Archives for March 2017

Psalm 40:9–18; Esther 8:1–9:17; Romans 10:1–13

Psalm 40:9–18: Our psalmist, speaking as David, reminds God how he has been a great witness and testimony for God’s justice and faithfulness by speaking to all who would listen:
I heralded justice in a great assembly.
Look, I will not seal my lips.
Lord, you Yourself know.
Your justice I concealed not in my heart.
Your faithfulness and Your rescue I spoke.
I withheld not form the great assembly Your steadfast truth.” (10, 11)

These verses are a good personal reminder about my reticence to speak of God (and Jesus) aloud, and how he has made my life far better than it could have been. I need to be bold in the way that David has been bold.

Our psalmist is on a roll as he recounts to all who will listen the great things God has done—and will continue to do— for him:
You, Lord, will not hold back
Your mercies from me.
Your steadfast truth
shall always guard me.” (12)

He recalls how that under the influence of evil companions, he abandoned God for a time:
For evils drew round me
beyond count.
My crimes overtook me
and I could not see—
more numerous than the hairs of my head—
and my heart forsook me.” (13)

This verse is an excellent reminder that we are all subject to—and so often acquiesce to—temptation. Which is why we pray “lead us not into temptation” in the Lord’s prayer.

So far, so good. I can relate to all these verses of God’s faithfulness and his protection in times of trouble. But now he launches into a request that God deal harshly with those who hurt him:
Lord, to my help hasten.
May they be shamed and abased one and all,
who seek my life to destroy it,
may they fall back and be disgraced,
those who desire my harm.” (14, 15)

Of course, as Jesus reminds us, we are not to pray for the destruction of our enemies, but rather to turn the other cheek. On the other hand, who among us—including myself—have not wished harm on those who have hurt us, probably in ways far more trivial than how David was pursued by his enemies?

But at the end of this psalm, there’s no question that we can pray with the psalmist, speaking as David, as earnestly as he:
As for me, I am lowly and needy.
May the Master account it for me.
My help, he who frees me You are.
My God, do not delay.” (18)

We are indeed lowly and needy. But until we admit that our prayers are empty and to no avail.

Esther 8:1–9:17: While Haman himself has met his grisly and justified end, and Mordecai now rules in Haman’s stead, the decree to annihilate the Jews that he tricked the king into signing still stands. Esther once again approaches the king and pleads to have the king revoke the orders.King Ahasuerus not only agrees, but delegates the task to Esther herself: “You may write as you please with regard to the Jews, in the name of the king, and seal it with the king’s ring; for an edict written in the name of the king and sealed with the king’s ring cannot be revoked.” (8:8)

There is not a moment to lose since Haman’s evil decree could already be being enforced in parts of the kingdom. Mordecai insures that the word goes out expeditiously. Not only are the Jews saved, but “by these letters the king allowed the Jews who were in every city to assemble and defend their lives, to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate any armed force of any people or province that might attack them, with their children and women, and to plunder their goods.” (8:13)

The Jews are saved and “there was gladness and joy among the Jews, a festival and a holiday.” (8:17a) As with all decrees and laws, there are always unintended consequences and “many of the peoples of the country professed to be Jews, because the fear of the Jews had fallen upon them.” (8:17b) Ironically, in the centuries of Jewish persecution, many Jews professed to being Christian in order to escape oppression—or worse.

These people have good reason to fear the Jews, because the king’s decree has allowed the Jews to avenge their injustice as they see fit, including “to lay hands on those who had sought their ruin; and no one could withstand them, because the fear of them had fallen upon all peoples.” (9:2) And vengeance is taken as “the Jews struck down all their enemies with the sword, slaughtering, and destroying them, and did as they pleased to those who hated them.” (5). However, “they did not touch the plunder.” (9:9)

Of course, in this movie-like scenario, the king gives permission for the sons of Haman to be hanged on the gallows their father built for Mordecai. The Jews throughout the empire “killed seventy-five thousand of those who hated them; but they laid no hands on the plunder.” (9:16)

We may recoil at the thought of the rescued Jews killing off their enemies, especially given that we operate under Jesus’ command to love our enemies. But these were cruel days and it was eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth all the way. And the Jews did not take the plunder.

Romans 10:1–13: Paul addresses the issue of who will be saved and how they can be saved. He notes that while it may be a necessary condition to “have a zeal for God,” it is not sufficient: “being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they have not submitted to God’s righteousness.” (3) Righteousness (or salvation) is imparted only to those who believe on Christ.

These are uncomfortable words for me, but here they are. We would much rather think that every human has the opportunity to be saved. Paul’s words certainly have been the animating force of missionary efforts for the last couple of centuries. But I think may of these missionary efforts have been culturally misguided, even to the extent of forcing people to become Christians more or less against their will.

This happens because people ignore what Paul goes on to say in this passage: that “righteousness comes through faith.” (6) As the Evangelicals remind us always, quoting Paul’s famous verse, “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (9) Paul goes on to describe the process that involves both heart and voice: “For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.” (10)

While I certainly agree with the Lutheran doctrine that it is Christ who seeks us out and comes to us via baptism, there is still the responsibility on our part to confess that Christ is Lord. This, to my mind, was the great value of confirmation as a formal process that led to that confession.

Psalm 39:7–13; Esther 4,5; Romans 9:8–21

Psalm 39:7–13: As our psalmist continues to reflect on the evanescence of humankind, he observes that regardless of what we may think, we cannot predict the future. Even if we build up our 401(ks) we are not guaranteed the opportunity to use our savings. Someone else—our heirs? the tax man?—will reap what we have sown:
In but a shadow a man goes about.
Mere breath he murmurs—he stores
and knows not who will gather.” (7)

There is only one firm place to which we can cling:
And now, what I expect, O Master,
my hope is in You.” (8)

WIth this relationship in mind, the poet asks for protection. Here, though, it is not just from being taunted by his enemies, but also from his own predilection to sin, especially the temptation to respond in kind to those who mock him:
From all my sins save me.
Make me not the scoundrel’s scorn.
I was mute, my mouth did not open,
for it is You who acted.” (9, 10)

Given that our psalmist was able to resist this temptation to shout back at his enemies, he asks God to relent, assuming that it is God who has allowed his foes to act against him in the first place:
Take away from me Your scourge,
from the blow of Your hand I perish. (11)

For better or worse, our psalmist sees that old deuteronomic theme: if a man sins, God will punish him:
In rebuke for crime You chastise a man,
melt like the moth his treasure.
Mere breath all humankind. selah” (12)

Lurking behind this rather depressing view of God is the sense that given man’s ephemerality, why does God even bother with us? After all, as far as the psalmist is concerned, we are “mere breath.” But as always we need to remember that the psalms are about prayer with deep feeling. Clearly, at this point, discouragement outweighs joy.

