Psalm 79:1–8; Isaiah 9:8–10:11; Galatians 5:7–18

Originally published 6/28/2017. Revised and updated 6/27/2019.

Psalm 79:1–8: This is one of the most anguished psalms of all. Jerusalem has been conquered, its inhabitants killed, and the temple destroyed. Clearly, this psalm was written in the period just following Babylon’s conquest of Judah in 586 BCE. Our psalmist describes the devastation in stark, almost cinematic phrases:
God, nations have come into Your estate,
they have defiled Your holy temple.
They have turned Jerusalem to ruins.
They have given Your servants’ corpses
as food to the fowl of the heavens,
the flesh of Your faithful to the beasts of the earth.
They have spilled their blood like water
all around Jerusalem, and there is none to bury them. (1-3)

We can see the ruins and smell the rotting corpses that lie scattered and unburied in the streets of that once a great city. No greater tragedy has ever befallen Israel. The nation is not only ruined, it has become a laughingstock:
We have become a disgrace to our neighbors,
scorn and contempt to all round us. (4)

It is at this moment of greatest despair that our psalmist understandably turns toward heaven, beyond anger and shaking his fist at God. In this deuteronomic world the poet has no doubt that God has allowed the invasion and destruction because of the irredeemable apostasy of Judah and Jerusalem. Nevertheless, with no living person to shout at, he rails at God, asking the question that has been asked down through the centuries when disaster—whether natural or manmade—occurs:
How long, O Lord, will You rage forever,
Your fury burn like fire?
For they have devoured Jacob
and his habitation laid waste” (6, 7)

(I presume “they devoured Jacob” refers to the enemies relentless slaughter of the Jewish population.)

Our psalmist implores God to not punish them for their ancestors’ wrongdoing, but to show mercy to the present generation that has experienced such profound tragedy:
Do not call to mind against our forebear’s crimes.
Quickly, may Your mercies overtake us,
For we have sunk very low. (8)

The line, “for we have sunk very low” truly resonates for me as I gaze at the state of our culture. Our psalmist confesses before God; he still believes. But now we live in an age where God is deemed capriciously cruel at best and non-existent at worst. Will we suffer the same fate as Judah and Jerusalem?

Isaiah 9:8–10:11: Isaiah expends considerable energy describing the fallen moral state of Judah that let inexorably to its destruction described in the psalm above. Unlike the psalmist, the people to whom Isaiah preaches do not yet recognize that they have “sunk very low.” Instead they make excuses about the signs of cultural decay in a metaphor of bricks and trees, papering over their wrongdoing with weak justifications:
...but in pride and arrogance of heart they said:
“The bricks have fallen,
    but we will build with dressed stones;
the sycamores have been cut down,
    but we will put cedars in their place. (9:9b, 10)

Is this the same attitude of our own culture? Where we justify moral decay with “new cedars?”

Absent repentance from their blinding pride, God punishes them, especially the leaders who have failed in their responsibilities:
The people did not turn to him who struck them,
    or seek the Lord of hosts.
So the Lord cut off from Israel head and tail,
    palm branch and reed in one day—
elders and dignitaries are the head,
    and prophets who teach lies are the tail;
for those who led this people led them astray,
    and those who were led by them were left in confusion. (9:13-16)

What a warning for us! As I look around I see very little evidence of responsible adult leadership, especially in our government. Isaiah despairs at the internecine warfare between the northern and southern kingdoms of divided Israel—not too different from the polarization that surrounds us today:
Through the wrath of the Lord of hosts
    the land was burned,
and the people became like fuel for the fire;
    no one spared another.
They gorged on the right, but still were hungry,

    and they devoured on the left, but were not satisfied;
they devoured the flesh of their own kindred;
  Manasseh devoured Ephraim, and Ephraim Manasseh,
    and together they were against Judah. (9:19-21)

Of all possible wars there’s little doubt that civil war is the cruelest, most destructive of all.

In chapter ten, Isaiah comes down a level of abstraction regarding the failures of leadership. As we read again and again in the Old Testament, the most profound failure of the leaders is their oppression and denial of justice for the poor and needy, the widows and orphans:
Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees,
    who write oppressive statutes,
to turn aside the needy from justice
    and to rob the poor of my people of their right,
that widows may be your spoil,
    and that you may make the orphans your prey! (10:1, 2)

These verses could certainly describe much of the lawmaking that occurs in our own time. The voiceless are denied justice, while the rich can pay their lobbyists. Some things just never change.

Galatians 5:7–18: Paul asks rhetorically of the Galatian church how it has reached its present state: “You were running well; who prevented you from obeying the truth?” (7) Paul points out that unfortunately it doesn’t take much to lead an entire congregation down the wrong path. Or to use his metaphor, “A little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough.” (9) Paul vows punishment for the person or persons who have led the church theologically astray: “But whoever it is that is confusing you will pay the penalty.” (10) In fact, as he thinks about it, he just gets angrier at those who have preached the requirement for circumcision. He bursts out in rather harsh terms, “I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!” (12) Ouch.

As he has done many times already in this letter, Paul returns to is theme of freedom. But now he warns them that with freedom comes responsibility: “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence.” (13a) Now there’s some good advice for all of us. Freedom does not mean license.

Paul states one of the great truths—not just for Christianity, but for all humanity, true freedom must exercised in the framework of love for each other: “but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (13b, 14)

I think that’s the part we have all forgotten—both inside and outside the church. We focus so much on our individual freedom that we forget how our individual “acts of freedom” impact people around us. We not only bowl alone we make others stop bowling as well.

When love is absent bad things happen. I certainly see this in the ongoing culture wars on both sides. A gay couple wants to have a baker make a wedding cake but the baker refuses on the grounds that it is against his religious belief. The couple in turn takes the baker to court. The baker loses and eventually the case comes to the Supreme Court. Where was love in this scenario?

Paul tells us that if we rely on the Holy Spirit in us we will make the right choices in our new-found freedom: “Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh.” (16, 17a) To which I can only rely, ‘Yes, that’s certainly true.’ But it’s also certainly true that consistently following the Holy Sprit’s side this never-ending internal dialectic between the Spirit and our flesh is easier said than done. The Galatians ignored the Holy Spirit and they were too easily led astray. As are we.

Psalm 78:65–72; Isaiah 8:1–9:7; Galatians 4:28–5:6

Originally published 6/27/2017. Revised and updated 6/26/2019.

Psalm 78:65–72: Up to this point in Israel’s history in Canaan, the Ark of the Covenant had resided at Shiloh. The sins of the people and the priests have resulted in a stunning military defeat and God has abandoned the Ark itself. Despite these woes, God is merciful and he has not abandoned Israel. As our psalmist relates, he returns dramatically to Shiloh, triumphing over Israel’s enemies:
And the Master awoke as one sleeping,
like a warrior shaking off wine.
And He beat back His foes,
everlasting disgrace He gave them. (65, 66)

But in the usual deuteronomic twist, God nevertheless remains angry with the unfaithfulness of Israel and is not about to restore the status quo ante. The Ark’s previous custodians, the priests from the tribes named for Jospeh’s sons, are displaced in favor of a new tribe and a new location for the Ark:
Yet He rejected the tent of Joseph,
and the tribe of Ephraim He did not choose.” (67)

God approves of moving the Ark to Jerusalem, Judah’s headquarters, where he is taking up permanent residence. No longer is God and the Ark peripatetic, but he and it now reside for all time in Jerusalem, the eventual site of the temple. God can now be found only in that one place:
And He chose the tribe of Judah,
Mount Zion He loves.
And He built on the heights His sanctuary,
like the earth He had founded forever. (68, 69)

Of course this is an ex post facto declaration by the psalmist, who obviously is from the tribe of Judah. As always, history is written by the victor and our triumphant psalmist retrospectively justifies God’s choice Judah over the other tribes. Moreover, this change of God’s residence becomes the psalmist’s justification for the Davidic dynasty as being God-ordained:
And He chose David His servant
and took him form the sheepfolds.
From the nursing ewes He brought him
to shepherd His people
and Israel His estate. (70, 71)

Of course the metaphor of David shepherding his people becomes a key metaphor of Jesus shepherding us who follow him. This lengthy psalm concludes with the psalmist celebrating God’s choice of a wise leader, the greatest of Israel’s kings, once again using the shepherding metaphor:
And with his heart’s innocence he shepherded them,
with skilled ands he guided them.”  (72)

For me, this concluding verse speaks directly of Jesus, who is truly the Good Shepherd—the culmination of the Davidic line—and the savior not just of Israel but of all humankind.

