Psalm 106:13–23; Jeremiah 40,41; Philemon 1:1–11

Originally published 9/11/2017. Revised and updated 9/10/2019.

Psalm 106:13–23: Our psalmist continues with his poetically condensed version of the Exodus story, emphasizing the many incidents that show the Israelites’ sinful acts, beginning with the basic sin, their persistent forgetfulness about what God has done for them already:
Quickly they forgot His deeds,
they did not await His counsel.
And they felt a sharp craving in the wilderness,
they put God to the test in the waste land. (13, 14)

I’m struck by the phrase, ‘they put God to the test.’ That is what our self-centered pride really does, isn’t it? First, we forget about God and in our impatience we fail to “await His counsel” and just go ahead with our own selfish plans. Until something goes wrong; then, as in the famous story of the quail, we begin complaining to God:
And He gave the what they had asked,
sent food down their throats.” (15)

As here, even in their (and our) complaining, God gives what they (and we) have asked for. But as the Israelites found out, sometimes what God allows to be given to us or to happen to us doesn’t make us happy either:

Our poet goes on to recount some of the darker incidents in the wilderness—most of them centered on rebelling against Moses and Aaron and then against God himself:
And they were jealous of Moses in the camp,
of Aaron, the Lord’s holy one.
The earth opened up and swallowed Dothan
ans covered Abiram’s band.
And fire burned throughout their band,
flame consumed the wicked. (16-19)

Even though the poetry here is fairly wooden as we trudge through the catalog of their wrongdoings, the compression of the incidents into just a few verses gives us a sense of how it must have looked to God:  ceaseless complaining and rebellion.  Which culminates in the the infamous incident of the sacred cow:
They made a calf at Horeb
and bowed to a molten image.
And they exchanged their glory
for the image of a grass-eating bull. (19, 20)

That last line reeks of deadly irony, but its truth is searing. How often have we exchanged our own God-given glory for some worthless pursuit or we place another idol in higher status than God? Our author is pointing out rather subtly that the Jews in exile to whom he is writing, or to us reading centuries later that people are no different than the those wilderness Israelites: forgetful, impatient, and self-centered—happily abandoning God for things that are ultimately trivial and meaningless. Separating ourselves from God is really the essence of sin, isn’t it?

Jeremiah 40,41: Whoever wrote these chapters is not the same author as the previous 39 chapters of Jeremiah. These tedious chapters describe various incidents that occurred in Judah after the Babylonian captivity in a welter of names that suggest they were written pretty contemporaneous with the events they describe. Highlights include:

• Jeremiah is given the choice to go to Babylon or remain in Judah. He chooses to remain and is freed by the captain of the Chaldean guard, who says, “See, the whole land is before you; go wherever you think it good and right to go.” (40:4) He chooses to go and remain with Gedaliah, who is the appointed governor of Judea—and disappears from the events that follow

•  “When all the leaders of the forces in the open country and their troops heard that the king of Babylon had appointed Gedaliah son of Ahikam governor in the land…they went to Gedaliah at Mizpah” (40:7,8) Gedaliah invites the band, headed by a certain Ishmael, to stay and serve the Chaldeans. The governor tells them they are free to “gather wine and summer fruits and oil, and store them in your vessels, and live in the towns that you have taken over.” (40:10) Other Jews who had scattered to Moab and elsewhere also return to Mizpah.

• Some other leaders, headed by a certain Johanan, come and warn Gedaliah that Ishmael plans to assassinate  him. “But Gedaliah son of Ahikam would not believe them.” (40:14) Johanan seeks permission to kill Ishmael before he can carry out his plot, but Gedaliah denies the request,apparnetly duped by Ishmael, telling Johanan, “Do not do such a thing, for you are telling a lie about Ishmael.” (40:16)

• Gedaliah’s trust in Ishmael is badly misplaced. Ishmael and his men kill the governor as well as everyone else at Mizpah.  Which reminds us that leaders in high places can be fooled by sycophants willing to stab them in the back.

• A band of 80 men of some odd sect “with their beards shaved and their clothes torn, and their bodies gashed, ” (41:5) shows up at the temple. Ishmael fools them by inviting them to see the already dead Gedaliah. He promptly kills 70 of then, sparing 10 as they say they have stores of food. He tosses the bodies of the 70 into a large cistern.

• Ishamel takes everyone else at Mizpah captive and heads to the Ammonites.”But when Johanan son of Kareah and all the leaders of the forces with him heard of all the crimes that Ishmael son of Nethaniah had done, they took all their men and went to fight against Ishmael” (41:11)

• Ishmael’s captives are mighty glad to see Johanan and his men and “turned around and came back, and went to Johanan.” (41:14) Johanan gathers all the captives and heads for Egypt.

This is all very entertaining, but Jeremiah has at least temporarily disappeared from the scene. This is strictly a fairly grisly record of events that occurred after the downfall of Judah and we see that plotting and conniving were rampant. But as for theological application, I don’t see much here…

Philemon 1:1–11: This short but very sweet letter is universally acknowledged to have been written by the actual Paul. When we compare its passion and the love Paul expresses for Philemon to the wooden and didactic advice of the author of the Pastorals, I’m more convinced than ever that they weren’t written by Paul.

Here, Paul remembers the love and faith of Philemon: “I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus.” (5) We see Paul’s genuine affection for him: “I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.” (7) Now, that’s how the actual Paul could beautifully communicate!

But Paul, being Paul, has an agenda as he writes that he could simply command Philemon to do his duty, but “I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus.” (9) What a great lesson for us: love always triumphs over commands.

Paul gets to the point: “ I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment.” (10) Onesimus is a slave and as Paul notes, “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me.” (11)

I’m sure people wonder why this short and very personal letter is in the canon. I think it is there to demonstrate how real love operates. And I’m sure the editors who determined the order of the canon put it right after the Pastorals to illustrate starkly the difference between commands—which is certainly the primary content of the Pastorals—and requests made out of true brotherly love. This is philios love and tragically this kind of asexual love between men has been pretty much lost in our culture.

Nevertheless, if we ever needed a template of how to appeal to someone for a huge favor, it is right here in these 11 verses. Paul’s sincerity and love fairly leap off the page.

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