Archives for June 2019

Psalm 77:17–21; Song of Solomon 2:8–4:16; Galatians 1:13–24

Originally published 6/19/2017. Revised and updated 6/18/2019.

Psalm 77:17–21: At first glance, the final verses of this psalm seem to be something of a non-sequitur as it recounts the story of God parting the waters as Moses and the Israelites escape the Egyptians. But unlike Exodus, which tells the story from a narrative point of view, this account dramatically speaks from nature’s point of view:
The waters saw You, O God,
the waters saw You, they trembled,
the depths themselves shuddered.
The clouds streamed water.
The skies sounded with thunder.
You bolts, too, flew about.
Your thunder’s sound under the wheel—
lightening lit up the world.
The earth shuddered and shook. (17-19)

As far as the psalmist is concerned, this miracle was as sure a sign of a theophany as was the parting of the sea. The event is preceded by God’s unfathomable power expressed through the metaphor of a violent thunderstorm in the desert. I’m pretty sure that anyone who was in that storm would be convinced that a supernatural event was about to occur.

Following this dramatic introduction, God acts and parts the waters so the people can cross:
In the sea was Your way,
and Your path in the mighty waters,
and Your footsteps left no traces.
You led Your people like a flock
by the hand of Moses and Aaron. (20, 21)

For our psalmist, the “sea was in Your way” is a manifestation of God’s power to overcome any obstacle that stands before him. We humans attempt to emulate this power through our technology but our powers are minute compared to God’s—and being fallen creatures, our hubris always gets us.

The line, “and Your footsteps left no traces,” stands out for me as a beautiful description of how God acts in our quotidian lives but then tends to disappear back into the mists of memory. Which is also how the psalm itself ends with quiet abruptness, disappearing into the mists.

Song of Solomon 2:8–4:16: For the remainder of chapter 2 the woman speaks of her lover with gorgeous imagery that evokes the beauty of nature as winter gives way to springtime. She begins with a simile of her love as a gazelle standing as it looks over the verdant countryside:
My beloved is like a gazelle
    or a young stag.
Look, there he stands
    behind our wall,
gazing in at the windows,
    looking through the lattice. (2:9)

I don’t think there is a lovelier description of love blossoming in the springtime than these verses:
Arise, my love, my fair one,
    and come away;
for now the winter is past,
    the rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth;
    the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove
    is heard in our land.
The fig tree puts forth its figs,
    and the vines are in blossom;
    they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my fair one,
    and come away. (2:10-13)

The mental images produced by these lines are fragrances that becomes almost overpowering.

[Many authors have used lines in this poem as their titles, e.g. “Catch us the foxes,/ the little foxes,” of verse 15, the second line being the tile of Lillian Hellman’s play.]

The woman seeks her lover that he might come to her bed. [The fact that the woman is seducing the man must drive evangelicals, who use Paul to to justify the subjugation of women, crazy. But then again, I doubt that many have ever read this “scandalous” book.]

At first she is unsuccessful as she searches through the city. But then,
Scarcely had I passed them,
    when I found him whom my soul loves.
I held him, and would not let him go
    until I brought him into my mother’s house,
    and into the chamber of her that conceived me. (3:4)

Wow. She wants to seduce the man in her parent’s bedroom.

Suddenly, though, a warning to women that they should remain chaste until true love occurs.
I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem,
    by the gazelles or the wild does:
do not stir up or awaken love
    until it is ready! (3:5)

Good advice in our own sexually-charged culture. Infatuation and hormones are not the same as true love.

Chapter 4 is a series of remarkable similes as the point of view shifts to the male lover describing the beauty of his beloved, comparing parts of her body to a striking natural image:

Your eyes are doves…
Your hair is like a flock of goats,…
Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes…
Your lips are like a crimson thread,…
Your neck is like the tower of David…

Moving down from her head and neck, he arrives at her breasts:
Your two breasts are like two fawns,
    twins of a gazelle,
    that feed among the lilies.  (4:5)

And finally to his ultimate goal sheathed in aromatic metaphor:
I will hasten to the mountain of myrrh
    and the hill of frankincense. (4:6)

But our groom is chaste. Sexual consummation cannot come just yet:
A garden locked is my sister, my bride,
    a garden locked, a fountain sealed. (4:12)

Wondrous pleasures await inside this locked garden as the metaphors of fruit and scents become more explicit:
Your channel is an orchard of pomegranates
    with all choicest fruits,
    henna with nard,
nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon,
    with all trees of frankincense,
myrrh and aloes,
    with all chief spices— (4:13, 14)

The woman speaks once again as she grants her lover permission to enter:
Let my beloved come to his garden,
    and eat its choicest fruits. (4:16b)

Would that we lived in an age where this beautiful poetry of description and anticipation were the rule rather than the exception. And that romantic love would wait outside the locked garden rather than too many men’s efforts to force open its door.

Galatians 1:13–24: Apparently Paul has never personally visited the church at Galatia so he provides a brief CV as well as his mission statement:  You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles.” (13-16)

He’s especially careful to note that he did not enter into competition with the other apostles at Jerusalem, but headed off to other realms, carrying the Good News: “nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.” (17)

What Paul did in Arabia remains speculative mystery.

Paul points out that three years after his conversion he went back to Jerusalem, but that he saw only Peter and James. My guess is that since his reputation as a gifted missionary precedes him, Paul was careful to avoid making it appear he had arrived in Jerusalem to take over the work of the other apostles there. Paul emphasizes this point, making it crystal clear that his missionary efforts were to “the regions of Syria and Cilicia,” (20) and that he was “still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea that are in Christ; they only heard it said, “The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.” (22, 23) His reputation in Jerusalem is quite different among the Christians there compared to just three years earlier: “And they glorified God because of me.” (24) As far as they were concerned, if Christ could change a man like Paul, he could do anything. As Jesus can for any of us if only we allow the Holy Spirit to work inside us.

Psalm 77:11–16; Song of Solomon 1:1–2:7; Galatians 1:1–12

Originally published 6/17/2017. Revised and updated 6/17/2019.

Psalm 77:11–16: After wondering if God has abandoned him for keeps, our psalmist takes responsibility  for God’s anger. It is his sins that have separated him from God; not the other way around:
And I said, it is my failing,
that the High One’s right hand has changed. (11)

Unlike so many of us, our poet is not in denial about where the root of the problem lies. And with that confession he turns from his negative reflections about God that we saw in the opening verses to an elegy of the great things God has done for creation and for Israel:
I call to mind the acts of Yah,
when I recall Your wonders of old.
I recite all Your works,
Your acts I rehearse. (12, 13)

I wonder that if were I as angry at God about the intrinsic unfairness of life if I could execute the thematic about-face we see here? Yet, by shifting our psychological gaze from all the awful things we think God has done over to reflecting on the great things God has done, we can find healing. I know that initially when I was diagnosed with cancer I was pretty angry. After all, I’d led a pretty decent life, trying to be a “good Christian.” Why would God allow this to happen? But after a while I realized that God’s seeming unfairness is because we we live in a sinful, imperfect world. Like the psalmist, I found healing in reflecting on the blessings that God had brought to me down through the years.

The verses that follow are a marvelous paean to God who rescues a sinful people—and through Jesus Christ rescues each of us:
God, Your way is in holiness.
Who is a great god like God?
You are the god working wonders,
You made known among peoples Your strength.
You redeemed with Your arm Your people,
The children of Jacob and Joseph. (14-16)

Like the psalmist, our response is awe and gratitude when we seriously consider all that God has done for us. And unlike the psalmist, we also know that God’s rescuing agent is Jesus—a reality for which we can be even more grateful than what our psalmist has so joyfully written here.

Song of Solomon 1:1–2:7: As its first verse indicates, this book is also called the Song of Songs, “which is Solomon’s.” Although I take this more as a dedication by the poet than a statement of Solomonic authorship.

