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

Originally published 4/11/2017. Revised and updated 4/10/2019.

Psalm 47: We can hear the loud singing and even shouting in this exuberant psalm of thanksgiving. (It also justifies hand-clapping during worship!)
All peoples, clap hands,
Shout out to God with a sound of glad song.” (2)

The reason for the singing and shouting is simple. All Israel is praising God for his protection and enabling their victory over their enemies:
For the Lord is most high and fearsome,
a great king over all the earth.
He crushes peoples beneath us
and nations beneath our feet.” (3,4)

But as always, God is the central focus of celebratory worship:
God has gone up with a trumpet-blast,
the Lord with a ram’s horn sound. (6)

Perhaps most important here, the people realize that this is not something they accomplished on their own, but rather that God has chosen them, loves them, and has helped them:
He chooses us for our estate,
pride of Jacob whom He loves. Selah.” (5)

And in response to God’s love and his provision, our psalmist writes with unbridled enthusiasm:
Hymn to God, hymn,
hymn to our king, O hymn.
For king of all earth is God,
Hymn joyous song.” (7,8)

Our poet expands the horizon of celebration by telling us that God is not Israel’s exclusive property but that “God reigns over the nations and sits on His holy throne.” (9) God’s kingship over all the earth—over all his creation—is the core reality of God’s being and the reason why he sent a Savior to rescue all humankind, not just the Jews.

Nevertheless, the celebration concludes with a reprise of God having chosen and protecting Israel via the efforts of its military:
The princes of peoples have gathered,
The people of Abraham’s God.
For God’s are the land’s defender.
Much exalted is he.” (10)

This psalm is an excellent example of expressing the joy in knowing—truly knowing— just who God is and how he protects us today just as he protected Israel so many years ago.

Job 12:13–13:19: Job continues his lengthy disquisition on the nature and qualities of God, which impacts all creation:
With God are wisdom and strength;
    he has counsel and understanding.
If he tears down, no one can rebuild;
    if he shuts someone in, no one can open up.
If he withholds the waters, they dry up;
    if he sends them out, they overwhelm the land.” (12:13-15)

But an angry, hurting Job observes that God is also capricious, and brings calamity even to those who trust in him:
He deprives of speech those who are trusted,
    and takes away the discernment of the elders.
He pours contempt on princes,
    and looses the belt of the strong.
He makes nations great, then destroys them;
    he enlarges nations, then leads them away.” (12:20,-21, 23)

Notice how Job also observes that God both creates and destroys entire nations. When we examine history which is chockablock with the cyclical growth and eventual decay of empires and nations we realize just how true Job’s statement is. Nor should we here in America think that somehow our nation is exempt from decay and downfall. Perhaps it’s just because I’m old, but I certainly detect the first stages of that eventual downfall here on our own shores.

Job asserts that he is an equal with his erstwhile friends:
What you know, I also know;
I am not inferior to you.” (13:2),

And rather than allowing these “friends” to adjudicate his case, Job intends to go into God’s courtroom:
I would speak to the Almighty,
and I desire to argue my case with God.”
(3)

Having made this decision, he hurls insults back against his three interlocutors:
As for you, you whitewash with lies;
    all of you are worthless physicians.
If you would only keep silent,
    that would be your wisdom! (13:4,5)

Now, that’s one great put-down! I wonder if I’ll ever have the opportunity to use it.

Job believes he is entitled to a fair trial and he is ready to stand in the dock, even to the point of death:
See, he will kill me; I have no hope;
    but I will defend my ways to his face.” (15)

In the end, Job is doing what we all want to do when we believe we have been unfairly singled out by God for unwarranted punishment. We want justice and we want to make our case in God’s court:
I have indeed prepared my case;
    I know that I shall be vindicated.
Who is there that will contend with me?

    For then I would be silent and die. (13:18, 19)

But will Job’s wish to be heard by God be granted?

Romans 15:17–29: Paul states that “I have reason to boast of my work for God” (17) for the simple reason that he has been designated as apostle to the Gentiles: “I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to win obedience from the Gentiles.” (18) He is also careful to note that he will not obstruct others engaged in a similar mission and he will work only in areas where the gospel has not yet spread: “I make it my ambition to proclaim the good news, not where Christ has already been named, so that I do not build on someone else’s foundation.” (20)

It’s too bad many missionary activities in the 19th and early 20th centuries did not follow Paul’s sage advice. Instead, the various missionary groups competed with each other, e.g. in Africa. One has the distinct feeling here that Paul feels that others have been working in his vineyard and even corrupting his message. But the key for Paul is that he is working in virgin territory.

At this point we find out that Paul is writing to a church he has not yet visited: “This is the reason that I have so often been hindered from coming to you.” (22) But he fully intends to come, which of course he eventually does, although not in the way he planned.

What’s intriguing here is that he plans to visit Rome on his way to Spain. He makes this point twice, first at verse 24 and then again at 28: “I will set out by way of you to Spain.” Whether Paul ever made it to Spain has been the subject of intense speculations—most Spaniards preferring to believe that Paul made it to that edge of the Roman Empire. We’ll never know for sure since Spain is not mentioned in the book of Acts. My own view is that he never made it.

Instead of heading to Rome and Spain, Paul tells them, “At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem in a ministry to the saints; for Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to share their resources with the poor among the saints at Jerusalem.” (25, 26) Unfortunately, we know too well what happened in Jerusalem such that Paul eventually arrives in Rome as a prisoner.

The key message for me here us that even if our plans are to do God’s work they will not necessarily turn out the way we had hoped. It’s the old saying: if you want God to laugh just tell him your five-year plan.

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

Originally published 4/10/2017. Revised and updated 4/9/2019.

Psalm 46: This psalm of thanksgiving praises God who is “a shelter and strength for us,/ a help in straits, readily found.” (2) Given the tenor of other psalms that decry an absent God, it’s refreshing that at least in some circumstances, God is indeed “readily found.”

Because God is near and is our shelter in times of trouble, we are protected in even the greatest calamities—which the earthquake metaphor certainly conveys:
Therefore we fear not when the earth breaks apart,
when mountains collapse in the heart of the seas.
Its waters roar and roil,
mountains heave in its surge. sela” (3, 4)

The metaphor of mountains collapsing into the sea implies a dreadful event of immense power. But whether we are talking about a national calamity or a personal one, we are assured “God is in its midst, it will not collapse.” (6) The psalmist begs us to remember that in the end, it is our God of immeasurable power who remains in control of creation—even the man made disasters of war:
Nations roar and kingdoms collapse.
He sends forth His voice and the earth melts. (7)

Our psalmist reinforces this image of God’s power by shifting from a seismic image to one of warfare, reminding us that “The Lord of armies is with us,/ a fortress for us, Jacob’s God. selah.” (8) In fact, we should pay close attention to what God has done and what God continues to do. God’s creative work continue; they did not end at the Genesis account:
Go, behold the acts of the Lord,
Who made desolations on earth,
caused wars to cease to the end of the earth.” (9, 10a)

In the end, despite the illusion that we think we can, it is not humankind that can bring true, lasting peace. Only God can do that:
The bow He has broken and splintered the spear,
and chariots burned in fire. (10b)

Our duty  as God’s creatures is really quite simple because God is always nearby no matter where we end up going. Now, God himself speaks:
Let go, and know that I am God.
I loom among nations, I loom upon the earth. (11)

Because of God’s omnipresence and omnipotence celebrated in this psalm, we need know only one thing in the face of disaster, as the psalmist repeats the truism in the concluding stanza:
The Lord of armies is with us,
a fortress for us, Jacob’s God. (12)

Of course behind all this there must be trust and hope that God is who he says he is in this psalm..

