Psalm 134; 1 Kings 16:15–17:24; John 18:12–24

Originally published 11/24/2016. Revised and updated 11/24/2018.

Psalm 134: This brief psalm is a blessing on those who stand the watch, especially at night:
Look, bless the Lord,
all you servants of the Lord,
who stand in the Lord’s house through the nights. (1)

While this is intended for the temple guards who had nighttime duty, we can extend this psalm to all of those, especially first responders, who are on duty through the night, willingly wrecking their circadian rhythm: Nurses, doctors, police, firemen—and all who serve while the rest of us sleep.Thank you.

And this goes for those who must work this Thanksgiving—particularly those poor souls forced to leave their families midday and go to work in retail due to the unquenchable greediness of corporate America.

The blessing is simple and reminds us of who our creator is:
May the Lord bless you from Zion,
He who makes heaven and earth. (3)

No more need be said other than this is something we should all say, whether we work during the day or all through the night.

1 Kings 16:15–17:24: The successor kings of Israel somehow manage always to be more evil than their predecessors as that benighted nation continues its downward spiral toward depravity. Zimri has assassinated Elah and ascends the throne of Israel. A mere week later, Omri, the army’s commander, tells his troops, “Zimri has conspired, and he has killed the king” (16:16) and executes a coup d’etat. But before Omri can get to the king, Zimri (rather stupidly, IMHO) burns down the palace and manages to die in the process.

The coup splits the kingdom of Israel: half the people are loyal to Omri; the other half to a certain Tibni son of Ginath. Omri puts down the rebellion and reigns for 12 years over a seemingly united Israel, which is just as fissiparous as ever below the surface. He establishes Samaria as the new capital of Israel, and follows the usual downward path: “Omri did what was evil in the sight of the Lord; he did more evil than all who were before him.” (16:25)

Omri’s son, Ahab, succeeds him and exceeds even his father’s evil by marrying Jezebel and overtly serving the god Baal, and, yes, unsurprisingly, “did more to provoke the anger of the Lord, the God of Israel, than had all the kings of Israel who were before him.” (16:33) Wow. I guess the lesson here is that there are no limits to the urge to commit evil; it only descends ever deeper into malevolence. It’s no wonder the Jews of Judah in Jesus’ time had nothing but contempt for their fallen brothers of Samaria.

The prophet Elijah comes to Ahab and pronounces doom: “As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.” (17: 1) Elijah is directed by God to leave Israel forthwith and he arrives at the “Wadi Cherith, which is east of the Jordan.” (17:5), where he is fed bread and meat by ravens. But then the wadi dries up and Elijah is led by God to Zarephath.

Elijah encounters a widow gathering sticks and asks for a little water and a “morsel of bread.” The widow, who is not Jewish, replies that she has only a little and is about to head home to die along with her son of starvation. ELijah tells her not to be afraid and promises her that “the jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.” (17:14) And it was so as Elijah continued to live with the widow.

The widow’s son falls ill and is about to die. The distraught woman asks Elijah what he has against her to cause the death of her son. Elijah is equally distressed and prays aloud to God, asking the same question: “O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?” (17:20) He throws stretches himself over the child and pleads three times, “O Lord my God, let this child’s life come into him again.” (17:21) And the child revives and is healed.

What is so wonderful about this story is that right here in the middle of the history of the deplorable succession of kings of Israel is a beacon of faith in God and of healing. More importantly, it dramatically demonstrates that God is the God of all people, here represented by the Gentile widow, not just the God of Israel. Israel may have a special place before God, but it is not an exclusive place.

Finally, this story is a clear demonstration of God’s special concern for widows and the poor—one of the overarching themes of the OT. Elijah found respite from the famine in the home of a poor widow, not in the king’s palace. Just as centuries later, Jesus would be born into similar humble circumstances.

John 18:12–24: Jesus is brought first to Annas, who is the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest. John adds a note we have not seen in the synoptics: “Caiaphas was the one who had advised the Jews that it was better to have one person die for the people.” (14) This suggests that Caiaphas was acting out of some kind of concern for political well-being of Israel under Roman oppression. Today, we are surrounded by politicians in the government like Caiaphas who claim to know what is best for us.

John also gives us a much more detailed picture of how Peter wound up standing around the fire where he would shortly deny Jesus. In another self-referential detail by our gospel writer: “Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest,” (15) Apparently, unlike Peter, John was not afraid to be identified as a disciple of Jesus.

Meanwhile, Jesus is questioned by Annas, and contra the silent Jesus we encounter in the synoptics, John’s Jesus is, as he always is in this gospel, quite clear about who he is, although he doe omit some details about who he really is: “I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret.” (20) John’s Jesus adds rather courageously, “Why do you ask me? Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said.” (21) Even though Jesus’ response is certainly the correct one, he is rewarded by being struck in the face by one of the temple policemen. Again, Jesus is not cowed, but says, “If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?” (23)

But there is no reply to Jesus in this kangaroo court. And there is no reply throughout history. Jesus is either a madman, or he is who he says he is. Once again we encounter the theme of belief that so permeates this gospel. The question to all of us: How would we answer Jesus?

I believe our gospel writer leaves Jesus’ question unanswered because the question is for all of us. Do we believe or do we not believe? But one thing is clear: Annas clearly wants to wash his hands of this troublemaker and sends him to Caiaphas.

 

Psalm 133; 1 Kings 15:9–16:14; John 18:1–11

Originally published 11/23/2016. Revised and updated 11/23/2018.

Psalm 133: This brief psalm reminds me of an idyllic landscape painting by someone like the French painter Millet, as our psalmist looks down on this peaceful scene occupied by farmers resting after a hard days work, admiring the fruits of their labor. It celebrates the harmony of a group that has toiled together on a common task:
Look, how good and how pleasant
is the dwelling of brothers together.
 (1)

A striking simile of gentle anointing follows:
Like goodly oil on the head
coming down over the beard.
 (2a)

And it’s a certainly a full, bushy beard:
Aaron’s beard that comes down
over the opening of his robe.
 (2b)

While I personally am not ready to have my head and (non-existent) beard drenched in oil, there’s no question that this is a calming, peaceful practice of cleansing at the end of a hard day’s work, reminding us that Sabbath rest is just as important as daily work.

The oil simile in turn receives its own simile amplifying the image of verdant peace and quiet rest:

Like Hermon’s dew that comes down
on the parched mountains, (3)

And behind it all is God:
For there the Lord ordained the blessing—
life forevermore. (4)

This peace and harmony is a wonderful description of the worry-free life that awaits us “forevermore” because we trust and have rested in the arms of a loving God.

1 Kings 15:9–16:14: At long last, Judah enjoys the benefit of 41 years of being ruled by a righteous king: “Asa did what was right in the sight of the Lord, as his father David had done.” (15:11) He even demotes his own mother from being queen mother “because she had made an abominable image for Asherah.” (13) While the “high places” were not removed, and thus we presume that idol worship continued, “Nevertheless, Asa was true to the Lord all his days.” (14)

But the battles between Judah and Israel continue. Asa establishes an alliance with king Ben-hadad of Syria at Damascus, and both armies take on the northern kingdom of  Israel. Attacking from the north, they subdue Israel’s king Baasha, who gives up his plans for building strong fortifications at Ramah.