Isaiah 8:1–9:7: God informs Isaiah that the apostate northern kingdom of Israel is about to be overrun by the Assyrians. Of course since he is a prophet, it could never be as simple as Isaiah simply telling people what is about to happen. Instead, God commands Isaiah to name his son of a certain prophetess, who I believe to be his wife, with what’s got to be the longest name in the Bible: “Maher-shalal-hash-baz.”

God uses the metaphor of a flood to describe the coming invasion: “therefore, the Lord is bringing up against it the mighty flood waters of the River, the king of Assyria and all his glory; it will rise above all its channels and overflow all its banks.” (8:7, 8) God tells Isaiah not to fear the enemy but rather to fear God himself: “But the Lord of hosts, him you shall regard as holy; let him be your fear, and let him be your dread.” (8:13).  This is good advice for all of us, although in the midst of battle, fearing an invisible God rather than the enemy standing in front of them in the here and now can be rather difficult!

As with much prophecy, I think this passage may be interpreted at two levels: the near term, which here is the impending invasion of Assyria, and the the longer term of events farther out in time yet to occur.  God tells Isaiah that he [God] “will become a sanctuary, a stone one strikes against; for both houses of Israel he will become a rock one stumbles over—a trap and a snare for the inhabitants of Jerusalem.” (8:14)  Here I think we can read this as a long term prophecy of the Jews’ rejection of their Messiah, Jesus and the consequences that follow that rejection: “And many among them shall stumble; they shall fall and be broken.” (8:15)

Chapter nine is an even more direct prophecy of the coming of the Davidic Messiah. There’s the intriguing note that “in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.” (9:1) Of course Galilee is where Jesus did most of his ministry.

This magnificent passage opens with the familiar refrain:
The people who walked in darkness
    have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
    on them light has shined.” (9:2)

And it reaches its apotheosis in the even more familiar lines describing the coming Messiah:
For a child has been born for us,
    a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
    and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (9:6)

Handel’s majestic music rings in my ears whenever I read this verse. The tragedy of course is that Jesus is rejected by his own people. But these breathtaking words are ours to claim when we see them describing the incarnation of the Messiah who came to save all of us.

Galatians 4:28–5:6: Paul continues his disquisition on the differences between slavery and freedom using the overarching metaphor for the freedom Christ has brought to us compared to the slavery of those who insist on adhering to Jewish law: “But what does the scripture say? “Drive out the slave and her child; for the child of the slave will not share the inheritance with the child of the free woman.” So then, friends, we are children, not of the slave but of the free woman.” (4:30, 31)

And then the famous verse: “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (5:1) It’s as if Jesus has flung open the door of the small prison cell (here, the confines of Jewish law) but we are so used to the constraints we have lived under for so long that we refuse to get up and walk outside to freedom. Why? The reason is that to claim Christ’s freedom we must abandon our own self-centeredness that believes we can come to God via our own efforts and our own good works.

Paul now gets down to the specific problem at hand, which of course was the giant issue of whether or not Gentile Christians had to be circumcised. Paul is pretty direct in his disapproval:  “if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you.” (5:2) At first glance I’m sure the Galatians (and us) respond with “Huh? How can that be.” So Paul immediately reveals that “every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obliged to obey the entire law.” (5:3) Oh. So circumcision as an adult is not just a symbolic act but a life-long commitment to the totality of Jewish law.

Paul’s logic chain moves inexorably forward. Therefore, by accepting the law, which is expressed through the act of circumcision, Paul asserts that we are rejecting Christ’s grace: “You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.” (5:4)  As far as Paul is concerned, it’s a binary choice: the law or grace. I’m pretty sure that this is one of the passages that caused Martin Luther to reject what had become the immutable law of the Church and claim Christ’s grace instead.

Paul concludes by telling us that as Christians, whether or not we’re physically circumcised is irrelevant: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.” (5:6) This is a pretty good definition of our response to Christ’s grace. Yes, like the law, working and performing good deeds is involved in the Christian life. But here it is our faith that does the work, not our hands. More importantly, faith can only work through love. Faith is not just an intellectual stance; it is also the outward evidence of the transformation of our lives when we love Jesus and love each other.

Psalm 78:56–64; Isaiah 6,7; Galatians 4:17–27

Originally published 6/26/2017. Revised and updated 6/25/2019.

Psalm 78:56–64: Our psalmist is understandably frustrated. No matter what God did for the Israelites, they invariably turned away from him. Even though they have now arrived at the promised land they refuse to follow God’s law or keep their side of the Covenant:
Yet they tried God the Most High and rebelled,
and His precepts they did not keep.
They fell back and betrayed like their fathers,
Whipped around like an untrusty bow.”  (56, 57)

Generation after generation, there is repentance as Israel returns briefly to God but then always falls away. Unfaithfulness to God seems to be hard-wired into our humanity. Now that the Israelites are in Canaan they fall under the malign influence of the idol-worshiping Canaanites and in a new blasphemy, they build idols to small-g gods:
They vexed Him with their high places,
incensed Him with their idols.” (58)

In turn, God responds angrily, his patience having been taken beyond the breaking point. He seems to break his side of the Covenant and give up on Israel—or at least that’s how it looks to our psalmist:
God heard and was angry,
wholly rejected Israel. (59)

As far as the psalmist is concerned, the sure sign of God’s abandonment is his departure from the Ark of the Covenant:
He abandoned the sanctuary of Shiloh,
the tent where He dwelled among men.
And he let his might become captive,
gave His splendor to the hand of the foe. (60, 61)

Having abandoned them, God leaves their fate up to the marauding hordes and in a final insult shows up on the side of the enemy by allowing himself (the Ark) to be captured. Israel meets its fate for having broken the most important commandment of all—putting small-g gods before God. Here the poetry briefly ascends above its usual pedantry and expresses the horror of what happened in a few compact yet affecting lines:
He gave over His people to the sword,
against His estate He was enraged.
His young men the fire consumed
and His virgins no wedding song knew.
His priests fell to the sword,
and His widows did not keen. (62-64)

The theological question here is, God almost seems like a vengeful adolescent. Yes, the sins of the people are great, even perhaps unforgivable. But would God fly into such a burning rage as to allow his people to be destroyed? I think we need to always bear in mind that the psalms are written from a human perspective. What appears to be abandonment and vengeance may indeed be something quite different: a sorrowful God who despairs at a capricious and sinful people. It’s just too easy to blame God for the things that go wrong in our lives—the things that are indeed very much our fault and whose consequences we want to blame on God rather than ourselves.

