Psalm 89:10–19; Isaiah 48:7–49:21; Philippians 4:14–23

Originally published 7/26/2017. Revised and updated 7/25/2019.

Psalm 89:10–19: Our psalmist continues his paean as he now focuses on God’s power over nature in rather militaristic terms:
You rule over the tide of the sea.
When its waves lift up, it is You who subdue them.
It is You who crushed Rahab like a corpse—
with the arm of Your might You scattered Your enemies. (10, 11)

Alter informs us that Rahab “is one of several names for the primordial sea beast of Canaanite mythology.” The poet makes it clear that God not only has power of nature, he is its creator:
The World and its fullness, You founded them.
The north and the south, You created them.
Tabor and Hermon sing glad song in Your name. (12, 13)

Having established God’s power and preeminence over nature, our poet segues back into God’s essential qualities of justice, truth, and faithfulness which arise from that same creative power:
Yours is the arm with the might.
Your hand is strong, Your right hand raised.
Justice and law are the base of Your throne.
Steadfast kindness and truth go before Your presence.
Happy the people who know the horn’s blast. (15, 16)

Bearing in mind that this psalm is intended to demonstrate that the Davidic heir is the rightful king of Israel, we cannot miss the parallels between God’s qualities and the implicit qualities of the rightful king. In fact, in the verses that follow, the psalmist basically conflates Israel’s king with God by describing the essential qualities required of a king:
In Your name they exult all day long,
and through Your bounty they loom high.
For You are their strength’s grandeur,
and through Your pleasure our horn is lifted.
For the Lord is our shield,
And to Israel’s Holy One, our king. (17-19)

So is “Israel’s Holy One” (note the capitalization) God or the king? Or both? By praising God, our poet is deftly praising the man who in his eyes should be king. For us, of course, these verses are a compelling portrait of God’s power, justice, truth, and faithfulness.

Isaiah 48:7–49:21:  God’s speech continues in the manner of his speech in Job, noting how humans can never know what God knows. What is especially intriguing here is how Isaiah’s God did not just create eons ago but is still actively creating today:
From this time forward I make you hear new things,
    hidden things that you have not known.
They are created now, not long ago;
    before today you have never heard of them,
    so that you could not say, “I already knew them.” (48:6,7)

So, God wants Israel to listen up and recognize that he is God over all the earth, not just Israel. Moreover,  he will deal with the Babylonians and the Chaldeans in his own way:
Listen to me, O Jacob,
    and Israel, whom I called:
I am He; I am the first,
    and I am the last.
… 
The Lord loves him;
    he shall perform his purpose on Babylon,
    and his arm shall be against the Chaldeans. (48:12, 14)

Above all, though, Judah needs to understand one thing (and so do we):
Thus says the Lord,
    your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel:
I am the Lord your God,
    who teaches you for your own good,
    who leads you in the way you should go. (48:17)

We need to fully comprehend in both our hearts and minds that God must be the one who leads us through our lives and not our own self-centeredness. The chapter ends on one of the great truths across all time: “There is no peace,” says the Lord, “for the wicked.” (48:22)

Chapter 49 opens with the Messiah speaking. But this Messiah is not the kingly messiah but is the Servant. [Servant of whom will become clear eventually.] For Christians, this chapter is the first of several chapters that describe the ‘Suffering Servant,’ whom we believe to be none other than Jesus Christ himself:
The Lord called me before I was born,
    while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.” 
He made my mouth like a sharp sword,
    in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me a polished arrow,
    in his quiver he hid me away(49:1, 2)

Notice that the Servant is “hidden away” and will appear at a time no one can anticipate. That’s certainly how Jesus came: ‘hidden away’ in the womb of an obscure teenager from an obscure town in an obscure part of Israel.

The Servant’s mission is to bring Israel back to God:
And now the Lord says,
    who formed me in the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him,
    and that Israel might be gathered to him. (49:5)

The really good news, though, is that the Servant comes not only to rescue Israel but to rescue all humankind:
I will give you as a light to the nations,
    that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth. (49:6b)

This is the great promise that God has fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ. The remainder of this chapter focuses on the nature of Israel’s rescue by the Servant. Once again we encounter the metaphor of God building a highway that brings every human being back to him:
And I will turn all my mountains into a road,
    and my highways shall be raised up.
Lo, these shall come from far away,
    and lo, these from the north and from the west,
    and these from the land of Syene. (49:11, 12)

Some theological skeptics have argued that the New Testament is simply tacked on, independent of what is promised in the Old Testament. Yet again and again we encounter passages like these in the Old Testament where God is being very clear that he will send someone to earth to rescue not just Israel, but all humankind. For me, the New Testament is simply the logical, uninterrupted continuation of the story that began here in Isaiah and in the other prophets of the Hebrew scriptures. Frankly, as far as I am concerned, one cannot fully live the Christian life without understanding its roots in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Philippians 4:14–23: In these concluding verses Paul remains enthusiastic in expressing his gratitude for the generosity of the church at Philippi: “You Philippians indeed know that in the early days of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you alone. For even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me help for my needs more than once.” (15, 16) And as usual, Paul tries to explain that he did not ask for the money: “Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the profit that accumulates to your account.” (17)

In his gratitude, Paul even identifies the person who brought the funds from Philippi: “I have been paid in full and have more than enough; I am fully satisfied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.” (18) Even though Paul seems to go on and on at excessive length (IMHO) about how he did not seek these funds, it’s clear that he has been immensely blessed by the generosity of the Philippians.

In his final words to the Philippians, Paul observes how generosity breeds generosity: “And my God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” (19) Unfortunately, this verse has been often exploited by the opportunists who espouse the “prosperity gospel.” Their message is “send me money and you’re receive even more money from God.” But that is not what Paul says. He says “every need” not “every want.” There’s a big difference.

This marvelous little letter so full of gratitude and optimism concludes with one of those Pauline asides that we wish he had elaborated on: “All the saints greet you, especially those of the emperor’s household.” (22) What we wouldn’t give to know just who in the emperor’s household were Christians. Was it just the slaves? Or were other more important persons or even nobility that were also part of the church at Rome?

Psalm 89:1–9; Isaiah 46:1–48:6; Philippians 4:2–13

Originally published 7/25/2017. Revised and updated 7/24/2019.

Psalm 89:1–9: In a rather stark contrast to the agonized one that precedes it, this long psalm opens with a worship celebration of God’s faithfulness and kindness:
Let me sing the Lord’s kindnesses forever.
For all generations I shall make known with my mouth Your faithfulness.
For I said: forever will kindness stand strong,
in the heavens You set Your faithfulness firm. (2,3)

The juxtaposition of ‘faithfulness’ and ‘kindness’ describes God’s core being—and it’s a reminder to us that if we are faithful to God, we are much more likely to be kind to our neighbors, as well as to ourselves.

With this brief introduction, the psalmist gets down to business. And it’s important business as he writes in God’s voice with a pronouncement straight from heaven:
I have sealed a pact with my chosen one,
I have sworn to David my servant.
Forevermore I shall make your seed stand firm,
and make your throne stand strong for all generations. (4,5)

OK, our poet has God himself reaffirming the Davidic covenant and that it must endure as long as Israel endures. This suggests this psalm may have been written at a time of crisis, perhaps a battle between rivals over who would ascend the throne. Our psalmist wants to make sure that everyone remembers that the David line of succession has been ordained by God himself. Therefore, it’s obvious that the king who is descended from David must be the one to reign.

