Psalm 116:8–14; 1 Samuel 25:18–44; John 5:31–47

Originally published 10/5/2016. revised and updated 10/5/2018.

Psalm 116:8–14: Our grateful psalmist continues his paean of thanksgiving to God for healing and protection:
For You freed me from death,
my eyes from tears,
my foot from slipping
. (8)

Best of all, he can return to a healthy life in his community:
I shall walk before the Lord
in the lands of the living.
 (9)

And God’s healing has caused him to realize that has his cynical doubts were manifestly wrong:
Oh, I was sorely afflicted—
I in my rashness said,
‘All humankind is false.
‘ (10b, 11)

Now that he has been restored to health, our psalmist wishes to express his gratitude not just with words but with action:
What can I give back to the Lord
for all He requited me?
The cup of rescue I lift
and in the name of the Lord I call.” (12, 13)

What a great metaphor: ‘the cup of rescue.’ For us Christians, this image of course leads directly to the cup of the Eucharist and how Christ has rescued us from the depravity of sin and made us right before God.

As always in the Psalms, gratitude expresses itself in public worship:
My vows to the Lord I shall pay
in the sight of all His people.
 (14)

Here’s the challenge: do I express my gratitude for all God has done for me to others? Or do I keep it internalized? This psalm is an excellent reminder that when we are blessed or healed, we should basically shout it from the rooftops.

1 Samuel 25:18–44: Realizing that David and four hundred of his army are approaching rapidly, doubtless to wreak havoc on the ungrateful Nabal, Abigail hastily takes provisions [“two hundred loaves, two skins of wine, five sheep ready dressed, five measures of parched grain, one hundred clusters of raisins, and two hundred cakes of figs” (18)], and loads them on donkeys. She sends the shepherds ahead and sets out without telling her husband.

She purposely encounters David, who complains, “Surely it was in vain that I protected all that this fellow has in the wilderness, so that nothing was missed of all that belonged to him; but he has returned me evil for good.” (21) Insulted, he promises to kill every male in Nabal’s household.

Abigail prostrates herself before David and tells him that so far he has restrained himself and that to kill Nabal and his household would make him like “your enemies and those who seek to do evil to my lord be like Nabal.” (26) With wisdom worthy of a judge of Israel, she reminds David that he his God’s man, “for the Lord will certainly make my lord a sure house, because my lord is fighting the battles of the Lord; and evil shall not be found in you so long as you live.” (28)  Abigail goes on to tell him that if he relents in his intentions of vengeance, “my lord shall have no cause of grief, or pangs of conscience, for having shed blood without cause or for having saved himself.” (31)

David finally comes to his senses and responds with gratitude: first to “the God of Israel, who sent you to meet me today!” (32) and then to Abigail, “Blessed be your good sense, and blessed be you, who have kept me today from bloodguilt and from avenging myself by my own hand!” (33) And he promises not to kill Nabal’s household. Sensible women have prevented disasters—both large and small—down through history when men’s blood runs hot and they are not thinking straight.

Abigail returns to Nabal, who is in the midst of a drunken feast. The next morning she tells Nabal what she’s done and that as a result, David will not attack. Upon hearing this, Nabal promptly has a heart attack and dies ten days later.

Nabal’s death is certainly  convenient: “David sent [messengers] and wooed Abigail, to make her his wife.” (39) Abigail is not only wise, she is humble: “Your servant is a slave to wash the feet of the servants of my lord.” (41)  She becomes David’s wife.

What stands out here is that like all of us David is certainly a creature of his emotions and plans to wreak pretty dire vengeance on Nabal for being insulted. It requires an outside agent, here Abigail, to bring him to his senses and to remember that he is God’s anointed, and it is God whom must follow, not his own fervid desires. This story is certainly an apt demonstration of vengeance being God’s not David’s—and certainly not ours.

We will recall Abigail’s wisdom later when David falls in love with Bathsheba and she is not around to warn him before he acts rashly.

John 5:31–47: The gospel writer’s philosophical narrative style is on full display as Jesus continues his exceedingly dense sermon. Speaking as if he were in court, Jesus reminds his listeners that John the Baptist is a true witness to him: “There is another who testifies on my behalf, and I know that his testimony to me is true.” (32) John, as Jesus’ predecessor, “was a burning and shining lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light.” (35) In yet another manifestation of one of the overarching metaphors of this gospel—Jesus as light—and it’s clear that the light has shifted from John to Jesus.

He goes on to assert, “But I have a testimony greater than John’s.” (36), which is God himself. Jesus tells his listeners that “the Father who sent me has himself testified on my behalf. [But] you have never heard his voice or seen his form.” (37) One can imagine the skepticism building to anger among the Pharisees who were listening to Jesus, doubtless thinking they were hearing the ravings of a heretical lunatic.

In a direct reference back to the opening verses of the gospel, Jesus bluntly tells them they “do not have his word abiding in you, because you do not believe him whom he has sent.” (38) There’s that business about believing once again….

In what has total relevance to many Christians today who are obsessed with the Bible rather than who it is pointing to, Jesus is crystal clear: He tells them that they “search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf.” (39) Just as the Pharisees sought salvation in the scriptures, too many people, IMHO, worship the Bible as the inerrant word of God. Jesus says almost disbelievingly, “Yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” (40) As the saying goes, Jesus is making it clear that “It’s all about Jesus.”

And without Jesus, we cannot experience the true glory of God’s love: “I know that you do not have the love of God in you.” (42)  In a statement that makes it clear that the New Covenant replaces the Old and once again raises the theme of belief, Jesus hurls his final accusation at the Pharisees and Scribes: “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But if you do not believe what he wrote, how will you believe what I say?” (46, 47) It’s all about Jesus, but as far as our gospel writer is concerned, it’s also all about belief. We either believe and experience the love of God, or we don’t. As with all things involving Jesus, there is no middle ground.

Psalm 116:1–7; 1 Samuel 24:1–25:17; John 5:16–30

Originally published 10/4/2016. revised and updated 10/4/2018.

Psalm 116:1–7: It’s hard to top the personal joy expressed in the opening line of this psalm of thanksgiving:
I love the Lord, for He has heard
my voice, my supplications.
 (1)

This psalm is the mirror image of a psalm of supplication; it’s what is sung or spoken following the realization that God has indeed answered those desperate prayers:
For He has inclined His ear to me
when in my days I called
.” (2)

There’s little question that when our psalmist prayed it was in a time of urgent need when he was near death—perhaps from illness or on the battlefield:
The cords of death encircled me—
and the straits of Sheol found me—
distress and sorrow did I find
. (3)

The psalmist describes those moments when he turned to God, probably as his last resort:
And in the name of the Lord I called.
‘Lord, pray, save my life
.’ (4)

Notice how short that prayer is: just five words. God never requires a lengthy explanation of the circumstances. He already knows.

