Archives for March 2019

Psalm 41; Esther 9:18–10:3; Romans 10:14–11:6

Originally published 3/31/2015. Revised and updated 3/30/2019.

Psalm 41: While at first reading this psalm appears to be a psalm of supplication, it is actually one of thanksgiving—specifically, thanksgiving for healing from a grave illness. There are three short speeches that make up the structure and flow of the psalm. The first is the words of supplication prayed on his “couch of pain” (4):
I said, ‘Lord, grant me grace,
heal me, though I offended You.‘(5)

In keeping with the OT’s deuteronomic frame of reference, our psalmist prays for God’s grace in spite of his offenses before God.

We may routinely pray for healing, but rarely do we add “in spite of my offenses.” Rather, we focus on the healing without considering how deep God’s grace is: that he heals sinners like us who so frequently abandon him. And yes, while we no longer believe that sickness arises as a quid pro quo for our sinfulness, it is nonetheless worthwhile remembering how God’s perfection gracefully heals his imperfect creatures.

The second speech is given by the psalmist’s enemies:
My enemies said evil of me:
“When will he die and his name be lost?”(6)

[Notice, how the worst fate  of all is to lose one’s name—forgotten by his progeny.] His enemies amplify his suffering with their hypocritical visits to the psalmist on his sickbed:
And should one come to visit,
his heart spoke a lie.
He gathered up mischief,
went out, spoke abroad. (7)

In the second part of this second speech, this enemy eagerly anticipates the sick man’s death as the foe speaks again:
Some nasty thing is lodged in him.
As he lies down, he will not rise again. (9)

As a result, hopeless betrayal even by the one person he thought he could trust pervades the psalmist’s woes in the third speech:
Even my confidant, in whom I did trust,
who ate my bread,

was utterly devious with me. (10)

When one loses trust in one’s caregiver, all would seem to be lost. Are these words reflective of reality or is the psalmist simply being paranoid in his illness? In today’s culture, we would suspect vengeful paranoia as he adds,
O Lord, grant me grace, raise me up,
that I may pay them back. (11)

But above all he is determined not ot let his enemies win:
In this I shall know You desire me—
that my enemy not trumpet his conquest of me.

Both physical and emotional healing eventually comes and with it, gratitude to the One who heals:
And I, in my innocence, your sustained me
and made me stand before You forever. (13)

Once again, this is another psalm that so beautifully reflects our emotions, this time on our sickbed. We pray for healing; we are fearful, even paranoid. And when healing comes, with it also comes thanksgiving.

Esther 9:18–10:3: Modecai’s and Esther’s faithfulness, together with the uncle’s strategic instincts and the niece’s courage, have resulted in triumph for the Jews. Haman the plotter ends up being plotted against and pays with his life for his deviousness. As a result, the holiday of Purim comes into existence: “the Jews established and accepted as a custom for themselves and their descendants and all who joined them, that without fail they would continue to observe these two days every year.” (9:27). Like Passover and Yom Kippur, this joyful holiday is still celebrated in Israel in keeping with this story: “These days should be remembered and kept throughout every generation, in every family, province, and city; and these days of Purim should never fall into disuse among the Jews, nor should the commemoration of these days cease among their descendants.” (9:28)

We also should give credit to the wisdom and magnanimity of King Ahasuerus, who “made Mordecai the Jew … next in rank to King Ahasuerus.” (10:2)

In the late 1980’s I happened to be in Israel during the celebration of Purim and had the privilege to be with a family that included young children. Kids dress up in costumes and there are parties everywhere. It’s as if it’s Halloween but without the dark side. A far better thing, IMO, than the darkness that our culture has transformed All Hallows Eve into.

Romans 10:14–11:6: Having asserted that salvation comes through confession that Christ is our savior, Paul takes up the very practical problem of getting the Good News out to the world, i.e., carrying out the Great Commission: “But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?” (10:14)

In what would might call the foundation of the missionary movement, Paul uses Scripture to answer his question: “As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”” (15) Indeed, faith “comes from what is heard. [and] what is heard comes through the word of Christ.” (17) Which I will take as the basis for reading Scripture at worship and particularly, reading–and preaching from– the “word of Christ,” i.e., the Gospel. As a fan of lectionary readings, it’s great to discover the roots of this liturgical practice here in Romans.