Stepping back in time a bit, our authors reveal that Jeroboam has (finally) died and his son Nadab  continues Israel’s evil practices. Nadab is quickly overthrown by Baasha,  who promptly eliminates the Jeroboamic dynasty, apparently instructed to do so by God through the prophet Ahijah:  “He [Baasha] left to the house of Jeroboam not one that breathed,…according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by his servant Ahijah the Shilonite—because of the sins of Jeroboam that he committed and that he caused Israel to commit, and because of the anger to which he provoked the Lord, the God of Israel.” (15:29, 30) This is a stark reminder that the leader has a higher responsibility to those whom he leads. The house of Jeroboam is destroyed not only for its own sins, but for having led an entire nation astray.

The reason is simple: Baasha and the nation of Israel have continued to sin mightily. The prophet Jehu brings Baasha the bad news directly from God: “I exalted you out of the dust and made you leader over my people Israel, and you have walked in the way of Jeroboam, and have caused my people Israel to sin, provoking me to anger with their sins.” (16:2) Baasha dies and his son Elah takes the throne, reigning for a mere two years before a palace coup headed by a certain Zimri assassinates 27-year old Elah. As God had promised, the house of Baasha is wiped out.

As far as our authors are concerned, kings who fail to set an example of following God in the same way that David did are the root cause of defeat and death—not only of themselves, but their families and above all, the nation itself. With the exception of Asa, self-centered, egotistical leaders seem to be genetically incapable of following God.

John 18:1–11: Jesus is betrayed by Judas in the Kidron valley at an unnamed garden—which from the Synoptics we know to be Gethsemane. Our gospel writer omits Jesus’ agonizing Gethsemane prayer—probably because Jesus has just prayed a much more upbeat and philosophically richer prayer with the disciples in the upper room. Unlike the Synoptics, John’s Jesus is far more spiritual and seemingly exempt—up to this point anyway—from the pain and agony of the flesh.

In John’s account, Jesus confronts Judas and simply asks (obviously knowing the answer already), “Whom are you looking for?” (4), They reply “Jesus of Nazareth” and Jesus calmly responds, “I am he.” (5) Of course for this gospel writer, these three words are fraught with far greater meaning than simply identifying himself to a bunch of soldiers. Judas must sense that the completion of the sentence would be “whom the Father has sent,” because he faints and falls to the ground, doubtless realizing the enormity of his sin.

The same dialog between Jesus and the soldiers is repeated again, word for word. This time though, Jesus adds, “if you are looking for me, let these men [the disciples] go.” But Peter cannot leave without a fight on behalf of his master and promptly cuts off the right ear of the high priest’s slave. Jesus tells Peter to sheath his sword. As I read this Jesus’ instructions to Jesus are not because he necessarily disapproves of Peter’s impulsive act but because it might foil the sequence of events that are about to follow: “Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?” (11)

For our gospel writer, Jesus never questions his fate but is fully cognizant of the purpose for which he was sent to earth by God. John’s Jesus has never doubted what he is to do and approaches his fate with otherworldly equanimity.

Psalm 132; 1 Kings 14:21–15:8; John 17:20–26

Originally published 11/22/2016. Revised and updated 11/22/2018. Thanksgiving Day

Psalm 132: Alter informs us that this psalm is a poem about David’s efforts to bring the Ark of the Covenant to its final resting place in Jerusalem as described in 2 Samuel 6-7.  It was not an easy task:
Recall, O Lord, for David
all his torment
when he swore to the Lord,
vowed to Jacob’s Champion (1,2)

[Alter calls the Ark “Jacob’s Champion;” the NRSV calls it “the Mighty One of Jacob.”]

But David was a man of his word, especially before God, and our psalmist indulges in a bit of poetic hyperbole here, (since we assume David did in fact sleep while undertaking this task) as his David swears,
I will not come into the tent of my home,
I will not mount my couch,
I will not give sleep to my eyes
nor slumber to my lids
until I find a place for the Lord,
a dwelling for Jacob’s Champion. (3-5)

But we get the point. David certainly dedicated his all to accomplishing this (to mix metaphors) Herculean task.

The verses that follow suggest that the psalm is not contemporaneous with the event, but a fondly recalled memory throughout Israel:
Look, we heard of it in Ephratha,
we found it in the fields of Jaar.
 (6)

Regardless, the Ark’s arrival in Jerusalem is a time of national celebration and a focus of pilgrimage: Let us come into His dwelling,
let us bow to His footstool.
 (7)

The Ark finally rests in the Temple— the center of Israel’s existence and purpose as the hymn rises heavenward:
Rise, O Lord, to Your resting-place,
You and the Ark of Your strength.
Let Your priests don victory,
and let Your faithful sing gladly. (8,9)

But at the moment our psalmist is writing, all is not well. Israel has sinned, doubtless its usual worshipping of other small-g gods. But now the nation is repentant as it begs God to remain David’s oath to God becomes God’s oath to David:
For the sake of David Your servant,
do not turn away Your anointed.
The Lord swore to David
a true oath from which He will not turn back. (10, 11)

The psalmist shifts to God’s voice, reminding Israel (and us) of the terms of the Covenant between David and himself:
If your sons keep My pact,
and My precept that I shall teach them,
their sons, too, evermore
shall sit on the throne that is yours
. (12)

After all, God continues,
The Lord has chosen Zion [Jerusalem],
He desired it as His seat.
 (13)

And if God remains at Jerusalem, wonderful blessings will happen:
I will surely bless its provisions,
its needy I will sate with bread.
And its priests I will clothe in triumph,
and its faithful will surely sing gladly.
 (16)

The psalm concludes on a triumphantly hopeful note:
His enemies I will clothe with shame,
but on him
[David and presumably, his successors]—his crown will gleam. (18)

Once again, when we realize this psalm—doubtless known orally for generations—was written down in Babylonian exile, we can only imagine the bitter tears the scribes must have shed.

1 Kings 14:21–15:8: THe story shifts from the northern kingdom’s sins. Down south in Judah, Rehoboam ascends the throne of David at age 41. Alas, this corrupt king had drifted far from God and was a poor example of leadership, “Judah did what was evil in the sight of the Lord; they provoked him to jealousy with their sins that they committed, more than all that their ancestors had done.” (14:22) Which is saying something… Judah’s sins included male temple prostitutes and having failed to rid Canaan of all its inhabitants centuries before, Israel absorbed evil practices: “they committed all the abominations of the nations that the Lord drove out before the people of Israel.” (14:24)

Needless to say, God is p.o.ed and in true deuteronomic fashion, allows Judah to be invaded. King Shishak of Egypt “took away the treasures of the house of the Lord and the treasures of the king’s house; he took everything.” (26) Rehoboam’s guard is reduced to shields of bronze rather than Solomon’s shields of gold. On top of this there is endless internecine warfare between Rehoboam and Jeroboam, further reducing the once great united kingdom under Solomon. Thus do empires crumble.