Job 11:1–12:12: Silent up to this point, Job’s third erstwhile friend, Zophar the Naamathite, speaks mockingly:
Should your babble put others to silence,
    and when you mock, shall no one shame you?” (11:3)

In fact, he basically accuses Job of immature whining and asserts, “Know then that God exacts of you less than your guilt deserves.” (11:6) In other words, “What’s your problem Job? You’re getting off pretty easy.” Fundamentally, Zophar asserts that Job is severely misguided in his feeble efforts to understand God’s reasons for his actions. It is equally impossible to see into God’s mind. Zophar memorably tells Job (and us),
a stupid person will get understanding,
when a wild ass is born human.” (12)

Which is to say never.

Zophar’s solution to Job’s agony is really quite simple. All Job has to do is be honest with himself and come to God with a contrite heart:
If you direct your heart rightly,
    you will stretch out your hands toward him.
If iniquity is in your hand, put it far away,

    and do not let wickedness reside in your tents.
Surely then you will lift up your face without blemish;
    you will be secure, and will not fear.” (11:13-15)

If Job just stops being stubborn and simply follows these clear instructions, Zophar continues, then
your life will be brighter than the noonday;
    its darkness will be like the morning.
And you will have confidence, because there is hope;
    you will be protected and take your rest in safety.” (11:17, 18)

Zophar reminds me of the people who, when I was diagnosed with cancer, told me that “God never gives you any problem you can’t handle.” These well meaning but facile observations only demean my state and my position before God. This is exactly what Job points out when he responds with biting sarcasm to Zohpar’s advice:
No doubt you are the people,
    and wisdom will die with you.” (12:2)

Job points out that Zophar does not have superior knowledge:
But I have understanding as well as you;
    I am not inferior to you.
    Who does not know such things as these?” (3)

In other words, “You’re not telling me anything I don’t already know.” In fact, Job, “a just and blameless man” (4) has called on God and reaped only one thing: “I am a laughingstock.” (4b) He goes on to tell Zophar,
Those at ease have contempt for misfortune
 but it is ready for those whose feet are unstable. (12:5)

Zophar hasn’t suffered like Job, so his platitudes roll easily off his lips. One is reminded here of Polonius in Hamlet as he dispenses easy advice (“To thy own self be true!”) without understanding the real roots of Hamlet’s despair. Job is telling his interlocutor that until he suffers as Job is suffering he will fail to fully comprehend the real issue that Job faces.

So, too, for all of us when people dispense easy advice with no real appreciation of the torment we may be experiencing.

Romans 15:3–16: Paul encourages the disputing Christians at Rome “to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus” (5) because this is the only way that “together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (6)

To me, this seems like a good point at which to conclude the letter. But Paul, being Paul, is like a dog with a bone. He simply will not let go and comes back around one more time, reminding this church that includes both Jews and Gentiles “that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order…that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.” (8)

Paul then cites his various proof texts and once again wishes his readers, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (13)

And, just to make sure they get his point Paul flatters his audience, telling them, “I myself feel confident about you, my brothers and sisters, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, and able to instruct one another.” (14)

Nevertheless, he reminds them that “on some points I have written to you rather boldly by way of reminder.” (15) He also reminds them of his apostolic bona fides as a “a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.” (16)

This passage gives us real sense of how desperate Paul was to bring the Good News to the Gentiles despite the obstacles that Jewish Christians kept placing before him. His supreme intellect is more than matched by his supreme passion. It is this combination that gives this epistle—and its author—its insight and power.

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

Originally published 4/8/2015. Revised and updated 4/8/2019.

Psalm 45:10–17: Our psalmist now turns his attention to the king’s bride. In a reflection of a patriarchal society, the poet is direct and even a bit peremptory:
Listen princess, and look, incline your ear. (11a).

The poet’s first advice is perhaps the most difficult for a princess who is part of a negotiated deal between kingdoms:
…forget your people, and your father’s house. (11b).

She has a duty to her new husband now and we read an even stronger reminder that this culture is thoroughly patriarchal:
And let the king yearn for your beauty,
for he is your master,
and bow down to him. (12)

However, there are a few benefits in this new and unfamiliar role as the king’s bride:
Daughter of Tyre, with tribute
the people’s wealthy will court your favor. (13)

(The reference to Tyre suggests, but does not prove, that this princess may have been one of Solomon’s wives). And then there are the riches and the wardrobe:
All the princesses’s treasure is pearls,
filigree of gold her raiment. (14)

Adorned regally, she appears before the king…
In embroidered stuff she is led to the king,
maidens in train, her companions.
They are led in rejoicing and gladness.
They enter the palace. (15, 16)

The purpose for her arrival before the king is clear as the poet reminds her again that she has left her father and now has a new master. Her one duty is to procreate:
In your father’s stead your sons will be.
You will set them as princes in all the land. (17).

And assuming she successfully executes her duty, she will be well rewarded:
Let me make your name heard in all generations.
Therefore do peoples acclaim you evermore. (18)

It’s worth noting that his psalm is not about theology and God is not even mentioned. But it gives us a powerful look at the topmost reaches of Israel at the time of its kings. Most tantalizing, perhaps, it gives us a glimpse of the court of king Solomon himself.

Job 10: Whatever anger people may express to God; however much they make shake their fist at heaven, Job was there first. The striking opening line almost stops one from reading further. Yet, I know that many have said exactly the same thing Job says here: “I loathe my life.” But rather than keeping this self-loathing bottled up, Job will speak aloud what I think many of us have thought at one time or another:
 I will give free utterance to my complaint;
 I will speak in the bitterness of my soul. (1)

I wonder how many wounded souls feeling they have been cheated by God are walking around today who cannot or will not give “free utterance” to their feelings.

Job does not merely shake his fist at God, he castigates God almost sneeringly, reminding God that he is torturing his own creation:
Does it seem good to you to oppress,
 to despise the work of your hands
and favor the schemes of the wicked? (3)

Then, even more boldly Job tells God that he knows Job is innocent and asks how God is willing to destroy his own creation:
…although you know that I am not guilty,
Your hands fashioned and made me,
and now you turn and destroy me. (7, 8)

Job dares God to execute his justice fairly:
If I sin, you watch me,
 and do not acquit me of my iniquity.
If I am wicked, woe to me! (14)

Job’s present state is simply inexplicable in every way in which he (and we!) think we know how God’s justice is supposed to operate. It has been turned on its head:
If I am righteous, I cannot lift up my head,
for I am filled with disgrace
and look upon my affliction. (15).