Paul then turns to the Big Question: Has God abandoned his covenant with the Jews? He is quick to answer: “By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin.  God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew.” (11:1, 2a) Once again he cites Scripture, recalling how Elijah pleaded with God to save Israel. In that case, Paul continues, God’s reply is, “I have kept for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” (11:4)  A Jewish remnant remains, “chosen by grace.” But even so, they must accept God’s grace rather than the Law: “…if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace would no longer be grace.” (11:6)

Editorial: I was raised in a church where the only scripture read was what was being preached on. The lectionary–OT, Psalms, NT and Gospel– became both a deeply meaningful and beautiful part of worship when I came to Saint Matthew. Now that we have moved to the Evangelical approach and dropped the pericopes (for reasons of time?) I miss them greatly, and note that for many people it is the only time they will experience the depth and richness of hearing the Hebrew Scriptures, the emotional range and beauty of the psalms and the Good News within the same hour. Which, now that I think about it, is why I so value the discipline of these Moravian readings. If Paul can base his arguments on Hebrew Scripture, then so should we.



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

Originally published 3/30/2017. Revised and updated 3/29/2019.

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.

The psalmist’s enthusiasm is evident 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 had abandoned God for a period—and in contrast to God’s numerous blessings, he committed had committed an almost equal number of crimes:
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 that request that we see so often in psalms of supplication. He prays 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)

His prayer for the destruction of his enemies intensifies:
Let them be devastated on the heels of their shame,
who say to me, ‘Hurrah! Hurrah!’ (16)

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?

Just as quickly the emotional storm desiring retribution against those who have hurt him passes. He turns once again to look to God:
Let all who seek You
exult and rejoice in You.
May they always say, ‘God is great!’—
those who love Your rescue. (17)

By the end of this psalm, there’s no question that we can pray together with the psalmist in real humility:
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 truly was was eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth all the way. And we need to remember that the Jews did not take the plunder. It was pure vengeance. Nothing more.

And it all came to pass because of Esther’s courage.

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 in 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—together with the Great Commission—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.

I think this happens because zealots have ignored 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, I think 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 leads tothe public affirmation of our faith.

Psalm 40:1–8; Esther 6,7; Romans 9:22–33

Originally published 3/28/2015. Revised and updated 3/28/2019.

Psalm 40:1–8: Unlike the dark musings of the previous psalm, this psalm opens on a bright note of thanksgiving. God has heard and answered our psalmist:
I urgently hoped for the Lord.
He bent down toward me and heard my voice. (2)

Of even greater importance is that God rescued him:
He brought me up from the roiling pit,
from the thickest mire. (3)

There is an catalog of joyous renewal following rescue:
He set my feet on a crag,
and made my steps firm.
And he put in my mouth a new song—
praise to our God. (4)

God listens, answers, and then in a gesture of grace, renews us. God does more for us than we can ever expect or hope for. ANd it is from God—not false small-g gods—when our joy comes:
Happy the man who puts
in the Lord his trust
and does not turn to the sea monster gods
and to false idols. (5)

While we may worship sea-monsters, we all certainly have false idols—wealth, power, the usual list— that are far too easy to worship instead of God.

With this introduction of rescue and renewal, our psalmist now sings his new song.
Many things You have done—You,
O Lord our God–Your wonders!
And Your plans for us—
none can match You. (6).

So, what are God’s plans for us? Does he carefully map out or lives, as some believe, choosing our spouse, our career, our offspring, the time of our demise? I do not believe so. Instead, I think God’s plans are that he has given us the freedom of will, knowing that his plans for us to lead a joyous life—deep joy being suffused with love, happiness, and sorrow—will be fulfilled as long as we follow in his ways. But with that free will, we are to make the right choices and above all, following and worshipping God.

I’m pretty sure God is not looking to have a relationship with automatons, but with humans in all our joy, their flaws and ous seeking after God, knowing that we are loved.

