Psalm 69:1–13; Proverbs 18; 2 Corinthians 1:23–2:13

Originally published 5/26/2017. Revised and updated 5/25/2019.

Psalm 69:1–13: This psalm of supplication opens with the arresting metaphor of a man slipping on slimy rocks, falling into rushing water and coming close to drowning. I have to believe the poet either experienced this himself or knew someone who did:
Rescue me, O God,
for the waters have come up to my neck.
I have sunk in the slime of the deep,
and there is no place to stand.
I have entered the watery depths,
and the current has swept me away. (2,3)

Despite his calls for help, his hope that God will hear him and rescue him seems lost:
I am exhausted form my calling out.
My throat is hoarse.
My eyes fail
from hoping for my God. (4)

He finds himself in this desperate situation due to the overwhelming number of evil actions by his many enemies. He has apparently been wrongfully accused of theft as he responds to their accusations with bitter sarcasm:
More numerous than the hairs of my head
are my unprovoked foes.
My destroyers grow strong,
my lying foes.
What I have not stolen
should I then give back? (5a)

These lines perfectly express our feelings of bitter frustration when we are wrongly accused of an act we did not commit and we are unable to convince them of our innocence.

Perhaps even worse for our psalmist is the feeling that as a God-follower his present situation is shaming other followers. He confesses he has sinned:
God, You know my folly,
and my guilt is not hidden form You. (6)

Despite his confession, he is desperate that others not be shamed by his actions or words as he repeats his plea:
Let those who hope for You not be shamed through me.
Master, O Lord of armies.
Let those who seek You be not disgraced through me,
God of Israel. (7)

In point of fact, our poet asserts, it is his faithfulness to God that has led him to this present pass. There is a certain Jobian quality here about how his too intense faith has led to relational disaster between him and his siblings:
Because for You I have borne reproach,
disgrace has covered my face.
Estranged I have been from my brothers,
and an alien to my mother’s sons.

For the zeal of Your house has consumed me.
the reproach of Your reproachers has fallen on me. (8-10)

Even his efforts to atone for his sins have been futile and have led to nothing but public disgrace:
And in fasting I wept for my being—
it became a reproach for me.

I was the talk of those who sit at the gate,
the drunkard’s taunting song. (11, 13)

At this point we sense that this psalm could well be the prayer of a burnt-out pastor or other Christian leader. He has been so consumed by working God that he has ignored or even abandoned important human relationships—especially his family. Worse, the bitter fruit of his efforts has led to accusations of wrongdoing. And with this double burden he finds himself in the ironic position that in working too hard for God he has feels abandoned even by God himself. I have to believe there are pastors out there who completely identify with this psalm.

Proverbs 18: Our author must have been writing these proverbs on index cards all his life because there seems to be no end to them. Highlights that strike me follow.

Echoing the feelings of our psalmist above,
When wickedness comes, so does contempt,
    and with shame comes reproach. (3)

As usual, there is the thread of proverbs dealing with the consequences of speech (and in our era, posting on social media) contrasting foolish speech with wise words:
The words of the mouth are deep waters,
    but the fountain of wisdom is a rushing stream. (4)

The lips of fools bring them strife,
    and their mouths invite a beating. (6)

Farther down, there is a truth we would do well to remember whenever we open our mouths:
The tongue has the power of life and death,
    and those who love it will eat its fruit. (21)

Our author is telling us in no uncertain terms that what we say (or post) has serious consequences for good or for bad. But for me personally, the verse that truly hits home is:
To answer before listening—
    that is folly and shame. (13)

Too often, I’m thinking about the next thing to say rather than listening to what the other person (usually Susan!) is saying to me. I also cut people off while they are still speaking and finish their sentence,  never mind actually listening to them.

Then, in a non-sequitur that is typical for this book, we encounter a verse that beautifully describes how depression can be worse than ay physical ailment:
The human spirit can endure in sickness,
    but a crushed spirit who can bear? (14)

Our author also documents the psychological reality that we tend to believe what we hear until we hear the other side of the argument—and then we believe that. I’m becoming convinced that the author of Proverbs was also a lawyer who had to deal with juries:
In a lawsuit the first to speak seems right,
    until someone comes forward and cross-examines. (17)

An finally a harsh truth that seems increasingly to characterize our culture, especially the current political scene:
The poor plead for mercy,
    but the rich answer harshly. (23)

Would our culture had more grace. But that of course requires a culture that is mostly grace-filled people…

2 Corinthians 1:23–2:13: Paul continues his explanation of why he never returned to Corinth: “I call God as my witness—and I stake my life on it—that it was in order to spare you that I did not return to Corinth.” (1:23) He notes that he wrote them a letter (presumably 1 Corinthians) rather than confront them face to face. Paul almost apologizes for the harshness of his previous letter: “For I wrote you out of great distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to grieve you but to let you know the depth of my love for you.” (2:4)

My distinct sense is that Paul did not return because he knew that the spiritual chaos he would encounter at the Corinthian church could cause him to do or say things he might later regret.

However, apparently there is someone at the Corinth who has committed a fairly grievous sin for which the congregation has severely chastised him. Paul asks that they now relent: “The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient.” (2:6)

Rather than punishment, Paul asks them to exercise forgiveness and provide comfort to the offender: “Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him.” (2:7, 8) As always for Paul, love is always at the foundation of good actions.

What a great reminder this passage is for us in the church. I know I have personally been happy to see others punished for their cruelty to others. But here Paul is telling us that the necessity of forgiveness must always overcome our feelings of moral superiority.

Forgiveness in love is at the heart of this transformation from punishment to grace: “Anyone you forgive, I also forgive. And what I have forgiven—if there was anything to forgive—I have forgiven in the sight of Christ for your sake.” (2:10) Paul also advises us that the church faces a great enemy in Satan and that forgiveness is essential “in order that Satan might not outwit us.” (2:11a) He adds, “For we are not unaware of his schemes.” (2:11b) That’s a good warning for us who tend to discount the influence of evil on the church. The reality of course is hat people in the church—even those we trust—are perfectly capable of being agents for evil.

Paul now changes the subject and relates how he went to Troas because he “found that the Lord had opened a door for me.” (2:12) But even though there’s an open door, success is not guaranteed. Paul discerns this and moves on to Macedonia from Troas because “I still had no peace of mind, [and] because I did not find my brother Titus there.” (2:13) Since he didn’t find Titus in Troas as he had expected, Paul moves on: “So I said farewell to them and went on to Macedonia.” (2:13b)

Paul apparently knew what Jesus has said about shaking the dust from one’s feet and moving on when it seems the Holy Spirit is not operating at a certain place. Of course most of us tend to hang around too long because we’re comfortable there. Remaining comfortable was certainly not in Paul’s character!

 

Psalm 68:28–36; Proverbs 17; 2 Corinthians 1:12–22

Originally published 5/25/2017. Revised and updated 5/24/2019.