Rehoboam dies before Jeroboam, so a guy named Abijam takes the throne in Judah. Solomon’s grandson is just as bad as his father: “He committed all the sins that his father did before him; his heart was not true to the Lord his God, like the heart of his father David.” (15:3) Our authors, being the David partisans they are, remark that “Nevertheless for David’s sake the Lord his God gave him a lamp in Jerusalem,” (15:4) which is to say he was allowed to rule. The authors have more to say about David than Abijam, who is basically a deeply wicked non-entity: “David did what was right in the sight of the Lord, and did not turn aside from anything that he commanded him all the days of his life, except in the matter of Uriah the Hittite.” (15:5) Abijam dies after a brief but destructive three-year reign.

Up next: Solomon’s great-grandson, Asa.

John 17:20–26: Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer is not just for his disciples, but (this being the gospel that’s all about belief) for all persons who believe, including us two millennia later: “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word.” (20)

Jesus also prays for the unity of believers: “that they may all be one.” (21) And then more forcefully, “so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (22, 23) Alas, 2000 years later, the church is fully divided within itself, having both added to and taken away from what Jesus said. But above all, the church has forgotten Jesus’ words about love. While there are certain ecumenical movements underway and more common ground is being agreed to, I fear the church will remain divided for centuries to come unless there is an unquenchable outbreak of true Christian love for each other. But I am not optimistic.

We must never forget that the church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ and that Jesus is the exemplar of what Christian love is all about. In the end Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit is pure love: “I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” (26) Absent the real love Jesus describes here the church will be more a Potemkin village than the place of unity and love that Jesus describes..

Psalm 131; 1 Kings 13:23–14:20; John 17:1–19

Originally published 11/21/2016. Revised and updated 11/21/2018.

Psalm 131: Unlike many of the other “songs of ascents,” this compact psalm is intensely personal—a prayer uttered one-on-one between God and the penitent:
Lord, my heart has not been haughty,
nor have my eyes looked to high,
nor have I striven for great things,
nor for things too wondrous for me.” (1)

There is no pride, no preening here. There is only deep humility before God. I’m not sure I could honestly pray this prayer. How many times in my life have I been ambitious and sought ascendancy over others? Have I always been content with my lot in life?

Rather than focusing on outward distractions, our psalmist centers himself on God—a centering that brings internal peace. And then in a remarkable simile he compares himself to the contented babe at a mother’s breast, seeking nothing more than God’s encompassing comfort:
But I have calmed and contented myself.
like a weaned babe on its mother—
like a weaned babe I am with myself
. (2)

Can I find such wonderful contentment in prayer the way the psalmist has? Can I focus only on resting in God, free of the distractions and temptations of the world. Free of the prideful desire that has motivated so many of my actions and relationships through the years? But then, what I have done in the past matters little to God when I am content to come to him in humility and peace. Today is what matters.

1 Kings 13:23–14:20: The young prophet, who disobeyed God by supping with the old prophet, meets his fate: “as he went away, a lion met him on the road and killed him. His body was thrown in the road, and the donkey stood beside it.” (13:24) When the old prophet hears of this, he comes and finds the lion standing beside the dead prophet: “The lion had not eaten the body or attacked the donkey.” (13:18) He takes the body and buries it in his own grave, “and they mourned over him, saying, “Alas, my brother!” (13:30)

This incident is also a metaphor for the cautious wisdom of the old vis a vis the impetuousness of youth. The old prophet has years of experience in coming before God that the young one does not. He—and we—have been worn smooth by the events of a longer life. That is why knowledge is essential but real wisdom comes only with experience and age.

The old prophet realizes that while his young counterpart had disobeyed God, he had nonetheless performed God’s work before Jeroboam, saying, “He proclaimed by the word of the Lord against the altar in Bethel, and against all the houses of the high places that are in the cities of Samaria, shall surely come to pass.” (32)

But Jeroboam does not heed the prophet’s warning and quickly falls deeper into sin, reestablishing the high place at Bethel and appointing as priest anyone who applied for the job. As our authors note ominously, “This matter became sin to the house of Jeroboam, so as to cut it off and to destroy it from the face of the earth.” (13:34)

Which of course is exactly what happens. Jeroboam’s son falls ill and he sends his wife in disguise to same old prophet, Ahijah, to ask what will happen. The disguise was apparently not very good, for Ahijah instantly recognizes the woman as Jeroboam’s wife.

The prophet delivers bad news. God delivered the ten tribes of Israel to Jeroboam, but the king has “not been like my servant David, who kept my commandments and followed me with all his heart, doing only that which was right in my sight.” (14:8) Instead, he has “done evil above all those who were before you and have gone and made for yourself other gods, and cast images, provoking me to anger.” (14:9a) And in an interesting turn of phrase, the prophet concludes, speaking in the voice of God, that Jeroboam has “thrust me [God] behind your back.” (14:9b) A challenging phrase since I think everyone of us has thrust God behind our backs many times in our lives.

Jeroboam’s fate is the worst possible outcome, as the prophet concludes, “I will cut off from Jeroboam every male, both bond and free in Israel, and will consume the house of Jeroboam, just as one burns up dung until it is all gone.” The woman returns to find her son dead.

The prophet also predicts a dire outcome for the entire nation of Israel: God “will root up Israel out of this good land that he gave to their ancestors, and scatter them beyond the Euphrates, because they have made their sacred poles,  provoking the Lord to anger.”  (14:15) Which of course is exactly what happens, although not as soon as the prophet implies.

Jeroboam reigns 22 years and is succeeded by another son, Nadab. Apparently, through polygamy the house of Jeroboam is not quite finished yet.

John 17:1–19: Jesus has concluded his discourse to the disciples and now prays what has become known as the High Priestly Prayer, which opens with Jesus’ clear statement that something extraordinary is about to happen, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you.” (1) But the line that really intrigues me follows shortly, “this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (3) The implication—for me anyway—is that eternal life is much greater than merely going to heaven after we die, whatever that might mean. Rather, eternal life lies in knowing Jesus and working for the Kingdom of God right here and right now.  For me, “eternal,” in this context means “beyond time” not just “forever,” which implies we are stuck in time. I take eternity as a far greater, far better thing because it affects me in the present right where I am, not in some abstract future. Our relationship with God through Jesus transcends the four dimensions in which we are trapped here on earth, right now, right here.

Once again, Jesus makes the crucial point that his returning to the Father is the loving act that brings true joy to us here on earth: “But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.” (13)

The other key point is that while we, as Jesus’ disciples, may be in the world, we are no longer of the world: “the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.” (14) In other words, we are not possessed by the trappings of the world around us, but through faith we will ultimately transcend the world. And while we are here, Jesus has asked God to protect us: “I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.” (15) As Peter makes clear in his epistle, we are “resident aliens” in the world, but the world cannot claim us as its own.

