Psalm 79:9–13; Isaiah 10:12–11:9; Galatians 5:19–6:5

Psalm 79:9–13: We encounter one of the most moving prayers for rescue in the Psalms. We pray to God for rescue because God’s very name is our rescue:

Help us, our rescuing God
for Your name’s glory,
and save us and atone for our sins
for the sake of Your name. (9)

Moreover, the psalmist asks rhetorically, why wouldn’t God want his name to be greater than all those the small-g gods: “Why should the nations say, “Where is their god? (10) A rescue would benefit not just the captives, but God’s name itself.

The prayer turns to those still held captive, heightening the probability that this psalm was written by a Jew in Babylon: “Let the captive’s groan come before You,/ by Your arm’s greatness unbind those marked for death.” (12)

The last verse is crucial because it regardless of what God chooses to do or not do, we will remain faithful: “We acclaim You forever,/ From generation to generation we recount Your praise.” (13) For me, this prayer says that even in the most dire circumstances we pray and then we praise God for his faithfulness, assured that regardless of what happens next, God has heard us.

Isaiah 10:12–11:9: Isaiah prophesies that “When the Lord has finished all his work on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, he will punish the arrogant boasting of the king of Assyria and his haughty pride.” (10:12) Isaiah speaks for the Lord: “By the strength of my hand I have done it,/and by my wisdom, for I have understanding.” (10:13) and then a frightening prophecy of destruction:
The light of Israel will become a fire,
    and his Holy One a flame;
and it will burn and devour
    his thorns and briers in one day. (10:17)

God, who has been the light of Israel, has reached his limit. What has been sacred and holy becomes the source of destruction. When we reflect on these words, it’s clear that the people have brought this on themselves by rejecting God’s light, which now becomes a devouring fire. Happily, in Jesus Christ, that in God’s grace, under the terms of the New Covenant, this will never happen to us. But that’s not to say that disaster won’t befall us or our culture. But whatever it might be, it won;t be God’s vengeance.

A remnant of faithful Israel remains in Judah (Zion), and Isaiah, again speaking for God, promises that they need not be afraid of the Assyrian king, because “in a very little while my indignation [against Israel] will come to an end, and my anger will be directed to their [Assyria’s] destruction.” (24) God will be there for the faithful and “On that day his burden will be removed from your shoulder, and his yoke will be destroyed from your neck.” (26)

In fact, one of the greatest promises in the OT will arise through this faithful remnant in Judah, the promise of the Davidic Messiah: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,/ and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” (11:1)

Isaiah describes the marvelous qualities of this coming king:
“The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
    the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
    the spirit of counsel and might,
    the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.” (11:2)

Not only a new king, but a new kingdom where peace reigns and where, “The wolf shall live with the lamb,/ the leopard shall lie down with the kid.” (6) And in what we Christians take as a direct prophecy of Jesus’ birth, “and a little child shall lead them.” (6b) In this restored creation, the wonderful promise of peace:
“They will not hurt or destroy
    on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
    as the waters cover the sea.” (9)

It’s clear that this New Creation has not yet come to pass, but like Judah, we can cling confidently to its promise.

Galatians 5:19–6:5: Here, we encounter two of Paul’s most famous lists, juxtaposed against each other so that we see them in stark contrast.

First, “the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy,drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.” (5:19). Sounding almost like Isaiah, Paul has a dire warning: “I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (21). This verse has been the source of much controversy as some believe we can lose our salvation. I think Paul’s point is that if we are consumed by the desires of the flesh, we will put all thoughts of the Kingdom out of our hearts and minds. We wouldn’t even care whether or not we inherit the Kingdom. In this completely self-centered, self-absorbed life the question of salvation becomes irrelevant. We see these people all around us every day.

Paul goes on, “By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (22,23). If we are really, truly in Christ; if we really, truly belong completely to Christ, that is, we have abandoned ourselves to Jesus, then we will by definition be living in the Spirit and as Paul notes, we will be guided by the Holy Spirit.  And our fruit will flourish. But as always, it boils down to the simple question: who is really in control of our lives?

Paul describes the duties and responsibilities of a community living in the Spirit: “you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness.” (6:1) and “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (6:2). But bearing another’s burdens cannot become a source of pride because “if those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves.” (6:3). In community we must carry our own load, always remembering that as individuals, we are responsible for our own actions.

This is the definition of successful community: individually responsible people, each carrying their own load, but also bearing each others burdens. This is inter-connectedness but with clear boundaries.

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

Psalm 79:1–8: Anguish threads through this entire psalm as it records the catastrophe of the invasion of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple: “God, nations have come into Your estate,/ they have turned Jerusalem to ruins.” (1). And the massacre of its inhabitants, whose bodies are left lying in the streets: “They have given Your servants corpses/ as food to the fowl of the heavens/ and flesh of Your faithful to the beasts of the earth.” (2)  Worse, “there is none to bury them.” (3). Shame is all that is left: “We have become a disgrace to our neighbors,/ scorn and contempt to all around us.” (4)

In the midst of this devastation, the psalmist looks up to heaven, asking rhetorically, “How long, O Lord, will you rage forever,/ Your fury burn like fire?”  And then he essentially accuses God of being unfair, asking for calamity to come upon those who don’t even know God, “Pour out Your wrath on the nations/ that did not know you.” (6) And then, why punish us for crimes our ancestors committed? “Do not call to mind against us our forebear’s crimes.” (8a).  The poet cries for mercy: “Quickly, may Your mercies overtake us.” (8b)

This psalm was surely written from Babylonian exile and it is a beautiful example of poetry and song being the only medium that can really communicate pain and sorrow that is otherwise inexpressible. Will we ever have to write such a poem? Where is the world we know headed? From a human perspective, it’s not looking very promising.