Esther 6,7: In a bout of insomnia, the king orders the book of records to be read. (Nothing like a boring record book to be lulled back to sleep!). The records describes Mordecai’s successful efforts in foiling the plot to assassinate the king. The king wonders, “What honor or distinction has been bestowed on Mordecai for this?” (6:3) and orders that robes, a horse and other honors be bestowed on Mordecai. In a wonderful cinematic twist—the very definition of irony—the king’s emissary happens to be Haman, just arriving at that very moment to announce his intention to hang Mordecai. Instead, the king has given the duty instead to honor the Jew whom he plans to kill.

Haman is depressed, to say the least, about this dreadful turn of events. As he is commiserating with his wife and friends, “the king’s eunuchs arrived and hurried Haman off to the banquet that Esther had prepared.” (6:14)

Our author has prepared a brilliant setup, and Haman flings headlong into the trap. On the second day of Esther’s party, the king asks, “What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.” (7:2). Notice that Esther approach the king. She clearly understands how men think!

Esther doubtless surprises the king with the answer to his request: “if it pleases the king, let my life be given me—that is my petition—and the lives of my people.” (7:3) We can be sure the king was not expecting this!

In a brilliantly clever and insightful move that appeals directly to the king’s ego, Esther frames the wrong being done to her people as an insult to the king himself: “If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king.” (7:4) Esther does not have to accuse Haman herself because the king asks, “Who is he, and where is he, who has presumed to do this?” (7:5). Esther names Haman.

An ordinary author would have ended the story there, but this author adds one final twist to seal Haman’s fate. The king leaves the banquet hall in wrath and Haman throws himself literally on Esther’s couch, begging for mercy. The king returns, sees Haman effectively on top of Esther and shouts, “Will he even assault the queen in my presence, in my own house?” (7:8) Haman’s fate is completely sealed and in another nice irony is hung on the gallows he had prepared for Mordecai.

Again, we need to be careful not to read a lot of theology into this marvelous story of courage and cleverness. It’s just a cracking good story—and it’s no wonder it has been preserved. I never tire of reading it and seeing how good triumphs over evil. With this story of Esther we receive a brilliant real-life example of the numerous places in the Psalms where the psalmist prays for the wicked to receive their comeuppance.

Romans 9:22–33: Paul continues his essay on the relationship between Israel and Gentiles with a dense argument about how God, “desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power,” (22) decided to simply destroy humanity? But instead, Paul argues, that God would prefer to “make known the riches of his glory for the objects of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory” (23). We are the objects of God’s glory. And the “we” includes both Jews and Gentiles. Paul puts an entirely new spin on his quote from Hosea:
“Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’
    and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’”
“And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’
    there they shall be called children of the living God.” (25, 26)

But now Paul defines the “You are not my people” as the Gentiles. He goes on to note that as far as Israel is concerned, “only a remnant of them will be saved.” (27)

He then makes a simple but dramatic comparison between Israel and Gentiles: “Gentiles, who did not strive for righteousness, have attained it, that is, righteousness through faith; but Israel, who did strive for the righteousness that is based on the law, did not succeed in fulfilling that law.” (30)

Israel fails to come to God for one simple reason: “Because they did not strive for it on the basis of faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone,” (32). In short, the works became the end unto themselves, not the expression of a deeper faith in God. 

It’s easy for us to condemn Israel for its obsession with works. yet, we do exactly the same thing when we think faith is about what we do—go to church, do good works, give money—not who we are before God. And it is faith that is the key to our relationship with God.

Nevertheless, it’s far too easy for our works to become the end not the means as we reflect on how “good” we are and how we have somehow made God happy by dint of our efforts, when it’s completely the other way round. Without faith, works are dead. Something I think that finally became quite clear to Martin Luther. Would that it would becomes as clear to me.

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

Originally published 3/28/2017. Revised and updated 3/27/2019.

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, our poet asks for God’s protection. Here, though, it is not just being shielded from the taunts of 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)

This is certainly good advice for all of us: to keep our mouths shut and our arms at our side when we encounter the taunts of those who would mock or demean us. 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, the psalmist’s discouragement outweighs joy.

