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.

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