Archives for July 2019

Psalm 90; Isaiah 58,59; Colossians 3:1–11

Originally published 8/1/2017. Revised and updated 7/31/2019

Psalm 90: This is the only psalm that is attributed to Moses. It contrasts the eternity of God against the mortality of mankind. First, God’s eternity:
O Master, You have been our abode 
in every generation
before mountains were born,
before You spawned earth and world,
from forever to forever You are God. (2)

I can think of no better way of expressing the concept of infinite time than Alter’s expression, ‘forever to forever.’

I had always thought the quote in 1 Peter was original with that author, but here it’s clear he was quoting this psalm:
For a thousand years in your eyes
are like yesterday gone,
like a watch in the night. (4)

We humans are comparable to the short lifespan of grass:
In the morn they are like grass that passes.
In the morning it sprouts and passes,
by evening it withers and dies. (5b, 6)

I think we would lead richer lives if we acknowledged our mortality. Instead, we have constructed an entire culture built around denial of death. That of course is the logical outcome of thinking we, rather than God, are the center of the universe and control our destiny—which we assuredly do not. I think the only people who truly understand mortality are those who’ve been diagnosed with a terminal disease.

The psalmist continues as he describes God’s anger at our willful sins, which we try to hide from an all-knowing God rather than seeking his forgiveness:
For we are consumed in Your wrath,
and in Your fury we are dismayed.
You have set our transgressions before You,
our hidden faults in the light of Your face. (7,8)

In short, we have pretty much wasted the brief gift of time that God has given us:
For all our days slip away in Your anger.
We consume our years like a sigh. (9)

But the verse that truly resonates with me is the specificity of the years that we have been given. My late friend, Verl, who having turned eighty, quoted this verse many times in his final year as he suffered from Parkinson’s and cancer:
The days of our years are but seventy years,
and if in great strength, eighty years.
And their pride is trouble and grief,
and swiftly cut down, we fly off. (10)

Now that I am past my seventieth year, have I wasted the years already given to me? I suppose it really doesn’t matter, does it? We can do nothing about the past. The question is, how am I spending the years that remain? Will I do as the psalmist advises?
To count our days rightly, instruct,
that we may get a heart of wisdom. (12)

Isaiah 58, 59: There’s certainly nothing new about hypocrisy as Isaiah excoriates those who pretend to worship God with sinful hearts, attempting to hide their (and our) dishonesty before God:
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
    and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
    and to strike with a wicked fist. (58:3, 4)

Rather than empty words, God is looking for the acts that he has commanded us to do:
Is not this the fast that I choose:
    to loose the bonds of injustice,
    to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
    and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
    and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
    and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (58:6,7)

If we do to others what God has asked us to do for them, i.e., follow the Golden Rule, we will be blessed:
The Lord will guide you continually,
    and satisfy your needs in parched places,
    and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
    like a spring of water,
    whose waters never fail. (58:11)

There’s a particular warning about observing the sabbath:
If you refrain from trampling the sabbath,
    from pursuing your own interests on my holy day;
if you call the sabbath a delight
    and the holy day of the Lord honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
    serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs;
then you shall take delight in the Lord,
    and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth. (58: 13, 14a)

Alas, the sabbath has become the busiest shopping day of the week. Our culture has not only trampled on the sabbath, it has desecrated it. And what have we gained? I give great credit to the Orthodox Jews who seem to be the last remnant of society that truly takes Isaiah’s words to heart.

Isaiah 59 focuses on the consequences of ignoring God’s commands and going our merry way in a state of unforgiven sinfulness:
Rather, your iniquities have been barriers
    between you and your God,
and your sins have hidden his face from you
    so that he does not hear. (59:2)

What’s described here is essentially the breakdown of civilized society, created by falsehood and conspiracy that ring all too familiar—especially what continues to emanate out of Washington DC:
No one brings suit justly,
    no one goes to law honestly;
they rely on empty pleas, they speak lies,
    conceiving mischief and begetting iniquity.
They hatch adders’ eggs,
    and weave the spider’s web; (59:4, 5a)

Corruption seems to be everywhere and those who say they seek peace but are doing it by ignoring God’s righteousness are deluding themselves:
The way of peace they do not know,
    and there is no justice in their paths.
Their roads they have made crooked;
    no one who walks in them knows peace.” (59:8)

Notice how justice and peace are intertwined. There can be no peace in an unjust culture as Isaiah outlines the grim conclusion of a dishonest world:
Therefore justice is far from us,
    and righteousness does not reach us;
we wait for light, and lo! there is darkness;
    and for brightness, but we walk in gloom. (59:9)

What’s really depressing here, though, is how apropos these words are to the world in which we live today. And if we needed a good description of the consequences of how our leadership behaving today, it’s right here:
Therefore justice is far from us,
    and righteousness does not reach us;
we wait for light, and lo! there is darkness;
    and for brightness, but we walk in gloom.
We grope like the blind along a wall,
    groping like those who have no eyes;
we stumble at noon as in the twilight,
    among the vigorous  as though we were dead. (59:9, 10)

Not only are we groping in darkness, our falsity as a society leads to the same dark consequences that Isaiah saw so many years ago:
Justice is turned back,
    and righteousness stands at a distance;
for truth stumbles in the public square,
    and uprightness cannot enter. (59:14)

Is this the epitaph that is being written today for America? I am not optimistic about our collective future in a world that has decided God is superfluous at best and non-existent at worst. These two chapters are depressingly contemporary and true—a tocsin for what I think is yet to come.

