Archives for April 2019

Psalm 52; Job 28; 1 Corinthians 4:16–5:8

Originally published 4/22/2015. Revised and updated 4/22/2019.

Psalm 52: This psalm connects to a specific event in David’s life: “when Doeg the Edomite came and told Saul and said to him, ‘David has come to the house of Achimelech.’” (2) It’s rather unique point of view is as an address to the evil Doeg—or to any wicked person. The poet begins on a remarkably sarcastic note,making it clear that the man he addresses is far from heroic:
Why boast of evil, O hero?
—God’s kindness is all day long. (3)

As usual, the the core sin of this evil man is rooted in speech:
Disasters your tongue devises,
like a well-honed razor, doing deceit. (4)

The evil tongue is the outward manifestation of an inwardly evil heart:
You love evil better than good, 
a lie more than speaking justice. (5)

These accusations are all the more trenchant when we to remember that in this ancient world, the primary form of communication was speech. And the psalmist reminds us that speech has a direct link to a man’s character as he accuses the evildoer:
“You love all destructive words,
the tongue of deceit. (6)

Even though we have multiple forms of communication today that does not mask the fact that in the end, it all comes down to what we say and write.

As a person who writes and speaks a lot, this accusation hits home: that what I say aloud is—as the psalmist has it her—a direct reflection of the attitudes of my heart and of my basic character and how people will judge me. Sarcasm has long been a defense mechanism for me and I have been working to eliminate it in what I say. Words used with evil intent can destroy; even words used carelessly can inflict great harm.

God’s intent for the man who speaks evil is hardly benevolent:
God surely will smash you forever,
sweep you up and tear you from the tent,
root you out of the land of the living. (7)

This is the grim fate of “the man who does not make/ God his stronghold.” (9)

We who follow God, on the other hand, are
like a verdant olive tree
in the house of our God.
” (10a)

And, with the psalmist, we have but one overriding obligations and as always, out of trust in God arises worship: :
I trust in God’s kindness forevermore.
I shall acclaim You forever, for You have acted,
and hope in Your name, for it is good,/ before Your faithful.
 (11)

Job 28: We suddenly encounter this beautiful poetic interlude that reflects on the nature of wisdom. Unlike many other speeches here, the author credits neither Job nor his friends. It is a peaceful intermezzo in the sturm und drang of the dueling speeches that comprise this remarkable book. It  is also a paean to geologists and miners.

The poem describes the earth as God’s creation, forcing to reflect on how the earth sustains us as well as its intrinsic but often hidden beauty discovered only by miners, who:
…open shafts in a valley away from human habitation;
    they are forgotten by travelers,
    they sway suspended, remote from people.
As for the earth, out of it comes bread;
    but underneath it is turned up as by fire.
Its stones are the place of sapphires,
    and its dust contains gold. (4-6)

The deeps of the earth are unknown by animals. It is the miners, who
put their hand to the flinty rock,
   and overturn mountains by the roots.
They cut out channels in the rocks,
    and their eyes see every precious thing.
(9, 10).

So what is to be found there in this mysterious place besides precious stones? The poet answers with a rhetorical question:
But where shall wisdom be found?
And where is the place of understanding? (12)

We humans will not stumble across it because it is not to be found within the creation we inhabit—not even under the earth’s visible surface. Wisdom is somewhere else:
Mortals do not know the way to it,
 and it is not found in the land of the living. (13).

Nor can wisdom be purchased:
It cannot be gotten for gold,
 and silver cannot be weighed out as its price. (15)

That inability to buy wisdom is certainly on full display today in our culture. How many stupid things do we witness the rich and powerful doing?

Once again, the poet asks,
Where then does wisdom come from?
And where is the place of understanding? (20).

This time, though, there’s an answer:
God understands the way to it,
 and he knows its place. (23)

It turns out in the last verse that God has actually already told us where wisdom can be found:
And he said to humankind,
‘Truly, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom;
    and to depart from evil is understanding.’” (28)

So, the question becomes, why is God the last place we humans actually look for wisdom? Why do we look first for human wisdom, which as Paul has told is is mere foolishness? We are so unwilling to abandon ourselves, who we as the center of the universe, even when God is basically standing before us with the answer to life’s questions..

1 Corinthians 4:16–5:8:  Underneath Paul’s words—“But some of you, thinking that I am not coming to you, have become arrogant.” (18)—we can sense his controlled anger. And his rhetorical question certainly reveals his frustration with the wild talk and cliques that seem to characterize the church at Corinth: “What would you prefer? Am I to come to you with a stick, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?” (4:21)

Given his already bad mood, Paul lights right into them: “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans; for a man is living with his father’s wife.” (5:1) I guess we can be charitable and assume that “his father’s wife” is not actually his mother. But the church definitely has erred by failing to remove him from the congregation.

Paul’s judgement may seem harsh given our preference for grace, tolerance, and all that. But he does not let them take the easy way out. He states that as founder of the church at Corinth he possess authority and, “as if present I have already pronounced judgment in the name of the Lord Jesus on the man who has done such a thing.” (5:4).

However, exactly how Paul’s instructions are to be carried out is less clear: “you are to hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” (5:5) Does this mean something harsher than being thrown out of the congregation?  Again, I prefer the more charitable explanation.

As far as Paul is concerned, the root cause of this evil is human pride: “Your boasting is not a good thing. Do you not know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough?” (5:6) He makes the crucial psychological insight that like bad yeast, pride infects the entire body. Instead, in one of Paul’s wonderful metaphors, we should throw out the bad and replace it with the good: “Therefore, let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” (5:8)

We see that today in the behavior of mobs incited to outrageous acts by the behavior of just a few. Once this bad yeast is inside a church congregation, it generally rips the congregation apart. Despite Paul’s words, human nature remains unchanged, and we grieve at the terrible witness to the community when churches are torn asunder by envy, pride, and dissension.

Psalm 51:13–19; Job 25–27; 1 Corinthians 4:1–15

Originally published 4/21/2015. Revised and updated 4/20/2019 (Holy Saturday).

Psalm 51:13–19: In the NRSV translation the psalmist pleads, “cast me not from Your presence,” Alter uses a more violent verb, “Do not fling me from Your presence.” (13). The mental state of our poet such that he sees himself as mere garbage that God would roughly toss in the trash heap in order to remove the sinner out of his holy presence. Such is the magnitude of his—and our—sins.

And then an important Trinitarian clue: “and Your holy spirit take not from me.” (13b) We have to remember, however, that the poet sees this as an attribute of God, not as the capitalized third person of the Trinity.

