Psalm 20; 2 Chronicles 9:13–10:19; Acts 19:32–20:3

Originally published 2/7/2017. Revised and updated 2/6/2019.

Psalm 20: This “royal psalm” prays or the welfare of the king, presumably David. It opens with what we normally think of as a benediction rather than an invocation:
May the LORD answer you on the day of distress,
the name of Jacob’s God make you safe.
May He send help to you from the sanctum,
and from Zion may He sustain you. (2, 3)

Our psalmist prays that God will remember the king’s grain offerings and burnt offerings (4) and the God will indeed “grant [to the king] what your heart would want.” (5)

The psalm has apparently been written shortly before or after God has rescued David—perhaps from the straits that are described in the preceding psalm. This is—or will be—a cause for rejoicing by all the king’s subjects:
Let us sing gladly for Your rescue
and in our God’s name our banner raise
. (6)

Halfway through, the psalm moves from benedictory wishes to the assurance that God has indeed fulfilled all the things that have been prayed for. [We need to be careful here with the psalmist’s overuse of pronouns.  The capitalized ones refer to God.]
Now do I know
that the Lord has rescued His anointed [the king].
He has answered him from His holy heavens.
in the might of His right hand’s rescue. (7)

The psalm goes on to note the joy that the defeat of the enemy and God’s rescue has brought to the previously despairing subjects of the king:
They have tumbled and fallen
be we arose and took heart. (9)

But then this rejoicing seems contradicted by the very last verse, which is again a plea for rescue, suggesting that the rejoicing of the previous verse is either premature or a description of rejoicing yet to come:
O Lord, rescue the king.
May He answer us on the day we call. (10)

It’s important to remember that the psalms are poetry and that their timelines them are not necessarily linear but have poetic twists and loops. In any event, God will rescue the king and there will be rejoicing.

2 Chronicles 9:13–10:19: This final chapter about Solomon is, as we would expect from our accountant authors, basically an inventory of Solomon’s unimaginably great wealth that has flowed into Israel under the wise king’s leadership:

  • 666 talents of gold (8:13)
  • 200 large shields of beaten gold (8:15) each containing 600 shekels of beaten gold (16)
  • Another 300 shields, each containing 300 shekels of gold (16)
  • A gold-covered ivory throne (17 with a footstool of gold with decorative lions on either side (18, 19)
  • Drinking vessels of pure gold with the amusing note that “silver was not considered as anything in the days of Solomon.” (20)
  • 4000 stalls for horses and chariots and 12,000 horses (25)
  • Our authors make it clear that no one on earth was richer than Solomon as Israel was at its apogee of influence, wealth and power and the extent of its territory: “He ruled over all the kings from the Euphrates to the land of the Philistines, and to the border of Egypt.” (26)

Again, we sense the regretful nostalgia as our authors write of this grandeur, fully aware of just how low Israel has sunken as they write from Babylonian exile.

Depsite his wisdom, power, and wealth, Solomon is a mortal like other men and he dies. Solomon’s son Rehoboam ascends to the throne and trouble commences immediately. Rehoboam famously rejects the plea to “lighten the hard service of your father and his heavy yoke that he placed on us, and we will serve you.” (10:4) because he ignores the wise counsel of the older men and foolishly follows the advice of the young sycophants that surround him. This is also a reminder that life as a commoner under Solomon’s “enlightened” rule was no bed of roses.

Our authors editorialize on the consequences of Rehoboam’s unwise decision: “So the king did not listen to the people, because it was a turn of affairs brought about by God so that the Lord might fulfill his word.” (10:15) As a result, the people of Israel withdraw their loyalty to the king and “departed to their tents.” (16) Rehoboam sends his taskmaster to oppress the people of Judah, who promptly stone him to death.

As our authors observe, “So Israel has been in rebellion against the house of David to this day.”  (19) And Solomon’s once-great empire begins its centuries-long decline under a series of evil and/or incompetent kings—a descent offset by only one or two kings that follow God.

Acts 19:32–20:3: Ephesus is in chaos over the potential economic damage to the silversmiths that build Artemis idols caused by increasing numbers of adherents to “the Way” preached by Paul and others. In a pithy summary of every mob since this one in Ephesus, Luke driy observes, “Meanwhile, some were shouting one thing, some another; for the assembly was in confusion, and most of them did not know why they had come together.” (19:32) Alexander, who is Jewish, attempts to calm the crowd but they “recognized that he was a Jew, for about two hours all of them shouted in unison, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” (19:34)

Finally, the city clerk quiets the crowd by pointing out that Ephesus is world famous for the temple to Artemis and they should not do anything “rash” to sully Ephesus’ reputation as a pilgrimage destination. He correctly suggests that Demetrius and his silversmith colleagues use the justice system “since there is no cause that we can give to justify this commotion.”  (19:40)

Clearly, nothing has changed in 2000 years. Do we have rioters at universities, damaging the reputation of the university, or do we pursue our vision of justice using the courts (as witness the current lawsuits over Trump’s various orders)? Do we have adult dialog or the unceasing deluge of Twitter rants? I think the questions answers themselves.

Once the Ephesian riot is quelled, Paul  heads off to Macedonia. There he “had given the believers much encouragement” (20:2) and arrives back in Greece, probably Corinth. After three months his plans to sail directly to Syria (Antioch) are disrupted by “a plot was made against him by the Jews, and so he decided to return through Macedonia.” (20:3)

In this Ephesian incident we see a more mature Paul who seems to have finally figured out that not everyone is going to accept his message about Christ—or himself—with enthusiasm. Which is also a lesson for Christians today, who are oppressed by the increasingly hostile culture in which they live. We know that riots are not the answer.

 

Psalm 19:8–15; 2 Chronicles 8:1–9:12; Acts 19:21–31

Originally published 2/6/2017. Revised and updated 2/5/2019.

Psalm 19:8–15: The concluding half of this psalm is in essence the roadmap to a well-lived life. It gives us a mini version of Psalm 119 as it speaks to God’s faithfulness and the positive effects of following God and hewing to six “life qualities.” The first quality is education:
The Lord’s teaching is perfect,
restoring to life.
 (8a) T

hat teaching and learning is restorative is not how we usually think about the process of education, But what God teaches us is essential to our lives.

Second, God never fails to keep his covenantal promises:
The Lord’s pact is steadfast,
it makes the fool wise.
 (8b)

In other words, if we are steadfast in what we promise to others, even in our foolishness, we too will become wise.