And God answers. In that answer, our poet realizes the marvelous qualities of the God to whom he prayed, especially his mercy:
Gracious the Lord and just,
and our God shows mercy.
 (5)

The next verse reveals the psalmist’s deep humility with its image of a drowning man being rescued:
The Lord protects the simple.
I plunged down, but me He did rescue
. (6)

Storm-tossed by desperate circumstances, our poet has cried out to God, who has heard him and rescued him. And now, he can return to the inner peace that only God can bring:
Return, my being, to your calm,
for the Lord has requited you.
 (7)

These verses describe each of us when we encounter illness, danger, or potentially great loss. We can cry out in prayer and God will hear us. Even if our prayers are not answered in the way we may wish, an honest relationship with God will always bring us inner peace and tranquility—the calm harbor of God’s rest.

1 Samuel 24:1–25:17: With the distraction of fighting off the Philistines finished, Saul quickly returns to his overriding obsession: killing David. David and his men are hiding in the back of a cave that Saul has selected as a good place to “relieve himself.”

David’s men urge their leader to kill Saul and get it over with: “Here is the day of which the Lord said to you, ‘I will give your enemy into your hand, and you shall do to him as it seems good to you.’” (24:4a) Rather than killing Saul, David “went and stealthily cut off a corner of Saul’s cloak.” (4b). David regrets even this action, realizing that despite everything Saul is still God’s anointed king.

Saul leaves the cave and David comes outside “and called after Saul, “My lord the king!” When Saul looked behind him, David bowed with his face to the ground, and did obeisance.” (24:8) David, showing Saul the piece of cut-off cloak tells Saul that while he could have killed the king, he promises “‘I will not raise my hand against my lord; for he is the Lord’s anointed.’” (10)

David gives an eloquent speech, concluding with “May the Lord therefore be judge, and give sentence between me and you. May he see to it, and plead my cause, and vindicate me against you.” (15) When Saul hears this promise he replies, “Is this your voice, my son David?” Saul lifted up his voice and wept.” (16) At this moment, Saul knows that David has done a merciful and great thing: “For who has ever found an enemy, and sent the enemy safely away? So may the Lord reward you with good for what you have done to me this day.” (19)

Saul comes to realize that David will be king and coming to his senses, he asks but one favor: that David will spare Saul’s descendants: “you will not wipe out my name from my father’s house.” (21) As we’ve observed before, the custom of the time was that when one king takes over from another, the predecessor’s family is executed.

David swears he will not kill Saul’s descendants. At this point of reconciliation, “Saul went home; but David and his men went up to the stronghold.” (22) Obviously everything isn’t exactly peaches and cream just yet. But David’s mercy is just one more way that our authors contrast David’s God-fearing nobility against Saul’s self-centeredness. The question hangs in the air: has Saul truly repented?

We arrive at the almost parenthetical comment that Samuel, who has led so wisely and done so many great things for Israel, dies and is buried at his home in Ramah.

We meet Nabal the very rich but very surly man in Carmel, who has a “clever and beautiful” wife named Abigail. David sends ten young men to tell Nabal that they have come on a feast day and to show hospitality. to David and his men.

Upon hearing this request, Nabal doesn’t believe them and responds snidely, “Who is David? Who is the son of Jesse? There are many servants today who are breaking away from their masters.” (25:10) Upon hearing this David instructs his men to “strap on his sword!” (25:13) and sets out for Nabal’s house accompanied by 400 men.

Meanwhile, one of Nabal’s shepherds tells Abigail that when “David sent messengers out of the wilderness to salute our master; and he shouted insults at them.” (25:14). The servant points out that David and his men were protecting Nabal’s shepherds “and we never missed anything when we were in the fields, as long as we were with them.” (15) This servant knows that an angry and insulted David is coming their way and pleads for Abigail to intercede with Nabal since “he is so ill-natured that no one can speak to him.” (25:17)

Tune in tomorrow for the exciting conclusion of this story.

John 5:16–30: Jesus reaps the Pharisitical whirlwind for his effrontery in “doing such things on the sabbath.” (16) Moreover, he compounds matters by adding the heresy by “calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God.” (18)

In response to these accusations, Jesus gives a lengthy philosophical discourse on the relationship between Father and Son. For me, there’s ambiguity here. Is Jesus talking about himself or is he describing a theological construct about Father and Son?  His statements must have blown the Pharisee’s minds when he tells them, “The Father judges no one but has given all judgment to the Son,”  (22) Is the Son the Messiah? If so, is the Messiah really the Son of God? And above all, Is Jesus referring to himself?

Our gospel writer once again raises this gospel’s underlying theme of belief being the essential ingredient: “I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life.” (24)

Just to make things even more confusing, Jesus adds that “when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” (25) Given that most Jews did not believe in an afterlife, is Jesus speaking of some sort of metaphorical death?

Then, in what just seems to muddy the waters even more, Jesus adds an eschatological theme to the mix: “for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.” (28, 29)

This passage is puzzling on many fronts. We can see from our vantage point that Jesus is talking about himself since we know how the story comes out. But to his listeners he must have sounded like a theological lunatic at best and a heretic deserving of death at worse. The question is, why did John write this passage? I suspect there were various heresies such as modalism floating about regarding the nature of the Trinity being defined as sequential manifestations of a single God and therefore not in relationship with each other.

Psalm 115:9–18; 1 Samuel 23; John 5:1–15

Originally published 10/3/2016. revised and updated 10/3/2018.

Psalm 115:9–18: By contrast with those nations who worship carved idols, our psalmist exhorts the faithful:
O Israel, trust in the Lord,
their help and shield is He.
 (9)

As is the nature of Psalms, especially when the poet is making an urgent point, this theme is repeated in parallel verses that surely indicate this psalm was sung by the congregation:
House of Aaron, O trust in the Lord,
their help and their shield is He.
You who fear the Lord, trust in the Lord,
their help and their shield is He.” (10, 11)

In a monotheistic religion such as Judaism and Christianity, where there are no visible idols or obvious manifestations of God’s presence, it truly becomes all about trust. This of course is exactly our situation today. Do we trust in the Lord, especially when he seems to be absent amidst the tumult of a world that increasingly rejects God? Or do we place our trust in idolatrous tangibles such as wealth and power?

The psalmist goes on to reassure us that God will indeed remember us and in that recollection, God will surely bless Israel and all its inhabitants:
The Lord recalls us, may he bless,
may He bless the house of Israel,
may He bless the house of Aaron. (12)

Moreover, God’s blessings will be equally distributed among the poor and the rich:
May He bless those who fear the Lord,
the lesser with the great.
 (13)

This is important for us to remember because it so often seems that God has blessed the wealthy and forgotten the poor. Of course we are the ones who are supposed to be channels of God’s blessing to those such as the poor and lonely, who do not feel blessed.

