Psalm 52; Job 28; 1 Corinthians 4:16–5:8

Psalm 52: The psalmist connects the psalm to a specific event in David’s life: “when Doeg the Edomite came and told Saul and said to him, ‘David has come to the house of Achimelech.'” (2) and then casts the psalm as an address to the evil Doeg–or to any wicked person. The poet begins on a remarkably sarcastic note: “Why boast of evil, O hero?” making it clear that the man he addresses is far from heroic.

As usual, the the core sin of the evil man is rooted in speech: “Disasters your tongue devises,/ like a well-honed razor, doing deceit.” (4) The evil tongue is the manifestation of an evil heart: “You love evil better than good, / a lie more than speaking justice.” (5) We need to remember that in this world, the primary form of communication was speech and the psalmist reminds us that speech has a direct link to a man’s character as he accuses the evildoer, that “You love all destructive words, / the tongue of deceit.” (6) Even though we have multiple forms of communication today that does not mask the fact that in the end, it all comes down to what we say and write.

As a person who writes and speaks a lot, this accusation hits home: that what I say aloud is–as the psalmist has it here–a direct reflection of the attitudes of my heart and of my basic character–and how people will judge me. Sarcasm has been a big defense mechanism for me and I have been working to eliminate it in what I say. Words used with evil intent can destroy; even words used carelessly can inflict great harm.

God’s intent for the man who speaks evil is hardly benevolent: “God surely will smash you forevet,/ sweep you up and tear you from the tent,/ root you out of the land of the living.” (7)  This is the grim fate of “the man who does not make/ God his stronghold.” (9)

Job 28: We suddenly encounter this beautiful poem that reflects on the nature of wisdom. Unlike many other speeches here, the author does not credit either Job or any of his friends. It is a peaceful intermezzo in the sturm und drang of the dueling speeches that comprise this remarkable book.

The poem describes a hidden but beautiful part of God’s creation: “Its stones are the place of sapphires,/ and its dust contains gold.” (6) But neither animals know where it is nor miners who “put their hand to the flinty rock,/  and overturn mountains by the roots.” (9). So what is to be found there in this mysterious place? The poet answers with a rhetorical question: “But where shall wisdom be found?/ And where is the place of understanding?” (12)

We humans will not stumble across it because it is not to be found within the creation  we inhabit: “Mortals do not know the way to it,/ and it is not found in the land of the living.” (13). Wisdom cannot be purchased: “It cannot be gotten for gold,/ and silver cannot be weighed out as its price.” (15)

Again, the poet asks, “Where then does wisdom come from?/ And where is the place of understanding?” (20). This time there’s an answer: “God understands the way to it,/ and he knows its place.” (23) It turns out in the last verse that God has actually already told us where wisdom can be found:

And he said to humankind,
‘Truly, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom;
    and to depart from evil is understanding.’” (28)

So, the question becomes, why is God the last place we humans actually look? Why do we look first for human wisdom, which as Paul has told is is mere foolishness? We are so unwilling to abandon ourselves, who we as the center of the universe, even when God is basically standing before us with the answer.

1 Corinthians 4:16–5:8:  Underneath Paul’s words, “ But some of you, thinking that I am not coming to you, have become arrogant.” (18) we can sense his controlled anger. And his rhetorical question certainly reveals his frustration with the wild talk and cliques that seem to characterize the church at Corinth: “What would you prefer? Am I to come to you with a stick, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?” (4:21)

So, given his already bad mood, Paul lights right into them: “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans; for a man is living with his father’s wife.” (5:1) I guess we can be charitable and assume that “his father’s wife” is not actually his mother. But the church has erred by failing to remove him from the congregation.

Paul’s judgement may seem harsh given our preference for grace, tolerance, and all that. But he does not let them take the easy way out. He states that as founder of the church at Corinth he possess authority and, “as if present I have already pronounced judgment in the name of the Lord Jesus on the man who has done such a thing.” (5:4). However, exactly how Paul’s instructions are to be carried out is less clear: “you are to hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” (5:5) Does this mean something harsher than being thrown out of the congregation?  Again, I prefer the more charitable explanation.

Paul then turns to the problem of pride: “Your boasting is not a good thing. Do you not know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough?” (5:6) And he makes the crucial psychological insight that like bad yeast, pride infects the entire body. We see that today in the behavior of mobs incited to outrageous acts by the behavior of just a few. Once this bad yeast is inside a church congregation, it generally rips the congregation apart. Despite Paul’s words, human nature remains unchanged, and we grieve at the terrible witness to the community when churches are torn asunder by envy, pride and dissension.

Psalm 51:13–19; Job 25–27; 1 Corinthians 4:1–15

Psalm 51:13–19: Where the NRSV has the psalmist pleading, “cast me not from Your presence,” Alter uses a more violent verb, “Do not fling me from Your presence.” (13). The mental state of the poet such that he sees himself as mere garbage that God would roughly toss to get the sinner out of his holy presence. Such is the magnitude of his–and our–sins.

And then an important Trinitarian clue: “and Your holy spirit take not from me.” (13b) We have to observe, however, that the poet sees this as an attribute of God, not as the capitalized third person of the Trinity.