Psalm 68:28–36: In an echo of the Song of Deborah found in Judges 5, our psalmist lists a brief catalog of the tribes that participated in the initial battles against the Canaanites. Here, though, the emphasis seems to be on the tribal leaders in a procession bringing gifts of thanksgiving to God, who gave them victory in battle:
There little Benjamin holds sway over them,
Judah’s princes in their raiment,
Zebulon’s princes, Napthali’s princes.
Ordain, O God, Your strength,
strength, O God, that You showed for us,
from Your temple, over Jerusalem.
To You the kings bring gifts. (28-30)

The psalmist continues with a symbolic reference to Egypt’s attempt to recapture the Israelites as they crossed over the Sea of Reeds escaping from slavery:
Rebuke the beast of the marsh,
the herd of bulls among calves of the peoples—
cringing with offerings of silver.
He scattered peoples that delighted in battle. (31)

Egypt is the “beast of the marsh” and the bulls that are among the Israelite calves. But in defeat, Egypt must recognize that Israel’s God is stronger than their own small-g gods. Thus, it and all other nations are invited to join the procession acknowledging that Israel’s God is the only legitimate and all-powerful God overall all small-g gods:
Let notables come from Egypt.
Cush raise its hands to God.”
Kingdoms of earth, sing to God,
hymn to the Master. (32, 33)

The psalm concludes with a paean to God’s majestic strength over all the earth:
To the rider of the utmost heavens of yore.
Look, He makes His voice ring, the voice of strength.
Acclaim strength to God,
over Israel is His pride
and His strength in the skies. (34, 35)

And it is God’s strength which in turn has given strength to Israel:
Awesome, O God, from Your sanctuaries!
Israel’s God—He gives strength and might to His people. (36)

While we may not look to God to give us a military victory, I think this psalm reminds us that God is the source of our own strength to confront—and conquer—the challenges and obstacles that we encounter in our own daily lives.

Proverbs 17: Speaking of catalogs… Our author continues with his proverbial sayings. In this chapter most of the verses are constructed to contrast the wise person and his habits grounded in wisdom against the foolish person. Needless to say, it is the wise person who is superior.

But as always it’s difficult to detect any sort of structural pattern to the order of the sayings. It’s as if the author had a bag of sayings, each one written on a card, which he then dumps out of the bag on to the table and simply lists in the order he finds them.

There is a thread of domesticity and personal relationship in this chapter, beginning with the opening verse—something to reflect on in our overly material, stressed-out culture:
Better a dry crust with peace and quiet
    than a house full of feasting, with strife. (1)

And it is better for a wise family servant to run the family business than a deceitful son:
A prudent servant will rule over a disgraceful son
    and will share the inheritance as one of the family. (2)

In a stern warning to those who post snarky Facebook memes at a time of tragedy our author reminds us:
Whoever mocks the poor shows contempt for their Maker;
    whoever gloats over disaster will not go unpunished. (5)

There’s a further warning about starting arguments, which seems to be a popular sport both then and in this Facebook age. We humans argue ceaselessly:
Starting a quarrel is like breaching a dam;
    so drop the matter before a dispute breaks out. (14)

My particular favorite in this chapter is about grandparents and reciprocal respect:
Children’s children are a crown to the aged,
    and parents are the pride of their children. (6)

Friendship is crucial for bringing us through times of adversity:
A friend loves at all times,
    and a brother is born for a time of adversity. (17)

And it helps to keep a positive outlook on life:
A cheerful heart is good medicine,
    but a crushed spirit dries up the bones. (22)

Finally, no chapter in this book would be complete without a reference to the issue of speech and the wisdom of holding one’s tongue:
The one who has knowledge uses words with restraint,
   and whoever has understanding is even-tempered.
Even fools are thought wise if they keep silent,

    and discerning if they hold their tongues. (27, 28)

I think we’d all be better off if were we not living in a culture of endless chatter, innuendo, and rumor-mongering. These verses certainly remind me that much of the endless chatter—especially that of the commentariat who occupy cable news channels—is pretty worthless.

2 Corinthians 1:12–22: I’d love to know what accusations against Paul were in the letter sent by Corinth to which Paul is replying here. He certainly seems to be on the defensive: “Our conscience testifies that we have conducted ourselves in the world, and especially in our relations with you, with integrity and godly sincerity. We have done so, relying not on worldly wisdom but on God’s grace.” (12)

Apparently the people in Corinth are miffed because Paul did not come visit them as he had promised: “ I wanted to visit you on my way to Macedonia and to come back to you from Macedonia, and then to have you send me on my way to Judea.” (16) But that plan did not come to fruition as Paul had hoped, so I suspect someone wrote calling him unreliable for this change in plans: “Was I fickle when I intended to do this? Or do I make my plans in a worldly manner so that in the same breath I say both “Yes, yes” and “No, no”?” (17)

It’s obvious by Paul’s reference to “Yes, yes” and “No, no” that politicians and erstwhile leaders were making the same empty promises (that would be the “worldly manner”) in his time as they do in ours.

Paul builds on his “Yes/No” theme by telling the Corinthians that with Jesus there is only “Yes,” reminding them that “our message to you is not “Yes” and “No.”” (18) In fact, he continues, they’ve received quite a bit of good instruction about “Yes,” as he implies that their accusations of ambiguity are completely unfounded: “…or the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by us—by me and Silas and Timothy—was not “Yes” and “No,” but in him it has always been “Yes.” (19)

Now on a roll, Paul continues, now in full theology mode: “For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. And so through him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God.” (20)

This verse is the crux of the passage. Christ’s love is so all-encompassing that he cannot say “no” to our desire to know and love him. And where does that desire come from? Paul’s answer emphasizes the relationship of Christ, God, and the Holy Spirit in a Trinitarian reference, “it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ.” (21) And it is God who “put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.” (22)

We must never forget that when we say, “It’s all about Jesus” that God and the Holy Spirit are equally essential to our Christian life.

Psalm 68:20–27; Proverbs 16; 2 Corinthians 1:1–11

Originally published 5/24/2017. Revised and updated 5/23/2019.

Psalm 68:20–27: After reflecting on how God has intervened throughout Israel’s history, our author arrives at the theological heart of this psalm:
God is to us a rescuing God.
The Lord Master possesses the ways out from death. (21)

This verse operates at two levels. the first of course is the psalmist’s observation of how God has come once again to Israel’s aid. The second is its rich meaning from our perspective as Christians: God sent Jesus to earth to rescue us all from the deadly consequences of our sins.

This verse is also an oasis in a desert of gory battlefield imagery that follows, some of which is pretty antithetical to our view of God and how God operates in the world:
Yes, God will smash His enemies’ heads,
the hairy pate of those who walk about in their guilt.
The Master said, ‘From Bashan I shall bring back,
bring back from the depths of the sea.
That your foot may wade in blood,
the tongues of your dogs lick the enemies.’ (22-24)

This of course is a logical passage in light of the polarizing dichotomy that permeates the Psalms. Israel was on God’s side and its enemies were the paradigm of wickedness. The imagery then shifts quickly from the bloodied battlefield to the triumphal procession of the conquering army arriving back at Jerusalem:
They saw Your processions, O God,
my God’s processions, my King in holiness.
The singers came first and then the musicians 
in the midst of young women beating their drums.
In choruses bless God,
the Lord, from the fountain of Israel. (25-27)

Notice how the poet personalizes the experience of the triumphal procession in the first person (“my God’s processions, my King in holiness.”) We have a sense of his having been an eyewitness to victory form the safety of the city as over against his imaginatively lurid description of the battlefield, which suggests the poet was never there.