Following this pronouncement from on high, the psalm returns to worship mode but with intriguing additional information about how heaven is organized:
And the heavens will acclaim Your wonder, O Lord,
Your faithfulness, too, in the assembly of the holy.
For who in the skies can compare to the Lord,
who can be like the Lord among the sons of the gods?
A God held in awe in the council of the holy,
mighty and fearsome above all His surroundings. (6, 7)

The ‘assembly of the holy’ and ‘council of the holy’ anticipates the great throne room scene in Revelation 4 when all the angels, cherubim, prophets, etc. gather round and worship the Lamb of God. The ‘sons of the gods’ certainly suggests a hierarchy of heavenly beings. But notice that neither ‘son’ no ‘gods’ is capitalized. Whoever they are, they’re inferior to God—and to the Son of God—but they’re ‘holy,’ so they’re definitely not the idols of the small-g gods that Israel was wont to worship.

I think that in describing the hierarchy of heaven with a fearsome God reigning supreme, our psalmist is drawing an obvious parallel to what is supposed to be occurring in Israel: a king from the line of David must reign—not only because God said so, but because the hierarchal order of heaven must be echoed on earth.

Of course, this is probably all idol (!) speculation on my part…

Isaiah 46:1–48:6: As usual, Isaiah is speaking in God’s voice, warning Judah about the futility of worshipping idols, even expensive gold ones:
Those who lavish gold from the purse,
    and weigh out silver in the scales—
they hire a goldsmith, who makes it into a god;
    then they fall down and worship!
They lift it to their shoulders, they carry it,
    they set it in its place, and it stands there;
    it cannot move from its place.
If one cries out to it, it does not answer
    or save anyone from trouble. (46:6,7)

Instead, he advises, they (and we) must reflect on who God really is:
Remember this and consider,
    recall it to mind, you transgressors,
remember the former things of old;
for I am God, and there is no other;
    I am God, and there is no one like me. (46:8,9)

What is it about we humans that we quickly forget and constantly need to be reminded to ‘remember God?’ These words are exactly what we need to be doing today: remembering who God really is as over against the trivialities that mostly occupy our minds—especially in light of God’s promise that concludes this chapter:
I bring near my deliverance, it is not far off,
    and my salvation will not tarry;
I will put salvation in Zion,
    for Israel my glory. (46:13)

Of course, we know exactly how God delivered salvation to all of us…Not just in Zion, but throughout all creation via the gift of Jesus Christ.

Chapter 47 is a long disquisition on how Babylon, which was the superpower of the age in which Isaiah wrote, will eventually meet its rather dismal fate:
Sit in silence, and go into darkness,
    daughter Chaldea!
For you shall no more be called
    the mistress of kingdoms. (47:5)

and

   in a moment, in one day:
the loss of children and widowhood
    shall come upon you in full measure,
in spite of your many sorceries
    and the great power of your enchantments. (47:9)

I think this specific prophecy was written as a means of encouragement to a disheartened Judah, who felt threatened by Babylon. Unfortunately, Isaiah’s prophecy notwithstanding, Babylon came and conquered Judah. But in a fulfillment of the prophecy, Babylon was indeed conquered by the Persians. Isaiah was right in the long run. It’s just that his timing was a bit off.

With Babylon taken care of, the prophet returns to the main theme of the book: Judah’s relationship with God. Here in chapter 48 he is reminding Judah that God has already done many great things and fulfilled his every promise down through their history:
The former things I declared long ago,
    they went out from my mouth and I made them known;
    then suddenly I did them and they came to pass. (48:3)

Unsurprisingly, Judah did not seem to notice and by implication ignored God, preferring to give credit to their idols:
Because I know that you are obstinate,
    and your neck is an iron sinew
    and your forehead brass,
I declared them to you from long ago,
    before they came to pass I announced them to you,
so that you would not say, “My idol did them,
    my carved image and my cast image commanded them.” (48:45)

Which of course is a perfect description of us in the here in now: we remain obstinate, convinced that all good things arise through our own efforts, aided by our idols of technology, power, and wealth.

Yet, God is eternally persistent and keeps on promising new things for Judah—just as he does for us:
You have heard; now see all this;
    and will you not declare it?
From this time forward I make you hear new things,
    hidden things that you have not known. (48:6)

I also take this as a verse as God’s wonderful promise that anticipates our ability to study the heavens and the earth through science and come to a greater understanding of the beauty and order of God’s creation. Just ask any astronomer or physicist.

Philippians 4:2–13: Paul interrupts his letter to “urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord,” (2) who seem to have lost their enthusiasm for Christ. Perhaps they have become discouraged at work that does not seem to yield results because Paul then gives us one of his most famous verse of encouragement: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.” (4, 5)

Then, he gives encouraging advice that is all too easy to forget: “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” (6) Prayer is central to the well-lived Christian life. Prayer is an area where I am basically a total disciplinary failure. Prayer simply does not come naturally to me. It always seems forced and inauthentic. Yet, as Paul tells us, prayer brings with it a wonderful gift: “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (7)

We arrive at the most beautiful of all of Paul’s lists: “ Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about  these things.” (8) The question is: what percent of my time do I give over to the advice Paul gives here and reflect of the wonderful gifts we have received? Alas, not enough. All we have to do is look out in the world and its ceaseless wars, squabbles, saber-rattling, and cultural battles to grasp just how poorly we have taken Paul’s marvelous advice.

In the final paragraph of the reading, Paul thanks the Philippians for their gift, which apparently went to him personally rather than to the church. He seems oddly defensive about it, essentially suggesting that they could have given it or not since he has learned how to live in both plenty and deprivation, which to me, anyway, seems to dismiss the Philippians’ generous act: “Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.” (11, 12)

But as usual, Paul gives Jesus Christ all the credit for this particular skill in this short but powerful verse: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (13) Would that we all remember this promise at the beginning of each day.

Psalm 88:14–19; Isaiah 44:24–45:25; Philippians 3:12–4:1

Originally published 7/24/2017. Revised and updated 7/23/2019.

Psalm 88:14–19: The concluding verses of this dark psalm convey the bitter hopelessness of feeling utterly abandoned by God. Our poet makes one last attempt to get God to hear and to respond. He has used anger, raising his fist at God; he’s used prayer. But alas, nothing avails. Only the existential question remains:
As for me—to You, Lord, I shouted,
and in the morn my prayer would greet You.
Why, Lord, do You abandon my life,
do You hide Your face from me? (14,15)

In the face of a silent, unresponsive God, the psalmist recapitulates his woeful situation, which seems to be some kind of chronic disease dating back many years. There is one last outburst at God echoing not only deep anger but an even deeper fear, as he blames God for his dreadful fate—all because God has first punished him and then in a final betrayal, has remained silent:
Lowly am I and near death from my youth
I have borne Your terrors, I am fearful.
Over me Your rage has passed,
Your horrors destroy me. (16, 17)

In one of the saddest, most hopeless concluding verses in the Psalms, our poet has not only been abandoned by God, but also by his human friends and family as well. He is utterly alone and the simile of drowning starkly conveys this dreadful solitude and silence as he senses he is dying all alone:
[God’s horrors] surround me like water all day long,
they encircle me completely.
You distanced lover and neighbor from me.
My friends—utter darkness. (18, 19)

So when some optimistic Christian tells me that God always answers his or her prayer in a positive manner or that God makes for a happier life, I need only refer them to the final verses of this dark psalm. Sometimes, our relationship with God does not feel that way at all happy or peaceful. The reality is that we can all too often encounter states of being where God, family, and friends seem to have apparently abandoned us to a dark and lonely fate. This psalm gives brilliant testimony to the depth of these overwhelming feelings. But we also need to remember that the psalms reflect every human emotion rather than pure theological principles. We know that God has indeed not abandoned us or is punishing us. But reality is not always reflected in our feelings.

