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…

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