Psalm 118:22–29; 2 Samuel 3:1–34; John 6:60–71

Originally published 10/12/2016. Revised and updated 10/12/2018.

Psalm 118:22–29: We encounter the verse that Jesus quoted in reference to himself (Matt 21:42, also Mark & Luke) and that is also referred to Peter’s sermon in Acts 4, as well as in Ephesians and 1 Peter:
The stone that the builders rejected
has become the chief cornerstone.
 (22)

In the NT, this verse stands for Jesus and the Jews’ rejection of their Messiah. In the context of this psalm, however, the metaphor refers to the psalmist himself as he reflects on his former woeful state compared to his newfound strength through God’s restorative powers.

But the verse following is equally important and it doubtless came to mind among the Jews when Jesus referred to the chief cornerstone, only strengthening the Pharisee’s accusation of blasphemy:
From the Lord did this come about—
it is wondrous in our eyes.
 (23)

But as the gospel of John makes clear over and over, Jesus has indeed come from directly God and this act of incarnation is wondrous for all humankind.

The verse that follows is equally well known:
This is the day the Lord has wrought.
Let us exult and rejoice in it
” (24)

We often casually toss off these words on Sunday mornings. But here in context, its meaning for Christians is far richer. This is indeed the day that God has created and it is the day—every day—when we realize that the Rejected Cornerstone has indeed rescued us. That is the beauty to reflect on each morning when we awake: Not just the beauty of God’s creation but his munificent act in sending Jesus Christ to us: rejected in his time and culture—and increasingly in ours—but then to be exalted and worshipped down through history.

The psalm concludes with a benediction that is an acknowledgement of how God in his rescue has blessed us:

The Lord is God and He shines upon us.

You are my God, and I acclaim You,
my God, and I exalt You.
Acclaim the Lord, for He is good,
forever is His kindness.” (27-29)

It would be good to pray those words of gratitude every morning.

2 Samuel 3:1–34: The house of Saul and the house of David have divided Israel between them. But as our authors note, “David grew stronger and stronger, while the house of Saul became weaker and weaker.” (1)  Even though the war between David and Saul’s descendants continues, David has been busy and sired 6 sons while residing at Hebron.

Meanwhile, over at Saul’s place, Abner “goes in” (as the euphemism has it) to Saul’s concubine Rizpah. Ishbaal accuses Abner of rape. Abner apparently feels he has every right as a loyal general to do what he pleases and in a rather whiney and defensive reply to Ishbaal says, “Am I a dog’s head for Judah? Today I keep showing loyalty to the house of your father Saul, to his brothers, and to his friends, and have not given you into the hand of David; and yet you charge me now with a crime concerning this woman.” (8) And he thereupon shifts his allegiance to David. [I’m not sure I’d want this guy on my side…]

Abner sends a message to David promising to “give you my support to bring all Israel over to you.” (12) David agrees on one condition, “you shall never appear in my presence unless you bring Saul’s daughter Michal when you come to see me.” (13) David can certainly hold a grudge and now that Saul’s house is weakened he demands that Saul’s daughter Michal be taken from her husband and given to him. The poor husband “went with her, weeping as he walked behind her all the way to Bahurim. ” (16) But Abner forces the husband to turn back and return home.

David’s demand is certainly a precursor of bigger things to come with Bathsheba. While David certainly follows God, he is also a highly flawed human being. And a stark reminder to us that even though we have been rescued by Jesus we will still succumb to our sinful desires, especially when like David we have power over others.

Abner eventually persuades all of Israel to throw its lot with David, telling the king, “Let me go and rally all Israel to my lord the king, in order that they may make a covenant with you, and that you may reign over all that your heart desires.” (21) Abner departs David just as Joab arrives back at Hebron “from a raid, bringing much spoil with them.” (22)

Upon finding out that David has made peace with Abner, Joab effectively tells David that he’s been duped by Saul’s general and that he’s really a spy: “You know that Abner son of Ner came to deceive you, and to learn your comings and goings and to learn all that you are doing.” (25)

Unknown to David, Joab calls Abner back to Hebron on a ruse and “Joab took him aside in the gateway to speak with him privately, and there he stabbed him in the stomach.” (27) This is Joab’s revenge for Abner’s murder of his brother, Asahel.

