Psalm 57:7–11; Job 39; 1 Corinthians 10:11–22

Psalm 57:7–11: The psalmist uses two powerful images of physical entrapment–the net and the pit–to describe his enemies machinations against him: “A net they set for my steps,/…they dug before me a pit.” (7). Even when we may not necessarily have actual enemies pursuing and trying to trap us, the image certainly evokes feelings of being trapped by circumstances.

We hear the psalmist’s feeling satisfied justice at the next line when “they themselves fell into it” (the pit, that is.) Which is true for many conspiracies. In the end, truth will out and the plotting collapses in on itself.

Having been rescued from the pit, the psalmist turns to praise: “Let me sing and hymn.” (8) In fact his joy is so great that he wants others playing instruments to join him: “Awake, O lyre,/ Awake, O lute and lyre.” Rescue brings true joy: “I would waken the dawn.” (9) And all for one overwhelming reason: “For Your kindness is great to the heavens/ and to the skies Your steadfast truth.” (11)

The challenge for us is do we even really realize how many times God has saved us from the net and the pit. If we reflected more on how we’ve been rescued, I suspect we would experience much the same joy as the psalmist does in these concluding verses.

Job 39: God’s voice out of the whirlwind continues, turning to the miracle of animal life with an amazingly comprehensive bestiary, all focused on what God is able to do in the animal kingdom–and by implication what man cannot. The opening verses begin with birth and youth:

2Can you number the months that they fulfill,
    and do you know the time when they give birth,
when they crouch to give birth to their offspring,
    and are delivered of their young?

The inventory is extensive: the wild ass, the wild ox, an ostrich, the horse, the hawk. All of them have skills and abilities–and weaknesses (“God has made it forget wisdom,/ and given it no share in understanding.”) that are beyond the ken and wisdom of mankind.

God is making it very clear just who is in charge of creation.

1 Corinthians 10:11–22: Paul continues his disquisition on the issues surround idols and what does or does not constitute worshipping idols. Here, he turns to the issue of the Eucharist and the danger of conflating libations made to an idol with partaking of the body and blood of Christ. If we partake of the cup of blessing, “is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ?” (16) Therefore, we can do one or the other, but not both. The reason is simple: “I imply that what pagans sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be partners with demons.” (20). Paul is at his logical best: “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.”

The challenge here, of course, is what kinds of choices do we make? Do go places and do things that has us consorting with demons–or as I’ll take it here, evil. This is certainly a prohibition against witchcraft and tampering with dimensions that are beyond the four we inhabit.

I also think this section is also one of the roots of the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. The language can certainly be taken at the either the literal or metaphorical level: “ The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?” (16).  I’m generally in the metaphorical camp, but there’s no question that the sacrament of communion is far more than metaphor and much more than just “in remembrance of me.”

 

Psalm 57:1–6; Job 38; 1 Corinthians 10:1–10

Psalm 57:1–6: The superscription of this psalm is dedicated to David “when he fled from Saul in the cave.” The cave as hiding place is reflected in the first verse as David speaks, “Grant me grace, God, grant me grace,/ for in You I have taken shelter.” The psalmist doubles down on the idea of shelter with the imagery of David as a small bird (Alter informs us this is a common theme in Psalms): “…and in Your wings’ shadow do I shelter/ until disasters pass.” (2)

The remainder of this section reflects the assurance that Go brings when we shelter “under his wings.” First, “He will send from the heavens and rescue me” (4) But not only rescue. With rescue, “God will send his steadfast kindness.” (4b).  God’s rescue and kindness creates courage such that “I lie down among lions/ that pant for human beings./ Their fangs are spear and arrows,/ their tongue a sharpened sword.” (5)

These metaphorical lions are clearly an image of Saul’s pursuing army (“spear and arrows”) as well as the evil things that Saul has said about David, (“Their tongue a sharpened sword”). But God’s kindness trumps all of these perils. And God brings not just rescue, kindness and courage, but he turns the tables on David’s enemies: “A net they set for my steps/…they dug before me a pit–/ they themselves fell into it.” (7)

I think it’s significant that it is David’s enemies own deeds–the pit they’ve dug–that becomes a trap for them. David did not have to do anything beyond praying for rescue; it was all God’s doing. This is something to remember in the ongoing culture wars when Christians feel oppressed and want to lash back out at their enemies. Eventually, the pit that enemies dig in order to capture us becomes their own undoing. The lesson is clear: God will take care of it. We are to pray for rescue and God will deliver his kindness. And be patient.

Job 38: God finally speaks “out of the whirlwind” in one of the most brilliant and powerful pieces of poetry ever written.

The author is specific: “God speaks to Job,” so we don;t know if his companions hear God’s speech or not. I suspect it was not unlike Paul’s Damascus road experience, where only he heard Jesus.