Proverbs 16: The first verses of this chapter reflect on the nature of a proper relationship between God and a man (or woman).  The author implies that it is a dynamic relationship, perhaps even struggle, between our human motivations and behaviors and those of God’s:
To humans belong the plans of the heart,
    but from the Lord comes the proper answer of the tongue.
All a person’s ways seem pure to them,

    but motives are weighed by the Lord.
Commit to the Lord whatever you do,
     and he will establish your plans.” (1-3)

Our ideas and emotions—”the plans of the heart”—may be ours, but if we are in a right relationship with God, he will cause us to hold our tongues and keep us from blurting out what may be very ugly statements with very ugly consequences such as the breaking of trust. Notice, too, how our author recognizes our tendency to feel that our thoughts, words, and behavior are superior to those of others. I know my tendency is to speak quickly and bluntly without reflection, making a pronouncement rather than actually listening to what the other person (usually Susan) is saying or worse, feeling.

This observation by our author leads to several verses that deal with the consequences of prideful thoughts and deeds:
The Lord detests all the proud of heart.
    Be sure of this: They will not go unpunished. (5)

And then more famously farther down:
Pride goes before destruction,
    a haughty spirit before a fall. (18)

Instead it is a close relationship in God via faith and love that leads to the well-lived life of wisdom:
Through love and faithfulness sin is atoned for;
    through the fear of the Lord evil is avoided. (6)

It is far better to be poor and faithful than haughty and wealthy. Something we all know conceptually but too rarely practice:
Better a little with righteousness
    than much gain with injustice. (8)
and
Better to be lowly in spirit along with the oppressed
    than to share plunder with the proud. (19) 

Of all the sins we can commit, our author is making it clear that the “ur-sin”—the sin at the root of so many other sins—is pride. One of the most important actions we can take to avoid the overt sin of pride is to hold our tongues. A key to true wisdom is to speak only after thoughtful consideration:
The wise in heart are called discerning,
    and gracious words promote instruction. (21)
and…

The hearts of the wise make their mouths prudent,
    and their lips promote instruction. (23)

But the statement about speech that resonates most strongly with me is this:
Gracious words are a honeycomb,
    sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.” (24)

Would that I spoke only gracious words rather than prideful and often harsh pronouncements. Clearly, if I can be in a more faithful relationship with God, then our author is suggesting that a life of greater wisdom and insight will be mine.

2 Corinthians 1:1–11: Bible scholars agree that the Corinthians responded in some fashion to Paul’s first letter, which became the catalyst for his second letter to the church at Corinth. Unfortunately, we don’t have the actual letter but can only discern its contents via Paul’s themes and statements in this epistle.

After an opening salutation and blessing—”Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (2)—Paul takes up the theme of suffering versus comfort. He recognizes that whatever comfort he has—and whatever comfort we have—comes directly from God: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” (3, 4)

Paul reminds us that life includes both suffering and comfort: “For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ.” (5) Moreover, both suffering and comfort are shared experiences within the Christian community: “And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.” (7)

So what caused Paul to open this letter with a disquisition on suffering and the comfort that Christ brings? This is answered n the verses that follow, which I take to be a reference to the life-threatening troubles he endured at various places in Asia, including Ephesus and Philippi: “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself.” (8)

But for Paul there is always a purpose to everything that occurs in life. Perhaps greatest of all is the lesson of suffering: “But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.” (9) The question to the folks at Corinth and to us of course is, do we view suffering as a way to learn endurance? For Paul the answer is obvious: “On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us,” (10). But I think even more importantly, Paul makes it clear that we do not learn endurance on our own. Rather, it is the prayers of our brothers and sisters that help us through periods of suffering: “as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us in answer to the prayers of many.” (11)

I know that in those few and brief times of suffering in my own life, it is the prayers of my brothers and sisters that have supported me and brought me to the other side of suffering with a renewed reliance on God rather than myself.

Psalm 68:8–20; Proverbs 15; 1 Corinthians 16:12–24

Originally published 5/23/2017. Revised and updated 5/22/2019.

Psalm 68:8–20: Our psalmist continues to evoke the manifest wonders of God’s power with a meteorological reference to the events at the foot of Mount Sinai as Israel wandered in the desert. Did it actually rain then or is our poet conflating several different events, including ones in Canaan? I think a fair bit of poetic license is occurring here:
God, when You sallied forth before Your people,
when You strode through the desert.
The earth shook,
the heavens, too, poured down before God,
sinai itself before God, God of Israel.
A bountiful rain You shed, O God.
Your estate that had languished You made firm. (8-10)

The verses that follow are downright obscure. Apparently women would announce the army’s victory over its vanquished foe:
The Master [God] gives word—
the women who bear tidings are a great host:
‘The kings of [conquered] armies run away, run away,
and the mistress of the house shares out the spoils. (12, 13)

Amidst the poetic confusion are two strikingly beautiful lines, whose meaning or symbolism escapes me, but they stand beautifully on their own:
The wings of the dove are inlaid with silver,
and her pinions with precious gold. (14b)

Henry James apparently liked them also when he titled one of his novels, “The Wings of the Dove.”

More weather reporting follows, this one being the very rare occurrence of snow in Israel immediately following a military victory
When Shaddai scattered the [enemy] kings there,
it snowed on Zalmon. (15)

Our poet connects another mountain with God’s power apparently expressed via an earthquake:
Mountain of God, Mount Bashan,
crooked-ridged mountain, Mount Bashan.
Why do you leap, O crooked-ridged mountains,
the mountain God desired for His dwelling?
Yes, the Lord will abide there forever!”

You went up to the heights
You took hold of your captives
the wayward as well—
so that Yah God would abide. (17, 19)

I frankly do not know what to make of these verses beyond the impression that in the poet’s mind, God’s power underlies both human military effort (that may or may not have been the conquest of Canaan)  and natural events such as rain and earthquakes. Moreover, Alter’s translation does a fine job of bringing the beauty of poetry, if not the theology, to life.

Proverbs 15: More wisdom statements containing great truths about human nature. Many of them are well known and have suffused western culture:
A gentle answer turns away wrath,
    but a harsh word stirs up anger. (1)

Once again, many of these verses deal with the matter of speech—both its salutary and its corrosive effects. Bottom line: We should always hold our tongues before saying, posting, tweeting, or emailing something stupid. A reality lost on too many in our culture, especially politicians:
The tongue of the wise adorns knowledge,
    but the mouth of the fool gushes folly. (2)

In this age of Twitter, we would all be better off if the verse above were posted on the walls of the Oval Office and in the halls of the Capitol: Or perhaps this one, too:
The soothing tongue is a tree of life,
    but a perverse tongue crushes the spirit. (4)

And again:
The lips of the wise spread knowledge,
    but the hearts of fools are not upright. (7)

And still again:
The heart of the righteous weighs its answers,
    but the mouth of the wicked gushes evil. (23)

All of which raises the distinct possibility that Washington DC and wherever politicians gather in other capitals are full of futile chatter but devoid of wisdom…

There are great psychological truths scattered throughout this chapter. Case in point: we must be willing to accept correction:
Stern discipline awaits anyone who leaves the path;
    the one who hates correction will die. (10)

But our author understood full well that human nature does not like correction and will do everything possible to avoid hearing it:
Mockers resent correction,
    so they avoid the wise. (12)

Our author returns to the issue of correction near the end of the chapter:
Whoever heeds life-giving correction
will be at home among the wise.
Those who disregard discipline despise themselves,
but the one who heeds correction gains understanding. (31, 32)

Being human, my self-centeredness has always tended to resent correction by others, especially in the workplace. yet, here is real truth uttered thousands of years ago.

