Archives for March 2019

Psalm 37:23–26; Nehemiah 10:28–11:36; Romans 6:5–16

Originally published 3/20/2017. Revised and updated 3/19/2019.

Psalm 37:23–26: It is God who gives us the strength to endure. Even more important for me is that when those strides result in tripping and falling (as has happened to me quite literally with some frequency), it is God who watches over me and as our psalmist notes, holds my hand and picks me up again:
By the Lord, a man’s strides are made firm,
and his way He desires.
Though he fall, he will not be flung down,
for the Lord sustains his hand (23, 24)

The phrase, “he will not be flung down,” tells me that the psalmist believes that it is not God who causes us to fall. Too many people think it is God’s will that we suffer. But I want to side with the psalmist here. There are plenty of obstacles in life that trip us up because we are caught unaware or more typically, for me anyway, we are not paying attention. God does not intervene and fling us down. The brokenness of the world and our own sinfulness (see Paul below) is a reality of our fallen (pun intended) human state.

This idea that it is not God who creates circumstances in which we suffer or that God abandons us is amplified in the next verse that depicts an old man speaking from experience:
A lad I was, and now I am old,
and I have never seen a just man forsaken…(25a)

Nor, in the opinion of the psalmist, do one’s offspring suffer because of God’s intervention in their lives:
…and his seed breaking bread, 
all day long lending free of charge
and his seed for a blessing. (25b, 26)

However, as we shall soon see in the book of Job, not everyone is convinced that God does not create suffering or the circumstances of suffering. Is our optimistic psalmist correct here? Or is Job? Unfortunately, the answer to that question will always be problematic.

Nehemiah 10:28–11:36: There is an oblique reference here to the rather disturbing events recorded in Ezra that to return to the Jewish fold, all Jewish men who had married non-Jews were required to give up their wives and children. The reference is in the middle of one of the longest sentences I’ve yet encountered in the Bible:

The rest of the people, the priests, the Levites, the gatekeepers, the singers, the temple servants, and all who have separated themselves from the peoples of the lands to adhere to the law of God, their wives, their sons, their daughters, all who have knowledge and understanding, join with their kin, their nobles, and enter into a curse and an oath to walk in God’s law, which was given by Moses the servant of God, and to observe and do all the commandments of the Lord our Lord and his ordinances and his statutes.” (10: 28, 29)

The terms of the covenant are unbreakable: “We will not give our daughters to the peoples of the land or take their daughters for our sons.” (10:29) A long paragraph follows—essentially a precis of the Mosaic law—and describes the detailed means by which the covenant will be kept. And given Judah’s history, it is the final element of the oath that rings loudest: “We will not neglect the house of our God.” (11:39)

Chapter 11 is essentially a descriptive organization chart of the the restored Judea, Jerusalem and the temple itself. We find out who the leaders, priests, Levites, Benjamites, gatekeepers, warriors, and administrators are. At this point, Judea is a fully restored, fully functioning nation. And once again, we are struck by Nehemiah’s attention to detail and his engineer’s thoroughness.

We also learn the interesting fact that Jerusalem comprises only 10% of the total population of Judaea, but the Jerusalem is definitely headquarters both administratively and religiously.  Apparently living in Jerusalem was somewhat fraught since it would obviously be the first target of enemy attack: “And the people blessed all those who willingly offered to live in Jerusalem.” (11:2)

Romans 6:5–16: Paul elaborates on the key idea that we are united with Jesus who died for our sins. But that having died with Jesus, we will also experience resurrection,—the gift of eternal life: “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (5) What’s key here is that through Jesus’ death and resurrection we have abandoned our former sinful selves so that “we might no longer be enslaved to sin.” (6)

I can see Paul’s readers and listeners down through the centuries trying to wrap their head (as I am trying to wrap my head!) around this unprecedented theological concept of Christ dying for our sins: “But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.” (8, 9)

If we go back to the Gospels themselves there’s really not much theology of Jesus dying for our sins. The Good News there is that Jesus is alive. It is here in Romans where Paul aligns the idea of Jesus’ death and resurrection with we humans being “dead to sin” and then “resurrected” as it were through Jesus’ salvific act.

Regardless of the complexity of the theology, our response to Jesus’ death for our sins and his resurrection is really extremely simple: “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” (11) In other words, our old selves die and we become new creatures through Christ’s salvific power.