The psalm’s concluding stanza is pure worship and a beautiful benediction that reminds us we are already blessed:
May the Lord grant You increase,
both you and your children.
Blessed are you by the Lord,
maker of heaven and earth.
” (15)

Our psalmist concludes by reminding us of God’s created order:
The heavens are heaven for the Lord,
and the earth He has given to humankind
. (16)

Being blessed by God is a privilege for all of us who are living and we therefore have an obligation to worship him:
The dead do not praise the Lord
nor all who go down in silence.
 (17)

This verse provides insight into why Jews did not believe in an afterlife. Of course for us under the terms of the new Covenant, there is an afterlife. But as the psalmist indicates, it’s our responsibility to worship God in the here and now, not in the future. For us who are living,
we will bless Yah
now and forevermore.
 (18)

1 Samuel 23: Even though David and is ragtag army are on the run, David remains faithful to God. He hears that “The Philistines are fighting against Keilah, and are robbing the threshing floors.” (1). David inquires of God, “Shall I go and attack these Philistines?” (2) God affirms this plan, but David’s men are afraid, so to be sure this is God’s will, David asks God once again. God once again replies, “Yes, go down to Keilah; for I will give the Philistines into your hand.” (4) David does so, and they save Keilah.

Saul has heard that David is at Keilah and sees his chance “to go down to Keilah, to besiege David and his men.” (8) Upon hearing this, David again inquires of God whether Saul’s intentions are evil and if David’s men will betray him. God replies that “They [the Ziphites] will surrender you [to Saul].” (12) David and 600 men escape Keilah and Saul temporarily ceases his pursuit. Our authors make it crystal clear that David remains under God’s protection: “Saul sought him every day, but the Lord did not give him into his hand.” (14)

The contrast here between Saul and David could not be more stark. David trusts God and prays for God’s guidance at every step. Saul, having abandoned God long ago appears ever more monomanical — hell-bent on killing David.

Still on the run, David is in the wilderness when Jonathan reappears and tells the fugitive, “Do not be afraid; for the hand of my father Saul shall not find you; you shall be king over Israel, and I shall be second to you; my father Saul also knows that this is so.” (17) At last, David knows the reason for Saul’s relentless pursuit.

Some Ziphites plan to betray David to Saul, who sends his people to go find David. Saul instructs these men, “Look around and learn all the hiding places where he lurks, and come back to me with sure information.” (23) Saul and David continue to play cat and mouse, “Saul went on one side of the mountain, and David and his men on the other side of the mountain.” (26) Saul is about to capture David when he is told the Philistines are raiding Israel. So,”Saul stopped pursuing David, and went against the Philistines.” (28)

It’s a close call for David, but we can be sure that Saul will return to his relentless pursuit of David.

I think this chapter gives us a tangible example of how God protects those who trust in him. Even though he is on the run, David always has time for prayer and listening to God. It is this relationship alone and the fact that despite all the troubles that surround him, it is David’s priority of being in relationship with God that keeps him safe.

John 5:1–15: At the pool of Bethzatha, Jesus inquires of the invalid ,who has been ill for 38 years, why the sick man has not yet taken advantage of the pool’s healing waters. The man replies, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” (7) Jesus tells him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” (8) Which the man does. For me, this healing is a perfect illustration of what Jesus meant when he said “the last shall be first” (Matthew 20:16)

But Jesus has performed this miracle on the Sabbath and “the Jews said to the man who had been cured, “It is the sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your mat.” (10) The man explains that “The man who made me well said to me, ‘Take up your mat and walk.’” (11) But he does not know it was Jesus who healed him, and now Jesus is nowhere to be seen.

The healed man and Jesus subsequently encounter each other in the Temple and Jesus tell him, “See, you have been made well! Do not sin anymore, so that nothing worse happens to you.” (14) The man then informs “the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well.” (15) We’ll certainly see the fallout from Jesus’ Sabbath act shortly…

What’s intriguing here is that it is Jesus appears to support the deuteronomic standard of the Pharisees that illness is a direct consequence of sin when he says, “Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you.” I suppose we could read this statement that sin is the act of separating ourselves from God as the man had been separated from the healing waters of the pool. We can also conclude that refraining from sin is a means of remaining healthy in body, mind, and spirit.

Psalm 115:1–8; 1 Samuel 21:10–22:23; John 4:43–54

Originally published 10/1/2016. revised and updated 10/2/2018.

Psalm 115:1–8: This psalm draws a bright boundary between mankind and God. Only God is worthy of our worship:
Not to us, O Lord, not to us
but to Your name give glory
for Your kindness and Your steadfast truth.
 (1)

Our psalmist goes on to ask and answer the mocking questions of surrounding nations and religions—the same questions that mockers ask today about Christianity:
Why should the nations say,
‘Where is their [Israel’s] god?
 (2)

The answer is obvious: God is invisible because he’s up above overseeing his creation: “…when our God is in the heavens—
all that He has desired He has done
. (3)

The invisible Hebrew God was unique in a world that relied on carved deities, which our poet goes to mock in a highly creative polemic. He starts out making sure we know that these idols are in fact a human creation:
Their idols are silver and gold,
the handiwork of man.
”  (4)

He runs down the list feature-by-feature comparing their intrinsic lifelessness to humans, who are very much alive:
A mouth they have but they do not speak,
eyes they have, but they do not see.
Ears they have but they do not hear,
a nose they have but they do not smell. (5, 6)

The pagan idols are without senses, unfeeling, immobile and silent:
Their hands—but they do not feel;
their feet—but they do not walk;
they make no sound with their throat. (7)

Our psalmist then uses this lifelessness to turn a curse back on those who would place their trust in inanimate objects—that they will become as lifeless as the objects they worship:
Like them may be those who make them,
all who trust in them.
 (8)

While our psalmist is calling out carved and decorated wooden figures, we would do well to read and reflect on the idols in our own lives. Into what inanimate objects that seem to have life, but are actually dead do we place our own trust? I think a modern idol is the Internet and especially, social media (and more darkly, pornography). We may think we are experiencing true life online, but it is a chimera. Only in real human relationships do we experience true life. Only in the living God in heaven do we worship in truth and not in vain.

1 Samuel 21:10–22:23: On the run from Saul, David comes to King Achish of Gath. The king’s servants mockingly recall “Is this not David the king of the land?  Did they not sing to one another of him in dances,
‘Saul has killed his thousands,

     and David his ten thousands’?” (21:11)

This mockery makes David fearful and to ensure he is not killed by Achish, “he pretended to be mad when in their presence.” (21:14) Achish, who is one of the more interesting of the tribal kings in the region near Israel—and certainly one of the wittiest, utters the famous line, “Do I lack madmen, that you have brought this fellow to play the madman in my presence?” (15)

David moves on and hides in the cave of Adullam. This must have been close to Bethlehem because “when his brothers and all his father’s house heard of it, they went down there to him.” (22:1)  A ragtag army of “everyone who was in distress, and everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was discontented” (22:2) forms around David and soon he has a retinue of 400 men.

David and his little army move on to Moab where the prophet Gad advises him to “not remain in the stronghold; leave, and go into the land of Judah.” (4) Which he does.

Meanwhile, Saul has become completely paranoid and obsessed with killing David. Saul’s servant, Doeg the Edomite, reveals that David received the sword of Goliath from Ahimelech the priest. The priest is brought before Saul, who accuses him of treason. Ahimelech protests his innocence and tells Saul, “Who among all your servants is so faithful as David? He is the king’s son-in-law, and is quick[c] to do your bidding, and is honored in your house.” (14) Our authors are making sure we know that David is the innocent party here.

