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.

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