Isaiah 44:24–45:25: In verses reminiscent of God’s final speech in the book of Job, our Isaiah poet reminds us that God is the source of all creation:
Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer,
    who formed you in the womb:
I am the Lord, who made all things,
    who alone stretched out the heavens,
    who by myself spread out the earth; (44:24)

When Paul writes of the folly of human wisdom in I Corinthians 1, I’m quite sure he had the next verse in mind:
[God] who frustrates the omens of liars,
    and makes fools of diviners;
who turns back the wise,
    and makes their knowledge foolish. (24:2)

Evidence of this reality that apparent human wisdom is actually foolishness is particularly on display in Washington DC.

Our poet appears to be writing at a time when Cyrus the Great of Persia was threatening Judah. He attempts to reassure his listeners that Cyrus is actually God’s agent of both destruction and rebuilding:
[It is God] who says of Cyrus, “He is my shepherd,
    and he shall carry out all my purpose”;
and who says of Jerusalem, “It shall be rebuilt,”
    and of the temple, “Your foundation shall be laid.” (44:28)

In fact, Cyrus pretty much gets an entire chapter devoted to him as God’s special agent of conquest:
Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus,
    whose right hand I have grasped
to subdue nations before him
    and strip kings of their robes,
to open doors before him—
    and the gates shall not be closed: (45:1)

Now writing in God’s voice, our poet goes on to promise that every thing that comes to Cyrus, be they small treasures or entire nations, are the work of God, who is the agency that will cause to finally understand that it is Israel’s God—not this human king— who truly rules over creation:
I will give you the treasures of darkness
    and riches hidden in secret places,
so that you may know that it is I, the Lord,
    the God of Israel, who call you by your name. (45:3)

What’s intriguing here is that God makes himself known to those who do not even know who he is. This applies not only to Cyrus, but to every human being:
I call you by your name,
    I surname you, though you do not know me.
I am the Lord, and there is no other;
    besides me there is no god.
    I arm you, though you do not know me, (45:4b, 5)

Others may not know God by name, but they are witness to both his creative handiwork and his actions among the nations:
 I arm you, though you do not know me,
so that they may know, from the rising of the sun
    and from the west, that there is no one besides me;
    I am the Lord, and there is no other.
I form light and create darkness,
    I make weal and create woe;
    I the Lord do all these things. (45:6, 7)

These verses seem awfully relevant to our time where many have rejected the idea of God altogether, much less acknowledging his name. Even in the midst of a rampant materialist philosophy God remains at work—and we can see evidence of this work if we just look hard enough. However, this is no easy task, as our poet observes:
Truly, you are a God who hides himself,
    O God of Israel, the Savior. (45:15)

I’m pretty sure our psalmist above would agree with this verse! Perhaps the greatest evidence of God as creator is the order of the universe itself. As physicists look into the quantum world and astronomers look billions of years into the past in the heavens there is one common reality. Nothing is random; there is magnificent order through all creation form the Higgs boson to the black holes in distant galaxies. Our poet puts this reality into a beautiful (‘beautiful’ being the way physicists describe the order of nature) verse”
I did not speak in secret,
    in a land of darkness;
I did not say to the offspring of Jacob,
    “Seek me in chaos.”
I the Lord speak the truth,
    I declare what is right. (45: 19)

Indeed, God is the God of created order not of chaos, even though chaos (e.g., fractals) is an important element of an ordered universe. Were it not for God’s order we humans never would have come into existence.

Philippians 3:12–4:1: In one of his most famous and beloved metaphors, Paul describes his life—and he hopes, our lives as well— as an athletic contest with one clear goal: “Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” (13, 14)

I think it’s too easy to forget that within these verses is the all-important admonition to look ahead, not to rehearse the past: “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead.” We can do nothing about the past, and there’s not very much we can do to alter our future. Rather, when we are living in the present, then we can “hold fast to what we have attained.” The well-lived Christian life means always pressing on ahead. Sanctification is a spiritual process, not a static state. It is dynamic and yes, even though I don’t necessarily like it, it is always changing. But it’s important to make sure it—and we—are changing for the better; that we are striving for that goal of living a complete life in Christ.

In the next paragraph Paul switches metaphors from athleticism to citizenship as he draws a stark contrast between those who are citizens of their own egos and we who are citizens of heaven: “For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ…Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things.  But our citizenship  is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” (18-20)

As is always the case for Paul, our spiritual destiny is binary: we are either enemies of the cross or citizens of heaven. I know that I much prefer to live in ambiguous gray, oscillating between following Jesus or following my the dictates of own ego. But Paul is clear. There is really only one choice: “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.” (4:1)

As always, this firm stand, like everything else in the Christian life, arises out of love. In this case, it’s the love of God flowing through Paul and expressing itself as love for the people at the church at Philippi. To paraphrase Paul, without love, it’s all quite pointless.

Psalm 88:6–12; Isaiah 43:22–44:23; Philippians 3:1–11

Originally published 7/22/2015. Revised and updated 7/22/2019

Psalm 88:6–12: These verses are among the most compelling descriptions of personal suffering and feeling abandoned by God that we find in the Psalms. We can almost see the poet standing or kneeling raising his outstretched arm and clenched fist up to God in a mixture of anger and bewilderment.
To the poet, it is God has who condemned him:
You put me in the nethermost Pit,
in darkness, in the depths. (7)

Not only does he feel he’s  been consigned to hell, but God is not quite finished with him—neither personally nor socially—and he sees himself as hopelessly trapped:
Your wrath lay hard upon me.
You distanced my friends from me,
You made me disgusting to them;
imprisoned, I cannot get out. (8, 9)

We can feel his anguish at God’s unfair treatment. After all, he says,
I called on You, Lord, every day.
I stretched out to You my palms. (10)

But as far as he is concerned, God has ignored his pleas and now he hovers near death. So, our poet challenges God directly:
Will You do wonders for the dead?
Will the shades arise and acclaims You?
Will Your kindness be told in the grave,
Your faithfulness in perdition? (11, 12)

This deeply ironic plea reflects the Jewish belief that once we are dead, we are gone, no longer participants in God’s creation, no longer able to worship him. Our psalmist is pleading with God to answer the existential question that in times of depression and feelings of abandonment we ask ourselves, “if You want us to worship you, what’s the point of casting us out of your presence by sending us to the Pit?”

Perhaps more than any other, this psalm tells us we do not need to pussyfoot around God. We can not only freely accuse God of not only abandoning us, but even of intentionally causing us to suffer. None of this makes us less of God’s creature as we cry out in pain and agony to our Creator. And as we know, it is not God who has done the abandoning.

