Psalm 17:1–7; 1 Chronicles 23; Acts 15:19–16:3

Psalm 17:1–7: In this psalm of supplication, the psalmist begins by asking God to listen: “Hear, O LORD, a just thing./ Listen well to my song.” (1). He also assures God that he is praying without a hidden agenda: “Hearken to my guileless prayer.,” knowing that it is God who is the ultimate judge of all things: “From before You my judgment will come,/ Your eyes behold rightness.” (2)

This raises an interesting point. I tend to assume that God is always listening, so if I just open my mouth and start praying. God will hear me. And I’m sure he does. But in the same way that we would ask someone close to us if they have a moment to talk about something significant, so too, with God. Besides, asking God to listen is a reminder to us that prayer is a conversation and that we know in our heart that God will indeed listen to us. As usual, we need more reminding than God does.

Our psalmist seems to be in some distress, which he does not describe. But it has been significant enough that he has felt God test him during a dark night of the soul: “You have probed my heart, come upon me by night,” and he has been found worthy as a God-follower: “You have tried me, and found no wrong in me.” Moreover, he has remained faithful, “I barred my mouth to let nothing pass.”(3)

The question is, can I say to God that I have not betrayed my faith and not cursed God for allowing bad things to happen to me? In the end, will I have the faith of the psalmist, who writes, “I called You, for You will answer me, God?” (6)

1 Chronicles 22, 23: David has called upon his son Solomon to undertake the building of the Temple (22:6 and forward). This is something I don’t recall reading in the other histories, but above all others, for our Chronicler, David is at the center of the Israel story because it is David who is the Man of God, and wh constantly reminds everyone around him, ““Is not the Lord your God with you? Has he not given you peace on every side?” (22:18) as he sets Solomon and indeed, the nation, on this solemn task: “Go and build the sanctuary of the Lord God so that the ark of the covenant of the Lord and the holy vessels of God may be brought into a house built for the name of the Lord.” (22:19).

At the beginning of the 23rd chapter, there is a peaceful transition of power: “When David was old and full of days, he made his son Solomon king over Israel.” (23:1) But not without some final organizational activities “David assembled all the leaders of Israel and the priests and the Levites.” (2) as he organizes 38,000 Levites and defines their roles in who will “do the work for the service of the house of the Lord.” (24)

Our Chronicler is an inveterate list maker, who desires above all to make sure that every person who has played a role in the great story of Israel is accounted for–and now we read the name of each of the Levitical families, who will become the Temple priests and other workers–and what their duties will be, down to the smallest detail, including the baking of the bread. But there is one duty that is common to all of them: “they shall stand every morning, thanking and praising the Lord, and likewise at evening,” (30).

Which is a reminder to us: that while each of us engages in different work, as a Christian community, we have one thing in common: to worship God with all our hearts.

Acts 15:19–16:3: The Council after hearing Peter, Paul Barnabas, and James comes to a grace-filled conclusion for the Gentile who have heard and received the Good News: “we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood. (15:19, 20). They communicate this decision in a letter, not only telling the Gentiles that some unauthorized persons have “have unsettled your minds,” raising the spectre of adult circumcision and adherence to Jewish dietary laws, but that “it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials.”

The church at Jerusalem appoints Judas Barsabbas and Silas to accompany John and Barnabas back to Antioch to make the official announcement. We see now that the church is taking on needed organizational structure, especially in terms of those authorized to speak on behalf of the Apostles. This of course eventually leads to the ordained priesthood, which despite its various problems, and which together with the Holy Spirit has been essential in creating what is now the world’s oldest continuous organization. Witness to the wisdom of these early Apostles and to the power of the Holy Spirit.

But amidst this comity are also signs of the disputes and splits that have tortured the church through the ages. Barnabas wants John Mark to accompany Paul and him on their next journey, but Paul is still angry over John Mark’s apparent desertion in Pamphylia. Alas, “The disagreement became so sharp that they parted company.” (39) Barnabas takes John Mark an sails to Cyprus, but Luke keeps his focus on Paul as he now partners with Silas.

Timothy, a Gentile, joins them. Paul has Timothy circumcised because “of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek.” (16:3).  I suppose this was a wise act in terms of Paul’s desire for the Jews not to be distracted by Timothy, but it certainly seems to fly in the face of the great wisdom displayed by the Council in Jerusalem.

Psalm 16:1–6; 1 Chronicles 21:1–26; Acts 15:6–18

Psalm 16:1–6: This psalm begins conventionally enough, “Guard me, O God,/ for I shelter in You.” (1) and the psalmist speaks to God, “My Master You are. /My good is only through You.” (2). OK. But then, we read that the psalmist is repenting and has come back to God after worshiping false gods, speaking regretfully of being misled by them: “As to holy ones in the land /and the mighty who were all my desire, / let their sorrows abound—” (3,4a) The speaker promise to no longer offer false worship, “I will not pour their libations of blood, /I will not bear their names on my lips.” (4b).