Undeterred, Saul commands Doeg to kill the priests of Nob, including Ahimelech: “on that day he killed eighty-five who wore the linen ephod. Nob, the city of the priests, he put to the sword; men and women, children and infants, oxen, donkeys, and sheep, he put to the sword.” (18, 19)

One of the priest’s sons, Abiathar, escapes and makes it to David’s camp, where David, upon hearing the news about Nob, takes responsibility for what has happened and tells Abiathar, “Stay with me, and do not be afraid; for the one who seeks my life seeks your life; you will be safe with me.” (23) Notice David’s confidence: even though is the object of a ferocious manhunt, he trusts God will protect him and tells the priest’s son that “you will be safe with me.” 

This passage draws the stark contrast between Saul, who has fallen into what can only be described as monomaniacal madness, and David, who is confident that God will protect him. And Saul will surely pay for his reprehensible act at Nob.

John 4:43–54: Jesus leaves Samaria and returns to Galilee. But he does not return anonymously: “the Galileans welcomed him, since they had seen all that he had done in Jerusalem at the festival; for they too had gone to the festival.” (45) His first stop is Cana, “where he had changed the water into wine.” (46) This time, it’s the son of a royal official who begs Jesus to come to Capernaum and heal his young son.

At first, Jesus is skeptical, believing the man is just looking for a personal demonstration of one of those signs and wonders he’s heard about. But the official persists: “Sir, come down before my little boy dies.” Jesus relents, and tells him that his son will live. Since this gospel is all about belief, John tells us, “The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and started on his way.” (50)

The man encounters his servants running up to him before he arrives home. As Jesus had promised, his son has been healed and his servants tell him that the son began recovering at exactly the same time Jesus told him that his son would live. Once again, driving home his theme of belief, John tells us, “so he himself believed, along with his whole household.” (53)

I think John’s point about this remote control healing is that the physical Jesus, who was certainly not available to John’s community, nor to us, is not what’s required to experience Jesus’ healing power. But belief certainly is required.

 

Psalm 114; 1 Samuel 20:18–21:9; John 4:39–42

Originally published 9/30/2016. revised and updated 9/29/2018.

Psalm 114: There is no introduction or prelude to this psalm. The exodus is the national history of Israel and its relationship to God is compressed into four compact lines:
“When Israel came out of Egypt,
the house of Jacob from a barbarous-tongued folk,
Judah became His [God’s] sanctuary,
Israel His dominion.” (1,2)

Our psalmist recalls the two events that bookend the Exodus: the crossing of the sea out of Egypt and the crossing of the Jordan into Canaan some forty years later when the river stopped flowing so the Israelites could cross:
The sea saw and fled,
Jordan turned back.
 (3)

The psalm shifts direction from that we would expect it to take (i.e., Israel worships God) as it celebrates nature’s response to these awesome events:
The mountains danced like rams,
hills like lambs of the flock.
” (4)

In one of the most striking rhetorical questions in the Psalms, our poet addresses these four elements [sea, river, mountains, hills] of nature as characters in God’s great play:
What is wrong with you, sea, that you flee,
Jordan, that you turn back,
mountains, that you dance like rams,
hills like lambs of the flock? (5,7)

Of course there is nothing “wrong.” Our poet quickly answers his own question: nature, indeed all the earth, also worships God:
Before the Master, whirl, O earth,
before the God of Jacob, (7)

Our psalmist makes it clear that it is God, not Moses, who parted the sea and turned back the river—and who produced water in the desert during the 40-year journey:
Who turns the rock to a pond of water,
flint to a spring of water.
” (8)

The psalm ends abruptly here but it gives us a glimpse of how God is not only at the center of Israel’s national story, but that all creation—even inanimate objects such as seas, rivers, and mountains—worship God the Creator. This psalm reminds us that it is arrogant of we humans to think we are God’s only creation and we therefore have the right to dominate natural creation.

Further, God is indeed the source of joy throughout all his creation. And we experience that joy when we escape the structures and stresses created by humankind and take respite in God’s pure natural creation.

1 Samuel 20:18–21:9: The (soap) opera continues. Jonathan suggests how he will communicate whether David can come back to court or keep running. David’s friend will shoot three arrows. If they land beside David, it’s safe to come back, “But if I say to the young man,Look, the arrows are beyond you,’ then go; for the Lord has sent you away.” (20:18) It takes a couple of days for Saul to figure out David isn’t coming to the new moon dinner. [BTW, the very fact that Saul is celebrating a notably pagan occasion such as the new moon is an indication of how far he has fallen away from God.]

When Jonathan tells him that David is in Bethlehem, Saul curses Jonathan, telling him that “For as long as the son of Jesse lives upon the earth, neither you nor your kingdom shall be established.” (31) Now we understand the root of the king’s jealousy: he knows that as long as David is alive, Saul cannot establish a dynasty through Jonathan.

Jonathan replies that David is innocent. More furious than ever, Saul flings a spear at his own son. In response, “Jonathan rose from the table in fierce anger and ate no food on the second day of the month, for he was grieved for David, and because his father had disgraced him.” (20:34) And he runs from the court.

The prearranged arrow shoot clearly communicates that David is in danger should he return to Saul he would be killed. Jonathan sends the boy who collected the arrows away and “David rose from beside the stone heap and prostrated himself with his face to the ground.” (41a) And in one of the most poignant scenes in the OT, “they kissed each other, and wept with each other; David wept the more.” (41b) Jonathan gives a blessing to David, swearing eternal fealty: “Go in peace, since both of us have sworn in the name of the Lord, saying, ‘The Lord shall be between me and you, and between my descendants and your descendants, forever.’” (42) And they part.

Now on the run, David “came to Nob to the priest Ahimelech.” (21:1) He and his few retainers are hungry and David asks for bread. The old priest replies that only holy bread is available, but “provided that the young men have kept themselves from women” (21:4) they may have the bread. David assures the priest that neither he nor his men have had sex, “when I go on an expedition; the vessels of the young men are holy even when it is a common journey; how much more today will their vessels be holy?” (5)

Jesus will mention this incident of David and the holy bread when he is accused by the Pharisees of breaking the Sabbath by healing people.

David has escaped without weapons, explaining “I did not bring my sword or my weapons with me, because the king’s business required haste.” (8) He asks Ahimelech if he has a sword. In one of those great coincidences we see in the movies, it turns out that the priest has Goliath’s sword “wrapped in a cloth behind the ephod” (9a). David replies, There is none like it; give it to me.” (9b)

The break between David and Saul, which the latter has caused because of his-self-centered desire to establish a dynasty, has brought nothing but sorrow, especially in the relationship between David and Jonathan. It’s a stark illustration of how human ambition corrupts and ruins not just the narcissist himself, but has a profoundly negative impact on those around him. The relationship between Saul and his son has been broken forever.

John 4:39–42: These few verses are the magnificent coda to Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman. Through this single disgraced woman, whose shame was so great that she would come to the well only when no one else was there, “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” (39) This is certainly a clear message to the gospel writer’s audience that Jesus has come to save everyone, not just Jews.

