Psalm 65:1–9a; Proverbs 7; 1 Corinthians 14:20–35

 Originally published 5/15/2017. Revised and updated 5/14/2019.

Psalm 65:1–9a: In this psalm of thanksgiving, our poet believes that God’s greatness is inexpressible—beyond words—and thus, he should be worshipped in silence as he calls all others to pray in silence as well:
To your silence is praise, god, in Zion,
and to You a vow will be paid.
O, listener to prayer,
Unto You all flesh shall come. (2, 3)

This psalm of worship opens—as should all worship, IMHO—with confession. Here, recognizing the important reality that we cannot bear our sins in silence. At some point we must come to God:
My deeds of mischief are too much for me.
Our crimes but You atone. (4)

Confession completed, the poem moves on into full worship mode in an aura of joy of a God who gives us far more than we deserve—or can ever expect:
Happy whom You chose to draw close,
he will dwell in your courts.
May we be sated with your house’s bounty,
the holiness of Your temple. (5)

Although centered at the temple at Jerusalem, the songs of worship expand beyond the temple to worship a God who both acts and rescues all creation:
With awesome acts justly You answer us,
our rescuing God,
refuge of all the earth’s ends
and the far-flung sea. (6)

As is the case in virtually every psalm of thanksgiving, God’s power is on full display via his acts in nature, as well as his intervention in the cacophonous affairs of humankind:
Who sets mountains firm in His power,
—He is girded in might—
Who quiets the roars of the seas,
the roar of their waves and the tumult of nations. (7,8)

I am struck by the parallel here of God who quiets the seas will also quiet the conflicts of nations. And such is my prayer at this fraught time in history. And I pray that someday the assertion of the psalmist will come to pass:
And those who dwell at earth’s ends will fear Your signs. (9a)

But right now, we humans are too self-absorbed and self-centered to realize that God is truly the one who controls our collective destiny. But will we listen to him? I am not optimistic

Proverbs 7: Given his relentless lecturing on the consequences of adultery, one is left with the impression that author must have been very close to an adulterous relationship—or to be somewhat heretical, perhaps even had been in an adulterous relationship himself.

Having already lectured about the conceptual evil of adultery, in this chapter he provides a real-life example of its consequences:
I observed among the youths,
    a young man without sense,
passing along the street near her corner,
    taking the road to her house
in the twilight, in the evening,
    at the time of night and darkness. (7-9)

How many of us were “young men without sense?” But given the misogynist bent of our author, it is the woman who seduces the youth:
Then a woman comes toward him,
    decked out like a prostitute, wily of heart.
She is loud and wayward;
    her feet do not stay at home;
now in the street, now in the squares,
    and at every corner she lies in wait.
She seizes him and kisses him… (10-13a)

And it is the married woman who proposes the amorous hookup (shades of Mrs Robinson in “The Graduate.”):
Come, let us take our fill of love until morning;
    let us delight ourselves with love.
For my husband is not at home;
    he has gone on a long journey. (18, 19)

Alas, the youth falls for her temptation—and once again, speech is the instrument:
With much seductive speech she persuades him;
    with her smooth talk she compels him.
Right away he follows her,
    and goes like an ox to the slaughter... (21, 22)

So, our author concludes, as if lecturing to a group of adolescents (which maybe he was!):
And now, my children, listen to me,
    and be attentive to the words of my mouth.
Do not let your hearts turn aside to her ways;
    do not stray into her paths. (24, 25)

Perhaps to truly strike the fear of God into his audience, our author concludes that to fall into this seductive trap is to set oneself up for an awful fate affecting one’s entire life:
For many are those she has laid low,
    and numerous are her victims.
Her house is the way to Sheol,
    going down to the chambers of death. (26, 27)

Regardless of what we may think of our author’s point of view about the woman seducing the man, I think it’s worth remembering the lesson here. Adultery is a life-ruining affair for all concerned.

1 Corinthians 14:20–35: It’s pretty clear by this time in the letter that glossalia—speaking in tongues—was rampant at the church at Corinth. Paul pretty much accuses them of thinking like children rather than adults: “Brothers and sisters, do not be children in your thinking; rather, be infants in evil, but in thinking be adults.” (20)

He makes his case by quoting Isaiah 28:11, which allows him to assert that “Tongues, then, are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers,” (22) as he rather logically concludes, “If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your mind?” (23) To which I can only add, “Amen!”

For Paul, prophecy is far superior to tongues because at its heart, prophecy is rational argumentation—and Paul is the poster child for rational argumentation.

But Paul is also a realist and he knows that his words will not eliminate glossalia, but he attempts to tamp it down by assigning it a limited role within worship—and then only of it has a clear purpose to “build up” rather than create dissension: “When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.” (26) Of course this is putting in action Paul’s thesis of different gifts coming together in worship. The sum of the different gifts is greater than each gift on its own.

Moreover, whoever is leading worship must limit the amount of glossolalia and in perhaps the toughest obstacle, to require another person interpret it: “If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn; and let one interpret.” (27) If no one is there to interpret, the the tongue-speakers must remain quiet: “But if there is no one to interpret, let them be silent in church and speak to themselves and to God.” (28) As always, prophecy is preferable and it has a clear purpose, “so that all may learn and all be encouraged.” (31)

Finally, Paul asserts that worship must be an orderly affair because “God is a God not of disorder but of peace.” (33) Having been to some worship services in my past that were way too casual, even verging on disorder, I heartily agree with Paul.

This reading concludes with one of Paul’s more divisive statements: “women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.” (34, 35) [One wonders if Paul really wrote this or if it was added in a later manuscript.]

As we know all too well, those words have been ripped out of both their biblical and cultural contexts and too often applied wantonly. Be that as it may, I’m pretty sure this statement is here immediately after the discussion about glossolalia because it may have been mostly women speaking in tongues at Corinth that was creating the problem. We also need to remember that the culture of the time was far more restrictive regarding the public role of women. Paul doubtless felt that the prohibition would create greater order at worship. As well, newcomers to the faith would not be as shocked—and possibly repelled—by women speaking at worship.

But we live in a far different culture and Paul’s words here have deprived too many churches of the gifts of women. And they are much the poorer for it.

 

Psalm 64; Proverbs 6; 1 Corinthians 14:6–19

 Originally published 5/13/2015. Revised and updated 5/13/2019.

Psalm 64: This David psalm opens with a heartfelt plea for God’s protection from his enemies:
Hear, God, my voice in my plea.
From fear of the enemy guard my life.
Conceal me from the counsel of evil men,
from the hubbub of the wrongdoers. (2, 3).

“Hubbub” certainly seems an appropriate word for the noise that surrounds us, especially from ubiquitous agenda-laden media and the cacophony of the Internet.

The true danger from these “evil men” is their barbed words that do so much damage. As is so often in the Psalms, we once again we encounter the hurtful power of the spoken word–which we can easily extend in our culture to the written word:
[They have] whetted their tongue like a sword,
pulled back their arrow–a bitter word–
to shoot in concealment the innocent.
In a flash shot him down without fear. (4, 5)

Two themes stand out here. First, there is intent: they “pull back their arrow.” These are not hurtful thoughts uttered inadvertently. There is a desire, a plan to hurt the victim. Second, the evil words come  “from concealment.” They are spoken in conspiratorial surprise; the victim has no opportunity to prepare for what is about to happen to him.

