Psalm 35:1–10; Nehemiah 1:1–2:10; Romans 2:17–3:2

Originally published 3/11/2015. Revised and updated 3/11/2019.

Psalm 35:1–10: This psalm of supplication begins with serious military imagery as the poet asks God to take his side:
Take my part, Lord, against my contesters.
fight those who fight against me.
Steady the shield and the buckler, and rise up to my help. (1, 2)

Then, the imagery becomes more aggressive:
Unsheathe the spear to the haft
against my pursuers. (3)

But these weapons are metaphorical as we arrive at the central topic of the psalm—his prayer for the destruction of his enemies:
Let them be shamed and disgraced,
who seek my life. (4a)

So, are these military aggressors or simply personal enemies? If we take this as a David psalm, it may be the plotting and conniving within the ranks of his army or perhaps if this psalm comes when he is king, in his court:
Let them retreat, be abased,
who plot harm against me. (4b)

The conspiracy theory seems reasonable a little farther along as our David poet proclaims his is innocent and did nothing to cause them to turn against him:
For unprovoked they set their net-trap for me,
unprovoked they dug a pit for my life. (7)

It would be far better that his enemy or enemies be hoisted on their own conspiratorial petard:
Let disaster come upon him unwitting
and the net that he set entrap him.
May he fall in disaster. (8)

Our poet is certain that God will act and in his assurance the verses turn to praise:
But I shall exult in the Lord,
shall be glad in His rescue. (9)

So, the question remains, should we pray to God for the destruction of our enemies? I think that the words of Jesus about loving our enemies trump those of this psalmist. We can certainly pray that conspiracies against us are defeated, and we can be confident that God will see to it that evil ultimately fails. But to pray for an enemy’s destruction? I leave that to our psalmist.

Nehemiah 1:1–2:10: Nehemiah is among my favorite books in the Bible because he is not only an effective leader, he is an engineer. While he is still at Susa in his important role as cupbearer to the king, messengers bring him word of the broken walls of Jerusalem and its general destruction. His reaction is emotional but he turns immediately to God, “I sat down and wept, and mourned for days, fasting and praying before the God of heaven.” (1:4). He prays fervently, beginning with a confession that admits all the wrongdoing of his people.But then he reminds God of his promise to the Jews, “but if you return to me and keep my commandments and do them, though your outcasts are under the farthest skies, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place at which I have chosen to establish my name.’” (1:9).

He then prays for the wisdom to know how to act on this news and how to bring this issue to Artaxerxes: “O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name. Give success to your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man!” (1:11)

As he brings the cup to king Artaxerxes, the king notices Nehemiah’s sadness and observes, “This can only be sadness of the heart.” (2:2) Nehemiah humbly reports that his ancestral home has been destroyed. The king responds, “What is your request?” Nehemiah does not hesitate to ask boldly, “I ask that you send me to Judah, to the city of my ancestors’ graves, so that I may rebuild it.” (2:5) As long as Nehemiah agrees to return, the king agrees to his request, equipping Nehemiah with letters of passage, as well as permission to obtain “timber to make beams for the gates of the temple fortress, and for the wall of the city, and for the house that I shall occupy.” (2:8)

Nehemiah is the perfect combination of God-fearing humility, intelligence, and boldness. He prays before acting. And in acting he is well prepared to ask for exactly what is needed. I think Martin Luther would have liked Nehemiah: A man of God who prays and then recognizes that God answers prayers (here, the response of the king to Nehemiah’s sadness) in such a way that it requires bold action on our part. God is not a prayer-answering vending machine dispensing gifts. Rather, many times prayers are answered as opportunities that present themselves. Like Nehemiah, we need the wisdom to know when and how to act on them.

Romans 2:17–3:2: Paul turns his attention to the Jews in his audience. His Pharisaical experience is surely on Paul’s mind when he notes that those who follow the law are very skilled at instruction and guiding others as “a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of children” (19, 20) But if you “teach others, will you not teach yourself?” (21) In other words, are you not a hypocrite every time you sin? You pretend to teach others but haven’t learned the lessons yourself.?

Paul, being Paul, cites several examples of that hypocrisy, which I’m sure he’s seen in action: While you preach against stealing, do you steal?  You that forbid adultery, do you commit adultery? You that abhor idols, do you rob temples?  You that boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? (21-23). It is this hypocrisy that causes the “The name of God [to be] blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” (24) Paul’s warning notwithstanding, we see all too many examples of this same hypocrisy among public officials within the church—not to mention the scandalous behavior of pedophilic priests in the Catholic Church.

Paul drives his point home by telling his audience that the physical mark of circumcision that makes a Jewish male a Jew is only that: a mark. And “if you break the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision.” (25)  And then in what had to be a revolutionary idea, Paul moves circumcision from its physicality to its true reality as a spiritual mark by asking rhetorically, “if those who are uncircumcised keep the requirements of the law, will not their uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision?” (26). And then, perhaps most radically of all, this allows him to completely redefine what it means to be a Jew: “a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual and not literal.” (29) Which is to say, that if we follow God in our hearts we are all marked as God-followers because it is “circumcision of the heart.”

Paul then poses another rhetorical question, “what is the value of circumcision?” (3:1) And answers immediately, “Much, in every way.” The reason is simple: it is Jews who were God’s chosen people: “For in the first place the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God. (3:2) There is  some very radical redefinition of what is at the very core of Jewish belief going here.

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