Archives for May 2019

Psalm 71:1–8; Proverbs 23; 2 Corinthians 5:16–6:2

Originally published 6/01/2017. Revised and updated 5/31/2019.

Psalm 71:1–8: Although this psalm appears to be a psalm of supplication, it opens on a fairly positive note that reflects the poet’s faith that God is indeed listening. It seems more of a meditation, lacking the sense of desperate urgency that permeated the previous psalm. Nevertheless, there is the usual request for God to prevent shame coming upon him:
In You, O Lord, I shelter.
Let me never be shamed.
Through Your bounty save me and free me.
Incline Your ear and rescue me. (1,2)

Here, God both provides shelter and rescues our supplicant:
Be for me a fortress-dwelling
to come into always.
You ordained to rescue me,
for You are my rock and my bastion. (3)

I wonder how often we think of God as protection and shelter? Yes, we know that God loves us, but I think we tend to forget that one of the key roles of God the father and also that of a human father is as protector and provider. I think in our cultural rush to blur sexual distinctiveness in the name of equality, we have forgotten that husbands and fathers have been protectors of their families down through history. This is wired into male genes, I think. And we certainly have before us ample evidence of the breakdown of families where a protective father is not in the picture.

Now we come to the nature of the poet’s plea. As usual, he is beset by enemies who wish to do him harm:
My God, free me from the hand of the wicked,
from the grip of the wicked and violent.
For You are my hope, Master,
O Lord, my refuge since youth. (4,5)

The last line of verse 5 suggests that our poet is advanced in age We have the sense that the psalmist has been in dire straits before and that this plea is simply one more time that he comes to God who he already knows has consistently watched over him since his birth:
Upon You I relied from birth.
From my mother’s womb You brought me out.
To You is my praise always. (6)

Our psalmist must have been well known in his community and it is to him and his faith in God’s sure rescue that others have drawn their own faith in God’s rescuing power:
An example I was to the many,
and You are my sheltering strength.” (7)

The question of course is now that I am old how good an example of faithfulness have I been to others? I fear I cannot echo the psalmist here.

Proverbs 23: Our author is certainly on a roll as he provides full-throated advice to those I take to be his offspring. Much of the advice is cast in the negative: Do not do this; do not do that. And some of his advice is downright puzzling:
When you sit down to eat with a ruler,
    observe carefully what is before you,
and put a knife to your throat

    if you have a big appetite. (1,2)

Other statements, however, make a good deal of sense:
Do not wear yourself out to get rich;
    be wise enough to desist.
When your eyes light upon it, it is gone;

    for suddenly it takes wings to itself,
    flying like an eagle toward heaven. (4,5)

This statement about working hard for an ephemeral reward reminds me of newly-minted MBAs who go to work on Wall Street, putting in endless hours to become “masters of the universe” without ever asking themselves to what end are they working. Are they any happier? Our author certainly suggests that deep down they are not.

We then encounter what to our culture is perhaps the most controversial verses of all:
Do not withhold discipline from your children;
    if you beat them with a rod, they will not die.
If you beat them with the rod,
    you will save their lives from Sheol. (13)

Punishing a child for wrongdoing is an effective way of teaching them there are consequences to their wrong action—and was so down through history until the present age. Clearly, the author is not advocating abuse, for abuse is not discipline. I think the American habit of treating children as miniature adults and making anodyne statements like, “You need to make a better choice,” rather than confronting them with a more severe consequence is at least partly responsible for the many whiny snowflakes that seem to be part of the culture these days. (Spoken like the curmudgeon I am.)

We should choose our company wisely:
Do not be among winebibbers,
    or among gluttonous eaters of meat;
for the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty,
    and drowsiness will clothe them with rags. (20, 21)

In fact, there is quite a bit of advice about the perils of alcoholic overindulgence as he asks and answers:
Who has woe? Who has sorrow?
    Who has strife? Who has complaining?
Who has wounds without cause?
    Who has redness of eyes?
Those who linger late over wine,
    those who keep trying mixed wines.
Do not look at wine when it is red,
    when it sparkles in the cup
    and goes down smoothly. (29-31)

To which he appends a memorable description of a hangover:
At the last it bites like a serpent,
    and stings like an adder.
Your eyes will see strange things,
    and your mind utter perverse things. (32, 33)

The chapter concludes with a startlingly apt description of an alcoholic’s drunken mumbling:
They struck me,” you will say, “but I was not hurt;
    they beat me, but I did not feel it.
When shall I awake?
    I will seek another drink. (35)

The line about “I was not hurt” reminds me of drunk drivers who kill others while surviving themselves.

I wonder how many hungover college students might have benefited from the advice contained in this chapter?

2 Corinthians 5:16–6:2: Paul speaks of the transformation of Jesus into the resurrected Christ: “even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.” (5:16) Which leads to the most well-known verse in this epistle about the transformation we ourselves experience when we are in Christ: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (5:17)

It is through Christ that we are able to approach God, “who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.” (18) Paul says God sent Jesus to earth in order to effect this reconciliation because, as John’s gospel tells us, “God so loved the world that he sent his only son.” Paul of course states the same fact in fancier theological dress: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (5:21)

This reconciliation with God also brings an enormous responsibility: we are the ones who must witness to others—not just in our words, but in our actions: “So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” (5:20)

This grace of reconciliation is immediately available to us. Paul’s enthusiasm is contagious. Don’t wait around just making pronouncements. Do something! Or as Paul puts it, “we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain.” (6:1) After all, it’s immediately available: “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” (6:2) Yet, it’s so easy when we’re confronted with the urgency of the gospel and our responsibility to spread the good news to simply respond, “Maybe tomorrow.”



Psalm 70; Proverbs 22; 2 Corinthians 5:1–15

Originally published 5/31/2017. Revised and updated 5/30/2019.

Psalm 70: This compact psalm of supplication includes all the requisite structural elements of  the genre. (Side note: Alter notes that this psalm is essentially the same psalm as Psalm 40 and then provides syntactical reasons, which I will not elaborate, as to why Palm 40 is based on the present psalm.)

The first element is the cry to God for help—and that he better hurry:
God save me,
Lord, to my help, hasten! (2)

The second element is the desire for God to reverse the position of the psalmist and his enemies, i..e, that the public shame and threats they are heaping on him be brought upon his numerous enemies who seek to do him harm:
May those who seek my life be shamed and reviled.
May they fall back and be disgraced,
who desire my harm.
Let them turn back on the heels of their shame,
who say, ‘Hurrah, hurrah!’ (3, 4)

Notice that unlike many other psalms of supplication, this one does not wish for his enemies’ annihilation, only that they enjoy the same shameful fate he himself is experiencing.

The third element is the obligation of righteous men who have been rescued by God to respond in joyful worship:
Let all who seek You
exult and rejoice,
may they always say ‘God is great!’
—those who love Your rescue. (5)

The concluding element is the psalmist again pleading to God—this time underscoring his abject humility—to rescue him, and again asking for the rescue to be speedy:
As for me, I am lowly and needy.
God, O hasten to me!
My help, the one who frees me You are.
Lord, do not delay! (7)

This final verse provides the other side of the poetic envelope that gives this psalm its urgent power. This is a structure we would do well to remember in our prayers of supplication. It’s not just asking God to do something, but always remembering that God is faithful, that he hears our pleas, that he deserves our worship, and we can find joy even in the midst of tough situations.

