Psalm 113; 1 Samuel 19:8–20:17; John 4:27–38

Originally published 9/29/2016. revised and updated 9/29/2018.

Psalm 113: This “praise psalm” opens with “Hallelujah,” which means “praise God,” followed immediately by the imperative command, “Praise, O servants of the Lord,/ praise arise the Lord’s name.” (1)

Praising God transcends time: “May the Lord’s name be blessed/ now and forevermore.” (2) Praising God also transcends space: “From the place where the sun rises to where it sets,/ praised be the name of the Lord.” (3)

NT Wright notwithstanding, this is one of those places where we get the impression that heaven is “up there” rather than right next to us in another dimension: “High over the nations, the Lord,/ over the heavens His glory.” (4) This “upthereness” is amplified in the next two verses as our psalmist asks rhetorically,
Who is like the Lord our God,
Who sits high above,
Who sees down below
in the heavens and on the earth?” (5,6)

But God does not just look down on earth, and as deists would have it, passively observe, God acts on his highest priority, the rescue of the poor and needy:
He raises the poor from the dust,
from the dungheap lifts the needy,
to seat him among the princes,
among the princes of his people.” (7, 8)

Notice how the act of lifting up the poor reflects this same verticality of God looking down from heaven. As God has lifted up the poor, and made men once again stand in honor among princes, so too, God acts domestically for women by eliminating her shame and bringing children into her life: “He seats the barren woman in her home/ a happy mother of sons.” (9) Yes, sons, since it was sons through which she would obtain honore. This is certainly to our culture but there was no greater honor in ancient cultures than for a mother to bear sons.

1 Samuel 19:8–20:17: Saul’s forbearance in agreeing not to kill David is short lived and he attempts to kill David with his spear as the younger man plays music. Sauk remains determined: “Saul sent messengers to David’s house to keep watch over him, planning to kill him in the morning.” (19:11) David’s loving wife, helps Michal him escape and then places an (apparently life-sized) idol in David’s bed to fool the messengers. Saul demands to know why his daughter allowed David to escape but she replies with the ruse that her own life was in danger: “Michal answered Saul, “He said to me, ‘Let me go; why should I kill you?’” (17). Clever woman.

David flees to Ramah and joins Samuel. Saul finds out and sends messengers to Ramah to capture David. However, “the spirit of God came upon the messengers of Saul, and they also fell into a prophetic frenzy.” (20) The prophetic frenzy happens again with the next set of messengers. Finally, Saul himself comes and “he too stripped off his clothes, and he too fell into a frenzy before Samuel. He lay naked all that day and all that night.” (24) For the moment we leave Saul lying naked in the dirt at Ramah.

David seeks out Jonathan and asks in desperation,“What have I done? What is my guilt? And what is my sin against your father that he is trying to take my life?” (20:1) Jonathan is unaware of his father’s plan even though he thinks Saul has told him everything. David arranges to fail to appear at the mandatory ‘new moon dinner,’ at court. He tells Jonathan that he should tell his father when asked that David is missing from dinner because is in Bethlehem for a family gathering. If Saul reacts angrily, Jonathan will know that Saul is out to kill David.

David asks Jonathan, “Who will tell me if your father answers you harshly?” (11) Jonathan says that if David hasn’t heard anything from Jonathan after three days, the coast is clear. Regardless of whatever happens, Jonathan swears lifelong fealty to David, and begs, “never cut off your faithful love from my house, even if the Lord were to cut off every one of the enemies of David from the face of the earth.” (15) Jonathan’s vow is reciprocated when he “made David swear again by his love for him; for he loved him as he loved his own life.” (17) The story of David and Jonathan is the story of intense friendship and, I think, the origin of Jesus’ saying, “ No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13)

Nevertheless, this story is really getting operatic. No wonder Charpentier wrote a now obscure five-act  opera in 1688, “David et Jonathas.”

John 4:27–38: Jesus’ disciples arrive in the midst of his discourse with the Samaritan woman but they (happily for Jesus, the woman, and us) hold their tongues. The woman returns home and famously says, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” (29) The crowd begins to return to where Jesus is.

In the meantime, the disciples plead with Jesus to eat something. In a reflection of his discourse on “living water,” our gospel writer amplifies Jesus simultaneous corporeality and spirituality when Jesus responds, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.” (34) At this point we are to understand that while there is physical water and food to meet our physical needs, Jesus is our spiritual water and food, which is just as crucial as actual water and food to our existence.

Rather than having supper, Jesus extends his comments about metaphorical food to the metaphorical harvest: “But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting.” (35)  Jesus is the sower, but his disciples—and by extension, the church—are the reapers: “I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.” (38)

We need to remember that we are not the ones who labor for the harvesting of other souls. That is the work of the Holy Spirit. We are merely the essential human catalyst for the Spirit’s work.

 

 

Psalm 112; 1 Samuel 18:1–19:7; John 4:1–26

Originally published 9/28/2016. revised and updated 9/28/2018.

Psalm 112: Like the previous psalm, this one is also a “short acrostic” consisting of 10 verses and 22 lines—one each for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet in order. The previous psalm was a catalog of God’s qualities; this one catalogs the attributes of a virtuous man.

Interestingly, this psalm begins with “Hallelujah,” and then states,
Happy the man who fears the Lord.
His commands he keenly desires
. (1)

So, it’s clear to the psalmist that a virtuous life begins with fearing and obeying God. As a result, a God-fearing virtuous person will enjoy many rewards, not least of which is that he will have progeny, who will be “great” and who will remember him, not to mention physical blessings as well:
A great figure in the land his seed shall be,
the generation of the upright shall be blessed
Abundance and wealth in his home,
and his righteousness stands forever. (2, 3)

Our poet expands his view to include the community, and that the response of men so blessed:
Light dawns in darkness for the upright,
gracious and merciful  and just.
 (4)

However, that blessing is contingent on a man following God’s example of generosity and truth-telling:
Good is the man who shows grace and lends,
he sustains his words with justice
. (5)

This perhaps a bit of hyperbole here:
For he shall never stumble,
an eternal remembrance the just man shall be
.” (6)

Never stumble, really?  Of course we need to bear in mind that the poet is describing the ideal virtuous man. We can see where the Pharisees may have started out emulating the precepts of this psalm. But righteousness too often morphs into self-righteousness.

Even when confronted by enemies, who seek to do him harm the faith of a virtuous man is unwavering:
From evil rumor he shall not fear.
His heart is firm, he trusts in the Lord.
 (7)

It is this faithfulness and trust that sustains one:
His heart is staunch, he shall not fear,
till he sees the defeat of his foes.
 (8)

Perhaps the greatest quality that the righteous man can emulate is God’s concern for the poor and needy—the overarching theme of the Psalms and his reward will be great:
He disperses, he gives to the needy,
his righteousness stands forever
.
His horn will be raised in glory. (9).

The psalmist concludes by drawing a sharp contrast with the fate of the wicked. As far as the psalmist is concerned, evildoers come to a dead end in both senses of the word:
The wicked man sees and is vexed,
he gnashes his teeth and he quails
.
The desire of the wicked shall perish. (10b)

1 Samuel 18:1–19:7: Upon hearing David’s story, “the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.” (18:1). Jonathan gives his robe, sword, and armor to David. In our modern era, the temptation is to see this as a homosexual relationship, but I prefer to think of it as a strong male friendship—the like of which seems not to be allowed in today’s over-sensitive politically correct culture.