Jesus and his disciples stay in Samaria for two days, “And many more believed because of his word.” (41) What’s significant here is that while the woman’s testimony brought many out to hear Jesus, it is Jesus’ message—his Word— that brings them to true belief: “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.” (42) Once again, [and for the second time in the Samaria encounter], John is telling us very clearly that Jesus is not only the Jewish messiah, but “Savior of the world.”

I read the Samaritan episode this as John’s version of the Great Commission that we read at the very end of Matthew’s gospel. What’s intriguing here is that John makes it clear that Jesus was Savior even before he died and rose again. In John’s narrative, this encounter demonstrates that it is Jesus as Word that has come directly from God that has salvific power. Yes, his death and resurrection are crucially important, but it is Jesus’ incarnated nature itself in which the power of God so clearly resides.

 

Psalm 113; 1 Samuel 19:8–20:17; John 4:27–38

Originally published 9/29/2016. revised and updated 9/29/2018.

Psalm 113: This “praise psalm” opens with “Hallelujah,” which means “praise God,” followed immediately by the imperative command, “Praise, O servants of the Lord,/ praise arise the Lord’s name.” (1)

Praising God transcends time: “May the Lord’s name be blessed/ now and forevermore.” (2) Praising God also transcends space: “From the place where the sun rises to where it sets,/ praised be the name of the Lord.” (3)

NT Wright notwithstanding, this is one of those places where we get the impression that heaven is “up there” rather than right next to us in another dimension: “High over the nations, the Lord,/ over the heavens His glory.” (4) This “upthereness” is amplified in the next two verses as our psalmist asks rhetorically,
Who is like the Lord our God,
Who sits high above,
Who sees down below
in the heavens and on the earth?” (5,6)

But God does not just look down on earth, and as deists would have it, passively observe, God acts on his highest priority, the rescue of the poor and needy:
He raises the poor from the dust,
from the dungheap lifts the needy,
to seat him among the princes,
among the princes of his people.” (7, 8)

Notice how the act of lifting up the poor reflects this same verticality of God looking down from heaven. As God has lifted up the poor, and made men once again stand in honor among princes, so too, God acts domestically for women by eliminating her shame and bringing children into her life: “He seats the barren woman in her home/ a happy mother of sons.” (9) Yes, sons, since it was sons through which she would obtain honore. This is certainly to our culture but there was no greater honor in ancient cultures than for a mother to bear sons.

1 Samuel 19:8–20:17: Saul’s forbearance in agreeing not to kill David is short lived and he attempts to kill David with his spear as the younger man plays music. Sauk remains determined: “Saul sent messengers to David’s house to keep watch over him, planning to kill him in the morning.” (19:11) David’s loving wife, helps Michal him escape and then places an (apparently life-sized) idol in David’s bed to fool the messengers. Saul demands to know why his daughter allowed David to escape but she replies with the ruse that her own life was in danger: “Michal answered Saul, “He said to me, ‘Let me go; why should I kill you?’” (17). Clever woman.

David flees to Ramah and joins Samuel. Saul finds out and sends messengers to Ramah to capture David. However, “the spirit of God came upon the messengers of Saul, and they also fell into a prophetic frenzy.” (20) The prophetic frenzy happens again with the next set of messengers. Finally, Saul himself comes and “he too stripped off his clothes, and he too fell into a frenzy before Samuel. He lay naked all that day and all that night.” (24) For the moment we leave Saul lying naked in the dirt at Ramah.

David seeks out Jonathan and asks in desperation,“What have I done? What is my guilt? And what is my sin against your father that he is trying to take my life?” (20:1) Jonathan is unaware of his father’s plan even though he thinks Saul has told him everything. David arranges to fail to appear at the mandatory ‘new moon dinner,’ at court. He tells Jonathan that he should tell his father when asked that David is missing from dinner because is in Bethlehem for a family gathering. If Saul reacts angrily, Jonathan will know that Saul is out to kill David.

David asks Jonathan, “Who will tell me if your father answers you harshly?” (11) Jonathan says that if David hasn’t heard anything from Jonathan after three days, the coast is clear. Regardless of whatever happens, Jonathan swears lifelong fealty to David, and begs, “never cut off your faithful love from my house, even if the Lord were to cut off every one of the enemies of David from the face of the earth.” (15) Jonathan’s vow is reciprocated when he “made David swear again by his love for him; for he loved him as he loved his own life.” (17) The story of David and Jonathan is the story of intense friendship and, I think, the origin of Jesus’ saying, “ No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13)

Nevertheless, this story is really getting operatic. No wonder Charpentier wrote a now obscure five-act  opera in 1688, “David et Jonathas.”

John 4:27–38: Jesus’ disciples arrive in the midst of his discourse with the Samaritan woman but they (happily for Jesus, the woman, and us) hold their tongues. The woman returns home and famously says, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” (29) The crowd begins to return to where Jesus is.

In the meantime, the disciples plead with Jesus to eat something. In a reflection of his discourse on “living water,” our gospel writer amplifies Jesus simultaneous corporeality and spirituality when Jesus responds, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.” (34) At this point we are to understand that while there is physical water and food to meet our physical needs, Jesus is our spiritual water and food, which is just as crucial as actual water and food to our existence.

Rather than having supper, Jesus extends his comments about metaphorical food to the metaphorical harvest: “But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting.” (35)  Jesus is the sower, but his disciples—and by extension, the church—are the reapers: “I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.” (38)

We need to remember that we are not the ones who labor for the harvesting of other souls. That is the work of the Holy Spirit. We are merely the essential human catalyst for the Spirit’s work.

 

 

Psalm 112; 1 Samuel 18:1–19:7; John 4:1–26

Originally published 9/28/2016. revised and updated 9/28/2018.

Psalm 112: Like the previous psalm, this one is also a “short acrostic” consisting of 10 verses and 22 lines—one each for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet in order. The previous psalm was a catalog of God’s qualities; this one catalogs the attributes of a virtuous man.

Interestingly, this psalm begins with “Hallelujah,” and then states,
Happy the man who fears the Lord.
His commands he keenly desires
. (1)

So, it’s clear to the psalmist that a virtuous life begins with fearing and obeying God. As a result, a God-fearing virtuous person will enjoy many rewards, not least of which is that he will have progeny, who will be “great” and who will remember him, not to mention physical blessings as well:
A great figure in the land his seed shall be,
the generation of the upright shall be blessed
Abundance and wealth in his home,
and his righteousness stands forever. (2, 3)

Our poet expands his view to include the community, and that the response of men so blessed:
Light dawns in darkness for the upright,
gracious and merciful  and just.
 (4)

However, that blessing is contingent on a man following God’s example of generosity and truth-telling:
Good is the man who shows grace and lends,
he sustains his words with justice
. (5)

This perhaps a bit of hyperbole here:
For he shall never stumble,
an eternal remembrance the just man shall be
.” (6)

Never stumble, really?  Of course we need to bear in mind that the poet is describing the ideal virtuous man. We can see where the Pharisees may have started out emulating the precepts of this psalm. But righteousness too often morphs into self-righteousness.

