Psalm 106:24–31; Jeremiah 42,43; Philemon 1:12–25;

Originally published 9/12/2017. Revised and updated 9/11/2019.

Psalm 106:24–31: Our psalmist continues his negative assessment of his ancestors, highlighting the numerous incidents that tested Moses and certainly tested God while the Israelites wandered in the wilderness:
And they despised the land of their desires,
they did not trust His word.
And they muttered in their tents,
they did not heed the voice of the Lord. (24, 25)

The line,”they despised the land of their desires” is certainly a reference to the spies who brought back all the bad news about Canaan. The image of muttering in their tents is a precursor to the modern practice of muttering on social media!. We are just the same as they: upset, fearful, muttering, ignoring God.

In good deuteronomic fashion, God does not countenance muttering, much less open rebellion and he sends an epidemic:
And He raised His hand against them,
to make the fall in the wilderness,
to disperse their seed among the nations,
to scatter among the lands. (26, 27)

Even as early as the wilderness journey, the Israelites intermarried and began to lose their unique identity. Worse, rather than bringing God to those whom they married, they fell prey to the small-g gods and awful practices of their spouses:
And they clung to Baal Peor
and ate sacrifices to the dead.  (28)

These disgraceful practices are abhorrent to God. Once again there is punishment linked to God’s disapproval:
And they provoked Him through their acts,
and the scourge broke out among them. (29)

This time it is Aaron’s grandson, Phineas, who assuages God’s anger:
And Phineas stood and prayed,
and the scourge was held back
and it was counted for him as merit,
from generation to generation forever. (30, 31)

Phineas gets even more lines than Moses here as our poet conveniently skips over the fact that it was Phineas who slew the people who followed Baal. I’m left with the impression that the psalmist is flattering a priestly descendant of Phineas—an early example of story-editing to get across an editorial viewpoint. So, there’s nothing new when we accuse the mainstream media of selective and biased reporting!

Jeremiah 42,43: There are only a few Jews left in Judah. The leaders, Johanan and Azariah, “and all the people from the least to the greatest, approached the prophet Jeremiah and said, “Be good enough to listen to our plea, and pray to the Lord your God for us—for all this remnant.” (42:1,2) 

Jeremiah agrees (probably reluctantly, given what has happened to him already when he delivers bad news). He tells them, “I am going to pray to the Lord your God as you request, and whatever the Lord answers you I will tell you; I will keep nothing back from you.” (4) This statement is a glimpse into how Jeremiah kept on receiving the Word of the Lord: he prayed.

Ten days later, Jeremiah returns with God’s answer: “If you will only remain in this land, then I will build you up and not pull you down; I will plant you, and not pluck you up; for I am sorry for the disaster that I have brought upon you.” (42:10)

Well, that’s an interesting response. So God has regrets and is “sorry for the disasters” he’s brought on them. I’ve never thought about God regretting his actions, but that seems to be the case here.

Unsurprisingly, it looks like Jeremiah’s words will not be heeded. The remnant, fearing the Chaldeans and seeing what happened to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, is planning to escape to Egypt—a stunning potential replay of what happened so many centuries before. Jeremiah is crystal clear: “For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Just as my anger and my wrath were poured out on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so my wrath will be poured out on you when you go to Egypt.” (42:18) And again Jeremiah warns them, “O remnant of Judah, Do not go to Egypt. Be well aware that I have warned you today  that you have made a fatal mistake.” (42:19, 20)

Jeremiah points out that they asked him to pray and obtain the advice God has for them: stay or go. And now they plan to ignore Jeremiah’s last stern warning: “Be well aware, then, that you shall die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence in the place where you desire to go and settle.” (42:22)

Once again we see the immutability of human nature. Even when they ask a prophet for advice and the prophet comes back and tells them something they don’t want to hear, they ignore him.  Which is also a good description of Jesus’ ministry in Israel. He spoke the truth and was ignored by most of the people, especially the leaders, and paid with his life. And goodness knows, we behave just the same today when we hear news we don’t want to hear.

In a dramatic demonstration of people rejecting Jeremiah’s clear prophecy, the leaders accuse Jeremiah of outright lying and even treachery: You are telling a lie. The Lord our God did not send you to say, ‘Do not go to Egypt to settle there’; but Baruch son of Neriah is inciting you against us, to hand us over to the Chaldeans, in order that they may kill us or take us into exile in Babylon.” (43:2, 3)

The remnant sets out for Egypt, taking the very unwilling Jeremiah with them. Now in Egypt, God speaks to Jeremiah and directs the prophet to “Take some large stones in your hands, and bury them in the clay pavement that is at the entrance to Pharaoh’s palace in Tahpanhes.” (43:9) Which he does in full view of the Judeans. God then directs Jeremiah to announce, “I am going to send and take my servant King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, and he will set his throne above these stones that I have buried, and he will spread his royal canopy over them.” (43:10)

The chapter concludes with Jeremiah’s grimly specific prediction of how the Babylonian king will conquer Egypt: “He shall kindle a fire in the temples of the gods of Egypt; and he shall burn them and carry them away captive; and he shall pick clean the land of Egypt, as a shepherd picks his cloak clean of vermin.” (43:12) We end the chapter with God’s warning ringing in our ears: “[Nebuchadnezzar] shall break the obelisks of Heliopolis, which is in the land of Egypt; and the temples of the gods of Egypt he shall burn with fire.” (43:13)

Fair warning. I have a feeling bad things will be happening in the next chapter… The lesson is clear: if you ask a prophet to prophesy, you should take what he says seriously, even if it is the opposite of what you want to do. While we may not have Jeremiahs in our midst today, we certainly have Scripture and prayer. Answers to study and prayer are not always what we want. Will we flee to figurative Egypt instead?

Philemon 1:12–25: Paul is writing Philemon that he is sending Onesimus back to his rightful owner without first seeking Philemon’s consent. It’s clear that Onesimus escaped from Philemon’s household and ended up in Rome, doubtless stumbling across Paul—perhaps in prison. If Onesimus is sent back to his owner, Philemon has every right to kill him. Hence the somewhat obsequious spin that Paul takes here: “Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever,  no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.” (15, 16)

As a Christian brother, Paul is appealing to Philemon’s faith, which Paul believes has surely transformed him. We can hear Paul almost begging, “So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.” (17, 18) He even goes to the extent of proving his good intentions by writing, “I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it.” (19)

As if to slightly change the subject, Paul asks, “One thing more—prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you.” (22) making it clear that he regards Philemon as a brother in Christ.

So why is this letter to Philemon in the canon? I think that it ended up there because it is a real world example of asking others to be kind and to have mercy—especially compared to the endless didactic and frankly rather cold advice of the Pastorals that precede it. Here we see Paul’s genuine caring and his genuine worry. But above all it is an example of how Jesus and the Holy Spirit can change people’s hearts for the better, to become hearts of caring and compassion. Paul is placing his trust—and Onesimus’ very life—in the conviction that the Holy Spirit has transformed Philemon for the better.

We don’t know the ending of the story. What happened when Onesimus showed up at Philemon’s doorstep? But if we truly believe in the transformative power of the Holy Spirit, we can be assured that Philemon greeted his slave with open arms.

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