Those who speak evil revel in it and they enjoy conspiracy, basking in the knowledge that no one will stop them:
They encourage themselves with evil words.
They recount how traps should be laid.
They say, Who will see them? (6)

The source of the conspiracy ultimately lies in a man’s heart—the words are merely the expression of intrinsic evil:
We have hidden them from the utmost search,
in a man’s inward self,
and deep is the heart. (7)

But we also know that God will hear our plea and ultimately, he will strike down the evildoers:
But God will shoot an arrow at them
In a flash they will be struck down. (8)

Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of this eventuality is that it is their own words that will become their undoing:
And their tongue will cause them to stumble,
all who see them will nod in derision. (9)

There is a certain grim satisfaction in seeing conspirators undone by their own words. But it requires patience on our part—and the willingness to let God bring them down, not us.

Proverbs 6: The editors of the NRSV title this chapter, “Practical admonitions.” And so they are. In keeping with the theme of the psalm above, the very first admonition is the consequences of misspoken words: “you are snared by the utterance of your lips,/caught by the words of your mouth.” (2) And later, there is a warning about avoiding those of who try to con others:
A scoundrel and a villain
    goes around with crooked speech,
winking the eyes, shuffling the feet,
    pointing the fingers,
with perverted mind devising evil,
    continually sowing discord; (12-14)

Once again, we are reminded of the power of the spoken word—especially when spoken with evil intent.

The author then resorts to lists:
There are six things that the Lord hates,/ seven that are an abomination to him:
 (1) haughty eyes, (2) a lying tongue,
    and (3) hands that shed innocent blood,
   (4) a heart that devises wicked plans,
    (5) feet that hurry to run to evil,
   (6) a lying witness who testifies falsely,
   (7)  and one who sows discord in a family. (16-19)

Pride, lies, murder, conspiracy, seeking out evil, false testimony are certainly the sins we might expect to be on this list. But perhaps most surprisingly and profoundly, it is “one who sows discord in a family.

One thinks of feuds among siblings over inheritances, or actions such as adultery or abuse that tear a family apart.

Our author expands on the family theme with a profound insight into the awful consequences of adultery:
But he who commits adultery has no sense;
    he who does it destroys himself.
He will get wounds and dishonor,
and his disgrace will not be wiped away. (32-33)

The adulterer needs to be worried because the cuckholded husband will take out his revenge:
For jealousy arouses a husband’s fury,
    and he shows no restraint when he takes revenge.
He will accept no compensation,
    and refuses a bribe no matter how great. (34, 35)

And yet men continue to commit adultery. Not much seems to have changed over the millennia…

1 Corinthians 14:6–19: All three readings today deal with the problem of speech. Here, Paul continues to deal with “glossolalia,” speaking in tongues. Clearly, it was fairly rampant at Corinth and seen by many–as it is today–as a manifestation of one having a gift from the Holy Spirit. The owners of this gift had doubtless set themselves above the ungifted hoi polloi.

For Paul, the key aspect of glossolalia is the ability to interpret what has been uttered. Without interpretation it is gibberish. Words without communication are empty: “if in a tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is being said?” (9)

Proper interpretation is far more important than the actual glossolalia: “one who speaks in a tongue should pray for the power to interpret.” (13) As he does so often, Paul makes it clear that he has the gift in greater quantity than others, “I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you;” (18) But then he puts the gift into its proper perspective: “I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue.” (19).

I have witnessed a church torn asunder by a faction that viewed glossolalia as evidence of superior spirituality, and the view that those who lacked the “gift” were “in touch with the Holy Spirit.” As a result, I am always suspicious of this particular gift since it is speech it is so easy to abuse. (See warnings form Psalms and Proverbs above.)  Even with interpretation. God has given us us what in my opinion is a superior gift: the ability to speak and communicate clearly in actual language.

Psalm 63; Proverbs 5; 1 Corinthians 13:8–14:5

Originally published 5/12/2017. Revised and updated 5/11/2019.

Psalm 63: This thanksgiving psalm opens with a stark metaphor of thirst in the desert as the psalmist describes his intense quest for God:
God, my god, for You I search.
My throat thirsts for You,
my flesh yearns for You
in a land waste and parched with no water. (2)

I think it is in the desert places of our own lives where we are most likely to encounter God. Our defenses are down and we finally realize that we are no longer as in control of our lives as we once thought. I certainly know that has been true for me.

Our poet finds God in the desert and expresses ecstatic joy that becomes worship:
For Your kindness is better than life.
My lips praise You.
Thus, I bless You while I live,
Your name I lift up my palms. (4,5)

In contrast with the thirst of the desert our poet finds a sumptuous feast in worship:
As with ripest repast my being is sated,
And with lips of glad song my mouth declares praise. (6)

Gratitude beyond measure for God’s presence envelopes our poet, even as he lies in bed alone at night:
Yes, I recalled You on my couch.
In the night-watches I dwelled upon You.
For You were a help to me,
and in Your wings’ shadow I uttered glad song.
My being clings to You,
for Your right hand has sustained me. (7-9)

These verses remind us that God is always present and that we can find him and worship him or even in the dark of night and far from church. Not every experience with God occurs in community. God is present even in our deepest solitude. And for some of us, it’s in solitude that we may be more likely to encounter God.

No David psalm would be complete without a passing reference to his enemies and the corresponding wish for their destruction:
But they for disaster have sought my life—
may they plunge to the depth of the earth.
May their blood be shed by the sword,
may they be served up to the foxes. (10,11)

I love the contrasting images involving of meals. Our psalmist is sated by God’s generosity while he hopes his enemies become the main course for feasting animals.

Nor would a David psalm would be complete without some reference to the power of speech—and here it is in the negative as the poet concludes his psalm with the idea “all who swear by God will revel” [because] the mouth of liars is muzzled.” (12) Given the endless words coming in Washington DC, I wouldn’t object if every mouth—liar or not—were muzzled.

Proverbs 5: At first read there seems to be a misogynistic undertone here as our author continues to dispense his advice:
For the lips of a loose  woman drip honey,
    and her speech is smoother than oil;
but in the end she is bitter as wormwood,
    sharp as a two-edged sword. (3,4)

Of course there’s also some truth to his assertion as women have been seducing men (and the other way round) all through history. And as he asserts, “Her feet go down to death.” (5a) If not to death then certainly to ruin.