Esther 4,5: Haman’s genocidal 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 also “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 truth about what’s going on from Mordecai. He gives Hathach 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 up 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 counterexample 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 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’s will alone and “God who shows mercy.” (16) Paul follows with yet another example to illustrate his point, 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) This sounds like another proof verse for Calvin’s ideas about predestination.

Paul addresses our (my, anyway) rather logical response to this assertion that we therefore are mere automata as far as God is concerned when we (I) 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. Paul anticipates our response by preempting our (my) question:  “Why have you made me like this?” (20) Good question.

In the end, Paul asserts that 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 inevitably 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 39:1–6; Esther 2:19–3:15; Romans 8:34–9:7

Originally published 3/26/2015. Revised and updated 3/26/2019.

Psalm 39:1–6: This reflection on life’s ephemerality oopens with the psalmist’s resolution to remain quiet in front of wicked people:
I thought: ‘Let me keep my ways from offending with my tongue.’
Let me keep a muzzle on my mouth
as long as the wicked is before me. (2)

Once again we see the critical role of the human voice as the thing that separates the inner consciousness from being seen and heard by the rest of the world. Speech and language are what has set mankind apart from the rest of God’s creation.

But muteness only intensifies our poet’s already existing pain—whether physical or psychological doesn’t really matter:
I was mute–in silence. 
I kept still, deprived of good,
and my pain was grievous. (3)

But as the poet reflects on his dire lot, his emotions begin to boil over and he can remain silent no longer:
My heart was hot within me.
In my thoughts a fire burned.
I spoke with my tongue. (4)

It becomes clear that he’s been reflecting on life’s brevity. Now he speaks aloud, questioning God how long he has to live:
Let me know, O Lord, my end
and what is the measure of my days.  (5a).

The third line of the verse intensifies this sense of life’s fleetingness:
I would know how fleeting I am. (5b)

Not waiting for God’s response, the psalmist answers his own question in a striking parallel (anticipation?) of a major theme of Ecclesiastes:
Look, mere handspans You made my days.
Mere breath is each man standing. (6)

As I grow older, this psalm increasingly reflects my own realization of life’s mere “breath.” I behave as if we are immortal, but the reality is that in the larger scheme of God’s creation, we flicker into fire for but a moment–and then our flame goes out. The real question is, who are we and what have we done during that brief interval?

Esther 2:19–3:15: Esther is now queen, but no one—least of all the king—knows her Jewish roots: “Esther had not revealed her kindred or her people, as Mordecai had charged her” (2:20), Mordecai overhears a plot to assassinate King Ahasuerus., which information he passes to Esther, who in turn tells the king. The conspirators are promptly hanged. This part of the story is crucial because it demonstrates that Esther has doubtless earned the king’s trust.

King Ahasuerus promotes a certain Haman to the position of chief of staff. He becomes the second most important man in the kingdom. His power goes to his head ad he demands obeisance from everyone in the kingdom. But Mordecai refuses to bow down. Haman decides to rid the kingdom of these obnoxious, irreverent Jews. Haman using what is essentially a 10,000 talent bribe talks the king into issuing an edict “giving orders to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all Jews, young and old, women and children, in one day, the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, and to plunder their goods.” (3:13) The decree goes out, but with masterful understatement, our author notes that “The king and Haman sat down to drink; but the city of Susa was thrown into confusion.” (3:15).

We can only imagine what this “confusion” was. I’m sure people were wondering why would the king issue an order to kill the people who had been living peacefully among them for so many years. From the perspective of the 21st century, this is racism taken to its logical, evil conclusion for a reason that is trivial. But Haman also reminds us that there is no limit to the evil of the human heart–especially when its pride is wounded and it possesses substantial power.

Romans 8:34–9:7: Paul’s words of encouragement suggest that the Roman Christians lived in real fear of sin and consequently, death eternally separating them from the saving power of Jesus Christ. Paul reminds them (us) that “it is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.” (8:34). Moreover this intercession is bathed in love, whose power is such that we can never be separated from Christ.

