Psalm 49:13–20; Job 17,18; Romans 16:21–1 Corinthians 1:1–9

Psalm 49:13–20: When the end comes, the rich are no different than the poor: “Like sheep to Sheol they head–/ death shepherds them.” These words are followed by the tantalizing idea that “the upright will hold sway over them in the morn.”  (15)It’s as if the rich, newly arrived at Sheol, wake up to find the poor and righteous are now their masters. This is the same kind of upside down image that Jesus used in so may of his parables.

Given the fate of the rich at the end, our poet is saying, we do not need to fear them while they are alive: “Do not fear when a man grows rich,…/For in his death he will not take all.” (17, 18) And not only will he not take his riches with him, he also won’t take whatever fame he’s accumulated during his life: “…his glory won’t go down behind him.” (18).  We need only think of deaths of celebrities to understand what the psalmist is saying here.

The rich man is centered on his own accomplishments, basically seeing himself as the source of blessings: “For his own self he blesses when alive”– even though he may give God the credit publicly: “…and acclaims You [God] for giving him bounty.” (19). But in the end it doesn’t really matter: “He will come to the state of his fathers–/forevermore will not see the light.” Or as economists are wont to put it: in the long run we’re all dead.

But the real theme here is that the rich are deluded in their riches as the poet ends this psalm in the style of the author of Ecclesiastes: “Man will not grasp things in splendor. / He is likened to beasts that are doomed.” (21) Except that this last verse applies to everyone of us, not just the wealthy: we are kidding ourselves if we think our accomplishments will accompany us to the grave. It’s far better to focus on other people, not on accumulation.

 Job 17,18: Job is exhausted to the point of death: “My spirit is broken, my days are extinct,/ the grave is ready for me.” (17:1) HIs friends are of no use: “Since you have closed their minds to understanding,/ therefore you will not let them triumph.” (4) Even the “upright are appalled at this,/ and the innocent stir themselves up against the godless.” (8)  But now that they have seen what has happened to Job, all their preconceived notions of God being fair are shattered and “I shall not find a sensible person among you.” (10)

For Job’s world has been turned upside down: “My days are past, my plans are broken off,/ the desires of my heart./ They make night into day.” But even death itself may not provide relief: “If I look for Sheol as my house,/ if I spread my couch in darkness,…/where then is my hope?” For to die is to lose hope. And here in his most desperate hour, Job clings to that one last hope. This is an amazingly sophisticated thought: that to die, to pray for death, is to have lost all hope. For Job: hope is all that remains. And hope is what keeps him alive.

At this lowest point, Bildad the Shuhite speaks.  He, too, is not particularly sympathetic, viewing Job’s lament as a mere “hunt for words.” (18:2) Bildad’s theology is very black and white and cannot admit subtlety. He tells Job it’s really very simple: God punishes the wicked: “Surely the light of the wicked is put out,/ and the flame of their fire does not shine.” (18:5) He then gives a long sermon about the woes that the wicked enjoy, including some of what has happened to Job: “By disease their skin is consumed,/ the firstborn of Death consumes their limbs.” (13) Everything that has happened to Job is, whether he wants to admit or not, a result of Job’s sinfulness as he ends with the flat out declaration: “Surely such are the dwellings of the ungodly,/ such is the place of those who do not know God.” (21)

There are lots of Christians out there who see the world in these same black and white terms–exactly as the Pharisees saw before them: There are consequences. You did bad things and bad things happen to you. But I think the book of Job is in the Bible to prove that it’s not as simple as that. Sometimes bad things just happen in spite of our righteousness. And with Job, we are bereft of logical explanations; only hope remains.

Romans 16:21–1 Corinthians 1:1–9: Intriguingly, the Moravians bridge the end of Romans to the beginning of 1 Corinthians. We have the final doxology in Romans that uses very familiar words, “Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ,…” (16:25) that leads inevitably to the greeting to the church at Corinth. I think this is an interesting way to remind us that Paul was a generous and gracious man, who gave others the credit, but at the center of it all is Jesus Christ himself. The last words of Romans: “… to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen.” stand in perfect symmetry to the first words of I Corinthians: “ Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God.”

While Romans was about the law, the letter to Corinth opens with grace: “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus,” (1:4) Knowing what comes later in this letter, we can understand why Paul opens with encouraging words.

But again, at the center of everything is Jesus Christ, repeated once again: “so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” (8,9) 

The lexical message is clear: Jesus Christ was at the center of Paul’s message; he is at the center of ours, as well. It is our duty to acknowledge–and live–that reality.

Psalm 49:1–12; Job 15,16; Romans 16:8–20

 Psalm 49:1–12: After introductory verses that establish the psalmist’s bona fides–“My mouth speaks wisdom,/ my heart’s utterance, understanding” (4)–he turns to the theme of the psalm: the foolishness of those who trust in anything besides God. At the top of the list is the persons “Who trust in their wealth/ and boast of their great riches.” (7) –a false trust that we see just as much today as when the psalm was written. Because, at some point, those who have depended on wealth for any sort will come to understand “they surely will redeem no man,/ will not give to God his ransom.” (8).