Third, keeping God’s law is a source of joy:
The Lord’s precepts are upright,
delighting the heart. (9a)

Fourth, God’s perfect commands are what bring us true life as symbolized here by the light in our eyes:
The Lord’s command unblemished,
giving light to the eyes.”
(9b)

Fifth, reverence toward God keeps us holy throughout our lives and beyond:
The Lord’s fear is pure,
outlasting all time.
 (10a)

Finally, God is the very definition of justice because in God, truth and justice are the same thing:
The Lord’s judgements are truth,
all of them just.
 (10b)

Our psalmist knows that these qualities are
More desired than gold,
than abundant fine gold
and sweeter than honey,
quintessence of bees.
(11)

By following God in all these aspects, we receive life’s true reward:
In keeping them—[there is] great reward. (12)

But even the most pure God-following life can be marred, even unknowingly:
Unwitting sins who can grasp? (13a)

But our psalmist seeks forgiveness for these two and asks God to protect him from the depredations of evil men around him:
Of unknown actions clear me.
From willful men preserve Your servant,
let them not rule over me.
 (13b, 14a)

Only through God’s mercy can the pure life even begin to be lived:
Then shall I be blameless
and clear of great crime.
” (14b)

How grateful I am for the grace that comes from Jesus Christ. Leading a steadfast blameless life as described here is nigh unto impossible. The issue of free will—of willing to lead a steadfast life—was at the core of the conflict between Erasmus, who believed that humans could to will do good—and Luther, who saw us as completely fallen and always given to sin that could only be erased by Jesus’ grace. For me, it is much better to follow God, knowing we will sin either overtly or unknowingly, but then to be able to confess and to be forgiven.

2 Chronicles 8:1–9:12: Following the completion of the temple, Solomon continues to do great things, not least of which is to rebuild cities and to build new ones: “He built Tadmor in the wilderness and all the storage towns that he built in Hamath. He also built Upper Beth-horon and Lower Beth-horon, fortified cities, with walls, gates, and bars, and Baalath, as well as all Solomon’s storage towns, and all the towns for his chariots, the towns for his cavalry, and whatever Solomon desired to build, in Jerusalem, in Lebanon, and in all the land of his dominion.” (8:4-6)

We encounter one of those practices, common to that time, that make us squirm uncomfortably today: “All the people who were left of the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, who were not of Israel,…whom the people of Israel had not destroyed—these Solomon conscripted for forced labor, as is still the case today.” (7, 8) But we need to be careful not to impose our value system on a historical culture, committing the fallacy of “presentism.”

All through Solomon’s reign vassal kings continue to bring wealth to Solomon: “Huram sent [Solomon], in the care of his servants, ships and servants familiar with the sea…four hundred fifty talents of gold and brought it to King Solomon.” (8:18)

Solomon’s most famous foreign visitor is of course the Queen of Sheba, who “came to Jerusalem to test him with hard questions, …[and] she discussed with him all that was on her mind.” (9:1)  Solomon answers every question, and she could not trip him up in any way.

The queen believes she is superior to Solomon in wisdom and wealth, but when she “observed the wisdom of Solomon, the house that he had built, the food of his table, the seating of his officials, and the attendance of his servants, and their clothing, his valets, and their clothing, and his burnt offerings that he offered at the house of the Lord, there was no more spirit left in her.” (9:2)

The queen nicely sums up the magnificence of Solomon and the kingdom of Israel, telling Solomon that she had not believed all she had heard about his glories, but is now a true believer. It is through Sheba that our authors pronounce the reasons why Solomon and Israel have achieved the glory. It has been the work of the “Lord your God, who has delighted in you and set you on his throne as king for the Lord your God. Because your God loved Israel and would establish them forever, he has made you king over them, that you may execute justice and righteousness.” (9:8) At that point Sheba presents Solomon with even more gifts, including exotic spices before returning to her own land.

The Sheba incident is a wonderful way for our authors to tell the story of how great Israel was under the wisdom of Solomon. We can almost hear the regret in their words as they describe a wonderful kingdom that followed God and was rewarded mightily. But alas, it is now distant history and in the Babylon exile it seems that all that was greatness has been lost. Or has it?

Acts 19:21–31: Paul’s radical message of Jesus Christ—the “Way”— has substantial social and economic consequences. Paul continues his sojourn in Ephesus when it dawns on a silversmith named Demetrius, who makes his loving crafting “silver shrines of Artemus” realizes that his source if income is fading away as everyone flocks to the idol-free “Way.” He gathers his colleagues together and warns them, “there is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be scorned, and she will be deprived of her majesty that brought all Asia and the world to worship her.” (27) Which is to put a religious spin on the very real fact that the real issue is economic: the silver shrine market is quickly fading away.

So the silversmith guild starts a riot, and as Luke tersely notes, “The city was filled with the confusion.” (29) The mob drags Paul’s companions, Gaius and Aristarchus, into the theatre. Paul of course sees this as a great opportunity for preaching. However, cooler heads prevail and keep Paul out of the theatre. Even officials “of the province of Asia, who were friendly to him, sent him a message urging him not to venture into the theater.” (31)

What’s clear here is that the spread of Christianity is beginning to have a profound impact on the culture at large—which of course is exactly what has happened down to the present day. A few hundred years after the turmoil at Ephesus, Constantine will establish Christianity as the state religion and Christendom will be born. Out of that those so-called “dark ages” will emerge western civilization as we know it. Today, alas, we see western civilization in decline but the message of Jesus Christ that Paul delivered is still as powerful as ever—and it still causes protests and riots, as witness the culture war” that continues to inflame both sides.

Psalm 19:1–7; 2 Chronicles 6:24–7:22; Acts 19:6–20

Originally published 2/4/2017. Revised and updated 2/4/2019.

Psalm 19:1–7: This wonderfully contemplative and worshipful psalm opens with famous lines celebrating the glories of God’s creation:
The heavens tell God’s glory,
and His handiwork [the] sky declares.
 (2)

The next verse is perfect for our scientific age of discovery as our psalmist asserts that God’s creation contains all there is to know and understand:
Day to day breathes utterance
and night to night pronounces knowledge.
 (3)

I have to believe that more than a few astronomers have taken up the second line of this verse—”night to night pronounces knowledge“—as their watchword as the nights have brought us the ability to see the stars back to the very beginning of time.

Our psalmist knows that there is an unspoken language of the universe that is beyond mere words:
There is no utterance and there are no words,
their voice is never heard
. (4)

It’s truly wonderful to see how the Bible has anticipated that one day we would seek to understand the language of creation, particularly the idea that the laws of physics apply everywhere in the universe, as well as DNA being the basic building block of life. I believe these are the voiceless words of which he speaks:
There is no utterance and there are no words,
their voice is never heard.
 (5)

While creation may not speak human language and seems silents, it speaks in words that are so much more profound than mere human speech.

Our psalmist employs a marvelous metaphor of the sun as a groom sleeping at night in a tent and rising with eager anticipation and great energy on his wedding morning:
For the sun He set up a tent in them—
and he like a groom from from his canopy comes,
exults like a warrior running his course. (6)

From our poet’s perspective it is the sun which transits the sky, moving in its eternal rhythm:
From the ends of heavens his going out
and his circuit to their ends.
and nothing can hide from his heat. (7)

This last line is a perfect description of a summer day in semi-arid Israel. What strikes me most about this passage is its untrammeled energy and out of that energy emerges a wonderful undercurrent of joy.