And then in one of the most powerful and encouraging verses in all of Paul’s writings, he tells us, “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us:

I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (8:37-39)

It is to this verse that we (I) can cling when we are bathed in doubt as to the reality of our faith. Faith and love are intertwined through Christ. Even though we may feel separated, it is just that: a feeling. The reality is that we are fully enmeshed in Christ’s love for us.

Paul then turns to the relationship of Israel to the intercessory power of Jesus Christ. He begins on an emotional note, remembering his own Jewishness and how he wishes other Jews would see and experience what he has seen and experienced: the salvific love of Jesus Christ. “For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh.” (9:3). He reminds us that it is from Israel that their—and our—Messiah has arisen: “to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever.” (9:5).

And then, in a striking passage that suggests (to me, anyway) that Paul is not only arguing to convince his listeners, but himself as well, “It is not as though the word of God had failed.” (3:6) Here, he begins a disquisition on how Jews and Gentiles are related. “For not all Israelites truly belong to Israel, and not all of Abraham’s children are his true descendants.” (9:6b, 7)

For a Jew, the idea that Christianity arises out of its Jewish roots is revolutionary:  “It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.” (9:7) Paul is about to turn a couple thousand years of Jewish monotheistic exclusivity on its head… No wonder the Jews in Jerusalem saw him as a dangerous heretic.

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

Originally published 3/25/2017. Revised and updated 3/25/2019.

Psalm 38:18–23: Our psalmist, still speaking in David’s voice, 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 this repugnant sin 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—that David had unshakable faith even when God seemed to be absent. Even in the most dire circumstances David looks first to his own inherent sinfulness and and then to his willingness to confess his sins even when the situation is perilous. His enemies are proliferating and gaining strength. They conspire to defeat him even though he has strived to do good to them and certainly has done  no wrong to those conspiring against him:
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 such as those we find in other psalms. But that’s what brilliant about the psalms: they show us the panoply of human emotion—and remind us that God will listen to us no matter our emotional state. We do not need to botte up our feelings when we know we can come to God and shake our fist at him.

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 been 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 rounded up—we assume without her agreement—into the king’s 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, each 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 real 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 two millennia after Paul wrote these words, his statement has 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) This adoption must surely be the “resurrection of the dead” in our Creeds.

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 second 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 still 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) We do not have to be psalmists to come before God; in fact we do not even have to pray using words. 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 often 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)

As for things “working together for good,” I think 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 over the long run.

Paul then writes what to me are two controversial verses that have taken the church in directions that have been a stumbling block since Calvin in the 16th century, IMHO. Since God knows everything, Paul asserts, our lives are predetermined: “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.” (29, 30)

I think that Calvin has taken Paul’s statement too far as he develops the concept of “the elect.” That there’s a club of saved people and all others have been predestined by God to be excluded. 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. Which is also why I cannot buy into strict predestination. God is far more generous. EVery person has the opportunity to follow Jesus.

We often hear that “God has a plan for your life” and these verses about predestination are 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 designed a precise path for us to follow, usually unwittingly. Otherwise, what is free will all about?

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)

Once again, Paul reminds us of God’s unfathomable generosity.

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

Originally published 3/24/2017. Revised and updated 3/23/2019.

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

He describes his present situation with a mournful elegance that is a beautiful model for us to pray when we feel hurt and abandoned by our friends or 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 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 is frozen, unable to reply to his accusers:
But like the deaf I do not hear,
and like the mute whose mouth will not open.
I become like a man who does not hear

and has no rebuke in his mouth. (14, 15)

So, when all hope is lost, David—and the psalmist and all of us—are left with but one place to turn; one person who will listen and answer:
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. Some may dismiss this as “foxhole prayers,” but I think that’s because they have never been in so dire a situation that they feel so abandoned and in such mortal danger.

Esther 1: This narrative history of one of the great post-exilic heros of Israel is written from a strictly human point of view. But it is a wonderful story of cleverness and courage that has resonated down the centuries. While the word “God” does not appear in this book, 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.

One of the remarkable facts we learn 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 in his harem will surely 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 eunuch named Memucan, also advises that the king divorce Vashti, that he banish her from court, and that he seek out a replacement queen.

