Psalm 86:11–17; Isaiah 40:6–41:7; Philippians 1:23–2:4

Originally published 7/19/2017. Revised and updated 7/18/2019

Psalm 86:11–17: After reflecting on God’s greatness and acknowledging that “You alone are God,” our psalmist asks that God would instruct him:
Teach me, O Lord, Your way.
I would walk in Your truth.
Make my heart one to fear Your name. (11)

We should note that we do not absorb God, nor is relating to God based solely on our feelings—which seems to be the currently popular method of knowing God. It is about being taught. It is about the discipline of sitting down and studying. In the super-emotional age in which we live it’s too easy to forget that a relationship with God involves the mind just as much as the heart.

What is the desired outcome of God’s teaching? It’s worship and it’s telling others:
Let me acclaim You, O Master, my God, with all my heart,
and let me honor Your name forever. (12)

We worship because we know God’s ways, but we also worship because God has rescued us not only from hell but from the depredations of our enemies:
For Your kindness to me is great,
For You saved me from nethermost Sheol.
O God, the arrogant rose against me,
a band of the violent sought my life
and did not set You before them. (13, 14)

Personally, I have not had a band of “the arrogant” come after me, but I know that God has rescued me from other things such as disease. And in that rescue we must acknowledge with our psalmist who famously says:
You, Master, are a merciful and gracious God,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast kindness. (15)

Here I disagree somewhat with Alter’s translation. I far prefer the more traditional translations that assert God is “abounding in steadfast love.” God’s love never fails and never abandons us even though like the psalmist, we may think God is absent. But as the old cliche has it about the footsteps in the sand, God may be silent, but he is there carrying us through life’s trials.

As far as I’m concerned, “abounding in steadfast kindness” would have been a good place to end the psalm. Our psalmist goes on to ask God for grace and strength and rescue and even the shaming of his enemies But sometimes we should just be quiet and wait. God will indeed supply our every need without us necessarily verbalizing it.

Isaiah 40:6–41:7: This famous chapter reminds me of God’s speech at the end of the book of Job: God is far greater than we can even imagine. By comparison, we humans and our actions that we think to be so consequential are as evanescent as springtime grass:
All people are grass,
    their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
    when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
    surely the people are grass. (40:6, 7)

In the end, we must accept our mortality while God lives eternally.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
    but the word of our God will stand forever. (40:8)

The Isaiah poet (I think someone other than Isaiah, son of Amoz, has written this) reminds us that while God is unimaginably powerful, he also cares for us. And here we encounter the beautiful metaphor of God—and Jesus—as shepherd:
He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
    he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
    and gently lead the mother sheep. (40:11)

Even though God is our shepherd, we must never forget that God is far greater than we humans and all our works. Our poet memorably draws the comparison to frail humanity:
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
    Has it not been told you from the beginning?
    Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,
    and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
    and spreads them like a tent to live in;
who brings princes to naught,
    and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing. (40:21-23)

God is eternal and we can never fully comprehend his greatness:
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
    the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
    his understanding is unsearchable. (40:28)

Even though we will never fully comprehend God (although many have tried!) and even though God could snuff out humanity in an instant, he is unimaginably generous to us, his creatures. And as always, it is the weak and powerless whom God especially favors. The chapter concludes with the beautiful promise that has inspired so many (and so many songs):”He gives power to the faint,
    and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
    and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
    they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
    they shall walk and not faint. (40:29-31)

In those times when we feel discouraged and abandoned by God, this magnificent promise still stands. Whatever may confront us, God will give us the energy and strength to carry on.

I don’t know why the Moravians didn’t end today’s reading on this high note, but they make us continue to ramble through Isaiah. The opening verses of chapter 41 lack the grandeur of the previous chapter, but the themes remain constant. God is more powerful than all the nations that surround Israel:
He delivers up nations to him,
    and tramples kings under foot;
he makes them like dust with his sword,
    like driven stubble with his bow.

I, the Lord, am first,
    and will be with the last. (41:2, 4)

There is a fascinating note here at the end of the reading—and very consistent with what Paul keeps talking about. It is in a community of people with different skills and gifts whereby great things are accomplished:
Each one helps the other,
    saying to one another, “Take courage!”
The artisan encourages the goldsmith,
    and the one who smooths with the hammer encourages the one who strikes the anvil,
saying of the soldering, “It is good”;
    and they fasten it with nails so that it cannot be moved. (41:6,7)

There’s no question: we cannot fully be God’s creatures in isolation. God made us social creatures so that together we can accomplish far greater things than one person’s efforts.

Philippians 1:23–2:4: Paul, having noted that “my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better,” (1:23) convinces himself that he needs to stay around because to “remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. ” (1:24) To me, that statement seems a little over the top. But at least he finds a rationale for remaining on earth, “so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again.” (1:26)

Unlike the other churches to which Paul has written, it appears that there are external rather than internal opponents in Philippi—one suspects the Jews— that are causing pain to these young Christians. Paul is especially encouraging in his confidence that they will withstand these trials: “I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. ” (1:27, 28) Of course the question for us is, would we stand firm in the face of similar adversity? As we enter an increasingly post-Christian age where some Christian beliefs are seen as as “intolerant” and even “hateful” (you know what they are), will I succumb to the world’s beliefs or like Paul, hew to Christ’s?

Happily we do not have to struggle on our own. As at Philippi, “this is God’s doing. For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well.” (1:29) What’s especially important here is that we do not avoid suffering, but are given the strength to endure. Far too many Christians have come to Jesus trying to escape from their woes or the consequences of their stupid actions. On the contrary, Paul tells us we will be encouraged and comforted, but we will still suffer. 

Whatever suffering we in the church endure is made easier because of unity of spirit: “If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” (2:1,2) And we can endure only when we support each other. Once again, Paul reminds us that we must abandon our egos: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.” (2:3) It’s all about generosity of spirit and teamwork: “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” (2:4) 

Speak Your Mind