Proverbs 22: More highlights that strike me for their relevance in today’s culture:

A reputation for honesty is better than wealth—something that given the constancy of human nature is still a challenge. Whether rich or poor, we are all still God’s creatures and the nature of our character matters far more than wealth or power:
A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches,
    and favor is better than silver or gold.
The rich and the poor have this in common:
    the Lord is the maker of them all. (1, 2)

Nevertheless, our author acknowledges the reality that power almost always belongs to the wealthy—and in American culture, vice versa as well:
The rich rule over the poor,
    and the borrower is the slave of the lender. (7)

We note in passing that “the rich” can also include government, as witness the student loan crisis. Nevertheless, in the long run exploitative rule and injustice will inevitably lead to a bad end, while generosity, especially to the needy, will culminate in reward, even if it’s only psychic:
Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity,
    and the rod of anger will fail.
Those who are generous are blessed,
    for they share their bread with the poor. (8,9)

Right in the middle of the chapter our author interrupts his lengthy list of wise sayings in order to provide a summary of the main aspects of wisdom he has covered in detail this far:
The words of the wise:
Incline your ear and hear my words,

and apply your mind to my teaching;
for it will be pleasant if you keep them within you,
    if all of them are ready on your lips. (17, 18)

It appears the author has been writing all these sayings to one individual rather than generally:
So that your trust may be in the Lord,
    I have made them known to you today—yes, to you. (19)

This is an interesting literary device that provides a sense that the author is indeed speaking to an actual human being. This personal note also helps reduce the feeling that the reader is just trudging through an endless list. The author refers to thirty sayings, although it feels like a lot more. But he’s reminding us that these wisdom sayings have a an ennobling purpose, which is “to show you what is right and true, so that you may give a true answer to those who sent you.” (21)

The summary list that follows naturally begins with an admonition about how to treat the poor because they are God’s special people—and to cross God by exploiting the poor invites God’s sure punishment:
Do not rob the poor because they are poor,
    or crush the afflicted at the gate;
for the Lord pleads their cause
    and despoils of life those who despoil them. (22, 23)

Also, he continues, “do not associate with hotheads,” (24) which certainly seems a warning against consorting with politicians and a certain president in Washington DC

Finally, an admonition that I have never encountered before:
Do not remove the ancient landmark
    that your ancestors set up. (28)

In other words, there’s a biblical mandate to preserve the work of our ancestors, both as landmarks themselves, and by extension, in museums as well. Given the current uproar over removal of any monuments that honor a person now deemed to be politically incorrect or racist, this saying is especially apropos. The clear implication here is that there is great wisdom embodied in the works of the past. History has meaning; it’s not just old stories. We ignore history at our peril.

2 Corinthians 5:1–15: Paul hints at his physical suffering using a metaphor of the human body as a tent (unsurprising, given Paul’s tent making profession). First, our body is a gift from God: “we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” (1) Buy while on earth, we are subject to bodily afflictions, which Paul himself is enduring: “For in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling—” (2) But as always there’s the promise of a better body in the future: “He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.” (5) In other words, the presence of the Holy Spirit in our present selves is the clear sign of an eternal body similar, I suppose, to Jesus’ resurrected body yet to come.

Paul would frankly rather already be with God: “Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” (9) But that hasn’t happened yet. So, in the meantime in our frail human bodies we are called by God to “make it our aim to please him” (9) in all that we do.

I take his section to be a clear signal that we are not to focus on the heavenly pleasures awaiting us in the future but rather to concentrate on the hard work to be done here on earth. That emphasis on working in the here and now rather than obsessing about Christ’s return and our own eternal reward is something I have always appreciated in the Lutheran church.

Paul, having cleared his own conscience and having reminded himself that he still has work to do here in earth, calls on the Corinthians to do likewise: “but we ourselves are well known to God, and I hope that we are also well known to your consciences.” (11) And what is that work? It’s spreading the Good News: “For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died.” (14) telling people what Jesus Christ has already done for them: “And [Jesus] died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.” (15)

That, ladies and gentlemen, is Paul’s statement of the Great Commission that Jesus gave to his followers at the end of the Gospel of Matthew. Paul, being Paul, just makes it sound more complicated than it really is.

Psalm 69:30–37; Proverbs 21; 2 Corinthians 4:7–18

Originally published 5/30/2017. Revised and updated 5/29/2019.

Psalm 69:30–37: Like every psalm of supplication there is a final turning point where the poet expresses his humility before God as the psalm ends with the assurance that God is a great God and will indeed answer his prayers. This psalm is no exception as the poet recognizes his humble position before God:
But I am lowly and hurting.
Your rescue, O Lord, will protect me. (30)

Here in these two lines is the essence of the psalmist’s prayer and the essence of what we need to acknowledge before God. We are lowly and we are hurting. To deny that reality is to deny our very humanity. Only God can rescue and protect us. But so often, our pride and desire for control causes us to believe we can fix things ourselves. We prevent ourselves from uttering this simple phrase. But when we finally admit our own powerlessness, we can rejoice together with the psalmist:
Let me praise God’s name in song,
and let me extol Him in thanksgiving. (31)

Our poet realizes he is not the only one who is lowly and hurting. There is an entire community of people who are hurting. But they too have experienced God’s rescuing power and their hurt is transformed to joy:
The lowly have seen and rejoiced,
those who seek God, let their hearts be strong. (33)

And then we read an expression of a loving God who is active among his creatures, especially (and as always!) among those who are suffering the most and most in need:
For the Lord listens to the needy,
and His captives He has not despised. (34)

Full-throated worship that encompasses all creation rises in a poetic crescendo as the psalm concludes. What the poet writes is what naturally follows out of the assurance that God will indeed answer our prayers:
Let heaven and earth extol Him,
the seas and all that stirs within them. (35)

In a beautiful contrast to the despair that permeated the opening verses of this psalm our poet concludes— knowing that God will (once again!) rescue Israel :
For God will rescue Zion
and rebuild the towns of Judea,
and they will dwell there and possess it.
And the seed of His servants will inherit it,
and those who love His name will dwell there. (36, 37)

This psalm perfectly mirrors the pattern of our lives. For out of despair and anger (such as the earlier imprecations against his enemies) comes the realization that God does indeed hear us and will indeed act to our ultimate benefit. And from that realization comes true worship. Would that I remember daily the impact of this psalm in my own life.

Proverbs 21: As we’ve seen, many of these proverbs express deep psychological insight. Of course in our self-centeredness we think our every word and every deed is just and exactly the right thing to do. But too often we delude ourselves:
All deeds are right in the sight of the doer,
    but the Lord weighs the heart. (2)

Only God knows the true motivations often buried in our subconscious. The greatest sin is pride, and as far as our author is concerned, that automatically places us on the side of the wicked:
Haughty eyes and a proud heart—
    the lamp of the wicked—are sin. (4)

Our author returns to this issue later in the chapter:
The proud, haughty person, named “Scoffer,”
    acts with arrogant pride. (24)

This is a clear warning to those of us like me who tend to be cynical and sarcastic. God does not abide these qualities. One of the effects of pride is to ignore the needs of the poor and our author cannot countenance that:
If you close your ear to the cry of the poor,
    you will cry out and not be heard. (13)

For sometimes we too will need to cry out for help—and the ones whom we ignored in their need will assuredly ignore us in our hour of need.