But more than pleading for forgiveness and being able to remain in the presence of God, the psalmist now asks God to transform his life, first by restoring the “gladness of Your rescue/ and with a noble spirit sustain me.” (14) Notice that without first a restoration of a right relationship with God, nothing else can happen. But once that has been accomplished by God’s generous forgiveness, then we can act on God’s behalf in relation to those around us: “Let me teach transgressors Your ways.” (14a) And our teaching and example will have an impact on others: “…and offenders will come back to You.” (14b)

Perhaps the most radical part of this psalm –at least to the Jewish contemporaries of the psalmist–is the realization that God is not seeking blood sacrifice: “For You desire not that I should give sacrifice,/ burnt offering You greet not with pleasure.” (18) Rather, God desires a contrite heart: “A broken, crushed heart God spurns not.” (19) Notice how the nature of sacrifice has moved from external action to internal condition. In these few verses the psalmist has truly laid the groundwork for Jesus’ once-for-all sacrifice and the consequent indwelling of the Holy spirit.

 Job 25–27: Bildad interrupts Job’s disquisition and asks a profound question: “How then can a mortal be righteous before God?/ How can one born of woman be pure?” (25:4) After all, he notes, before God we are mere maggots and worms. (25:6) (Now, there’s an image to describe our sinful natures!)

Job answers his friend generously: “How you have counseled one who has no wisdom,/ and given much good advice!” (26: 3) Bildad has caused Job to realize that God is all-powerful and therefore unknowable. After all, he suggests, this is the God who causes “The pillars of heaven [to] tremble,/ and are astounded at his rebuke.” (26:11)  And an all-powerful God is unknowable to mere mortals: “how small a whisper do we hear of him!/  But the thunder of his power who can understand?” (26:14).  These are crucial words to remember when we pretend to understand God, or even when we ask God, “Why?” when some disaster occurs. God is not going to tell us why, and even if he did, we would not comprehend his answer.

This insight is basically an intermezzo to Job’s long speech blaming God for his plight, “As God lives, who has taken away my right,/ and the Almighty, who has made my soul bitter,” (27:1) But Job than says something next that those who shake their fist at God often do not. He will not abandon his firm belief that despite his woes he has remained faithful–that what has happened to him has not been the result of any faithlessness or wickedness on his part: “I hold fast my righteousness, and will not let it go;/my heart does not reproach me for any of my days.” (27:6) 

Because of his unrelenting faithfulness to God, Job sees his situation, as hopeless as it seems, as superior to that of the wicked who live in apparent ease and prosperity. Job has the one thing that they do not: hope. He reminds his listeners, “For what is the hope of the godless when God cuts them off,/when God takes away their lives?” (27:8) Job remains convinced that in the end, despite all appearances to the contrary, the wicked will receive their just desserts: “Terrors overtake them like a flood;/ in the night a whirlwind carries them off./ The east wind lifts them up and they are gone;/ it sweeps them out of their place.” (27:20, 21). In short, it is far, far better to live in suffering with a firm faith in God than to live in abundance but in the emptiness of a life without God. Something for us to remember as we look around at a culture that increasingly abandons God and attempts to dismantle the moral system that 3000 years of Jewish and Christian belief have laid in place.

1 Corinthians 4:1–15: Paul contrasts himself to those in the Corinthian church who have clearly come to various conclusions about Paul, Apollos and other leaders.  Paul notes that while “ I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It os the Lord who judges me.” (4)  Using himself as the example he states that we cannot judge others because we do not have all the facts in the case. Only God has all the facts: “Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart.” (5) Like the Corinthians, we have been slow to take  Paul’s sound advice to heart.

Rather than complaining, Paul advises us to rejoice in all that we in the church already have: “Already you have become rich! Quite apart from us you have become kings!” (8) Almost inexplicably, he notes that those in the church are better off than the Apostles themselves: “We are fools for the sake of Christ, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute.” (10).

To me this means that our basic stance as Christians is one of thanksgiving for the riches we have received in Christ. That is why I rejoice in the theme at Saint Matthew to reflect on–and be thankful for–all that has come to pass here in the last 50 years. What was true in Corinth is true on Wiget Lane.

 

Psalm 51:7–12; Job 24; 1 Corinthians 3:12–23

Psalm 51:7–12: Verse 7–“Look, in transgression I was conceived,/ and in offense my mother spawned me.”– is often cited as one of the “proof verses” for the doctrine of original sin.  Which is one way of interpretation, but it seems to me that it could just as well be a historical fact for the psalmist alone: he may know that he was the product of a violent sexual act or even rape.

In any event, the psalmist sees himself as unclean and now in order to learn from God “in what is concealed make wisdom known to me” (8) he must be purified. Alter tells us that water shaken from hyssop leaves on to the penitent is a means of ritual washing. And here, the psalmist desires the purest purity in the famous line, “Was me, that I be white than snow.” (9)

For us Christians this is the transformation of baptism when we “hear gladness and joy” (10a). The body that was consumed by the agony of sin now rejoices: “…let the bones that You crushed exult.” (10b). The psalmist cannot accomplish this cleansing by himself. It is God who “all my misdeeds [must] wipe away.” (11b).

And then that powerful verse we sang for so many years every Sunday morning: “Create in me a clean heart, O God/ and renew a right spirit within me.” (12) Alter has it as “a firm spirit,” which for me conveys that sense of renewal and strength even more powerfully than “right spirit.” Confession leads to forgiveness, which leads to strength and new life. Which is exactly what Jesus Christ has accomplished for us. The only question is: in this culture of self-admiration will I be as honest as the psalmist and admit to my failings, confess them, and be restored?