Colossians 3:1–11: But all is not lost. Paul reminds us that for us as individuals there is an antidote to the corruption in our hearts (as the psalmist reminds us) and from that of society (as Isaiah reminds us): “seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” (1,2)

Christ has saved us but his salvation demands a response from us: “Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry).” (5) Notice that these qualities are a consequence of salvation, they are not the prerequisites for salvation.

We must take personal responsibility for our actions: “But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth.” (8) Paul uses the metaphor of taking off old clothes and putting on new to drive home the transformative nature of salvation through Christ: “Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self.” (9, 10) Notice that the same theme we saw in Isaiah 58—hypocrisy and falsity—is exactly what Paul is explicitly condemning here. We must be truthful with each other because we have put on the clothes of “our new self.”

The consequences of being clothed in Christ rather than in our self-centered will are profound. It is the creation of an entirely new definition of society itself as Paul famously asserts, “In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!”  (11) The challenge for those of us who call ourselves Christian is to set aside our prejudices and honestly accept what Paul is saying here. Alas, I know that I mostly still judge others by outward appearance and status rather than seeing them as my equals in Christ.

Psalm 89:47–53; Isaiah 56, 57; Colossians 2:11–23

Psalm originally published 7/30/2016. Revised and updated 7/30/2019

Psalm 89:47–53: Having angrily reminded God of his revocation of the promised covenant with David and his descendants, our psalmist demands,
How long, Lord, will, You hide forever,
Your wrath burn like fire? (47)

As he wonders, he becomes philosophical, reflecting on the evanescence of human life: But unlike other psalms where we see encounter this reflection, here our poet blames God for our fate:
Recall how fleeting I am,
how futile You made all humankind. (48)  

Life’s reality is stark indeed:
What man alive will never see death,
will save his life from the grip of Sheol? (49)

The psalm’s coda returns to the breaking of the Davidic covenant and God’s apparent abandonment in Israel’s present plight:
Where are Your former kindnesses, Master,
that You vowed to David in Your faithfulness? (50)

Not only should God remember the covenant, but also his people. This abandonment is all the more puzzling because God himself is rejected by Israel’s enemies. Why, our psalmist wonders (as do we) has God abandoned them only to be scorned by their enemies:
Recall, O Master, your servants’ disgrace.
that I bore in my bosom from all the many peoples,
as Your enemies reviled, O Lord,
as Your enemies reviled Your anointed one’s [the Messiah’s] steps.
(51, 52)

Yet, the last line reveals that the psalmist still respects God:
Blessed be the Lord forever, amen and amen. (53)

This dark psalm reminds us that we are free to shake our fists at God when it seems he has not only abandoned us, but when he seems to have allowed our enemies to vanquish us. Sometimes it seems that all hope is irretrievably lost.

Isaiah 56, 57: Writing once again in God’s voice, our prophet continues to extol God’s generosity, reminding us that the Messiah is coming as long as we continue to obey Gods ordinances:
Thus says the Lord:
    Maintain justice, and do what is right,
for soon my salvation will come,
    and my deliverance be revealed.

Happy is the mortal who does this,
    the one who holds it fast,
who keeps the sabbath, not profaning it,
    and refrains from doing any evil.
(56:1, 2)

Moreover, the promise is not just to God’s chosen people but to all humanity—foreigners and those who are disabled (represented here by eunuchs):
Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,
    “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”;
and do not let the eunuch say,
    “I am just a dry tree.”
…And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,
    to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord,
    and to be his servants,
all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it,
    and hold fast my covenant—
these I will bring to my holy mountain,
    and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
(56: 3, 7)

This is one of those passages where we Christians need to realize that the Hebrew Scriptures fully reveal God’s promise to all humanity, not just the Jews.

But, the prophet continues, God’s promises are being ignored by its leaders, corrupting the entire nation. In particular, Isaiah blames the other prophets for ignoring the obvious and pursuing their own ends rather than God’s:
Israel’s sentinels are blind,
    they are all without knowledge;
they are all silent dogs
    that cannot bark;
dreaming, lying down,
    loving to slumber.
The dogs have a mighty appetite;
    they never have enough.
(56:10, 11)

Isaiah’s outrage against the there continues into the next chapter as God excoriates their venality by comparing them to unruly children:
But as for you, come here,
    you children of a sorceress,
    you offspring of an adulterer and a whore.
Whom are you mocking?
    Against whom do you open your mouth wide
    and stick out your tongue?
Are you not children of transgression,
    the offspring of deceit—
(57:3, 4)

God is especially incensed that Israel and its leaders have taken up with idols and small-g gods. Even when those gods did not deliver, the people continue to ignore the real God:
Whom did you dread and fear
    so that you lied,
and did not remember me
    or give me a thought?

God points out that their efforts to appease the idols is an empty, futile exercise and they will find out that their trust has been completely misplaced in inanimate objects when trials come and they cry to their ersatz gods:
I will concede your righteousness and your works,
    but they will not help you.
When you cry out, let your collection of idols deliver you!
    The wind will carry them off,
    a breath will take them away.
(57:12, 13)

But as always, God is faithful and his anger will pass:
For I will not continually accuse,
    nor will I always be angry;
for then the spirits would grow faint before me,
    even the souls that I have made.

God is standing by to rescue those who turn back to him:
I have seen their ways, but I will heal them;
    I will lead them and repay them with comfort,
    creating for their mourners the fruit of the lips.
Peace, peace, to the far and the near, says the Lord;
    and I will heal them.
(57:18, 19)

But those who persist in ignoring God will suffer the consequences:
There is no peace, says my God, for the wicked. (57:21)

If ever our culture needed a warning of the serious path it is following as it descends into chaos, it is right here. Our idols of technology and wealth will prove just as useless when true judgment comes. Yet, as with ancient Israel, God stands ready to embrace all who simply acknowledge that he is our one true God who came to earth in the person of Jesus Christ.

