Psalm 83:14–19; Isaiah 30,31; Ephesians 5:8–20

Originally published 7/12/2017. Revised and updated 7/11/2019.

Psalm 83:14–19: Our psalmist gets back to the important business of cajoling God to obliterate their enemies using a variety of similes drawing on nature:
O God, make them like the thistledown,
like straw before the wind.
As fire burns down forests
and as flame ignites the mountains. (14, 15)

Forest fires and lightning-ignited mountains seem especially appropriate at this time of year. These images lead to a description of God as a thundering storm. Now he writes in the imperative voice, confidently assuming God is going to carry out his prayer request:
so shall You pursue them with Your storm
and with Your tempest dismay them. (16)

There is no sympathy at all, as our poet basically wishes the enemies humiliation followed by a cruel death:
Fill their faces with infamy
that they may seek Your name, O Lord.
May they be shamed and dismayed forever,
and may they be disgraced and may they perish. (17, 18)

But, he continues, these enemies won’t die without realizing that there is only one God with true power—and that is Israel’s God:
And may they know that You, Your name is the Lord.
You alone are most high over the earth. (19)

Happily, Jesus’s command to love our enemies has supplanted this rather dreadful prayer that wishes death on one’s enemies, but not before they realize that only Israel’s God is the one with the power. So, I view this psalm as an interesting historical artifact and an expression of over-heated anger, but devoid of any applicable theological wisdom.

Isaiah 30, 31: Apparently the leadership of Judah has cooked up a plan to ally itself with Egypt against the array of enemies it faces. Speaking as usual as the voice of God, Isaiah points out the plan’s futility because it has been devised by the badly flawed human leaders rather than by God:
Oh, rebellious children, says the Lord,
who carry out a plan, but not mine;
who make an alliance, but against my will,
    adding sin to sin;
who set out to go down to Egypt
    without asking for my counsel, (30:1, 2a)

Don’t trust the Pharaoh, Isaiah advises:
For Egypt’s help is worthless and empty,
    therefore I have called her,
    “Rahab who sits still.” (30:7)

Which is a good reminder for anyone tempted to trust pretty much any politician or to foolishly ally themselves with a power that has a hidden agenda.

A poetic sidebar follows as Isaiah despairs of Judah’s rebellious leaders—and the population of Judah in general because they have abandoned God:
For they are a rebellious people,
    faithless children,
children who will not hear
    the instruction of the Lord; (30:9)

God has promised them respite, but they have refused to accept it, preferring their own ultimately disastrous plan:
For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel:
In returning and rest you shall be saved;
    in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.
But you refused  and said,
“No! We will flee upon horses”—” (30:15, 16)

Nevertheless, God is eternally patient and the covenantal promise still stands:
Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you;
    therefore he will rise up to show mercy to you.
For the Lord is a God of justice;
    blessed are all those who wait for him. (30:18)

That promise the same for us. No matter how disastrously our own futile plans may turn out, God is still there, waiting patiently for our repentance—no matter how long it takes. For God is the only true refuge, the only true ally. And, as Isaiah promises Judah, God will provide and heal: “He will give rain for the seed with which you sow the ground, and grain, the produce of the ground, which will be rich and plenteous. On that day your cattle will graze in broad pastures;…on the day when the Lord binds up the injuries of his people, and heals the wounds inflicted by his blow.” (30:23, 26)

One would think that one chapter devoted to Isaiah announcing that the planned alliance with Egypt will end badly would be sufficient. But this is Isaiah we’re talking about—the prophet who never hesitates to again cover ground he’s already covered…So he continues relentlessly in the next chapter:
Alas for those who go down to Egypt for help
    and who rely on horses,
who trust in chariots because they are many
    and in horsemen because they are very strong,
but do not look to the Holy One of Israel
    or consult the Lord! (31:1)

But also in this chapter, the prophet reminds us of something well worth remembering as we watch the machinations and vacuity of politicians at running for president. These erstwhile leaders and allies are just as flawed and human as the rest of us—many more so:
The Egyptians are human, and not God;
    their horses are flesh, and not spirit.
When the Lord stretches out his hand,
    the helper will stumble, and the one helped will fall,
    and they will all perish together. (31;3)

And for Judah the eternal promise of God’s protection if they would only repent:
Like birds hovering overhead, so the Lord of hosts
    will protect Jerusalem;
he will protect and deliver it,
    he will spare and rescue it. (31:5)

The fact that in many respects Jerusalem is at the center of the world—and its conflicts—is a reminder that despite everything and all the bad motivations and plans of humans, God continues to keep his promise after almost three millennia. The Jewish toast still rings: “Next year, Jerusalem!”

Ephesians 5:8–20: Paul continues to exhort the Ephesians to make their binary choice between light and dark: “For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light—” (8) In fact, it’s our Christian duty to expose sin: “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.” (11) Unfortunately, that verse has been widely misapplied down through history leading awful acts in the name of religion such as the Hundred Years War, the Inquisition, or the Salem witch trials.

Our faith must inform our actions—and if it does not we wander astray in our application of exposing “unfruitful works of darkness”: “Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil.” (15, 16) That certainly seems to be appropriate advice as we live in this increasingly post-Christian age. There may not be much I can affect on a large scale, but my quotidian activities on a small scale must arise from my faith in Jesus Christ, not from my own perceived wisdom, but rather from my ability (or lack of it) to discern God’s will for me. This is not a trivial task: “So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.” (18)

At 5:14 Paul appears to quote something from scripture:
Sleeper, awake!
    Rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”

I checked a couple of commentaries and the consensus seems to be that these lines are not from the OT, but perhaps the opening verse to a hymn sung in church. This theory seems supported by Paul’s advice iat the end of today’s reading: “as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (19, 20)

I think it’s worth pointing out that even the earliest church made a distinction among “ psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” “spiritual songs” could probably be interpreted today as “praise songs.” Okay, I concede the point. My take on this is that worship should include all three. 

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