Esther 4,5: Haman’s evil plot to rid the empire of Jews causes Mordecai to “put on sackcloth and ashes, and went through the city, wailing with a loud and bitter cry.” (4:1) Nor was he alone as every other Jew was “with fasting and weeping and lamenting, and most of them lay in sackcloth and ashes.” (4:3)

Esther is distressed at Mordecai’s lamentations and sends him new clothes to replace the sackcloth, which he refuses. Esther sends one of the king’s eunuchs, Hathach (great name!) to get the scoop form Mordecai, who gives the official a copy of the king’s decree to annihilate the Jews. Esther wants to help by intervening with the king, but tells Mordecai that anyone who approaches the king without being invited will be put to death unless he points his golden scepter at that person. Esther observes that she has not been called before the king for 30 days and to approach him without permission is extremely risky.

Mordecai explains that if she remains silent and her Jewishness is revealed, she’ll be put to death anyway. In what I think is the money sentence of this entire book, Mordecai tells her, “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” (4:14)

Esther agrees to approach the king but asks for all the Jews in Susa to hold a 3-day fast on her behalf. She is bravely resigned to her fate: “After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.” (4:16)

Esther approaches the king, who is happy to see her. The king is still very much infatuated with her and offers her anything she asks for up to half his kingdom. I’m pretty sure the king was surprised at the modesty of her request: “let the king and Haman come tomorrow to the banquet that I will prepare for them, and then I will do as the king has said.” (5:8)

Meanwhile, Haman, “happy and in good spirits” (5:9)  and quite pleased with himself, passes by Mordecai, who fails to bow in obeisance. Haman is infuriated but keeps his thought to himself. We get a glimpse into his narcissism as he recounts his wealth and power to his adoring friends and his wife. To top off all this good fortune, Haman continues, “Even Queen Esther let no one but myself come with the king to the banquet that she prepared. Tomorrow also I am invited by her, together with the king.” (5:12)

Nevertheless, Haman’s hatred for Mordecai still burns hot. His ever-loving wife suggests a giant 50-cubit high gallows be constructed and that Mordecai be hanged before Haman attends the banquet. Not surprisingly, “This advice pleased Haman, and he had the gallows made.” (5:14)

Even though we know how the story turns out, the author or authors of this book are brilliant storytellers and they succeed in leaving tremendous tension regarding Mordecai’s fate in the air as chapter 5 concludes.

Romans 9:8–21: Paul continues to turn Judaism on its head as he argues, “it is not the children of the flesh [i.e. Jews] who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as descendants.” (8) He buttresses this argument by citing the cases of Sarah and Rebecca as well as the counter-example of Esau, “I have loved Jacob/ but I have hated Esau.” (13) Then, in a flash of brilliant rhetoric, Paul exclaims, “What then are we to say? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means!” (14) In other words it is God who is the actor here, not mere humans. Paul quotes scripture again, asserting that God “says to Moses,

“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy,
    and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” (15)

The point is clear. None of what God elects to do is dependent on human effort. It is God alone and “God who shows mercy.” (16) This is followed by yet another example to illustrate his poit, this time “the scripture says to Pharaoh, “I have raised you up for the very purpose of showing my power in you, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.” (17)

In the end, as far as Paul is concerned, it’s really quite simple: “So then [God] has mercy on whomever he chooses, and he hardens the heart of whomever he chooses.” (18)

Paul addresses our rather logical response to this assertion that we therefore are mere automata as far as God is concerned when we ask, “Why then does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” (19) Paul dismisses this argument with a rhetorical wave of his hand, “who indeed are you, a human being, to argue with God?” (20) If we ever needed a reminder that we are God’s creatures and God can do with us what he will, it is right here. We may ask, “Why have you made me like this?” (20) But in the end, Paul asserts, the affairs of humankind are in fact the affairs of God—and we are in no position to fathom God’s purposes, even though we keep trying.  “Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one object for special use and another for ordinary use?” (21)

I’m not sure I feel very comfortable with that idea since it by definition really strrips me of the illusion that I am master of my own fate. But deep down in my heart, I know that Paul is right…

Psalm 38:18–23; Esther 2:1–18; Romans 8:20–33

Psalm 38:18–23: Our psalmist, speaking as David, admits his sinfulness:
For I am ripe for stumbling
and my pain is before me always.” (18)

…as well as his sincere intentions to confess those sins, which he finds repugnant, before God:
For my crime I shall tell,
I dread my offense.” (19)

I think these lines are the psalmist’s assertion that David’s singular relationship with God was unique—even when God seemed to be absent. Even in the most dire circumstances David looks first to his own sinfulness and his willingness to confess his sins even when the situation is perilous. His enemies are proliferating and gaining strength. They conspire to defeat David even as he asserts he has been attempting to do good and certainly has done them no wrong:
And when my wanton enemies grow many,
my unprovoked foes abound.
And those who pay back good with evil
thwart me for pursuing good.” (20, 21)

Of course we have to ask if David’s intentions were as pure and gracious as he claims they are. One man’s perceived kindness can too often be seen as carrying out a hostile agenda. We need only look to Washington DC to see this intrinsic misunderstanding in full operation.

The psalm concludes with a classic supplication:
Do not forsake me, Lord.
My God, do not stay far from me.
Hasten to my help,
O master of my rescue.” (22, 23)

Unlike many psalms of supplication, this one ends on a down note. There is no conclusion that celebrates God’s ultimate faithfulness that we find in other psalms.

Esther 2:1–18: While our authors do not say so directly, we get the sense of some regret “when the anger of King Ahasuerus had abated, he remembered Vashti and what she had done and what had been decreed against her.” (1). Seeking to rescue the situation, his servants suggest a beauty contest: “Let beautiful young virgins be sought out for the king.” (2) They send out messengers through the empire to gather the young virgins, who will be brought back to Susa, placed in the harem and, interestingly, have “cosmetic treatments be given them.” (3) Some cultural practices such as women’s makeup have been around a long time!