God opens with an accusation: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” and tells Job “Gird up your loins like a man.” Job will need all the courage he can muster because Job is standing in the dock as a witness in God’s courtroom: “ I will question you, and you shall declare to me.” (3)

God’s opening argument is that Job is the creature not the Creator: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?/ Tell me, if you have understanding.” (4) There is sarcasm: “Who determined its measurements—surely you know!” (5) God asks question after question to the silent Job as he describes this activities in creation: “Or who shut in the sea with doors,” (8); “Have you commanded the morning since your days began,” (12); “Have the gates of death been revealed to you,/ or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?” (17). God’s question range from earth into the heavens: “Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades,/ or loose the cords of Orion?” (31)

For me, the key question is, “Who has put wisdom in the inward parts,or given understanding to the mind?” (36). In today’s materialist world, the belief is that humankind is an evolutionary happenstance; that our minds have evolved into a sufficiently large collection of neurons to allow us to pose the questions. But in the end, the materialist can only conclude, “Nothing. It’s all a happy coincidence.”

In reflecting on these verses we may know about the physical mechanisms that operate within nature, but in a world that has excluded God, we cannot answer the biggest question of all: Why are we here anyway? Will God speak to us out of the whirlwind?

1 Corinthians 10:1–10: Paul turns to Israel’s own history as he addresses, I assume, the Jewish Christians at Corinth.  In a remarkable interpretation of the water emanating from the rock in the wilderness, he turns it into a metaphor, “For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.” (4). But even having drunk from the Rock that is Christ, many of them still turned to evil and “God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness.” (5)

Just to make sure his listeners get the point, Paul amplifies, “these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did.” (6). This is a strong warning indeed. Referring specifically to the accusations that others have made, Paul cautions, “Do not become idolaters as some of them did,” (7) and “We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day.”

Idolatry and immorality are the bane of our present culture–as they have been through history. We have set ourselves up as our own idols and worship the creation of our hands, which today are certainly the products and services of technology. Like the Corinthians, we constantly put Christ to the test. Will idolatry and immorality within the church–often expressed in seemingly benign ways such as self-centeredness and a “I know it all attitude” (especially by leadership) bring the serpents of destruction upon us?

Paul’s warning still stands: do not play at church without transforming your behavior. Do not put Christ to the test. Alas, something we seem to do skillfully and with indifference to the consequences.

Psalm 56:9–13; Job 36:27–37:24; 1 Corinthians 9:12b–27

Psalm 56:9–13: Our psalmist moves from supplication to praise in the assurance that “Then shall my enemies turn back on the day I call/ This I know that God is for me.” (10) For me, there is real resonance in both language and meaning in the simple phrase of monosyllabic words, “This I know, that God is for me.” Surely, this verse was in Paul’s mind when he posed his rhetorical question in Romans 8:31: “If God is for us, who is against us?”

From assurance again there is logical movement to praise as he repeats the refrain of verse 5: “In God, Whose word I praise,/ in the Lord Whose word I praise,” And from praise again to trust that banishes fear: “In God I trust, I shall not fear.” (12)

And if God is for us, the psalmist asks, “What can man do to me?” (13) Surely there are Christian martyrs down through the ages to these very days that have uttered this psalm as they died for Jesus Christ.

Finally, gratitude piled upon upon gratitude: “For You saved me from death,/ yes my foot from slipping,/ to walk in God’s presence/ in the light of life.” We can ask–and be granted–nothing greater than this. And for us, all this through the salvific power of Jesus Christ.

Job 36:27–37:24: Elihu reflects on the unfathomable power of God: “Can anyone understand the spreading of the clouds,/ the thunderings of his pavilion?” (36:29) But then he conflates nature’s power with Go’d anger at sin: “Its crashing tells about him;/ he is jealous with anger against iniquity.” (33). That God expresses his anger through nature is a widespread belief even today when we ask questions like, “Why did God do this?”

Elihu’s theology may be suspect but there’s no question there’s real power in his poetry as he describes God’s speech in the thunder and his power in lightning:

“At this also my heart trembles,
    and leaps out of its place.
Listen, listen to the thunder of his voice
    and the rumbling that comes from his mouth.
Under the whole heaven he lets it loose,
    and his lightning to the corners of the earth.” (37:1-3)

For Elihu, God is actively at work in nature, be it snow (6), wind (9), ice (10), clouds (11). And whatever God does, it is completely bound to his emotion and judgement: “Whether for correction, or for his land,/ or for love, he causes it to happen.” (13) Of course the psalms are packed with verses describing how God speaks and acts through nature and Paul certainly picks up that theme at Romans 1:20: “ Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.”

So, Elihu tells Job, “ stop and consider the wondrous works of God.” (14) God is inscrutable and unknowable: “The Almighty—we cannot find him;/ he is great in power and justice,” (23). So, Elihu advises Job that our role as creatures is to fear God, not to try to figure God out: “Therefore mortals fear him;/he does not regard any who are wise in their own conceit.” (24). And Elihu certainly has a point. But that does not stop Job–and us–from trying.