The foundations and charities of the rich notwithstanding, they too must answer the psalmist’s rhetorical question: “Will he yet live forever?/ Will he not see the Pit?” (10).  The poet sums up this reality of “you can’t take it with you” in a verse that could have been lifted straight out of Ecclesiastes: “For he see the wise dies,/ both the fool and the stupid man perish,/ and they abandon to others their wealth.” (11) Death is the Great Equalizer. Even for those who have known great fame, whose “names had been called upon the earth” (12b) are “likened to the beasts that are doomed.” (13).

Only one thing lives on after us: “in words alone, they show favor.” (14) And even then it will be only the words that we have recorded. Something to think about.

Job 15,16: Eliphaz the Temanite responds to Job’s dark soliloquy accusing Job of undermining belief in God and religion by “doing away with the fear of God,/ and hindering meditation before God.” (15:4)/ And then cruelly to Job, “Your own mouth condemns you, and not I;/ your own lips testify against you.” (15:6) suggesting that he has not “listened in the council of God.” (15:8) and is “one who is abominable and corrupt,/ one who drinks iniquity like water!” (15:16). Eliphaz is saying that all men are corrupt, including even self-righteous Job and cannot therefore approach God or know what God is up to.

Job just needs to realize his innate corruptness before God. If men depend on their own wisdom, if they “ trust in emptiness, deceiving themselves; … emptiness will be their recompense.” (15:31). In fact there is theological truth here. Eliphaz accuses Job of trying to understand the thoughts of God, which leads to a foolish and wrong headed wisdom that is mere emptiness at the end.  Mankind is intrinsically evil, he’s saying, ending his speech with the simple but depressing declaration, “They conceive mischief and bring forth evil/ and their heart prepares deceit.” (15:35) Something we know to be true.

So what gives?

Job responds to Eliphaz in the next chapter. His opening remarks include a statement that all of us have thought when we know that someone has not really listened to what we are saying, but are just lecturing us with their own brand of “wisdom:” “Have windy words no limit?/ Or what provokes you that you keep on talking?” (16:3).  [Definitely a really polite way of saying, “Shut up!”]

Not knowing the original deal between God and Satan, Job continues to insist that it is God who has caused his woes in verse after eloquent verse:

11 God gives me up to the ungodly,
    and casts me into the hands of the wicked.
12 I was at ease, and he broke me in two;
    he seized me by the neck and dashed me to pieces;
he set me up as his target;
13     his archers surround me.
He slashes open my kidneys, and shows no mercy;
he pours out my gall on the ground.  (16:11-13)

Without God, his faith shattered, there is nothing left for Job. And as the psalmist observed about the wealthy, emptiness is all that remains: “For when a few years have come,/ I shall go the way from which I shall not return.” (16:22). This chapter reveals Job’s deep despair of a shattered faith. We talk about “the patience of Job,” but I think that’s a mischaracterization. Job feels not only punished by God, but worse, he feels abandoned by God. There is no darker feeling to have had faith and then to have lost it because we believe God has turned his back on us.

Romans 16:8–20:If Paul were writing today he would have added a final “PSS” after his long list of names of people he commends and asks the recipients of his letter to greet on his behalf.

Since it’s the last thing Paul ever writes to the Romans (that we know about anyway) I have to think it is the one thing that weighs most heavily on his mind. It is not theology, nor is it the relationship of Jews and Gentiles or any of the other weighty matters he’s discussed. Instead, it is simple human behavior: “ I urge you, brothers and sisters, to keep an eye on those who cause dissensions and offenses, in opposition to the teaching that you have learned; avoid them.” (17) Because Paul knows it is dissension in the church that rips it apart. And finally, we are “to be wise in what is good and guileless in what is evil.” (19) If we cannot discern that crucial difference, then we are doomed.

What a challenge for us in today’s world, which is strikingly similar to the Roman world. We can distinguish between good and evil and as Paul says in Philippians 4, embrace that which is good, or we can head down the path of the world, following its evil. Paul’s message to the Romans–and to us–boils down to that crucial distinction. Will we make the right choice?

Psalm 48; Job 13:20–14:22; Romans 15:30–16:7

Psalm 48: This psalm has a similar tone and theme as the preceding one as it praises God, this time more specifically in Jerusalem, “in our God’s town, His holy mountain./ Lovely in heights, all the earth’s joy…the great King’s city.” (2,3)

I think we fail to appreciate just how central the idea that God dwelt in Jerusalem was to the Jewish religion. We tend to have a far more amorphous, everywhere conception of God. But for Israel, God had come and dwelt in the Ark and even after the Ark was lost, it was OK, because there was a temple in Jerusalem. This is where God performed his marvelous deeds: “We witnessed, O God, Your kindness/ in the midst of Your temple.” (10)

God’s presence in that single geographical spot brought great strength and protection, as well: “God in its bastions/ is famed as a fortress.” (4)

It is this protective quality of God at Jerusalem that gave military victory to Israel and terror to its enemies: “It is [the enemies] who have seen and so been  astounded,/ were panicked, dismayed./ Shuddering seized them there,/ pangs like a woman in labor.” (6,7).

Perhaps if I thought of God in the concrete terms that Israel did, I would trust him and understand more directly his great love for me.

