Psalm 35:19–28; Nehemiah 4; Romans 3:19–31

Psalm 35:19–28: As happens so often in the psalms, voices and speech figure prominently. First we hear the “unprovoked enemies,” who “rejoice over me” (19) and then the psalmist tells us that “they do not speak peace/ and against the earth’s quiet ones plot deceit.” (20) Out of conspiratorial whispers the enemies begin shouting, as “They open their mouths wide against me./ They say, ‘Hurrah! Hurrah!…” (21)

But frustratingly, God seems to be silent as the poet pleads, “You, Lord, have seen, do not be mute.” In fact God seems to be asleep, as the psalmist says, “Rouse Yourself, wake for my cause/ my God and my Master…do not let them rejoice over me.” (23, 24) He asks God to silence his enemies, “Let them not say in their heart, / ‘Hurrah for ourselves.'” (25) The poet stands in the dock, as his enemies testify against him. But if God will but act, they will “don shame and disgrace” (26). And the poet’s supporters will finally be able to speak. And not just speak, but sing aloud, “May they sing glad and rejoice,/ who desire justice for me.” (27a)

The voices of the enemy have been drowned out by the voices that praise God, as the psalm ends with the friends saying, “Great is the Lord/ who desires His servant’s well-being.” (27b) And the psalmist himself can finally speak, praising God, “my tongue will murmur You justice,/ all day long Your praise.” (28)

Conspiracy, accusation, testimony, praise. All these in just these few verses–and all of them oral. In an era where little was written down, that was said and sung was of utmost importance. And the lesson for us is that regardless of all our other forms of written and electronic communication, what we speak aloud is still of utmost importance.

Nehemiah 4: Sanballat “was angry and greatly enraged, and he mocked the Jews” for their effrontery of attempting to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. His buddy, Tobiah the Ammonite, joins in, “That stone wall they are building—any fox going up on it would break it down!” (3). But Nehemiah and the Jews are resolute and pray, “turn their taunt back on their own heads,” (4)

But it’s a tough job as Judah observes, “The strength of the burden bearers is failing, and there is too much rubbish so that we are unable to work on the wall.” (10) And now enemies are plotting against them. BUt Nehemiah, brilliant leader that he is, reminds them that God is on their side, encouraging them, “Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your kin, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes.” (14).

The plot of their enemies has been foiled and new defensive measures are put in place, “half of my servants worked on construction, and half held the spears, shields, bows, and body-armor;” (16) and even “burden bearers carried their loads in such a way that each labored on the work with one hand and with the other held a weapon.” (17)

Even though they are beset by enemies, the project continues because Nehemiah does two things: (1) he trusts God to provide and protect and (2) he continues to be a brilliant leader, adapting to the situation and encouraging everyone involved in the work. Again, a terrific example of putting “feet” on one’s prayers: believing what God says and acting accordingly.

Romans 3:19–31: As Paul continues his argument that while legal circumstances may be different, every human–whether Jew or Greek–is ultimately under the same law. In short, “the whole world may be held accountable to God.” (19)

Now, he turns his argument to the righteousness of God, which has already “been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets” (21) and that it points directly at the person of Jesus Christ. But the brutal reality is that under this law, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God;” (23)–a verse I learned at an early age in a church where it was till fashionable to speak of one’s intrinsic sinfulness.

But God is merciful and wants a relationship with every human, so we “are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” (24).  But this gift has been bought at a high price: Jesus, “whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.” (25).

So, we are saved through Jesus’ atoning sacrifice (a concept that seems to come from Paul rather than out of Jesus’ mouth–at least as I read the Gospels). But we cannot boast that we’ve gotten salvation by our good deeds, our works. Indeed, “No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” (27, 28). Which seems like a verse Martin Luther would have clung to enthusiastically.

Nevertheless, even though we are saved through faith and not our good works, the law remains in force–but in a completely new and unexpected way through the atonement of Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, grace does not allow lawlessness. Sin may not abound. It remains the standard which defines our sinfulness.

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