Psalm 39:1–6; Esther 2:19–3:15;

Psalm 39:1–6: This reflection on the ephemerality of life begins with the psalmist’s resolution to remain quiet: “I thought: ‘Let me keep my ways from offending with my tongue. / Let me keep a muzzle on my mouth…'” (2) Once again, we see the critical role of the voice as being what separates the inner being from the person seen and heard by the rest of the world. Speech is what has set mankind apart from the rest of God’s creation.

But muteness only intensifies the poet’s already existing pain: “I was mute–in silence. / I kept still, deprived of good,/ and my pain was grievous.” (3) But as the poet reflects on his lot, his emotions begin to boil over: “My heart was hot within me./ In my thoughts a fire burned.” And he can remain silent no longer: “I spoke with my tongue.” (4)

Life’s brevity is the topic on which he has been reflecting and now he speaks aloud, questioning God: “Let me know, O Lord, my end / and what is the measure of my days.” (5). The third line of the verse intensifies this sense of ephemerality: “I would know how fleeting I am.” Not waiting for God’s response, the poet answers his own question: “Look, mere handspans You made my days.”  And then in a striking parallel (anticipation?) of Ecclesiastes, he realizes “Mere breath is each man standing.” (6)

As I grow older, this psalm increasingly reflects my own realization of life’s mere “breath.” We behave as if we are immortal, but the reality is that in the larger scheme of God’s creation, we flicker but a moment–and then our flame goes out. The question is, who are we and what have we done during that brief interval?

Esther 2:19–3:15: Esther is now queen, but no one knows her Jewish roots: “Esther had not revealed her kindred or her people, as Mordecai had charged her” (2:20), Mordecai overhears a plot to assassinate King Ahasuerus., which information he passes to Esther, who in turn tells the king. The conspirators are promptly hanged. This part of the story is crucial because it demonstrates that Esther has doubtless earned the king’s trust.

King Ahasuerus promotes Haman to the position of chief of staff, essentially the second most important man in the kingdom. This power goes to his head ad he demands obeisance from everyone in the kingdom. But Mordecai refuses to bow down. Haman decides to rid the kingdom of these obnoxious, irreverent Jews. Haman with essentially a 10,000 talent bribe talks the king into issuing an edict “giving orders to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all Jews, young and old, women and children, in one day, the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, and to plunder their goods.” (3:13) THe decree goes out, but with masterful understatement, our author notes that “The king and Haman sat down to drink; but the city of Susa was thrown into confusion.” (3:15).

We can only imagine this “confusion.” Why would the king issue an order to kill the people who had been living peacefully among them for so many years? From the perspective of the 21st century, this is racism taken to its logical, evil conclusion for a reason that is trivial. But Haman also reminds us that there is no limit to the evil of the human heart–especially when its pride is wounded and it possesses substantial power.

Romans 8:34–9:7: Paul’s words of encouragement suggest that the Romans lived in real fear of sin and subsequently, death eternally separating them from the saving power of Jesus Christ. Paul reminds them (us) that “it is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.” (8:34). Moreover this intercession is bathed in love, whose power is such that we can never be separated from Christ.

And then in one of the most powerful and encouraging verses in all of Paul’s writings, he tells us, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (8:38, 39) It is to this verse that we (I) can cling when we (I) are bathed in doubt as to the reality of our faith. Faith and love are intertwined through Christ. Even though we may feel separated, it is just that: a feeling. The reality is that we are intertwined in Christ’s love for us.

Paul then turns to the relationship of Israel to the intercessory power of Jesus Christ. He begins on an emotional note, remembering his own Jewishness: “For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh.” (3:3). And he reminds us that it is from Israel that their–and our–Messiah has arisen: “to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever.” (3:5).

And then, in a striking passage that suggests (to me, anyway) that Paul is not only arguing to convince his listeners, but himself as well, “It is not as though the word of God had failed.” (3:6), as he begins a disquisition on how Jews and Gentiles are related: “It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.” (9:7) Paul is about to turn a couple thousand years of Jewish exclusivity on its head…

Psalm 38:17–22; Esther 2:1–18; Romans 8:20–33

Psalm 38:17–22: Our psalmist’s illness and constant pain, “I am ripe for stumbling / and my pain is before me always” (18) places him in a even more vulnerable position, “And my wanton enemies grow many,/ my unprovoked foes abound.” (20) In fact, they seem to be winning despite his best efforts to walk the path of righteousness: “And those who pay back good with evil/ thwart me for pursuing good.” (21)

Unlike many psalms of supplication that end on a hopeful note that recognizes God’s presence, this one ends in a desperate plea. Unlike Psalm 23 that ends on the assurance God is always present even in the darkest times, here there is only silence. We hear only the psalmist’s voice seeming to trail off into hopelessness.  In some ways this psalm seems even more appropriate in our time when God seems absent. With the psalmist, we raise our voices to heaven, pleading, “Hasten to my help,/ O master of my rescue.” And then, only silence.

