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?

 

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