Colossians 2:11–23: Paul turns the biggest contentious issue of the early church—circumcision—into a metaphor of new spiritual life in Jesus: In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ… (11). He explains just what this spiritual circumcision is by aligning it to Christ’s death and resurrection: “...when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.” (12) Paul asserts that prior to this spiritual circumcision we were dead to God because of our sinfulness. Turning to a legal analogy, Paul tells us that God has “eras[ed] the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross.” (14)

He then helpfully brings these metaphors and analogies back down to earth by telling us that side we are now with God through Christ, we have been freed. Accordingly, he continues, “do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths.” (16) This assertion makes it clear that new Christians had been criticized by Jewish converts both for their uncircumcised state as well as the cultural mores they continued to follow after becoming Christians. Apparently, some in the church insisted on substituting old practices for new and alien practices such as “self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking.” (18)

Paul clearly calls out the tendency of the church to force new Christians to become rule-bound, as if following human rules made them more acceptable to God. He asks rhetorically, “Why do you submit to regulations,  “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch”? (20, 21)

This demand to follow regulations that Paul insists are created by humans and not God has hobbled the church down through the centuries. I have met too many people who have abandoned the church because of arbitrary rules and regulations. I remember in my own experience growing up in the Evangelical Free church how seeing movies, playing cards, and dancing were frowned on. I particularly remember the judgment of others when I chose to go to a “secular” rather than “Christian” university. And the experience soured my on the church for a decade before I came to a church that saw grace as far better than judgement.

Psalm 89:39–46; Isaiah 54,55; Colossians 1:28–2:10

Originally published 7/29/2015. Revised and updated 7/29/2019.

Psalm 89:39–46: In this section, our psalmist directs some of the most intense anger toward God that we encounter anywhere in the Psalms. Accusation piles on accusation with the repetition of “You” hurled toward this angry, punishing God:

And You, You abandoned and spurned,
You were furious with Your anointed.
You canceled the pact of Your servant,
You profaned his crown on the ground.
You broke through all his walls,
You turned his forts into rubble. (39-41)

If we ever needed convincing that there’s nothing irreligious or heretical about being angry at God this passage is our proof. Yes, our psalmist is admitting that the heirs of David sinned, but God’s punishment is undeserved because it is orders of magnitude greater than the crime. Worst of all, the punishment seems to culminate in the one thing God said he would not do back in verse 34 (“My steadfast kindness I will not revoke for him“), which was to remain endlessly steadfast in his support of the house of David: “You put an end to his splendor,/ and his throne You hurled to the ground.” (45) And then the greatest accusation of all: “You enveloped him with shame.” (46)

Why this seeming contradiction on God’s part?  Were the sins of the house of David so immense that God would revoke his promise? Of course, as we read the histories, we can see God’s point.] It seemed that there were no strings attached to the promise to the house of David. Yet, to the psalmist–and to us–it appears that God has gone back on his word. What gives?

Isaiah 54, 55: In this beautiful passage so full of promise, Israel is compared to the “children of the desolate woman.” (54:1) Isaiah, speaking once again as the voice of God, promises,
Do not fear, for you will not be ashamed;
 do not be discouraged, for you will not suffer disgrace;
…[because] your Maker is your husband,
the Lord of hosts is his name; (54:4, 5)

What is fascinating here is that God admits he has been angry with Israel but that anger has now been replaced with affection:
In overflowing wrath for a moment
    I hid my face from you,
but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,
    says the Lord, your Redeemer. (54:8)

God recalls his original promise to Noah and says so here:
…so I have sworn that I will not be angry with you
and will not rebuke you. (54:9) 

It’s impossible to read this passage in juxtaposition with today’s psalm and not be puzzled at the seeming contradiction. God says he will always keep his Covenant with us, but to the psalmist it certainly looks like he’s broken it. What gives? We need to remember that the psalmist is shaking his fist up at God and here, God speaks from above, down to us. So, there’s a different point of view here. One thing is clear: we’ll never fully fathom God.

In chapter 55, amidst all the wonderful promises, we hear yet another reference to God’s covenant with David:
I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
my steadfast, sure love for David. (55:3)

Rather than try to untangle the knot of seeming contradictions, this chapter is one to simply read, ponder, and savor these famously beautiful verses:
   “For you shall go out in joy,
       and be led back in peace;
   the mountains and the hills before you
       shall burst into song,
       and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.” (55:12)

Colossians 1:28–2:10: Paul reminds his listeners—and us—that his mission in life is to proclaim a gospel that leads to Christian maturity: “It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ.” (1:28) And this mission is all-consuming: “For this I toil and struggle with all the energy that he powerfully inspires within me.” (1:29)

Even though Paul has never been to Colossae, he uses heartwarming words to convey how deeply he cares for these Christians, as well as those in Laodicea: I want their hearts to be encouraged and united in love, so that they may have all the riches of assured understanding and have the knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” (2:2)

I’m struck by Paul’s repeated references to “mystery,” which he clearly identifies as Christ himself. Moreover, “the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Christ.” (2:3) It seems clear that Paul is saying that we will eventually discover wisdom and knowledge but it is a process that will take time. When we become believers all things are not instantly revealed to us, even as much as we would like to know and understand everything right away.