In fact, what God has done is utterly unlike the God that Job thought he knew as he asks,
Why did you bring me forth from the womb? (18).

Everything in Job’s existence has been destroyed, turned upside down and inside out. It would be better, Job insists, that he dies,
never to return,
    to the land of gloom and deep darkness,
the land of gloom and chaos,
    where light is like darkness. (21, 22)

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

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

As always, it’s a question of priorities. People are judging others by what they eat and drink, forgetting that “the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (14:17). On the other hand, Paul argues, don’t just shove your questionable behavior in other people’s faces: “Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for you to make others fall by what you eat;  it is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother or sister stumble.” (14:20, 21) Paul’s bottom line for distinguishing between what is good and what is sinful is very simple: “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” (14:23).

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

Psalm 45:1–9; Job 9; Romans 14:1–12

Originally published 4/7/2017. Revised and updated 4/6/2019.

Psalm 45:1–9: The superscription of this psalm indicates its unique within the psalmic corpus: it is “a song of love.” Unlike other psalms, it opens with the psalmist, who appears to be the court poet, interjecting a personal note by effectively introducing himself to the reader and telling us just how skilled he is:
My heart is astir with a goodly word.
I speak what I’ve made to the king.
My tongue is the pen of a rapid scribe. (2)

He then moves quickly into unctuous flattery of his patron, presumably the king.
You are the loveliest of the sons of man,
grace flows from your lips.
Therefore has God blessed you forever. (3)

Notice the deuteronomic assumption: a man who is good is blessed by God. Our poet continues in this rather syrupy vein by praising his king’s military might both in actuality and metaphorically as he describes the king’s outstanding leadership qualities:
Gird your sword on your thigh, O warrior,
your glory and grandeur.
And in your grandeur pass onward,
mount on a word of truth, humility and justice,
and let your right hand shoot forth terrors,…
…into the heart of the king’s enemies. (4-6)

Then the psalmist comes right out and says it: The king possesses the same wonderful qualities as God himself and that’s the reason he sits on the throne:
Your throne of God is forevermore.
A scepter of right, your kingship’s scepter.
You loved justice and hated evil. (7,8)

Because of these excellent qualities, the king apparently (or at least in the eyes of our poet) has God’s full approval and blessing:
Therefore did God your God anoint you
with oil of joy over your fellows.” (9)

Now that we know the king is anointed effectively by God, our poet will continue with his fawning paean as he goes on in later verses to describe the wonders of the king’s clothes and his “ivory palaces.”

Well, perhaps I am being too harsh. After the agony of the preceding psalm, it’s actually quite nice to enjoy a sunny, even if over-the-top poetic interlude.

Job 9: Job replies to Bildad’s theology that God loves the pure and Job or his children must have gone astray to cause Job to be impure before God—and therefore suffering. Job is buying none of it. He poses the question that remained unanswered until the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ:
Indeed I know that this is so;
    but how can a mortal be just before God?” (1)

As we know, none of us can be justified before God on our own power.  Job makes it clear that God is God. Therefore, in the end fighting God is a hopeless cause:
If one wished to contend with him,
    one could not answer him once in a thousand.
He is wise in heart, and mighty in strength
—who has resisted him, and succeeded?—” (3,4)

As he describes God’s ultimately unknowability by mere humans, Job says something—if we are honest with ourselves—that we have all thought at some point. God is unapproachable. God’s mercy is our only hope:
How then can I answer him,
    choosing my words with him?
Though I am innocent, I cannot answer him;
    I must appeal for mercy to my accuser.” (14, 15)

Job then offers an insight into the nature of God that we really do not want to admit. But when bad things happen for no apparent reason, it seems to be the only explanation. We easily conclude with Job that God really does not give a rip about us:
It is all one; therefore I say,
    he destroys both the blameless and the wicked.
When disaster brings sudden death,
    he mocks at the calamity of the innocent.” (22, 23)

The earth is a fallen, evil place—God’s marvelous creation gone awry. Therefore, Job argues, God is not about to leap in and help us. In fact, Job accuses God of allowing this evil state of affairs to exist.
The earth is given into the hand of the wicked;
    he covers the eyes of its judges—” (24)

Wow. These are dark statements: God “mocks the calamity of the innocent” and “the earth is given into the hand of the wicked.” Yet, if we are honest with ourselves there’s no question that what we’ve often thought about God, Job has had the courage to utter aloud.

Job decisively rejects Bildad’s assertion that if we are just happy before God then all will be well:
If I say, ‘I will forget my complaint;
    I will put off my sad countenance and be of good cheer,’
I become afraid of all my suffering,
    for I know you will not hold me innocent.” (27, 28)

As far as Job is concerned, he stands condemned before unknowable and arbitrary God because God is God and humans are not. The underlying theme here is that God views his creatures, if he views them at all, as mere playthings to be trifled with. Clearly, there is nothing new about 21st century cynicism regarding the nature of a distant and even cruel God. It is all right here.

In the final words of the chapter, Job’s only hope us that he could approach God without fear but only if he would become approachable. Once again, we are reminded that it is Jesus who speaks to God on our behalf.
If he would take his rod away from me,
    and not let dread of him terrify me,
then I would speak without fear of him,

    for I know I am not what I am thought to be.” (35)

What sad hopeless words: “for I know I am not what I am thought to be.” And yet, in Job’s suffering all pretenses are stripped away. We have to accept that Job is speaking the truth.  And in our own suffering we realize we are far less consequential and wonderful than what our self-image conceived us to be. Suffering forces brutal honesty to the surface.

Romans 14:1–12: Paul focuses on our tendency to judge others when we feel judged: “Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat” (3) As far as God is concerned, both sides are welcome before him. In other words, there are differences in the church due to the different natures and attitudes of each individual in the church.  Paul phrases these opposing attitudes nicely: “Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike.” (5) We all have different outlooks and Paul is basically telling us, “Deal with it” and/or “Roll with the punches.”

The reason for accepting the quirks and annoyances of others is really quite simple. To put it as Oswald Chamber might, if we have truly abandoned ourselves to Christ we are no longer our own persons. We no longer operate under the illusion that we are in control of our own actions, never mind our own destinies. Rather, “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord...” (7,8)

And be careful, Paul warns. We are accountable for our actions before God. As we judge others so shall we eventually be judged by God: “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.” (10) In short, it’s not worth it to judge others. God has a very long memory of what we do and who we judge.

As the last line of this passage reminds us, we are responsible for our own actions—and our own judgements: So then, each of us will be accountable to God. (12)

Psalm 44:18–27; Job 8; Romans 13

Originally published 4/6/2017. Revised and updated 4/5/2019.

