Psalm 83:1–9; Isaiah 28; Ephesians 4:17–28

Originally published 7/10/2017. Revised and updated 7/9/2019.

Psalm 83:1–9: This psalm is a clarion call to God in a time when Israel faced a national emergency. The psalmist sternly implores God not to remain silent during this time of crisis:
O God, no silence for You!
Do not be mute and do not be quiet God.
For, look, Your enemies rage,
and those who hate You lift their heads. (2, 3)

Those words have a significant contemporary feel to them as crises—both national and personal—seem to surround us on all sides and God seems to be mute. Obviously, God’s seemingly interminable silence is not a new phenomenon.

As it is today, Israel is surrounded on all sides by hostile neighbors, who would like nothing more than to see the nation disappear from the map. Our psalmist appeals to God’s side of the long-standing covenant that he will protect his chosen people:
Against Your people they devise cunning counsel
and conspire against Your protected ones.
They have said, ‘Come, let us obliterate them as a nation,
and the name of Israel will no longer be recalled.’ (4, 5)

Not only do its enemies wish for Israel’s destruction, they want its history to be erased. Once again we are reminded of the importance of memory and names. If names are forgotten, whether of individuals or entire nations, it is as if they never existed. Which to me is why studying history—and perhaps even learning something from it—is so crucially important. Alas, as younger generations stare into their smart phone screens, they seem oblivious to anything but the chimera of an electronic present.

Our psalmist goes on to name the axis of conspirators allying themselves against Israel. Notice how the psalmist simply assumes that Israel’s enemies are God’s enemies, too:
For they conspired with a single heart,
against You they sealed a pact—
the tents of Edom and the Ishmaelites,
Moab and the Hagrites,
Gebal and Ammon and Amalek,
Philistia with the dwellers of Tyre.
Assyria, too, has joined them,
and become an arm for the sons of Lot. (6-9)

Alter points out that with the exception of Assyria, all these kingdoms were arrayed against Israel in its pre-Davidic era, during the time of Judges. Scholars apparently puzzle over the inclusion of Assyria, which became an empire much later in Israel’s history. Perhaps our psalmist is referring to some sort of proto-Assyria that grew to its power over the centuries to come.

Isaiah 28: This longish chapter is Isaiah’s prophetic diatribe against official corruption, which he sarcastically identifies in the first verse:
Ah, the proud garland of the drunkards of Ephraim,
    and the fading flower of its glorious beauty,
    which is on the head of those bloated with rich food, of those overcome with wine! (1)

Which is a pretty good description of corrupt officialdom down through the ages! Isaiah being Isaiah, naturally assures these evildoers of their eventual downfall, extends the flower metaphor above:
Trampled under foot will be
    the proud garland of the drunkards of Ephraim.
And the fading flower of its glorious beauty,
    which is on the head of those bloated with rich food,” (3, 4a)

It seems clear from these verses that alcoholism was a significant problem among the religious leaders, including even those of Isaiah’s own profession:
These also reel with wine
    and stagger with strong drink;
the priest and the prophet reel with strong drink,
    they are confused with wine,
    they stagger with strong drink;
they err in vision,
    they stumble in giving judgment. (7)

In fact, they are rather disgusting people—which is exactly what drunks do:
All tables are covered with filthy vomit;
    no place is clean. (8)

Isaiah worries that this corruption will hinder the transmission of knowledge to the next generation. These drunken teachers (prophets) announce laws and maxims without context, mumbling through their teaching, causing their students to see God only as a random collection of precepts, laws and sayings—a great distance from truly comprehending God’s magnificence and power:
Therefore the word of the Lord will be to them,
    “Precept upon precept, precept upon precept,
    line upon line, line upon line,
    here a little, there a little;”
in order that they may go, and fall backward,
    and be broken, and snared, and taken.” (13)

That’s certainly true today where churches (e.g., the Roman Catholic church) are so much about obeying the rules rather than experiencing God’s grace. I believe this lack of clear teaching is one of the reasons the church is diminishing as a force within our own present-day culture.

This chapter also includes Isaiah’s famous prophecy of a cornerstone, which we Christians believe to be Jesus Christ himself:
therefore thus says the Lord God,
See, I am laying in Zion a foundation stone,
    a tested stone,
a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation:
    “One who trusts will not panic.”
And I will make justice the line,
    and righteousness the plummet. (16, 17a)

The chapter concludes with an extended description of correct and incorrect farming, which is Isaiah’s metaphor for gaining real knowledge and understanding. He makes it clear that successful farming is a sequence of steps, not just one thing repeated over and over. First, a description of proper farming:
Do those who plow for sowing plow continually?
    Do they continually open and harrow their ground?
When they have leveled its surface,
    do they not scatter dill, sow cummin,
and plant wheat in rows
    and barley in its proper place,
    and spelt as the border?
For they are well instructed;
    their God teaches them. (24-26)

Then, of improper farming:
Dill is not threshed with a threshing sledge,
    nor is a cart wheel rolled over cummin;
but dill is beaten out with a stick,
    and cummin with a rod.
Grain is crushed for bread,
    but one does not thresh it forever;
one drives the cart wheel and horses over it,
    but does not pulverize it.” (27-28)

Isaiah’s point here is much greater than providing a tutorial on proper agriculture. Just as farmers follow a sequence of steps, so, too, should teachers. Teaching is not just mindless repetition, but a logical construction of knowledge—just as farming follows its own logical steps. Just as religious practice, including worship, needs to be refreshed, not just the same old thing every week.

Ephesians 4:17–28: Building on Isaiah’s words about the process of understanding, Paul tells the Gentile Ephesians that faith is a crucial element in coming to understand—acquiring knowledge and wisdom are much more than just an intellectual exercise: “you must no longer live as the Gentiles live, in the futility of their minds.  They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance and hardness of heart.” (17, 18) An overly intellectualized religion—and I think he’s referring here to Gnostics—inevitably leads people down the wrong path: “They have lost all sensitivity and have abandoned themselves to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.” (19) In other words, self-centered pride not only leads to a loss of empathy for others, but to downright sinfulness.

The clear command here is to “to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds.” (22, 23) In short—and this is especially hard for me personally—the Christian life requires (pace’ Oswald Chambers) abandoning our former life and replacing it with a new life in Christ, “to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” (24)

Our new Christian life is far more than just emotional feeling. There are rules for living together in community: “So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.” (25)

Equally important, we’re told that anger is permissible; it is not wrongdoing in and of itself: “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger,” (26) It took a lot of therapy for me to recognize this truth as I was conditioned as a child to bottle up anger because it was “wrong to be angry.” This led to a lot of explosions of bottled up anger coming out at exactly the wrong time and mostly hurting the people I loved the most. Perhaps if I had paid attention to this verse and put it into practice a lot of hurt could have been avoided—and a lot of money saved on therapists…

Psalm 82:6–8; Isaiah 26, 27; Ephesians 4:7–16

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

Psalm 82:6–8: God continues his speech to the small-g gods. It appears that at least for this psalmist there once was a family of deities, all of whom had god-like power over the affairs of the earth. God reminds them of their divinity, expressing ironic disappointment much as a father would be chastising his children:
As for Me, I had thought: you were gods,
and the sons of the Most High were you all.” (6)

The price of their failure in siding with wickedness and oppressing the poor and lowly is that they lose their godly powers, most notably their immortality:
Yet indeed like humans you shall die,
and like one of the princes, fall.” (7)

I wonder if ‘one of the princes’ is a veiled reference to Satan himself who indeed fell from heaven. I have to give the psalmist credit for his creativity. He has written as though he is observing a family meeting of all the small-g gods who were under God’s parental supervision. They have failed at their jobs and are being punished accordingly. It’s certainly an original view of God and the hierarchy of spiritual powers.