Job 13:20–14:22: Job’s prayer shakes its fist at God, asking questions that humans still ask. Lest we think that we have any new thoughts when we wonder where God is or why God acts in such an arbitrary and yes, cruel fashion, Job was there ahead of us. Job asks the essential question: “Why do you hide your face,/ and count me as your enemy?” (13:24) Job accuses God directly: “For you write bitter things against me,/ and make me reap the iniquities of my youth./ You put my feet in the stocks…” (13:26, 27). And the result is emptiness, despair and death: “One wastes away like a rotten thing,/ like a garment that is moth-eaten.” (13:28)

He then reflects on the innate corruption of humankind (original sin?), noting that we are born, experience trouble and then die: “A mortal, born of woman, few of days and full of trouble,/ comes up like a flower and withers,/ flees like a shadow and does not last.” (14:1,2)  Job then tells God basically go away and let mortals enjoy what few moment they have in peace, undisturbed by God: “…look away from them, and desist,/ that they may enjoy, like laborers, their days.” (14:6) 

Job observes that “there is hope for a tree,/ if it is cut down, that it will sprout again,” (14:7), but as for mortals, “mortals die, and are laid low;/ humans expire, and where are they?” (14:10) Nevertheless, Job’s longing for an understanding, forgiving God is palpable: “You would call, and I would answer you;…my transgression would be sealed up in a bag,/ and you would cover over my iniquity.” (15:15, 17)

But for Job, that God is not forthcoming. There is only pain and darkness. God has abandoned humankind: “They feel only the pain of their own bodies,/ and mourn only for themselves.” (14:22)

Job’s God is so wildly different than the God we encounter just about everywhere else in the OT (except for Ecclesiastes). This God is exactly our 21st century conception of God, where people have decided that God, if he exists, is not interested in human affairs. We have been abandoned and therefore need live only for ourselves. With Job, we feel only the pain of our own bodies and mourn only for ourselves–unnoticed by the God of the universe.

But above all, whatever thoughts we come with on our own about abandonment, woe and despair, Job has been there before us.

Romans 15:30–16:7: Paul moves from theology to his personal circumstances and asks for the Romans’ prayers: join me in earnest prayer to God on my behalf, that I may be rescued from the unbelievers in Judea, and that my ministry to Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints.” (15:30,31).

And then the personal PS at the end of the letter. This is where we receive insight into Paul’s personality and his self-image, which above all was exceedingly generous. He never claimed all the credit, but spread it generously and joyfully among the saints. He includes a long Pauline list of friends who have helped him, beginning with a woman, Phoebe, a deacon “of the church at Cenchreae,” who “has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well.” (16:2).  (Which forces me to ask: why is it that many churches that want to interpret the Bible literally also prohibit women from serving as deacons or in positions of leadership?)

He also commends “Prisca and Aquila, who work with me in Christ Jesus,  and who risked their necks for my life.” (16:3). Probably rescuing Paul form one of the many riots he seemed to incite.

It would be great to know the individual stories of the many people listed here. But absent that, this list of names gives us a picture of the dynamism of the early church. But we know this: these are the saints on whose shoulders the church stands today.

Psalm 47; Job 12:13–13:19; Romans 15:17–29

Psalm 47: This psalm of celebration, which Alter tells us is sung at the Jewish new year, expresses unfettered joy, and gives permission to all of us to clap our hands when we sing(!): All peoples, clap hands/ shout out to God with a glad song.” (2) The reason for celebration is that “the Lord is most high and fearsome,/ a great king over all the earth.”

The next lines are a bit less comfortable to our “civilized” ears: “He crushes peoples beneath us / and nations beneath our feet.” God does this because God is on Israel’s side and he loves us: “He chooses for us our estate,/ pride of Jacob whom He loves.” (5)

At the second stanza of the psalm the music grows even louder and more joyful as we enter–metaphorically anyway–God’s throne room,”with a trumpet blast,/ …with a ram’s horn sound” (6) as  the assembled multitude sings to God: “Hymn to God, hymn/ hymn to our king, O hymn.” (7) Here, God is not just king of Israel, but “king of all earth is God.” (8)

We have just experienced joy similar to the ancient Israelites here by singing and hearing the music surrounding our celebration of Jesus’ resurrection. The Easter is truly a time for great–and like the psalm here–noisy celebration!

Job 12:13–13:19: Unlike Zophir’s rather simpleminded theology, Job describes a far more complex God. What is remarkable here is how despite his personal woes Job continues to emphasize God as the source of greatness: “With God[a] are wisdom and strength;/he has counsel and understanding.” (12:13) Those who pretend to wisdom–and he lists counselors, judges, kings and priests (13:17-19)–are led away “stripped” of their power and pretense (and perhaps of their clothes as well!). And then, what I take to be a direct accusation to his supposed friend, Job says, “[God] deprives of speech those who are trusted,/ and takes away the discernment of the elders.” (12:20) Which is the most brilliant waythat I have ever read to tell someone to just shut up!

“[God] strips understanding from the leaders of the earth,/ and makes them wander in a pathless waste.”  (12:25) is a superb commentary on today’s politicians and would-be leaders, who pretend to superior wisdom when actually, “They grope in the dark without light.” A glance toward Washington DC confirms again and again the wisdom of this ancient poem.