So what does being “dead to sin and alive to God” mean in practical terms? Well, Paul is happy to explain: “therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions.” (12) In short, he concludes, “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” (14) Bottom line: Jesus’ death and resurrection is the final great sacrifice that delivers us out from under the confining dominion of the law into wide open spaces of the dominion of grace. (Frankly, I think this is a concept that the author of Hebrews makes clearer than Paul.)

OK, so now that we’re free of the requirements of the law how do we actually conduct ourselves in day-to-day life in the regime of grace? Needless to say, Paul has the answer: “Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!” (15) In the end it’s a conscious choice that we must make that determines how we live’ We choose to be either slaves to sin or slaves to God. If we choose to be slave to our personal desires, we are a slave to sin, “which leads to death.” Or we are an obedient slave to God “which leads to righteousness.” (16) I think the roots of the Evangelical “make a decision to accept Christ into our hearts” are right here.

While the idea of being a slave to either sin or God may seem somewhat remote in our culture, we do not have to think very long or hard about what Paul is getting at here. It’s a binary issue and we are the ones who, regardless of the gift of grace that has been given to us, ultimately choose the path we will follow. Jesus comes to us but we can choose to turn away. But there is always the hope that at some point we will choose to turn back to Jesus. Which is what repentance is all about.



Psalm 37:16–22; Nehemiah 9:1–10:27; Romans 5:12–6:4

Originally published 3/18/2015. Revised and updated 3/18/2019.

Psalm 37:16-22: This section of the psalm deals with economic justice and, as usual contrasts the wicked rich against the poor and just. In God’s eyes, the just are always better off regardless of their circumstances:
Better a little for the just
than wicked men’s great profusion. (16)

The reason is simple:
For the wicked’s arms shall be broken,
the Lord sustains the just. (17).

But better than merely being sustained, the just enjoy God’s love for eternity:
The Lord embraces the fate of the blameless,
and their estate shall be forever. (18)

Jesus must have surely had this psalm in mind when he told the parable of Dives and Lazarus, the poor man and the rich man.  In God’s economy, the wicked are as ephemeral as the grass:
For the wicked shall perish.
Like the meadow’s green—gone, in smoke, gone. (20)

These verses also stand behind the Sermon on the Mount as we hear beatitude echo the psalm:
For those He blesses inherit the earth. (22a)

When we think about it, this psalm would have been familiar to Jesus’ hearers. He did not have to tell them “those he curses are cut off” (22b) because his listeners would have completed that verse in their own minds.

Nehemiah 9:1-10:27: The work of restoring the walls of Jerusalem is completed and everyone is gathered for a dedicatory day of confession, prayer and to make a covenant that henceforth Israel will dedicate itself to God.

Nehemiah retraces Israel’s story, reminding us again that know where we came from is crucial and that to lose our story is to lose our identity.

As Nehemiah prays, he reminds all present that “our ancestors acted presumptuously and stiffened their necks and did not obey your commandments;” (16) God, in contrast, is “ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and you did not forsake them.” (17).

Israel’s story is our story. We are as equally stiff-necked and too easily forget that God wants desperately to have a loving relationship with us.

Again and again, Nehemiah recounts the theme of today’s psalm: how God sustained them, but they constantly turned away in wickedness. Even to the point of completely rejecting God: “ they were disobedient and rebelled against you and cast your law behind their backs and killed your prophets, who had warned them in order to turn them back to you, and they committed great blasphemies.” (9:26) They deserved their punishment. They would cry out to God for mercy and “according to your great mercies you gave them saviors who saved them from the hands of their enemies.” (27) But again, they sinned and again, God relented“many times you rescued them according to your mercies.” (28).

This confession reminds us of how we constantly fall into sin and how God is ever faithful, ever merciful, rescuing us again and again—just as he did in ancient Israel. It is always our pride, which Nehemiah beautifully characterizes as “stubborn shoulder and [they] stiffened their neck and would not obey.” (29)

But, Nehemiah promises, this time will be different because the leaders of the restored nation sign a covenant to follow God, because “we are in great distress.” (37) And in keeping with the detail that characterizes both the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, their names are listed in Chapter 10: a reminder to all those men’s descendants that they have made a covenant with God. Just as our baptismal certificates are a reminder to us of our even better covenant with God through Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit.

Romans 5:12–6:4: Paul traces it all back to Adam. Sin comes into the world and therefore, death, and harking back to his earlier assertion, “death spread to all because all have sinned.” (5:12) and sin predates the law.