Which is why I’m suspicious of those today who exude such confidence that they have Christ all figured out and assert they know exactly what God’s plans for us and for our culture are supposed to be. This is not just the people who predict the exact date of Jesus’ 2nd coming, but those who claim to speak for Jesus into the larger culture. As in Paul’s day, we need to greet these people with the utmost suspicion, remembering his warning, “I am saying this so that no one may deceive you with plausible arguments.” (2:4)

On thing I’m sure of, the world is still full of those who would “take you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.” (2:8) Unfortunately, too many of these people claim to be Christians or worse, they claim to have received a special insight from God. Paul’s point is that there is an unfathomable mystery here. We will only perceive it through a glass darkly. (Which, again, is also why I like the act of worship to convey some of that mystery.)

Psalm 89:31–38; Isaiah 51:17–53:12; Colossians 1:15–27

Originally published 7/28/2017. Revised and updated 7/27/2019.

Psalm 89:31–38: Our psalmist is working hard—a bit too hard, IMHO—to  make sure that everyone understands that David and his heirs are God’s exclusive and permanent choice to be kings of Judah. He now turns his poetic attention to David’s successors, making it clear that their sins will be severely punished. God’s speech continues:
If his sons forsake my teaching
and do not go in my law,
if they profane My statutes
and do not keep My commands,
I will requite their crime with the rod,
and with plagues, their wrongdoing. (31-33)

Nevertheless, and in spite of whatever sinfulness they may engage in—and as we know from reading the Histories, there was manifold sinfulness on their part—God will remain faithful to the covenant he made with David. And to make sure everyone gets it, the poet has God repeat the point in three successive verses:
Yet My steadfast kindness I will not revoke for him [David],
and I will not betray My faithfulness.
I will not profane my pact
and My mouth’s utterance I will not alter.
One thing I have sworn by My holiness—
that David I will not deceive.” (34-36)

Th psalmist is the assured that God will make sure that David’s successors continue forever:
His seed shall be forever,
and His throne like the sun before Me,
like the moon, firm-founded forever—
and the witness in the skies is faithful—selah” (37, 38)

What the psalmist had no way of knowing is exactly how God would ultimately fulfill the Davidic Covenant. Where our poet envisioned an endless succession of Davidic generations, God did something completely different and completely surprising. He brought Jesus, who was indeed of the line of David, into the world some 14 generations after David. And as we know, Jesus reigns forever, thereby permanently fulfilling the promise God made to David so many eons ago.

We can be grateful that despite the rather hyperbolic words of this psalm, we come away assured that God indeed keeps his promises. Only that he keeps them in ways we cannot expect and cannot even imagine.

Isaiah 51:17–53:12: At this point in Isaiah’s prophecy Judah and Jerusalem appear to lack any kind of competent human leadership. And of course they have abandoned God as well:
There is no one to guide her
    among all the children she has borne;
there is no one to take her by the hand
    among all the children she has brought up. (51:18)

God’s punishment has been severe, what the prophet calls ‘the cup of wrath:’
These two things have befallen you
    —who will grieve with you?—
devastation and destruction, famine and sword—
    who will comfort you? (51:19)

But there is always the underlying promise that God will eventually turn from punishing Israel to punishing its enemies and then there will be great rejoicing:
See, I have taken from your hand the cup of staggering;
you shall drink no more
    from the bowl of my wrath.
And I will put it into the hand of your tormentors,
    who have said to you,
    “Bow down, that we may walk on you” (51:22b, 23a)

In the light of this marvelous promise we arrive at some of the most beautiful poetry in this book. Our poet describes how news of peace comes to Israel and how the people will rejoice, as this section ends with God’s eternal promise to Israel:
How beautiful upon the mountains
    are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
    who announces salvation,
    who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”
Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices,
    together they sing for joy;
for in plain sight they see
    the return of the Lord to Zion.
Break forth together into singing,
    you ruins of Jerusalem;
for the Lord has comforted his people,
    he has redeemed Jerusalem.

For you shall not go out in haste,
    and you shall not go in flight;
for the Lord will go before you,
    and the God of Israel will be your rear guard.” (52:7-9, 12)

The Servant introduced back in chapter 49 and 50 suddenly reappears in a dramatic scene that certainly suggests Jesus suffering on the cross:
Just as there were many who were astonished at him 
    —so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance,
    and his form beyond that of mortals—
so he shall startle  many nations;
    kings shall shut their mouths because of him. (52:14, 15a)

Now we come to the famous chapter that describes the Messiah as the Suffering Servant. It is at this point that the identity of the servant is revealed. For us Christians it can be only one person:
He was despised and rejected by others;
    a man of suffering  and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces 
    he was despised, and we held him of no account.
Surely he has borne our infirmities
    and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
    struck down by God, and afflicted.” (53:4,5)

And in the most famous verses of all it becomes clear on whose behalf the Servant suffered. It is not some ancient race; it is all of us for all time, including we who are living in the here and now:
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
    crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
    and by his bruises we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
    we have all turned to our own way,
and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all.” (53:5,6)

This chapter is packed with prophecies that were fulfilled by Jesus:

  • His trial: “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,/ yet he did not open his mouth.” (53:7)
  • The unjust outcome of the trial: “By a perversion of justice he was taken away.” (53:8)
  • His crucifixion among thieves and burial in a rich man’s grave: “They made his grave with the wicked / and his tomb with the rich.” (53:9a)
  • But above all, it was Jesus’ death that was the final sacrifice for all of humanity’s  sins for all time:
    yet he bore the sin of many,
        and made intercession for the transgressors.” (53:12b)

Since we know how the story comes out we can even see the promise of his resurrection:
When you make his life an offering for sin, 
    he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days; (53:10b)