We meet Mordecai, who had be exiled to Babylon and with the conquest of Babylon now finds himself at Susa. He has been the guardian of his orphaned cousin, Esther. Since she is beautiful she is gathered—apparently without her agreement—into the harem. On Mordecai’s advice she does not reveal that she is Jewish. We see the depth of Mordecai’s love for her: “every day Mordecai would walk around in front of the court of the harem, to learn how Esther was and how she fared.” (11)

After 12 months of cosmetic preparation, the woman is sent to the king  where he has sex with her. As a reward, the woman “was given whatever she asked for to take with her from the harem to the king’s palace.” (13). WHen Esther’s turn came, “she asked for nothing except what Hegai the king’s eunuch, who had charge of the women, advised.” (15)

Esther wins the beauty contest and becomes queen: “ the king loved Esther more than all the other women…so that he set the royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti.” (17) At this point, the king, who appears to be thoroughly in love with Esther throws a party—”Esther’s banquet”—and declares a holiday and “gave gifts with royal liberality.” (18)

Things are looking hunky-dory for Esther and by implication, Mordecai. But the drama is yet to come…

Romans 8:20–33: Human sinfulness has corrupted God’s creation. And if we look at how humans have subsequently despoiled creation after Paul wrote these words, these words have even greater impact. In Paul’s mind creation itself “waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” (19) He has an intuitive understanding of the 2nd law of thermodynamics: entropy—that disorder grows and all things decay and die—as “creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it,” (20) which I will take to be the doctrine of Adam’s original sin.

But now, through Christ and those who become God’s children, there is the hope that “creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” (21) However, even though we have become God’s children, we still await the final restoration of God’s perfect creation—including our own frail bodies—that will not occur until the end of history: “and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” (23)

It is this final perfection of corrupted creation for which we hope—and hope now becomes Paul’s theme: “For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes[d] for what is seen?” (24)  Paul, being Paul, offers advice to his readers: “But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (25) Here, I think he is addressing his contemporaries who believed that Christ’s 2nd coming and the end of history would occur during their lifetimes.

So, what are we to do while we wait in hope? While we may not have perfect creation and perfect bodies, we have the Holy Spirit. And when we are deeply troubled and “we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” (26) In turn,  the Holy Spirit effectively translates our inarticulateness to a loving God, who cares for us because God “knows what is the mind of the Spirit.” (27)

For me, this is a magnificent promise. That even when we cannot articulate our feelings and worries, the Holy Spirit articulates them for us. This interaction between the Holy Spirit and God brings Paul to one of the most famous (and misinterpreted) verses in the NT: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” (28)

We often hear “God has a plan for your life” and this verse is used as justification for that statement. When we can look back at events in our life it’s not impossible to piece together a set of circumstances which we can retrospectively call God’s plan.” However, I believe life is far more random than God having layed out a precise path for us to follow, usually unwittingly. Otherwise, what is free will all about?

As for things “working together for good,” we need to be careful. Discerning the “good” in many aspects of life is a difficult task of discernment. But Paul is making this statement in the context of hope. And it is in that hope that all things work together for good.

Finally, Paul reminds us that even in the midst of trials (see the psalm above) God is on our side: “If God is for us, who is against us?” (31) When we think about how things are to “work together for God,” we can do it only in the frame of reference that God “did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?” (32) If ever we needed a sign of God’s generosity to his sinful creatures, including me, it is right here. That is what “working together for good” is all about.

Psalm 38:10–17; Esther 1; Romans 8:9–19

Psalm 38:10–17: In the midst of the despair that is the beginning of this psalm, our poet has only one person he can turn to:
Oh, Master, before You is all my desire
and my sighs are not hidden from You.” (10)

He describes his present pass with a mournful elegance that is a beautiful model for us to pray when we feel hurt and abandoned by our friends and even our blood relatives:
My heart spins around, my strength forsakes me,
and the light of my eyes, too, is gone from me.
My friends and companions stand off from my plight
and my kinsmen stand far away.” (11, 12)

But our psalmist, writing of David’s plight when he is on the run from Saul, shows us that conspiracy by those we thought to be our friends is even worse than sorrow and abandonment:
“They lay snares, who seek my life and want my harm.
They speak lies, deceit utter all day long.” (13)

In fact, his emotional state is so fraught that he cannot reply to his accusers:
I become like a man who does not hear
and has no rebuke in his mouth.” (15)

So, when all hope is lost, David—and the psalmist and all of us—are left with but one place to turn:
For in You, O Lord, I have hoped.
You will answer, O Master, my God.” (16)

Notice that even in the depths, David has the assurance that God is indeed with him. The other lesson here is that there is no situation in our own lives that is so dire that we cannot turn to God with the confidence that God will indeed hear us. Which of course is what prayer is all about.

Esther 1: This narrative history of one of the great post-exilic heros of Israel is written from a strictly human point of view. While the word “God” does not appear in it, we can see God’s hand moving through the main characters throughout this book.

The book opens by telling us, “This happened in the days of Ahasuerus, the same Ahasuerus who ruled over one hundred twenty-seven provinces from India to Ethiopia.” (1), which we know as the Persian empire, whose capital is Susa.

Perhaps one of the remarkable things here is that King Ahasuerus gives a banquet (and other parties we presume) for his officials and ministers that lasts 6 months! Following this, “the king gave for all the people present in the citadel of Susa, both great and small, a banquet lasting for seven days, in the court of the garden of the king’s palace.” (6) Our author then describes the wealth of the setting and the fact that “Drinking was by flagons, without restraint; for the king had given orders to all the officials of his palace to do as each one desired.” (8) This party must have been quite the debauch…

Thoroughly drunk, the king demands that his wife, Queen Vashti, come to him in order to show her off, “for she was fair to behold.” (11) Vashti refuses to become objectified by the king and refuses to appear. In a rage, Ahasuerus consults with his lawyers, who use the slippery slope argument that if she does not appear, other women will follow suit. On their advice, the king publishes a decree that “all women will give honor to their husbands, high and low alike.” (20) Treating women as second-class citizens and vassals of their husbands has a long history.

The lawyer, a certain Memucan, also advise that the king divorce Vashti, that he banish her from court, and that he seek out a replacement queen.

Romans 8:9–19: In one of the most dense but profound chapters of theology in the entire Bible, Paul informs us that we are no longer “in the flesh”—a concept that is shorthand for humans who believe God (or the idea of God) is irrelevant to them and that they are the ones in control of their circumstances and ultimately their destiny.