2 Chronicles 6:24–7:22: Solomon’s rather lengthy prayer before the newly-completed temple outlines the deuteronomic terms of the covenant between God and Israel.

There is confession for sins: “When your people Israel, having sinned against you, are defeated before an enemy but turn again to you, confess your name, pray and plead with you in this house, may you hear from heaven, and forgive the sin of your people Israel.” (6:24) This of course becomes the key to all that follows as Israel continually abandons God under the rule of evil kings. But God is a God of forbearance, and as history shows, God answers Solomon’s prayer each time Israel repents.

The operating assumption is that the people’s sins will have natural consequences and repentance is required to reinstate God’s favor: “When heaven is shut up and there is no rain because they have sinned against you, and then they pray toward this place, confess your name, and turn from their sin, because you punish them, may you hear in heaven, forgive the sin of your servants, your people Israel.” (6:26)

Similar repentance is called for in times of “famine in the land, if there is plague, blight, mildew, locust, or caterpillar; if their enemies besiege them in any of the settlements of the lands; whatever suffering, whatever sickness there is.” (6:28) While we may no longer be under these deuteronomic terms, we do well to remember that our actions—our sins—always have consequences, just as they did in Solomon’s time.

What’s especially fascinating in the xenophobic times we now live in is how Solomon especially asks for the welfare of “foreigners, who are not of your people Israel, come from a distant land because of your great name, and your mighty hand, and your outstretched arm, when they come and pray toward this house.” (6:22) Of course it’s worth noting that the foreigners come to worship Israel’s God not to bring a foreign belief system with them.

Solomon’s prayer has a dramatic impact—almost a theophany: “When Solomon had ended his prayer, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices; and the glory of the Lord filled the temple.” (7:1) God’s glory is so intense here that no one can enter the temple. The awestruck crowd can only bow down “with their faces to the ground, and worshiped and gave thanks to the Lord, saying, “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.” (7:3)

The dedication of the temple lasts a full week and “and all Israel [was] with him, a very great congregation, from Lebo-hamath to the Wadi of Egypt.” (7:8) Following the dedication, God appeared to Solomon and promised that when Israel is in distress from natural catastrophes or enemies, and if Israel calls on God, “then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” (7:14). God also reaffirms the covenant he made with David, repeating his promise to Solomon that, ‘You shall never lack a successor to rule over Israel.’” (7:18) Which of course for us Christians is the promise fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

However, it’s not all sweetness and light as God warns Solomon that Israel will be brought low should it “ turn aside and forsake my statutes and my commandments that I have set before you, and go and serve other gods and worship them.” (7:19) If they abandon God, God will abandon them. We can be grateful once again that we live as Christ-followers under the terms of the New Covenant rather than the old for God never abandons us. 

Unlike Solomon, our authors writing from Babylon, know all too well that with the exception of only a few people, Israel did indeed abandon God—and suffered the consequences outlined in this chapter.

Acts 18:24 —19:20: Perhaps the reason that Paul did not spend much time in Ephesus the first time he was there is because Apollos, “an eloquent man, well-versed in the scriptures” (18:24) was already preaching there. In an example that Paul was not the only one with proper theology, when “Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained the Way of God to him more accurately.” (18:26) Thus, Apollos becomes an effective preacher and arriving in Corinth, “he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the scriptures that the Messiah is Jesus.” (18:28) We’ll hear more about Apollos in 1 Corinthians 1.

After some peregrinations around the Mediterranean, Paul returns to Ephesus and discovers some folks who believe in John the Baptist, but know nothing of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Paul tells them that “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.” (19:4) Upon hearing such good news, this group of twelve(!) is baptized and “the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied.” (19:6)

After speaking (and arguing) in the Ephesus synagogue for three months, Paul gives up on some of the more stubborn Jews and repairs to the lecture hall of Tyrannus, where he holds forth for two more years(!) As Paul’s fame spread people must have come from far and wide to hear him, “so that all the residents of Asia, both Jews and Greeks, heard the word of the Lord.” (19:10) Unlike today’s televangelists, however, Paul did not ask for hefty “freewill offerings” in order to build a big house in the suburbs and enjoy a plush lifestyle, (I’m talking about you, Joel Osteen).

The Holy Spirit is definitely at work in Paul and Luke tells us, “God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that when the handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were brought to the sick, their diseases left them, and the evil spirits came out of them.” (19:11, 12) Seven itinerant Jewish exorcists, “sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva,” try to use the name of Jesus to accomplish the same thing, but are overtaken by an evil spirit, which Paul exorcises. This results in many magicians burning their books and “the word of the Lord grew mightily and prevailed.” (19:20)

Luke’s point here, I think, is that we re not free to use the power of the Holy Spirit to our own (sometimes nefarious) ends. I wish that Benny Hinn and all the other fake TV healers would have read and taken this passage to heart. The Holy Spirit will work where it will; it cannot be commanded by mere mortals.

 

 

Psalm 18:46–50; 2 Chronicles 5:2–6:23; Acts 18:22–19:5

Originally published 2/3/2015. Revised and updated 2/2/2019.

Psalm 18:46–50:  In our era we find the subject of David’s gratitude to be somewhat askew:
The the God who grants vengeance to me
and crushes peoples beneath me
. (48)

Nevertheless, he is the exemplar of a strong underlying faith:
The Lord lives and blessed is my Rock,
exalted the God of my rescue. (47).

David rests in a living God, not a mute household idol. God is David’s rock: the firm place from when he ventures forth and to whom he returns. God doesn’t move; For David, God is always right there. God’s immutability and his immobility are a reminder to us that like the old cliche has it, when God seems far away we need to remember who moved.

This psalm that combines thanksgiving with disturbing violence concludes formally as David effectively shouts:
Therefore I acclaim You among nations, O Lord,
and to Your name I would hymn. (50)

This single verse reminds us of our two great responsibilities as Christians: that we are to worship God (“Your name I would hymn”) and we are to take the Good News of Jesus Christ out to the world at large (“I acclaim You among nations.”) Like the rock He is, it is God who is faithful—and our model of faithfulness. It is both our duty and joy to be faithful in return. In that regard may be always be like David, the warrior king, but above all else, “the man of God.”

2 Chronicles 5:2–6:23: The completed temple receives its last and greatest furnishing–the Ark of the Covenant: So they brought up the ark, the tent of meeting, and all the holy vessels that were in the tent; the priests and the Levites brought them up. (5:5) The Ark is placed in the inner sanctuary under the “cherubim [who] spread out their wings over the place of the ark, so that the cherubim made a covering above the ark and its poles.” (8) Interestingly, our author points out, “There was nothing in the ark except the two tablets that Moses put there at Horeb, where the Lord made a covenant with the people of Israel after they came out of Egypt.” (10)

What are we to make of the empty ark that contained only the stone tablets? For me, it means that God’s covenant is far greater than just those two stone tablets, but extends to all the world, speaking to the underlying theme that God is not “contained” in the Ark, but as Lord of creation, is everywhere. The Ark may be the symbol of the covenant between God and Israel, but is only that: a symbol. It is not the reality of the covenant that encompasses all creation–and all time as it extends down to us through Jesus Christ.