Even when confronted by enemies, who seek to do him harm the faith of a virtuous man is unwavering:
From evil rumor he shall not fear.
His heart is firm, he trusts in the Lord.
 (7)

It is this faithfulness and trust that sustains one:
His heart is staunch, he shall not fear,
till he sees the defeat of his foes.
 (8)

Perhaps the greatest quality that the righteous man can emulate is God’s concern for the poor and needy—the overarching theme of the Psalms and his reward will be great:
He disperses, he gives to the needy,
his righteousness stands forever
.
His horn will be raised in glory. (9).

The psalmist concludes by drawing a sharp contrast with the fate of the wicked. As far as the psalmist is concerned, evildoers come to a dead end in both senses of the word:
The wicked man sees and is vexed,
he gnashes his teeth and he quails
.
The desire of the wicked shall perish. (10b)

1 Samuel 18:1–19:7: Upon hearing David’s story, “the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.” (18:1). Jonathan gives his robe, sword, and armor to David. In our modern era, the temptation is to see this as a homosexual relationship, but I prefer to think of it as a strong male friendship—the like of which seems not to be allowed in today’s over-sensitive politically correct culture.

David went out and was successful wherever Saul sent him” (5) and shortly becomes commander of the army. He also becomes a heartthrob as the women come out to greet the army, singing, Saul has killed his thousands,/ and David his ten thousands.” (7) Unsurprisingly, this makes Saul jealous of David. Ever unstable, at one point Saul hurls his spear at David as the young man plays the lyre in court. 

Our authors point out that “Saul was afraid of David, because the Lord was with him but had departed from Saul.” (12) and Saul banishes David from court. But the Spirit of the Lord remains with David and he continues to enjoy great success. We assume that by this time the population would much rather see David as king than Saul.

In a rather bizarre twist, Saul offers his daughter Michal, who loves David, to become David’s wife, but first Saul insists that David kill 100 Philistines and bring their foreskins(!) to him. David does this and Saul reluctantly gives David Michal as his new wife.

Our authors continue to draw the stark contrast between Saul and David: “Saul realized that the Lord was with David, and that Saul’s daughter Michal loved him, Saul was still more afraid of David.” (28, 29a) Tragically, Saul’s jealousy makes him “David’s enemy from that time forward.” (29b)

Saul plots to assassinate David, but Jonathan intercedes, pointing out that “has not sinned against you, and because his deeds have been of good service to you.” (19:4) Saul relents, and “heeded the voice of Jonathan; Saul swore, “As the Lord lives, he shall not be put to death.” (6)

If we ever needed a biblical case history of the internal and external destructive power of jealousy, Saul is our man.

John 4:1–26: What more can be written about Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well? Jesus is breaking social taboos all over the place: conversing with a Samaritan; speaking to a woman; accusing her truthfully of adultery.

But more than that, John’ symbolism is hard at work here. Jesus says rather mysteriously, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” (10) The woman rather naturally assumes Jesus is speaking of physical water, but Jesus adds that “those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.” (14) Needless to say, the woman would be happy never having to go to the well again.

Jesus goes on and tells the woman’s current marital status and history. The woman observes that Jesus is a prophet and then at first glance, rather oddly that “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you [i.e., the Jews]  say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” (20) Then in what would have been heresy to other Jews, but a wish to be hoped for to a Samaritan, Jesus says, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.” (21)

If we’re not careful, we could read Jesus’ next line the wrong way when he says, “salvation is from the Jews.” (22) But what he’s saying is that salvation comes through one Jew, himself—and not only Jews, but Samaritans, and all mankind who will find salvation through this man who came to earth as a Jew. The woman concludes that Jesus is the Messiah and Jesus confirms her suspicions: “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” (26)

Once again, John puts it out there clearly and directly for everyone to see and understand: This Jesus is indeed the long-awaited Messiah. In this encounter with the Samaritan woman, we learn that the Messiah is for all people, not just the Jews.

 

Psalm 111; 1 Samuel 17:32–58; John 3:27–36

Originally published 9/27/2016. revised and updated 9/27/2018.

Psalm 111: Alter informs us that this psalm is a “short acrostic,” i.e., each line begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet in sequence. It scans like a hymn that would be sung at worship as it describes God’s many wonderful qualities. We know at the outset that it’s sung at worship:
I acclaim the Lord with full heart
in the council of the upright and the assembly. (1)

The next section recalls what God has done for the psalmist and for all of Israel:
Great are the deeds of the Lord,
discovered by all who desire them. (2)

I certainly like the idea that of we but look around, we too will discover what God has done for us and for all humankind.

The poem then outlines what those wonderful qualities are, opening with the reality of God’s eternal nature:
Glory and grandeur His acts
and His bounty stands for all time.  (3)

Besides glory and grandeur, God provides the necessities of life and God never abandons his Covenant with Israel or with us:
Sustenance He gives to those who fear Him,
He recalls forever His pact. (5)

God is the everlasting source of truth:
His handiwork, truth and justice,
trustworthy all His precepts,
Staunch for all time, forever
fashioned in truth and right. (7, 8)

Notice how our psalmist repeats “truth,” Truthfulness is at the very core of God’s being. The obvious corollary is that as God-followers, truth must be at the core of our being.

For me, the centerpiece of the psalm is the psalmist’s summary statement:
Redemption He sent to His people,
forever commanded His pact.
Holy and awesome His name. (9)

Of course for us Christians we know exactly what Redemption was sent not just to “his people” but for every human being.

The psalmist concludes with a statement of what comes to all who know and trust God:
The beginning of wisdom—the fear of the Lord,
good knowledge to all who perform it. (10a)

Unfortunately our current culture, which has abandoned God, has also abandoned wisdom. The concluding line is a final reiteration of this psalm’s underlying theme: God stands for eternity and so must our worship: His praise stands for all time. (10b).

When all is changing around us, there is the unchanging Solid Rock of Jesus Christ to whom we cling.

1 Samuel 17:32–58: This famous story begins with Saul’s incredulity: “[Saul] said to David, “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him; for you are just a boy, and he has been a warrior from his youth.” (33) David explains that as a shepherd he’s been rescuing sheep from wild animals, including lions. David asserts that Goliath will be no different. What David says next is the underlying theme of the story: “The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine.” (37) To be sure, David has skill, but above all else, he trusts in God.

Saul dresses David in armor, but David cannot move under the weight. This is a clear indication from our authors that the weapons and defenses of man are superfluous when there is such overwhelming trust in God. However, David does not confront the giant unarmed; it’s just that he chooses his own weapon. This is a lesson to us that while others will give us advice and try to equip us “against the wiles of the devil,” it is we who must both trust in God and equip ourselves to defend (or in this case, offend). We cannot depend on others or exactly follow the means by which they do it. We must be our own men and women.

Goliath approaches David and smirks “for he was only a youth, ruddy and handsome in appearance.” (42) [Our authors never fail to point out David’s physical beauty.] Goliath boasts he will cut David into little pieces, but David stands firm and replies,“You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.” (45) There is bravado as well as trust in God as David hurls Goliath’s curse back at the him: “I will give the dead bodies of the Philistine army this very day to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the earth, so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel.” (46)

Which he proceeds to do. David quickly dispatches Goliath with a single stone to the forehead. [Interestingly, there’s no description of a slingshot, although the verb, “slung it” doubtless implies same.] David decapitates the dead giant and the “troops of Israel and Judah rose up with a shout and pursued the Philistines as far as Gath” (52) and take the day.