Job 24: The chapter is a a marvelous evocation of all that is wrong in the fallen world, of its intrinsic unfairness. The wicked exploit the poor and helpless. The wicked “drive away the donkey of the orphan/ they take the widow’s ox for a pledge./They thrust the needy off the road” (4) while those who are exploited are “Like wild asses in the desert/ they go out to their toil,/scavenging in the wasteland/ food for their young.” (5)

Those who believe that humankind is somehow improving or becoming more beneficent to the oppressed would do well to reflect on this chapter that so beautifully weaves the apparent triumph of the wicked with the desperate plight of the poor and despised. While the wicked “snatch the orphan child from the breast,/ and take as a pledge the infant of the poor.” (9), in turn, the poor “go about naked, without clothing;” (10 a) while they do the work that brings the wicked their very food and wealth: “though hungry, they carry the sheaves;/between their terraces they press out oil;/ they tread the wine presses, but suffer thirst.” (11)

Job sees God as indifferent to all this suffering: “ the throat of the wounded cries for help;/ yet God pays no attention to their prayer.” (12) In fact, God is not merely indifferent, he seems to actively aid the wicked rather than the poor: “Yet God prolongs the life of the mighty by his power;” (22) and “He gives them security, and they are supported.” (23a).

And yet in the end, the wicked are like everyone else: “They are exalted a little while, and then are gone;/they wither and fade like the mallow.” (24) Job seems to be asking why the wicked get all the breaks even though their lives are as ephemeral as the righteous. A question that resonates today. Why is the broken world so damn unfair?

1 Corinthians 3:12–23: Paul tells us that the work of the builders will always be tested: “the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done.” (13).  At first, Paul seems to be talking about the individuals who founded the church–the builders– but then it suddenly becomes a strikingly personal metaphor. He’s talking about each one of us as individual corporeal persons: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person.” (16, 17a) 

Because of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, each of us has become a holy place: “For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple” 917b). Accepting that simple reality should drive all our thoughts and actions. Yes, it certainly means lead a “clean life,” exercise, eat right and all that. That’s what I’ve heard since I was a kid. But in context here I don’t think that’s what Paul is getting at. It has far more to do with self-delusion: “Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise.” (18) Which is Paul’s way of saying, “you know a lot less than you think you do, buddy.”

This “wisdom of the world is foolishness with God.” (19) And God does not cotton to fools. We will always be found out: “He catches the wise in their craftiness,” (19b) The truth of this has been proven again and again in the world at large and the church in particular. Paul gives really good advice: “So let no one boast about human leaders.” (21) –be that the pastor we love to hear preach or the charismatic founder of a megachurch. All will be tested by fire. As will each of us. We will survive, but will we learn what is God’s wisdom?

Psalm 51:1–6; Job 22,23; 1 Corinthians 3:1–11

Psalm 51:1–6: Alter questions the historical reliability of this psalm’s superscription–“upon Nathan the prophet’s coming to him when he had come to bed with Bathsheba.” However, I prefer to believe that this is truly David’s remorseful psalm of confession as he begs God for forgiveness for the awful crimes of adultery and murder.

In any event it is an eloquent and moving psalm of confession that has become part of the liturgy for both Jewish and Christian worship. This psalm does not require parsing, it requires only that as we read it (preferably aloud) that it moves our heart as we come before God knowing we have sinned and being willing to confess those sins to the Father who loves us:

Grant me grace, God, as befits Your kindness,
with Your great mercy wipe away my crimes.
Thoroughly wash my transgressions away
and cleanse me from my offense.
For my crimes I know,
and my offense is before me always.
You alone have I offended,
and what is evil in Your eyes I have done.
So You are just when You sentence,
You are right when You judge.  (3-7)

The question for me is, am I willing to come in humility before God and confess? Even though I know that my sins will be forgiven, too often my pride blocks confession. And we know that in the larger culture, and even in the church itself, we are so consumed by not denigrating self-worth that even the concept of sin itself is becoming muddied and foreign.

It’s too bad this psalm is no longer a part of the liturgy at Saint Matthew. We are all the poorer by skipping its heartfelt beauty, confessing as a worshipping body only at Lent and then only with anodyne phrases that do not convey half the self-aware agony that lies behind these verses.

Job 22,23: Eliphaz the Temanite is not convinced by Job’s description of God in the previous chapter as he accuses Job of continuing to fail to recognize that God punishes the wicked. End of story.

Again we hear only sarcasm from the would-be friend: “Is it for your piety that he reproves you,/ and enters into judgment with you?” (22:4) ‘Come on, Job, admit your sinfulness; that’s why you’re being punnished!’  He then moves from sarcasm to outright accusation: “Will you keep to the old way/ that the wicked have trod?” (22:15) He’s telling Job to just give up and admit his wickedness: “Agree with God, and be at peace;/ in this way good will come to you.” (22:21) Upon that confession, God will deign to “deliver even those who are guilty.” (22:30)

Job refuses to take Elihaz’s advice. Instead, he would rather come before God directly in God’s courtroom: “I would lay my case before him,/and fill my mouth with arguments.” (23:4) And by confronting God directly, “I would learn what he would answer me,/ and understand what he would say to me.” (23:5) It is by confrontation and reasoned argument that God would “give heed to me.” (23:6)

Job knows in his heart that he has not sinned against God: “he has tested me, I shall come out like gold./ My foot has held fast to his steps;/ I have kept his way and have not turned aside.” (23:10, 11) But then, as Job reflects, the idea of coming before God is too much to bear: “I am terrified at his presence;/ when I consider, I am in dread of him./God has made my heart faint;/ the Almighty has terrified me;.” (23:15, 16)

Job’s argument that he could come before God in innocence and argue his case is remarkably sophisticated. Where Eliphaz argues for Job to simply throw in the towel, Job wishes to come before God. But as a mere mortal the thought of standing in God’s court is terrifying. I’m sure this is where the concept of the Judgement Seat of God comes from. And what Jesus is talking about in the Olivet Discourse: That someday we will all come before God to be held accountable is terrifying–exactly as Job asserts.