Isaiah 6,7: Isaiah has a vision and our authors attest to its historical accuracy by noting it occurred “in the year King Uzziah died.” (6:1) Isaiah’s vision is an appearance before God in all his enthroned glory, attended by six-winged Seraphs worshipping God—in a scene we see again in Revelation 4. Needless to say, this is a pretty awesome, even frightening, scene to Isaiah, a mere mortal.  Like all orderly worship, Isaiah initially confesses his sinfulness: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (6:5)

One of the Serpahs touches a burning coal to Isaiah’s lips and declares, “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” (6:7) At this point Isaiah hears God speak, asking,“Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” (8a). Without hesitation, Isaiah replies, “Here am I; send me!” (8b) Thus is Israel’s greatest prophet anointed. (And the source of a well known worship song…)

God instructs Isaiah to speak to the people using deep sarcasm, already knowing that they will reject Isaiah’s words directly from God:
Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.’
  Make the mind of this people dull,
    and stop their ears,
    and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
    and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
    and turn and be healed.” (6:9,10)

As far as God is concerned, the people will keep rejecting him until “until the Lord sends everyone far away, / and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.” (6:12)

The scene shifts from God’s throne room to the throne room of Uzziah’s son, Ahaz. Warfare is afoot and it creates enormous fear in Jerusalem, beginning with the king himself: “the house of David heard that Aram had allied itself with Ephraim, the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.” (7:2)

God tells Isaiah to go to Ahaz and calm his fears, “say to him, Take heed, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smoldering stumps of firebrands, because of the fierce anger of Rezin and Aram and the son of Remaliah.” (7:4) God, speaking through Isaiah, goes on to promise that regarding the conquest of Jerusalem “It shall not stand,/ and it shall not come to pass.” (7:7)

But there is an all-important requirement being made of Ahaz:
If you do not stand firm in faith,
you shall not stand at all.” (7:9)

We may think these prophecies are somewhat irrelevant to us, but here is a simple truth that stands down through the ages: if we are not firm in our faith we will ultimately fail. I think the same thing applies to entire cultures, as well—just as it did to Judah in BCE 586.

Isaiah goes on to promise the destruction of Samaria by the Assyrians and Egyptians. In the midst of that prophecy we encounter perhaps the most famous prophecy in the book: “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” (7:14) Did Isaiah know he was predicting the Incarnation of Jesus? I very much doubt it, but here they are the prophetic words that lie at the heart of Christianity.

Galatians 4:17–27: Paul is distressed at the demands for strict adherence to Jewish law that seem to be emanating from the church at Galatia. However, he is more gentle in chastising the Galatians than he was with the Corinthians. “My little children, for whom I am again in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, I wish I were present with you now and could change my tone, for I am perplexed about you.” (4:19 20)  He realizes that they are immature Christians. Instead, he directs his anger at those in the church who are hellbent on following Jewish law, asserting they don’t really know the law as well as he—a top-flight Pharisee—does: “you who desire to be subject to the law, will you not listen to the law?” (21) 

He uses the example of children born to Sarah and Hagar: “Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and the other by a free woman.” (22) Then in what to me is a tremendous leap of the kind of allegorical interpretation that Paul seems to get away with, he informs the Galatians that “this is an allegory: these women are two covenants. One woman, in fact, is Hagar, [who] corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children.” (24, 25) By “slavery” I think Paul means “slavery to the Law.” The ironic reversal here is that in this allegory, Paul has set Hagar as the mother of the Jews in the physical Jerusalem:  Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present [actual] Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. (25)

I assume that the “Jerusalem above” is the New Jerusalem that we encounter in Revelation. For Paul, Christianity is a completed Judaism that begins anew under the rule of the Messiah, Jesus Christ. And perhaps most radically of all—and certainly one of his assertions that deeply angered the Jews in Jerusalem—Paul proclaims Sarah to be the true mother of this who follow Christ: “But the other woman corresponds to the Jerusalem above; she is free, and she is our mother. For it is written,

“Rejoice, you childless one, you who bear no children,
    burst into song and shout, you who endure no birth pangs;
for the children of the desolate woman are more numerous
    than the children of the one who is married.” (26, 27)

By Paul’s logic, we are all Sarah’s children through Christ and as the last verse notes, there are more children of Sarah —the Gentiles who come to Christ—than there are Jews.

And in the New Jerusalem ruled by Jesus Christ, there is true freedom.  I don’t think we reflect very often on what true freedom in Christ is. We tend to think “freedom” is being able to do whatever our self-centered selves want to do. True freedom is giving up that self-centeredness and trusting Jesus entirely.

Psalm 78:40–55; Isaiah 4:2–5:30; Galatians 4:1–16

Originally published 6/24/2015. Revised and updated 6/24/2019.

Psalm 78:40–55:  The psalmist contrasts the never-ending grumblings and sins of Israel against the mighty work of God in helping them escape Egypt:
And again did they try God,
and Israel’s Holy One they provoked. (41)

And Israel’s biggest sin here? Forgetting what God had done for them:
They did not recall His great hand,
the day He ransomed them from the foe. (42)

We, too, forget God’s mighty works. Certainly as individuals. But the poet here is speaking of an entire people who have forgotten. And so, too, our own culture. And not just forgetting, but active hostility against God.

To help them remember, our poet catalogs the plagues that God brought  “when He set out His signs in Egypt

He sent against [the Egyptians] His smoldering fury,
anger, indignation, and distress,
a cohort of evil messengers. 
(43, 49)

This passage provides us a clear reminder that God is not an avuncular old man, but an active God, full of emotion and feeling. God’s anger against Egypt results in the greatest plague of all: 
And He struck down each firstborn in Egypt,
first fruit of manhood in the tents of Ham. (51)

Our poet turns back to God’s rescue of Israel:
And He led His people forward like sheep,
drove them like sheep in the wilderness. (52).

I wonder of Jesus had these verses in mind when he used the metaphor of people being the sheep and he being the shepherd.

Skipping over the wilderness wanderings, which the psalmist has already described in earlier verses, we arrive at Canaan:
And He brought them to His holy realm
…And He drove out the nations before them. (54, 55a)

And the thanks that God receives from Israel for rescue, preservation and the new land is what it always end up being: indifference that becomes disobedience that becomes rebellion:
Yet they tried God the Most High and rebelled,
and His precepts they did not keep. (56)

Alas, our hardened hearts have not changed one whit over the millennia. We keep on rebelling.

Isaiah 4:2–5:30: An intermezzo of a wonderful promised future interrupts Isaiah’s litany of the people’s sins. It has the same eager anticipatory tone as John’s description of the New Jerusalem in Revelation: “On that day the branch of the Lord shall be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land shall be the pride and glory of the survivors of Israel.” (4:2) The description of this restored Jerusalem echoes the presence of God over Israel in the wilderness: “Then the Lord will create over the whole site of Mount Zion and over its places of assembly a cloud by day and smoke and the shining of a flaming fire by night.” (4:5)

But Isaiah returns to more typical form in chapter 5 as he describes the unfruitful vineyard, a clear metaphor of God’s relationship–and disappointment–with his people:
He dug it and cleared it of stones,
    and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watchtower in the midst of it,
    and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes,
    but it yielded wild grapes. (5:2)

Like the grapes, Israel grows and prospers, but they are not cultivated grapes, but wild, unruly, and yes, disobedient, fruit. Isaiah’s logic is relentless as he asks rhetorically,
What more was there to do for my vineyard
that I have not done in it? (5:4)

The metaphorical vineyard—Judah— meets  the end it deserves in a clear prediction of the invasion to come:
I will break down its wall,
and it shall be trampled down. (5:5)

Isaiah explores the causes of why the grapes became wild in God’s vineyard. There is drunkenness and debauchery that leads to apostasy
Ah, you who rise early in the morning
    in pursuit of strong drink,
who linger in the evening
    to be inflamed by wine, 
whose feasts consist of lyre and harp,
    tambourine and flute and wine,
but who do not regard the deeds of the Lord,
    or see the work of his hands! (5:11, 12).

But worse, these seemingly trivial sins become the greater evil is the reversal of the people’s moral compass:
Ah, you who call evil good
    and good evil,
who put darkness for light
    and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet
    and sweet for bitter! (5:20, 21).