But grace is larger than death caused by  sin: “many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ,” (5:15). Jesus is the new Adam, or perhaps, the “restorative Adam,” as Paul asserts, “just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.” (5:18)

Interestingly, as a once devout Jew, Paul now asserts that the Law was essentially a hinderance. But that was OK because it led in turn to something even greater, “But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more,” (5:20)

However, Paul tells us, we need to be careful about sin leading to grace. That is no excuse to say, “Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?” (6:1) Sin is part of our old selves. Our old selves have “been buried with him by baptism into death,” (6:4).

This passage describes the essence of the New Covenant: we don’t just get forgiven; we have an entirely new life in Jesus Christ. In this new life, thinking that we can just keep on sinning is utterly illogical, when “we too might walk in newness of life.” (6:4)

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.

Psalm 37:1–7; Nehemiah 6:15–7:73a; Romans 4:13–25

Originally published 3/16/2017. Revised and updated 3/15/2019.

Psalm 37:1–7: Alter informs us that this psalm is an alphabetic acrostic, with each stanza beginning with a Hebrew letter. I’m surmising that for a lengthy psalm such as this one, the acrostic was a useful memorization aid.

The verses read more like Proverbs than a psalm, and at first blush seems to be a collection of fairly didactic advice and fairly common metaphors:
Do not be incensed by evildoers.
Do not envy those who do wrong.
For like grass they will quickly wither
and like green grass they will fade. (2)

Regardless of its ordinariness as poetry, it’s advice is worth reflection and remembering, as:
Trust in the Lord and do good.
Dwell in the land and keep faith.
Take pleasure in the Lord,
that He grant you your heart’s desire.“(3,4)

For me, the most personally valuable advice is this:
Direct your way to the Lord.
Trust Him and He will act. (5)

Of course there are many psalms, as well as many times in our lives where it seems like the psalmist—and we—are trusting God, but God remains silent. Or the desired outcome we’re praying for doesn’t ever occur. However, it’s also worth noting that the psalmist doesn’t say, “Trust  Him and He will do what you want.” Our desires and God’s responses do not necessarily align. Of course this is difficult to accept since it’s simply another way of being made aware that we are not in control of circumstances or events.

Equally important is that in trusting God involves waiting quietly: “Be still before the Lord and await Him.” (7a) In other words, patience is mandatory. Sigh.

Finally, a reminder that envy is unworthy of the person who waits upon God:
Do not be incensed by him who prospers,
by the man who devises evil schemes. (7b)

Among the realities that haven’t changed in almost 3000 years is the fact that many who appear prosperous have become so by less than honorable means.

Nehemiah 6:15–7:73a: The Jerusalem walls are completed in a mere 52 days and their  speedy completion has a definite psychological effect on Judah’s neighbors: “all the nations around us were afraid and fell greatly in their own esteem; for they perceived that this work had been accomplished with the help of our God.” (6:16) These neighbors understood the seeming impossibility of the task of rebuilding and yet, here was Jerusalem fortified once again in less than two months. Believing there was no human way this immense task could be completed, they acknowledge that Judah’s God is mighty indeed.

It turns out that many in Jerusalem were “bound by oath” to Tobiah, who apparently is nobility, because they are related by marriage to him. These relatives are a two-way information conduit: “they spoke of his [Tobiah’s] good deeds in my presence, and reported my words to him.” (6:19a) Obviously, Tobiah demands special favors from Nehemiah, who will have none of it, rather tersely noting that “Tobiah sent letters to intimidate me.” (6:19b)

Now that the walls are complete, the gates installed, and musicians and Levite administrators appointed, Nehemiah turns over day-to-day city management to his brother Hanani. Nehemiah observes that his brother “was a faithful man and feared God more than many.” (7:3) Although I think we can be sure that blood relationship had something to do with this appointment as well.

Even though the Jerusalem wall project is complete, there is still much more to do: “The city was wide and large, but the people within it were few and no houses had been built.” (7:4) This observation motivates Nehemiah to turn his attention to the inhabitants of Jerusalem: “Then my God put it into my mind to assemble the nobles and the officials and the people to be enrolled by genealogy.” (7:5) I love Nehemiah’s logical approach!

