Psalm 36; Nehemiah 5:1–6:14; Romans 4:1–12

Originally published 3/15/2017. Revised and updated 3/14/2019.

Psalm 36: This psalm features a unique opening line as the psalmist takes an unexpected point of view as it imagines what “crime”—which I’ll take as evil external or spiritual influences— would say as the interior dialog happening in the heart of a wicked man:
Crime’s utterance of the wicked
within his heart. (2a)

Unsurprisingly, crime/evil causes its victim to reject God first:
There is no fear of God
before my eyes
. (2b)

A hint of the seductiveness of evil thoughts and actions follows:
For it caressed him with its eyes
to find his sin of hatred.

In other words, “crime” appears to be an outside force—perhaps the same force we personify as Satan— that captures a man’s heart and annihilates his conscience:
The words of his mouth are mischief, deceit,
he ceased to grasp things, to do good. (4)

I think we have all encountered, or at least read about, people who personify evil. We usually call them sociopaths. Once ‘crime’ has taken over, the evil man is fully corrupted:
Mischief he plots in his bed,
takes his stand on a way of no good,
evil he does not surprise. (5)

Our psalmist then juxtaposes the stark contrast of the righteous man who follows God and who understands that God is the wellspring of all that is good, even including looking out for the welfare of animals:
Your justice like the unending mountains,
Your judgement, the great abyss,
man and beast the Lord rescues. (7)

This contrast to the darkness of evil is amplified as our psalmist sings the glories of God:
How dear is Your kindness, O God,
and the sons of men in Your wings’ shadow shelter. (8)

Moreover, God supplies our every need as the writer employs a wonderful metaphor of God providing for our every physical and spiritual need:
They take their fill from the fare of Your house
and from Your stream of delights You give them drink. (9)

But in our desire to control our destiny we ignore God’s “stream of delights,” preferring our own murky waters.  God not only brings a stream of delights, the Creator is the source of life—and light:
For with You is the fountain of life.
In Your light we shall see light. (10)

This verse certainly resonates with the opening of John’s gospel where we read that Jesus is the light of the world. In fact, our psalmist’s supplication has been answered in the person of Jesus Christ:
Draw down Your kindness to those who know You,
and Your justice to the upright. (12)

Our psalmist concludes by reminding us of the evil person’s inevitable dark fate because of God’s justice:
There did the doers of mischief fall.
They were toppled and did not rise. (13)

We come away from this magnificent contrast between crime’s darkness and God’s light wondering why any rational person would reject God in favor of doing evil. Of course the answer is simple: in following God we must give up control to him. Crime of all kinds—not just the crimes that are against the law— seduces us into thinking we have control when it is in fact crime—Satan—to whom we so eagerly sell our soul.

Nehemiah 5:1–6:14: As if rebuilding the city walls wasn’t enough, a famine has struck Judah and Nehemiah is now the focus of desperate pleas about how “we are many; we must get grain, so that we may eat and stay alive.” (5:2). There is financial desperation as well: “there were those who said, “We are having to borrow money on our fields and vineyards to pay the king’s tax.” (4) Worst of all, things are so awful that some parents must sell their children into slavery: “we are forcing our sons and daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters have been ravished; we are powerless, and our fields and vineyards now belong to others.” (5)

Nehemiah is moved by these complaints and goes to the nobles and officials, angrily telling them, “You are all taking interest from your own people.” (7) There is certainly nothing new about the 1% using their power against the 99%.  Nehemiah points out that they should follow his example: “I and my brothers and my servants are lending them money and grain. Let us stop this taking of interest.” (10) Nehemiah’s arguments to get the officials to stop their usury is successful, as they tell him, “We will restore everything and demand nothing more from them. We will do as you say.” (12)

Nehemiah goes on to editorialize that as governor of Judah, he has been generous to the people and “neither I nor my brothers ate the food allowance of the governor.” (14) Rather, it has been the “former governors who were before me laid heavy burdens on the people, and took food and wine from them, besides forty shekels of silver. Even their servants lorded it over the people.” (15a) Nehemiah points out that his mercy does not arise out of the goodness of his heart, but “because of the fear of God.” (15b)

He himself is supporting 150 people, “Jews and officials, besides those who came to us from the nations around us.” (17) Notice especially that Nehemiah’s generosity extends to both Jews and Gentiles—a nice precursor to Jesus himself.

I’m pretty sure that Nehemiah was successful in getting the officials to relent their onerous taxation because he himself set the example. It would be nice to see Nehemiah’s humility and his example among our leaders today rather than the arrogance of power that seems to be their common trait.

The Jerusalem wall is finally completed, and “it was reported to Sanballat and Tobiah and to Geshem the Arab and to the rest of our enemies that I had built the wall and that there was no gap left in it .” (6:1) Sanballat and Geshem try to entice Nehemiah into an off-site meeting, obviously intending to do him harm. Nehemiah resists their invitation four times by saying he was too busy to meet.

But at the fifth round, Sanballat sends an letter that falsely asserts that Nehemiah “and the Jews intend to rebel; that is why you are building the wall; and according to this report you wish to become their king.” (6:6) But Nehemiah again rebuffs these obvious attempts at besmirching his charter and his name—an act that takes serious courage.

Finally, Nehemiah goes to the house of Shemiah the prophet, who warns him that assassins are on the way and that he should hide in the temple. Nehemiah refuses and then “perceived and saw that God had not sent him [Shemiah] at all, but he had pronounced the prophecy against me because Tobiah and Sanballat had hired him.” (6:12) Nehemiah realizes that Shemiah was hired by the Sanballat party “to intimidate me and make me sin by acting in this way, and so they could give me a bad name, in order to taunt me.” (6:13) But Nehemiah does not fall for these ruses.

Nehemiah is the outstanding example of a man who follows God, but also a man of discerning wisdom and insight into the devious ways of human nature. Unlike the evil man in the psalm above, he does not listen to crime’s temptations. Nehemiah is generous to those who have less. And he does not fall for stupid tricks, even those in the guise of prophecy. Would that we had leaders of such character and skill today.

Romans 4:1–12: Paul uses Abraham as the example of a man who did not justify himself before God by the law—what here Paul calls ‘works,’ i.e., what we do on our own to try to please God. All Abraham had to do was believe God’s promise: “For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” (3) After all, if we attempt to find salvation through works, we cancel out grace: “Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due.” (4) Then, to buttress his argument, Paul uses David as a further example, citing how “David speaks of the blessedness of those to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works.” (6)

Finally, to the crux of the issue on the table: the question of whether or not Gentile converts had to be circumcised: First he quotes from the Psalms:
Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven,
    and whose sins are covered;
blessed is the one against whom the Lord will not reckon sin. (7-8)

Then he asks rhetorically, “Is this blessedness, then, pronounced only on the circumcised, or also on the uncircumcised?” (9a) The answer is blindingly obvious (to Paul anyway): “Faith was reckoned to Abraham as righteousness.” (9b) Faith is how we are justified before God; circumcision is not. After all, Abraham’s faith predates his circumcision: “It was not after, but before he was circumcised.” (10) Circumcision is merely a sign of faithfulness, not its prerequisite. I’m pretty sure this assertion that it is faith, not just acts that justifies us before God was one of Martin Luther’s proof texts.

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