David went out and was successful wherever Saul sent him” (5) and shortly becomes commander of the army. He also becomes a heartthrob as the women come out to greet the army, singing, Saul has killed his thousands,/ and David his ten thousands.” (7) Unsurprisingly, this makes Saul jealous of David. Ever unstable, at one point Saul hurls his spear at David as the young man plays the lyre in court. 

Our authors point out that “Saul was afraid of David, because the Lord was with him but had departed from Saul.” (12) and Saul banishes David from court. But the Spirit of the Lord remains with David and he continues to enjoy great success. We assume that by this time the population would much rather see David as king than Saul.

In a rather bizarre twist, Saul offers his daughter Michal, who loves David, to become David’s wife, but first Saul insists that David kill 100 Philistines and bring their foreskins(!) to him. David does this and Saul reluctantly gives David Michal as his new wife.

Our authors continue to draw the stark contrast between Saul and David: “Saul realized that the Lord was with David, and that Saul’s daughter Michal loved him, Saul was still more afraid of David.” (28, 29a) Tragically, Saul’s jealousy makes him “David’s enemy from that time forward.” (29b)

Saul plots to assassinate David, but Jonathan intercedes, pointing out that “has not sinned against you, and because his deeds have been of good service to you.” (19:4) Saul relents, and “heeded the voice of Jonathan; Saul swore, “As the Lord lives, he shall not be put to death.” (6)

If we ever needed a biblical case history of the internal and external destructive power of jealousy, Saul is our man.

John 4:1–26: What more can be written about Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well? Jesus is breaking social taboos all over the place: conversing with a Samaritan; speaking to a woman; accusing her truthfully of adultery.

But more than that, John’ symbolism is hard at work here. Jesus says rather mysteriously, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” (10) The woman rather naturally assumes Jesus is speaking of physical water, but Jesus adds that “those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.” (14) Needless to say, the woman would be happy never having to go to the well again.

Jesus goes on and tells the woman’s current marital status and history. The woman observes that Jesus is a prophet and then at first glance, rather oddly that “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you [i.e., the Jews]  say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” (20) Then in what would have been heresy to other Jews, but a wish to be hoped for to a Samaritan, Jesus says, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.” (21)

If we’re not careful, we could read Jesus’ next line the wrong way when he says, “salvation is from the Jews.” (22) But what he’s saying is that salvation comes through one Jew, himself—and not only Jews, but Samaritans, and all mankind who will find salvation through this man who came to earth as a Jew. The woman concludes that Jesus is the Messiah and Jesus confirms her suspicions: “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” (26)

Once again, John puts it out there clearly and directly for everyone to see and understand: This Jesus is indeed the long-awaited Messiah. In this encounter with the Samaritan woman, we learn that the Messiah is for all people, not just the Jews.

 

Psalm 111; 1 Samuel 17:32–58; John 3:27–36

Originally published 9/27/2016. revised and updated 9/27/2018.

Psalm 111: Alter informs us that this psalm is a “short acrostic,” i.e., each line begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet in sequence. It scans like a hymn that would be sung at worship as it describes God’s many wonderful qualities. We know at the outset that it’s sung at worship:
I acclaim the Lord with full heart
in the council of the upright and the assembly. (1)

The next section recalls what God has done for the psalmist and for all of Israel:
Great are the deeds of the Lord,
discovered by all who desire them. (2)

I certainly like the idea that of we but look around, we too will discover what God has done for us and for all humankind.

The poem then outlines what those wonderful qualities are, opening with the reality of God’s eternal nature:
Glory and grandeur His acts
and His bounty stands for all time.  (3)

Besides glory and grandeur, God provides the necessities of life and God never abandons his Covenant with Israel or with us:
Sustenance He gives to those who fear Him,
He recalls forever His pact. (5)

God is the everlasting source of truth:
His handiwork, truth and justice,
trustworthy all His precepts,
Staunch for all time, forever
fashioned in truth and right. (7, 8)

Notice how our psalmist repeats “truth,” Truthfulness is at the very core of God’s being. The obvious corollary is that as God-followers, truth must be at the core of our being.

For me, the centerpiece of the psalm is the psalmist’s summary statement:
Redemption He sent to His people,
forever commanded His pact.
Holy and awesome His name. (9)

Of course for us Christians we know exactly what Redemption was sent not just to “his people” but for every human being.

The psalmist concludes with a statement of what comes to all who know and trust God:
The beginning of wisdom—the fear of the Lord,
good knowledge to all who perform it. (10a)

Unfortunately our current culture, which has abandoned God, has also abandoned wisdom. The concluding line is a final reiteration of this psalm’s underlying theme: God stands for eternity and so must our worship: His praise stands for all time. (10b).

When all is changing around us, there is the unchanging Solid Rock of Jesus Christ to whom we cling.

1 Samuel 17:32–58: This famous story begins with Saul’s incredulity: “[Saul] said to David, “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him; for you are just a boy, and he has been a warrior from his youth.” (33) David explains that as a shepherd he’s been rescuing sheep from wild animals, including lions. David asserts that Goliath will be no different. What David says next is the underlying theme of the story: “The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine.” (37) To be sure, David has skill, but above all else, he trusts in God.

Saul dresses David in armor, but David cannot move under the weight. This is a clear indication from our authors that the weapons and defenses of man are superfluous when there is such overwhelming trust in God. However, David does not confront the giant unarmed; it’s just that he chooses his own weapon. This is a lesson to us that while others will give us advice and try to equip us “against the wiles of the devil,” it is we who must both trust in God and equip ourselves to defend (or in this case, offend). We cannot depend on others or exactly follow the means by which they do it. We must be our own men and women.

Goliath approaches David and smirks “for he was only a youth, ruddy and handsome in appearance.” (42) [Our authors never fail to point out David’s physical beauty.] Goliath boasts he will cut David into little pieces, but David stands firm and replies,“You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.” (45) There is bravado as well as trust in God as David hurls Goliath’s curse back at the him: “I will give the dead bodies of the Philistine army this very day to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the earth, so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel.” (46)

Which he proceeds to do. David quickly dispatches Goliath with a single stone to the forehead. [Interestingly, there’s no description of a slingshot, although the verb, “slung it” doubtless implies same.] David decapitates the dead giant and the “troops of Israel and Judah rose up with a shout and pursued the Philistines as far as Gath” (52) and take the day.

Now we encounter an anomaly that suggests different authors are involved here. Saul inquires “whose son is this young man?” and his servant Abner promises to find out. He comes back with David to the king, who tells him that he’s “the son of your servant Jesse the Bethlehemite.” (58)

But isn’t this the same David who played the lyre in Saul’s time of depression? Or the David whom Saul came to love? All we can conclude is that timelines and consistency do not particularly bother our authors. The story and its focus on David’s trust in God is far more important than a few narrative contradictions.

John 3:25–36: John the Baptist’s disciples are rather irritated that this rabbi, whom John baptised, seems to be gaining popularity and usurping John’s own celebrity— and therefore diminishing the perks of being John’s disciples. John tells them that Jesus has been duly ordained because “No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven.” (27) The Baptist reminds them that he said quite clearly that he was not the Messiah, just the messenger. John realizes that his time is over and wisely says, “For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease.” (29, 30) 

One has the impression here that our gospel writer is addressing a faction in his community that saw John the Baptist as the true Messiah and Jesus as the usurper.