But the psalmist asks for more than forgiveness and remaining in God’s presence. He now asks God to transform his life:
Give me back the gladness of Your rescue
and with a noble spirit sustain me. (14)

Notice that without a restoration of a right relationship with God, nothing else in our relationship with God can happen. But once that has been accomplished through God’s generous forgiveness, then we can act on God’s behalf in relation to those around us. And our teaching and example will have a positive impact on others as they too return to God:
Let me teach transgressors Your ways,
and offenders will come back to You.
O Master, open my lips,
that my mouth may tell You praise. (15, 17)

Perhaps the most radical part of this psalm—at least to the Jewish contemporaries of the psalmist—is the realization that God is not seeking blood sacrifice:
For You desire not that I should give sacrifice,
burnt offering You greet not with pleasure. (18)

Instead, God desires our broken spirits and contrite hearts:
God’s sacrifices—a broken spirit.
A broken, crushed heart God spurns not. (19)

Notice how the nature of sacrifice has moved from external action to internal condition. In these few verses the psalmist has truly laid the groundwork for Jesus’ once-for-all sacrifice and the consequent indwelling of the Holy spirit in those he seek him.

 Job 25–27: Bildad interrupts Job’s disquisition and asks a profound question:
How then can a mortal be righteous before God?
 How can one born of woman be pure? (25:4)

After all, he observes, before God we are mere maggots and worms. (25:6) (Now, there’s an image to describe our sinful natures!)

Job answers his friend generously:
How you have counseled one who has no wisdom,
 and given much good advice! (26: 3)

Bildad has caused Job to realize that God is all-powerful and therefore unknowable. After all, he suggests, this is the God who causes
The pillars of heaven [to] tremble,
 and are astounded at his rebuke. (26:11)  

By definition, an all-powerful God is unknowable to mere mortals:
These [powerful acts] are indeed but the outskirts of his ways;
and how small a whisper do we hear of him!
But the thunder of his power who can understand? (26:14).  

These are crucial words to remember when we pretend to understand God, or even when we ask God, “Why?” when some disaster occurs. God is not going to tell us why, and even if he did, we would not comprehend his answer.

The insight of the previous chapter is basically an intermezzo to Job’s long speech blaming God for his plight,
As God lives, who has taken away my right,
and the Almighty, who has made my soul bitter… (27:1)

But what Job says next is what those who shake their fist at God usually do not say. He will not abandon his firm belief that despite his woes he has remained faithful to God—that what has happened to him has not been the result of any faithlessness or wickedness on his part:
I hold fast my righteousness, and will not let it go;
my heart does not reproach me for any of my days. (27:6) 

Because of his unrelenting faithfulness to God, Job sees his situation, as hopeless as it seems, as superior to that of the wicked who live in apparent ease and prosperity. Job has the one thing that they do not: hope—ae reminds his listeners,
For what is the hope of the godless when God cuts them off,
when God takes away their lives? (27:8)

Job remains convinced that in the end, despite all appearances to the contrary, the wicked will receive their just desserts:
Terrors overtake them like a flood;
 in the night a whirlwind carries them off.
The east wind lifts them up and they are gone;
it sweeps them out of their place. (27:20, 21).

In short, it is far, far better to live in suffering with a firm faith in God than to live in abundance but in the emptiness of a life without God. Something for us to remember as we look around at a culture that increasingly abandons God and attempts to dismantle the moral system that three millennia of Jewish and Christian belief have laid in place. As Job tells us, without God there is only emptiness.

1 Corinthians 4:1–15: Paul contrasts himself to those in the Corinthian church who have clearly come to various conclusions about Paul, Apollos and other leaders.  Paul states that while “ I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It os the Lord who judges me.” (4)  Using himself as the example he says that we cannot judge others because we do not have all the facts in the case. Only God has all the facts: “Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart.” (5) Like the Corinthians, we have been slow to take  Paul’s sound advice to heart.

Rather than complaining, Paul advises us to rejoice in all that we in the church already have: “Already you have become rich! Quite apart from us you have become kings!” (8) Almost inexplicably, he notes that those in the church are better off than the Apostles themselves: “We are fools for the sake of Christ, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute.” (10).

To me this means that our basic stance as Christians is one of thanksgiving for the riches we have received in Christ.

Paul concludes his admonition by reminding the church that he is not angry. Rather, as the founding father of this particular church, they are like his children, whom a parent admonishes in love: “For though you might have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers. Indeed, in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel.” (15)

 

Psalm 51:7–12; Job 24; 1 Corinthians 3:12–23

Originally published 4/20/2015. Revised and updated 4/19/2019. (Good Friday)

Psalm 51:7–12:The poet, speaking in David”s voice, turns to the reality of his innate sinfulness: “Look, in transgression I was conceived,/ and in offense my mother spawned me.” (7) I assume that some interpreters take this verse asas one of the “proof verses” for the doctrine of original sin. But for me it is far more personal. The poet seems to be suggesting that his birth is the result of a lustful action, perhaps even rape, on the part of his father.

In any event, the psalmist sees himself as unclean and now in order to learn from God “in what is concealed make wisdom known to me” (8) he must be purified. In light of his sinfulness, he requires purification. Priests in the temple dipped hyssop branches in the animal’s blood and sprinkled it on the altar. Here, hyssop is the natural symbol of purification. And in an image remarkable in the Middle East where snow is rare, he famously asks,
Purify me with a hyssop, that I be clean.
Wash me whiter than snow. (9).

Blood (hyssop) is juxtaposed against whiteness as purity (snow). Both Leviticus (chapter 17) and the author of Hebrews make it clear that purification comes only through the shedding of blood. Of course, for us that is Christ’s blood, which was shed once and for all.

He prays for God to bring something back into his life that has been missing for a long time. The body that was consumed by the agony of sin now rejoices:
Let me hear gladness and joy,
let the nones that You crushed exult
.” (10)

In confession and forgiveness there is joy. As for the crushed bones, I don’t think he is talking about God literally breaking his bones, but rather that his realization of his sinfulness has brought him to a prostrate position before God, and now free of sin, he asks God to raise him up to exult in worship.

David recognizes that as a God of justice and truth, God cannot look directly upon him in his current sinful state. But even though God’s face may be averted, there can still be forgiveness:
Avert Your face from my offenses.
and all my misdeeds wipe away. (11)

There is first purification and expunging of sins. Then there is restoration:
A pure heart create for me, God,
and a firm spirit renew within me.
 (12)

This verse and the one that follows are at the center of traditional Lutheran liturgical confession and renewal, which as a congregation we used to sing every Sunday—that powerful verse, “Create in me a clean heart, O God/ and renew a right spirit within me.” Alter translates it as “a firm spirit,” which for me conveys that sense of renewal and strength even more powerfully than “right spirit.” Confession leads to forgiveness, which leads to strength and new life. Which is exactly what Jesus Christ has accomplished for us. The only question is: in this culture of self-admiration will I be as honest as the psalmist and admit to my failings, confess them, and be restored?