David is beyond mere anger and quickly disavows any responsibility for Joab’s act, cursing Joab and his descendants in one of the more colorful curses found in the bible: “May the guilt fall on the head of Joab, and on all his father’s house; and may the house of Joab never be without one who has a discharge, or who is leprous, or who holds a spindle, or who falls by the sword, or who lacks food!” (29)

David orders mourning for the death of Abner, and offers a beautiful lament as “all the people wept over him again.” (34)

This chapter gives us the dark side of David who takes another man’s wife, and of Joab, who murders out of revenge. This is one of those places where we realize that the sins of men have not altered in more than 3000 years. We may think we’re more sophisticated and advanced than these ancient people, but the darkness that lurks in our hearts is exactly the same. As witness recent political events in Washington DC where mere accusations are taken as proven reality.

John 6:60–71: Following Jesus’ complex sermon about living bread and drink, his disciples rather understandably respond, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” (60) Jesus cuts them no slack and rather sarcastically remarks, “Does this offend you?” (61) He goes on to summarize his sermon, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” (63)

He then observes that “among you there are some who do not believe.” (64) Here it is once again in clear text: It’s all about belief, and in these words our gospel writer is addressing his community and us: If we do not believe that Jesus is who he says he is, there’s no point in becoming his disciple. John observes, “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” (66)

Jesus turns to his inner circle and asks, “Do you also wish to go away?” (67). As always, Peter speaks up first in the famous phrase [that we used to say every week in worship] telling Jesus [and John telling us]: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (68) IN short, there is no reasonable alternative to Jesus Christ. Once again for this gospel writer, who wants to ensure we get the point, it’s all about belief. Peter continues, “We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” (69)

John also makes it clear that Jesus knew well in advance that he would be betrayed: “‘Yet one of you is a devil.” He was speaking of Judas son of Simon Iscariot, for he, though one of the twelve, was going to betray him.” (70b, 71) This is a striking difference from the Synoptics where Jesus holds this information back until the Last Supper, the actual night of his betrayal. I think John wants us to understand that while some people profess belief, betrayal still lurks in their hearts. Like David, we may follow God, but we remain creatures of our sinful flesh. Belief is necessary but it is not sufficient, IMHO. Belief must be proved by our thoughts and especially our actions.

 

Psalm 118:15–21; 2 Samuel 2; John 6:52–59

Originally published 10/11/2016. Revised and updated 10/11/2018.

Psalm 118:15–21: This section of the psalm appears to be the hymn that our rescued psalmist (or David) sings when he arrives at the temple:
A voice of glad song and rescue
in the tents of the just. (15)

As we know from the questions posed to Jesus by his disciples, the right hand of God is the place of honor. Here, God’s right hand has been the instrument of rescue, as our poet sings,

The Lord’s right hand does valiantly.
The Lord’s right hand is raised,
the Lord’s right hand does valiantly.” (16)

God’s right hand has rescued him from death and his response is—as it always is in the Psalms—worship:
I shall not die but live
and recount the deeds of Yah.
 (17)

He acknowledges that he has been tested severely by God, but in the end there was God’s rescue:
Yah harshly chastised me
but to death did not deliver me.
 (18)

As God has been just to him in this rescue, he will celebrate that justice for not only himself but for all people using the metaphor of entering the temple:
Open for me the gates of justice—
I would enter them, I would acclim Yah.
 (19)

To ensure that we get the psalmist’s point about God’s justice, he reiterates the idea that to worship, we ourselves first must be justified before God:
This is the gate of the Lord—
the just will enter it
. (20)

I have a feeling that Martin Luther was all too well aware of this psalm as he strove to justify himself before God. In the end, though, rescue becomes worship:
I acclaim You for You have answered me,
and You have become my rescue.
 (21)

The question for me is, do I give God full credit for the rescues he’s effected in my own life? My healing from cancer was not particularly supernatural. There was lots of medicine and technology involved. But I think the psalmist’s point here is that humans cannot take sole credit for the technologies that heal. After all, it is God who has given humankind knowledge and understanding to develop the technology that effected my rescue. My logical response, then, should be exactly like the psalmist’s: worship the God “who has become my rescue.