The psalmist himself speaks in the final verse of this rather odd poem:
Arise, O God, judge the earth,
for You hold in estate all the nations.” (8)

I think this line, ‘all the nations,’ gives us a clue as to who these small-g gods were. In the ancient world every tribe and nation had its own god, which that nation’s inhabitants worshipped. But the small-g gods have been vanquished for their collective failure. Our psalmist is asserting that only Israel’s God is truly the single supreme being of the universe. Unlike the small-g gods, God cares, is just and righteous, and therefore is the God of every nation.  Which of course is exactly Jesus’ message that we are to carry the Good News “to every nation.”

Isaiah 26, 27: Isaiah has forecasted doom for all the surrounding nations (much like the theme of the psalm above). Just one nation remains upright on the Day of the Lord. Not surprisingly, it is Isaiah’s own: Judah. He draws a stark contrast between those who are faithful and righteous and those who are not. The righteous enjoy peace because they trust in God:
Those of steadfast mind you keep in peace—
    in peace because they trust in you.
Trust in the Lord forever,
    for in the Lord God
you have an everlasting rock. (26:3,4)

This is the first time we encounter the metaphor of righteousness as smooth highway—a metaphor we will encounter again later in this book:
The way of the righteous is level;
    O Just One, you make smooth the path of the righteous. (26:7)

In keeping with the theme of the psalm above, Isaiah observes that Judah once worshipped small-g gods but has now rejected them in favor of God alone:
Lord our God,
    other lords besides you have ruled over us,
    but we acknowledge your name alone. (26:13)

The prophet goes on to celebrate God’s victory over evil as things turn somewhat apocalyptic, including the resurrection of the righteous who have died. Once again, I am struck by how Paul and the author of Revelation drew upon both the concepts and language of the OT prophets:
Your dead shall live, their corpses shall rise.
    O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy!
For your dew is a radiant dew,
    and the earth will give birth to those long dead. (26:19)

As always, there will be judgement of the wicked on the Day of the Lord:
For the Lord comes out from his place
    to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity;
the earth will disclose the blood shed on it,
    and will no longer cover its slain.” (26:21)

The author of Revelation surely drew—and then elaborated mightily—upon these verses in his description of the Judgement Day.

Chapter 27 continues in apocalyptic mode as Isaiah prophecies that Israel will one day be restored to its former glory:
In days to come Jacob shall take root,
    Israel shall blossom and put forth shoots,
    and fill the whole world with fruit. (27:6)

But this will happen only if Jacob—Israel— rejects the false gods and the idols it once worshipped, i.e., there must be repentance:
Therefore by this the guilt of Jacob will be expiated,
    and this will be the full fruit of the removal of his sin:
when he makes all the stones of the altars
    like chalkstones crushed to pieces,
    no sacred poles  or incense altars will remain standing. (27:9)

At this point, the righteous who were scattered around the earth will return to Jerusalem to worship God: “And on that day a great trumpet will be blown, and those who were lost in the land of Assyria and those who were driven out to the land of Egypt will come and worship the Lord on the holy mountain at Jerusalem.” (27:13)

This is one of those passages that many Evangelicals and Orthodox Jews believe has been fulfilled with the establishment of modern Israel in 1945, accompanied by the return of Jews who were scattered all over the world. I’m not buying that interpretation because it seems to me that Isaiah has been clear for the last few chapters that these promised events will occur only on the Day of Lord, i.e., at the end of history. Say what you will, but history hasn’t ended yet.

s: In demonstrating that Christ’s gift to us is grace, Paul quotes Psalm 68:18, which describes God’s victory parade ascending to the temple in Jerusalem: “Therefore it is said,

“When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive;
    he gave gifts to his people.” (8)

But Paul, being Paul, uses the verse for his own purposes, which is to argue logically that God cannot ascend without having first descended: “ (When it says, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.)” (9,10) Which is a clever way of describing the incarnation: that Jesus Christ descended from heaven to earth, becomes human, dies, is resurrected and then ascends back into heaven. Therefore, he argues, the psalm is referring to Jesus Christ.  (We saw this descending theme of Jesus leaving heaven to come to earth in John 1 and we’ll encounter the idea again in Philippians.)

Paul then takes the idea of Christ’s gift of grace down a level of abstraction in order to sow how we put it into practice. The gifts of grace are different for every person in the church: “The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers...” (11) These gifts have a singular purpose: “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” (12, 13)

By exercising these gifts we grow into mature Christians as Paul exhorts us, “We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.” (14) In fact, he continues, it’s our responsibility to grow up and become mature Christian adults: “But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” (15)

To grow into a mature Christian requires active discipline on our parts—what we refer to as the “spiritual disciplines.” In short, the church cannot grow and flourish if it’s populated only by immature Christians—by spiritual infants. Only with maturity will we achieve what Paul is telling us is the purpose of the church, i.e. to be “joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.” (16)

Notice the last word: ‘in love.’ Unless love is the firm foundation, absolutely nothing that encourages spiritual growth and maturity can happen. I think this is the basic stumbling block at many churches today.

Psalm 82:1–5; Isaiah 24,25; Ephesians 3:14–4:6

Originally published 7/7/2017. Revised and updated 7/6/2019.

Psalm 82:1–5: This highly creative psalm is unique in that its setting which is some place where God and all the small-g gods have gathered. God chastises the small-g gods (or perhaps they’re angels) for their incompetent and unjust administration of human affairs on earth, which have resulted in the ascendancy of the wicked and the oppression of the poor:
God takes His stand in the divine assembly,
in the midst of the gods he renders judgement.
How long will you judge dishonestly,
and show favor to the wicked?” (2)

As we have observed again and again in these musings, one of the strongest themes in Scripture—especially in the OT—is God’s demand for justice for the poor, the oppressed, the widows, and the orphans. Our poet raises the question that permeates the book of Job: Why do the wicked prosper and the poor suffer? Needless to say, this upside-down state of affairs persists across history right to our own times and culture.

The small-g gods are impotent and useless as God demands that they—and we—to abandon our cultural habits that favor the rich and wicked. We may not be small-g gods (even though many of us often think we are!), but we would do well to heed God’s command, which our poet frames in the strongest, most imperative terms:
Do justice to the poor and the orphan.
Vindicate the lowly and the wretched.
Free the poor and the needy,
from the hand of the wicked save them. (3, 4)

The persistent practice of wickedness and injustice creates darkness and moral blindness and destabilizes even creation itself:
They do not know and do not grasp,
in darkness they walk about.
All the earth’s foundations totter. (5)

This last line describing instability is especially apropos today as we see terrorism, nations threatening each other, environmental destruction, and frankly, the decline if not outright collapse, of western civilization as it careens away from its Judeo-Christian roots into a decadence based on self-centered individual rights. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that American culture is tottering on the brink of moral disaster.

Isaiah 24, 25: Speaking of judgement… Isaiah predicts God’s judgement at the end of time as a metaphorical—and perhaps physical— earthquake:
Now the Lord is about to lay waste the earth and make it desolate,
    and he will twist its surface and scatter its inhabitants.” (24:1)

Unlike other apocalyptic writing, the focus os not on battles or heavenly interventions. Instead, Isaiah focuses on the destruction of nature itself:
The earth shall be utterly laid waste and utterly despoiled;
     for the Lord has spoken this word.