Instead, he now realizes that “The LORD is my portion and lot,/ it is You Who sustain my fate.” 95) this is certainly a psalm that is highly relevant to he right here in the 21st century. It is so easy to become of enamored of false gods–money, power, status–that too easily supplant God in our lives. While we may not pour “libations of blood” to these false gods, we can give them the top priority in our lives.

May I always bear in my mind in heart that it is God through Jesus Christ who animates me–and to whom I owe my being (especially on today, the 6th anniversary of being told I have cancer). And my gratitude to God (and my doctors) that I am still here to praise my Savior.

1 Chronicles 21:1–26: David, doubtless felling pretty good about all that he has accomplished in building the kingdom is “incited” by Satan to conduct a census of Israel. (Is this the first reference to Satan that we encounter in the Histories? When this incident is recounted in 2 Samuel, I don’t recall Satan being the cause of David’s desire.)  David’s second-in-command, Joab, resists, saying, “Why then should my lord require this? Why should he bring guilt on Israel?” (3). But David insists and Joab obeys.

The numbers are impressive indeed, “In all Israel there were one million one hundred thousand men who drew the sword, and in Judah four hundred seventy thousand who drew the sword.”(5) But Joab excludes the tribes of Levi and Benjamin “for the king’s command was abhorrent to Joab.

As it was also to God: “God was displeased with this thing, and he struck Israel.” (7). David repents immediately, saying ““I have sinned greatly in that I have done this thing.” (8) and asks for absolution. God gives David three awful choices (3 years of famine, 3 months of “devastation by your foes,” or 3 days of God’s own pestilence), and demands David choose one. In a bizarre echo to the passover, “the Lord sent a pestilence on Israel; and seventy thousand persons fell in Israel.” (14). Just as an angel was about to detroy Jerusalem, God relents, as David begs that he and his house receive the punishment, saying, “Was it not I who gave the command to count the people? It is I who have sinned and done very wickedly,” (17) asking God to spare these “sheep,” the people.

David buys a threshing floor from Ornan the Jebusite, builds an altar and God is appeased.

Why this bizarre event of the census? Perhaps it was abhorrent because to count the people was to make David feel good about all he had accomplished, while it was God who had in fact accomplished these great things through David and his warriors. But David’s pleas to God to take him but spare the people resonates straight through to Calvary, when God did in fact cause his Son to take on him the sins of all us sheep.

Acts 15:6–18: Paul and Barnabas have a very important ally in Jerusalem: Peter, who tells the council that “God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers.” (7b). Thus, Peter is the one with the authority in the church to speak to the issue, not just that missionary-come-lately, Paul. And Peter asks the assembled group, “why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear?” (10)

But even more crucially Peter reminds everyone of the basis of their fauth, “On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” (11) Here is the Kerygma stated clearly by a founder of the church–and it is this grace articulated here by Peter on which Paul builds his theological edifice in his letter to Romans and elsewhere regarding Jews and Gentiles.

Luke tells us that “the whole assembly kept silence, and listened to Barnabas and Paul as they told of all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles.” (12). At which point James is convinced and stands up, quoting a passage from the prophet Amos (9:11, 12), “so that all other peoples may seek the Lord—even all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called.”

So, we have Peter stating he was  the progenitor of taking the message to the Gentiles (Cornelius et al), reminding everyone that the grace of Jesus is what matters; Paul’s and Barnabas’s testimony about how God has worked marvelously in bringing the good news to the Gentiles; and James’s quotation from authoritative scripture. This is a pretty effective combination: a reminder of Jesus’ grace, testimony, and Scripture in order to decide a crucially important question. Something we would do well to remember when considering important questions in the church.

Psalm 15; 1 Chronicles 19,20; Acts 14:21–15:5

Psalm 15: This psalm is a refreshing contrast to the previous psalm that focused on those who said there is no God. Here, by contrast, it is about “Lord-fearers” (4) who come to the pre-Temple tabernacle atop  Mount Zion in Jerusalem by asking rhetorically, “LORD, who will sojourn in Your tent, /who will dwell on Your holy mountain?” (1)

The answer follows quickly, outlining the qualities of the good man: “He who walks blameless / and does justice/ and speaks the truth in his heart.” (2).  And unlike those who use their tongues to do great harm by denying God and demeaning others, the Lord-fearer is one “Who slanders not with his tongue /nor does to his fellow man evil /nor bears reproach for his kin.” (3) Notice that as usual, the tongue is mentioned ahead of other sins, reminding us that it is what we say that can be the greatest sin of all.

The good man’s actions also speak to his righteousness, “When he vows to his fellow man, /he does not revoke it.” (4) and then, “His money he does not give at interest /and no bribe for the innocent takes.” (5a) The beneficial outcome of this man’s good words and deeds is summarized succinctly in the last verse, “He who does these /will never stumble.” (5b)

The problem of course is that we are incapable of leading the holy and righteous life described here–especially in matters of the tongue. That is why we have confession and forgiveness through Jesus Christ who forgives our sins. But this psalm stands as a stark reminder of what God’s standards of righteous behavior are.