Esther 2:1–18: So, King Ahasuerus runs something like a beauty contest to find a new queen. Needless to say, many women would like that position and “many young women were gathered in the citadel of Susa in custody of Hegai.” (8). Esther, Mordecai’s niece, is among them. Hegai likes her  and “he quickly provided her with her cosmetic treatments and her portion of food.” (9). Esther keeps her Jewish lineage secret.

One has the feeling this book was written by a woman, because I’m not sure a male would have gone into the specifics about Esther’s 12 months of cosmetic treatment: “six months with oil of myrrh and six months with perfumes and cosmetics for women.” (12) [Which also tells us there is nothing new about make-up.] As part of the trial to find out if she was acceptable, Esther goes in to the king [“goes in’ being the code for “had sex with”] and then returns back to a second harem. Unless the woman in this harem was asked for subsequently by name, the party was over.

But Esther was beautiful, “admired by all who saw her.” (15) She goes into the king, “ the king loved Esther more than all the other women” and the king “set the royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti.” (17). A party and a general holiday follows.

So is this just a cool story, or is there something deeper going on here? We could probably summon symbolic parallels to how King Ahasuerus symbolizes God and Esther the Jewish people. But my inclination is to dispense with theology and just sit back and enjoy this marvelous story.

Romans 8:20–33: After all, if it’s theology we want, Paul provides it in spades as he now expands his thesis of sinful man being doomed to die to into an exposition about the universe and everything: “in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” (21) In other words, Paul is anticipating that the work of Christ has started the process of an entirely new creation, free of sin and decay. But it’s not going to be an easy or speedy process as he compares it to a woman giving birth: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now.” (22)

As for those who believe, “in hope we were saved.” (24). But, as Paul points out, hope is by definition invisible, so this wonderful new perfect creation–including our perfected selves– is not yet visible: it’s off in the future. That’s why we suffer as “we wait for it in patience.” (24)

But as we wait the Holy Spirit is at work “helping us in our weakness” in us in ways we cannot fully comprehend, “for [example,] we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” (26)

Paul gives us a clear, if not completely comprehensible, picture of the relationship between the Holy Spirit and God–and ourselves: “God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” (27) And because of this relationship, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” (28). A verse that has been of enormous encouragement to many, but is also subject to misinterpretation. It’s not “all things work together for good,” but “all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

So what’s the point of “called according to his purpose?” For me it simply means that God has called us not only because he loves us, but that he gives us purpose–God’s purpose–to our lives. As for Paul’s explanation about predestination and the “elect,” I leave that to theologians to argue.

Rather, I will focus on the impact that God has on our lives: “If God is for us, who is against us?” (31) God gave us his son, so “will he not with him also give us everything else?” (32) Those are word that do not require a theologian to interpret. In today’s readings, the psalmist’s plea is eventually answered by Paul. God has been here in our hearts the entire time.

 

Psalm 38:9–16; Esther 1; Romans 8:9–19

Psalm 38:1–16: The psalmist is sick unto death–an illness that consumes him internally–“My innards are consumed with burning” (8a)–and externally: “My sores make a stench, have festered” (6a). One thinks of Job. As so many have done, and continue to do, he blames his illness “through my folly.” (6)

He is near death, “My heart spins around, my strength forsakes me/ and the light of my eyes, too, is gone from me.” (11). He has abandoned by his family and friends in his hour of need: “My friends and companions stand off from my plight. / and my kinsmen stand far away.” (12). But perhaps worst of all, his enemies begin conniving and plotting: “They lay snares, who seek my life and want my harm./ They speak lies, utter deceit all day long.” (13) But he is so ill, he hears them only at a distance, “But like the deaf I do not hear.” (14a) It is difficult to think of more dire straits than these. illness, abandonment, conspiracy.

Everything in the psalmist’s world is lost; only one hope remains: “For in You, O Lord, I have hoped.” And in that hope is the core of assurance: “You will answer, O master, my God.” (16) This psalm strips life of every element that we depend on: health, family, friends. They are ephemeral, untrustworthy. In the end, there is only God in whom we can place our trust. As I know from personal experience with illness, it quickly strips away the masks, pretensions, and false gods in our lives. Only our hope in a loving God remains.

Esther 1: The story of Esther is like an intermezzo in an opera. A short respite from the sturm und drang of the main plot. A story rich in plotting and duplicity, but in the end an inspiring story of heroism on the part of a courageous woman.

This chapter lays out the scene. “King Ahasuerus sat on his royal throne in the citadel of Susa” (2) and decides to give a week-long party. The author describes the richness of the setting (almost like an opera stage!): “There were white cotton curtains and blue hangings tied with cords of fine linen and purple to silver rings[b] and marble pillars. There were couches of gold and silver on a mosaic pavement of porphyry, marble, mother-of-pearl, and colored stones.” (6) Eventually the king becomes “merry with wine” and in his drunkenness commands his eunuchs to bring in Queen Vashti. But the queen refuses.

As a result, Vashti is banished from the court, and an order goes out “let the king give her royal position to another who is better than she.” (19). The stage is set for the reminder of the story.

