Psalm 128; Daniel 5:17–6:18; 2 John

Originally published 11/18/2015. Revised and updated 11/18/2019.

Psalm 128: This psalm celebrates a peaceful domesticity that belongs to “all who fear the Lord/ who walk in His ways.” (1) Life includes work and its rewards:
When you eat of the toil of your hands,
happy are you, and it is good for you. (2)

While the image is one of horticulture (“toil of your hands“) I think the line easily suggests the benefits of the all kinds of work—the theology of vocation. Particularly striking is the line, “it is good for you,” i.e, work is what we have been meant to do from tending the garden in Eden to the present day: occupation keeps us healthy and centered.

In that patriarchal society which did not believe in an afterlife, it was progeny—the idea that our spirit lives on in our children and grandchildren and generations beyond—that that brought a kind of immortality. So, the primary purpose of a man’s wife was to bear children:
Your wife is like a fruitful vine
in the recesses of your house. (3a).

In the recesses of your house” indicates that the role of the wife in that era was strictly non-public—a custom continued to this day in the Muslim community. The female “fruitful vine” produces offspring: “your children like young olive trees around your table.” (3b). [I like the mixed metaphor: a vine that produces olive trees…]

In Israel, it was productive work, a tranquil domestic life, and children that were the sure sign of God’s favor:
Look, for it is thus
that the man is blessed who fears the Lord. (4).

The psalm ends with with two blessings. The first is for peace:
May the Lord bless you from Zion,
     and may you see Jerusalem’s good
     all the days of your life. (5)

The second is one that resonates so clearly with me—and one which I have been blessed so beautifully:
And may you see children of your children. (6)

There is no question that the richest most unexpected blessing of these latter years of my life has been my grandchildren. Amidst the turmoil and evil rampant in the world may they grow and prosper and receive the same blessing that I have.

Daniel 5:17–6:18: Before Daniel interprets the writing on the wall, he reviews the course of Belshazzar’s father, Nebuchadnezzar, who “when his heart was lifted up and his spirit was hardened so that he acted proudly, he was deposed from his kingly throne, and his glory was stripped from him.” (5:20) But through being brought low, Nebuchadnezzar “learned that the Most High God has sovereignty over the kingdom of mortals, and sets over it whomever he will.” (5:21).

Unlike the father, the son has “not humbled your heart, even though you knew all this! ” (5:22) Instead, in a perfect statement that describes the core values of 21st century American society, “You have praised the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, wood, and stone, which do not see or hear or know; but the God in whose power is your very breath, and to whom belong all your ways, you have not honored.” (5:23).  Daniel then interprets the writing and “That very night Belshazzar, the Chaldean king, was killed.” (5:30). Darius the Mede takes over the kingdom.

This story of course is the lesson of pride and the consequences of truly believing that what we have accomplished we have done strictly on our own. And yet, this is the theme of self-reliance that is the very theme of the American dream.

Under the new administration, Daniel continues to shine and “distinguished himself above all the other presidents and satraps because an excellent spirit was in him, and the king planned to appoint him over the whole kingdom.” (6:3). Jealousy prevails that Daniel will become prime minister and similar to what happens in Esther, the satraps “tried to find grounds for charges against Daniel in his conduct of government affairs, but they were unable to do so.” (6:4) As with with Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace, these jealous officials effectively trick the king into issuing a decree that demands sole obeisance to the king or it’s off to the lions’ den. Which due to Daniel’s persistent faith in God is exactly where he finds himself.

What’s fascinating about this story–and what we really didn’t get from Sunday School– is that this episode is more about King Darius than Daniel. First Darius tries to stall: “When the king heard the charge, he was very much distressed. He was determined to save Daniel, and until the sun went down he made every effort to rescue him.” (6:14) But when this fails, Darius effectively prays to God: “The king said to Daniel, “May your God, whom you faithfully serve, deliver you!” (6:16) Moreover, the king is consumed by worry: “the king went to his palace and spent the night fasting; no food was brought to him, and sleep fled from him.” (6:18)

In his heart of hearts, Darius realizes what Nebuchadnezzar came to realize (as Belshazzar did not): There is that famous God-shaped vacuum in every human heart–even among kings. Deep down, Darius knows that there is a God greater than he.  As I suspect any person who honestly examines himself away from the trappings of society will discover for himself.

2 John: This very short epistle is in fact a personal letter from John “to the elect lady and her children” (1a) I’m not sure, but I think this is the only epistle in the NT that is so overtly dedicated to a single person—and a woman at that! [Philemon is more of an appeal than a dedicatory epistle.]

As usual, love exudes from John’s every pore: “whom I love in the truth, and not only I but also all who know the truth, because of the truth that abides in us and will be with us forever.” (1b, 2)

Notice how love is always about truth. This is the theme of this letter. John is “overjoyed to find some of your children walking in the truth, just as we have been commanded by the Father.” (4). But John’s unspoken message is that someone may be drifting astray as he defines true love as obedience to God: “And this is love, that we walk according to his commandments; this is the commandment just as you have heard it from the beginning—you must walk in it.” (6)

One suspects that this woman is possibly coming under the influence of an apostate, who is preaching that Christ is only spirit and not human (the heresy of Docetism): “Many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh; any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist!” (7)

He then issues a warning that is the key to differentiating between orthodox Christian faith and belief systems (Mormons, the prosperity gospel, are examples) that add to the core Gospel that Christ preached: “Everyone who does not abide in the teaching of Christ, but goes beyond it, does not have God.” (9a) While “whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son.” (9b) He almost begs the lady, “Do not receive into the house or welcome anyone who comes to you and does not bring this teaching.” (10)

In fact, I think this letter is so short and ends so abruptly because John’s concern for her is so great that he feels compelled to take up this problem in person: “I would rather not use paper and ink; instead I hope to come to you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.” (12).

The lesson for us is crystalline: love and truth are completely intertwined. We cannot have love without truth. And we cannot add our own ideas or false theology to the core of what Christ preached.

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