1 Corinthians 3:1–11: Paul turns from the theology of God’s wisdom compared against man’s wisdom to the issue at hand: divisions within the Corinthian church. Paul speaks with a bluntness that has all but disappeared form today’s church: “For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations?” (4) Alas, the same all-too-human motivations and jealousy that created the divisions at Corinth trace down through the quarreling and divisions that have divided the Church for the past 2000 years.

Right on down to today to the people who decide to skip worship when a pastor they don’t like is preaching. Or withholding an offering because they don’t like the music. It’s a clear warning to churches that are founded on personalities–the Schullers, the Osteens, among others–where it’s more about feel-good self esteem than on carrying out the hard work of the Great Commission. To extend Paul’s metaphor, these are shallow-rooted organizations that have depended on personality rather than God to fuel temporary growth. If there are not deep roots in Jesus Christ they will fade after the personality that drove them leaves the scene.

This is also a reminder of the awesome responsibility laid upon any who have a leadership role in a church. Paul reminds them, “Each builder must choose with care how to build on it.” (10b) But there’s a straightforward metric to measure how well the leader is carrying out his or her job: all must build on the foundation that is Jesus Christ. (11) Those who drift from that foundation have doomed their work.

 

Psalm 50:16–23; Job 21; 1 Corinthians 2:3–16

Psalm 50:16–23: God now turns his attention to the wicked, citing a long list of offenses. At the top of the list is the hypocrisy of a false faith: “Why do you recount My statutes/ and bear My pact in your mouth,/ when you have despised chastisement/ and flung My words behind you?” (16-17) In today’s culture, where the ascendant movement of “progressivism” attempts to sweep faith out of the public square, hypocrisy seems less of the issue it once was. People no longer pretend to have faith; they reject it publicly.

But then God cites other sins. Our psalmist seems to be anticipating the problem of gangs: “If you see a thief, you run with him,/ and with adulterers is your lit.” And as usual, in this mostly pre-literate society, there’s the problem of wicked speech: “You let loose your mouth in evil,/ and your tongue clings fast to deceit.” Now we’re talking (so to speak!) about a sin that is rampant both inside and outside the church. And family warfare, as well: “You sit, against your brother you speak,/ Your mother’s son you slander.” (20)

But above all, I think, is the sin of pride, where we forget or reject God, or even if we believe, we view ourselves as being equal with God. Our ultimate comeuppance is not a pretty sight. “Understand this, you who forget God,/ lest I tear you apart, with no one to save you.” (22).  Only those who are faithful will find salvation. Those are the ones to whom “I will show God’s rescue.”

The message seems clear: those individuals who reject God and the larger culture that rejects God will all come to a bad end. To me, it seems our decadent American culture is well on the way.

Job 21: Job, on the other hand, is far less confident than the psalmist that the wicked will inevitably receive their just desserts for their wickedness. This is the beauty of this book being in the Bible: one of it’s major purposes is to fly in the face of conventional wisdom–and theology.

Job compares his present state–“Look at me, and be appalled,/ and lay your hand upon your mouth.” (5) with that of the wicked: “Why do the wicked live on,/ reach old age, and grow mighty in power?” (7) Which to be blunt certainly seems a more accurate description of the state of the world. For Job, the wicked never receive what they’re due. Instead, he states with bitter sarcasm,

12 They sing to the tambourine and the lyre,
    and rejoice to the sound of the pipe.
13 They spend their days in prosperity,
    and in peace they go down to Sheol.

The prosperous wicked reject God outright and get away with it: “They say to God, ‘Leave us alone!/  We do not desire to know your ways.” (14) Job points out that his interlocutors have asserted that the children of the wicked will suffer, but he rejects this theology outright:

19 You say, ‘God stores up their iniquity for their children.’
    Let it be paid back to them, so that they may know it.
20 Let their own eyes see their destruction,
    and let them drink of the wrath of the Almighty.

Which I think is a really good point!  Job understands in ways his friends can never understand. Yes, the wicked don’t necessarily get what they deserve. There is rampant injustice in the world.

In the end, Job recognizes his friends speeches for what they are: “How then will you comfort me with empty nothings?/ There is nothing left of your answers but falsehood.” (34) This is a definite warning to those who pretend to know what their friends are experiencing. I know from my own experience with cancer that some people came to me, assuming they knew how I felt, but made it all about themselves, comforting me with “empty nothings.”

 1 Corinthians 2:3–16: Paul shifts form the shortcomings to human wisdom to the grandeur of God’s wisdom: “But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory.” (7). Unlike men who flaunt their “wisdom,” only to have it revealed as shallow and ephemera;, God’s wisdom is far deeper. It is mysterious, and unlike the Gnostics of the age that would claim to be able to eventually uncover that wisdom, God’s wisdom is hidden from human sight. As much as we try–and I’ve tried a lot–there’s no way to unlock the core mystery of our faith. And rather than that reality being a source of frustration, it can become a source of joy.

There is absolutely no way that any human could ever have conceived of God’s plan of Jesus’ incarnation, sacrificial death, and Resurrection. It is truly “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,/nor the human heart conceived.” (9)

We may not come to understand the mystery, but we really have something better that mere understanding: the gift of the Holy Spirit, the means by which we come to understand as Paul puts it later in this book, “through a glass darkly.” I like how Paul phrases it here: “we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God.” (12) What’s clear in this statement is that there is no room in our hearts for both. The Holy Spirit completely displaces the “spirit of the world.” And if we attempt to hang on to the spirit of the world, we are not opening ourselves up to the Holy Spirit residing in us. And without the Holy Spirit we will indeed never have “the mind of Christ.”