But there is a disturbing subtext in the king’s decree: “all women will give honor to their husbands, high and low alike.” (20) And an official declaration of patriarchy goes out “declaring that every man should be master in his own house.” (22). Here is one of those dangerous passages that too easily can be ripped out of its cultural context–and I’m sure it has been–to be used in unjustified ways for husbands to oppress wives. By contrast, Paul’s admonitions of marital relations are a model of restraint and enlightenment.

Romans 8:9–19: I think Paul is responsible for the original definition of zombies: earlier in the chapter he has equated the ‘flesh” with being the walking dead. There is only one way in which we are alive: “the Spirit of God dwells in you.” (9) Life comes only through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit: “if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.” (10)

If we reject that life and “if [we] live according to the flesh, [we] will die.” (13). But then Paul does something remarkable: it is best that “by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body.” Only by rejecting our sinful fleshliness will we ultimately live. OK, but then the Spirit does something remarkable. We are transformed: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.” (14). Like Christ, we die to the flesh and rise (through baptism, I presume) as children of God, imbued by the Holy Spirit.

It is in this newly transformed state that we can cry, “Abba! Father!” (15) because “it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” (16) And by virtue of becoming family members, we become “heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.” (17). Today, this seems so routine because we have heard it so often. But think of the impact on Paul’s listeners. This is an unbelievably revolutionary concept. Never before have any humans become part of God’s family.There has always been that strong distinction and separation between God and his creation. That was certainly true of Judiasm. But now, through the power of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit we have become family members.

But family members–even members of God’s family–are not exempt from suffering: in fact, suffering comes with the territory: “we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.” (17). Paul encourages his listeners by reminding them–and us, “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.” (18). This is a stark reminder that by becoming children in God’s family that we may, in fact, have to endure greater suffering than otherwise might have been the case.

Psalm 37:34–40; Nehemiah 12:44–13:14; Romans 7:7–20

Psalm 37:34-40: For those who endeavor to “hope for the Lord and keep His way” (34a) this exercise is frustrating at best when we “have seen an arrogant wicked man/ taking root like a flourishing plant.” There are examples of the crooked and shady all around us becoming rich and famous, while those of us who toil honestly seem to miss the party.

Yes, there is the promise, “He passes on, and, look, he is gone,/ I seek him, and he is not found.” (36). And we see examples of fallen celebrities and powerful men going off to jail frequently. In the end, as my father used to say, ‘the chickens come home to roost.” Their fame and power is ephemeral.

What’s important here is that we are to “watch the blameless, look to the upright,/ for the man of peace has a future.” Things will turn out all right for us in the end because we trust in God. Because “the rescue of the just is from the Lord, / their stronghold in time of distress.”

But getting to that point of rescue does not mean we will escape suffering along the way. Too many people believe that if they become Christians that everything about their lives will become what they see the wicked enjoying around them. But we need only remember Jesus at Gethsemane and what followed. Rescue indeed came, and it comes for us. Although that can be very difficult to remember in times of suffering; the promise remains.

Nehemiah 12:44–13:14: The concluding verses of Nehemiah record how service in the temple resumes with the Levites in charge. Ashad happened in the past, the law is read aloud. As the people of Israel listen, they realize again that they are a people set apart. And in the theme of today’s psalm, Nehemiah writes, “our God turned the curse into a blessing.” (13:2) Israel has suffered, but by turning to God, curses become blessings.

This remarkable book ends more or less as it began: Nehemiah is the one man who demonstrates responsibility in following the law of God—and he takes the initiative. In his absence, the priest Eliashib has remodeled a storeroom where the various offerings of grain, wine and oil and other sacramental items had been stored in the temple into living quarters for a certain Tobiah. Moreover, “ I also found out that the portions of the Levites had not been given to them; so that the Levites and the singers, who had conducted the service, had gone back to their fields.” (13:10) Clearly, the temple is dedicated to one purpose and one purpose only: worshipping God.

So, once again, Nehemiah has to set things right and he appoints trustworthy men to oversee temple operations. Ever faithful, Nehemiah again prays, “Remember me, O my God, concerning this, and do not wipe out my good deeds that I have done for the house of my God and for his service.” (13:14) As always, his focus as leader has been on God. Everything else he does and says flows from his faithfulness. Would that all my actions flow form my faith rather than my selfish motives.

 Romans 7:7–20: In this passage Paul is addressing those new Christians, probably Gentiles, who have said that the Law is not only an impediment to following Jesus Christ, but is itself sinful. Paul corrects this misconception in the strongest possible terms: “What then should we say? That the law is sin? By no means!” No, the purpose of the Law is to identify sin: “if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. (7) The Law itself “is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good.” (12) Rather, it is we, whom the law has exposed as being hopelessly sinful, that are ultimately dead.

The law also exposes that if we are honest with ourselves, we will realize that we are creatures of inner conflict; “of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin,” (14) In one of the most famous verses in this book, Paul expresses the frustration and conflict created by our own sinful nature: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. “ (15)

The point is—and as the Scriptures demonstrate again and again—we cannot come to righteousness on our own. Our inherently sinful nature makes that impossible: “I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.” (18)

On our own, we are cursed to “not do the good [we] want, but the evil I do not want is what [we] do.” (19). It is essential to recognize this grim reality of our human nature. People who believe they are inherently “good” simply have not examined themselves and their motivations carefully enough.