1 Corinthians 9:12b–27: Paul continues his discourse n the appropriateness of being paid for his services, arguing that “those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in what is sacrificed on the altar.” (13) But he points out, (somewhat defensively, IMHO), that “I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing this so that they may be applied in my case,” (15)  suggesting that the psychic and spiritual reward of preaching the Gospel is preferable to mere remuneration: “What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.” (18)

Then he reveals his preaching strategy: to identify with the group to whom he is ministering: “To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews.” (20a) And to Gentiles, “outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law.” (21) In short, “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.” (22). And he does “it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.” (23)

So what are we as lay people to make of this? The issue for us in not being paid, but of identifying with the group to whom we are ministering, in effect becoming one of them. The tragedy of 19th century missionary efforts is that the white men (and they were almost all white men) came in to Africa with a sense of cultural superiority, that Western mores and ways were better. Paul’s sense of identifying and being was ignored.

So, we come to the homeless and the ill and dying with humility not with “fixes.” For it is only in an honest one-to-one relationship that the Gospel will shine through us, not from us. That is how Paul shared its blessings–and so should we.

Psalm 56:1–8; Job 36:1–26; 1 Corinthians 9:1–12a

Psalm 56:1–8: The psalmist attributes (or dedicates) the psalm to David “when the Philistines seized him in Gath,” so we know this will be a psalm of supplication. Which is immediately clear in the first line, “Grant me grace, O God,/ for a man tramples me/ all day long the assailant does press me.” (2) The verb set trample/ assail is repeated immediately in the next verse, “My attackers trample me all day long, for many assail me.”

‘Trample’ and ‘assail’ are highly physical words, so it’s not unreasonable to assume that David is being assaulted not only verbally and psychologically, but that me is undergoing physical distress, as well. Thus, these verses are a highly appropriate prayer for some one experiencing physical illness or recovering from serious injury.

There’s an important lesson for those of us who would feel sorry for ourselves here. The psalmist does not linger on his woes, turning immediately to the solid rock of his faith in God with a very neat envelope structure of ‘praise’ being surrounded on both sides by fear and trust: “When I fear, I trust in You,/ in God, Whose word I praise, / in God I trust, I shall not fear.” (5) The meaning cannot be simpler–or more powerful: when we are in fearful circumstances, we recall our trust in God, which leads immediately to praise. And it is praise that again reminds us of our trust in God which in turn casts out fear. The image is that our ability and desire to praise God is cocooned in trust, which in turn wards off fear.

It is that security and trust that allows the psalmist–and us–to remember, “what can flesh do to me?” Be it ‘flesh’ in the sense of other people, or as I prefer it, our own flesh. This makes the prayer perfect for those with cancer, which is a disease of one’s own flesh rebelling against itself.

Job 36:1–26: Elihu continues his enormously long sermon, turning his attention away from Job, “multiplies words without knowledge.” (35:16) to one of the most complete and compelling descriptions of God’s qualities that we find in the bible, as he opens, “I have yet something to say on God’s behalf.” (2)

At first glance, his opening lines seem to be just a bit too self-aggrandizing: “For truly my words are not false;/ one who is perfect in knowledge is with you.” Really, Elihu? But if we reflect a moment, Elihu is claiming to be in a right relationship with God and then can essentially speak on God’s behalf. (Ironically, it was Job who was once in a right relationship with God–a relationship that was snatched away from him.)

One of Elihu’s key insights, I think, is that God operates through our conscience, which we then of our free will can choose to act on or ignore. First, those who are doing evil become aware of their sins via God, who “declares to them their work/ and their transgressions, that they are behaving arrogantly.” (9) And then, God strikes our conscience with a clear call to cease the sin: “He opens their ears to instruction,/and commands that they return from iniquity.” (10)

Then comes our choice (with the usual deuteronomic consequences):

11 If they listen, and serve him,
    they complete their days in prosperity,
    and their years in pleasantness.
12 But if they do not listen, they shall perish by the sword,
    and die without knowledge.

I can certainly agree, though, that if we ignore God’s often still small voice and choose not to listen, we are basically doomed to die without knowledge. Not just knowledge of God, but knowledge of the true qualities of our own being and of the larger universe that God has created.

I see disbelief in God as pure hubris; that people are working so hard on not believing in God that they miss the mystery and majesty of something and Someone much greater than themselves. A life of disbelief leads to death without, as Elihu says here, having gained true knowledge–a potential richness and meaning squandered in ignorance. When we are on our deathbeds, all that we have accomplished on our own turns to meaningless dust–and then there is nothing. Which to me is what hell is all about.

1 Corinthians 9:1–12a: Clearly, someone at Corinth has leveled against Paul that seems to transform him from confident leader to an unusual defensiveness: “Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not my work in the Lord? If I am not an apostle to others, at least I am to you; for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.” (1,2). Paul is up front: “This is my defense to those who would examine me.” (3)

And then we learn the backstory. It appears that Paul (and Barnabas) have been criticized for wanting to be paid for their services and associated expenses. He points out that other apostles and missionaries “have the right to food and drink,” including the fascinating fact that “the brothers of the Lord and Cephas (Peter)” were married. (5)  Every worker is paid for his (or her) services: “Who plants a vineyard and does not eat any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock and does not get any of its milk?” (7) So, Paul is arguing, why shouldn’t he and Barnabas be paid?