Psalm 50:7–15; Job 20; 1 Corinthians 1:21–2:2

Psalm 50:7–15: God’s assertion, “Not for sacrifices shall I reprove you,/ your burnt offerings always before me.” (8) seems to fly in the face of the complex sacrificial system that was set up in Leviticus. Is God now saying that sacrifices are no longer required?  It’s a little more subtle than that. Rather, God seems to be saying, ‘I really don’t need your sacrifices’ since all the animals in existence are already his: “For mine are all the beasts of the forest/ the herds on the thousand mountains.” (10) Evoking what Jesus said about God’s intimate knowledge of creation, the psalmist reminds us that God “know[s] every bird of the mountains,/ creatures of the field are with Me.” (11).

The next verse, however, illuminates what God is really talking about: “Should I hunger, I would not say to you,/ for mine is the world and its fullness.” (12) God is making the point that he does not require sacrifice in order to satisfy his hunger, as was the case of other local idols to whom people brought their gifts to provide sustenance for their small-g gods.  This difference becomes clearer as God asserts, “Would I eat the flesh of fat bulls,/ would I drink the blood of goats?” (14)

Rather, our sacrifices to God devolve to our own benefit: “Sacrifice to God a thanksgiving, and pay to the High One your vows.” (14). We do not sustain God; God sustains us, especially in our troubles: “And call on Me on the day of distress–/ I will free you and you shall revere me.” (15)

I don’t think we appreciate just how radical the idea of a God who cares for his people and does not demand sacrifice for his own sake really was in that time. All those small-g gods were jealous, hungry, and demanded sacrifices for their own sake. Israel’s God sees sacrifice as an act for our own sake. That’s what thanksgiving to God is all about.

Job 20: One thing we know about Job’s friends. As soon as Job finishes speaking they do not allow a moment of silence. Rather, they rebut Job’s words almost instantly. Like many modern conversations it seems that rather than actually listening to what Job said and reflecting thoughtfully on his words, Job’s friends are thinking about what they’re going to say next while Job’s still speaking. I know that I personally tend to do this…

So, “Zophar the Naamathite answered.” (20:1) Like his buddies, Zophar shows not a shred of sympathy to Job’s plight. In fact, he’s pretty annoyed with Job as he begins his speech like a stern schoolteacher: “Pay attention! My thoughts urge me to answer,/ because of the agitation within me.” (2)

Zophar’s theology is pretty much the same as his two friends as he implicitly upbraids Job, 

“Do you not know this from of old,
    ever since mortals were placed on earth,
 that the exulting of the wicked is short,
    and the joy of the godless is but for a moment?” (4,5)

OK, we’ve heard this story before. Zophar continues in exquisite detail that the wicked get just recompense for their wickedness, as e.g., “They swallow down riches and vomit them up again;/ God casts them out of their bellies.” (15) and later, “from the profit of their trading/ they will get no enjoyment.” (18b)

And in the end, “God will send his fierce anger into them,/ and rain it upon them as their food.” (15) and “The possessions of their house will be carried away,/dragged off in the day of God’s] wrath.” (28)  This is the deuteronomic theology that suffuses the OT and the Psalms. The wicked will prosper for a while, but in the end they receive their just desserts for their sins. Zophar does not have to directly accuse Job of wrongdoing, but his implication is all too clear that Job has sinned mightily since he is being punished mightily.

But in our hearts, isn’t this really how we want things to work? Zophar’s speech is an operational definition of the human concept of justice. This seems how the world should operate.

1 Corinthians 1:21–2:2: Paul puts his finger directly on why the Gospel message is anathema to most of the world: “For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom.” (1:22) But the message of Christ crucified is neither a sign nor wisdom–at least in the terms the world prefers to define those things.

To human eyes it’s all nonsense. And in today’s culture it seems that more and more people are coming to this conclusion.  If we want to be seen as “wise” in the framework of the world at large, we better stop spouting off about this “Jesus loves me” business or even more offensively, “Christ died for your sins.” What Paul said close to 2000 years ago is still resoundingly pertinent. God does not operate on human terms and therefore his message will be seen as foolish. But as we are slowly learning in reading Job, “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” (1:25)

Paul turns to the people of the church at Corinth as his proof: “not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.” (26) And then in my favorite verse about how God operates in the opposite to what our logic says God should do, Paul makes it clear that the Good News has turned human logic on its head: “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are.” (27)

If I were really courageous, I would not care a whit what the world thinks of what I have to say. And at least as I grow older, I am finally coming to realize that what the world thinks really does not matter one iota. In the end, accepting God’s logic rather than human “wisdom” has become ultimately freeing.

Finally, Paul turns to himself, saying that despite what the people at Corinth would like to think about the depth of Paul’s theological insights, “I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” (2:1,2). The Gospel message is really that simple. If we accepted Paul strictly at his word, there would have been a lot of unemployed theologians!

 

 

Psalm 50:1–6; Job 19; 1 Corinthians 1:10–20

 Psalm 50:1–6: In this prophetic psalm God himself takes center stage and speaks. The poet introduces God, noting he is Creator, “He spoke and called to the earth/ from the sun’s rising place to its setting.” (2) God is in residence at “Zion, the zenith of beauty,” whence the pyrotechnic theophany commences as “God shone forth.” (2b) God is both sound and light as the poet tells us, “Let our God come and not be silent./ Before Him fire consumes,/ and round Him–great storming.”