Psalm 37:16–22; Nehemiah 9:1–10:27; Romans 5:12–6:4

Psalm 37:16-22: This section of the psalm deals with economic justice and, as usual contrasts the wicked against the poor and just. In God’s eyes, the just are always better off regardless of their circumstances: “Better a little for the just/ than wicked men’s great profusion.” (16) The reason is simple: “the Lord sustains the just.” (17).

But better than merely being sustained, we enjoy God’s love for eternity: “The Lord embraces the fate of the blameless,/ and their estate shall be forever.” (18) Jesus surely had this psalm in mind when he told the parable of Dives and Lazarus, the poor man and the rich man: “For the wicked shall perish.” (20a)

In God’s economy, the wicked are ephemeral: “Like the meadow’s green—gone, in smoke, gone.” (20b)

These verses also stand behind the Sermon on the Mount as we hear beatitude echo the psalm: “For those He blesses inherit the earth.” (22) When we think about it, this psalm would have been familiar to Jesus’ hearers. He did not have to tell them “those he curses are cut off” (22) because the minds of his listeners would have filled in that verse themselves.

Nehemiah 9:1-10:27: The work of restoring the walls of Jerusalem is completed and everyone is gathered for a dedicatory day of confession, prayer and to make a covenant that henceforth Israel will dedicate itself to God.

Nehemiah retraces Israel’s story, reminding us again that know where we came from is crucial and that to lose our story is to lose our identity.

As Nehemiah prays, he reminds all present that “our ancestors acted presumptuously and stiffened their necks and did not obey your commandments;” (16) God, in contrast, is “ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and you did not forsake them.” (17).

Israel’s story is our story. We are just as stiff-necked and easily forget that God wants desperately to have a loving relationship with us.

Again and again, Nehemiah recounts the theme of today’s psalm: how God sustained them, but they constantly turned away in wickedness. Even to the point of completely rejecting God: “ they were disobedient and rebelled against you and cast your law behind their backs and killed your prophets, who had warned them in order to turn them back to you, and they committed great blasphemies.” (9:26) And they deserved their punishment. They would cry out to God for mercy and “according to your great mercies you gave them saviors who saved them from the hands of their enemies.” (27) But again, they sinned and again, “many times you rescued them according to your mercies.” (28).

This confession reminds us of how we constantly fall into sin and how God is ever faithful, ever merciful, rescuing us again and again. It is always our pride, which Nehemiah characterizes as “stubborn shoulder and [they] stiffened their neck and would not obey.” (29)

But, Nehemiah promises, this time will be different because the leaders of the restored nation sign a covenant to follow God, because “we are in great distress.” (37) And in keeping with the detail that characterizes the histories, Ezra and Nehemiah, their names are listed in Chapter 10: a reminder to all those men’s descendants that they have made a covenant with God. Just as our baptismal certificates are a reminder to us of our even better covenant with God through Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit.

Romans 5:12–6:4: Paul traces it all back to Adam. Sin comes into the world and therefore, death, and harking back to his earlier assertion, “death spread to all because all have sinned.” (5:12) and sin predates the law.

But grace is larger than death due to sin: “many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ,” (5:15). Jesus is the new Adam, or perhaps, the “restorative Adam,” as Paul asserts, “just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.” (5:18)

Interestingly, as a once devout Jew, Paul now asserts that the Law essentially got in the way. But that was fine because it led in turn to something even greater, “But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more,” (5:20)

But, Paul tells us, we need to be careful about sin leading to grace. That is no excuse to say, “Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?” (6:1) Sin is part of our old selves. Our old selves have “been buried with him by baptism into death,” (6:4).

This is the essence of the New Covenant: we don’t just get forgiven; we have an entirely new life in Jesus Christ. In this new life, thinking that we can just keep on sinning is utterly illogical, when “we too might walk in newness of life.” (6:4)

Psalm 36; Nehemiah 5:1–6:14; Romans 4:1–12

Psalm 36: This psalm has a unique opening as “Crime” becomes a character speaking to the evil person in which it resides: “Crime’s utterance to the wicked/ within his heart:” And its utterance is the definition of what comprises an evil man because it is the crime of rejecting God: “There is no fear of God/ before my eyes.” (2). Crime works its wily ways on its host: “For it caressed him with its eyes/ to find his sin of hatred.” (3). What we could call this “anti-conscience,” speaks honeyed words of temptation: “The words of his [crime’s] mouth are mischief, deceit,”

And as Paul would agree, the potential to commit sin resides indeed, inside all of us and when we succumb to crime’s entreaties, “he [we] ceased to grasp things, to do good.” (4) Crime takes over our conscience and “Mischief he [we] plots in his bed,/ takes a stand on a way of not good,/ evil he [we] does not despise.”

Is “crime” Satan? Or is it merely the dark side of each of us fallen human beings?