It is a love poem structured as a dialog between a young woman and her lover. It is frank in its sexuality and I think it’s in the Bible because of its gorgeous poetry and as the best human expression of what love is that we find in the Bible. In that context, the poetry here is a book-long metaphor for God’s love for us. More prosaically, as Qoheleth advises us in the previous book, since we’re going to die anyway, we might as well enjoy life to the fullest while we have it. In any event, I think it’s difficult to find a more beautifully powerful expression of human love than in this short book of poetry.

The opening verse sets the tone and theme of a woman’s love for a man in a famous comparison:
Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!
For your love is better than wine,
  your anointing oils are fragrant,
your name is perfume poured out;
    therefore the maidens love you. (1:2,3)

The first lines are familiar because they were the lyric of a song sung by Jimmie Rogers; Peter, Paul and Mary; and others in the 1960’s: “Kisses sweeter than wine.”

Some Christians have tried to make Jesus the male lover in the poem, but I think that is taking interpretation too far.  I think this book of poetry deserves to be read and enjoyed, not dissected as a theological treatise.

So I will only note and comment briefly on some of the lines which for me are particularly beautiful.

The bride speaks first:
I am black and beautiful,
    O daughters of Jerusalem,
like the tents of Kedar,
    like the curtains of Solomon. (1:5)

I’d never noticed the line, I am “black and beautiful” before. Perhaps it’s a reference to the Queen of Sheba, who comes from Africa.

Then the bridegroom speaks:
I compare you, my love,
    to a mare among Pharaoh’s chariots.
Your cheeks are comely with ornaments,

    your neck with strings of jewels.
We will make you ornaments of gold,
    studded with silver.  (1:9-11)

and then even more passionately…
Ah, you are beautiful, my love;
    ah, you are beautiful;
    your eyes are doves.
Ah, you are beautiful, my beloved,
    truly lovely. (1:15-16)

The bride replies with a metaphor that hints strongly of her sexual desire:
As an apple tree among the trees of the wood,
    so is my beloved among young men.
With great delight I sat in his shadow,
    and his fruit was sweet to my taste. (2:3)

And there is her deep longing (the German word, ‘Sehnsucht‘ which intertwines longing with passion expresses this better than English):
O that his left hand were under my head,
    and that his right hand embraced me! (2:6)

But then a warning intrudes:
I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem,
    by the gazelles or the wild does:
do not stir up or awaken love
    until it is ready! (2:7)

Authentic human love is never in a hurry and it waits for the right person and the right time.

Galatians 1:1–12: The church at Corinth was not the only church that turned quickly to false gospels once Paul had left town. There are problems down in Galatia that must be addressed as well. I believe that a more mature Paul penned this epistle that IMHO expounds with a far richer theology than the second letter to Corinth.

Following a warm greeting and invocation, Paul loses no time in getting down to business: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—” (6) As at Corinth, the problem seems to be preachers of a false gospel arriving after Paul’s departure. As far as Paul is concerned, they are leading the good people of the church at Galatia astray: “not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ.” (7)

Paul gives his listeners—and us—a taste of the strength of his barely disguised anger when he notes that “even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed!” (8) And to make sure the Galatians (and we) get his point, Paul repeats himself: “As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!” (9)

If this opening paragraph didn’t grab the Galatians’ attention then the cause was lost. Paul is certainly aware that he is upsetting people, but the necessity of hewing to the true Gospel of Christ far outweighs the desire for polite conversation: “If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.” (10)

Which is pretty much the opposite of how the church, consummate marketer that it has become, operates in America today. Unlike Paul we are more likely to pussyfoot around the more difficult aspects of the Gospel for fear of offending people and sending them racing for the doors. I certainly know I am personally guilty of pussyfooting around when it comes to witnessing my faith.

It’s crucial that Paul clearly establishes his bona fides, which he does next. The key differentiator, as we marketers would say it, is that the Gospel he is preaching is not something he made up himself. Rather, “I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” (12) The Damascus Road experience and the days of instruction that followed are Paul’s unique claim of apostolic authority outside the original twelve disciples. That is also why Paul’s letters make up a substantial portion of the New testament. The church fathers who assembled the NT canon certainly accepted Paul’s claim that he was conveying the true, divinely revealed gospel.

Psalm 77:1–10; Ecclesiastes 10:1–12:14; 2 Corinthians 13:5–13

Originally published 6/16/2017. Revised and updated 6/15/2019.

Psalm 77:1–10: If ever we needed a classic psalm of supplication this is the one. Whatever has happened that brings our psalmist to appeal to God’s mercy it has had a deep emotional impact, perhaps the death of a spouse or a child. Human consolation is inadequate and he cannot stop weeping in anguish as he comes to God, whom he calls ‘Master:’
In the day of my straits I sought the Master.
My eye flows at night, it will not stop.
I refused to be consoled.
I call God to mind and I moan.
I speak and my spirit faints. (3,4)

He lies awake in his bed in the middle of the night, suffering from God-caused insomnia.
You held open my eyelids.
I throbbed and could not speak
. (5)

In the depths of night our poet reflects back on better times:
I ponder the days of yore,
the years long gone.
I call to mind my song in the night.
To my own heart I speak, and my spirit inquires. (6,7)

As is the case for me when I experience my own frequent bouts of insomnia, there’s something about the dark that makes the situation feel more dire than were I to ponder the same thing in daylight. But in the darkness grimmer thoughts easily supplant pleasant reminiscences. And here it’s the darkest thought of all—has God forgotten him?
Will the master forever abandon me,
and never again look with favor?
Is His kindness gone for all time,
His word done for time without end?
Has God forgotten to show grace,
has He closed off in wrath His compassion? (8-10)

Reflect on this for a moment. What would it feel like to be completely abandoned by God? To no longer know kindness, mercy, or grace?

Unlike the psalmist, we have the wonderful gift of the Holy Spirit through Jesus Christ. Even when we feel abandoned, the Holy Spirit remains with us. But lying awake in the middle of the night it’s often too easy to forget the tremendous gift of God’s grace that envelopes us. I hope never to feel the utter despair of abandonment that the psalmist describes so brilliantly here.

Ecclesiastes 10:1–12:14: The Moravians, who are so eager to get us through this book, conclude our three-chapter-at-a-time romp with what the editors of the NRSV head as “Miscellaneous observations.”

Chapter 10 opens with a striking metaphor of the consequences of folly—or today what we’d probably call ‘bad choices.’
Dead flies make the perfumer’s ointment give off a foul odor;
    so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honor.” (10:1)

Even when we hew to the path of righteousness, even seemingly trivial sins foul our being. As we already know, Qoheleth has little tolerance for those he calls fools—and their foolishness is on public display, easy to see:
Even when fools walk on the road, they lack sense,
    and show to everyone that they are fools. (10:3)

Then he makes an observation that, alas, seems even more cogent today as we witness the behavior of our leaders. They are no smarter than we: “folly is set in many high places, and the rich sit in a low place.” (10:6) This leads Qoheleth to a rather cynical outlook on life that expresses Murphy’s law in biblical terms—anything that can go wrong will indeed go wrong.
Whoever digs a pit will fall into it;
    and whoever breaks through a wall will be bitten by a snake.
Whoever quarries stones will be hurt by them;
    and whoever splits logs will be endangered by them. (10:8,9)

As always, it is one’s speech (or today, also one’s email, tweets, and posts) that broadcast to the world whether we are fools or among the wise. One sure clue is that fools never shut up—again recalling certain players in the Washington drama:
Words spoken by the wise bring them favor,
    but the lips of fools consume them.
 The words of their mouths begin in foolishness,
    and their talk ends in wicked madness;
 yet fools talk on and on. (12-14)

In chapter 11 Qoheleth turns to recounting the value and reward of sticking to the task at hand and not giving up in the famous line:
Send out your bread upon the waters,
    for after many days you will get it back. (11:1)

In other words, give it a try and see what happens. Although Qoheleth didn’t have a computer, he certainly anticipates the need to back up our data in different locations, including the cloud.
Divide your means seven ways, or even eight,
    for you do not know what disaster may happen on earth. (11:2)

Or perhaps we could read this as the need to have multiple bank accounts. Above all, though, Qoheleth believes we humans are set on here earth to labor even though we may not know the ultimate outcome of our efforts: “In the morning sow your seed, and at evening do not let your hands be idle; for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good.” (11:6) Which is why I believe that retirement without a a clear purpose is unhealthy for the retiree.