In his heart, Job knows that God is the source of justice and he wishes to take his God straight into God’s courtroom: “I would speak to the Almighty,/ and I desire to argue my case with God.” (13:3) And, turning to his erstwhile friends, he shouts, “As for you, you whitewash with lies;/ all of you are worthless physicians.” (13:4). And then in possibly the greatest advice ever given to those (including me) who pretend to know what we are talking about: “If you would only keep silent,/ that would be your wisdom!” (13:5)

Job will not allow his friends to speak for God; he doesn’t trust them: “Will you speak falsely for God,/and speak deceitfully for him?” (13:7). Instead, he will speak to God directly, regardless of the consequences: “Let me have silence, and I will speak,/ and let come on me what may.” (13:13) Job is willing to take the risk to defend himself at any cost: “See, he will kill me; I have no hope;/ but I will defend my ways to his face.” (13:15). Would I be as willing as Job to shake my fist at God and be prepared to suffer the consequences?

Romans 15:17–29: Paul has only one purpose for his life: to “make it my ambition to proclaim the good news,” but to do it where the Gospel has not yet come, unsullied by others who may have come before him. He plans to go new places, “not where Christ has already been named, so that I do not build on someone else’s foundation.” To be blunt, this is Paul at his egotistical (in the good sense) best. As an apostle of Jesus Christ he wants to make sure his listeners hear only the unvarnished message, not somebody’s take on complex theology.  God advice for all of us.

It is here that Paul lays out his plan to visit Spain and visit his friends in Rome on the way. Tradition holds that Paul visited Spain, but my own view is that he never made it because as he says, “At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem in a ministry to the saints.” (25). And the last part of Acts tells us what happened in Jerusalem. Paul eventually made it to Rome, trials and shipwrecks notwithstanding. But like all of us, the best laid plans often do not come to pass as we wish.

Psalm 46; Job 11:1–12:12; Romans 15:3–16

Psalm 46: This song returns to the theme of God as protector: “God is a shelter and strength for us,/ a help in straits, readily found.” (2) So when disasters occur “we fear not when the earth breaks apart,/ when mountains collapse in the heart of the seas.” (3)  This beautiful couplet can certainly refer to natural disasters, but its real strength is in the metaphor. God is with us when the world we know seems to collapse in around us through illness, death or personal catastrophe.

Even though “waters roar and roil, [and] mountains heave in its surge” (4) God never abandons us despite the vicissitudes that seem like a tiny raft running class 5 rapids. Indeed, God brings us refreshing water, but it is the peace of “a stream, its rivulets [which] gladden God’s town.” Like the temple at Jerusalem, our lives will not disintegrate. There can be tremendous anxiety and even destruction around us–“Nations roar and kingdoms collapse” (7a)–but God “sends forth His voice and the earth melts.” (7b) The pretenses of humankind are nothing before God.

We can carry the metaphor of God with us even as the psalm evokes military images: “The Lord of armies is with us/ a fortress for us.” (8) And for the world, the promise of a world without war and conflict: God has “caused wars to cease to the end of the earth./ The bow He has broken and splintered the spear,/ and chariots burned in fire.” (10) Whether God brings peace to the nations or not, he can surely bring peace to our hearts.

Although it has become almost a meaningless popular cliche, here in its context it is the best possible instruction for our anxiety- and fear-ridden lives: “Let go, and know that I am God.” (11) because “The Lord of armies is with us.” (12). God may often seem absent, but this psalm reassures us that God is at our side bringing peace to our lives.

Job 11:1–12:12: Of Job’s three friends, Zophar is the cruelest. He replies to Job’s soliloquy with snide sarcasm: “Should your babble put others to silence,/ and when you mock, shall no one shame you?” (11:3) And then promptly implies Job is dissembling, “For you say, ‘My conduct is pure,/and I am clean in God’s sight.’” (11:4) To Zophir, Job’s problem is simple: he just lacks sufficient wisdom to truly understand God: “Can you find out the deep things of God?/ Can you find out the limit of the Almighty?” (11:7)

At heart, Zophir is the fatalist. God is powerful: “If he passes through, and imprisons,/and assembles for judgment, who can hinder him?” (11:10) Job’s problem, Zophir asserts, is simple. He just hasn’t been truly sincere before God: “If you direct your heart rightly,/you will stretch out your hands toward him.” (11:13). Just do that, Zophir says, and “You will forget your misery;” (11:16) and life will get better: “you will have confidence, because there is hope.” (11:18) Everything will be hunky-dory in the end: “You will lie down, and no one will make you afraid;/many will entreat your favor.” (11:19)

Zophir offers the kind of Norman Vincent Peale/ Joel Osteen advice we hear today. Essentially, it’s think positive thoughts and everything will be OK.

Job begs to differ with his erstwhile friend, telling him, “I have understanding as well as you;/ I am not inferior to you.” (12:3) He tells Zophir that everybody seems to believe this trivial philosophy: “Who does not know such things as these?” (12:3b) Rather, Job says, “ask the animals and they will teach you.” (12:7a) It’s really quite simple and has noting to do with one’s attitude or failing to understand God’s intentions. Instead, God is simply in control: 

9 Who among all these does not know
    that the hand of the Lord has done this?
10 In his hand is the life of every living thing
    and the breath of every human being.

God is the source of life and therefore, Job is saying, God is the source of these woes. It really has noting to do with the sincerity of JOb’s beliefs or his attitude. All the platitudes of the world will not change this simple reality.