Ever the thorough engineer/administrator, and leaving no detail unattended to, Nehemiah finds the records in “the book of the genealogy of those who were the first to come back, and I found the following written in it:” (7:6) Which he then proceeds to do, naming towns, names and population figures. “The whole assembly together was forty-two thousand three hundred sixty, besides their male and female slaves, of whom there were seven thousand three hundred thirty-seven; and they had two hundred forty-five singers, male and female.” (66, 67) And of course, livestock is counted as well.

Finally, after Nehemiah provides a financial report, Jerusalem and the surrounding towns have effectively been restored and quotidian Jewish life resumes: “So the priests, the Levites, the gatekeepers, the singers, some of the people, the temple servants, and all Israel settled in their towns.” (73) What’s fascinating here is Nehemiah’s matter-of-factness contrasted with the awe (and not a little fear) that this project has created among Judah’s neighbors. Clearly, they understand that these all-too-organized Jews bear watching.

Romans 4:13–25: Paul’s lengthy disquisition on the nature of faith continues as he reminds us once again that Abraham, the founding father of Judaism, predates the law: “the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith.” (13) In fact, Paul continues, if the law is the only way to God, then “faith is null and the promise is void,” (14) which would lead to the conundrum that without faith, Abraham could not have been righteous before God. This logic chain would cause Pharisaical heads to explode. I’m sure that Paul said these radical things in Jerusalem and doubtless contributed significantly to the antipathy of the Jews there.

So therefore, as he puts it, “it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all [Abraham’s] descendants.” (16a) And since Abraham is the “father of many nations,” the promise of righteousness before God extends “not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham.” (16b) i.e., every human who has ever lived, is living, or will ever live. Here he goes again: he is stating that are Gentiles are co-equal descendants of Abraham! Outrage!

Paul goes on to discuss Abraham’s (and Sarah’s) faith in detail, noting that “He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb.” (19) The lesson there for all of us is that no matter our infirmities or circumstances, there is no conceivable situation where faith is inoperative. Abraham’s faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness,” (22) i.e., we come to God through faith, which Paul points out applies not only to Abraham, but to all of us.

Paul’s logic chain is impressive as it moves justification before God from applying only to Jewish adherents of the law to Abraham’s faith absent the law to faith being the gift that every person on earth can partake of. But at the end he adds the crucial ingredient that it is Jesus who has replaced the law. Faith “will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.” (24, 25) Paul will certainly have more to say about exactly how Jesus Christ fits into the issue of faith.

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.

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.

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.


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.

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.


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.

Psalm 34:20–23; Ezra 10:7–44; Romans 2:5–16

Originally published 3/10/2017. Revised and updated 3/9/2019.

Psalm 34:20–23: To my mind, these last four verses, which are the coda to this psalm, are the most honest in this psalm, revealing the innermost thoughts of the psalmist.
Many the evils of the righteous man,
yet from all of them the Lord will save him.
He guards all his bones,
not a single one is broken. 
 (20, 21)

At one level, our psalmist is saying that the righteous man will encounter “many evils” from which God will protect him. But I think we can also read this verse as a rare admission in the psalms that even those who are righteous are nevertheless sinners. In short, I think we can read this that while we encounter evil we also commit evil.

The psalmist writes what I believe is one of the great truths of humankind—and God doesn’t even have to intervene:
Evil will kill the wicked,
and the righteous man’s foes will bear guilt. (22)

The continual practice of evil and yes, even an intrinsically evil person, does eventually kill them. While evil may not always kill literally, it invariably kills the soul. And those who commit evil against another, even if they are found innocent in court, will still bear the guilty consequences of their deeds and words—no matter how much they may be officially absolved from their guilt.

In one of those Psalm endings that for us Christians believe looks forward to Jesus Christ, our psalmist  writes:
The Lord ransoms His servants’ lives,
they will bear no guilt, all who shelter in Him. (23)

Jesus’ death on the cross is God’s Great Ransom for all of us. And despite our human predilection to go on sinning, by confessing we are assured that we always stand forgiven before God. But like evildoers, we must bear the consequences of our wrongdoings.

Ezra 10:7–44: Now comes the time to carry out the promise that Ezra made and the agreement he extracted from the people that any Jew who has married a “foreign woman” must divorce her.