Qoheleth has final words of advice to youth: “Rejoice, young man, while you are young, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Follow the inclination of your heart and the desire of your eyes, but know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment.” (11:9) In other words, follow what your heart says to do but choose wisely because whatever you choose will have consequences for better or for worse.

Above all, remember, “Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher; all is vanity.” (12:8) However, Qoheleth does not end on a sour note. Rather he reminds us of the great commandment: “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone.” (12:13) And a final warning that we ignore at our ultimate peril: “For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.” (12:14)

The choice regarding our deeds is up to us. But we must never think we are victims of God or of others. Personal responsibility based on wisdom rather than idle foolishness is the theme that threads through this marvelous book.

2 Corinthians 13:5–13: As often happens there’s a thread between the OT reading and the NT reading—a “Holy Spirit coincidence,” if you will.  Paul sounds a lot like Qoheleth when he advises the Corinthians to look at themselves and test the quality of their faith: “Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless, indeed, you fail to meet the test!” (5) Or, in Qoheleth’s terms, are they being wise or are they being fools?

It turns out that depsite his ranting through this book he really does love the Corinthians. He holds out hope that even though he may have failed in his ministry there, they will pass the test of faith: “we pray to God that you may not do anything wrong—not that we may appear to have met the test, but that you may do what is right, though we may seem to have failed.” (7)

Like Qoheleth, truth matters to Paul and he is incapable of speaking anything but the truth even though the truth may be unpleasant—something he has certainly made clear in this entire letter: “For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth.” (8) Which to me means we cannot prosper when we are in denial about reality.

Paul desperately hopes and prays for the church at Corinth: “This is what we pray for, that you may become perfect.” (9) But if they remain in denial about the truths Paul is showing them, then, as we learned in Ecclesiastes, there will be dire consequences: “I write these things while I am away from you, so that when I come, I may not have to be severe in using the authority that the Lord has given me for building up and not for tearing down.” (10)

As far as we know Paul never made it back to Corinth, but I think he really did like them despite their manifold shortcomings: “ Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.” (11) This is excellent advice for any church today.

The final question that this letter raises for me is, am I helping or hindering the work of the church by my attitudes. Or as Qoheleth might put it, am I being wise or a fool?

Psalm 76; Ecclesiastes 7:15–9:18; 2 Corinthians 12:14–13:4

Originally published 6/15/2017. Revised and updated 6/14/2019.

Psalm 76: This psalm celebrates the role God has played in Israel’s history and how his actions have revealed his power to the Jewish people:
God becomes known in Judah,
in Israel His name is great.
And in Salem was set His pavilion,
His dwelling in Zion. (2,3)

The dwelling in Zion would be the temple in Jerusalem. God has enabled military victory near Jerusalem because his great strength exceeds even that of wild animals in the mountains seeking their next lunch:
There did He shatter the bow’s fiery shafts,
the shield and sword and the battle.
Refulgent You were,
mightier than the mountains of prey. (4, 5)

The battle’s outcome was looking grim and Israel’s soldiers lay exhausted on the ground when God finally and dramatically intervened in the battle:
The stout-hearted were despoiled,
they fell into a trance,
and all the men of valor could not lift a hand.
By Your roar, O God of Jacob,
chariot and horse were stunned. (6,7)

Even the mightiest enemy inevitably succumbs to God’s fearsome judgement and power that comes directly down from heaven:
You, O fearsome are You,
and who can stand before You, in the strength of Your wrath?
From the heavens You made judgement heard,
the earth was afraid and fell silent,
when God rose up for judgement
to rescue all the lowly of earth. (8-10)

As Christians, I think we can read “to rescue all the lowly of earth” as representing the salvific power of Jesus Christ, whom God sent to earth. There’s even an intimation of the scene of the crucifixion when “the earth was afraid and fell silent.”  All salvation comes from God. God’s anger overwhelms human anger and every person, whether Jewish or not, must inevitably come to recognize that power:
Even human fury acclaims You
when You gird on all furies’ remains. (11)

The psalm ends with a command to follow God. As well, there’s another reminder of God’s unquenchable fearsome power that is so much greater than even that of the mightiest leader:
Make vows and fulfill them to the Lord your God.
All round Him bring tribute to the Fearsome One.
He plucks the life-breath of princes.
He is fearsome to the kings of the earth.” (12, 13)

Like the psalm that immediately precedes this one, it’s a useful reminder that God is not some avuncular teddy bear with a long white beard. Indeed, God is more powerful and yes, more frightening than any human can even imagine.

Ecclesiastes 7:15–9:18: Qoheleth once again reflects on life’s intrinsic unfairness: “In my vain life I have seen everything; there are righteous people who perish in their righteousness, and there are wicked people who prolong their life in their evildoing.” (7:15) For him, life is a balancing act between wisdom and foolishness, but in the end it is always best to choose righteousness which leads to wisdom “for the one who fears God shall succeed with both.” (7:18)

However, we cannot simply will ourselves into the elusive quality of wisdom. It is difficult to acquire: “I have tested by wisdom; I said, “I will be wise,” but it was far from me. That which is, is far off, and deep, very deep; who can find it out?” (7:23, 24) Wise men are also a scarce commodity and “One man among a thousand I found, but a woman among all these I have not found.” (7:28) [We’ll let that last assertion regarding females pass without further comment.] 

I’m struck by Qoheleth’s assertion that “God made human beings straightforward, but they have devised many schemes.” (7:29) I think the “straightforward” part of humans is the gift of a free will which God has given us. Unfortunately, as sinners we too often use that free will to bad ends.

His focus shifts to giving advice about how to act in front of a leader, including “Do not be terrified [of the king]; go from his presence, do not delay when the matter is unpleasant, for he does whatever he pleases.” (8:3) I certainly recall how I was never enthusiastic about delivering bad news to my bosses, but also the great relief I felt when the task was done.

Whatever efforts we undertake we can never fully comprehend God: “then I saw all the work of God, that no one can find out what is happening under the sun. However much they may toil in seeking, they will not find it out; even though those who are wise claim to know, they cannot find it out.” (8:17) However, I do not fully agree here. While we will certainly never come to understand God himself, we have not been prevented from discovering much about God’s creative work through philosophy and science.

Qoheleth observes that because evil deeds are rarely instantly punished, humans tend to the dark side:  “Because sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the human heart is fully set to do evil.” (8:11) Nevertheless, it is always better to follow God since evildoers will inevitably get their comeuppance: “I know that it will be well with those who fear God, because they stand in fear before him, but it will not be well with the wicked, neither will they prolong their days like a shadow, because they do not stand in fear before God.” (8:12, 13)

If there’s one thread that runs throughout this book it is resignation. There is so much about life and life’s unfairness that we will never understand. God is inscrutable, so we may as well sit back and enjoy life’s bumpy ride, taking life as it comes at us: “Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do. … Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that are given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun.” (9:7)

And in a famous verse Qoheleth reminds us that life is pretty random and things do not turn out the way we think they will—or the way we think they should: “the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all.” (9:11) This is a good reminder that try as we might we cannot fully control our lives. There is too much randomness and chance in the world.