Romans 15:3–16: These last verses of Paul’s epistle are his cadenza. In ringing tones, he summarizes how the the Gospel is intended for Jew and Gentile alike. We are to “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” (7) Paul cannot resist quoting four more scripture passages that prove his point, this time scriptures that refer specifically to Gentiles, ending with Isaiah’s promise,

“The root of Jesse shall come,
    the one who rises to rule the Gentiles;
in him the Gentiles shall hope.” (12)

And then, what seems to be a benediction, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (13)

But Paul, being Paul, has a difficult time simply ending his letter. His stream-of-consciousness style insists on a few more points as he reminds his readers and listeners of his apostolic bona fides: “Nevertheless on some points I have written to you rather boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.” (15, 16) We are left with the feeling there’s still a few more points Paul wants to be sure to make.

 

Psalm 45:11–18; Job 10; Romans 14:13–15:2

Psalm 45:10–17: Our psalmist now turns his attention to the king’s bride. In a reflection of a patriarchal society, the poet is direct and even a bit peremptory: “Listen princess, and look, incline your ear.” (11a). The poets first advice is perhaps the most difficult for a princess who is part of a negotiated deal between kingdoms: “forget your people, and your father’s house.” (11b). She has a new duty now and an even stronger reminder that this culture is thoroughly patriarchal: “let the king yearn for your beauty,/ for he is your master,/ and bow down to him.” (12)

However, there are a few benefits in this new and unfamiliar role as bride to the king: “Daughter of Tyre, with tribute / the people’s wealthy will court your favor.” (13) (The reference to Tyre suggests, but does not prove, that this princess may have been one of Solomon’s wives). And then there are the riches and the wardrobe: “All the princesses’s treasure is pearls,/ filigree of gold her raiment” (14) as she is brought to the king “in rejoicing and gladness.” (16)

The purpose for her arrival before the king is clear as the poet reminds her again that she has left her father and now has a new master. Her duty is to procreate: “In your father’s stead your sons will be./ You will set them as princes in all the land.” (17). And assuming she successfully executes her duty, she will be rewarded: “Let me make your name heard in all generations./ Therefore do peoples acclaim you evermore.” (18)

As I noted yesterday, this psalm is not about theology and God is not even mentioned. But it gives us a powerful look at the upmost reaches of Israel at the time of its kings. Most tantalizingly, perhaps, king Solomon himself.

Job 10: Whatever anger people may express to God; however much they make shake their fist at heaven, Job was there first. The striking opening line almost stops one from reading further. Yet, I know that many have said exactly the same thing Job says here: “I loathe my life.” But rather than keeping this self-loathing bottled up, Job will speak: “ I will give free utterance to my complaint;/ I will speak in the bitterness of my soul.” (1) I wonder how many wounded souls feeling they have been cheated by God are walking around today who cannot or will not give “free utterance” to their feelings.

Job does not merely shake his fist at God, he castigates God almost sneeringly, reminding God that he is torturing his own creation: “Does it seem good to you to oppress,/ to despise the work of your hands/ and favor the schemes of the wicked?” (3) And then even more boldly he a tells God that “you know that I am not guilty,” (7) and even though “Your hands fashioned and made me,” he accuses God, “now you turn and destroy me.” (8)

Job dares God to execute his justice fairly: “If I sin, you watch me,/ and do not acquit me of my iniquity./ If I am wicked, woe to me!” (14) But his present state is simply inexplicable in every way in which Job (and we!) think we know how God’s justice is supposed to operate. It has been turned on its head: “If I am righteous, I cannot lift up my head,/for I am filled with disgrace/ and look upon my affliction.” (15). In fact what God has done is so unlike the God that Job thought he knew that he asks, “Why did you bring me forth from the womb?” (18). Everything has been turned upside down and inside out. It would be better, Job insists, that he goes,

“…never to return,
    to the land of gloom and deep darkness,
22 the land of gloom and chaos,
    where light is like darkness.”

Light has become darkness and chaos reigns. I think no better description has ever been written of what it feels like to have been abandoned by God and to experience complete injustice; to feel like a victim of a capricious God. Surely, Jesus must have thought of Job in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Romans 14:13–15:2: Paul continues his essay on the harms of judging one another. This is one of those passages that prove (to me, anyway) that human motivations, psychology, and behavior have not changed one whit in at least 2,000 years. What’s striking here is that Paul understands the nature of perception as being the root of judgement, not the object that’s being judged: ” I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.” (14:14)

And, as always, it’s a question of priorities. People are judging others by what they eat and drink, forgetting that “the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (17). On the other hand, Paul argues, don’t just shove bad behavior in other people’s faces: “Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for you to make others fall by what you eat;  it is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother or sister stumble.” (20, 21) Paul’s bottom line for distinguishing between what is good and what is sinful is very simple: “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” (23).

That means that “We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak,” (15:1) not to make ourselves feel good about ourselves (pride, as always!) but that everything we do and say is focused on its effect on our neighbor (and spouse!): “Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor.” (15:2). Which of course is simply Paul’s statement of the Golden Rule.

Psalm 45:1–9; Job 9; Romans 14:1–12

Psalm 45:1–9: Alter informs us that this is the only psalm with the superscription, “a song of love.” Which, after a brief introduction with he memorable image, “my tongue is the pen of a rapid scribe,”  becomes obvious in verse 3: “You are the loveliest of the sons of man,/ grace flows form your lips.”