I’m guessing it was some of the Jewish Christians who were criticizing Paul because he appeals to Scripture: “ For it is written in the law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” (9) Which, as Paul explains, is not about oxen  but that “whoever plows should plow in hope and whoever threshes should thresh in hope of a share in the crop.” (10) And finally right to the point: “ If we have sown spiritual good among you, is it too much if we reap your material benefits?” (11)

The attitude at Corinth has certainly carried through to the present day where many churches (not all of them: I suspect Saint Matthew is an exception here) are overly parsimonious in what they pay their pastors,  assuming that the psychic rewards of ministry (irony intended) will somehow put food on the table.

Psalm 55:20–23; Job 34:29–35:16; 1 Corinthians 8

Psalm 55:20–23: Continuing to describe his enemy, our psalmist relates how be betrayed even his supposed friends: “He reached out his hand against his allies/ profaned his own pact.” (21). From our Christian perspective we think immediately of Judas, although the psalmist certainly wasn’t thinking about future events.

Once again, smooth beguiling speech is the means of betrayal: “His mouth was smoother than butter–/and battle in his heart./ His words were softer than oil,/ yet they were drawn swords.” (22) The metaphors of butter, oil juxtaposed against battles and swords perfectly describes a betrayer who seduces and then goes in for the kill. Although the psalmist certainly wasn’t thinking about it, the seduction of women by evil men using smooth talk certainly comes to mind here.

The poet presents his enemy (and us, I think) with a choice. We can retain our evil ways or we can “Cast [our] lot on the Lord,/ and He will support you./ He will never let the righteous stumble.” (23). We can decide for God, or we can be left to our grim fate, which the psalmist acknowledges that God (not he) “will bring them down/ to the pit of destruction.” (24a). These “men of bloodshed and deceit/ Will not finish half their days.” (24b) Unlike Job, the psalmist is confident that evil doers will get their just desserts in the end. Personally, I’m torn between Job and our psalmist.

Job 34:29–35:16: Elihu relentlessly continues his theological discourse and delivers perhaps the harshest condemnation against Job that we’ve encountered so far:

34 Those who have sense will say to me,
    and the wise who hear me will say,
35 ‘Job speaks without knowledge,
    his words are without insight.’
36 Would that Job were tried to the limit,
    because his answers are those of the wicked.
37 For he adds rebellion to his sin;
    he claps his hands among us,
    and multiplies his words against God.”

Elihu’s sermon continues on into the next chapter as he basically accuses Job of terminal self-righteousness; that shaking your fist at God is a pointless exercise: “If you have sinned, what do you accomplish against him?/ And if your transgressions are multiplied, what do you do to him?” (35:6). But along the way, Elihu makes an important point about human relationships: “Your wickedness affects others like you,/ and your righteousness, other human beings.” (35:8). 

But in the end, Elihu asserts that Job’s railing against God is pointless: “Job opens his mouth in empty talk,/ he multiplies words without knowledge.” (35:16) 

Really, Elihu? You say that Job has not been tried to the limit? That he’s just being rebellious against God? That his woes are just empty talk? This seems to be a classic case of preaching to someone in whose shoes we have never walked. Elihu has not gone through what Job has experienced; he is looking on from the sidelines.

I think about people who are sop much more skilled at philosophical discourse and giving advice rather than they are at listening. These are the people that are working so hard on what they’re going to say next that they’ve not even heard the person talking to them. Elihu has been silent through 31 chapters, but I’m left with the impression he hasn’t heard a word Job has said.

1 Corinthians 8: Paul takes up a social issue that on its surface is foreign to us: should Christians consume food offered to idols?  Speaking, I think, to mature Christians, Paul points out that ““no idol in the world really exists,” and that “there is no God but one” (4) so the question is basically moot.

But. “It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.” (7) In other words, habits acquired in one pre-believer state are difficult to break.

Which brings us to the key point of the chapter, which is still enormously relevant to us today in the church: “take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.” (9) It is better to forego our correct belief and rationalized theology than to inadvertently lead someone else astray. In short, we are to teach and lead by example.

While Paul’s admonition applies to every Christian, I think this raises particularly thorny questions for those in leadership roles to whom others naturally look to as examples of how to lead the Christian life. For example, this is why pastors who engage in legal but questionable financial behavior, or “upstanding Christians” who bring barely-justified lawsuits against others in or out of the church are so injurious to the church at large–and only provide meaty (pun intended) ammunition for the charge of hypocrisy.

 

Psalm 55:16–19; Job 34:1–28; 1 Corinthians 7:25–40

Psalm 55:16–19: This passage (among others elsewhere in Psalms) disturbs many Christians because it wishes the very worst on the psalmist’s enemies: “May death come upon them./ May they go down to Sheol alive.” (16) And there’s no ambiguity that this is something other than a prayer to God: “For in their homes, in their midst, are evils./ But I call to God.” (16b, 17a).

So what are we to do with this (as the theologians call it) imprecatory psalm?  After all, Jesus told us to turn the other cheek and to love our enemies. Surely, the psalmist can’t be serious here? Do we just feel uncomfortable and move on?