The author describes the perverse effects of depression (which is how I take ‘oppression’ in this verse):
All the days of the oppressed are wretched,
    but the cheerful heart has a continual feast. (15)

…and the negative impact of untrammeled anger:
A hot-tempered person stirs up conflict,
    but the one who is patient calms a quarrel. (18)

There is also an argument for teamwork as over against a tendency to go it alone:
Plans fail for lack of counsel,
    but with many advisers they succeed. (22)

For me, this means that a charismatic leader who has a vision of what path to take and then tries to drag others along without their complete buy-in is doomed to failure. I have seen this effect on display in both work and at church.

When we are giving correction, it is better to be encouraging rather than negative. This is excellent parenting advice (although too late for me…):
A person finds joy in giving an apt reply—
    and how good is a timely word! (23)

The chapter concludes with perhaps the most important observation of all:
Wisdom’s instruction is to fear the Lord,
    and humility comes before honor. (33)

In short, our behavior is the direct outcome of our relationship with God. When God is rejected, humility is very hard to come by. Alas, there seems to be very little humility, especially among our leaders, especially politicians.

1 Corinthians 16:12–24: Paul winds up his letter with both specific and general advice as he reiterates once again some of the key themes of the epistle.

As for the specific, apparently Apollos is not happy about returning to Corinth although Paul’s optimism shows through: “Now about our brother Apollos: I strongly urged him to go to you with the brothers. He was quite unwilling to go now, but he will go when he has the opportunity.” (12) I’d love to know the back story of this verse!

In an echo of chapter 13, Paul then inserts a general reminder, which by its juxtaposition suggests perhaps that Apollos was not being sufficiently generous in his love for the church at Corinth: “Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong. Do everything in love.” (13, 14)

Paul then gives the Corinthians more or less the back of his hand by contrasting their immaturity to the spiritual maturity of three men who came to Corinth: “I was glad when Stephanas, Fortunatus and Achaicus arrived, because they have supplied what was lacking from you.” (17) And he suggests that they deserve plaudits for their ministry: “For they refreshed my spirit and yours also. Such men deserve recognition.” (18)

The final paragraph is quite in keeping with letter writing style of the time. The greetings come at the end, and to underscore the authenticity of his letter, Paul takes the pen from his amanuensis and writes his final words of advice and his benediction himself:

I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand.
If anyone does not love the Lord, let that person be cursed! Come, Lord!
The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you.
My love to all of you in Christ Jesus. Amen.” (21-24)

I find it touching that Paul’s final statement is about the agape love that we find only through Christ Jesus. That should be our concluding statement to all our brothers and sisters in Christ with whom we communicate.

 

 

 

 

Psalm 68:1–7; Proverbs 14; 1 Corinthians 16:1–11

Originally published 5/22/2017. Revised and updated 5/21/2019.

Psalm 68:1–7: The author makes it clear that this longish psalm is understood as a hymn of praise to a triumphant God. Perhaps it was written following a particularly satisfying military victory:
Let God arise, let His enemies scatter,
and let His foes flee before Him.” (2)

As always, there’s the what I’ll call the Great Dichotomy: the followers of God who are by definition good versus the enemies of God, who are by definition wicked. Unsurprisingly here, using similes of smoke and and the especially creative image of melting wax, this psalm wishes for God to do bad things to their enemies, :
As smoke disperses may they disperse,
as wax melts before the fire,
may the wicked perish before God. (3)

While on the other hand, the God-followers, who by definition comprise the righteous, will celebrate their victory:
And may the righteous rejoice and exult
before God, and be gladdened in joy. (4)

Our psalmist then moves into full worship mode as the image of God riding on the clouds makes it clear that he is above all creation:
Sing to God, hymn His name.
Pave the way for the Rider of Clouds,
For Yah is His name, and exult before Him. (5)

But God is not just “up there” riding some cloud chariot far from humanity. God is active among his people and this hymn reminds us that God intervenes not only on behalf of armies and the powerful, but also among the orphans and widows—an overriding theme of the OT. But perhaps most significantly (for me, anyway) God comforts the  lonely:
Father of orphans and widows’ judge,
God in His holy abode.
God brings the lonely back to their homes,
Sets free captives in jubilation. (6, 7a)

Nor will our psalmist will ever allow us to forget that God punishes those who do not follow him by relegating them to the most hostile territory our psalmist knows—the desert: But the wayward abide in parched land. (7b)

As is always the case in the Psalms, God acts on behalf of the righteous, among whom the widows, orphans, and now the lonely are also included. God cares for the weak and powerless. As should we…

Proverbs 14: The aphorisms continue without our author stopping to take a breath. There’s little question at this point that this book is the compendium of the right practices and knowledge that is the glue of this culture—and once was of our own disintegrating culture. This chapter appears to focus on the behavioral contrast between the wise and the foolish. I’ll just point out the verses that resonate with me.

As always, there is the issue of good and bad speech, here focusing on those fools who try to impress others with their empty pride. Those who are wise are not conned into believing them. Needless to say, politicians of all stripes leap to my mind:
A fool’s mouth lashes out with pride,
    but the lips of the wise protect them. (3)

Fools denigrate those who seek forgiveness for their sins, believing they are above all that silliness. This attitude is certainly endemic today where we are surrounded by non-believers think religion is just a psychological crutch.
Fools mock at making amends for sin,
    but goodwill is found among the upright. (9)

We  should never be fooled by something that is seemingly good, but is actually rotten at its core. We must investigate first. The failure to investigate thoroughly by those driven by naiveté and emotion is why con men get rich:
There is a way that appears to be right,
    but in the end it leads to death. (12)

And then, here is deep psychological insight in the statement that an outward appearance of joy may disguise inward grieving:
Even in laughter the heart may ache,
    and rejoicing may end in grief. (13)

We can ask any lottery winner about the truth of this aphorism:
The poor are shunned even by their neighbors,
    but the rich have many friends. (20)

While there is certainly economic reward for hard work, there is also the deeper insight that merely talking about doing something but never starting to actually work is a fool’s errand. This verse reminds me of my childhood friend, Terry, who talked about his ambitions to become a concert pianist but never got around to taking piano lessons.
All hard work brings a profit,
    but mere talk leads only to poverty.” (23)

As in the Psalms, no list of proverbs would be complete without addressing the obligation of the rich to take care of the poor:
Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker,
    but whoever is kind to the needy honors God. (31)

And then what I think is a clear tocsin for us American right here in 2019:
Righteousness exalts a nation,
    but sin condemns any people. (34)

My sense is that righteousness—at least as it’s defined in the Judeo-Christian framework—is very much in retreat these days.

1 Corinthians 16:1–11: As he winds up this crucial letter, Paul comes to finances. When it comes to tithes and offerings, Paul is always very clear. It’s an obligation of any member of a Christian community to “set aside a sum of money in keeping with your income, saving it up.” (2) In fact, Paul has big plans for Corinth asking what is apparently a wealthy church  to send some men with him to bring their offering to the impoverished church at Jerusalem: “when I arrive, I will give letters of introduction to the men you approve and send them with your gift to Jerusalem.” (3) However, I think it’s doubtful that ever happened. In any event, no Corinthians were noted in the book of Acts as accompanying Paul on his fateful trip to Jerusalem.