This being the gospel of John, a lengthy theological discourse follows. The writer restates his original premise in the first words of the gospel that the Messiah comes directly from heaven: “The one who comes from heaven is above all.” (31) And therefore, it logically follows, “He whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure.” (34) I have to believe that John the gospel writer studied Greek philosophy and his skill is beautifully demonstrated here in how his Jesus presents irrefutable logical arguments.

Just in case we didn’t get it the first time, our gospel writer wraps up this disquisition with a brief summary of John 3:16-17: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God’s wrath.” (36) Once again the gospel writer makes it crystal clear that there is only one way to God, and that is through the Word, Jesus.

Psalm 110; 1 Samuel 16:14–17:31; John 3:16–26

Originally published 9/25/2016. revised and updated 9/26/2018.

Psalm 110: The psalmist has dedicated this psalm to King David, whom he serves (perhaps as court poet) and opens with God’s voice speaking a blessing:
The Lord’s utterance to my master:
‘Sit at My right hand
till I make your enemies a stool for your feet.’
 (1)

As is almost always the case, the poet speaks of David as warrior-king:
Your mighty scepter
may the Lord send forth from Zion.
Hold sway over your enemies.
 (2)

Our poet continues in this go-forth-to-battle vein:
Your people rally to battle
on the day your force assembles
on the holy mountains.
 (3a)

The psalmist is confident that God will definitely remain on the king’s side:
The Lord has sworn, He will not change heart. (4a)

Once again we encounter the deuteronomic idea that God can change his mind at any time.

As if the points of view in the psalm already were not confusing enough, now the poet speaks for himself:
You are priest forever.
By my solemn word, my righteous king.
 (4b)

Apparently, David plays a simultaneous role as king and priest. In that sense David is both the new means of governance—king—combined with the old form—priest as judge, e.g. Samuel—God’s representative in the now obsolete theocracy of Israel.

The poet continues, assuring the king that
The Master [God] is at your right hand.
On the day of His wrath He smashes kings
. (5)

At this point the psalm becomes quite graphic as it describes David’s upcoming military victory acting as God’s agent:
He [God] exacts judgement from the nations,
fills the valleys with corpses,
smashes heads across the great earth.
 (6).

We can also read this passage as God himself fighting the battle and smashing heads. Quite a concept!.

The psalm ends somewhat abruptly with the image of God as warrior—or perhaps David, hot and sweaty from battle, pausing to take a cool drink:
From a brook on the way He drinks.
Therefore lifts up His head
.

Unlike many psalms there are no concluding verses of worship and praise. I think this heightens the warrior aspect of David, but also God himself as warrior, which is certainly not a quality of God that I’m terribly comfortable with…

1 Samuel 16:14–17:31: We return to Saul, who is paying the price for his disobedience: “the spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him.” (16:14) [While this sounds like a mental illness, it’s interesting that the belief of the authors was that it was God who would torment him.]

A servant suggests that a little lyre music might soothe his tormented soul. Someone remembers David and asks Jesse to send his son to the court. The already anointed David appears “and entered his [Saul’s] service. Saul loved him greatly, and he became his armor-bearer.” (16:21) David’s lyre playing is effective and whenever “David took the lyre and played it with his hand, … Saul would be relieved and feel better, and the evil spirit would depart from him.” (16:23) Which I guess is where the Shakespeare drew his line, “music soothes the savage breast” [not ‘beast’ as is so often mis-quoted].

This peaceful intermezzo is interrupted by news that the Philistines are again preparing to invade Israel. This time the Philistines have a not-so-secret weapon, “a champion named Goliath, of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span.” (17:4) The authors are at pains to describe how the giant’s armor covered every part of his body since this will be an important detail later. I’m guessing there’s some hyperbole here: “The shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam, and his spear’s head weighed six hundred shekels of iron.” (17:7) In any event, our authors take pains to describe Goliath as unconquerable.

Goliath taunts the Israelites to send a man to fight him mano a mano. The stakes are high since who ever wins the fight will be the victor in battle. Three of Jesse’s sons are in the army while young David is effectively messenger between home and the battlefield as Jesse asks his son to carry provisions to David’s brothers at the front. Arriving at the battlefield, David hears Goliath’s challenge. David is informed that the man who kills Goliath will be amply rewarded: “king will greatly enrich the man who kills him, and will give him his daughter and make his family free in Israel.” (17:25) But for David, greater things are at stake here as he asks, “who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?” (26) Up to this point, no one in the Israelite army has mentioned God.

David’s  brother, Eliab, heard David talking and is p.o.ed that David is not back home taking care of the sheep. He is none too gentle with the younger brother, doubtless envious that David already is popular at Saul’s court, not to mention having witnessed his brother’s anointing by Samuel: “I know your presumption and the evil of your heart; for you have come down just to see the battle.” (28) In a single line that reveals the enmity between the brothers, David testily replies, “What have I done now? It was only a question.” (29)

When Saul hears about David being at the battlefield, he sends for the boy.

This passage is striking because it reveals several key aspects of David’s personality. He is God’s man since he’s apparently the first one to point out that Israel has “the living God” on its side. Also, we learn that David does not hesitate to say what’s on his mind, nor does he fear offending his brothers. All this points to David’s inner courage based on his trust in God.

John 3:16–26: We arrive at the most famous verse in Christianity: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (16) I think it’s important to point out that this is not an anodyne theological observation, but that John the gospel writer has Jesus utter these words himself, ensuring that God’s promise is far greater than we can ever appreciate.

The following verse amplifies the thrust of the purpose in God coming to earth: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (17)

I think it’s worth reflecting on this latter verse in light of both Jesus and Nicodemus being Jewish. Both were well aware of God’s interventions under the terms of the Old Covenant. Whenever Israel fell away from God and began worshipping small-g gods, God would “come into the world” with punishment for Israel’s wrongdoing. But here at these two verses we see the cancellation of the terms of the Old Covenant. Now God comes to earth as Jesus with a whole new intention: that the world be saved rather than punished.

There’s just one requirement—and this is a big one with our gospel writer: belief. For John, it’s all about believing Jesus is who he says he is: “Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” (18) Like its predecessor, the New Covenant is starkly binary. Believe or don’t believe. But non-belief is also condemnation. Not because God is set on punishment, but that non-belief is self-inflicted punishment: separation from God.

John returns to his theme of light. Again it’s binary: “For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.” (20) For Jesus, there are no gray areas. It’s all a question of belief.

Returning to his narrative, the gospel writer describes Jesus as teacher and baptizer: Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he spent some time there with them and baptized. (22) Which is exactly what John, was much more famous at that point than Jesus, was doing: “John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim because water was abundant there; and people kept coming and were being baptized.” (23)

They find each other and a (hopefully peaceful) discussion about purification arises between John’s disciples and a rather puzzling reference, “a Jew.” (25) John’s disciples go back to John and report that Jesus is not only a baptizing competitor but is also apparently more popular: “Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” (26)

We have to wait until tomorrow to learn how John replied to this provocative question.