I think the psalmist himself gives us a clue as to the nature of these curses wished upon his enemies when he says, “Evening and morning and noon/ I complain and moan, and He hears my voice.” (18) The psalmist knows that vengeance is God’s and not his, but that does not prevent him from “complaining and moaning” to God in prayer. These imprecations are the psalmist’s deepest emotions and there is no one other than God at whom he can shout and shake his fist. He knows that God can take it, and that whatever happens to his enemies is solely God’s affair. The lesson to us is clear: we can shout all we want to God, but when it comes to human relationships it is Jesus’ words that we must follow.

Job 34:1–28: Elihu lays out Job’s case before God, saying, “Let us choose what is right;/ let us determine among ourselves what is good.” (4) First, he neatly summarizes Job’s position: “For Job has said, ‘I am innocent,/and God has taken away my right;/ in spite of being right I am counted a liar;/ my wound is incurable, though I am without transgression.’” (5,6)

Then he summarizes God’s position: “far be it from God that he should do wickedness,” (10) and then, “Of a truth, God will not do wickedly,/ and the Almighty will not pervert justice.” (12) Therefore, Elihu argues, it’s logically impossible for God to be unjust: “Shall one who hates justice govern?/ Will you condemn one who is righteous and mighty,…who shows no partiality to nobles,/ nor regards the rich more than the poor,” (17, 19a) for the very simple reason that “they are all the work of his hands.” (19b)

As for the wicked, Elihu argues, “He shatters the mighty without investigation,/ and sets others in their place.” (24) and “He strikes them for their wickedness/ while others look on, /because they turned aside from following him,” (26), which seems a clear reference to Job and his friends. To use the modern idiom, Elihu is saying to Job, “God is punishing you, Job, for your wickedness; get over it.” 

So while Elihu has spoken more clearly and forthrightly than the three friends–and even Job–t=it’s still very much deuteronomic theology: Your punishment is a consequence of your sins. Sigh.

1 Corinthians 7:25–40: This passage gives us a sense of the urgency with which Paul preached. Urgency because I think he felt Christ’s return was imminent as he advises virgins and those contemplating marriage, “in view of the impending crisis, it is well for you to remain as you are.” (26) Then, Paul follows with his low view of marriage: “Yet those who marry will experience distress in this life, and I would spare you that.” (28b) in the name of sparing people “from distress.”

Why does Paul so dislike marriage? Because it is distracting form our focus on Christ: “The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord;but the married man is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please his wife.” (32b, 33). Well, yes, that’s true. And this is certainly a proof text for the Catholic Church’s position on celibate priests and unmarried religious. Nevertheless, I think Paul is underestimating the drive of human nature (“let the two become as one”) and/or overestimating the reality that not everyone is blessed with his own superlative willpower.

Paul does eventually bow to reality, recognizing human nature will out, as long as self-control is involved (which is good advice): “if someone stands firm in his resolve, being under no necessity but having his own desire under control, and has determined in his own mind to keep her as his fiancée, he will do well. But he nevertheless sees marriage as a lower estate than singleness (which of course to him meant celibacy): “ So then, he who marries his fiancée does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better.” (38). 

However, at the end of this passage I detect just a hint of defensiveness: “I think that I too have the Spirit of God.” (40). Paul is trying to say this advice is coming from the Holy Spirit, but there’s just that tiny note of uncertainty in “I think.”

Psalm 55:9–15; Job 32,33; 1 Corinthians 7:17–24

Psalm 55:9–15: Once again we come to the theme of speech, only this time as a prayer request to sew confusion among the psalmist’s enemies: “O Master, confound, split their tongue, / for I have seen outrage and strife in the town.” (10) [Which sounds a lot like Washington DC and its polarized politics…]

In this case it appears that a band of outlaws have taken over and destroyed the peace of the city for “day and night they go round it on its walls,/ and mischief and misdeeds within it,/ disaster within it guile and deceit never part from its square.” (11, 12) There’s a very contemporary feel to the idea that miscreants have usurped what formerly was peaceful. Many American Christians feel that secularism has usurped the public square and that they are being denigrated, if not excluded from the culture. Some want to just give up and cease speaking out.

But our psalmist is a man of courage, unafraid of these enemies: “No enemy insults me, that I might bear it,/ no foe boasts against me, that I might hide from him.” (13). Alas, however, it appears he’s been betrayed by a close colleague: “But you–a man to my measure,/ my companion and my familiar,/ with whom together we shared sweet counsel,/ in the house of our God in elation we walked.” (14,15)  In short, regardless of what his enemies say or do, the far greater pain is to have been betrayed by someone close.  Happily, that has not happened to me.

Job 32,33: After 31 chapters we hear a new voice: Elihu, who brings a new viewpoint to this story: everyone who has spoken, including Job, is wrong: “[Elihu] was angry at Job because he justified himself rather than God; he was angry also at Job’s three friends because they had found no answer, though they had declared Job to be in the wrong.” (32:2,3)  Elihu has held back because he was younger than the three friends, but now he lets loose.

