Psalm 55:1–9; Job 31; 1 Corinthians 7:1–16

Originally published 4/26/2017. Revised and updated 4/25/2019.

Psalm 55:1–9: We know instantly this is a psalm of supplication as our psalmist underscores his urgency with a pretty blunt appeal for God to hear him by using a verb to listen in each of the three opening lines:
Hearken, O God, to my prayer,
and do not ignore my plea.
Listen well to me and answer me. (2,3a)

His desperation comes roaring through in a catalog of fears created by the evil that surrounds him, creating a severe physical reaction, even to the point of awaiting death:
In my complaint I sway and moan.
From the sound of the enemy,
from the crushing force of the wicked
when they bring mischief down upon me
and in fury harass me,
my heart quails within me
and death-terrors fall upon me,
fear and trembling enter me,
and horror envelopes me.” (3b-6)

I have never been on a battlefield and have never felt fear as intense as it’s described here. But I have to imagine this is a perfect description of the terror that must envelope a soldier who is under attack and sees death all around him.

And in the midst of that terror he has only one futile wish: escape:
And I say, ‘Would that I had wings like a dove.
I would fly off and find rest. (7)

And if not able to fly away like a dove, then at least to be able to escape to some other place far away from the battlefield, even into desolate wilderness—to be anywhere else than where there is freedom from fear. This is a feeling I know I’ve had:
Look, I would wander far away,
and lodge in the wilderness.
Would make haste to a refuge for me
from the streaming wind and the storm. (8, 9)

What’s important here, I think, is that we can pray to God, even demand that God hears us, when we find ourselves in a desperate situation. To call to God and bluntly tell him our fears is perhaps the most honest prayer of all. Yet we hesitate, afraid to reveal the depth of our fear, preferring to put up a brave front. But remember: God can see right through our brave front and into the depths of our terrorized heart.

Job 31: Job asks the question that is the at the core of theodicy: why does God allow evil not only to exist, but even worse, to allow evil to fall upon the righteous who follow God?
Does not calamity befall the unrighteous,
    and disaster the workers of iniquity?
Does he not see my ways,
    and number all my steps? (3,4)

Like all of us, Job is perfectly content to endure God’s judgement if he has sinned. But if he has been righteous then God is being grossly unfair:
If I have walked with falsehood,
    and my foot has hurried to deceit—
let me be weighed in a just balance,
    and let God know my integrity!— (5,6)

Job catalogs the various sins he could have committed that would indeed deserve God’s harsh judgement, including adultery (9), allowing other men to rape his wife (10), been cruel to his slaves (13), ignored the poor and needy (16-21).

Or, he could have committed the sin we for which we are all guilty: greed and self-centeredness:
If I have made gold my trust,
    or called fine gold my confidence;
if I have rejoiced because my wealth was great,
    or because my hand had gotten much;

and my heart has been secretly enticed,
    and my mouth has kissed my hand;” (24, 25, 27)

Job acknowledges that all these sins deserve God’s judgement:
“…this also would be an iniquity to be punished by the judges,
    for I should have been false to God above. (28)

Job arrives at the climax of his speech as he realizes that God is not only silent, he is not even listening.  In fact, God has been unjust to him and allowed evil to befall him without ever revealing why this has happened:
O that I had one to hear me!
    (Here is my signature! Let the Almighty  answer me!)
    O that I had the indictment written by my adversary! (36)

At some point in our lives, we are Job. We feel God is not only unjust, he is not even listening—that God has acted arbitrarily and cruelly. Job is our voice of desperate frustration at life’s inherent unfairness and cruelty. And it is in God’s silence when we are surrounded by obvious evil  that many abandon faith and belief in a loving God altogether. Can we blame them? Where is God when he allows hundreds of worshippers to be massacred in the middle of an Easter service?

For it is on this pessimistic note of a God who punishes for no reason at all that we read, “The words of Job are ended.” (40) For indeed, there is nothing more to say.

1 Corinthians 7:1–16: Now we come to one of Paul’s more controversial passages: his essay on marriage, which like a Catholic priest, he opines without having had the personal experience. I think Paul’s overarching objective is to somehow halt sexual immorality in the church by reminding people about the rights and duties of marriage, specifically that it is a binding yet reciprocal contract: “But because of cases of sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband.” (2, 3)

Paul uses the unfortunate word, ‘authority,’ to describe the mutual relationship of giving to each other that is at the center of marriage: “For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.” (4) I think the term we use today is “mutuality.” Nor should one partner withhold sex from another “except perhaps by agreement for a set time, to devote yourselves to prayer, and then come together again.” (5)

There are theories out there that Paul never wrote these words; that they were added by some early church scribe. But I think for better or worse these are truly Paul’s words and that he is saying everything he can think of to crush immorality in the church.

One reason why I think these are Paul’s actual words is that he also makes it clear that this is his opinion, not necessarily a command from God: “This I say by way of concession, not of command.” (6) He goes on to assert—again as his opinion—that widows would be better off not remarrying, unless of course they are “aflame with passion.” [Great phrase!]

He also recommends that divorce is to be avoided, and especially that “that the husband should not divorce his wife.” (11) Or, if the wife separates, she should remain unmarried or try to reconcile with the husband. Unfortunately, IMHO, the Catholic church has turned Paul’s advice into Canon Law that treats divorced persons as unworthy of the sacraments. This is not how I read this passage.

Same goes for the Protestant belief in “unequal marriage” where one spouse is a Christian and the other is not. This has been carried to extremes in some quarters. Many evangelicals are aghast when a son or daughter in the church marries an “unbeliever.” I know that when I married a Catholic woman there were those who thought I was “unequally yoked” because they did not think Catholics were actually Christians.

Paul again makes it clear that all issues relating to marriage are his opinion: “To the rest I say—I and not the Lord—that if any believer has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her.” (12) Besides, there’s a definite upside: “Wife, for all you know, you might save your husband. Husband, for all you know, you might save your wife.” (16)

But unfortunately, because they are in the Bible, which many people take absolutely literally, they forget this is Paul’s not necessarily binding advice.  Instead, Paul’s words have too often been taken to extremes and unfair judgement rendered to the advantage of the one (usually the man) with the power in the relationship.

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