 

 

Psalm 109:21–31; 1 Samuel 15:24–16:13; John 3:1–15

Originally published 9/24/2016. revised and updated 9/25/2018.

Psalm 109:21–31: Following dire accusations and his pleas to God to destroy his enemies, our psalmist returns to his own situation as he asks God to
act on my behalf for the sake of Your name,
for Your kindness is good. O save me!
” (21)

He reiterates his helpless state and indicates he is near death by using two striking similes:
For poor and needy am I
Like a lengthening shadow I go off,
I am shaken away like the locust.
 (23)

A lengthening shadow as the evening of life approaches is a wonderful metaphor for those of us who know we have fewer years left than the ones we’ve already expended.

His former colleagues—perhaps even his subordinates—now see him as an object of scorn and false pity who is beyond hope. He can turn only to God for possible salvation:
As for me, I become a reproach to them.
They see me, they shake their heads.

Help me, O Lord, my God.
Rescue me as befits Your kindness.
 (25, 26)

But this is not to be a rescue in secret; rather he wishes for his exoneration to be on full public display so that his enemies will see that it is he, not they, who has remained faithful to God:
That they may know that Your hand
it is, it is You, O Lord, Who did it
 (27)

In other words, his rescue becomes a form of public witness. His enemies’ plans will have been foiled by God’s mercy and they will be left empty-handed:
Let the curse, and You, You will bless.
They will rise and be shamed, and Your servant will rejoice
. (28)

For our psalmist, it’s a binary world. You’re with God or you’re not. And the final judgment for abandoning God can be only disgrace. He is confident that God will act and his “accusers [will] don disgrace,/ and let them wrap round like a robe their shame.” (29) Another great metaphor: being enveloped in shame that is like a wrap-around robe.

Like all psalms of supplication, no matter how despairing, this psalm ends on a note of confidence that God will act. And in the exact opposite of shame, our psalmist concludes on a note of worship of having been  publicly restored to his right standing. It is his hypocritical enemies who end up enduring the shame they have so wickedly heaped on the psalmist (or David):
I highly acclaim the Lord with my mouth,
and in the midst of many I praise him.
 (30)

1 Samuel 15:24–16:13: Saul finally realizes he has sinned grievously and begs Samuel that he be forgiven: “I pray, pardon my sin, and return with me, so that I may worship the Lord.” (15:25). But Samuel refuses. An in a scene full of pathos, the broken king “caught hold of the hem of [Samuel’s] robe, and it tore.” (27) Samuel replies, “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this very day, and has given it to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you.” (28) Eventually Samuel relents and “Saul worshipped the Lord.” (31)

Then, in a highly disturbing scene, the defeated Amalekite king, Agag, is brought before Samuel, who tells him, “As your sword has made women childless,/ so your mother shall be childless among women.” (33a) and the old prophet promptly “hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord in Gilgal.” (33b) This is yet another image of the Old Testament God that disturbs our modern sensibilities, but it’s important to note that it is God acting through Samuel who wreaks vengeance, not Saul. Nevertheless…

Samuel and Saul depart, “but Samuel grieved over Saul. And the Lord was sorry that he had made Saul king over Israel.” (35) Once again we encounter this aspect of God as regretting his decisions. Hardly the omnipotent God we think we worship. This is one of those places where we cannot conveniently place God in a box of our devising.

God gets over his regret about Saul before Samuel does and chastises the old man,“How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel.”  (16:1a) God then announces that he’s “provided for myself a king among [Jesse’s] sons.” (1b) Samuel comes to Bethlehem and doubtless aware of Samuel’s act against the Amalekite king, “the elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, “Do you come peaceably?” (4) Samuel assures them he has and that he’s come to anoint a new king.

Jesse parades his sons before Samuel, who sees Eliab and thinks, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” (6) But God wisely interjects and tells Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him…[mortals] look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” (7)

This famous statement finds its echo in Jesus when he says essentially the same thing in front of the Pharisees, who surely knew this passage. And it’s a lesson to us today when we tend to view the physical attractiveness of politicians as a qualification of leadership. This same judging by appearance manifests itself frequently in business where most CEOs are taller than their peers.

Seven of Jesse’s sons pass before Samuel and are rejected. Samuel famously asks if Jesse has another son, and is told, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” (11) Jesse has David come before Samuel and God tells Samuel, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” (12). And “the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward.” (13) As far as kings of Israel are concerned, God got it right on the second try.

John 3:1–15: This famous nighttime visit by Nicodemus, “a leader of the Jews,” is recorded nowhere else. And it’s a clear demonstration of the lofty philosophical and theological plane on which this gospel is written. Nicodemus acknowledges that Jesus is connected closely to God because “no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” (2) Jesus enigmatically replies, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” (3)

Nicodemus logically poses his famous question about how an adult male could an enter his mother’s womb. Jesus says that he is speaking of the Spirit, and that “no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” (5) In other words, Jesus asserts, to be connected to God, one must be born in the Holy Spirit. Here is one of those points in John where we see the Trinity in full flower: The Spirit is essential to knowing God. And as we will see in a few verses ahead, so is Jesus.

Nicodemus is more puzzled than ever and Jesus doesn’t make him feel any better when he says, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” (10) He goes on to reference the Son of Man described in Isaiah coming from heaven. And then in one of the most daring theological leaps of all, announces that the Son of Man will be lifted up “just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness.” (14)

Of course since we’re on the other side of the story, we know what “lifted up” means: the crucifixion. But poor Nicodemus must have been more confused than ever.

We conclude today’s reading at the very threshold of the most famous and theologically rich verse in the New Testament as Jesus tells Nicodemus  that “whoever believes in [the Son of Man] may have eternal life.” (15)

I think it’s difficult to say exactly what the nature of this eternal life will be. Unlike the popular image of living forever in heaven, I think the true meaning of phrase, “eternal life,” is far richer and deeper than our limited human minds will be ever able to comprehend.

Psalm 109:8–20; 1 Samuel 14:41–15:23; John 2:12–25

Originally published 9/23/2016. revised and updated 9/24/2018.

Psalm 109:8–20: Our psalmist’s anger is on full display as he hurls a list of serious imprecations at his enemy, including wishing for his death:
Let his days be few,
may another man take his post
May his children become orphans
and his wife a widow.” (8,9)

And not only that he would suffer, but that his progeny suffer as well.
May his children wander and beg,
driven out from the ruins of their homes

May no one extend him kindness
and no one pity his orphans.
May his offspring be cut off,
in the next generation his name wiped out.” (10, 12, 13)

As we know, descendants were how a person (always a man) would be remembered. To have no progeny is to be forgotten, which is to be cursed.

But our psalmist’s not finished yet. After this recitation of his anger, he turns to God and prays that this person be cursed by God himself. He asks God that there be no forgiveness, no redemption:
May the wrong of his fathers be recalled by the Lord
and his mother’s offense not be wiped out.
Let these be ever before the Lord,
that He cut off from earth their name.” (14, 15)

OK, we know this guy is really, really angry because of the hurt that has been inflicted on him. But is it really OK to pray for the humiliation and even death of others? Of course the answer is no. But as we’ve observed many times, the psalms are where the raw emotions of life are expressed. Expressing deep anger in the form of a prayer of imprecation is probably a pretty healthy way to work it out. It is certainly better than confronting the object of his anger. Who knows what might happen? As we know all to well, anger is often expressed with gun in hand to terrible consequences.