Our author then describes a pretty elaborate set of bad consequences should his listener fail to heed his warning and lose his honor through scandal:
you will give your honor to others,
    and your years to the merciless,
and strangers will take their fill of your wealth,
    and your labors will go to the house of an alien;
and at the end of your life you will groan. (9b-11)

It will all come to deep and very public regret. We are reminded of public officials and not a few ministers who have trod this very path:
…and you say, “Oh, how I hated discipline,
    and my heart despised reproof!
I did not listen to the voice of my teachers
    or incline my ear to my instructors.
Now I am at the point of utter ruin
    in the public assembly. (12-14)

The far better path is to remain faithful to one’s own spouse. Our poet employs a powerful metaphor of water to contrast the sexually faithful life with the dissolute path of seduction—and a barely concealed reference to a man’s semen:
Drink water from your own cistern,
    flowing water from your own well.
Should your springs be scattered abroad,
    streams of water in the streets?“(15, 16)

It all boils down to self-discipline, an old truism ignored in the breach as we witness so much self-centered indiscipline in today’s culture. On the contrary, the dire warnings, the consequences , and also the rewards of faithfulness are exactly the same today as they were three millennia ago. God still knows our thoughts and deeds:
For human ways are under the eyes of the Lord,
    and he examines all their paths.
The iniquities of the wicked ensnare them,
    and they are caught in the toils of their sin.
They die for lack of discipline,
    and because of their great folly they are lost.”  (21-23)

Truer words have never been spoken, and these days we seem to be witnessing folly—and real stupidity—on an enormous scale on all sides in Washington DC.

1 Corinthians 13:8–14:5: Paul tells us that love is the one sure thing: “Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end.” (13:8) Love remains and and love trumps all else, even such wonderful things as faith and hope. For even these cannot flourish without love: “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” (13:13)

Paul shifts the theme away from love to the maturity that true love for God brings to our lives. And as the author of Proverbs reminds us above, this requires the adult discipline that comes with love-based maturity: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.” (13:11) What is disturbing is when we see adults engaging in childish behavior, which again is on full display on Washington DC.

But even as disciplined, mature adults we will not understand everything, most especially God’s ways. As Paul famously reminds us, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (13:12) So when someone asserts they have true knowledge of what God intends for them (or worse, for me) in a particular circumstance, it’s always helpful to recall this verse. God is loving and kind but he is also inscrutable. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be God.

In the next chapter paul turns to the thorny issue of tongues (glossolalia) as a spiritual gift. This is still a thorny issue in many churches today. Glossolalia is not a means of communication but rather a gift that really benefits only to the individual speaking it: “For those who speak in a tongue do not speak to other people but to God; for nobody understands them, since they are speaking mysteries in the Spirit.” (14:2) and “Those who speak in a tongue build up themselves.” (14:4a)

Paul the contrasts the public benefits of prophecy—”those who prophesy build up the church.” (4b)—with the private benefits of glossolalia. So even though Paul has no particular problem with people speaking in tongues, he’d prefer more prophesy since that’s a positive influence on the health of the church: “One who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up.” (5)

I’m a bit more conservative than Paul: I’d be happy to not have tongues at all since its very weirdness (at least in our culture) becomes a distraction at best and a divisive issue (as it has in many churches) at worst.

 

Psalm 62; Proverbs 3:21–4:27; 1 Corinthians 12:27–13:7

Originally published 5/11/2017. Revised and updated 5/10/2019.

Psalm 62: There’s an excellent contemporary song, whose first line—”Only in God is my heart at rest”—is the first line of this psalm. Alter translates it somewhat differently, but I think it is a powerful opening stanza for any prayer in any circumstance:
Only in God is my being quiet.
From Him my rescue.
Only he is my rock and my rescue,
my stronghold—I shall not stumble. (2, 3)

What is not in the song are the verses that follow where our poet speaks to what I take to be a conspiracy plotting against David in whose voice the psalm is written:
How long will you demolish a man—
commit murder, each one of you—
like a leaning wall,
a shaky fence?
Only from his high place they schemed to shake him,
They took pleasure in lies.“(4, 5a)

Perhaps worse than the conspiracy itself is that the conspirators were conniving hypocrites—another proof that human nature has not changed one whit in three millennia:
With their mouths they blessed
and inwardly cursed. (5b)

Realizing the enormity of the evil around him, our poet’s David repeats the refrain of the opening, reassuring himself, “Only in God be quiet, my being,/ from Him is my hope.” (7) But then David remembers that God is not solely for him. Rather, God is for all people, and it is God to whom we bring our worries and our confessions:
Trust in Him at all times, O people.
Pour out your hearts before Him.
God is our shelter. (9)

Moreover, he continues, do not be deceived by those who are out to get you, even if in the short run the apparent reward is personal gain:
Do not trust in oppression
and of theft have no illusions.
Though it bear the fruit of wealth,
“set not your heart upon it.” (11)

This is our poet’s crucial insight and totally applicable to today. How we love to be distracted from God by the promise of wealth or power. Yet in the long run, all that comes to nothing. The alternative—turning to God— is far superior:
One thing God has spoken,
two things have I heard:
that strength is but God’s,
and Yours, Master, is kindness. (12)

God is indeed the source of our strength and he is a bottomless well of kindness. Would that I come to that well of goodness more frequently than I do. For it is there that I am both protected and nourished.

Proverbs 3:21–4:27: Speaking of security, our Solomonic author seems to out a little more faith into wisdom—albeit coming from God—than in trusting God directly. Nevertheless, this God-given wisdom protects us:
Do not be afraid of sudden panic,
    or of the storm that strikes the wicked;
for the Lord will be your confidence
    and will keep your foot from being caught. (3:25, 26)

A whole list of “Do nots” follows, focusing on relationships with others, including keeping one’s word (28); not harming or conspiring against one’s neighbor (29); not quarreling (30); or being envious of rapacious wickedness (30). In a precursor to the Sermon on the Mount, our author reminds us that God favors righteous humility:
The Lord’s curse is on the house of the wicked,
    but he blesses the abode of the righteous.
Toward the scorners he is scornful,

    but to the humble he shows favor. (3:33, 34)

Chapter 4 focuses on parental advice that has echoed down the ages but now in our post_CHristian culture seems to have faded from view in the name of gender equality:
Listen, children, to a father’s instruction,
    and be attentive, that you may gain  insight;
for I give you good precepts:
    do not forsake my teaching.” (4:1,2)

After advising his children to “Get wisdom; get insight: do not forget, nor turn away / from the words of my mouth,” (4:5) our author reminds his children to avoid the same kind of wicked company that today’s psalm above warns against:
Do not enter the path of the wicked,
    and do not walk in the way of evildoers.
Avoid it; do not go on it;
    turn away from it and pass on. (4:14, 15)

This is pretty much what our psalmist is saying. But unlike our psalmist, who sees trust in God as the key to protection, here the instructions are much more didactic—and dare I say, less inspiring. Nevertheless, it’s important advice that remains completely relevant today:
Keep your heart with all vigilance,
    for from it flow the springs of life.
Put away from you crooked speech,
    and put devious talk far from you.
Let your eyes look directly forward,
    and your gaze be straight before you. (4:23-25)

As we see in so many Psalms, the emphasis here on being careful in our speech because words can be powerful weapons that create havoc and perhaps even worse, undermine trust. And there’s no question that a “straight gaze” ahead to a God-given goal is far superior than the mindless distractions that, as far as this author is concerned (with reason!), lead to no good end.

My best friend in high school, alas, allowed himself to be distracted by drugs at UC Berkeley and essentially ruined a life that held enormous promise. We may think this advice to follow the straight path is hokey, but it is grounded in great truth, and leads to a far richer, far better life.

1 Corinthians 12:27–13:7: Paul closes his argument about spiritual gifts by pointing out that it is God who has brought different people with different gifts into the church: “God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues.” (12:28) In short, your gifts are God-given, people. Use them and be neither disparaging nor envious of the gifts of others.