And as if to illustrate just how different this culture was from ours, we have one of the Bible’s strongest statements about the power of patriarchy: “So when the decree made by the king is proclaimed throughout all his kingdom, vast as it is, all women will give honor to their husbands, high and low alike.” (20)

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 [Holy] Spirit of God dwells in you.” (9a) Moreover, “Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.” (9b) In fact, for Christians, the Spirit is our actual life-giving force: “But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.” (10) We may be alive physically, but we are dead spiritually.

Employing typical 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 control of ourselves as 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 on God directly: “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” (15)

And as God’s adopted children we are written into God’s 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 38:1–8; Nehemiah 13:15–31; Romans 7:21–8:8

Psalm originally posted 3/22/2018. Revised 3/22/2019

Psalm 38:1–9: In a radical change of tone and theme, the theme of assurance found in the preceding psalm that God will always bless the righteous is blown up here by desperate supplication. The opening line, “Lord, do not rebuke me in Your fury/ nor chastise me in Your wrath,” is a plea to escape God’s anger at some unspecified sin the psalmist has committed. Whatever he may have done, he believes he has provoked God to the point where,
Your arrows have come down upon me,
and upon me has come down Your hand.

We assume that both the arrows and the right hand are metaphorical, but there’s little question the psalmist believes he is experiencing rather dreadful consequences of whatever sin he has committed. Here the punishment has come to him in the form of some all-consuming disease:
There is no whole place in my flesh through Your rage,
no soundness in my limbs through my offense.

As we know, in this pre-medical age, the only explanation for illness was the belief that it had a direct correlation to sin, or in the case of pagan societies, that one had offended the gods. This was certainly the case in Jesus’ time and even today, there are people who believe that illness arises from God’s anger at one’s sinfulness. I will never forget the ostensible Christians, who in 1980 accused my friend Steve, who contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion that he must have sinned greatly to be so cruelly punished by God.

Here, our poet is convinced that his disease is a direct consequence of his sin:
My crimes have welled over my head,
like a heavy burden, too heavy for me.

While I believe that there is no direct correlation between sin and disease, there is no question that sin can “well over our head,” driving us to the same desperation that he describes here. If we do not turn to Jesus’ saving grace then surely we, too, will be overwhelmed.

We can hear the pathos in his voice as he describes the gruesome details of his illness, but always freighted with self-blame:
My sores make a stench, have festered
through my folly
I am twisted, I am all bent
.” (6,7)

Disease accompanied by guilt result in deep depression as his entire being is consumed by intense suffering:
All day long I go about gloomy.
For my innards are filled with burning
and there is no whole place in my flesh.
” (8)

If ever we needed a vivid description of the pain that accompanies a death by cancer, it is right here. I well remember the unbearable pain of my friend Bill experienced as he died of advanced prostate cancer in 2011. I’m pretty sure it’s the pain of some cancer as we hear the poet cry out in agony:
I grow numb and am utterly crushed.
I roar from my heart’s churning.

Nehemiah 13:15–31: Nehemiah’s reforms continue apace. This time he sees “people treading wine presses on the sabbath, and bringing in heaps of grain and loading them on donkeys; and also wine, grapes, figs, and all kinds of burdens, which they brought into Jerusalem on the sabbath day.” (15a) He remonstrates against the Judean equivalent of food trucks: “I warned them at that time against selling food.. (15b)

Nehemiah is not just being an annoying bureaucrat here. He warns the people of dire consequences by reminding them about what happened to their forebears: “Did not your ancestors act in this way, and did not our God bring all this disaster on us and on this city? Yet you bring more wrath on Israel by profaning the sabbath.” (18)

Being the clever leader he is, he locks the gates to the city, preventing sabbath commerce. The merchants spent a couple of nights waiting outside the gates for the sabbath to end. However, Nehemiah warns them again: “Why do you spend the night in front of the wall? If you do so again, I will lay hands on you.” (21a) This threat does the trick and “ From that time on they did not come on the sabbath.” (21b)

I remember back in the 1950s and 60s when Sunday was a day when stores were closed and pretty much all business ceased. Now Sunday is apparently the busiest shopping day of the week. I think our culture has lost much by eliminating that day of rest and substituting 24/7/365 endless merchandising.