The problem of course is that I too readily claim the world as my own rather than, like the psalmist above, finding comfort in God’s all-encompassing embrace, which Jesus has made available to us.

 

Psalm 130; 1 Kings 12:25–13:22; John 16:17–33

Originally published 11/19/2016. Revised and updated 11/20/2018.

Psalm 130: This brief penitential psalm opens with the psalmist’s cri de coeur:
From the depths I called You, Lord.
Master, hear my voice.

May Your ears listen close to the voice of my plea. (1, 2a)

An omnipotent God knows every human wrongdoing and we would all be doomed. But God is a forgiving God:
Were You, O Yah, to watch for wrongs,
Master, who could endure?
Forgiveness is Yours,
so that You may be feared.
” (3, 4)

But as we know, so much of our relationship with God requires our patience and undying hope:
I hoped for the Lord,
my being hoped,
and for His word I waited
. (5)

This patient waiting is amplified in the next verse with a powerful comparison as the psalmist’s entire existence is encapsulated in eager anticipation of God’s response:
My being for the Master—
more than dawn watchers watch for the dawn. 
(6)

In the last two verses the psalm suddenly shifts its point of view from the first person to that of all Israel, as the hopeful anticipation the psalmist describes is on behalf of the entire nation as God’s two greatest qualities come to the fore—kindness and redemption:
Wait, O Israel, for the Lord,
for with the Lord is steadfast kindness,
and great redemption is with Him.
 (7)

Even though Israel is awash in its sinfulness, our psalmist is sure of one great thing about a God who listens to prayer:
And he will redeem Israel
from all its wrongs.
 (8)

God’s kindness and redemption will inevitably come, but when only we ask—and then wait patiently.

1 Kings 12:25–13:22: It doesn’t take newly-crowned king Jeroboam very long to lead the ten northern tribes of Israel astray. He is deeply concerned that his people will keep going down to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices and be tempted to “revert to the house of David,” (12:26), which would result in him being overthrown by King Rehoboam and killed. So, he sets up two other alternative worship sites, each featuring a golden calf, at Bethel and at Dan. Even worse, he appoints non-Levite priests. The long descent of the northern kingdom into apostasy begins early on.

Disapproval is quick in coming. “Jeroboam was standing by the altar to offer incense, a man of God came out of Judah by the word of the Lord to Bethel.” (13:1) Needless to say, this unnamed prophet is quick to condemn the altar and predicts that “A son shall be born to the house of David, Josiah by name.” (13:2) [The authors know Josiah’s name because they’re writing history and know exactly who came.] Worse, the prophet predicts that Jeroboam and his ersatz priests will themselves be killed sacrificed on this very altar, which will then be destroyed. Jeroboam attempts to reach out and seize this prophetic interloper. But as he does so, his hand withers and the altar is torn down (apparently by God). Jeroboam begs the prophet to pray to God to restore his hand, which the prophet does. The king invites the prophet to dinner, but the prophet rather testily replies (Prophets are inevitably testy, aren’t they?), “If you give me half your kingdom, I will not go in with you; nor will I eat food or drink water in this place,” (13:8) because that’s what God instructed him to not do. He departs.

The sons of another old prophet, who lives in Bethel, tell him about the incident with Jeroboam. The old man asks his sons to saddle a donkey and he sets out in pursuit of the other prophet, whom he finds sitting under an oak tree. The old man invites him to lunch. The younger prophet replies, “I cannot return with you, or go in with you; nor will I eat food or drink water with you in this place” (16) because God had told him so. The old prophet insists, the younger prophet relents, and the “man of God went back with him, and ate food and drank water in his house.” (19) Suddenly, the old prophet receives a word from God and tells his luncheon guest, the man of God, “Because you have disobeyed the word of the Lord, and have not kept the commandment that the Lord your God commanded you,” (21). As a result, the old prophet continues, “your body shall not come to your ancestral tomb.” (22)

So, what are our authors trying to tell us here with this odd encounter? I think it’s that prophets must listen and obey the word of God directly, not through the words of another person—even if he’s another prophet. In the end, God speaks one-to-one to prophets, not through proxies. I think this is a set up for many of the prophetic words that are going to follow in this history of the decline and fall of Israel and then eventually, Judah.

John 16:17–33: Jesus has been talking for quite some time now and his puzzling philosophical-theological discourse and introduction of the Advocate have [understandably, IMO] only created more confusion But the issue that concerns them more than any other is Jesus’ statement that he is going away. This is not part of their plan. They think they are in Jerusalem to see Jesus overthrow the religious establishment, if not the Roman rulers.

Jesus is a bit more direct in predicting that like a woman in labor, there is pain followed by joy: “you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy.” (20) In addition to joy, there is Jesus’ great promise: “Very truly, I tell you, if you ask anything of the Father in my name, he will give it to you.” (23) Well, that sounds pretty good, but notice that the gifts they will receive are not power or wealth but one simple outcome: “Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete.” (24) It is through Jesus—and Jesus alone—that our joy is completed. Happiness may have many parents, but true joy comes from only one place.

Jesus finally admits, “I have said these things to you in figures of speech. The hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figures, but will tell you plainly of the Father.” (25) The disciples must have been relieved to hear that. The light is dawning as Jesus puts it finally in plain language: “the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God.” (27) And once again here in this gospel, it is all about belief. But now it’s not just intellectual belief, but it is belief leavened with love.

The disciples get it! They tell Jesus, Yes, now you are speaking plainly, not in any figure of speech! Now we know that you know all things, and do not need to have anyone question you; by this we believe that you came from God.” (29, 30) And there it is: they have acknowledged the truth of what our gospel writer said much earlier in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he sent his only son…” 

Jesus departure is near, but love and joy have trumped confusion and concern. And that, I think, is the core message of this marvelous but often frustrating gospel. When we believe that God truly  and has expressed that love through Jesus’ death and resurrection, and then more love through the gift of the Holy Spirit, then our joy does indeed become full.

 

Psalm 129; I Kings 11:26–12:24; John 16:5–16

Originally published 11/18/2016. Revised and updated 11/19/2018.

Psalm 129: The tone of this song of ascent is much darker than its predecessor. All Israel has been oppressed but remains defiant, strongly suggesting it has been written from exile:
Much they beset me from my youth
   —let Israel now say—
much they beset me from my youth,
yet they did not prevail over me.” (1,2)

A grim agricultural metaphor suggests torture—psychological if not actually physical. We can almost feel the pain on our own backs:
My back the harrowers harrowed,
they drew a long furrow.
 (3)

Despite the oppression and the torture, Israel continues to stand in defiance because “The Lord is just.” (4a) Those who would oppress are defeated and Israel is freed from them: “He has slashed the bonds of the wicked.” (4b)

A malediction follows that not only will Israel be freed, but the roles of oppressor and oppressed will be reversed. Those who oppress Israel become those who are shamed:
May they be shamed and fall back,
all the haters of Zion.
 (5)

Given the political opprobrium directed to modern Israel, there is certainly a contemporary feel to this verse.

