Psalm 94:12–23; Jeremiah 3:14–4:22; 1 Thessalonians 4:1–12

Originally published 8/9/2017. Revised and updated 8/8/2019.

Psalm 94:12–23: We arrive at the turning point of the psalm where the broad rhetorical questions become personal as our psalmist rationalizes the pain he is personally enduring as God’s lesson:
Happy the man whom Yah chastises,
and whom from His teaching He instructs,
to make him quiet in evil days
until a pit is dug for the wicked. (12, 13)

At first, I have trouble with the argument that God causes us to suffer as a way of teaching us. Yet, there is suffering in the world and I have certainly learned life lessons from my own experiences. I think it is more that since we already live in a fallen world, God allows us to suffer—after all, we can’t avoid it—and because we are God-followers, we become wiser from that suffering. As Rahm Emanuel famously said, ‘Why let a crisis go to waste?’ It seems God is way ahead of Rahm on that score.

In this suffering, our poet finds a modicum of comfort in the assurance that God will not abandon the nation of Israel and that those unjustly treated will one day find justice:
For the Lord will not abandon His people,
and His estate He will not forsake.
For justice will join with judgement,
and all upright will follow. (14, 15)

Of course that’s not exactly how Jeremiah sees it, as the prophet warns Israel that God is indeed about to give up them. But even our poet seems to realize his optimism is a bit overblown as he asks himself:
Who will rise for me against evildoers,
who will take a stand for me against the wrongdoers?” (16)

The answer to these questions is that justice will not be brought from among his neighbors or the established political order. Only God provides the rescue and justice he seeks:
Were not the Lord a help to me,
I would have almost dwelled in the silent realm.
When I thought my foot had stumbled,
Your kindness, Lord, sustained me.
With my many cares within me,
Your consolations delighted me. (17-19)

In fact, injustice and corruption emanates from the highest levels in the nation:
Will the throne of disaster consort with You,
that fashions trouble against the law?
They band together against the just man’s life,
and innocent blood condemn. (20, 21)

Only God can provide protection against the predations of institutional evil:
But the Lord became my fortress,
and my God, my sheltering rock. (22)

In these politically fraught times of our own we can take comfort in those words if not in the rather vengeful conclusion of this psalm. Although, I wonder if this is America’s fate:
[God] will turn back against them their wickedness,
through their evil He will destroy them,
the Lord our God will destroy them. (23)

Jeremiah 3:14–4:22: Jeremiah beautifully conveys God’s frustration with his chosen people. On the one hand, God wants to be done with them; on the other he wants to redeem them as we read lines that seem to say God wants nothing greater than for his people to come back:
Return, O faithless children,
says the Lord,
    for I am your master; (3:14)

This thought leads to Jeremiah’s reflection written in God’s voice in a remarkable verse expressing God’s sorrowful regret on that which once was:
I [God] thought
    how I would set you among my children,
and give you a pleasant land,
    the most beautiful heritage of all the nations.
And I thought you would call me, My Father,
    and would not turn from following me. (3:19)

Alas, it is not to be, and we feel Jeremiah’s sorrow at Israel’s and Judah’s present generation which has corrupted all that went before it: “But from our youth the shameful thing has devoured all for which our ancestors had labored, their flocks and their herds, their sons and their daughters.” (3:24) To draw a modern parallel, I think that the Baby Boomer generation in its self-centeredness has accomplished much the same kind of destruction to the work and values of the generations that have preceded it.

As always, there is the promise of God’s blessings of Israel would only repent and turn back to God:
[Thus] says the Lord,
    if you return to me,
if you remove your abominations from my presence,
    and do not waver,
and if you swear, “As the Lord lives!”
    in truth, in justice, and in uprightness,
then nations shall be blessed by him,
    and by him they shall boast. (4:1, 2)

Jeremiah asks the same of Judah and Jerusalem in a memorable metaphor of repentance as  circumcision of the heart. (Where’s the praise song for that?):
Circumcise yourselves to the Lord,
    remove the foreskin of your hearts,
    O people of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem, (4:4a)

But as usual, God’s pleas are accompanied by the threat of the consequences of non-compliance:
...or else my wrath will go forth like fire,
    and burn with no one to quench it,
    because of the evil of your doings. (4:4b)

Jeremiah pretty much predicts that God will carry out his punishment by means of an invasion by a hostile power, which of course is exactly what happened to both Israel (Assyrians) and Judah (Babylonians). As for Israel, Jeremiah writes:
A lion has gone up from its thicket,
    a destroyer of nations has set out;
    he has gone out from his place
to make your land a waste;
    your cities will be ruins
    without inhabitant. (4:7)

Judah and Jerusalem will meet a similar fate:
Look! He comes up like clouds,
    his chariots like the whirlwind;
his horses are swifter than eagles—
    woe to us, for we are ruined! (4:13)

Jeremiah makes it perfectly clear that Israel and Judah have brought this disaster upon themselves. They cannot play the victim card:
Your ways and your doings
    have brought this upon you.
This is your doom; how bitter it is!
    It has reached your very heart. (4:18)

And for all these woeful prophecies, what does Jeremiah himself feel?
My anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain!
    Oh, the walls of my heart!
My heart is beating wildly;
    I cannot keep silent; (4:19)

But as God has made clear and Jeremiah must utter, again in God’s voice:
For my people are foolish,
    they do not know me;
they are stupid children,
    they have no understanding.
They are skilled in doing evil,
    but do not know how to do good. (4:22)

Which pretty much sums up the human condition even today, doesn’t it?

1 Thessalonians 4:1–12: Paul is in serious advice-giving mode in this epistle and he does not hesitate to instruct the church he loves so much. He reminds them what he told them when he was physically present in Thessaloniki: “For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus” (2) in order to become sanctified. Specifically, to:

  • abstain from fornication” (3b)
  • know how to control your own body in holiness and honor, not with lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God;” (4,5)
  • “[not] wrong or exploit a brother or sister in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things“(6)  (a little bit of Jeremiah there!)

To make it clear he’s serious, Paul reminds them, “whoever rejects this rejects not human authority but God, who also gives his Holy Spirit to you.” (8) Some have argued that this means one can lose one’s salvation through evil acts. I think it’s much more a question of us abandoning God rather than God abandoning us. Which is exactly what’s happening in Jeremiah’s time—and ours.

Paul turns from his warnings to one of his favorite topics: love, at which the Thessalonians seemingly excel. He remarks that They are exemplars in the matter of love: “you do not need to have anyone write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another.” (9) However, the lesson for them and for us is that we can always love even more: “But we urge you, beloved to do so more and more.” (10b). And it is in love that we are to lead our quotidian lives as noted in yet another but really very appealing (and short!) Pauline list reminding us that labor is how God designed us: “to aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we directed you.” (11) Paul explains why: “so that you may behave properly toward outsiders and be dependent on no one.” (12)

I think this reading is good evidence of Paul’s belief that the church must fit into society and not raise a social ruckus, especially around controversial issues such as slavery in his time. In those days the last thing the nascent church needed to do was to undertake actions that would be viewed as radical or even revolutionary. Better to quietly carry out its work and be effective, loving witnesses on a one-on-one basis within the community. Paul is implicitly saying that is the best way to bring people to Christ.

Which makes me wonder about the efficacy or wisdom of the church participating in public protests and/or taking public positions on controversial social issues beyond communicating what Paul wants in Thessaloniki: sincere love for everyone. A militant church is not necessarily a loving church and social pronouncements tend to be polarizing. Nevertheless, I think the church has a social role in reaching out to the poor and distressed among us.

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