And finally in a reminder of the current stupidity that seems to have overtaken our leaders, even where there is wisdom to be found it almost always ends up being ignored:
The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded
    than the shouting of a ruler among fools.
Wisdom is better than weapons of war,
    but one bungler destroys much good.” (9:17, 18)

It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out who the current fools and bunglers are. Washington DC is awash in them.

2 Corinthians 12:14–13:4: Paul reveals that he’s already been to Corinth twice before and “Here I am, ready to come to you this third time.” (12:14) But he just cannot let go of defending the accusations that have been made against him: “Nevertheless (you say) since I was crafty, I took you in by deceit. Did I take advantage of you through any of those whom I sent to you?” (12:16, 17)

Frankly, I’m not totally convinced when he says, “Have you been thinking all along that we have been defending ourselves before you? We are speaking in Christ before God. Everything we do, beloved, is for the sake of building you up.” (12:19) It seems more like personal anger to me. But he goes on to state in great sincerity, I think, that it would be appalling to come back to Corinth and that after all he has done for them and said to them only to find out that  that “I may have to mourn over many who previously sinned and have not repented of the impurity, sexual immorality, and licentiousness that they have practiced.” (12:21)

Paul abruptly shifts from his defensiveness to an aggressive stance: “I warned those who sinned previously and all the others, and I warn them now while absent, as I did when present on my second visit, that if I come again, I will not be lenient—since you desire proof that Christ is speaking in me.” (13:2) He makes it crystal clear that he is not the one who will deal with their sinfulness, but that it is Jesus Christ who “is not weak in dealing with you, but is powerful in you.” (13:3)

He goes on to state that while it may appear that Christ died on the cross in weakness, the risen Christ is just as powerful as the psalmist above has described the fearsome power of God. And this finally is the lesson about Christ’s apparent weakness and his true power: “For he was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God. For we are weak in him but in dealing with you we will live with him by the power of God.” (13:4) I think Qoheleth might agree: that which appears weak can be very strong indeed.

Psalm 75; Ecclesiastes 6:1–7:14; 2 Corinthians 12:1–13

Originally published 6/14/2017. Revised and updated 6/13/2019.

Psalm 75: This thanksgiving psalm is unique in that from verse 3 it is written in the voice of God himself. The first thing he says is that a day of judgement is coming and that God himself will be the judge:
When I seize the appointed time,
I, Myself shall judge rightly. (3)

Notice that it is God who will determine the end of history (the ‘appointed time,’) not humans. God’s second announcement is that nothing would have existed were it not for his will and his creative power:
Earth and its dwellers would melt,
had I not set fast its pillars. (4)

Then, God sets about to warn the wicked that they had better not attempt to act out their wickedness. The image of the ram’s horn representing human attempts at making themselves greater than God is the central metaphor of this psalm:
I said to the revelers, ‘Do not revel,’
and to the wicked, ‘Lift not your horn.’
Lift not your horn on high.
You would speak arrogance against the Rock.

The last line is a reference to Moses’ own arrogance when he struck the rock in the desert at Meribah and water came forth. It’s probably something of a stretch, but I think we could also interpret ‘the Rock’ as a prophecy of Jesus Christ—our Rock— being crucified by the descendants of these same arrogant people.

Referring to himself in the third person, God then reminds us that he is the one who judges every human action:
But God is the judge,
it is He Who brings down and lifts up. (8)

Our poet then regains his voice, shifting to a metaphor of wine in a chalice as the judgement itself, which the wicked will one day taste:
For there is a cup in the hand of the Lord,
with foaming wine full for decanting.
He will pour from it,
yes, its dregs they will drain,
all the earth’s wicked will drink. (9)

Just to make it clear that he’s on God’s side, our poet narrator asserts his undying loyalty and worship to the God of judgement:
As for me, I shall tell it forever,
let me hymn to the God of Jacob. (10)

But God gets the final, rather violent lines, returning to the horn metaphor and the ultimate fate of the wicked as well as God’s own ultimate triumph—horns held high—of the righteous:
And all the horns of the wicked I shall hack off.
The horns of the just shall be lifted! (11)

The culmination may have to wait until the Day of Judgement, but in the end righteousness will indeed be triumphant. This psalm is a good reminder that God is not just Abba Father, but also the creator and ruler of the universe, who will one day set things right by judging and then punishing the wicked.

Ecclesiastes 6:1–7:14: Qoheleth, reflecting on human mortality and the inevitability of our death, is upset that God prevents our enjoyment of worldly wealth: “those to whom God gives wealth, possessions, and honor, so that they lack nothing of all that they desire, yet God does not enable them to enjoy these things, but a stranger enjoys them.” (6:2) But he also points out that it’s all in how we choose to enjoy life regardless of our worldly wealth. If a man “does not enjoy life’s good things, or has no burial, I say that a stillborn child is better off than he.” (6:3) In other words, enjoy life while you have it regardless of your circumstances. Truer words have never been spoken.

Qoheleth then reflects on the futility of laboring to a goal since in the end human desire is never satisfied: “All human toil is for the mouth, yet the appetite is not satisfied.” (6:7) Even seeking wisdom itself is ultimately a fool’s errand: “The more words, the more vanity, so how is one the better? For who knows what is good for mortals while they live the few days of their vain life, which they pass like a shadow?” (6:11, 12) For Qoheleth there is no heavenly reward. The whole point of life seems to be its pointlessness and the only alternative is to enjoy the life we have. 

Qoheleth goes on, writing in poetry in chapter 7, to express his disillusionment with life that leads inevitably to death. He reverses ideas that we hold dear:
It is better to go to the house of mourning
    than to go to the house of feasting;
for this is the end of everyone,
    and the living will lay it to heart.
Sorrow is better than laughter,
    for by sadness of countenance the heart is made glad. (7:2,3)

I take this passage to mean that we cannot deny the reality of death and our life is better lived when we realize that we will one day die—and that we must focus on the things that matter—only through sadness will we come to know true joy. Of course, most of American society operates on the blithe denial of death’s reality until it actually comes near to us.

But then his tone shifts somewhat and again the aphorisms sound more like the authors of Proverbs:
Better is the end of a thing than its beginning;
    the patient in spirit are better than the proud in spirit.
Do not be quick to anger,

    for anger lodges in the bosom of fools. (7:8, 9)

However, we are to avoid pointless nostalgia:
Do not say, “Why were the former days better than these?”
    For it is not from wisdom that you ask this. (7:10)

In the end, even though we are going to die anyway, we might as well pursue wisdom rather than foolishness since wisdom provides distinct advantages:
Wisdom is as good as an inheritance,
    an advantage to those who see the sun.
For the protection of wisdom is like the protection of money,
    and the advantage of knowledge is that wisdom gives life to the one who possesses it. (7:11, 12)

Bottom line: God is in control, not us. So we might as well enjoy the ride and not fret over the things we cannot know or tasks we cannot accomplish: In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider; God has made the one as well as the other, so that mortals may not find out anything that will come after them.” (7:14)

The moral here seems clear: we humans are limited in our understanding and to try to figure out God’s ways is foolhardy. Better to enjoy each day as it comes since in the end we’re dead anyway. Or as the cliche has it: “The journey is the reward.”

2 Corinthians 12:1–13: To further emphasize his superior apostolic bona fides Paul states that “It is necessary to boast; [even though] nothing is to be gained by it, but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord.” (1) He then famously describes his vision of of heaven, although he refers to himself obliquely as “a person in Christ.” I think it’s reasonable to assume this vision is part of Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus.