And then, in keeping with the constant theme of injustice, especially to the poor, that runs through the entirety of the OT:
Ah, you who are heroes in drinking wine
    and valiant at mixing drink,
who acquit the guilty for a bribe,
    and deprive the innocent of their rights! (5:22, 23)

It is difficult to read these verses and not project them forward to our own American culture. And when we do what Judah did, the verses that follow are even more grim:
He will raise a signal for a nation far away,
    and whistle for a people at the ends of the earth;
Here they come, swiftly, speedily! (5:26)

Will we experience an invasion by a foreign army as Israel and then Judah did? Perhaps not, but an invasion by internal corruption and thinking ourselves better than God and eventually rejecting God is perhaps even worse.

Galatians 4:1–16: Paul employs a powerful metaphor of inheritance. Under the law, the Jews “are minors, are no better than slaves, though they are the owners of all the property;” (1) But like rightful heirs, we all now wait until the promise of inheritance is fulfilled through Jesus Christ: “when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law,” (4) for the simple reason that “we might receive adoption as children.” (5). Only by this adoption by Jesus Christ can we become the true sons and daughters of God.

We have been transformed from slaves to the Law (an idea that certainly inflamed Paul’s Jewish opponents) into the heirs, the children of God, because “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” (6)

Paul comes down a level of abstraction, and reminds the Galatians. of their lives before finding Jesus. Before “you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods,” (8)

But “now that you have come to know God” (9a), we must abandon their previous pagan practices. Paul asks rhetorically, “how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits?” (9b) In other words, how can the Galatians (and us) turn our backs on the God who has made us heirs and children and prefer something far inferior?

Of course we do this every day, because when we seek out that which is inferior, we see ourselves not as children, but as adults, fully in control of our actions and our destiny. Which of course in the end is a delusion.

Psalm 78:32–39; Isaiah 2:1–4:1; Galatians 3:19–29

Originally published 6/23/2017. Revised and updated 6/22/2019.

Psalm 78:32–39: Our psalmist writes in astonishment that even after God struck down “their stoutest fellows” and brought “Israel’s young men..to their knees,” the Israelites remained unrepentant:
Even so they offended still
and had no faith in His wonders. (32)

Moreover, despite God’s punishment, the Israelites appear to be immersed in ennui and indifference:
And they wasted their days in mere vapor
and their years in dismay. (33)

This verse is a real challenge for me. Am I wasting my days in “vapor” and many years in “dismay?” There aren’t that many years left to me at this point. Our psalmist is making it clear that we must live with purpose—and obeying God.

Or, we can be hypocrites like the Israelites, who “came back and looked for God”  (34). For a moment it looks like they have truly repented:
And they recalled that God was their rock
and the Most High God their redeemer. (35)

But it’s only a facade as we read one of the better definitions of real hypocrisy that we find in the Bible:
Yet they beguiled Him with their lips,
and with their tongue they lied to Him,
and their heart was not firm with Him,
and they were not faithful to His pact. (36, 37)

One could hardly blame God if he just abandoned them in the desert. Or if he abandoned any of us for our smooth talk and our hard hearts. But God does not give up, and as our psalmist points out that despite our hard hearts,
He is compassionate, He atones for crime and does not destroy,
and abundantly takes back his wrath
and does not arouse all His fury. (38)

Why would God be so compassionate? The psalmist answers this unspoken question by noting that God remembers that he has given us humans free will—a will that is seems predicated to rejecting God:
And He recalls that they are flesh,
a spirit that goes off and does not come back. (39)

We are certainly seeing this same behavior on full display in this day and age. We think we have all the answers of life, that technology is an unbridled good, and that God is a mere psychological crutch. How wrong we are!

Isaiah 2:1–4:1: Although Isaiah certainly had no idea that he was predicting the world-changing advent of the Church of Jesus Christ or the Church, in our retrospective view, he certainly seems to have predicted it:
In days to come
    the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
    and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it. (2:2)

Perhaps one of the greatest promises in this book—and one that has been appropriated by the culture at large—we read:
He shall judge between the nations,
    and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
    and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
    neither shall they learn war any more. (2:4)

The promise stands, but in our larger culture we never acknowledge exactly who is going to accomplish this magnificent promise. Usually, the suggestion is that humans will be able to accomplish peace, but Isaiah is bracingly clear. The one who will beat swords into plowshares can only be God himself. In a God-rejecting culture one thing is clear: swords will remain swords and spears will remain spears. There is no hope for human-induced peace on earth.

In fact, Isaiah points out that our arrogant human pride will lead inevitably to our downfall:
The haughty eyes of people shall be brought low,
    and the pride of everyone shall be humbled;
and the Lord alone will be exalted on that day. (2:11)

And to make sure we get the point, Isaiah repeats himself a few verses later:
The haughtiness of people shall be humbled,
    and the pride of everyone shall be brought low;
    and the Lord alone will be exalted on that day. (2:17)

Isaiah is making it clear that pride is the greatest sin of all and that all empires have eventually fallen. In many ways it feels that the present age that so vigorously rejects God has entered a similar decline and will eventually fall.

In chapter three Isaiah goes into some detail of what Judah’s downfall will look like:
The people will be oppressed,
    everyone by another
    and everyone by a neighbor;
the youth will be insolent to the elder,
    and the base to the honorable. (3:5)

Civility and order disappear as the sinful culture descends into the chaos of reversing what was once good into something disgraceful. Again, even though Isaiah is speaking of Judah’s fate, his words have tremendous relevance to the upside down morality that increasingly characterizes our present age:
Instead of perfume there will be a stench;
    and instead of a sash, a rope;
and instead of well-set hair, baldness;
    and instead of a rich robe, a binding of sackcloth;
    instead of beauty, shame. (3:24)

Is Judah’s fate to be our American fate? The portents are not promising.

Galatians 3:19–29: Paul argues that while the Law cannot bring us salvation, it still has tremendous relevance and does not, in and of itself, contradict Christ’s promise of grace. Paul answers his own rhetorical question: “Is the law then opposed to the promises of God? Certainly not!” (21a) Nevertheless, he continues, the law has not, cannot, and will not save us: “For if a law had been given that could make alive, then righteousness would indeed come through the law.” (21b)

Paul positions the law as a temporary surrogate as the world awaited the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ:”Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed.” (23)  But now that faith has been revealed, “in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.” (26)

Paul employs a distinctive metaphor to state how Christ has changed us: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” (27) Since we are all wearing the clothing of Christ we all become the same as he famously asserts, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (28) In Paul’s era of slavery, subjugation of women, and general cruelty, we cannot overemphasize how radical this assertion really is.

The image that comes to mind for me is that we are all wearing the uniform of Christ. A uniform does not eradicate our personalities, but a uniform makes it clear that we are all part of the same group. Perhaps this verse was inspiration for the old song that has become politically incorrect: “Onward, Christian Soldiers.”

To continue the uniform metaphor: when I was in OCS we stood inspection virtually every day as our uniforms were inspected for the slighted flaws such as untucked shirts or unpolished shoes. The question I have to ask myself is, would my uniform of Christ pass inspection?

Psalm 78:17–31; Isaiah 1; Galatians 3:6–18

Originally published 6/22/2017. Revised and updated 6/21/2019.

Psalm 78:17–31: Our psalmist editorializes that despite God’s rescue from the Egyptian army and despite God’s provision of food and water in the desert, the Israelites remained a complaining and intransigent people:
And still they offended Him more,
to rebel against the High One in the parched land.
And they tried God in their heart
to ask food for their gullet. (17, 18)

Which is exactly what we still do today: we solemnly pray for God to supply our needs and when God does that we still find things to complain about. We don’t think God’s response is sufficient or more often, it’s not the response we were looking for. As did the Israelites. Our psalmist takes them to task, observing that the manna was insufficient and complaining, they asked for bread and meat:
Can He also give bread?
Will he ready flesh for His people. (20b)

God is understandably angry because
…they had no faith in God
and did not trust in His rescue. (22)

In his anger, God grants their latest wishes with a vengeance:
And He charged the skies above,
the doors of the heavens opened,
and rained on them manna to eat
and the grain of the heavens he gave to them. (23b, 24)

The poet does a marvelous job of evoking the surfeit of food that God rained on the Israelites:
[God] rained flesh upon them like dust
and like sand of the seas winged fowl… (27)

[The Israelites] ate and were fully stated,
what they craved He brought to them. (29)

But in a dramatic reminder of the wisdom of the saying, ‘Be careful what You pray for,” in the midst of their very selfish repast,
God’s wrath went up against them,
and He killed their stoutest fellows.
Israel’s young men He brought to their knees.” (31)

Happily, God no longer takes vengeance against ungrateful people or we’d all be dead by now. But the psalmist’s lesson is pretty clear: Israel ignores God at its peril. The lesson for us is also quite clear: We need to be increasingly aware of how God provides for us—and when we complain that our manifold blessings are insufficient, while we may not anger God to the point of vengeance, we certainly will cause God to feel sorrow.