Isaiah 9:8–10:11: What our psalmist bemoans, Isaiah has predicted for Judah by recalling what happened to the Israel, Northern Kingdom. Despite several invasions, “The people did not turn to him who struck them,/ or seek the Lord of hosts.” (9:13). Isaiah notes that  elders and dignitaries and prophets “led this people led them astray,/and those who were led by them were left in confusion.” (9:16) As a result, the people were entirely corrupted, and “the Lord did not have pity on[b] their young people,/or compassion on their orphans and widows;/for everyone was godless and an evildoer.” (9:17). This is the deuteronomic justice: evil deeds result in abandonment and punishment by God.

We now operate under the terms of grace, but Isaiah’s description of a corrupt people still strikes home with us, just as his warnings should have struck home with Judah. He turns directly to the leaders of Judah and notes that injustice is rampant, and is always the case in the OT, injustice committed against those who cannot fight back:
Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees,
    who write oppressive statutes,
to turn aside the needy from justice
    and to rob the poor of my people of their right,
that widows may be your spoil,
    and that you may make the orphans your prey! (10:1, 2)

“Beware!,” Isaiah is saying as he asks, “What will you do on the day of punishment,/ in the calamity that will come from far away?” (10:3) 

In our modern culture wars too many Christians keep insisting that it is “sinners” such as homosexuals, who will be punished by God. But everywhere we look in the OT, it is those who commit injustice and mislead the people so “they are confused” that are the special targets of God’s wrath.  I wish Franklin Graham would go back and read today’s passage.

Galatians 5:7–18: Paul observes that the church in Galatia was once “running well,” asking “who prevented you from obeying the truth?” (7) Then making the critical observation that “A little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough,” (9)–a clear reference to those preaching the primacy of the law– he assures them that “whoever it is that is confusing you will pay the penalty.” (10) He is sounding very much like Isaiah here: “led this people led them astray,/and those who were led by them were left in confusion.” (Is. 9:16). But where Isaiah uses grand poetry to accuse those deceivers and warn the people, Paul is much more blunt: “I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!” (12)

For Paul, the drive to follow the law rather than merely accept grace is depriving them of true freedom in Christ. As a result, they are using freedom in the wrong way: “only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence,but through love become slaves to one another.” (13) That is a strong message to those of us who say today,”we are free in Christ” and then go on our own merry, self-indulgent way.

The test is really quite simple: the right exercise of freedom results in love for each other. Jesus first, now Paul, reminds the Galatians and us: “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (14)

So, how do we do this? Paul answers that unspoken question with a simple suggestion: “Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh;” (16, 17) In the end, it’s all about who’s in control: ourselves (flesh) or the Spirit? And here’s the promise of the greatest freedom of all: “if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law.” (18)

So, the question is always the same: so why do we resist the Spirit? Unfortunately, we know the answer.

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

Psalm 78:65–72: Only in this section do we learn the poet’s true intention.

 

First, there is a final battle that establishes Israel as a kingdom. God awakens “and He beat back His foes,/ everlasting disgrace He gave them.” (66)

After recounting the history of Israel, we learn that “God rejected the tent of Joseph,/ and the tribe of Ephraim He did not choose.” (67) Instead, “He chose the tribe of Judah,/ Mount Zion that he loves.” (68). In other words, this is a paean to the dynasty of Judah, celebrating its kingly apotheosis: David: “And He chose David His servant/ and took him from the sheepfolds.” (70)

Moreover, not only is the Davidic line chosen by God, but God also chose Jerusalem as his headquarters, since that is God’s choice of where the Temple would be located: “And He built on the heights His sanctuary,/ like the earth He had founded forever.” (69).

The psalm concludes with the assertion that God chose David: “From the nursing ewes He brought him/to shepherd Jacob His people/ and Israel His estate” (71)  And reflects on David’s kingly qualities: “And with his heart’s innocence he shepherded them,/ with skilled hands he guided them.” (72) Given the low quality of most of the kings that followed David and Solomon, it’s easy to feel the almost nostalgic aspect of these final verses. And as Christians, we think not only of David but of our own Good Shepherd.

Isaiah 8:1–9:7: Isaiah continues his testimony. God directs him to “Take a large tablet and write on it in common characters, “Belonging to Maher-shalal-hash-baz,” and have it attested for me by reliable witnesses,” (8:1) because that will be the name of Isaiah’s own son. And then, the frightening prophecy: “before the child knows how to call “My father” or “My mother,” the wealth of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be carried away by the king of Assyria.” (8:4). Which of course came to pass.

But even though disaster will visit Israel (the Northern Kingdom), God advises Isaiah to be of good courage and “warned me not to walk in the way of this people,” (8:11) God advises Isaiah, to be unlike everyone else: “Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what it fears, or be in dread.”  (8:12) This is good advice for Christians in America. We are so quick to panic about living in a “post-Christian” culture, almost afraid that but for our own herculean efforts, the church will collapse. Instead, it is God through Jesus Christ who ensures the church lives on.

And like Isaiah, we should recall that “He will become a sanctuary, a stone one strikes against; for both houses of Israel he will become a rock one stumbles over—a trap and a snare for the inhabitants of Jerusalem.” (8:14) In other words, God will do what is necessary in the culture. Here the manifest sins of Israel will be dealt with first by the Assyrian invasion.

