Psalm 35:19–28; Nehemiah 4; Romans 3:19–31

Originally published 3/14/2017. Revised and updated 3/13/2019.

Psalm 35:19–28: Continuing to write in his voice, our psalmist describes the nature of the enemies that have risen up against David, again reminding us that these enemies are deceptive and have acted without provocation:
Let not my unprovoked enemies rejoice over me,
let my wanton foes not leer. (19)

Even worse, these enemies also array themselves against the defenseless, not just David, as they seek to entrap them with false testimony:
For they do not speak peace
and against the earth’s quiet ones plot words of deceit.
They open their mouths wide against me.
They say, ‘Hurrah! Hurrah! Our eyes have seen it.’ (20, 21)

Notice particularly that their instrument of conspiracy is speech. This is something I think we fail to fully appreciate in our own culture: we forget that words alone have tremendous power whether for good or evil.There are striking parallels with modern events, especially last summer’s Senate hearings around the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh for Supreme Court.  And when those words are compressed to the 140 characters of a tweet or other post, they can be especially misleading and harmful.

Our psalmist now turns to classic verses of supplication, attempting futilely it seems, to get God to listen to his cries, knowing that God, too, has witnessed this evil being perpetrated:
You, Lord, have seen, do not be mute.
O Master, do not keep far from me.
Rouse Yourself, wake for my cause,
my God and my Master, for my quarrel.” (22,23)

Above all, he asks God, do not give them to enjoy a gloating victory:

Let them not say in their heart,
‘Hurrah for ourselves. (25)

Yet, this is exactly what I too often do: to enjoy saying ‘Hurrah for me.” Rather, the psalmist continues his supplication,
Let them be shamed and abased one and all.
who rejoice in my harm.
Let them don shame and disgrace,
who vaunted over me. (26)

Well, Jesus has been quite specific on this point, hasn’t he?

Regardless of what the psalmist says, while we may plead to God for rescue, we are not supposed to wish harm on our enemies, but rather turn the other cheek. But the psalmist’s wish here is certainly our more typical response: “Rescue me God, and while you’re at it, please punish the other guy.”

Nevertheless, we can still sing with the psalmist in anticipation of God’s justice,
Great is the Lord
Who desires His servant’s well-being.
 (28)

Because in the end, we know that God desires—and brings— justice.

Nehemiah 4: Nehemiah has a doubly hard task. Not only must he oversee the rebuilding of the walls, but he constantly has to fight off the conspiracies of the opposition.

Sanballat remains his primary foe, who when he “heard that we were building the wall, he was angry and greatly enraged, and he mocked the Jews.” (1) Not just anger, but mockery: “What are these feeble Jews doing? Will they restore things? Will they sacrifice? Will they finish it in a day? Will they revive the stones out of the heaps of rubbish—and burned ones at that?” (2). Sanballat’s buddy, Tobiah joins in, laughing that foxes will break down the wall.

Soon, mockery becomes full-fledged conspiracy to halt the rebuilding project, “and all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and to cause confusion in it.” (8). Nehemiah prays to God to make this to stop, but he also takes practical measures: “and [he] set a guard as a protection against them day and night.” (9)

In the midst of this, the workers themselves complain their work is hindered because “there is too much rubbish so that we are unable to work on the wall.” (10) They also fear their enemies, who are likely to catch them by surprise, “They will not know or see anything before we come upon them and kill them and stop the work.” (11) They repeat this complaint ten times!

Unlike the psalmist above, who simply cries to God for rescue, Nehemiah takes action and builds a defensive perimeter and arms the workers: “So in the lowest parts of the space behind the wall, in open places, I stationed the people according to their families, with their swords, their spears, and their bows.” (13) Then, true leader that he is, he encourages the people by reminding them that God is indeed on their side: “Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your kin, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes.” (14)

From then on, half the people worked on the wall while the other half “held the spears, shields, bows, and body-armor; and the leaders posted themselves behind the whole house of Judah, who were building the wall.” (16,17) Even more remarkably, “each of the builders had his sword strapped at his side while he built.” (18)

I think the wall rebuilding project is a good metaphor for good governance. A key duty of the state is to protect its citizens while they work. But Nehemiah shows excellent balance: he provides protection so the work can continue but the protection does not become an end in itself. This is something a current president anxious to build a wall at our southern border would do well to reflect on. (But alas, I don’t think reflection of any sort is to be found in his nature.)

Romans 3:19–31: Paul makes the key point about the law: “it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.” (19) In other words, the law is the metric that shows how we have come short of it and sinned. “For “no human being will be justified in his sight” by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin.” (20) Bottom line: in and of itself, the law does not, indeed, it cannot, justify ourselves before God.

Paul goes on to answer the unstated question: if not from the law, where does righteousness come from? A simple answer to a complex question: “the righteousness of God [comes] through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” (22) Paul states (in a verse I memorized as a kid): “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (23) But as has been recently pointed out, this is not Paul’s complete thought. Indeed, we “are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.” (24, 25) We cannot quote verse 23 without completing Paul’s sentence that we are justified by faith in Jesus whom “God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood.” Moreover, God does not hold our past sins against us: “because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed.” (25)

However, Paul is quick to point out that just because we have been justified through Christ it is nothing to crow about . We too easily fool ourselves into thinking that we have somehow justified ourselves before God. “Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith.” (27) It’s remarkable how we humans can take the gift of grace and transform it into our own accomplishment—which of course makes it no longer grace at all. Faith, not the law, is how we are justified before God: “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” (28)

Moreover, the law applies equally to all people, not just the Jews. Paul asks rhetorically and answers his question: “Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one.” (29) And this justification comes through faith for everyone: “[God] will justify the circumcised on the ground of faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith.” (30)

However, our justification that comes through grace does not give us permission to become lawbreakers: “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.” (31) In short the law is still highly relevant in our lives. Despite grace we remain sinners. Without the law as the means of measuring ourselves we become formless but sinful blobs of no value to ourselves—or to God.

 

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