The earth dries up and withers,
    the world languishes and withers;
the heavens languish together with the earth. (24:3, 4)

So why is all creation cursed? Among other things—and certainly relevant today—humans have befouled God’s world:
The earth lies polluted
    under its inhabitants;
for they have transgressed laws,
    violated the statutes,
    broken the everlasting covenant. (24:5)

Human pleasure has ceased as “all joy has reached its eventide” (24:11) as “Desolation is left in the city,/ the gates are battered into ruins.” (24:12)

But off in the distance there is singing by the righteous remnant that is has never abandoned God:
They lift up their voices, they sing for joy;
    they shout from the west over the majesty of the Lord.
Therefore in the east give glory to the Lord;
    in the coastlands of the sea glorify the name of the Lord, the God of Israel.
From the ends of the earth we hear songs of praise,
    of glory to the Righteous One.” (24:14-16)

But then these joyous voices seem to fall silent as Isaiah returns to his main theme:
Terror, and the pit, and the snare
    are upon you, O inhabitant of the earth! (24:17)

The reason for earth’s destruction (it has gone far beyond the psalmist’s ‘tottering’) is exactly as we expect: human sinfulness:
The earth staggers like a drunkard,
    it sways like a hut;
its transgression lies heavy upon it,
    and it falls, and will not rise again. (24:20)

Interestingly, it appears that the hoi polloi—the poor, the widows and orphans— will not have to endure this punishment. Only those in positions of power will suffer:
On that day the Lord will punish
    the host of heaven in heaven,
    and on earth the kings of the earth. (24:21)

Is the ‘host of heaven’ the same small-g gods whom God rebukes in today’s psalm? As for humans, those who receive God’s harshest punishment are leaders who have abandoned their responsibility and led people astray. The chapter concludes with a bold statement that God is the victor:
the Lord of hosts will reign
    on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem,
and before his elders he will manifest his glory. (24:23)

I read chapter 25 as the worship celebration of God who reigns over all by that faithful remnant we met in the previous chapter:
Lord, you are my God;
    I will exalt you, I will praise your name;
for you have done wonderful things,
    plans formed of old, faithful and sure.  (25:1)

Injustice has been conquered by God’s beneficent mercy:
For you have been a refuge to the poor,
    a refuge to the needy in their distress,
    …
you subdued the heat with the shade of clouds;
    the song of the ruthless was stilled. (25:4, 6)

A wonderful celebration follows:
On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
    a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,
    of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. (25:6)

And in a famous verse, Isaiah promises that God’s mercy…
will swallow up death forever
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
    and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth. (25:8)

I think this is a direct prophecy of the first and second comings of Jesus Christ. And our patience as Christians will ultimately be rewarded in God’s promise. As Isaiah reminds us:
This is the Lord for whom we have waited;
    let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation. (25:9)

Will I wait patiently or will I turn away and be consumed by my own agenda? Will I be one of the faithful remnant or will I go my own self-centered way?

Ephesians 3:14–4:6: Paul interrupts his theological discourse to pray for the Ephesians—a prayer I think is worth quoting in full:

I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.  I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth,  and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (3:16-19)

The prayer is followed by a marvelous benediction:

Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (3:20, 21)

This prayer is of course highly theological in and of itself, chockablock with the core elements of the Good News. There are echoes of Paul’s famous chapter on love:  “as you are being rooted and grounded in love” (3:17) because we “know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.” (3:19) If ever I needed a clarion call that Christ’s love transcends my ability to comprehend its enormity and that Christ’s love conquers the heart as well as the mind, it is right here.

As far as the church is concerned, out of each person’s experience of Christ’s love, unity among believers should arise naturally: “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (4:2,3)

Paul believed that with the Holy Spirit living in each Christian, the church would emerge with an unprecedented unity: “There is one body and one Spirit, … one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” (4:4-6)

Paul was looking forward onto the future and believed deeply that this love would result in a unified community; that the church would become a world-changing force based on love. Alas, looking back in history, we see that isn’t quite how things worked out. There are too many splits and denominations that have occurred because love was diminished or absent altogether. And I think the church has pretty much lost much of its power and relevance today because we have forgotten unity and we have forgotten love. Alas, both have been shoved to the background by our self-centered wills.  We in the church may talk a great line about unity and love, but our deeds too often betray our true nature.

Psalm 81:12–17; Isaiah 22:15–23:18; Ephesians 3:1–13

Originally published 7/6/2017. Revised and updated 7/5/2019.

Psalm 81:12–17: The final stanza of this psalm is one of the saddest in all of Psalms. Despite God’s generous promise that the people of Israel simply “open your mouth wide, that [God] may fill it” (11), they remain as recalcitrant as ever, rejecting both God and his promise as God himself rather sadly recalls:
But My people did not heed My voice
and Israel wanted nothing of Me. (12)

Well, the idea that we want nothing of God certainly sounds familiar and contemporary. The only difference today is that many people simply reject even the idea of God altogether, never mind his promises. God has given us free will to make our own choices and here the psalmist reminds us of that simple fact:
And I let them follow their heart’s willfulness,
they went by their own counsels. (13)

It’s a matter of following God or following our own wills. And as I’ve written before, the opportunity cost of following our own will is extremely high for it means to miss out on God’s immeasurable blessings:
If My people would but heed Me,
if Israel would go in My ways,
in a moment I would humble their enemies,
and against their foes I would turn My stand. (14, 15)

If Israel would simply repent, our psalmist argues, then Israel’s enemies would be conquered, wrongdoers would be brought to justice and punished, and the people would enjoy manifold God’s blessings:
Those who hate the Lord would cringe before Him,
and their time of doom would be everlasting.
And I would feed them the finest wheat,
and from the rock I would sate him with honey. (16, 17)

The psalm ends rather abruptly here and leaves us hanging. Did Israel repent? Or did it go its merry, unrepentant way. This choice is the same for each of us. There is a terribly high cost of self-centeredness and believing we are smarter than God. But God has given each of us the freedom to make that choice. The question for me is, what choice am I really making? Perhaps what is even worse is that so many people make that choice unconsciously, fully ignorant that peace is found only in God—not themselves.

Isaiah 22:15–23:18: Isaiah interrupts his stream of prophecies concerning the various nations surrounding Judah with a rather personal prophecy (written in prose) about a court official named Shebna. God commands Isaiah to go to this person and “say to him: What right do you have here? Who are your relatives here, that you have cut out a tomb here for yourself, cutting a tomb on the height, and carving a habitation for yourself in the rock?” (22:16)

This guy is about to meet his end and we can’t tell if Isaiah’s prophecy of Shebna’s imminent death  is metaphorical or actual: “The Lord is about to hurl you away violently, my fellow. He will seize firm hold on you, whirl you round and round, and throw you like a ball into a wide land; there you shall die, and there your splendid chariots shall lie, O you disgrace to your master’s house!” (22:17, 18) If this is a description of the man’s actual death it is certainly one of the more colorful ends we encounter in the Bible. Clearly, Shebna was wealthy and probably a court official and we can assume he acquired his wealth and power on the backs of the poor and oppressed.

Isaiah isn’t yet finished. He goes on in God’s voice to tell Shebna exactly who will replace him: “On that day I will call my servant Eliakim son of Hilkiah, and will clothe him with your robe and bind your sash on him.” (22:20) This Eliakim certainly looks to be a man of superior character: “he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah.” (22:21)

This Eliakim will have the authority of the ancestral house of David. He is likened to a “a peg in a secure place, and he will become a throne of honor to his ancestral house. ” (22:23) Then things get even more obscure as the weight of David’s ancestral house is hung on this metaphorical peg. My guess here is that the Davidic ancestors (whom I take to be his successors rather than predecessors) sin mightily. Eventually the peg breaks from the overload of their wrongful deeds: “the peg that was fastened in a secure place will give way; it will be cut down and fall, and the load that was on it will perish.” (25) Which I would take to be the eventual destruction of Jerusalem itself in 586 BCE.

Isaiah then resumes his prophecies about other nations, this time it’s Tyre, already famous as a port and a commercial center. Like the other nations, it will meet its downfall because of its overweening pride:
The Lord of hosts has planned it—
    to defile the pride of all glory,
    to shame all the honored of the earth. (23:9)

And later,
Wail, O ships of Tarshish,
    for your fortress is destroyed. (23:14)

The prophet concludes this oracle with a rather specific prophecy that after being forgotten for 70 years, Tyre will one day be restored and do its work for God: “At the end of seventy years, the Lord will visit Tyre, and she will return to her trade, …Her merchandise and her wages will be dedicated to the Lord; her profits will not be stored or hoarded, but her merchandise will supply abundant food and fine clothing for those who live in the presence of the Lord.” (23:17, 18)

Somehow I don’t think this prophecy actually came to pass. Or if it did, the news about that restoration doesn’t make it back into the Bible. This is one of those places where we can only read and say, “Noted.”