We remember from earlier in this book that the Jews who had married foreigners were forced to send their wives and children away. Apparently this lesson was insufficient because Nehemiah reports, “I saw Jews who had married women of Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab; and half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod, and they could not speak the language of Judah, but spoke the language of various peoples.” (23)

Nehemiah more than strongly condemns intermarriage, he takes physical action: “I contended with them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair; and I made them take an oath in the name of God, saying, “You shall not give your daughters to their sons, or take their daughters for your sons or for yourselves.” (25) 

Even worse, priests are intermarrying, including the son-in-law of his Nehemiah, the wily Sanballat. Nehemiah exiles him and tells the remaining Levites to cleanse themselves. He also reorganized the priesthood: “I established the duties of the priests and Levites, each in his work.” (30)

This autobiography ends with Nehemiah’s reminder to God that he has done the right things asking in prayer: “Remember me, O my God, for good.” (31) This verse is a stark reminder that grace was absent in Judah. Even devout men such as Nehemiah were afraid that God would abandon them because they had not done the right things. We can truly be grateful for Jesus coming to us with salvation instead of than our futile efforts to appease a a strict yet just God.

Romans 7:21–8:8: Paul observes that it his nature—and by implication all of human nature—that “I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.” (7:21) Boy, is that true! Paul says what we all know to be true of ourselves. We may love Christ intellectually, but we are still sinners: “So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin.” (7:25)

But the good news is that our sinfulness does not sever our relationship with Jesus Christ. Paul says famously, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (8:1)

And here we arrive at the core theology of Paul. We humans are incapable of hewing to the law. God has realized this and “God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh.” (8:3)

This leaves us with a binary choice: “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.” (8:5) It’s all about who’s in control: we can choose to retain control, or a Paul puts it, set our minds on the flesh. Or we can (to use Oswald Chambers’  construction) abandon ourselves to God and allow the Holy Spirit to direct our actions. But relinquishing control is mighty difficult—at least for me.

Paul makes it starkly clear: “the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot.” (8:7) Or to put it even more starkly, when we retain control, “those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” (8:8).  I have to believe that this last assertion hit Martin Luther squarely between his eyes.

Psalm 37:34–40; Nehemiah 12:44–13:14; Romans 7:7–20

Originally published 3/21/2015. Revised and updated 3/20/2017.

Psalm 37:34-40: For those who endeavor to “hope for the Lord and keep His way” (34a) this exercise can be frustrating at best:
I have seen an arrogant wicked man
taking root like a flourishing plant. (35)

There are examples of the crooked and shady all around us becoming rich and famous, while those of us who toil honestly seem to miss out. Nevertheless, there is the promise that wickedness will fade into oblivion—hopefully sooner rather than later:
He passes on, and, look, he is gone,
I seek him, and he is not found. (36).

We see examples of celebrities disgraced and powerful men going off to jail frequently. With the psalmist, we can say that there is some justice after all. In the end, as my father used to say, ‘the chickens come home to roost.” Their fame and power is ephemeral.

What’s important here is our focus needs to be on God. Only then will we find our way and avoid the fate of the wicked:
Watch the blameless, look to the upright,
for the man of peace has a future. 
And transgressors one and all are destroyed,
the future of the wicked cut off. (37, 38)

Once again we see the idea that the wicked will ultimately receive their just desserts. In the psalmist’s culture the “cut off future” means they will have no progeny who would remembers them. Things will turn out all right for us in the end because we trust in God
The rescue of the just is from the Lord, 
their stronghold in time of distress. (39)

But getting to that point of rescue does not mean we will escape suffering along the way. Too many people believe that if they become Christians that everything about their lives will become what they see the wicked enjoying around them. But we need only remember Jesus at Gethsemane and what followed. Rescue indeed came, and it comes for us. Although that can be very difficult to remember in times of suffering our psalist reminds us that God’s promise of freedom remains:
And the Lord will help them and free them,
He will free them from the wicked and rescue them,
for they have sheltered in Him. (40)

Nehemiah 12:44–13:14: The concluding verses of Nehemiah record how service in the temple resumes with the Levites in charge. As had happened in the past, the law is read aloud. As the people of Israel listen, they realize again that they are a special people set apart. And in the theme of today’s psalm, Nehemiah writes, “our God turned the curse into a blessing.” (13:2) Judah has suffered, but by turning to God, curses become blessings.