Standing in stark contrast to Crime and the evil man is God himself: “Lord, in the heavens, Your kindness/ and Your faithfulness to the skies.” (6)  Unlike Crime’s temptations, God brings us “justice like the unending mountains/ Your judgement, the great abyss, / man and beast the Lord rescues.” (7) The rewards of listening to God are infinitely greater than listening to crime: We feast at God’s table: “They take their fill from the fare of Your house/ and from Your stream of delights You give them drink.”  (9)

The psalmist seems to be asking, why would someone listen to crime and its reward of mischief and deceit when by following God, his munificent generosity blesses us with riches beyond imagining? Just one simple reason: to follow God we must abandon the idea of ourselves being at the center of the universe and acknowledge that God is our creator and we his creatures. To do that is to cast away pride. Not an easy task.

Nehemiah 5:1–6:14: Relatives of the Jews who have returned are complaining that they are being oppressed as workers by the nobles and officials to the extent that they are being forced to borrow money at interest and being treated like slaves. “and some of our daughters have been ravished.” (5:5). We hear the cry of the downtrodden: “we are powerless, and our fields and vineyards now belong to others.” (5:5)

Nehemiah brings them justice and demands that the extraction of interest cease instantly and orders, “Restore to them, this very day, their fields, their vineyards, their olive orchards, and their houses, and the interest on money, grain, wine, and oil that you have been exacting from them.” (5:11) Nehemiah notes that this policy stands in contrast to his predecessors, “The former governors who were before me laid heavy burdens on the people, and took food and wine from them, besides forty shekels of silver. Even their servants lorded it over the people.” And he tells us why, “But I did not do so, because of the fear of God.” (5:15) Nehemiah, the man of God, does not oppress others.

I think this chapter is here to remind post-exhilic Israel–and us–that God cares above all for the poor, the widows and the orphans. If we get nothing else out of our reading of the OT, we must get that. And yet, we continue to be able to ignore Nehemiah’s example with such ease.

Nehemiah’s nemesis, Sanballat and his cronies, ask for a meeting but as he observes, “they intended to do me harm.” (6:2). Sanballat tries to plays the sedition card, handing Nehemiah a letter that says, “that you and the Jews intend to rebel; that is why you are building the wall; and according to this report you wish to become their king.” (6:6) Nehemiah tells Sanballat to buzz off, “No such things as you say have been done; you are inventing them out of your own mind” (6:8) They even try to trick Nehemeiah with a false prophet. But as a man of God, Nehemiah discerns this, and his courage in undiminished because he knows God will protect him.

 Romans 4:1–12: Paul continues his discourse on the contrasts between faith and works by citing Abraham–the founder of the Jewish race–as an example of a man who was justified by the unmerited gift of God’s righteousness, not his works. After all, Paul argues, “to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due.” (4). So, how could Abraham receive a gift if he had worked to earn it? God would be depriving him of his due wages. So, too, with David.

Then Paul produces his greatest argument against those who claimed only Jews had received the gift of righteousness with sheer logic (which the Greeks in the crowd must surely have appreciated!):  “We say, “Faith was reckoned to Abraham as righteousness.” How then was it reckoned to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised.” (10). Come on guys, Paul is saying, you’ve got it backwards: circumcision is the sign of having already received the gift; it is not a qualification for the gift. Besides, how could it be a gift if you have to be qualified by something like circumcision to receive it?

Psalm 35:19–28; Nehemiah 4; Romans 3:19–31

Psalm 35:19–28: As happens so often in the psalms, voices and speech figure prominently. First we hear the “unprovoked enemies,” who “rejoice over me” (19) and then the psalmist tells us that “they do not speak peace/ and against the earth’s quiet ones plot deceit.” (20) Out of conspiratorial whispers the enemies begin shouting, as “They open their mouths wide against me./ They say, ‘Hurrah! Hurrah!…” (21)

But frustratingly, God seems to be silent as the poet pleads, “You, Lord, have seen, do not be mute.” In fact God seems to be asleep, as the psalmist says, “Rouse Yourself, wake for my cause/ my God and my Master…do not let them rejoice over me.” (23, 24) He asks God to silence his enemies, “Let them not say in their heart, / ‘Hurrah for ourselves.'” (25) The poet stands in the dock, as his enemies testify against him. But if God will but act, they will “don shame and disgrace” (26). And the poet’s supporters will finally be able to speak. And not just speak, but sing aloud, “May they sing glad and rejoice,/ who desire justice for me.” (27a)

The voices of the enemy have been drowned out by the voices that praise God, as the psalm ends with the friends saying, “Great is the Lord/ who desires His servant’s well-being.” (27b) And the psalmist himself can finally speak, praising God, “my tongue will murmur You justice,/ all day long Your praise.” (28)

Conspiracy, accusation, testimony, praise. All these in just these few verses–and all of them oral. In an era where little was written down, that was said and sung was of utmost importance. And the lesson for us is that regardless of all our other forms of written and electronic communication, what we speak aloud is still of utmost importance.

Nehemiah 4: Sanballat “was angry and greatly enraged, and he mocked the Jews” for their effrontery of attempting to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. His buddy, Tobiah the Ammonite, joins in, “That stone wall they are building—any fox going up on it would break it down!” (3). But Nehemiah and the Jews are resolute and pray, “turn their taunt back on their own heads,” (4)

But it’s a tough job as Judah observes, “The strength of the burden bearers is failing, and there is too much rubbish so that we are unable to work on the wall.” (10) And now enemies are plotting against them. BUt Nehemiah, brilliant leader that he is, reminds them that God is on their side, encouraging them, “Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your kin, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes.” (14).