First, he gives no credence to the idea that older people are wiser: “I said, ‘Let days speak,/  and many years teach wisdom.’” (32:7). But Elihu understands something that neither Job nor the friends seemed to have grasped: “But truly it is the spirit in a mortal,/ the breath of the Almighty, that makes for understanding.” (32:8) I am certainly reading this from my New Covenant context, but to me it seems clear that Elihu is saying that wisdom comes from the Holy Spirit dwelling within us.

Elihu has stood back, but now, “I am full of words…I must speak, so that I may find relief;/ I must open my lips and answer./ I will not show partiality to any person/ or use flattery toward anyone.” (32:20, 21)

And speak he does… First to Job: “You say, ‘I am clean, without transgression;/  I am pure, and there is no iniquity in me” and that Job has accused God for his woes when he says, “he counts me as his enemy;/ he puts my feet in the stocks,” (33:10,11) and that God has refused to answer him.

But Elihu asserts, “ in this you are not right. I will answer you:/God is greater than any mortal.” (33:12). And then in a brilliant discourse, the young man states that God speaks in many ways: 

14 For God speaks in one way,
    and in two, though people do not perceive it.
15 In a dream, in a vision of the night,
    when deep sleep falls on mortals,
    while they slumber on their beds,
16 then he opens their ears,
    and terrifies them with warnings,

In short, if we are listening, we will hear God. Elihu is basically telling Job that he must have missed God’s warnings. That if he had heard God speaking in a dream and heeds those warnings, then “he prays to God, and is accepted by him,/ he comes into his presence with joy.” (33:26) So, confession is the way to God, “and God[c] repays him for his righteousness.” (33:27)  Moreover, Elihu asserts, “God indeed does all these things,/ twice, three times, with mortals,/ to bring back their souls from the Pit,/ so that they may see the light of life.” (33:29. 30)

But is it really as simple as Job failing to have perceived the voice of God in his dreams, then failing to heed God’s warnings and the confessed?  At one level Elihu is absolutely right. That is how we understand confession. But like the friends, I don’t think Elihu has not perceived the real situation here.

1 Corinthians 7:17–24: We can tell by these verses that the Jewish faction at the Corinthian church was demanding that Gentile converts be circumcised. But for Paul makes the outward marks are not what matter; it’s the condition of the heart: “Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing; but obeying the commandments of God is everything.” (19)  And just to be clear guys, “Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called.” (20)

So, too, with slaves: “For whoever was called in the Lord as a slave is a freed person belonging to the Lord, just as whoever was free when called is a slave of Christ.” (22) Paul commands, do your work for God in your present status: “In whatever condition you were called, brothers and sisters, there remain with God.” (24)

Easy for Paul to say, and I confess I’m reading this through the lens of my own culture where slavery is abhorrent. Nevertheless, I’m left with the uncomfortable feeling that it was easier for free men and women to accept Paul’s advice than it was for the slave.

 

 

Psalm 55:1–8; Job 31; 1 Corinthians 7:1–16

Psalm 55:1–8: As soon as we hear the opening line, “Hearken, O God, to my prayer,” we know this is a psalm of supplication. We also learn that it’s not impolite to ask God to “not [to] ignore my plea,/ Listen well to me and amswer me.” Sometimes, I think we are hesitant and afraid of offending God, but as the psalmists and certainly Job remind us, God the Creator cannot be offended by his creatures.

Our supplicant is in above his head: “In my complain I sway and moan./ From the sound of the enemy…when they bring mischief down upon me/ and in fury harass me.” (4) Unlike many of us who find ourselves in desperate circumstances, our psalmist is not afraid to admit his fear by using every verb he can think of to describe his terror: “my heart quails within me/ and death-terrors fall upon me,/ fear and trembling enter me/ and horror envelopes me.” (5,6)

There is only one thing he desires: to escape his present plight: “‘Would that I had wings like a dove./ I would fly off and find rest.” He speaks for all of us in fearful circumstances: let the enemy win; I don’t care; just get me out of here. Like him, I would “make haste to a refuge for me/ from the streaming wind and the storm.” (9)

For me, this means it’s OK to ask God for escape form our present difficulty. We do not have to tough it out. This is what those with newly-diagnosed diseases or stuck in abusive relationship need to hear. We/they don’t have to steel our courage and fight. It’s perfectly OK to ask God for escape. Sometimes escape is far preferable to courage.

Job 31: Job asks the question that we all ask when confronted with life’s unfairness: “Does not calamity befall the unrighteous,/ and disaster the workers of iniquity?” (3) Job again asserts his innocence, daring God to punish him if he’s been wicked: “let me be weighed in a just balance,/and let God know my integrity!” (6)

As if to remind God of his righteousness, Job catalogs his numerous righteous deeds. He has not committed adultery (7,8).  He has protected his wife form harm (10-12). He has been kind and just to his slaves (13-15). He has given to the poor, to the orphans (16-18). He has spurned the temptation of wealth (24-26). He has avoided self-aggrandizement and pride (26-28). He has not cursed others or “rejoiced at the ruin of those who hated me.” (29-32). He has been hospitable (32). He has been open and honest (33-34).