1 Chronicles 19,20: David continues to build his kingdom by still more military victories. The Chronicler gives us the backstories such as the humiliation of David’s emissaries by the Ammonite king. The Ammonites and Arameans decide to go to war with David, who sends his greatest general, Joab, to fight. He splits the Army in two, one side against the Ammonites, the other against the Areamean. This strategy pays off as each army sees the other fleeing. The Arameans retreat but then bring in fresh troops “from beyond the Euphrates,” but they, too, are defeated, this time by David himself.

As always, the Chronicler includes God’s role in this as Joab says, “Be strong, and let us be courageous for our people and for the cities of our God; and may the Lord do what seems good to him.” (19:13) Which I find a far more satisfying and honest attitude than the usual “God is on our side.”

Warrior kings like David and those who surrounded Israel saw their primary duty as warmaking. The Chronicler reminds us of this with the famous opening line of chapter 20: “In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle.” This time, David achieves final victory over the Ammonites and captures their capital of Rabbah, collecting, among other booty, the Ammonite king’s crown “that weighed a talent of gold, and in it was a precious stone; and it was placed on David’s head.”

Then on to a final defeat of the ever-warring Philistines, including (who knew!) the slaying of Lahmi, Goliath’s (apparently younger) brother. Still more giants “descended form the giants in Gath,” including a guy with 12 fingers and 12 toes, “fell by the hand of David and his servants.” Given the detail with which the Chronicler recounts these battles, we have to accept that these giants did in fact exist in David’s time.

Acts 14:21–15:5: Paul and Barnabas, having learned their lesson about performing miracles at Lystra, now focus on preaching and encouragement as they “strengthened the souls of the disciples and encouraged them to continue in the faith, saying, ‘It is through many persecutions that we must enter the kingdom of God.'” (14:22) Luke describes their itinerary in great detail: they went back to Lystra and Iconium, then returned to Antioch. Then back out again to Pisidia, Pamphylia, Perga, Attalia and returning to Antioch, which was what we would now call the “sending church.” Paul and Barnabas have indeed “opened a door of faith for the Gentiles.” (14:28)

But some of the Jewish Christians in Judea, while accepting that Gentiles can join the church, but insist that like other Gentiles who convert to Judiasm, must be circumcised first. “Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them,” (15:2) in Antioch, and agree to go to Jerusalem to discuss the matter further. But no trip is wasted and they continue to convert Gentiles, this time in Phoenicia and Samaria as the travel south to Jerusalem.

The Jerusalem church welcomes them, and Paul and Barnabas “reported all that God had done with them.” (15:4). But then it’s down to business as “some believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and said, “It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses.” (15:5). Thus, the Council at Jerusalem commences over the first great disagreement within the church.

Psalm 14; 1 Chronicles 18; Acts 14:8–20

Psalm 14: This psalm opens with an assertion, “The scoundrel has said in his heart, /“There is no God.” Followed by a bold accusation, “They corrupt, they make loathsome their acts. /There is none who does good.” (1)

This disturbing chorus, “There is none who does good,”  is repeated at verse 3. This is a clear statement that those who say “There is no God” are incapable of doing good because their priorities are not God’s. For this psalmist, humankind is binary: those who follow God and those who deny God. And the consequence is equally binary.

This separation is underscored by the equally provocative image of “The LORD from the heavens looked down on the sons of humankind to see, is there someone discerning, someone seeking out God.” We are reminded of the Noah story, where God finds only one man who follows him. Instead, “All turn astray,/ altogether befouled.” (3)

We can identify with this psalm because we see this denial of God all around us today. Pope Francis has rightly castigated the world for making money its god. And as a result, like the subjects of this psalm, we become “Devourers of my people devoured them like bread.” (4) Even our ostensibly good deeds are worthless if we deny God.

Only at the end is there a glimmer of hope as the psalmist pleads, “Oh, may from Zion come Israel’s rescue /when the LORD restores His people’s condition.” (7) And we know Who came to rescue us. May we be willing to be rescued by Jesus.

1 Chronicles 18: The Chronicler gives us a brief summary of David’s accomplishments (which consume several chapters in 1 Kings). He attacks and subdues the Philistines, Moabites, as well as the king of Hadazer, as our author lovingly inventories the booty that David takes–and which increases his military strength. The Chronicler aims his spotlight on David as mighty warrior. Nevertheless, David is a man of God and “The Lord gave victory to David wherever he went.” (6)

Contrary to our image that it was Solomon who gathered all the wealth that was used to build the temple, the Chronicler makes it clear that David is the one built the massive store of treasure, which Solomon used, such as “a vast quantity of bronze; with it Solomon made the bronze sea and the pillars and the vessels of bronze.” (8)

Word of David’s and Israel’s might spreads throughout the region and King Tou willingly becomes a vassal seeking David’s protection at the cost of “all sorts of articles of gold, of silver, and of bronze.” But these things are not to build wealth and we are told that “King David dedicated to the Lord, together with the silver and gold that he had carried off from all the nations, from Edom, Moab, the Ammonites, the Philistines, and Amalek.” (11)

And again, the author again reminds us that while David is is the instrument of these unceasing victories, it is “the Lord gave victory to David wherever he went.” (12) But David is not just a mighty warrior; his intimate connection with God undergirds his talents as king, “and he administered justice and equity to all his people.” For our author David is the exemplar that set the standard for Israel. As we will see this becomes a sad irony as Israel descends into sin and corruption.