Job 24: The chapter is a a marvelous evocation of all that is wrong in this fallen world, especially of its intrinsic unfairness. The wicked exploit the poor and helpless:
[They] drive away the donkey of the orphan
 they take the widow’s ox for a pledge.
They thrust the needy off the road.
the poor of the earth hide themselves. (4)

The poor and defenseless who are exploited are
Like wild asses in the desert
 they go out to their toil,
scavenging in the wasteland
 food for their young. (5)

Those who believe that humankind is somehow improving or becoming more beneficent to the oppressed would do well to reflect on this chapter that so beautifully weaves the apparent triumph of the wicked with the desperate plight of the poor and despised.
[The wicked] snatch the orphan child from the breast,
 and take as a pledge the infant of the poor. (9)

While in turn, the poor do the work that brings the wicked their very food and wealth:
“They go about naked, without clothing;” (10 a)

While though they are hungry, the poor must work for the rich:
They carry the sheaves;
between their terraces they press out oil;
 they tread the wine presses, but suffer thirst. (10b, 11)

Job views God as being indifferent to all this suffering—the question we still ask ourselves today:
From the city the dying groan,
and the throat of the wounded cries for help;
 yet God pays no attention to their prayer. (12)

The poor are the objects of crime and sexual exploitation:
The murderer rises at dusk
    to kill the poor and needy,
    and in the night is like a thief.
The eye of the adulterer also waits for the twilight,
    saying, ‘No eye will see me’;
    and he disguises his face. (14, 15)

In fact, Job claims, God is not merely indifferent, he seems to actively aid the wicked rather than the poor:
Yet God prolongs the life of the mighty by his power;
…He gives them security, and they are supported. (22, 23a).

Nevertheless, in the end, the wicked are like everyone else as they meet exactly the same fate as those they exploited:
They are exalted a little while, and then are gone;
they wither and fade like the mallow. (24)

Job seems to be asking why the wicked get all the breaks even though their lives are just as ephemeral as the righteous. A question that resonates today. Why is the broken world so damn unfair? Why does God allow this evil to happen?

1 Corinthians 3:12–23: Paul tells us that the work of the builders of the church will always be tested: “the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done.” (13).  At first, Paul seems to be talking about the individuals who founded the church—the builders—but then it suddenly becomes a strikingly personal metaphor. He’s talking about each one of us as individual corporeal persons: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person.” (16, 17a) 

Because of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, each of us has become a holy place: “For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple” (17b). Accepting that simple reality should drive all our thoughts and actions. Yes, this verse certainly means lead a “clean life,” exercise, eat right and all that. That’s what I’ve heard since I was a kid. But in context here I don’t think that’s what Paul is getting at. It has far more to do with self-delusion: “Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise.” (18) Which is Paul’s way of saying, “you know a lot less than you think you do, buddy.”

Above all, Paul warns us, do not be drawn in in by the ersatz “wisdom” and ways of the world for “wisdom of the world is foolishness with God.” (19a) And God does not cotton to fools. We will always be found out: “He catches the wise in their craftiness,” (19b) The truth of Paul’s statement has been proven again and again in the world at large and the church in particular. Paul gives really good advice: “So let no one boast about human leaders.” (21)—be that the pastor we love to hear preach or the charismatic founder of a megachurch. All of them will be tested by fire. As will each of us. We will survive, but will we really learn about God’s wisdom?

Psalm 51:1–6; Job 22,23; 1 Corinthians 3:1–11

OT and NT reflections originally published 4/18/2015; Reflections on the Psalm originally published 4/18/2016. Revised and updated 4/18/2019.

Psalm 51:1–6: Alter questions the historical reliability of this psalm’s superscription—”upon Nathan the prophet’s coming to him when he had come to bed with Bathsheba.” However, I prefer to believe that this is truly David’s remorseful psalm of confession as he begs God for forgiveness for the awful crimes of adultery and murder that he has committed.

What’s intriguing to me, especially as we read of the complex sacrificial system detailed in Leviticus, is that David does not rush off to the temple to offer a sin sacrifice, but that he pleads directly to God in a spirit of humility and confession with an opening verse that tears at our heart:
Grant me grace, God, as befits Your kindness,
with Your great mercy wipe away my crimes.
 (3)

David knows it is only God who can
Thoroughly wash my transgressions away
and cleanse me from my offense.
 (4)

The idea of forgiveness by God as a cleansing is of course at the foundation of baptism.

Even though David pleas for forgiveness, he knows he will be haunted by the consequences of his sin for as long as he lives:
For my crimes I know,
and my offense is before me always.
 (5).

So, too, for us. We can restore a right relationship with God through confession, but we must live with the result of our choices and actions. The first step in confession is acknowledgement of sin. With David we say,
You alone have I offended,
and what is evil in Your eyes I have done.
 (6a).

And David also knows, as should we, that whatever God does, whatever the outcome it may be it is because of God’s immutable justice:
You are just when You sentence,
You are right when You judge
. (6b)

In other words, even after we are made right before God through confession, we must accept the justice that is meted out because it is God’s sentence and God’s justice.

David tells God what God already knows: we are sinners by nature:
Look, in transgression was I conceived,
and in offense my mother spawned me. (7)

The verb ‘spawned’ is particularly striking because it so clearly communicates our intrinsically fallen nature before God.

The question for me is, am I willing to come in humility before God and confess my sins? Even though I know that my sins will be forgiven,my pride too often blocks confession. And we know that in the larger culture, and even in the church itself, we are so consumed by not denigrating our self-worth that even the concept of sin itself is becoming muddied and foreign.

Job 22,23: Eliphaz the Temanite is not convinced by Job’s description of God in the previous chapter as he accuses Job of continuing to fail to recognize that God punishes the wicked. As far as he is concerned: end of story.