Rather than fretting about the kings of this world, like Isaiah, we can look to the King of the next, as we ponder the famous verses of the 9th chapter:

The people who walked in darkness
    have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
    on them light has shined. (9:2)

And for us we know exactly who that Light is, as the music of Handel reverberates in our heads:

For a child has been born for us,
    a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
    and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (9:6)

It is our Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God in whom we must place our trust, not the fallen kings, presidents, prime ministers, and politicians of this world,

Galatians 4:28–5:6: This is Paul’s brilliant discourse on the nature of Christian freedom as he concludes his amazing essay on how Gentiles became children of the Spirit: “we are children, not of the slave but of the free woman.” (4:31) And in what is almost–but not quite–a tautology: “For freedom Christ has set us free.” (5:1)

Paul reaches new heights of passion on the issue of circumcision, warning, “Listen! I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you.” (5:2) Paul, drawing on his Jewish heritage, asserts, “I testify to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obliged to obey the entire law.” (5:3) And if a man does that, we have “cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.” In short, we will have rejected the freedom that comes through grace. And having done that we will have abandoned Christ himself.

Paul’s crowning argument is that “in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.” (5:6)

It’s easy to see why Luther so valued this epistle. I’m sure that he felt that the church had become the center of law rather than the center of grace. And that he–and the people–had truly lost their freedom because of the suffocating corruption that had overrun Rome. Like Paul, Luther cries out for freedom, telling the world that the only thing that counts is faith working through love.

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

Psalm 78:56–64: The Israelites persist in angering God by worshiping small-g gods: “They vexed Him with their high places,/ incensed Him with their idols.” (58). As God had promised in Deuteronomy and elsewhere, when the people reject him, he rejects them: “God heard and was angry,/ wholly rejected Israel.” (59) Happily, God is even more patient with us than he was with Israel and we no longer experience this tit-for-tat aspect.

But God gives up on his people–at least temporarily: “He abandoned the sanctuary of Shiloh,/ the tent where He dwelled among men.”  (60) Alter suggests this is a reference to the period of the Judges.

The consequences of God’s abandonment are devastating: “He let His might  become captive,/ gave his splendor to the hand of the foe.” I presume “Might” would be the army; “splendor” would be the Ark. The fate of the those who had abandoned God is tragic: “He gave His people over to the sword/…His young men the fire consumed/and His virgins no wedding song knew.” (62, 63).

When things look darkest, “the Master awoke as one sleeping/ like a warrior shaking off wine/ And He beat back His foes.’ (65, 66a). But even though God has saved the day, our poet reminds us that “everlasting disgrace He gave them.” (66b). In short, while there may be forgiveness and a merciful God steps back in there are long term consequences to our actions. Things will never be as they once were.

Isaiah 6,7: Isaiah has a remarkable vision of his consecration as prophet. He sees “the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple.” (6:1) Isaiah’s lips are consecrated with a hot coal and God asks, ““Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Isaiah responds immediately, ““Here am I; send me!” (6:8) This passage is certainly confirmation that God can speak to us in our reflection and even in our dreams. Of course, the question for me is am I even listening to, and watching for, God in order to even hear his soft voice, much less a vision?

Thus ordained, Isaiah speaks the words of God, who speaks sarcastically, knowing the people will not listen: “‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend;/keep looking, but do not understand.’/ Make the mind of this people dull,/ and stop their ears,/and shut their eyes,” (6:9, 10) God is well aware that even when he speaks we, like Judah, pay little heed.

Ahaz is king and Judah is about to be attacked by  the rebels, Aram and Ephraim. Fear was rampant and “the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.” (7:2) Isaiah reassures Ahaz but the king wants a sign. Isaiah replies with one of the most famous prophetic verses in the OT: “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel” (7:14)

However, I don’t think Isaiah is actually forecasting an event centuries into the future–even though it is the birth of Jesus. He is much more focused in the here and now and predicts victory over Aram and Ephraim saying, “For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.” (7:16) Isaiah’s business at hand is to reassure Ahaz.

Galatians 4:17–27: Paul is frustrated at the spiritual immaturity of the Galatians, but unlike some of his words to the church at Corinth, he is imminently sympathetic toward them:”My little children, for whom I am again in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, I wish I were present with you now and could change my tone, for I am perplexed about you.” (19, 20)

He addresses those Christians that insist on following every aspect of the Jewish Law, including of course, circumcision, (which Paul knows will not exactly encourage Gentile males to become Christians) by using the law itself as an argument against them: “ Tell me, you who desire to be subject to the law, will you not listen to the law?” (21)

In a brilliant theological tour d’force Paul points out that Hagar and Sarah, both of whom had children by Abraham, “One, the child of the slave, was born according to the flesh; the other, the child of the free woman, was born through the promise.” (23) Paul’s allegory is that the two women represent law and grace. But manages to make Hagar the slave the representative of “the present Jerusalem,” i.e., the law, while “the other woman (Sarah) corresponds to the Jerusalem above; she is free, and she is our mother.” (26) In short, Paul is saying, we operate under the terms of grace, not the law.

Which I’m sure did not go over well in the actual Jerusalem. But it certainly connotes the terms of the New Covenant under which we no live in freedom. However, I think it’s important to note that Paul does not mock the law or say it is useless. Rather,simply that for purposes of salvation it has been supplanted by a new, better Covenant.

