Psalm 71:18b–24; Numbers 21:10–22:6; Mark 15:21–32

Psalm 71:18b–24: Realizing that he will not be abandoned by God, our psalmist turns to praise, promising to witness God’s power to all now and in the future: “Till I tell of Your mighty arm to the next generation,/ to all those who will come, Your power.” (18b) He continues in the same worshipful vein looking upward to heaven: “and Your bounty, O God to the heights,/ as You have done great things.” (19a).

Then he asks the question we all must ask and answer, “O God, who is like You?” (19b) Either we accept God as God, or we substitute other things or other philosophies as our small-g gods. In today’s culture we see many saying that God is just one among many gods, and that whatever—or whoever— satisfies us spiritually is just fine. An ultimately empty path.

In his praise, the psalmist seems to ascribe the difficulties he has experienced to God: “As You surfeited me with great and dire distress,” (20a) Is the psalmist really saying that God “surfeited,” i.e., created, the difficulties he experienced or merely allowed them to happen? If we consult Job, God seems to allows, but does not create, the bad things that happen to us. But I question even that interpretation. I suggest that there is sufficient evil and fallenness in the world that bad things happen without God either creating or allowing them. Job notwithstanding, God is love, not manipulator.

Nevertheless, for the psalmist, his troubles lie in the past as he speaks with assurance that God has rescued him once again, “You will once more give me life,/ and from earth’s depths once more bring me up.” (20b) And not just bring him up, but “You will multiply my greatness/ and turn round and comfort me.”  (21) Notice that there is both psychological healing (“multiply my greatness”) but that God is ever the comforter when we have been pushed down. Would that I turn more frequently to God for comfort. As the psalmist knows, God is always there, offering exactly that.

The psalm’s coda is pure, grateful worship: “And so I shall acclaim You with the lute./—Your truth, my God./ Let me hymn with the lyre,/ Israel’s Holy One.”  (22) He will not only “sing glad song when I hymn to You,” but he will speak and witness, as well: “My tongue, too, all say long/ will murmur Your bounty.” (23) This should be our natural response as well when we reflect on how many times God has rescued us down through our years.

The psalm closes by noting that in the same way he asked at the opening verse, [“Let me never be shamed“], except it is now his enemies who will experience that shame: “For they are shamed, for they are disgraced,/ those who sought my harm.” (24) Once again, we do not take action to shame or hurt our enemies; they will bring that shame down upon themselves.

Numbers 21:10–22:6: I have often imagined that Israel’s desert wanderings were a lonely enterprise without much, if any, contact with other tribe and nations. But as we read today there was lots of interaction, much of it not very pretty.

Our authors are in travelogue mode as they describe the wanderings of the Israelites from Oboth to “lye-abarim, in the wilderness bordering Moab toward the sunrise. From there they set out, and camped in the Wadi Zered.” (21:11,12) The on to Arnon on the boundary of Moab. Our authors then cite another source, “the Book of the Wars,” to describe their further journeys to Beer—”that is the well of which the Lord said to Moses, “Gather the people together, and I will give them water.” (16), where the Israelites pause to sing. Then ever onward: “Mattanah to Nahaliel, from Nahaliel to Bamoth, and from Bamoth to the valley lying in the region of Moab by the top of Pisgah that overlooks the wasteland.” (21: 19, 20)

Problems arise when Israel wishes to cross some other nation’s territory. As he had done with the king of Edom, Moses sends emissaries to the King Sihon of the Amorites seeking permission to cross, promising, “we will not turn aside into field or vineyard; we will not drink the water of any well; we will go by the King’s Highway until we have passed through your territory.” (22)

But King Sihon not only refuses permission but decides to battle Israel in the wilderness of Jahaz. Israel is victorious in its first battle, and all of a sudden we have Israel settling in the former Amorite territory: “Israel took all these towns, and Israel settled in all the towns of the Amorites, in Heshbon, and in all its villages.” (21: 25) So is Israel still living in tents, able to pick up and move, or has a substantial portion of the people taken up permanent residence in the former Amorite territory? However, this conundrum does not seem to bother our authors.

Israel then defeats the wonderfully-named King Og of Basan and take possession of his territory.  After battling, victories, and land possession we once again find a transient Israel “camped in the plains of Moab across the Jordan from Jericho.” (22:1) Word about this ravenous wandering mob that seems skilled in battle has spread and “Moab was overcome with fear of the people of Israel.” (22:3)

Moab’s King Balak, realizing a military defeat may be inevitable tries a new strategy: “He sent messengers to Balaam son of Beor at Pethor,” which is located far away on the Euphrates River, asking that king (apparently famous for his necromancy) “Come now, curse this people for me, since they are stronger than I; perhaps I shall be able to defeat them and drive them from the land; for I know that whomever you bless is blessed, and whomever you curse is cursed.” (6)

We’ll see how this turns out tomorrow…

Mark 15:21–32: Mark devotes but eleven verses to Jesus’ crucifixion. Mark’s reportorial style describes the numerous facst about this execution dispassionately. First, the Romans “compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus.” (21) With these two names we encounter a reference that lies outside the gospel narrative. Alexander and Rufus apparently become missionaries in the early church.

Mark does not give us the gory details of nails or spears involved in the process of crucifixion. All that comes in the other gospels. Here he simply states, “they crucified him, and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take.” (24) I’m guessing the casting lots was normal routine for the Roman soldiers since all depictions to the contrary, I’m sure that to add humiliation to the crucifixion, the condemned hung naked on the cross, so there was no further need for clothing.

Mark records that Jesus was “crucified between two bandits, one on his right and one on his left.” (27) but here in Mark there is no dialog among the three. Instead, he focuses on the mockery that Jesus endured, noting the sign, “King of the Jews” that was nailed into the cross. Everything that follows here is mockery and derision: “Those who passed by derided  him, shaking their heads and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!” (29, 30)

To make sure we get it about the Jewish religious leaders being primarily responsible for Jesus’ death, “the chief priests, along with the scribes, were were also mocking him among themselves and saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.” (31, 32a)  Even in his terseness, Mark helps us see the smug satisfaction that doubtless was on their faces.

Mark’s main message here is the ultimately ironic mocking of the “king of the Jews.” In fact, even “Those who were crucified with him also taunted him.” (32b) Physical death occurs by crucifixion but mockery is the final degradation. And since I’m sure Jesus heard all this as he hung there dying, a type of psychological death by execration. As far as the humans in the story are concerned, Jesus can be brought no lower than this.

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