Psalm 88:1–6; Isaiah 42:10–43:21; Philippians 2:19–30

Originally published 7/21/2017. Revised and updated 7/20/2019

Psalm 88:1–6: This psalm’s superscription dedicates it to the Korahites, who were a choir based, I presume, at the temple in Jerusalem. A certain Heyman the Ezrahite, perhaps the choir director, is also included in the dedication.

However, I’m not sure I’d want these dark and even terrifying verses dedicated to me in this rather desperate psalm of supplication. The psalm opens in the usual anodyne manner of most psalms of supplication, although we sense an underlying fear as the psalmist “cries out:”
Lord, God of my rescue,
by day I cried out,
by night, in Your presence.
May my prayer come before You.
incline Your ear to my song. (2, 3)

The next verse is much darker as our psalmist describes his perilous state that has brought him close to death as we encounter “evil,” “Sheol,” and “the Pit” in just three lines. These lines are almost like a suicide note.
For I am sated with evils
and my life reached the brink of Sheol.
I was counted among those who go down to the Pit. (4, 5a)

“Sated” suggests that like a stomach stuffed with food, his being overflows  with evil thoughts—perhaps some form of depression. While he does not identify the nature of the evil, it has robbed him physically and spiritually of the strength and even perhaps the will to live:
I became like a man without strength,
among the dead cast away,
like the slain, those who lie in the grave,
whom You no more recall,
and they are cut off by Your hand. (5b, 6)

For me, what is most ominous here is the idea that after we die, God forgets about us and we are “cut off.” Most Jews did not believe in an afterlife, so from that perspective these words are  quite logical. However, I’ll take Jesus’ many promises of life after death and the many mansions God has prepared for us.

Isaiah 42:10–43:21: Now I see why the Moravians ended yesterday’ reading where they did. The first 10 verses today are a hymn to God beginning with the famous line, “Sing to the Lord a new song.” (42:10) Like many other OT hymns, all God’s creation joins in the singing:
Let the sea roar and all that fills it,
    the coastlands and their inhabitants.
Let the desert and its towns lift up their voice,

    let them shout from the tops of the mountains. (42:10b, 11)

This idea of creation singing reminds us that human’s are not God’s only creative act, but also so are all creatures and even nature itself. This should serve as a warning against our arrogant tendency exploit and “subdue” creation at great risk to upsetting God’s good order.

This song is not all sweetness and light. There is God’s promise to destroy enemies and lay waste to nature itself.
I will lay waste mountains and hills,
    and dry up all their herbage;
I will turn the rivers into islands,
    and dry up the pools. (42:15)

Perhaps these lines were written following some kind of natural disaster. But as usual, people—particularly those in leadership—aren’t listening to Isaiah’s warning:
He sees many things, but does  not observe them;
    his ears are open, but he does not hear. (42:20)

The song becomes even darker as it describes Israel’s plight:
But this is a people robbed and plundered,
    all of them are trapped in holes
    and hidden in prisons;
they have become a prey with no one to rescue,
    a spoil with no one to say, “Restore!” (42:22)

Not surprisingly, their current situation has doubtless been brought about by Israel’s intransigent disobedience:
Was it not the Lord, against whom we have sinned,
    in whose ways they would not walk,
    and whose law they would not obey? (24)

Despite their—and our—sins, God is a rescuing God and the next chapter brims with the hope of redemption:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
    I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;

    and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
    and the flame shall not consume you. (43:1b, 2)

But as always, God loves them—and us—not because of anything they (we) have done:
Because you are precious in my sight,
    and honored, and I love you, (43:4a)

For Israel, there is one of God’s great promises that one day the nation will be restored:
Do not fear, for I am with you;
    I will bring your offspring from the east,
    and from the west I will gather you;
I will say to the north, “Give them up,”
    and to the south, “Do not withhold;
bring my sons from far away
    and my daughters from the end of the earth— (43:5,6)

As we’ve noted before, many Evangelicals and a few Zionists believe that the modern state of Israel is the fulfillment of this promise. I am less confident about that. What’s important here, I think, is that God’s mercy extends to every person, not just to the inhabitants of Israel as our poet writes in God’s voice:
everyone who is called by my name,
    whom I created for my glory,
    whom I formed and made. (43:7)

Later, we read how God is indeed the source of all salvation:
I, I am the Lord,
    and besides me there is no savior.

I am God, and also henceforth I am He;
    there is no one who can deliver from my hand;
    I work and who can hinder it?” (43:11, 13)

Of course we Christians see the fulfillment of this promise in the Incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In addition to our salvation I think the other great promise is that God, through the Holy Spirit, is active in our lives, continually recreating and restoring:
I am about to do a new thing;
    now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
    and rivers in the desert. (43:19)

The question is, am I allowing God to do new things in my life or am I resisting change with my own will preferring to be stuck in the status quo?

Philippians 2:19–30: Right in the middle of his essay on Christology, Paul interjects a couple of personal notes. He is sending Timothy to them, whom he obviously holds in the highest regard: “I have no one like him who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare.” (20) He makes it clear that most of the others around him “are seeking their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ.” (21) Wow. This certainly does not speak well of the majority of Paul’s retinue of hangers-on.

As he has done before, Paul promises to come to Philippi, although we have no evidence that he did: “I trust in the Lord that I will also come soon.” (24)

Paul also “think[s] it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus—my brother and co-worker and fellow soldier, your messenger and minister to my need.“(25) Epaphroditus is obviously well known in the church at Philippi and probably came originally from there. He has recovered from a serious illness and “he has been longing for all of you.” (26) It sounds like he is due some serious R&R back home. By sending Epaphroditus back to Philippi, Paul accomplishes two goals: “I am the more eager to send him, therefore, in order that you may rejoice at seeing him again, and that I may be less anxious.” (28) Paul doesn’t reveal the source of his anxiety. But inasmuch as Paul is sending Epaphroditus along with Timothy is it because despite his endorsement, he doesn’t fully trust him?

We finally discover that Epaphroditus’ illness apparently arose from some duty Paul had him perform—and it sounds as if Paul is feeling a little guilty and feels obligated to send his servant back home: “because he came close to death for the work of Christ,  risking his life to make up for those services that you could not give me.” (30) Again, it would be fantastic to know what duties Epaphroditus undertook that brought him so close to death. But as usual when it comes to personal matters, we are left only with Paul’s tantalizing but cryptic statements.

I have to say that I like personal intermezzos like these that give us a respite from Paul’s relentless—and lengthy—theological discourses.

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