The poet does intermixes the king’s physical beauty with his martial prowess: “Gird your sword on your thigh, O warrior,/ Your glory and grandeur.” (4) But with the warrior’s sword is balanced by the highest quality of kingship as he rides a metaphorical horse of the essential qualities of leadership: “And in your grandeur pass onward,/ mount on a word of truth, humility and justice, and let your right hand shoot forth terrors.” (5)

He will conquer the nation’s enemies as “peoples fall beneath you,” (6) but again justly, as he is holding “a scepter of right, your kingship’s scepter.” (7) Above all is that “You loved justice and hated evil.” It is for this reason that “did God your God anoint you with oil of joy over your fellows.” (8)

While it’s tempting to draw parallels here with Jesus as King Jesus riding triumphantly onto Jerusalem, I think the wiser course is to simply enjoy these verses for their magisterial beauty and underlying joy that a king who loves justice and hates evil has come to lead Israel.

Job 9: Job responds to Bildad’s deuteronomic theology that Job must have sinned to cause these woes. He agrees with his interlocutor that what he has said is true, but there is the fundamental problem of the disparity be tween God and man: “Indeed I know that this is so; /but how can a mortal be just before God? /If one wished to contend with him,/ one could not answer him once in a thousand.” (2,3). We humans are simply too puny to contend with God.

He goes on to describe a God who controls all creation, “who shakes the earth out of its place,…who commands the sun,” (7) that is simply beyond our understanding, much less our communion with God: “Look, he passes by me, and I do not see him;/ he moves on, but I do not perceive him.” (11) God is so great, so enormous, he is beyond being visible, much less understandable. Job is drawing the obvious conclusion that we therefore have no power whatsoever over God; we are simply the pawns in God’s cosmic chess game: “He snatches away; who can stop him?/ Who will say to him, ‘What are you doing?’” (12)

And therefore there cannot be justice, much less reconciliation with God: “ If it is a matter of justice, who can summon him?” (19) We cannot come into court before God, and even if we did, “Though I am innocent, my own mouth would condemn me;/ though I am blameless, he would prove me perverse.” (20)

Job raises the issue of theodicy; how there can be evil in the world with a just God? Job’s view is simple, depressing and modern: “he destroys both the blameless and the wicked” (22) with equal abandon. In fact, Job sees God as vindictive and cruel (which is understandable!): “ he mocks at the calamity of the innocent./The earth is given into the hand of the wicked;/ he covers the eyes of its judges.” (24) God will always win as “there is no umpire between us.” (33)

When we feel abandoned by God and despair reigns in our lives, there is nothing we can say or think that Job has not already said. To feel abandoned and worse, to feel God has unjustly punished us is the darkest of all feelings. Yet as Job proves, it is an all too common human condition. We see no light; there is only darkness.

Romans 14:1–12: Paul turns from high theology to addressing common human behavior: our ability to judge others quickly and harshly. (I’d love to know the backstory to this chapter!) How many times have I done exactly what Paul condemns here: “Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions.” (1) We welcome new Christians and then immediately go about the project of instilling “correct theology” into them or worse, as Paul intimates here, telling them that their views are uninformed, naive, or simply wrong. When our only duty is to welcome them into the fellowship.

We also need to learn to deal with differences of all kinds within the church and avoid judging those who do not do or say as we do: “Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them.” (3) We each are responsible for one thing: our own faith and “It is before [our] own lord that [we] stand or fall.” (4). And it is God who dispenses grace not judgement: “And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.” (4b). The question is, what are we doing? Are we helping our brothers and sisters to stand before the Lord–or are we cutting them off at the knees?

Paul also asserts the truth that we will each practice our faith differently: “Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.” (6) So, the simple question remains, “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister?” And the simple answer: “For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.” (10)

How many church splits would have been avoided or “worship wars” been settled peacefully if we had simply heeded Paul’s advice here?  Paul’s message is simplicity itself: We are not the ones qualified to render judgement–even on those who accuse us unjustly. Our sole duty is to respond in love and patience. And for those in positions of leadership, their responsibility not to render arbitrary judgement is even greater.

Psalm 44:17–26; Job 8; Romans 13

Psalm 44:17–26: At this final section of this psalm, the psalmist is figuratively shaking his fist at God, reminding God that even though so many bad things have happened–explicitly or implicitly caused by God–they have remained faithful: “All this befell us, yet we did not forget You.” (18a) Not only did they not forget, but “Our heart has not failed,/ nor have our footsteps strayed form Your path.” (19) even though God has dealt harshly with them even “though You thrust us down to the sea monster’s place/ and with death’s darkness covered us over.” (20)

Then the psalmist  turns to logic, noting that “Had we forgotten the name of God/ and spread our palms to an alien God” (21) God, being God, would surely have noticed: “would not God have fathomed it?” (21a). And then, more harshly, telling God that they have been suffering for him: “For Your sake we are killed all day long,/ we are counted as sheep for slaughter.” (23)

Wake up, god! “Awake, why sleep, O master!/ Rouse up, neglect not forever.” (24) Then questioning again, why has God simply disappeared in this desperate hour of need: “Why do You hide Your face,/ forget our affliction, our oppression?” (25). Unlike many other psalms of supplication, which end on a note of assurance that God will indeed respond, this psalm ends on one last desperate plea, “Rise as a help to us/ and redeem us for the sake of Your kindness.” (27)

When we think God has utterly abandoned us, this psalm stands a s a stark reminder that we are not the first ones who have felt this way. No matter what our arguments to God–passion, logic, desperation–this psalm has been there ahead of us. And there is no darker feeling than to feel, even believe, that God has abandoned us at our darkest hour of need. But like the psalmist, our pleas end on the note of remembering that God loves us despite his seeming absence. A difficult prayer indeed.