I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat.” (3,4)

However, he had paid a heavy price to receive this joyful and exceptional revelation: “Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated.” (7) There has been rampant speculation about the nature of Paul’s thorn—everything form epilepsy to bad vision (which could be why he employed an amanuensis to take his dictation.) But in keeping with his focus on Christ, Paul remains silent on the nature of the thorn.

However, Paul does tell us that he appealed to God to remove the thorn three times but God famously replied, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” (9a) And that’s the lesson here for us. We encounter obstacles, broken relationships, illnesses. Like Paul, we can pray for healing, but healing may not come. The best alternative, then, is the one Paul takes: live with it and use it “so that the power of Christ may dwell in [us].” (9b)  Like Paul, we need to be “content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ.” (10a) For it is in weakness that we find strength: “for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” (10b) I certainly know from my own experience with cancer the truth of this statement.

Paul then returns (again!) to his ironic tone, reminding the Corinthians, “Indeed you should have been the ones commending me, for I am not at all inferior to these super-apostles, even though I am nothing.” (11) Reporting that he performed all the signs of a true apostle while he was with them, he rather sarcastically comments, “How have you been worse off than the other churches, except that I myself did not burden you? Forgive me this wrong!” (13)

Whatever it was that the Corinthians wrote to Paul in addition to accusing him of not being a true apostle, it certainly included a fair amount of whining that drove Paul basically to the point of cynicism. Or maybe Paul just happened to have read Ecclesiastes 6 & 7 on the morning he wrote to the Corinthians…

Psalm 74:18-23; Ecclesiastes 3:9–5:20; 2 Corinthians 11:16–33

Originally published 6/13/2017. Revised and updated 6/12/2019.

Psalm 74:18-23: Having reviewed God’s triumph over the sea monsters and his creative power in nature, our author turns to him in an almost berating tone and reminds God rather directly that miscreants are blaspheming his very name:
Remember this: the enemy insulted,
a base people reviled Your name. (18)

The commanding tone continues as the poet commands, rather than asks, God to not abandon his chosen people:
Do not yield to the beast the life of Your dove,
the band of Your lowly forget not forever. (19)

The metaphor of Israel as God’s dove—the symbol of peace—is striking. Our poet goes on to implore God to remember his covenant with Israel, which is in the throes of suffering and metaphorically at least, hiding in caves:
Look to the pact,
for the dark places of earth fill with groans of outrage. (20)

The psalmist even turns the constant reminders for us to care for the poor back on God himself so they can in turn worship him:
Let not the poor man turn back disgraced.
Let the lowly and needy praise Your name. (21)

And in one final crescendo, the psalmist begs God to act against Israel’s enemies, who, as he points out, are also God’s enemies and who are reviling the master of the universe:
Arise, God, O plead Your cause.
Remember the insult to You by the base all day long.
Forget not the voice of Your foes,
the din of those against You perpetually rising. (22, 23)

So, if I were in desperate straits would I pray with such boldness? Would I tell God that unless he acts even his power might be overwhelmed in the enemy’s din? Once again, the psalm reminds us that we can bring our anger, even our innuendo to God. We do not need to pussyfoot around by being “reverent.”

Ecclesiastes 3:9–5:20: [I really do not like how the Moravians are rushing us through this book. There is so much here to reflect on…]

When God threw Adam and Eve out of the Garden, he gave them what at the time seemed to be punishment but in fact was a gift—the gift of work. But Qoheleth observes that out of work should come happiness not drudgery: “I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.” (3:12, 13) I wish the church would spend more time discussing Luther’s doctrine of vocation and work as a gift. I think that would help all of us approach our work as something more than a necessary drudgery for our survival.

My father taught me a phrase I still use often: “It is what it is.” And right here in Ecclesiastes, Qoheleth makes exactly the same point: “That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already is; and God seeks out what has gone by.” (3:15)

Our author then takes a rather dark turn regarding our relationship with God—that we are not really any different than animals: “I said in my heart with regard to human beings that God is testing them to show that they are but animals. For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other.” (3:18-19) Yes, we’re all mortal—a reality that humankind has been attempting to deny all through history and no more so than in present-day America. But the cold truth is, “All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again.” (3:20)

Therefore, he concludes, since we’re just going to die anyway we may as well enjoy our work rather than complaining about it: “So I saw that there is nothing better than that all should enjoy their work, for that is their lot.” (3:22) Sounds pretty grim, doesn’t it? 

Things get even darker in what I think is one of the most depressing verses in the Bible: “And I thought the dead, who have already died, more fortunate than the living, who are still alive; but better than both is the one who has not yet been, and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun. ” (4:2, 3) So, it’s better to not have been born at all? Well, perhaps not…

The Teacher provides some respite from his dark thoughts, telling us that friendship—human relationships—are what makes life worth living: “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help.” (4:9, 10) So, too, is the bond of marriage: “Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone?” (4:11). Finally, in relationships we find mutual strength to overcome life’s challenges in the famous saying, “two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.” (4:12)

Humans cannot live alone and find true happiness, even though many try. We are social animals meant to love (hopefully in peace) among each other.

Qoheleth then lapses into Proverbs mode, citing a litany of aphorisms, beginning with what I think is one of the strongest themes in Psalms and Proverbs: our speech—especially before God: Never be rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be quick to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven, and you upon earth; therefore let your words be few. (5:2) Notice that it’s preferable to consider our words carefully before speaking rather .

I think the most famous aphorism is, “The lover of money will not be satisfied with money; nor the lover of wealth, with gain. This also is vanity.” (5:10) There is also good advice to parents not to squander their resources on foolhardy projects: “riches were kept by their owners to their hurt, and those riches were lost in a bad venture; though they are parents of children, they have nothing in their hands.” (5:13b, 14)

Above all, when it comes to setting priorities and seeking wealth over seeking God, we should remember the famous statement, “As they came from their mother’s womb, so they shall go again, naked as they came; they shall take nothing for their toil, which they may carry away with their hands.” (5:15) Truly, we can’t take it with us. So let’s enjoy the present and be generous to others.

In the end, he concludes, God cares about us and has provided all that we have: “God gives wealth and possessions and whom he enables to enjoy them, and to accept their lot and find enjoyment in their toil—this is the gift of God.” (5:19) In short, enjoy life by enjoying each day and enjoying what you do. I’m happy to say that in relationships and in what God has given me I find great enjoyment.

2 Corinthians 11:16–33: Paul seems to be mocking the gullible Corinthians in that thinking they have been wise have in fact rather foolishly bought into what the false apostles have told them. Paul would rather be counted a fool than do what that church has done, that is to “put up with it when someone makes slaves of you, or preys upon you, or takes advantage of you, or puts on airs, or gives you a slap in the face.” (20)

Or as my father said many times, “do not leave your brains at the door of the church when you go inside.” Paul’s point seems clear here: unthinking acceptance of a charismatic leader is the path to cults and false religions.

Contrary to the boasts of the false apostles and the apparent accusations by them that he is a wimp and coward, Paul recounts how he has suffered for Christ and the church: “Are they ministers of Christ? I am talking like a madman—I am a better one: with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless floggings, and often near death.” (23) He goes on to catalog (as Paul is so wont to do!) the hardships he has suffered: five floggings , three times beaten with rods, one stoning, three shipwrecks. In addition, he experienced “danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters.” (26)

Paul has suffered “in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked.” (27) Moreover, he notes, “I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches.” (28)  Paul’s “weakness” in suffering started right at Damascus when he had to escape the city by being lowered down the walls in a basket. He turns apparent weakness on its head into great strength: If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. (30)  In short, Paul is not ashamed of his courage and considers it all worthwhile in his mission to proclaim the Good News.

Paul is often ironic, but I don’t think there’s any passage in his epistles that is more deeply ironic than this one. Paul calls himself weak but his real meaning is that if you want to compare which apostle suffered the most, he would be at the head of the pack. Which by comparison to my rather comfortable life makes it clear who is really weak here…

Psalm 74:10–17; Ecclesiastes 1:1–3:8; 2 Corinthians 11:12–15

Originally published 6/12/2017. Revised and updated 6/11/2019.

