Father are effectively one: “Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works.” (10)

Clearly, if we hear Jesus’ message and believe that what he says is true, this is how we come to God. But if we have not heard that message are we doomed? Many Christians believe this is absolutely true but I think they are using human logic which is not necessarily God’s logic. If God is a God of love, can this exclusivity and implied condemnation of all others really hold? In the end I think Jesus is expressing a concept that we cannot fully grasp. There is something else going on here, but I really have no idea what it is. Nor do I think theologians and preachers have as firm a grip on this verse as they may think they do.


Psalm 123; 1 Kings 7:1-33; John 13:31-38

Originally published 11/12/2014 (Psalm published 11/13/2014). Revised and updated 11/12/2018.

Psalm 123: Slaves keep their eyes down except when they raise them to the Master:
To You I lift up my eyes, 
O dweller in the heavens. (1)

This is one place where we get the sense that heaven is “up there.” God is clearly in the heavens up above, although this may be more indicative of God’s superior position than to his geographical location.

In that framework, we humans are like supplicating slaves:
Look, like the eyes of slaves to their masters,
like the eyes of a slavegirl to her mistress,
so are our eyes to the Lord our God(2).

There is only one thing that will aid us: God’s grace. The word is repeated three times:
…until He grants us grace. 
Grant us grace, LORD, grant us grace.” (2b, 3)

In this case, I take “grace” to me “relief from,” as the psalmist prays for relief from being “sated with scorn” (3b). Unlike many psalms that are asking for relief from more specific oppression, this one is more general, because
Sorely has our being been sated
with the contempt of the smug,
the scorn of the haughty. (4)

There is always this great divide: those who follow God and acknowledge our slave-like status (as Paul makes clear elsewhere) or those who attempt to live in their own self-sufficiency, believing that makes them better that those people who need the “crutch” of belief in God. Many of us know this scorn and haughtiness personally. Only God can heal.

1 Kings 7:1-33: While the Temple only took seven years to build, Solomon takes thirteen years to build his own house. Which includes of the House of the Forest, the Hall of Pillars, the Hall of the Throne, and his own residence  “in the other court back of the hall,” (8) as well as as separate residence for his Egyptian wife. As we read in the Psalms, Jerusalem is both where God resides, but it is also the center of temporal and political power. Clearly, through these magnificent structures, Solomon made a statement to the rest of the world that Israel was wealthier and more powerful than all the other nations and that these buildings were ample proof that Jerusalem truly was at the center of civilization.

Not only buildings, but furnishings., especially the bronzework made by Hiram of Tyre, all described in loving detail by our author. The bronze and copper molten sea,”a laver that was 15 feet in diameter and 7 1.2 feet high, resting on 12 bronze oxen, must have been particularly impressive.

When we realize that I Kings was written during the exile in Babylon, we can only imagine the author writing with a mix of passion and bitter nostalgia of what had been and was never to be again.

 John 13:31-38: Judas has “gone out,” and only the small band of true disciples remains in the room. Jesus is making it clear that his end is near, “I am only with you a little while longer.” (33a) And then what must have seemed like the rally bad news, “Where I am going, you cannot come.” (33b) Which for me is a reference to the entire chain of events that will be occurring over the next few days, ending finally at his ascension. But in his impending absence, Jesus gives the disciples something that will fill the void of his physical absence: love.

Loving each other is not just a suggestion; it is a commandment. I forget this a lot. Because as a commandment, it means we are to love the unlovable, and worse, to love those who are our enemies. In this regard, Jesus turns the world upside down with this simple single commandment. Even those who don’t accept Jesus died and was resurrected, are forced to confront the absolute truth of this commandment. They cannot deny the verity and wisdom of what Jesus is commanding.

And of course our collective inability to truly carry out Jesus’ command is exactly the proof of why Jesus came to earth, lived, died and rose again. As Jesus is about to demonstrate, that is where a greater love than any other human has been able to accomplish. Because what Jesus is about to do is the highest possible expression of the love of God.

But Peter, being Peter, completely ignores what Jesus has just said about love. In his fierce loyalty to his leader his steel-trap mind got stuck on why he can’t accompany Jesus on this upcoming journey. Jesus effectively tells Peter (and us) that absent the love that he has commanded our desires and intentions are hollow. But I also know this: I would have responded exactly as Peter. And I would also have denied Jesus—just as I have done so frequently in my own life.