Psalm 44:18–27: Despite God’s apparent unfaithfulness that caused Israel to be shamed before its neighbors, our psalmist asserts that they have remained faithful to God in their times of trouble—the clear implication being, “So, where were you, God, when we were being faithful to you?? Huh? Speak up! Goodness knows we’ve all asked that question more than once. Our psalmist asks almost plaintively:
All this befell us, yet we did not forget You,
and we did not betray Your pact.
Our heart has not failed,
nor have our footsteps strayed from Your path…” (18, 19)

Then, he becomes bluntly accusatory because God has allowed them to be placed in a situation of great peril that brings them close to death:
…though You thrust us down to to the sea monster’s place
and with death’s darkness covered us over.” (20)

After all, he goes on to argue, if they had betrayed God he certainly would have noticed—and responded to—their unfaithfulness with his usual punishment:
Had we forgotten the name of God
and spread out our palms to an alien god,
would not God have fathomed it?
For he knows the heart’s secrets.” (21, 22)

Yet, even though they have been faithful to him, God has remained silent
For Your sake we are killed all day long,
we are counted as sheep for slaughter
.” (23)

At this point, our psalmist is pretty worked up and basically is trying to shake God awake from  slumber that has led to such great calamity:
Awake, why sleep, O Master!
Rouse up, neglect not forever.” (24)

We can hear the desperation in his voice as he shouts at God, reminding them of their grim situation:
Why do You hide Your face,
forget our affliction, our oppression?
For our neck is bowed as dust,
our belly clings to the ground.” (25, 26)

He concludes with one final plea for God to respond, appealing to God’s justice and kindness:
Rise as a help to us
and redeem us for the sake of Your kindness.” (27)

So, when we are discouraged and in desperate straits ourselves and God seems silent, here is a prayer we can pray. Yes, I know the old cliche about walking alongside God: when there is only one pair of footsteps and God seems to be missing it’s because he’s carrying us. But for me, the desperate honesty of this psalm as the poet cries out to an absent, silent God is far more compelling. Where is God when you really, really need him? This psalm allows us to be angry with God and to honestly ask that question.

Job 8: Job’s second erstwhile friend, a certain Bildad the Shuhite, reacts to Job’s mournful complaints and his desire to die. What he says is exactly the same thing people tend to say when they think we are being wrongly harsh about God—such as the complaints of the psalmist above. They, like Bildad here, go immediately to pointing out how wonderful God is—which is not exactly what Job—or we—want to hear at times of great distress. But Bildad launches into a theological dissertation just when Job needs comfort:
Does God pervert justice?
    Or does the Almighty pervert the right?” (3)

Bildad is explicating the old deuteronomic code of justice: you sin; you’re punished. In this case he opines that even though Job has not sinned his plight must be because his children sinned:
If your children sinned against him,
    he delivered them into the power of their transgression.” (4)

All Job has to do to make things right, Bildad claims, is “seek God/ and make supplication to the Almighty.” (5) After all, he continues,
if you are pure and upright,
    surely then he will rouse himself for you
    and restore to you your rightful place.” (6)

Would it were just that simple.  As we learn from Paul in Romans, it’s actually impossible for us to live “pure and upright” lives. But this reality does not deter Bildad, who then gives a long speech about the mistaken confidence of those who forget God and his goodness:
While yet in flower and not cut down,
    they wither before any other plant.
 Such are the paths of all who forget God;
    the hope of the godless shall perish.
 Their confidence is gossamer,
    a spider’s house their trust.” (12-14)

Bildad’s implication is clear: Job has obviously deluded himself about his faithfulness. His protestations notwithstanding, Job has failed to have a meaningful relationship with God.

Bildad winds up his sermon with the tired argument that as long as we’re pure, God will like us:
God will not reject a blameless person,
    nor take the hand of evildoers.
 He will yet fill your mouth with laughter,
    and your lips with shouts of joy.” (20, 21)

We’ve all heard these sermons. God is God; we just have to be good in order to please him. Yet, if ever we needed an exemplar of intrinsic human goodness, it is Job. And he is suffering. Bildad’s superficial analysis and advice are not helping. A good thing to remember when we come alongside someone who is in great distress or is mourning.

Romans 13: In this infamous passage Paul argues that we are “to be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.” (1) He goes on to assert that “whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” (2) Moreover, he argues, “rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.” (3) Uh Huh. Especially those benevolent Roman emperors who styled themselves as gods. Paul appears to believe that those in authority will wield their power justly: “It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.” (4) Which is a somewhat ironic statement in light of the amply unjust crucifixion of Jesus.

He also provides the biblical basis for the IRS: “Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.” (7)

This passage seems to be a sop to the ruling authorities at Rome and elsewhere to convince them that Paul and the Christian church are not fomenting rebellion against the Roman government. Given the tenor of the times, with plots and conspiracies abounding, this is an understandable and sound strategy, even though Paul comes off sounding more preachy than usual.

Being on an advice-giving roll, Paul goes on to remind his listeners in that pre-credit era, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” (8) Then, to cover every circumstance, he then tosses in a restatement of Jesus’ famous statement, “any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (9)

Paul concludes this chapter with a defensive military metaphor that is expanded on in Ephesians 6: “Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light;” (12) The way we do this is to live honorably in love and “not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy.” (13) In the end we turn our lives over to Jesus as the way to avoid these sins: “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” (14)

In fairness to Paul, the foundation of everything he has to say in this chapter is love. And if we love our neighbors as ourselves, we will surely carry out the other commandments, including honoring the authorities. After all, neither Jesus nor Paul said only to love your fellow Christians. We are to love everybody. Good advice indeed. But pretty difficult to execute consistently.

Psalm 44:10–17; Job 7; Romans 12:9–21

Originally published 4/5/2017. Revised and updated 4/4/2019.

Psalm 44:10–17: Even though God favored the Israelites as they conquered Canaan and they have faithfully worshipped God, our psalmist is still pretty upset at God because of an apparent defeat in a more recent battle:
Yet You neglected and disgraced us
and did not sally forth in our ranks.
You turned us back from the foe,
and our enemies took their plunder.“(10, 11)

Wow. How typical. We all like to raise our fists and blame God for the bad things that happen to us.

Alter informs us that the battle referred to here is impossible to date, although it may be from a battle during David’s time or even centuries later under the Greek oppression. Whatever happened it was a loss that indicated that God was no longer a supported of Israel. Even worse, our psalmist continues, God was indifferent to their plight and made them the object of national humiliation:
You sold Your people for no wealth
and set no high price upon them.
You made us a shame to our neighbors,
derision and mockery to those round us.
You made us an object of scorn among peoples. (13-15)

Our psalmist goes on to take God’s absence in this desperate time of need almost as a personal insult as he is shamed before his enemies:
All day long my disgrace is before me,
and shame has covered my face,
from the sound of revelers and cursers,

from the enemy and the avenger. (16, 17)

I think the most remarkable aspect of this bitter passage is that the psalmist felt entirely free to shake his literary fist at God and accuse God as having abandoned them. So, following the psalmist, why should we try to be so polite to God when something awful has happened to us? We tend to mumble cliches like “it was God’s will that this awful thing happened,” or, “This is a lesson from God.” Balderdash! God did no such thing and with the psalmist we are perfectly justified in directing our deepest anger toward a seemingly indifferent God. This is the brilliance of the psalms: we can find a psalm that expresses every emotion!

