Psalm 86:1–10; Isaiah 38:1–40:5; Philippians 1:12–22

Originally published 7/18/2017. Revised and updated 7/17/2019

Psalm 86:1–10: This “David prayer” has a familiar ring because, as Alter points out, “A reader who has been going through the Book of Psalms in sequence by this point will have encountered almost every line of this poem, with minor variations, elsewhere.” While the psalm may be formulaic, it certainly is a classic example of a prayer of supplication.

It opens in humility and reverence but at the same time is clear about the supplicant’s faithfulness. He does not hesitate to approach God and ask for his help in very direct terms, repeating his plea with different words:
Incline Your ear, Lord, answer me,
for lowly and needy am I.
Guard my life, for I am faithful.
Rescue Your servant who trusts in You
—You, my God.
Grant grace to me, Master,
for to You I call all day long.
Gladden Your servant,
for to You, O Master, I lift up my being.
For You, O Master, are good and forgiving,
abounding in kindness to all who call to You.
Hearken, O Lord, to my prayer,
and listen well to the sound of my pleas. (1-6)

Unlike many other psalms our psalmist is completely confident that God is listening and will respond:
When I am in straits I call You
for You will answer me. (7)

This confidence is built on worship—a formal acknowledgement that God is lord of the universe—the true God above all the other small-g gods:
There is none like You among the gods, O Master
and nothing like Your acts.
All the nations You made
will come and bow before You, Master
and will honor Your name.
For You are great and work wonders.
You alone are God. (8-10)

Our poet can pray with confidence because he has set aside his own ego and all the other things such as wealth and power that are too easily turned into small-g gods. He knows there is only one source of rescue because only God can act. Above all, he prays confidently, knowing God will indeed come to his rescue. Can we pray with that same confidence? I know I don’t.

Isaiah 38:1–40:5: King Hezekiah is ill and Isaiah delivers the bad news: “Thus says the Lord: Set your house in order, for you shall die; you shall not recover.” (38:1) Following the example of the psalmist above, Hezekiah prays fervently, reminding God that “I have walked before you in faithfulness with a whole heart, and have done what is good in your sight.” (38:3) Isaiah returns, telling hezekiah that God has heard his prayer and will add 15 years to his life. Moreover, “I will deliver you and this city out of the hand of the king of Assyria, and defend this city.” (38:6) Just to prove that God has spoken, “the sun turned back on the dial the ten steps by which it had declined.” (3:8) Uh huh. Really? Regardless of violations of the laws of physics, it’s a beautiful master that as Creator of the universe, God can do whatever pleases.

Hezekiah writes a long poem that describes his journey from bitterness at his impending death to deep gratitude. First he acknowledges his bitterness in his supplication to God:
My eyes are weary with looking upward.
    O Lord, I am oppressed; be my security!
But what can I say? For he has spoken to me,
    and he himself has done it.
All my sleep has fled
    because of the bitterness of my soul. (38: 14, 15)

But then he realizes that there is a lesson in that bitterness. God who has not only extended his life, but has forgiven his sins, as well:
Surely it was for my welfare
    that I had great bitterness;
but you have held back  my life
    from the pit of destruction,
for you have cast all my sins
    behind your back. (38:17)

How often have I thanked God for extending my own life? And for forgiving all my sins through Jesus Christ? Not enough.

News of Hezekiah’s illness makes it to the king of Babylon, who sends a delegation “with letters and a present to Hezekiah.” (39:1) Hezekiah rather naively shows them “his treasure house, the silver, the gold, the spices, the precious oil, his whole armory, all that was found in his storehouses. There was nothing in his house or in all his realm that Hezekiah did not show them.” (39:2)

Upon hearing this, Isaiah rather frantically asks the king, “What did these men say? From where did they come to you?” (39:3) Hezekiah says he showed them everything. Unlike naive Hezekiah, the more worldly wise Isaiah knows the visit by Babylon has been by spies sent to assess Judah’s strengths. The prophet tells Hezekiah that “Days are coming when all that is in your house, and that which your ancestors have stored up until this day, shall be carried to Babylon; nothing shall be left, says the Lord. ” (39:6) adding the grim prophecy that his sons will be captured and castrated. But ever optimistic, Hezekiah thinks this prophecy will not affect him personally and that “There will be peace and security in my days.” (39:8)

There’s a good warning to us here. As Jesus noted, we need to be as gentle as doves but was wise as serpents. Being a follower of Christ does not mean we have to naive about what’s going on the world around us.

Isaiah 40 is justly famous as a prophecy of the coming of the Messiah, and these words are part of the Advent lectionary. They are also a memorable section of Handel’s Messiah. Rather than deconstructing these magnificent lines, let’s just immerse ourselves their glorious promise and the beautiful poetry:
In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
    make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
    and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
    and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
    and all people shall see it together,
    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken. (40:3-5)

Philippians 1:12–22: We do not have the letter that the church at Philippi wrote to Paul while he was in prison in Rome, but it certainly must have expressed their sorrow and sympathy at Paul’s grim situation. But Paul, being Paul, has not been deterred by his circumstances. Instead he has turned imprisonment to a wonderful advantage: “I want you to know, beloved,  that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard  and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ.” (12, 13)

Moreover, Paul’s own boldness has inspired others around him to be equally bold: “and most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word  with greater boldness and without fear.” (14)

The lesson is pretty obvious for us. Regardless of circumstances, we should stand and speak (and act) boldly for Jesus Christ. In all my Christian life, I think this has been my greatest failing. I have not been courageous in proclaiming Christ to others—either by word or deed.

Paul tells us how we can do that. Once again, the foundation is love for others: “These proclaim Christ out of love, knowing that I have been put here for the defense of the gospel.” (16)

However, not every proclamation for Christ has been made out of love: “the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment.” (17) But this really doesn’t matter to Paul. His point is that regardless of the motivation behind the proclamation, “Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice.” (18) I confess I am not where Paul is on that. I will never match his generosity of spirit and his intensity of vision in proclaiming the Good News. Nor am I a generous at giving people the benefit of the doubt as Paul was. Given our present cultural climate of hostility and never-ending outrage, Paul’s words should be transmitted regularly to everyone, whether Christian or not.

There were doubtless friends who questioned Paul’s enthusiasm, probably asking him if he wasn’t careful about what he said he would be executed. To those who cautioned him he famously replied, “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.” (21) Paul has given his life over to Christ and he knows that whatever happens, it is God’s will. Even to the point of death.

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