Our author must have been having a serious argument with his wife while writing this chapter because he lays his domestic problems at the feet of the wife—not once, but twice:
It is better to live in a corner of the housetop
    than in a house shared with a contentious wife. (9)

It is better to live in a desert land
    than with a contentious and fretful wife. (19)

As always, the righteous person controls his speech:
To watch over mouth and tongue
    is to keep out of trouble. (23)

It is always better to be a good listener rather than a rash speaker:
A false witness will perish,
    but a good listener will testify successfully. (28)

As usual I’m struck by the contemporary applicability of these statements. This is another sign that the human psyche and its consequent behavior has not evolved for the better in the last three millennia. Those who think humankind can change its ways are overoptimistic.

2 Corinthians 4:7–18: That we are clay jars is one of Paul’s greatest metaphors. Clay jays were the disposable packaging of Paul’s time. Worthless scrap. Yet it is in these worthless scraps that “we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” (7) Which pretty neatly echoes the themes in today’s reading in Proverbs about humility.

Paul goes on to make his point using a personal example that builds in intensity as he reveals how much he has suffered at the hands of these accusatory Corinthians: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed;.” (8,9) But for Paul this is all perfectly OK because these afflictions are “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.” (10) 

None of the trials he is enduring matters to Paul he serves as far higher purpose than feeding his own ego. He is the example for all of us—that we are not only to talk about but to actually be the Gospel message to the world: “while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.” (11,12)  He states clearly that he has done “everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.” (15)

In other words, he is giving everything he has over to communicating and living the love of Jesus Christ in spite of those Corinthians who so greatly doubt his sincerity and his words. The question is, would I speak and act as generously to a group of people who were accusing me of serious wrongdoing? I doubt it.

For Paul, these accusations do not discourage him. Rather, they are ironically a source of strength and renewal for him: “So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.” (16)

Paul explains how he can find peace in what must have been bitter disappointment, even agony in what I think is the central theme of his letter—and what needs to be the real theme of my life—in his famous statement: “For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.” (17, 18)

If we had such a clear view of the long run objective of living a fully Christian life, then I think we too could endure far more than we think we can.  Faith is at the heart of not losing heart in a present reality that is ultimately doomed.


Psalm 69:23–29; Proverbs 20; 2 Corinthians 3:12–4:6

Originally published 5/29/2017. Revised and updated 5/28/2019.

Psalm 69:23–29: We now encounter one of those uncomfortable tirades where the psalmist employs every creative metaphor in his poetic arsenal to ask God to ensure that the devious schemes of his enemies go awry, for them to experience dread diseases, and finally for God to annihilate them:
May their table before them become a trap,
and their allies a snare,
May their eyes grow to dark to see,
make their loins perpetually shake.
Pour out upon them their wrath,
and Your blazing fury overtake them.
May their encampment be laid waste,
and in their tents no one may dwell. (23-26)

As we have observed many times before, these imprecations are a form of psychological release of an angry man who feels let down—even abandoned— by God.

Notice also that he is imploring God to do these awful things for him. Our poet has no intention of undertaking these acts himself.  The upshot is, that by shaking his fist at God and wishing the worst upon his enemies no actual physical violence ensues. Would that our culture spent more time shaking its angry fist at God rather than actually carrying out violent acts.

From wishing physical violence to rain down on his enemies, our poet turns to asking God to punish them by excluding them from God’s presence (as well as the presence of righteous men) as well as any rewards they might receive. In short, he wishes for the damnation of their very souls:
Add guilt upon their guilt,
and let them have no part in Your bounty.
Let them be wiped from the book of life,
and among the the righteous let them not be written. (28, 29)

Obviously, what God elects to do to these enemies—or elects not to do—is his decision alone. But as far as I am concerned, Jesus’ words about loving one’s enemies has cancelled out this portion of this psalm. This desire for God’s vengeance to rain down on one enemies is a mere historical artifact in the light of Jesus’ love. We can get as angry as we want and shake our fist at God. But to wish eternal damnation upon others is no longer an option for us no matter how much we might be tempted to act on our own. Which of course is how this fallen world mainly acts.

Proverbs 20: Again, a few highlights that strike me as particularly relevant to our American culture here and now.

Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler,
    and whoever is led astray by it is not wise. (1)

Wow. Is there a more profound truth about alcohol (and its more contemporary narcotic cousins) than this? Not only truth at the literal level, but “wine is a mocker” reveals the irony inherent in the idea that some people think that alcohol makes them more insightful and profound. No, wine only lets you pretend to ersatz wisdom. It is indeed a mocker of its imbiber.

In what I take to be a prediction of the practice of therapy as well as a reminder of Solomon’s wisdom with the two women and the baby, our author reminds us,
The purposes in the human mind are like deep water,
    but the intelligent will draw them out. (5)

Self-indulgent laziness is to be avoided:
Do not love sleep, or else you will come to poverty;
    open your eyes, and you will have plenty of bread. (13)

The underlying theme of his book is that the highest calling after worshipping God is to seek out and absorb true knowledge:
There is gold, and abundance of costly stones;
    but the lips informed by knowledge are a precious jewel.” (15)

Those who are wealthy tend to think they have superior knowledge and wisdom. Our author is saying there is no correlation between wealth and knowledge. And I think we need look no further than Washington DC to see the evidentiary truth of this proverb on full display.

A corollary proverb relates to those who would lead a nation into battle:
Plans are established by taking advice;
    wage war by following wise guidance. (18)

We have certainly witnessed the consequences of failure to heed wise guidance in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. And I fear it will only continue.

The next proverb bears a striking resemblance to a certain tweet-happy president and the difficulties he is currently facing:
A gossip reveals secrets;
    therefore do not associate with a babbler. (19)

Relating directly to today’s psalm, vengeance truly belongs to God. Otherwise plan on experiencing dire consequences:
Do not say, “I will repay evil”;
    wait for the Lord, and he will help you. (22)

Further, consider the consequences and the difficulty involved before you make a promise, especially to God. Godly practice is not an add-on to our being; rather it must be the foundation of our personality:
It is a snare for one to say rashly, “It is holy,”
    and begin to reflect only after making a vow. (25)

Finally, one that resonates with me as I age:
The glory of youths is their strength,
    but the beauty of the aged is their gray hair. (29)

It is nice to think that as far back as Solomon the wisdom and experience of old age has been seen as something to be respected and even honored.

2 Corinthians 3:12–4:6: Generally speaking, Paul is pretty p.o.ed that the Jews have not understood that Jesus Christ is indeed their long-expected Messiah. And he lets them have it here: “But their minds were hardened. Indeed, to this very day, when they hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is still there, since only in Christ is it set aside. Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds.” (3:14, 15). The solution is really quite simple, Paul asserts, “but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.” (3:16) The unspoken implication here is that depsite their outward appearance of religiosity, that by rejecting Jesus as the true Messiah the Jews have not truly turned their hearts to God.

And in failing to turn their hearts to God, they have missed the liberating power of the Holy Spirit: “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” (3:17) Which is a good thing for us to remember, as well. I know that I tend to forget about the Holy Spirit and as a result my faith is far more crabbed than it could be.

Paul implicitly recognizes that the Gospel message is completely unexpected and in many regards, very strange. But even so,”if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing.” (4:3) And if we ever needed a statement about how many so-called tolerant Americans view Christianity today, it is right here: “In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” (4:4) In fact, in the name of “tolerance” there are many who seek to make Christianity disappear from public view altogether.