Once in place, there is worship: singing “with cymbals, harps and lyres.” And then “it was the duty of the trumpeters and singers to make themselves heard in unison in praise and thanksgiving to the Lord”  (5:12) to sing the shortest but most profound worship hymn of all: “For he is good,/ for his steadfast love endures forever.” (5:13) And “the glory of the Lord filled the house of God.” (14) At long last, Israel has built a permanent house for God—and he seems very pleased.

Solomon dedicates the temple, recounting the long journey that brought the Ark from Egypt to its resting place, noting along the way that it was David’s son—himself—”who shall be born to you shall build the house for my name.” (6:9) The king concludes with a prayer of dedication that acknowledges that God is not confined to the Ark. Indeed, “But will God indeed reside with mortals on earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, how much less this house that I have built!” (18).

I believe this prayer makes the temple at Jerusalem different than every other temple built in the ancient world. All the other gods and idols were confined to the place where they were worshipped–and nowhere else. Israel’s God—our God—transcends mere buildings. As creator, God cannot be constrained in or by creation. Solomon reminds us of this simple but profound fact.

Acts 18:22–19:5: Luke does not seem to be accompanying Paul at this point as he becomes a reporter, noting only  at a high level of abstraction, that Paul “went from place to place through the region of Galatia and Phrygia, strengthening all the disciples.” (18:23).

We meet Apollos, “a native of Alexandria. He was an eloquent man, well-versed in the scriptures.” (18:24). Apollos “spoke with burning enthusiasm and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John.” (18:25). But when “when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained the Way of God to him more accurately.” (18:26).

This is reminder to us that eloquence and enthusiasm may be necessary but they are not sufficient to proclaim the word. There must be training and “accurate” knowledge of the “Way of God.” When Apollos heads to Corinth,”he greatly helped those who through grace had become believers,…showing by the scripture that the Messiah is Jesus.” (18:27, 28). In fact, as we know from Paul’s letter to Corinth, Apollos was so effective and compelling that he gained a coterie of followers, who were more enamored of the messenger than the Message.

In the meantime, Paul finally returns to Ephesus, where he encounters “disciples” who are unaware of the Holy Spirit. Paul asks them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” (19:2) They reply that they were baptized “into John’s baptism.” This statement reveals that John’s message had indeed spread far and wide in the same years that Jesus’ message was being preached. Paul explains that John was telling “the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.” (19:4) They accept this and are baptized. This passage is a reminder that while there may be other small-g gospels out there, there is only one true Gospel—the good news about Jesus. At the same time it also reminds us that hearts are prepared by many means, making them open to the real truth when they hear it. I’m sure many missionaries have encountered this same receptivity and hunger for the actual Good News.

Psalm 18:38–46; 2 Chronicles 3:1–5:1; Acts 18:8–21

Originally published 2/2/2017. Revised and updated 2/1/2019.

Psalm 18:38–46: Our psalmist now reveals how he put God’s training to work. It’s not very pretty:
I pursued my enemies, caught them
turned not back till I wiped them out.
I smashed them, they could not rise,
they fell beneath my feet.” (38, 39)

But what I think is important here is that David gives God all the credit for his achievement—gruesome as it was:
You girt me with might for combat.
You laid low my foes beneath me,
and You made my enemies turn back before me,
my foes, I demolished them.” (40, 41)

This would have been an excellent opportunity for David to think the victory was all his completely his own accomplishment, but he remains unfailingly humble before God, understanding that he is God’s instrument. While our own pursuits and activities may not be as drastic, we must still ask the question: Am I being God’s instrument or am I taking personal credit for whatever is accomplished?

In their final desperate hour, David’s enemies “cried out—there was none to rescue,/ to the Lord—He answered them not.” (42) This is certainly one of those times where foxhole prayers were unavailing. Our poet, speaking as David, continues with two brutal similes of what he accomplished on the battlefield:
I crushed them like dust in the wind,
like mud in the streets I ground them
. (43)

Having conquered the enemy, David now rules over them:
You set me at nations’ head,
a people I knew not served me
. (44)

And having experienced David’s (and his army’s) ferocity on the battlefield, those who have been conquered are grovelingly obedient as they trudge in line behind the conquering army:
At mere ear’s report they obeyed me,
aliens cringed before me.
Aliens did wither,
filed out from their forts. (45, 46)

I think the main takeaway from these verses is that sometimes, war is justified. David placed his trust in God and he became God’s agent of victory. But he never forgot who is the real Victor.

2 Chronicles 3:1–5:1: My, we are really rushing through these chapters…

Well, I have to admit the detailed description of the temple Solomon built, along with the lengthy inventory of its furnishings is impressive. We can see our authors relishing every detail especially wherever gold is involved: “So [Solomon] lined the house with gold—its beams, its thresholds, its walls, and its doors; and he carved cherubim on the walls.” (3:7) And then, “The weight of the nails was fifty shekels of gold. He overlaid the upper chambers with gold.” (3:9)

What I didn’t realize is that Solomon named the two great 35-cubit (~50 feet) pillars at the entrance to the temple: “the one on the right he called Jachin, and the one on the left, Boaz.” (3:17) That’s one way to honor your ancestors, I guess.

For me, the most impressive piece of furniture in the temple is the giant “molten sea; it was round, ten cubits from rim to rim, and five cubits high” (4:2) that was mounted on “twelve oxen, three facing north, three facing west, three facing south, and three facing east.” (4:4) And of course there are the ten golden lampstands, which reappear in the heaven described in Revelation.

Besides furniture, there is vast number of utensils, which were made “ in great quantities, so that the weight of the bronze was not determined.” (4:18) Not surprisingly, our authors close out their inventory by focusing once again on gold: “the snuffers, basins, ladles, and firepans, of pure gold. As for the entrance to the temple: the inner doors to the most holy place and the doors of the nave of the temple were of gold.” (4:22)

At the temple’s completion, “Solomon brought in the things that his father David had dedicated, and stored the silver, the gold, and all the vessels in the treasuries of the house of God.” (5:1) Were there historians at that time keeping track of these things, there’s no question that Solomon’s temple would have been one of the seven wonders of the world.

Acts 18:8–21: Even though Paul has decided to shift his missionary focus away from the Jews, “Crispus, the official of the synagogue, became a believer in the Lord, together with all his household” (8) along with a lot of other Gentiles. Paul has a vision where God says to him, Do not be afraid, but speak and do not be silent; for I am with you, and no one will lay a hand on you to harm you, for there are many in this city who are my people.” (9, 10) Thus encouraged, Paul remains in Corinth for 18 months. 

