Psalm 58; Job 40; 1 Corinthians 10:23–11:2

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

Psalm 58: Alter warns us in his notes regarding this psalm that “the Hebrew text of this psalm, from this verse to the end, with the sole exception of the ferocious verses 7 and 11, is badly mangled. As a result, a good deal of the translation is necessarily conjectural or must rely on emendation.”

With that caution in mind we can wallow in some of the more dramatic imagery that this psalm employs to condemn hypocrites with power—the current crop of politicians and erstwhile presidential candidates (and president) comes to mind.

Our psalmist asserts that while leaders may speak of justice, their hearts are cynical and their deeds are wicked:
Do you, O chieftains, indeed speak justice,
in rightness judge humankind?
In your heart you work misdeeds on earth,
weigh a case with outrage in your hands. (2,3)

One gets the impression that the psalmist has recently lost a case in court and this psalm expresses his outrage regarding the injustice of the verdict. He goes on to condemn these hypocrites as being rotten from birth and employs a viper as a simile, making sure that we understand just how loathsome they are:
The wicked backslide from the very womb,
the lie-mongers go astray from birth.
They have venom akin to the serpents venom,
like the deaf viper that stops its ears,
so it hears not the soothsayer’s voice
nor the cunning caster of spells. (4-6)

Who knew that vipers have ears? Now that he’s described just how evil they are, he prays to God to bring disaster down on their heads in rather graphic terms:
God, smash their teeth in their mouth.
The jaws of lions shatter, O Lord
Let them melt away, like water run off.
Let Him [i.e. God] pull back His arrows so the be cut down. (7, 8)

Just to make sure God gets the point, our angry psalmist uses the strongest curses and the vilest imagery he can think of:
Like a snail that moves in its slime,
a woman’s stillbirth that sees not the sun,
before their thorns ripen in bramble,
still alive and in wrath rushed to ruin. (9,10)

But we must also always remember, as the psalmist does here, that vengeance, however desirable, is carried out only by God:
The just man rejoices when vengeance he sees,
his feet he will bathe in the wicked one’s blood. (11)

As far as the psalmist is concerned, only after God acts will he see true justice:
And man will say, ‘Yes, there is fruit for the just.’
Yes, there are gods judging the earth. (12)

Wow. Now this would make for one angry but very literary Facebook post. The lesson here is that we can express the angriest possible thoughts and wishes to God. God can take our curses, but we can never forget it is God who must act in vengeance, not us.

Job 40: Having made his speech about how God is really the one in control of creation, God now speaks, challenging Job—the “faultfinder”—to speak:
Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty?
    Anyone who argues with God must respond. (2)

But Job refuses, telling God,
I have spoken once, and I will not answer;
    twice, but will proceed no further. (5)

Now, God famously answers Job out of the whirlwind. And God will not be put off and he challenges Job not to be a coward, demanding that he answer God’s interrogation:
Gird up your loins like a man;
   I will question you, and you declare to me. (7) 

Then, God asks a question that I think is completely modern and applies to each of us as much as it did to Job when we blame God for bad things happening to us:
Will you even put me in the wrong?
    Will you condemn me that you may be justified?”(8)

How often we condemn God in order to justify our own acts and to place ourselves at the center of the universe. God is right. Will we condemn God in order to justify ourselves? Sure. We do it all the time.

But to Job’s (and my) great frustration, God does not answer Job’s central question about the justifiable basis for his suffering. Instead, he changes the subject as he goes on to describe one of the more mysterious animals in the Bible:
Look at Behemoth,
    which I made just as I made you;
    it eats grass like an ox.
Its strength is in its loins,
    and its power in the muscles of its belly.
It makes its tail stiff like a cedar;
    the sinews of its thighs are knit together.
Its bones are tubes of bronze,
    its limbs like bars of iron. (15-18)

So what is this animal? Some have speculated it’s a grass-eating dinosaur. Others say it’s a hippopotamus. Or perhaps it’s just a mythical beast made up by the author to make God’s point that only the creator can approach it:
It is the first of the great acts of God—
    only its Maker can approach it with the sword. (19)

And then one final question to make sure that we understand our human weakness and how we lack God’s power as he asks rhetorically,
Can one take it with hooks  
or pierce its nose with a snare? (24)

Huh? What is going on here? Is this the author’s way of telling us that there are some questions which God will not answer? Or is it that Job’s question is completely unanswerable and the only response we’ll ever get from God is the equivalent of “O look, a squirrel.” This famous speech does not give us a very pretty picture of God, that’s for sure.

1 Corinthians 10:23–11:2: Paul  continues to wind up his long discourse on determining the practices we can continue and those we must abandon with the simple aphorism, “All things are lawful,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up.” (23) And out of this comes what I think is the First Rule of Christian Community: “Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other.” (24) In other words, put the welfare of others ahead of our own. Easy to say, hard to do.

Paul then talks about eating meat being OK as long as we do not know it’s been offered as a sacrifice at the temple. If we are aware (or if our host tells us) then we should not eat it “out of consideration for the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience—I mean the other’s conscience, not your own.” (28, 29) I’m not sure exactly what set of circumstances today would parallel Paul’s advice here. So I’ll stick with Paul’s rule stated at a higher level of abstraction: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.” (31)

Paul sums up with his overarching rule: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” (11:1) We then come to a verse that seems somehow added on by a later editor: “I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I handed them on to you.” (11:2) Traditions? This certainly seems out of place to me because Paul is always talking in the present tense about the present situation. This is one of those times I wish I knew Greek.

Despite this minor point, the key lesson of this passage is to think through the possible consequences and the effects on other people before speaking or acting. Unfortunately, I don’t seem to do that very often. It’s the old “engage the mouth before the brain” problem. As Paul makes clear here, this is a longstanding human trait.

 

Speak Your Mind

*