Job 8: Job’s second friend, Bildad the Shuhite, elucidates the deuteronomic theology that is still pervasive today. The logic is simple as Bildad asks rhetorically, “Does God pervert justice?/ Or does the Almighty[a] pervert the right?” (3) Surely, he argues, your children must have “sinned against him,” and therefore God “delivered them into the power of their transgression.” (4)  All you have to do, Job, Bildad argues, is “make supplication to the Almighty.” (5) But then the “killer” qualifier: “if you are pure and upright,/ surely then he will rouse himself for you.” (6) But as the psalmist above has already reminded us, God is not a quid pro quo God. Even when our hearts are pure, God won’t necessarily be there.

But the idea that God could disappear or that bad things could happen to people who still love God is simply outside the scope of Bildad’s theology. Surely, his friend argues, Job must have forgotten or offended God somewhere along the line because what has happened to him, happens to everyone who offends God: “Such are the paths of all who forget God;/ the hope of the godless shall perish.” (13)

Bidad’s words, “See, God will not reject a blameless person,/ nor take the hand of evildoers.”  (20) echo down through the centuries to the present moment, and have left in their wake innumerable people, racked with guilt because they believe that they are not good enough to be acceptable to God. This cause-effect God is what our minds imagine to be true. But Job is the proof that the reality of God is far more complicated than that.

Romans 13: Having completed his long theological disquisition on the relationship of Jews and Gentiles with his marvelous advice on how to live the Christian life at the end of chapter 12, Paul turns to address what seems to be a list of questions that have been presented to him.

The first (and contentious) item is the Christian’s relationship with the authorities and the secular state, here Rome. Paul makes it clear: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.” (1) He has an optimistic view of rulers, as well, asserting that at heart they are concerned with justice: “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval.” (3). And finally, appropriate to the this time of year, “Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.” (7).

This is one of those places where I don’t think Paul is completely right. His view of rulers is too optimistic, I think. Had the Founders hewed strictly to Paul’s statement there would not have been an American revolution. And I’m guessing that the German Christians of the 1930s and 1940s justified their acceptance of Hitler’s tyranny based on these verses, and all the world paid a heavy price. Rome was full of tyrants, and later when Christians were persecuted they defied Paul’s advice here when they willingly died for Christ’s cause.

I think the key to understanding Paul’s attitude here lies at the end of the chapter when he writes urgently, “the night is far gone, the day is near.” (11) Jesus’ return was imminent, perhaps in his own lifetime, Paul believed, and therefore the injustices of the present world could be endured for a short while. Don’t start your own revolution, he seems to be saying, because soon all the world will experience the revolution of Christ’s public return to earth.

Although Jesus did not return in Paul’s lifetime, his advice at the end of the chapter still stands as highly relevant to us as we still wait: “let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy.” (13). Two thousand years later, our aim must always be to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” (14)

Romans 12:9–21

Today is Easter. I am not writing about all of yesterday’s readings, but this all-important pasage in Romans cannot escape comment.

Paul tells us what living a Christian life as if we actually really believe Christ has risen is all about. Paul is all about lists, many of them outlining sins and bad deeds. But here and in Philippians he outlines the qualities of the Christian life. That it’s our responsibility to take our faith seriously and act accordingly.

He begins with love: “Let love be genuine.” None of that ersatz insincere stuff, but genuine love that comes from Jesus Christ and that we demonstrate to those around us. The world abound in fake love to the point that the word is just short of being hopelessly corrupted. This is the love that stands beside those who are suffering; the love willing to take the risks involved in treating ebola patients; the love of a caretaking spouse for a dying wife or husband. It is far away from the celebrity “love” one sees on People magazine covers.

To make the contrast all the stronger, Paul juxtaposes love with hate in his very next breath: “hate what is evil.” He doesn’t say “hate people who are evil.” Our “civilized” society attempts to pretend there is no such thing as evil. That deliberately ramming a plane full or passengers into a mountainside or killing a roomful of first-graders or beheading people of other faiths can be explained solely as a psychological phenomenon or a chemical imbalance in the offender’s brain. Those may be the means, but I remain convinced that evil is afoot–just as it always has been. It cannot be wished away. I have come to believe that Paul is right: there are principalities and powers at work of which we know nothing.

As for actually living the Christian life we begin with”lov[ing] one another with mutual affection and out[doing] one another in honor.” We may despair for the world, but we are to find joy in community. How sad when that does not happen. Yet, as Paul makes clear, the responsibility comes back to each member of the body.