God’s words are put to the test when “the Jews made a united attack on Paul and brought him before the tribunal.” (12) They try to use the old argument that a religious practice is against the secular law—a legal argument that sounds awfully familiar these days.. Paul’s accusers tell the proconsul of Achia, “This man is persuading people to worship God in ways that are contrary to the law.” (13) But just as Paul is about to speak, the proconsul—obviously a firm believer in separation of church and state—dismisses the charges. The Jews are pretty angry and they pummel “Sosthenes, the official of the synagogue,” who obviously persuaded the others to bring charges against Paul. But “But Gallio paid no attention to any of these things.” (17b)  as he declines to intervene.

Obviously, Paul felt God had protected him and was doubtless encouraged to speak even more boldly—of which we will see dramatic examples later in Acts.

After his pleasant stay in Corinth, Paul returns to Antioch, his missionary trip to Europe complete. He stops off in Ephesus and is encourage by the believers to remain, but says only, “I will return to you if God wills.” (21) Ever onward, Paul.

 

Psalm 18:31–37; 2 Chronicles 1,2; Acts 17:29–18:7

Originally published 2/1/2017. Revised and updated 1/31/2019.

Psalm 18:31–37: Our psalmist finally asks the all-important question that every person on a serious spiritual journey must ask at some point during his or her lifetime:
For who is god except the Lord,
and who is the Rock except our God?
 (32)

We are surrounded by so many things that can too easily become our small-g gods: power, wealth, social acceptance; the list is endless. But if we do not ask this all-important question and then answer as the psalmist has, that there is only God alone, then we have doubtless succumbed to following a different small-g god.  In the same way that Luther realized that in some ways we must be baptized daily, I think we must ask—and answer— this question about who is our God on a daily basis.

Our psalmist answers his rhetorical question by reflecting on how God has so positively impacted his life:
The God who girds me with might
and keeps my way blameless,
makes my legs like a gazelle’s,
and stands me on the heights,
trains my hands for combat,
and makes my arms bends a bow of bronze. (33-35)

God is the source of David’s physical strength, his impressive skills, and his spiritual well-being. God has given him physical might and he can run like a gazelle. God provides him with the motivation to train for battle and the ability to shoot with a heavy bow. It’s the same for us: God gives us strength for the day and the desire to never stop learning new things. Above all, my desire for delving into scripture comes not from some inner motivation but it is a gift from God.

David says it best as he acknowledges that everything he is—his very being—comes from God:
You gave me Your shield of rescue,
Your right hand did sustain me.
 (36)

And while we may not be training for a physical battle, God continues to train us for daily life. Indeed, it is God who has
lengthened my strides beneath me
and my feet did not trip. (37)

Without faith in the one true God—our Rock—we will only trip, stumble and fall, and make a mess of our lives.

2 Chronicles 1,2: This second history book opens with Solomon as king and more importantly, the relationship between God and Solomon. One night, God appears to Solomon and “said to him,Ask what I should give you.” (1:7) Solomon replies, “Give me now wisdom and knowledge to go out and come in before this people, for who can rule this great people of yours?” (1:10) God is quite pleased at this wise request, and tells the king that because he has “not asked for possessions, wealth, honor, or the life of those who hate you, and have not even asked for long life,” (1:11) God will indeed grant him wisdom and knowledge. As a bonus, God will “also give you riches, possessions, and honor, such as none of the kings had who were before you, and none after you shall have the like.” (1:12)

The moral of this encounter is clear: besides our very salvation through Jesus Christ, God’s greatest gift, if we but ask for it, is wisdom and knowledge. But it’s wisdom and knowledge that comes from God; it is not generated within ourselves. Only when we are willing to submit our will to God’s do we even have a chance at making it through life with a modicum of wisdom and knowledge.

As they love to do so often, our authors proceed to give us a description of the wealth that comes to Solomon: 1400 chariots and 12,000 horses. A wise leader brings bounty to his subjects and not just to himself. Thus, Solomon “made silver and gold as common in Jerusalem as stone, and he made cedar as plentiful as the sycamore of the Shephelah.” (1:15)

Now that Israel itself has become a strong and wealthy nation, Solomon turns his attention to the great project that confronts him: building the temple. Many of the materials required for this great structure must be imported. Solomon establishes an alliance with King Huram of Tyre. He asks that king provide skilled labor, “an artisan skilled to work in gold, silver, bronze, and iron, and in purple, crimson, and blue fabrics, trained also in engraving, to join the skilled workers who are with me in Judah and Jerusalem.” (2:7) He then asks to import materials—”cedar, cypress, and algum timber from Lebanon” (2:8)—along with the skilled labor to work the timber. Solomon entices this labor to Israel with an attractive reward: “I will provide for your servants, those who cut the timber, twenty thousand cors of crushed wheat, twenty thousand cors of barley, twenty thousand baths of wine, and twenty thousand baths of oil.” (2:10)

The king of Tyre agrees to the deal and effusively praises the “God of Israel, who made heaven and earth, who has given King David a wise son, endowed with discretion and understanding, who will build a temple for the Lord, and a royal palace for himself.” (2:12) Not to be cynical but one suspects the King of Tyre did well financially in this trade deal with Solomon.

Then Solomon takes a census. Uh, Oh. But avoiding his father’s grievous error, Solomon doesn’t count the citizens of Israel, who belong to God, and bring God’s wrath down on his head. Rather, he counts but the resident aliens. There are 153,600 of them. 70,000 laborers, 80,000 stone cutters and 3600 overseers “to make the people work.” (2:18) With the mention of “overseers” we’re left with the impression that not all the labor that will be building the temple was voluntary…

Acts 17:29–18:7: Paul continues his sermon on the Areopagus. He takes the interesting angle that historically, God has been overlooking “the times of human ignorance.” (30) He goes on to tell his listeners that they need to repent “because [God] has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (31).

To the Athenian philosophers, everything has probably seemed an interesting new idea, but then when Paul mentions resurrection from the dead he loses much of his audience. According to the received philosophical wisdom in Greece, people don’t rise from the dead, so to their ears this Paul is speaking foolishness.

I think Paul’s experience in Athens must be what led him to write in the opening chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians that God’s wisdom will seem like foolishness to human ears.

On balance, Paul’s time in Athens did not yield the fruit of many believers that he had seen in other places. Athens was the New York or the Bay Area of the day—far too blase’ and sophisticated to give much credence to what this bumpkin from Tarsus had to say. As Jesus made all too clear, the Good News will often fall on rocky soil.

Paul heads south to Corinth and meets up with Aquila and his wife Priscilla, also newly arrived at Corinth “because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome.” (18:2) Happily, Paul and Aquila share the same tent making trade, so Paul basically moves in with them.

Silas and Timothy rendezvous with Paul  in Corinth and find him in the synagogue “proclaiming the word, testifying to the Jews that the Messiah was Jesus.” (18:5) However, the Jews of Corinth “opposed and reviled him,” and Paul leaves the synagogue. We can almost see him walking out, turning his head over his shoulder and shouting, “Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.” (6) And Paul heads next door to the house of a Gentile, a Titus Justus, whose eponymous book we will come to later in the New Testament.