The final section of this letter is mostly about logistics. Paul promises that “After I go through Macedonia, I will come to you—for I will be going through Macedonia. Perhaps I will stay with you for a while, or even spend the winter, so that you can help me on my journey, wherever I go.” (6) Paul wants to spend some time in Corinth, but he postpones the trip and will remain in Ephesus until Pentecost “because a great door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many who oppose me.” (9)  Again, per what’s described in Acts, it appears Paul never made it back to Corinth.

Paul is sending his close associate Timothy to Corinth instead. He attests to Timothy’s bona fides and instructs the Corinthian church to treat him as they would Paul himself: “When Timothy comes, see to it that he has nothing to fear while he is with you, for he is carrying on the work of the Lord, just as I am. No one, then, should treat him with contempt.” (10, 11a) But just as they must welcome Timothy, the Corinthians don’t get to keep him. Paul expects Timothy to rejoin him: “Send him on his way in peace so that he may return to me. I am expecting him along with the brothers.” (11b) 

There’s a lesson there for us. When we receive guests or someone on behalf of another, or a substitute comes instead of the person we were expecting, we are to treat them well and with love. That expectation certainly applies to interim pastors.

Psalm 67; Proverbs 13; 1 Corinthians 15:42–58

Originally published 5/20/2015. Revised and updated 5/20/2019.

Psalm 67: This thanksgiving psalm opens with what seems to be a benediction:
May God grant us grace and bless us,
may He shine his face upon us. (2)

But when I think about it, it is a perfect opening for worship, which is what this psalm is all about. Would that we humans could do what the next verses describe: that God would be acknowledged and worshipped throughout the entire world:
To know on the earth Your way,
among all the nations Your rescue. (3)

These  are the two key elements of worship: that we acknowledge God as our Creator and that God is the loving source of redemption and salvation for all humankind. If only all would follow “Your way” they would all enjoy “Your rescue.”

The next verses describe earth and humankind as they would have been in God’s original created order, a world-wide Eden, if you will, because God remains at the center of human existence:
Nations acclaim You, O God,
all peoples acclaim You.
Nations rejoice in glad song,
For You rule peoples rightly,
and actions on earth You lead. (4,5).

Alas, we sinful humans decided to make ourselves the center of the universe, and the resultant mess we have made of creation, of society, and of relationships is woeful evidence of how disordered our sinful self-centeredness is.

I’m reminded of the throne room scene in Revelation as people gather for worship:
Nations acclaim You, O God,
all peoples acclaim You. (6)

We all would pray for the eventual end of history and the restoration of God’s created order, where love reigns supreme.

The psalm ends on an almost wistful note that despite the ruin we have inflicted on ourselves and on all creation, that the psalmist—and all peoples—seek God’s blessing again and again:
The earth gives its yield.
May God our God bless us.
May God bless us
and all the ends of the earth fear Him. (7, 8)

Proverbs 13: As we read this catalog of sayings, it’s once again easy to see that human nature has not changed one whit in the millennia since these aphorisms were written down (and doubtless existed as oral sayings for hundreds of years before that.) Each verse is a study in opposition as righteous and the wicked are set against each other through the entire chapter, beginning with childhood:
A wise child loves discipline,
but a scoffer does not listen to rebuke. (1)

And then to all of us adults…
The righteous hate falsehood,
 but the wicked act shamefully and disgracefully. (5).

So many of these verses resonate strongly in our culture:
Some pretend to be rich, yet have nothing;
 others pretend to be poor, yet have great wealth. (7)

…which seems especially apropos in American culture awash in shows of wealth where none exists. 

Of course it is the penultimate verse of this chapter that is the most widely known in popular culture:
Those who spare the rod hate their children,
 but those who love them are diligent to discipline them. (24)

Our culture has conflated the “rod” with child abuse and there is no doubt that some parents are guilty of that. But that is not really the focus of the verse. We say “spare the rod, spoil the child,” but the real theme is love and its relation to discipline. The absence of discipline is a form of hate—that the parent does not value its child enough to set it on a straight path. There is nothing whatsoever wrong with discipline lovingly applied, and the evidence of its absence surrounds us.

One of the great ironies of modern culture is that where parental discipline is absent, the child will seek it out itself: the gang culture and even prison culture are perfect examples of perverted discipline. I do not know of any single person who has gone through military basic training who has regretted the lessons learned there. Yes, discipline is tough and it is not fun, but the consequences of not understanding boundaries and good order are severe—both for the individual and for society.

1 Corinthians 15:42–58: I’m pretty sure Paul’s words here have resulted in more misinterpretation than just about anything else he wrote. It has become the primary source of the idea of the Rapture occurring near the end of history, where all good Christians will be raised to heave, while non-christians are (as the eponymous book tiles have it) left behind: “For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.” (52). But in its context, I think Paul is attempting to describe the indescribable (and I personally think history would have been better off had he not tried!).

The question from Corinth that he has obviously held off answering until the very end of his letter is what happens to our bodies when we die. And it is the nature of this resurrection body upon which Paul speculates. Paul tries out a couple of explanations.

First, he sets up oppositions (sort of like Proverbs!) between our bodies that are and those that will be: perishable/imperishable; dishonor/honor; weakness/power. And then: physical/ spiritual. On which he elaborates by juxtaposing earth and heaven: “the first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man [Jesus Christ] is from heaven.” (47) as he asserts, “Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven.” (48)

But Paul knows this explanation probably will not satisfy his audience, so he takes a different explanatory tack, at least admitting it’s a mystery in his famous verse: “We will not all die, but we will all be changed. in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. (51, 52)

Unfortunately, far too many people have left out the “mystery” part and boldly concluded that something they call the Rapture is prophetic fact. Even to the absurd point of predicting when it will happen—only to be proven wrong again and again—furthering our culture’s rejection of Christianity as mere silliness.

In the end, all Paul can really say is that “this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality.” (53). And he leaves it at that. As should we.

Rather than focusing on exactly what our bodies will become, Paul tells us to not fear death, quoting Isaiah: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” (54). Which is where I think we should leave the mystery of what happens when we die and cease trying to assert we know exactly what will happen at the end of history.

 

Psalm 66:16–20; Proverbs 12; 1 Corinthians 15:29–41

Originally published 5/19/2017. Revised and updated 5/18/2019.

Psalm 66:16–20: This final stanza is the poet’s personal testimony to other all those around him about how he called to God aloud:
Come listen and let me recount,
all you who fear God,
what He did for me.
To Him with my mouth I called out,
exaltation on my tongue. (16, 17)

He adds the essential detail that our hearts need to be pure when we call on God. We cannot come to God with hidden agendas:
Had I seen mischief in my heart,
the Master would not have listened. (18)

This is wise advice. Too often, I have prayed to understand what God would have me do or say in a given situation, while all the time having exactly what I plan to do or say already firmly in my mind. Calling on God with a preconceived outcome then just becomes a hypocritical cover story. In short, pretending before God gets us nowhere. Nor can we then blame God for not listening.