But we also know that efforts to quash Jesus Christ and the church are ultimately doomed for the very simple reason that “it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (4:6)

So, then, what are we to do is to let the light of God in Jesus Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, shine through us. But I confess that I persist in putting a figurative lampshade on that light in order to not let it shine too brightly and to keep myself rather than Jesus at the center of my being.

Psalm 69:14–22; Proverbs 19; 2 Corinthians 2:14–3:11

Originally published 5/27/2017. Revised and updated 5/27/2019.

Psalm 69:14–22: After recounting his desperate situation, our psalmist turns to God and begins praying that God will be in the mood to answer:
But I—may my prayer to You,
O Lord, come at a favorable hour.
God, as befits Your great kindness,
answer me with Your steadfast rescue.“(14)

He continues using the metaphor of drowning, this time to ask for God’s immediate rescue:
Save me from the mire, that I not drown.
Let me be saved from my foes and form the watery depths.
Let the waters current not sweep me away
and let not the deep swallow me,
and let not the Pit close its mouth on me. (15, 16)

Notice the intense physicality in his plea that even suggests he actually is indeed on the cusp of drowning and dying. Have we ever felt in such desperate straits that it is not just threatening but takes on an intensely physical quality? The verses that follow are repeated pleas of desperation for God to see him, to listen and then to act:
And hide not Your face from Your servant,
for I am in straits. Hurry, answer me. (18)

A lesson here for us is that we can be as impatient as we like in our prayers to God. God will not mind.

Interestingly, in the midst of desperation there is further confession as the psalmist recognizes he is indeed a sinner who has committed an act that has brought such calumny down on his head—and as if kidnapped by evil, he pleads with God to ransom him:
Come near me, redeem me.
Because of my enemies, ransom me.
It is You who know my reproach,

and my shame and disgrace before all my foes. (19, 20)

Again, we witness the deep physical consequences of his sins in his words:
Reproach breaks my heart, I grow ill;
I hope for consolation, and there s none,
and for comforters, and do not find them. (21)

But suddenly, the image of Jesus hanging on the cross, apparently deserted by God himself comes into sharp focus with a prophecy that cannot have been coincidental as the psalmist reminds us of Jesus’ torture on the cross:
They gave for me nourishment wormwood,
and for my thirst they made me drink vinegar. (22)

Could it be that the drowning man is Jesus himself, who has taken on to himself the manifold sins of humankind? I think that is one way we Christians need to read this psalm.

Proverbs 19: To me, it appears that at the bottom of all these proverbs is the author’s fervent desire for civility and order in his house and in his community. Which is why I think they should be required reading in schools across America. Also, the proverbs assume a family structure is in place—a millennia old structure that is increasingly on the wane in the self-centered individualism that characterizes American culture. This is where I’m focusing today.

The family consists of a husband, a wife and children. Our author has truths to tell us that today we laugh at, but I think at our long run peril:
A foolish child is a father’s ruin,
    and a quarrelsome wife is like
    the constant dripping of a leaky roof. (13)

We may deride this image of a foolish child and a quarrelsome wife, but there’s little question that a family where the children are undisciplined and the adults are arguing all the time is not on a solid foundation. Worse, we denigrate the structure and hierarchy of the family at great risk. Our author has harsher things to say about a family where children effectively run the family—something we see frequently on display today:
Discipline your children, for in that there is hope;
    do not be a willing party to their death. (18)

Yet, this is precisely the fate of so many broken and dysfunctional families. We all would do well to heed this advice, even though it’s psychologically painful and often leads to resentment:
Listen to advice and accept discipline,
    and at the end you will be counted among the wise. (20)


Cease straying, my child, from the words of knowledge,
    in order that you may hear instruction.

There is profound truth in these verses. A disciplined life that listens to advice and accepts instruction is far richer and fulfilling than a life that is lived in the moment and that pursues only momentary pleasure, which is inevitably followed by lengthy regret.

2 Corinthians 2:14–3:11: Paul uses the metaphor a triumphal Roman victory march to remind us that we are Christ’s: “thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere.” (2:14) I like the idea of the “aroma of Christianity” permeating the world—something we see echoed in the incense that often accompanies highly liturgical worship (although never at Lutheran churches). The real question becomes, am I captive to Christ or to my own self-interest? Unfortunately, I think I know the answer.

Apparently somebody or some group at Corinth has asked Paul to send them a CV, outlining his capabilities or writing a letter of recommendation for another pastor coming to Corinth—perhaps Timothy. Paul is basically insulted at the request and again reiterates his bona fides: “For we are not peddlers of God’s word like so many; but in Christ we speak as persons of sincerity, as persons sent from God and standing in his presence.” (2:17)

Happily, Paul rejects the request, “Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you?” (3:1) Paul, being Paul, reframes the request as a metaphorical opportunity: “You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone.” (3:2) He then stretches the letter metaphor even further, likening each Christian to a public letter of testimony of how Christ has changed us: “you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” (3:3)  The challenge of course is just how readable we are as “letters for Christ.”

Paul tries to put to rest the idea that he is the inventor Christianity as we know it (although to a great extent, he was exactly that!) by stating, “Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant.” (3:5,6a) 

He goes on to assert that our changed lives do not result from our knowledge or from writings (“letter”) but from the Holy Spirit: “not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (6b) But we tend to trust words and writings more than the Holy Spirit—at least I do. I think Paul is getting at the great dialectic that each Christian experiences: How well do we balance a faith based on mind (“letters”) with a faith of the heart (The Holy Spirit)?

Paul attempts to place “letters” in a subsidiary position by using the example of the Decalogue engraved on stone tablets and given to Moses. To a certain extent, he excoriates the Jewish belief in Torah as “the ministry of death, chiseled in letters on stone tablets.” (3:7a) He reminds us that Moses, who saw God walk past him, was enveloped in such glory that he had to mask his face. Paul tells us there is now in fact a far greater  glory from God in the permanent arrival of the Holy Spirit on earth: “how much more will the ministry of the Spirit come in glory?” (3:8)

He then engages in some exegetical calisthenics around the word “glory,” which I am loathe to untangle:
For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, much more does the ministry of justification abound in glory! Indeed, what once had glory has lost its glory because of the greater glory; for if what was set aside came through glory, much more has the permanent come in glory!” (9-11)  I think we can safely conclude that Paul really, really wanted people to grasp the glorious reality of the power of the Holy Spirit. Something I think we’re still somewhat afraid to do.

Psalm 69:1–13; Proverbs 18; 2 Corinthians 1:23–2:13

Originally published 5/26/2017. Revised and updated 5/25/2019.

Psalm 69:1–13: This psalm of supplication opens with the arresting metaphor of a man slipping on slimy rocks, falling into rushing water and coming close to drowning. I have to believe the poet either experienced this himself or knew someone who did:
Rescue me, O God,
for the waters have come up to my neck.
I have sunk in the slime of the deep,
and there is no place to stand.
I have entered the watery depths,
and the current has swept me away. (2,3)

Despite his calls for help, his hope that God will hear him and rescue him seems lost:
I am exhausted form my calling out.
My throat is hoarse.
My eyes fail
from hoping for my God. (4)

He finds himself in this desperate situation due to the overwhelming number of evil actions by his many enemies. He has apparently been wrongfully accused of theft as he responds to their accusations with bitter sarcasm:
More numerous than the hairs of my head
are my unprovoked foes.
My destroyers grow strong,
my lying foes.
What I have not stolen
should I then give back? (5a)

These lines perfectly express our feelings of bitter frustration when we are wrongly accused of an act we did not commit and we are unable to convince them of our innocence.

