Psalm 35:11–18; Nehemiah 2:11–3:32; Romans 3:3–18

Psalm 35:11–18: Our poet reflects on the too-often asymmetry of relationships; of how even when we do good for others, they repay our kindnesses with contempt when the shoe is on the other foot. First, there are those who simply lie about what happened: “Outrageous witnesses rose,/ of things I knew not they asked me.” (11) And, more directly, “They paid me back evil for good–/ bereavement for my very self.” (12)

He describes his personal sacrifices for them; how “when they were ill, my garment was sackcloth, / I afflicted myself with fasting” (13). And how, “I went about though mourning a mother,/ in gloom I was bent.” (14) Yet when affliction comes to our poet, they not only don;t return his favor, the mock him instead: “Yet when I limped, they rejoiced, and they gathered,/…against me,/ like strangers.” (15).

Not only no sympathy, but derision instead, “With contemptuous mocking chatter/ they gnashed their teeth against me.” (16). It is so bad that the psalmist feels even God, who clearly sees what’s going on, has abandoned him: “O Master, how long will You see it?” as he prays for rescue. And if God answers, the poet promises, “I shall acclaim You in a great assembly,/ in a vast crowd I shall praise You.” (18)

So, is this mere whining about how tough life is; about how unfair it all is? Does the poet have a legitimate case here? In the end, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that here in a few verses, the psalmist has directly and precisely reflected our own feelings. How often do I feel that my generous behavior toward someone else is ignored and worse, having given them bread they gave me a stone?  This is the brilliance of the Psalms: that basically every feeling I’ve ever felt has been recorded here millennia ago. There is truly nothing new under the sun. And in reading of the psalmist’s woes, I can find succor from my own troubles.

Nehemiah 2:11–3:32: Nehemiah, having arrived in Jerusalem, conducts a secret nighttime tour of the destroyed city walls. He has been careful not to tell anyone else “what my God had put into my heart to do for Jerusalem.” (2:12) He even lists all the people to whom he has not revealed his plan: “The officials did not know where I had gone or what I was doing; I had not yet told the Jews, the priests, the nobles, the officials, and the rest that were to do the work.” (2:16). Nehemiah is the perfect example of the wise and discreet man, who does not announce or brag beforehand what he plans to accomplish. And why I believe Nehemiah is an engineer: he carefully assesses the “on-the-ground” situation first in order to fully understand the nature of what will have to be done. He is a careful observer.

Only after Nehemiah understand sthe nature and the magnitude of the task does he go to others, telling them, ““You see the trouble we are in, how Jerusalem lies in ruins with its gates burned. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, so that we may no longer suffer disgrace.” (17) Only then does he reveal what God laid on his heart and how he has been diligently careful to obtain permission from King Artaxexes.

His listeners here Nehemiah’s plan and preparation, and respond enthusiastically, “Let us start building!” (18). Of course no project can be planned and accomplished without opposition and “Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official, and Geshem the Arab heard of it, they mocked and ridiculed us, saying, “What is this that you are doing? Are you rebelling against the king?” (19) Nehemiah replies that the project is God-ordained and for their mockery, they will “have no share or claim or historic right in Jerusalem.” (2:20)

Like Ezra, Chapter 3 describe by name, who accomplishes what. Again, this long list of peope and what they did is a testament to Nehemiah’s organizational skill and effective leadership. There are interesting little asides such as, “the Tekoites made repairs; but their nobles would not put their shoulders to the work of their Lord.” (3:5) and the fact that women were engaged in the work, as well: “Shallum son of Hallohesh, ruler of half the district of Jerusalem, made repairs, he and his daughters.” (3:12).

No detail is too small for Nehemiah, no contribution by anyone is overlooked. This list of the people involved demonstrates the generosity of his spirit. He gives credit where it is due–yet another mark of outstanding leadership–and a Biblical model for anyone, especially a leader in the church, who undertakes a project and generously does not claim it as strictly his own, but of God and many other people.

Romans 3:3–18: Paul continues grappling with human unfaithfulness–sin–and the faithfulness of God. But if God is all forgiving, and we are sinners, why not just leave it as the status quo ante and keep on sinning? After all, we’ll be forgiven, right? Paul poses the famous rhetorical question, ““Let us do evil so that good may come.” (3:8), answering it immediately, “Their condemnation is deserved.”

He then asks, “Are we any better off?” and then answers immediately, “No, not at all.” (9) He employs extensive quotes from Psalms 14, 5, 10, and 36 and then a quote form Isaiah to remind us that we are failed beings at heart: “There is no one who is righteous” on down to a perfect description of the human condition from Isaiah 59: “Their feet are swift to shed blood; /ruin and misery are in their paths, /and the way of peace they have not known.” (16-18)

Every person who believes in the intrinsic goodness of human nature and that, yes, we may occasionally fall off the straight and narrow, but our hearts and intentions are pure, needs to reflect on the overwhelming evidence form Scripture that Paul presents here. It’s as if Paul is saying that the real statement should be “Let us do evil so that evil may abound.” Alas, events all around us today continue to prove the truth of Paul’s point.

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