Isaiah 1: With today’s reading we spend the remainder of the calendar year among the “major” and “minor” prophets. Of all the major prophets, Isaiah is the most major, which is probably why the editors placed him at the head of the list as they organized this part of the Hebrew Scriptures.  While Isaiah speaks to Judah, his book also speaks to Christians because of the manifold references to the coming Messiah, who for us is Jesus Christ.

Like the author of today’s psalm, Isaiah wastes no time lambasting Judah for its wickedness as he writes in the voice of God:
I reared children and brought them up,
    but they have rebelled against me.
The ox knows its owner,
    and the donkey its master’s crib;
but Israel does not know,
    my people do not understand. (2,3)

God asks the eternal question of us humans:
Why do you seek further beatings?
    Why do you continue to rebel? (5a)

Isaiah interjects here to describe the utter desolation and ruins in which Judah lays following its latest battle. And also to remind his listeners that Judah came within a hairs-breadth of being completely wiped off the face of the earth:
Your country lies desolate,
    your cities are burned with fire;

If the Lord of hosts
    had not left us a few survivors,
we would have been like Sodom,
    and become like Gomorrah.... (7a, 9)

With this depressing introduction, Isaiah commands his listeners, who he likens to the evil residents of those two long-ago doomed cities:
Hear the word of the Lord,
    you rulers of Sodom!
Listen to the teaching of our God,
    you people of Gomorrah!” (10)

In his pleas for the people to turn back to God, Isaiah summarizes what for me is the entire ethos of the Old Testament—and the lesson for us sinners today— in just two verses:
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
    remove the evil of your doings
    from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
  learn to do good;
seek justice,
    rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
    plead for the widow.” (16, 17)

“Cease to do evil; learn to do good.” The command seems so simple, yet like Judah, we strong-willed, self-centered people cannot do even this. Which is why we should be grateful that God finally had to resort to sending Jesus to earth to rescue us form ourselves.

The descent into evil has afflicted Judah—as today’s culture increasingly descends into an ethos of evil—and death:
How the faithful city
    has become a whore!
    She that was full of justice,
righteousness lodged in her—
    but now murderers! (21)

Judah has abandoned any concept of social justice:
They do not defend the orphan,
    and the widow’s cause does not come before them. (23b)

And today, many do not even defend the unborn—an even deeper evil.

The chapter ends with a dire warning of what will happen if the people do not heed God’s word spoken by Isaiah:
But rebels and sinners shall be destroyed together,
    and those who forsake the Lord shall be consumed.

The strong shall become like tinder,
    and their work  like a spark;
they and their work shall burn together,
    with no one to quench them. (28, 31)

Isaiah could hardly be clearer. But as we know, Judah didn’t get it and it did not turn from its evil ways. And neither do we.

Galatians 3:6–18: Paul continues his exegesis on justification, aka righteousness, by demonstrating how Jews and Gentiles who believe in Christ are linked together via Abraham: “so, you see, those who believe are the descendants of Abraham. And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you.”  (7,8) Obviously, Paul’s effort here is to get the Christian Jews and Christian Gentiles to stop hating each other because of their conflict between the Law and grace. He reiterates his point by turning reminding them of their common ancestor: “For this reason, those who believe are blessed with Abraham who believed.” (9)

Ever repetitive in making his most important points, Paul recapitulates his argument about the futility of works as the means of salvation: “Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law; for “The one who is righteous will live by faith.” (11) Rather, it is “Christ [who] redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written,  and “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree” (13) Frankly, that business about a tree seems to be a stretch, but Paul never hesitates in quoting Scripture that does not fit as well as we would like.

He then makes the key point about exactly how the Gentiles are blessed in Abraham: “[it is] in Christ Jesus [that] the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.” (14) And with that, Paul dispenses with the Old Covenant that requires the Law to be followed in order to approach God. There is a new, far better way: through Jesus Christ.

Paul then engages in more Hebrew Scripture-stretching by stating that when God promised to Abraham that he would have offspring, it was in the singular, not the plural: “it does not say, “And to offsprings,”  as of many; but it says, “And to your offspring,” that is, to one person, who is Christ.” (16) At his lawyerly best, Paul asserts rather boldly that even though the law came to Moses 430 years after Abraham [nice to have that number!] that law “does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise.” (17). In short, the promise to Abraham trumps the Mosaic law.

Got that? Paul makes a rather convoluted argument, but he’s the author of the letter which has become the cornerstone of Christian theology, not me.

Psalm 78:9–16; Song of Solomon 7, 8; Galatians 2:15–3:5

Originally published 6/21/2017. Revised and updated 6/20/2019.

Psalm 78:9–16: Our psalmist makes good on his threat to teach his listeners the lessons of Israel’s history emphasizing how they blew it even though God did wonderful things for them. The first group to get the back of his historical hand is the hapless Ephraimites, which appear to be an example appropriate to the time the psalmist is writing these verses:
The Ephraimites, deft wielders of bows,
turned tail on the day of battle,
and did not keep God’s pact,
and His teaching did not follow. (9, 10)

Not only did the Ephraimites demonstrate cowardice by failing to follow God’s teaching, even worse they had forgotten about what God had done for them in the past:
And they forgot His acts
and His wonders that he showed them. (11)

Whoever this unnamed group that the psalmist is excoriating, they cannot have missed the parallel drawn out of Israel’s history. And we also certainly are guilty of forgetting what God has done for us. Moreover, I’d argue that by and large, our culture has forgotten about God altogether.

Our psalmist attributes this longstanding and willful forgetfulness as he makes his point about generations neglecting their responsibility to educate succeeding generations of God’s wonderful acts he has done throughout Israel’s history. The poet does this by recapitulating key events from the past where God actively intervened to Israel’s benefit. First, there’s a reference to the plagues that God brought down on Egypt:
Before their fathers He did wonders,
in the land of Egypt, in Zoan’s field. (12)

Then crossing the sea as Israel escapes Egypt:
He split open the sea and let them pass through,
He made water stand up like a heap. (13)

Then, God’s presence in the wilderness:
And he led them with the cloud by day
and all night long with the light of fire. (14)

The psalmist devotes two verses to God’s gift of water in the desert:
He split apart rocks in the wilderness
and gave drink as from the great deep.
He brought forth streams from stone,
and poured down water like rivers. (15, 16)

Having provided the examples of God’s grace, I have a feeling that our poet will soon be soon be citing examples of his contemporaries’ lack of appreciation of these marvelous acts of God. I think the challenge for us in the here and now is to look back over our own lives and realize the ways in which God has surely intervened to our benefit. If we forget—whether willfully or not—then we will surely stray from him.