Now we encounter an anomaly that suggests different authors are involved here. Saul inquires “whose son is this young man?” and his servant Abner promises to find out. He comes back with David to the king, who tells him that he’s “the son of your servant Jesse the Bethlehemite.” (58)

But isn’t this the same David who played the lyre in Saul’s time of depression? Or the David whom Saul came to love? All we can conclude is that timelines and consistency do not particularly bother our authors. The story and its focus on David’s trust in God is far more important than a few narrative contradictions.

John 3:25–36: John the Baptist’s disciples are rather irritated that this rabbi, whom John baptised, seems to be gaining popularity and usurping John’s own celebrity— and therefore diminishing the perks of being John’s disciples. John tells them that Jesus has been duly ordained because “No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven.” (27) The Baptist reminds them that he said quite clearly that he was not the Messiah, just the messenger. John realizes that his time is over and wisely says, “For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease.” (29, 30) 

One has the impression here that our gospel writer is addressing a faction in his community that saw John the Baptist as the true Messiah and Jesus as the usurper.

This being the gospel of John, a lengthy theological discourse follows. The writer restates his original premise in the first words of the gospel that the Messiah comes directly from heaven: “The one who comes from heaven is above all.” (31) And therefore, it logically follows, “He whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure.” (34) I have to believe that John the gospel writer studied Greek philosophy and his skill is beautifully demonstrated here in how his Jesus presents irrefutable logical arguments.

Just in case we didn’t get it the first time, our gospel writer wraps up this disquisition with a brief summary of John 3:16-17: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God’s wrath.” (36) Once again the gospel writer makes it crystal clear that there is only one way to God, and that is through the Word, Jesus.

Psalm 110; 1 Samuel 16:14–17:31; John 3:16–26

Originally published 9/25/2016. revised and updated 9/26/2018.

Psalm 110: The psalmist has dedicated this psalm to King David, whom he serves (perhaps as court poet) and opens with God’s voice speaking a blessing:
The Lord’s utterance to my master:
‘Sit at My right hand
till I make your enemies a stool for your feet.’
 (1)

As is almost always the case, the poet speaks of David as warrior-king:
Your mighty scepter
may the Lord send forth from Zion.
Hold sway over your enemies.
 (2)

Our poet continues in this go-forth-to-battle vein:
Your people rally to battle
on the day your force assembles
on the holy mountains.
 (3a)

The psalmist is confident that God will definitely remain on the king’s side:
The Lord has sworn, He will not change heart. (4a)

Once again we encounter the deuteronomic idea that God can change his mind at any time.

As if the points of view in the psalm already were not confusing enough, now the poet speaks for himself:
You are priest forever.
By my solemn word, my righteous king.
 (4b)

Apparently, David plays a simultaneous role as king and priest. In that sense David is both the new means of governance—king—combined with the old form—priest as judge, e.g. Samuel—God’s representative in the now obsolete theocracy of Israel.

The poet continues, assuring the king that
The Master [God] is at your right hand.
On the day of His wrath He smashes kings
. (5)

At this point the psalm becomes quite graphic as it describes David’s upcoming military victory acting as God’s agent:
He [God] exacts judgement from the nations,
fills the valleys with corpses,
smashes heads across the great earth.
 (6).

We can also read this passage as God himself fighting the battle and smashing heads. Quite a concept!.

The psalm ends somewhat abruptly with the image of God as warrior—or perhaps David, hot and sweaty from battle, pausing to take a cool drink:
From a brook on the way He drinks.
Therefore lifts up His head
.

Unlike many psalms there are no concluding verses of worship and praise. I think this heightens the warrior aspect of David, but also God himself as warrior, which is certainly not a quality of God that I’m terribly comfortable with…

1 Samuel 16:14–17:31: We return to Saul, who is paying the price for his disobedience: “the spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him.” (16:14) [While this sounds like a mental illness, it’s interesting that the belief of the authors was that it was God who would torment him.]

A servant suggests that a little lyre music might soothe his tormented soul. Someone remembers David and asks Jesse to send his son to the court. The already anointed David appears “and entered his [Saul’s] service. Saul loved him greatly, and he became his armor-bearer.” (16:21) David’s lyre playing is effective and whenever “David took the lyre and played it with his hand, … Saul would be relieved and feel better, and the evil spirit would depart from him.” (16:23) Which I guess is where the Shakespeare drew his line, “music soothes the savage breast” [not ‘beast’ as is so often mis-quoted].

This peaceful intermezzo is interrupted by news that the Philistines are again preparing to invade Israel. This time the Philistines have a not-so-secret weapon, “a champion named Goliath, of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span.” (17:4) The authors are at pains to describe how the giant’s armor covered every part of his body since this will be an important detail later. I’m guessing there’s some hyperbole here: “The shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam, and his spear’s head weighed six hundred shekels of iron.” (17:7) In any event, our authors take pains to describe Goliath as unconquerable.

Goliath taunts the Israelites to send a man to fight him mano a mano. The stakes are high since who ever wins the fight will be the victor in battle. Three of Jesse’s sons are in the army while young David is effectively messenger between home and the battlefield as Jesse asks his son to carry provisions to David’s brothers at the front. Arriving at the battlefield, David hears Goliath’s challenge. David is informed that the man who kills Goliath will be amply rewarded: “king will greatly enrich the man who kills him, and will give him his daughter and make his family free in Israel.” (17:25) But for David, greater things are at stake here as he asks, “who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?” (26) Up to this point, no one in the Israelite army has mentioned God.

David’s  brother, Eliab, heard David talking and is p.o.ed that David is not back home taking care of the sheep. He is none too gentle with the younger brother, doubtless envious that David already is popular at Saul’s court, not to mention having witnessed his brother’s anointing by Samuel: “I know your presumption and the evil of your heart; for you have come down just to see the battle.” (28) In a single line that reveals the enmity between the brothers, David testily replies, “What have I done now? It was only a question.” (29)

When Saul hears about David being at the battlefield, he sends for the boy.

This passage is striking because it reveals several key aspects of David’s personality. He is God’s man since he’s apparently the first one to point out that Israel has “the living God” on its side. Also, we learn that David does not hesitate to say what’s on his mind, nor does he fear offending his brothers. All this points to David’s inner courage based on his trust in God.

John 3:16–26: We arrive at the most famous verse in Christianity: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (16) I think it’s important to point out that this is not an anodyne theological observation, but that John the gospel writer has Jesus utter these words himself, ensuring that God’s promise is far greater than we can ever appreciate.

The following verse amplifies the thrust of the purpose in God coming to earth: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (17)

I think it’s worth reflecting on this latter verse in light of both Jesus and Nicodemus being Jewish. Both were well aware of God’s interventions under the terms of the Old Covenant. Whenever Israel fell away from God and began worshipping small-g gods, God would “come into the world” with punishment for Israel’s wrongdoing. But here at these two verses we see the cancellation of the terms of the Old Covenant. Now God comes to earth as Jesus with a whole new intention: that the world be saved rather than punished.