This appearance is by no means a quiet tete-a-tete with a single prophet, but God is visible to everyone as “He calls to the heavens above and to earth to judge his people.” (4) His first words are, not surprisingly, to Israel, reminding them of their covenant as acted out in the temple: “Gather to me My faithful,/ who with sacrifice seal My pact.” (5)

The poet intervenes with an editorial comment, “let the heavens tel of His justice,/ for God, He is judge.” (6). The noun “judge” may provide a clue about what is coming.

A brief pause (selah) and God begins the speech that occupies the remainder of the psalm, “Hear, O My people, that I may speak…” First, he reminds them of who he is: “God, your God I am.”  The words, “I am” are the words Moses heard from the burning bush. And here again, God is “I am.”  This introduction is a brilliant reminder that yes, God is our father, and yes, God loves us more than anything. But he is also God, the great “I am,” creator and ruler of the universe.

Job 19: Job responds in one of the most eloquent chapters of the book to Bildad’s simple-mined black and white theology–and to the essential cruelty of his supposed friend’s endless lecturing: ““How long will you torment me,/and break me in pieces with words?” (2).

This verse has great personal significance to me because through much of my relationship with Susan, when we have had arguments, I have tried to use endless words and lecturing to get her to see things my way–the “right” way–exactly as Bildad has.  

Job then says, “And even if it is true that I have erred,/ my error remains with me.” (4) In the end, when we err, we own the wrong. Those who would attempt to correct us us do not. The issue is between God and ourselves.

Job continues to assert that it is not his errors that have resulted in this disaster, but “that God has put me in the wrong,/ and closed his net around me.” (6) God remains silent, “Even when I cry out, ‘Violence!’ I am not answered;/ I call aloud, but there is no justice.” (7)  

But in the end, Job is not asking for theological discourses from his friends; he is seeking something else from them: “Have pity on me, have pity on me, O you my friends,/for the hand of God has touched me!” (21) Because despite whatever God has done or allowed to be done, his faith still remains as he utters one of the most famous lines in this book: “For I know that my Redeemer lives,/ and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; (25). The beautiful Handel aria on this verse rings in my ears.

Even though I ave never suffered the woes of Job, I know that despite all that can go wrong that our Redeemer lives. And out of my Christian faith I know exactly who my Redeemer is.

1 Corinthians 1:10–20: Things are clearly quite messed up in Corinth as the church has divided into factions. Paul’s first plea to al of them is “by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” (10)  He immediately puts his finger on the problem: people are making the preacher greater than the message: “each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.”” (12)

We continue to do exactly the same things as the folks at Corinth when we talk about preachers we like and those we don’t like. There are even people who will not come to worship if they know a pastor they don’t care for is speaking that morning. But even worse are the preachers who come to believe their own press releases and allow personality cults to be built around them. When that preacher dies or leaves, the congregation follows him to the next church or dies with him–proving exactly Paul’s point here.

With these divisions in mind, Paul reminds us that at its core, “the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (18) I think Paul’s not only talking about the wisdom of the world “out there” beyond the church, but within the church as well. Leaders or preachers who pretend to have all the answers  or are pretending to be wise are practicing the foolish wisdom of the world. (Just like Job’s friends!)

As soon as a preacher–or anyone leading a Bible study, for that matter–begins to make his own theological insights more important than the foolish simplicity of the unvarnished Gospel message he has lapsed into foolishness. It is indeed, “all about Jesus.”

Psalm 49:13–20; Job 17,18; Romans 16:21–1 Corinthians 1:1–9

Psalm 49:13–20: When the end comes, the rich are no different than the poor: “Like sheep to Sheol they head–/ death shepherds them.” These words are followed by the tantalizing idea that “the upright will hold sway over them in the morn.”  (15)It’s as if the rich, newly arrived at Sheol, wake up to find the poor and righteous are now their masters. This is the same kind of upside down image that Jesus used in so may of his parables.

Given the fate of the rich at the end, our poet is saying, we do not need to fear them while they are alive: “Do not fear when a man grows rich,…/For in his death he will not take all.” (17, 18) And not only will he not take his riches with him, he also won’t take whatever fame he’s accumulated during his life: “…his glory won’t go down behind him.” (18).  We need only think of deaths of celebrities to understand what the psalmist is saying here.

The rich man is centered on his own accomplishments, basically seeing himself as the source of blessings: “For his own self he blesses when alive”– even though he may give God the credit publicly: “…and acclaims You [God] for giving him bounty.” (19). But in the end it doesn’t really matter: “He will come to the state of his fathers–/forevermore will not see the light.” Or as economists are wont to put it: in the long run we’re all dead.

But the real theme here is that the rich are deluded in their riches as the poet ends this psalm in the style of the author of Ecclesiastes: “Man will not grasp things in splendor. / He is likened to beasts that are doomed.” (21) Except that this last verse applies to everyone of us, not just the wealthy: we are kidding ourselves if we think our accomplishments will accompany us to the grave. It’s far better to focus on other people, not on accumulation.

 Job 17,18: Job is exhausted to the point of death: “My spirit is broken, my days are extinct,/ the grave is ready for me.” (17:1) HIs friends are of no use: “Since you have closed their minds to understanding,/ therefore you will not let them triumph.” (4) Even the “upright are appalled at this,/ and the innocent stir themselves up against the godless.” (8)  But now that they have seen what has happened to Job, all their preconceived notions of God being fair are shattered and “I shall not find a sensible person among you.” (10)

For Job’s world has been turned upside down: “My days are past, my plans are broken off,/ the desires of my heart./ They make night into day.” But even death itself may not provide relief: “If I look for Sheol as my house,/ if I spread my couch in darkness,…/where then is my hope?” For to die is to lose hope. And here in his most desperate hour, Job clings to that one last hope. This is an amazingly sophisticated thought: that to die, to pray for death, is to have lost all hope. For Job: hope is all that remains. And hope is what keeps him alive.