It is truly one of the tragedies of the early church—and the church today— that Jews could not be persuaded that Jesus was the Messiah. But in abandoning the Jews for the Gentiles, Paul’s impact on the world became immeasurably greater.

 

 

Psalm 18:26–30; 1 Chronicles 28,29; Acts 17:16–28

Originally published 1/31/2017. Revised and updated 1/31/2019.

Psalm 18:26—30: After describing how God rescued him from his enemies, our psalmist provides a general theological overview to all those who follow God by showing how God reciprocates in exactly the same way we approach him:
With the faithful You deal faithfully,
with a blameless man, [You] act without blame.
With the pure one, You deal purely,
with the perverse man, [You] deal in twists.” (26, 27)

He writes about one of the great themes of the Hebrew scriptures, that God cares for the lowly and rejects the self-centered mighty:
For it is You Who rescues the lowly folk
and haughty eyes You bring low. (28)

The subtext here is that if we do not approach God in humility, then God will seem irrelevant to us. And we certainly see that in abundance in a society where individual rights are paramount and God (and community) is pushed into the background.

In a powerful metaphor, the psalmist expresses how God is the sole source of guidance as we follow life’s dark and twisty path:
For You light up my lamp, O Lord
my God illumines my darkness.
 (29)

We cannot make it through life on our own. We must remember that when we encounter obstacles, it is God who helps us leap over them:
For through You I rush at a barrier,
through my God I can vault a wall.
” (30)

This last metaphor reminds me of how we had to get over a tall wall with no handholds when I was at OCS. To surmount this obstacle we had to run right toward the wall and then take off on the right foot to clear it. Here, in a wonderful metaphor of the Christian life we are encouraged to run with all our might toward—not away from— the obstacle, confidently faithful that God will help us over. With faith in God we do not have to be stymied by the hurdles that life throws at us, confident that with faith in God all things are indeed possible.

1 Chronicles 28,29: Sometimes I do not understand the Moravians. We plod one chapter at a time through the endless lists and now that we finally come to the narrative we have to rush through it…

David gathers his staff together and announces that while he had planned to build the temple himself, God intervened telling the king, “‘You shall not build a house for my name, for you are a warrior and have shed blood.’” (28:3). Then he tells the assembly that it is God—not him— who has chosen Solomon from among David’s many sons to be the next king. David tells “all Israel, the assembly of the Lord, and in the hearing of our God, observe and search out all the commandments of the Lord your God; that you may possess this good land, and leave it for an inheritance to your children after you forever.” (28:8) Once again, we have the terms of the covenant stated for all to hear: observe and search out all the commandments of the Lord your God.

David may not be able to build the temple but he has been its funder and its architect as he hands Solomon “the plan of all that he had in mind: for the courts of the house of the Lord, all the surrounding chambers, the treasuries of the house of God, and the treasuries for dedicated gifts.” (28:12) In addition, he hands over the organization charts as well as “all the vessels for the service in the house of the Lord,” (13) He makes sure that Solomon and all listening clearly understand that this is God’s plan, telling them,“All this, in writing at the Lord’s direction, he made clear to me—the plan of all the works.” (28:19)

Realizing his work is nearly done, David bestows a final blessing on his son: “Be strong and of good courage, and act. Do not be afraid or dismayed; for the Lord God, my God, is with you. He will not fail you or forsake you, until all the work for the service of the house of the Lord is finished.” (28:20) This is the fatherly blessing that I think every son wants to hear.

The king then turns to everyone assembled there and asks them to assist his inexperienced son, telling them, “My son Solomon, whom alone God has chosen, is young and inexperienced, and the work is great.” (29:2) He tells everyone how much he has contributed to the funds required to build the temple and asks each person there, “Who then will offer willingly, consecrating themselves today to the Lord?” (29:5) This is an excellent example of a leader having made his own substantial contribution before asking it of others. Something that TV evangelists seem to fail to do.

The next verse would be a terrific passage on which to base a stewardship sermon as our authors write, “Then the people rejoiced because these had given willingly, for with single mind they had offered freely to the Lord; King David also rejoiced greatly.” (9) What a terrific description of a true free-will offering!

The offering complete, David prays one of the greatest prayers in Scripture. In that prayer he observes that in God’s big picture we humans are mere ephemera: “For we are aliens and transients before you, as were all our ancestors; our days on the earth are like a shadow, and there is no hope.” (15) This is a theme that Peter picks up in his eponymous letter about we Christians being resident aliens here on earth.

David concludes his prayer by asking God to “Grant to my son Solomon that with single mind he may keep your commandments, your decrees, and your statutes, performing all of them, and that he may build the temple for which I have made provision.” (19) The people in attendance “bowed their heads and prostrated themselves before the Lord and the king.” (20)

The next day is filled with the offering of sacrifices and everyone “ate and drank before the Lord on that day with great joy.” (22) This is a reminder that worship is at the center of our lives, but that God also wants us to have a party afterwards.

Solomon sits on the throne and all pledge their allegiance to him as our authors remind us that “The Lord highly exalted Solomon in the sight of all Israel, and bestowed upon him such royal majesty as had not been on any king before him in Israel.” (25)

Acts 17:16–28: Paul arrives in Athens and “was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols.” (16) Paul, being Paul, “argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there.” (17) Some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debate him, but Paul seems to have met his intellectual match and some call him a “babbler.” The Athenians are interested in what Paul has to say more for its academic interest than anything having to do with faith in God. Which is certainly how much of the world views Christianity today—or at least that portion of the world that doesn’t view Christianity as a threat to world peace or to newly-defined minorities.

Paul uses the altar “to an unknown god” as his launch point to tell them that “God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands,” (24)  Given the plentitude of shrines on the Acropolis, this was doubtless a new concept to them. Paul then uses logic to move from point to point, announcing that those who “would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us.” (27) That statement probably makes sense to their philosophical minds, but then Paul says,  “‘In him we live and move and have our being’” and attempts to tie that idea to one of their own poets, observing that “some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’” (28).

The question at this point is can people be saved by Paul’s supremely logical argument? So far, Paul seems to think so—or at least he’s giving this approach to proclaiming the gospel the old college try.

 

Psalm 18:17–25; 1 Chronicles 27; Acts 17:4–15

Originally published 1/30/2017. Revised and updated 1/30/2019.