In the final paragraphs that Job speaks it seems he suddenly realizes what has happened in God’s silence. There is an “indictment written by [his] adversary” that he wishes he could see. Then he would know to whom to protest his innocence:

“36 I would carry it on my shoulder;
    I would bind it on me like a crown;
37 I would give him an account of all my steps;
    like a prince I would approach him.

If God has not done all these things to me, Job is saying, then allow me to appear before my accuser in God’s court and declare my innocence there. Exhausted, Job is silent and the poet tells us: “The words of Job are ended.” He can say no more as he throws himself on the mercy of God’s court.

1 Corinthians 7:1–16: Paul continues (and continues) about the problem of sexual morality and we encounter what modern culture views as one of Paul’s “difficult” passages: his definition of marriage: “each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.” (2). However, and probably radically for his time, there is equality in the sexual relationship: “The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband.” (3) The man cannot have his way without the wife’s consent. In sexual union “he wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.” (4)

Paul declares the superiority of being single over being married: “…I say by way of concession, not of command. I wish that all were as I myself am.” But at least he acknowledges that like celibacy, the desire for marriage is “a particular gift from God.” And it’s preferable to be married than to have extra-marital sex: “it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.” (9)

Then things get sticky. Neither husband nor wife should divorce each other. (11) Having written extensively about a pathological marriage, this is easier said than don–even by Paul.

We then encounter the infamous passage about believers being married to unbelievers. Paul seems optimistic here that “the unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband.” (14) And if the unbeliever divorces, so be it. But what I don’t see here–although he may say it elsewhere–that a believer is forbidden to marry an unbeliever.

Nevertheless, I think this passage has ruined many relationships, especially when Christians fling the “unbeliever” epithet against other Christians, e.g. Protestants marrying Catholics. They have created a stumbling block where I honestly think Paul did not intend it to be one. If we look at this passage in the context of what has come before, Paul is attempting to tread carefully here about man-woman relationships. I don’t think he’s wholly successful, but I think he comes closer than those who see these issues in pure black and white terms and have torn these verses out of their context.

Psalm 54; Job 30; 1 Corinthians 6:9–20

Psalm 54: This psalm is dedicated to David “when the Ziphites came and said to Saul, ‘Is not David hiding out among us?'” (2) so we know immediately it’s a psalm of supplication.  Alter points out that the line at verse 5, “For strangers have risen against me”does not exactly fit the incident described in 1 Samuel 23 since Saul was hardly a stranger to David. But then, inerrantists notwithstanding, total consistency is not always a Biblical trait.

Unlike many supplication psalms, the tone of the first few verses do not imply that God is absent, only that the present circumstances warrant God’s immediate intervention: “through Your name rescue me,/ and through Your might take up my cause./ God, O hear my prayer.” (3,4) And as usual, unlike the supplicant, the enemies are against God; “They did not set God before them.”  (5)

At verse 6 the tone changes from supplication to assurance: “Look, God is about to help me,/ my Master–among those who support me.” (6) [It’s interesting that God simply seems to join the ranks of those “who support me.”] And then suddenly we are left the impression that God responded as quickly as David wished: “Let me acclaim Your name, Lord, for it is good./ For from every strait he saved me.” (9)

This compact psalm gives us a real sense that in many situations God will respond quickly and effectively; that the answer to our prayers does not lie off in some hazy future, but can be immediate. Some have derisively called prayers like these “foxhole prayers,” but it seems if David can pray a “foxhole prayer,” so can we.

Job 30: The people, who in the previous chapter respected Job and hung onto his every word have turned decisively against him in his present circumstances: “But now they make sport of me,/ those who are younger than I.” What hurts even more is that his mockers were the scum of the earth: “…whose fathers I would have disdained/  to set with the dogs of my flock.” (1) These mockers are worthless, “They are driven out from society;/ people shout after them as after a thief.” (5) But now, “they mock me in song;…I am a byword to them./They abhor me, they keep aloof from me;/ they do not hesitate to spit at the sight of me.” (9,10)

Then, Job makes an acute, insightful observation: “Because God has loosed my bowstring and humbled me,/ they have cast off restraint in my presence.” (15) Simply because Job has been humbled by God, these people  “cast off restraint” and mock him with a fierceness he does not deserve. This is brilliant insight into human nature: how quick we are to mock and then abandon someone whom we once admired, never reflecting on our own inconsistent and evil behavior. Jesus on the cross certainly comes to mind here. 

Rather than showing mercy, never mind succor, to someone who has fallen from grace, we turn to mockery.  Job asks, “Surely one does not turn against the needy,/ when in disaster they cry for help.” (24) But that’s exactly what we too often do. We stand justly accused, for that is exactly what we do. We turn our backs and walk away from the cross. Or change the channel and move on.

1 Corinthians 6:9–20: Paul minces no words as he rolls out one of his famous lists: “Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. (9,10). But now that we are baptized we have been transformed, we have been “were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” (11) Paul doesn’t have to tell us what the implication of that transformation is. We should know and behave accordingly. 