Acts 14:8–20: Luke gives us a good example of why miracles can backfire. After healing the crippled man, the crowd at Lystra goes wild, proclaiming Paul and Barnabas to be Hermes and Zeus in the flesh. Weaker men (and we’ve seen them in our time) would have basked in the glory as they take credit for what is accomplished by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Instead, they tear their clothes and plead with them, “We are mortals just like you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. ” (15) But “Even with these words, they scarcely restrained the crowds from offering sacrifice to them.” (18).

I think this is why we no longer see dramatic miracles such as these. Crowds are fickle and easily swayed one way or the other by dramatic presentations. The Jews from Antioch and Iconium show up and now they “won the crowds.” Paul is stoned so badly that his followers drag him out of the city, fearing he is dead. Paul gets up and he and Barnabas head to Derbe. Has he learned his lesson about the effect of dramatic miracles? Let’s hope so.

 

Psalm 13; 1 Chronicles 16:37–17:27; Acts 13:48–14:7

Psalm 13:There is real desperation that underlies the first five verses of this psalm. A desperation that arises because it seems that God has been silent for a very long time. So, long, in fact that it seems God has abandoned him: “How long, O LORD, will You forget me always?/ How long hide Your face from me?” (2) This is not just a question of “missing God,” It is because God is the psalmist’s guide and absent that guide there is only sorrow: “How long shall I cast about for counsel,/sorrow in my heart all day?” (3)

The psalmist feels close to dying and needs God’s response forthwith: “Regard, answer me, LORD, my God./ Light up my eyes, lest I sleep death,” (4). Not just death, but God’s silence will mean that his enemies will enjoy the schadenfreude of his demise and “exult when I stumble.”

Suddenly, even though God has not yet answered, the psalmist’s mood is lifted because he remembers God’s love for him and that although God may be silent at the moment, he will indeed eventually answer: “But I in Your kindness do trust, / my heart exults in Your rescue.” And in that assurance that God will rescue there is great joy: “Let me sing to the LORD, / for He requited me.” (6)

It is worth pondering on the reality that like the psalmist if we ask God to come to us in our darkest hour, we can rest in the assurance that he will indeed answer. God may be silent right now, but he is also kind and faithful–and we can take refuge in that simple fact. And that changes everything: from desperation to the joy of assurance.

1 Chronicles 16:37–17:27: David has reestablished regular worship at the Tabernacle, leaving “Zadok and his kindred the priests” (16:39) in charge “to offer burnt offerings to the Lord on the altar of burnt offering regularly, morning and evening, according to all that is written in the law of the Lord that he commanded Israel.” (16:40). Our Chronicler also mentions Heman and Jeduthun, who are in charge of the music. Which makes me realize just how long music has been an essential element of worship. No wonder we have such strong feelings about it!

The Chronicler recounts almost word for word the Book of King’s account of the story of David wanting to build a permanent structure for God, Nathan’s dream where God tells the prophet “not yet,” and God’s covenant with David: “I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from him who was before you, but I will confirm him in my house and in my kingdom forever, and his throne shall be established forever.” (17:13,14). Nathan tells all this to David, as David responds to God in prayer, “Thus your name will be established and magnified forever in the saying, ‘The Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, is Israel’s God’; and the house of your servant David will be established in your presence.” (17:24)

Both the author of Kings and Chronicles are telling us that this covenant between David and God is the reason behind David’s greatness. This is another hinge point of Israel’s history. God has spoken and David obeys, and the house of David will endure forever.  But this covenant has even greater implications as we are reminded us why the connection between David and Jesus is so crucial, for it is through Jesus that the house of David lives on even today.  It is through Jesus that God fulfilled his covenant with David to the benefit of all humankind.

Acts 13:48–14:7: Although the Jews are rejecting Paul’s message as heresy, “When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and praised the word of the Lord; and as many as had been destined for eternal life became believers.” (48) And it is through these new believers that “the word of the Lord spread throughout the region.” (49) The Jews take their case to the prominent women and men to “stir up persecution against Paul and Barnabas.” (Notice how Luke mentions women and men–it’s clear that women had influential roles in this society.)  Paul and Barnabas leave town, but the left behind “disciples [who] were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.”

With the power of the Holy Spirit, the missionaries had sewn their seed and the church grew even after they left. This is what the authorities and the opponents never understand: the Holy Spirit is unquenchable and cannot be legislated out of existence.

The same thing happens in Iconium as “they remained for a long time, speaking boldly for the Lord, who testified to the word of his grace by granting signs and wonders to be done through them.” (14:3). Once again Paul and Barnabas have to flee to the countryside “and there they continued proclaiming the good news.” I think Luke is telling us that had there not been the persecution that forces the missionaries to flee each place where they preach and convert people, the good news would not have been spread as effectively as it was. The leaders and authorities are playing whack-a-mole with Paul and Barnabas–and inadvertently spreading the good news.