At this point, having expressed his venom, our poet turns to describing the specific offenses of the man he wishes to be cursed:
Because he did not remember to do kindness
and pursued the poor and the needy,
the heartsore, to put him to death. 
(16)

We assume the psalmist is expressing anger toward some official or leader who has betrayed those he led. These are pretty heinous offenses and as we know, oppressing the poor and helpless is one of the greatest sins one can commit against God.

Finally, our angry poet points out that these curses are in fact his enemy’s just desserts because his enemy has ignored God:
He loved a curse, may it come upon him,
he desired not blessing—may it stay far from him
. (17)

And he prays that the curses envelopes this enemy’s entire being—like the clothing he wears:
He donned curse as his garb—
may it enter his innards like water
and like oil in his bones.
May it be like a garment he wraps round him

and like a belt he girds at all times. (18, 19))

Everything our psalmist has spoken about here has been in the form of a prayer—and it is God whom he asks to act, circling back around to the fact that he is the object of a conspiracy:
This be the plight of my accusers from the Lord,
and those who speak against my life.
 (20)

What’s interesting here is that David (or our psalmist) realizes that vengeance and the effects of curses are God’s work. He has no intention of inflicting these curses on his enemy by himself. God must be the agency of action.

The question hangs in the air: now that we are covered by the terms of the New Covenant, Jesus has commanded us to love our enemies. Therefore, to pray this prayer would be against everything Jesus taught us. No wonder Jesus was viewed as such a radical.

1 Samuel 14:41–15:23: Saul wants to know if it is he or his son Jonathan who has sinned and relies on the trusty Urim and Thummim to provide the answer. The answer is that it is Jonathan who confesses that he has tasted the honey and tells his father, “here I am, I will die.” (14:44) Which is a strong indicator of a courageous character that seems far less present in his father. Saul is about to carry out the terms of his most stupid vow when the people of Israel intervene and logically ask,: ” “Shall Jonathan die, who has accomplished this great victory in Israel? Far from it! As the Lord lives, not one hair of his head shall fall to the ground; for he has worked with God today.” (45) Jonathan is freed, but we suspect he has no great love for a father who was willing to execute him.

Saul is the quintessential warrior king and fights battles on every side “There was hard fighting against the Philistines all the days of Saul; and when Saul saw any strong or valiant warrior, he took him into his service.” (14:52) Samuel tells Saul that God has decided that Israel should “punish the Amalekites for what they did in opposing the Israelites when they came up out of Egypt.” (15:2) and that they be utterly destroyed. Saul proceeds to win that battle. Only the king of the Amalekites is spared, “but utterly destroyed all the people with the edge of the sword.” (15:8) However, they keep the booty—a move that ultimately will prove unwise.

Observing that Saul has failed to carry out the command to “utterly destroy,” God tells Samuel, “I regret that I made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me, and has not carried out my commands.” (15:10) This is a fascinating glimpse into the nature of the Old Covenant God: that he makes decisions he later regrets. This is hardly the omnipotent, all-wise God we imagine today.

In any event, when Samuel finds Saul, Saul announces “I have carried out the command of the Lord.” (13) But Samuel replies, “What then is this bleating of sheep in my ears, and the lowing of cattle that I hear?” (14) which is the booty of the Amalekites. Samuel, effectively saying, “And what part of ‘utterly destroy’ don’t you understand, Saul?,” chastises the king for not destroying the Amalekites by sparing their king and keeping the spoils of war. Saul attempts to use religion to justify his actions, telling Samuel that he “took sheep and cattle, the best of the things devoted to destruction, to sacrifice to the Lord your God in Gilgal.” (21) But notice the giveaway: Saul says “the Lord your God,” i.e., Samuel’s God. Saul has in effect once again set himself above God and acted accordingly. Something I do all the time…

This time, Saul’s disobedience to the clear orders of God has devastating consequences as Samuel pronounces the king’s doom:
Because you have rejected the word of the Lord,
he has also rejected you from being king.” (15:23)

Again and again the theme of the OT is that strict obedience in every jot and tittle of the Law  is God’s expectation—especially of Israel’s king. Saul is all of us as we rationalize so many of our actions that are in fact disobedience to God’s clear word.

John 2:12–25: Once again we encounter a significant difference between this gospel and the Synoptics. In the other gospels, Jesus cleanses the temple during his last week in Jerusalem. Here, much earlier in the story, Jesus made a whip and drives the sheep and cattle (not the moneychangers as some assume) out of the temple. Jesus demands a very clear division between commerce and worship: “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” (16). This is something televangelists would do well to remember when they ask for donations and live wealthy lifestyles. I’m talking about you, Creflo Dollar, Joel Osteen, and your ilk.

The disciples “remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” (17) and the Jews ask for a sign. Jesus answers, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” (19). The Jews place him for a fool, observing it’s taken 46 years to build the temple. But John, ever helpful, tells us that “he was speaking of the temple of his body.” John also helpfully points out that “after he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this.” (22) Unlike the Synoptics, ever helpful John does not make us guess about Jesus’ many ambiguous statements.

What’s interesting here—and again quite different than the Synoptics—is that Jesus effectively begins his ministry in Jerusalem during Passover, not in Galilee. And he gathers followers there as “many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing.” (23) But Jesus would not become their leader even though—or perhaps because, “he himself knew what was in everyone.” (24) Once again, John presents Jesus in a much more straightforward manner as the embodiment of God than the more gradual build-up to his divinity that we see in the Synoptics.

Psalm 109:1–7; 1 Samuel 14:1–40; John 2:1–11

Originally published 9/22/2016. revised and updated 9/22/2018.

Psalm 109:1–7: This is a highly personal psalm of supplication and we can well imagine King David praying this psalm (even if he didn’t write it). The root cause of this prayer is slander being hurled against him:
God of my praise, do not be silent.
For the wicked’s mouth, the mouth of deceit,
has opened against me,
they spoke to me with lying tongue
. (1b, 2)

Like insects, these “words of hatred swarmed around me” (3a), while David asserts the accusations are without foundation: “they battle me for no cause.” (3b)

The slander is even harder to take because not only does David believe he is innocent of the accusations, up to this point the accusers have been his friends:
In return for my love they accuse me,
though my prayer is for them
. (4)

There are fewer greater causes of despair than to feel betrayed and beaten down by someone we believed to be our friend—or even our lover.

This sense of betrayal becomes even more intense in the assertion that these former friends have reciprocated his love with hatred:
And they offer me evil in return for good
and hatred in return for my love.
 (5)

I have never been slandered but there have been a few times in a relationship where I think I’m being loving only to have the object of my love return my efforts with calumny. Perhaps some reflection on my part—as well as the psalmist’s—is called for. Have I really truly loved that person or have I been deceiving myself?

At verse 6, the point of view shifts as the accusers begin speaking and we get to actually hear the slander itself:
Appoint a wicked man over him,
let an accuser stand at his right
. (6)

This verse communicates the sense that his accusers have said, “See you in court,” and then proceed to ensure he does not receive a fair trial:
When he is judged, let him come out guilty,
and his prayer be an offense
. (7)

In fact, the accusers want to follow the old saw, “Give the guilty bastard a fair trial and then hang him.” But even worse are the accusers desire for God to take their side and recognize that David’s prayers are offensive to God. It’s one thing to be unjustly accused; it’s quite another to be told God won’t listen to David’s prayers because he’s been a hypocrite.