The curse that follows is a simile of dry grass used as thatch connotes an image of the intrinsic unworth of Israel’s captors:
May they be like grass on rooftops
that the east wind withers.
 (6)

Moreover, this grass, like the oppressors it represents, is worthless:
with which no reaper fills his hand,
no binder of sheaves his bosom.
 (7)

This simile calls to mind Psalm 1: They have become like the “chaff that the wind drives away.” Totally absent of meaning or worth.

Perhaps worst of all, the wicked are separated from God as indicated by the absence of even an acknowledgement they exist: The lack of a blessing becomes a curse:
and no passers-by say, ‘The Lord’s blessing upon you!’
We bless you in the name of the Lord.
” (8)

Is there a greater sign of abandonment than to be simply ignored by those who pass us by without even looking? Without relationship with God or with others, the psalmist is telling us, the wicked are worse than worthless; they have simply ceased to exist.

I Kings 11:26-43: Because Solomon has foolishly begun to worship other small-g gods, God has told him that his kingdom will be taken from him, although not until after he dies. A certain Ephramite named Jeroboam decides to rebel against Solomon. Industrious Jeroboam has been appointed by Solomon to supervise forced labor of the house of Jospeh. One day as he leaves Jerusalem, Jeroboam encounters a prophet named Ahijah, whom we meet only here. Ahijah takes the coat he’s wearing a tears it into twelve pieces and hands Jeroboam ten of them, telling him, “thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, “See, I am about to tear the kingdom from the hand of Solomon, and will give you ten tribes.” (31) The prophet goes on to say that one tribe—Judah— will remain under Solomon’s (and his successors), as will the city of Jerusalem, “for the sake of my servant David and for the sake of Jerusalem, the city that I have chosen out of all the tribes of Israel.” (32) Our authors, writing hundreds of years after these events, certainly know the outcome of what Ahijah is “predicting.” But it’s equally clear that above all else, the authors want to make sure the name of David is to remain unsullied despite the sins of his successors.

Ahijah tells Jeroboam that God will give him the ten tribes, but not until after Solomon dies. However, he reminds Jeroboam that “to [Solomon’s] son I will give one tribe, so that my servant David may always have a lamp before me in Jerusalem, the city where I have chosen to put my name.” (36) As for Jeroboam himself, God promises, “I will take you, and you shall reign over all that your soul desires; you shall be king over Israel.” (37) Even more remarkably, God, through Ahijah, gives Jeroboam exactly the same promise as David and Solomon: “If you will listen to all that I command you, walk in my ways, and do what is right in my sight by keeping my statutes and my commandments, as David my servant did, I will be with you, and will build you an enduring house, as I built for David, and I will give Israel to you.” (38) We will find out later how well JeJeroboam sticks to this covenant.

Solomon hears of this and attempts to have Jeroboam killed, but he flees to Egypt.

Solomon reigns over a united Israel for 40 years, and I sure wish we had the “Book of the Acts of Solomon” to read about more of his adventures and hopefully, more examples of his wisdom. But alas, we do not have that book. Our authors tell us only that “Solomon slept with his ancestors and was buried in the city of his father David; and his son Rehoboam succeeded him.” (43)

So, what do we take away from the story of Solomon? That even the wisest man will fall prey to temptation and drift away from God. Our authors tend to blame the many wives and concubines that caused Solomon to drift away from God, but in the end, it is a question of personal responsibility. Solomon must face the consequences of his own choices. As must we.

Upon Solomon’s death, Israel gathers and asks Rehoboam for relief, “Your father made our yoke heavy. Now therefore lighten the hard service of your father and his heavy yoke that he placed on us, and we will serve you.” (12:4) Rehoboam tells them to come back in three days and he’ll answer. He seeks the counsel of the elders who advise him,“If you will be a servant to this people today and serve them, and speak good words to them when you answer them, then they will be your servants forever.” (12:8) However, his young companions tell him to lay it on even heavier.   Rehoboam, being young, believes he knows everything and ignores the advice of his elders, giving one of the most evil speeches in the Bible: “My father made your yoke heavy, but I will add to your yoke; my father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions.” (14)

Unsurprisingly, the people of the ten tribes rebel and make Jeroboam their king. Only the tribe of Judah follows Rehoboam. Thus, the united nation of Israel is sundered forever. All because one man thought he knew better than his older and wise counselors. Such are the fruits of arrogance and political immaturity.

John 16:5–16: Our gospel writer implies through Jesus words that “sorrow has filed [the disciples] hearts.” (5)  I’m guessing they’re also confused and doubtless not a little angry that their leader appears to be abandoning them. Needless to say, they hadn’t yet figured out about Jesus’ impending betrayal, mock trial, and execution. So, Jesus once again explains the business about the “Advocate,” this time asserting that “if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.” (7) Which sounds like the disciples can have one or the other but not both simultaneously. Or does it?

Jesus makes the intriguing if somewhat opaque statement, “And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment.” (8) I take this to mean that Jesus will turn the existing order and philosophy upside down and inside out, not only in Israel, but in the world at large. Which of course is exactly what happened as the church grew and a few centuries later the western world itself became Christendom.

The Holy Spirit will be transformative in many ways. First, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” (13) Then, “He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” (14) Together with Jesus’ next words, “All that the Father has is mine” (15) we get a glimpse of the complex relationship that we call the Trinity—a relationship that in the end is beyond human understanding.

Jesus concludes his soliloquy with a clear prediction of his death and resurrection: “A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me.” (16) Very soon, the world will be changing forever.

Psalm 128; 1 Kings 11:1–25; John 15:18–16:4

Originally published 11/17/2016. Revised and updated 11/17/2018.

Psalm 128: This “song of ascents” celebrates the qualities of a “good life.” Unsurprisingly, the first key to genuine happiness is obedience to God at the center of one’s life:
Happy all who fear the Lord,
who walk in His ways.
 (1)

Next come the benefits of honest labor:
When you eat of the toil of your hands,
happy are you, and it is good for you
. (2)

I take this is that we are here on earth to do: work, or more generally, by dint of our efforts to contribute in some meaningful way to the betterment of the world into which we were born. I think it’s also worth noting is that the benefits of a good life does not necessarily produce wealth, but rather the reward is the honest fruits of honest labor.

Of course this psalm was written in a paternalistic age, where women had one clear purpose: to bear children while remaining generally out of sight. (In fact, the wealthier the man, the less like his wife was to be seen in public.) A wife’s fecundity is her greatest achievement:
Your wife is like a fruitful vine
in the recesses of your house.
 (3a)

The agricultural metaphor continues: A fruitful wife enabled a man’s greatest purpose, which is to be a father of many children:
Your children like young olive trees
around your table
. (3b)

A wife and children—the family—are a man’s greatest reward for following God since this is aligned to—and a reflection of—God’s creative power:
Look, for it is thus
that the man is blessed who fears the Lord.
 (4)

It’s very clear here: an intact family—man, woman, children who recognize that God is their creator is the foundation of a civil (in all senses of that word) society.Unfortunately, our culture seems headed in the opposite direction as it redefines not only what a “family” is, but is now redefining genders as well. “Fluidity” is the polar opposite of stability.