Once again we hear only sarcasm from the would-be friend:
Is it for your piety that he reproves you,
 and enters into judgment with you?” (22:4)

In other words, ‘Come on, Job, admit your sinfulness; that’s why you’re being punished!’  He then moves from sarcasm to outright accusation:
Will you keep to the old way
 that the wicked have trod? (22:15)

He’s telling Job to just give up and admit his wickedness:
Agree with God, and be at peace;
in this way good will come to you.
(22:21)

Upon that confession, Eliphaz argues, God will deign to “deliver even those who are guilty.” (22:30)

Job refuses to take Eliphaz’s advice. Instead, he would rather come before God directly in God’s courtroom:
I would lay my case before him,
and fill my mouth with arguments. (23:4)

By confronting God directly, he continues,
I would learn what he would answer me,
and understand what he would say to me. (23:5)

Job thinks it is by confrontation and reasoned argument that God would “give heed to me.” (23:6)

Job knows in his heart that he has not sinned and that God is indeed testing him and he has remained steadfast through it all:
But [God] knows the way that I take;
when he has tested me, I shall come out like gold.
My foot has held fast to his steps;
 I have kept his way and have not turned aside. (23:10, 11)

But then, as Job reflects, the idea of coming before God is too much for him to bear:
I am terrified at his presence;
when I consider, I am in dread of him.
God has made my heart faint;
  the Almighty has terrified me;
If only I could vanish in darkness,
  and thick darkness would cover my face! (23:15, 16)

Job’s argument that he could come before God in innocence and argue his case is remarkably sophisticated. Where Eliphaz argues for Job to simply throw in the towel, Job wishes to come before God and have a fair hearing. But as a mere mortal the thought of standing in God’s court is terrifying. I’m sure this is where the concept of the Judgement Seat of God comes from. And what Jesus is talking about in the Olivet Discourse: That someday we will all come before God to be held accountable is terrifying–exactly as Job asserts. We have gone too far, I think, in domesticating God as a benevolent father. This is a side of God we would do well to reflect on.

1 Corinthians 3:1–11: Paul turns from the theology of God’s wisdom compared against man’s wisdom to the issue at hand: factions within the Corinthian church. Paul speaks with a bluntness that has all but disappeared from today’s church: “For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations?” (4) Alas, the same all-too-human motivations and jealousy that created the divisions at Corinth trace down through the quarreling and divisions that have divided the Church for the past 2000 years.

Right on down to today to the people who decide to skip worship when a pastor they don’t like is preaching. Or withholding an offering because they don’t like the music. It’s a clear warning to churches that are founded on personalities—the likes of Joel Osteen, among others—where it’s more about feel-good self esteem than on carrying out the hard work of the Great Commission. It is not about the human personality. Everything that has to do with the growth and health of the church comes from only one place as Paul exclaims, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” (6, 7)

To extend Paul’s metaphor, these personality-centered churches are actually shallow-rooted organizations that have depended on a man or woman rather than on God to fuel what is only temporary growth. If there are not deep roots in Jesus Christ they will fade after the personality that drove them leaves the scene. We have the bracing example of Bob Schuller and the Crystal Cathedral—and its ultimate demise—as a dramatic case in point.

This passage is also a reminder of the awesome responsibility laid upon any who have a leadership role in a church. Paul reminds them, “Each builder must choose with care how to build on it.” (10b) But there’s a straightforward metric to measure how well the leader is carrying out his or her job: all must build on Jesus Christ. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. (11) Those who drift from that foundation have doomed their work.

 

Psalm 50:16–23; Job 21; 1 Corinthians 2:3–16

Originally published 4/17/2015. Revised and updated 4/17/2019

Psalm 50:16–23: God now turns his attention to the wicked, citing a long list of their offenses. At the top of the list is the hypocrisy of a false faith:
Why do you recount My statutes
and bear My pact in your mouth,
when you have despised chastisement
and flung My words behind you? (16-17)

In today’s culture, where the ascendant movement of “progressivism” attempts to sweep faith out of the public square, hypocrisy seems less of the issue it once was. People no longer pretend to have faith; they simply reject it —and consider those who have faith to be “intolerant.”

But then God goes on to cite other sins. Our psalmist seems to be anticipating the problem of gangs:
If you see a thief, you run with him,
and with adulterers is your liot. (18)

And as usual, there’s the problem of wicked speech:
You let loose your mouth in evil,
and your tongue clings fast to deceit. (19)

Now we’re talking (so to speak!) about a sin that is rampant both inside and outside the church—and made all the worse by “social” media where one can denigrate others without having to actually face them. At least vocal speech usually requires the courage to say wicked things to another person’s face. Our psalmist touches on family warfare, as well:
You sit, against your brother you speak,
Your mother’s son you slander. (20)

But above all others—and really the root of most other sins , I think, is the sin of pride. Pride is where we forget or reject God, or even if we believe, we view ourselves as being equal with or even greater than God. Of course, pride is easy when we have rejected God altogether. But as the psalmist observes, our ultimate comeuppance will not a pretty sight.
Understand this, you who forget God,
lest I tear you apart, with no one to save you. (22).

Only those who are faithful will find salvation. Those are the ones to whom “I will show God’s rescue.” (23)

The message seems clear: those individuals who reject God and the larger culture that rejects God will all come to a bad end. To me, it seems our decadent American culture is well on the way.

Job 21: Job, on the other hand, is far less confident than the psalmist that the wicked will inevitably receive just desserts for their wickedness. This is the beauty of this book being in the Bible: one of its major purposes is to fly in the face of conventional wisdom—and, frankly, of conventional theology.

Job compares his present state with that of the wicked:
Look at me, and be appalled,
and lay your hand upon your mouth. (5)

He asks the question we have each asked at some point in our lives:
Why do the wicked live on,
 reach old age,
and grow mighty in power? (7)

Which, to be blunt, certainly seems a more accurate description of the state of the world. For Job, the wicked never receive what they’re due. Instead, he states with bitter sarcasm,
They sing to the tambourine and the lyre,
    and rejoice to the sound of the pipe.
They spend their days in prosperity,
    and in peace they go down to Sheol. (12, 13)

Unlike the psalmist above, the prosperous wicked reject God outright and get away with it:
They say to God, ‘Leave us alone! 
  We do not desire to know your ways. (14)

Job points out that his interlocutors have asserted that the children of the wicked will suffer, but he rejects this theology outright:
You say, ‘God stores up their iniquity for their children.’
    Let it be paid back to them, so that they may know it.
Let their own eyes see their destruction,
    and let them drink of the wrath of the Almighty. (19, 20)

Which I think is a really good point!  Job understands evil and suffering in ways his friends (and our psalmist above) can never understand. Yes, the wicked don’t necessarily get what they deserve. Rather, there is rampant injustice in the world.

In fact, Job continues, there is plenty of public evidence that the assumptions of his friends are completely false—they simply remain in denial of the brutal reality all around them:
Have you not asked those who travel the roads,
    and do you not accept their testimony,
that the wicked are spared in the day of calamity,
    and are rescued in the day of wrath? (29, 30)

In the end, Job recognizes his friends speeches for what they are:
How then will you comfort me with empty nothings?
 There is nothing left of your answers but falsehood. (34)

This is a definite warning to those who pretend to know what their friends are feeling or experiencing. I know from my own experience with cancer that some people came to me, assuming they knew how I felt, but made it all about themselves, thinking they were comforting me with “empty nothings.”

