Archives for July 2015

Psalm 90; Isaiah 58,59; Colossians 3:1–11

Psalm 90: This psalm–the only one dedicated to Moses–reflects on man’s ephemerality, the briefness of our lives compared to God, who lives outside of time.  The measures of time, days, months, years, resonate through the psalm. Peter surely had this psalm in mind when he wrote about a “thousand years is but a day,” for here our poet says, “For a thousand years in Your eyes /are like yesterday gone,/ like a watch in the night.” (4) By comparison, we humans are merely “like the grass that passes” (5) which “In the morning it sprouts and passes, by evening it withers and dies.” (6)

And most of our time on earth is “consumed in Your wrath,/ and in Your fury we are dismayed.” (7) because God, in his omniscience, sees  our wrongdoings, “You have set our transgressions before You.” Even our deepest secrets are known by God: “our hidden faults in the light of Your face.” (8) And alas, “our days slip away in Your anger. We consume our years like a sigh.” (9)

And we don’t have that many years allotted to us, as we read the lines that my friend Verl came to know so well at the end: “The days of our years are but seventy years, / and if in great strength, eighty years.” (10). Yet, the psalmist tells us, what we  experience most is “trouble and grief, and in the end, “swiftly cut down, we fly off.” (11)

Despair in this psalm is not about the brevity of our life–that is simply a fact–but that  so much of our lives is spent in the shadow of God’s anger. Thus, the psalmist’s plea: “Come back, O LORD! How long?—/and have pity on Your servants.” (13) And rather than standing in the shadow of God’s anger, the poet begs, “Sate us in the morn with Your kindness,/ let us sing and rejoice all our days.” (15)

The existential quality of this psalm is remarkable. As Christians, we know that through the intercession of Jesus Christ, we no longer stand in the shadow of God’s anger. Time and our lives pass just as swiftly for us as for the psalmist. But through God’s mercy we do not have to spend our lives worrying that God will always be angry with us. Indeed, “the sweetness of the Master our God [is] upon us.” (17)

Isaiah 58,59: Isaiah deals with false worship: “Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight/ and to strike with a wicked fist.” (58:4a), which is pointless: “Such fasting as you do today/ will not make your voice heard on high.” (4b) On the contrary, God (through Isaiah) asserts: “Is not this the fast that I choose:/ to loose the bonds of injustice,/ to undo the thongs of the yoke,/to let the oppressed go free,/ and to break every yoke?” (58:6) As always, God’s purpose in the OT is to ensure justice. Something we still don’t do very well today.

Nor is the requirement to bring justice just left in the abstract.  There are very specific instructions: “Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,/ and bring the homeless poor into your house;/when you see the naked, to cover them,/ and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” (58:7). These verses are a real challenge to me. I can rationalize all I want, but I am certainly deficient in carrying out these very clear instructions. Because as the implication is clear here, these are also the elements of true worship. and, as with the sabbath, “if you honor it, not going your own ways,/serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs;/ then you shall take delight in the Lord,” (58:14)

If chapter 58 is the reminder that we will be truly worshipping God if we help bring justice to the poor and oppressed, then chapter 59 is the warning of the consequence of injustice and oppression is separation from God: “Rather, your iniquities have been barriers/ between you and your God,/ and your sins have hidden his face from you/ so that he does not hear.”

Isaiah remarks of the cynical uses of the justice system in Judah:
No one brings suit justly,
       no one goes to law honestly;
   they rely on empty pleas, they speak lies,
       conceiving mischief and begetting iniquity.
   They hatch adders’ eggs,
       and weave the spider’s web;” (59:4,5a)
which certainly has a familiar ring when we reflect on the flaws and abuses in our own system of justice. And alas, what was true then is true today:
Therefore justice is far from us,
       and righteousness does not reach us;
   we wait for light, and lo! there is darkness;
       and for brightness, but we walk in gloom.” (59:9)

But when “The Lord saw it, and it displeased him/  that there was no justice” (15), God acts. “He put on righteousness like a breastplate,/ and a helmet of salvation on his head;” (Now we know the roots of the armor metaphor in Ephesians 6!) In the face of injustice, God “will come to Zion as Redeemer,/  to those in Jacob who turn from transgression,”. For us Christians, this is the promise that Jesus will bring justice, and now today, it is the church’s role to stand up and bring justice.

Colossians 3:1–11: The good news is that Christ has come and brought us new life: “When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.” (4) As Isaiah tells us that our responsibility is to bring societal justice, here Paul tells us that we are to set aside our self-centered, earthy habits–create personal justice, if you will: “ Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry).” (5) And like Isaiah, there is a clear warning: “ On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient.” (6). This of course is a reference to the final judgement–a topic about which I, at least, am most uncomfortable…

It is only when we have put away our self-centered behaviors that “In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!” (11) Notice the qualifier: “In that renewal.” Only then do we lose our specific racial and social identities and become one in Christ. I think we forget the very important fact that true equality comes only through turning our lives over to Jesus Christ–not through wishful thinking or even judicial decree.