2 Samuel 2: As he always has, David asks God what he should do next: “Shall I go up into any of the cities of Judah?” (1) As always, God answers, telling David he should go to Hebron. When he arrives there, “the people of Judah came, and there they anointed David king over the house of Judah.” (4) Notice that at this point, David is king only over one tribe—albeit an important one—not over all Israel.

However, Abner, who commanded Saul’s army, has set up Ishbaal, Saul’s surviving son as king “over Gilead, the Ashurites, Jezreel, Ephraim, Benjamin, and over all Israel.” (9) while David reigned over Judah. Israel is a divided nation at this point. This goes on for several years until civil war breaks out.

The standoff comes to a head at the pool of Gibeon. Abner’s men sit on one side of the pool while Joab “and the servants of David” sit on the other side. Each side chooses twelve men to fight to the death as “each grasped his opponent by the head, and thrust his sword in his opponent’s side; so they fell down together.” (16) If we ever needed a metaphor for the self-destructiveness of civil war, this is it. Joab’s men defeat Abner’s, who immediately turns and runs.

Joab’s brother, Ashael, who “was as swift of foot as a wild gazelle” (18) pursues Abner, and ends up stalking him. Abner challenges him to “seize one of the young men, and take his spoil” (21) but to stop following him. Ashael refuses and Abner turns around and runs him through with his sword.

Joab and his other brother, Abishai, pursue Abner. As a battle is about to commence, “Abner called to Joab, “Is the sword to keep devouring forever? Do you not know that the end will be bitter? How long will it be before you order your people to turn from the pursuit of their kinsmen?” (26) Joab replies that his men “would have continued to pursue their kinsmen, not stopping until morning.” (27). Joab calls off the battle and “they no longer pursued Israel or engaged in battle any further.” (28) The internecine warfare finally comes to an end. Nineteen of David’s men, besides Ashael have been killed, while 360 of Abner’s men have died.

What’s remarkable about this story is that two men—Abner and Joab—realize the futility of continued civil warfare that will ultimately destroy everybody on both sides. Would that this same wisdom would obtain in the unending battle between Israel and Palestine.

John 6:52–59: Those who heard Jesus are understandably confused by his sermon and his assertion that he is the “bread of life” and that his flesh will be eaten: “The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (52)

But typically, rather than try to explain his point further, Jesus seems to expand the confusion by saying, “I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” (53) And then in what must have sounded like cannibalism to some, he goes on to elaborate: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.” (54, 55)

As if that wasn’t enough, he goes on to tell his listeners, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” (56)

Of course this becomes the core of the Eucharist, and these verses must certainly be at the very foundation of the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation.

But I’m forced to ask myself, did Jesus really say it this way in the synagogue of Capernaum? Or is our author building on simpler words and concepts that Jesus said to create this complex theology of Christ’s incarnation becoming the sacred food and wine of the early church? Yes, I know this is a heretical thought, and I certainly accept the reality of the Eucharist in that Christ is somehow present. But I confess to being skeptical. as to whether Jesus actually uttered this complicated and frankly, rather disturbing theology as John has written it some 100 years after the events at Capernaum.

 

Psalm 118:10–14; 2 Samuel 1; John 6:43–51

Originally published 10/10/2016. Revised and updated 10/10/2018.

Psalm 118:10–14: Having praised God and observing that God’s shelter is far superior to trusting princes, i.e., leaders and politicians, our psalmist turns to describe a personal event where God provided the needed strength to overcome his enemies:
All the nations surrounded me.
With the Lord’s name I cut them down.
They swarmed round me, oh the surrounded me.
With the Lord’s name I cut them down.” (10, 11)

We’ve observed in our readings in I Samuel that David always prayed to God for guidance before he undertook any military mission. So these words, whether actually spoken by David or not, certainly reflect his close connection to God.

Notice also that it is in “the Lord’s name” that the psalmist is able to act. God did not intervene supernaturally. While he is the one who actually cut down his enemies in battle, he is able to do so only in God’s name. The lesson for us is that no matter what adversaries or circumstances we may face, it is prayer in the Lord’s name that empowers us to (hopefully wise) action.

Our psalmist goes on to repeat over and over how it was the Lord’s name that gave him the strength to act against his enemies using a powerful simile:
They swarmed round me like bees,
burned a fire among thorns.