At this lowest point, Bildad the Shuhite speaks.  He, too, is not particularly sympathetic, viewing Job’s lament as a mere “hunt for words.” (18:2) Bildad’s theology is very black and white and cannot admit subtlety. He tells Job it’s really very simple: God punishes the wicked: “Surely the light of the wicked is put out,/ and the flame of their fire does not shine.” (18:5) He then gives a long sermon about the woes that the wicked enjoy, including some of what has happened to Job: “By disease their skin is consumed,/ the firstborn of Death consumes their limbs.” (13) Everything that has happened to Job is, whether he wants to admit or not, a result of Job’s sinfulness as he ends with the flat out declaration: “Surely such are the dwellings of the ungodly,/ such is the place of those who do not know God.” (21)

There are lots of Christians out there who see the world in these same black and white terms–exactly as the Pharisees saw before them: There are consequences. You did bad things and bad things happen to you. But I think the book of Job is in the Bible to prove that it’s not as simple as that. Sometimes bad things just happen in spite of our righteousness. And with Job, we are bereft of logical explanations; only hope remains.

Romans 16:21–1 Corinthians 1:1–9: Intriguingly, the Moravians bridge the end of Romans to the beginning of 1 Corinthians. We have the final doxology in Romans that uses very familiar words, “Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ,…” (16:25) that leads inevitably to the greeting to the church at Corinth. I think this is an interesting way to remind us that Paul was a generous and gracious man, who gave others the credit, but at the center of it all is Jesus Christ himself. The last words of Romans: “… to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen.” stand in perfect symmetry to the first words of I Corinthians: “ Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God.”

While Romans was about the law, the letter to Corinth opens with grace: “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus,” (1:4) Knowing what comes later in this letter, we can understand why Paul opens with encouraging words.

But again, at the center of everything is Jesus Christ, repeated once again: “so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” (8,9) 

The lexical message is clear: Jesus Christ was at the center of Paul’s message; he is at the center of ours, as well. It is our duty to acknowledge–and live–that reality.

Psalm 49:1–12; Job 15,16; Romans 16:8–20

 Psalm 49:1–12: After introductory verses that establish the psalmist’s bona fides–“My mouth speaks wisdom,/ my heart’s utterance, understanding” (4)–he turns to the theme of the psalm: the foolishness of those who trust in anything besides God. At the top of the list is the persons “Who trust in their wealth/ and boast of their great riches.” (7) –a false trust that we see just as much today as when the psalm was written. Because, at some point, those who have depended on wealth for any sort will come to understand “they surely will redeem no man,/ will not give to God his ransom.” (8).

The foundations and charities of the rich notwithstanding, they too must answer the psalmist’s rhetorical question: “Will he yet live forever?/ Will he not see the Pit?” (10).  The poet sums up this reality of “you can’t take it with you” in a verse that could have been lifted straight out of Ecclesiastes: “For he see the wise dies,/ both the fool and the stupid man perish,/ and they abandon to others their wealth.” (11) Death is the Great Equalizer. Even for those who have known great fame, whose “names had been called upon the earth” (12b) are “likened to the beasts that are doomed.” (13).

Only one thing lives on after us: “in words alone, they show favor.” (14) And even then it will be only the words that we have recorded. Something to think about.

Job 15,16: Eliphaz the Temanite responds to Job’s dark soliloquy accusing Job of undermining belief in God and religion by “doing away with the fear of God,/ and hindering meditation before God.” (15:4)/ And then cruelly to Job, “Your own mouth condemns you, and not I;/ your own lips testify against you.” (15:6) suggesting that he has not “listened in the council of God.” (15:8) and is “one who is abominable and corrupt,/ one who drinks iniquity like water!” (15:16). Eliphaz is saying that all men are corrupt, including even self-righteous Job and cannot therefore approach God or know what God is up to.

Job just needs to realize his innate corruptness before God. If men depend on their own wisdom, if they “ trust in emptiness, deceiving themselves; … emptiness will be their recompense.” (15:31). In fact there is theological truth here. Eliphaz accuses Job of trying to understand the thoughts of God, which leads to a foolish and wrong headed wisdom that is mere emptiness at the end.  Mankind is intrinsically evil, he’s saying, ending his speech with the simple but depressing declaration, “They conceive mischief and bring forth evil/ and their heart prepares deceit.” (15:35) Something we know to be true.

So what gives?

Job responds to Eliphaz in the next chapter. His opening remarks include a statement that all of us have thought when we know that someone has not really listened to what we are saying, but are just lecturing us with their own brand of “wisdom:” “Have windy words no limit?/ Or what provokes you that you keep on talking?” (16:3).  [Definitely a really polite way of saying, “Shut up!”]

Not knowing the original deal between God and Satan, Job continues to insist that it is God who has caused his woes in verse after eloquent verse:

11 God gives me up to the ungodly,
    and casts me into the hands of the wicked.
12 I was at ease, and he broke me in two;
    he seized me by the neck and dashed me to pieces;
he set me up as his target;
13     his archers surround me.
He slashes open my kidneys, and shows no mercy;
he pours out my gall on the ground.  (16:11-13)

Without God, his faith shattered, there is nothing left for Job. And as the psalmist observed about the wealthy, emptiness is all that remains: “For when a few years have come,/ I shall go the way from which I shall not return.” (16:22). This chapter reveals Job’s deep despair of a shattered faith. We talk about “the patience of Job,” but I think that’s a mischaracterization. Job feels not only punished by God, but worse, he feels abandoned by God. There is no darker feeling to have had faith and then to have lost it because we believe God has turned his back on us.