For me, of all the prophecies we have read—and all the ones we have yet to read—this chapter stands out above all the rest. For it contains the greatest prophecy of all: the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Colossians 1:15–27: Speaking of Jesus (which Paul does all the time) we arrive at one of Paul’s memorable descriptions of just who Jesus is. Like the opening paragraphs about the Word in John 1, Jesus Christ predates creation, a partner with God: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him.” (15, 16)

Now, Jesus is the head of the church: “He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.” (18) As was promised in Isaiah 53, he suffered and died for our sins in order as the final sacrifice: “and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” (10)

Because of this generous act, we come forgiven before God: “you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled  in his fleshly body  through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him.” (22) But this reconciliation requires faith on our part: “provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven.” (23)

With this core theology out of the way, Paul establishes his bona fides, which suggests he never personally visited this church: “I became its servant according to God’s commission that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known.” (25) His purpose on earth is simple: “the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to his saints.” (26) ‘Saints’ of course includes Paul himself.

Paul uses the word, ‘mystery,’ several times in this passage. Of course Christ is the answer to the mystery that has been posed in Isaiah 53: the identity of the Suffering Servant. But I think it also means that the mystery of Christ will never be fully explained while we are here on earth because it lies beyond our mental grasp. Which is why logical argumentation and trying to prove various things about God’s existence all ultimately fail. We can see only through a glass darkly, albeit face to face with God.

It is faith that must bridge bridge the mystery for us. Which is why I like churches that allow the mystery to be present in worship rather than trying to expunge any sense of the unknowable in their attempt to attract “Seekers.”  There will always be much we cannot understand, so we should not let the church or worship or sermons try to convince us otherwise.

Psalm 89:20–30; Isaiah 49:22–51:16; Colossians 1:1–14

Originally published 7/27/2017. Revised and updated 7/26/2019.

Psalm 89:20–30: After hinting around about how God has chosen the man from the line of David to be king, he gets quite specific about why this is ordained by God himself. The poet does this by saying he had a vision and continues to write in God’s voice as God recounts the brilliant choice he made in choosing and anointing David as king:
Then did You speak in a vision
to Your faithful and did say:
“I set a crown upon the warrior,
I raised up one chosen from the people>
I found David my servant,
with my holy oil anointed him,
that My hand hold firm with him,
May arm, too, take him in. (20-22)

This effusive tone continues as our psalmist describes God’s promises to David, including how God will strike down David’s enemies. Our poet now shifts to writing in the future tense, which I take as a thinly veiled warning to those who would presume to put a non-Davidic king on Israel’s throne:
No enemy shall cause him grief
and no vile person afflict him.
And I will grind down his foes before him
and defeat those who hate him
My faithfulness and My kindness are with him,
and in My name his horn shall be lifted. (23-25)

At this point David begins to take on mythic qualities that suggest to me that in his passionate inspiration, the psalmist was actually writing about the Messiah to come, which for us, of course, is Jesus Christ. This seems especially apparent in the words that David speaks as he calls out to God and in how God calls  him his ‘firstborn.’ (Or I may simply be over-interpreting here):
And I shall put his hand to the sea
and his right hand to the rivers.
He will call me: ‘My father You are,
my God and the rock of my rescue.’
I, too, shall make him My firstborn,
most high among kings of the earth. (26-28)

Finally, we encounter a clear statement of the covenant God establishes with David—and we presume, David’s generational successors. It’s a contract with no end date, something that is especially important to our psalmist:
Forever I shall keep My kindness for him
and My pact will be faithful to him.
And I shall make his seed for all time
and his throne as the days of the heavens. (29, 30)

Beyond our psalmist’s political message we can feel clearly his passion for this cause and his sincere love for God and for David.

Isaiah 49:22–51:16: Speaking of God’s promises, there are plenty of them here as Isaiah writes of that bright future day when Judah is finally rescued by God himself:
But thus says the Lord:
Even the captives of the mighty shall be taken,
    and the prey of the tyrant be rescued;
for I will contend with those who contend with you,
    and I will save your children. (49:25)

Moreover, Isaiah’s God promises a bad end for Judah’s enemies:
I will make your oppressors eat their own flesh,
    and they shall be drunk with their own blood as with wine. (49:26a)

However, God is making it very clear—as he always does—that Judah’s woes are not something he sent to them, but rather, this suffering is the consequence they brought on themselves:
Where is your mother’s bill of divorce
    with which I put her away?
Or which of my creditors is it
    to whom I have sold you?
No, because of your sins you were sold,
    and for your transgressions your mother was put away. (50:1)

Of course its the same for us: God does not create the awful situations in which we often find ourselves. Except for natural disasters, our circumstances arise almost always as a consequence of our own actions and sins. Of course in today’s therapeutic era the whole idea of sin and its consequences has been pretty much discarded. Instead, we have become a nation of self-proclaimed victims wherein all our woes are caused by others or circumstances we cannot control. To which I can only reply, ‘Balderdash!’

God appears to be on a quest for righteous people who abandon their egos and place their trust fully in him:
Who among you fears the Lord
    and obeys the voice of his servant,
who walks in darkness
    and has no light,
yet trusts in the name of the Lord
    and relies upon his God? (50:10)

The point is simple: we cannot choose to walk in the darkness of our own self-centered pride and expect God to rescue us. We alone are responsible for the consequences that arise from the choices we make.