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

Psalm 78:40–55:  The psalmist contrasts the grumblings and sins of Israel against the mighty work of God in helping them escape Egypt: “And again did they try God,/ and Israel’s Holy One they provoked.” (41) And Israel’s biggest sin here? They forgot. “They did not recall His great hand,/ the day He ransomed them from the foe.” (42)

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

A catalog of the plagues follows, “when He set out His signs in Egypt,” (43) which eventually resulted in Israel’s escape from slavery. God “sent against them [Egypt] His smoldering fury, / anger, indignation, and distress” (49) provides us a clear reminder that God is not an avuncular old man, but an active God, full of emotion and feeling. God’s anger against Egypt results in the greatest plague of all: “And He struck down each firstborn in Egypt,/ first fruit of manhood in the tents of Ham.” (51)

The poet turns back to God’s rescue of Israel: “And He led His people forward like sheep,/drive them like sheep in the wilderness.” (52). Skipping over the wilderness wanderings, which the psalmist has already described in earlier verses, we arrive at Canaan: “And He brought them to His holy realm/…And He drove out the nations before them.” (54, 55a)

And the thanks that God receives from Israel for rescue, preservation and the new land is what it always is: indifference that becomes disobedience that becomes rebellion: “Yet they tried God the Most High and rebelled,/ and His precepts they did not keep.” (56) Alas, our hardened hearts have not changed one whit over the millennia.

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

But Isaiah returns to more typical form in chapter 5 as he describes the unfruitful vineyard, a clear metaphor of God’s relationship–and disappointment–with his people: “he expected it to yield grapes,/ but it yielded wild grapes.” (5:2) Like the grapes, Israel grows and prospers, but they are not cultivated grapes, but wild, unruly, and yes, disobedient fruit. Isaiah’s logic is relentless as he asks rhetorically, “What more was there to do for my vineyard/ that I have not done in it?” (5:4) and it meets  the end it deserves in a clear prediction of the invasion to come: “I will break down its wall,/and it shall be trampled down.” (5:5)

Isaiah explores the causes of why the grapes became wild in God’s vineyard. There is drunkenness: “Ah, you who rise early in the morning/ in pursuit of strong drink,/who linger in the evening/  to be inflamed by wine,” (5:11). There is apostasy: “who do not regard the deeds of the Lord,/ or see the work of his hands!” (5:12). But worse, the greater evil is the loss of the people’s moral compass: “ you who call evil good/ and good evil,… you who are wise in your own eyes,/ and shrewd in your own sight!” (5:20, 21). And then, in keeping with the constant theme of injustice, especially to the poor, running through the entirety of the OT: “who acquit the guilty for a bribe,/ and deprive the innocent of their rights!” (5:23)

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

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

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

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

Paul comes down a level of abstraction, turns to the Galatians. Before “you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods,” (8) But now that we are the children of God, “now that you have come to know God” (9) “how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits?” In other words, how can the Galatians (and us) turn our backs on the God who has made us heirs and children and prefer something far inferior?

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

 

 

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

Psalm 78:32–39: The psalmist recalls how Israel in the wilderness abandoned God, was punished, and then returned: “When He killed them, they sought Him out,/ and came back and looked for God./ And they recalled that God was their rock…” (34, 35a). But it was only temporary, even false repentance: “Yet they beguiled Him with their lips,/ and with their tongue they lied to Him.” (36). Worse, “their heart was not firm with Him,/ and they were not faithful…” (37) This is us: a ceaseless oscillation between abandoning God and returning to faith. Only today, many are merely abandon God, seemingly never to return.

Despite our unfaithfulness, God “is compassionate, He atones for crime and does not destroy,/ and abundantly takes back His wrath/ and does not arouse all His fury.” (38). It is God who “atones for crime,” which seems a Christological hint of events yet to come when the psalmist writes these lines. For indeed it is Christ who atones for our waywardness.

The psalmist explains a root cause of God’s grace: “He recalls that they are flesh,/ a spirit that goes off and does not come back.” (39). This is a brilliant description of our hard-wired ability to drift away from God, thinking we are the center of the universe, thinking we do not need God. That somehow we can be “spiritual” without needing God.

But God is not indifferent to our abandonment. Yes, like Israel, we “caused Him pain in the waste land.” (40) We wander in our own wasteland when if we would only abandon our self-centeredness we could return to God’s garden and be with him. He’s there waiting for us.

Isaiah 2:1–4:1: Isaiah envisions a world at peace in the immortal lines,

they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
    and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
    neither shall they learn war any more.” (2:4)

But this is what Isaiah hopes will come to pass. Alas, in the very next verses he leaves the hoped-for world and returns to the world as it really is: “For you have forsaken the ways of your people,/O house of Jacob.” (2:5) Israel is full of corruption, “Indeed they are full of diviners from the east/ and of soothsayers like the Philistines,” (2:6) and what for me is a brilliant description of the values and content of our modern world: “Their land is filled with silver and gold,/and there is no end to their treasures;…Their land is filled with idols;/ they bow down to the work of their hands,” (2:7,8) We worship power, wealth and technology–“the work of our hands.”

But eventually, there will be reckoning:

The haughtiness of people shall be humbled,
    and the pride of everyone shall be brought low;
    and the Lord alone will be exalted on that day.” (2:17)

Isaiah described that reckoning in detail. God is “is taking away from Jerusalem and from Judah/ support and staff—” (3:1) and in what seems to be a reference to too-young kings, “ I will make boys their princes,/ and babes shall rule over them.” (3:4). (We, too, are ruled by self-centered men, who, while not chronologically “babes,” display pandering and narcissistic immaturity of the worst sort.)