Ephesians 3:1–13: As he has done elsewhere, Paul points out that the mystery of God’s grace “was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words, a reading of which will enable you to perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ.” (3, 4) I interpret “mystery” here as the Incarnation—God sending Jesus to earth and to become the Paschal the sacrifice required to justify all of us before God. Now that the mystery has been revealed, it’s incumbent on the apostles (and others) to spread the Good News everywhere, including to the Gentiles. The reason is simple: “the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” (6)

Paul became an apostle via his encounter with Christ on the Damascus road: “Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace that was given me by the working of his power.” (7) Moreover, his mission is specifically to the Gentiles: “this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ,…to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things.” (8)

Then he adds, “so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” (10) At this point, for me anyway, this doesn’t sound like Paul, but someone writing pseudonymously. Paul rarely uses the word, “church.” And just who are these “rulers and authorities in the heavenly places?”

But that’s a minor quibble. The main takeaway for me here is that Jesus coming as a man to humankind was always God’s plan: “This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (11)   However, I confess that as I read the Old Testament, God’s original plan was the Covenant with Israel. We have just a few passages in Psalms and the Prophets where we can see hints glimpses of God’s plan for the New Covenant. And we’ve read in Romans and elsewhere where Paul goes to great lengths to explain how Gentiles are also the descendants of Abraham. But by and large, God kept this “eternal plan” pretty close to his chest before sending Jesus to earth.

But things are different now. Now that the mystery of God’s plan has been revealed it is incumbent on all of us, not just apostles, to go into all the world with the Good News. After all, that’s Jesus’ Great Commission, isn’t it?

Psalm 81:7–11; Isaiah 19:18–22:14; Ephesians 2:11–22

Originally published 7/5/2017. Revised and updated 7/4/2019.

Psalm 81:7–11: Our reading yesterday concluded with the psalmist hearing God’s decree in some unknown language. Today we find out what God said as our poet has been suddenly and miraculously bestowed with comprehension of this foreign tongue. God speaks, albeit rather cryptically:
I delivered his shoulder from the burden
his palms were loosed from the hod. (7)

The ‘his’ here is Jacob, representing all Israel. God has freed the brick-building (whence the ‘hod”) slaves from Egyptian oppression. God continues describing how he accompanied Israel on its journey:
From the straits you called and I set you free.
I answered you from thunder’s hiding place.
I tested you at the waters of Meribah. (8)

The ‘straits’ are both metaphorical, speaking to the desperate situation Israel faced when confronting the sea as they escaped Egypt, and physical as in a strait of water to be crossed. ‘Thunder’s hiding place’ would be the thunder and lightning all Israel witnessed as Moses was up on Sinai communicating with God. And the waters at Meribah was where Israel begged for water and Moses was tested by God—and failed.

Even given these miraculous events at the beginning of Israel’s history, our psalmist, still speaking in God’s voice, expresses his frustration at the present wayward generation that refuses to listen to God’s word:
Hear, O my people, that I may adjure you.
Israel, if You would but hear Me. (9)

That’s pretty chilling for our own culture which is busy ignoring God by pretending he doesn’t exist. Our psalmist repeats the solemn commandment that there is no other small-g gods before God—the commandment Israel continues to ignore as it persists in its idol worship. We can almost hear God shouting at this intransigent people:
There shall be among you no foreign god.
I am the Lord  your God
Who brings you up from the land of Egypt.
Open your mouth wide that I may fill it. (10, 11)

The last line here bespeaks God’s incredibly generous love in the form of his promise that if Israel would but turn back to God, its people would experience untold manifest blessings. So, too, for us. We ignore God, preferring to go our own self-centered way and thereby foregoing the incredible blessings that God wishes to bestow upon us. Economists have a term for this: opportunity cost. The opportunity cost of placing our self-interest ahead of God’s blessings available through Jesus Christ and the Holy spirit is incalculable—an incalculable waste.

Isaiah 19:18–22:14: Speaking in prose, Isaiah promises that at (what I take to be) the end of history that “there will be five cities in the land of Egypt that speak the language of Canaan and swear allegiance to the Lord of hosts.” (19:18) Moreover, “when they [the oppressed of Egypt] cry to the Lord because of oppressors, he will send them a savior, and will defend and deliver them.” (19:20) God will reveal himself to the Egyptians and with a combination of “striking and healing” the Egyptians “will return to the Lord, and he will listen to their supplications and heal them.” (19:22)

Given the current terrorism being experienced by the Coptic Christians in Egypt, this day can come none too soon. But I also think we can expand the definition of “Egyptians” to mean all Gentiles. God has already sent a savior to we “Egyptians.” And at the end of history, all humanity will acknowledge our savior.

More good things happen at the Day of the Lord as Egypt, Assyria [recent victors over the Northern Kingdom] and Israel will come together: “On that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the Lord of hosts has blessed, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage.” (19:24, 25) So far, this promise of peace in the Middle East remains unfulfilled. And I would take Isaiah’s prophecy to suggest that human efforts notwithstanding, there will never be peace there until the end of history.

These wonderful promises are put on hold in chapter 20, which seems to be some kind of parenthesis, predicting what will happen in the meantime. Isaiah is commanded by God to strip and walk naked and barefoot. This is one of those examples of the prophet being the avatar for God’s intended actions: “Just as my servant Isaiah has walked naked and barefoot for three years as a sign and a portent against Egypt and Ethiopia.” (20:3)

More specifically, Assyria will conquer Egypt and “the king of Assyria lead away the Egyptians as captives and the Ethiopians[b]as exiles, both the young and the old, naked and barefoot, with buttocks uncovered, to the shame of Egypt.” (20:4) Nakedness is the very definition of shame and the same fate awaits Ethiopia as well.

Chapter 21 returns to poetic form of specific prophecies (oracles) being made about Babylon, Edom, and Arabia. Some sort of treacherous betrayal and invasion will occur to Babylon as it reclines in soft pleasure, ill prepared militarily:
They prepare the table,
    they spread the rugs,
    they eat, they drink.
Rise up, commanders,
    oil the shield! (21:5)

Caught unawares,  the invasion occurs:
Fallen, fallen is Babylon;
and all the images of her gods
    lie shattered on the ground. (21:9)

This is the cost of military unpreparedness. A topic suddenly more relevant for us as North Korea, Iran, and others escalate their threats. A similar fate await the other countries. But these pagan nations are not alone in their destruction as Isaiah predicts the eventual fall of Jerusalem itself:
For the Lord God of hosts has a day
    of tumult and trampling and confusion
    in the valley of vision,
a battering down of walls
    and a cry for help to the mountains. (22:5)

Like Babylon, the leaders and inhabitants of Jerusalem blissfully ignore the threat, reclining instead in pleasure:
In that day the Lord God of hosts
    called to weeping and mourning,
    to baldness and putting on sackcloth;
but instead there was joy and festivity,
    killing oxen and slaughtering sheep,
    eating meat and drinking wine.
“Let us eat and drink,
    for tomorrow we die.”  (22:12, 13)

Again, these verses seem terribly relevant to us today. We collectively are enjoying today’s pleasures at the cost of tomorrow’s defeat—all summed up in the famous couplet at the end of this reading.