As seems to be the unvarying rhythm of this book, its chapters and verses oscillate between the dark consequences of Judah’s sin and the wonderful future rescue that awaits those who follow God. Chapter 51 brims with the latter, For example:
I will bring near my deliverance swiftly,
    my salvation has gone out
    and my arms will rule the peoples;
the coastlands wait for me,
    and for my arm they hope. (51:5)

So the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
    and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
    they shall obtain joy and gladness,
    and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. (51:11)

This entire chapter is a brilliant poetic essay on the nature and outcomes of God’s salvation. We may talk a lot about salvation, but it’s worth reading this chapter—once again written in God’s voice—that goes down a level of abstraction and describes the almost ecstatic qualities of God’s comfort and his rescue:
I, I am he who comforts you;
    why then are you afraid of a mere mortal who must die,
    a human being who fades like grass? (51:12)

The oppressed shall speedily be released;
    they shall not die and go down to the Pit,
    nor shall they lack bread” (51:14)

This reading has helped me realize that salvation is not just a dry theological concept that once we’ve been saved it’s over and done and we just go on as before, clutching a ticket to heaven in our hand. On the contrary, salvation is God’s continuous action in our lives and on our behalf—which is the engine of sanctification. Which of course is exactly what Jesus did for us and the Holy Spirit continues to do for us.

Colossians 1:1–14: As he has about Corinth, Galatia, and Philippi, Paul has received word at Rome about the situation at the church in Colossae. And as always, Paul opens his letter with a prayer: “In our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven.” (3-5a)

Paul is the master of the psychological sandwich: praising people before calling them out about their problems and then concluding on an upbeat note. The book of Colossians follows this structure. These opening verses brim with optimism and praise for the folks at the church  in Colossae. Based on what he’s heard from a certain Epaphras, things seem to be going pretty well: “Just as it is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it and truly comprehended the grace of God…and [Epaphrus] has made known to us your love in the Spirit.” (6,8)

Before he gets down to business, he provides his listeners, readers, and us with one of those Pauline nuggets that crisply summarizes the well-lived Christian life: “We have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’ will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God.” (9, 10) Prayer and a growing knowledge of God brings spiritual wisdom. And if we fail to practice those disciplines we should not be surprised when we remain spiritually immature and do not lead a life “worthy of the Lord.”

Paul also includes a profound theological summary of the Good News: “[God] has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” (13, 14) For me, this verse really resonates with the much longer passage in today’s Isaiah reading about how God comforts and rescues us. Unlike Isaiah, who takes zillions of verses to say pretty much the same thing, Paul summarizes the wonderful truth in just a few well-chosen words.

Psalm 89:10–19; Isaiah 48:7–49:21; Philippians 4:14–23

Originally published 7/26/2017. Revised and updated 7/25/2019.

Psalm 89:10–19: Our psalmist continues his paean as he now focuses on God’s power over nature in rather militaristic terms:
You rule over the tide of the sea.
When its waves lift up, it is You who subdue them.
It is You who crushed Rahab like a corpse—
with the arm of Your might You scattered Your enemies. (10, 11)

Alter informs us that Rahab “is one of several names for the primordial sea beast of Canaanite mythology.” The poet makes it clear that God not only has power of nature, he is its creator:
The World and its fullness, You founded them.
The north and the south, You created them.
Tabor and Hermon sing glad song in Your name. (12, 13)

Having established God’s power and preeminence over nature, our poet segues back into God’s essential qualities of justice, truth, and faithfulness which arise from that same creative power:
Yours is the arm with the might.
Your hand is strong, Your right hand raised.
Justice and law are the base of Your throne.
Steadfast kindness and truth go before Your presence.
Happy the people who know the horn’s blast. (15, 16)

Bearing in mind that this psalm is intended to demonstrate that the Davidic heir is the rightful king of Israel, we cannot miss the parallels between God’s qualities and the implicit qualities of the rightful king. In fact, in the verses that follow, the psalmist basically conflates Israel’s king with God by describing the essential qualities required of a king:
In Your name they exult all day long,
and through Your bounty they loom high.
For You are their strength’s grandeur,
and through Your pleasure our horn is lifted.
For the Lord is our shield,
And to Israel’s Holy One, our king. (17-19)

So is “Israel’s Holy One” (note the capitalization) God or the king? Or both? By praising God, our poet is deftly praising the man who in his eyes should be king. For us, of course, these verses are a compelling portrait of God’s power, justice, truth, and faithfulness.

Isaiah 48:7–49:21:  God’s speech continues in the manner of his speech in Job, noting how humans can never know what God knows. What is especially intriguing here is how Isaiah’s God did not just create eons ago but is still actively creating today:
From this time forward I make you hear new things,
    hidden things that you have not known.
They are created now, not long ago;
    before today you have never heard of them,
    so that you could not say, “I already knew them.” (48:6,7)

So, God wants Israel to listen up and recognize that he is God over all the earth, not just Israel. Moreover,  he will deal with the Babylonians and the Chaldeans in his own way:
Listen to me, O Jacob,
    and Israel, whom I called:
I am He; I am the first,
    and I am the last.
The Lord loves him;
    he shall perform his purpose on Babylon,
    and his arm shall be against the Chaldeans. (48:12, 14)

Above all, though, Judah needs to understand one thing (and so do we):
Thus says the Lord,
    your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel:
I am the Lord your God,
    who teaches you for your own good,
    who leads you in the way you should go. (48:17)

We need to fully comprehend in both our hearts and minds that God must be the one who leads us through our lives and not our own self-centeredness. The chapter ends on one of the great truths across all time: “There is no peace,” says the Lord, “for the wicked.” (48:22)

Chapter 49 opens with the Messiah speaking. But this Messiah is not the kingly messiah but is the Servant. [Servant of whom will become clear eventually.] For Christians, this chapter is the first of several chapters that describe the ‘Suffering Servant,’ whom we believe to be none other than Jesus Christ himself:
The Lord called me before I was born,
    while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.” 
He made my mouth like a sharp sword,
    in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me a polished arrow,
    in his quiver he hid me away(49:1, 2)

Notice that the Servant is “hidden away” and will appear at a time no one can anticipate. That’s certainly how Jesus came: ‘hidden away’ in the womb of an obscure teenager from an obscure town in an obscure part of Israel.