Then Paul tells the Corinthians, “I will show you a still more excellent way,” (12:31) which is at the very foundation of how we exercise those gifts. That of course is love, as we come to what I believe is the most well-known and the most-quoted piece of Pauline writing: his famous discourse on love.

Love trumps all else: “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” (13:1) Absent love, Paul tells us, we are nothing even if our life is full of deep understanding of mysteries and packed with good deeds. If the wisdom of the book of Proverbs is dispensed without a foundation of true, abiding love for one another, there is only noise.

Rather, “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (13:4-7)

This passage has been ripped out of its context so many times—especially at weddings—that people tend to think Paul is talking about romantic love. He is not. This is where English falls short of Greek that had different words for different types of love. Paul is describing a far, far deeper love—a mature agape love that is at the very foundation of meaningful human relationships—and of the love that is the foundation of our relationship with Jesus Christ.

Paul is talking especially about the love that must be present in each person in the body of Christ, the church. Alas, this is where it seems too often to be missing most of all.

The unspoken question hangs in the air: Do I have a love that will endure the irritations an small injustices that are so often on display at church? Even more importantly, am I a source of irritation and injustice with other Christians such that I have negated the power of agape love with my own self-centeredness?

 

Psalm 61; Proverbs 2:9–3:20; 1 Corinthians 12:12–26

Originally published 5/10/2017. Revised and updated 5/9/2019.

Psalm 61: This psalm of supplication is far gentler and more reflective than some of the others that call upon God to listen up and to destroy enemies. The opening verse even suggests it is sung rather than spoken:
Hear, God, my song,
listen close to my prayer. (2)

Unlike others that that are full of anger and affirming about God’s rescue only at the last few lines, our psalmist here knows that God is reliable no matter in what circumstances the poet may find himself:
From the end of the earth I call You.
When my heart faints, You lead me to a rock high above me.(3)

God is not only rescuer, he is also shelter from tribulation as our psalmist plans to remain close to God throughout his life. For me, this is a beautiful expression of a life lived in confident faith—a faith wrapped in gratitude that God will never abandon us.
For You have been a shelter to me,
a tower of strength in the face of the foe.
Let me dwell in Your tent for all time,
let me shelter in Your wings’ hiding-place.“(4, 5)

Again, there is confidence not only that God has heard his prayer but that he will act:
For You, God, have heard my vows,
You have granted the plea of those who fear Your name. (6)

Suddenly the focus shifts from the psalmist’s own needs to a concluding plea that God increase the longevity of the king:
Days may You add to the days of the king,
his years be like those of generations untold.
May he ever abide in the presence of God.
Steadfast kindness ordain to preserve him. (7,8)

While at first glance this petition on behalf of the king seems to be a non-sequitur, it is really just a desire on the part of a subject that the king enjoy the same protection in God as the psalmist has found for himself. We do much the same thing today when we pray for the well-being of our political leaders (even though this is increasingly difficult). Paul also advises somewhere that we are to pray for our secular leaders.

Proverbs 2:9–3:20: The Moravians seem intent on zipping quickly through Proverbs.

The author continues to assert that the man who follows God will receove innumerable benefits:
Then you will understand righteousness and justice
    and equity, every good path;
for wisdom will come into your heart,
    and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul; (2:9,10)

Wisdom as a gift from God is also the key to avoiding the enticements of sexual immorality with an adulteress. That it is the woman who is the temptress may be case sometimes, but in today’s culture it is more often the man exercising the power:
You will be saved from the loose woman,
    from the adulteress with her smooth words,
who forsakes the partner of her youth
    and forgets her sacred covenant; (2:16, 17)

Again we are reminded to trust in God’s wisdom, not our own wits, in these famous verses (which I recall memorizing many years ago):
Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
    and do not rely on your own insight.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
    and he will make straight your paths.” (3: 5,6)

But our personal responsibilities extend beyond just trusting God. We must also endure his correction when we stray or sin. This is what will strengthen us in the long run:
My child, do not despise the Lord’s discipline
    or be weary of his reproof,
for the Lord reproves the one he loves,
    as a father the son in whom he delights. (3:11, 12)

I tend to recoil from the idea of a God who would allow bad things to happen to me. (This is why the book of Job is in the Bible, I think.) But there’s little question that at least in my own experience that it has been the difficult times that have not only brought me closer to God, but I think have also increased whatever wisdom I may possess.

Then, there is the idea of “true wealth” that is found in wisdom rather than pecuniary gain:
Happy are those who find wisdom,
    and those who get understanding,
for her income is better than silver,
    and her revenue better than gold.
She is more precious than jewels,
    and nothing you desire can compare with her. (3:13-15)

As I have grown older I see the truth of this statement. The true life is not about acquiring wealth or power. It is about being closer to family, to friends, and to God. And for me, there is no greater truth expressed in this reading than right here:
[Wisdom] is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her;
    those who hold her fast are called happy. (3:18)

Wisdom that grows as a result of following God is truly the source of the true happiness and contentment in life.

1 Corinthians 12:12–26: Paul continues his essay on spiritual gifts by addressing the issue within the Corinthian church that some people with “greater gifts” have been lording it over others seemingly less blessed. He uses the famous metaphor of the body, stating that “as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.” (12) In short, everyone plays a vital role in the well-being of the church.

Paul then famously goes on to point out that a living body has many ‘members’ —what I would call components or sub-systems—each with a different function but all working together harmoniously: “Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many.” (14) He makes the logical argument that even if the foot and ear were to call themselves something else that would seem to have a higher status—here, a  hand and eye respectively—they nevertheless remain a foot and an ear. I take this to mean we have been given specific gifts and functions and that ambition to be something other than who we are is an ultimately futile undertaking. I know this personally when Susan and I taught a kindergarten Sunday school class so many years ago.

This is all to the good because Paul is making it clear that the foot and ear are just as essential to the functioning of the body as its more popular members: “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?” (17)

The crucial issue here is that  it is “God [who] arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose.” (18) In other words, our gifts are God-given. And God insists on a variety of gifts for the church to be a healthy body: “If all were a single member, where would the body be?” (19)

Paul gets to the nub of the Corinthian conflict by noting that because each part of the physical and metaphorical body is God-given, one part cannot reject the other: “The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” (21) In fact, Paul continues, some of these parts of the body that “we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect.” (23) This seems a clear reference to sexual organs and while they may be hidden form view they are just as honorable—and necessary.

So too, in church where many may labor without visibility or public acknowledgement. These folks hidden from view deserve even greater respect than the more visible leadership. Alas, there are too many church leaders who think it’s all about them and the church body suffers for their self-centeredness. We can be sure that whatever was going on at Corinth is still going on today and we need the constant reminder that “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” (26) And I fear there are a lot of suffering churches out there.

 

Psalm 60; Proverbs 1:1–2:8; 1 Corinthians 11:31–12:11

Originally published 5/9/2017. Revised and updated 5/8/2019.