“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. (12) is one of Paul’s more famous lines. It is the essence of personal responsibility: we are to set our own boundaries. Simply because a behavior is not proscribed does not mean it is prescribed. Reminding us that we are part of the larger body of Christ, Paul uses the rather stark example of the implications of lying with a  prostitute–and how that brief and seemingly personal act contaminates the entire body. You cannot simultaneously lie with sin and unite with God.

I think Paul is directly addressing those who try to make belief in Jesus a purely spiritual matter, completely separated from the physical body, which can then be used as one pleases. But Paul is telling us that our body belongs to God just as much as our soul with the famous metaphor of the body as a temple in which the Holy Spirit resides. Our commitment to Jesus Christ involves our entire spiritual and physical being. Our duty is clear: “therefore glorify God in your body.” (20)

 

Psalm 53; Job 29; 1 Corinthians 5:9–6:8

Psalm 53: Alter notes that this psalm is essentially a duplication of Psalm 14 with only a few minor changes. But perhaps it’s in twice because its message needs to be heard often.

The opening lines pull no punches: “The scoundrel has said in his heart,/ ‘There is no God.'” (2) We certainly live in an age where Western culture believes it has outgrown its need for the “psychological crutch” called “God” and dismisses those who believe as weaklings and fools. Worse, it is accusing those who believe in God and the moral prescriptions of the Bible as being “intolerant”–the greatest sin of our age. But I digress…

As far as the psalmist is concerned, it is those who dismiss God that are the fools and scoundrels: “They corrupt and do loathsome misdeeds./ There is none who does good.” The formula here is very simple: disbelief equates to a corruption of the soul and consequently, actions.

In an evocation of the Noah story, “The Lord from the heavens looked down/ on the sons of humankind/ to see, is there someone discerning, someone seeking God.” (3) The evidence is not encouraging: There is none who does good./ There is not even one.” The psalmist links that ancient story directly to the people of Israel in his day: “They did not call on God.”

But even though the world seems to be populated by those who have rejected God, God never gives up.  There is always hope, as the psalmist concludes, “O, may from Zion come Israel’s rescue/ when God restores His people’s condition…May Israel rejoice.” (7) And for us who live in a world that has rejected God, hope nevertheless abounds.

 Job 29: Job resumes his defense, in one of the most intensely nostalgic chapters in the Bible. We can hear the regret as Job remembers how things once were: “O that I were as in the months of old,/ as in the days when God watched over me;” (2) Those were the days, he recalls, “when I was in my prime,/ when the friendship of God was upon my tent.” (4) Are there sadder words than these: “when the Almighty was still with me,/ when my children were around me?” (5). Job once commanded respect at every stratum of society, even “the voices of princes were hushed,/ and their tongues stuck to the roof of their mouths.” (10)

Moreover, Job had earned this respect because he served God and every part of society: “…I delivered the poor who cried,/ and the orphan who had no helper. /… and I caused the widow’s heart to sing for joy.” (12, 13) In a wonderful metaphor, Job recalls “I put on righteousness, and it clothed me;/ my justice was like a robe and a turban.” (14) 

But perhaps worst of all is that Job has lost the respect of those who once “listened to me, and waited,/ and kept silence for my counsel./After I spoke they did not speak again,/ and my word dropped upon them like dew.” (21, 22) He recalls these times almost as if he had taken on the qualities of God himself: “I smiled on them when they had no confidence;/ and the light of my countenance they did not extinguish.” (24)

It seems to me that if we ever needed proof that good works and respect can be fleeting; that we can crash into the depths of despair from the heights of joy, we need only look here. But then we need also to ask, are we hearing pride in Job’s voice? Are these memories too self-centered? Was Job really this person? Or has the contrast with his present sufferings created a sense that things were better than they actually were? That of course is the danger of nostalgia.

1 Corinthians 5:9–6:8: Even though we would doubtless prefer greater ambiguity, Paul is extremely clear here regarding sexual immorality: “I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber.”  (5:11) Sexual immorality is at the top of the list and we are uncomfortable. I will note in passing that Paul is not specific as to what type of sexual immorality, but there’s still the question: where’s the grace here? Paul is pretty clear. Expel these evildoers: “Drive out the wicked person from among you.” (5:13)

On the other hand, when it comes to internal disputes within the community, keep them internal:”When any of you has a grievance against another, do you dare to take it to court before the unrighteous, instead of taking it before the saints? ” (6:1) But it sounds like the matter taken to court was pretty trivial as Paul asks somewhat sarcastically, “…are you incompetent to try trivial cases?”  Of course in our own litigious age, we see that as far as disputes and lawsuits are concerned, very little has changed in two millennia.

We can see Paul shaking his head in disbelief about this issue: “In fact, to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud—and believers at that.” (6:8) Would that we Christians took that advice more to heart. I remember my lawyer father shaking his head in disbelief at what upstanding churchgoers would do to each other when it came to lawsuits–and not paying their bills…

As happens again and again as we read this letter, we sure wish we knew the backstory. Paul must have received a letter from somebody at the church that listed each of these issues, as Paul seems to be working off a checklist here as he moves form topic to topic.  And he’s pretty p.o.ed.