Psalm 89:39–46; Isaiah 54,55; Colossians 1:28–2:10

Psalm 89:39–46: In this section, the psalmist directs some of the greatest anger toward God that we see anywhere in the Psalms. Accusation piles on accusation with the repetition of “You” hurled toward this angry, punishing God:

And You, You abandoned and spurned,
You were furious with Your anointed.
You canceled the pact of Your servant,
You profaned his crown on the ground.
You broke through all his walls,
You turned his forts into rubble. (39-41)

If we ever needed convincing that there’s nothing irreligious or heretical about being angry at God it is here this passage is our proof. Yes, our psalmist is saying, the heirs of David sinned, but your punishment, God, is undeserved orders of magnitude greater than the crime. Worst of all, the punishment seems to culminate in the one thing God said he would not do back in verse 34 (“My steadfast kindness I will not revoke for him”), which was to remain endlessly steadfast in his support of the house of David: “You put an end to his splendor,/ and his throne You hurled to the ground.” (45) And then the greatest accusation of all: “You enveloped him with shame.” (46)

Why this seeming contradiction on God’s part?  Were the sins of the house of David so immense that God would revoke his promise? [As we read the histories, we can see God’s point.] It seemed that there were no strings attached to the promise to the house of David. Yet, to the psalmist–and to us–it appears that God has gone back on his word. What gives?

Isaiah 54,55: In this beautiful passage so full of promise, Israel is compared to the “children of the desolate woman.” (54:1) Isaiah, speaking as the voice of God, promises, “Do not fear, for you will not be ashamed;/ do not be discouraged, for you will not suffer disgrace;” (54:4) because “your Maker is your husband,/ the Lord of hosts is his name;” (54:5)

What is fascinating here is that God admits his anger: “In overflowing wrath for a moment/ I hid my face from you,” but that anger is now replaced “with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,/ says the Lord, your Redeemer.” (54:8) God recalls his original promise to Noah and says here, “so I have sworn that I will not be angry with you/ and will not rebuke you.” (54:9) 

It’s impossible to read this passage in juxtaposition with today’s psalm and not be puzzled at the seeming contradiction. God says he will always keep his Covenant with us, but to the psalmist it certainly looks like he’s broken it. What gives? We need to remember that the psalmist is shaking his fist up at God and here, through Isaiah, God speaks down to us. So, there’s a different point of view here. One thing is clear: we’ll never fully fathom God.

In chapter 55, amidst all the wonderful promises,  there is even a direct reference to God’s covenant with David: “I will make with you an everlasting covenant,/my steadfast, sure love for David.” (55:3)

But rather than try to untangle that knot, this chapter is one to simply read, ponder and savor these famously beautiful verses:
   “For you shall go out in joy,
       and be led back in peace;
   the mountains and the hills before you
       shall burst into song,
       and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.” (55:12)

Colossians 1:28–2:10: Even though Paul has never been to Colossae, he uses his heartwarming words to try to convey how deeply he cares for these Christians, as well as those in Laodicea: “ I want their hearts to be encouraged and united in love, so that they may have all the riches of assured understanding and have the knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” (2:2)

I’m struck by Paul’s repeated references to “mystery,” which he clearly identifies as Christ himself. Moreover, “the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Christ.” It seems clear that Paul is saying that we discover wisdom and knowledge only over a period of time. When we become believers all things are not instantly revealed to us, even as much as we would like to know and understand everything right away.

Which is why I’m suspicious of those today who exude such confidence that they have Christ all figured, out and know exactly what God’s plans for us and for our culture are supposed to be. This is not just the people who predict the exact date of Jesus’ 2nd coming, but those who claim to speak for Jesus into the larger culture. As in Paul’s day, we need to greet these people with the utmost suspicion, remembering his warning, “I am saying this so that no one may deceive you with plausible arguments.” (2:4)

On thing I’m sure of, the world is still full of those who would “take you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.” (2:8) Unfortunately, too many of these people claim to be Christians or worse, they claim to have received a special insight from God. Paul’s point is that there is a mystery here. We will only perceive it through a glass darkly. (Which is also why I like the act of worship to convey some of that mystery.)


Psalm 89:31–38; Isaiah 51:17–53:12; Colossians 1:15–27

Psalm 89:31–38: The psalmist, still speaking in God’s voice, warns, “If his [David’s] sons forsake My teaching/ and do not go in My law,” (31) there will been appropriate punishment for their sins: “I will requite their crime with the rod,/ and with plagues, their wrongdoing.” (32)

This seems like the standard deuteronomic deal: sin and you’ll be punished. But then, immediately following this verse we read, “Yet my steadfast kindness I will not revoke for him,/ and I will not betray My faithfulness.” (34) David, being God’s anointed, gets special godly consideration: “I will not profane My pact…One thing I have sworn by My holiness–/that David I will not deceive.” (35,36)

God’s remarkable promise follows: “His [David’s] seed shall be forever–/ and his throne like the sun before Me,…” (38) In other words, no matter how badly David’s successors sin and no matter if they abandon God–and we know they excelled at both these–because of God’s particular love for ever-faithful David, God will remain faithful to the house of David. As Christians, of course, we see how this turned out–and why Jesus, being David’s heir, is the tangible sign of God’s unrelenting kindness and faithfulness promised here in these verses.