But Christians “are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.” (9a) Moreover, “Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.” (9b) Employing his usual Pauline logic, he observes that it is the same Holy Spirit “who raised Christ from the dead [who] will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.” (11)

Paul goes on to say that “if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” (13) It is actually a very simple binary choice. If we “live by the flesh,” i.e., keep ourselves the as the center of our universe, we will die both physically and spiritually. But if we choose to let the Holy Spirit live within us and control our lives, we become the adopted children of God: “you have received a spirit of adoption.” (15)

Think for a moment on the radical nature of this concept: that we are the adopted children of God. The Jews certainly did not buy this idea, and it would be equally alien to the Gentiles for whom the ‘gods’ were fundamentally mythical beings. And yet here is Paul telling us that because the Holy Spirit lives in us we can call God, “Daddy,”

And as God’s adopted children we are written into the will: “and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.” (17a) But being a member of the family entails great responsibility. And with that responsibility as a member of the Christian family, something we really don’t like all that much: present suffering for future glory: “if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.” (17b)

Now that he is on the subject of present suffering, Paul turns his attention to its profound implications with this introduction:  “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.” (18) More on this to follow…


Psalm 37:27–33; Nehemiah 12:1–43; Romans 6:17–7:6

Psalm 37:27–33: At this point in this rather overlong psalm, our psalmist seems to be collecting snippets or wisdom statements from earlier in this psalm, from other psalms (or perhaps Proverbs), and listing them in no particular order.

First up is the overarching proverb of what the righteous man is to do: “Turn form evil and do good/ and abide forever.” (27) Followed by the statement that “the Lord loves justice/ and will not forsake His faithful.” (28a) The name and deeds of the faithful person will endure down through the generations: “They are guarded forever.” (28b) And of course the required opposite must be mentioned, “but the seed of of the wicked is cut off. (28c)

Our psalmist continues to list the qualities of the faithful man, focusing on a sense of justice that aligns to God’s justice:
The just will inherit the earth
and abide forever upon it.
The just man’s mouth utters wisdom
and his tongue speaks justice.” (29, 30)

The faithful man values and dispenses justice because “His God’s teaching [is] in his heart.” (31). But inevitably, faithfulness and justice will  be pursued by evil: “The wicked spies out the just man/ and seeks to put him to death.” (32) However, despite these trials, God’s promise to never abandon the faithful person always abides. And even if the just man is defeated by evil, in the long run God’s justice will override man’s injustice:
The Lord will not forsake him in his hands
and will not condemn him when he is judged.” (33)

I suppose that even though there’s a certain predictability on these verses, the concept of God’s faithfulness to those who are faithful to him is well worth repeating. And of course, God’s ultimate statement of his faithfulness to those who believe is sending Jesus Christ to earth to save us all.

Nehemiah 12:1–43: As is his wont, Nehemiah preserves the names of people who are important in the restoration of Jerusalem. And here he lists the priests and Levites—and not just his contemporaries, but their predecessors as well. The names are recorded form the time of Zerubbabel (1-11); Joiakim (12-21); those who served during the reign of Darius the Persian until the time of Nehemiah and Ezra (22-26)

A description of the dedication of the walls of Jerusalem follows. And it’s a time of great rejoicing as the Levites form all over Judea come to celebrate: “Now at the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem they sought out the Levites in all their places, to bring them to Jerusalem to celebrate the dedication with rejoicing, with thanksgivings and with singing, with cymbals, harps, and lyres.” (27) The priests then purify themselves, the people, the gates and the wall.

Nehemiah lists all the leaders “that gave thanks and went in procession” (31) as Nehemiah splits them into two “great companies” that circumnavigate the wall, singing all the while. Ever fastidious about details, Nehemiah outlines their route: “ At the Fountain Gate, in front of them, they went straight up by the stairs of the city of David, at the ascent of the wall, above the house of David, to the Water Gate on the east.” (37)

All in all a magnificent time was had by all: “They offered great sacrifices that day and rejoiced, for God had made them rejoice with great joy; the women and children also rejoiced.” (43a) In fact it was a pretty noisy party: “The joy of Jerusalem was heard far away.” (43b).  And why not? The restoration of the temple and the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls and gates is just as impressive (if not as luxurious) as the orginal construction of the temple in Solomon’s time. The question of course is, will the people continue to worship God and with the psalmist live upright lives, or will there be backsliding?

Romans 6:17–7:6: Paul continues to explain (over-explain?) his analogy of slaves being representative of our former lives: that, “having once been slaves of sin, [we] have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted.” (6:17) But slavery is also a part of our new lives, although now we “have become slaves of righteousness.” (6:18)

Of course in our culture there is nothing whatsoever that can be said to be positive about slavery—as Ben Carson discovered a couple of weeks ago when he likened slaves brought to the US as a type of immigrant. So Paul’s arguments are more abstract to us than I think they were to his Roman listeners who were both slaves and masters.

Paul tells us there is a great reward for having become slaves to righteousness: “But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life.” (6:22) He concludes his argument (and the chapter) with the memorable definition of grace: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (6:23) [A verse I recall memorizing when I was in 5th grade Sunday School at lake Avenue Congregational Church in Pasadena.]

Perhaps Paul felt his slavery analogy would not carry the theological day, so he shifts metaphors to marriage. First, he summarizes Jewish law describing how “a married woman is bound by the law to her husband as long as he lives; but if her husband dies, she is discharged from the law concerning the husband.” (7:2) The law states that she’s an adulteress if she sleeps with another man while her husband is alive, but if he dies, then “she is free from that law, and if she marries another man, she is not an adulteress.” (7:3)

Paul goes on to argue that the same kind of rule applies to Christians. We once were “married” to sin, but now “you have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead.” (7:4) But the law was worse than any husband because it held us captive as sinners. But, happily, Paul concludes as he circles back to his slavery analogy, “now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we are slaves not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit.” (7:6) So, even if we are slaves, we are far better off being slaves in the “new life of the spirit.” But the analogy of slaves seems dated in our present day and culture.


Psalm 37:23–26; Nehemiah 10:28–11:36; Romans 6:5–16

Psalm 37:23–26: It is God who gives us strength to endure. Even more important for me is that when those strides result in tripping and falling (as happened to me quite literally the other day), it is God who watches over me and as the psalmist notes, holds my hand and picks me up again:
By the Lord, a man’s strides are made firm,
and his way He desires.
Though he fall, he will not be flung down,
for the Lord sustains his hand.” (23, 24)

The phrase, “he will not be flung down,” tells me the psalmist believes that it is not God who causes us to fall. Many people think it is God’s will that we suffer. But I want to side with the psalmist here. There are plenty of obstacles in life that trip us up because we are caught unaware or more typically, for me anyway, we are not paying attention. God does not intervene and fling us down. The brokenness of the world and our own sinfulness (see Paul below) is is plenty capable of that.

This idea that it is not God who creates circumstances in which we suffer or that God abandons us is amplified in the next verse:
A lad I was, and now I am old,
and I have never seen a just man forsaken…(25a)

Nor, in the opinion of the psalmist, do the man’s offspring suffer because of God’s intervention:
…and his seed breaking bread, 
all day long lending free of charge
and his seed for a blessing.” (25b, 26)

However, as we shall soon see in the book of Job, not everyone is convinced that God does not create suffering or the circumstances of suffering. Is our psalmist correct here? Or is Job? Unfortunately, the answer to that question will always be problematic.

