Psalm 83:10–13; Isaiah 29; Ephesians 4:29–5:7

Originally published 7/11/2017. Revised and updated 7/10/2019.

Psalm 83:10–13: as he pleads for him to intervene now, our psalmist continues to remind God of his assistance in Israel’s history. His catalog of God’s former military assistance is quite lengthy and detailed. The psalmist obviously knew his history:
Do unto them as to Midian, as to Sisera,
as to Jabin at the brook of Kishon.
They were destroyed at En-Dor.
they turned into dung for the soil. (10, 11)

These names rang a bell for me, especially Sisera’s. These battles are recounted in Judges 4 and 5, featuring  Jabin, who was the Canaanite king and his general, Sisera, who was defeated by the estimable Barak, assisted by Deborah.  Aside: I really like the rather pungent imagery of “they were turned into dung for the soil.”

Our psalmist jumps ahead some years and lists the enemies involved in a different battle, again asking God to do the same thing now he did then:
Deal with their nobles as with Oreb
and as with Zeeb and Zebah and Zulmunna, all their princes,
who said, ‘We shall take hold for ourselves
all the meadows of God. (12, 13)

Oreb and the three Z’s were Midianite generals who were defeated by Gideon’s memorable ruse, recounted in Judges 8. It’s nice to be reminded of adventures we read about last year. But I’m not sure God is going to be impressed by our psalmist’s historical recall. Those battles took place in an earlier era before Israel drifted away from God. It’s good to remember history, but what God did in the past is no guarantee that he will do the repeat the favor in the present.

Isaiah 29: Apparently Jerusalem has a nickname, “Ariel.” But whatever name it goes by, Isaiah prophecies that the city will meet a bad end:
Yet I will distress Ariel,
    and there shall be moaning and lamentation,
    and Jerusalem  shall be to me like an Ariel. 
And like David  I will encamp against you;
    I will besiege you with towers
    and raise siegeworks against you.” (2,3)

[And just for beautiful poetic imagery, it’s hard to improve on a couplet like this:
your voice shall come from the ground like the voice of a ghost,
    and your speech shall whisper out of the dust. (4b)]

As usual, Isaiah seems to be the only one among the prophets who sees the coming catastrophe. Everyone else is blissfully unaware of their doom—or as we might suggest in our modern era, they are in denial. It’s as if they are all drunk or asleep:
Stupefy yourselves and be in a stupor,
    blind yourselves and be blind!
Be drunk, but not from wine;
    stagger, but not from strong drink!
For the Lord has poured out upon you
    a spirit of deep sleep;
he has closed your eyes, you prophets,
    and covered your heads, you seers. (9, 10)

The reason for Jerusalem’s ultimate destruction is really quite simple: its inhabitants are first class hypocrites:
Because these people draw near with their mouths
    and honor me with their lips,
    while their hearts are far from me,
and their worship of me is a human commandment learned by rote. (13)

Wow. How often I have come to worship and done so by rote with my heart and thoughts being hundreds of miles away. I’m good at talking about God, but am I good at walking with God?

Pride of course is the deadliest sin. The people of Jerusalem have set themselves above God, declaring him to be superfluous:
You turn things upside down!
    Shall the potter be regarded as the clay?
Shall the thing made say of its maker,
    “He did not make me”;
or the thing formed say of the one who formed it,
    “He has no understanding”? (16)

That sounds just like so-called western civilization today, which believes humankind can address and solve all issues—even altering nature to its liking— without God’s assistance. There’s no longer a need to even worship small-g gods because, like Jerusalem’s citizens, we have set ourselves up as small-g gods ourselves—to our collective peril.

But in the end it is neither the people of Jerusalem—nor we—who will turn things upside down and inside out. It is God who will have the last upside down surprise:
On that day the deaf shall hear
    the words of a scroll,
and out of their gloom and darkness
    the eyes of the blind shall see.
The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord,
    and the neediest people shall exult in the Holy One of Israel. (18, 19)

[The author of Revelation grabs that scroll and gives it a rental place in the book.] Justice will finally occur as the wicked and unjust will exchange places with the deaf, blind, and meek:
For the tyrant shall be no more,
    and the scoffer shall cease to be;
    all those alert to do evil shall be cut off—
those who cause a person to lose a lawsuit,
    who set a trap for the arbiter in the gate,
    and without grounds deny justice to the one in the right. (20, 21)

And finally, a great promise for those who repent and turn back to follow God and seek after righteousness:
And those who err in spirit will come to understanding,
    and those who grumble will accept instruction. (24)

That really is turning things upside down! I’m fascinated that it is understanding and a willingness to accept instruction that are significant outcomes of the prophecy. It is God who answers the deep questions, not we. (Although it keeps a lot of philosophers, including my son, employed in the meantime.) Someday, all that is is shrouded in mystery will finally become clear! Questions like the problem of theodicy and why the wicked always seem to win out will finally be answered.

Ephesians 4:29–5:7: It would seem that like Corinth, the church at Ephesus was submerged in fights and arguments. Paul continues to remonstrate, seeking every way he possibly can to induce the Ephesians to stop arguing among themselves and become kinder, gentler persons: “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.” (4:29) It turns out that arguing and bitterness among Christians negatively impacts the Holy Spirit itself: “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption.” (4:30)

So, Paul says, it’s time to turn over a new leaf, guys: “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” (31, 32) I remember memorizing Ephesians 5:32 in 5th grade Sunday School. Unfortunately, in the ensuing years I’m afraid I have not carried out Paul’s command—and there’s no denying it is a command—very faithfully.

In the opening verse of chapter 5 (one of those badly placed chapter breaks) Paul tells us how to actually accomplish these goals. It’s really quite simple in concept, but immensely difficult in practice: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (5:1,2) After all, if Jesus gave up his very life for us, we should be able to show a little respect and kindness to our fellow Christians.

Our words among ourselves are not Paul’s only concern here. Our deeds matter just as much: “But fornication and impurity of any kind, or greed, must not even be mentioned among you, as is proper among saints. Entirely out of place is obscene, silly, and vulgar talk; but instead, let there be thanksgiving.” (5:3, 4)

Remember that Paul is giving advice and commands for people inside the church at Ephesus. Never mind their (and our) behavior in the larger community. If we can’t get it right among our fellow Christians, then God help us out in the world at large.

Finally, one of the great insights about human nature: if it sounds too good to be true, it doubtless isn’t true. Or, as Paul memorably puts it, “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes on those who are disobedient.” (5:6) The thought that comes immediately to mind is all those TV Evangelists asking for money and making false Prosperity Gospel promises. Depsite Paul’s warning —and the many warnings of others down through the centuries—some things inside the church just never change.

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