So, today, perhaps rather than whining about how the church is being persecuted by the secular state, we should look to persecution as an opportunity to spread the good news–just as Paul and Barnabas did.

 

Psalm 12; 1 Chronicles 16:1–36; Acts 13:34–47

Psalm 12: The psalm of supplication has a clear prophetic tone as our psalmist sets a very bleak stage where those who worship God have simply disappeared: “For the faithful is gone, / for vanished is trust from the sons of man.” (2) The world is now one of deception, words that arise from men’s duplicitous hearts: “Falsehood every man speaks to his fellow, / smooth talk, with two hearts they speak.” (3) It is a world full of prevarications and con men. It is also a strikingly contemporary image: a place where no one’s words can be trusted, where we are surrounded by falsehoods, exaggerated claims (marketing!) and double-speak by leaders and politicians (“You can keep the doctor you have!”)

Then, the most striking image in the psalm: “The LORD will cut off all smooth-talking lips, / the tongue that speaks of big things.” Even though “cut-off” here is the usual term for “destroy,” we also get the image of God literally “cutting off” these lying lips and tongues.

God makes his promise, “From the plunder of the poor, from the wretched men’s groans, / now will I rise,” (6) What’s striking here is the image of God having been hidden among the poor and wretched rising up to smite those who wrongly believe their speech has made them impervious to God’s wrath: ” those who said, “Let us make our tongue great, our own lips are with us—who is master to us?”” (5)

And there we have it: the sin of overweening pride, aided and abetted by the tongue, will be brought down.  Replacing those evil words is God’s speech, “The LORD’s sayings—pure sayings, /silver tried in a kiln in the earth /refined sevenfold.” (7) Which is why we must listen for the still small voice of God midst the racket of the noisy, lying, prevaricating world in which we live.

1 Chronicles 16:1–36: David has brought the Ark up to Jerusalem, and the Chronicler notes that “Michal daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing; and she despised him in her heart.” (15:29) But for now, the party continues as all the nation celebrates, especially after David “distributed to every person in Israel—man and woman alike—to each a loaf of bread, a portion of meat,[c] and a cake of raisins.” (16:3)

David appoints “certain Levites…to invoke, to thank, and to praise the Lord.” (4). These three verbs–invoke, praise, thank–are a good definition of of the elements of worship, especially if we think of “invoke” as prayer.

David then appoints “the singing of praises to the Lord by Asaph and his kindred.” (7) and a marvelous psalm of worship follows, that begins on a note of thanksgiving, “O give thanks to the Lord, call on his name,
make known his deeds among the peoples.” (8) and recounts the history of Israel, always remembering  that it is God who has brought them here.” We know this psalm because it includes some of the wonderfully resonant phrases that are still part of our worship today, especially, “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; / for his steadfast love endures forever.” (34) Which indeed it does.  The chapter ends on the most joyous possible note as “all the people said “Amen!” and praised the Lord.”

Acts 13:34–47: Paul gives one of his great sermons to the converted Jews who are at the synagogue. He tells how Jesus died, was buried and was raised again by God, citing Psalm 2. He then invokes the name of the greatest Jew of all, David, comparing him to jesus, telling them that David was a man who died, “was laid beside his ancestors, and experienced corruption;” (36) Jesus, on the other hand was “he whom God raised up experienced no corruption.” and that therefore “through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you;” Anticipating what he will detail at great length in his letter to Rome, Paul exclaims, “by this Jesus everyone who believes is set free from all those sins from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses.” (39)

This is really good news, which the crowd receives with enormous enthusiasm. They ask Paul and Barnabas back to preach the next week and “almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord.” (44). But the “Jews were filled with jealousy.” Paul’s next words define his mission–and the historic arc of the church going forward: ““It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken first to you. Since you reject it and judge yourselves to be unworthy of eternal life, we are now turning to the Gentiles.” (46) The world is truly being turned upside down.

Psalm 10:12–18; 1 Chronicles 13:1–14:7; Acts 13:8–20a

Psalm 10:12–18: Our psalmist turns to a prayer of supplication, asking God to remember the weak: “Rise, O LORD, raise Your hand, / forget not the lowly.” The reason God should do this is simple, the poor and the weak have nowhere else to turn as they are oppressed by the wicked who despise God: “The wretched leaves his fate in Your hands. /It is You Who help the orphan.” (14b)

Like many of these prayers, the psalmist reminds God–and reminds us–of what God will indeed do: “Break the arm of the wicked, /and seek out evil, let wickedness not be found.” (15) But we must always remember that there is no doubt in the mind and heart of the psalmist that God would ever fail to accomplish these things as he turns confidently to the assurance that God is truly listening to his prayer: “The desire of the poor You have heard, O LORD, /You make their heart firm, Your ear listens.” (17) And having listened, we know that God will act: “To do justice for the orphan and the wretched, / and let none still oppress man in the land.” (18)

The question for me is, can I pray with the remarkable assurance of the psalmist when I see injustice and oppression around me? The lesson is clear: pray confidently!

