Psalm 81:1–6; Isaiah 17:1–19:17; Ephesians 2:1–10

Originally published 7/4/2017. Revised and updated 7/3/2019.

Psalm 81:1–6: At first, the opening verses of this psalm appear to be a pretty routine worship chorus with orchestral accompaniment:
Sing gladly to God our strength,
shout out to the God of Jacob.
Lift Your voices in song and beat the drum,
the lyre is sweet with the lute. (2, 3)

But suddenly we learn that the occasion for this worship is a festival centered around a monthly astronomical event: the new moon:
Blast the ram’s horn on the new moon,
when the moon starts to wax, for our festival day. (4)

I have to confess that the whole thing sounds a bit pagan to me. Surely the Canaanites and the Egyptians worshipped the moon, but the Israelites? Yet, our psalmist assures us that this festival is legitimate, even God-ordained:
For it is an ordinance in Israel,
a rule of the God of Jacob. (5)

Not only God-ordained, but God-spoken—tracing way back to the time of the Exodus:
A decree He declared it for Israel
when He sallied forth against Egypt’s land—
a language I knew not, I heard. (6)

The fact that our psalmist does not know the language (probably Egyptian) certainly suggests an origin in Egypt. So, the new moon festival is certainly an old well-established one. And it’s probably worth remembering that even today, the Jewish calendar is based on a strict 28-day lunar cycle.

The question on my mind is, will our psalmist tie this festival with pagan origins back to the theology of the God of Israel? Perhaps we have been misled by the first verses and need to assume it is not the new moon that is the object of worship, but God himself. We’ll understand more tomorrow.

Isaiah 17:1–19:17: Isaiah’s prophecies (“oracles”) about the fate of Israel’s neighbors continues apace. Now, it’s Damascus:
See, Damascus will cease to be a city,
    and will become a heap of ruins. (17:1)

Given the current war in Syria, this prophecy has an eerie resonance. However, the point in time I think Isaiah is describing is the end of history, the Day of the Lord. This is when according to Isaiah, “On that day people will regard their Maker, and their eyes will look to the Holy One of Israel;” (17:7) I take ‘people’ here to mean everyone on earth simultaneously becoming aware of the power of Israel’s God, who is judge over all humankind. Isaiah has a rebuke not only for Israel but for all of us down through history:
For you have forgotten the God of your salvation,
    and have not remembered the Rock of your refuge…
The nations roar like the roaring of many waters,
    but he will rebuke them, and they will flee far away,
chased like chaff on the mountains before the wind
    and whirling dust before the storm.” (17:10a, 13)

But in keeping with our two-layered model of prophecy applying in both the long term and the near term, Isaiah is also speaking about the more local promise that Israel’s enemies will eventually be defeated:
Before morning, they are no more.
This is the fate of those who despoil us,
    and the lot of those who plunder us. (17:14)

Isaiah goes on to pronounce pretty much the same prophetic fate for Ethiopia as for Damascus:
They shall all be left
    to the birds of prey of the mountains
    and to the animals of the earth.
And the birds of prey will summer on them,
    and all the animals of the earth will winter on them. (18:6)

However, our prophet goes on to remark that some Ethiopians will come to Jerusalem to offer obeisance: At that time gifts will be brought to the Lord of hosts from a people tall and smooth, …to Mount Zion, the place of the name of the Lord of hosts. (18:7)

A similar fate awaits Egypt where the Egyptian gods will become aware that there is only One True God:
See, the Lord is riding on a swift cloud
    and comes to Egypt;
the idols of Egypt will tremble at his presence,
    and the heart of the Egyptians will melt within them. (19:1)

God will create a civil war in Egypt leading to conquest by a foreign power:
I will stir up Egyptians against Egyptians,
    and they will fight, one against the other,
    neighbor against neighbor,
    city against city, kingdom against kingdom;…
I will deliver the Egyptians
    into the hand of a hard master;
a fierce king will rule over them,
    says the Sovereign, the Lord of hosts. (19:2, 4)

For me, the lines, “neighbor against neighbor,/ city against city” have particular resonance in our currently highly polarized political climate.

Natural disasters such as the rivers drying up also await the Egyptians because of the foolishness of their leaders:
The princes of Zoan have become fools,
    and the princes of Memphis are deluded;
those who are the cornerstones of its tribes
    have led Egypt astray. (19:13)

And in a particularly graphic passage:
“...and they have made Egypt stagger in all its doings
    as a drunkard staggers around in vomit.” (19:14b)

Frankly, I take all these verses as fair warning to modern nations whose decline is in part caused by ineffective, even foolish leadership. Something for us to ponder when we celebrate the 4th of July.

Ephesians 2:1–10: In this famous passage Paul points out that because of our sins we are basically zombies: “You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world” (2:1, 2a) We are the living dead, animated by Satan, “following the ruler of the power of the air.” (2:2b)

Paul provides an excellent description of the pre-existing state of our sinful nature out of which Jesus offers us escape: “All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.” (3) This verse helps me realize that there is nothing new or unique about America in the 21st century. Absent Christ’s salvation, we are resolutely sinful and our collective sins will inevitably engender dire consequences. But for most people, they do not believe in sin nor do they want to talk about sin—even in many churches.

In one of the great verses in the New Testament, Paul makes it crystal clear that we are rescued by God through the salvific power of Jesus Christ:
But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ —by grace you have been saved—” (4, 5)

There it is: the word that eluded Martin Luther all those years as he strived to become right before God by his own unavailing efforts: grace—unmerited favor. Paul summarizes the effectiveness of grace: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—” (8) And to make sure that we understand the incredible power of this gift of grace, Paul makes it clear that we cannot create salvation through our own efforts. Salvation is a gift; it is “not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” (9)

And yet we keep on thinking that because we are being good law-abiding persons, or even reaching out and helping others, that we are good before God. After all, didn’t Jesus himself talk about sheep and goats in Matthew 25? We never imagine ourselves to be goats. But our efforts, however noble, are unavailing. Yet, so many of us are so egotistical, so convinced we are good at heart, so blissfully unaware of our own faults, that we become convinced that we are above needing that one thing that is derisively called a “crutch” by cynics. We refuse to accept the one true gift in life: salvation by grace. Perhaps it seems too simple in this complex world. Surely being made right before God is more complicated than this. But as confoundingly non-intuitive as it is, it truly is sola gratia.

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