Ezra calls a compulsory meeting in Jerusalem. Those who failed to attend would have their property confiscated and “they themselves banned from the congregation of the exiles.” (8)

The people gather and “sat in the open square before the house of God, trembling because of this matter and because of the heavy rain.” (9) [I think this is the first mention of weather in the Bible since Noah…] Ezra tells them they must confess before God and “separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives.” (11)

Someone in the crowd rather logically points out that the people cannot stand in the rain waiting for this large and complex task, which will take days, to be carried out. Rather, they suggest, “Let our officials represent the whole assembly, and let all in our towns who have taken foreign wives come at appointed times, and with them the elders and judges of every town.” (14) With only two objections, this plan is carried out. The entire process takes two months.

Ezra preserves the names of every man who came forward and divorced his foreign wife “and sent them away with their children.” (44) If nothing else, at least they get their names remembered in the Bible. Does that offset what must have been immeasurably painful? Not really, IMHO.

The societal impact of this event must have been enormous. Yet, Ezra believed it was the only way to appease an angry God. One wonders what the course of Jewish history might have been had Ezra’s act been carried out much earlier in Israel’s history. Would a people who worshipped only God and who did not intermarry have prevented the breakup of Israel and its eventual destruction? This of course is what God had demanded when the Israelites entered Canaan but they did not carry out.  It is one of the great “what if’s” of the OT—and of history itself.

Romans 2:5–16: Like Ezra, Paul believes that there will be a day of reckoning when “by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.” (5) Ezra took direct action to appease God’s wrath; Paul is more theological.

Paul, the scholar comes to the fore here when he reiterates the deuteronomic reality that Jesus describes in Matthew when he talks about the sheep and goats. There are only two paths available to us to choose: good or evil: God “will repay according to each one’s deeds.” (6) The righteous who are “patiently doing good” (7) will receive eternal life, “while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury.” (8) It’s a straightforward two-alternative forced choice, guys. There is no ambiguity, no comfortable middle ground.

Then, as we have seen at various points in the OT readings, Paul reminds us that God is not just a Jewish God, but the God of all humankind: “glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.” (10, 11)

It all has to do with our own choices and how we live our own lives. Just because we Greeks are exempt from Jewish law does not make us exempt from God’s judgement. Paul makes this abundantly clear: “All [Greeks] who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law , and all [Jews] who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law.” (12) One way or the other, we stand rightly accused in God’s court.

Paul connects Jews who have the Old Covenant law, and Gentiles, “who do not possess the law, [but] do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves.” (14)  Which I take to be the fact that as CS Lewis argued in Mere Christianity, every human has a conscience and deep down every human eing bknows what is right and what is wrong.

Paul states this truth about us Gentiles very famously: “They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them.” (15) We need no more succinct definition of how our conscience operates and our instinctual moral compass, which we ignore at our peril. And in the end, even if we have not spoken our thoughts aloud, “God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all.” (16)  In short, whether Jew or Greek, there’s no escaping the judgement of Law (Jews) or of conscience (Gentiles).

Psalm 34:8–18; Ezra 8:21–10:6; Romans 1:26–2:4

Originally published 3/9/2017. Revised and updated 3/8/2019.

Psalm 34:8–18: Our psalmist is completely confident that God is our protector in all kinds of danger and that his angels guard over us. Even better, God frees us—an act that finds is apotheosis in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ:
The Lord’s messenger encamps
round those who fear Him and sets us free.

What a great gift from God: to rest in him, or as the famous next verse has it:
Taste and see that the Lord is good,
happy the man who shelters in him.

In fact, not only happiness, but all our needs (and wants?) will be fulfilled to those who fear God:
Fear the Lord, O His holy ones,
for those who fear Him know no want.
Lions are wretched, and hunger,
but the Lord’s seekers lack no good. (10, 11)

But this confidence that God will always hear, protect, bring joy, fulfill our wants seems just a tad too pat to me. And I think it would be all too easy to swerve off into using these verses to justify a prosperity gospel theology. Is this psalmist really free of the agonies of those other psalmists we read (or of Job), who beg for an absent God to hear them?

Be that as it may, our psalmist than launches into religious instruction seasoned with not a little advice:
Come sons, listen to me,
the Lord’s fear will I teach you.”

These include:
…keep your tongue from evil
and your lips from speaking deceit.

And the even more general admonition is:
Swerve from evil and do good,
seek peace and pursue it
. (15)

Easy to say, hard to do. Then we read the restatement of the deuteronomic pact that God will protect only those who are his followers and that God rejects those who reject him, even to the awful fate of having their name forgotten by both God and humans:
The Lord’s eyes are on the righteous
and His ears to their outcry.
The Lord’s face is against evildoers,
to cut off from the earth their name. (16, 17)

Our poet concludes this section by asserting again that if we but ask, God will rescue us:
Cry out and the Lord hears,
and from all their straits He saves them.