With the Lord’s name I cut them down.” (12)

Speaking directly to his enemy, our poet tells him that “You pushed me hard to knock me down,/ But the Lord helped me.” (13) For those of us who have a deep connection to God through Jesus Christ, these are words that we can identify with. It doesn’t have to be in military battle, but in our personal battles with illness or broken relationships. These words also speak to a community such as the church in a post-Christian world.

Indeed, God is the source of our ability to act. But even more importantly, it is our reliance on God that rescues us as well:
My strength and my might is Yah,
and He has become my rescue
. (14)

Contrary to how our culture—especially politicians—would have it, it is not about “I would do this” or “I will do that.” Our strength and our salvation lie not in ourselves, but in our deep relationship with God through jesus Christ.

2 Samuel 1: A man, who is a resident alien Amalekite, arrives at David’s camp with the terrible news that Saul and Jonathan have been killed in battle. At first, David is in denial and demands of the messenger,“How do you know that Saul and his son Jonathan died?” (5) The man responds that the badly injured Saul “looked behind him, he saw me, and called to me.” (7) He tells Saul he is an Amalekite and Saul asks him, “‘Come, stand over me and kill me; for convulsions have seized me, and yet my life still lingers.’” (9) Which the Amalekite does. He also removes Saul’s crown and armlet and brings them to David.

This account is puzzling because we have just read that Saul committed suicide by falling on his sword. It certainly suggests that the author of 1 Samuel is not the same person as the author of 2 Samuel.

In any event, apparently knowing already that David is Saul’s successor as king, the Amalekite hands over Saul’s armlet and crown to David, doubtless expecting to be praised for his action. But David is beyond despair and “took hold of his clothes and tore them; and all the men who were with him did the same. They mourned and wept, and fasted until evening for Saul and for his son Jonathan, and for the army of the Lord and for the house of Israel.” (11, 12)

David turns to the Amalekite who bought the news and asks, “Were you not afraid to lift your hand to destroy the Lord’s anointed?” (14) We never hear the man’s answer because Saul commands one of his men, “Come here and strike him down.” (15). Which he does. David does not hesitate to kill the messenger bringing such awful news, but justifies it on the basis of the grievous sin of killing “the Lord’s anointed.” Frankly, there seems to be a bit of whitewashing of David’s reputation here.

David’s lamentation for Saul and Jonathan is expressed in the Song of the Bow, which he commands be taught to the people of Israel and has been written in the now lost Book of Jashar. Happily, it’s also preserved here.

For me, the most beautiful verse of the psalm is,
Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely!
    In life and in death they were not divided;
they were swifter than eagles,
    they were stronger than lions.” (23)

But the more famous verse is,
How the mighty have fallen
    in the midst of the battle!” (25)

Even though Saul relentlessly tried to kill David, this lamentation is an honest expression of David’s respect for Saul and especially for the office he held because Saul was the Lord’s anointed. But there is also no question that David’s deeper sorrow is over the loss of his friend, Jonathan:
 I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan;
greatly beloved were you to me;
    your love to me was wonderful,
    passing the love of women. (26)

John 6:43–51: As we’ve observed before, John’s Jesus never hides the fact that he is the Son of God, who is the Father’s representative on earth. In a preview of the more famous verse in the Upper Room Discourse, where Jesus says “no one comes to the father but by me,” Jesus asserts, “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me.” (44) Here, we are “drawn” to the father, presumably by the Holy Spirit, so we can see that Jesus is speaking of the Trinity here although the word, “Trinity” is never used in the Bible.

Jesus goes on to tell his listeners that “It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God,’” (45) rather strongly implying that in hearing Jesus those prophetic words have come true. He reminds them that “Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father.” (46) Again, the strong implication is that Jesus alone has seen God and therefore he is indeed the Word that has been sent to earth by God.

We again encounter belief as the overarching theme of this gospel: “Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life.” (47) Jesus is asking his listeners—and us—that by believing, we will receive everlasting sustenance from him as he again states, “I am the bread of life.” (48) By again reminding them of how their ancestors ate manna from God in the wilderness, those who believe in Jesus will receive a new manna—bread—which of course is Jesus himself.