The Servant’s mission is to bring Israel back to God:
And now the Lord says,
    who formed me in the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him,
    and that Israel might be gathered to him. (49:5)

The really good news, though, is that the Servant comes not only to rescue Israel but to rescue all humankind:
I will give you as a light to the nations,
    that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth. (49:6b)

This is the great promise that God has fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ. The remainder of this chapter focuses on the nature of Israel’s rescue by the Servant. Once again we encounter the metaphor of God building a highway that brings every human being back to him:
And I will turn all my mountains into a road,
    and my highways shall be raised up.
Lo, these shall come from far away,
    and lo, these from the north and from the west,
    and these from the land of Syene. (49:11, 12)

Some theological skeptics have argued that the New Testament is simply tacked on, independent of what is promised in the Old Testament. Yet again and again we encounter passages like these in the Old Testament where God is being very clear that he will send someone to earth to rescue not just Israel, but all humankind. For me, the New Testament is simply the logical, uninterrupted continuation of the story that began here in Isaiah and in the other prophets of the Hebrew scriptures. Frankly, as far as I am concerned, one cannot fully live the Christian life without understanding its roots in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Philippians 4:14–23: In these concluding verses Paul remains enthusiastic in expressing his gratitude for the generosity of the church at Philippi: “You Philippians indeed know that in the early days of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you alone. For even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me help for my needs more than once.” (15, 16) And as usual, Paul tries to explain that he did not ask for the money: “Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the profit that accumulates to your account.” (17)

In his gratitude, Paul even identifies the person who brought the funds from Philippi: “I have been paid in full and have more than enough; I am fully satisfied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.” (18) Even though Paul seems to go on and on at excessive length (IMHO) about how he did not seek these funds, it’s clear that he has been immensely blessed by the generosity of the Philippians.

In his final words to the Philippians, Paul observes how generosity breeds generosity: “And my God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” (19) Unfortunately, this verse has been often exploited by the opportunists who espouse the “prosperity gospel.” Their message is “send me money and you’re receive even more money from God.” But that is not what Paul says. He says “every need” not “every want.” There’s a big difference.

This marvelous little letter so full of gratitude and optimism concludes with one of those Pauline asides that we wish he had elaborated on: “All the saints greet you, especially those of the emperor’s household.” (22) What we wouldn’t give to know just who in the emperor’s household were Christians. Was it just the slaves? Or were other more important persons or even nobility that were also part of the church at Rome?

Psalm 89:1–9; Isaiah 46:1–48:6; Philippians 4:2–13

Originally published 7/25/2017. Revised and updated 7/24/2019.

Psalm 89:1–9: In a rather stark contrast to the agonized one that precedes it, this long psalm opens with a worship celebration of God’s faithfulness and kindness:
Let me sing the Lord’s kindnesses forever.
For all generations I shall make known with my mouth Your faithfulness.
For I said: forever will kindness stand strong,
in the heavens You set Your faithfulness firm. (2,3)

The juxtaposition of ‘faithfulness’ and ‘kindness’ describes God’s core being—and it’s a reminder to us that if we are faithful to God, we are much more likely to be kind to our neighbors, as well as to ourselves.

With this brief introduction, the psalmist gets down to business. And it’s important business as he writes in God’s voice with a pronouncement straight from heaven:
I have sealed a pact with my chosen one,
I have sworn to David my servant.
Forevermore I shall make your seed stand firm,
and make your throne stand strong for all generations. (4,5)

OK, our poet has God himself reaffirming the Davidic covenant and that it must endure as long as Israel endures. This suggests this psalm may have been written at a time of crisis, perhaps a battle between rivals over who would ascend the throne. Our psalmist wants to make sure that everyone remembers that the David line of succession has been ordained by God himself. Therefore, it’s obvious that the king who is descended from David must be the one to reign.

Following this pronouncement from on high, the psalm returns to worship mode but with intriguing additional information about how heaven is organized:
And the heavens will acclaim Your wonder, O Lord,
Your faithfulness, too, in the assembly of the holy.
For who in the skies can compare to the Lord,
who can be like the Lord among the sons of the gods?
A God held in awe in the council of the holy,
mighty and fearsome above all His surroundings. (6, 7)

The ‘assembly of the holy’ and ‘council of the holy’ anticipates the great throne room scene in Revelation 4 when all the angels, cherubim, prophets, etc. gather round and worship the Lamb of God. The ‘sons of the gods’ certainly suggests a hierarchy of heavenly beings. But notice that neither ‘son’ no ‘gods’ is capitalized. Whoever they are, they’re inferior to God—and to the Son of God—but they’re ‘holy,’ so they’re definitely not the idols of the small-g gods that Israel was wont to worship.

I think that in describing the hierarchy of heaven with a fearsome God reigning supreme, our psalmist is drawing an obvious parallel to what is supposed to be occurring in Israel: a king from the line of David must reign—not only because God said so, but because the hierarchal order of heaven must be echoed on earth.