Psalm 122; 1 Kings 6; John 13:18–30

Originally published 11/10/2016. Revised and updated 11/10/2018.

Psalm 122: This is the third of fifteen “songs of ascents.” This one is dedicated to David, and suggests it was sung on a pilgrimage “ascending” to the temple in Jerusalem:
I rejoiced in those who said to me:
Let us go to the house of the Lord.

This psalm clearly states that the pilgrims do not live in Jerusalem as they arrive at the city gates:
Our feet were standing
in your gates, Jerusalem
. (2)

Like the rural farmers they probably were, they are impressed by the city:
Jerusalem is built like a town
that is built fast together,
where the tribes go up
. (3, 4a)

Jerusalem is the epicenter of the what it means to be a citizen of Israel, where both God and the king dwell:
An ordinance it is for Israel
to acclaim the name of the Lord.
For there the thrones of judgement stand,
the thrones of the house of David
. (4b, 5)

This assertion of Jerusalem being at the center of Jewish life extends to today with the benediction/blessing/toast uttered by many Jews, “Next year in Jerusalem.”

This psalm is also a benediction over Jerusalem, which 3000 years later remains at the center of Judaism, not to mention Christianity. As such, we too should sing with these pilgrims,
Pray for Jerusalem’s weal.
May your lovers rest tranquil!
May there be well-being within your ramparts,
tranquility in your palaces. (6,7)

That Jerusalem remains the center of global conflict as well as religion is a stark reminder of the central role in the human history that it has played for more than three millennia. For those of us, who are far from Jerusalem, but who care for the welfare of that city and its inhabitants, we cannot surpass the intensity and deep meaning of the prayer for Jerusalem that we read here:
For the sake of my brothers and my companions,
let me speak, pray, of your wea
l. (8)

Our pilgrims have continued their ascent to the temple, an ascent that began at Jerusalem’s gates. They have admired David’s palace, and now they arrive at the temple, still praying,
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
let me seek your good.

Amen. That we would seek and rejoice in the good that God has given us every day. (Rather than whining on Facebook when things don’t go our way.)

1 Kings 6: My architect son-in-law would appreciate this chapter—a detailed and loving description of the first temple at Jerusalem. At last, 480 years after the Exodus, God is finally going to receive a permanent earthly abode. The central part of the temple, the “house of the Lord” is 90 feet long, 30 feet wide, and 45 feet high.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of its actual construction is that “the house was built with stone finished at the quarry, so that neither hammer nor ax nor any tool of iron was heard in the temple while it was being built.” (7) Its walls are lined with cedar and the inner sanctuary is constructed entirely of cedar, lovingly carved, “had carvings of gourds and open flowers; all was cedar, no stone was seen.” (18)

This house is eminently acceptable to God, whose word comes to Solomon: “Concerning this house that you are building, if you will walk in my statutes, obey my ordinances, and keep all my commandments by walking in them, then I will establish my promise with you, which I made to your father David.” (12) Notice the condition: God will keep his side of the Covenant only of Israel keeps its side. This statement must have had small little irony for our authors writing in exile in Babylon. How far Israel and Judah had fallen since the glory days of Solomon.

Extravagance abounds everywhere: “Solomon overlaid the inside of the house with pure gold, then he drew chains of gold across, in front of the inner sanctuary, and overlaid it with gold.” (21) The temple’s furnishings are equally impressive, especially the giant (15 feet high) carved cherubim made of olive wood.

The temple takes seven years to build and we can imagine that despite its power and wealth, Israel’s treasury was considerably smaller at the end of this magnificent project.  The message here for me is that like Solomon, we are to give our very best to God, not what is left over.

John 13:18–30: Our gospel writer is in full theo-philosophical mode as he underscores Jesus’ words by quoting Psalm 41: “it is to fulfill the scripture, ‘The one who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.’” (18) Once again, we read how completely intertwined Jesus’ relationship to his Father is: “I tell you, whoever receives one whom I send receives me; and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.” (20) This father-son aspect of the Trinity is seen more intensely in John than in any of the synoptics.