Romans 16:8–20:If Paul were writing today he would have added a final “PSS” after his long list of names of people he commends and asks the recipients of his letter to greet on his behalf.

Since it’s the last thing Paul ever writes to the Romans (that we know about anyway) I have to think it is the one thing that weighs most heavily on his mind. It is not theology, nor is it the relationship of Jews and Gentiles or any of the other weighty matters he’s discussed. Instead, it is simple human behavior: “ I urge you, brothers and sisters, to keep an eye on those who cause dissensions and offenses, in opposition to the teaching that you have learned; avoid them.” (17) Because Paul knows it is dissension in the church that rips it apart. And finally, we are “to be wise in what is good and guileless in what is evil.” (19) If we cannot discern that crucial difference, then we are doomed.

What a challenge for us in today’s world, which is strikingly similar to the Roman world. We can distinguish between good and evil and as Paul says in Philippians 4, embrace that which is good, or we can head down the path of the world, following its evil. Paul’s message to the Romans–and to us–boils down to that crucial distinction. Will we make the right choice?

Psalm 48; Job 13:20–14:22; Romans 15:30–16:7

Psalm 48: This psalm has a similar tone and theme as the preceding one as it praises God, this time more specifically in Jerusalem, “in our God’s town, His holy mountain./ Lovely in heights, all the earth’s joy…the great King’s city.” (2,3)

I think we fail to appreciate just how central the idea that God dwelt in Jerusalem was to the Jewish religion. We tend to have a far more amorphous, everywhere conception of God. But for Israel, God had come and dwelt in the Ark and even after the Ark was lost, it was OK, because there was a temple in Jerusalem. This is where God performed his marvelous deeds: “We witnessed, O God, Your kindness/ in the midst of Your temple.” (10)

God’s presence in that single geographical spot brought great strength and protection, as well: “God in its bastions/ is famed as a fortress.” (4)

It is this protective quality of God at Jerusalem that gave military victory to Israel and terror to its enemies: “It is [the enemies] who have seen and so been  astounded,/ were panicked, dismayed./ Shuddering seized them there,/ pangs like a woman in labor.” (6,7).

Perhaps if I thought of God in the concrete terms that Israel did, I would trust him and understand more directly his great love for me.

Job 13:20–14:22: Job’s prayer shakes its fist at God, asking questions that humans still ask. Lest we think that we have any new thoughts when we wonder where God is or why God acts in such an arbitrary and yes, cruel fashion, Job was there ahead of us. Job asks the essential question: “Why do you hide your face,/ and count me as your enemy?” (13:24) Job accuses God directly: “For you write bitter things against me,/ and make me reap the iniquities of my youth./ You put my feet in the stocks…” (13:26, 27). And the result is emptiness, despair and death: “One wastes away like a rotten thing,/ like a garment that is moth-eaten.” (13:28)

He then reflects on the innate corruption of humankind (original sin?), noting that we are born, experience trouble and then die: “A mortal, born of woman, few of days and full of trouble,/ comes up like a flower and withers,/ flees like a shadow and does not last.” (14:1,2)  Job then tells God basically go away and let mortals enjoy what few moment they have in peace, undisturbed by God: “…look away from them, and desist,/ that they may enjoy, like laborers, their days.” (14:6) 

Job observes that “there is hope for a tree,/ if it is cut down, that it will sprout again,” (14:7), but as for mortals, “mortals die, and are laid low;/ humans expire, and where are they?” (14:10) Nevertheless, Job’s longing for an understanding, forgiving God is palpable: “You would call, and I would answer you;…my transgression would be sealed up in a bag,/ and you would cover over my iniquity.” (15:15, 17)

But for Job, that God is not forthcoming. There is only pain and darkness. God has abandoned humankind: “They feel only the pain of their own bodies,/ and mourn only for themselves.” (14:22)

Job’s God is so wildly different than the God we encounter just about everywhere else in the OT (except for Ecclesiastes). This God is exactly our 21st century conception of God, where people have decided that God, if he exists, is not interested in human affairs. We have been abandoned and therefore need live only for ourselves. With Job, we feel only the pain of our own bodies and mourn only for ourselves–unnoticed by the God of the universe.

But above all, whatever thoughts we come with on our own about abandonment, woe and despair, Job has been there before us.

Romans 15:30–16:7: Paul moves from theology to his personal circumstances and asks for the Romans’ prayers: join me in earnest prayer to God on my behalf, that I may be rescued from the unbelievers in Judea, and that my ministry to Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints.” (15:30,31).

And then the personal PS at the end of the letter. This is where we receive insight into Paul’s personality and his self-image, which above all was exceedingly generous. He never claimed all the credit, but spread it generously and joyfully among the saints. He includes a long Pauline list of friends who have helped him, beginning with a woman, Phoebe, a deacon “of the church at Cenchreae,” who “has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well.” (16:2).  (Which forces me to ask: why is it that many churches that want to interpret the Bible literally also prohibit women from serving as deacons or in positions of leadership?)

He also commends “Prisca and Aquila, who work with me in Christ Jesus,  and who risked their necks for my life.” (16:3). Probably rescuing Paul form one of the many riots he seemed to incite.

It would be great to know the individual stories of the many people listed here. But absent that, this list of names gives us a picture of the dynamism of the early church. But we know this: these are the saints on whose shoulders the church stands today.