Isaiah 51:17–53:12: God promises to end Judah’s woes: “See, I have taken from your hand the cup of staggering;/you shall drink no more from the bowl of my wrath.” (51:22) And a new day will dawn in Jerusalem, again becoming Israel’s exclusive domain: “O Jerusalem, the holy city;/ for the uncircumcised and the unclean/ shall enter you no more.” (52:1)

Indeed, Isaiah tells us”
   “How beautiful upon the mountains
       are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
   who brings good news,
       who announces salvation,
       who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.
   for the Lord has comforted his people,
       he has redeemed Jerusalem.‘” (52:7, 9)

Not only the restoration of Jerusalem, the New Jerusalem, but the promise of God’s security:    “and you shall not go in flight;
   for the Lord will go before you,
       and the God of Israel will be your rear guard.” (52:12)

So, who will redeem Israel? We now arrive at the most famous verses in Isaiah: those describing the Suffering Servant.

First, we know the Servant is from God: “See, my servant shall prosper;/ he shall be exalted and lifted up,/ and shall be very high.” (52:13) And he will not be beautiful: “—so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance,” (52:14) Above all, “He was despised and rejected by others;/ a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;” (53:3)

And in the most intensely Christological verses in the OT, he has come to atone for our sins: “Surely he has borne our infirmities/ and carried our diseases; ” But we think he’s been rejected by God: “yet we accounted him stricken,/ struck down by God, and afflicted.” (53:4) 

The Suffering Servant is the unexpected sacrifice for our very own sins:
   “But he was wounded for our transgressions,
       crushed for our iniquities;
   upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
       and by his bruises we are healed.
   6 All we like sheep have gone astray;
       we have all turned to our own way,
   and the Lord has laid on him
       the iniquity of us all.” (53:5, 6)

It is impossible to read these verses and not realize the immensity of Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf. That he was,
   “like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
       and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
       so he did not open his mouth.” (53;7)

What I have not seen before in these verses that seem to so accurately depict Jesus’ death, is that we see his resurrection as well:
    “he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days;
   through him the will of the Lord shall prosper.
   Out of his anguish he shall see light;
   he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge.” (53:10b, 11a)

Jesus “bore the sin of many,/ and made intercession for the transgressors.” (53:12). Would that I can realize the magnificence and generosity of that act. Of course, to do that I must also realize the magnitude of my sins. And that is more difficult to do–especially surrounded by a culture that basically rejects the concept of personal sin and believes that somehow we are all victims rather than sinners.

Colossians 1:15–27: As in Philippians 2, Paul appears to be quoting an ancient hymn that summarizes the core realities of Jesus Christ beginning with his origins: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (15) to his power as joint Creator with God: “in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible” (16), as well as his consequent preeminence as the center of creation: “He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (17) That “all things hold together” in Christ is a tremendous promise in a world that seems to be flying apart. But like the sun at the center of the solar system, it stands firm while all things spin around it.

We can see the seeds of the Nicene Creed here:  “He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.” (18) and we see two aspects of the Trinity: “God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” (20) That’s as succinct a statement of the New Covenant as we can encounter anywhere.

Paul is now on the other side of Isaiah, as we see the outcome of what Jesus the Suffering Servant has done for us. We are cleansed and can stand before God as we rejoice in Paul’s immortal words: “he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him” (21)

That Jesus is who Isaiah predicted is the answer to the great mystery: “the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to his saints.” And best of all for the world, the mystery is revealed to all the world: “God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” (27) We could reflect long on the implications of “hope of glory,” but that hope is far greater than anything words could describe.

Psalm 89:19–29; Isaiah 49:22–51:16; Colossians 1:1–14

Psalm 89:20–30: The psalmist becomes prophet as he writes what God speaks: “Then did You speak in a vision / to Your faithful and did say:” (20) The speech is a reiteration of the Covenant as expressed in its apotheosis: the Godly anointing of King David.In these verses, David becomes the channel of the Covenant between God and Israel: “I found David My servant,/ with My holy oil anointed him.” (21)

As far as God is concerned, “No enemy shall cause him grief/ and no vile person afflict him.” (23). [Of course, the irony here is that David’s woes arise from his own actions, viz. his dalliance with Bathsheba.]  But as per the theme of the earlier sections that limn God’s qualities, “My faithfulness and My kindness are with him,/ and in My name his horn will be lifted.” (25) And David will become the ruler of an empire wherein “I shall put his hand to the sea/ and his right hand to the rivers.” (26)

In return, David remains faithful to God, which of course he did, and David “will call me: My father You are, / my God and the rock of my rescue.” (27) Then the promise, which we can read as pointing forward to Solomon, but also to Jesus: “I, too, shall make him My firstborn,/ most high among kings of the earth,” (28). God will keep his side of the Covenant through David’s offspring: “Forever I shall keep My kindness for him/ and my pact will be faithful to him.” (29) And then the promise that seems to point directly to Jesus: “And I shall make his seed for all time/ and his throne as the days of the heavens.” (30). Because while this promise certainly also applied to Solomon, we also know that his successors abandoned God did indeed “forsake My teaching.” (31) Only in Jesus d we see God’s eternal Covenant.