As for our poet, who has come to God with a pure heart, he’s quite happy because:
God indeed has listened,
Hearkened to the sound of my prayer. (19)

And when we know God has heard our honest entreaties, we can certainly say with the psalmist:
Blessed is God
Who has not turned away my prayer nor His kindness from me.” (20)

These verses present two challenges: The first is to pray without an agenda about the outcome. God may have something quite different in mind than what we think should happen. The second is being able to discern that God has indeed heard us. And this happens only when we pray with an open, pure, and sincere heart.

Proverbs 12: No surprise here. The seemingly endless list of aphorisms in apparently random order continues apace. We cannot chide the author for dancing around the issues. Living in our own era where people ignore elephants in the room, his bluntness is really quite refreshing. Some highlights that resonated with me follow.

The opening statement sets the tone for the chapter:
Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge,
    but whoever hates correction is stupid. (1)

The many times that have I resented being corrected (usually by Susan) is proof of my stupidity.

No chapter in this book would be complete without some references to the power and danger of speech (and Facebook posts and tweets):
The words of the wicked lie in wait for blood,
    but the speech of the upright rescues them. (6)
and
The Lord detests lying lips,
    but he delights in people who are trustworthy. (22)

Those who love animals are more likely to re righteous among others:
The righteous care for the needs of their animals,
    but the kindest acts of the wicked are cruel. (10)

Promises made by the righteous are followed by corresponding deeds:
From the fruit of their lips people are filled with good things,
    and the work of their hands brings them reward. (14)

Some of these aphorisms are statements of the obvious and have low information content:
An honest witness tells the truth,
    but a false witness tells lies. (17)

And some statements just seem overly optimistic to me. Would that life were this simple:
No harm overtakes the righteous,
    but the wicked have their fill of trouble.” (21)

The righteous may overcome in the very long run, but it sure seems like the wicked have the upper hand more of the time.

While the truth of some statements seems obvious, they bear repeating as constant reminders. There are two that strike me in particular:
Anxiety weighs down the heart,
but a kind word cheers it up. (25)
and
The righteous choose their friends carefully,
but the way of the wicked leads them astray.

The chapter concludes on a higher level of abstraction with a general truth that while not theologically correct for us (our immortality comes through faith in Jesus Christ), they nevertheless bear repeating:
In the way of righteousness there is life;
    along that path is immortality. (28)

Or as I might prefer to put it, “a life lived following a path of righteousness is the fuller, richer life.”

We may snicker at these endless couplets, but their intrinsic truth cannot be ignored. They are also a reminder that human nature is the great constant and not subject to evolutionary improvement absent Jesus’ salvific power. We face the same challenges and issues today as those who lived in Solomon’s time. Which is why we would do well to read Proverbs in the first place.

1 Corinthians 15:29–41: Just when I thought Paul couldn’t get any denser… Paul asks rhetorically, “Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them?” (29) I have no idea what he’s really getting at here. This is one of those places where I wish we had the original letter from Corinth so we could see exactly what question Paul is answering. I believe this verse may also provide some justification to Mormons who baptize their dead relatives.

However, Paul is clear that our life must depend on much more than our own self-centered hopes and actions, which are expressed neatly in the saying from Isaiah 22 that he quotes here:
If the dead are not raised, [then all we can say is]:

“Let us eat and drink,
    for tomorrow we die.” (32)

With Paul we know that we want to live a life more meaningful than an endless frat party. But one of the great social tragedies of our age is how many lives are wasted by an obsession with having a good time in the here and now rather than giving thought to the future.

We can sense Paul’s overall frustration with the Corinthians when he simply tells them, “Come back to your senses as you ought, and stop sinning; for there are some who are ignorant of God—I say this to your shame.” (33)

Like too many movies I seen where I think it should have ended earlier than it does, so too here with Paul, who now takes up the question about the nature of our resurrected bodies: “But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” (35)

I think I can discern two points Paul is making here. The first one is that in order to receive a resurrected body, we must die first—just like every other creature that God has created: “How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies.” (36) That makes sense and as mathematicians might assert, that is the trivial case. 

Paul’s second point is that our resurrected body will be different than our mortal body. But he does not describe the exact difference but rather employs a logical example: “Not all flesh is the same: People have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another.” (39)

To emphasize his point about this crucial difference, Paul contrasts earthly bodies and  heavenly bodies: “the splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another.” (40) I think he’s telling us that while we’re here alive on earth, our existing body has its own kind of splendor. He uses another example to prove his point that God has created slender of many different kinds: “There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; indeed, star differs from star in glory.” (41)

So don’t denigrate our current physical bodies. Treat them well. Our resurrected bodies will also possess splendor, but it will be a splendor of a different kind.

Which is where I think we ought to leave it…

 

 

Psalm 66:8–15; Proverbs 11; 1 Corinthians 15:17–28

 Originally published 5/18/2017. Revised and updated 5/17/2019.

Psalm 66:8–15: This middle stanza is a fervent prayer combining thanksgiving and supplication, as it recounts God’s former interventions with Israel. It begins conventionally with a call to worship and a reminder of how God has kept the psalmist (if not all of Israel) on a straight path:
Bless, O peoples, our God,
and make heard the sound of His praise,
Who has kept us in life,
and let not our foot stumble. (8, 9)

Our psalmist then recalls from history how God has kept them on that straight path via various trials and tribulations he sent their way:
For You tested us, God,
You refined us as silver refined.
You trapped us in a net,
placed heavy cords around our loins.
You let people ride over us. (10-12a)

This is a good reminder that life is never smooth and easy—even for people of faith. New Christians, who believe they’re suddenly entitled to a “free pass” from obstacles and tough times, are simply deluding themselves. In fact, in this post-Christian world we now find ourselves in, living an honest Christian life may even be tougher than for those who have no faith at all.

But without fail God always brings us to the other side of tribulation—and in that promise lies our great hope:
We came into fire and water—
and You brought us out to great ease. (12b)

The psalm’s point of  view suddenly shifts from third to first person as our psalmist describes how he will fulfill his promise to thank God at the temple for bringing him through all the trials he has endured:
I shall come to Your house with burnt-offerings
I shall pay to You my vows
that my lips uttered,
that my mouth spoke in my straits. (13, 14)

The question here is, do I remember to pray a prayer of thanksgiving when God has carried me through tough times—which since I’m sitting here writing this morning, he most assuredly has?

Proverbs 11: Well, our author, speaking in Solomon’s voice, certainly has no shortage of practical tips to live by. Each tip in this chapter has exactly the same two-line structure. The first line is a proposition; the second is a contrasting truth. Some propositions are positive, others are in the negative. Unfortunately, the verses seem to written in no discernible order. For example, the first verse is about how God is pleased when the merchant uses accurate weights. The verse that follows is a philosophical statement—and actually, one of my favorites:
When pride comes, then comes disgrace;
    but wisdom is with the humble. (2)

While the wicked will inevitably receive their just desserts:
The integrity of the upright guides them,
    but the crookedness of the treacherous destroys them. (3)

And a few verses later, the same idea:
Be assured, the wicked will not go unpunished,
    but those who are righteous will escape.” (21)

Pride is the beginning of downfall—or as my dad always said, “the chickens always come home to roost.”