Nehemiah 10:28–11:36: There is an oblique reference here to the rather disturbing events recorded in Ezra that to return to the Jewish fold, all Jewish men who had married non-Jews were required to give up their wives and children. The reference is in the middle of one of the longest sentences I’ve yet encountered in the Bible:

The rest of the people, the priests, the Levites, the gatekeepers, the singers, the temple servants, and all who have separated themselves from the peoples of the lands to adhere to the law of God, their wives, their sons, their daughters, all who have knowledge and understanding, join with their kin, their nobles, and enter into a curse and an oath to walk in God’s law, which was given by Moses the servant of God, and to observe and do all the commandments of the Lord our Lord and his ordinances and his statutes.” (10: 28, 29)

This covenant is permanent: “We will not give our daughters to the peoples of the land or take their daughters for our sons.” (10:29) A long paragraph follows—essentially a precis of the Mosaic law—and describes the detailed means by which the covenant will be kept. And given their history, it is the final element of the oath that rings loudest: “We will not neglect the house of our God.” (11:39)

Chapter 11 is essentially a descriptive organization chart of the the restored Judea, Jerusalem and the temple itself. We find out who the leaders, priests, Levites, Benjamites, gatekeepers, warriors, and administrators are. At this point, Judea is a fully restored, fully functioning nation. And once again, we are struck by Nehemiah’s attention to detail and his engineer’s thoroughness.

We also learn the interesting fact that Jerusalem comprises only 10% of the total population of Judaea, but the Jerusalem is definitely headquarters both administratively and religiously.  Apparently living in Jerusalem was somewhat fraught since it would obviously be the first target of enemy attack: “And the people blessed all those who willingly offered to live in Jerusalem.” (11:2)

Romans 6:5–16: Paul elaborates on the key idea that we are united with Jesus who died for our sins. But that having died with Jesus, we will also experience resurrection,—the gift of eternal life: “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (5) What’s key here is that through Jesus’ death and resurrection we have abandoned our former sinful selves so that “we might no longer be enslaved to sin.” (6)

I can see his readers and listeners down through the centuries trying to wrap their head (as I am tying to wrap my head!) around this unprecedented theological concept of Christ dying for our sins: “But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.” (8, 9)

Regardless of the complexity of the theology, our response to Jesus’ death for our sins and his resurrection is really extremely simple: “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” (11) In other words, our old selves die and we become new creatures through Christ’s salvific power.

So what does being “dead to sin and alive to God” mean in practical terms? Well, Paul is happy to explain: “therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions.” (12) In short, he concludes, “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” (14) Bottom line: Jesus’ death and resurrection is the final great sacrifice that brings out from under the confining dominion of the law into wide open spaces of the dominion of grace. (Frankly, I think this is a concept that the author of Hebrews makes clearer than Paul.)

OK, so if we’re free of the requirements of the law how do we actually conduct ourselves in day-to-day life in the regime of grace? Needless to say, Paul has the answer: “Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!” (15) In the end it’s the conscious choice that we make that determines how we live’ We choose to be either slaves to sin or slaves to God. If we choose to be slave to our personal desires, we are a slave to sin, “which leads to death.” Or we are an obedient slave to God “which leads to righteousness.” (16)

While the idea of being a slave to either sin or God may seem somewhat remote in our culture, we do not have to think very long or hard about what Paul is getting at here. It’s a binary issue and we are the ones who, regardless of the gift of grace that has been given to us, choose the path we will follow. Jesus comes to us but we can choose to turn away. But there is always the hope that at some point we will choose to turn back to Jesus. Which is what repentance is all about.



Psalm 37:8–16; Nehemiah 7:73b–8:18; Romans 5:1–11

Psalm 37:8–16: Our psalmist continues in advice-giving mode as he limns the contrast between evildoers and those who follow God. And it’s good advice indeed:
Let go of wrath and forsake rage.
Do not be incensed to do evil.” (8)

I have acted so often out of anger. Perhaps the starkest examples of allowing anger to drive our response is on the road. There’s a reason it’s called “road rage.” Notice that it’s not the anger that’s evil in and of itself, but how we act and respond when we are angry. How often I have said things in anger that I instantly regret, but then it’s too late.

The psalmist goes on to point out the deuteronomic deal that pervades the OT:
For evildoers will be cut off,
but those who hope in the Lord, they shall inherit the earth.
And very soon, the wicked will be no more.
You will look at his place—he’ll be gone.” (9, 10)

Yes, the downfall of the wicked is something we all hope for, but justice too often seems not only delayed but denied. Nevertheless, this psalm points out that in the end, it is the oppressed who win in a statement that repeats the phrase that anticipates the Beatitudes:
And the poor shall inherit the earth
and take pleasure from great well-being.” (11)

But this promise does not stop the machinations of evildoers against the poor or those who follow God:
The wicked lays plots for the just
and gnashes his teeth against him.” (12)

Ultimately, though, the plots and conspiracies are in vain because in the end, it’s God who is in charge.
The Master will laugh at him,
for He sees that that his [the evildoer] day [or reckoning] will come.” (13)

To make sure we grasp that the “ur-conflict” on earth is always between evil and good, our psalmist repeats the theme of the relentless efforts of evildoers to oppress the poor and defenseless:
A sword have the wicked unsheathed
and drawn taut their bow,
to take down the poor and needy,
to slaughter those on the straight way.” (14)

This verse, which is both metaphor and reality, describes history down through the ages to today. But ultimately, God’s justice triumphs as the wicked’s weapons are turned back against them:
Their sword shall come home in their heart
and their bows shall be broken.” (15)

God’s justice may be a long time in coming, but in the long run it will triumph every time.

Nehemiah 7:73b–8:18: Now that the construction project and the census are over—”the people of Israel being settled in their towns“— the people gather at the Water Gate and “told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel.” (8:1) Nehemiah adds the intriguing detail that Ezra read from a pulpit: “The scribe Ezra stood on a wooden platform that had been made for the purpose.” (4) Could this be the origin of pulpits, especially the ones that in large churches and great cathedrals soar out high overhead?