1 Samuel 14:1–40: Doubtless tired of being in hiding, Saul’s son, Jonathan, decides to see if he can mount an attack on the Philistines. He and his armor-bearer sneak out of camp and head to the Philistine garrison. Jonathan believes that “it may be that the Lord will act for us; for nothing can hinder the Lord from saving by many or by few.” (6) The test to see if God will act in their favor is simple: When the Philistines see them and if they say, “‘Come up to us,’ then we will go up; for the Lord has given them into our hand. That will be the sign for us.” (10)

Sneaking in on their hands and feet, the two men take out about 20 Philistines. God would seem to be on their side.  Jonathan’s action “creates panic in the [Philistine] camp, in the field, and among all the people; the garrison and even the raiders trembled;” (15a) As if in proof of God approving of this sortie, “the earth quaked; and it became a very great panic.” (15b)

Seeing this commotion from a distance, Saul’s army suddenly materializes, coming out of hiding, and Israel joins in the battle Jonathan initiated: “So the Lord gave Israel the victory that day.” (23) Sensing potential victory, Saul rashly commands that “Cursed be anyone who eats food before it is evening and I have been avenged on my enemies.” (24) The troops obey him, “But Jonathan had not heard his father charge the troops with the oath” (27) and proceeds to dip his staff into a honeycomb and eat. When a soldier points out that the troops have not eaten Jonathan astutely observes, My father has troubled the land; see how my eyes have brightened because I tasted a little of this honey. How much better if today the troops had eaten freely of the spoil taken from their enemies.” (29)

The starving troops take all kinds of animals, slaughter them and eat them along with their blood, which of course is ritually unclean. Saul gives the order for everyone to bring their animals to a central spot where he builds an altar “to the Lord.” The lesson here is one that rings down through the centuries: soldiers must be fed if they are to perform at their best. I’m fascinated to find this basic rule right here in the Bible.

Ever acting in too much haste, Saul decides they should attack the Philistines in a night raid, but the priest suggests they consult with God first. Saul directly questions God: “Shall I go down after the Philistines? Will you give them into the hand of Israel?” (37) But God remains silent. Saul is convinced the silence is due to an as yet unconfessed sin. Again, he speaks before thinking: “For as the Lord lives who saves Israel, even if it is in my son Jonathan, he shall surely die!” (39) But the troops remain silent. The tension at this point is palpable.

The lesson seems obvious: Think before speaking, especially when you’re making vows before God. Our culture does not take vows quite as seriously, I fear, although our political leader is certainly given to making intemperate statements on Twitter.

John 2:1–11: Jesus, his mother Mary, and his new disciples attend a wedding in Cana. Mary points out to Jesus that “They have no wine.” (3) No matter how I look at it, Jesus’ reply to his sainted mother seems brusque, even rude: “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” (4) However, Mary knows her son well and feels he will indeed act as she tells the servants “Do whatever he tells you.” (5) Jesus promptly turns the water in six twenty to thirty gallon stone jugs into fine wine.

This miracle is not recorded in the synoptics and once again it is fraught with symbolism. Yes, the wedding guests get good wine to drink, but for our gospel writer John the larger meaning is that the miracle is a sign of Jesus’ transformative power. If he can change water into wine, reflect for a moment what he can—and is about to—do with human beings. Moreover, this transformation has a single direction: from the mundane to the best. When our lives are transformed through Jesus they will be far greater than before.

Of course this miracle also includes the two great symbols of Christianity: the water of baptism and the wine representing Jesus’ blood that has been shed for us.

John seems to suggest that Jesus performed this miracle to convince his disciples that he is who they think he is: the Messiah. “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” (11) For John, Jesus’ disciples know from the outset exactly who Jesus is. There are none of the questions and doubts we encounter among the disciples we meet in the Synoptics.

 

 

Psalm 108:7–14; 1 Samuel 13; John 1:43–51

Originally published 9/21/2016. revised and updated 9/21/2018.

Psalm 108:7–14: The tone of the psalm abruptly shifts from thanksgiving to supplication as our poet pleads,
that Your beloved ones be saved,
rescue with Your right hand, answer me.
 (7)

He recalls that “God once spoke in His holiness:” (8a) and then proceeds to quote much of Psalm 60—a catalog of places in Israel God has blessed—speaking in God’s voice:
Let me exult and share out Shechem,
and the valley of Sukkoth I shall measure.
Mine is Gilead, Mine Manasseh,
and Ephraim My foremost stronghold,
Judah my scepter. (8b, 9)

Likewise, the places God has cursed as the poet continues writing in God’s voice:
Moab is my washbasin,
upon Edom I fling my sandal,
over Philistia I shout exultant. (10)

But then we hear the poet’s frustrated cry, indicating that the present straits are dire indeed:
Have You not, O God, abandoned us?
You do not sally forth, O God, with our armies.
 (12)

At this point the psalm becomes a foxhole prayer. The men of Israel’s army have tried everything on their own, now in desperation they finally turn to God for aid: “\
Give us help against the
foe when rescue by man is in vain.
 (13)

But notice the prayer is not for some kind of divine intervention or miracle so much as it is for God to renew their downtrodden spirit:
Through God we shall gather strength,
and He will stamp out our foes.
 (14)

I think the key here is that when we are besieged on all sides, we turn to God for the strength of will to forge onward. Too often, though, our prayers are for God to do some sort of divine intervention for us. Like our psalmist, we should be praying for God to renew our own strength and courage for the task ahead.

1 Samuel 13: Saul’s kingly career appears to be dedicated to fighting the Philistines. He winnows his army down in 3000—2000 under his command, 1000 under his son Jonathan’s—in order to include only the best fighters. Saul is confident and “the rest of the people he sent home to their tents.” (2) However, the Philistines have the technological advantage of 30,000 chariots and 6,000 horsemen, as well as “troops like the sand on the seashore in multitude.” (5) All of Israel around Gilgal are under siege and “the people hid themselves in caves and in holes and in rocks and in tombs and in cisterns.” (6) Those in the army still following Saul were also trembling in fear. Over-confident Saul has made a severe strategic error.

Saul waits seven days for Samuel to arrive to make a sacrifice as he was instructed by the old judge to do. But Saul is impatient and sees that his troops are deserting him. So he takes it upon himself offers a burnt sacrifice without Samuel present. Samuel shows up almost immediately afterward and asks,  “What have you done?” (11) Saul rather lamely explains that his troops were deserting him and he had to act to make sure he had God’s favor. Samuel chastises him, “You have done foolishly; you have not kept the commandment of the Lord your God, which he commanded you.” (13)

Saul pays a heavy price for his impetuousness as Samuel tells him that a dynasty arising from his line will not happen: “now your kingdom will not continue; the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart;” (14a) God has decided on another (and we know who!) through which the dynasty will continue: the Lord has appointed him to be ruler over his people, because you have not kept what the Lord commanded you.”  (14) And of course it is that dynasty out of which Jesus will come. Saul pays a heavy price to pay for his impatience.