Above all–and particularly appropriate in the ever-escalating culture wars that seem to beset America, we are to respond in love. Paul realizes this is not easy: “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” (18) But even when our tempers are running hot we must remember that “it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” (19). Indeed, rather than the vengeance that our minds so ache for, our hearts are to respond: “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” (20). And above all, resist evil: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (21)

A tall order, but if we are to truly follow Christ, then it’s an order that must always be on our minds in whatever we say or do.

Psalm 44:1–8; Job 4,5,6; Romans 11:19–12:8

Psalm 44:1–8: Today being Good Friday, the opening verse of this psalm speaks to today, even though the events the psalmist describes are far from the events of the day of Jesus’ crucifixion: “God with our own ear we have heard, / our fathers recounted to us/ a deed that You did in their days,/ in days of yore.” (2) We have indeed heard, and unlike the soldiers to whom this psalm is addressed, we also have the incomparable story recoded in all four Gospels.

But as for the real theme of this psalm, it recounts how Israel’s past victories–probably referring specifically to the conquest of Canaan– were accomplished: not just by the military prowess of soldiers, but by God himself: “For not by sword they took hold of the land,…but Your right hand and Your arm,/ and the light of Your face when You favored them.” (4) Acknowledging God as their king, the soldiers ask, “Ordain the victories of Jacob” (5) and give them victory in battle once again.

The martial flavor of this psalm turns gruesome as God becomes the agent of conquest: “Through You we gore our foes,/ through Your name we trample those against us.” (6) This is more than just “God is on our side,” rather it is God is accomplishing his purpose through their actions. It is God who will bring victory: “my sword will not make me victorious. For You rescued us form our foes.” (8)

While we may find the military details of the psalm disturbing, the underlying sense of complete trust in God is what we take away from these verses. Complete trust in God is what brings victory. Our strivings without that faith are ultimately meaningless.

Job 4,5,6: In Job’s despair, his friend Eliphaz makes the deuteronomic argument that because Job has sinned, he is being punished. After all, he asks, “who that was innocent ever perished?/  Or where were the upright cut off?” (4:7) But then, the logical consequence is, “ those who plow iniquity / and sow trouble reap the same.” (4:8).  Not terribly encouraging words to tell a friend who is suffering. But then again, we are all Eliphaz at some time or another, offering reproof and correction when mercy is what’s needed.

Elihaz continues, “As for me, I would seek God,/ and to God I would commit my cause.” (5:8) He is content with letting God be inscrutable. One does does not whine, “Why me, God?” Job merely states, “He does great things and unsearchable, / marvelous things without number.” (5:9) And then goes on to list God’s marvels. Perhaps most pointedly (and apparently without self-irony) he notes that God “saves the needy from the sword of their mouth.” (5:15).  In fact, Elihaz goes so far as to assert, “How happy is the one whom God reproves;/ therefore do not despise the discipline of the Almighty.” (5:17) Really? What we the reader know that Elihaz does not, is that it is not God who has caused Job’s woes. Yet, we are just as quick as Elihaz to blame bad stuff on God and then, just like Elihaz, make a moral calculus out of it.

Jobe is unpressed with Elihaz’ theology as he replies that his straits are not a question of justice vs. injustice: “O that my vexation were weighed,/ and all my calamity laid in the balances!” (6:2) All he wants at this point is death to be granted by God: “O that I might have my request,/ and that God would grant my desire;/ that it would please God to crush me,” (6:8,9). And Job is angry at his friend’s wrong-headed morality: “My companions are treacherous like a torrent-bed,” (6:15) More than anything, he feels abandoned by his friends: “Do you think that you can reprove words,/ as if the speech of the desperate were wind?” and simply asks for proof of his wrongdoing, knowing there is none: “Turn, I pray, let no wrong be done./ Turn now, my vindication is at stake./ Is there any wrong on my tongue?” (6:29,30). 

The brilliance of Job is that it exposes our seemingly good intentions of bringing comfort as a poorly disguised effort to preach rather than listening. No wonder Job feels so modern. Everyone is talking and preaching but few are listening to what God or the Job in their lives is saying.

Romans 11:19–12:8: Paul reminds his Gentile listeners not to feel superior to the Jews who have not accepted Christ as Messiah. We “stand only through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe.” (11:20). Which I take as stepping back and appreciating the enormity of the grace that has been granted to us through the work of Christ–specifically the work we are remembering this Good Friday into Easter Sunday.

The other thing Paul wants to make clear is that everything that has happened and how God has worked remains at its heart a mystery and that Israel will be saved at the end. Our requirement is to remember that “as regards the gospel they are enemies of God[d] for your sake; but as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors ” (11:28). Too bad the church didn’t remember this wise admonition of Paul’s but chose to focus instead on the execrations of the Good Friday Jewish crowd–all resulting in centuries of shameful oppression of the Jews.

We come to Chapter 12 and Paul’s words of incredible wisdom, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (12:2). Our hearts are transformed by grace and faith, but to discern the will of God requires the discipline of our minds. It is the heart / head balance that I think is so essential to the Christian journey. If’s it’s all feelings, then we tend to oscillate all over the place. It’s it’s all pure intellectual energy then we miss experiencing the true love of God. Notice that Paul is not asking us to understand God. That’s impossible. But it’s our responsibility to use our brains to understand the will of God, and specifically, to understand what is “good and acceptable and perfect.” Yet, we waste so much time trying to understand God himself rather than what he would have us be and do right here and right now