Isaiah 43:22–44:23: Speaking for God, Isaiah proclaims that Israel and Judah have abandoned God: “Yet you did not call upon me, O Jacob;/ but you have been weary of me, O Israel!” (43:22) The prophet points out that it is God alone who has the power to reestablish a right relationship:
I, even I, am he who blots out
your transgressions for my own sake,
   and I will not remember your sins. (43:25)

Having ignored God and continuing to sin against him, God has acted and “delivered Jacob to utter destruction,/ and Israel to reviling.” (43:28)

But as always, God is patient and forgiving and there is always the promise of redemption lurking in Isiah’s words:
Do not fear, O Jacob my servant,…
For I will pour water on the thirsty land,
    and streams on the dry ground; (44:3a)

This is not just literal water, but metaphorical water in the sense that
I will pour my spirit upon your descendants,
    and my blessing on your offspring 
 (44:3)

Both Jacob and Israel will rise once again when they have returned to God:
This one will say, “I am the Lord’s,”
another will be called by the name of Jacob,
yet another will write on the hand, “The Lord’s,”
and adopt the name of Israel. (44:5)

Through his prophet’s words, God declares his supremacy:
Is there any god besides me?
There is no other rock; I know not one. (44:8). 

The prophet then describes the pointless creation of wooden idols with the ironic image of an idol-carver cutting down a tree, using half the wood to cook his supper, and the other half to carve an idol. The implication of total absurdity of a wooden idol is clear and when Isaiah writes, “They do not know, nor do they comprehend; for their eyes are shut, so that they cannot see, and their minds as well, so that they cannot understand.” (44:18) He is describing the idol, its maker, and of course, those who worship this inanimate lifeless object. Their minds are completely closed—a cogent comment that’s completely relevant in ur own culture.

We may not carve our idols out of wood these days; we’re more likely to use steel and glass, or even completely ephemeral concepts such as money in a bank account. But we are just as blind and our minds are as closed as the most primitive idol worshipper.

Philippians 3:1–11: As usual, the problem in the early church is those who insist that Gentile Christians become circumcised: “Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh!” (2). For Paul, this too great focus on flesh and insufficient focus on Christ perverts the Gospel message. (I also think there’s the very practical issue that Gentile men would pretty much be unwilling to join a church that insisted on circumcision of adult males–and that would certainly impede church growth!)

Paul points out that “I, too, have reason for confidence in the flesh.” (3) [‘Flesh’ being the code word for circumcision.] He is a Jew’s Jew, perfectly Jewish in every respect: “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” (5,6) Yet, these tokens of belief and culture are nothing: “these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.” (7) In fact, everything—not just his Jewish bona fides—fades into utter meaninglessness in the intense and life-changing light of Christ: “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” (8)

Here we have the great breaking point between Judaism and Christianity. Christ is not some kind of super-Jew, a higher expression of what has already been. Instead, Christ is completely new, completely different. Christ replaces everything that was. It’s why we call this the New Covenant; not the “Improved Covenant.”

Psalm 88:1–6; Isaiah 42:10–43:21; Philippians 2:19–30

Originally published 7/21/2017. Revised and updated 7/20/2019

Psalm 88:1–6: This psalm’s superscription dedicates it to the Korahites, who were a choir based, I presume, at the temple in Jerusalem. A certain Heyman the Ezrahite, perhaps the choir director, is also included in the dedication.

However, I’m not sure I’d want these dark and even terrifying verses dedicated to me in this rather desperate psalm of supplication. The psalm opens in the usual anodyne manner of most psalms of supplication, although we sense an underlying fear as the psalmist “cries out:”
Lord, God of my rescue,
by day I cried out,
by night, in Your presence.
May my prayer come before You.
incline Your ear to my song. (2, 3)

The next verse is much darker as our psalmist describes his perilous state that has brought him close to death as we encounter “evil,” “Sheol,” and “the Pit” in just three lines. These lines are almost like a suicide note.
For I am sated with evils
and my life reached the brink of Sheol.
I was counted among those who go down to the Pit. (4, 5a)

“Sated” suggests that like a stomach stuffed with food, his being overflows  with evil thoughts—perhaps some form of depression. While he does not identify the nature of the evil, it has robbed him physically and spiritually of the strength and even perhaps the will to live:
I became like a man without strength,
among the dead cast away,
like the slain, those who lie in the grave,
whom You no more recall,
and they are cut off by Your hand. (5b, 6)

For me, what is most ominous here is the idea that after we die, God forgets about us and we are “cut off.” Most Jews did not believe in an afterlife, so from that perspective these words are  quite logical. However, I’ll take Jesus’ many promises of life after death and the many mansions God has prepared for us.

Isaiah 42:10–43:21: Now I see why the Moravians ended yesterday’ reading where they did. The first 10 verses today are a hymn to God beginning with the famous line, “Sing to the Lord a new song.” (42:10) Like many other OT hymns, all God’s creation joins in the singing:
Let the sea roar and all that fills it,
    the coastlands and their inhabitants.
Let the desert and its towns lift up their voice,

   …
    let them shout from the tops of the mountains. (42:10b, 11)

This idea of creation singing reminds us that human’s are not God’s only creative act, but also so are all creatures and even nature itself. This should serve as a warning against our arrogant tendency exploit and “subdue” creation at great risk to upsetting God’s good order.

This song is not all sweetness and light. There is God’s promise to destroy enemies and lay waste to nature itself.
I will lay waste mountains and hills,
    and dry up all their herbage;
I will turn the rivers into islands,
    and dry up the pools. (42:15)

Perhaps these lines were written following some kind of natural disaster. But as usual, people—particularly those in leadership—aren’t listening to Isaiah’s warning:
He sees many things, but does  not observe them;
    his ears are open, but he does not hear. (42:20)

The song becomes even darker as it describes Israel’s plight:
But this is a people robbed and plundered,
    all of them are trapped in holes
    and hidden in prisons;
they have become a prey with no one to rescue,
    a spoil with no one to say, “Restore!” (42:22)

Not surprisingly, their current situation has doubtless been brought about by Israel’s intransigent disobedience:
Was it not the Lord, against whom we have sinned,
    in whose ways they would not walk,
    and whose law they would not obey? (24)

Despite their—and our—sins, God is a rescuing God and the next chapter brims with the hope of redemption:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
    I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;

    and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
    and the flame shall not consume you. (43:1b, 2)

But as always, God loves them—and us—not because of anything they (we) have done:
Because you are precious in my sight,
    and honored, and I love you, (43:4a)

For Israel, there is one of God’s great promises that one day the nation will be restored:
Do not fear, for I am with you;
    I will bring your offspring from the east,
    and from the west I will gather you;
I will say to the north, “Give them up,”
    and to the south, “Do not withhold;
bring my sons from far away
    and my daughters from the end of the earth— (43:5,6)

As we’ve noted before, many Evangelicals and a few Zionists believe that the modern state of Israel is the fulfillment of this promise. I am less confident about that. What’s important here, I think, is that God’s mercy extends to every person, not just to the inhabitants of Israel as our poet writes in God’s voice:
everyone who is called by my name,
    whom I created for my glory,
    whom I formed and made. (43:7)

Later, we read how God is indeed the source of all salvation:
I, I am the Lord,
    and besides me there is no savior.

I am God, and also henceforth I am He;
    there is no one who can deliver from my hand;
    I work and who can hinder it?” (43:11, 13)

Of course we Christians see the fulfillment of this promise in the Incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In addition to our salvation I think the other great promise is that God, through the Holy Spirit, is active in our lives, continually recreating and restoring:
I am about to do a new thing;
    now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
    and rivers in the desert. (43:19)

The question is, am I allowing God to do new things in my life or am I resisting change with my own will preferring to be stuck in the status quo?