 1 Corinthians 2:3–16: Paul shifts from the shortcomings of human wisdom to the grandeur of God’s wisdom: “But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory.” (7). Unlike men who flaunt their “wisdom,” only to have it revealed as shallow and ephemeral, God’s wisdom is far deeper. It is mysterious, and unlike the Gnostics of the age that would claim to be able to eventually uncover that wisdom themselves, God’s wisdom is forever hidden from human sight. As much as we try—and I’ve tried a lot—there’s no way to unlock the core mystery of our faith. And rather than that reality being a source of frustration, it can become a source of joy.

There is absolutely no way that any human could ever have conceived of God’s plan of Jesus’ incarnation, sacrificial death, and Resurrection. It is truly “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,/nor the human heart conceived.” (9)

We may not come to understand the mystery, but God has given us something far superior to mere human understanding: the gift of the Holy Spirit—the means by which we come to understand as Paul puts it later in this book, “through a glass darkly.” I like how Paul phrases it here: “we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God.” (12) What’s clear in this statement is that there is no room in our hearts for human wisdom and the Holy Spirit to dwell simultaneously. The Holy Spirit completely displaces the “spirit of the world.” And if we attempt to hang on to the spirit of the world, we are not opening ourselves up to the Holy Spirit residing in us. And without the Holy Spirit we will indeed never have “the mind of Christ.”

Psalm 50:7–15; Job 20; 1 Corinthians 1:21–2:2

Originally published 4/16/2015. Revised and updated 4/16/2019.

Psalm 50:7–15: Our psalmist is writing in God’s voice and his assertion seems to fly in the face of the complex sacrificial system that was set up in Leviticus.
Not for your sacrifices shall I reprove you,
your burnt offerings always before me.
I shall not take from your house a bull,

nor goats from your pens. (8, 9)

Is God now saying that sacrifices are no longer required?  I think it’s a little more subtle than that. Rather, God seems to be saying, ‘I really don’t need your sacrifices’ since all the animals in existence are already his:
For mine are all the beasts of the forest
the herds on the thousand mountains. (10)

Evoking what Jesus said about God’s intimate knowledge of creation—the lilies and birds—our psalmist reminds us that God,
know[s] every bird of the mountains,
creatures of the field are with Me. (11).

The next verse finally illuminates what God is really talking about:
Should I hunger, I would not say to you,
for Mine is the world and its fullness. (12)

God is making the point that he does not require sacrifice in order to satisfy his hunger, as was the case of other local idols to whom people brought their gifts to provide sustenance for their small-g gods.  This difference becomes clearer as God asks rhetorically,
Would I eat the flesh of fat bulls,
would I drink the blood of goats? (13)

Instead, our sacrifices to God ultimately devolve to our own benefit rather than God’s:
Sacrifice to God a thanksgiving,
and pay to the High One your vows. (14). We do not sustain God; God sustains us, especially in our troubles:
And call on Me on the day of distress—
I will free you and you shall revere Me. (15)

I don’t think we really appreciate just how radical the idea of a God who cares for his people and who does not demand sacrifice for his own benefit really in that time. All those small-g gods were jealous, hungry, and demanded sacrifices for their own sake. Israel’s God sees sacrifice as an act for our own sake. That’s why we come to God in thanksgiving.

Job 20: One thing we know about Job’s friends. As soon as Job finishes speaking they do not allow a moment of silence. Instead, they rebut Job’s words almost instantly. Like so many modern conversations it seems that rather than actually listening to what Job said and reflecting thoughtfully on his words, Job’s friends are thinking about what they’re going to say next while Job’s still speaking. I know that I personally tend to do this…

So, “Zophar the Naamathite answered.” (20:1) Like his buddies, Zophar shows not a shred of sympathy to Job’s plight. In fact, he’s pretty annoyed with Job as he begins his speech like a stern schoolteacher:
Pay attention! My thoughts urge me to answer,
because of the agitation within me. (2)

Zophar’s theology is pretty much the same as his two friends as he implicitly upbraids Job,
Do you not know this from of old,
    ever since mortals were placed on earth,
 that the exulting of the wicked is short,
    and the joy of the godless is but for a moment? (4,5)

OK, we’ve heard this story before. Zophar continues in exquisite detail that the wicked get just recompense for their wickedness, as e.g.,
They swallow down riches and vomit them up again;
 God casts them out of their bellies. (15)

And in the end, God will punish wrongdoing:
God will send his fierce anger into them,
and rain it upon them as their food. (15)

Like everyone else, the wicked ultimately lose it all:
They will give back the fruit of their toil,
and will not swallow it down;
from the profit of their trading
 they will get no enjoyment. (18)

Zophar continues in this vein for some time about the fate of the wicked:
The possessions of their house will be carried away,
dragged off in the day of God’s wrath. (28) 

 This is the deuteronomic theology that suffuses the OT and the Psalms. The wicked will prosper for a while, but in the end they receive their just desserts for their sins. Zophar does not have to directly accuse Job of wrongdoing, but his implication is all too clear that Job has sinned mightily since he is being punished mightily.

But in our hearts, isn’t this really how we want things to work? Zophar’s speech is an operational definition of the human concept of justice. There is no grace. To us, this seems how the world should operate.

1 Corinthians 1:21–2:2: Paul puts his finger directly on why the Gospel message is anathema to most of the world: “For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom.” (1:22) But the message of Christ crucified is neither a sign nor wisdom—at least in the terms the world defines them.

To human eyes God and Christ are all nonsense. And in today’s culture it seems that more and more people are coming to this conclusion.  If we want to be seen as “wise” in the framework of the world at large, we better stop spouting off about this “Jesus, who loves me” business or even more offensively, “Christ died for your sins.” What Paul said close to 2000 years ago is still resoundingly pertinent. God does not operate on human terms and therefore his message will be seen as foolish. But as we are slowly learning in reading Job, “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” (1:25)

Paul turns to the people of the church at Corinth as his proof: “not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.” (1:26) Which was certainly culturally true. Christianity reached out to the poor, the oppressed and, yes, the not terribly clever masses.

Then, in my favorite verse about how God operates in the opposite to what our logic says God should do, Paul makes it clear that the Good News has turned human logic on its head: “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are.” (1: 27)

If I were really courageous, I would not care a whit what the world thinks of what I have to say. And at least as I grow older, I am finally coming to realize that what the world thinks really does not matter one iota. In the end, accepting God’s logic rather than human “wisdom” has become ultimately freeing.

Finally, Paul turns to examine himself, saying that despite what the people at Corinth would like to think about the depth of Paul’s theological insights, “I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” (2:1,2). The Gospel message is really that simple. If Christians down through history really accepted Paul strictly at his word, there would have been a lot of unemployed theologians!

 

 

Psalm 49:13–20; Job 17,18; Romans 16:21–1 Corinthians 1:1–9

Originally published 4/14/2015. Revised and updated 4/15/2019.