Isaiah goes on to describe the physical woes yet to come, including the rather gruesome, ” the Lord will afflict with scabs/ the heads of the daughters of Zion,/ and the Lord will lay bare their secret parts.” (3:17) Isaiah describes in detail the riches, jewelry and possessions that will pass away and “Instead of perfume there will be a stench;/and instead of a sash, a rope;” (3:24)

No wonder he was unpopular. Judah had no desire to hear of bad things that were yet to come to pass as we are. We, too, rely on our riches, thinking them permanent and valuable when to God, they are mere dross.

Galatians 3:19–29: Paul reprises much of what he had to say about the law in his letter to the Romans. Clearly his opponents have set up the Law as the opposite of grace and that it should be abandoned in all respects. This is too much for Paul and he responds with a rhetorical question, “Is the law then opposed to the promises of God? Certainly not!” (21). But of the law were so effective, he notes, “then righteousness would indeed come through the law.” (21). But it can’t. The law is there to anticipate “that what was promised through faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.” (22)

For Paul, the law was a placeholder until the arrival of Jesus Christ: “the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith.” (24) But Jesus has superseded the law and “now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian,” (25). But Paul is careful to clarify it is “in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.” (26). Without Christ we are naked. Being baptized we are no longer naked under the law, but “have clothed [ourselves] with Christ.” (27).

Moreover, Paul reminds us in this famous verse that being baptized in Christ, we are all equal: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.: (28). I doubt that as citizens of a society that speaks of equality (although practices it generally poorly) we have any sense of just how radical  this statement really was in the culture of the Roman Empire.

Psalm 78:17–33; Isaiah 1; Galatians 3:6–18

Psalm 78:17–31:  Alter suggests that this long historical psalm, which recounts highlights of Israel’s history of the escape from Egypt–the plagues, the crossing of the sea, and incidents in the desert–was used in public worship on commemorative national holidays.  It would be the equivalent of a group of Americans gathered around reciting American history, say, from the revolution through the civill war.

This section describes the events in the desert and the grumbling of the thirsty and hungry wanderers. Even after Moses has struck the rock, which has “brought forth streams from stone/ and poured down like waters.” (16), the people “offended him more,/ to rebel against the High One in their heart.” (17). They test the limits of God’s generosity as “they tried God in their heart/ to ask for food for their gullet.” (18). Of course we are exactly the same: after receiving a gift from God, we ask for more. Which is fine with God.

What is not fine is grumbling and “trying God” in our hearts that riles God: “the Lord heard and was angered.” (21) As the poet asks rhetorically, “For they had no faith in God/ and did not trust in His rescue.” (22) Do we reflect about God’s feelings when we grumble about how things are not going the way we like at church?  God is like a parent who deeply loves his children, but is disappointed and, yes, angered when all he hears from his offspring is grumbling.

But responsible parent that God is, he delivers despite the bad attitude of the people, “and the doors of the heavens He opened/ and rained on them manna to eat…” (24). But like constantly complaining teenagers, “they offended still/ and had no faith in his wonders.” (32) And then a verse that strikes at the heart of our own torpor, our inability to get out and work for God: “And they wasted their days in mere vapor/ and their years in dismay.” (33) How have I wasted my years in complaining rather than thankfulness for all God has done for me?

Isaiah 1: The opening verse provides the historical context for Isaiah: “The vision of Isaiah son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.” (1). In other words, Isaiah was the “house prophet” of Judah and outlived three kings.

This chapter is “forthtelling” in its purest terms; Isaiah wastes no time with friendly introductions or telling his listeners that he has some bad news to deliver, and holds nothing back as he speaks for God: “the Lord has spoken:/ I reared children and brought them up,/ but they have rebelled against me.” (2) No one gets off the hook. He doesn’t just blame the leadership, but is an equal-opportunity prophet: “Ah, sinful nation,/ people laden with iniquity,/ offspring who do evil,/ children who deal corruptly.” (4a) Nor is he unclear about the nature of their sin: “who have forsaken the Lord,/ who have despised the Holy One of Israel,/ who are utterly estranged!” (4b)

The people have estranged themselves from God and “continue to rebel.” (5) Comparing Israel to a human body, Isaiah is telling them the disease is spread everywhere: “The whole head is sick,/ and the whole heart faint./ From the sole of the foot even to the head.” (5b)

They are engaged in empty, meaningless worship that no longer pleases God: “bringing offerings is futile;/ incense is an abomination to me.” (13). Even though Isaiah has 64 chapters, the solution is right here early on: “cease to do evil,/ learn to do good;/ seek justice,/ rescue the oppressed,/defend the orphan,/ plead for the widow.” (16b, 17). Notice that once again in the OT, God’s priority is first cleansing and then immediately, it is justice. Just to make sure they 9and we) get the point, Isaiah comes back to the issue of injustice: “Everyone loves a bribe/ and runs after gifts./ They do not defend the orphan,/ and the widow’s cause does not come before them.” The rich pursue their wealth and the poor are cast by the wayside.

Exactly as today. We scoff at prophets and forge onwards in our wickedness, unmoved, unchanging, ignoring true justice as we eagerly pursue our own individual interest, justifying every action with the cop-out, “I can do what I want as long as I don’t hurt others.”  How are we so sure?