The song ends with two benedictory blessings. The first is for the continuation of this good life:
May the Lord bless you from Zion,
and may you see Jerusalem’s god
all the days of your life
. (5).

The second blessing resonates deeply with this grandfather, for I have been so blessed:
And may you see children of your children.
Peace upon Israel!
 (6)

My children’s children have brought me true happiness—exactly as this psalm promises.

1 Kings 11:1–25: It’s almost a relief to learn that even though Solomon was wise beyond all others and wealthier and more powerful than anyone who has ever reigned in Israel, he is also a human, i.e., a sinner. And in a foreboding of what is to come in Solomon’s successors he committed what I think we could call the ur-sin of ancient Israel: loving women who worshipped other gods. Like everything else about Solomon he commits this sin in orders of magnitude greater than any other Israelite. In addition to the Pharaoh’s daughter he had 700 princesses and 300 concubines. [If we assume one sexual act per night, it would take Solomon almost 3 years to lie with every woman!] But what happens is exactly what “the Lord had said to the Israelites,You shall not enter into marriage with them, neither shall they with you; for they will surely incline your heart to follow their gods.” (2) 

Solomon’s ultimate tragedy lies in this single sentence: “For when Solomon was old, his wives turned away his heart after other gods; and his heart was not true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of his father David.” (6) Worse, Solomon begins building altars to these small-g gods.

And it is this ur-sin that our authors find the rationale for Israel’s long decline. God appears to Solomon and tells him, “Since this has been your mind and you have not kept my covenant and my statutes that I have commanded you, I will surely tear the kingdom from you and give it to your servant.” (11)  However, God will hold off on punishment until after Solomon dies. Which seems quite gracious. God also will preserve one tribe for Solomon’s successor, which I assume is Judah—the tribe of our authors writing centuries later.

Solomon’s troubles begin shortly thereafter: “the Lord raised up an adversary against Solomon, Hadad the Edomite,” (14) who takes revenge served cold because of David’s general, Joab, killing the males of Edom many years earlier. The king of Aram also joins the fray against as he “was an adversary of Israel all the days of Solomon, making trouble as Hadad did.” (25)

Lesson: Even those who appear to be preternaturally wise, even the very symbol of wisdom himself, are sinners at heart. And sins that ignore God will always bear bitter fruit.

John 15:18–16:4: For our gospel writer all things are binary. We believe or we don’t believe. There is love or hate; the world, or the Way to God through Jesus. He warns his disciples—and us— that if they and we believe and follow Jesus, “be aware that [the world] hated me before it hated you.” (18) And more ominously in the next sentence, “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you.” (20) Jesus followers will be persecuted “on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me.” (21)  And conversely, “Whoever hates me hates my Father also.” (23) One suspects that when this gospel was written some 90 years after the events it describes, societal rejection, if not outright persecution, of the followers of “the Way” had already commenced.

Here is where we read more clearly than anywhere else in the gospels that Jesus has changed the terms of the Old Covenant. His arrival on earth has made them aware of their (and our) inherent sinfulness: “If I had not done among them the works that no one else did, they would not have sin.” (24) In short, when we hear the message of Jesus and then consciously reject it, we are in denial about our own fallenness. And no sacrifice will justify that person before God. Jesus has replaced the old system, which is the overarching theme of the Epistle to the Hebrews.

But all is not lost, for the third person of the Trinity will arrive soon: “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf.” (26) in other words, the followers of Jesus will receive comfort and new power through the Holy Spirit.

Nevertheless, hard times are surely coming. This is John’s Olivet Discourse: “They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God.” (16:2)

In this gospel the key issue is not eschatological at the end of history, but right in the here and now. People have consciously rejected Jesus and therefore rejected God, and “they will do this because they have not known the Father or me.” (16:3)

Jesus is speaking in an age where everyone believed in God or in their small-g gods. Our small-g gods such as status, power, and wealth are more subtle but just as deadly to our souls. The choice is very clear. Believe or don’t believe in Jesus and his message.

But today, there is far more indifference to the whole idea of God, never mind belief in God. People do not reject God consciously; they just think God is irrelevant to them. At least when they are young. I think as one ages, there is a growing desire for transcendence. And Jesus’ promise fills that desire.

Psalm 127; 1 Kings 9:20–10:29; John 15:9–17

Originally published 11/16/2016. Revised and updated 11/16/2018.

Psalm 127: This psalm of ascents is dedicated to Solomon. Its first lines reflect Solomon’s great project to build the temple, remembering that God must be at the center of our human efforts, including temple-building:
If the Lord does not build a house,
in vain do its builders labor on it.
 (1a)

The same goes for community life as well. If we do not acknowledge God as its head, all our human efforts are doomed:
If the Lord does not watch over a town,
in vain does the watchman look out.
” (1b)

Our palmist focuses on God being the necessary center of our own lives. Without God as touchstone and refuge we become bundles of sleep-deprived anxiety as we labor from morning to night:
In vain you who rise early, sit late.
eaters of misery’s bread
. (2a)

On the other hand, those who keep God at the center of their lives are rewarded with peace—and sleep:
So much He gives to His loved ones in sleep. (2b).

If we ever wanted a verse that describes some sizable proportion of the population here in the fast-paced life of most of America and especially in my former home of northern California, this is the one. People go about their business almost 24/7 leading lives rimmed in anxiety, believing they must accomplish every task with their own resources, believing there is not God who cares for them. Failing to place God at the center of our quotidian lives exacts an enormous physical and psychological cost.

The psalmist changes the subject, turning to the reality of Israel’s patriarchal society. A man’s security as he grew older was defended by his fecundity, specifically male sons:
Look, the estate of the Lord is sons,
reward is the fruit of the womb. 
(3)

The strength of youth is a serious asset to the family as the poet employs a striking simile that sons are the means of achieving dominance:
Like arrows in the warrior’s hand,
thus are the sons born in youth.
 (4)

Of course our own culture looks askance at this blatant sexism, but we need to remember that in those tribal days, a family’s security was based in large part on how well it could defend itself. Thus,
Happy the man
who fills his quiver with them.
 (5a)

This is not just about the family’s security, but its honor as well:
They shall not be shamed
when they speak with their enemies at the gate.
 (5b)

But I confess I am not happy with this idea.Well-armed families of many sons defending their honor exists today in the mountains of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

1 Kings 9:20–10:29: Our authors remind us of Israel’s historical failure to rid Canaan of other tribes and “their descendants who were still left in the land, whom the Israelites were unable to destroy completely,” (9:21) Their presence made them handy as slaves, also sparing Israelites from becoming slaves. Rather, they became middle management: “they were the soldiers, they were his officials, his commanders, his captains, and the commanders of his chariotry and cavalry.” (22) In the long run, though, Israel will come to regret the presence of these other tribes among them.

Solomon turns out to be a successful capitalist, who builds and sends out ships in trade on the Red Sea, eventually importing 420 talents of gold—an enormous sum.

