Psalm 44:10–17; Job 7; Romans 12:9–21

Originally published 4/5/2017. Revised and updated 4/4/2019.

Psalm 44:10–17: Even though God favored the Israelites as they conquered Canaan and they have faithfully worshipped God, our psalmist is still pretty upset at God because of an apparent defeat in a more recent battle:
Yet You neglected and disgraced us
and did not sally forth in our ranks.
You turned us back from the foe,
and our enemies took their plunder.“(10, 11)

Wow. How typical. We all like to raise our fists and blame God for the bad things that happen to us.

Alter informs us that the battle referred to here is impossible to date, although it may be from a battle during David’s time or even centuries later under the Greek oppression. Whatever happened it was a loss that indicated that God was no longer a supported of Israel. Even worse, our psalmist continues, God was indifferent to their plight and made them the object of national humiliation:
You sold Your people for no wealth
and set no high price upon them.
You made us a shame to our neighbors,
derision and mockery to those round us.
You made us an object of scorn among peoples. (13-15)

Our psalmist goes on to take God’s absence in this desperate time of need almost as a personal insult as he is shamed before his enemies:
All day long my disgrace is before me,
and shame has covered my face,
from the sound of revelers and cursers,

from the enemy and the avenger. (16, 17)

I think the most remarkable aspect of this bitter passage is that the psalmist felt entirely free to shake his literary fist at God and accuse God as having abandoned them. So, following the psalmist, why should we try to be so polite to God when something awful has happened to us? We tend to mumble cliches like “it was God’s will that this awful thing happened,” or, “This is a lesson from God.” Balderdash! God did no such thing and with the psalmist we are perfectly justified in directing our deepest anger toward a seemingly indifferent God. This is the brilliance of the psalms: we can find a psalm that expresses every emotion!

Job 7: Like the psalmist above, Job cries out against the unfairness of life and God’s apparent indifference to the plight he created for Job, him. IN perhaps one of the most existential chpaters in the Bible, Job argues that life is tough enough with God piling on and adding still more suffering to an already brutal existence:
Do not human beings have a hard service on earth,
    and are not their days like the days of a laborer?
  Like a slave who longs for the shadow,

    and like laborers who look for their wages,
  so I am allotted months of emptiness,

    and nights of misery are apportioned to me.” (1-3)

I think these verses perfectly express our anger at what so often seems to be God’s indifference, if not outright cruelty. Job goes on to describe his restless nights and his physical misery that have led to hopelessness:
My flesh is clothed with worms and dirt;
    my skin hardens, then breaks out again.” (5)

At this point, Job has abandoned all hope:
My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle,
    and come to their end without hope.” (6)

Given life’s brutal ephemerality, he certainly feels free to shake his fist at God:
Therefore I will not restrain my mouth;
    I will speak in the anguish of my spirit;
    I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.” (11)

His nights are full of terrible nightmares: “you scare me with dreams/ and terrify me with visions,” (14)  as he comes close to suicide:
so that I would choose strangling
    and death rather than this body.
  I loathe my life; I would not live forever.” (15, 16a)

In fact, he shouts, why does God even give a rip about humans? Are we merely God’s playthings which he enjoys testing?
What are human beings, that you make so much of them,
    that you set your mind on them,
visit them every morning,

    test them every moment?” (17, 18)

Job comes the questions that everyone who is enduring a trial must ask at some point. What did we do to God to deserve this punishment?
If I sin, what do I do to you, you watcher of humanity?
    Why have you made me your target?
    Why have I become a burden to you?” (20)

What’s fascinating here is that Job’s questions are the exact opposite of the deuteronomic Covenant articulated elsewhere in the OT and by the Pharisees of Jesus’ time that it is our sin which result in God’s punishment. For Job, God’s action (or inaction) are a far more existential issue. In Job’s eyes we humans are merely God’s playthings and suffer for no good reason. Even though this book was written millennia ago the questions Job asks are completely modern—and completely relevant as we gaze on the disorder and suffering that plagues humankind.

Romans 12:9–21: By contrast, Paul ignores the existential crisis and focuses on the practical aspects of living the quotidian Christian life as he unleashes one of his famous lists: “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.” (9-12)

He continues to summarize the sayings of Jesus as he echoes much of what Jesus said at the Sermon on the Mount—only here it is about how we as Christians must live with each other in the community of the church: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.” (14-16) I wonder if Paul’s epistle served as a source for the writer of Matthew when he wrote the gospel some years after Paul was writing?

All of what Paul writes is strikingly good advice. It boils down to keeping our emotional outrage when we are wronged under control—especially in the church: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” (17, 18) Paul reminds us that we cannot strike out in vengeance because “it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” (19) True enough. But of course if any of this were easy to do Paul would not have had to write it down.

Paul doubtless understood that he was posing an enormous challenge to ordinary human beings—especially Christians. So he engages us by observing that there is a nice psychological reward when we treat our enemies kindly. Kindness will drive them crazy and, Paul asserts, cause them to realize their wrongdoing: “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” (20) I confess that I think not every enemy will come to his or her senses by being treated kindly. We need only look at the political sturm und drang that surrounds us.

Nevertheless, we would do well to heed Paul’s famous words that summarize it all: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (21)

The reality of course is that we as Christians are generally quite bad at heeding Paul’s advice. So when I’m upset with something that has happened to me, especially at church, I need to bring this section of Paul’s letter with me and read it several times before responding when I feel I’ve been wronged. Perhaps this section of Romans should be made into a poster and placed at several locations in the church—and here at home…

 

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