Psalm 75; Numbers 30:1–31:12; Luke 1:67–80

Psalm 75: This thanksgiving song opens with worship—”We acclaim You, O God, we acclaim You/ and Your name is near” (2)—and moves quickly to speaking in God’s voice, proclaiming how he will bring justice at some time in the future: “When I seize the appointed time,/ I myself shall judge rightly,” (3) Asserting his position as Creator, God notes that “Earth and its dwellers would melt,/ had I not set fast its pillars.” (4) Which from a law of physics point of view is absolutely true. Were the earth not in its stable orbit at 93,000,000 miles from the sun, it would have indeed be so warm or so cold that humankind could not exist.

The psalmist then turns to a warning to the wicked, still speaking in God’s voice: “I said to the revelers, Do not revel,/ and to the wicked, Lift not your horn.” (5) God emphasizes his instruction by repeating it: “Lift not your horn on high./ You would speak arrogance against the Rock.” (6) These horns would be the the rams horn trumpets familiar to every Jew. But there is a second meaning of horn as a symbol of power. In short, those who raise their horns in this context are attempting to assert a greater power than God himself.

God reminds these pretenders to power and judgement that “God is the judge,/ it is He Who brings down and lifts up.” (8) God is holding a symbolic cup of judgement “with foaming wine full for decanting,” (9a) It is the wicked who will receive their due comeuppance in the end: “He will pour form it,/ yes, its dregs they will drain,/ all the earth’s wicked will drink.” (9b)

The point of view briefly shifts back to the psalmist who “shall tell it forever,/ let me hymn to the God of Jacob.” (10) He then gives God the final word. As usual it’s the destruction of the wicked and the lifting up of the just: “And all the horns of the wicked I shall cut off./ The horns of the just will be lifted!” (11)

Once again we have a psalm that promises God’s justice in the end, and even in God’s own voice. But like the psalmist we too often have to wait for that justice and wonder if it will ever come. As witness the horrific slaughter in Orlando early Sunday morning. We pray that horns of the just will be lifted in this time of national sorrow, and that justice will ultimately prevail.

Numbers 30:1–31:12: This chapter gives us a picture of the social standing of women as over against men. As for men, “When a man makes a vow to the Lord, or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.” (30:2)

However, when a woman may make a vow or promise, but it can be countermanded by her husband, or in the case of a daughter still living at home, her father. A woman’s vow stands only “her father hears of her vow or her pledge by which she has bound herself, and says nothing to her.” (30:4) But if the father (or husband) disapproves, the vow is canceled “and the Lord will forgive her, because her father had expressed to her his disapproval.” (30:5) One suspects that in the case of the daughter, these vows are around the issue of marriage, which the woman was not allowed to enter into with permission. A vestigial remainder of this ordinance exists even today when prospective grooms ask the woman’s father to marry; the implication is that the woman cannot make this decision on her own.

Once she is married, the husband has the same right to countermand what the woman has promised. There’s a note of condescension here because it apparently only women who make “any thoughtless utterance of her lips by which she has bound herself.” (30:6) But what’s also important here is that it is incumbent upon the father or husband to speak up when they hear of it. They cannot give remain silent, appear to assent, and then come back some time later and nullify the woman’s vow. He must speak up when he hears the vow, otherwise, “he has validated them, because he said nothing to her at the time that he heard of them.” (30:14)

We may squirm uncomfortably about this, but I suspect that this rule actually brought a great deal of justice to women who would make a promise, and then possibly months later have their father or husband revoke the vow. I’m sure that compared to other societies of the time where women were mere chattel, these rules brought substantial dignity to Israelite women. It’s also a reminder to us that women have and will continue to play a prominent role in Israel’s history.

The structure Numbers is a brilliant interweaving of rules and ordinances with narrative action. And now, “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Avenge the Israelites on the Midianites; afterward you shall be gathered to your people.” (31:1) The instructions are to send a thousand men from each tribe, so an army of 12,000 goes up against the Midianites, accompanied by “Phinehas son of Eleazar the priest, with the vessels of the sanctuary and the trumpets for sounding the alarm in his hand.” (31:6) I presume Phineas’s presence signifies this is a God-ordained battle. In any event, the Israelites are triumphant, having killed every Midianite male. Israel takes “the women of Midian and their little ones captive; and they took all their cattle, their flocks, and all their goods as booty.” (31:9) and then burn down all the Midianite towns, returning to the Israeli “camp on the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho.” (31:12)

This is a disturbing incident on many fronts, since it appears to be a cold-hearted aggression without any Midianite provocation. And yet it is God-ordained. I think we can best view it as a dress rehearsal for battles to come, but that does not make it any less disturbing.

Luke 1:67–80: Luke devotes about as much space to John the Baptist’s birth as he does to Jesus’. Unlike the almost silent Joseph, now that Zechariah has been freed of his muteness, he cannot stop talking. And we encounter a second song in Luke’s first chapter, the canticle of Zechariah, known as the Benedictus. It’s a benediction that first recalls God’s promise of sending a messiah,
 Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
    for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
     He has raised up a mighty savior for us
    in the house of his servant David, (68, 69)

Then, after praising God for remembering Israel, Zechariah describes John’s future role in Israel:
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
    for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
   to give knowledge of salvation to his people
    by the forgiveness of their sins. (76, 77)

Which of course is exactly what John did. What’s crucial to note here is that Zechariah asserts that John’s role will be prophetic and preparatory: “you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,” John is the foreshadowing of someone even greater to come, the Messiah himself, who ultimately will “give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.” (79)

As we’ve noted before, I think Luke devotes all this space to John and especially here in Zechariah’s song to make it clear to his Gentile audience that Jesus is the fulfillment of prophecy. Unlike Matthew, whose audience was familiar with Scripture, Luke cannot quote prophecy since it would have been unknown to his community. But in Zechariah’s song, we have a gorgeous summation of prophetic scripture that points very clearly to Jesus, to whose birth he will finally turn now that Luke has laid the messianic groundwork.

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