Hearing of Solomon’s fame, which the authors point out parenthetically is “fame due to the name of the Lord’ (10:1) the Queen of Sheba arrives with her retinue. Her mission is to test Solomon with “hard questions,” doubtless with the intention of finding out he’s a fake. However, the queen is duly impressed and she loses her combative spirit, telling Solomon in sincere admiration: “I did not believe the reports until I came and my own eyes had seen it..” (10:7)

Rather than finding fakery and vanity—well known qualities of other kingdoms—she realizes that all Solomon is and possesses and has accomplished comes from his God: “Blessed be the Lord your God, who has delighted in you and set you on the throne of Israel! Because the Lord loved Israel forever, he has made you king to execute justice and righteousness.” (10:9) She gives Solomon “one hundred twenty talents of gold, a great quantity of spices, and precious stones.” (10:10) Solomon reciprocates and “gave her out of Solomon’s royal bounty” (13) and she departs in great admiration. For our authors writing centuries later, the Queen of Sheba is simply one example of the admiration in which Solomon was held throughout the world.

Somewhat starry-eyed, our authors continue to describe Solomon’s immense wealth, including shields of gold, an ivory throne, and gold goblets for his house—”none were of silver—it was not considered as anything in the days of Solomon.” (21)

Solomon’s fame and wealth achieves a zenith that has never been surpassed: “Thus King Solomon excelled all the kings of the earth in riches and in wisdom. The whole earth sought the presence of Solomon to hear his wisdom, which God had put into his mind.” (24) But our authors seem more interested in Solomon’s inventory of wealth and spend the remainder of the reading describing his military power and his ongoing trade, providing even the price of an Egyptian chariot (600 shekels of silver.)

Personally, I’d have preferred fewer breathless descriptions of inventory and more examples of Solomon’s wisdom.

John 15:9–17: For our gospel writer, there is One Thing is at the foundation of everything Jesus said and did: bringing God’s deep love for his creatures down to earth: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” (9) This is a covenantal love, encircled by our obedience to God: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” (10) Obedience to God and love are two sides of the same coin.

Out of love famously arises joy: “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” (11)

In our age where love has been so deeply degraded in meaning, we tend to be put off at Jesus conflating love and obedience:  “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (12) Seeing ourselves as individuals of free will and freedom to do as we please, we wonder why we have to give up that freedom and obey God. But why wouldn’t we want to follow this commandment with enthusiasm and dedication? This is a love that famously expresses itself as willing sacrifice: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (13)

Friendship and love are intertwined and Jesus expressed his love for this disciples, who are is friends rather than his servants, by telling them everything: “I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.” (15) Our natural response to being filled with this love is “to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last,” (16) As Jesus says, “I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.” (17)

The question becomes, can I set aside my self-centered will and obey God by putting Jesus in charge of my life in order to experience such an unsurpassed love? Or do I hang on to my own pride and miss out on what real love is all about?

Psalm 126; 1 Kings 8:54–9:19; John 14:25–15:8

Originally published 11/15/2016. Revised and updated 11/15/2018.

Psalm 126: This psalm anticipates God’s good actions:
When the Lord restores Zion’s fortunes.
we should be like dreamers.
 (1)

In fact this restoration will be so wonderful (and unexpected) that people will think it’s a dream. And when that actual restoration comes,
Then will our mouth fill with laughter
and our tongue sing glad song
. (2a)

Moreover, God’s action on behalf of Israel will be tangibly visible beyond its borders:
Then will they say in the nations:
‘Great things has the Lord done with these.
‘ (2b)

But as our psalmist writes from Babylonian exile, none of this has yet occurred. He wishes for God’s rescue in a dramatic simile:
Restore, O Lord, our fortunes
like freshets in the Negeb
. (4)

The wadis of the Negev desert are dry, but after a rain they run fast and deep. So, too, will Israel run deep with joy when God finally intervenes.

What that finally happens, what began in sorrow will end in joy in this beautiful metaphor of planting and harvesting:
They who sow in tears
in glad song will reap.
 (5)

How often have we experienced something that seems hopeless and dark, only to have God transform it into circumstances in which we can rejoice. For me personally, a diagnosis of aggressive cancer is about as awful as it can get. Yet, in the end I have experienced unexpected love and healing such that I have encountered again and again the joy that comes in realizing how precious life and relationships really are.

Our psalmist expands on the sower image, describing his present sorrow;
He walks along and weeps,
the bearer of the seed-bag. 
(6a).

But God restores his fortunes and restores Israel’s fortunes, and yes, has restored my own fortunes. The final metaphor of this psalm becomes not just one of rejoicing but also of healing as our planter will reap joy from that which was planted in sorrow:
He will surely come in with glad song
bearing his sheaves
.” (6b)

1 Kings 8:54–9:19: Solomon concludes his oration by blessing those assembled around him at the temple: “Blessed be the Lord, who has given rest to his people Israel according to all that he promised; not one word has failed of all his good promise.” (8:56). But as always, there is an obligation on the people to obey God and Solomon reminds them of this. They are to “incline our hearts to him, to walk in all his ways, and to keep his commandments, his statutes, and his ordinances, which he commanded our ancestors.” (8:58)

Solomon puts the temple to its intended purpose as he offers its first—and extravagant—sacrifice: “Solomon offered as sacrifices of well-being to the Lord twenty-two thousand oxen and one hundred twenty thousand sheep.” (62).  I presume a feast of roasted meat ensued shortly thereafter. The people celebrate for a week before departing for their homes.

Now that this project is complete, God appears to Solomon in a dream and tells him, “I have heard your prayer and your plea, which you made before me.” And God will “put my name there forever; my eyes and my heart will be there for all time.” (9:3) Solomon has carried through on what he promised and God is pleased. The question for us of course is do we make empty promises to God, especially in times of trouble, and then neglect to make good on our promises? Or are we like Solomon in taking our vows seriously?

If Solomon continues to follow and obey God, the house of David will endure as God promises,”I will establish your royal throne over Israel forever, as I promised your father David.” (9:5) But as always, there is a warning should Israel turn away from God: “I will cut Israel off from the land that I have given them; and the house that I have consecrated for my name I will cast out of my sight; and Israel will become a proverb and a taunt among all peoples.” (9:7)

Our authors are writing from exile and know all too well exactly what happened. Again and again Israel has turned from God and again and again God has relented. But Israel’s persistence in disobedience finally results in the destruction of the temple Solomon built—and of Jerusalem itself. The house of David goes dormant for centuries until it is unexpectedly restored by the birth of a baby in Bethlehem. But the lesson for us here is that both actions and inactions have consequences. Just as for ancient Israel, so too, for us today.

John 14:25–15:8: Jesus continues his long reassurance to his disciples—and to us—that although he is physically leaving the earth he is leaving the “Advocate, the Holy Spirit” in his place. He also leaves love and peace: “ Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.” (27a) Just as the angels who visited Elizabeth and Mary told them not to fear, Jesus delivers exactly the same message to his —and to us: “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (27b) It is in this promise that we Christians can carry on despite human tragedy such as the fires in California and yes, also the ceaseless depredations and evil in the world when we witness yet another mass shooting.

