Psalm 33:1–5; Ezra 4; Acts 28:7–16

Originally published 3/4/2017. Revised and updated 3/4/2019.

Psalm 33:1–5: This first stanza is clearly a hymn—and to be sung at worship by those who are ‘righteous’ and ‘upright’ before God, i.e., those who have cleansed themselves via sacrifices at the temple:
Sing gladly, O righteous, of the Lord,
for the upright, praise is befitting.
Acclaim the Lord with the lyre,
with the ten-stringed lute hymn to him.“(1, 2)

Our poet advises us famously to “Sing Him a new song,/ play deftly with joyous shout.” (3) To me, this verse has always meant that we are to be open to new songs and happily sing something besides the old hymn ‘standards.’ I need to remember this when I’m grumpy about some of the praise choruses we sing. Although at this point, very few of them are new anymore.

As a marketing guy, this verse is also a clever advertisement on the part of the composer as he tells his congregation in effect, ‘Hey, guys, listen up; I’ve written a new hymn you’ll really like!’ BUt the underlying theme is the right one: we should constantly be applying our creative powers—be they musical composition, writing, art, dance, or whatever—in worship. God gave us the brains to be creative and creativity in worship is to be celebrated. As long as we remain focused on the Creator and not ourselves.

The remainder of this stanza celebrates the qualities of God that we should happily emulate:
For the word of the Lord is upright,
and all His doings in good faith.
He loves the right and the just.
The Lord’s kindness fills the earth. (4,5)

There’s a bit of self-congratulation here —”He loves the right and the just.—i.e., I the psalmist. Nevertheless, our mission is clear: As followers of God do we do or part to fill the earth with kindness? Because if we aren’t we really shouldn’t be singing this song. Something to think about the next time I’m tempted to write a sarcastic response on Facebook.

Ezra 4: Some things never change. Every building project has its opponents. Here, the long-time adversaries of Judah and Benjamin approach Zerubbabel and the heads of the leading clans, asking if they can participate in the rebuilding of the temple, claiming, “for we worship your God as you do, and we have been sacrificing to him ever since the days of King Esar-haddon of Assyria who brought us here.” (2) Wisely, Zerubbabel and the others decline the offer. I’m pretty sure they smelled something conspiratorially rotten.

Their fears are proven right when these same folks do everything in their power to frustrate the rebuilding that “discouraged the people of Judah, and made them afraid to build.” (4) Moreover, Judah’s enemies resort to bribery and eventually, “In the reign of Ahasuerus, in his accession year, they wrote an accusation against the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem.” (6)

Later, there’s a further, more powerful attempt to halt the rebuilding. A certain “royal deputy Rehum and Shimshai scribe wrote a letter against Jerusalem to King Artaxerxes.” (8) The authors of Ezra have preserved the letter’s contents. Unsurprisingly, the claim appeals to Artaxerses’ greed as the the deputy and scribe claim the people rebuilding Jerusalem are rebellious. They argue, “if this city is rebuilt and the walls finished, they will not pay tribute, custom, or toll, and the royal revenue will be reduced.” (13) To not pay taxes to the king, they point out, not only reduces revenue but is a sure sign of rebellion.

The deputy and scribe—who are surely lawyers— buttress their case by citing precedent: “a search may be made in the annals of your ancestors. You will discover in the annals that this is a rebellious city, hurtful to kings and provinces, and that sedition was stirred up in it from long ago” (15)

Artexerxes responds and declares, “someone searched and discovered that this city has risen against kings from long ago, and that rebellion and sedition have been made in it.” (19) Worse, they failed not only to pay taxes but once were so powerful that they once ruled “over the whole province Beyond the River, to whom tribute, custom, and toll were paid.” (20)

Thus, Artexerxes is convinced that the inhabitants of Jerusalem are up to no good and represent a political threat. So, he issues a decree halting further work on rebuilding Jerusalem or the temple. Decree in hand, Rehum and the scribe Shimshai rush to Jerusalem and happily announce Artexerxes’ cease and desist order. So, “work on the house of God in Jerusalem stopped and was discontinued until the second year of the reign of King Darius of Persia.” (24)

What’s so striking here is just how contemporary this all feels. NIMBYism has deep roots and parties are always seeking to prevent others from building in order to preserve their own political power. This descendants of Artaxerses are certainly inhabiting Washington DC even now.

Acts 28:7–16: Now on Malta, Paul and his companions are hosted by a “leading man of the island, named Publius, who received us and entertained us hospitably for three days.” (7) Publius’ father is sick with fever and dysentery. “Paul visited him and cured him by praying and putting his hands on him.” (8) [Notice that prayer is the engine of healing here.] This act naturally makes Paul very popular and “the rest of the people on the island who had diseases also came and were cured.” (9) The population of Malta “bestowed many honors on us, and when we were about to sail, they put on board all the provisions we needed.” (10)

Paul’s unintended visit to Malta has salutary effects, but he was not there long enough, nor really in any position to establish a church there. Christianity as the island’s primary religion came to Malta by another route. Nevertheless, the Maltese are a great example to us of true hospitality regardless of religious persuasion.

After three months on Malta, they set sail for Rome. Luke rather inexplicably tells us about the ship’s figurehead, the “Twin Brothers,” which I take to be Castor and Pollux or the Gemini as they were known in Rome. Still in travelogue mode, Luke tells us they arrive at Puteoli, now part of Naples, and finding believers there, they spent a week there.

They arrive at Rome at last and are greeted by believers there, who “came as far as the Forum of Appius and Three Taverns to meet us.” (15) Paul is greatly encouraged not only by the greetings of believers but by the fact that Christianity was rapidly infiltrating places where he had not yet been. Luke is making it clear in his description of this final Pauline journey that the Church is nearing critical mass, and that believers will soon be found everywhere in the Roman Empire.



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