1 Chronicles 13:1–14:7: David has consolidated his power and he realizes it’s time to bring the Ark up to Jerusalem, which apparently has been sitting somewhere else, ignored, during the reign of Saul. Wise leader that he is, David consults “the commanders of the thousands and of the hundreds, with every leader.” (1) and asks if it’s a good idea and happily, “it pleased all the people.” (4) Once again, we have an example of the leader, who by consulting with those he lead, finds this is an excellent way to gain agreement and along the way, to infuse them with the same enthusiasm for the project that the leader feels.

So, they build a new ox-cart and bring the Ark up to Jerusalem. This is a cause of great celebration, as “David and all Israel were dancing before God with all their might, with song and lyres and harps and tambourines and cymbals and trumpets.” (8) But just as the ark cart reaches the threshing floor of Chidon, the oxen stumble. Afraid that the ark will fall off the cart, one of the drivers, Uzzah, reaches out to steady it. Not being a priest, he has broken the law and is immediately struck dead. David is outraged by this act of unfairness. After all, poor Uzzah was trying to do the right thing.

David is angry at God (11) and then afraid of God (12), so he abandons his plan to bring the Ark to Jerusalem, leaving it the care of Obed-edom, whose household God blesses. Where’s the fairness in that?

So, what gives with God? I’m on David’s side here. Yes, God’s law is to be followed, but this is the merciless OT side of God that like David, we are both angry at and afraid of. I’m pretty sure David didn’t go home and write a psalm praising God that night. If nothing else, though, we learn that like David, we can be people of God, but can still get angry at God for his seeming indifference–and yes, cruelty– to people who are only trying to do the right thing.

Acts 13:8–20a: Saul, now also called Paul, begins his first missionary journey. And immediately encounters Elymas the magician, trying to influence the proconsul with his magic. Luke makes it clear here that Paul is no magician whose magic trumps the other magician. Instead, Paul “filled with the Holy Spirit” simply stares at Elymas and denouncing him, “You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord?” (10) Whereupon Elymas goes blind.  Luke is making it clear that this is not Paul’s doing but the Holy Spirit’s.

Paul says something crucial we do well to remember: we try to make the straight paths of the Lord crooked. There are infinite ways of making the simplicity of the Gospel message more complex. We do this with complicated sermons that talk around the Keryma rather than just saying it outright. We are capable of creating complex theology that causes people to misunderstand the Gospel message and lose their way. This statement is fair warning to all who teach and lead.

Paul and Barnabas, having converted the proconsul, head of to Perga in Pamphylia, while John Mark heads back to Jerusalem. The pair go to the synagogue on the Sabbath, whereupon they are invited “if you have any word of exhortation for the people, give it.” Which Paul does. I’m intrigued: Luke tells us Paul “stood up and with a gesture began to speak.” What was the gesture? It must have been a friendly one.

Paul begins his speech with a history lesson about Israel. One has the impression that the Jews at the synagogue in Perga may not have been all that familiar with their ancestors’ history. Not unlike many in church today who do not know the roots and history of their Christian faith…

Psalm 10:1–11; 1 Chronicles 12; Acts 12:20–13:7

Psalm 10:1–11: Alter tells us that like the preceding psalm, the received text appears to have been damaged and the meaning of the original Hebrew in many verses is unclear. However, the overall theme seems clear: it is a wonderful description of the wicked and their schemes, which ultimately lead to their downfall: “In the wicked man’s pride he pursues the poor, /but is caught in the schemes he devised.” (2)

The root cause of this wickedness is also clear: “‘There is no God’ is all his schemes.” (4b) And as usual, pride–the conviction that he is the one in control–is at the bottom of his overweening (and misplaced!) confidence: “He said in his heart, ‘I will not stumble, / for all time I will not come to harm.'” (6) At his root, he is a con man: “His mouth is full of oaths, /beneath his tongue are guile and deceit,/ mischief and misdeed.” (7)

But perhaps worst of all, this con man preys on the innocent and the poor, “He waits in ambush in a sheltered place, /from a covert he kills the blameless, /for the wretched his eyes look out.” (8) And alas, the “lowly bow down,/ and the wretched fall into his traps.” (10) Is there a greater evil than what we see around us today where financial cons designed to prey on the insecure and elderly rob them of both wealth and dignity? Yet, right here in the psalms is a perfect description of those evil men, men who have been with us for three millennia.

1 Chronicles 12: Once again, where the author of Samuel focuses on the plot and motivations of Saul in his pursuit of David, our Chronicler focuses on–and carefully names–the men who surrounded David and fought with him–and how he gained martial strength as warriors come to join his side.