Before Jesus’ discourse can continue there is a betrayer to be dealt with. Jesus brings up the subject himself by announcing, “Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.” (21) Needless to say, this raises consternation and confusion among the disciples as this announcement seems to have come straight out of the blue. John inserts a quasi-autobiographical note here, “One of his disciples—the one whom Jesus loved—was reclining next to him,” (23) although he does not name him. [BTW, my own belief is that John the beloved disciple is not necessarily the same John who authored his eponymous gospel, but this is not an crucial issue.]

Peter, being Peter, asks who Jesus is talking about. As written here, his inquiry appears to be sotto voce since Peter is also reclining next to Jesus. [I think this is also why John mentions he’s also reclining at Jesus’ side: it allows him to hear Peter’s question and Jesus’ answer.] Jesus responds that the person to whom he hands the bread will be his betrayer and hands it to Judas.

What’s fascinating here in this ironic reverse eucharist is that John is telling us that up to that moment, Judas was acting on his own out of some sort of frustration—probably that Jesus had not pronounced himself the Davidic Messiah and started a revolt against the Romans. Or perhaps he was having second thoughts about his conspiracy. However, as Judas “received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him” (27) and he departs—much to the puzzlement of the other disciples. The reference to Judas acting as an instrument of Satan is theologically crucial. It is not Judas, mere human that he is, that betrays the Son of God. Rather, Judas is simply the satanic means to a larger end in the great cosmic battle between good and evil, between God and Satan.

The final sentence of this passage—”And it was night” (30)—is fraught with far greater meaning than that it was simply dark outside. This is a clear reference back to the long discourse on light and darkness. Jesus is light; the act of Satan through Judas is the utter antithesis of that light. And at this point it appears that the darkness will successfully quench that light.

Psalm 121; 1 Kings 4:29–5:18; John 13:1–17

Originally published 11/9/2016. Revised and updated 11/9/2018.

Psalm 121: Those who despair over election results may wish to turn to this psalm for comfort and hope.
I lift up my eyes to the mountains:
from where will my help come?
My help is from the Lord,
maker of heaven and earth.” (1,2)

If we really believe Jesus is who he says he is and that God is ‘maker of heaven and earth,’ we can look to the future with equanimity and peace rather than fear. Our psalmist continues, reminding us that in the end is not humankind or its deeds that protect us. There is only one Protector:
He does not let your foot stumble./\
Your guard does not stumble
.” (3)

Regardless of human affairs and human deeds, God is on duty 24/7/365:
Look, He does not slumber nor does he sleep,
Israel’s guard
. (4)

Our poet employs a beautiful metaphor to describe the nature of God’s protection:
The Lord is your guard,
the Lord is your shade at your right hand.

I have assurance that I am fully protected from the harsh glare of evil that exists around me: By day the sun does not strike you,
nor the moon by night.”

Evil abounds in the world as we experience the societal effects of yet another mass shooting, just a couple of weeks after the last mass shooting. This psalm was doubtless of enormous succor to the people of Israel who suffered under a succession of of bad and frequently evil kings. Our psalmist asks us always to remember one thing as he concludes,
The Lord guards your going and your coming.
Now and forevermore.

In short, life will go on and those of us who trust God will find that one great fact of today that is the same as yesterday and will be tomorrow because we know that God will always guard over us. This is not to say that bad things won’t happen to us. They will. But in the end, God is on guard over us. We cannot lose hope.

1 Kings 4:29–5:18: Solomon’s reign is the high water mark of ancient Israel’s power and wealth. Our authors attribute Solomon’s wisdom to one source: “God gave Solomon very great wisdom, discernment, and breadth of understanding as vast as the sand on the seashore.” (4:29) His wisdom outranks all other world leaders: “He was wiser than anyone else, wiser than Ethan the Ezrahite, and Heman, Calcol, and Darda, children of Mahol; his fame spread throughout all the surrounding nations.” (31)

As proof of the fruits of that wisdom, our authors note that Solomon “composed three thousand proverbs, and his songs numbered a thousand and five.” (32) Moreover, he was an expert in the natural sciences: “He would speak of animals, and birds, and reptiles, and fish.” (33) As a result, “People came from all the nations to hear the wisdom of Solomon.” (34) For this brief period Israel was the center of the world.