Other sayings in the chapter have become cliches because cliches are based on fundamental—even obvious—truths about human nature. But that does make them any less useful to review. Examples:
The righteous are delivered from trouble,
    and the wicked get into it instead.” (8)

and…

When it goes well with the righteous, the city rejoices;
    and when the wicked perish, there is jubilation.” (10)

As we might expect, the issue of the consequences of speech (and today, Facebook posts and tweets) is front and center. And unfortunately, is on full display in the White House:
Whoever belittles another lacks sense,
    but an intelligent person remains silent.
A gossip goes about telling secrets,
    but one who is trustworthy in spirit keeps a confidence.  (12, 13)

And he reminds us of the sweet fruits of generosity. (These are good verses for a stewardship sermon…):
Some give freely, yet grow all the richer;
    others withhold what is due, and only suffer want.
A generous person will be enriched,
    and one who gives water will get water. (24, 25)

Our author’s penultimate aphorism states  a general truth that is certainly appropriate to our time:
The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life,
    but violence takes lives away. (30)

But alas, our world seems steeped in violence and we too often await justice delayed. One only hopes the final verse of this chapter proves true sooner rather than later:
If the righteous are repaid on earth,
    how much more the wicked and the sinner! (31)

1 Corinthians 15:17–28: Paul’s essay on the resurrection of the dead begins clearly enough. Jesus’ resurrection is essential to our salvation: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” (17)

Christ’s resurrection is the “first fruits,” i.e., the very first time in history that a human was resurrected with a new, glorified body that resembles, but is not the same as, our own bodies. Christ is the “first fruit” example  of the resurrection that awaits all of us at the end of history, whether we are dead or alive. Paul is at his logical best: Just as Adam’s original sin is responsible for our mortality, Christ’s resurrection is responsible for our immortality: “for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.” (22) Christ’s resurrection came first, and then Paul tells us that this same resurrection into new bodies will happen “at his [second] coming those who belong to Christ.” (23)

This would have been a good place for Paul to stop. But Paul, being Paul, goes on to talk about the end of history and what happens—causing these verses to become the subject of numerous books and sermons that purport to understand exactly what Paul is describing. It’s all pretty murky to me.

For example, what does Paul mean by “Then comes the end, when he [Christ] hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he [Christ] has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power.” (24)  Perhaps he is referring to Christ’s millennial reign that is described in more detail in the book of Revelation. Or perhaps, Paul was convinced that Christ was returning in his own lifetime and would overthrow the Roman government. However, upon reflection, this latter idea would be the kind of treasonous thinking that Paul went to great pains to avoid elsewhere.  One statement is clear, though: “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” (26) Which presumably occurs at the end of history.

But then I think Paul complicates things by trying to explain that Christ is subject to God when he quotes Scripture, “For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” (27a) Which the requires him to point out that Christ isn’t actually included in the “all things:” “it is plain that this does not include the one who put all things in subjection under him.” (27b) I think the opening verses of John’s gospel are clearer on this matter. However, we need to remember that Paul wrote several decades before the author of the gospel did.

His conclusion, such as it is, simply says that in the end, Christ will step down and God will  be in charge of all things when history ends. Which, when I think about the Trinity, where God and Christ and the Holy Spirit are mysteriously conjoined, causes my head to explode.

Psalm 66:1–7 Proverbs 9:7–10:32; 1 Corinthians 15:3–16

 Originally published 5/17/2017. Revised and updated 5/16/2019.

Psalm 66:1–7: One thing we can say about thanksgiving psalms is that they are not quietly introspective. There are no suggestions for silent meditation or quiet prayer. Rather, our psalmist commands, “Shout out to God.” It’s all about worshipping God in an attitude of fulsome joy:
Hymn His name’s glory.
Make His praise glory.
Say to God, ‘How awesome Your deeds.
Before Your great strength Your enemies quail. (2,3)

Nor is worship confined to the Jews alone or to a single location. The joy that God brings overflows to all creation and all people—and that includes us as well:
All the earth bows down to You,
and they hymn to You, hymn Your name. (4)

Admittedly, there’s some poetic hyperbole here. I believe that all the earth—or at least all humans—will bow down to God only at the end of history. But this verse is indicative of the sheer joy that real worship can bring to us. The question of course is when has worship brought those same feelings of untrammeled joy to me? I can think of a few occasions, but they have generally been rare.

Our poet provides a sound reason for this joyful worship in the next verse:
Come and see the acts of God,
awesome in works over humankind. (5)

The lesson here is that while there seems to be unchecked evil running over the earth, there is also ample evidence that God is still very much in charge of his creation—and of we humans.  The uncounted acts of kindness that people do for others may not make the evening news, but if people were indifferent to God’s goodness the world would be a far harsher, far more evil place.

Our poet recalls how the escape from Egypt and crossing the Jordan river into the promised land—compressed here into a single verse—was a stunning example of God’s intervening goodness:
He turned the sea into dry land,
the torrent they crossed on foot.
There we rejoiced in Him. (6)

This stanza ends with a reminder that God is fully in charge and is well aware of the evil that humans do:
He rules in His might forever.
His eyes probe the nations.
Let the wayward not rise up. (7)

So when we lose hope that humans have irrevocably mucked things up or that evil abounds, this psalm is a healthy reminder of who is really in charge of creation.

Proverbs 9:7–10:32: The speech by wisdom has ended and our author turns to a compilation of what the NRSV heads as “General Maxims.” Nevertheless, the benefits of wisdom are still very much on our author’s mind as he reminds us of its ongoing impact on our lives. In short, we must never stop learning if we follow God:
Give instruction  to the wise, and they will become wiser still;
    teach the righteous and they will gain in learning.” (9:11)

Once again we detect the author’s latent misogyny. Earlier, it was the adulteress who led men astray. Here, folly is female:
The foolish woman is loud;
    she is ignorant and knows nothing.

“You who are simple, turn in here!”
    And to those without sense she says,
 “Stolen water is sweet,
    and bread eaten in secret is pleasant.” 
 (9:13, 16-17)

Regardless of its gender, heedless folly inevitably brings on a grim fate:
But they do not know that the dead are there,
    that her guests are in the depths of Sheol. (9:14)

In the next chapter our author provides a compilation of Solomonic sayings. While I doubt that Solomon was the actual author, there’s no reason to doubt that many of them did indeed emanate from Solomon himself. Children are at the top of Solomon’s list:
A wise child makes a glad father,
    but a foolish child is a mother’s grief. (10:1) 

(Notice that once again, folly is associated with the female.)

The sayings continue, beginning with the contrast between ill-gotten wealth and the fruits of following God:
Treasures gained by wickedness do not profit,
    but righteousness delivers from death. (10:2)

…and a reminder that hard work is required to achieve anything worthwhile:
A slack hand causes poverty,
    but the hand of the diligent makes rich. (10:4)

There are so many aphorisms in this chapter that we can only highlight a few. But they all pretty much remain as true today as they were several millennia ago. Their inherent truth is a stark reminder that human nature and behavior has not evolved one whit since Solomon’s time. The contrast of the consequences of love as over against hatred is stark:
Hatred stirs up strife,
    but love covers all offenses. (10:12)

Another saying applies all too well to current events in Washington DC and the curse of the Age of Twitter:
When words are many, transgression is not lacking,
    but the prudent are restrained in speech. (10:19)

But there’s also a happy reminder that for evildoers the chickens eventually come home to roost:
The fear of the Lord prolongs life,
    but the years of the wicked will be short.
The hope of the righteous ends in gladness,
    but the expectation of the wicked comes to nothing.” (10:27, 28)

Although I confess that in the short term it too often seems like the wicked and the stupid seem to be winning the race. But at least we can take some comfort in these verses that remind us about the long run where righteousness eventually triumphs.