Psalm 60: This psalm’s superscription asserts it is linked to the incidents described in 2 Samuel 10 when David led Israel’s army against Moab and Edom and Joab “struck down twelve thousand in the Valley of Salt.” (2)

The opening verses are awash in complaints to God, who in turn was angry with Israel and expressed his anger in earthquakes and other punishments—none of which are described in the 2 Samuel passage:
God, You have abandoned us, breached us.
You were incensed—restore us to life!
You made the land quake, You cracked it.
Heal its shards, for it has toppled.
You sated Your people with harsh drink,
You made us drink poison wine.” (3-5)

There’s a longing on the part of the psalmist (speaking in David voice) to restore the previous relationship:
You once gave to those who fear You
a banner for rallying because of the truth.
” (6)

As if to remind him, our psalmist goes on to name various tribes, recounting a past when God rejoiced in the his relationship with Israel:
God once spoke in His holiness:
‘Let me exult and share out Shechem,
and the valley of Sukkoth I shall measure
Mine is Gilead and Mine Manasseh,
and Ephraim My foremost stronghold,
Judah My scepter. (8, 9)

Our psalmist contrasts that once excellent relationship with God’s longstanding negative disposition against Israel’s enemies in humiliating terms:
Moab is My washbasin,
upon Edom I fling my sandal,
over Philistia I shout exultant. (10)

This is an almost sarcastic plea for God to join with Israel, which he once loved, against its enemies, which he has always despised. Our psalmist’s David asks directly for God’s strategic help at this time of crisis:
Who will lead me to the besieged town,
Who will guide me to Edom? (11)

The final three verses follow the usual threefold arc from supplication to wondering why God has abandoned them to a concluding confidence that God will indeed join their side:
Have You not, O God, abandoned us?
You do not sally forth, God, with our armies.
Give us help against the foes
when rescue by man is in vain.
Through God we shall gather strength,
and He will stamp out our foes. (12-14)

This is the emotional path we so often follow in our own relationship with God. We feel deserted and alone, but after reflecting and yes, yelling at God for a while, our spirit will be restored—knowing that God is indeed on our side.

Proverbs 1:1–2:8: The author(s) of Proverbs attribute this collection of wise sayings to Solomon, although I suspect these aphorisms and observations were collected much later in Israel’s history, perhaps during the Babylonian exile.

The prologue clearly sets out the purpose of this book:
For learning about wisdom and instruction,
    for understanding words of insight,
for gaining instruction in wise dealing,
    righteousness, justice, and equity;
to teach shrewdness to the simple,
    knowledge and prudence to the young… (1:2-4)

But looming above all these excellent purposes is the overarching precept: a wise man has a righteous relationship with God:
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge;
    fools despise wisdom and instruction. (1:7)

Happily for all mothers and fathers, the first proverb in this book is one that states that parents are the civilizing source of knowledge to children:
Hear, my child, your father’s instruction,
    and do not reject your mother’s teaching;
for they are a fair garland for your head,
    and pendants for your neck. (1:8, 9)

In our own “enlightened” and “progressive” culture where family has been redefined to include any combination of genders or more tragically, only a single parent, these words are often derided as obsolete or, worse, patriarchal. Yet the two sex, two parent family is the basis of civilization. We redefine the family at our long term peril.

The parent’s first word of advice to her child is exactly what we encounter in so many psalms. They warn against being tempted by, or worse, consorting with evil companions:
My child, if sinners entice you,
    do not consent. (1:10)

The reason is simple: conspiracy and greed are self-destructive and lead inevitably to a bad outcome:
For in vain is the net baited
    while the bird is looking on;
yet they lie in wait—to kill themselves!
    and set an ambush—for their own lives!
Such is the end of all who are greedy for gain;
    it takes away the life of its possessors.”(1:17-19)

Rather, we should follow the ways of wisdom—presented here as a female entity:
Wisdom cries out in the street;
    in the squares she raises her voice. (1:20)

And then we encounter a verse that seems to perfectly capture the zeitgeist of American society in 2019—particularly in Washington DC:
How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?
How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing
    and fools hate knowledge? (1:22)

The author goes on to describe the benefits of wisdom, reminding us that true wisdom is God-given:
For the Lord gives wisdom;
    from his mouth come knowledge and understanding;
he stores up sound wisdom for the upright;
    he is a shield to those who walk blamelessly,
guarding the paths of justice
    and preserving the way of his faithful ones. (2:6-8)

But we also need to remember that acquiring wisdom requires significant effort on our part. It does not come automatically but only after thoughtful reflection and disciplined study:
…treasure up my commandments within you,
making your ear attentive to wisdom
    and inclining your heart to understanding.” (2:2)

These verses remind me that information—in which we are so inundated—is not knowledge, much less wisdom. But because our culture no longer fears God, I think it is stuck in collective simple mindedness. We are unable to discriminate between what is true and what is false or worse, not even caring.

1 Corinthians 11:31–12:11:
Paul concludes his essay on the difference between Communion and plain old eating, advising the Corinthians, “If you are hungry, eat at home, so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation.” (11:34a) He also makes the intriguing statement, “About the other things I will give instructions when I come.” (12:34b) We are left wondering what “these other things” were about.

We now arrive at one of the centerpiece themes of this letter: Paul’s essay on spiritual gifts. While Paul does not come out and give us the back story, his words suggest that the Corinthians were creating a hierarchy of gifts, thereby setting certain people with certain skills as being superior to others less endowed. Moreover, those who lorded it over others doubtless believed their gifts were self-created rather than coming from God. Paul sets them straight on both fronts.

Paul is clear on this point: all gifts have the same source—and it’s not ourselves: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.” (12:4-6)  Equally important, these gifts have a single immutable purpose: “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” (12:7) That is, gifts are for the benefit of the entire community, not just the individual. In short, gifts are a means, not an end.

Paul, being Paul, goes on to list the various types of gifts including faith, working miracles, prophecy, and healing. These all come from the Holy Spirit, including the one that is still contentious today, glossalia: “to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.” (12:10)

Regardless of my attitude about some of these gifts, as well ongoing theological debates as whether or not they are still relevant today, there is one immutable reality: “All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.” (12:11) So it is good when we correctly identify our gifts and then use them. But it is far less good if we use our gifts as a means of feeling superior to others.

 

Psalm 59:11–18; Job 42; 1 Corinthians 11:17–30

Originally published 5/8/2017. Revised and updated 5/7/2019.