How that fact must have rankled our authors who wrote while Israel had been conquered by the Persians and Judah was in exile in Babylon. If we need proof that empires that seem permanent but are in fact evanescent, it is right here. Only God is permanent.

His power and reputation established, Solomon turns to the building of the temple. Solomon sends word to his ally, King Hiram of Tyre, noting that “You know that my father David could not build a house for the name of the Lord his God because of the warfare with which his enemies surrounded him.” (5:3) But now that Israel is at peace, the time is right and Solomon “intend[s] to build a house for the name of the Lord my God, as the Lord said to my father David, ‘Your son, whom I will set on your throne in your place, shall build the house for my name.’” (5:5)

Hiram is more than happy to participate in the temple project. He and Solomon sign a treaty and Tyre and Israel engage in one of the earliest records of international trade: “Hiram supplied Solomon’s every need for timber of cedar and cypress. Solomon in turn gave Hiram twenty thousand cors of wheat as food for his household, and twenty cors of fine oil. Solomon gave this to Hiram year by year.” (5:10, 11)

One of the less publicized facts about Solomon building the temple is that he “conscripted forced labor out of all Israel; the levy numbered thirty thousand men.” (5:13)  They were sent to Lebanon to cut trees and then back to Israel to use that wood in the temple itself. Multitudes were engaged in this great national project, including “seventy thousand laborers and eighty thousand stonecutters in the hill country.” (5:15)

We can feel the pride of the authors as they lovingly describe the details of this great project.

John 13:1–17: John is writing his gospel some years after the three synoptics had been written, so he has no trouble dropping spoilers into his narrative: “The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him.” (2) John also tells us that Jesus was fully aware that his time on earth was nearing an end. Of course John, being John, states this in his usual ‘big picture’ philosophical way: “Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God.” (3)

And then Jesus does something completely unexpected—the apotheosis of true leadership. He becomes a servant to those whom he leads: “He poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.” (5) Peter, being Peter, protests that Jesus should not be doing this lowly act until Jesus rather curtly tells him, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” (8) At which point Peter overreacts and in an almost comical way, asking that Jesus also wash his hands and head. Jesus probably smiles and reassures him and the others that they are already clean.

The issue here is not about dirty feet or dirty hands. It is about the essential humility that Jesus displays and expects us as his followers to display as well. Jesus is setting the example that his disciples—and all of us—must follow: “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” (14)

But we also need to remember that we remain servants. This act of humility is exactly that. It does not elevate us or make us greater than others. As Jesus makes abundantly clear here: “I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them.” (16) We are to recognize who we are and what our position as Jesus followers must be: subservient to him. Too often, we have see ostensible Christian leaders see—and act—themselves as being greater than Jesus. That their message to their church is all about them. And then we see them fall.

The question of course is, are my acts truly humble because I have truly subjugated my own will to Jesus? Or am I simply faking humility?

Psalm 120; 1 Kings 4:1–28; John 12:37–50

Originally published 11/8/2016. Revised and updated 11/8/2018.

Psalm 120: The opening line of this psalm suggests thanksgiving for God’s rescue:
To the Lord when I was in straits
I called out and He answered me. (1)

But our psalmist remains in trouble and thanksgiving becomes supplication. The poet has apparently been slandered:
Lord, save my life from lying lips,
from a tongue of deceit.

He asks his accuser rhetorically,
What can it give you, what can it add,
a tongue of deceit?

We know the answer: slander adds nothing to a person’s character; it only subtracts. We have certainly seen a lot of slander in the political world earlier this fall in confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh. Unfounded accusations  only negated any admiration we may have had for his accuser.

Slander hurts and it lingers. The poet’s metaphor is exactly right here: it is a piercing arrow with a burning tip:
A warrior’s honed arrows
with broom-wood coals. (4)

Our psalmist is apparently well-traveled [or he is speaking metaphorically to make it clear that slander lingers everywhere he goes]:
Woe to me for I have sojourned in Meshech
dwelt among the tents of Kedar.

