Psalm 127; Daniel 4:19–5:16; 1 John 5:6–21

Originally published 11/17/2017. Revised and updated 11/16/2019.

Psalm 127: This psalm is dedicated to Solomon probably because of the clear reference to the temple in the first verse:
If the Lord does not build a house,
in vain do its builders labor on it.
If the Lord does not watch over a town,
in vain does the watchman look out. (1)

I think the first two lines are directly applicable to the church of Jesus Christ: not just in the physical building sense, but when a congregation drifts away from the central mission of the church, which is to bring the good news of the Gospel to others, then the entire project of “church” is pretty much in vain.

The next verse communicates how our own lives and especially our own efforts at salvation are ultimately futile. We are mere mortals. Rather, the gifts we receive, such as rest and renewed energy from being able to sleep at night, come from God, not our own work:
In vain you who rise early, sit late,
eaters of misery’s bread.
So much He gives to His loved ones in sleep. (3)

The subject suddenly changes to a celebration of the joys of male progeny, which for Jews was basically a man’s central purpose. As a reflection of the time in which the psalm was written, notice that the reward is sons, not daughters, since it is sons who carry on the ancestral line and therefore the memory of fathers and grandfathers in subsequent generations:
Look, the estate of the Lord is sons,
reward is the fruit of the womb. (3)

The emphasis on the crucial importance of having sons is carried further with the militaristic image of a warrior holding arrows:
Like arrows in the warrior’s hand,
thus are the sons born in youth.
Happy the man
who fills his quiver with them.” (4, 5a)

Of course in those days it was the sons who went to battle to preserve the nation and therefore, its families. From the context of our own culture many may denigrate that society’s emphasis on male progeny as being unfair to daughters. But it’s worth remembering that without sons to go to battle the tribes and nations would be annihilated and ultimately forgotten. WHich I think is exactly the point of the last two lines:
They shall not be shamed
when they speak with their enemies at the gate.” (5b)

We may scoff at such a stark emphasis on male children, but in many respects I certainly miss the clear delineation between sexes and more recently, the bizarre idea that gender is a choice not a biological fact. Ultimately, our culture will not meet the enemy at the gate because, alas, the enemy is already well inside the city.

Daniel 4:19–5:16: Daniel interprets Nebuchadnezzar’s second dream. Ever wanting to appear strong and invincible, the king projects his own anxiety on Daniel, “Belteshazzar, do not let the dream or the interpretation terrify you.” (4:19) Daniel tells Neb that the fruitful tree is the king himself. Well, this seems like good news until Daniel gets to the part about the tree being cut down. The cutting down means that the king has been judged by God and that Neb “shall be driven away from human society, and your dwelling shall be with the wild animals. You shall be made to eat grass like oxen, you shall be bathed with the dew of heaven, and seven times [years, I presume] shall pass over you, until you have learned that the Most High has sovereignty over the kingdom of mortals, and gives it to whom he will.” (4:25) In other words, the king will go mad, for his prideful arrogance has been judged by God.

Nothing happens until one day Nebuchadnezzar exclaims pridefully, “Is this not magnificent Babylon, which I have built as a royal capital by my mighty power and for my glorious majesty?” (4:30) At that moment God strikes him down and he becomes insane, driven away from human society and ends up eating grass. Our authors, who clearly despise Neb’s arrogance, add the detail that “his hair grew as long as eagles’ feathers and his nails became like birds’ claws.” In other words, Nebuchadnezzar has lost his humanity.

We arrive an odd intermezzo where Nebuchadnezzar regains his reason and has what I think we can only call a “conversion experience.” He comes to understand that God has ultimate power over human affairs: “Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven,

for all his works are truth,
    and his ways are justice;
and he is able to bring low
    those who walk in pride.” (4:37)

Which for me is the central moral of the Nebuchadnezzar story: pride does indeed go before a fall. Only by realizing that God is in charge, and that we accept that we are not as “in control” as we think can equilibrium be restored.

Nebuchadnezzar exits the stage and is replaced by his son Belshazzar, who obviously did not learn anything about pride from his father’s experience. He throws a party with the unforgivable (to our Jewish authors) desecration of drinking and feasting using the stolen vessels from the temple followed by blasphemy: “They drank the wine and praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone.” (5:4)

The famous handwriting on the wall appears and our Jewish authors gleefully mock the king’s reaction: “the king’s face turned pale, and his thoughts terrified him. His limbs gave way, and his knees knocked together.” (5:8)

Belshazzar calls in his wise men to interpret the writing. Unsurprisingly, they cannot figure it out and our authors twist their disdainful knife further: “King Belshazzar became greatly terrified and his face turned pale, and his lords were perplexed.” (5:9)

The queen remembers about Daniel being “an excellent spirit, knowledge, and understanding to interpret dreams, explain riddles, and solve problems.” (5:12) So they fetch Daniel and Belshazzar tells him, “if you are able to read the writing and tell me its interpretation, you shall be clothed in purple, have a chain of gold around your neck, and rank third in the kingdom.” (5:16)

The Moravians end the reading here. But the suspense is missing since we already know what happens next…

1 John 5:6–21: John’s theology gets pretty dense here: “ This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth.”  (6) I think we can unpack it as the two defining moments of Jesus ministry on earth: his baptism by water and the shedding of his blood on the cross. John asserts that the testimony to this truth is not via a mere human eyewitness accounts, but by the Holy Spirit itself, which by definition cannot lie.

He returns to his theme that faith—or its lack—is binary, which I think is a response to an accusation that since the people in the Johannine community were not eyewitnesses to the events surrounding Jesus, they cannot be telling the truth. John asserts that on the contrary, “Those who believe in the Son of God have the testimony in their hearts. Those who do not believe in God have made him a liar by not believing in the testimony that God has given concerning his Son.” (10)

He concludes with the famous concluding statement, beloved by evangelicals who eschew all ambiguity: “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” (12)

Like Paul, John cannot leave it there but concludes his letter with a statement that I’m sure is the basis of the Roman Catholic definition of two classes of sin: “All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that is not mortal.” (17) In other words, some sins (mortal ones) are more sinful than others (venial ones).

Once again, John makes his point about Jesus being the son of God, ending with the bold assertion that “we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.” (16) There’s no mistaking that Jesus is indeed true God, a reality testified by the Holy Spirit, whence the doctrine of the Trinity.

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