Perhaps even worse for our psalmist is the feeling that as a God-follower his present situation is shaming other followers. He confesses he has sinned:
God, You know my folly,
and my guilt is not hidden form You. (6)

Despite his confession, he is desperate that others not be shamed by his actions or words as he repeats his plea:
Let those who hope for You not be shamed through me.
Master, O Lord of armies.
Let those who seek You be not disgraced through me,
God of Israel. (7)

In point of fact, our poet asserts, it is his faithfulness to God that has led him to this present pass. There is a certain Jobian quality here about how his too intense faith has led to relational disaster between him and his siblings:
Because for You I have borne reproach,
disgrace has covered my face.
Estranged I have been from my brothers,
and an alien to my mother’s sons.

For the zeal of Your house has consumed me.
the reproach of Your reproachers has fallen on me. (8-10)

Even his efforts to atone for his sins have been futile and have led to nothing but public disgrace:
And in fasting I wept for my being—
it became a reproach for me.

I was the talk of those who sit at the gate,
the drunkard’s taunting song. (11, 13)

At this point we sense that this psalm could well be the prayer of a burnt-out pastor or other Christian leader. He has been so consumed by working God that he has ignored or even abandoned important human relationships—especially his family. Worse, the bitter fruit of his efforts has led to accusations of wrongdoing. And with this double burden he finds himself in the ironic position that in working too hard for God he has feels abandoned even by God himself. I have to believe there are pastors out there who completely identify with this psalm.

Proverbs 18: Our author must have been writing these proverbs on index cards all his life because there seems to be no end to them. Highlights that strike me follow.

Echoing the feelings of our psalmist above,
When wickedness comes, so does contempt,
    and with shame comes reproach. (3)

As usual, there is the thread of proverbs dealing with the consequences of speech (and in our era, posting on social media) contrasting foolish speech with wise words:
The words of the mouth are deep waters,
    but the fountain of wisdom is a rushing stream. (4)

The lips of fools bring them strife,
    and their mouths invite a beating. (6)

Farther down, there is a truth we would do well to remember whenever we open our mouths:
The tongue has the power of life and death,
    and those who love it will eat its fruit. (21)

Our author is telling us in no uncertain terms that what we say (or post) has serious consequences for good or for bad. But for me personally, the verse that truly hits home is:
To answer before listening—
    that is folly and shame. (13)

Too often, I’m thinking about the next thing to say rather than listening to what the other person (usually Susan!) is saying to me. I also cut people off while they are still speaking and finish their sentence,  never mind actually listening to them.

Then, in a non-sequitur that is typical for this book, we encounter a verse that beautifully describes how depression can be worse than ay physical ailment:
The human spirit can endure in sickness,
    but a crushed spirit who can bear? (14)

Our author also documents the psychological reality that we tend to believe what we hear until we hear the other side of the argument—and then we believe that. I’m becoming convinced that the author of Proverbs was also a lawyer who had to deal with juries:
In a lawsuit the first to speak seems right,
    until someone comes forward and cross-examines. (17)

An finally a harsh truth that seems increasingly to characterize our culture, especially the current political scene:
The poor plead for mercy,
    but the rich answer harshly. (23)

Would our culture had more grace. But that of course requires a culture that is mostly grace-filled people…

2 Corinthians 1:23–2:13: Paul continues his explanation of why he never returned to Corinth: “I call God as my witness—and I stake my life on it—that it was in order to spare you that I did not return to Corinth.” (1:23) He notes that he wrote them a letter (presumably 1 Corinthians) rather than confront them face to face. Paul almost apologizes for the harshness of his previous letter: “For I wrote you out of great distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to grieve you but to let you know the depth of my love for you.” (2:4)

My distinct sense is that Paul did not return because he knew that the spiritual chaos he would encounter at the Corinthian church could cause him to do or say things he might later regret.

However, apparently there is someone at the Corinth who has committed a fairly grievous sin for which the congregation has severely chastised him. Paul asks that they now relent: “The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient.” (2:6)

Rather than punishment, Paul asks them to exercise forgiveness and provide comfort to the offender: “Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him.” (2:7, 8) As always for Paul, love is always at the foundation of good actions.

What a great reminder this passage is for us in the church. I know I have personally been happy to see others punished for their cruelty to others. But here Paul is telling us that the necessity of forgiveness must always overcome our feelings of moral superiority.

Forgiveness in love is at the heart of this transformation from punishment to grace: “Anyone you forgive, I also forgive. And what I have forgiven—if there was anything to forgive—I have forgiven in the sight of Christ for your sake.” (2:10) Paul also advises us that the church faces a great enemy in Satan and that forgiveness is essential “in order that Satan might not outwit us.” (2:11a) He adds, “For we are not unaware of his schemes.” (2:11b) That’s a good warning for us who tend to discount the influence of evil on the church. The reality of course is hat people in the church—even those we trust—are perfectly capable of being agents for evil.

Paul now changes the subject and relates how he went to Troas because he “found that the Lord had opened a door for me.” (2:12) But even though there’s an open door, success is not guaranteed. Paul discerns this and moves on to Macedonia from Troas because “I still had no peace of mind, [and] because I did not find my brother Titus there.” (2:13) Since he didn’t find Titus in Troas as he had expected, Paul moves on: “So I said farewell to them and went on to Macedonia.” (2:13b)

Paul apparently knew what Jesus has said about shaking the dust from one’s feet and moving on when it seems the Holy Spirit is not operating at a certain place. Of course most of us tend to hang around too long because we’re comfortable there. Remaining comfortable was certainly not in Paul’s character!


Psalm 68:28–36; Proverbs 17; 2 Corinthians 1:12–22

Originally published 5/25/2017. Revised and updated 5/24/2019.

Psalm 68:28–36: In an echo of the Song of Deborah found in Judges 5, our psalmist lists a brief catalog of the tribes that participated in the initial battles against the Canaanites. Here, though, the emphasis seems to be on the tribal leaders in a procession bringing gifts of thanksgiving to God, who gave them victory in battle:
There little Benjamin holds sway over them,
Judah’s princes in their raiment,
Zebulon’s princes, Napthali’s princes.
Ordain, O God, Your strength,
strength, O God, that You showed for us,
from Your temple, over Jerusalem.
To You the kings bring gifts. (28-30)

The psalmist continues with a symbolic reference to Egypt’s attempt to recapture the Israelites as they crossed over the Sea of Reeds escaping from slavery:
Rebuke the beast of the marsh,
the herd of bulls among calves of the peoples—
cringing with offerings of silver.
He scattered peoples that delighted in battle. (31)

Egypt is the “beast of the marsh” and the bulls that are among the Israelite calves. But in defeat, Egypt must recognize that Israel’s God is stronger than their own small-g gods. Thus, it and all other nations are invited to join the procession acknowledging that Israel’s God is the only legitimate and all-powerful God overall all small-g gods:
Let notables come from Egypt.
Cush raise its hands to God.”
Kingdoms of earth, sing to God,
hymn to the Master. (32, 33)

The psalm concludes with a paean to God’s majestic strength over all the earth:
To the rider of the utmost heavens of yore.
Look, He makes His voice ring, the voice of strength.
Acclaim strength to God,
over Israel is His pride
and His strength in the skies. (34, 35)

And it is God’s strength which in turn has given strength to Israel:
Awesome, O God, from Your sanctuaries!
Israel’s God—He gives strength and might to His people. (36)

While we may not look to God to give us a military victory, I think this psalm reminds us that God is the source of our own strength to confront—and conquer—the challenges and obstacles that we encounter in our own daily lives.