Psalm 59:11–18: Our psalmist continues to express his faith that God will wreak vengeance against his enemies:
My steadfast God will come to meet me,
God will grant me the sight of my foes’ defeat. (11)

However, he changes his mind about wishing for their death, now preferring that God would make an example of them, demonstrating to others the folly of rejecting God:
Do not kill them lest my people forget.
Through Your force make them wander, pull them down,
our shield and master. (12)

In fact, it should be their own deceitful words that bring them down and become objects of derision:

Through their mouth’s offense, the word of their lips
they will be trapped in their haughtiness,
and through the oaths and the falsehood they utter. (13)

How many times have I wished for those whom I believe to be deceitful to be hoisted on their own petard!  There is scarcely a more satisfying feeling to see someone trapped by his own lie. Usually they are politicians…

Perhaps in the heat of the emotion that envelopes this psalm, our psalmist suddenly changes his mind and once again he wishes for the fairly violent death of those same enemies—and that it would be good if those deaths receive widespread publicity as an example of God’s power and the cost of abandoning God:
Destroy, O destroy in wrath, that they be no more,
and it will be known to the ends of the earth
that God rules over Jacob.” (14)

Clearly, our psalmist is writing in stream of consciousness about the evil these enemies have wrought as he suddenly switches back to recalling their behavior, this time comparing them to roving packs of dogs:
They come back at evening,
they mutter like dogs.
They prowl round the town.
They wander in search of food
if they are not sated, till they pass the night. (15,16)

The food in this case being their innocent victims. The psalm concludes with one more declaration of the poet’s steadfast faith in God and in God’s protection:
But I shall sing of Your strength,
and chant gladly each morning of our kindness. (17a)

I think this psalm brilliantly lays out in poetry the kinds of often wild thoughts that rattle through our head when we have been wronged by someone. We can think all kinds of evil thoughts and hope they are targets of God’s vengeance. But in the end we can trust only in our relationship with God because unlike humans, God is resolutely faithful and recognizing this we sing with the psalmist:
My strength, to You I would hymn,
for God is my fortress,
my steadfast God.” (18)

Job 42: The story of Job is wrapped up fairly efficiently in this final chapter as Job finally speaks, admitting that he may have been a bit too presumptuous regarding his relationship with God:
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
    things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” (3)

But Job’s more significant statement is the one that for me describes the essential element of true faith in God:
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
    but now my eye sees you;
therefore I despise myself,
    and repent in dust and ashes. (5, 6)

Here, I think, is the author’s message: Faith is not just an intellectual “hearing exercise.” Rather, true faith comes by (1) recognizing that God is God and (2) seeing ourselves for the sinners we are. The core of faith is recognizing our state of sinfulness and that regardless of our good deeds and our good words we cannot save ourselves. It is this recognition of “despising myself,” which Job expresses here that leads to repentance—and to being acceptable to God.

Job’s erstwhile friends receive their comeuppance because rather than recognize and repent as Job has, they have bloviated about theology and their suppositions of what God does and does not do. God lays it on the line to Eliphaz: “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” (7)

In the end, it’s really quite simple: Job recognizes that God is God and he—like all of us— is God’s broken creature and in this recognition, he repents. The three friends have not done this yet. All they’ve done is talk. So it is Job who must intercede with God on behalf of his friends and “and the Lord accepted Job’s prayer.” (9) BTW, Elihu is not mentioned. I wonder what his fate was?

Restoration follows repentance as “the Lord restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends; and the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before.” (10)

So what’s the takeaway from this frequently troubling book? For me it is that we must recognize that God is God and that’s there’s nothing we can do to alter that reality. Further, it is the height of arrogance for us— his creatures—to pretend we understand God’s intentions and motivations. All we can do is recognize that we are not God.

We also need to remember that we have a profound advantage over Job and his friends. We know that Jesus Christ came to die for us and to restore us to a right relationship with God. And we do not need to take 42 chapters of speeches to figure this out.

1 Corinthians 11:17–30: Paul emphasizes that the factions at Corinth have pretty much created chaos that is especially visible around their attempts to recreate the Last Supper: “When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk.” (20, 21)

Paul makes it clear that the Lord’s supper is no ordinary meal. In fact, he remonstrates, “What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in?” (22) Thus, Paul establishes good practice—a practice whose words we still hear today every time we come to the table of Jesus—words worth quoting in their entirety:
…that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for  you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (23-26)

We can be grateful that Paul said these words for each time we hear them we are connected directly back to the very earliest Church.

Accompanying this institution Paul immediately warns the folks at Corinth—and all of us—that we must take our participation very seriously: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord.” (27)

And he follows with a crucial instruction that we too often ignore: “Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup.” (28) In other words we must be fully aware of who we are and what we have done before partaking in the Eucharist. Which is one of the reasons I find the idea of a worship service that includes communion but excludes confession to be incomplete because it subtly allows us to skip over Paul’s instruction about self-examination.

Psalm 59:1–9; Job 41; 1 Corinthians 11:3–16

Originally published 5/6/2017. Revised and updated 5/6/2019.

Psalm 59:1–9: The introductory verse of this psalm refers to the incident described in I Samuel 19 where Saul sends assassins to David’s house. WIth the help of his wife, Michal, David manages to escape. The first stanza is a straightforward prayer of supplication as David prays for God to rescue him:
Save me from my enemies, my God,
over those who rise against me make me safe. (2)

Not surprisingly, our psalmist, writing in David’s voice, castigates his pursuers as evil and himself as the innocent subject of a vast conspiracy:
Save me from the wrongdoers,
and from men of bloodshed rescue me.
For, look, they lie in wait for my life,
the powerful scheme against me
—not for my wrong nor my offense, O Lord. (3-5)

This is yet another example of why the Psalms are so psychologically on target. David rightly feels attacked and just as we would in the same circumstance, he casts himself as the weaker, oppressed party. And he calls out for justice, whose desired outcome is the punishment of his traitorous enemies:

And You, Lord, God of armies, God of Israel,
Awake to make a reckoning with all the nations.
Do not pardon all wrongdoing traitors. (6)

He goes on to describe his murderous enemies in stark metaphor:
“They come back at evening,
they mutter like dogs
They prowl round the town.” (7)

Then, as happens so frequently in the Psalms, the focus shifts from the enemy’s attempts to take David’s life to the generally destructive energy of slanderous speech:
Look, they speak out with their mouths—
and swords on their lips—” (8)

We cannot overemphasize the theme of the evil effects of slanderous speech that threads through the Psalms. This is the same kind of hateful speech we witness too frequently in so-called “social media.” But in the end, as far as God is concerned, evil speech is ultimately ineffectual:
And You, Lord, laugh at them,
You mock all the nations. (9)

Once again, we’ve encountered a sudden shift from David’s personal danger to God’s all-encompassing view of humankind’s ultimately feeble efforts. But would God actually “mock all the nations”? I think this is a descriptively emotional comment on the part of the psalmist rather than an accurate theological statement. Again, we need to be careful to keep the emotional expressions in the Psalms separate from doctrinal theology.

Job 41: As far as the author of Job is concerned, God is just as wordy as Elihu. He now spends many verses describing Leviathan, the oceanic parallel to land-based Behemoth. And once again, God asks a rhetorical question verging on the sarcastic:
Can you draw out Leviathan  with a fishhook,
    or press down its tongue with a cord?
Can you put a rope in its nose,
    or pierce its jaw with a hook? (1-2)

God’s sarcasm intensifies as he points out that Leviathan has no interaction with humans:
Will it make many supplications to you?
    Will it speak soft words to you?
Will it make a covenant with you
    to be taken as your servant forever?
Will you play with it as with a bird,
    or will you put it on leash for your girls?
Will traders bargain over it?
    Will they divide it up among the merchants? (3-6)

These questions answer themselves: Of course not. So Job’s God goes on for quite a while describing the frightening qualities of Leviathan, including:
There is terror all around its teeth.
Its back is made of shields in rows,
shut up closely as with a seal. (14b, 15)

And my particular favorite:
Its sneezes flash forth light,
    and its eyes are like the eyelids of the dawn. (18)

I have to believe that the author of Revelation was familiar with God’s speech here in Job as many of the adjectives and similes are very similar as they connote immense power, e.g., “From its mouth go flaming torches; / sparks of fire leap out.” (19) Unsurprisingly, any human efforts to conquer Leviathan will prove fruitless:
The arrow cannot make it flee;
    slingstones, for it, are turned to chaff.
Clubs are counted as chaff;
    it laughs at the rattle of javelins. (28, 29)

All very entertaining, but why would God say any of this? Is he cynically driving his point home for Job? Or perhaps our author is using his imagination and literary license to once again make the point that God is God and there’s absolutely nothing we humans can do about anything that God creates or wills into existence, including these mythical beasts. In any event, by this time we readers are saying, “OK, I get it enough already. Yes, you’re God and we’re not.”