Galatians 3:6–18: Paul rather brilliantly uses Scripture to make it clear to the Judiazers that the promise of God’s salvation to the Gentiles emanates right from the beginning: “And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you.” (8) And therefore the obvious conclusion: “For this reason, those who believe are blessed with Abraham who believed.” (9)

But then Paul is at his most theologically brilliant and creative as he absolutely the direction of Jewish belief from the law to grace through the action of Jesus Christ: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (13). And that Christ’s action provided enormous benefit particularly to the Gentiles and basically positions himself as a Gentile: “in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.” (14)

As the author of Hebrews will elaborate at great length, Christ supersedes the law because he came first. After making the point that the Abrahamic promise really only applied to one offspring, (“the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring; it does not say, “And to offsprings,” as of many) (16a) Christ is that “ultimate” offspring: “that is, to one person, who is Christ.” (16b)

Paul concludes his logic chain rather triumphantly, that the law does not trump Christ: “My point is this: the law, which came four hundred thirty years later, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise.” In fact, the law did not–and cannot–actually proceed from the Abrahamic promise, “if the inheritance comes from the law, it no longer comes from the promise.” (18). No wonder the Jews in Jerusalem wanted to kill Paul. This is turning established theology–wrong though it may be–completely on its head.

 

 

Psalm 77:16–20; Song of Solomon 2:8–4:16; Galatians 1:13–24

Psalm 77:16–20: These concluding verses recall Israel’s escape from Egypt with powerful, almost photographic imagery of God parting the waters of the sea for Israel to cross: “The clouds streamed water./ The skies sounded with thunder./ Your bolts, too, flew about.” (18) The imagery expands to describe how God is the master of all creation as his mythical chariot drives across the sky: “Your thunder’s sound under the wheel–/ lightning lit up the world./ The earth shuddered and shook.” (19)

Once the waters have been so noisily parted, the poet describes the wonderful act of God’s rescue: “In the sea was Your way,/ and Your path in the mighty waters,/ and Your footsteps left no traces.” (20). And finally, God comes down from his sky chariot and becomes the Good Shepherd: “You led Your people like a flock/ by the hand of Moses and Aaron.” (21)

This juxtaposition of God’s awesome power with the tender gentleness of a shepherd reminds us that God, being God, possesses qualities that seem contradictory, but also remind us that God is more powerful and yet more tender than any of his creatures–including us.

Song of Solomon 2:8–4:16: Almost all of the similes and metaphors of this poem relate to nature–animals, flowers, trees, the landscape–that it becomes as much a celebration of God’ good creation as it does a love poem. “My beloved is like a gazelle/ or a young stag.” (2:9)

Every sense is engaged:
The flowers appear on the earth;
    the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove
    is heard in our land.” (2:12)

and,

The fig tree puts forth its figs,
    and the vines are in blossom;
    they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my fair one, (2:13)

It is also an abundant source of book titles: “Catch us the foxes,/ the little foxes.” (2:15)

The bride’s dream describes her poignant search and discovery  in the city for the man she loves:
Scarcely had I passed them,
    when I found him whom my soul loves.
I held him, and would not let him go” (3:4)

We can almost smell the sweetness of the day as the groom approaches:
What is that coming up from the wilderness,
    like a column of smoke,
perfumed with myrrh and frankincense,” (6)

(It’s interesting to see these two spices juxtaposed here since the Gospel writer was surely familiar with this poem.)

Suddenly, we realize this is a description of Solomon’s own wedding day:
“Look, O daughters of Zion,
    at King Solomon,
at the crown with which his mother crowned him
    on the day of his wedding,
    on the day of the gladness of his heart.” (3:11)

The the groom, whom we assume is Solomon himself, speaks. He is deeply in love: “How beautiful you are, my love,/ how very beautiful!” and he describes her beauty with remarkable similes of animals, fruits, structures–many of which are quite unexpected and even unlikely to be taken well today should a man describe his bride in the same manner as he moves relentlessly downward from her head to her body.

“Your eyes are doves”…”Your hair is like a flock of goats”…”Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes”…Your cheeks are like halves of a pomegranate…”Your neck is like the tower of David,”…”Your two breasts are like two fawns,”… (4:1-5)

And then “I will hasten to the mountain of myrrh/ and the hill of frankincense.” whose sexual meaning seems clear. He is deeply in love with every part of his bride’s being:
You have ravished my heart, my sister, my bride,
    you have ravished my heart with a glance of your eyes,” (4:9)

The poem becomes even more sexual as Solomon contemplates his virgin bride, knowing that the time for intercourse is not just yet:
A garden locked is my sister, my bride,
    a garden locked, a fountain sealed.
Your channel is an orchard of pomegranates
    with all choicest fruits,” (4:12,13)

But soon he will possess her and:
“Awake, O north wind,
    and come, O south wind!
Blow upon my garden
    that its fragrance may be wafted abroad.” (4:16)

Was there ever a more beautiful and fetching description of intercourse. If for no other reason this poem is here in the Bible to remind us that love comes from God and that sex of a married couple is a beautiful act bearing no shame. One wonders why parts (not all!) of this poem is not read more frequently at weddings!

Galatians 1:13–24: While we have biography in Acts of Paul’s conversion experience, here we have autobiography. Paul states “I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age,” but then admits, “I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.” (14). So we know that Paul’s personality, smarts, and above all his zealous passion prepared him well for his calling.

Then, intriguingly, he states that “God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me,” (15) we hear that Paul knows this has been his calling since birth I’m guessing some would use this statement as a “proof text” for predestination, but I prefer to focus on Paul being prepared, trained, and then called, just as pastors are today. Moreover, Paul knew from the beginning the thrust of his ministry that “I might proclaim him among the Gentiles,” (16)

We also learn something that was not revealed in Acts: “I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.” (17) So, what did Paul do in Arabia? Was he instructed by someone; did he become a solitary contemplative. I’m pretty sure whatever happened it was where Paul developed much of his theology that so powerfully brought Christianity to the Gentiles during that three-year period. As we read in Acts, when he begins preaching, it is a fully formed, sophisticated message aimed at the Gentiles. There’s no stumbling around.