Philippians 2:19–30: Right in the middle of his essay on Christology, Paul interjects a couple of personal notes. He is sending Timothy to them, whom he obviously holds in the highest regard: “I have no one like him who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare.” (20) He makes it clear that most of the others around him “are seeking their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ.” (21) Wow. This certainly does not speak well of the majority of Paul’s retinue of hangers-on.

As he has done before, Paul promises to come to Philippi, although we have no evidence that he did: “I trust in the Lord that I will also come soon.” (24)

Paul also “think[s] it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus—my brother and co-worker and fellow soldier, your messenger and minister to my need.“(25) Epaphroditus is obviously well known in the church at Philippi and probably came originally from there. He has recovered from a serious illness and “he has been longing for all of you.” (26) It sounds like he is due some serious R&R back home. By sending Epaphroditus back to Philippi, Paul accomplishes two goals: “I am the more eager to send him, therefore, in order that you may rejoice at seeing him again, and that I may be less anxious.” (28) Paul doesn’t reveal the source of his anxiety. But inasmuch as Paul is sending Epaphroditus along with Timothy is it because despite his endorsement, he doesn’t fully trust him?

We finally discover that Epaphroditus’ illness apparently arose from some duty Paul had him perform—and it sounds as if Paul is feeling a little guilty and feels obligated to send his servant back home: “because he came close to death for the work of Christ,  risking his life to make up for those services that you could not give me.” (30) Again, it would be fantastic to know what duties Epaphroditus undertook that brought him so close to death. But as usual when it comes to personal matters, we are left only with Paul’s tantalizing but cryptic statements.

I have to say that I like personal intermezzos like these that give us a respite from Paul’s relentless—and lengthy—theological discourses.

Psalm 87; Isaiah 41:8–42:9; Philippians 2:5–18

Originally published 7/20/2017. Revised and updated 7/19/2019, OUR 50TH WEDDING ANNIVERSAY

Psalm 87: This short celebratory psalm seems to be a recollection by a pilgrim who visited the temple at Jerusalem (Zion) and who enjoyed a literal and figurative ‘mountaintop experience.’ As far as he is concerned, the temple (Zion) is the most profound place in all Israel (Jacob):
The Lord loves the gates of Zion
more than all the dwellings of Jacob
Splendid things are spoken of you,
O town of God. Selah.” (2,3)

I presume the “town of God” refers to Jerusalem, the host city of the temple, reflected in the glory of the temple itself.

At first glance, the next verse is rather cryptic:
Let me recall Rahab and Babel to my familiars,
Look, Philistia and Tyre together with Cush,
—this one was born there.” (4)

Alter tells us that ‘Rahab’ is another word for Egypt. With that in mind, the verse appears something like a one-verse summary of Israel stretching all the way back to Babel; the escape from Egypt (Rahab); and its various battles with enemies (Philisitia) and its historical economic (Tyre) and diplomatic relationships (Cush). It appears that the psalmist was born at one of those locations. Of course I could be just making this up…

But what’s definite is that it is at the temple at Jerusalem that true spiritual transformation occurs:
And of Zion it shall be said:
every man is born in it,
and He, the Most High, makes it firm-founded.
The Lord inscribes in the record of peoples:
this one was born there. selah.” (5, 6)

To me, it appears that the psalmist views his pilgrimage to Zion as a form of rebirth, ‘born again,’ if you will. He was born physically at one of the locations mentioned in verse 4, but he was reborn spiritually at Zion. With this interpretation in mind we can observe a context for Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in John 3 about being ‘born again.’ Doubtless both men were quite familiar with this psalm.

Isaiah 41:8–42:9: God continues speaking, reminding Israel/ Judah how he has chosen them and assuring them he will never abandon them:
do not fear, for I am with you,
    do not be afraid, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you,
    I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.” (41:10)

In the midst of various trials this poem must have been of great comfort to the author—as it is to us:
For I, the Lord your God,
    hold your right hand;
it is I who say to you, “Do not fear,
    I will help you. (41:13)

There is a clear promise of a Messiah here called “the Holy One of Israel.” (41:14, 16) and that via the messiah, God will come to their rescue:
When the poor and needy seek water,
    and there is none,
    and their tongue is parched with thirst,
I the Lord will answer them,
    I the God of Israel will not forsake them. (41:17)

Following these wonderful promises, there is a disquisition that compares God with small-g gods in the form of idols. Still speaking, God challenges the idols to perform as he can:
Tell us what is to come hereafter,
    that we may know that you are gods;
do good, or do harm,
    that we may be afraid and terrified. (41:23)

But as always, there is only silence from the false gods. To worship them is futile:

But when I look there is no one;
    among these there is no counselor
    who, when I ask, gives an answer.
No, they are all a delusion;

    their works are nothing;
    their images are empty wind. (41:28, 29)

We need to call these verses to mind in our own time and culture, which is chockablock with the idols of wealth, power, sex, and a zillion other false gods. Above all we ned to remember that the promise of the small-g gods is mere delusion.

Chapter 42 is straight-out messianic prophecy of the One who will come to rescue Judah. The Messiah has been chosen and empowered by God:
Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
    my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
    he will bring forth justice to the nations. (42:1)

The Messiah will bring much-needed justice, not just to Judah, but to all nations. Moreover, he comes essentially in secret, but his acts will have profoundly public consequences:
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
    or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
    and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
    he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be crushed
    until he has established justice in the earth;
    and the coastlands wait for his teaching. (42:2-4)

As Christians, we know exactly to whom the prophet is referring: Jesus Christ. And the Messiah brings justice in a marvelous promise to turn the world upside down:
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
    a light to the nations,
   to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
    from the prison those who sit in darkness. (42:6b, 7)

And isn’t this also exactly what Jesus has done for us? We have certainly been sitting in darkness, imprisoned in our own self-centered desires. Jesus Christ has released us from the prison of our own egos.

Today’s reading ends with the famous promise of renewal—again exactly what God does for us through the the redemptive power of Jesus Christ and the action of the Holy Spirit. The old passes way; all things are made new:
See, the former things have come to pass,
    and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
    I tell you of them. (42:9)

I personally think this verse is as profound as anything Paul writes about how our lives are transformed through Jesus Christ.

Philippians 2:5–18: Today’s reading includes the famous verses that most scholars believe was an early hymn of the church. The first section describes the Incarnation of Jesus Christ:
who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,

    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
    he humbled himself

    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.  (6-8)

To me these verses are much like the middle section of the Apostle’s Creed: a tight summary of what Jesus’ sacrifice has accomplished for us. The last stanzas of this hymn describe our human response to this great gift from God:
Therefore God also highly exalted him
    and gave him the name
 that is above every name,
     so that at the name of Jesus
 every knee should bend,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
 and every tongue should confess
    that Jesus Christ is Lord,
  to the glory of God the Father. (9-11)

Above all, the hymn affirms the fact of Jesus’ divinity, having been sent straight to earth from God. And that our response must be exactly as it has always been: worship suffused in gratitude.

Not surprisingly, Paul uses this hymn as a launching point to describe just how that worship—every knee bowing; every tongue confessing—affects our long-term faith journey. Paul makes it clear that he is not the source of this inspiration but rather it is God himself: Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (12, 13)

What does it really mean to “work out our own salvation,” the process which theologians call ‘sanctification?’ Well, Paul has an answer for that, too: “Do all things without murmuring and arguing, so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world.” (14) 

So the challenging question is, as it always is, am I working out my salvation and remaining blameless like an innocent child? I guess the most honest answer is, ‘Sometimes.’