Nehemiah gives us a detailed description of the act of Jewish worship. As Ezra opens the book, the people stand and when Ezra prays to God, “all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.” (6) Among the other details, Nehemiah tells us that the priest not only read, but also interpreted the meaning of the reading: exactly what sermons are supposed to accomplish: “So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” (8)

The words of the Book so move the people that they begin weeping but Ezra tells them, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” (9) This admonition reminds me that when we hear the word of the Lord, it is an occasion of rejoicing, and that following worship, the people should go out and celebrate. As Nehemiah points out, it’s definitely an occasion of rejoicing “because they had understood the words that were declared to them.” (12) We witness that rejoicing today when people exclaim, “Amen,” or even when they applaud following a sermon that has touched their hearts.

Following the day of worship and listening to the law and having it interpreted for them, the people celebrate the Festival of Booths, a festival that had been completely forgotten and had not been celebrated since “the days of Jeshua son of Nun.” (17) This celebration was both joyful and full of worship, “And day by day, from the first day to the last day, he read from the book of the law of God. They kept the festival seven days; and on the eighth day there was a solemn assembly, according to the ordinance.” (18)

This passage speaks to me as a reminder that in our rush to make worship modern and culturally relevant, it is too easy to forget the old liturgies that have been celebrated in the church for centuries. Like the people who heard Ezra speak and interpret, we can rediscover things that have been set aside and ignored. There is real joy in rediscovering what has been forgotten—especially in worship.

Romans 5:1–11: Having logically demonstrated that faith trumps the law and that faith encompasses all people. Paul tells us that “since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1) It is only through Jesus that “we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand.” (2a) And it is our realization of the immensity of God’s grace that allows us to “boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.” (2b)

One of Paul’s most famous logic chains follows as we can visualize him dictating to his amanuensis in almost feverish excitement. Paul’s enthusiasm fairly flies off the page: “And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.” (3, 4, 5a) And hope is at the center of our being “because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (5b) 

Our hope arises from the fact that “while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. ” (6) God loves us, and in one of Paul’s more famous verses, “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” (8)  

Writing from his Jewish perspective, he sees Jesus as the sacrifice that God has made, but it is “we have been justified by his blood.” In the same vein, Paul adds, that through Jesus’ sacrifice, we “will we be saved through him from the wrath of God.” (9) The whole idea of a wrathful God who also loves us has confused Christians down through the centuries. We have even expunged “wrath of God” form the hymn, “In Christ Alone” and substituted “love of God.”

I think many Lutherans, in their emphasis on grace, are very uncomfortable with the idea of a wrathful God. But I see God’s wrath as parental anger based in love. God, our father, is angry with us not because he wants to punish us, but because he loves us so deeply. Just as a father is sorrowful when he sees his children wander away and the commit evil acts makes him both angry and sorrowful. I think God responds to our rebellion in exactly the same manner. But as Paul points out, “we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.” (11)  It is Jesus who accomplishes the reconciliation between God the father and we his errant children. And it is hope and God’s love that are at the basis of our existence.

Psalm 37:1–7; Nehemiah 6:15–7:73a; Romans 4:13–25

Psalm 37:1–7: Alter informs us that this psalm is an alphabetic acrostic, with each stanza beginning with a Hebrew letter. I’m surmising that for a lengthy psalm such as this one, the acrostic was a useful memorization aid.

The verses read more like Proverbs than a psalm, and at first blush seems to be a collection of fairly didactic advice and fairly routine metaphors:
Do not be incensed by evildoers.
Do not envy those who do wrong.
For like grass they will quickly wither
and like green grass they will fade.” (2)

Regardless of its ordinariness as poetry, it’s advice is worth reflection and remembering, as:
Trust in the Lord and do good.
Dwell in the land and keep faith.
Take pleasure in the Lord,
that He grant you your heart’s desire.” (3,4)

For me, the most personally valuable advice is this:
Direct your way to the Lord.
Trust Him and He will act.” (5)

Of course there are many psalms, as well as many times in our lives where it seems like the psalmist—and we—are trusting God, but God remains silent. Or the desired outcome we’re praying for doesn’t occur. However, it’s also worth noting that the psalmist doesn’t say, “Trust  Him and He will do what you want.” Our desires and God’s actions do not necessarily align. Of course this is difficult to accept since it’s simply another way of stating that we are not in control of circumstances or events.

Equally important is that in trusting God involves waiting quietly: “Be still before the Lord and await Him.” (7a) In other words, patience is mandatory. Sigh.

Finally, a reminder that envy is unworthy of the person who waits upon God:
Do not be incensed by him who prospers,
by the man who devises evil schemes.” (7b)

Among the realities that haven’t changed in 4000 years is the fact that many who appear prosperous have become so by less than honorable means.

Nehemiah 6:15–7:73a: The Jerusalem walls are completed in a mere 52 days and their completion has a definite psychological effect on Judah’s neighbors: “all the nations around us were afraid and fell greatly in their own esteem; for they perceived that this work had been accomplished with the help of our God.” (6:16) These folks understood the seeming impossibility of the task of rebuilding and yet, here was Jerusalem fortified once again. Believing there was no human way this immense task could be completed, they acknowledge that Judah’s God is mighty indeed.

Turns out that many in Jerusalem were “bound by oath” to Tobiah, because they are related by marriage to him. These relatives are a two-way information conduit: “they spoke of his [Tobiah’s] good deeds in my presence, and reported my words to him.” Obviously, Tobiah demands special favors from Nehemiah, who will have none of it, rather tersely noting that “Tobiah sent letters to intimidate me.” (6:19)

Now that the walls are complete, the gates installed, and musicians and Levite administrators appointed, Nehemiah turns over day-to-day management to his brother Hanani. Nehemiah observes that his brother “was a faithful man and feared God more than many.” (7:3) Although I think we can be sure that blood relationship had something to do with this appointment as well.

Even though the Jerusalem project is complete, there is still more to do: “The city was wide and large, but the people within it were few and no houses had been built.” (7:4) This observation motivates Nehemiah to turn his attention to the inhabitants of Jerusalem: “Then my God put it into my mind to assemble the nobles and the officials and the people to be enrolled by genealogy.” (5)

Ever the thorough engineer/administrator, leaving no detail unattended to, Nehemiah finds the records in “the book of the genealogy of those who were the first to come back, and I found the following written in it:” (7:6) Which he then proceeds to do, naming towns, names and population figures. “The whole assembly together was forty-two thousand three hundred sixty, besides their male and female slaves, of whom there were seven thousand three hundred thirty-seven; and they had two hundred forty-five singers, male and female.” (66, 67) And of course, livestock is counted as well.