But perhaps that’s the point. We constantly want to be small-g gods ourselves and we try over and over to conceive of our puny human selves as having power over creation. That’s certainly true today as we tend to believe there’s a technological solution to every problem when we in fact we do not. Perhaps the greatest demonstration of this hubris is thinking that we have the power to halt or reverse climate change. Yes, we can—and should—become better stewards of the planet, but just as we cannot control Behemoth or Leviathan it’s futile to think we can usurp God’s true creative power that is infinitely greater than ours.

1 Corinthians 11:3–16: We arrive at one of the more troubling, almost misogynistic, passages where Paul deals with the contentious issue at Corinth about headgear during worship:  “Any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head—it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved.” (4,5)  Really, Paul?

My own somewhat heretical feeling is that these are not Paul’s words, but were added in at some point to address an issue in the early church. the issue of head coverings may have been important in the Corinthian culture, but we live in a very different world today—although I’m old enough to remember when Catholic women were required to wear head covering or hats at mass. I also remember my Mom wearing hats to church on Sundays in the 1950’s.

But for me, headgear is not the most troubling aspect of this passage. Again, bearing in mind that Paul (or the scribe who added this passage) was writing in a particular time to a particular culture, had a rather rigid view of sexual hierarchy: “but woman is the reflection of man. Indeed, man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man.” (7b-9) One wonders how many husbands down through the centuries have used this passage to justify unfair oppression of their wives.  Since many churches take Scripture quite literally, we have an entire sector of Christianity where women cannot take leadership roles—much less become pastors.

These same folks tend to skip right over Paul’s rather tepid assertion that “in the Lord woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman.” (11) And he even acknowledges that men are born via women: “ For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman;” (12) Yes, we are in a partnering relationship and yes, there is a need for clear understanding of roles within a male-female relationship. But IMHO, too much wrong has been committed based on Paul’s assertion of man superior to woman.

On balance, I’m left feeling pretty annoyed with Paul that he would take up this much scriptural space worrying about things like hair length: “Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory?” (14, 15) Frankly, I think Paul (or the later scribe) is trying to (no pun intended) disentangle himself from an issue that was peculiar to a particular time and place. While there is truth here about male-female relationships, we should nevertheless read this passage in his cultural context and thoughtfully see what and how these rules apply—or don’t apply—in our own cultural context. 

 

Psalm 58; Job 40; 1 Corinthians 10:23–11:2

Originally published 5/5/2017. Revised and updated 5/4/2019.

Psalm 58: Alter warns us in his notes regarding this psalm that “the Hebrew text of this psalm, from this verse to the end, with the sole exception of the ferocious verses 7 and 11, is badly mangled. As a result, a good deal of the translation is necessarily conjectural or must rely on emendation.”

With that caution in mind we can wallow in some of the more dramatic imagery that this psalm employs to condemn hypocrites with power—the current crop of politicians and erstwhile presidential candidates (and president) comes to mind.

Our psalmist asserts that while leaders may speak of justice, their hearts are cynical and their deeds are wicked:
Do you, O chieftains, indeed speak justice,
in rightness judge humankind?
In your heart you work misdeeds on earth,
weigh a case with outrage in your hands. (2,3)

One gets the impression that the psalmist has recently lost a case in court and this psalm expresses his outrage regarding the injustice of the verdict. He goes on to condemn these hypocrites as being rotten from birth and employs a viper as a simile, making sure that we understand just how loathsome they are:
The wicked backslide from the very womb,
the lie-mongers go astray from birth.
They have venom akin to the serpents venom,
like the deaf viper that stops its ears,
so it hears not the soothsayer’s voice
nor the cunning caster of spells. (4-6)

Who knew that vipers have ears? Now that he’s described just how evil they are, he prays to God to bring disaster down on their heads in rather graphic terms:
God, smash their teeth in their mouth.
The jaws of lions shatter, O Lord
Let them melt away, like water run off.
Let Him [i.e. God] pull back His arrows so the be cut down. (7, 8)

Just to make sure God gets the point, our angry psalmist uses the strongest curses and the vilest imagery he can think of:
Like a snail that moves in its slime,
a woman’s stillbirth that sees not the sun,
before their thorns ripen in bramble,
still alive and in wrath rushed to ruin. (9,10)

But we must also always remember, as the psalmist does here, that vengeance, however desirable, is carried out only by God:
The just man rejoices when vengeance he sees,
his feet he will bathe in the wicked one’s blood. (11)

As far as the psalmist is concerned, only after God acts will he see true justice:
And man will say, ‘Yes, there is fruit for the just.’
Yes, there are gods judging the earth. (12)

Wow. Now this would make for one angry but very literary Facebook post. The lesson here is that we can express the angriest possible thoughts and wishes to God. God can take our curses, but we can never forget it is God who must act in vengeance, not us.

Job 40: Having made his speech about how God is really the one in control of creation, God now speaks, challenging Job—the “faultfinder”—to speak:
Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty?
    Anyone who argues with God must respond. (2)

But Job refuses, telling God,
I have spoken once, and I will not answer;
    twice, but will proceed no further. (5)

Now, God famously answers Job out of the whirlwind. And God will not be put off and he challenges Job not to be a coward, demanding that he answer God’s interrogation:
Gird up your loins like a man;
   I will question you, and you declare to me. (7) 

Then, God asks a question that I think is completely modern and applies to each of us as much as it did to Job when we blame God for bad things happening to us:
Will you even put me in the wrong?
    Will you condemn me that you may be justified?”(8)

How often we condemn God in order to justify our own acts and to place ourselves at the center of the universe. God is right. Will we condemn God in order to justify ourselves? Sure. We do it all the time.

But to Job’s (and my) great frustration, God does not answer Job’s central question about the justifiable basis for his suffering. Instead, he changes the subject as he goes on to describe one of the more mysterious animals in the Bible:
Look at Behemoth,
    which I made just as I made you;
    it eats grass like an ox.
Its strength is in its loins,
    and its power in the muscles of its belly.
It makes its tail stiff like a cedar;
    the sinews of its thighs are knit together.
Its bones are tubes of bronze,
    its limbs like bars of iron. (15-18)

So what is this animal? Some have speculated it’s a grass-eating dinosaur. Others say it’s a hippopotamus. Or perhaps it’s just a mythical beast made up by the author to make God’s point that only the creator can approach it:
It is the first of the great acts of God—
    only its Maker can approach it with the sword. (19)

And then one final question to make sure that we understand our human weakness and how we lack God’s power as he asks rhetorically,
Can one take it with hooks  
or pierce its nose with a snare? (24)

Huh? What is going on here? Is this the author’s way of telling us that there are some questions which God will not answer? Or is it that Job’s question is completely unanswerable and the only response we’ll ever get from God is the equivalent of “O look, a squirrel.” This famous speech does not give us a very pretty picture of God, that’s for sure.

