Psalm 80:1–12; Isaiah 14; Ephesians 1:1–10

Published 7/1/2019.

Psalm 80:1-12: Our psalmist opens by asking God to listen:
Shepherd of Israel, hearken,
He Who drives Joseph like sheep,
enthroned on the cherubim, shine forth. (2)

Alter tells us that “Joseph” (as opposed to Jacob) is a reference to the northern kingdom of Israel. And it’s clear by the next few verses that Israel is in real trouble, probably from the Assyrians, who eventually conquered them. Our poet repeats his pleas for God to intervene, for what I take to be  an imminent battle against, I presume, Assyria:
Before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh
rouse Your might
and come to the rescue for us.
O God, bring us back,
and light up your face that we may be rescued. (3, 4)

As usual, it seems God is angry with Israel due to their manifold transgressions. But now, the pleas seem to be falling on God’s deaf ears even as the psalmist promises repentance of the people:
Lord, God of armies,
how long will You smolder against Your people’s prayer? (5)

Now the tone sounds somewhat accusatory as the psalmist tells God that they have been punished enough already for past sins:
You fed them bread if tears
and made them drink triple measure of tears. (6)

In fact, it seems God is now being accused of creating the problem in the first place:
Your have put us in strife with our neighbors,
and our enemies mock us. (7)

Which of course is human nature: play the victim and lash out against God—or any other party instead of taking personal responsibility for the consequences of their sins. This victimhood mentality is certainly on ample display in today’s culture.

We now encounter a wonderful vineyard metaphor as the poet reminds God of all the effort he went to to rescue Israel from Egypt and plant them in Canaan:
You carried a vine out of Egypt,
You drove away nations and planted it.
You cleared space before it
and struck its roots down,
and it filled the land. (9, 10)

Unspoken here, but loud and clear is the poet’s attempt to tell God to the effect, “You went to all that trouble to establish Israel, why would you let it be conquered now?” As we know  from history, this appeal to God’s mercy to save the northern kingdom did not succeed. While God loves us and forgives us, God does not necessarily rescue us from the consequences of our sins.

Isaiah 14: This long chapter in Isaiah seeks to encourage captive Israel that its day will indeed come again.  That the king of Babylon will fall; that the Assyrians will be conquered; that the Philistines will meet their deserved end.

At some point, restored Israel will be shout: you will take up this taunt against the king of Babylon:

How the oppressor has ceased!
    How his insolence has ceased! (14:4)

Evil kings will meet their just desserts, even in Hell:
Sheol beneath is stirred up
    to meet you when you come;
it rouses the shades to greet you,
    all who were leaders of the earth;
it raises from their thrones
    all who were kings of the nations. (14:9)

There are some striking images along the way:
…maggots are the bed beneath you,
    and worms are your covering. (14:11b).

This chapter reminds us that prophecy is not just bad things will happen to you,” but also that deuteronomic promise: “bad things will happen to your enemies.”

We encounter what I believe to be John Milton’s inspiration for Paradise Lost beginning here with Satan’s fall from heaven:
How you are fallen from heaven,
    O Day Star, son of Dawn!
How you are cut down to the ground,
    you who laid the nations low! (14:12)

Unsurprisingly, pride is what lead to Satan’s downfall—and what leads to the downfall of those who would be mighty:
You said in your heart,
    “I will ascend to heaven;
I will raise my throne
    above the stars of God;
…But you are brought down to Sheol,
    to the depths of the Pit. (14:13a, 15)

This is certainly one of the places we get the image of hell being “down there.”  My own take on the context here, though, is that Isaiah is still talking about the king of Babylon and coming up with every possible image to make it crystal clear that the mightiest on earth, who hold themselves in their narcissism as being above everyone else, will eventually fall the lowest possible depths in utter humiliation:
Those who see you will stare at you,
    and ponder over you:
“Is this the man who made the earth tremble,
    who shook kingdoms… (14:16)

Because in the end, it is God’s economy of justice that ultimately prevails.

Ephesians 1:1–10: [Ed note: The authorship of Ephesians is disputed even though the first word of the book is “Paul.” Scholars note substantial stylistic differences that suggest pseudonymous authorship. However, I will write here assuming Paul is indeed the author.]

Following a lengthy invocation, Paul implies that Christians have been chosen by God right from the beginning of time: “...just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.” (4) Paul seems to double down on the theme of being chosen ahead of time in the next verse: “He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will.” (5) I’m pretty sure these verses are central to the theology of predestination developed by Calvin and others. Does God choose those will be saved and those who will not? I think predestination is retrospective. Since God exists outside time, there is really no past, present, or future. And being omnipotent, God knows what is going to happen. Since we humans are constrained by the arrow of time, the fact that we have come to God through Jesus Christ certainly looks to us like this was an inevitability—or expressed in human terms, that we were chosen already. But this perception of our time as over against God’s absence of time does not erase our free will to either choose or reject God.

Paul writes that God has expressed his gift to humankind in the person of Jesus Christ: “to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.” (6) He then describes the nature of that gift: “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace  that he lavished on us” (7, 8a)

We come to God because his plan has been revealed to us through Jesus Christ: “With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of [God’s] will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ.” (8b, 9) I certainly agree with Paul’s use of the word, mystery.” There are things about God that we cannot comprehend. We need only accept what Christ has done for us.

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