Isaiah 49:22–51:16: Isaiah describes Israel’s ultimate release from cthe aptivity to come and the eventual subjugation of their captors:
   “With their faces to the ground they shall bow down to you,
       and lick the dust of your feet.
   Then you will know that I am the Lord;
       those who wait for me shall not be put to shame.” (49:23)

And through this rescue, “Then all flesh shall know/ that I am the Lord your Savior,/ and your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.” (49:26) Isaiah also explains the reasons for the ordeal to come, and a rebuke to us today, as well, when we desert God for our small-g idols: “Why was no one there when I came?/ Why did no one answer when I called?” (50:2a) Like Israel, we presume God to be irrelevant at best and ineffectual at worst. As a result, “I clothe the heavens with blackness,/ and make sackcloth their covering.” (50:3)

Then an interlude, where Isaiah explains his role as God’s servant:
   “The Lord God has given me
       the tongue of a teacher,
   that I may know how to sustain
       the weary with a word.” (50:4)

Isaiah has been faithful to God –“I was not rebellious,/ I did not turn backward.” (50:5)– despite the personal humiliation he has suffered: “I did not hide my face/ from insult and spitting.” (50:6) Isaiah can withstand these personal insults because “The Lord God helps me;/ therefore I have not been disgraced;” (50:7). He challenges his oppressors in words that ring down through the centuries as Christians, even today, are martyred:
  “Who will contend with me?
      Let us stand up together.
  Who are my adversaries?
      Let them confront me.
   It is the Lord God who helps me;
       who will declare me guilty?” (50:8,9)
And then the challenge to us:
   “Who among you fears the Lord
       and obeys the voice of his servant,
   who walks in darkness
       and has no light,
   yet trusts in the name of the Lord
       and relies upon his God?” (50:10)

Because, as Isaiah declares in the next chapter, God is our deliverer and our comforter:
   “I, I am he who comforts you;
       why then are you afraid of a mere mortal who must die,
       a human being who fades like grass?” (51:12)

And he rescues us, as well: “The oppressed shall speedily be released;/ they shall not die and go down to the Pit, nor shall they lack bread.” So the question becomes, with these marvelous promises why did Israel persist in abandoning God. Or more to the point, why do we?

Colossians 1:1–14: As he did in his letter to the Philippians, Paul opens his letter to the church at Colossae with fulsome praise and thanks: “we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven.” (4,5). “We have heard” tells us that Paul never actually visited Colossae, but through the efforts of Epaphras, “our beloved fellow servant” (7) they “have heard of this hope before in the word of the truth, the gospel that has come to you.” (5b, 6) Best of all, just as the gospel “is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it and truly comprehended the grace of God.” (7b)

And it is Epaphras who has brought word back to Paul and “has made known to us your love in the Spirit.” (8)

I am struck by the phrase, “truly comprehended the grace of God” because it suggests that God’s grace is far greater than just something we feel or experience; it is something that we ultimately come to understand. All those words of Isaiah above are an effort to get Israel to understand that God is not only faithful, but that he is graceful.

Paul continues this theme of comprehension of grace in his wonderful words of encouragement that follow: “we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God. (9,10) Wow. wouldn’t it be incredible to have Paul say that about us?

In our culture today where feeling seems to trump understanding (or even listening) in virtually every sphere, it is wonderful to hear these words. That as my father said often, to be Christians, and to bear fruit, “we cannot leave our brains at the door.” And that above all, that without understanding what we believe, we cannot comprehend grace, and therefore we cannot we bear fruit.


Psalm 89:1–18; Isaiah 48:7–49:21; Philippians 4:14–23

Psalm 89:1–19: The joyful opening verses of this psalm are a strong contrast to the darkness of the preceding psalm. [One wonders of the editors juxtaposed these psalms to prevent the reader from descending into despondency.] The first section celebrates two wonderful aspects of God: his kindness and his faithfulness: “For I said: forever will kindness stand strong,/ in the heavens You set Your faithfulness firm.” (3) The covenant is proof of this faithfulness, specifically to King David: “I have sealed a pact with my chosen one,/ I have sworn David my servant.” (4) [We sense a whiff of Christological succession via the house of David: “Forevermore I shall make your seed stand firm,/ and make your throne stand strong for generations.” (5) ]

Following this introduction, the psalmist continues to notes God’s faithfulness: “And the heavens will proclaim Your wonder, o Lord,/ Your faithfulness, too….” (6) And again at verse 9: “Your faithfulness round You.” Here, God has not abandoned anyone. This is truly a psalm of worship and adoration.