Saul is down to a mere 600 troops and they endure three raids by the Philistines. To ensure that Israel could not arm itself, the Philistines had banned blacksmiths: “There was no smith to be found throughout all the land of Israel,” (19) And they forced the people to go “down to the Philistines to sharpen their plowshares, mattocks, axes, or sickles.” (20) [Our authors even helpfully provide us with the price list for these service!] “So on the day of the battle neither sword nor spear was to be found in the possession of any of the people with Saul and Jonathan.” (22) Only Saul and Jonathan have swords and spears.

Things are not looking good for Israel.

I can really sympathize with Saul as he waits for seven days and watches his once-strong army desert him. I think I’d take matters into my own hands just as he did. But acting too hastily and attempting to control events can have dire consequences as Saul found out to his sorrow. So, yes, I should wait patiently as things develop. But like Saul, it’s tempting to act on our own when God continues to be silent.

John 1:43–51: In the Synoptics Jesus is already at Capernaum in Galilee when he meets Peter. However, in John that encounter apparently happened in Bethsaida and our writer tells us that Philip is also from “the city of Andrew and Peter.” (44)

Social networking is hardly a new phenomenon, and it’s Philip who “found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” (45) Nathaniel, in a wonderfully cynical statement asks, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (46) Rather than answer, Philips simply invites his friend to, “Come and see.”

Philip is a great lesson for all of us. It is not theological or philosophical arguments that bring people to Jesus. Nor can we convince them or change their lives. Rather, our duty is to invite; to ask someone to “come and see” for themselves. That’s when the Holy Spirit takes over.

As Nathaniel approaches Jesus, whom he has never met, Jesus exclaims, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathaniel logically wonders how Jesus knew him well enough to make that assertion and asks, “Where did you get to know me?” (48) Jesus replies he saw him off in the distance under the fig tree with Philip. This insight causes Nathaniel to become an instant convert for he has truly come and truly seen: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (49) Jesus assures him that he “will see greater things than these.” (50)

As will invariably be the case through the book, our gospel writer is writing at both the narrative and symbolic levels. Yes, there’s a physical encounter between Jesus and Nathaniel, but Nathaniel is also the symbolic stand-in for everyone who asks cynically who this Jesus is and when they encounter him—when they ‘come and see’—their lives are changed forever.

Psalm 108:1–5; 1 Samuel 11,12; John 1:29–42

Originally published 9/20/2016. revised and updated 9/20/2018.

Psalm 108:1–6: The first verses of this David psalm [which Alter points out are essentially the same as Psalm 57] suggest personal worship as the poet intones,
My heart is firm, O God.
Let me sing and hymn
with my inward being, too
. (2)

True worship requires the participation of our entire being, not just rote outward language and form. Unless our heart is fully engaged our singing and praying is mere play-acting.

This psalm certainly reinforces the image of David as musician:
Awake, O lute and lyre.
I would waken the dawn.
 (3)

[Which seems highly appropriate as I write this at 6:10 a.m. while it is still dark outside…]

From our engaged inner being, our act of worship spreads outward to others. For the poet writing in David’s voice, that would be everybody in his kingdom—and beyond:
Let me acclaim You among the peoples, Lord.
Let me hymn You among the nations.
 (4)

Evangelism and witness do not occur in isolation; they can only happen as an outcome of our entire being enveloped in a worshipful relationship with God.

We can celebrate this relationship with all beings because God’s mercy suffuses creation in its entirety:
For Your kindness is great over the heavens,
and Your steadfast truth to the skies. (5)

The psalm places God in his usual location, up in heaven looking down on his glorious creation:
Loom over the heavens, O God.
Over all the earth Your glory. (6)

1 Samuel 11,12: Nahash the Ammonite is on a rampage and besieges the Israelites at Jabest. The inhabitants of that town attempt to surrender peacefully, but the Ammonite king asserts, “On this condition I will make a treaty with you, namely that I gouge out everyone’s right eye, and thus put disgrace upon all Israel.” (11:2) The elders ask for a 7-day cease-fire so messengers can go to the rest of Israel and seek help.

Saul gets the message and “the spirit of God came upon Saul in power when he heard these words, and his anger was greatly kindled.” (11:6) In his anger he slaughters a yoke of oxen and sends the pieces throughout all Israel—reminiscent of the Levite who cut up his dead concubine and sent a piece to each tribe. Apparently this was a dramatic way of getting the word out that people are serious.  Saul sends the oxen steaks all throughout Israel, along with the threat to anyone who will not join in attacking the Ammonites will enjoy a fate just like the oxen. “Then the dread of the Lord fell upon the people, and they came out as one,” (7) and an army of 370,000 presents itself to Saul.

Hearing this, the inhabitants of Jabesh send word to the Ammonites that they’ll give up the next day. But instead of surrender, the Israelite army appears and slaughters the Ammonites. The people want to put the few Ammonite survivors to death, but Saul, truly a man of God at this point, says “No one shall be put to death this day, for today the Lord has brought deliverance to Israel.” (11:13) Having proved his leadership, Saul is officially crowned king of Israel.

Samuel realizes that his time is over and that Saul is fully in charge. He asks the people if he’s done anything wrong or taken anything that is not his during the many years he has judged Israel. The people respond, “You have not defrauded us or oppressed us or taken anything from the hand of anyone.” (12:4) This establishes his unassailable credibility for what he is about to tell them.

Samuel wants the people to fully understand the cost of rejecting God’s rule through the judges and crowning a king instead. Samuel  recapitulates the history of Israel and the many times they rejected God, but that God was merciful and how preserved them from the time when Jacob went down to Egypt to the recent victory over the Ammonites.

To prove that the people have done a wicked thing in rejecting God in favor of Saul, Samuel says God will send thunder and rain on the day of the wheat harvest. Which is exactly what happens. The people confess their evil, asking Samuel to “pray to the Lord your God for your servants, so that we may not die; for we have added to all our sins the evil of demanding a king for ourselves.” (12:19) Samuel replies that God will have mercy on them as long as they do not turn away from God. Further, he says, “do not turn aside after useless things that cannot profit or save, for they are useless.” (21)

Which is excellent advice to us as well: loving and obeying God is our highest priority. Yet we, Like Israel, find it so easy to be distracted by things such as seeking wealth or power or status that seem more important in the moment but that never are.

Samuel’s last words hang in the air down through the centuries of Israel’s checkered history under kings ranging from excellent to abysmal: “Only fear the Lord, and serve him faithfully with all your heart; for consider what great things he has done for you.” (24) But it is his final sentence that predicts exactly what ultimately happened: “But if you still do wickedly, you shall be swept away, both you and your king.” (12:25) —As our authors writing from exile in Babylon know all too well.

John 1:29–42: John’s description of Jesus’ baptism is theologically rich. First, in a direct quote from Isaiah, John announces, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (29), which is exactly the overarching theme of this Gospel. Even though they were second cousins, John did not apparently know Jesus before this time and asserts that his ministry of baptism existed solely “that he [the Messiah] might be revealed to Israel.” (31)

John has received a vision that says that ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ (33) For this gospel writer there is no voice speaking from heaven, rather it is John who says, “I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” (34) Once again, our writer reasserts the theme: Jesus is the Lamb of God, who is also the Son of God, who has come to rescue all humankind.