Psalm 74:10–17: While Israel waits for its prophet, our psalmist expresses his frustration by questioning God about why he is apparently hesitating to prevent his enemies from insulting even him, never mind destroying Israel’s temple:
Until when, O God, will the foe insult,
the enemy revile Your name forever?
Why do You draw back Your hand,
and Your right hand hold in Your bosom? (10, 11)

He goes on in the next stanza to express his undying faith in God’s ultimate rescue by reviewing the many great things God has accomplished since Creation itself:
Yet God is my king of old,
worker of rescues in the midst of the earth.
You shattered the sea-god with Your strength,
You smashed the monster’s heads on the waters.
You crushed the Leviathan’s heads,
You gave him as food to the desert folk” (12-14)

Alter informs us that these references to the sea-god and Leviathan are the old Canaanite creation myths that God has supplanted in his singular act of creation. Our poet turns from creation myth to nature as he recounts God’s actual creative power expressed in Genesis:
You split open a channel for spring and brook,
You dried up the surging torrents.
Yours is the day, also Yours the night.
It was You Who founded the light and the sun.
It was You who laid down the boundaries of earth,
summer and winter, You fashioned them.” (15-17)

Having written that, our psalmist undergoes an important psychological transformation. The act of reflecting on God’s creative power and all that God has done down through time has diminished his anger. This is a lesson for us. When we are discouraged and think that God has abandoned us, it’s useful to reflect on God’s creative power and even on the creation story. In that reflection we realize that of God has overcome far greater evil forces than those we confront. This is the God who created the world, and we can take hope that in his power he will act on our behalf—or even on our nation’s behalf as the psalmist does here.

Ecclesiastes 1:1–3:8: Tradition has long held that Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes, but more recently scholars have concluded that a “son of David” named Qoethleth, the “Teacher,” wrote this short book. In any event, it looks like the Moravians are going to rush us through this book that seems so cynical on its surface, yet contains innumerable truths that are completely relevant today. Perhaps it is here where the immutability of human nature and behavior across three millennia is on is starkest display in the OT.

The opening verses set the tone and theme of the entire book, which is the relentless cyclicality of nature contrasted against the ultimate futility of human endeavor. Basically, everything we think we have accomplished during our lives ultimately comes to nothing. Some call this cynical; I call it realistic:
Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
    vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What do people gain from all the toil
    at which they toil under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
    but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun goes down,
    and hurries to the place where it rises. (1:2-5)

Our own generation, which believes it is  inventing and deploying new technology to change the future and “improve” humankind, would do well to reflect on Qoethlet’s assertion that it’s all been done before:
What has been is what will be,
    and what has been done is what will be done;
    there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,

    “See, this is new”?
It has already been,
    in the ages before us. (1:9, 10)

The Jewish editors who determined the order of the Hebrew Scriptures did us a favor by placing this book immediately following the endless aphorisms of Proverbs by observing that seeking wisdom is not the necessarily fruitful enterprise the authors of Proverbs think it is:
For in much wisdom is much vexation,
and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow. (18)

I think we learn this today by realizing that while the fruits of technological wisdom have great upsides, they have equally great downsides, as witness people using Facebook to livestream murders or a president raining us with unceasing tweets.

But if seeking wisdom is an empty exercise, Qoethleth also sees no upsides in self indulgence. He catalogs the many great things he has done through his life, including building houses, planting vineyards, creating gardens and parks, building irrigation projects, buying slaves, and acquiring many possessions, gold and silver. He points out that “I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem; also my wisdom remained with me.” (2:9) In other words he put his wisdom into practice.

But when he reflected on all his accomplishments, they amounted to nothing at all: “Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.” (2:11)

He becomes philosophical and “turned to consider wisdom and madness and folly” (2:12) He concludes that whether wise or fool, “I perceived that the same fate befalls all of them.” (2:14) The futility of seeking wisdom overwhelms him as he displays the classic symptoms of depression: “So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me; for all is vanity and a chasing after wind.” (17)

One wonders how many of us, if we truly reflected on what we have accomplished on our own, would come to exactly the same conclusion? In the end, there is only one path and that is the path that follows God. As far as Qoethleth is concerned, enjoying life and enjoying God is our sole purpose in life, for “There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God; for apart from him  who can eat or who can have enjoyment?” (2:24) The reality is that it is “God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy.” (2:26) What we think we accomplish on our own without God is simply “vanity and a chasing after wind.” (2:26)

The final part of today’s reading is the famous stanza that remind us that “for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” (3:1) Rather than quoting the verses here, I suggest listening to the Byrds or Joan Baez sing the song.

The beauty of this poem is that under the seeming chaos of quotidian life there is an underlying, God-created order. It is our duty to step back from the daily tumult and reflect on the great gift of human life that God has given us.

2 Corinthians 11:12–15: The Moravians make up for today’s lengthy OT reading with just a few verses from Paul. He is still fulminating about the “false apostles” that seem to have gained ascendancy in Corinth. He plans to do everything he can to stop them in their tracks: “And what I do I will also continue to do, in order to deny an opportunity to those who want an opportunity to be recognized as our equals in what they boast about.” (12)

He not only aims to halt their depredations by cutting off their opportunities to preach, he accuses them to be “false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ.” (13) And then the harshest criticism of all—that they strongly resemble Satan’s ability to deceive by outward appearance: “And no wonder! Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is not strange if his ministers also disguise themselves as ministers of righteousness.” (14, 15a) Paul is sure they will eventually get their just desserts: “Their end will match their deeds.” (15b)

Notice that Paul is not planning to do them harm; he only seeks to deny them the “opportunity to be recognized as our equals in what they boast about.” (12) Paul certainly understands that vengeance belongs to God. He also recognizes that the most effective way to prevent false prophets is to deny them a forum to speak. As always, careful discernment of the theology underlying the message rather than enthusiastic acceptance of a charismatic preacher is key.

Psalm 74:1–9; Proverbs 31; 2 Corinthians 11:1–11

Originally published 6/10/2017. Revised and updated 6/10/2019.

Psalm 74:1–9: We immediately sense the psalmist’s deep psychological anguish as he accuses God for not intervening to prevent the destruction of the temple by the Babylonians in 586 BC:
Why, O God, have You abandoned us forever?
Your wrath smolders against the flock You should tend. (1)

“Forever” is a pretty strong accusation and it’s amplified by essentially shouting at God that his anger has supplanted his duty to tend his flock, which of course is Israel. In fact, as far as our poet is concerned, God has forgotten Israel altogether as he implies God has forgotten his centuries of history with Israel from its rescue out of Egypt to building the temple in Jerusalem:
Remember Your cohort You took up of old,
You redeemed the tribe of Your estate,
Mount Zion where You dwelled. (2)

But now the temple has been destroyed, and he advises God to survey the destruction. We sense that the poet is even accusing God of being the root cause of the destruction:
Lift up Your feet to the eternal ruins,
all that the enemy laid waste in the sanctuary. (3)

The psalmist goes on to describe the enemy’s depredations in starkly dramatic terms with harsh single syllable verbs, including setting up their own idols [“signs”] and using axes to destroy that sacred space where God himself once dwelled:
You foes roared out in Your meeting place,
they set up their signs as signs.
They hacked away as one brings down from above 
in a tangle of trees with axes.
And its carvings altogether
with hatchet and pike they pounded.” (4-6)

The final insult is how Babylonians burnt Solomon’s marvelous temple to the ground:
They set fire to Your sanctuary,
they profaned on the ground Your name’s dwelling place. (7)

Nor was the destruction confined to the temple at Jerusalem. The Babylonians are determined to wipe all signs of God off the face of the earth by destroying local synagogues as well:
They said in their heart, ‘We shall destroy them altogether.’
They burned all God’s meeting-places in the land. (8)

Having vented his anger at God, our psalmist finally admits that by virtue of ignoring prophetic warnings the wayward Jews may have had some culpability in what has happened :
Our own signs we did not see.
There is no longer a prophet,
nor any among us who knows until when. (9)

As this psalm reminds us, we can certainly be as angry at God as we like, shaking our fist at him, and accusing him of abandoning us. But at some point we must also admit to our own guilt in ignoring clear warnings from God. The question is, are we Americans blithely ignoring prophetic warnings today?