The plot of their enemies has been foiled and new defensive measures are put in place, “half of my servants worked on construction, and half held the spears, shields, bows, and body-armor;” (16) and even “burden bearers carried their loads in such a way that each labored on the work with one hand and with the other held a weapon.” (17)

Even though they are beset by enemies, the project continues because Nehemiah does two things: (1) he trusts God to provide and protect and (2) he continues to be a brilliant leader, adapting to the situation and encouraging everyone involved in the work. Again, a terrific example of putting “feet” on one’s prayers: believing what God says and acting accordingly.

Romans 3:19–31: As Paul continues his argument that while legal circumstances may be different, every human–whether Jew or Greek–is ultimately under the same law. In short, “the whole world may be held accountable to God.” (19)

Now, he turns his argument to the righteousness of God, which has already “been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets” (21) and that it points directly at the person of Jesus Christ. But the brutal reality is that under this law, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God;” (23)–a verse I learned at an early age in a church where it was till fashionable to speak of one’s intrinsic sinfulness.

But God is merciful and wants a relationship with every human, so we “are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” (24).  But this gift has been bought at a high price: Jesus, “whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.” (25).

So, we are saved through Jesus’ atoning sacrifice (a concept that seems to come from Paul rather than out of Jesus’ mouth–at least as I read the Gospels). But we cannot boast that we’ve gotten salvation by our good deeds, our works. Indeed, “No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” (27, 28). Which seems like a verse Martin Luther would have clung to enthusiastically.

Nevertheless, even though we are saved through faith and not our good works, the law remains in force–but in a completely new and unexpected way through the atonement of Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, grace does not allow lawlessness. Sin may not abound. It remains the standard which defines our sinfulness.

Psalm 35:11–18; Nehemiah 2:11–3:32; Romans 3:3–18

Psalm 35:11–18: Our poet reflects on the too-often asymmetry of relationships; of how even when we do good for others, they repay our kindnesses with contempt when the shoe is on the other foot. First, there are those who simply lie about what happened: “Outrageous witnesses rose,/ of things I knew not they asked me.” (11) And, more directly, “They paid me back evil for good–/ bereavement for my very self.” (12)

He describes his personal sacrifices for them; how “when they were ill, my garment was sackcloth, / I afflicted myself with fasting” (13). And how, “I went about though mourning a mother,/ in gloom I was bent.” (14) Yet when affliction comes to our poet, they not only don;t return his favor, the mock him instead: “Yet when I limped, they rejoiced, and they gathered,/…against me,/ like strangers.” (15).

Not only no sympathy, but derision instead, “With contemptuous mocking chatter/ they gnashed their teeth against me.” (16). It is so bad that the psalmist feels even God, who clearly sees what’s going on, has abandoned him: “O Master, how long will You see it?” as he prays for rescue. And if God answers, the poet promises, “I shall acclaim You in a great assembly,/ in a vast crowd I shall praise You.” (18)

So, is this mere whining about how tough life is; about how unfair it all is? Does the poet have a legitimate case here? In the end, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that here in a few verses, the psalmist has directly and precisely reflected our own feelings. How often do I feel that my generous behavior toward someone else is ignored and worse, having given them bread they gave me a stone?  This is the brilliance of the Psalms: that basically every feeling I’ve ever felt has been recorded here millennia ago. There is truly nothing new under the sun. And in reading of the psalmist’s woes, I can find succor from my own troubles.

Nehemiah 2:11–3:32: Nehemiah, having arrived in Jerusalem, conducts a secret nighttime tour of the destroyed city walls. He has been careful not to tell anyone else “what my God had put into my heart to do for Jerusalem.” (2:12) He even lists all the people to whom he has not revealed his plan: “The officials did not know where I had gone or what I was doing; I had not yet told the Jews, the priests, the nobles, the officials, and the rest that were to do the work.” (2:16). Nehemiah is the perfect example of the wise and discreet man, who does not announce or brag beforehand what he plans to accomplish. And why I believe Nehemiah is an engineer: he carefully assesses the “on-the-ground” situation first in order to fully understand the nature of what will have to be done. He is a careful observer.

Only after Nehemiah understand sthe nature and the magnitude of the task does he go to others, telling them, ““You see the trouble we are in, how Jerusalem lies in ruins with its gates burned. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, so that we may no longer suffer disgrace.” (17) Only then does he reveal what God laid on his heart and how he has been diligently careful to obtain permission from King Artaxexes.

His listeners here Nehemiah’s plan and preparation, and respond enthusiastically, “Let us start building!” (18). Of course no project can be planned and accomplished without opposition and “Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official, and Geshem the Arab heard of it, they mocked and ridiculed us, saying, “What is this that you are doing? Are you rebelling against the king?” (19) Nehemiah replies that the project is God-ordained and for their mockery, they will “have no share or claim or historic right in Jerusalem.” (2:20)

Like Ezra, Chapter 3 describe by name, who accomplishes what. Again, this long list of peope and what they did is a testament to Nehemiah’s organizational skill and effective leadership. There are interesting little asides such as, “the Tekoites made repairs; but their nobles would not put their shoulders to the work of their Lord.” (3:5) and the fact that women were engaged in the work, as well: “Shallum son of Hallohesh, ruler of half the district of Jerusalem, made repairs, he and his daughters.” (3:12).

