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?

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