Psalm 18:17–25: Amidst the natural chaos—earthquakes, violent storms, volcanic eruptions—that our psalmist has described as God “tilting the heavens” and coming down to earth, there is a personal rescue as from drowning:
He reached down from on high and took me,
pulled me out of the many waters.
He save me from my daunting enemy
and from my foes who were stronger than I.” (17, 18)

But it has been a close run thing. His enemies have already attacked but God has arrived at the very last moment:
They came at me on my day of disaster,
the Lord became my support
and brought me out to a wide-open space,
set me free, for His pleasure I was
.” (19, 20)

At first, the word  ‘pleasure’ seems oddly out of place. David is rescued because he brings pleasure to God? The next verses tell us exactly why David was God’s ‘pleasure’ as we encounter the Old Covenant’s deuteronomic bargain. David has followed God and therefore has become God’s pleasure, worthy of rescue:
The Lord dealt with me by my merit,
for my cleanness of hands He requited me.
For I kept the ways of the Lord
and did no evil before my God.” (21, 22)

We arrive at one of the foundational themes that course through Psalms. If we keep God’s law diligently, God will reciprocate and provide rescue in our times of trouble:
For all His laws were before me.
From His statutes I did not swerve.
And I was blameless before Him,
and kept myself from crime.” (23, 24)

The deuteronomic logic is irrefutable. David has kept himself “from crime,” and therefore,
…the Lord requited me for my merit,
for my cleanness of hands in His eyes.
 (25)

Well, David may have been able to do that most—but not all— of the time, because we know he committed some big time sins. How much better the New Covenant is for us: to be saved through grace by Jesus Christ.

1 Chronicles 27: It’s beginning to look like no citizen of Israel will go unmentioned by the authors of Chronicles as list follows relentlessly upon list.

At least our authors are straightforward and simply call it for what it is: “This is the list of the people of Israel, the heads of families, the commanders of the thousands and the hundreds, and their officers who served the king in all matters…” (1) Twelve divisions of 24,000 men each rotates through David’s court, each serving for a month.

There’s a parallel leadership structure in Israel. The military that reports to David as commander -in-chief and then there are the tribal heads, which seem more like state governors. After listing the leaders, our authors remind us once again of David’s perfidy in going against God and performing a census: “David did not count those below twenty years of age, for the Lord had promised to make Israel as numerous as the stars of heaven.” (23) But as if for completeness, our authors mention the hapless Joab who “began to count them, but did not finish; yet wrath came upon Israel for this, and the number was not entered into the account of the Annals of King David.” (24) I feel sorry for poor Joab: caught between a demanding king and an angry God.

There is another civic structure described here. This one is the various officials that form something like a cabinet or heads of various ministries for the king. These include:

  • the treasuries,
  • work of the field (farmers),
  • vineyards,
  • “produce of the vineyards,” i.e. the wine cellars,
  • olive and sycamore trees,
  • oil (presumably olive oil)
  • herds that pastured in Sharon
  • herds in the valleys
  • camels
  • donkeys
  • flocks of sheep

Each head held the title of steward and “All these were stewards of King David’s property.” (31)

Finally, “Jonathan, David’s uncle, was a counselor, being a man of understanding and a scribe; Jehiel son of Hachmoni attended the king’s sons.” (32)

I cannot fail to be impressed at the level of organizational sophistication that is described here. When it comes to bureaucracies, there truly is nothing new under the sun.

Acts 17:1–15: Paul and Silas appear to be having great success in Thessalonica. But in describing the events there Luke gives us another clue as to Paul’s persuasive but equally abrasive personality: “Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three sabbath days argued with them from the scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This is the Messiah, Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you.” (2,3)  

The Gentiles (“Greeks”) and women basically flock to Paul’s message but “the Jews became jealous, and with the help of some ruffians in the marketplaces they formed a mob and set the city in an uproar.” (5) [I love the word ‘ruffians!’] Paul and Silas cannot be found, so the mob attacks Jason’s house, who having once entertained Paul and Silas as guests, becomes the handy target for outrage. Some things just never change about protests that turn into riots. 

Jason is freed on bail, but to get the officials off the church’s back, the Thessalonian Christians “sent Paul and Silas off to Beroea; and when they arrived, they went to the Jewish synagogue.” (10) Here, there is greater success among the Jews who “welcomed the message very eagerly and examined the scriptures every day to see whether these things were so.” (11) Also, a number of Gentiles, including “men of high standing” become believers.

However, the Thessalonian Jews hear about this and head on over to Beroea “to stir up and incite the crowds.” (13) which they succeed in doing. The Beroean believers see that Paul is definitely the Thessalonian Jew’s target and they “immediately sent Paul away to the coast, but Silas and Timothy remained behind.” (14)

The bottom line here is that Paul was an outstanding theologian and clearly bested anyone who chose to argue against him—always a great way to create enmity. However, it’s also clear that he was an abrasive personality that stirred deep passions and one which had to be hustled off to the next town in order to prevent riots and hurting the church in whatever town he visited. Now wonder Paul started writing letters to the churches.

Paul sounds a lot like a certain abrasive personality now heading the executive branch. Unfortunately, unlike Paul, it’s going to be hard to hustle him off to the next town.

Psalm 18:8–16; 1 Chronicles 26; Acts 16:30–17:3

Originally published 1/29/2017. Revised and updated 1/30/2019.

Psalm 18:8–16: David has cried out to God in his distress and God hears him:
He heard from His palace my voice,
and my outcry before Him came to His ears.
 (8)

An amazing description follows, which is essentially cinematic as this brilliant poetry evokes incredible images of power. God not only hears he acts. And there’s nothing subtle about God’s response for it affects all nature, beginning with a violent earthquake:
The earth heaved and shuddered,
the mountains’ foundations were shaken. (9a)

Followed by a volcanic eruption:
They heaved, for smoke rose from His nostrils
and fire from His mouth consumed,
coals blazed up around Him. (9b)

So, the question becomes, is this theophany an actual description of God’s power or is our psalmist simply giving us a dramatic metaphor for God’s power? To me, the details in the verses seem to suggest an eyewitness account. Whether or not these events actually happened doesn’t really matter. We are given a marvelous reminder of God’s power that many believed (and many still believe) is expressed through natural phenomena.

Then comes a remarkable image of heaven “up there” intersecting with earth as God seems to be flyng around above our heads:
He tilted the heavens, came down,
dense mist beneath His feet.

He mounted a cherub and flew,
and He soared on the wings of the wind
. (10, 11)

But amidst all this sturm und drang, God still remains hidden from view:
He set darkness His hiding place around him, (12a)

Then, with dark foreboding God sneaks up on David’s enemies:
His abode water-massing, the clouds of the skies.” (12b)

I take this image to be something like a giant thunderhead reaching far up into the atmosphere. David’s enemies can see that something awful is about to happen because God is suddenly visible as the skies open:
From the brilliance before Him His clouds moved ahead—
hail and fiery coals.
 (13)

[We encounter similar dramatic images later in Revelation, leading me to believe that the author knew this psalm well.] Then it happens. God in all his terror acts against David’s enemies who are no match for God’s power as they flee in terror:
He let loose His arrows, and scattered them,
lightning bolts shot, and He panicked them. (15)

This theophany becomes even more apocalyptic as earth seems transformed back to its primordial origins:
The channels of water were exposed,
and the world’s foundations laid bare
from the Lord’s roaring,
from the blast of Your nostril’s breath. (16)

These verses are important to recall while we call God, “Abba,” it is easy to forget that God is no ordinary father. To be sure, God loves us, but he is also the source of unimaginable power.