Psalm 86:11–17; Isaiah 40:6–41:7; Philippians 1:23–2:4

Originally published 7/19/2017. Revised and updated 7/18/2019

Psalm 86:11–17: After reflecting on God’s greatness and acknowledging that “You alone are God,” our psalmist asks that God would instruct him:
Teach me, O Lord, Your way.
I would walk in Your truth.
Make my heart one to fear Your name. (11)

We should note that we do not absorb God, nor is relating to God based solely on our feelings—which seems to be the currently popular method of knowing God. It is about being taught. It is about the discipline of sitting down and studying. In the super-emotional age in which we live it’s too easy to forget that a relationship with God involves the mind just as much as the heart.

What is the desired outcome of God’s teaching? It’s worship and it’s telling others:
Let me acclaim You, O Master, my God, with all my heart,
and let me honor Your name forever. (12)

We worship because we know God’s ways, but we also worship because God has rescued us not only from hell but from the depredations of our enemies:
For Your kindness to me is great,
For You saved me from nethermost Sheol.
O God, the arrogant rose against me,
a band of the violent sought my life
and did not set You before them. (13, 14)

Personally, I have not had a band of “the arrogant” come after me, but I know that God has rescued me from other things such as disease. And in that rescue we must acknowledge with our psalmist who famously says:
You, Master, are a merciful and gracious God,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast kindness. (15)

Here I disagree somewhat with Alter’s translation. I far prefer the more traditional translations that assert God is “abounding in steadfast love.” God’s love never fails and never abandons us even though like the psalmist, we may think God is absent. But as the old cliche has it about the footsteps in the sand, God may be silent, but he is there carrying us through life’s trials.

As far as I’m concerned, “abounding in steadfast kindness” would have been a good place to end the psalm. Our psalmist goes on to ask God for grace and strength and rescue and even the shaming of his enemies But sometimes we should just be quiet and wait. God will indeed supply our every need without us necessarily verbalizing it.

Isaiah 40:6–41:7: This famous chapter reminds me of God’s speech at the end of the book of Job: God is far greater than we can even imagine. By comparison, we humans and our actions that we think to be so consequential are as evanescent as springtime grass:
All people are grass,
    their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
    when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
    surely the people are grass. (40:6, 7)

In the end, we must accept our mortality while God lives eternally.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
    but the word of our God will stand forever. (40:8)

The Isaiah poet (I think someone other than Isaiah, son of Amoz, has written this) reminds us that while God is unimaginably powerful, he also cares for us. And here we encounter the beautiful metaphor of God—and Jesus—as shepherd:
He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
    he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
    and gently lead the mother sheep. (40:11)

Even though God is our shepherd, we must never forget that God is far greater than we humans and all our works. Our poet memorably draws the comparison to frail humanity:
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
    Has it not been told you from the beginning?
    Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,
    and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
    and spreads them like a tent to live in;
who brings princes to naught,
    and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing. (40:21-23)

God is eternal and we can never fully comprehend his greatness:
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
    the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
    his understanding is unsearchable. (40:28)

Even though we will never fully comprehend God (although many have tried!) and even though God could snuff out humanity in an instant, he is unimaginably generous to us, his creatures. And as always, it is the weak and powerless whom God especially favors. The chapter concludes with the beautiful promise that has inspired so many (and so many songs):”He gives power to the faint,
    and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
    and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
    they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
    they shall walk and not faint. (40:29-31)

In those times when we feel discouraged and abandoned by God, this magnificent promise still stands. Whatever may confront us, God will give us the energy and strength to carry on.

I don’t know why the Moravians didn’t end today’s reading on this high note, but they make us continue to ramble through Isaiah. The opening verses of chapter 41 lack the grandeur of the previous chapter, but the themes remain constant. God is more powerful than all the nations that surround Israel:
He delivers up nations to him,
    and tramples kings under foot;
he makes them like dust with his sword,
    like driven stubble with his bow.

I, the Lord, am first,
    and will be with the last. (41:2, 4)

There is a fascinating note here at the end of the reading—and very consistent with what Paul keeps talking about. It is in a community of people with different skills and gifts whereby great things are accomplished:
Each one helps the other,
    saying to one another, “Take courage!”
The artisan encourages the goldsmith,
    and the one who smooths with the hammer encourages the one who strikes the anvil,
saying of the soldering, “It is good”;
    and they fasten it with nails so that it cannot be moved. (41:6,7)

There’s no question: we cannot fully be God’s creatures in isolation. God made us social creatures so that together we can accomplish far greater things than one person’s efforts.

Philippians 1:23–2:4: Paul, having noted that “my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better,” (1:23) convinces himself that he needs to stay around because to “remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. ” (1:24) To me, that statement seems a little over the top. But at least he finds a rationale for remaining on earth, “so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again.” (1:26)

Unlike the other churches to which Paul has written, it appears that there are external rather than internal opponents in Philippi—one suspects the Jews— that are causing pain to these young Christians. Paul is especially encouraging in his confidence that they will withstand these trials: “I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. ” (1:27, 28) Of course the question for us is, would we stand firm in the face of similar adversity? As we enter an increasingly post-Christian age where some Christian beliefs are seen as as “intolerant” and even “hateful” (you know what they are), will I succumb to the world’s beliefs or like Paul, hew to Christ’s?

Happily we do not have to struggle on our own. As at Philippi, “this is God’s doing. For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well.” (1:29) What’s especially important here is that we do not avoid suffering, but are given the strength to endure. Far too many Christians have come to Jesus trying to escape from their woes or the consequences of their stupid actions. On the contrary, Paul tells us we will be encouraged and comforted, but we will still suffer. 

Whatever suffering we in the church endure is made easier because of unity of spirit: “If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” (2:1,2) And we can endure only when we support each other. Once again, Paul reminds us that we must abandon our egos: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.” (2:3) It’s all about generosity of spirit and teamwork: “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” (2:4) 

Psalm 86:1–10; Isaiah 38:1–40:5; Philippians 1:12–22

Originally published 7/18/2017. Revised and updated 7/17/2019

Psalm 86:1–10: This “David prayer” has a familiar ring because, as Alter points out, “A reader who has been going through the Book of Psalms in sequence by this point will have encountered almost every line of this poem, with minor variations, elsewhere.” While the psalm may be formulaic, it certainly is a classic example of a prayer of supplication.

It opens in humility and reverence but at the same time is clear about the supplicant’s faithfulness. He does not hesitate to approach God and ask for his help in very direct terms, repeating his plea with different words:
Incline Your ear, Lord, answer me,
for lowly and needy am I.
Guard my life, for I am faithful.
Rescue Your servant who trusts in You
—You, my God.
Grant grace to me, Master,
for to You I call all day long.
Gladden Your servant,
for to You, O Master, I lift up my being.
For You, O Master, are good and forgiving,
abounding in kindness to all who call to You.
Hearken, O Lord, to my prayer,
and listen well to the sound of my pleas. (1-6)

Unlike many other psalms our psalmist is completely confident that God is listening and will respond:
When I am in straits I call You
for You will answer me. (7)

This confidence is built on worship—a formal acknowledgement that God is lord of the universe—the true God above all the other small-g gods:
There is none like You among the gods, O Master
and nothing like Your acts.
All the nations You made
will come and bow before You, Master
and will honor Your name.
For You are great and work wonders.
You alone are God. (8-10)

Our poet can pray with confidence because he has set aside his own ego and all the other things such as wealth and power that are too easily turned into small-g gods. He knows there is only one source of rescue because only God can act. Above all, he prays confidently, knowing God will indeed come to his rescue. Can we pray with that same confidence? I know I don’t.

