Psalm 35:11–18; Nehemiah 2:11–3:32; Romans 3:3–18

Originally published 3/13/2017. Revised and updated 3/12/2019.

Psalm 35:11–18: Speaking in David’s voice, our psalmist perfectly describes the feelings of being accused unjustly. The setting is a courtroom and David is on trial for a crime he did not commit, accused by people he had treated well:
Outrageous witnesses rose,
of things I knew not they asked me.
They paid back evil for good—
bereavement for my very self.” (11, 12}

“Bereavement” is exactly the right word here. To be wrongly accused by people whom you once trusted is to feeln not only betrayed but to have become dead and useless to them—and to oneself. The sense of abandonment is palpable. Intensifying these awful feelings is the fact that despite having treated them well, including being at their side when they were suffering loss, they have in turn betrayed you—and all for naught.
And I, when they were ill, my garment was sackcloth,
I afflicted myself with fasting.

As for a friend, for a brother,
I went about as though mourning a mother,
in gloom I was bent.” (13, 14)

These feelings of betrayal are all too familiar. Our psalmist continues his lamentation that rather than recompense for his generous actions, he received not only mockery for his dire straits—but conspiracy as well. We would have to look long and hard for a more profound description of depression in the face of betrayal:
Yet when I limped, they rejoiced, and they gathered,
they gathered against me
like strangers I did not know.
Their mouths gaped and they were not still.
With contemptuous mocking chatter
they gnashed their teeth against me.”(15, 16)

It is in this deep despair that David turns to his God, who remains silent. He asks the question we have all asked at some point in our lives. Why won’t God see the injustice we are experiencing? Why won’t he take mercy and rescue us?
O Master, how long will will You see it?
Bring back my life from their violence,
from the lions, my very being. (17)

And the psalmist makes that promise we have all made, asking God for a quid pro quo. If he will rescue us, then he will worship God:
I shall acclaim You in a great assembly,
in a vast crowd I will praise you.
 (18)

The problem for David, for our psalmist, and for us as well, is that no matter how unfairly we’ve been treated, God does not make deals. That life is unfair and that God often seems silent and uncaring through our tribulations is a brutal reality of our fallen world.

Nehemiah 2:11–3:32: Nehemiah arrives in Jerusalem and “got up during the night” to inspect the city walls. He does this at night by himself so that the “officials did not know where I had gone or what I was doing; I had not yet told the Jews, the priests, the nobles, the officials, and the rest that were to do the work.” (2:16) There’s good reason for this secrecy since Nehemiah knows there are people like Sanballat who will do everything in their power to prevent rebuilding of the walls.

Ever the  careful engineer, Nehemiah prepares his thorough report and persuades the officials to “let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, so that we may no longer suffer disgrace.” (17) They agree enthusiastically to the project and “said, ‘Let us start building!’ So they committed themselves to the common good.” (18) Notice that they recognize the issue of the city’s security that Nehemiah has laid before them and that they must build “for the common good,” not just their own personal benefit.

Like any building project today, there is immediate opposition: “when Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official, and Geshem the Arab heard of it, they mocked and ridiculed us, saying, “What is this that you are doing? Are you rebelling against the king?” (20) Nehemiah retorts that it is “the God of heaven is the one who will give us success, and we his servants are going to start building.” He points out to the opposition that they have forfeited their rights and don’t even belong in there: “you have no share or claim or historic right in Jerusalem.” (20) His argument wins the day.

So the work begins. The gates are the first to be rebuilt and in the long list of names in chapter 3, it appears that every man in Jerusalem, including the Levites, was involved in the rebuilding project. Each task along the wall and the gates is assigned to a specific family.

Nehemiah knows how to organize and motivate people. Families that live along the wall repair the walls adjacent to their own houses or places of business, as for example, “Above the Horse Gate the priests made repairs, each one opposite his own house. After them Zadok son of Immer made repairs opposite his own house.” (3:28, 29) Obviously people are more enthusiastic to work on a project where they can see personal benefit. Which is still quite true today. Nehemiah certainly understands human nature and how to motivate people to a common task. Would that were still true in our own culture.

Romans 3:3–18: Paul addresses the question of the impact of unfaithful people on God (and I presume the church). He is not particularly worried about them: “What if some were unfaithful? Will their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means!” (3,4) Even better, although we are unjust toward God, he never returns the favor—some psalms notwithstanding. In fact, “if our injustice serves to confirm the justice of God, what should we say? That God is unjust to inflict wrath on us?” (5) Which is another way of saying that God abounds in grace.

Nevertheless, even though God is merciful, we are not to take advantage of this grace. It does not allow us to say, “Let us do evil so that good may come”? Their condemnation is deserved!” (8) Unfortunately, despite Paul’s admonition—and as we see in the Reformation—Luther found to his despair that  too many people took advantage of grace to sin gleefully.

God’s grace neither makes us sin-free nor makes us better people under our own power. Rather, all humans, “both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin.” (9) In fact, we must face up to our inherent sinfulness: There is no one who is righteous, not even one; there is no one who has understanding,” (10) 

By quoting this OT passage Paul is reminding us of our inherent human sinfulness and depravity. And if we ever needed a relevant description of today’s culture and the power of debased speech, it is right here:

Their throats are opened graves;
  they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of vipers is under their lips.”
“Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”
“Their feet are swift to shed blood;
ruin and misery are in their paths,
and the way of peace they have not known.” (13-17)

And perhaps the best description of our current culture in a single line:
There is no fear of God before their eyes.” (18)

On our own, human beings are a hopeless case and we cannot fix ourselves. We need something—or Someone— far greater to make us mend our ways and embrace a true, upright life.

 

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