Psalm 37:8–16; Nehemiah 7:73b–8:18; Romans 5:1–11

Originally published 3/17/2017. Revised and updated 3/16/2019.

Psalm 37:8–16: Our psalmist continues in advice-giving mode as he limns the contrast between evildoers and those who follow God. And it’s good advice indeed:
Let go of wrath and forsake rage.
Do not be incensed to do evil. (8)

I have acted so often out of anger. Perhaps the starkest examples of allowing anger to drive our response is on the road. There’s a reason it’s called “road rage.” Notice that it’s not the anger that’s evil in and of itself, but how we act and respond when we are angry. How often I have said things in anger to Susan that I instantly regret, but then it’s too late.

The psalmist goes on to point out the deuteronomic covenant that pervades the OT:
For evildoers will be cut off,
but those who hope in the Lord, they shall inherit the earth.
And very soon, the wicked will be no more.
You will look at his place—he’ll be gone. (9, 10)

Yes, the downfall of the wicked is something we can all hope for, but too often justice seems not only delayed but denied. Nevertheless, this psalm points out that in the end, it is the oppressed who win in a statement that anticipates the Beatitudes:

And the poor shall inherit the earth
and take pleasure from great well-being. (11)

But this promise does not necessarily prevent the machinations of evildoers against the poor or those who follow God:
The wicked lays plots for the just
and gnashes his teeth against him. (12)

Ultimately, though, all these plots and conspiracies are in vain because it’s God who is in charge.
The Master will laugh at him,
for He sees that that his [the evildoer] day [or reckoning] will come. (13)

I love the idea that God laughs at the vain plots and conspiracies of evildoers. When we witness evildoers brought to justice we often have that same sense of schadenfreude—e.g., the recent case of the wealthy parents who tried to buy their children’s way into elite colleges.

To ensure that we fully appreciate the “ur-conflict” on earth is always between evil (usually the powerful) and good (usually the poor and oppressed), our psalmist repeats the theme of the relentless efforts of evildoers to oppress the poor and defenseless:
A sword have the wicked unsheathed
and drawn taut their bow,
to take down the poor and needy,
to slaughter those on the straight way. (14)

This verse, which is both metaphor and reality, describes history down through the ages to today. But ultimately, God’s justice triumphs as the wicked’s weapons are turned back against them:
Their sword shall come home in their heart
and their bows shall be broken. (15)

Bottom line: God’s justice may be a long time in coming, but in the long run it will triumph every time.

Nehemiah 7:73b–8:18: Now that the construction project and the census are over—”the people of Israel being settled in their towns“— the people gather at the Water Gate and “told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel.” (8:1) Nehemiah adds the intriguing detail that Ezra read from a pulpit: “The scribe Ezra stood on a wooden platform that had been made for the purpose.” (8:4) Could this be the origin of pulpits, especially the ones that in large churches and great cathedrals soar out high overhead? More controversially, could it be Ezra who according to some scholars has completed his editing work on the Torah and people are hearing his work for the first time?

Nehemiah gives us a detailed description of the act of Jewish worship. As Ezra opens the book, the people stand and when Ezra prays to God, “all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.” (8:6) Among the other details, Nehemiah tells us that the Ezra not only read, but also interpreted the meaning of the reading: exactly what sermons are supposed to accomplish: “So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” (8:8) Which is what preaching the Word is all about: that we too can understand and then apply in our daily lives.

The words of the Book so move the people that they begin weeping but Ezra tells them, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” (9) This admonition reminds me that when we hear the word of the Lord, it is an occasion of rejoicing, and that following worship, we should  go out and celebrate. As Nehemiah points out, it’s definitely an occasion of rejoicing “because they had understood the words that were declared to them.” (8:12) We witness that rejoicing today when people exclaim, “Amen,” or even when they applaud following a sermon that has touched their hearts.

Following the day of worship and listening to the law and having it interpreted for them, the people celebrate the Festival of Booths, a festival that had been completely forgotten and had not been celebrated since “the days of Jeshua son of Nun.” (17) This celebration was both joyful and full of worship, “And day by day, from the first day to the last day, he read from the book of the law of God. They kept the festival seven days; and on the eighth day there was a solemn assembly, according to the ordinance.” (18)

This passage speaks to me as a reminder that in our rush to make worship modern and culturally relevant, it is too easy to forget the old liturgies that have been celebrated in the church for centuries. Like the people who heard Ezra speak and interpret, we can rediscover things that have been set aside and ignored. There is true joy in rediscovering what has been forgotten—especially in worship.

Romans 5:1–11: Having logically demonstrated (1) that faith trumps the law and (2) that faith encompasses all people. Paul tells us that “since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1) It is only through Jesus that “we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand.” (2a) And it is our realization of the immensity of God’s grace that allows us to “boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.” (2b)

One of Paul’s most famous logic chains follows as we can visualize him dictating to his amanuensis in almost feverish excitement. Paul’s enthusiasm fairly flies off the page: “And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.” (3, 4, 5a) And hope is at the center of our being “because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (5b) 

Our hope arises from the fact that “while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. ” (6) God loves us, and in one of Paul’s more famous verses, “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” (8)  

Writing from his Jewish perspective, he sees Jesus as the sacrifice that God has made, but rather than God being propitiated, it is “we have been justified by his blood.” In the same vein (pun intended), Paul adds, that through Jesus’ sacrifice, we “will we be saved through him from the wrath of God.” (9) The whole idea of a wrathful God who also loves us has confused Christians down through the centuries. We have even expunged “wrath of God” from the hymn, “In Christ Alone” and substituted “love of God.”

I think many Lutherans, in their emphasis on grace, are very uncomfortable with the idea of a wrathful God. But I view God’s wrath as parental anger based in love. God, our father, is angry with us not because he wants to punish us, but because he loves us so deeply. Just as a father is sorrowful when he sees his children wander away and the commit evil acts makes him both angry and sorrowful. I think God responds to our rebellion in exactly the same manner. But as Paul points out, “we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.” (11)  It is Jesus who accomplishes the reconciliation between God the father and we, his errant children. And it is hope and God’s love that are at the basis of our  very existence.

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