There’s just one requirement—and this is a big one with our gospel writer: belief. For John, it’s all about believing Jesus is who he says he is: “Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” (18) Like its predecessor, the New Covenant is starkly binary. Believe or don’t believe. But non-belief is also condemnation. Not because God is set on punishment, but that non-belief is self-inflicted punishment: separation from God.

John returns to his theme of light. Again it’s binary: “For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.” (20) For Jesus, there are no gray areas. It’s all a question of belief.

Returning to his narrative, the gospel writer describes Jesus as teacher and baptizer: Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he spent some time there with them and baptized. (22) Which is exactly what John, was much more famous at that point than Jesus, was doing: “John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim because water was abundant there; and people kept coming and were being baptized.” (23)

They find each other and a (hopefully peaceful) discussion about purification arises between John’s disciples and a rather puzzling reference, “a Jew.” (25) John’s disciples go back to John and report that Jesus is not only a baptizing competitor but is also apparently more popular: “Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” (26)

We have to wait until tomorrow to learn how John replied to this provocative question.

 

 

Psalm 109:21–31; 1 Samuel 15:24–16:13; John 3:1–15

Originally published 9/24/2016. revised and updated 9/25/2018.

Psalm 109:21–31: Following dire accusations and his pleas to God to destroy his enemies, our psalmist returns to his own situation as he asks God to
act on my behalf for the sake of Your name,
for Your kindness is good. O save me!
” (21)

He reiterates his helpless state and indicates he is near death by using two striking similes:
For poor and needy am I
Like a lengthening shadow I go off,
I am shaken away like the locust.
 (23)

A lengthening shadow as the evening of life approaches is a wonderful metaphor for those of us who know we have fewer years left than the ones we’ve already expended.

His former colleagues—perhaps even his subordinates—now see him as an object of scorn and false pity who is beyond hope. He can turn only to God for possible salvation:
As for me, I become a reproach to them.
They see me, they shake their heads.

Help me, O Lord, my God.
Rescue me as befits Your kindness.
 (25, 26)

But this is not to be a rescue in secret; rather he wishes for his exoneration to be on full public display so that his enemies will see that it is he, not they, who has remained faithful to God:
That they may know that Your hand
it is, it is You, O Lord, Who did it
 (27)

In other words, his rescue becomes a form of public witness. His enemies’ plans will have been foiled by God’s mercy and they will be left empty-handed:
Let the curse, and You, You will bless.
They will rise and be shamed, and Your servant will rejoice
. (28)

For our psalmist, it’s a binary world. You’re with God or you’re not. And the final judgment for abandoning God can be only disgrace. He is confident that God will act and his “accusers [will] don disgrace,/ and let them wrap round like a robe their shame.” (29) Another great metaphor: being enveloped in shame that is like a wrap-around robe.

Like all psalms of supplication, no matter how despairing, this psalm ends on a note of confidence that God will act. And in the exact opposite of shame, our psalmist concludes on a note of worship of having been  publicly restored to his right standing. It is his hypocritical enemies who end up enduring the shame they have so wickedly heaped on the psalmist (or David):
I highly acclaim the Lord with my mouth,
and in the midst of many I praise him.
 (30)

1 Samuel 15:24–16:13: Saul finally realizes he has sinned grievously and begs Samuel that he be forgiven: “I pray, pardon my sin, and return with me, so that I may worship the Lord.” (15:25). But Samuel refuses. An in a scene full of pathos, the broken king “caught hold of the hem of [Samuel’s] robe, and it tore.” (27) Samuel replies, “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this very day, and has given it to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you.” (28) Eventually Samuel relents and “Saul worshipped the Lord.” (31)

Then, in a highly disturbing scene, the defeated Amalekite king, Agag, is brought before Samuel, who tells him, “As your sword has made women childless,/ so your mother shall be childless among women.” (33a) and the old prophet promptly “hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord in Gilgal.” (33b) This is yet another image of the Old Testament God that disturbs our modern sensibilities, but it’s important to note that it is God acting through Samuel who wreaks vengeance, not Saul. Nevertheless…

Samuel and Saul depart, “but Samuel grieved over Saul. And the Lord was sorry that he had made Saul king over Israel.” (35) Once again we encounter this aspect of God as regretting his decisions. Hardly the omnipotent God we think we worship. This is one of those places where we cannot conveniently place God in a box of our devising.

God gets over his regret about Saul before Samuel does and chastises the old man,“How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel.”  (16:1a) God then announces that he’s “provided for myself a king among [Jesse’s] sons.” (1b) Samuel comes to Bethlehem and doubtless aware of Samuel’s act against the Amalekite king, “the elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, “Do you come peaceably?” (4) Samuel assures them he has and that he’s come to anoint a new king.

Jesse parades his sons before Samuel, who sees Eliab and thinks, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” (6) But God wisely interjects and tells Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him…[mortals] look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” (7)

This famous statement finds its echo in Jesus when he says essentially the same thing in front of the Pharisees, who surely knew this passage. And it’s a lesson to us today when we tend to view the physical attractiveness of politicians as a qualification of leadership. This same judging by appearance manifests itself frequently in business where most CEOs are taller than their peers.

Seven of Jesse’s sons pass before Samuel and are rejected. Samuel famously asks if Jesse has another son, and is told, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” (11) Jesse has David come before Samuel and God tells Samuel, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” (12). And “the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward.” (13) As far as kings of Israel are concerned, God got it right on the second try.

John 3:1–15: This famous nighttime visit by Nicodemus, “a leader of the Jews,” is recorded nowhere else. And it’s a clear demonstration of the lofty philosophical and theological plane on which this gospel is written. Nicodemus acknowledges that Jesus is connected closely to God because “no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” (2) Jesus enigmatically replies, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” (3)

Nicodemus logically poses his famous question about how an adult male could an enter his mother’s womb. Jesus says that he is speaking of the Spirit, and that “no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” (5) In other words, Jesus asserts, to be connected to God, one must be born in the Holy Spirit. Here is one of those points in John where we see the Trinity in full flower: The Spirit is essential to knowing God. And as we will see in a few verses ahead, so is Jesus.

Nicodemus is more puzzled than ever and Jesus doesn’t make him feel any better when he says, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” (10) He goes on to reference the Son of Man described in Isaiah coming from heaven. And then in one of the most daring theological leaps of all, announces that the Son of Man will be lifted up “just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness.” (14)

Of course since we’re on the other side of the story, we know what “lifted up” means: the crucifixion. But poor Nicodemus must have been more confused than ever.

We conclude today’s reading at the very threshold of the most famous and theologically rich verse in the New Testament as Jesus tells Nicodemus  that “whoever believes in [the Son of Man] may have eternal life.” (15)

I think it’s difficult to say exactly what the nature of this eternal life will be. Unlike the popular image of living forever in heaven, I think the true meaning of phrase, “eternal life,” is far richer and deeper than our limited human minds will be ever able to comprehend.