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. 

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