Only after Arabia and Damascus did he go to Jerusalem for a mere fifteen days and then met only with Peter and James, apparently in secret. Based on his cryptic remark, “In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!” we have to assume that during that visit, Paul received Peter’s and James’ blessing to go forth among the Gentiles. (This would be after Peter’s baptism of Cornelius.)

There can be little question that conversion of the church’s greatest persecutor into one of its greatest apostles electrified the churches everywhere. It was such good news, that “they glorified God because of me.” Even today, we can be excited by dramatic conversions, but I think we have to give Paul pride of place here.

 

Psalm 77:10–15; Song of Solomon 1:1–2:7; Galatians 1:1–12

Psalm 77:10–15: The psalmist reflects at night (6) in tears (3) on his broken relationship with God–a God who seems to have disappeared–wondering, “Is His kindness gone for all time,/ His word done for time without end” (9). This is more than merely God’s absence due to his anger with the poet, for the absolution that God brings has also vanished: “Has God forgotten to show grace,/ has he closed off in wrath  His compassion?” (10)

The psalmist blames himself, “And I said, it is my failing,/ that the High One’s right hand has changed.” (11) He believes he is still doing all the “right” things in worship in order to maintain that relationship: “I recite all your works,/ Your acts I rehearse.” (14) He realizes that there are no greater small-g gods–“Who is a great god like God?”–and that in the past God has manifested himself to everyone: “You are the god working wonders./ You made known among peoples Your strength.” (15)

This is a stark reminder to us that there will be times when it feels as if God has abandoned us for no good reason. We believe our faith an worship has been constant, and that we are acting righteously, but that does not prevent God from seeming to disappear. This is why I am suspicious of people who claim they are constantly in God’s presence and never miss him.  It seems that the psalmist is reflecting a more realistic and yes, honest, relationship. We cannot control God to our desires and taste. I believe that it is entirely a part of the relationship between God and us that from time to time it will seem permanently broken. After all, that’s what happens in important human relationships such as marriage.

Song of Solomon 1:1–2:7: Too many evangelical scholars, IMO, have attempted to “theologize” this wonderful poem of the love between bride and bridegroom, making it an allegory for Christ’s love for the church. That may be fine, but we know that the poet who wrote it did not have Jesus in mind. And when we try to do theology, we miss romance and the sheer beauty of this poem, which is even richer in metaphor and simile than the psalms.

Was Solomon really the author of this “Song of Songs?” We’ll never know for sure, but I am certainly willing to give him credit. But if so, which bride is he writing about? We’ll never know that either. But rather than wondering about authorship, we’ll just reflect on the beauty of the words themselves…

The bride speaks first with opening lines that set the tone of the entire book: “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!/ For your love is better than wine,” (2) There is the startling line, “I am black and beautiful,” (5) but then he darkness seems to be from long exposure to the sun due to forced labor: “Do not gaze at me because I am dark,/ because the sun has gazed on me./My mother’s sons were angry with me;/ they made me keeper of the vineyards,.” But the next line, “but my own vineyard I have not kept!” (6) certainly seems to suggest something far more intimate than getting a sunburn in a vineyard. This is the fun in reading this poem. It is full of sexual references, innuendo and metaphor.  I’m pretty sure this is one of them…

The bridegroom speaks next: “I compare you, my love,/ to a mare among Pharaoh’s chariots.” (9), which at first reading seems a very odd simile. But we have to assume that only the most beautiful animals were suitable to pull Pharaoh’s chariots, and that he is simply saying that his bride’s beauty is unsurpassed, which the bridegroom makes clear: “Ah, you are beautiful, my love;/ ah, you are beautiful;/  your eyes are doves.” (15).

The bride speaks again, “for I am faint with love.” (2:5) cautioning her friends that he love is so intense it is almost painful as she waits in anticipation for her marriage: “I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem,/ do not stir up or awaken love/ until it is ready!” (2:7)

Galatians 1:1–12: First the seemingly endless troubles at Corinth, now at Galatia. Paul is bedeviled by the perversions by others of the clear gospel message with which he established these churches: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ.” (6,7). 

This is so often the case: the very human tendency to add to the core message of Jesus Christ, to make it more appealing, or to asset that it produces material prosperity, to use as a vehicle for self-aggrandizement, or simply to make it more “interesting.” But I think the thing that vexed Paul the most–and still vexes the church today–is to make the gospel about the preacher and not the message. That the human communicator possesses insight and wisdom beyond the basic message. That is certainly what the Gnostic heresies were about.

Rather than abandoning ourselves to Christ, which is at the heart of the gospel, these proclaimers–and we– bring in the parts of the gospel that we like and use those parts to add to our own self-centered theology. That somehow we have a “special revelation” that in the end only amplifies our own pride.

Instead, as Paul asserts his apostolic authority, he makes it clear that the gospel does not arise out of human wisdom or insight. Rather, “I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” (12). It’s clear to me, anyway, why these opening lines may have made Martin Luther sit up and take notice.

Psalm 76; Ecclesiastes 7:15–9:18; 2 Corinthians 12:14–13:4

Psalm 76: This psalm of thanksgiving chockablock with military imagery looks back into Israel’s history (and as Alter suggests, was perhaps composed to celebrate some victory). Whatever it was, the event has reminded Israel of its God, who has once again led them to triumph: “God becomes known in Judah,/ in Israel His name is great.” (2) All Israel becomes God’s military camp and Jerusalem his headquarters as “in Salem was set His pavilion,/ His dwelling in Zion.” (3) The enemy has been defeated as God “did shatter the bow’s fiery shafts,/ the shield and sword and the battle.”