To make sure we all get the point, Jesus repeats himself: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.” (51a) In short, eating “the bread of life” is the symbol for believing. Jesus then hints at a darker fate as he links the bread of life directly to himself: “the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (51b) As we know (and as the Jews listening to Jesus will find out), the bread becomes available to us through Jesus’ death and resurrection. And we participate in eating this bread that Jesus links directly to himself each time we celebrate the mystery of the Eucharist. [Although I hew to the belief that the communion bread is symbolic of Jesus’ flesh, not, as the Catholics believe, Jesus’ physical body.]

This is all mighty deep theology!

Psalm 118:1–9; 1 Samuel 30,31; John 6:25–42

Originally published 10/10/2016. Revised and updated 10/9/2018.

Psalm 118:1–9: This thanksgiving psalm—”Acclaim the Lord, for He is good,/ forever is His kindness” (1)— looks to be a liturgical psalm used in collective worship:
Let Israel now say:
forever is His kindness.
Let the house of Aaron now say:
Forever is His kindness.
” (2, 3)

We could take these verses as being a responsive reading (something still done at a decreasing number of churches): one line spoken by the laity (Israel) and a response by the priests (house of Aaron). And then spoken together by all:
Let those who fear the Lord now say:
forever is His kindness. (4)

WIth the invocation completed, the tone of the psalm shifts to a recollection of a prayer of supplication:
From the straits I called toYah.
Yah answered me in a wide-open place.
 (5)

In that answer, the psalmist—and we—can take immense comfort, no matter what trials we may face in one of the truly memorable verses in the Psalms:
The Lord is for me, I shall not fear.
What can humankind do to me?
 (6)

I am sure that it is in this verse where many Christian martyrs found their peace. And in these politically fraught times, it’s a verse we wold do well to remember ourselves.

For the psalmist, God is on his—and our—side:
The Lord is among my helpers,
and I shall see defeat of my foes. 
(7)

It all boils down to where and in whom we place our trust. As our psalmist observes quite correctly:
Better to shelter in the Lord
than to trust in humankind
. (8)

Yet, I tend to do the opposite: I place my trust in the tangible works of humankind and in my own wits rather than in God’s protection.

Finally, in a verse particularly appropriate to this fraught political season:
Better to shelter in the Lord
than to trust in princes.
 (9)

No matter how noble the prince  may be—and God knows there is barely a scintilla of nobility out there right now—they, too, are mere fallen humans. In the end, only God is worthy of our trust because he never fails us.

1 Samuel 30,31: After a 3-day journey, David and his men came to the town of Ziklag, which has been utterly destroyed by the Amalekites and the sons and daughters kidnapped by the invaders, including David’s two wives. In one of the saddest verses in the Bible: “Then David and the people who were with him raised their voices and wept, until they had no more strength to weep.” (30:4)

Those left in the city want to stone David, “because all the people were bitter in spirit for their sons and daughters.” (30:6)  But one of the marks of a great leader is his or her response to adversity. Reflecting the theme of today’s psalm, David turns in prayer to the only one he knows he can trust: “David inquired of the Lord, “Shall I pursue this band? Shall I overtake them?” (30:8) God’s answer is affirmative, and off he and his 600 soldiers go.

A third of his band drops by the wayside from exhaustion, but David and 400 men trudge on. They encounter a starving Egyptian, who, when fed by David, leads them to the Amalekite army. As the Amalekites are enjoying a bacchanalia with the spoils of war, David “attacked them from twilight until the evening of the next day. Not one of them escaped, except four hundred young men, who mounted camels and fled.” (30:17)

Returning with the spoils of war, David and the 400 encounter the 200 who had been too exhausted to continue to the place where the Amalekites were. Those “corrupt and worthless fellows among the men who had gone with David” (30:22) refused to share the spoils with the 200 who had remained behind. But David reminds them that the spoils are from the Lord, who “has preserved us and handed over to us the raiding party that attacked us.” (23) He commands that all shall share and our authors note that, “From that day forward he made it a statute and an ordinance for Israel; it continues to the present day.” (25)

David’s actions call to mind Jesus’ parable of the workers in the vineyard, where no matter what time they showed up, whether dawn or late afternoon, all would receive the same pay. His parable is merely an extension of longstanding custom in Israel, so I don’t know why everyone was so surprised by Jesus’ words. Of course the message to us is that our wealth is not ours, but God’s and it’s there to be shared with those less fortunate.