But no matter how far he goes the injuries of slander will not heal—just as we see today as a man’s reputation is shredded even though he has been vindicated:
Long has my whole being dwelt
among those who hate peace
. (6)

He sees himself as a minority among those who would rather fight:
I am for peace, but when I speak,
they are for war
.” (7)

Again, an apt reflection of the current polarized speech that reverberates across our country beginning at the very top in the White House.

1 Kings 4:1–28: Solomon rules over a unified Israel, establishes the court bureaucracy, and appoints priests, secretaries, a recorder, a person in charge of the palace itself and, interestingly, a manger over the forced labor obviously required to make things run. Among others, our authors mention “Zabud son of Nathan was priest and king’s friend.” (5)

In addition, the king appoints “twelve officials over all Israel, who provided food for the king and his household; each one had to make provision for one month in the year.” (7) Everything is sounding far more organized than the intrigue and plots presided over by David. One assumes that this one month a year service also acted as a check and balance, minimizing court intrigue and plotting since not much conspiracy can be accomplished in a month.

It’s a magnificent kingdom over which Solomon rules. We hear an echo of God’s original promise to Abraham: “Judah and Israel were as numerous as the sand by the sea; they ate and drank and were happy.” (20) Moreover, Solomon ruled over “all the kingdoms from the Euphrates to the land of the Philistines, even to the border of Egypt; they brought tribute and served Solomon all the days of his life.” (21) There is no question that under Solomon Israel achieves its apogee of peace, prosperity and power: “During Solomon’s lifetime Judah and Israel lived in safety, from Dan even to Beer-sheba, all of them under their vines and fig trees.” 25)  But no one was more powerful than Solomon himself as our authors provide a detailed inventory of his military power: “Solomon also had forty thousand stalls of horses for his chariots, and twelve thousand horsemen.” (26)

Unfortunately, as is the case of all empires, including this American one, once they achieve great wealth and power, it can be only downhill from there. But for now, let’s revel in the moment of peace, wealth, and power that flourished under Solomon’s reign.

John 12:37–50: Our gospel writer editorializes: “Although he had performed so many signs in their presence, they did not believe in him.” (37) Once again, for John it’s all about the binary state: either one believes Jesus is who he says he is or one does not.  In any event, no one should be surprised at this unbelief since as John quotes the prophet Isaiah who knew all along that the true Messiah would be rejected:
He has blinded their eyes
    and hardened their heart,
so that they might not look with their eyes,
    and understand with their heart and turn—
    and I would heal them.” (40)

And who is “He,” who has done this blinding and hardening we ask? One could assume it’s Satan. Or perhaps it’s simply human pride and a refusal to listen to Jesus’ new and unexpected message. Personally, I go with the latter since it’s far too easy to blame bad things on Satan when we humans are perfectly capable of blinding our own eyes and hardening our own hearts on our own.

However, lest we conclude that no one actually believed Jesus, John hurries to inform us, “many, even of the authorities, believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they did not confess it, for fear that they would be put out of the synagogue.” (42) And then the withering editorial condemnation that strikes at the heart of all of us even today: “for they loved human glory more than the glory that comes from God.” (43) As always, our belief in Jesus’ truth is hindered by our own pride.

John summarizes these last several chapters with a brilliant précis of Jesus’ teachings. First and foremost, there is his overarching theme of believing that Jesus—the Word— has truly come from God himself: Whoever believes in me believes not in me but in him who sent me. And whoever sees me sees him who sent me.” (44, 45) Then, there is the metaphor of this gospel: light and darkness that we have seen on display again and again, culminating in the healing of the blind man: “I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness.” (46) As always, our choices are binary: belief/unbelief and light/darkness.

But there is kindness and grace in Jesus’ message as well—a message we too often forget: “I came not to judge the world, but to save the world.” (47) And central to the theological plank of many evangelical churches is Jesus’ clear statement that we must make a decision: belief or unbelief. But also a warning of the consequences of rejecting who Jesus says he is: “The one who rejects me and does not receive my word has a judge; on the last day the word that I have spoken will serve as judge.” (48)

Finally, John’s Jesus makes it clear (as he does not in the Synoptics) that he is the emissary of God himself, sent to earth to deliver this crucial message with God’s own authority: “What I speak, therefore, I speak just as the Father has told me.” (50) The question remains for each of us to answer: do I truly believe what Jesus (through John) is saying?