Psalm 49:14–21: When the end of life comes, the rich are no different than the poor:
Like sheep to Sheol they head—
death shepherds them.— (15a)

These words are followed by a tantalizing idea
And the upright will hold sway over them in the morn.  (15b)

It’s as if the rich and powerful, newly arrived at Sheol, wake up to find the poor and righteous are now their masters. This is the same kind of upside down image that Jesus used in so many of his parables.

Our poet is saying that given the fate of the rich at life’s end—that they cannot wealth or fame with them—we do not need to fear them while they are alive:
Do not fear when a man grows rich
when he enlarges his house’s glory.
For in his death he will not take all.
His glory won’t go down behind him. (17, 18)

We need only think of deaths of celebrities to understand the truth of these words.

The rich man is centered on his own accomplishments, basically seeing himself as the source of blessings—even though he hypocritically thanks God publicly for his wealth:
For his own self he blesses when alive
and acclaims You for giving him bounty. (19).

But in the end it doesn’t really matter. Death is the great equalizer:
He will come to the state of his fathers—
forevermore will not see the light. (20)

Or as economists are wont to put it: in the long run we’re all dead.

But the real theme here is that the rich are deluded in their riches as the poet ends this psalm in the style of the author of Ecclesiastes:
Man will not grasp things in splendor.
He is likened to beasts that are doomed. (21)

Except that this last verse applies to everyone of us, not just the wealthy: we are kidding ourselves if we think our accomplishments will accompany us to the grave. It’s far better to focus on other people, not on accumulation of riches, fame, or power.

 Job 17, 18: Job is exhausted to the point of death:
My spirit is broken, my days are extinct,
the grave is ready for me. (17:1)

His erstwhile friends are of no use:
Since you have closed their minds to understanding,
 therefore you will not let them triumph. (17: 4)

Even the “upright are appalled at this,/ and the innocent stir themselves up against the godless.” (8)  But now that they have seen what has happened to Job, all their preconceived notions of God being fair are shattered and “I shall not find a sensible person among you.” (17:10)

For Job’s world has been turned upside down:
My days are past, my plans are broken off,
the desires of my heart.
They make night into day. (17:11)

But even death itself cannot provide relief:
If I look for Sheol as my house,
 if I spread my couch in darkness,…
where then is my hope?
Who will see my hope? (17:13, 15)

For to die is to lose hope. And here in his most desperate hour, Job clings to that one last hope. This is an amazingly sophisticated thought: that to die, to pray for death, is to have lost all hope. For Job: hope is the only thing that that remains. Hope is what keeps him alive.

At this lowest point, Bildad the Shuhite speaks.  He, too, is not particularly sympathetic, viewing Job’s lament as a mere “hunt for words.” (18:2) Bildad’s theology is very black and white and cannot admit subtlety. He tells Job it’s really very simple: God punishes the wicked:
Surely the light of the wicked is put out,
 and the flame of their fire does not shine. (18:5)

He then gives a long sermon about the woes that the wicked enjoy, including some of what has happened to Job:
By disease their skin is consumed,
the firstborn of Death consumes their limbs. (18:13)

Bildad asserts that whether he wants to admit or not, everything that has happened to Job is a result of his sinfulness as he ends with the flat out declaration:
Surely such are the dwellings of the ungodly,
such is the place of those who do not know God. (18: 21)

There are lots of Christians out there who see the world in these same black and white terms–exactly as the Pharisees saw before them: There are consequences. You did bad things and bad things happen to you. But I think the book of Job is in the Bible to prove that it’s not as simple as that. Sometimes bad things just happen in spite of our righteousness. As with Job, we are bereft of logical explanations; only hope remains.

Romans 16:21–1 Corinthians 1:1–9: Intriguingly, the Moravians bridge the end of Romans to the beginning of 1 Corinthians. We have the final doxology in Romans that uses very familiar words, “Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ,…” (16:25) that leads inevitably to the greeting to the church at Corinth.

I think this is an interesting way to remind us that Paul was a generous and gracious man, who gave others the credit, but at the center of it all is Jesus Christ himself. The last words of Romans: “ to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen.” stand in perfect symmetry to the first words of I Corinthians: “Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God.”

While Romans was about the law, the letter to Corinth opens with grace: “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus,” (1:4) Knowing what comes later in this letter, we can understand why Paul opens with these encouraging words.

As in his letter to Rome, Jesus Christ stands at the center of everything as Paul repeats once again: “so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” (1:8,9) 

The lexical message is clear: Jesus Christ was at the center of Paul’s message; he is at the center of ours, as well. It is our duty to acknowledge—and live—that reality.

Psalm 50:1–6; Job 19; 1 Corinthians 1:10–20

 Originally published 4/15/2017. Revised and updated 4/15/2019.

Psalm 50:1–6: This introductory section of the psalm opens with a theophany. God appears in Zion (Israel) and is going to speak to the entire world:
El, the Lord God
He spoke and called to the earth
from the sun’s rising place to its setting
From Zion, the zenith of beauty
God shone forth.” (1, 2)

As theophany is not a quiet affair our poet almost gleefully describes God’s unfathomable power as a pretty noisy and dramatic entrance:
Let our God come and not be silent.
Before him fire consumes,
and round about Him to the heavens above…(3, 4a)

The psalmist then reveals God’s purpose in appearing and speaking: “…and to the earth to judge His people.” (4b) This psalm was surely on Jesus’ mind when he gives the Olivet Discourse in Matthew 25. The author of Revelation was also surely aware of this psalm. For here, God has come in judgement beginning with Israel and then of the world. God’s first words are to Israel itself and to those who have kept the Covenant:
Gather to Me My faithful,
who with sacrifice seal My pact.” (5)

The poet intervenes with the reminder that in the end it is God who judges us:
And let the heavens tell His justice,
for God, He is judge. selah.

These verses are good to recall for those times when we focus too much on the love of God, sidling up to him as some kind of affectionate pet, forgetting that while God is indeed love he is also judge. And we will all stand in judgement at the end of history.

Job 19: Job has had it up to here with his chatty, judgemental “friends:”
How long will you torment me,
    and break me in pieces with words?” (2)

Job believes something that the three friends do not: that it is God who has delivered him to his present straits. The cause of his woes, Job believes, is not his sins of commission or omission:
If indeed you magnify yourselves against me,
    and make my humiliation an argument against me,
know then that God has put me in the wrong,

    and closed his net around me.” (5,6)

Job then goes on in a long disquisition where he once again shakes his fist at God:
Even when I cry out, ‘Violence!’ I am not answered;
    I call aloud, but there is no justice.
 He has walled up my way so that I cannot pass,
    and he has set darkness upon my paths.
 He has stripped my glory from me,
    and taken the crown from my head.
 He breaks me down on every side, and I am gone,
    he has uprooted my hope like a tree.
He has kindled his wrath against me,
    and counts me as his adversary.” (7-11)

What resonates strongly with me on this Holy Week is that these are words Jesus could easily have spoken on the cross. At that moment he would be far more justified than Job to bewail the God’s abandonment. But Jesus did not elaborate on God’s unfaithfulness—there is only the single cry of Psalm 22:1. Maybe Job’s friends are right. Maybe he’s just a complainer. One thing I do know: were I in Job’s place I’d be protesting my innocence just as vociferously and I would be shaking my fist at God.