Proverbs 17: Speaking of catalogs… Our author continues with his proverbial sayings. In this chapter most of the verses are constructed to contrast the wise person and his habits grounded in wisdom against the foolish person. Needless to say, it is the wise person who is superior.

But as always it’s difficult to detect any sort of structural pattern to the order of the sayings. It’s as if the author had a bag of sayings, each one written on a card, which he then dumps out of the bag on to the table and simply lists in the order he finds them.

There is a thread of domesticity and personal relationship in this chapter, beginning with the opening verse—something to reflect on in our overly material, stressed-out culture:
Better a dry crust with peace and quiet
    than a house full of feasting, with strife. (1)

And it is better for a wise family servant to run the family business than a deceitful son:
A prudent servant will rule over a disgraceful son
    and will share the inheritance as one of the family. (2)

In a stern warning to those who post snarky Facebook memes at a time of tragedy our author reminds us:
Whoever mocks the poor shows contempt for their Maker;
    whoever gloats over disaster will not go unpunished. (5)

There’s a further warning about starting arguments, which seems to be a popular sport both then and in this Facebook age. We humans argue ceaselessly:
Starting a quarrel is like breaching a dam;
    so drop the matter before a dispute breaks out. (14)

My particular favorite in this chapter is about grandparents and reciprocal respect:
Children’s children are a crown to the aged,
    and parents are the pride of their children. (6)

Friendship is crucial for bringing us through times of adversity:
A friend loves at all times,
    and a brother is born for a time of adversity. (17)

And it helps to keep a positive outlook on life:
A cheerful heart is good medicine,
    but a crushed spirit dries up the bones. (22)

Finally, no chapter in this book would be complete without a reference to the issue of speech and the wisdom of holding one’s tongue:
The one who has knowledge uses words with restraint,
   and whoever has understanding is even-tempered.
Even fools are thought wise if they keep silent,

    and discerning if they hold their tongues. (27, 28)

I think we’d all be better off if were we not living in a culture of endless chatter, innuendo, and rumor-mongering. These verses certainly remind me that much of the endless chatter—especially that of the commentariat who occupy cable news channels—is pretty worthless.

2 Corinthians 1:12–22: I’d love to know what accusations against Paul were in the letter sent by Corinth to which Paul is replying here. He certainly seems to be on the defensive: “Our conscience testifies that we have conducted ourselves in the world, and especially in our relations with you, with integrity and godly sincerity. We have done so, relying not on worldly wisdom but on God’s grace.” (12)

Apparently the people in Corinth are miffed because Paul did not come visit them as he had promised: “ I wanted to visit you on my way to Macedonia and to come back to you from Macedonia, and then to have you send me on my way to Judea.” (16) But that plan did not come to fruition as Paul had hoped, so I suspect someone wrote calling him unreliable for this change in plans: “Was I fickle when I intended to do this? Or do I make my plans in a worldly manner so that in the same breath I say both “Yes, yes” and “No, no”?” (17)

It’s obvious by Paul’s reference to “Yes, yes” and “No, no” that politicians and erstwhile leaders were making the same empty promises (that would be the “worldly manner”) in his time as they do in ours.

Paul builds on his “Yes/No” theme by telling the Corinthians that with Jesus there is only “Yes,” reminding them that “our message to you is not “Yes” and “No.”” (18) In fact, he continues, they’ve received quite a bit of good instruction about “Yes,” as he implies that their accusations of ambiguity are completely unfounded: “…or the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by us—by me and Silas and Timothy—was not “Yes” and “No,” but in him it has always been “Yes.” (19)

Now on a roll, Paul continues, now in full theology mode: “For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. And so through him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God.” (20)

This verse is the crux of the passage. Christ’s love is so all-encompassing that he cannot say “no” to our desire to know and love him. And where does that desire come from? Paul’s answer emphasizes the relationship of Christ, God, and the Holy Spirit in a Trinitarian reference, “it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ.” (21) And it is God who “put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.” (22)

We must never forget that when we say, “It’s all about Jesus” that God and the Holy Spirit are equally essential to our Christian life.

Psalm 68:20–27; Proverbs 16; 2 Corinthians 1:1–11

Originally published 5/24/2017. Revised and updated 5/23/2019.

Psalm 68:20–27: After reflecting on how God has intervened throughout Israel’s history, our author arrives at the theological heart of this psalm:
God is to us a rescuing God.
The Lord Master possesses the ways out from death. (21)

This verse operates at two levels. the first of course is the psalmist’s observation of how God has come once again to Israel’s aid. The second is its rich meaning from our perspective as Christians: God sent Jesus to earth to rescue us all from the deadly consequences of our sins.

This verse is also an oasis in a desert of gory battlefield imagery that follows, some of which is pretty antithetical to our view of God and how God operates in the world:
Yes, God will smash His enemies’ heads,
the hairy pate of those who walk about in their guilt.
The Master said, ‘From Bashan I shall bring back,
bring back from the depths of the sea.
That your foot may wade in blood,
the tongues of your dogs lick the enemies.’ (22-24)

This of course is a logical passage in light of the polarizing dichotomy that permeates the Psalms. Israel was on God’s side and its enemies were the paradigm of wickedness. The imagery then shifts quickly from the bloodied battlefield to the triumphal procession of the conquering army arriving back at Jerusalem:
They saw Your processions, O God,
my God’s processions, my King in holiness.
The singers came first and then the musicians 
in the midst of young women beating their drums.
In choruses bless God,
the Lord, from the fountain of Israel. (25-27)

Notice how the poet personalizes the experience of the triumphal procession in the first person (“my God’s processions, my King in holiness.”) We have a sense of his having been an eyewitness to victory form the safety of the city as over against his imaginatively lurid description of the battlefield, which suggests the poet was never there.

Proverbs 16: The first verses of this chapter reflect on the nature of a proper relationship between God and a man (or woman).  The author implies that it is a dynamic relationship, perhaps even struggle, between our human motivations and behaviors and those of God’s:
To humans belong the plans of the heart,
    but from the Lord comes the proper answer of the tongue.
All a person’s ways seem pure to them,

    but motives are weighed by the Lord.
Commit to the Lord whatever you do,
     and he will establish your plans.” (1-3)

Our ideas and emotions—”the plans of the heart”—may be ours, but if we are in a right relationship with God, he will cause us to hold our tongues and keep us from blurting out what may be very ugly statements with very ugly consequences such as the breaking of trust. Notice, too, how our author recognizes our tendency to feel that our thoughts, words, and behavior are superior to those of others. I know my tendency is to speak quickly and bluntly without reflection, making a pronouncement rather than actually listening to what the other person (usually Susan) is saying or worse, feeling.