No detail is too small for Nehemiah, no contribution by anyone is overlooked. This list of the people involved demonstrates the generosity of his spirit. He gives credit where it is due–yet another mark of outstanding leadership–and a Biblical model for anyone, especially a leader in the church, who undertakes a project and generously does not claim it as strictly his own, but of God and many other people.

Romans 3:3–18: Paul continues grappling with human unfaithfulness–sin–and the faithfulness of God. But if God is all forgiving, and we are sinners, why not just leave it as the status quo ante and keep on sinning? After all, we’ll be forgiven, right? Paul poses the famous rhetorical question, ““Let us do evil so that good may come.” (3:8), answering it immediately, “Their condemnation is deserved.”

He then asks, “Are we any better off?” and then answers immediately, “No, not at all.” (9) He employs extensive quotes from Psalms 14, 5, 10, and 36 and then a quote form Isaiah to remind us that we are failed beings at heart: “There is no one who is righteous” on down to a perfect description of the human condition from Isaiah 59: “Their feet are swift to shed blood; /ruin and misery are in their paths, /and the way of peace they have not known.” (16-18)

Every person who believes in the intrinsic goodness of human nature and that, yes, we may occasionally fall off the straight and narrow, but our hearts and intentions are pure, needs to reflect on the overwhelming evidence form Scripture that Paul presents here. It’s as if Paul is saying that the real statement should be “Let us do evil so that evil may abound.” Alas, events all around us today continue to prove the truth of Paul’s point.

Psalm 35:1–10; Nehemiah 1:1–2:10; Romans 2:17–3:2

Psalm 35:1–10: This psalm of supplication begins with full military imagery as the poet asks, “Take my part, Lord, against my contesters.” (1) And, “Steady the shield and the buckler,/ and rise up to my help.” (2) Then, it becomes more aggressive: “Unsheathe the spear to the haft/ against my pursuers.” (3)

But these are metaphorical as we arrive at the real topic of the psalm: “Let them bye shamed and disgraces,/ who seek my life.” (4) So, are these military aggressors or simply personal enemies? If we take this as a Dvid psalm, it may be plotting and conniving within his won ranks or in his court: “Let them retreat, be abased,/ who plot harm against me.” (4b)  The conspiracy theory seems reasonable farther along as the poet proclaims his innocence: “For unprovoked they set their net-trap for me, / unprovoked they dug a pit for my life.” (7)  Better that his enemies be hoisted on their own petard, “”Let disaster come upon him unwitting/ and the net that he set entrap him./ May he fall in disaster.” (8)

The poet is certain that God will act and in his assurance the verses turn to praise: “But I shall exult in the Lord,/ shall be glad in His rescue.” (9)>

So, the question remains, can we pray to God for the destruction of our enemies? I think that the words of Jesus about loving our enemies trump those of the psalmist. We can certainly pray that conspiracies against us are defeated, and we can be confident that God will see to it that evil ultimately fails. But to pray for an enemy’s destruction? UI leave that to our psalmist.

Nehemiah 1:1–2:10: Nehemiah is among my favorite books in the Bible because he is an engineer. When he is still at Susa in his important role as cupbearer to the king, messengers bring him word of the broken walls of Jerusalem and its general destruction. His reaction is, “I sat down and wept, and mourned for days, fasting and praying before the God of heaven.” (1:4). He prays fervently, beginning with a confession that admits all the wrongdoing of his people.But then he reminds God of his promise to the Jews, “but if you return to me and keep my commandments and do them, though your outcasts are under the farthest skies, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place at which I have chosen to establish my name.’” (1:9).

As he brings the cup to king Artaxerxes, the king notices Nehemiah’s sadness and observes, “This can only be sadness of the heart.” (2:2) Nehemiah humbly reports that his ancestral home has been destroyed. The king responds, “What is your request?” Nehemiah does not hesitate to ask boldly, “I ask that you send me to Judah, to the city of my ancestors’ graves, so that I may rebuild it.” (2:5) As long as Nehemiah agrees to return, the king agrees to his request, equipping Nehemiah with letters of passage, as well as permission to obtain “timber to make beams for the gates of the temple fortress, and for the wall of the city, and for the house that I shall occupy.” (2:8)

Nehemiah is the perfect combination of God-fearing humility and boldness. He prays before acting. And in acting he is well prepared to ask for exactly what is needed. I think Martin Luther would have liked Nehemiah: A man of God who prays and then recognizes that God answers prayers (here, the response of the king to Nehemiah’s sadness) in such a way that it requires bold action on our part. God is not a prayer-answering vending machine dispensing gifts. Rather, many times prayers are answered as opportunities.