Finally, after Nehemiah provides a financial report, Jerusalem and the surrounding towns have effectively been restored and quotidian Jewish life resumes: “So the priests, the Levites, the gatekeepers, the singers, some of the people, the temple servants, and all Israel settled in their towns.” (73) What’s fascinating here is Nehemiah’s matter-of-factness contrasted with the awe (and not a little fear) that this project has created among Judah’s neighbors. Clearly, these Jews bear watching.

Romans 4:13–25: Paul’s lengthy disquisition on the nature of faith continues as he reminds us again that Abraham, the founding father of Judaism, predates the law: “the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith.” (13) In fact, he continues, if the law is the only way to God, then “faith is null and the promise is void,” (14) which would lead to the conundrum that without faith, Abraham cold not have been righteous before God, which in turn would cause Pharisaical heads to explode.

So therefore, as he puts it, “it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all [Abraham’s] descendants.” (16a) And since Abraham is the “father of many nations,” the promise of righteousness before God extends “not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham.” (16b) i.e., every human who has ever lived, is living, or will ever live.

Paul goes on to discuss Abraham’s (and Sarah’s) faith in detail, noting that “He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb.” (19) The lesson there for all of us is that no matter our infirmities or circumstances, there is no conceivable situation where faith does not operate. Abraham’s faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness,” (22) i.e., we come to God through faith, which Paul points out applies not only to Abraham, but to all of us.

Paul’s logic chain is impressive as it moves justification before God from applying only to Jewish adherents of the law to Abraham’s faith absent the law to faith being the gift that every person on earth can partake of. But at the end he adds the crucial ingredient that it is Jesus who has replaced the law. Faith “will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.” (24, 25) Paul will certainly have more to say about how Jesus Christ fits into the issue of faith.

Psalm 36; Nehemiah 5:1–6:14; Romans 4:1–12

Psalm 36: This psalm features a unique opening line as the psalmist takes an unexpected point of view as it imagines what “crime”—which I’ll take as evil physical or spiritual influences— would say as the interior dialog happening in the heart of a wicked man:
Crime’s utterance of the wicked
within his heart.” (2)

Unsurprisingly, crime/evil causes its victim to reject God first: “There is no fear of God/ before my eyes.” Then, a hint of the seductiveness of evil thoughts and actions follows: “For it caressed him with its eyes/ to find his sin of hatred.” (3) In other words, “crime” appears to be an outside force—perhaps the same force we personify as Satan— that captures a man’s heart and annihilates his conscience:
The words of his mouth are mischief, deceit,
he ceased to grasp things, to do good.” (4)

I think we have all encountered, or at least read about, people who personify evil. We usually call them sociopaths. Once ‘crime’ has taken over, the evil man is corrupted as
Mischief he plots in his bed,
takes his stand on a way of no good,
evil he does not surprise.” (5)

Our psalmist turns to the stark contrast of the righteous man who follows God understands that God is the wellspring of all that is good, even including looking out for the welfare of animals:
Your justice like the unending mountains,
Your judgement, the great abyss,
man and beast the Lord rescues.” (7)

The contrast between the darkness of evil is amplified as our psalmist sings the glories of God:
How dear is Your kindness, O God,
and the sons of men in Your wings’ shadow shelter.” (8)

Moreover, God supplies our every need as the psalmist uses a wonderful metaphor of God providing for our every physical and spiritual need:
They take their fill from the fare of Your house
and from Your stream of delights You give them drink.” (9)

In fact, God is the source of life:
For with You is the fountain of life.
In Your light we shall see light.” (10)

This verse certainly resonates with the opening of John’s gospel where we read that Jesus is the light of the world. Our psalmist concludes by reminding us of the evil person’s dark fate:
There did the doers of mischief fall.
They were toppled and did not rise.

We come away from this magnificent contrast between crime’s darkness and God’s light wondering why any rational person would reject God in favor of doing evil. Of course the answer is simple: in following God we must give up control to him. Crime seduces us into thinking we have control when it is in fact crime—Satan—to whom the evil person has sold his soul.

Nehemiah 5:1–6:14: As if rebuilding the city walls wasn’t enough, a famine has struck Judah and Nehemiah is now the focus of desperate pleas about how “we are many; we must get grain, so that we may eat and stay alive.” (5:2). There is financial desperation as well: “there were those who said, “We are having to borrow money on our fields and vineyards to pay the king’s tax.” (4) Worst of all, things are so awful that some parents must sell their children into slavery: “we are forcing our sons and daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters have been ravished; we are powerless, and our fields and vineyards now belong to others.” (5)

Nehemiah is moved by these complaints and goes to the nobles and officials, angrily telling them, “You are all taking interest from your own people.” (7) There is certainly nothing new about the 1% against the other 99%.  He points out that they should follow his example: “I and my brothers and my servants are lending them money and grain. Let us stop this taking of interest.” (10) Nehemiah’s arguments to get the officials to stop their usury is successful, as they tell him, “We will restore everything and demand nothing more from them. We will do as you say.” (12)

Nehemiah goes on to editorialize that as governor of Judah, he has been generous to the people and “neither I nor my brothers ate the food allowance of the governor.” (14) Rather, it has been the “former governors who were before me laid heavy burdens on the people, and took food and wine from them, besides forty shekels of silver. Even their servants lorded it over the people.” (15a) Nehemiah points out that his mercy does not arise out of the goodness of his heart, but “because of the fear of God.” (15b)

He himself is supporting 150 people, “Jews and officials, besides those who came to us from the nations around us.” (17) I’m pretty sure that Nehemiah was successful in getting the officials to relent their onerous taxation because he himself set the example. It would be nice to see Nehemiah’s humility and his example among our leaders today rather than the arrogance of power that seems to be their common feature.

The Jerusalem wall is finally completed and “it was reported to Sanballat and Tobiah and to Geshem the Arab and to the rest of our enemies that I had built the wall and that there was no gap left in it .” (6:1) Sanballat and Geshem try to entice Nehemiah into an off-site meeting, obviously intending to do Nehemiah harm. Nehemiah resists their invitation four times by saying he was too busy to meet.

But at the fifth round, Sanballat sends an letter that falsely asserts that Nehemiah “and the Jews intend to rebel; that is why you are building the wall; and according to this report you wish to become their king.” (6:6) But Nehemiah agains rebuffs these obvious attempts at besmirching his charter—an act that takes some courage.

Finally, Nehemiah goes to the house of Shemiah the prophet, who warns him that assassins are on the way and that he should hide in the temple. Nehemiah refuses and then “perceived and saw that God had not sent him [Shemiah] at all, but he had pronounced the prophecy against me because Tobiah and Sanballat had hired him.” (6:12) Shemiah was hired by the Sanballat party to get Nehemiah to “to intimidate me and make me sin by acting in this way, and so they could give me a bad name, in order to taunt me.” (13) But Nehemiah does not fall for these ruses.