Song of Solomon 7, 8: In these two chapters we are immersed in the expressions of beauty that communicate the love the bride and bridegroom have for each other. We have encountered many of these similes already, but here the bridegroom describes his bride beginning with her feet:
How graceful are your feet in sandals,
    O queenly maiden! (7:1)

Then in succeeding verses it is simile after simile moving up her body: her thighs (“like jewels”); her navel (“a rounded bowl”); her belly (“a heap of wheat”); her breasts (“two fawns”); her neck (“an ivory tower”); her eyes (“pools in Heshbon”); her nose (“a tower in Lebanon”); ending at her head and hair:
Your head crowns you like Carmel,
    and your flowing locks are like purple;
    a king is held captive in the tresses. (7:5)

A simile describing her entire body follows, as the bridegroom, male that he is, returns again to her breasts:
You are stately  as a palm tree,
    and your breasts are like its clusters. (7:7)

And finally to his sexual intentions of passionate holding and kissing:
I say I will climb the palm tree
    and lay hold of its branches.
O may your breasts be like clusters of the vine,
    and the scent of your breath like apples,
and your kisses  like the best wine
    that goes down  smoothly,
    gliding over lips and teeth. (7:8, 9)

His bride answers with a gorgeous refrain that communicates her own sexual desire with metaphors of budding vines and opening flowers that end in the sexual act itself:
Let us go out early to the vineyards,
    and see whether the vines have budded,
whether the grape blossoms have opened
    and the pomegranates are in bloom.
There I will give you my love. (7:12)

But was this all a dream? Chapter eight opens with a sense of longing for the absent bridegroom and that she has fallen in love too early in her life:
O that his left hand were under my head,
    and that his right hand embraced me!
I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem,
    do not stir up or awaken love
    until it is ready! (8:3, 4)

The concluding verses of this book appear to be spoken by the bride’s father as he sees her come back alone (from her dreams?) without her beloved bridegroom. He recalls her birth:
Who is that coming up from the wilderness,
leaning upon her beloved?
Under the apple tree I awakened you.
There your mother was in labor with you;
there she who bore you was in labor. (8:5)

As the father of a daughter I can appreciate the fond memory he expresses here.

He then speaks what I believe to be the moral of this lovely book, which is that while love is the most powerful of human emotions in its power also lies danger:
Set me as a seal upon your heart,
    as a seal upon your arm;
for love is strong as death,
    passion fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
    a raging flame. (8:6)

But, he continues, and as Paul puts it some centuries later, “the greatest of these is love.” True love endures—and that distinguishing it from romantic infatuation is key. A love too early may not be true love at all:
Many waters cannot quench love,
    neither can floods drown it.
If one offered for love
    all the wealth of one’s house,
    it would be utterly scorned. (8:7)

Then friends speak and ask the question whether she is a metaphorical wall or metaphorical door:
If she is a wall,
    we will build towers of silver on her.
If she is a door,
    we will enclose her with panels of cedar. (8:9)

I presume the wall means she will not grant sexual favors, while the door is opened to her lover.

She answers the question definitively:
I am a wall,
    and my breasts are like towers.
Thus I have become in his eyes
    like one bringing contentment. (8:10)

Which I take she has not agreed to the sexual act and that the man who loves her must wait. We again encounter the metaphor of the vineyard, meaning the sexual act itself. And in a strong statement that she knows who she is as a woman and she will withstand temptation even if riches would accrue to her:
But my own vineyard is mine to give
the thousand shekels are for you, Solomon,
    and two hundred are for those who tend its fruit. (8:12)

Another song woman in the Bible! And her lover agrees to wait, satisfied with only her voice, realizing her friends will guard her:
You who dwell in the gardens
    with friends in attendance,
    let me hear your voice! (8:13)

The final verse in the Bible is the woman’s as she utters an invitation to her lover. But with two virile similes, there’s a sweet ambiguity here:
Come away, my beloved,
    and be like a gazelle
or like a young stag
on the spice-laden mountains. (8:14)

I don’t think there’s a better poem that expresses the glories and tensions of young love better than this gorgeous book.

Galatians 2:15–3:5: Having raised the issue of Jewish and Gentile Christians, Paul makes the statement that grabbed Martin Luther and made him realize that his works were truly insufficient for his salvation: “we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.” (2:16)

It is this faith in Christ that justifies us before God—and it is this faith that turns us upside down and inside out to become new creatures. As Paul famously puts it, “For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (2:19, 20)

Paul uses negative logic to demonstrate  that the law—the Torah for Jews and moral law for Gentiles—is ineffective in justifying us before God. After all, he argues, “if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.” (2:21)

This issue of the law—rule following— being a means of justification is what is apparently causing trouble in Galatia. Although Paul doesn’t tell us directly, it sounds as if some in that church were demanding that others, including Gentiles, follow all the rules of Jewish law, including circumcision. And if the rules were not followed, converts were not made righteous (justified) before God.

Paul is definitely into full-on chastising mode regarding this false belief: “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?…The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?” (3:1-3) 

The central issue here is that people seem to think they can retain the Holy Spirit only if they work hard at being righteous and following rules instead of believing, i.e., having faith: “Well then, does God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by your doing the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard?” (3:5). I think this emphasis of works over faith was the fatal flaw of the Roman Catholic Church that Luther rebelled against. The 16th century Catholic church had become exactly like the church of Galatia.

Psalm 78:1–8; Song of Solomon 5, 6; Galatians 2:1–14

Originally published 6/20/2017. Revised and updated 6/19/2019.

Psalm 78:1–8: This rather long psalm recounts much of the history of Israel and tends toward the didactic rather than the poetic. The first two verses remind me of an old cowboy sitting around the campfire, inviting others to gather round for stories. Unfortunately, though, it’s a lot more formal than that, so I’m not sure his audience was eagerly awaiting what he had to say:
Hearken, my people, to my teaching.
Lend your ear to the sayings of my mouth.
Let me open my mouth in a rhapsody,
let me voice the verses of old,
that we have heard and we have known,
and that our fathers recounted to us.” (1-3)

The purpose of history, of course, is to pass along our national and tribal stories to the next generation. Our psalmist makes this purpose clear at some length. Happily, his primary objective is to make sure that the next generation knows how deeply God has been involved in Israel’s history:
We shall not conceal from their sons,
the last generation recounting
the praise of the Lord and His might
and His wonders that he did. (4)

In what I take to be something of an editorial aside—and definitely a very long run-on sentence—our psalmist reminds his audience that the responsibility to pass Israel’s history in to the next generation has been ordained by God himself. And that responsibility must include recognition of God’s great works and the task of passing along the stories must endure to the end of time:
He established a precept in Jacob
and His teaching put forth in Israel,
this He charged to our fathers
to make them known to their sons,
so that the last generation might know,
sons yet to be born
might arise and recount to their sons,
and place their trust in God
and forget not the acts of God,
and observe His commands. (5-7)

There’s a good reason for this command: the fathers of the present generation have not taken their responsibility to heart. Rather, they have become profligate sinners:
That they [the sons] not be like their fathers,
a wayward, rebellious generation,
a generation that was not firm of heart,
and its spirit not faithful to God. (8)

To fail to heed history and pass along the stories that are cultural glue is a surefire way to lose the culture. As witness our present age, which remains gleefully ignorant of history’s lessons, wrongly believing we’ve become higher, “more evolved” beings than our forebears. Perhaps worse, the younger generation seems enthusiastically inclined to failed economic systems such as socialism because of our generation’s failure to teach history.

A contemporary book, “A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America” seems to pretty much echo—albeit at book length—the point about the father’s generation (that would be us) being wayward and rebellious—and certainly not firm of heart. In short, another proof of the immutability of sinful human nature.

