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…

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