Nehemiah is the outstanding example of a man who follows God, but also a man of deep discernment and insight into the devious ways of human nature. Unlike the evil man in the psalm, he does not listen to crime’s temptations. He is generous to those who have less and does not fall for stupid tricks, even those in the guise of prophecy. Would that we had leaders of such character and skill today.

Romans 4:1–12: Paul uses Abraham as the example of a man who did not justify himself before God by the law—what here Paul calls ‘works,’ i.e., what we do on our own to try to please God. All Abraham had to do was believe God: “For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” (3) After all, if we attempt to find salvation through works, we cancel out grace: “Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due.” (4) Then, to buttress his argument, Paul uses David as a further example, citing how “David speaks of the blessedness of those to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works.” (6)

Finally, to the crux of the matter, which involves the question of whether or not Gentile converts had to be circumcised: “Is this blessedness, then, pronounced only on the circumcised, or also on the uncircumcised?” (9a) The answer is blindingly obvious (to Paul anyway): “Faith was reckoned to Abraham as righteousness.” (9b) Faith is how we are justified; circumcision is not. After all, Abraham’s faith predates his circumcision: “It was not after, but before he was circumcised.” (10) Circumcision is merely a sign of faithfulness, not its prerequisite.

Psalm 35:19–28; Nehemiah 4; Romans 3:19–31

Psalm 35:19–28: Our psalmist continues to describe the nature of the enemies that have risen up against David, again reminding us that these enemies are deceptive and have acted without provocation:
Let not my unprovoked enemies rejoice over me,
let my wanton foes not leer.” (19)

Even worse, as well as against David, these enemies also array themselves against the defenseless, seeking to entrap them with false testimony:
For they do not speak peace
and against the earth’s quiet ones plot words of deceit.
They open their mouths wide against me.
They say, ‘Hurrah! Hurrah! Our eyes have seen it.’” (20, 21)

Notice also that their instrument of conspiracy is speech. This is something I think we fail to fully appreciate in our own culture: we forget that words alone have tremendous power whether for good or evil. And when those words are compressed to 140 characters, they can be especially misleading and harmful.

Our psalmist now turns to classic verses of supplication, attempting futilely, it seems, to get God to hear his cries, knowing that God, too, has witnessed the evil being perpetrated:
You, Lord, have seen, do not be mute.
O mater, do not keep far from me.
Rouse Yourself, wake for my cause,
my God and my Master, for my quarrel.” (22,23)

Above all, he asks God, do not allow them to enjoy a gloating victory:

Let them not say in their heart,
‘Hurrah for ourselves.” (25)

Yet, this is exactly what I too often do: to enjoy saying ‘Hurrah for me.” Instead, the psalmist continues,
Let them be shamed and abased one and all.
who rejoice in my harm.
Let them don shame and disgrace,
who vaunted over me.” (26)

Well, Jesus has been quite specific on this point, hasn’t he?

Regardless of what the psalmist says, while we may plead to God for rescue, we are not to wish harm on our enemies, but rather turn the other cheek. But the psalmist’s wish here is certainly our more typical response: “Rescue me God, and while you’re at it, punish the other guy.”

Nevertheless, we can sing with the psalmist in anticipation of God’s justice, “Great is the Lord/ Who desires His servant’s well-being.” (28) Because in the end, we know that God desires justice for us.

Nehemiah 4: Nehemiah has a doubly hard task. Not only must he oversee the rebuilding of the walls, but he constantly has to fight off opposition and conspiracies.

Sanballat is his primary foe, who when he “heard that we were building the wall, he was angry and greatly enraged, and he mocked the Jews.” (1) Not just anger, but mockery: “What are these feeble Jews doing? Will they restore things? Will they sacrifice? Will they finish it in a day? Will they revive the stones out of the heaps of rubbish—and burned ones at that?” (2). Sanballat’s buddy, Tobiah joins in, laughing that foxes will break down the wall.

Soon, mockery becomes full-fledged conspiracy to halt the rebuilding project, “and all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and to cause confusion in it.” (8). Nehemiah prays to God to make this to stop, but he also takes practical measures: “and [he] set a guard as a protection against them day and night.” (9)

In the midst of this, the workers themselves complain their work is hindered because “there is too much rubbish so that we are unable to work on the wall.” (10) They also fear their enemies, who are likely to catch them by surprise, “They will not know or see anything before we come upon them and kill them and stop the work.” (11) They repeat this complaint ten times!

Unlike the psalmist, who simply cries to God for rescue, Nehemiah takes action and builds a defensive perimeter and arms the workers: “So in the lowest parts of the space behind the wall, in open places, I stationed the people according to their families, with their swords, their spears, and their bows.” (13) Then, true leader that he is, he encourages the people by reminding them that God is indeed on their side: “Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your kin, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes.” (14)

From then on, half the people worked on the wall while the other half “held the spears, shields, bows, and body-armor; and the leaders posted themselves behind the whole house of Judah, who were building the wall.” (16,17) Even more remarkably, “each of the builders had his sword strapped at his side while he built.” (18)

I think the wall rebuilding project is a good metaphor for good governance. A key duty of the state is to protect its citizens while they work. But Nehemiah shows excellent balance: he provides protection so the work can continue but the protection does not become an end in itself. This is something a current president anxious to build a wall would do well to reflect on.

Romans 3:19–31: Paul makes the key point about the law: “it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.” (19) In other words, the law is a metric that shows how we have come short of it and sinned. “For “no human being will be justified in his sight” by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin.” (20) But in and of itself, the law does not, indeed, it cannot, justify ourselves before God.

Paul goes on to answer the unstated question, if not the law, where does righteousness come from? A simple answer to a complex question: “the righteousness of God [comes] through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” (22) Paul states (in a verse I memorized as a kid): “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (23) But as has been recently pointed out, this is not the complete sentence. Indeed, we “are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.” (24, 25) We cannot quote verse 23 without finishing the sentence that we are justified by faith in Jesus whom “God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood.” Moreover, God does not hold our past sins against us: “because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed.” (25)

However, Paul is quick to point out that just because we have been justified it is nothing to crow about as if we are fooling ourselves into thinking that we have somehow justified ourselves before God. “Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith.” (27) It’s remarkable how we humans can take the gift of grace and transform it into our own accomplishment—which of course makes it no longer grace at all.

Nor does our faith through grace give us permission to become lawbreakers: “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.” (31) In other words, we remain sinners and without the law as our means of measuring ourselves we become formless but sinful blobs of no value to ourselves—or to God.