Romans 2:17–3:2: Paul turns his attention to the Jews in his audience. His Pharisaical background is surely on Paul’s mind when he notes that those who follow the law are very skilled at instruction and guiding others–“a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of children”– (19,20) but if you “teach others, will you not teach yourself?” (21) In other words, are you not a hypocrite every time you sin. You pretend to teach others but haven’t learned the lessons yourself.?

Paul drives his point home by telling his audience that the physical mark of circumcision is only that: a mark. And “if you break the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision.” (25)  And then in what had to be a revolutionary idea, Paul moves circumcision from its physicality to its true reality as a spiritual mark by asking rhetorically, “if those who are uncircumcised keep the requirements of the law, will not their uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision?” (26). And then, most radically of all, this allows him to completely redefine what it means to be a Jew: “a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual and not literal.” (29) Which is to say, that if we follow God in our hearts that is “circumcision of the heart.”

Paul then poses another rhetorical question, “what is the value of circumcision?” (3:1) And answers immediately, “Much, in every way.” He has laid the foundation for some very radical redefinitions here.

Psalm 34:19–22; Ezra 10:7–44; Romans 2:5–16

 Psalm 34:19–22: These last verses are the distillation of hope because they are the distillation of God’s promise to us: “Near is the Lord to the broken-hearted,/ and the crushed in spirit He rescues.” (19) As we endure the vicissitudes of life, there is the assurance that even in the darkest places, God is very near. Near enough to rescue us.

These are extravagant promises: “Many the evils of the righteous man,/ yet from all of them the Lord will save him.” (20) We will encounter evil times and evil people, but we will always be rescued. It’s worth noting that rescue can be a messy business. If I fall off a boat into the sea and almost drown, but am rescued, it’s not like I was able to avoid getting wet or gasping for air. Bad things will happen, but God will rescue me in the end.

The bad guys will get theirs in the end: “Evil will kill the wicked, / and the righteous man’s foes will bear guilt.” (22) Even when things are at their darkest and the enemy seems to have the upper hand, God will win out And so will we. Because it is “The Lord [who] ransoms His servants’ lives.” (23a). And through the saving power of Jesus Christ, “we will bear no guilt, all who shelter in Him.” (23b). Each of us will experience desperate times but like so many other psalms, we are reassured again and again, God is our protector, our very present help in trouble.

Ezra 10:7–44: To solve the problem of intermarriage and to restart Israel as the Jewish people they were before the exile, Ezra sends out the world that everyone must gather in jerusalem within three days or forfeit his property and “they themselves [would be] banned from the congregation of the exiles.” (10:8)

Everyone duly shows up, and “sat in the open square before the house of God, trembling because of this matter and because of the heavy rain.” (9) Ezra demands that the assembly must “make confession to the Lord the God of your ancestors, and do his will; separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives.” (11). Just about everyone agrees, but there are logistic problems in undertaking the confession of each man there: “it is a time of heavy rain; we cannot stand in the open. Nor is this a task for one day or for two, for many of us have transgressed in this matter.” (13), so it’s agreed that judges will instead come to each outlying town and take confessions.

Ever precise, Ezra records exactly how long this process takes, “On the first day of the tenth month they sat down to examine the matter. By the first day of the first month they had come to the end of all the men who had married foreign women. (16, 17) A list of those who confessed follows. Why this precision and detail? I think it was because it was essential to know exactly how Israel’s national identity was reestablished. Jesus tells us that God is in the details, and the names of those involved in the re-founding of Israel is a crucial matter.

And we cannot forget how difficult it must have been for these men to give up their wives–and their children. Would I have obeyed this command in order to preserve the racial purity? We certainly know how modern society–where individual rights trump all else– would view this act.

Romans 2:5–16: For the psalmist above, the acts of God that Paul is describing here would be the lower level of abstraction of just how God will deal with both those who follow God and those who do not. For God “will repay according to each one’s deeds:” (6) For those “who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life;” (7) And “those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury.” (8) And These rules apply to both the Jew and the Greek (Gentile): “For God shows no partiality.” (11) Like the psalmist, Paul makes it clear that God will judge us by our deeds.

Since Paul is addressing both Jewish and Gentile believers here, he draws the interesting distinction that for the Gentiles, “ All who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law” but for Jews, “all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law.” (12) But, regardless, all will be judged.

So how does Paul know that this is how things will operate? First, it doesn’t have to do with hearing or knowing the law, but it’s all about doing–how we act. Paul is saying that the extensive written code of the Jewish law is in effect written on the heart of the Gentiles, and it’s called conscience: “They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness;” (15) Because Gentiles, “who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires,.” (14)

So, what’s going on here? Clearly, at the church in Rome, there were two classes of people: Jewish converts and Greek converts, and the Jews may have lorded it over the Gentiles because they were possessors of the written law. Paul is telling them, “Hey, guys, it doesn’t matter who’s got the written law; we each and everyone of us have the law, whether written down or written on our hearts. We are all the same in God’s eyes and will be judged the same.” Paul’s project here is to crush  the old cultural distinctions and telling us (as he does later) that we are all “new creatures in Christ.” This theme of we are the same in the eyes of God recurs over and over.