Meanwhile over on Philistia, Saul’s army is fighting on. In distinct contrast to David’s successful exploits, “The Philistines overtook Saul and his sons; and the Philistines killed Jonathan and Abinadab and Malchishua, the sons of Saul.” (31:2) Saul is badly injured and he begs his armor-bearer to run him through and finish the job. But the armor-bearer is terrified and understandably will not murder his master. “So Saul took his own sword and fell upon it.” (31:4) And his armor-bearer does the same. [Whence the saying, ‘to fall on one’s sword.] The remainder of Israel’s army flees for the hills.

The victorious Philistines behad Saul’s corpse and hang it in the town square, “but when the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead heard what the Philistines had done to Saul, all the valiant men set out, traveled all night long, and took the body of Saul and the bodies of his sons from the wall of Beth-shan.” (12) They bury Saul and his three sons “under the tamarisk tree in Jabesh, and fasted seven days.” (13)

What a tragically wasted promise that it comes to this. Saul was chosen for his fortitude and apparent wisdom by Samuel to become king. Alas, his early successes went to Saul’s head. he believed that he, rather than God, controlled Israel’s destiny. And it all came to naught. How many men have let power go to their head and ignore God and reap the consequences? Our authors have brilliantly juxtaposed David, who seeks God’s guidance continually with Saul’s fecklessness. The lesson of who to follow: God or man is crystal clear. As our psalmist has it, “Better to shelter in the Lord/ than to trust in princes.

John 6:25–42: The crowd finds Jesus on “the other side of the sea.” Having not seen him depart, they’re surprised to see him there and ask, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” (25) As usual, Jesus does not answer their question, but tells them they followed because they had received food from him. Our author shows us the spiritual side of a physical act as Jesus goes on to say, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” (27)

This being the gospel of John, a philosophical/ theological discourse follows. Jesus tells the crowd about how their ancestors ate manna, and reminds them, “it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven.” (32) The crowd, thinking they’re about to latch onto a never-ending source of physical sustenance, understandably replies,“Sir, give us this bread always.” (34)

Jesus then makes his startling assertion that it’s not about physical bread, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (35). [This is the second “I am” in the gospel; the first was Jesus telling the woman at the well that he is the living water.]

As always with this gospel writer, it’s all about belief: “I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe.” (36) Understandably, the crowd does not fully comprehend his rather dense conclusion that includes an eschatological assertion: “This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.” (40) It’s the quintessential conflict that I find myself in all too often: Like the crowd, I’m having trouble with what I know—the physical world around me— and what Jesus is telling me about the world to come.

Unsurprisingly, there is skepticism: “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” (42) It’s easy for us to poo-poo the crowd, but I know in my heart, I’d be asking the same question.

Psalm 117; 1 Samuel 28,29; John 6:16–24

Originally published 10/7/2016. Revised and updated 10/8/2018.

Psalm 117: This is the shortest Psalm and therefore the shortest chapter in the bible. But within its brevity we find profundity. Rather than focusing on the poet or even the entire nation of Israel, its theme is universal. God is the God of all humankind and the worship of all humankind is our response:
Praise the Lord, all nations;
extol Him, all peoples.
 (1)

The two qualities of God that the psalmist brings out are his kindness and his truth. God’s kindness is far beyond adequate; it is overflowing:
For His kindness overwhelms us, (2a)

Reflect for a moment on the implications of this phrase. What would it feel like to be overwhelmed with kindness? Especially God’s kindness. What a glorious sense of connection and peace that would be.

God’s truth is the pillar that stands alongside his kindness:
and the Lord’s steadfast truth is forever. (2b)

God’s truth is not just comparative. It does not merely stand among other human-derived “truths.” Rather, it trumps every idea of ‘truth’ especially in this age of individualism where one person’s ‘truth’ is another’s falsity.

Moreover, God’s truth transcends time; it never changes and it never wavers. It is the one reference point we can use to discover exactly what is true and what is false. Alas, having abandoned God’s truth, we have become a culture that is adrift and sinking—as witness recent events in Washington DC where two person’s account of truth contradict each other.