Job 7: Like the psalmist above, Job cries out against the unfairness of life and God’s apparent indifference to the plight he created for Job, him. IN perhaps one of the most existential chpaters in the Bible, Job argues that life is tough enough with God piling on and adding still more suffering to an already brutal existence:
Do not human beings have a hard service on earth,
    and are not their days like the days of a laborer?
  Like a slave who longs for the shadow,

    and like laborers who look for their wages,
  so I am allotted months of emptiness,

    and nights of misery are apportioned to me.” (1-3)

I think these verses perfectly express our anger at what so often seems to be God’s indifference, if not outright cruelty. Job goes on to describe his restless nights and his physical misery that have led to hopelessness:
My flesh is clothed with worms and dirt;
    my skin hardens, then breaks out again.” (5)

At this point, Job has abandoned all hope:
My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle,
    and come to their end without hope.” (6)

Given life’s brutal ephemerality, he certainly feels free to shake his fist at God:
Therefore I will not restrain my mouth;
    I will speak in the anguish of my spirit;
    I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.” (11)

His nights are full of terrible nightmares: “you scare me with dreams/ and terrify me with visions,” (14)  as he comes close to suicide:
so that I would choose strangling
    and death rather than this body.
  I loathe my life; I would not live forever.” (15, 16a)

In fact, he shouts, why does God even give a rip about humans? Are we merely God’s playthings which he enjoys testing?
What are human beings, that you make so much of them,
    that you set your mind on them,
visit them every morning,

    test them every moment?” (17, 18)

Job comes the questions that everyone who is enduring a trial must ask at some point. What did we do to God to deserve this punishment?
If I sin, what do I do to you, you watcher of humanity?
    Why have you made me your target?
    Why have I become a burden to you?” (20)

What’s fascinating here is that Job’s questions are the exact opposite of the deuteronomic Covenant articulated elsewhere in the OT and by the Pharisees of Jesus’ time that it is our sin which result in God’s punishment. For Job, God’s action (or inaction) are a far more existential issue. In Job’s eyes we humans are merely God’s playthings and suffer for no good reason. Even though this book was written millennia ago the questions Job asks are completely modern—and completely relevant as we gaze on the disorder and suffering that plagues humankind.

Romans 12:9–21: By contrast, Paul ignores the existential crisis and focuses on the practical aspects of living the quotidian Christian life as he unleashes one of his famous lists: “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.” (9-12)

He continues to summarize the sayings of Jesus as he echoes much of what Jesus said at the Sermon on the Mount—only here it is about how we as Christians must live with each other in the community of the church: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.” (14-16) I wonder if Paul’s epistle served as a source for the writer of Matthew when he wrote the gospel some years after Paul was writing?

All of what Paul writes is strikingly good advice. It boils down to keeping our emotional outrage when we are wronged under control—especially in the church: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” (17, 18) Paul reminds us that we cannot strike out in vengeance because “it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” (19) True enough. But of course if any of this were easy to do Paul would not have had to write it down.

Paul doubtless understood that he was posing an enormous challenge to ordinary human beings—especially Christians. So he engages us by observing that there is a nice psychological reward when we treat our enemies kindly. Kindness will drive them crazy and, Paul asserts, cause them to realize their wrongdoing: “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” (20) I confess that I think not every enemy will come to his or her senses by being treated kindly. We need only look at the political sturm und drang that surrounds us.

Nevertheless, we would do well to heed Paul’s famous words that summarize it all: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (21)

The reality of course is that we as Christians are generally quite bad at heeding Paul’s advice. So when I’m upset with something that has happened to me, especially at church, I need to bring this section of Paul’s letter with me and read it several times before responding when I feel I’ve been wronged. Perhaps this section of Romans should be made into a poster and placed at several locations in the church—and here at home…

 

Psalm 44:1–9; Job 5,6; Romans 11:33–12:8

Originally published 4/4/2017. Revised and updated 4/3/2019.

Psalm 44:1–9: I’m not sure that it’s an official psalm category, but this one is historical as it recounts the “days of yore” when Israel conquered Canaan in the time of Joshua. Of course a major medium for transmission is older generations passing down the story to younger generations orally:
God with our own ears we have heard,
our fathers recounted to us
a deed that You did in their days,
in days of yore.” (2)

For our psalmist, God is the root cause in both the establishment and disestablishment of entire nations. The humans who carry out these deeds are merely God’s instrument of action:
You, Your hand dispossessed nations—and You planted them.
You smashed peoples and sent them away.
For not by their sword they took hold of the land,
and it was not their arm that made them victorious
but Your right hand and Your arm.” (3,4a)

If ever we need reminding that Israel was convinced that God was on their side (as long as they followed and obeyed God!) it is right here: “and the light of Your face when You favored them.” (4b)

The psalmist’s focus shifts from God as prime mover to the details of how men carry out God’s will as he employs a rather violent image of bloody warfare:
Through You we gore our foes.
through Your name we trample those against us.” (6)

My more cynical self begins to wonder if our poet is using God as a bit of hyperbole, as a cover for man’s violent actions. He rightly points out that it not the weapons that do the work, but the man wielding them.
For not in my bow do I trust,
and my sword will not make me victorious.” (7)

Nevertheless, there is true faith that underlies this psalm as our poet gives full credit to God:
For You rescued us from our foes,
and our enemies You put to shame.” (8)

Therefore, the psalmist asserts, it is God whom we must worship:
God we praise all day long,
and Your name we acclaim for all time. selah.” (9)

My takeaway here is that even for those of us who do not go to war to gore our enemies, we should praise God for all that he does for us in our lives. We may not agree with the psalmist about God being “on our side,” but that in no way diminishes God’s power and action on our lives—and therefore our response must be to praise and worship him.

Job 5,6: Regardless of our feelings about the underlying story of Job, its author expresses truths that we would do well to remember each day as we read the depressing news from around the world as Job’s erstwhile friend, Eliphaz, states some profound truths that are certainly applicable to our own time:
For misery does not come from the earth,
    nor does trouble sprout from the ground;
but human beings are born to trouble

    just as sparks fly upward.” (5:6,7)

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it is we humans who create our own problems. For Eliphaz, however, that does not provide an excuse to avoid following—or even rejecting—God:
As for me, I would seek God,
    and to God I would commit my cause.
He does great things and unsearchable,

    marvelous things without number.” (5:8, 9)

Our poet certainly understands the immutability of human nature. What he wrote several millennia ago certainly rings true today. God justice trumps human mendacity:
He frustrates the devices of the crafty,
    so that their hands achieve no success.
He takes the wise in their own craftiness;
    and the schemes of the wily are brought to a quick end.” (5:12, 13)

And, Eliphaz continues, it is God who protects the innocent and brings justice:
But he saves the needy from the sword of their mouth,
    from the hand of the mighty.
So the poor have hope,

    and injustice shuts its mouth.” (5:15, 16)

If along with Eliphaz, we would acknowledge that we humans and our pride and ceaseless desire for power and control are at the root of humanity’s problems, I think we would instinctively turn toward God. But alas, in its pride humanity is unlikely to acknowledge its inherent sinfulness.