The next section celebrates God’s preeminence in all creation in the famous lines, “The world and its fullness, You founded them./ The north and the south, You created them. We also glimpse the roots of God’s faithfulness as “Justice and law are the base of Your throne./ Steadfast kindness and truth go before Your presence.” (16)

Kindness, faithfulness, justice, truth: these are the qualities of God that suffuse the OT despite the popular image of an angry or missing God. Those who see only the angry God of the OT are missing a lot.

Isaiah 48:7–49:21:

 The Lord loves him;
    he shall perform his purpose on Babylon,
    and his arm shall be against the Chaldeans.
15 I, even I, have spoken and called him,
    I have brought him, and he will prosper in his way. (48:14, 15)

As much as I would like to think these lines refer to the Messiah, they seem to be a direct reference to Cyrus the Mede. Isaiah, speaking in God’s voice, berates Israel for its sins that have brought them to captivity in Babylon with the usual deuteronomic formulation: “O that you had paid attention to my commandments!/ Then your prosperity would have been like a river,” (48:18) But now, when they are free, they are to “Go out from Babylon, flee from Chaldea,/ declare this with a shout of joy, proclaim it,/ send it forth to the end of the earth;” (48:20) The message to us: Like Jesus’ widow, who rejoiced upon finding what was lost, we, too, must rejoice greatly at what has been done for us.

And by contrast, in this famous line, “‘There is no peace,’ says the Lord, ‘for the wicked.'” (48:22)

In the next chapter, Isaiah intervenes with an autobiographical note, describing how he was called in these memorable lines:

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. (49:2)

And Isaiah’s mission is clear and simple, if daunting: to speak to Israel now “deeply despised, abhorred by the nations,/ the slave of rulers,” (7) that through this prophet,

“Kings shall see and stand up,
    princes, and they shall prostrate themselves,
because of the Lord, who is faithful,
    the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.” (49:7b)

And then, God’s great promise of return and that “ the Lord has comforted his people,/ and will have compassion on his suffering ones.? Even when we think God has abandoned us [But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me,/ my Lord has forgotten me.” (14)] God is this there as Isaiah reminds us in this tender metaphor: “Can a woman forget her nursing child,/or show no compassion for the child of her womb? We see the faithfulness of God that our psalmist celebrates in this simple verse: “Even these may forget,/ yet I will not forget you.” (15)

Can we ask anything more in our own despondency and sense that we are alone? This promise stands firm. We may think we have been abandoned, but that feeling of abandonment arises out of our despair. God is always at our side.

Philippians 4:14–23:  Unlike the underlying frustration that we see in Paul when he concludes other epistles, here we see Paul’s winsome praise for the generosity of the Philippians on full display: “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 again, “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)

The church at Phillipi has remembered what too many churches today forget: generosity of spirit–and tangible gifts–that goes far beyond the own needs of the community.

Psalm 88:13–18; Isaiah 44:24–45:25; Philippians 3:12–4:1

Psalm 88:13–18: The psalmist gets down to brass tacks, making the logical observation that if God desires worship as Creator, but then consigns his worshipper–the poet– to Sheol, how “will Your wonder be known in the darkness,/ Your bounty in the land of oblivion?” (13)

Then, the psalmist notes how faith he’s been, “As for me–to You, Lord, I shouted,/ and in morn my prayer would greet you.” (14) So,why God won’t at least return the quid pro quo? “Why, Lord, do You abandon my life,/ do You hide Your face form me?” (15) This seems a fair point. Throughout the OT, there’s the deuteronomic Covenant: If we follow God, he will watch over us. Here, the rules of the covenant seem to have been broken by God himself.

Now, the psalmist becomes downright accusatory. This is certainly no loving God who follows the psalmist through the valley of the shadow of death: “I have borne Your terrors, I am fearful,/ Over me Your rage has passed,/ Your horrors destroy me.” (16b, 17). God’s horrors “surround me like water all day long/ they encircle me completely.” (18) And unlike most supplication psalms, it ends in despair and accusation: “You distanced lover and neighbor from me. My friends–utter darkness.” (19)

What are we to make of this psalm? For me, it seems we can descend to such anger and despair that we accuse God of our every woe. And that some prayers of desperation seem to go unanswered. This is certainly not the God of the saccharine and sentimental sayings we find on sympathy cards.

Isaiah 44:24–45:25: In this remarkable passage, Isaiah positions Cyrus the Mede, who conquered Babylon, and thereby ended the Jewish captivity as the instrument of the Jewish God.

