Psalm 129; I Kings 11:26–12:24; John 16:5–16

Psalm 129: The tone of this song of ascent is much darker than its predecessor. All Israel has been oppressed but remains defiant, strongly suggesting it has been written from exile:
Much they beset me from my youth
   —let Israel now say—
much they beset me from my youth,
yet they did not prevail over me.” (1,2)

A grim agricultural metaphor suggests torture—psychological if not actually physical. We can almost feel the pain on our own backs: “My back the harrowers harrowed,/ they drew a long furrow.” (3)

Despite the oppression and the torture, Israel stands because “The Lord is just.” (4a) Those who would oppress are defeated and Israel is freed from them: “He has slashed the bonds of the wicked.” (4b) A malediction follows that not only is Israel freed, but the roles will be reversed. Those who oppress Israel become the shamed: “May the be shamed and fall back,/ all the haters of Zion.” (5) Given the political opprobrium directed to modern Israel, there is certainly a contemporary feel to this verse.

The curse that follows is a simile of dry grass used as thatch connotes an image of intrinsic uselessness: “May they be like grass on rooftops/ that the east wind withers.” (6) Moreover, this grass, like the people it represents, is worthless: “with which no reaper fills his hand,/ no binder of sheaves his bosom.” (7) This simile is reminiscent of the image in Psalm 1: They have become like the “chaff that the wind drives away.” Totally absent of meaning or worth.

Perhaps worst of all, the wicked are separated from God as indicated by the absence of even an acknowledgement they exist: The lack of a blessing becomes a curse: “and no passers-by say, ‘The Lord’s blessing upon you!’/ We bless you in the name of the Lord.’” (8) Is there a greater sign of abandonment than to be simply ignored by those who pass us by? Without relationship with God or with others, the psalmist is telling us, the wicked are worse than worthless; they simply don’t exist.

I Kings 11:26-43: Because Solomon has foolishly begun to worship other small-g gods, God has told him that his kingdom will be taken from him, although not until after he dies. A certain Ephramite named Jeroboam decides to rebel against Solomon. Industrious Jeroboam has been appointed by Solomon to supervise forced labor of the house of Jospeh. One day as he leaves Jerusalem, Jeroboam encounters a prophet named Ahijah, whom we meet only here. Ahijah takes the coat he’s wearing a tears it into twelve pieces and hands Jeroboam ten of them, telling him, “thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, “See, I am about to tear the kingdom from the hand of Solomon, and will give you ten tribes.” (31) The prophet goes on to say that one tribe—Judah— will remain under Solomon’s (and his successors), as will the city of Jerusalem, “for the sake of my servant David and for the sake of Jerusalem, the city that I have chosen out of all the tribes of Israel.” (32) Our authors, writing hundreds of years after these events, certainly know the outcome of what Ahijah is “predicting.” But it’s equally clear that above all else, the authors want to make sure the name of David is to remain unsullied despite the sins of his successors.

Ahijah tells Jeroboam that God will give him the ten tribes, but not until after Solomon dies. However, he reminds Jeroboam that “to [Solomon’s] son I will give one tribe, so that my servant David may always have a lamp before me in Jerusalem, the city where I have chosen to put my name.” (36) As for Jeroboam himself, God promises, “I will take you, and you shall reign over all that your soul desires; you shall be king over Israel.” (37) Even more remarkably, God, through Ahijah, gives Jeroboam exactly the same promise as David and Solomon: “If you will listen to all that I command you, walk in my ways, and do what is right in my sight by keeping my statutes and my commandments, as David my servant did, I will be with you, and will build you an enduring house, as I built for David, and I will give Israel to you.” (38) We will find out later how well JeJeroboam sticks to this covenant.

Solomon hears of this and attempts to have Jeroboam killed, but he flees to Egypt.

Solomon reigns over a united Israel for 40 years, and I sure wish we had the “Book of the Acts of Solomon” to read about more of his adventures and hopefully, more examples of his wisdom. But alas, we do not have that book. Our authors tell us only that “Solomon slept with his ancestors and was buried in the city of his father David; and his son Rehoboam succeeded him.” (43)

So, what do we take away from the story of Solomon? That even the wisest man will fall prey to temptation and drift away from God. Our authors tend to blame the many wives and concubines that caused Solomon to drift away from God, but in the end, it is a question of personal responsibility. Solomon must face the consequences of his own choices. As must we.

Upon Solomon’s death, Israel gathers and asks Rehoboam for relief, “Your father made our yoke heavy. Now therefore lighten the hard service of your father and his heavy yoke that he placed on us, and we will serve you.” (12:4) Rehoboam tells them to come back in three days and he’ll answer. He seeks the counsel of the elders who advise him,“If you will be a servant to this people today and serve them, and speak good words to them when you answer them, then they will be your servants forever.” (12:8) However, his young companions tell him to lay it on even heavier.   Rehoboam, being young, believes he knows everything and ignores the advice of his elders, giving one of the most evil speeches in the Bible: “My father made your yoke heavy, but I will add to your yoke; my father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions.” (14)

Unsurprisingly, the people of the ten tribes rebel and make Jeroboam their king. Only the tribe of Judah follows Rehoboam. Thus, the united nation of Israel is sundered forever. All because one man thought he knew better than his older and wise counselors. Such are the fruits of arrogance and political immaturity.

John 16:5–16: Our gospel writer implies through Jesus words that “sorrow has filed [the disciples] hearts.” (5)  I’m guessing they’re also confused and probably not a little angry that their leader appears to be going away. Needless to say, they hadn’t figured out about Jesus’ impending betrayal, mock trial, and execution. So, Jesus once again explains the business about the “Advocate,” this time asserting that “if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.” (7) Which sounds like the disciples can have one or the other but not both simultaneously. Or does it?

Jesus makes the intriguing if somewhat opaque statement, “And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment.” (8) I take this to mean that Jesus will turn the existing order and philosophy upside down and inside out, not only in Israel, but in the world at large. Which of course is exactly what happened as the church grew and a few centuries later the western world itself became Christendom.

The Holy Spirit will be transformative in many ways. First, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” (13) Then, “He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” (14) Together with Jesus’ next words, “All that the Father has is mine” (15) we get a glimpse of the complex relationship that we call the Trinity—a relationship that in the end is beyond human understanding.

Jesus concludes his soliloquy with a clear prediction of his death and resurrection: “A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me.” (16) The world will be changing soon.

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