Psalm 74:18–23; Ecclesiastes 3:9–5:20; 2 Corinthians 11:16–33

Psalm 74:18–23: The psalmist comes back to his original plea, begging God to remember the insults that the enemies have made against him and his people: “Remember this: the enemy insulted, / a base people reviled Your name./…the band of Your lowly forget not forever.” (18, 19). It would be good if God remembered his Covenant with Israel, who are surely suffering: “Look to the pact,/ for the dark places of earth fill with groans of outrage.” (20)

Once again we encounter the major subtext of the OT: “Let not the poor man turn back disgraced./ Let the lowly and needy praise Your name.” Surely, the psalmist is arguing, the God who cares so deeply for the poor and suffering will not turn his back on those poor wretches.

The final verses are almost audacious as our poet is essentially telling God to get up and do something because God’s own honor is being mocked and insulted in the ever-increasing noise of his opponents: Arise, God, O plead Your cause./ Remember the insult to You by the base all day long.” (22) God needs to act before his voice is drowned out in “the din of those against You perpetually rising.” (23)

As is the case with so many psalms of supplication, we see that these prayers are the way to release strong emotion by effectively scolding God for his absence and/or inaction. They are pleas and always respectful, but also a reminder that God, being God, can pretty much whatever words we can hurl at him.

Ecclesiastes 3:9–5:20: The Moravians seem intent on rushing us through this often dark and brooding book. Our author is reflecting on how God has made men just a little lower than the angels. We’ve been given the curiosity, will, and desire to know and understand God, but we will never possess the ability to do so: “moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” (3:11) Our duty is to remember that “God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before him.” (3:14)

In fact, Qoheleth has a pretty dim view of human beings: “I said in my heart with regard to human beings that God is testing them to show that they are but animals.For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other.” (3:18, 19) The world is severely disordered and the powerful lord it over the weak form time immemorial: “I saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun. Look, the tears of the oppressed—with no one to comfort them! ” (4:1) even to the point that “the dead, who have already died, [are] more fortunate than the living,” (4:2)

He characterizes our American competitive work ethic and ceaseless striving to “get ahead” perfectly: “I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from one person’s envy of another. This also is vanity and a chasing after wind.” (4:4) Worst of all is if we choose to work alone without family or friends, those “solitary individuals, without sons or brothers; yet there is no end to all their toil, and their eyes are never satisfied with riches.” (4:7) –surely a pointed message to every workaholic. Recognizing that we are social creatures, there is a glimmer of hope when we work alongside a friend: “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help.” (4:9, 10) This is the benefit collegiality rather than one-to-one competition.

This theme leads to an essay on humility and contentment. The key requirement is not to say stupid or evil things (or in our social media age, to post them on Facebook): “Never be rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be quick to utter a word before God,…therefore let your words be few.” (5:2) We must keep our commitments, for “It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not fulfill it.” (5:5)

Perhaps the strongest message for this consumer-driven age is at 5:10: “The lover of money will not be satisfied with money; nor the lover of wealth, with gain. This also is vanity.” We think the rich are happier, but being subject to the same trials as the rest of us, they rarely are. Because in the end, “just as they came, so shall they go; and what gain do they have from toiling for the wind?” (5:16) and worst of all, they have effectively wasted their lives “in much vexation and sickness and resentment.” (5:17).

As I write here at the age of 68 I wonder how much of my life I have wasted in toiling for the wind? How many days were consumed by worry and striving and ignoring friends, trying to get ahead on my own? On the contrary, there is great pleasure to be found in work when we can align our work with our passion: “For [we] will scarcely brood over the days of [our] lives, because God keeps them occupied with the joy of [our] hearts.” (5:20)

2 Corinthians 11:16–33: Paul continues his long essay on how the Corinthians have accused him of insincerity and boasting of his accomplishments. Here, he decides that “since many boast according to human standards, I will also boast.” (18) He lists his Hebrew bona fides: “Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I. Are they ministers of Christ?” (22, 23) 

But perhaps the accusation that has made him angriest is that he was “weak” as he goes on to list the many sufferings he has endured–beatings, stonings, 40 lashes, beaten with rods, shipwrecks. He has encountered numerous dangers, which Paul, being Paul, he lists: “in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters;” (26) And outright physical suffering: “in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked,” (27) as well as “my anxiety for all the churches” (28)

Paul raises himself up and we can almost hear him shouting, “Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I am not indignant?” (29) He’s saying with the deepest possible irony, you think I’m weak; I’ll show you weak: “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.” (30) This passage, perhaps above all others, makes us wish we could have read the letter that resulted in this emotional response that shows us so much of Paul’s personality. He was righteous but never self-righteous.

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