First, Isaiah establishes who is the greatest, which of course is God: “I am the Lord, who made all things,/ who alone stretched out the heavens,/ who by myself spread out the earth;” (44:24) Then, there’s the clear hierarchy that God is greater than any king. Cyrus, even though he does not know it, is subordinate to God, and will be God’s instrument: “[God], who says of Cyrus, “He is my shepherd,/ and he shall carry out all my purpose.” Cyrus will be the means by which God will restore Jerusalem: “and who says of Jerusalem, “It shall be rebuilt,” and of the temple, “Your foundation shall be laid.” (44:28)

Then, according to Isaiah, God uses Cyrus to carry out God’s plan: “Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus,/whose right hand I have grasped” (45:1) Moreover, God promises Cyrus assistance, “I will go before you/ and level the mountains,/ I will break in pieces the doors of bronze/ and cut through the bars of iron.” (45:2) The promise also includes wealth: “I will give you the treasures of darkness/ and riches hidden in secret places.” Ultimately, Isaiah writes, must come the realization by Cyrus that God is behind his success: “so that you may know that it is I, the Lord,/ the God of Israel, who call you by your name. ” (45:3) The remainder of this passage describes the relationship between God and Cyrus, and the futile efforts of Babylon and its idols to resist being conquered.

Isaiah uses the story of Cyrus as a means to clarify that for Israel, it is God who directs every moment of history. Many today tend to do the same by positioning the US, like Cyrus, as God’s special emissary. I’m personally not convinced, But at its heart, I think the real purpose of this passage is to make it clear that whatever happens, our role is to worship and rejoice that God is in charge of our lives: “In the Lord all the offspring of Israel/ shall triumph and glory.” (45:25)

Philippians 3:12–4:1: Paul launches one of his memorable sports metaphors: that life in Christ is like a race, a process: “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” (14). This is a reminder to all of us that the Christian life is a process; it is dynamic, ever-changing. As we engineers would put it, being a Christian is not a static state. Too many believe once they are “saved” they can just go on with their lives as before. These people receive only Paul’s contempt: “Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things.” (19)

By following Christ, we are no longer citizens of the world, “but our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” (20) Christ will have his way with us: He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.” (3:21)

In other words, as Oswald Chambers repeatedly reminds us, becoming a citizen of heaven requires abandoning our self-centered pleasures, our world, and above all, our desire to retain control, and turning everything over to Christ. But as Paul puts it, this is an unrelenting process of “stand[ing] firm in the Lord in this way.” (4:1) Far easier said than done. At least for me.

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

Psalm 88:6–12: These verses are among the most compelling descriptions of personal suffering and abandonment by God that we find in the Psalms. We can almost see the poet standing or kneeling raising his outstretched arm and 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 has he been consigned to hell, but God is not quite finished with him–neither personally  “Your wrath lay hard upon me.” (8) nor socially: “You distanced my friends from me,/ You made me disgusting to them.” (9) He sees himself as hopelessly trapped: “imprisoned, I cannot get out.” (9b)

We hear his anguish at God’s unfair treatment. After all, “I called on You, Lord, every day./ I stretched out to You my palms.” (10) But God has not listened to his pleas and now he is near death.

So, the poet challenges God: “Will You do wonders for the dead?/ Will Your kindness be told in the grave?” This 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 God. Our psalmist is asking God to answer the existential question, “if You want us to worship you, what’s the point of casting us out of your presence by sending us to the Pit?”

This psalm, perhaps more than any other, 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.

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) pointing out that it is God alone who has the power to reestablish a right relationship “I, 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 “delivered Jacob to utter destruction,/ and Israel to reviling.” (43:28)

But God, as always, is patient and forgiving and there is always the promise of redemption”Do not fear, O Jacob my servant,…/ For I will pour water on the thirsty land,/and streams on the dry ground;” 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 because it has 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 Isaiah, 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.

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 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 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 is 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 something completely new. Christ replaces everything that was. It’s why we call it the New Covenant; not the “Improved Covenant.”

Psalm 88:1–5; Isaiah 42:10–43:21; Philippians 2:19–30

Psalm 88:1–5: Alter points out that we know little about Heyman the Ezrahite to whom this psalm of supplication is dedicated. From the psalm itself we can assume he was in very dire straits, perhaps a terminal illness.

The psalm begins with the usual plea for God to listen to his supplications, “Lord, God of my rescue,/ by day I cried out, /by night, in Your presence.” (2) And then the clear statement that “May my prayer come before You./ Incline Your ear to my song.” (3) Then, we hear desperation in the poet’s voice: “For I am sated with evils/ and my life reached the brink of Sheol.” (4). He is near death–or it seems those around him have told him he is dying: “I was counted among those who go down to the Pit.” (5a)

He envisions himself as already being dead: “I became like a man without strength,/ among the dead cast away.” (5b). And then suddenly we have a stark description of hell as I really think it is: eternal separation from God: …”like the slain, those who lie in the grave,/ whom You no more recall,/ and they are cut off by Your hand.” (6)

I know that I tend to take God’s presence in my life pretty much for granted. These verses cause me to pause and reflect on the terrifying possibility of my being separated from God forever. We can sense that terror here. It is horrible to be cast into the Pit, but the most terrifying line of all is, “whom You no more recall.” Hell is being forgotten by God.