Isaiah 38:1–40:5: King Hezekiah is ill and Isaiah delivers the bad news: “Thus says the Lord: Set your house in order, for you shall die; you shall not recover.” (38:1) Following the example of the psalmist above, Hezekiah prays fervently, reminding God that “I have walked before you in faithfulness with a whole heart, and have done what is good in your sight.” (38:3) Isaiah returns, telling hezekiah that God has heard his prayer and will add 15 years to his life. Moreover, “I will deliver you and this city out of the hand of the king of Assyria, and defend this city.” (38:6) Just to prove that God has spoken, “the sun turned back on the dial the ten steps by which it had declined.” (3:8) Uh huh. Really? Regardless of violations of the laws of physics, it’s a beautiful master that as Creator of the universe, God can do whatever pleases.

Hezekiah writes a long poem that describes his journey from bitterness at his impending death to deep gratitude. First he acknowledges his bitterness in his supplication to God:
My eyes are weary with looking upward.
    O Lord, I am oppressed; be my security!
But what can I say? For he has spoken to me,
    and he himself has done it.
All my sleep has fled
    because of the bitterness of my soul. (38: 14, 15)

But then he realizes that there is a lesson in that bitterness. God who has not only extended his life, but has forgiven his sins, as well:
Surely it was for my welfare
    that I had great bitterness;
but you have held back  my life
    from the pit of destruction,
for you have cast all my sins
    behind your back. (38:17)

How often have I thanked God for extending my own life? And for forgiving all my sins through Jesus Christ? Not enough.

News of Hezekiah’s illness makes it to the king of Babylon, who sends a delegation “with letters and a present to Hezekiah.” (39:1) Hezekiah rather naively shows them “his treasure house, the silver, the gold, the spices, the precious oil, his whole armory, all that was found in his storehouses. There was nothing in his house or in all his realm that Hezekiah did not show them.” (39:2)

Upon hearing this, Isaiah rather frantically asks the king, “What did these men say? From where did they come to you?” (39:3) Hezekiah says he showed them everything. Unlike naive Hezekiah, the more worldly wise Isaiah knows the visit by Babylon has been by spies sent to assess Judah’s strengths. The prophet tells Hezekiah that “Days are coming when all that is in your house, and that which your ancestors have stored up until this day, shall be carried to Babylon; nothing shall be left, says the Lord. ” (39:6) adding the grim prophecy that his sons will be captured and castrated. But ever optimistic, Hezekiah thinks this prophecy will not affect him personally and that “There will be peace and security in my days.” (39:8)

There’s a good warning to us here. As Jesus noted, we need to be as gentle as doves but was wise as serpents. Being a follower of Christ does not mean we have to naive about what’s going on the world around us.

Isaiah 40 is justly famous as a prophecy of the coming of the Messiah, and these words are part of the Advent lectionary. They are also a memorable section of Handel’s Messiah. Rather than deconstructing these magnificent lines, let’s just immerse ourselves their glorious promise and the beautiful poetry:
In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
    make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
    and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
    and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
    and all people shall see it together,
    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken. (40:3-5)

Philippians 1:12–22: We do not have the letter that the church at Philippi wrote to Paul while he was in prison in Rome, but it certainly must have expressed their sorrow and sympathy at Paul’s grim situation. But Paul, being Paul, has not been deterred by his circumstances. Instead he has turned imprisonment to a wonderful advantage: “I want you to know, beloved,  that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard  and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ.” (12, 13)

Moreover, Paul’s own boldness has inspired others around him to be equally bold: “and most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word  with greater boldness and without fear.” (14)

The lesson is pretty obvious for us. Regardless of circumstances, we should stand and speak (and act) boldly for Jesus Christ. In all my Christian life, I think this has been my greatest failing. I have not been courageous in proclaiming Christ to others—either by word or deed.

Paul tells us how we can do that. Once again, the foundation is love for others: “These proclaim Christ out of love, knowing that I have been put here for the defense of the gospel.” (16)

However, not every proclamation for Christ has been made out of love: “the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment.” (17) But this really doesn’t matter to Paul. His point is that regardless of the motivation behind the proclamation, “Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice.” (18) I confess I am not where Paul is on that. I will never match his generosity of spirit and his intensity of vision in proclaiming the Good News. Nor am I a generous at giving people the benefit of the doubt as Paul was. Given our present cultural climate of hostility and never-ending outrage, Paul’s words should be transmitted regularly to everyone, whether Christian or not.

There were doubtless friends who questioned Paul’s enthusiasm, probably asking him if he wasn’t careful about what he said he would be executed. To those who cautioned him he famously replied, “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.” (21) Paul has given his life over to Christ and he knows that whatever happens, it is God’s will. Even to the point of death.

Psalm 85:8-14; Isaiah 37:14–38; Philippians 1:1–11

Psalm 85:8–14: The the first half of this psalm has been a bold imagining of what Israel will become when God responds to the psalmist’s supplications. God speaks and the psalmist listens. And that having heard God speak in peace, the people will respond in turn and repent:
Let me hear what the Lord God would speak
when He speaks peace to His people and to his faithful.
that they turn not back to folly. (9)

God’s voice instills a new confidence that he will return and rescue:
Yes, His rescue is near for those who fear Him,
that His glory dwell in our land.
 (10)

In a display of the psalmist’s literary boldness, he creates one of the more arrestingly beautiful metaphors in the Psalms by personifying the qualities that God brings in his rescue:
Kindness and truth have met,
justice and peace have kissed. 
(11)

It’s hard to imagine a more wonderful and succinct description of what peace on earth might look like.

Our poet extends this metaphor by imagining heaven and earth meeting:
Truth from the earth will spring up,
as justice from the heavens looks down.
 (12)

For me this means that truth is like a plant, springing to life as God’s justice rains down on the earth. The agricultural metaphor continues as we learn that the harvest is far greater than mere wheat or grapes:
The Lord indeed will grant bounty
and our land will grant its yield.
 (13)

Truth and justice are now regnant in the land as God’s return is actuality:
Justice before Him goes,
that He set His footsteps on the way.
 (14)

O, Lord, in this era where truth and justice seem so far away and evil stalks the land, we pray with the psalmist for you to again cause justice and peace to kiss. For we know that there cannot be peace without justice. And humankind lacks the will and the power to bring about justice and peace in a world that ignores you or pretends you don’t exist.

Isaiah 37:14–38: Amidst the years of corrupt leadership, Hezekiah is one of the few good and noble kings of Judah. The Assyrians stand outside the gate of Jerusalem, threatening its imminent destruction. Even worse, they have mocked Israel’s God, as Assyria’s military leader, the Rabshakeh, sends messengers to Hezekiah, challenging, “Do not let your God on whom you rely deceive you by promising that Jerusalem will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria.” (10) and naming all the other lands Assyria has conquered and kings they have deposed.

