Psalm 83:1–9; Isaiah 28; Ephesians 4:17–28

Originally published 7/10/2017. Revised and updated 7/9/2019.

Psalm 83:1–9: This psalm is a clarion call to God in a time when Israel faced a national emergency. The psalmist sternly implores God not to remain silent during this time of crisis:
O God, no silence for You!
Do not be mute and do not be quiet God.
For, look, Your enemies rage,
and those who hate You lift their heads. (2, 3)

Those words have a significant contemporary feel to them as crises—both national and personal—seem to surround us on all sides and God seems to be mute. Obviously, God’s seemingly interminable silence is not a new phenomenon.

As it is today, Israel is surrounded on all sides by hostile neighbors, who would like nothing more than to see the nation disappear from the map. Our psalmist appeals to God’s side of the long-standing covenant that he will protect his chosen people:
Against Your people they devise cunning counsel
and conspire against Your protected ones.
They have said, ‘Come, let us obliterate them as a nation,
and the name of Israel will no longer be recalled.’ (4, 5)

Not only do its enemies wish for Israel’s destruction, they want its history to be erased. Once again we are reminded of the importance of memory and names. If names are forgotten, whether of individuals or entire nations, it is as if they never existed. Which to me is why studying history—and perhaps even learning something from it—is so crucially important. Alas, as younger generations stare into their smart phone screens, they seem oblivious to anything but the chimera of an electronic present.

Our psalmist goes on to name the axis of conspirators allying themselves against Israel. Notice how the psalmist simply assumes that Israel’s enemies are God’s enemies, too:
For they conspired with a single heart,
against You they sealed a pact—
the tents of Edom and the Ishmaelites,
Moab and the Hagrites,
Gebal and Ammon and Amalek,
Philistia with the dwellers of Tyre.
Assyria, too, has joined them,
and become an arm for the sons of Lot. (6-9)

Alter points out that with the exception of Assyria, all these kingdoms were arrayed against Israel in its pre-Davidic era, during the time of Judges. Scholars apparently puzzle over the inclusion of Assyria, which became an empire much later in Israel’s history. Perhaps our psalmist is referring to some sort of proto-Assyria that grew to its power over the centuries to come.

Isaiah 28: This longish chapter is Isaiah’s prophetic diatribe against official corruption, which he sarcastically identifies in the first verse:
Ah, the proud garland of the drunkards of Ephraim,
    and the fading flower of its glorious beauty,
    which is on the head of those bloated with rich food, of those overcome with wine! (1)

Which is a pretty good description of corrupt officialdom down through the ages! Isaiah being Isaiah, naturally assures these evildoers of their eventual downfall, extends the flower metaphor above:
Trampled under foot will be
    the proud garland of the drunkards of Ephraim.
And the fading flower of its glorious beauty,
    which is on the head of those bloated with rich food,” (3, 4a)

It seems clear from these verses that alcoholism was a significant problem among the religious leaders, including even those of Isaiah’s own profession:
These also reel with wine
    and stagger with strong drink;
the priest and the prophet reel with strong drink,
    they are confused with wine,
    they stagger with strong drink;
they err in vision,
    they stumble in giving judgment. (7)

In fact, they are rather disgusting people—which is exactly what drunks do:
All tables are covered with filthy vomit;
    no place is clean. (8)

Isaiah worries that this corruption will hinder the transmission of knowledge to the next generation. These drunken teachers (prophets) announce laws and maxims without context, mumbling through their teaching, causing their students to see God only as a random collection of precepts, laws and sayings—a great distance from truly comprehending God’s magnificence and power:
Therefore the word of the Lord will be to them,
    “Precept upon precept, precept upon precept,
    line upon line, line upon line,
    here a little, there a little;”
in order that they may go, and fall backward,
    and be broken, and snared, and taken.” (13)

That’s certainly true today where churches (e.g., the Roman Catholic church) are so much about obeying the rules rather than experiencing God’s grace. I believe this lack of clear teaching is one of the reasons the church is diminishing as a force within our own present-day culture.

This chapter also includes Isaiah’s famous prophecy of a cornerstone, which we Christians believe to be Jesus Christ himself:
therefore thus says the Lord God,
See, I am laying in Zion a foundation stone,
    a tested stone,
a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation:
    “One who trusts will not panic.”
And I will make justice the line,
    and righteousness the plummet. (16, 17a)

The chapter concludes with an extended description of correct and incorrect farming, which is Isaiah’s metaphor for gaining real knowledge and understanding. He makes it clear that successful farming is a sequence of steps, not just one thing repeated over and over. First, a description of proper farming:
Do those who plow for sowing plow continually?
    Do they continually open and harrow their ground?
When they have leveled its surface,
    do they not scatter dill, sow cummin,
and plant wheat in rows
    and barley in its proper place,
    and spelt as the border?
For they are well instructed;
    their God teaches them. (24-26)

Then, of improper farming:
Dill is not threshed with a threshing sledge,
    nor is a cart wheel rolled over cummin;
but dill is beaten out with a stick,
    and cummin with a rod.
Grain is crushed for bread,
    but one does not thresh it forever;
one drives the cart wheel and horses over it,
    but does not pulverize it.” (27-28)

Isaiah’s point here is much greater than providing a tutorial on proper agriculture. Just as farmers follow a sequence of steps, so, too, should teachers. Teaching is not just mindless repetition, but a logical construction of knowledge—just as farming follows its own logical steps. Just as religious practice, including worship, needs to be refreshed, not just the same old thing every week.

Ephesians 4:17–28: Building on Isaiah’s words about the process of understanding, Paul tells the Gentile Ephesians that faith is a crucial element in coming to understand—acquiring knowledge and wisdom are much more than just an intellectual exercise: “you must no longer live as the Gentiles live, in the futility of their minds.  They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance and hardness of heart.” (17, 18) An overly intellectualized religion—and I think he’s referring here to Gnostics—inevitably leads people down the wrong path: “They have lost all sensitivity and have abandoned themselves to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.” (19) In other words, self-centered pride not only leads to a loss of empathy for others, but to downright sinfulness.

The clear command here is to “to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds.” (22, 23) In short—and this is especially hard for me personally—the Christian life requires (pace’ Oswald Chambers) abandoning our former life and replacing it with a new life in Christ, “to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” (24)

Our new Christian life is far more than just emotional feeling. There are rules for living together in community: “So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.” (25)

Equally important, we’re told that anger is permissible; it is not wrongdoing in and of itself: “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger,” (26) It took a lot of therapy for me to recognize this truth as I was conditioned as a child to bottle up anger because it was “wrong to be angry.” This led to a lot of explosions of bottled up anger coming out at exactly the wrong time and mostly hurting the people I loved the most. Perhaps if I had paid attention to this verse and put it into practice a lot of hurt could have been avoided—and a lot of money saved on therapists…

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