Isaiah 42:10–43:21: In stark contrast to the psalm, today’s reading from Isaiah is among the most famous lines in the OT, a joyous hymn of praise:
Sing to the Lord a new song,
    his praise from the end of the earth!
Let the sea roar[a] and all that fills it,
    the coastlands and their inhabitants. (42:10)

Isaiah then describes God as Messianic conquering warrior: “The Lord goes forth like a soldier,/ like a warrior he stirs up his fury;” (42:13) In a wonderful metaphor for what Jesus Christ has done for us, “I will turn the darkness before them into light,/the rough places into level ground,…and I will not forsake them.” (42:16). 

Here, in contradistinction to the psalmist’s fears, we hear God proclaim, “I will not forsake them.” We who follow God will not be separated from him. Even so, Judah persists in separating itself from God. But when it repents, there is the eternal promise: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;/ I have called you by name, you are mine.” (43:1b) Moreover, God will be with us and lead us through trial and tribulation:
“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.” (43:2)

What we tend to forget in the OT is that God is not only with us, he loves us. Isaiah reminds Judah–and us: “Because you are precious in my sight,/and honored, and I love you,” (43:4) And above all: “I, I am the Lord,/ and besides me there is no savior.” (43:11) We cannot find salvation through our small-g gods. Judah couldn’t. We can’t.

And here at the end of this wonderful chapter, there is the famous promise of something new, something unexpected:
“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)

For us Christians, we know exactly how God’s promise was fulfilled.

Philippians 2:19–30: Paul interrupts his message of encouragement to the Philippians with personal notes about Timothy and Epaphroditus. Paul is pretty irritated with many itinerant preachers, who have started believing their own press releases and see themselves at the center, rather than Jesus: “All of them are seeking their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ.” (21) In Paul’s eyes, Timothy stands in marvelous contrast to all those others: “ I have no one like him who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare.” (20)

The message for us is clear: we are to be faithful servants not self-aggrandizing celebrities. I do wish many of today’s TV ministers and self-proclaimed prophets (I’m talking about you, Franklin Graham) would read and ponder these words each and every morning.

Paul is also sending Epaphroditus, “my brother and co-worker and fellow soldier, your messenger and minister to my need” (25) at what we assume is some personal sacrifice. But for Paul the needs of Philippi are greater than his own: “for he has been longing for all of you, and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill.” (26)

Paul’s certainly glad that E. survived his close call with death–not only for E’s sake, but for his own: “so that I would not have one sorrow after another.” (28) This poignant personal note reminds us of Paul’s humanity. He is far more than just a passionate theologian, but has trials and sorrows of his own.

I wish we knew E’s back-story; there is only a clue here: “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). Paul certainly would have preferred to keep E at his side, but as always, he recognizes that the needs of the community trump his personal desires. How frequently am I willing to sacrifice my own needs for the good of those who walk beside me?

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

Psalm 87: The psalmist claims that God loves Zion (Jerusalem) more than the rest of Israel. Indeed, God love Jerusalem above all other places on earth: “The Lord loves the gates of Zion/ more than all the dwellings of Jacob.” (2) Of course the fact that the Temple was located at Zion certainly lends some credence to the assertion that “Splendid things are spoken of you,/ O town of God.” (3)

The poet goes on to assert that “of Zion it shall be said:/ every man is born in it/and He, the Most High, makes it firm founded.” (5) In short, by visiting Zion, we become citizens of Zion. (One wonders if the Jewish saying, “Next year in Jerusalem!” has roots in this psalm.)

And our citizenship is recorded by God himself: “The Lord inscribes in the record of peoples: this one was born there.” (6). I don’t think it’s stretching the metaphor too far to assert that as Christians, our Jerusalem is Jesus Christ. We are indeed citizens of the church he founded. And that when we acknowledge through baptism we have can say with “singers and dancers alike: ‘All my wellsprings are in you.'” (7)

 Isaiah 41:8–42:9: This messianic passage abounds with promises to Israel, First the assurance of God’s presence and protection: “I have chosen you and not cast you off”;/ do not fear, for I am with you,/do not be afraid, for I am your God;” (41:10) The theme of “fear not” and reassurance threads through this chapter: “it is I who say to you, “Do not fear,/ I will help you.” (41:13)

God supplies Israel’s needs, particularly of the poor: “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) Moreover, God does these things “so that so that all may see and know,/ all may consider and understand,/ that the hand of the Lord has done this,” (41:20). 

I think it is too easy to miss God’s deep involvement in our world today. Even as the culture excoriates–and in some places, torture–Jews and Christians, we must reflect on how God works through us in the world where, as Peter says, we are aliens, mere sojourners. And that without God’s love being expressed in the world through our activities, the world would be in even more desperate straits. This past week demonstrated this verity through the efforts of 30,000 young Lutheran Christians in Detroit that came and made a tangible difference by cleaning up urban wastelands and serving in an enormous variety of ways. And many there have witnessed “the hand of the Lord has done this.”