Unlike the Synoptics, John the Baptist remains on the scene, “standing with two of his disciples.” (35) Jesus walks by and John once again (in case we missed it the first time) exclaims, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” (36) And two of John’s disciples decide to follow Jesus instead instead of John. Once again, our writer is making it clear that John was the messenger; Jesus is the Messiah.

Jesus asks the two new recruits, “What are you looking for?” (38) The answer is they want to know where Jesus is staying. Jesus’ famous reply is, “Come and see.” (39) This being the Gospel of John, virtually every word Jesus says is operating at two levels: the physical and the theological. Jesus’ answer is not about where he is residing, but it is exactly Jesus’ invitation to all of us: we are to come and see what Jesus has done, is doing, for us.

It is Andrew who has recruited his brother Simon to “come and see” when he excitedly tells his brother, “We have found the Messiah.“(41) This realization is in great contradistinction to the Synoptic accounts where it takes essentially being with Jesus for three years for the disciples realize that Jesus actually is the promised Messiah.

Simon, whom Jesus has never met, appears before Jesus, who already knows his name ” telling him, “You are Simon son of John.” (42). Just as Jesus know our names. All we need to do is “come and see.” And just as Jesus gave Simon a new name—Peter— Jesus transforms us as well. We may not have a new name, but our gospel writer is telling us that we become new persons when we enter into relationship with Jesus.

 

Psalm 107:33–43; 1 Samuel 10; John 1:14–28

Originally published 9/19/2016. revised and updated 9/19/2018.

Psalm 107:33–43: In the deuteronomic culture that was Israel and Judah, the terms of the covenant were always crystal clear. Abandon God and he will abandon them, canceling  the elements of prosperity—even nature itself—as a consequence:
He turns rivers into wilderness
and springs of water into thirsty ground,
fruitful land into salt flats,
because of the evil of those who dwell there
. (33, 34)

Conversely, obedience renders blessing:
He turns wilderness to pools of water,
and parched lands to springs of water,
and settles there the hungry,
firmly founds a settled town.
 (35, 36)

And in that happy, God-fearing agrarian society,
…they sow fields and they plant vineyards,
which produce a fruitful yield.
 (37)

This fecundity extends to that most valuable proof of being blessed by God: progeny:
And He blesses them and they multiply greatly,
and their beasts He does not let dwindle.
 (38)

Nevertheless, even among this happiness, there is always the underlying theme of the rich and powerful oppressing the weak and poor. Our psalmist writes how God will hand them the consequences of their oppression in due time:
He pours contempt upon the princes,
and makes them wander in trackless waste.
 (40)

They will receive what they have handed out when they are captured by their enemies: And they dwindle and are bowed down,
from harsh oppression and sorrow
. (39)

Once again there is symmetry. As the princes “bow down,” the weak and powerless will be lifted up:
And He raises the needy from affliction,
and increases his clans like flocks.
 (41)

This neverending tension between the powerful and the weak is the underlying moral of this psalm:
Let the upright see and rejoice,
and all wickedness shut its mouth.
 (42)

The psalmist concludes not too subtly,
He who is wise will watch these
and take to heart the Lord’s kindnesses.
” (43)

Although I believe life is far more complex than this simple good-bad/ blessing-suffering symmetry, the final verse is one we can take to heart in our fallen world today.  As Jesus reminds us in one of hs final parables, only by watching and staying alert we will perceive God’s love—and God’s justice.

1 Samuel 10: Samuel anoints Saul with oil, and announces, “The Lord has anointed you ruler over his people Israel. You shall reign over the people of the Lord and you will save them from the hand of their enemies all around.” (1) But that single act is not necessarily persuasive to Saul that he’s king. To prove the legitimacy of what Samuel has done, the old prophet makes three predictions about who Saul will meet, what they’ll have with them—among other things, a person carrying bread and wine— and what will be said. The most dramatic of these encounters is with the prophets who are in a “prophetic frenzy.” Samuel tells Saul he will be caught up in the same frenzy: “Then the spirit of the Lord will possess you, and you will be in a prophetic frenzy along with them and be turned into a different person.” (6) Saul is then to meet up with Samuel seven days hence when the prophet appears.

As Saul leaves Samuel, “God gave him another heart; and all these signs were fulfilled that day.” (9)  This is a great reminder that an encounter with God and Jesus Christ is life-transforming. We come away with a “new heart.” The question of course is, in the long run will we turn out like Saul or like David?

Saul returns home. His uncle asks, “Tell me what Samuel said to you.” (15). Saul tells him everything except “about the matter of the kingship, of which Samuel had spoken, he did not tell him anything.” (16) Why not? Probably because his uncle would think Saul to be insane. But there’s a larger reason why Saul did not reveal his imminent kingship as the narrative returns to Samuel.

Samuel summoned the people to the Lord at Mizpah ” (17) and reminds them that they have rejected God’s protection even though God has led them from the wilderness to the promised land. To select the king, lots will be drawn. The lots narrow down to Saul’s family and “Saul the son of Kish was taken by lot.” (21) Of course the lottery has been rigged by God, who ensures that the lot falls upon Saul so that it appears he has been chosen at random and thus, it is God’s will rather than Samuel’s.

Saul is identified as king but he is nowhere to be found. Eventually he’s found hiding in the baggage and is brought forth as Samuel announces: “There is no one like him among all the people. And all the people shouted, “Long live the king!” (24)

But there will be no honeymoon for the new king. The plots begin early: “some worthless fellows said, “How can this man save us?” They despised him and brought him no present.” (27) Moreover, there’s a tough political situation with the Ammonites, whose king has been gouging out the right eye of all the Israelites on the other side of the Jordan. Saul faces enormous challenges ahead.

It’s almost as if God sets out right away to prove that Israel has made a poor choice in demanding a king rather than allowing God to speak and lead through the prophets and judges.

John 1:14–28: John wastes no time in articulating the weighty theology of the incarnation: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” (14) Further, John tells us, the Word is the instrument of God’s salvation which we have received as a gift: “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” (16) Our gospel writer then states the great distinction between the old covenant and the new: “The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (17) (Would that Paul could write so tersely!)

But perhaps John’s boldest statement is that Jesus is the sole evidence we have have been given that really tells us God is all about: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” (18) This would seem to be a direct reference to the theophany where Moses could see only God’s reflected glory. Now we will experience God head on through Jesus.

John moves into his narrative about John the Baptist—a far more complex story than the simplicity of the Synoptics. John the Baptist has apparently been brought before the temple authorities, who demand to know if he is the Messiah. John assures them he is not, but is rather the messenger announcing the arrival of the Messiah, which he substantiates by quoting Isaiah:

I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” (23)

The Pharisees challenge John about his effrontery, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” (25) But John simply responds that he merely baptizes with water and as for the one who is coming, “I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” (27) strongly suggesting that one will be the actual Messiah.

I see this passage as this gospel’s nativity story. The key here is that Jesus “birth” begins in heaven as the Word. The Word has been made flesh and is shortly to arrive on the scene. Although John doesn’t say so here, we can’t miss the implication that this person will be the Messiah.

John the Baptist is the John’s dramatic bridge from high theology to the man Jesus himself. The final verse of the reading brings us out of theological discourse and sets us down at a specific place and time where Jesus will be introduced to everyone: “This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.” (28)