1 Corinthians 10:23–11:2: Paul  continues to wind up his long discourse on determining the practices we can continue and those we must abandon with the simple aphorism, “All things are lawful,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up.” (23) And out of this comes what I think is the First Rule of Christian Community: “Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other.” (24) In other words, put the welfare of others ahead of our own. Easy to say, hard to do.

Paul then talks about eating meat being OK as long as we do not know it’s been offered as a sacrifice at the temple. If we are aware (or if our host tells us) then we should not eat it “out of consideration for the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience—I mean the other’s conscience, not your own.” (28, 29) I’m not sure exactly what set of circumstances today would parallel Paul’s advice here. So I’ll stick with Paul’s rule stated at a higher level of abstraction: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.” (31)

Paul sums up with his overarching rule: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” (11:1) We then come to a verse that seems somehow added on by a later editor: “I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I handed them on to you.” (11:2) Traditions? This certainly seems out of place to me because Paul is always talking in the present tense about the present situation. This is one of those times I wish I knew Greek.

Despite this minor point, the key lesson of this passage is to think through the possible consequences and the effects on other people before speaking or acting. Unfortunately, I don’t seem to do that very often. It’s the old “engage the mouth before the brain” problem. As Paul makes clear here, this is a longstanding human trait.

 

Psalm 57:8–12; Job 39; 1 Corinthians 10:11–22

Originally published 5/4/2017. Revised and updated 5/3/2019.

Psalm 57:8–12: Despite the depredations of his enemies, our psalmist, still speaking in David’s voice, exudes the serene confidence that a deep and abiding faith in God brings. And out of that serenity arises worship:
My heart is firm, O God,
my heart is firm.
Let me sing and hymn. (8)

This confident peace engenders an overwhelming desire to make music—and this is one of the places that has cemented the popular image of David’s musicianship:
Awake, O lyre,
awake, O lute and lyre.
I would waken the dawn. (9)

The question hangs in the air. Have I placed my fears and trust in God such that the confident hope would cause me to “waken the dawn?” This is one of those places where we see the pure joy that comes from our relationship with a loving Father.

The remainder of the psalm is, I think, the song that David sings—one of untrammeled joy:
Let me acclaim You among the peoples, Master.
Let me hymn You among the nations.
For Your kindness is great to the heavens,
and to the skies Your steadfast truth.
Loom over the heavens, O God.
Over all the earth Your glory. (10-12)

For me, this psalm is a beautiful reminder that God’s kindness and God’s truth go hand in hand. We cannot experience God’s kindness and generosity without completely open honesty and truth before him. No relationship with God is possible when it is founded on anything but absolute truth. And of course that is also true with human relationships as well—especially with one’s spouse. Trust is nurtured in truth.

Job 39: The seemingly endless list of rhetorical questions that set God apart from Job (and all other humans) now shifts from the forces of nature that were the theme of the previous chapter to the animal kingdom.

The opening question describes the wild animals giving birth and how this miracle of natural birth is God’s alone:
Do you know when the mountain goats give birth?
    Do you observe the calving of the deer?
Can you number the months that they fulfill,
    and do you know the time when they give birth? (1,2)

Most animals live free of man’s efforts to domesticate them. And yet without human intervention they flourish:
Who has let the wild ass go free?
    Who has loosed the bonds of the swift ass,
to which I have given the steppe for its home,
    the salt land for its dwelling place? (5, 6)

(Of course, it is man’s misuse of nature that has threatened wild animals.) Likewise, animals such as oxen serve humankind because God has ordained it to be so:
Is the wild ox willing to serve you?
    Will it spend the night at your crib?

Do you have faith in it that it will return,
    and bring your grain to your threshing floor? (9, 12)

God even looks after apparently stupid and even cruel animals:
The ostrich’s wings flap wildly,
    though its pinions lack plumage.
For it leaves its eggs to the earth,
    and lets them be warmed on the ground,
forgetting that a foot may crush them,
    and that a wild animal may trample them.
It deals cruelly with its young, as if they were not its own;
though its labor should be in vain, yet it has no fear.
 (13-16)

Elihu reminds us that animals behave the way they do because God has willed it so, not because they have human capabilities of reasoned thought:
because God has made it forget wisdom,
 and given it no share in understanding.” (17)

In the same way, the behavior of noble animals that we employ is not due to our efforts but because it their behavior is God-created. This surely is a passage that those who deal with horses must connect with:
Do you give the horse its might?
    Do you clothe its neck with mane?
Do you make it leap like the locust?
 Its majestic snorting is terrible.
 It paws violently, exults mightily;
    it goes out to meet the weapons.
It laughs at fear, and is not dismayed;
    it does not turn back from the sword. (19-22)

And finally, the soaring freedom of the birds in the air has nothing whatsoever to do with humankind’s efforts:
Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars,
    and spreads its wings toward the south?
Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up
    and makes its nest on high?” (26, 27)

These verses are a profound and wonderful description of the incredible variety and behavior of animals that God has placed on the earth. And it clearly puts man in his place in the order of nature. We may be atop the food chain, but we did not create it. As before, the rhetorical questions answer themselves. Absolutely none of the wonders on earth is the result of mankind’s doing. It is all God’s.

So, why do we take all this for granted today and assume that this panoply of life is a random evolutionary accident? Compared to God’s creative power that we see so eloquently on display here, we humans are nothing.

1 Corinthians 10:11–22: Paul, still in full remonstration mode, makes a statement that I have always questioned:
No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.” (13)

Really? God will not test us via the trials and tribulations that come our way beyond our strength? Will we always be brave and stand up courageously through whatever life throws at us? Will there always be a way out as Paul asserts here? Can we always endure the pain that comes our way? The answer seems to be ‘yes’ as long as we are steadfast in our faith.

I assume this verse is the root of the saying—and one that I truly loathed— that I heard a few times when I was first diagnosed with cancer: “God will never give you more than you can handle.” Frankly, Paul, I’m just not so sure about that. If we give into despair does that mean our faith is weak?

Paul does not elaborate beyond this assertion. Rather, he changes the subject and starts discussing the problems of eating food that has been sacrificed to idols. He first points out that what we eat as Christians links straight back to Jesus Christ himself: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?” (16) Which should surely cause us to pause and reflect. Today, of course, this is symbolism inherent in the Eucharist.

Paul comes right out and says “that what pagans sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be partners with demons.” (20) His simple rule is that “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.” (21) In other words, we cannot serve God when we serve small-g gods.

We may not eat meat sacrificed in temples, but that meat and the “cup of demons” is surely a metaphor for all the things we put ahead of Jesus Christ—especially faith that technology will bless us and solve our woes. We’re guilty of this same bifurcated faith whenever we place something —money, power, dominance over others, and especially our own will—in a position of higher in priority than our faith in Jesus Christ. Sometimes it seems like our entire lives have become some sort of schizophrenia as we try to balance our own desire for control with desire to be faithful to Jesus Christ.