Psalm 96:1–9; Jeremiah 5:26–6:30; 1 Thessalonians 5:4–15

Originally published 8/11/2017. Revised and updated 8/10/2019.

Psalm 96:1–9: Aside from the 23rd Psalm, the opening lines of this psalm are perhaps the most familiar (and upbeat!) in all the Psalms and has been set to music numerous times:
Sing to the Lord a new song!
Sing to the Lord, all the earth.
Sing to the Lord, bless His name,
Bring tidings every day of His rescue.
Recount among the nations His glory,
among the peoples His wonders.
For great is the Lord most praised,
awesome is He over all the gods. (1-4)

As in the preceding psalm, God reigns over all the small-g gods, which I take to be the host of heaven. At the next line however, it appears other small-g gods are the creation of idol-worshippers:
For all gods of the peoples are ungods,
but the Lord has made the heavens. (5)

I really like Alter’s neologism, “ungod,” because it is the complete opposite, the negation if you will, of everything the one true God is and stands for. The word perfectly communicates the emptiness of the numerous ungods that we create—or purchase— for ourselves, be it various toys, status symbols, wealth, success, physical acumen, or power over others.

Following this brief interlude, our psalmist returns to his joyous vein as each verse ascribes to God what we must acknowledge belongs solely to him:
Greatness and grandeur before Him,
strength and splendor in His sanctuary.
Grant to the Lord, O families of peoples,
grant to the Lord glory and strength.
Grant to the Lord His name’s glory,
bear tribute and come to His courts.
Bow to the Lord in sacred grandeur;
quake before Him, all the earth. (6-9)

The alliteration (which Alter tells us replicates the alliteration in Hebrew) and repetition*—greatness, grandeur, grant, glory—communicates a majestic musicality (sorry, I couldn’t resist) and captures the spirit of joy that should suffuse our worship.

*Notice however that this is not the rote repetition (sorry again!) of the same line over and over that is found in so many boring praise choruses. Each line that includes the same verb ‘grant’ illuminates a different quality of God’s magnificence—in turn creating a sense of ascending step by step to summit of the final command in today’s reading: “quake before Him, all the earth.”

Jeremiah 5:26–6:30: I’m not exactly sure why the Moravians insist on readings in this book that are not aligned with chapters, so we pick up in the middle of Jeremiah’s prophecy, which continues in God’s voice. The prophet does go on and on about the wickedness of so many people in Israel and Judah:
For scoundrels are found among my people;
    they take over the goods of others.
Like fowlers they set a trap;
    they catch human beings. (5:26)

As far as Jeremiah is concerned, the greatest scoundrels of all are his prophetic competitors who falsely influence the religious leaders—not too different from Jesus’ own comments about the religious leaders of his time, who surely knew these passages from Jeremiah:
An appalling and horrible thing
    has happened in the land:
the prophets prophesy falsely,
    and the priests rule as the prophets direct. (5:30, 31)

It’s really not too surprising that Jeremiah’s jeremiads (more alliteration!) did not endear him to anyone. No treacly Joel Osteen-like sermonic love-fests for him. He truly was a prophet without honor in his own country. And as is the case today, people speaking truth, especially to power, are just as reviled as I’m sure Jeremiah was in his time.

Fully in his dire your-world-is-about-to-end mode, Jeremiah returns to his favorite topic, warning Israel and Judah of the disasters to come:
Flee for safety, O children of Benjamin,
    from the midst of Jerusalem!
…for evil looms out of the north,
    and great destruction. (6:1)

In a brilliant piece of writing, Jeremiah casts his warning in the various voices of those who are about to invade Jerusalem:
Prepare war against her;
    up, and let us attack at noon!”
“Woe to us, for the day declines,
    the shadows of evening lengthen!”
“Up, and let us attack by night,
    and destroy her palaces!” (6:4,5)

God then speaks again:
For thus says the Lord of hosts:
Cut down her trees;
    cast up a siege ramp against Jerusalem.
This is the city that must be punished;
    there is nothing but oppression within her. (6:6)

These lines certainly seem relevant today where so many cities and countries are such hotbeds of oppression against those with whom the oppressors disagree.

Jeremiah knows that his warnings are falling on deaf ears and that he is being reviled for his efforts to warn the people:
To whom shall I speak and give warning,
    that they may hear?
See, their ears are closed,
    they cannot listen.
The word of the Lord is to them an object of scorn;
    they take no pleasure in it. (6:10)

Goodness knows, there are plenty of closed ears around us today that resist the gospel message and view God as irrelevant at best and non-existent at worst. Rather than following God, Jerusalem has become a cesspool of wickedness:
For from the least to the greatest of them,
    everyone is greedy for unjust gain;
and from prophet to priest,
    everyone deals falsely. (6:13)

And in lines that echo down to today, leaders are hoodwinking those whom they lead, betraying them with empty words, especially that much overused word, ‘peace:’
They have treated the wound of my people carelessly,
    saying, “Peace, peace,”
    when there is no peace. (6:14)

Still more descriptions of the destruction to come follow. As Jeremiah admits up in 6:11, “I am full of the wrath of the Lord;/ I am weary of holding it in.” So he really lets go and lets his words spill into the streets and announces once again his central warning:
Thus says the Lord:
See, a people is coming from the land of the north,
    a great nation is stirring from the farthest parts of the earth.
…they ride on horses,
    equipped like a warrior for battle,
    against you, O daughter Zion! (6:22, 23)

These armies are coming up a against a people who have been weakened by their relentless corruption, which the prophet describes in a metaphor of metals being refined by God. The people he finds are almost worthless bronze and iron when God is looking for precious metals. Even worse, they look like silver but are in fact the basest metal of all: lead.
They are all stubbornly rebellious,
    going about with slanders;
they are bronze and iron,
    all of them act corruptly.
The bellows blow fiercely,
    the lead is consumed by the fire;
in vain the refining goes on,
    for the wicked are not removed.
They are called “rejected silver,”
    for the Lord has rejected them. (6:28-30)

So the question is, are we like Jerusalem? Do we look like silver before others but in the end our hypocrisy fails to hide the fact that we are merely worthless lead?

1 Thessalonians 5:4–15: Paul echoes Jesus’ parable of the watchmen who need to be alert for the return of the master. Here, Paul asks the Thessalonians to remain sober and alert to the imminent Second Coming: “So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night.” (6,7) While they wait for Jesus’ return, Paul advises them again, “be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.” (8)

And since (to use the old phrase) Jesus still tarries today, Paul’s advice to the Thessalonians is his advice to us. We are assured of our salvation and ultimately, Jesus will return to bring us back with him to heaven: “For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep [i.e., alive or dead] we may live with him.” (9,10)

So, more advice for how to live in the interregnum between Jesus’ ascension and his eventual return: “Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.” (11) Which I know is something I have so often failed to do.

Paul then gets quite specific about exactly what this encouragement consists of. First, to our leaders: “respect those who labor among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; esteem them very highly in love because of their work.” (12, 13a) Then to each other: “Be at peace among yourselves.” (13b) Then, what we should do about those who are not carrying their fair load in the community: “admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them.” (14)

Finally, “See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all.” (15) The best place to put Paul’s commands into practice is exactly where Paul is pointing: within the church—especially the Christian communities in which we are members.

There is nothing theologically abstract going on here. These are all straightforward personal responsibilities expected of each person who calls himself or herself ‘Christian.’ Alas, churches are so often hotbeds of exactly the opposite behaviors. Or as Jeremiah might put it, we may look like silver, but we’re acting like lead.  

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