Jesus makes this universality of God’s kindness and truth crystal clear, especially in the gospel of John. We can trace this verse directly to John 3:16: For God so loved the world… With the psalmist, we can only conclude this wonderful reality with that single response: “Hallelujah.”

1 Samuel 28,29: Having abandoned Israel to escape Saul, David has become the mercenary for King Achish of Gath and is living among the Philistines. David carries out raid after raid, killing everyone. Achish is pretty pleased about this and “Achish said to David, “Very well, I will make you my bodyguard for life.” (28:2)

Our authors leave David at Gath and turn their attention to Saul, who faces an imminent attack from the Philistines and “when Saul saw the army of the Philistines, he was afraid, and his heart trembled greatly.” (28:5) In his panic, Saul pleads foxhole prayers, but God does not answer. So Saul has his servants find a medium, the famous “witch of Endor” (as she is called in the KJV).

Saul visits the medium in disguise at night and asks her to summon the spirit of Samuel. Saul convinces her he won’t punish her for being a medium and she reluctantly obliges the king. When Samuel appears, the woman realizes who Saul is. [One wonders at this point about all those Christians who felt that Harry Potter was a malign influence because of its theme of magic and spells. Yet here’s a pretty dramatic example right here in Scripture.]

Samuel’s rather annoyed to be called forth and when he hears Saul’s whining complaint that God has abandoned him, the ghost of Samuel replies in no uncertain terms: “The Lord has done to you just as he spoke by me; for the Lord has torn the kingdom out of your hand, and given it to your neighbor, David.” (28:17) This is payback for Saul’s failure to carry out God’s “fierce wrath against Amalek, [and] therefore the Lord has done this thing to you today.” (18) Samuel is dreadfully clear about what will happen: “tomorrow you and your sons shall be with me; the Lord will also give the army of Israel into the hands of the Philistines.” (19)

Already weak from hunger, Saul faints. The woman of Endor, who at this point sounds like the quintessential Jewish mother, tells Saul he needs something to eat. She prepares an early breakfast of beef and cakes. A revived Saul and his men depart.

Meanwhile David has gathered his men to fight on the side of the Philistines. The “commanders of the Philistines said, “What are these Hebrews doing here?” (29:3) Achish explains that since David “deserted to me I have found no fault in him to this day.” (29:3) But the commanders will have nothing to do with David and order Achish to send David back “to the place you have assigned to him” (29:4) and that he will not participate in the battle with Israel. After all, they argue, this is the same “David, of whom they sing to one another in dances,

‘Saul has killed his thousands,
    and David his ten thousands’?” (29:5)

Achish brings the bad news to David, who is upset and echoes what he said to Saul so many times: “But what have I done? … that I should not go and fight against the enemies of my lord the king?” (29:8) Achish tries to reassure him, “I know that you are as blameless in my sight as an angel of God; nevertheless, the commanders of the Philistines have said, ‘He shall not go up with us to the battle.’ (9)

David and his men return to Philistia. Of course from the perspective of knowing how the story turns out, it would have been disastrous for David to fight against his own countrymen. Sometimes the hand of God works in unexpected ways with the long term outcome in view. This is certainly one of those times. We also should be patient when God is silent or does not answer the way we want him to.

John 6:16–24: John tells only an abbreviated story of Jesus walking on water. It’s almost dark and Jesus has not returned. The disciples “ got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum.” (17) Three or four miles out the storm comes up. Unlike the other gospel accounts where the disciples are terrified because of the storm, here in John they are terrified when “they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat” (19) Which is exactly how I’d feel if I saw somebody walking toward me on the water.

Jesus utters his famous words, “It is I; do not be afraid.” (21) Which is John’s point of the story. Regardless of our circumstances, we know that with Jesus we have no need to be afraid. Needless to say, I am much more like the disciples…

John adds a new twist to this famous story, telling us that the crowd on the shore of Tiberias saw that the disciples had left without Jesus, but they couldn’t find him either. So “they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus.” (24)

Of course John has a larger meaning here than just some people following Jesus over to Capernaum. We are all looking for Jesus. And in that looking, we are to follow him wherever he takes us.

Psalm 116:15–19; 1 Samuel 26,27; John 6:1–15

Originally published 10/6/2016(Psalm) and 10/6/2014 (OT & NT). Revised and updated 10/6/2018.