In response and with the letter in hand, Hezekiah goes to the temple and prays, reaffirming his and Judah’s faith in God, “who are enthroned above the cherubim, you are God, you alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth; you have made heaven and earth.” (16) He beseeches God, to “Incline your ear, O Lord, and hear; open your eyes, O Lord, and see;” (17) observing that all the gods of those defeated kingdoms “were no gods, but the work of human hands—wood and stone—and so they were destroyed.” (19) He concludes by asking God to save them and thus demonstrating that “all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you alone are the Lord.” (20)

Isaiah, whose prophetic insight has apparently informed him of Hezekiah’s prayer, sends word back to the king that God has replied “concerning King Sennacherib of Assyria.” (21) The king and all the Assyrians have mocked God and in their overweening pride have taken sole credit for all their accomplishments. But God, omniscient creator of all, knows exactly what they’ve been up to:
“I know your rising up and your sitting down,
    your going out and coming in,
    and your raging against me.” (28) 

But their pride goes before a great fall as Isaiah, speaking in God’s voice, announces,
Because you have raged against me
    and your arrogance has come to my ears,
I will put my hook in your nose
    and my bit in your mouth;
I will turn you back on the way
    by which you came. (29) 

Isaiah assures Hezekiah, that the Assyria “shall not come into this city, shoot an arrow there, come before it with a shield, or cast up a siege ramp against it.”  (33) Instead, God sends and angel to kill 185,000 troops outside Jerusalem and while worshipping his own small-g god in Ninevah, King Sennacherib is assassinated by two of his sons.

This is certainly a lesson of holding strong to our faith, especially when things look darkest. And it is certainly a testament to the power of prayer. As the culture around us continues to decline into eventual anarchy and enemies surround people of faith, we need to remember Hezekiah’s faith and his prayer that God is indeed more powerful than our enemies.

Philippians 1:1–11: This book is certainly one of Paul’s more uplifting letters written from his Roman imprisonment. After his epistles of cajoling and correction to Corinth and Ephesus, we come to this most upbeat of all Paul’s letters. It’s clear from the outset that he really, really loves the church at Philippi: “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you,” (3, 4) But his gratitude has a firm foundation and it’s not just because the Philippians are nice guys. They have captured Paul’s vision for telling others the good news—and then have acted on that vision: “because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” (5, 6)

Paul also loves them because they love him. Which is understandable. Perhaps most importantly, they have not been led theologically astray by other purveyors of a false gospel. They have remained fiercely loyal to Paul even though he’s been imprisoned: “It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.” (7)

Unlike those other churches, there’s no question that in Philippi love is the foundation of their every action. Even though Paul’s greatest essay about love is in his letter to the Corinthians, it is here that we see how Paul envisioned that love to be acted out in the church: “And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight  to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ.” (9, 10a)

Just reflect on that for a moment: knowledge and insight about Jesus Christ cannot possibly occur without it being based in love for Christ—and for each other. Too bad that sort of  love is on such scarce display in the other churches to which Paul wrote—and in most churches today. I personally certainly have not said and acted in very much love within my own church community.

Rather than the chastisement that characterizes his letters to Corinth, Paul asks only that they continue on their current path— that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless. (9, 10). What strikes me here is that growth in faith can happen only in an atmosphere of love for each other.

Love. Knowledge. Full insight. These are the crucial elements that help us “determine what is best” (10b). And having discerned what is best, we reap the greatest reward: “having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.” (11)

 

Psalm 85:1–7; Isaiah 36:1–37:13; Ephesians 6:10–24

Originally published 7/13/2015. Revised and updated 7/15/2019.

Psalm 85:1–7: This psalm is both retrospective and prospective as we encounter the phase “turn back” several times. The psalmist looks back to the original restoration of Israel to Canaan. More importantly, I think, the psalmist recognizes that an angry God relented and forgave his ancestors:
You favored, O Lord, Your land
You restored the condition of Jacob.
You forgave You people’s crime,
You covered all their offense.
You laid aside all Your wrath,
You turned back from Your blazing fury. (2-4)

Now once again, the people find themselves in dire straits and once again God is angry with them, and once again, the psalmist begs God:
Turn back, pray, God of our rescue
and undo Your anger against us. (5)

Our psalmist asks almost plaintively if God’s anger is now permanent:
Will You forever be incensed with us,
will You draw out Your fury through all generations? (6)

If God will turn back from his anger, the psalmist promises, “Your people will rejoice in You.” (7)

We Christians define repentance as “turning back,” which is exactly what is being described here. If God will “turn back” from his anger, Israel will “turn back”—repent—from its sins. What’s fascinating here is the idea of God “turning back,” in essence, repenting from his own anger. There is much more a feeling of quid pro quo here than we Christians would ever sense. We view God as unchanging, ever-loving. But here, God is far more emotional, and as the psalmist asserts, has abandoned Israel in anger because of its manifold sins. We can be grateful that through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, God never turns his back on us and we always have a way, through Jesus, of “turning back” ourselves.

Isaiah 36:1–37:13: We move from prophecy to historical narrative. The army of King Sennacherib of Assyria has already captured several cities in Judah and arrives at Jerusalem, taunting the court of Hezekiah, “Do you think that mere words are strategy and power for war?” (36:5), and telling them that Judah’s alliance with Egypt is useless. Sennacherib’s captain, the Rabshakeh, even invokes Israel’s God, saying, “The Lord said to me, Go up against this land, and destroy it.” (36:10).

Hezekiah’s officials are mortified and worry that the Rabshakeh’s will negatively affect the morale of the Jewish soldiers. They beg him, “Please speak to your servants in Aramaic, for we understand it; do not speak to us in the language of Judah within the hearing of the people who are on the wall.” (36:11). But the enemy refuses,  telling Hezekiah’s army standing on the city wall that they are doomed. King Hezekiah’s servants consults Isaiah, who responds, “Thus says the Lord: Do not be afraid because of the words that you have heard, with which the servants of the king of Assyria have reviled me.” (37:6) Isaiah promises that God will cause the Rabshakeh to hear a rumor and “to fall by the sword in his own land.” (37:7)

But the king of Assyria responds to Hezekiah, “Do not let your God on whom you rely deceive you by promising that Jerusalem will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria.” (37:10) arguing, “ Have the gods of the [other] nations delivered them, the nations that my predecessors destroyed?” (37:12). Will Israel’s God stand the test, or like all the small-g gods of the other nations simply fall by the wayside? Will Isaiah and his prophecy be vindicated?

Ephesians 6:10–24: I well remember the 5th grade Sunday School flannel graphs of “putting on the whole armor of God,”—truly one of Paul’s most memorable metaphors. What I didn’t appreciate then as I do now was that even though we are holding the “sword of the Spirit,” our posture is defensive, not aggressive. Paul tells us that although we are to be strong, the point of the armor is so we “may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.” (10). Truth and righteousness are our body armor: Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. (14) We are to surround ourselves with these two essential qualities. Without truth and righteousness metaphorically covering our bodies we will fall when injured by Satan’s slings and arrows. And our greatest defensive protection is our faith in Jesus Christ , allowing us to stand tall against evil that is all around us. With the shield of faith, we are “able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one.” (16)

In fact the only “offensive action” we are to take is to “Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication.” (18) And, “To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints.” (18b) Prayer is the Christian’s only offensive weapon.

However, as I look around at the response of many Christians in the wake of social upheaval being promulgated by those who reject all the qualities  and the general ongoing rejection of Christianity by the larger culture, I see lots of “woe is us” defensiveness, and even some very ugly lashing out. However, I suspect many of us are not praying as Paul has asked us to do. If we truly have faith, Paul is telling us, we will indeed stand firm against the “wiles of the devils” (as I learned the words in the King James version.) Our duty is simple and it is clear: we are to pray, not to lash out and not to whine.