Eliphaz asserts even that God’s punishment serves a larger, better end:
How happy is the one whom God reproves;
    therefore do not despise the discipline of the Almighty.
For he wounds, but he binds up;

    he strikes, but his hands heal.” (17, 18)

Really? Here I disagree with Eliphaz as I don’t believe God acts malevolently to teach us lessons. We humans are sinful enough to screw up things without any assistance from God.

Job also disagrees with Eliphaz as he replies in Chapter 6. Rather justifiably, IMHO, Job believes that God is indeed malevolent:
For the arrows of the Almighty are in me;
    my spirit drinks their poison;
    the terrors of God are arrayed against me.” (6:4)

In fact things are so bad, Job would rather die:
O that I might have my request,
    and that God would grant my desire;
that it would please God to crush me,
    that he would let loose his hand and cut me off!” (6:8, 9)

Moreover, Job realizes he cannot help himself out of his God-allowed predicament:
In truth I have no help in me,
    and any resource is driven from me.” (13)

And his friends are also no help and while they were confident they could help, Job knows their words are ultimately useless:
My companions are treacherous like a torrent-bed,
    like freshets that pass away,

“Teach me, and I will be silent;
    make me understand how I have gone wrong.
How forceful are honest words!
    But your reproof, what does it reprove?
Do you think that you can reprove words,
    as if the speech of the desperate were wind?” (6:15, 24-26)

Job is expressing a great truth: in the end, rhetoric has no power. Words are like the wind. This truth is worth bearing in mind as we read the rants and outrage in a Facebook newsfeed.

Romans 11:33–12:8: Paul’s words are the answer to Job’s dilemma and at the root of Eliphaz’s misconceptions. (And how the book of Job concludes.) No matter how much we think we can understand God, we cannot because we have been made as the psalmist has it—a little lower than the angels:
For who has known the mind of the Lord?
    Or who has been his counselor?”
“Or who has given a gift to him,
    to receive a gift in return?” (11:34, 35)

In the face of God’s inscrutability we can respond in only one way as Paul famously tells us, “by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” (12:1) Happily, he follows this startling assertion immediately with the explanation of how to actually be a ‘living sacrifice:’ “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (12:2) Easy to say; hard to do.

What I particularly like here is that Paul tells us that being a living sacrifice requires constantly renewing our minds. As my father used to say, he could identify any non-Christian cult by the requirement to “leave your brains at the door.” To be sure, being a Christian is a matter of the heart, but it is equally a matter of the mind, which is where discernment and learning take place.

Underlying all this is Paul’s assumption that as Christians we are in community and we need to be careful not to set ourselves up as being better than our peers: “I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.” (12:3)

And then perhaps most importantly, as a community we need to recognize that while we are each different with different gifts, each of us an essential part of the body. As such, we each “have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us.” ( 6) Which of course Paul cannot resist listing: “prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.” (7, 8) Paul will take this issue up in greater detail in I Corinthians.

Churches that succeed recognize that each individual is an important contributor to the life of the body. Churches that ultimately fail are led by someone who sets him or herself above others and devalues the contributions made by others. This is why independent churches founded by charismatic leaders do not often survive the departure of their charismatic leader.

 

 

Psalm 43; Job 3,4; Romans 11:19–32

Originally published 4/3/2017. Revised and updated 4/2/2019.

Psalm 43: Even though there’s no superscription for this psalm, its opening verse certainly suggests the psalmist is writing in David’s voice. [Alter suggests that given the absence of the superscription, Psalms 42 and 43 may have once been a single psalm and we’re at the second half here.] In any event, the speaker must be a man in high office against whom others are conspiring:
Grant me justice, O God,
take up my case against a faithless nation,
from a man of deceit and wrong free me.” (1)

As we often do as well, he feels abandoned by a silent God:
For You, O God, my stronghold,
why should You neglect me?
Why should I go in gloom, pressed by the foe?” (2)

I’m sure that all of us have felt neglected by God, especially in our times of greatest need. Yet, like the psalmist, we must maintain our faith that God will eventually answer. Along with the poet, we must continue to appeal to God:
Send forth Your light and Your truth.
It is they that will guide me.” (3a)

That this psalm is written in David’s voice is substantiated here in This verse. He wishes to approach the altar and worship God in song and with the lyre that’s traditionally attributed to him:
And let me come to God’s altar,
to God, my keenest joy.
and let me acclaim You with the lyre,
O God, my God.” (4)

The question I have to ask myself is, am I persistent when I feel abandoned by God; does my faith that God will indeed answer remain strong as David’s seems to do here? For in the end it all boils down to hope, as it is expressed so beautifully here:
Hope in God, for yet will I acclaim Him,
His rescuing presence and my God.” (5)

This is the challenge for all of us: that out faith in God remains even in the face of God’s silence. For in the end, as David and our psalmist must have intuited, we know that in the Holy Spirit we have an advocate who will bring our deepest thoughts and fears directly to God.

Job 3,4: The deal between Stan and God to use Job as an object lesson in faith is completed as God says, “Very well, he is in your power; only spare his life.” (2:6) As Job is afflicted with sores and sits among the ashes,  Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite, join him. For a week, no one speaks.

Finally, Job opens his mouth and curses the day he was born:
Let the day perish in which I was born,
    and the night that said,
    ‘A man-child is conceived.’
  Let that day be darkness!
    May God above not seek it,
    or light shine on it.

Why did I not die at birth,
    come forth from the womb and expire?” (3:3, 4, 11)

When ever we think that we have thoughts that we dare not utter aloud, we need only turn to this magnificently dark poem that asks the most profoundly existential questions of God that we can possibly ask when tragedy pursues us: why was I even born?
Why is light given to one in misery,
    and life to the bitter in soul,
 who long for death, but it does not come,

    and dig for it more than for hidden treasures;
who rejoice exceedingly,

    and are glad when they find the grave?” (3:20-22)

Lest we think we are the first persons who feel abandoned by God in dark dark times we need only echo what Job said millennia ago—doubtless long before our psalmist above composed his lines:
I am not at ease, nor am I quiet;
    I have no rest; but trouble comes.” (3:26)

With these profound questions on the table, Job returns to silence and “Eliphaz the Temanite answered.” (4:1)  Surprisingly, rather than sympathy, Eliphaz does not cut Job much slack:
Your words have supported those who were stumbling,
    and you have made firm the feeble knees.
But now it has come to you, and you are impatient;

    it touches you, and you are dismayed.” (4:4, 5)

Eliphaz articulates the given of the deuteronomic deal with God: sin must always be punished as he asks Job to reflect:
Think now, who that was innocent ever perished?
    Or where were the upright cut off?
As I have seen, those who plow iniquity

    and sow trouble reap the same.
By the breath of God they perish,

    and by the blast of his anger they are consumed.” (4:7-9)

Eliphaz is telling Job that even though he’s been a great support to others, now in his time of trial he’s asking all the wrong questions. It’s really quite simple for Eliphaz, who tells Job that like everyone else, he’s mortal and despite Job’s protestations of pure faith in God that by the deuteronomic logic, he’s a sinner who deserves to be punished:
‘Can mortals be righteous before God?
    Can human beings be pure before their Maker?” (4:17)

The rhetorical question answers itself. Besides the impossibility of living a completely righteous life, Eliphaz continues, God does not even place his trust in angels, never mind mere mortals:
Even in his servants he puts no trust,
    and his angels he charges with error;
how much more those who live in houses of clay,

    whose foundation is in the dust,
    who are crushed like a moth.” (4:18, 19)

In fact, Eliphaz concludes, we humans are worth nothing and we learn nothing as he observes, “…[we] die devoid of wisdom.” (4:21) This line certainly could be uttered today in our culture that views humankind more as an evolutionary accidents without souls or transcendence.