Song of Solomon 5, 6: The overall theme of this book is neatly summarized in a single verse:
Eat, friends, drink,
    and be drunk with love. (5:1b)

Here, the bride describes her dream of her lover coming to her. It does not require too much metaphorical interpretation to figure out that the sexual act comprises the center of this dream:
I arose to open to my beloved,
    and my hands dripped with myrrh,
my fingers with liquid myrrh,
    upon the handles of the bolt. (5:5)

But like other dreams, the spark of her love mysteriously vanishes at what appears to be the initiation of intercourse—even though he may still still physically present:
I opened to my beloved,
    but my beloved had turned and was gone.
My soul failed me when he spoke.
I sought him, but did not find him;
    I called him, but he gave no answer. (5:6)

She begs the “daughters of Jerusalem” that if they should find her lover they should tell he that she is “faint with love.” (5:8) The daughters of Jerusalem, who I presume are her friends, ask how he’s so different than other men. The bride answers in no uncertain terms:
What is your beloved more than another beloved,
    O fairest among women?
What is your beloved more than another beloved,
    that you thus adjure us? (5:9)

The bride then goes on to describe her lover in a series of similes that echo the similes that her bridegroom used to describe her in chapter four:
My beloved is all radiant and ruddy,
    distinguished among ten thousand.
His head is the finest gold;
    his locks are wavy,
    black as a raven. (5:10, 11)

..and so on, as she describes his eyes, cheeks, arms, body, legs, speech, concluding that
His mouth is sweetness itself;
    he is altogether desirable.
This is my beloved and this is my friend,
    O daughters of Jerusalem. (5:16)

Chapter 6 answers the question of where her bridegroom has gone:
My beloved has gone down to his garden,
    to the beds of spices,
to pasture his flock in the gardens,
    and to gather lilies.
I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine;
    he pastures his flock among the lilies. (6:2,3)

We can again assume the garden is herself. Truly together as one again, it is now the groom’s turn to speak and describe his beloved bride in another cascade of similes, which we will not reproduce here. But this time the groom also describes her strength in addition to her comeliness:
Who is this that looks forth like the dawn,
    fair as the moon, bright as the sun,
    terrible as an army with banners? (6:10)

If this beautiful poem proves nothing else it is that beauty does not stand alone. True beauty always encompasses strength of character. And True love is much more than mere physical presence and the sexual act.

Galatians 2:1–14: Paul provides a pretty fascinating narrative of his meetings in Jerusalem. The first one was “only in a private meeting with the acknowledged leaders” where he discusses “the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure that I was not running, or had not run, in vain.” (2) The key issue was whether or not Gentile Christians had to be circumcised and in this Paul’s argument that they did not was successful: “even Titus, who was with me, was not compelled to be circumcised, though he was a Greek.” (3).  My own uneducated guess is that had the Jewish Christians prevailed on this issue the church would have died out in not too many years after that meeting.

But Paul did not succeed unopposed: “because of false believers secretly brought in, who slipped in to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might enslave us— we did not submit to them even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might always remain with you. [the Galatians].” (4,5)  Paul and Peter agree to what we could call the Great Understanding: “I [Paul] had been entrusted with the gospel for the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel for the circumcised.” (7) The leaders agree on this principle and the leaders of the Jerusalem church “asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do.” (10)

Paul then recounts a later meeting with Peter up in Antioch. Here, he confronts Peter, who used to eat with the Gentiles and now doesn’t, accusing him of being afraid of the “circumcision faction.” Paul seizes on Peter’s inconsistency, and “I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (14) Again, Paul prevails—the lawyer outwits the fisherman.

What are we to make of all this? Well, it certainly demonstrates that the church was fissiparous from its very beginning. Agreements between men—even apostles—were not a long term solution to the problem of maintaining a stable Christian orthodoxy. The New Testament spares recounting the many heresies which plagued the early church. The discovery of the so-called Gnostic Gospels at Nag Hammadi in 1945 are ample demonstration of the numerous false gospels to which Paul constantly refers. This is why Constantine organized a Council in Nicea in the 4th century CE to write down a creed—whence the Nicene Creed that lays out the fundamental doctrine and beliefs of the Christian church.

Nevertheless, there is ample historical precedent for the many church splits down through the ages, most notably the split of the eastern (Orthodox) and western (Roman Catholic) churches. Nor should we forget Luther (and others) and the Reformation.

Psalm 77:17–21; Song of Solomon 2:8–4:16; Galatians 1:13–24

Originally published 6/19/2017. Revised and updated 6/18/2019.

Psalm 77:17–21: At first glance, the final verses of this psalm seem to be something of a non-sequitur as it recounts the story of God parting the waters as Moses and the Israelites escape the Egyptians. But unlike Exodus, which tells the story from a narrative point of view, this account dramatically speaks from nature’s point of view:
The waters saw You, O God,
the waters saw You, they trembled,
the depths themselves shuddered.
The clouds streamed water.
The skies sounded with thunder.
You bolts, too, flew about.
Your thunder’s sound under the wheel—
lightening lit up the world.
The earth shuddered and shook. (17-19)

As far as the psalmist is concerned, this miracle was as sure a sign of a theophany as was the parting of the sea. The event is preceded by God’s unfathomable power expressed through the metaphor of a violent thunderstorm in the desert. I’m pretty sure that anyone who was in that storm would be convinced that a supernatural event was about to occur.

Following this dramatic introduction, God acts and parts the waters so the people can cross:
In the sea was Your way,
and Your path in the mighty waters,
and Your footsteps left no traces.
You led Your people like a flock
by the hand of Moses and Aaron. (20, 21)

For our psalmist, the “sea was in Your way” is a manifestation of God’s power to overcome any obstacle that stands before him. We humans attempt to emulate this power through our technology but our powers are minute compared to God’s—and being fallen creatures, our hubris always gets us.

The line, “and Your footsteps left no traces,” stands out for me as a beautiful description of how God acts in our quotidian lives but then tends to disappear back into the mists of memory. Which is also how the psalm itself ends with quiet abruptness, disappearing into the mists.

Song of Solomon 2:8–4:16: For the remainder of chapter 2 the woman speaks of her lover with gorgeous imagery that evokes the beauty of nature as winter gives way to springtime. She begins with a simile of her love as a gazelle standing as it looks over the verdant countryside:
My beloved is like a gazelle
    or a young stag.
Look, there he stands
    behind our wall,
gazing in at the windows,
    looking through the lattice. (2:9)

I don’t think there is a lovelier description of love blossoming in the springtime than these verses:
Arise, my love, my fair one,
    and come away;
for now the winter is past,
    the rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth;
    the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove
    is heard in our land.
The fig tree puts forth its figs,
    and the vines are in blossom;
    they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my fair one,
    and come away. (2:10-13)

The mental images produced by these lines are fragrances that becomes almost overpowering.

[Many authors have used lines in this poem as their titles, e.g. “Catch us the foxes,/ the little foxes,” of verse 15, the second line being the tile of Lillian Hellman’s play.]

The woman seeks her lover that he might come to her bed. [The fact that the woman is seducing the man must drive evangelicals, who use Paul to to justify the subjugation of women, crazy. But then again, I doubt that many have ever read this “scandalous” book.]

At first she is unsuccessful as she searches through the city. But then,
Scarcely had I passed them,
    when I found him whom my soul loves.
I held him, and would not let him go
    until I brought him into my mother’s house,
    and into the chamber of her that conceived me. (3:4)

Wow. She wants to seduce the man in her parent’s bedroom.

Suddenly, though, a warning to women that they should remain chaste until true love occurs.
I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem,
    by the gazelles or the wild does:
do not stir up or awaken love
    until it is ready! (3:5)

Good advice in our own sexually-charged culture. Infatuation and hormones are not the same as true love.

Chapter 4 is a series of remarkable similes as the point of view shifts to the male lover describing the beauty of his beloved, comparing parts of her body to a striking natural image:

Your eyes are doves…
Your hair is like a flock of goats,…
Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes…
Your lips are like a crimson thread,…
Your neck is like the tower of David…

Moving down from her head and neck, he arrives at her breasts:
Your two breasts are like two fawns,
    twins of a gazelle,
    that feed among the lilies.  (4:5)

And finally to his ultimate goal sheathed in aromatic metaphor:
I will hasten to the mountain of myrrh
    and the hill of frankincense. (4:6)

But our groom is chaste. Sexual consummation cannot come just yet:
A garden locked is my sister, my bride,
    a garden locked, a fountain sealed. (4:12)

Wondrous pleasures await inside this locked garden as the metaphors of fruit and scents become more explicit:
Your channel is an orchard of pomegranates
    with all choicest fruits,
    henna with nard,
nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon,
    with all trees of frankincense,
myrrh and aloes,
    with all chief spices— (4:13, 14)

The woman speaks once again as she grants her lover permission to enter:
Let my beloved come to his garden,
    and eat its choicest fruits. (4:16b)

Would that we lived in an age where this beautiful poetry of description and anticipation were the rule rather than the exception. And that romantic love would wait outside the locked garden rather than too many men’s efforts to force open its door.