This observation by our author leads to several verses that deal with the consequences of prideful thoughts and deeds:
The Lord detests all the proud of heart.
    Be sure of this: They will not go unpunished. (5)

And then more famously farther down:
Pride goes before destruction,
    a haughty spirit before a fall. (18)

Instead it is a close relationship in God via faith and love that leads to the well-lived life of wisdom:
Through love and faithfulness sin is atoned for;
    through the fear of the Lord evil is avoided. (6)

It is far better to be poor and faithful than haughty and wealthy. Something we all know conceptually but too rarely practice:
Better a little with righteousness
    than much gain with injustice. (8)
Better to be lowly in spirit along with the oppressed
    than to share plunder with the proud. (19) 

Of all the sins we can commit, our author is making it clear that the “ur-sin”—the sin at the root of so many other sins—is pride. One of the most important actions we can take to avoid the overt sin of pride is to hold our tongues. A key to true wisdom is to speak only after thoughtful consideration:
The wise in heart are called discerning,
    and gracious words promote instruction. (21)

The hearts of the wise make their mouths prudent,
    and their lips promote instruction. (23)

But the statement about speech that resonates most strongly with me is this:
Gracious words are a honeycomb,
    sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.” (24)

Would that I spoke only gracious words rather than prideful and often harsh pronouncements. Clearly, if I can be in a more faithful relationship with God, then our author is suggesting that a life of greater wisdom and insight will be mine.

2 Corinthians 1:1–11: Bible scholars agree that the Corinthians responded in some fashion to Paul’s first letter, which became the catalyst for his second letter to the church at Corinth. Unfortunately, we don’t have the actual letter but can only discern its contents via Paul’s themes and statements in this epistle.

After an opening salutation and blessing—”Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (2)—Paul takes up the theme of suffering versus comfort. He recognizes that whatever comfort he has—and whatever comfort we have—comes directly from God: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” (3, 4)

Paul reminds us that life includes both suffering and comfort: “For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ.” (5) Moreover, both suffering and comfort are shared experiences within the Christian community: “And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.” (7)

So what caused Paul to open this letter with a disquisition on suffering and the comfort that Christ brings? This is answered n the verses that follow, which I take to be a reference to the life-threatening troubles he endured at various places in Asia, including Ephesus and Philippi: “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself.” (8)

But for Paul there is always a purpose to everything that occurs in life. Perhaps greatest of all is the lesson of suffering: “But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.” (9) The question to the folks at Corinth and to us of course is, do we view suffering as a way to learn endurance? For Paul the answer is obvious: “On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us,” (10). But I think even more importantly, Paul makes it clear that we do not learn endurance on our own. Rather, it is the prayers of our brothers and sisters that help us through periods of suffering: “as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us in answer to the prayers of many.” (11)

I know that in those few and brief times of suffering in my own life, it is the prayers of my brothers and sisters that have supported me and brought me to the other side of suffering with a renewed reliance on God rather than myself.

Psalm 68:8–20; Proverbs 15; 1 Corinthians 16:12–24

Originally published 5/23/2017. Revised and updated 5/22/2019.

Psalm 68:8–20: Our psalmist continues to evoke the manifest wonders of God’s power with a meteorological reference to the events at the foot of Mount Sinai as Israel wandered in the desert. Did it actually rain then or is our poet conflating several different events, including ones in Canaan? I think a fair bit of poetic license is occurring here:
God, when You sallied forth before Your people,
when You strode through the desert.
The earth shook,
the heavens, too, poured down before God,
sinai itself before God, God of Israel.
A bountiful rain You shed, O God.
Your estate that had languished You made firm. (8-10)

The verses that follow are downright obscure. Apparently women would announce the army’s victory over its vanquished foe:
The Master [God] gives word—
the women who bear tidings are a great host:
‘The kings of [conquered] armies run away, run away,
and the mistress of the house shares out the spoils. (12, 13)

Amidst the poetic confusion are two strikingly beautiful lines, whose meaning or symbolism escapes me, but they stand beautifully on their own:
The wings of the dove are inlaid with silver,
and her pinions with precious gold. (14b)

Henry James apparently liked them also when he titled one of his novels, “The Wings of the Dove.”

More weather reporting follows, this one being the very rare occurrence of snow in Israel immediately following a military victory
When Shaddai scattered the [enemy] kings there,
it snowed on Zalmon. (15)

Our poet connects another mountain with God’s power apparently expressed via an earthquake:
Mountain of God, Mount Bashan,
crooked-ridged mountain, Mount Bashan.
Why do you leap, O crooked-ridged mountains,
the mountain God desired for His dwelling?
Yes, the Lord will abide there forever!”

You went up to the heights
You took hold of your captives
the wayward as well—
so that Yah God would abide. (17, 19)

I frankly do not know what to make of these verses beyond the impression that in the poet’s mind, God’s power underlies both human military effort (that may or may not have been the conquest of Canaan)  and natural events such as rain and earthquakes. Moreover, Alter’s translation does a fine job of bringing the beauty of poetry, if not the theology, to life.

Proverbs 15: More wisdom statements containing great truths about human nature. Many of them are well known and have suffused western culture:
A gentle answer turns away wrath,
    but a harsh word stirs up anger. (1)

Once again, many of these verses deal with the matter of speech—both its salutary and its corrosive effects. Bottom line: We should always hold our tongues before saying, posting, tweeting, or emailing something stupid. A reality lost on too many in our culture, especially politicians:
The tongue of the wise adorns knowledge,
    but the mouth of the fool gushes folly. (2)

In this age of Twitter, we would all be better off if the verse above were posted on the walls of the Oval Office and in the halls of the Capitol: Or perhaps this one, too:
The soothing tongue is a tree of life,
    but a perverse tongue crushes the spirit. (4)

And again:
The lips of the wise spread knowledge,
    but the hearts of fools are not upright. (7)

And still again:
The heart of the righteous weighs its answers,
    but the mouth of the wicked gushes evil. (23)

All of which raises the distinct possibility that Washington DC and wherever politicians gather in other capitals are full of futile chatter but devoid of wisdom…

There are great psychological truths scattered throughout this chapter. Case in point: we must be willing to accept correction:
Stern discipline awaits anyone who leaves the path;
    the one who hates correction will die. (10)

But our author understood full well that human nature does not like correction and will do everything possible to avoid hearing it:
Mockers resent correction,
    so they avoid the wise. (12)

Our author returns to the issue of correction near the end of the chapter:
Whoever heeds life-giving correction
will be at home among the wise.
Those who disregard discipline despise themselves,
but the one who heeds correction gains understanding. (31, 32)

Being human, my self-centeredness has always tended to resent correction by others, especially in the workplace. yet, here is real truth uttered thousands of years ago.

The author describes the perverse effects of depression (which is how I take ‘oppression’ in this verse):
All the days of the oppressed are wretched,
    but the cheerful heart has a continual feast. (15)

…and the negative impact of untrammeled anger:
A hot-tempered person stirs up conflict,
    but the one who is patient calms a quarrel. (18)

There is also an argument for teamwork as over against a tendency to go it alone:
Plans fail for lack of counsel,
    but with many advisers they succeed. (22)

For me, this means that a charismatic leader who has a vision of what path to take and then tries to drag others along without their complete buy-in is doomed to failure. I have seen this effect on display in both work and at church.

When we are giving correction, it is better to be encouraging rather than negative. This is excellent parenting advice (although too late for me…):
A person finds joy in giving an apt reply—
    and how good is a timely word! (23)

The chapter concludes with perhaps the most important observation of all:
Wisdom’s instruction is to fear the Lord,
    and humility comes before honor. (33)

In short, our behavior is the direct outcome of our relationship with God. When God is rejected, humility is very hard to come by. Alas, there seems to be very little humility, especially among our leaders, especially politicians.