Psalm 116:15–19: Having himself escaped death, our poet reflects on God’s love which extends even to those who die:
Precious in the eyes of the Lord
is the death of His faithful ones
. (15)

Even in death God does not abandon us. While he is alive, our psalmist knows that he is God’s faithful servant but never God’s slave, for it is God who has set him free:
I beseech You, Lord,
for I am Your servant.
I am our servant, Your handmaiden’s son.
You have loosed my bonds. (16)

And in this freedom, the concluding verses of this psalm describes how our psalmist transforms gratitude into public action at the temple in Jerusalem:
To You I shall offer a Thanksgiving sacrifice
and in the name of the Lord I shall call.
My vows to the Lord I shall pay
in the sight of all His people
in the courts of the house of the Lord,
in the midst of Jerusalem.  (17- 19)

The questions for me are, am I grateful to God for all that he has done for me through Jesus Christ, and how willing am I to express that gratitude and joy publicly?

1 Samuel 26,27: In this famous encounter, David once again has the opportunity to kill Saul, who in his monomaniacal obsession continues to pursue David. Standing over the head of the sleeping king, David resists the temptation, realizing Saul’s fate is in God’s hands, not his: “As the Lord lives, the Lord will strike him down; or his day will come to die; or he will go down into battle and perish.” (26:10). He takes Saul’s spear and water jar and retreats.

The next morning, David shouts across the valley to Saul’s guard, Abner, accusing him dereliction of duty. Saul hears the commotion, comes out and David asks the king almost plaintively, “Why does my lord pursue his servant? For what have I done? What guilt is on my hands?” (26:19). A seemingly contrite Saul replies, “I have done wrong; come back, my son David, for I will never harm you again, because my life was precious in your sight today; I have been a fool, and have made a great mistake.” (26:21).  David replies, “As your life was precious today in my sight, so may my life be precious in the sight of the Lord,” (26:24).

Notice that this is not a quid pro quo: David does not say, “may my life be precious in your sight, Saul” but he is laying his—and Saul’s— fate in the hands of God. The author’s message is clear: it is God who is protecting David because David, unlike Saul, is following the Lord. At some deeper level Saul seems to understand this dimly and he tells David, “Blessed be you, my son David! You will do many things and will succeed in them.” (26:25)

David knows he is protected by the Lord, but he nevertheless wisely elects to stay out of Saul’s presence, knowing that the mercurial king could turn on him in a trice. He heads to King Achish of Gath, and remains there for a year and 4 months. There is real wisdom for us here. Yes, like David, we should rely on God to protect us, but we should also use our common sense and refrain from placing ourselves in potentially abusive —or even potentially lethal—situations especially around people like Saul. This is exactly like today’s domestic abusers say they’ll never do it again, but inevitably succumb to the temptation to lash out physically.

John 6:1-15: In John’s telling of the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus asks Philip directly, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” (5) And John, ever the great explainer, tells us, “He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do” (6) But Philip certainly doesn’t know this is a test.

We can empathize with Philip’s distress when he says, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” (7) I’m sure he’s thinking, “Jesus is a wonderful guy; he may indeed be the Messiah, but he really has no idea of how the real world works.”  Philip is all of us. We think that Jesus is going to engage the world the way we all do. And that he would at least have a modicum of common sense.

But we can never forget that John’s Jesus will always be doing the unexpected. Be it turning water into wine, conversing with a sinful Samaritan woman or now, asking a seemingly dumb question of Philip. Like Philip, we want to put Jesus into the box of our own experience, our own perspective on the world. But Jesus cannot be contained in our comfortable little boxes. He’s always going to be asking us seemingly innocent questions that open up a whole new way of seeing things.  For John, the feeding of the 5000, as wonderful as it was, is not his point. John’s point is that if we’re going to follow Jesus to expect the unexpected. We have to think—and act— in entirely new ways.

John adds a coda to this story that’s missing in the synoptic accounts. The crowd ‘gets it. Jesus is the long-awaited prophet, perhaps even the Messiah: “When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”” (14) But Jesus will have none of it: “When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” (15)

Jesus did exactly what David did: he withdrew. Would that we would withdraw—especially politicians—rather than seizing power over other people.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tune in tomorrow for the exciting conclusion of this story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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