We see how the original core of named warriors (vss 2-7) is augmented by the arrival of some Gadites, who are “mighty and experienced warriors, expert with shield and spear, whose faces were like the faces of lions, and who were swift as gazelles on the mountains.” (8). These men are named. Then, “Some Benjaminites and Judahites came to the stronghold to David.” (16). David warns them “if you have come to betray me to my adversaries, though my hands have done no wrong, then may the God of our ancestors see and give judgment.”  But “the spirit came upon Amasi, chief of the Thirty” and states the theme of this movement to David’s side, “For your God is the one who helps you.” (18), culminating in “people kept coming to David to help him, until there was a great army, like an army of God.” (22)

Then, since he is at heart a list-maker, the author lists the “numbers and divisions of the armed troops who came to David in Hebron to turn the kingdom of Saul over to him, according to the word of the Lord.” (23).  Here in Chronicles, we get a much richer picture of the movement of loyalty of the most powerful men in the country from Saul over to David. There is an inevitability to David’s triumph over Saul as the Chronicler ends the story by saying “there was joy in Israel.”

I like how we see the detailed politics and sheer strength that aligns with David–it gives us a sense that David is not some magic king, but a real man to whom major portions of the nation give their allegiance. Yes, God is on David’s side because he is a man of God, but it takes real people with real loyalty and skill to bring David to the throne.

Acts 12:20–13:7: Even after Herod’s disappointment with Peter, the king believes he is basically a god. For reasons Luke doesn’t spell out, “Herod was angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon,” who come begging for food.  They appeal to his vanity by “shouting, “The voice of a god, and not of a mortal!””  Herod apparently believes his own press releases and for a variety of reasons, I suppose, he meets a fairly dreadful end, “an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.” (12:23).  Herod’s death clears a major political obstacle out of the way for the early church. and “the word of God continued to advance and gain adherents.” (12:24).

Antioch is a vital part of the early church and Luke names some of its more prominent prophets and teachers. The Holy Spirit intervenes in the proceedings and tells them (I presume through the prophets) to “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” (13:2). Luke makes it clear that Saul and Barnabas did not just wake up one morning and decide to be missionaries. They have been called by the Holy Spirit.

Which is why we must still listen for the call of the Holy Spirit. Even though we may think we have certain talents which will serve the church well, in the end it is the Holy Spirit that decides. Which is also why we need to listen carefully for the voice of God and be able to discern that call.

Psalm 9:11–20; 1 Chronicles 11:4–47; Acts 12:6–19

Psalm 9:11–20: Our psalmist who has been rescued by God and praises God for that [“Let me exult in Your rescue” (15c)] turns to the fate of nations: “The nations sank down in the trap that they made, / in the snare that they made their foot was caught.” And again: “By his own handiwork was the / wicked ensnared.” (17)

Is he referring to sinful Israel or Judah or to other nations beyond them –or perhaps to every nation? In any event, they are ensnared in a trap of their own making. Which seems terribly contemporary. For example, the US is ensnared in unintended consequences of the flawed policy that was supposed to make democracy blossom across the Middle East. And it is soon to be hopelessly ensnared in the financial consequences of misguided laws that endeavor to make everyone happy.

Unfortunately, there is not much hope for these nations as the “wicked turn back to Sheol,/ All the nations forgetful of God.” (18) As usual the reason these nations are wicked is that they have ignored the plight of the poor. For the poor, because of God’s great mercy, there is always hope: “For not forever will the poor man be forgotten, /the hope of the lowly not lost forever.” (19)

But as for the nations themselves, God’s judgement awaits: “Arise, O LORD, let not man flaunt his strength, /let nations be judged in Your presence.” But will modern nations “know they are mortal” because of the fear of the Lord” (21) I am not hopeful on this front. Like all great nations and empires before us, I’m afraid we ignore God’s warnings at our peril.

1 Chronicles 11:4–47: King David recaptures Jerusalem from the Jebusites. We learn how Joab became David’s great commander since he was the one who accepted David’s challenge: “Whoever attacks the Jebusites first shall be chief and commander.” (6). David builds the city walls, “and Joab repaired the rest of the city.”

For our Chronicler there is one and only one Reason for David’s success: “And David became greater and greater, for the Lord of hosts was with him.” (9) God is with him. David succeeds not because he his brave and smart and a brilliant leader, although he is all of these. He succeeds for one reason only: “the Lord of hosts was with him.”

Unlike the account in Kings, which focuses mostly on David, his own acts, and the plots surrounding him, the Chronicler recounts the great deed of David’s men, and cataloger that he is, carefully lists the names of all involved. There’s Eleazar who stands alongside David as the kill the Philistines. (12-14). There are three of the thirty chiefs who kill Philistines to fulfill David’s request to drink from the water of Bethlehem, although David refuses because his men risked their lives to bring it to him. (15-19). And there are many others.

What’s remarkable here is that the Chronicler makes it clear that David did not accomplish his great works on his own, but that he had surrounded himself with brave men and great warriors, whose names are recorded here. We realize what a gift Chronicles gives us: If we had only the book of Kings, all these names of all these brave men would have been lost forever. And we also realize that successful leadership such as David’s requires that those who are led are equally courageous as the leader. Great leaders give credit to their men.