Here’s the seeming contradiction. Despite all that God has caused to happen to Job, Job knows that God is God and moreover, that it is God who in the end is his redeemer and that one day he will see God:
For I know that my Redeemer lives,
    and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;
and after my skin has been thus destroyed,
    then in my flesh I shall see God,
whom I shall see on my side,
    and my eyes shall behold, and not another.” (25-27)

This is the challenge of faith and the core of theodicy. A good and gracious redeeming God allows evil to occur to us and others, that the friends to the contrary, has nothing whatsoever to do with our actions or sins. Bad things such as natural disasters occur and evil men stalk the earth as God remains silent. And yet. Yet, God is our redeemer who loves us. This is the great irreconcilable conflict. And we know that if we humans could truly resolve this dilemma then God would no longer be God.

1 Corinthians 1:10–20: Paul comes right to the point of his letter to the church at Corinth: “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” (10)

Even if the letter to Corinth were to prove nothing else it proves that divisions and quarrelling within the church trace right back to the church’s earliest years. Rather than focusing on Jesus Christ, the Corinthian church is divided into factions each rooting for a particular leader: “What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” (12) We see symptoms of that same phenomenon today when people decide whether or not to attend worship based on which pastor is preaching.

Paul is cleverly self-deprecating as he ironically states that he’s glad he only baptized a couple of Corinthians “so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name.” (15) —which would create an even greater problem. Paul is making it crystal clear that we should not confuse the messenger with the message “so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.” (17)

Unfortunately, the church today is chockablock with celebrity preachers like Joel Osteen, Benny Hinn, and Creflo Dollar who have allowed their personalities to overshadow the message of Christ. Leaders are human and unlike Jesus, most of them don’t mind the popularity.

With this chastisement about confusing messengers with message ringing in the ears of the Corinthians, Paul turns to the nature of the message itself. Its key aspect is that the message of the cross and the risen Christ is that it “is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (18) In other words, the Christian faith is a confounding stupidity to those who do not believe. What was true then is equally true today. lot of the people, who persist in treating God as a myth embraced only by stupid, weak people, continue to post on my Facebook feed.

As Paul famously notes, God’s wisdom is viewed as foolishness by the world, but the converse is also true: “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (20) I have a feeling Paul will have more to say about this matter.

Psalm 49:1–14; Job 15,16; Romans 16:8–20

Originally published 4/13/2015. Revised and updated 4/12/2019.

Psalm 49:1–14: This psalm sounds like the poet has just read the book of Proverbs as it dispenses the pithy epigrams that characterize that book. Our psalmist states quite simply that he is wise and is about to dispense some much-needed wisdom upon his listeners:
My mouth speaks wisdom,
my heart’s utterance, understanding. (4)

But, happily, this is a psalm so rather than a straight epigram, it becomes a song:
I incline my ear to a saying,
I take up with the lyre my theme.” (5)

In a note that seems appropriate to these fraught times, he asserts that his environment, bathed in evil as it is, does not intimidate him:
Why should I fear in evil days,
when crime comes round me at my heels? (6)

Then, in an observations we would do well to shout from the rooftops in the tonier ZIP codes of America comes real wisdom, specifically about the limitations of wealth:
Who trust in their wealth
and boast of their great riches—
yet they surely will redeem no man,
will not give to God his ransom. (7,8)

Wealth cannot bring immortality, although many try by leaving their names on college buildings or bequeathing vast art collections. But as our psalmist observes, in the end, it’s all an empty gesture:
To redeem their lives is too dear,
and one comes to an end forever.
Will he yet live forever?
Will he not see the Pit? (9,10)

Nor is there immortality in wisdom itself. Death is the great equalizer and the wealth goes to the heirs:
For he sees the wise die,
both the fool and the stupid man perish,
and they abandon to others their wealth. (11)

Even those who are famous in their time will meet the same end as all of us:
Their grave us their home forever,
their dwelling for all generations,
Though their names had been called upon earth.
A man will not rest in splendor.

He is likened to the beasts that are doomed. (12, 13)

There is little point in arguing with the bleak conclusion that neither wealth nor fame yields immortality; there is only the emptiness of death:
This way of theirs is their foolishness,
and after in words alone, they show favor. selah.” (14)

Think of how much more peaceful and gratifying American culture would be if people truly understood that striving after wealth and fame is a fool’s cul de sac?

Job 15,16: Eliphaz the Temanite lets Job have it in no uncertain terms. Job’s arguments and questioning are not only bad for him, but they are undermining other people’s religious beliefs:
But you are doing away with the fear of God,
    and hindering meditation before God.
For your iniquity teaches your mouth,

    and you choose the tongue of the crafty.
Your own mouth condemns you, and not I;

    your own lips testify against you.” (15:4-6)

He accuses Job of being arrogant and pretending to have greater knowledge and spiritual insight than his friends. Then, Eliphaz plays the “I’m-older-than-you-are-so-I’m-wiser-than-you” card:
The gray-haired and the aged are on our side,
    those older than your father.” (15:10)

Eliphaz then issues a dire warning that Job will experience the same fate as others who have railed against God:
Because they stretched out their hands against God,
    and bid defiance to the Almighty,
they will not escape from darkness;
    the flame will dry up their shoots,
    and their blossom will be swept away  by the wind.” (15:25, 30) 

Eliphaz caps his tirade by telling Job he’s basically doomed if he doesn;t return to the religious fold:
For the company of the godless is barren,
    and fire consumes the tents of bribery.” (15:34)

Job responds in frustration at the endless droning lectures of his “friends:”
I have heard many such things;
    miserable comforters are you all.
Have windy words no limit?

    Or what provokes you that you keep on talking?” (16:2,3)

Ignoring all the windy advice, Job continues to rail against God:
“Surely now God has worn me out;
    he has made desolate all my company.
I was at ease, and he broke me in two;
    he seized me by the neck and dashed me to pieces.” (16:7, 12)

And now, Job has only death to look forward to:
For when a few years have come,
    I shall go the way from which I shall not return.” (16:22)

I wonder why we do not read Job more often at church? Are we afraid to ask the questions that Job asks or shake our fists at God the way Job does?  Are we afraid that our faith or the faith of others will be undermined and break? Too often, I think we are satisfied to sing those happy praise choruses which just paper over the existential angst that is part and parcel of our quotidian lives. Any person who has not from time to time thought that God is a capricious jokester because of the obstacles and woes that we encounter in life is simply not being honest with him or herself. Job speaks for everyone who is truly honest with himself.