Romans 11:19–32: Paul uses the metaphor of a grafted tree to explain how Gentiles can be saved by a Jewish Messiah and that it is God’s plan that they be included along with the Jews in salvation. We Gentiles are broken branches—wild olive shoots— that have been grafted to “the rich root of the olive tree,” i.e., Judaism. However, it appears some Gentiles have been boasting that their faith is superior to their Jewish brethren who have rejected the good news. Paul sternly instructs those folks, “do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you.” (19) He advises, “you stand only through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe.” (20) In other words, mind your own business; focus on your own faith and not that of others. Of course as we know too well, there are many Christians who see themselves as superior to other Christians—especially in churches that believe in the “second baptism” of the Holy Spirit, which renders them more spirtually aware and insightful.

Paul makes a point we would all do well to remember: “Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness toward you.” (22a) In turn, we must emulate God’s kindness in our relationship with others: “you [are] continue in his kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off.” (22b)

He continues to tell those Gentiles who believe they are superior to the Jews because of their superior faith that at some point in history God will fulfill his promise that “until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved.” (25, 26). These verses have led to theological speculation that God has a separate plan of salvation for the Jews that will occur only after all humans—the full number of Gentiles— have heard the Good News.

I think Paul’s real point here is not to waste our time in speculation about God’s ultimate plan, but to live in the here and now. Yes, the Jews that are oppressing them are “are enemies of God for your sake; but as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors.”  (28) Paul sounds rather like he’s quoting Eliphaz when he asserts that all humans are sinners. But unlike Eliphaz who leaves it at that, Paul points out that “God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.” (32) Without our intrinsic sinfulness there would be no need for God’s grace—regardless of whether we are Jews or Gentiles. That’s a far superior fact to worrying about how the Jews who have rejected Jesus will ultimately find God’s salvation.

Psalm 42; Job 1,2; Romans 11:7–18

Originally published 4/1/2015. Revised and updated 4/1/2019.

Psalm 42: This psalm plumbs the depths of the poet’s soul as he reflects on his desire to be restored to a relationship with God. [Alter notes that for this section of the Psalms that begins here at 42, the poets refer to God as “Elohim” rather than Lord (YHWH).]

From the famous opening line, the psalm uses the senses and emotions to evoke how it feels to be seeking a God, who seems to be hiding:
As a deer yearns for streams of water,
so I yearn for You, O God. (2)

This is more than thirst for water, but thirst for the absent God:
My whole being thirsts for God
for the living God. (3a).

This yearning extends to the other senses as well:
When shall I come and see 
the presence of God? (3b)

His search for God produces even stronger emotions as he continues using his body and its qualities as metaphor:
My tears became my bread day and night
…These do I recall and pour out my heart. (4a, 5)

Physical yearning becomes movement:
…when I would step in the procession,
When I would march into the house of God. (5)

But above all his feelings there is always hope:
Hope in God, for yet will I acclaim Him 
for His rescuing presence. (6)

In the next section, our poet reflects on God’s presence in nature, which seems to echo with God’s voice. God’s power is expressed through the ocean’s currents and waves: The psalmist feels the presence of God in the water, evoking a powerful sense of baptism:
Deep unto deep calls out
at the sound of Your channels.
All Your breakers and waves have surged over me. (8)

Even though God has not yet spoken, our poet is confident God is there and that he can speak to him:
By day the Lord ordains His kindness
and by night His song is with me—
prayer to the God of my life.” (9)

Even so, anxiety persists:
I would say to the God my Rock,
‘Why have You forgotten me?
Why in gloom do I go, hard pressed by the foe? (10)

The poet’s thoughts turn even darker in the shocking phrase as all he hears are the voices of his enemies amidst God’s silence. How many of us have felt the same way. When God is silent but we live in a cacophony of negativity:
With murder in my bones, my enemies revile me
When they say to me all day long, ‘Where is your God?’ (11)

Nevertheless, even though God has not shown himself or spoken, hope still remains:
Hope in God, for yet I will acclaim Him,
His rescuing presence and my God. (12)

The lesson for us is that hope will eventually triumph over despair. Even when God does not speak to us, the evidence of his being is all around us: in nature, in our feelings and ultimately, in our hope. God seems very far away as the world seems to careen toward hysteria and increased danger. This psalm brings real comfort in the realization that that God is indeed our “rescuing presence.”

Job 1,2: I’m pretty sure that it’s no coincidence that the Hebrew editors of Scripture placed this book Job–virtually synonymous with despair–  immediately following the triumph that suffuses the book of Esther. Where that book never mentions God once, God is everywhere in Job. But it is certainly not the God of “rescuing presence” who is celebrated in today’s psalm.

In the very first verse we learn without equivocation that Job “was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.” He is wealthy in children and worldly possessions. Nevertheless, ever cautious, Job offers burnt sacrifice to God just in case “It may be that my children have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts.” (1:5).

In one of the rarest settings in the Bible, the scene shifts to heaven where God and Satan joust. Satan accuses God,  “have you not put a fence around him and his house and all that he has, on every side?” (1:10) Satan accuses God that this protection has enabled Job to escape the trial inherent in life.  Because Job is faithful to God, nothing bad has ever happens to him. God relents and agrees that Satan (not God!) may put Job to the test, but not kill him: “…only do not stretch out your hand against him!” (1: 12)

Satan loses no time in bringing disaster into Job’s life. His sheep, his oxen, his camels, his servants, and worst of all, his children are taken from him. But Job remains faithful, reminding himself–and us–“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” (1:20) Unlike so many psalmists, Job does not shake his fist at God.

Satan intensifies Job’s trials by attacking his health. Even Job’s wife thinks her husband’s faith is foolish, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.” (2:9) But Job persists, stating his deepest belief  that “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” (2:10) In other words, at the core of his being, Job is a realist. He knows that life brings suffering to everyone.

Job’s three friends arrive “to go and console and comfort him.” Job is in such bad shape they do not recognize him, but sit in silence on the ground for a week.

Whether or not Job was a real person, he is a metaphor for what faith in God is really about. I once thought I’d make it all the way through my life without any particular trials or disease. What stands out to me is that God does not create these trials; whether one believes in a personal Satan or not, it is the brokenness of creation—and especially we humans— that creates suffering.  does. These opening chapters tell us clearly that while God may allow suffering, he never causes it.