But as I think we all of us have experienced, there are times when we have cried out to God and have been met only with silence. I confess I find this psalm to be just a little too formulaically smooth. In the end, I think this is simply a joyful poem/song whose theology we need not probe too deeply.

Ezra 8:21–10:6: In this autobiographical section, Ezra basically echoes the psalmist above as he and his band proceed across dangerous territory unaccompanied by the king’s soldiers but confident that God would protect them under the terms of the same deuteronomic deal: “we had told the king that the hand of our God is gracious to all who seek him, but his power and his wrath are against all who forsake him.” (8:22)

Ezra distributes the substantial wealth gathered in Babylon (and that they’re traveling with) to twelve trusted priests: “the silver and the gold and the vessels, the offering for the house of our God that the king, his counselors, his lords, and all Israel there present had offered.” (8:25) He instructs them to guard these riches until they arrive at Jerusalem.

Ezra’s band finally arrives in Jerusalem reporting with gratitude that “the hand of our God was upon us, and he delivered us from the hand of the enemy and from ambushes along the way.” (8:31) The gifts are delivered to Eleazar, the high priest. Then, the “returned exiles, offered burnt offerings to the God of Israel, twelve bulls for all Israel, ninety-six rams, seventy-seven lambs, and as a sin offering twelve male goats; all this was a burnt offering to the Lord.” (8:35)

Once the sacrifices are complete, temple officials tell Ezra that many Israelites are intermingling via mixed marriage and have “not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands with their abominations, from the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites.” (9:1) Ezra is appalled and tears his clothes. He and his equally distraught companions “trembled at the words of the God of Israel, because of the faithlessness of the returned exiles, gathered around me while I sat appalled until the evening sacrifice.” (9:4)

After the evening sacrifice, Ezra rises and prays, beginning with a confession that suggests far less confidence that God will relent from punishment than our psalmist above: “O my God, I am too ashamed and embarrassed to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens.” (9:6) Ezra’s long prayer observes that the people are back to exactly the same sins that caused them to be conquered by the Babylonians 70 years earlier. He knows that God is right to be angry as he concludes, “O Lord, God of Israel, you are just, but we have escaped as a remnant, as is now the case. Here we are before you in our guilt, though no one can face you because of this.” (9:15)

Ezra’s rather dramatic confession, “weeping and throwing himself down before the house of God,” (10:1) makes a definite impact on the people and they also “wept bitterly.” He asks them all to “make a covenant with our God to send away all these wives and their children, …and let it be done according to the law.” (10:3) Ezra pleads for them to “Take action, for it is your duty, and we are with you; be strong, and do it.” (10:4) And the people swear to do it.

It is impossible in this day and age to understand the sheer enormity of what Ezra has asked the people to do. Would I be willing to break up my family because I have offended God? I can think of no greater test of one’s faith.

Romans 1:26–2:4: Like Ezra, Paul is outraged at sin and comes down particularly hard on the sin of homosexuality in a way that’s difficult to square with our current cultural attitudes: “in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.” (1:27)

Even worse, because “they did not see fit to acknowledge God,” God appears to have given up on them: “God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done.” (28) This applies not only to homosexual acts, but then, in the first of many Pauline lists we will encounter, these people are “filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters,  insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.” (29-31) But perhaps worst of all, “they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them.” (32) Which is certainly an apt description of the all too rapid acceptance of new cultural norms that’s happened in Americas over the past 15 years.

In short, Paul writes off an entire sinful culture. But then he warns us who profess to follow Christ that we have no excuse to judge these people because we’re guilty of the same sorts of sins. In fact this kind judgement is a greater sin than that committed by the “God-haters.” Just because we profess to love God does not give us a free pass: “Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? ” (2:3, 4) 

My takeaway here is that we in the church, who are so quick to judge others, are committing a greater sin than those who are doing the sins we are condemning. In this regard, the church has failed and continues to fail mightily. For there are few institutions skilled and adept at judging others than those of us in the church. It also means that if as a Christian you’re going to condemn someone else for a sin you are probably guilty of the greater sin of judgement. So, don’t quote the anti-homosexual verses without including the self-judgement verses.