Ephesians 2:11–22: Addressing both Jews and Gentiles, Paul asks us to “remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” (12) Only in Christ can unity occur: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” (13, 14)

This hostility is certainly the conflict between Jewish and Gentile Christians that Paul despairs of in Corinth and Galatia.  Peace and reconciliation can occur only in Christ: “He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.” (15, 16)

Paul famously reminds us that as Christians “you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.” (19)

A comprehensive and wonderful definition of the church based on that reconciliation follows. It is “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.” (20) Paul continues optimistically: “In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually  into a dwelling place for God.” (21, 22)

But as we look across today’s landscape littered with splits and divisions within the church we can see that Paul’s words express a great hope that has continues to be betrayed by the reality of human sinfulness. The diagnosis is simple: we have not unified ourselves in Christ. The treatment is more difficult. To counteract this division, unity is our not only a noble Christian goal, as I read this passage, it also must be our solemn duty.

Psalm 81:1–6; Isaiah 17:1–19:17; Ephesians 2:1–10

Originally published 7/4/2017. Revised and updated 7/3/2019.

Psalm 81:1–6: At first, the opening verses of this psalm appear to be a pretty routine worship chorus with orchestral accompaniment:
Sing gladly to God our strength,
shout out to the God of Jacob.
Lift Your voices in song and beat the drum,
the lyre is sweet with the lute. (2, 3)

But suddenly we learn that the occasion for this worship is a festival centered around a monthly astronomical event: the new moon:
Blast the ram’s horn on the new moon,
when the moon starts to wax, for our festival day. (4)

I have to confess that the whole thing sounds a bit pagan to me. Surely the Canaanites and the Egyptians worshipped the moon, but the Israelites? Yet, our psalmist assures us that this festival is legitimate, even God-ordained:
For it is an ordinance in Israel,
a rule of the God of Jacob. (5)

Not only God-ordained, but God-spoken—tracing way back to the time of the Exodus:
A decree He declared it for Israel
when He sallied forth against Egypt’s land—
a language I knew not, I heard. (6)

The fact that our psalmist does not know the language (probably Egyptian) certainly suggests an origin in Egypt. So, the new moon festival is certainly an old well-established one. And it’s probably worth remembering that even today, the Jewish calendar is based on a strict 28-day lunar cycle.

The question on my mind is, will our psalmist tie this festival with pagan origins back to the theology of the God of Israel? Perhaps we have been misled by the first verses and need to assume it is not the new moon that is the object of worship, but God himself. We’ll understand more tomorrow.

Isaiah 17:1–19:17: Isaiah’s prophecies (“oracles”) about the fate of Israel’s neighbors continues apace. Now, it’s Damascus:
See, Damascus will cease to be a city,
    and will become a heap of ruins. (17:1)

Given the current war in Syria, this prophecy has an eerie resonance. However, the point in time I think Isaiah is describing is the end of history, the Day of the Lord. This is when according to Isaiah, “On that day people will regard their Maker, and their eyes will look to the Holy One of Israel;” (17:7) I take ‘people’ here to mean everyone on earth simultaneously becoming aware of the power of Israel’s God, who is judge over all humankind. Isaiah has a rebuke not only for Israel but for all of us down through history:
For you have forgotten the God of your salvation,
    and have not remembered the Rock of your refuge…
The nations roar like the roaring of many waters,
    but he will rebuke them, and they will flee far away,
chased like chaff on the mountains before the wind
    and whirling dust before the storm.” (17:10a, 13)

But in keeping with our two-layered model of prophecy applying in both the long term and the near term, Isaiah is also speaking about the more local promise that Israel’s enemies will eventually be defeated:
Before morning, they are no more.
This is the fate of those who despoil us,
    and the lot of those who plunder us. (17:14)

Isaiah goes on to pronounce pretty much the same prophetic fate for Ethiopia as for Damascus:
They shall all be left
    to the birds of prey of the mountains
    and to the animals of the earth.
And the birds of prey will summer on them,
    and all the animals of the earth will winter on them. (18:6)

However, our prophet goes on to remark that some Ethiopians will come to Jerusalem to offer obeisance: At that time gifts will be brought to the Lord of hosts from a people tall and smooth, …to Mount Zion, the place of the name of the Lord of hosts. (18:7)

A similar fate awaits Egypt where the Egyptian gods will become aware that there is only One True God:
See, the Lord is riding on a swift cloud
    and comes to Egypt;
the idols of Egypt will tremble at his presence,
    and the heart of the Egyptians will melt within them. (19:1)

God will create a civil war in Egypt leading to conquest by a foreign power:
I will stir up Egyptians against Egyptians,
    and they will fight, one against the other,
    neighbor against neighbor,
    city against city, kingdom against kingdom;…
I will deliver the Egyptians
    into the hand of a hard master;
a fierce king will rule over them,
    says the Sovereign, the Lord of hosts. (19:2, 4)

For me, the lines, “neighbor against neighbor,/ city against city” have particular resonance in our currently highly polarized political climate.

Natural disasters such as the rivers drying up also await the Egyptians because of the foolishness of their leaders:
The princes of Zoan have become fools,
    and the princes of Memphis are deluded;
those who are the cornerstones of its tribes
    have led Egypt astray. (19:13)

And in a particularly graphic passage:
“...and they have made Egypt stagger in all its doings
    as a drunkard staggers around in vomit.” (19:14b)

Frankly, I take all these verses as fair warning to modern nations whose decline is in part caused by ineffective, even foolish leadership. Something for us to ponder when we celebrate the 4th of July.

Ephesians 2:1–10: In this famous passage Paul points out that because of our sins we are basically zombies: “You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world” (2:1, 2a) We are the living dead, animated by Satan, “following the ruler of the power of the air.” (2:2b)

Paul provides an excellent description of the pre-existing state of our sinful nature out of which Jesus offers us escape: “All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.” (3) This verse helps me realize that there is nothing new or unique about America in the 21st century. Absent Christ’s salvation, we are resolutely sinful and our collective sins will inevitably engender dire consequences. But for most people, they do not believe in sin nor do they want to talk about sin—even in many churches.

In one of the great verses in the New Testament, Paul makes it crystal clear that we are rescued by God through the salvific power of Jesus Christ:
But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ —by grace you have been saved—” (4, 5)

There it is: the word that eluded Martin Luther all those years as he strived to become right before God by his own unavailing efforts: grace—unmerited favor. Paul summarizes the effectiveness of grace: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—” (8) And to make sure that we understand the incredible power of this gift of grace, Paul makes it clear that we cannot create salvation through our own efforts. Salvation is a gift; it is “not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” (9)

And yet we keep on thinking that because we are being good law-abiding persons, or even reaching out and helping others, that we are good before God. After all, didn’t Jesus himself talk about sheep and goats in Matthew 25? We never imagine ourselves to be goats. But our efforts, however noble, are unavailing. Yet, so many of us are so egotistical, so convinced we are good at heart, so blissfully unaware of our own faults, that we become convinced that we are above needing that one thing that is derisively called a “crutch” by cynics. We refuse to accept the one true gift in life: salvation by grace. Perhaps it seems too simple in this complex world. Surely being made right before God is more complicated than this. But as confoundingly non-intuitive as it is, it truly is sola gratia.

Psalm 80:13–20; Isaiah 15,16; Ephesians 1:11–23

Originally published 7/3/2017. Revised and updated 7/2/2019.

