Psalm 81:12–17; Isaiah 22:15–23:18; Ephesians 3:1–13

Originally published 7/6/2017. Revised and updated 7/5/2019.

Psalm 81:12–17: The final stanza of this psalm is one of the saddest in all of Psalms. Despite God’s generous promise that the people of Israel simply “open your mouth wide, that [God] may fill it” (11), they remain as recalcitrant as ever, rejecting both God and his promise as God himself rather sadly recalls:
But My people did not heed My voice
and Israel wanted nothing of Me. (12)

Well, the idea that we want nothing of God certainly sounds familiar and contemporary. The only difference today is that many people simply reject even the idea of God altogether, never mind his promises. God has given us free will to make our own choices and here the psalmist reminds us of that simple fact:
And I let them follow their heart’s willfulness,
they went by their own counsels. (13)

It’s a matter of following God or following our own wills. And as I’ve written before, the opportunity cost of following our own will is extremely high for it means to miss out on God’s immeasurable blessings:
If My people would but heed Me,
if Israel would go in My ways,
in a moment I would humble their enemies,
and against their foes I would turn My stand. (14, 15)

If Israel would simply repent, our psalmist argues, then Israel’s enemies would be conquered, wrongdoers would be brought to justice and punished, and the people would enjoy manifold God’s blessings:
Those who hate the Lord would cringe before Him,
and their time of doom would be everlasting.
And I would feed them the finest wheat,
and from the rock I would sate him with honey. (16, 17)

The psalm ends rather abruptly here and leaves us hanging. Did Israel repent? Or did it go its merry, unrepentant way. This choice is the same for each of us. There is a terribly high cost of self-centeredness and believing we are smarter than God. But God has given each of us the freedom to make that choice. The question for me is, what choice am I really making? Perhaps what is even worse is that so many people make that choice unconsciously, fully ignorant that peace is found only in God—not themselves.

Isaiah 22:15–23:18: Isaiah interrupts his stream of prophecies concerning the various nations surrounding Judah with a rather personal prophecy (written in prose) about a court official named Shebna. God commands Isaiah to go to this person and “say to him: What right do you have here? Who are your relatives here, that you have cut out a tomb here for yourself, cutting a tomb on the height, and carving a habitation for yourself in the rock?” (22:16)

This guy is about to meet his end and we can’t tell if Isaiah’s prophecy of Shebna’s imminent death  is metaphorical or actual: “The Lord is about to hurl you away violently, my fellow. He will seize firm hold on you, whirl you round and round, and throw you like a ball into a wide land; there you shall die, and there your splendid chariots shall lie, O you disgrace to your master’s house!” (22:17, 18) If this is a description of the man’s actual death it is certainly one of the more colorful ends we encounter in the Bible. Clearly, Shebna was wealthy and probably a court official and we can assume he acquired his wealth and power on the backs of the poor and oppressed.

Isaiah isn’t yet finished. He goes on in God’s voice to tell Shebna exactly who will replace him: “On that day I will call my servant Eliakim son of Hilkiah, and will clothe him with your robe and bind your sash on him.” (22:20) This Eliakim certainly looks to be a man of superior character: “he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah.” (22:21)

This Eliakim will have the authority of the ancestral house of David. He is likened to a “a peg in a secure place, and he will become a throne of honor to his ancestral house. ” (22:23) Then things get even more obscure as the weight of David’s ancestral house is hung on this metaphorical peg. My guess here is that the Davidic ancestors (whom I take to be his successors rather than predecessors) sin mightily. Eventually the peg breaks from the overload of their wrongful deeds: “the peg that was fastened in a secure place will give way; it will be cut down and fall, and the load that was on it will perish.” (25) Which I would take to be the eventual destruction of Jerusalem itself in 586 BCE.

Isaiah then resumes his prophecies about other nations, this time it’s Tyre, already famous as a port and a commercial center. Like the other nations, it will meet its downfall because of its overweening pride:
The Lord of hosts has planned it—
    to defile the pride of all glory,
    to shame all the honored of the earth. (23:9)

And later,
Wail, O ships of Tarshish,
    for your fortress is destroyed. (23:14)

The prophet concludes this oracle with a rather specific prophecy that after being forgotten for 70 years, Tyre will one day be restored and do its work for God: “At the end of seventy years, the Lord will visit Tyre, and she will return to her trade, …Her merchandise and her wages will be dedicated to the Lord; her profits will not be stored or hoarded, but her merchandise will supply abundant food and fine clothing for those who live in the presence of the Lord.” (23:17, 18)

Somehow I don’t think this prophecy actually came to pass. Or if it did, the news about that restoration doesn’t make it back into the Bible. This is one of those places where we can only read and say, “Noted.”

Ephesians 3:1–13: As he has done elsewhere, Paul points out that the mystery of God’s grace “was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words, a reading of which will enable you to perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ.” (3, 4) I interpret “mystery” here as the Incarnation—God sending Jesus to earth and to become the Paschal the sacrifice required to justify all of us before God. Now that the mystery has been revealed, it’s incumbent on the apostles (and others) to spread the Good News everywhere, including to the Gentiles. The reason is simple: “the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” (6)

Paul became an apostle via his encounter with Christ on the Damascus road: “Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace that was given me by the working of his power.” (7) Moreover, his mission is specifically to the Gentiles: “this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ,…to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things.” (8)

Then he adds, “so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” (10) At this point, for me anyway, this doesn’t sound like Paul, but someone writing pseudonymously. Paul rarely uses the word, “church.” And just who are these “rulers and authorities in the heavenly places?”

But that’s a minor quibble. The main takeaway for me here is that Jesus coming as a man to humankind was always God’s plan: “This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (11)   However, I confess that as I read the Old Testament, God’s original plan was the Covenant with Israel. We have just a few passages in Psalms and the Prophets where we can see hints glimpses of God’s plan for the New Covenant. And we’ve read in Romans and elsewhere where Paul goes to great lengths to explain how Gentiles are also the descendants of Abraham. But by and large, God kept this “eternal plan” pretty close to his chest before sending Jesus to earth.

But things are different now. Now that the mystery of God’s plan has been revealed it is incumbent on all of us, not just apostles, to go into all the world with the Good News. After all, that’s Jesus’ Great Commission, isn’t it?

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