Proverbs 31: Aha! A woman speaks! This chapter is an oracle that King Lemuel’s mother taught him. Unsurprisingly, it opens with a clear warning against womanizing and alcohol abuse:
Do not give your strength to women,
    your ways to those who destroy kings.
It is not for kings, O Lemuel,
    it is not for kings to drink wine,
    or for rulers to desire strong drink; (3, 4)

The effects of drunkenness on the ability to lead has been well known for millennia:
…or else they will drink and forget what has been decreed,
    and will pervert the rights of all the afflicted. (5)

The proper role of alcohol is as medicine for the dying and the poor to escape their doleful circumstances:
Give strong drink to one who is perishing,
    and wine to those in bitter distress;
let them drink and forget their poverty,
    and remember their misery no more. (6,7)

She describes the highest duty of the king, and at this point in our OT reading we should not be surprised at what it is:
Speak out for those who cannot speak,
    for the rights of all the destitute.
Speak out, judge righteously,
    defend the rights of the poor and needy.(8, 9)

As always, it is the poor who should be demanding the king’s highest attention, but probably as always, they are at the bottom of the king’s priority list.

We arrive at a poem that beautifully describes the ideal wife. We can well imagine a man’s mother giving advice in what to look for in a worthy woman who will become his wife. At the very top of the list is trust—the bedrock of a marital relationship:
A capable wife who can find?
    She is far more precious than jewels.
The heart of her husband trusts in her,
    and he will have no lack of gain. (10, 11)

The wife has a servant’s heart for the welfare of the entire household:
She rises while it is still night
    and provides food for her household
    and tasks for her servant-girls. (15)

We tend to think of women of that era as mere chattel without rights, cloistered in the back room of the house. Yet here, the wife engages in business affairs and works both in the field (gaining strength!) and on the business accounts late into the night:
She considers a field and buys it;
    with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.
She girds herself with strength,
    and makes her arms strong.
She perceives that her merchandise is profitable.
    Her lamp does not go out at night. (16-18)

She is industrious, and here we have a clear biblical mandate that women are men’s equals when it comes to business affairs:
She makes linen garments and sells them;
    she supplies the merchant with sashes. (24)

Like the wise king described above, she responds to the needs of the poor:
She opens her hand to the poor,
    and reaches out her hands to the needy. (20)

And perhaps most important, wisdom knows no boundaries of gender:
Strength and dignity are her clothing,
    and she laughs at the time to come.
She opens her mouth with wisdom,
    and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue. (25-26)

With all these marvelous qualities, she is loved and admired by her family:
Her children rise up and call her happy;
    her husband too, and he praises her:
‘Many women have done excellently,
    but you surpass them all.’ (28-29)

In this poem, I’m struck by the sense of balance that should exist in the marital relationship. Whenever we read sections about husband-wife relationships written by that quintessential bachelor, Paul, we should also read this chapter, which I think is far deeper and richer than what the Apostle has to say about marriage.

2 Corinthians 11:1–11: Paul has been pretty angry at the Corinthians throughout this epistle. Now he tells them they have been led astray by false “super-apostles” (his word) preaching a false gospel: “I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by its cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ.” (3)

Paul asserts that the Corinthians have been gullible. Lacking a firm foundation in Christ , they were easily led astray: “For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you submit to it readily enough.” (4)

That is certainly fair waring to Christians today, who are too easily led astray by faddish false religions such as the prosperity gospel.

Paul’s anger turns to sarcasm as he defends his own capabilities: “I think that I am not in the least inferior to these super-apostles. I may be untrained in speech, but not in knowledge.” (5,6) His anger becomes rather bitter as he tells them that “ I robbed other churches by accepting support from them in order to serve you.” (8) These are the words of a deeply wounded man who has seen his hard labor wasted and worse, the true gospel perverted.

As readers we are engulfed in Paul’s discouragement and anger at the ungrateful, wayward Corinthians. In his bitterness he seems to dismiss them altogether: “when I was with you and was in need, I did not burden anyone, for my needs were supplied by the friends  who came from Macedonia. So I refrained and will continue to refrain from burdening you in any way.” (9)

The lesson here is that there will be times that despite our very best efforts things will not work out as we hoped. This is clearly what happened to Paul’s efforts at Corinth. Will Paul take Jesus’ advice to the disciples and shake the dust from his sandals and move on? Are we able to recognize a lost cause and stop wasting time and resources on it?

 

Psalm 73:21–28; Proverbs 30; 2 Corinthians 10:7–18

Originally published 6/09/2015. Revised and updated 6/08/2019.

Psalm 73:21–28: Following our poet’s bitter thoughts about how the wicked would always triumph, his feeling that following God was an empty exercise, and then a reawakening that God has “set [the wicked] on slippery ground,” he realizes it was he who was as dumb as cattle:
When my heart was embittered,
and my conscience stabbed with pain,
I was a dolt and knew nothing.
like cattle I was with You. (21, 22)

Rather than having been abandoned by God and thinking the wicked would ultimately triumph, he realizes the truth about God:
Yet I was always with You,
You grasped my right hand. (23)

Moreover, God was not only present, he was active in the psalmist’s life and realizes that following God is greater than any other desire:
You guided me with Your counsel,
toward glory You took me.
Whom else do I have in the heavens,
and beside You whom would I want upon earth? (24, 25)

He will remain faithful to God because this is his highest calling:
Whom else do I have in the heavens,
and beside You whom would I want on earth?
Though my flesh and heart melt away,
God is my heart’s rock and my portion forever. (25, 26)

The psalm ends on a wonderful note that only a deeply intimate relationship with God makes life worth living:
God’s closeness is good to me,
I make the Master the Lord my shelter. (28)

Christians who believe they are standing and fighting alone against all the forces of “tolerance” in the culture wars and especially for those who feel “our side has lost,” would do well to read and reflect on this psalm. From our vantage point it certainly seems that all has been lost and for the opponents, “haughtiness is their necklace” (6) and “they mock and speak with malice.” (8)

But like the psalmist we need to realize that our responsibility is to walk alongside God, fully conscious that he is our guide and our shelter. Yes, we may be mocked and even oppressed, and it will certainly seem like the other side is triumphant, but our ever-faithful God is still nearby and our duty is to allow him guide us in all we do and say.

Proverbs 30: After 29 chapters of proverbs by anonymous authors, collected in seemingly random order, we encounter the “sayings of Agur son of Jakeh—an inspired utterance.” (1) Moreover, we know to whom Agur is speaking: a certain Ithiel.

Agur opens his discourse admitting his discouragement (“I am weary, O God“) and asserting that he lacks understanding and wisdom because he has not “attained knowledge of the Holy One.” (3) Nor can he (or we) because “Who has gone up to heaven and come down?” (4) And then, for Christians, a provocative verse indeed: “What is [God’s] name, and what is the name of his son?” as he asks sarcastically, “Surely you know!” (4)  Which we certainly do now in the New Covenant.