Psalm 80:13–20: As we’ve seen, our psalmist is pretty irritated at God that after all the effort God undertook to plant the metaphorical vine of Israel in the Promised Land, and then expand its empire under Solomon [“You sent forth its boughs to the sea/ and to the river its roots” (12)], God now appears to have abandoned Israel to a cruel and humiliating fate:
Why did You break through its walls
so all passers-by could pluck it? (13)

Our poet stretches the metaphor to characterize Israel’s enemies as feral animals that feast on the vines in the vineyard:
The boar from the forest has gnawed it,
and the swarm of the field fed upon it. (14)

He begs God to reconsider his plan to abandon Israel as it now hangs on the cusp of total annihilation:
God of armies, pray, come back,
look down from the heavens and see,
and take note of this vine,
And the stock Your right hand planted,
And the son You took to Yourself— (15, 16)

At first glance, the “son” in this verse could be David and the subsequent Davidic dynasty. It is certainly not Jesus. I think we need to take “son” as representing Israel, although the metaphorical shift from Israel as vine in one line to Israel as son in the next is somewhat disconcerting. Nevertheless, an awful fate awaits Israel as the verse concludes:
burnt in fire, chopped to bits,
from the blast of Your presence they perish. (17)

The poet’s tone becomes less confrontational as he makes his final plea for mercy:
May Your hand be over the man on Your right,
over the son of man You took to yourself.” (18)

Is Israel the “man on Your right” or the “son of man”? The idea of the “man on Your right” as a metaphor for Israel sitting at the right hand of God would certainly bespeak its perceived role as God’s chosen nation. But the latter phrase, son of man, is almost always a messianic reference. I think it’s possible for us Christians to interpret this verse as a direct reference to the incarnation of Jesus Christ who indeed, as our creeds tell us, is sitting at the right hand of God. Once again, as can read Scripture at several levels we can assign multiple meanings to verses like these.

The psalm concludes rather prosaically with the usual promise if constant faithfulness and worship if God would only rescue Israel from its present plight:
And we will not fall back from You.
Restore us to life and we shall call on Your name.
Lord God of armies, bring us back.
Light up Your face, that we may be rescued. (19, 20)

Alas, as we know, the Assyrians came anyway and Israel—the northern kingdom—was no more…

Isaiah 15,16: Per the editors of the NRSV, chapter 15 is “an Oracle concerning Moab,” which is meeting its ultimate destruction to the enormous sorrow of its people. The poetry here beautifully captures true grief of the destruction of an entire nation:
On every head is baldness,
    every beard is shorn;
in the streets they bind on sackcloth;
    on the housetops and in the squares
    everyone wails and melts in tears. (15: 2,3)

The image of mourning for the dead intensifies:

For a cry has gone
    around the land of Moab;
the wailing reaches to Eglaim,
    the wailing reaches to Beer-elim.” (15:8)

Worse, Isaiah, speaking in God’s voice, promises total destruction of its people:
For the waters of Dibon are full of blood;
    yet I will bring upon Dibon even more—
a lion for those of Moab who escape,
    for the remnant of the land. (15:9)

Unlike Israel, the land of Moab is no more—the prophecy has certainly come true. But Isaiah has more to say about Moab than just its destruction. It appears that a Messiah will arise out of Moab, just as David himself is descended from Ruth the Moabite:
When the oppressor is no more,
    and destruction has ceased,
and marauders have vanished from the land,
then a throne shall be established in steadfast love
    in the tent of David,
    and on it shall sit in faithfulness
a ruler who seeks justice
    and is swift to do what is right. (16:4b, 5)

I will take this as a prophecy of Jesus, who being of the house of David is indeed the “ruler who seeks justice and is swift to do what is right.” But as for the nation of Moab itself, it is doomed. Like our psalmist above, Isaiah uses the metaphor of an abandoned vineyard to represent a people who are no more:
Joy and gladness are taken away
    from the fruitful field;
and in the vineyards no songs are sung,
    no shouts are raised;
no treader treads out wine in the presses;
    the vintage-shout is hushed. (16:10)

The prophet then switches to prose and apparently in an effort to make is listeners fully appreciate what he’s saying in poetry, tells them in no uncertain terms, “the glory of Moab will be brought into contempt, in spite of all its great multitude; and those who survive will be very few and feeble.” (16:14)

All is silence. Is the culture we live in today fated to meet the same destiny as Moab?

Ephesians 1:11–23: Paul goes on to explain that this gift we have received through Jesus Christ is in the form of an inheritance, which directly implies that God sees us as part of the family: In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will.” (11)  Of course, “destined” is a word freighted with heavy theological meaning and another basis of the theology of predestination.

Paul then describes his personal role in carrying news of this inheritance to the world: “so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory.” (12) I’m assuming that the “we” here refers to the apostles among whom Paul includes himself. The apostles, including Paul, have brought the good news to others, who upon believing, have received the Holy Spirit: “In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit.” (13) This is a pretty complete description of the nature and effects of evangelism—bringing others to Christ, who infuses them with the Holy Spirit.

Paul is pretty enthusiastic about the Christians at Ephesus, whom he has apparently not yet met: “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love  toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.” (15, 16) This love for those he has not yet met causes him to launch into a rather effusive prayer on their behalf: “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him,  so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints,” (17, 18)

Notice that the core of the prayer is that the Ephesians become “enlightened” as to the generosity of the inheritance and in the nature of the salvation Jesus Christ has brought to them. This is quite a contrast to Paul’s letters to the Corinthians and the Galatians. But then its always easier to sing the praises of someone we haven’t yet met and h ave not yet encountered their flaws.

Paul goes on to make it crystal clear that it Christ as head of the church is God-ordained and that it is Christ to whom God has delegated permanent authority over the church: “God  put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church” (20-23) This is indeed the Church of Jesus Christ.

These are important verses to remember when we too often focus on the pastor, some TV evangelist, or even the pope, seeing them as the head of the church. Like the apostles themselves, they are mere fallen humans. And when they start to set themselves up as the persons to whom others should look, it is time to get out of there. It is Jesus Christ in which the power and effectiveness of the church ultimately resides.

Psalm 80:1–12; Isaiah 14; Ephesians 1:1–10

Published 7/1/2019.

Psalm 80:1-12: Our psalmist opens by asking God to listen:
Shepherd of Israel, hearken,
He Who drives Joseph like sheep,
enthroned on the cherubim, shine forth. (2)

Alter tells us that “Joseph” (as opposed to Jacob) is a reference to the northern kingdom of Israel. And it’s clear by the next few verses that Israel is in real trouble, probably from the Assyrians, who eventually conquered them. Our poet repeats his pleas for God to intervene, for what I take to be  an imminent battle against, I presume, Assyria:
Before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh
rouse Your might
and come to the rescue for us.
O God, bring us back,
and light up your face that we may be rescued. (3, 4)

As usual, it seems God is angry with Israel due to their manifold transgressions. But now, the pleas seem to be falling on God’s deaf ears even as the psalmist promises repentance of the people:
Lord, God of armies,
how long will You smolder against Your people’s prayer? (5)

Now the tone sounds somewhat accusatory as the psalmist tells God that they have been punished enough already for past sins:
You fed them bread if tears
and made them drink triple measure of tears. (6)

In fact, it seems God is now being accused of creating the problem in the first place:
Your have put us in strife with our neighbors,
and our enemies mock us. (7)

Which of course is human nature: play the victim and lash out against God—or any other party instead of taking personal responsibility for the consequences of their sins. This victimhood mentality is certainly on ample display in today’s culture.

We now encounter a wonderful vineyard metaphor as the poet reminds God of all the effort he went to to rescue Israel from Egypt and plant them in Canaan:
You carried a vine out of Egypt,
You drove away nations and planted it.
You cleared space before it
and struck its roots down,
and it filled the land. (9, 10)

Unspoken here, but loud and clear is the poet’s attempt to tell God to the effect, “You went to all that trouble to establish Israel, why would you let it be conquered now?” As we know  from history, this appeal to God’s mercy to save the northern kingdom did not succeed. While God loves us and forgives us, God does not necessarily rescue us from the consequences of our sins.

Isaiah 14: This long chapter in Isaiah seeks to encourage captive Israel that its day will indeed come again.  That the king of Babylon will fall; that the Assyrians will be conquered; that the Philistines will meet their deserved end.

At some point, restored Israel will be shout: you will take up this taunt against the king of Babylon:

How the oppressor has ceased!
    How his insolence has ceased! (14:4)

Evil kings will meet their just desserts, even in Hell:
Sheol beneath is stirred up
    to meet you when you come;
it rouses the shades to greet you,
    all who were leaders of the earth;
it raises from their thrones
    all who were kings of the nations. (14:9)

There are some striking images along the way:
…maggots are the bed beneath you,
    and worms are your covering. (14:11b).