This remarkable book ends more or less as it began: Nehemiah is the one man who demonstrates responsibility in following the law of God—and he takes the initiative. Nehemiah leaves Jerusalem on a business trip: “I was not in Jerusalem, for in the thirty-second year of King Artaxerxes of Babylon I went to the king. After some time I asked leave of the king and returned to Jerusalem.” (13:6, 7a)

In his absence, the priest Eliashib remodeled a storeroom where the various offerings of grain, wine and oil and other sacramental items had been stored in the temple into living quarters for a certain Tobiah. Clearly, the temple is dedicated to one purpose and one purpose only: worshipping God. It is not to be living quarters for anyone. Nehemiah also discovers that the Levites have been cheated from their rightful due: “I also found out that the portions of the Levites had not been given to them; so that the Levites and the singers, who had conducted the service, had gone back to their fields.” (13:10)

So, once again, Nehemiah has to set things right and he appoints trustworthy men to oversee temple operations. Ever faithful, Nehemiah again prays, “Remember me, O my God, concerning this, and do not wipe out my good deeds that I have done for the house of my God and for his service.” (13:14) I think this is the only book in the Bible that concludes with a prayer. As always, Nehemiah’s focus as leader has been on God. Everything else he does and says flows from his faithfulness. Would that all my actions flow from my faith rather than my selfish motives.

 Romans 7:7–20: In this passage Paul is addressing those new Christians, probably Gentiles, who have said that the Law is not only an impediment to following Jesus Christ, but is itself sinful. Paul corrects this misconception in the strongest possible terms: “What then should we say? That the law is sin? By no means!” (7a) On the contrary, Paul continues,  the purpose of the Law is to stand as a metric to identify sin: “if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. (7) In fact, the Law itself “is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good.” (12) It is not the law that is sin; rather, it is we, whom the law has exposed as being hopelessly sinful, who are ultimately dead.

The law also exposes that if we are honest with ourselves, we will realize that we are creatures of inner conflict caused by “the flesh, sold into slavery under sin,” (14) In one of the most famous verses in this book—and one I can certainly identify with— Paul expresses the frustration and conflict created by our own sinful nature: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. “ (15)

The point is—and as the Scriptures demonstrate again and again—we cannot come to righteousness on our own. Our inherently sinful nature makes that impossible: “I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.” (18)

Here is Martin Luther’s crucial insight: we cannot achieve righteousness before God on our own. Rather,  we are cursed to “not do the good [we] want, but the evil I do not want is what [we] do.” (19). It is essential to recognize this grim reality of our human nature. Call it “original sin” or not. It really doesn’t matter. People who believe they are inherently “good” simply have not examined themselves and their motivations thoroughly enough. They would rather live with illusion and not face the grim reality of our inherently sinful nature.

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

Originally published 3/21/2017. Revised and updated 3/20/2019.

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 from evil and do good
and abide forever.

Once again he observes God’s faithfulness:
For the Lord loves justice
and will not forsake His faithful.

The name and deeds of the faithful person will endure down through the generations but, as usual, the fate of the wicked is quite the opposite—the fate being that they will not sire progeny and thus be forgotten to history:
They are guarded forever
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 possessing 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)

Nevertheless, despite these trials, God’s promise to never abandon the faithful person trumps all else. Even if the just man is defeated by evil, in the long run God’s justice will override that 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 he sent 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 everyone: “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 original 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. 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 to an analogy 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) The law was worse than any husband because it held us captive as sinners.

Perhaps not convinced by his own metaphor, Paul 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.” Even so,, the analogy to slaves really doesn’t carry the day in our present culture. I think we find the institution of slavery to be so repugnant that our minds hang up there and really cannot make the mental leap that Paul is aiming for,