It is with complete humility that “two things I ask of you, Lord;/ do not refuse me before I die:” (7) These are,
Keep falsehood and lies far from me;
 give me neither poverty nor riches,
but give me only my daily bread. (8)

Now we are talking serious wisdom: praying to God for our daily bread, a theme echoed in the Lord’s prayer. Agur provides the reason for his desire to hew to the middle road:
   Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you
       and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’
   Or I may become poor and steal,
       and so dishonor the name of my God. (9)

The remainder of this chapter is a marvelous inventory of the “threes and fours” of creation:
Three things are too wonderful for me;
    four I do not understand. (18)

Agur’s insights into creation and the mysterious ways of humans lead up to the famous line,
If you have been foolish, exalting yourself,
    or if you have been devising evil,
    put your hand on your mouth. (32)

Notice once again that it is our words, our speech, that do the damage. Of course in that era speech was the main means of communication. Today we have so many more media in which to play the fool. And we see it around us every day. But the thrust of the verse is clear: it is our responsibility to not play the fool; we cannot claim to be the victim of circumstances or blame our circumstance on the acts of others. Again, behavior that we see all around us.

2 Corinthians 10:7–18: Paul continues to discourse on the issue of appearances versus actions, asserting the Corinthians are judging him (and others) solely by appearances (7) and that while he may appear weak in person [“he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing.” (10)] and strong in his letters there is no inconsistency: “people should realize that what we are in our letters when we are absent, we will be in our actions when we are present.” (11)

With this assertion, Paul goes on (somewhat humorously, I think) to tell us that comparisons are pointless, especially when we boast about our personal qualities: “When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise.” (12) Which is not to say we should never boast. Paul makes it clear there is one sphere where his boasting is quite acceptable: “[we] will confine our boasting to the sphere of service God himself has assigned to us, a sphere that also includes you.” (13) But even in pride there is restraint: “We do not boast beyond limits, that is, in the labors of others;” (15)

Paul concludes this section about the perils of self-aggrandizement by telling us there is only one safe source of commendation: “For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends.” (18)

The question, therefore, to reflect on is, in what ways am I commended by the Lord?

Psalm 73:13-20; Proverbs 29; 2 Corinthians 9:10–10:6

Originally published 6/08/2017. Revised and updated 6/07/2019.

Psalm 73:13-20: Having reflected on the haughty and malicious wicked, who appear to have all the power and wealth, our psalmist limns his despairing futility of having attempted to lead a righteous life but alas, to not good avail:
But in vain have I kept my heart pure
and in [naive] innocence washed my palms. (13)

But he also realizes that to emulate the speech of the wicked is a fool’s errand and a betrayal of his faith in God:
If I said, let me talk like them.
Look, Your sons’ band I would have betrayed.
When I thought to know these things,
it was a torment in my eyes. (15, 16)

As he continues to ponder the alternative course he might have taken, he comes to realize that the wicked will indeed eventually receive their comeuppance:
Till I came to the sanctuaries of God,
understood that would be their end.
Yes, You set them on slippery ground,
brought them down to destruction. (17, 18)

Upon this realization, our poet’s despair is transformed to enthusiastic joy as he contemplates their destruction:
How they come to ruin in a moment,
swept away, taken in terrors!
Like a dream upon waking, O Master,
upon rising You despised their image. (19, 20)

Jesus of course has told us we are to love our enemies. But I have to say that I can really identify with the psalmist’s emotional state as it rises from despair to joy when justice is served and the wicked receive their due reward. As always, we must never forget that the Psalms are primarily expressions of deep emotions, not theological treatises. Frankly, I see nothing wrong with our psalmist feeling and expressing his inner joy when he witnesses God’s justice brought down upon those who deserve it.

Proverbs 29:In fact we encounter a proverb that exactly expresses what our psalmist has been feeling:
When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice;
    but when the wicked rule, the people groan. (2)

There is a profound truth in what the author says about leaders ruling in justice. There are numerous examples down through history to the present day:
By justice a king gives stability to the land,
    but one who makes heavy exactions ruins it. (4)

My fear is that the current polarized political situation is inherently unstable, and that we are at risk of losing the qualities that have sustained this nation for almost 250 years. There is a highly relevant “current events” quality to several of our author’s assertions:
The righteous know the rights of the poor;
    the wicked have no such understanding.
Scoffers set a city aflame,
    but the wise turn away wrath. (7,8)

After all, the protestors on college campuses who have prevented those they disagree with speaking, are but scoffers with a tendency to violence. Then, there are those in politics who keep making stupid statements and sending provocative tweets, whose effects perfectly characterize the political climate our describes:
If the wise go to law with fools,
    there is ranting and ridicule without relief.

A fool gives full vent to anger,
    but the wise quietly holds it back. (9, 11)

There are far too many fools—starting at the very top but plenty of others as well—who are giving full vent to their anger while the rest of us reap the consequent whirlwind that I believe can too easily lead to instability.

Our author also addresses domestic matters and child-rearing. Living in this “enlightened” time where too many children effectively rule their parents, there is wisdom for the ages here:
The rod and reproof give wisdom,
    but a mother is disgraced by a neglected child. (15)
and…
Discipline your children, and they will give you rest;
    they will give delight to your heart. (17)

And no, I don’t think discipline injures a child’s self-esteem as an adult. The author goes on to describe the adult problem of speaking before thinking and the effects of angry words:
Do you see someone who is hasty in speech?
    There is more hope for a fool than for anyone like that. (20)

One given to anger stirs up strife,
    and the hothead causes much transgression. (22)

These behaviors are all because of the problem of pride:
A person’s pride will bring humiliation,
    but one who is lowly in spirit will obtain honor. (23)

Yes, we’ve read all these proverbs several times already in previous chapters, but perhaps the idea here is that if we read them often enough their inherent wisdom may eventually sink in and we will start changing our behavior. Of course the real problem is that hardly anyone actually reads this book today. (I’ve never heard a sermon on Proverbs.) I think our culture has lost much by virtue of ignoring the unchanging truths about human nature that it contains.

2 Corinthians 9:10–10:6: As usual, the Moravians have split Paul’s speech about giving and stewardship in half. Here in his conclusion, Paul promises that our generous giving will cause the givers to be “enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us.” (9:11) Unfortunately too many TV evangelists have used this verse as their “prosperity gospel” that promises great personal rewards and even wealth if they just send money to the huckster perverting Paul’s words.

He makes the interesting point that those who give will experience gratitude themselves: for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God. (9:12)

Paul goes on to tell us that giving generously is one of the tests of the church’s sincerity, indeed its essential to proving its authenticity in hewing to the true gospel: “Through the testing of this ministry you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others.” (9:13)

In the next chapter, Paul returns to defending himself and his ministry. He certainly must have been deeply wounded by the unfair accusations made against him by the Corinthians. He asserts that while he is “humble when face to face with you, but bold toward you when I am away”  (10:1) boldness is unnecessary in this case by his “daring to oppose those who think we are acting according to human standards.” (10:2)

At last we have an insight into the nature of one of the accusations made against Paul: he was accused of being insufficiently faithful to the Gospel message—and there is no accusation that could possibly have cut Paul more deeply.

He admits his humanity but denies he is acting according to the usual human rule of argumentation: “Indeed, we live as human beings, but we do not wage war according to human standards.” (10:3) What his accusers have interpreted as Paul’s unreasonable human behavior is a manifestation of a far stronger spiritual power: “for the weapons of our warfare are not merely human, but they have divine power to destroy strongholds.” (10:4)

Paul has raised this destructive spiritual power against wrong belief and wrong theology: “We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle raised up against the knowledge of God, and we take every thought captive to obey Christ.” (10:6, 6)

The challenge here for us is, are the thoughts we have and the things we say “captive to obey Christ,” or are they simply reflections of our own self-centered pride? The essential argument that I think Paul is making here is that we must communicate the gospel through the power of the Holy Spirit, not through our own clever ideas.