Psalm 34:8–18; Ezra 8:21–10:6; Romans 1:26–2:4

Originally published 3/9/2017. Revised and updated 3/8/2019.

Psalm 34:8–18: Our psalmist is completely confident that God is our protector in all kinds of danger and that his angels guard over us. Even better, God frees us—an act that finds is apotheosis in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ:
The Lord’s messenger encamps
round those who fear Him and sets us free.
 (8)

What a great gift from God: to rest in him, or as the famous next verse has it:
Taste and see that the Lord is good,
happy the man who shelters in him.
 (9)

In fact, not only happiness, but all our needs (and wants?) will be fulfilled to those who fear God:
Fear the Lord, O His holy ones,
for those who fear Him know no want.
Lions are wretched, and hunger,
but the Lord’s seekers lack no good. (10, 11)

But this confidence that God will always hear, protect, bring joy, fulfill our wants seems just a tad too pat to me. And I think it would be all too easy to swerve off into using these verses to justify a prosperity gospel theology. Is this psalmist really free of the agonies of those other psalmists we read (or of Job), who beg for an absent God to hear them?

Be that as it may, our psalmist than launches into religious instruction seasoned with not a little advice:
Come sons, listen to me,
the Lord’s fear will I teach you.”

These include:
…keep your tongue from evil
and your lips from speaking deceit.
 (14)

And the even more general admonition is:
Swerve from evil and do good,
seek peace and pursue it
. (15)

Easy to say, hard to do. Then we read the restatement of the deuteronomic pact that God will protect only those who are his followers and that God rejects those who reject him, even to the awful fate of having their name forgotten by both God and humans:
The Lord’s eyes are on the righteous
and His ears to their outcry.
The Lord’s face is against evildoers,
to cut off from the earth their name. (16, 17)

Our poet concludes this section by asserting again that if we but ask, God will rescue us:
Cry out and the Lord hears,
and from all their straits He saves them.
 (18)

But as I think we all of us have experienced, there are times when we have cried out to God and have been met only with silence. I confess I find this psalm to be just a little too formulaically smooth. In the end, I think this is simply a joyful poem/song whose theology we need not probe too deeply.

Ezra 8:21–10:6: In this autobiographical section, Ezra basically echoes the psalmist above as he and his band proceed across dangerous territory unaccompanied by the king’s soldiers but confident that God would protect them under the terms of the same deuteronomic deal: “we had told the king that the hand of our God is gracious to all who seek him, but his power and his wrath are against all who forsake him.” (8:22)

Ezra distributes the substantial wealth gathered in Babylon (and that they’re traveling with) to twelve trusted priests: “the silver and the gold and the vessels, the offering for the house of our God that the king, his counselors, his lords, and all Israel there present had offered.” (8:25) He instructs them to guard these riches until they arrive at Jerusalem.

Ezra’s band finally arrives in Jerusalem reporting with gratitude that “the hand of our God was upon us, and he delivered us from the hand of the enemy and from ambushes along the way.” (8:31) The gifts are delivered to Eleazar, the high priest. Then, the “returned exiles, offered burnt offerings to the God of Israel, twelve bulls for all Israel, ninety-six rams, seventy-seven lambs, and as a sin offering twelve male goats; all this was a burnt offering to the Lord.” (8:35)

Once the sacrifices are complete, temple officials tell Ezra that many Israelites are intermingling via mixed marriage and have “not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands with their abominations, from the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites.” (9:1) Ezra is appalled and tears his clothes. He and his equally distraught companions “trembled at the words of the God of Israel, because of the faithlessness of the returned exiles, gathered around me while I sat appalled until the evening sacrifice.” (9:4)

After the evening sacrifice, Ezra rises and prays, beginning with a confession that suggests far less confidence that God will relent from punishment than our psalmist above: “O my God, I am too ashamed and embarrassed to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens.” (9:6) Ezra’s long prayer observes that the people are back to exactly the same sins that caused them to be conquered by the Babylonians 70 years earlier. He knows that God is right to be angry as he concludes, “O Lord, God of Israel, you are just, but we have escaped as a remnant, as is now the case. Here we are before you in our guilt, though no one can face you because of this.” (9:15)

Ezra’s rather dramatic confession, “weeping and throwing himself down before the house of God,” (10:1) makes a definite impact on the people and they also “wept bitterly.” He asks them all to “make a covenant with our God to send away all these wives and their children, …and let it be done according to the law.” (10:3) Ezra pleads for them to “Take action, for it is your duty, and we are with you; be strong, and do it.” (10:4) And the people swear to do it.

It is impossible in this day and age to understand the sheer enormity of what Ezra has asked the people to do. Would I be willing to break up my family because I have offended God? I can think of no greater test of one’s faith.

Romans 1:26–2:4: Like Ezra, Paul is outraged at sin and comes down particularly hard on the sin of homosexuality in a way that’s difficult to square with our current cultural attitudes: “in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.” (1:27)

Even worse, because “they did not see fit to acknowledge God,” God appears to have given up on them: “God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done.” (28) This applies not only to homosexual acts, but then, in the first of many Pauline lists we will encounter, these people are “filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters,  insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.” (29-31) But perhaps worst of all, “they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them.” (32) Which is certainly an apt description of the all too rapid acceptance of new cultural norms that’s happened in Americas over the past 15 years.

In short, Paul writes off an entire sinful culture. But then he warns us who profess to follow Christ that we have no excuse to judge these people because we’re guilty of the same sorts of sins. In fact this kind judgement is a greater sin than that committed by the “God-haters.” Just because we profess to love God does not give us a free pass: “Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? ” (2:3, 4) 

My takeaway here is that we in the church, who are so quick to judge others, are committing a greater sin than those who are doing the sins we are condemning. In this regard, the church has failed and continues to fail mightily. For there are few institutions skilled and adept at judging others than those of us in the church. It also means that if as a Christian you’re going to condemn someone else for a sin you are probably guilty of the greater sin of judgement. So, don’t quote the anti-homosexual verses without including the self-judgement verses.

 

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