I think too many Christians today have forgotten this all-important promise in the daily turmoil of their lives and the in our culture, which offers little succor and certainly no salvation. Peace and freedom from fear come from only one source: Jesus. Yes, many will tell us that belief in Jesus is merely an emotional crutch. They go on to state that the resources of courage and ultimately, inner peace lie completely within us if we would only master them. But they are wrong. All that lies within us is a heart and mind rarely at peace and too often fearful.

Jesus continues with perhaps the most famous metaphor in the New Testament: I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.” (15:1) We are the branches and for me, the power of the metaphor lies in the reality that branches are connected to the root but that it is the branches that comprise the vine. The root is basically invisible.

We branches make up the visible church here on earth. But if we cut ourselves off from Jesus we wither and die: “Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.” (15:4) It is Jesus who provides the sustenance and energy of the church. It is why we must gather and worship as community. Jesus makes it abundantly clear we cannot know him as isolated persons. 

I think it is good that we are entering a post-Christian age. This will make the source of sustenance of the church—the branches—far more visible. It is not what we do on our own that matters. It is what Jesus does through us. 

Psalm 125; 1 Kings 8:17–53; John 14:15–24

Originally published 11/14/2016. Revised and updated 11/14/2018.

Psalm 125: This “song of ascents” focuses on the ground on which the temple is built—Mount Zion —rather then the temple itself. [Alter suggests this is because this post-exilic psalm was written after the temple was destroyed.] Like Mount Zion, Israel endures despite attempts to conquer and destroy it:
Those who trust in the lord
are like Mount Zion never shaken,
settled forever.
 (1)

Just as Jerusalem is protected by a ring of mountains, God encircles his people to protect them: Jerusalem, mountains around it,
and the Lord is around His people
now and forevermore.
 (2)

What great reassurance! That despite the depredations of its enemies, Jerusalem still stands tall and proud. As it dies 2500 years later. And that is the promise God makes to each of us: that despite the arrows of outrageous fortune; God is nearby; encircling us; protecting us.

However, to enjoy that protection, there must be righteousness. Our psalmist continues, declaring,
For the rod of righteousness will not rest
on the portion of the righteousness,
so that the righteous not set their hands
to wrongdoing.
 (3)

In other words, there is no need for God to punish with his rod because the righteous will avoid temptations to sin. As is always the case in the OT, there is a reward for those who live righteously:
Do good, O Lord, to the good
and to the upright in their hearts.
 (4)

On the other hand, God will punish those who deviate from the straight and narrow:
And those who bend to crookedness,
may the Lord take them off with the wrongdoers.
 (5)

Once again we can see where the Pharisees got their motivation to hew to a righteous path, even to the point of overbearing punctiliousness. What is missing here in all these psalms is grace and forgiveness. I’m glad that Jesus, in coming to earth, brought grace and forgiveness with him.

1 Kings 8:17–53: Solomon continues his dedicatory speech, reminding his listeners that “My father David had it in mind to build a house for the name of the Lord.” (17) but that God promised him that “you shall not build the house, but your son who shall be born to you shall build the house for my name.” (19) Now that promise had been fulfilled via Solomon who has “built the house for the name of the Lord, the God of Israel.” (20).

Solomon makes an important point that the temple does not create boundaries around God: “Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!” (27) God is much greater than the boxes we build for him to try to contain God. Even the temple in all its grandeur cannot contain God.

The major content of Solomon’s speech is in his lengthy prayer of dedication, which is a recapitulation of the meaning behind the Decalogue. The temple is where justice is occurs. God will “hear in heaven, and act, and judge your servants, condemning the guilty by bringing their conduct on their own head, and vindicating the righteous by rewarding them according to their righteousness.” (32)

Where there is confession, there is forgiveness. When Israel as a nation is “defeated before an enemy but [Israel will] turn again to you, confess your name, pray and plead with you in this house…[God will] hear in heaven, forgive the sin of your people Israel, and bring them again to the land that you gave to their ancestors.” (33, 34) Of course as events will show, this act was too often ignored by Israel to its great peril and its final destruction some 400 years later.

Likewise, Israel is to pray for rain in time of drought or when the nation is besieged by famine, it is to come and pray, as Solomon asks God to “hear in heaven your dwelling place, forgive, act, and render to all whose hearts you know—according to all their ways, for only you know what is in every human heart.” (40) This is the centerpiece of Solomon’s prayer: that Israel is come to the temple and confess before God who will hear then and forgive them. For indeed, God knows the thoughts and motivations of every human heart—including ours. This is also why we should make prayer the centerpiece of our lives, as well.

As the author Hebrews makes clear, Jesus Christ replaces the priesthood of the temple as we come to Jesus with our confession of sin. And God forgives us not with bloody sacrifices on the altar as at the temple, but through the person of Jesus Christ who has made this once-and-for-all sacrifice.

Solomon concludes his prayer by reminding his listeners of God’s promise to Israel: “For you have separated them from among all the peoples of the earth, to be your heritage, just as you promised through Moses, your servant, when you brought our ancestors out of Egypt, O Lord God.” (53) Remarkably, this promise still stands today as the Jews remain a set-apart people.

John 14:15–24: Jesus’ valedictory announcement that he is going away to some mysterious place where his Father has prepared many dwellings has created enormous confusion, if not consternation among the disciples. One has already left to go betray Jesus. I’m pretty sure others in the room are considering bolting as well. Jesus reminds them that “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (15) In other words, Jesus has tied the love he knows they have for him to their obedience through love rather than just righteous [too often, self-righteous] rule following—a direct revision of the theme of the psalm above.

The really good news is that neither they (nor we) have to rely strictly on their own willpower to do as Jesus has asked them. In one of those verses in which we glimpse the Trinity, Jesus assures them, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.” (16) This Spirit is exclusive to those who believe in Jesus: “This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him.” (17) Jesus tells them that this Advocate—about whom he will have much more to say later in this discourse—will abide in them. ‘Abide’ is crucial because it means to dwell within not just to come alongside.

To drive his point about comfort being available after he departs, Jesus reassures them, “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.” (18) Through the Spirit they will come to understand (in another Trinitarian reference) that “you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” (20) Again, he drives home the point about the interiority of the Holy Spirit who comes into us to ‘abide’ in us.

Jesus then gives a hint of the regime to come after his earthly departure. For those who believe that Jesus is who he says he is, “I will love them and reveal myself to them.” (21) One of the disciples understandably asks, “how will you reveal yourself to us and not the world?” (22) It turns out the answer is really quite straightforward: Love. “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” (23) In stil another Trinitarian reference: “the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.” (24)

This is deep theology and frankly, impossible to really get our heads around. But theology and understanding is not really Jesus’ point. Rather, it is the love of the Father and of Jesus expressed through the Holy Spirit. We are to get our hearts around love first. Understanding comes later through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.