This chapter reminds us that prophecy is not just bad things will happen to you,” but also that deuteronomic promise: “bad things will happen to your enemies.”

We encounter what I believe to be John Milton’s inspiration for Paradise Lost beginning here with Satan’s fall from heaven:
How you are fallen from heaven,
    O Day Star, son of Dawn!
How you are cut down to the ground,
    you who laid the nations low! (14:12)

Unsurprisingly, pride is what lead to Satan’s downfall—and what leads to the downfall of those who would be mighty:
You said in your heart,
    “I will ascend to heaven;
I will raise my throne
    above the stars of God;
…But you are brought down to Sheol,
    to the depths of the Pit. (14:13a, 15)

This is certainly one of the places we get the image of hell being “down there.”  My own take on the context here, though, is that Isaiah is still talking about the king of Babylon and coming up with every possible image to make it crystal clear that the mightiest on earth, who hold themselves in their narcissism as being above everyone else, will eventually fall the lowest possible depths in utter humiliation:
Those who see you will stare at you,
    and ponder over you:
“Is this the man who made the earth tremble,
    who shook kingdoms… (14:16)

Because in the end, it is God’s economy of justice that ultimately prevails.

Ephesians 1:1–10: [Ed note: The authorship of Ephesians is disputed even though the first word of the book is “Paul.” Scholars note substantial stylistic differences that suggest pseudonymous authorship. However, I will write here assuming Paul is indeed the author.]

Following a lengthy invocation, Paul implies that Christians have been chosen by God right from the beginning of time: “...just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.” (4) Paul seems to double down on the theme of being chosen ahead of time in the next verse: “He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will.” (5) I’m pretty sure these verses are central to the theology of predestination developed by Calvin and others. Does God choose those will be saved and those who will not? I think predestination is retrospective. Since God exists outside time, there is really no past, present, or future. And being omnipotent, God knows what is going to happen. Since we humans are constrained by the arrow of time, the fact that we have come to God through Jesus Christ certainly looks to us like this was an inevitability—or expressed in human terms, that we were chosen already. But this perception of our time as over against God’s absence of time does not erase our free will to either choose or reject God.

Paul writes that God has expressed his gift to humankind in the person of Jesus Christ: “to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.” (6) He then describes the nature of that gift: “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace  that he lavished on us” (7, 8a)

We come to God because his plan has been revealed to us through Jesus Christ: “With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of [God’s] will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ.” (8b, 9) I certainly agree with Paul’s use of the word, mystery.” There are things about God that we cannot comprehend. We need only accept what Christ has done for us.

Psalm 80:1–8; Isaiah 11:10–13:22; Galatians 6:6–18

Originally published 6/30/2017. Revised and updated 6/29/2019.

Psalm 80:1–8: This psalm of supplication is accompanied by a musical instrument called the shoshanim, which no one knows what it looked or sounded like. However, the lyrics are mighty familiar. The psalmist asks God to come to the aid of three tribes, which Alter informs us comprise much of the northern kingdom of Israel. So this psalm may have been written while the Assyrians were gathering their strength to attack Israel from the north. In any event, the psalmist sounds fairly desperate as he calls on God:
Shepherd of Israel, hearken,
He who drives Joseph like sheep,
enthroned on the cherubim, shine forth.
Before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh
rouse Your might
and come to the rescue for us. (2, 3)

As usual, things have been going badly in Israel and in good deuteronomic fashion, our psalmist suggests that God’s apparent abandonment in their hour of desperate need is because he is angry at Israel’s sinful deeds:
O God, bring us back,
and light up Your face that we may be rescued.
Lord, God of armies,
how long will You smolder against Your people’s prayer? (4,5)

Our poet then goes on to basically accuse God of causing the current distress and sorrow in Israel:
You fed them bread of tears
and made them drink triple measure of tears.
You have put us in strife with our neighbors,
and our enemies mock us. (6, 7)

Really? This dire situation is God’s fault? One of the immutable truths of human nature is that we see ourselves as victims and lash out at anyone, including God, that we can hold responsible instead of ourselves. We’d rather not face the fact that we humans responsible for the consequences of our own sins that bring us to tears and sorrow? In any case, I’m pretty sure that the psalmist is suggesting that God has already meted out sufficient punishment for Israel’s sins and that his mercy would be more than welcome at this point. This raises the interesting question, does God punish us for our sins or do the consequences of our sinful action create their own punishment? I tend to go with Paul here when he says in Romans,”the wages of sin is death.” Those are consequences we’ve earned by virtue of our own actions, not those of God.

Isaiah 11:10–13:22: Speaking of sufficient punishment, Isaiah goes on to describe what will happen when the Messiah, the “root of Jesse,” will do upon his glorious—and very public to all nations on earth— return to Israel and the faithful remnant of Jews that remain:
He will raise a signal for the nations,
    and will assemble the outcasts of Israel,
and gather the dispersed of Judah
    from the four corners of the earth. (11:12)

As far as Isaiah is concerned, perhaps the greatest promise of the Messiah’s arrival is the cessation of internecine hostilities between Israel in the north (Ephraim) and Judah in the south:
The jealousy of Ephraim shall depart,
    the hostility of Judah shall be cut off;
Ephraim shall not be jealous of Judah,
    and Judah shall not be hostile towards Ephraim. (11:13)

When these promises are fulfilled, there will be thanksgiving and worship—and we encounter memorable verses that for those of us who were at Saint Matthew Lutheran in the 1980s brings back the memory of the beautiful Song of Isaiah:
Surely God is my salvation;
    I will trust, and will not be afraid,
for the Lord God   is my strength and my might;
    he has become my salvation. (12:2)

This wonderful hymn comprises the entirety of this short chapter suffused in praise of a merciful God. It is the mercy for which our psalmist above yearns: “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. And you will say in that day:

Give thanks to the Lord,
    call on his name;
make known his deeds among the nations;
    proclaim that his name is exalted.
Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously;

     let this be known in all the earth.
Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion,
      for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.” (12:3-6)

This, ladies and gentlemen, is true worshipful hymnody, not a banal praise chorus ditty.

Chapter 13 begins a new and rather apocalyptic thread about in this prophetic book—but I think it can apply anytime, anywhere. Praise and thanksgiving give way to the end of time when the Day of the Lord dawns:
Wail, for the day of the Lord is near;
    it will come like destruction from the Almighty!
Therefore all hands will be feeble,
    and every human heart will melt,
and they will be dismayed.
Pangs and agony will seize them;
    they will be in anguish like a woman in labor.
They will look aghast at one another;
    their faces will be aflame.
 (13:6-8)

This is quite a contrast to the earlier chapters where lions lie down with lambs.  We can also see where the author of Revelation obtained much of his material:
For the stars of the heavens and their constellations
    will not give their light;
the sun will be dark at its rising,
    and the moon will not shed its light. (13:10)

So what is the Day of the Lord? It is the ultimate judgement day for the prideful wicked and I’d be perfectly content not to be around for this day of reckoning:
I will punish the world for its evil,
    and the wicked for their iniquity;
I will put an end to the pride of the arrogant,
    and lay low the insolence of tyrants.

Therefore I will make the heavens tremble,
    and the earth will be shaken out of its place,
at the wrath of the Lord of hosts
    in the day of his fierce anger.” (13:11-13)

This battle is light years away from the peaceable kingdom. Suddenly we learn that Isaiah is predicting the conquest of Babylon (and per what we read in Revelation, presumably the downfall of the whore of a new Babylon—code for Rome). Here in Isaiah this is same Babylon that conquered the southern kingdom of Judah in 586 BCE:
And Babylon, the glory of kingdoms,
    the splendor and pride of the Chaldeans,
will be like Sodom and Gomorrah
    when God overthrew them. (13:19)

All kingdoms eventually perish. As Isaiah foresaw, Babylon was conquered in 539 BCE by Cyrus the Persian. Babylon was in present day Iraq and Persia is Iran. The parallels are ominous.