At the end of the battle God stands bright and shining and greater than any other: “Refulgent You were,/ mightier than the mountains of prey.” (5) Even brave enemies have fallen, seemingly by dint of God’s mere presence as he basically paralyzes them in fear: “The stout-hearted were despoiled,/ they fell into a trance,/ and all men of valor could not lift a hand.” (6) God needs merely to shout to conquer: “By Your roar, O God of Jacob,/ chariot and horse were stunned.” (7) God’s military qualities are neatly summed up: “who can stand before You, in the strength of Your wrath?” (8) At the end of the battle God speaks: “From the heavens You made judgement heard,/ the earth was afraid and fell silent.” (9)

But what God does is unexpected from any military other victor: “when God rose up for judgement/ to rescue all the lowly of earth.” Here, once again, is the running theme of the Psalms and the OT: God’s care for–and rescue of–the poor and downtrodden.  Here is where God is completely the opposite of any human military victor: he does not pillage the land and rape the poor, rather he rescues them from the depredations of other men.

So, when we are tempted to assert blithely that “God is on our side,” we must remember that it carries a great responsibility in victory: to turn to those who have been downtrodden and rescue them. God achieved victory over evil through Jesus Christ, who was always on the lookout for the poor and oppressed. Will we do the same?

Ecclesiastes 7:15–9:18: When people ask why a loving and perfect God would allow evil to win out over the good, they are making exactly the same observation Qoheleth made three millennia ago. There is truly nothing new under the sun: “there are righteous people who perish in their righteousness, and there are wicked people who prolong their life in their evildoing.” (7:15) His attitude is quite different than the psalmist’s who assert that God will always rescue the oppressed in the end. Fine sentiments, but they don’t comport with reality–now or then.

Our philosopher offers some advice: “Do not be too righteous, and do not act too wise; … Do not be too wicked, and do not be a fool;” (7:16, 17) In short, hew a middle road and don’t show off either your wisdom or your foolishness!

He also advises, “Do not give heed to everything that people say,…our heart knows that many times you have yourself cursed others.” This is particularly good counsel when it comes to making and responding to Facebook posts where foolish comments and ad hominem arguments are routine.

It all boils down to our free will and immutable ability to make bad choices. After all, he observes, “God made human beings straightforward, but they have devised many schemes.” (7:29) But even in this dark brooding Qoheleth nevertheless finds hope: “yet I know that it will be well with those who fear God, because they stand in fear before him, but it will not be well with the wicked…” (8: 12,13) But beyond that it is fairly pointless to try and understand God’s inscrutable ways: “I saw all the work of God, that no one can find out what is happening under the sun. However much they may toil in seeking, they will not find it out;” (8:17)

Unfairness will still abound: “there are righteous people who are treated according to the conduct of the wicked, and there are wicked people who are treated according to the conduct of the righteous.” (8:14) This seems to be the great unrealizable goal of our post-modern society: to make life fair. But should we just ignore the problems and blithely accept Qoheleth’s advice: “there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat, and drink, and enjoy themselves?” (8:15)

I think what he’s getting at is not hedonism but a realistic way of living. As the cliche goes: one day at a time, since “the same fate comes to all, to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to those who sacrifice and those who do not sacrifice.” (9:2)  After all, he says, “The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no more reward, and even the memory of them is lost.” (9:5). I fear that most of us live in denial that one day we will die and yes, eventually be forgotten by the living (and there’s nothing like giving a eulogy at a memorial service to be reminded of our own mortality). Which is why he advises us to seize each day, to “eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do.” Mere striving leads nowhere but to the grave. As the old saying goes, no one on his deathbed says, “I wish I spent more time at the office.” God wishes for us to enjoy life and to enjoy our time in his loving company.

2 Corinthians 12:14–13:4: In these concluding words of this second letter Paul asserts, “Here I am, ready to come to you this third time.” (12:1) Which he repeats later: “his is the third time I am coming to you.” (13:1)

At first read this entire epistle comes of as Paul being defensive and he is aware of this: “Have you been thinking all along that we have been defending ourselves before you?” (12:19a). But, he says, this is not my defending myself, but “We are speaking in Christ before God. Everything we do, beloved, is for the sake of building you up.” (12:19b)

This entire epistle is a warning to a church gone astray, that when he arrives back at Corinth, “I fear that there may perhaps be quarreling, jealousy, anger, selfishness, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder.” (12:20) And he warns them again, “ I warned those who sinned previously and all the others, and I warn them now while absent, as I did when present on my second visit, that if I come again, I will not be lenient”(13:2). The Corinthians should be quaking in their boots because they are dealing with someone far greater than Paul: “Christ is speaking in me. He is not weak in dealing with you, but is powerful in you.” (13:3) The final verse of this letter, which omits any of the friendly and personal greetings found at the end of other epistles, seems especially ominous: “For he was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God. For we are weak in him but in dealing with you we will live with him by the power of God.” (13:4) Paul’s implication is clear: Watch out, Corinthians, here I come with the power of Christ, which is also in you, but you keep ignoring.

That’s a clear warning to all of us in the church: we are not to assume we’re in charge and can do anything we want. We tamper with the power of Christ at our own risk.

But Paul, as far as we know, never made it back to Corinth. What became of that benighted, quarreling church? We have enough benighted quarreling churches around us today to guess the probable outcome.