1 Corinthians 16:12–24: Paul winds up his letter with both specific and general advice as he reiterates once again some of the key themes of the epistle.

As for the specific, apparently Apollos is not happy about returning to Corinth although Paul’s optimism shows through: “Now about our brother Apollos: I strongly urged him to go to you with the brothers. He was quite unwilling to go now, but he will go when he has the opportunity.” (12) I’d love to know the back story of this verse!

In an echo of chapter 13, Paul then inserts a general reminder, which by its juxtaposition suggests perhaps that Apollos was not being sufficiently generous in his love for the church at Corinth: “Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong. Do everything in love.” (13, 14)

Paul then gives the Corinthians more or less the back of his hand by contrasting their immaturity to the spiritual maturity of three men who came to Corinth: “I was glad when Stephanas, Fortunatus and Achaicus arrived, because they have supplied what was lacking from you.” (17) And he suggests that they deserve plaudits for their ministry: “For they refreshed my spirit and yours also. Such men deserve recognition.” (18)

The final paragraph is quite in keeping with letter writing style of the time. The greetings come at the end, and to underscore the authenticity of his letter, Paul takes the pen from his amanuensis and writes his final words of advice and his benediction himself:

I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand.
If anyone does not love the Lord, let that person be cursed! Come, Lord!
The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you.
My love to all of you in Christ Jesus. Amen.” (21-24)

I find it touching that Paul’s final statement is about the agape love that we find only through Christ Jesus. That should be our concluding statement to all our brothers and sisters in Christ with whom we communicate.





Psalm 68:1–7; Proverbs 14; 1 Corinthians 16:1–11

Originally published 5/22/2017. Revised and updated 5/21/2019.

Psalm 68:1–7: The author makes it clear that this longish psalm is understood as a hymn of praise to a triumphant God. Perhaps it was written following a particularly satisfying military victory:
Let God arise, let His enemies scatter,
and let His foes flee before Him.” (2)

As always, there’s the what I’ll call the Great Dichotomy: the followers of God who are by definition good versus the enemies of God, who are by definition wicked. Unsurprisingly here, using similes of smoke and and the especially creative image of melting wax, this psalm wishes for God to do bad things to their enemies, :
As smoke disperses may they disperse,
as wax melts before the fire,
may the wicked perish before God. (3)

While on the other hand, the God-followers, who by definition comprise the righteous, will celebrate their victory:
And may the righteous rejoice and exult
before God, and be gladdened in joy. (4)

Our psalmist then moves into full worship mode as the image of God riding on the clouds makes it clear that he is above all creation:
Sing to God, hymn His name.
Pave the way for the Rider of Clouds,
For Yah is His name, and exult before Him. (5)

But God is not just “up there” riding some cloud chariot far from humanity. God is active among his people and this hymn reminds us that God intervenes not only on behalf of armies and the powerful, but also among the orphans and widows—an overriding theme of the OT. But perhaps most significantly (for me, anyway) God comforts the  lonely:
Father of orphans and widows’ judge,
God in His holy abode.
God brings the lonely back to their homes,
Sets free captives in jubilation. (6, 7a)

Nor will our psalmist will ever allow us to forget that God punishes those who do not follow him by relegating them to the most hostile territory our psalmist knows—the desert: But the wayward abide in parched land. (7b)

As is always the case in the Psalms, God acts on behalf of the righteous, among whom the widows, orphans, and now the lonely are also included. God cares for the weak and powerless. As should we…

Proverbs 14: The aphorisms continue without our author stopping to take a breath. There’s little question at this point that this book is the compendium of the right practices and knowledge that is the glue of this culture—and once was of our own disintegrating culture. This chapter appears to focus on the behavioral contrast between the wise and the foolish. I’ll just point out the verses that resonate with me.

As always, there is the issue of good and bad speech, here focusing on those fools who try to impress others with their empty pride. Those who are wise are not conned into believing them. Needless to say, politicians of all stripes leap to my mind:
A fool’s mouth lashes out with pride,
    but the lips of the wise protect them. (3)

Fools denigrate those who seek forgiveness for their sins, believing they are above all that silliness. This attitude is certainly endemic today where we are surrounded by non-believers think religion is just a psychological crutch.
Fools mock at making amends for sin,
    but goodwill is found among the upright. (9)

We  should never be fooled by something that is seemingly good, but is actually rotten at its core. We must investigate first. The failure to investigate thoroughly by those driven by naiveté and emotion is why con men get rich:
There is a way that appears to be right,
    but in the end it leads to death. (12)

And then, here is deep psychological insight in the statement that an outward appearance of joy may disguise inward grieving:
Even in laughter the heart may ache,
    and rejoicing may end in grief. (13)

We can ask any lottery winner about the truth of this aphorism:
The poor are shunned even by their neighbors,
    but the rich have many friends. (20)

While there is certainly economic reward for hard work, there is also the deeper insight that merely talking about doing something but never starting to actually work is a fool’s errand. This verse reminds me of my childhood friend, Terry, who talked about his ambitions to become a concert pianist but never got around to taking piano lessons.
All hard work brings a profit,
    but mere talk leads only to poverty.” (23)

As in the Psalms, no list of proverbs would be complete without addressing the obligation of the rich to take care of the poor:
Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker,
    but whoever is kind to the needy honors God. (31)

And then what I think is a clear tocsin for us American right here in 2019:
Righteousness exalts a nation,
    but sin condemns any people. (34)

My sense is that righteousness—at least as it’s defined in the Judeo-Christian framework—is very much in retreat these days.

1 Corinthians 16:1–11: As he winds up this crucial letter, Paul comes to finances. When it comes to tithes and offerings, Paul is always very clear. It’s an obligation of any member of a Christian community to “set aside a sum of money in keeping with your income, saving it up.” (2) In fact, Paul has big plans for Corinth asking what is apparently a wealthy church  to send some men with him to bring their offering to the impoverished church at Jerusalem: “when I arrive, I will give letters of introduction to the men you approve and send them with your gift to Jerusalem.” (3) However, I think it’s doubtful that ever happened. In any event, no Corinthians were noted in the book of Acts as accompanying Paul on his fateful trip to Jerusalem.

The final section of this letter is mostly about logistics. Paul promises that “After I go through Macedonia, I will come to you—for I will be going through Macedonia. Perhaps I will stay with you for a while, or even spend the winter, so that you can help me on my journey, wherever I go.” (6) Paul wants to spend some time in Corinth, but he postpones the trip and will remain in Ephesus until Pentecost “because a great door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many who oppose me.” (9)  Again, per what’s described in Acts, it appears Paul never made it back to Corinth.

Paul is sending his close associate Timothy to Corinth instead. He attests to Timothy’s bona fides and instructs the Corinthian church to treat him as they would Paul himself: “When Timothy comes, see to it that he has nothing to fear while he is with you, for he is carrying on the work of the Lord, just as I am. No one, then, should treat him with contempt.” (10, 11a) But just as they must welcome Timothy, the Corinthians don’t get to keep him. Paul expects Timothy to rejoin him: “Send him on his way in peace so that he may return to me. I am expecting him along with the brothers.” (11b) 

There’s a lesson there for us. When we receive guests or someone on behalf of another, or a substitute comes instead of the person we were expecting, we are to treat them well and with love. That expectation certainly applies to interim pastors.