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…

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