1 Corinthians 15:3–16: Before he launches into the theological complexity of the resurrection of the dead, Paul summarizes the core message of the Good News in what surely must have been front and center with the people who wrote the Nialways cean and Apostle’s Creeds. Paul reminds the Corinthians of his own bona fides as a first-hand witness to the historical actuality of Christ’s resurrection: “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures  and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.  Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” (4-8)

Paul also provides an excellent template for how we are to live as Christians. We have been saved by grace, but that same free gift should always induce us to work hard for the cause of Christ: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” (10) (Paul was certainly no shrinking violet when he asserts “I worked harder than any of them”…)

Having firmly established that he is fully competent to speak on behalf of Christ, Paul launches into an explanation that Christ’s resurrection is a “foretaste of the feast to come” for every believer: “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.” (13, 14) To underscore his point, Paul repeats himself: “For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised.” (16)

Even though it’s a part of the Apostle’s Creed, I confess to having difficulty with the whole idea of the resurrection of the dead. This concept may have seemed perfectly clear to Paul as he writes just a few years after Christ’s own resurrection.  As we’ve observed elsewhere, Paul firmly believed he and his contemporaries were living near the end of history and the Christ’s return was imminent, even during their own lifetimes.

But now some two millennia later this becomes a more difficult idea to accept at face value. My own feeling is that the whole theology of the resurrection of the dead is attempting to describe an event that regardless of Paul’s and others’ efforts at explanation is God’s territory and remains beyond human comprehension.

 

Psalm 65:9b–14; Proverbs 8:1–9:6; 1 Corinthians 14:36–15:2

 Originally published 5/16/2017. Revised and updated 5/15/2019.

Psalm 65:9b–14: Our psalmist turns his attention to how God’s creative power provides water, which in turn provides natural abundance to the benefit of humankind:
The portals of morning and evening You gladden.
You pay mind to the earth and soak it.
You greatly enrich it.
God’s stream filled with water.
You ready their grain, for so You ready it. (9b-10)

The importance of water, which was the most precious resource of all in semi-arid Israel, intensifies as our poet describes its beneficial effects on the landscape, including farms. We can almost feel the rain and mist over the land in a rich poetic cascade:
Quench the thirst of the furrows, smooth out its hillocks,
melt it with showers, its growth You will bless.
You crown Your bountiful year,
Your pathways drip with ripeness.
The wilderness meadows do drip,
and with joy the hills are girded. (11-13)

The concluding verse describes a pastoral scene that truly brings joy to the mind’s eye as we fully comprehend the almost startling idea of pastures and valleys themselves breaking out in song:
The pastures are clothed with flocks
and the valleys clothed with grain.
they shout for joy, they even sing. (14)

This psalm is a marvelous evocation of God’s beneficence in the creation he has given to us and that he sustains for us. The water image is a reminder of our own baptism. Truly, water is the source of all life and we squander its riches by pollution and waste at our peril.

Proverbs 8:1–9:6: In what I think is a stroke of creative genius, our author moves from describing the benefits of wisdom to writing in wisdom’s own voice. We may be inclined to ignore fatherly advice about wisdom, but we cannot ignore the words of wisdom itself. This is a chapter that every leader in Washington DC could benefit by reading and then applying its many virtues:
To you, O people, I call,
    and my cry is to all that live.
O simple ones, learn prudence;
    acquire intelligence, you who lack it. (8:4,5)

Would that these “simple ones” learn prudence and acquire intelligence—both qualities in awfully short supply these days in America—at least in the America of media and politicians. There is little question that in our culture of acquisitiveness and power-seeking the fundamental truth is that “wisdom is better than jewels,/ and all that you may desire cannot compare with her.” (8:11)

Wisdom is much more than knowledge. As our author reminds us, prudence and discretion are its essential hallmarks:
I, wisdom, live with prudence,
    and I attain knowledge and discretion. (8:12)

Contrast those qualities with what wisdom is not—and is on far greater public display in this era of Facebook and especially, Twitter:
Pride and arrogance and the way of evil
    and perverted speech I hate. (8:13)

Unsurprisingly, our author asserts that the people who would benefit most from following a path of wisdom are our leaders. One supposes that he wrote in a time of poor leadership in Israel, but the lines wisdom speaks here in the first person seem even more germane today in its complete absence from those who claim to lead us:
By me kings reign,
    and rulers decree what is just;
by me rulers rule,
    and nobles, all who govern rightly.
I love those who love me,
    and those who seek me diligently find me. (8:15-17)

And we must never forget that wisdom is at the foundation of justice:
I walk in the way of righteousness,
    along the paths of justice. (8:20)

I agree with our author. Wisdom is no evolutionary accident that humans stumbled upon. Rather, it is a God-created gift:
The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,
    the first of his acts of long ago.
Ages ago I was set up,
    at the first, before the beginning of the earth. (8:22-23)

In fact wisdom—God’s wisdom—existed before Creation itself:
When there were no depths I was brought forth,
    when there were no springs abounding with water.
Before the mountains had been shaped,
    before the hills, I was brought forth—

When he established the heavens, I was there. (8:24-27)

Moreover, Wisdom exists at the foundation of God’s own joy at what he has created, especially us humans:
and I was daily his delight,
    rejoicing before him always,
rejoicing in his inhabited world
    and delighting in the human race. (8:30, 31)

This chapter concludes with a bold promise:
For whoever finds me finds life
    and obtains favor from the Lord; (8:35)

If one were curious about the source of the title of T.E. Lawrence’s autobiography, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, it is right here:
Wisdom has built her house,
    she has hewn her seven pillars. (9:1)

But the more crucial statement in this passage applies to all human behavior. Wisdom is a gift to be unwrapped. Would that more of us do what wisdom asks of us as her speech concludes:
Lay aside immaturity,  and live,
    and walk in the way of insight. (9:6)

So, the question hangs in the air: Where have all the wise and mature people in our political infrastructure gone? Or even in our own churches?

1 Corinthians 14:36–15:2: Paul writes that whether the spiritual gift is glossolalia or prophecy, or we presume, other spiritual gifts, it must be grounded in God—and given the Proverbs passage above, I would dare say, wisdom—not in our own ego: “Anyone who claims to be a prophet, or to have spiritual powers, must acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord.” (14:37) Above all, Paul insists, “all things should be done decently and in order.” (14:40) Untrammeled , disorganized, unserious worship is anathema to Paul—and I’m happy to say, at least to most Lutherans.

We now arrive at one of the most complicated and controversial chapters in this letter—and perhaps in the entire New Testament. It’s easy to see why Paul writes about this as the last subject in 1 Corinthians. He opens this essay with a reminder that whatever is to come at the end of time, it’s essential that we who have faith “hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain.” (15:2) For what Paul is about to talk about can be understood only in a framework grounded in faith.

…And the Moravians will reveal what this is all about over the next few days’ readings.