The qualities of the coming Messiah come into view in the next chapter: “He will not grow faint or be crushed/ until he has established justice in the earth;/ and the coastlands wait for his teaching.” (42:4) And more famously, “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.” Our God is not only steadfast, he is a rescuing God from whatever prison in which we–and others–find ourselves.

Philippians 2:5–18: What can possibly be written about this ancient hymn of the church that has not been said before? But of course the point of this wonderful song of what Jesus Christ has done for us is not that we dissect its theological meaning, but that we revel in it!

This hymn answers Isaiah. Jesus Christ is the long-awaited Messiah:

10 so that at the name of Jesus
    every knee should bend,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
    that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

And having confessed this awesome truth, Paul comes down to earth, reminding us to “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) Notice that “working out” here does not mean “seeking” or pretending that our works will result in salvation. Rather, it means now that we have salvation we are to go to work; to put our salvation to work making a difference in the world. Making a difference so that Isaiah reminded us, “so that so that all may see and know,/ all may consider and understand,/ that the hand of the Lord has done this.”

We are sojourners, but we are nevertheless workers for Christ in the world. And despite all the bad things the Church has done, all the scandals, all the unloving words, the balance sheet is still very much on the positive side of the ledger.


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

Psalm 86:11–17: Alter points out that if we have read the Psalms sequentially up to to this point “will have [already] encountered almost every line of this poem, with minor variations, elsewhere.” Yet here in these verses there is a majestic quality that strikes straight to the heart as it so lovingly describes the relationship between God and ourselves.

We want to learn from God as we walk alongside him, “Reach me, O Lord, Your way/ I would walk in Your truth.” (11). We desire to worship because of our love, “Let me acclaim You, O Master, my God, with all my heart.” (12) We remember God’s rescuing love, “For Your kindness to me is great,/ and You save me from nethermost Sheol.” (13) and from our enemies (14).

But without question, the verse that I memorized so long ago is the one that beautifully and famously describes the qualities of God: “But You, Master, are a merciful, gracious God,/ slow to anger and abounding in steadfast kindness.” (15) Remembering these qualities is why we, like the poet, can confidently pray, “For You, Lord, have helped me and consoled me.” (17)

Even though much of the OT describes Israel’s sins and God’s consequent anger, it’s clear here (and many other places) that God is amazingly loving and patient with us despite our best efforts to forget God and place our whims and desires at the center of our lives. We persist in so often ignoring God’s kindness as we continue to test God’s patience.

Isaiah 40:6–41:7: Isaiah’s famous metaphor bluntly describes our ephemerality as humans:

…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; (40:6, 7)

Later, Isaiah draws an stark picture of the insignificance of our works, even our great nations: “Even the nations are like a drop from a bucket,/and are accounted as dust on the scales;” (40:15) ]

Despite our inconstancy and bluntly, our insignificance in the great scheme of God’s creation, God has promised a Messiah, who although he “comes with might” (40:10) will indeed “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) For us Christians, it is Jesus who is Isaiah’s Good Shepherd.

Isaiah goes on to make his point again and again that compared to God’s power and greatness, we are “like grasshoppers” (40:22), who are here only a brief moment of time, as he sounds like Qoheleth in Ecclesiastes: Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,/scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,/when he blows upon them, and they wither.” (40:24). 

But unlike Qoheleth, there is the reality that even if we are like fading flowers and grasshoppers, God cares for us very much, as he reminds us in these famous lines,

…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. (40:31)

Like the psalmist, Isaiah reminds us that God’s love abounds even though in the context of God’s power and the extent of his creation we are but withering flowers. Yet so often, we think ourselves–and behave–as being greater than God. But Isaiah knows that “I, the Lord, am first,/ and will be with the last.” (41:4) Would that I remember that it is God who has reached down to me and rescued me–and not the other way round.

Philippians 1:23–2:4: In this time when the culture seems to be moving against Christians and we begin to understand that we, like the Philippians, are living in a world that is hostile to our beliefs, we would do well to reflect on Paul’s advice for how to live and behave in such a world.

Rather than whining about how we are under threat and losing our freedoms, we should “live [our] life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, …standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel.” (1:27).  Our focus must remain on Christ, not on our problems. We should not be “intimidated by [our] opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation.” (1:28) And then the line that particularly struck me: “And this is God’s doing.” (1:28)

We tend to think that we have to “fight for God” to make sure the Christian faith survives in such a world. But we have it exactly backward. As Paul reminds us, God “has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well.” We American Christians have never really known true suffering believing as we have for so long not only that the larger culture has be “on our side,” but that we somehow control it. But that is delusional.

Our world is becoming more like like Paul’s and the Philippians’ world: we are to live in it but recognize we may suffer. We need to stop worrying that the church will collapse. After all, it began and flourished in a culture even more hostile than ours. Paul outlines our responsibilities clearly: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” (4) In some ways that’s a greater challenge than fretting about how we are being oppressed by the hostility around us.