Acts 12:6–19: An angel literally rescues Peter form prison. This is so extraordinary that Luke tells us that Peter himself didn’t believe what was happening: “he did not realize that what was happening with the angel’s help was real; he thought he was seeing a vision.” (9) Once the are outside the prison, the angel disappears and “Peter came to himself,” correctly surmising what had just happened: “Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hands of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.” (11). While Peter’s rescue is certainly a dramatic angelic visitation, I think many angels in the form of other human beings have rescued many people. If not from prison, then from the prison of addiction or other perilous circumstances.

Peter finds his way to John Mark’s house and dear Rhoda is so overjoyed at seeing Peter that she runs back inside, leaving Peter standing there, still knocking. (One of Luke’s funnier scenes.) They eventually let Peter in and are understandably amazed. We know this is an authentic event because Luke gives us two important and very logical details. Peter tells everyone to be quiet and not wake the neighbors. And then “he left and went to another place” into hiding since the authorities would doubtless come to John Mark’s searching for the escaped prisoner.

Luke, ever the master of understatement, tells us “there was no small commotion among the soldiers.” Quite understandable since the soldiers were afraid of their very lives. Such was Peter’s prominence that Herod himself searches for Peter in the prison. Herod had doubtless decided he would snuff our this new sect by executing its leader and he was furious that his plot had been foiled. Alas, for the poor soldiers, who are executed.

Luke ends this story with a tantalizing detail: “[Herod] went down from Judea to Caesarea and stayed there.” Why? Had Herod given up on his plan to annihilate this bothersome sect? His frustration must have been so immense that he simply leaves town and that annoying new movement behind him.

Psalm 9:1–10; 1 Chronicles 9:35–11:3; Acts 11:25–12:5

Psalm 9:1–10: Alter informs us that “This psalm and the next one are a striking testimony to the scrambling in textual transmission” and comments that “lines of verse may have been patched into the text from other sources in an attempt to fill in lacunae.”

Nevertheless, we can read this psalm as a hymn to God’s great glory, “Let me rejoice and be glad in You, let me hymn Your name, Most High,” (3). The psalmist reflects on God’s justice, “But the LORD is forever enthroned, / makes His throne for justice unshaken.” (8). And this justice is not just for Israel, but for the entire world: “And He judges the world in righteousness,/ lays down law to the nations in truth.” (9).

Again and again, the psalms of for all humankind, not just the Jews. because God is God of all of us. Moreover, God pays special attention to the downtrodden and oppressed: “Let the LORD be a fortress for the downcast, a fortress in times of distress.” (10).

The question for me is, why do I persist in fighting life’s battles on my own when God is right here to provide a “fortress in times of distress.” Why do I think I can meet whatever challenge strictly on my own when God is right here to offer a “fortress” of protection to me?

1 Chronicles 9:35–11:3:  The Chronicler records the family of Saul in great detail. Yet, he gives amazingly short shrift to Saul himself, omitting details of his entire life and the conflicts between David and Saul, opening his history on Saul’s very last day on earth–his final battle with the Philistines, where “The battle pressed hard on Saul; and the archers found him, and he was wounded by the archers.” (10:3). He describes Saul’s pleas to have his armor-bearer finish him off, the servant’s refusal, and Saul’s subsequent suicide.

Then, the Chronicler describes Saul’s final humiliation as the victors “fastened [Saul’s] head in the temple of Dagon.” (10:10). It is not Saul, but the soldiers of Jabesh-gilead, who retrieve Saul’s body, who are the “valiant warriors.” The Chronicler reminds us that reason for Saul’s downfall was “he was unfaithful to the Lord in that he did not keep the command of the Lord;” (10:13). And, “Therefore theLord put him to death and turned the kingdom over to David son of Jesse.” (10:14).

In short, our historian is not interested in Saul, focusing as he does on Saul’s downfall and the reasons for his defeat. The story’s moral is abundantly clear: “Saul died for his unfaithfulness.” What a way to be remembered through history!

The historian turns his attention to David as the people acclaim him, “The Lord your God said to you: It is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel, you who shall be ruler over my people Israel.” (11:2). As always with David, it is his intimate connection to God that makes all the difference–especially when we see so closely juxtaposed here with Saul’s unfaithfulness.

Acts 11:25–12:5: Barnabas finds Saul in Tarsus and they both head to Antioch–famous for being the place where “the disciples were first called ‘Christians.’” (11:26) A prophet from Jerusalem, whom I would take to be Jewish, Agabus, makes his brief appearance on the stage, predicting a worldwide famine, which apparently came to pass.  The disciples in Antioch, “determined that according to their ability, each would send relief to the believers living in Judea.” (11:29). And here we encounter the first example of the church ministering to its brethren in other lands. An example that has lived on through the entire history of the church.

Meanwhile in Jerusalem, persecution by Herod results in the second martyrdom: James, brother of John, is killed by the sword and Peter is placed under arrest.

These passages remind us that it was not all growth and happiness for the early church. There are enormously difficult items, as well. We Christians in the 21st century would do well to remember–and to pray for–Christians today, ironically in Antioch and the Middle East, that are suffering from a different but equally devastating sword: the sword of Islam. Suffering is part and parcel of the church–and we ignore this reality at our peril.