Galatians 6:6–18: Paul concludes his rather testy yet profound letter to the Galatians by reminding them that their leaders should be paid: “Those who are taught the word must share in all good things with their teacher.” (6) But more importantly he warns them (and us) that our actions have consequences: “Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow.” (7) Or as my Dad used to put it rather colorfully: “The chickens always come home to roost.”

But Paul quickly adds that we can reap both bad and good consequences resulting from our actions: “If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit.” (8) So, if we abide in the Holy Spirit, we will reap the fruits of the Spirit.

The other key element in living a fruitful Christian life is persistence, of hanging in there: “So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.” (9) He adds a reminder that these good things are accomplished in faithful Christian community that looks to the Holy Spirit: “So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.” (10) I think it is easier to be persistent in our faith if others working along side us also being persistent in theirs.

Paul concludes this letter by writing the final paragraphs in his own hand. And he takes one final swipe at those who would demand circumcision of Gentile Christians: “Even the circumcised do not themselves obey the law, but they want you to be circumcised so that they may boast about your flesh.” (13) Paul, on the other hand, notes that he has only one thing to be boastful about: the cross of Christ (14) The church—the bride of Christ—is a new church with a new rule: “For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything! As for those who will follow this rule—peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God.” (15, 16) Even some 2000 years after Paul we can celebrate being new creatures in the wonderful new creation that is the church of Jesus Christ.

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

Originally published 6/29/2017. Revised and updated 6/28/2019.

Psalm 79:9–13: As the previous verse said, Judah has sunk very low. And it is at this lowest point that our psalmist pleads for God’s rescue. A way to do this is for him to confess the collective sins of Judah:
Help us, our rescuing God
for Your name’s glory,
and save us and atone for our sins
for the sake of Your name. (9)

This verse is a beautiful prayer and one that we can say as well. But we also know that through Jesus Christ our sins have been atoned. Nevertheless, confession and asking for forgiveness is essential if only to make us personally aware of our sinfulness. As John has it, “If we confess our sins God will forgive our sins.” (I John 1:9)

However, the supplication that follows is not one we would necessarily pray under the terms of the New Covenant. Our psalmist asks God to make himself known to Judah’s enemies by wreaking vengeance against them:
Why should the nations say, ‘Where is their god?’
Let it be known among the nations before our eyes—
the vengeance for Your servant’s spilled blood. (10)

But this is followed by a supplication for those Jews who may be marked for death. Assuming the psalm was written at the time of the Babylonian conquest, the psalmist would not know the fate of those led away in captivity to Babylon. Thus he prays that they will at least be spared from execution:
Let the captive’s groan come before You,
by Your arm’s greatness unbind those marked for death. (11)

This prayer for mercy is followed immediately by the opposite of mercy as the poet prays that his enemies will endure the same shame they have heaped on God himself. At its root it is basically a curse:
And give back to our neighbors sevenfold to their bosom
their insults that they heaped on You, Master. (12)

The psalm concludes with a benedictory promise that the Jews will now be faithful until the end of time as the psalmist reminds God that they are his chosen people:
But we are Your people and the flock that You tend.
We acclaim You forever.
From generation to generation we recount Your praise. (13)

But will they remain faithful? Or, more to the pint, will we remain faithful when we promise God that we will “acclaim him forever?” Alas, probably not. We continue to fail. Nevertheless, by praying these words each day the Jews—and we—are reminded of God who loves us and God who deserves our worship.

Isaiah 10:12–11:9: Even though disaster has overtaken the Northern Kingdom (aka Israel), Isaiah’s prophecy goes on to assert that God will also punish the Assyrians who have conquered that nation: “When the Lord has finished all his work on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, he will punish the arrogant boasting of the king of Assyria and his haughty pride.” (10:12)

What’s most intriguing to me in the poetic discourse that follows is the prophecy  that Israel will rise again:
The light of Israel will become a fire,
    and his Holy One a flame;
and it will burn and devour
    his thorns and briers in one day.” (10:17)

One of the major threads through all the OT prophets is that while the majority of Jews have abandoned God, a faithful remnant always remains. Isaiah describes them here: “On that day the remnant of Israel and the survivors of the house of Jacob will no more lean on the one who struck them, but will lean on the Lord, the Holy One of Israel, in truth.” (10:20)

Isaiah promises this remnant that the yoke of Assyria will eventually be lifted because “The Lord of hosts will wield a whip against them, as when he struck Midian at the rock of Oreb; his staff will be over the sea, and he will lift it as he did in Egypt.” (10:26) At that time, their freedom will be restored: “On that day his burden will be removed from your shoulder, and his yoke will be destroyed from your neck.” (10:27)  With these words I can see why many Evangelicals state that this prophecy has been fulfilled in our own time with the establishment of the nation of Israel. Once again we have a prophecy that points at the short term (the Assyrians) and also at the very long term. Personally, though, I’m not so sure Isaiah had three millennia in the future on his mind.

Chapter 11 is one of the most poetically beautiful in all of this book. It describes the qualities of the coming Messiah, who will arise out of the house of David:
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
    and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
    the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
    the spirit of counsel and might,
    the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. (11:1-3)

Of course for us this Messiah has already come: Jesus Christ, who is the complete fulfillment of every quality described in those verses.

As always, it is the poor and meek who will benefit most under the Messiah’s rule while the wicked get finally their comeuppance:
 …with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
    and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
    and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. (11:4)

And of course there is the famous description of the Peaceful Kingdom:
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
    the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
    and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
    their young shall lie down together;
    and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
    and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. (11:6-8)

I cannot resist adding in the painting by the American artist, Edward Hicks who interprets this passage quite literally:

Perhaps the greatest promise of all that God will be acknowledged and worshipped by all humankind concludes this reading:
They will not hurt or destroy
    on all my holy mountain;
the earth will be full of the knowledge of the
Lord

    as the waters cover the sea. (11:9)

As Christians, we believe this beautiful description of an earth made right will only occur at the end of history upon Jesus’ return and the rendering of the final judgement.

Galatians 5:19–6:5: This reading is the most well known part of this epistle. Ever the list maker, Paul provides a fairly comprehensive list of the sins we are all capable of committing: “Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions,  envy,  drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.” (5:19-21a) Paul’s severe warning follows: “I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (5:21b)

The question hangs in the air: does this mean we can lose our salvation by sinning? I don’t think so, but there’s no question that sin drowns out the quiet voice of the Holy Spirit. Paul has been very binary about this: either we are self-centered or we are Holy Spirit-centered. 

And if we elect to be Spirit-centered, we enjoy the famous list of the fruits of the Holy Spirit: “By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.” (5:22, 23)

So if these fruits are so desirable why do we persist in doing the things that are in Paul’s list of sins? As he says, “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” (5:24) Not every Christian can be as self-aware as Paul. And alas, I’m more in the church of Galatia than in the mindset and faith of Paul..

Paul then goes on to discuss the crucial importance of being in Christian community. Each member of the community has a duty to all the others: “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill  the law of Christ.” (6:2) The thing that seems obvious to me here is that we cannot focus on the fruits of the Spirit without the assistance of others doing the same thing.

However, community is not an excuse to shirk personal responsibility. A healthy community consists of people who are not enablers trying to “fix” others. Paul is clear: We do not do each others’ work. Rather, we work side by side, each exercising his or her own gifts. Together we accomplish the common mission of the church. “All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbor’s work, will become a cause for pride. For all must carry their own loads.” (6:4,5) I think a healthy church is one where it is clear that Christ is at the center of it all—not the ego of  a few people, especially its leader or the ones who give the most money.