Romans 16:8–20: Paul’s long farewell continues apace as he names the long list those whom he considers his friends in Christ. And he offers a benediction I would do well to emulate at this point in my life: “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” (16)

But Paul, being Paul, cannot resist offering a few final words of advice: “I urge you, brothers and sisters, to keep an eye on those who cause dissensions and offenses, in opposition to the teaching that you have learned; avoid them.” (17)

Even those who are obedient to Christ are included in this final spasm of advice-giving: “For while your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, I want you to be wise in what is good and guileless in what is evil.” (19) But we must not be cynical. There is no better way to lead a Christian life than to be “wise in what is good and guileless in what is evil.” The only hard part about taking Paul’s advice is that it requires serious discipline—both physical and spiritual.

Psalm 48; Job 13:20–14:22; Romans 15:30–16:7

Originally published 4/11/2015. Revised and updated 4/11/2019.

Psalm 48: This psalm is similar in tone and theme to the one that precedes it in praising God. The focus here is more specifically in Jerusalem,
in our God’s town, His holy mountain.
Lovely in heights, all the earth’s joy…the great King’s city
.” (2,3)

I think we fail to appreciate just how central the idea that God dwelt in Jerusalem was to the Jewish religion. We tend to have a far more amorphous, everywhere conception of God—panentheism. But for Israel, God had come and dwelt in the Ark and even after the Ark was lost, it was OK, because there was now a temple in Jerusalem. This is where God performed his marvelous deeds:
We witnessed, O God, Your kindness
in the midst of Your temple. (10)

God’s presence in that single geographical spot brought great strength and protection:
God in its bastions
is famed as a fortress. (4)

It is this protective quality of God at Jerusalem that gave military victory to Israel and terror to its enemies down through the ages:
For, look, the kings have conspired,
passed onwards one and all.
It is they who have seen and so been  astounded,
were panicked, dismayed.
Shuddering seized them there,
pangs like a woman in labor. (5-7).

Perhaps if I thought of God in the concrete terms that Israel did, I would trust him and understand more directly his great love for me.

The remainder of the psalm continues the celebration, which extends outward to Jerusalem’s suburbs:
Let Mount Zion rejoice,
let Judea’s townlets exult
because of Your judgements.
 (12)

The reader is encouraged to assess Jerusalem’s impregnability as the psalmist uses an image that evokes the famous walk around Jericho—but at once records the pride our poet has in the beautiful and strong city of Jerusalem:
Go around  Zion, encircle it.
Count its towers.
Set your mind to its ramparts, scale its bastions
to recount to the last generation
.” (13, 14)

The beauty of the psalm is in its physicality, for the walls of Jerusalem still stand and Mount Zion still lies within.  It’s a tangible reminder of God’s ever-abiding presence on earth, as the glorious last verse reminds us:
For this is God, our God, forevermore.
He will lead us forever.
” (15)

Job 13:20–14:22: Job’s prayer shakes its fist at God, asking questions that we still ask millennia later. Lest we think that we have any original thoughts or ideas when we wonder where God is or why God acts in such an arbitrary, and yes, cruel fashion, Job was there ahead of us. Job asks the essential question:
Why do you hide your face,
 and count me as your enemy? (13:24)

Job accuses God directly:
For you write bitter things against me,
and make me reap the iniquities of my youth.
You put my feet in the stocks…” (13:26, 27).

And the result is emptiness, despair, and death:
One wastes away like a rotten thing,
 like a garment that is moth-eaten. (13:28)

Job then reflects on the innate corruption of humankind (original sin?), noting that we are born, experience trouble, and then simply die:
A mortal, born of woman, few of days and full of trouble,
comes up like a flower and withers,
 flees like a shadow and does not last. (14:1,2)  

Job then tells God basically to stop interfering in human affairs. Just let mortals enjoy what few moments they have in peace, undisturbed by God:
…look away from them, and desist,
 that they may enjoy, like laborers, their days. (14:6) 

Job observes that unlike humans, that when attacked much of God’s creation will rise again
there is hope for a tree,
 if it is cut down, that it will sprout again.
and that its shoots will not cease.
Though its root grows old in the earth,
    and its stump dies in the ground,
 yet at the scent of water it will bud
    and put forth branches like a young plant.
(14:7-9)

But as for us,
…mortals die, and are laid low;
 humans expire, and where are they? (14:10)

Despite his anger and cynicism, Job’s longing for an understanding, forgiving God is palpable:
You would call, and I would answer you;
you would long for the work of your hands
…my transgression would be sealed up in a bag,
and you would cover over my iniquity. (14:15, 17)

But for Job, that God is not forthcoming. There is only pain and darkness. Apparently God has abandoned humankind—his greatest creation—such that we must suffer alone:
They feel only the pain of their own bodies,
 and mourn only for themselves. (14:22)

Job’s God is so wildly different than the God we encounter just about everywhere else in the OT (except for Ecclesiastes). This God aligns almost precisely with our 21st century conception of God. So many people have decided that God, if he even exists, is not interested in human affairs. We can look to no higher power and therefore need live only for ourselves. Alongside Job, we feel only the pain of our own bodies and mourn only for ourselves—unnoticed by the God of the universe.

But above all, whatever thoughts we may have regarding our own about sense of being abandoned by God, Job has been there before us.

Romans 15:30–16:7: Paul moves from theology to his personal circumstances and asks for the Romans’ prayers: “to join me in earnest prayer to God on my behalf, that I may be rescued from the unbelievers in Judea, and that my ministry to Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints.” (15:30,31).

And then the personal PS at the end of the letter. This is where we receive insight into Paul’s personality and his self-image, which above all was exceedingly generous to others. He never claimed all the credit, but spread it generously and joyfully among the saints. He includes a long Pauline list of friends who have helped him, beginning with a woman, Phoebe, a deacon “of the church at Cenchreae,” who “has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well.” (16:2).  (Which always forces me to ask: why is it that many churches that want to interpret the Bible literally also prohibit women from serving as deacons or in positions of leadership?)

He also commends “Prisca and Aquila, who work with me in Christ Jesus,  and who risked their necks for my life.” (16:3)—probably rescuing Paul from one of the many riots he seemed to incite.

It would be great to know the individual stories of the many people listed here. But absent that, this list of names gives us a picture of the dynamism of the early church. But we know this: all these are the saints on whose shoulders the church stands today.