Romans 11:7–18: Paul continues to deal with the Jewish track separately from the Gentile track. He pretty much concludes that by ignoring their Messiah—Christ’s salvific power, “Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking.” (7) He quotes back-up Scripture that those Jews who rejected God were basically lazy:
God gave them a sluggish spirit,
 eyes that would not see
 and ears that would not hear.  (8)

In what is the essence of Paul’s mission, it is the failure of the Jews to realize what God has done for them that becomes the catalyst of salvation of the Gentiles:
But through their stumbling salvation has come to the Gentiles, (11).  

But as a Jew, Paul remains wistful about the enormity of the missed opportunity among his brethren. Things would be so much better fif both Jews and Gentiles recognized Chirst for who he really is—the long-promised Messiah: “if their stumbling means riches for the world, and if their defeat means riches for Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean!” (12).

He then turns his attention to Gentile attitudes, lest they feel superior to the Jews who have rejected Christ, reminding them that they derive their own holiness from the Jewish root, “and if the root is holy, then the branches also are holy.” (16). In fact, Gentiles have been grafted through Christ to the Jewish root; but they are mere branches. He warns them (us), “do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you.” (18).

At 2000 years out, I think the egregious anti-Semitic actions of Christians against the Jews in defiance of Paul’s warning here is one of the great tragedies of history. And even today, anti-Semitism persists—and seems to be blossoming once again in some places. Of course we need to be careful not to conflate the state of Israel with the Jewish religion. They are not the same. But in our collective political antipathy to the only democracy in the Middle East, I think it would be difficult to deny that in some ways we Christians are forgetting that the root—the Jewish people—are indeed just as holy as we.

Psalm 41; Esther 9:18–10:3; Romans 10:14–11:6

Originally published 3/31/2015. Revised and updated 3/30/2019.

Psalm 41: While at first reading this psalm appears to be a psalm of supplication, it is actually one of thanksgiving—specifically, thanksgiving for healing from a grave illness. There are three short speeches that make up the structure and flow of the psalm. The first is the words of supplication prayed on his “couch of pain” (4):
I said, ‘Lord, grant me grace,
heal me, though I offended You.‘(5)

In keeping with the OT’s deuteronomic frame of reference, our psalmist prays for God’s grace in spite of his offenses before God.

We may routinely pray for healing, but rarely do we add “in spite of my offenses.” Rather, we focus on the healing without considering how deep God’s grace is: that he heals sinners like us who so frequently abandon him. And yes, while we no longer believe that sickness arises as a quid pro quo for our sinfulness, it is nonetheless worthwhile remembering how God’s perfection gracefully heals his imperfect creatures.

The second speech is given by the psalmist’s enemies:
My enemies said evil of me:
“When will he die and his name be lost?”(6)

[Notice, how the worst fate  of all is to lose one’s name—forgotten by his progeny.] His enemies amplify his suffering with their hypocritical visits to the psalmist on his sickbed:
And should one come to visit,
his heart spoke a lie.
He gathered up mischief,
went out, spoke abroad. (7)

In the second part of this second speech, this enemy eagerly anticipates the sick man’s death as the foe speaks again:
Some nasty thing is lodged in him.
As he lies down, he will not rise again. (9)

As a result, hopeless betrayal even by the one person he thought he could trust pervades the psalmist’s woes in the third speech:
Even my confidant, in whom I did trust,
who ate my bread,

was utterly devious with me. (10)

When one loses trust in one’s caregiver, all would seem to be lost. Are these words reflective of reality or is the psalmist simply being paranoid in his illness? In today’s culture, we would suspect vengeful paranoia as he adds,
O Lord, grant me grace, raise me up,
that I may pay them back. (11)

But above all he is determined not ot let his enemies win:
In this I shall know You desire me—
that my enemy not trumpet his conquest of me.

Both physical and emotional healing eventually comes and with it, gratitude to the One who heals:
And I, in my innocence, your sustained me
and made me stand before You forever. (13)

Once again, this is another psalm that so beautifully reflects our emotions, this time on our sickbed. We pray for healing; we are fearful, even paranoid. And when healing comes, with it also comes thanksgiving.

Esther 9:18–10:3: Modecai’s and Esther’s faithfulness, together with the uncle’s strategic instincts and the niece’s courage, have resulted in triumph for the Jews. Haman the plotter ends up being plotted against and pays with his life for his deviousness. As a result, the holiday of Purim comes into existence: “the Jews established and accepted as a custom for themselves and their descendants and all who joined them, that without fail they would continue to observe these two days every year.” (9:27). Like Passover and Yom Kippur, this joyful holiday is still celebrated in Israel in keeping with this story: “These days should be remembered and kept throughout every generation, in every family, province, and city; and these days of Purim should never fall into disuse among the Jews, nor should the commemoration of these days cease among their descendants.” (9:28)

We also should give credit to the wisdom and magnanimity of King Ahasuerus, who “made Mordecai the Jew … next in rank to King Ahasuerus.” (10:2)

In the late 1980’s I happened to be in Israel during the celebration of Purim and had the privilege to be with a family that included young children. Kids dress up in costumes and there are parties everywhere. It’s as if it’s Halloween but without the dark side. A far better thing, IMO, than the darkness that our culture has transformed All Hallows Eve into.

Romans 10:14–11:6: Having asserted that salvation comes through confession that Christ is our savior, Paul takes up the very practical problem of getting the Good News out to the world, i.e., carrying out the Great Commission: “But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?” (10:14)

In what would might call the foundation of the missionary movement, Paul uses Scripture to answer his question: “As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”” (15) Indeed, faith “comes from what is heard. [and] what is heard comes through the word of Christ.” (17) Which I will take as the basis for reading Scripture at worship and particularly, reading–and preaching from– the “word of Christ,” i.e., the Gospel. As a fan of lectionary readings, it’s great to discover the roots of this liturgical practice here in Romans.

Paul then turns to the Big Question: Has God abandoned his covenant with the Jews? He is quick to answer: “By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin.  God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew.” (11:1, 2a) Once again he cites Scripture, recalling how Elijah pleaded with God to save Israel. In that case, Paul continues, God’s reply is, “I have kept for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” (11:4)  A Jewish remnant remains, “chosen by grace.” But even so, they must accept God’s grace rather than the Law: “…if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace would no longer be grace.” (11:6)

Editorial: I was raised in a church where the only scripture read was what was being preached on. The lectionary–OT, Psalms, NT and Gospel– became both a deeply meaningful and beautiful part of worship when I came to Saint Matthew. Now that we have moved to the Evangelical approach and dropped the pericopes (for reasons of time?) I miss them greatly, and note that for many people it is the only time they will experience the depth and richness of hearing the Hebrew Scriptures, the emotional range and beauty of the psalms and the Good News within the same hour. Which, now that I think about it, is why I so value the discipline of these Moravian readings. If Paul can base his arguments on Hebrew Scripture, then so should we.