Galatians 1:13–24: Apparently Paul has never personally visited the church at Galatia so he provides a brief CV as well as his mission statement:  You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles.” (13-16)

He’s especially careful to note that he did not enter into competition with the other apostles at Jerusalem, but headed off to other realms, carrying the Good News: “nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.” (17)

What Paul did in Arabia remains speculative mystery.

Paul points out that three years after his conversion he went back to Jerusalem, but that he saw only Peter and James. My guess is that since his reputation as a gifted missionary precedes him, Paul was careful to avoid making it appear he had arrived in Jerusalem to take over the work of the other apostles there. Paul emphasizes this point, making it crystal clear that his missionary efforts were to “the regions of Syria and Cilicia,” (20) and that he was “still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea that are in Christ; they only heard it said, “The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.” (22, 23) His reputation in Jerusalem is quite different among the Christians there compared to just three years earlier: “And they glorified God because of me.” (24) As far as they were concerned, if Christ could change a man like Paul, he could do anything. As Jesus can for any of us if only we allow the Holy Spirit to work inside us.

Psalm 77:11–16; Song of Solomon 1:1–2:7; Galatians 1:1–12

Originally published 6/17/2017. Revised and updated 6/17/2019.

Psalm 77:11–16: After wondering if God has abandoned him for keeps, our psalmist takes responsibility  for God’s anger. It is his sins that have separated him from God; not the other way around:
And I said, it is my failing,
that the High One’s right hand has changed. (11)

Unlike so many of us, our poet is not in denial about where the root of the problem lies. And with that confession he turns from his negative reflections about God that we saw in the opening verses to an elegy of the great things God has done for creation and for Israel:
I call to mind the acts of Yah,
when I recall Your wonders of old.
I recite all Your works,
Your acts I rehearse. (12, 13)

I wonder that if were I as angry at God about the intrinsic unfairness of life if I could execute the thematic about-face we see here? Yet, by shifting our psychological gaze from all the awful things we think God has done over to reflecting on the great things God has done, we can find healing. I know that initially when I was diagnosed with cancer I was pretty angry. After all, I’d led a pretty decent life, trying to be a “good Christian.” Why would God allow this to happen? But after a while I realized that God’s seeming unfairness is because we we live in a sinful, imperfect world. Like the psalmist, I found healing in reflecting on the blessings that God had brought to me down through the years.

The verses that follow are a marvelous paean to God who rescues a sinful people—and through Jesus Christ rescues each of us:
God, Your way is in holiness.
Who is a great god like God?
You are the god working wonders,
You made known among peoples Your strength.
You redeemed with Your arm Your people,
The children of Jacob and Joseph. (14-16)

Like the psalmist, our response is awe and gratitude when we seriously consider all that God has done for us. And unlike the psalmist, we also know that God’s rescuing agent is Jesus—a reality for which we can be even more grateful than what our psalmist has so joyfully written here.

Song of Solomon 1:1–2:7: As its first verse indicates, this book is also called the Song of Songs, “which is Solomon’s.” Although I take this more as a dedication by the poet than a statement of Solomonic authorship.

It is a love poem structured as a dialog between a young woman and her lover. It is frank in its sexuality and I think it’s in the Bible because of its gorgeous poetry and as the best human expression of what love is that we find in the Bible. In that context, the poetry here is a book-long metaphor for God’s love for us. More prosaically, as Qoheleth advises us in the previous book, since we’re going to die anyway, we might as well enjoy life to the fullest while we have it. In any event, I think it’s difficult to find a more beautifully powerful expression of human love than in this short book of poetry.

The opening verse sets the tone and theme of a woman’s love for a man in a famous comparison:
Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!
For your love is better than wine,
  your anointing oils are fragrant,
your name is perfume poured out;
    therefore the maidens love you. (1:2,3)

The first lines are familiar because they were the lyric of a song sung by Jimmie Rogers; Peter, Paul and Mary; and others in the 1960’s: “Kisses sweeter than wine.”

Some Christians have tried to make Jesus the male lover in the poem, but I think that is taking interpretation too far.  I think this book of poetry deserves to be read and enjoyed, not dissected as a theological treatise.

So I will only note and comment briefly on some of the lines which for me are particularly beautiful.

The bride speaks first:
I am black and beautiful,
    O daughters of Jerusalem,
like the tents of Kedar,
    like the curtains of Solomon. (1:5)

I’d never noticed the line, I am “black and beautiful” before. Perhaps it’s a reference to the Queen of Sheba, who comes from Africa.

Then the bridegroom speaks:
I compare you, my love,
    to a mare among Pharaoh’s chariots.
Your cheeks are comely with ornaments,

    your neck with strings of jewels.
We will make you ornaments of gold,
    studded with silver.  (1:9-11)

and then even more passionately…
Ah, you are beautiful, my love;
    ah, you are beautiful;
    your eyes are doves.
Ah, you are beautiful, my beloved,
    truly lovely. (1:15-16)

The bride replies with a metaphor that hints strongly of her sexual desire:
As an apple tree among the trees of the wood,
    so is my beloved among young men.
With great delight I sat in his shadow,
    and his fruit was sweet to my taste. (2:3)

And there is her deep longing (the German word, ‘Sehnsucht‘ which intertwines longing with passion expresses this better than English):
O that his left hand were under my head,
    and that his right hand embraced me! (2:6)

But then a warning intrudes:
I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem,
    by the gazelles or the wild does:
do not stir up or awaken love
    until it is ready! (2:7)

Authentic human love is never in a hurry and it waits for the right person and the right time.

Galatians 1:1–12: The church at Corinth was not the only church that turned quickly to false gospels once Paul had left town. There are problems down in Galatia that must be addressed as well. I believe that a more mature Paul penned this epistle that IMHO expounds with a far richer theology than the second letter to Corinth.

Following a warm greeting and invocation, Paul loses no time in getting down to business: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—” (6) As at Corinth, the problem seems to be preachers of a false gospel arriving after Paul’s departure. As far as Paul is concerned, they are leading the good people of the church at Galatia astray: “not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ.” (7)

Paul gives his listeners—and us—a taste of the strength of his barely disguised anger when he notes that “even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed!” (8) And to make sure the Galatians (and we) get his point, Paul repeats himself: “As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!” (9)

If this opening paragraph didn’t grab the Galatians’ attention then the cause was lost. Paul is certainly aware that he is upsetting people, but the necessity of hewing to the true Gospel of Christ far outweighs the desire for polite conversation: “If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.” (10)

Which is pretty much the opposite of how the church, consummate marketer that it has become, operates in America today. Unlike Paul we are more likely to pussyfoot around the more difficult aspects of the Gospel for fear of offending people and sending them racing for the doors. I certainly know I am personally guilty of pussyfooting around when it comes to witnessing my faith.

It’s crucial that Paul clearly establishes his bona fides, which he does next. The key differentiator, as we marketers would say it, is that the Gospel he is preaching is not something he made up himself. Rather, “I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” (12) The Damascus Road experience and the days of instruction that followed are Paul’s unique claim of apostolic authority outside the original twelve disciples. That is also why Paul’s letters make up a substantial portion of the New testament. The church fathers who assembled the NT canon certainly accepted Paul’s claim that he was conveying the true, divinely revealed gospel.