1 Chronicles 26: The endless organization chart continues with the names and organization of the gatekeeper, who are split into three divisions, and guard the entrances to Jerusalem.

Then come the treasurers, accountants, and judges. “The sons of Jehieli, Zetham and his brother Joel, were in charge of the treasuries of the house of the Lord.” (22) The treasury is divided into two parts: [1] the gifts brought by David and the leaders of the army (26) and [2] the gifts from the past: “all that Samuel the seer, and Saul son of Kish, and Abner son of Ner, and Joab son of Zeruiah had dedicated.” (28)

Then, “Chenaniah and his sons were appointed to outside duties for Israel, as officers and judges.” (29) In addition, 1700 “men of ability, had the oversight of Israel west of the Jordan for all the work of the Lord and for the service of the king.” (30) It would be great to be designated a “man of ability.”  The key here is that responsible people were put in charge. We can only hope for the same in our own day…

Acts 16:30–17:3: Rescued from suicide, the Philippian jailer asks Paul a simple but all-important question. And it’s the question every person really has to ask one way or another at some point in his or her life: “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (3) Paul’s answer is equally simple and straightforward: “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” (31) The jailer and his family are quickly baptized and then there a party. Notice there are no complicated statements of doctrine or theological discussions or other hoops through which the jailer must jump—especially the circumcision hoop.

Apparently someone at the Philippi city hall came to his senses and word was sent that “The magistrates sent word to let you go; therefore come out now and go in peace.” (36) The officials would be only too happy to shove the wretched affair under the proverbial rug, but Paul would have nothing of it: “They have beaten us in public, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and now are they going to discharge us in secret? Certainly not!” (37)

So, the fearful authorities apologize to Paul and Silas and asked them to leave Philippi. However, Paul and Silas return to Lydia’s house and only then, “when they had seen and encouraged the brothers and sisters there, they departed.” (40) This is a great example of Paul’s fearlessness and the fact that he did not submit to false authority.

So, what are the lessons here? One is that sometimes there really is justice and as so many psalms remind us, the wicked do indeed get their comeuppance. The other more important lesson, I think, is that one does not need to be a theologian to be saved. One needs only to believe on Jesus Christ and accept the wonderful gift he has given us. And then throw a party. For that is what grace is all about: salvation and the joy that comes from the knowledge we are indeed saved.

Psalm 18:1–7; 1 Chronicles 25; Acts 16:16–29

Originally published 1/27/2017. Revised and updated 1/26/2019.

Psalm 18:1–7: The superscription of this poem is extraordinarily long providing the back-story about the circumstances that led David to proclaim this victory psalm: “For the lead player, for the LORD’s servant, for David, who spoke to the LORD the words of this song on the day the LORD saved him from the grasp of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul.” (1)  Alter points out that this psalm is almost exactly (but not quite) the same as David’s song of thanksgiving in 2 Samuel 22.

The joyfully confident opening line firmly establishes the joyful emotions that suffuse the psalm: “I am impassioned of You, Lord, my strength!” (2) Have I ever felt this passionately toward God?

Our poet then has David expressing several metaphors that make it clear that it was David’s trust— his sheltering—in God which brought him victory and saved his life:
The Lord is my crag and bastion,
and my deliverer, my God, my rock where I shelter, (3a)

The poet then shifts to military metaphors to describe how God saved him for certain death:
my shield and the horn of my rescue, my fortress. (3b)

David’s gratitude is all the greater because God’s rescue came just in the nick of time:
The cords of death wrapped round me,
and the torrents of perdition dismayed me
. (5)

I think that ‘torrents of perdition’ is perhaps one of the greatest metaphors in all of Psalms! What a marvelous image of a rushing deluge of evil approaching and then washing over us—but that God protects us from all of it.

The next verse emphasizes how close David was to death, so close that he could see his doom, apparently having been trapped by the enemy, perhaps even Saul himself, on the battlefield:
The cords of Sheol encircled me,
the traps of death sprung upon me.
 (6)

In this desperate situation there is only one thing David can do:
In my strait I called to the Lord,
to my God I cried out.
” (7)

We are sometimes tempted to deride so-called ‘foxhole prayers.’ Yet, here is the greatest warrior king of Israel doing exactly that. But David know one important thing: God does not take our circumstances into account when we pray. Whether we are praying from the silence of the cloister or the middle of a blood-soaked battlefield, God hears us. A good lesson for all of us.

1 Chronicles 25: More lists of the vast organizational apparatus that our authors assert was established by David himself. This time it’s the temple musicians. “David and the officers of the army also set apart for the service the sons of Asaph, and of Heman, and of Jeduthun, who should prophesy with lyres, harps, and cymbals.” (1)

What strikes me here is that speech is not the only medium that conveys prophecy, but that the playing of musical instruments calso qualifies. Clearly, our authors understood how music can stir emotions, frequently with greater power than words. Which is one reason why I think music at worship is so crucially important—and also how music can become fraught and divisive in a congregation. Different music stirs different emotions. Perhaps if we thought more often of music having prophetic power we would pay close attention to the lyrics of what we sing: are the words speaking as if from God—like the words of this psalm— or are they therapeutic ditties too focused on our own self esteem and feelings?

A certain Heman is father to 14 sons and 3 daughters, all of whom “were under the direction of their father for the music in the house of the Lord with cymbals, harps, and lyres for the service of the house of God.”  (6) Moreover, he was director of a large choir: “They and their kindred, who were trained in singing to the Lord, all of whom were skillful, numbered two hundred eighty-eight. (7). The remainder of the chapter details how that group was divided.

If ever we needed a reminder that music is to be played and sung with skill and reverent feeling, it is right here. This is what should set worship music apart from secular music—and why I personally find too great a focus on the musicians rather than on the music for God to be distressful.

Acts 16:16–29: Paul and Silas seem to be having great success in Philippi. In one of the most famous stories in Acts, Luke narrates the events that landed Paul and Silas in prison. It all starts with a demon-possessed slave girl who apparently has the powers of divination. “Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour.” (18)

The slave girl’s owners, seeing “that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities.” (20) Rather than the usual fairly trivial charges of disturbing the peace, the owners accuse Paul and Silas of sedition against Rome. A kangaroo court ensues and they are found guilty as charged. Paul & Silas are stripped, beaten, tossed into the innermost cell of the prison, and locked up in stocks.

None of this discourages the pair from singing and praying as the famous earthquake occurs around midnight, “so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened.” (26)

Assuming the prisoners had escaped the jailer was about to commit suicide when Paul shouts, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” (28) The jailer “called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas.” (29)

One of the things I’ve always wondered about is why didn’t the other prisoners escape? I understand why Paul and Silas stayed put but what force would hold the other prisoners back? I  the feeling that somehow the Holy Spirit somehow involved here?