Of course, this is probably all idol (!) speculation on my part…

Isaiah 46:1–48:6: As usual, Isaiah is speaking in God’s voice, warning Judah about the futility of worshipping idols, even expensive gold ones:
Those who lavish gold from the purse,
    and weigh out silver in the scales—
they hire a goldsmith, who makes it into a god;
    then they fall down and worship!
They lift it to their shoulders, they carry it,
    they set it in its place, and it stands there;
    it cannot move from its place.
If one cries out to it, it does not answer
    or save anyone from trouble. (46:6,7)

Instead, he advises, they (and we) must reflect on who God really is:
Remember this and consider,
    recall it to mind, you transgressors,
remember the former things of old;
for I am God, and there is no other;
    I am God, and there is no one like me. (46:8,9)

What is it about we humans that we quickly forget and constantly need to be reminded to ‘remember God?’ These words are exactly what we need to be doing today: remembering who God really is as over against the trivialities that mostly occupy our minds—especially in light of God’s promise that concludes this chapter:
I bring near my deliverance, it is not far off,
    and my salvation will not tarry;
I will put salvation in Zion,
    for Israel my glory. (46:13)

Of course, we know exactly how God delivered salvation to all of us…Not just in Zion, but throughout all creation via the gift of Jesus Christ.

Chapter 47 is a long disquisition on how Babylon, which was the superpower of the age in which Isaiah wrote, will eventually meet its rather dismal fate:
Sit in silence, and go into darkness,
    daughter Chaldea!
For you shall no more be called
    the mistress of kingdoms. (47:5)


   in a moment, in one day:
the loss of children and widowhood
    shall come upon you in full measure,
in spite of your many sorceries
    and the great power of your enchantments. (47:9)

I think this specific prophecy was written as a means of encouragement to a disheartened Judah, who felt threatened by Babylon. Unfortunately, Isaiah’s prophecy notwithstanding, Babylon came and conquered Judah. But in a fulfillment of the prophecy, Babylon was indeed conquered by the Persians. Isaiah was right in the long run. It’s just that his timing was a bit off.

With Babylon taken care of, the prophet returns to the main theme of the book: Judah’s relationship with God. Here in chapter 48 he is reminding Judah that God has already done many great things and fulfilled his every promise down through their history:
The former things I declared long ago,
    they went out from my mouth and I made them known;
    then suddenly I did them and they came to pass. (48:3)

Unsurprisingly, Judah did not seem to notice and by implication ignored God, preferring to give credit to their idols:
Because I know that you are obstinate,
    and your neck is an iron sinew
    and your forehead brass,
I declared them to you from long ago,
    before they came to pass I announced them to you,
so that you would not say, “My idol did them,
    my carved image and my cast image commanded them.” (48:45)

Which of course is a perfect description of us in the here in now: we remain obstinate, convinced that all good things arise through our own efforts, aided by our idols of technology, power, and wealth.

Yet, God is eternally persistent and keeps on promising new things for Judah—just as he does for us:
You have heard; now see all this;
    and will you not declare it?
From this time forward I make you hear new things,
    hidden things that you have not known. (48:6)

I also take this as a verse as God’s wonderful promise that anticipates our ability to study the heavens and the earth through science and come to a greater understanding of the beauty and order of God’s creation. Just ask any astronomer or physicist.

Philippians 4:2–13: Paul interrupts his letter to “urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord,” (2) who seem to have lost their enthusiasm for Christ. Perhaps they have become discouraged at work that does not seem to yield results because Paul then gives us one of his most famous verse of encouragement: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.” (4, 5)

Then, he gives encouraging advice that is all too easy to forget: “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” (6) Prayer is central to the well-lived Christian life. Prayer is an area where I am basically a total disciplinary failure. Prayer simply does not come naturally to me. It always seems forced and inauthentic. Yet, as Paul tells us, prayer brings with it a wonderful gift: “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (7)

We arrive at the most beautiful of all of Paul’s lists: “ Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about  these things.” (8) The question is: what percent of my time do I give over to the advice Paul gives here and reflect of the wonderful gifts we have received? Alas, not enough. All we have to do is look out in the world and its ceaseless wars, squabbles, saber-rattling, and cultural battles to grasp just how poorly we have taken Paul’s marvelous advice.

In the final paragraph of the reading, Paul thanks the Philippians for their gift, which apparently went to him personally rather than to the church. He seems oddly defensive about it, essentially suggesting that they could have given it or not since he has learned how to live in both plenty and deprivation, which to me, anyway, seems to dismiss the Philippians’ generous act: “Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.” (11, 12)

But as usual, Paul gives Jesus Christ all the credit for this particular skill in this short but powerful verse: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (13) Would that we all remember this promise at the beginning of each day.

Psalm 88:14–19; Isaiah 44:24–45:25; Philippians 3:12–4:1

Originally published 7/24/2017. Revised and updated 7/23/2019.

Psalm 88:14–19: The concluding verses of this dark psalm convey the bitter hopelessness of feeling utterly abandoned by God. Our poet makes one last attempt to get God to hear and to respond. He has used anger, raising his fist at God; he’s used prayer. But alas, nothing avails. Only the existential question remains:
As for me—to You, Lord, I shouted,
and in the morn my prayer would greet You.
Why, Lord, do You abandon my life,
do You hide Your face from me? (14,15)

In the face of a silent, unresponsive God, the psalmist recapitulates his woeful situation, which seems to be some kind of chronic disease dating back many years. There is one last outburst at God echoing not only deep anger but an even deeper fear, as he blames God for his dreadful fate—all because God has first punished him and then in a final betrayal, has remained silent:
Lowly am I and near death from my youth
I have borne Your terrors, I am fearful.
Over me Your rage has passed,
Your horrors destroy me. (16, 17)

In one of the saddest, most hopeless concluding verses in the Psalms, our poet has not only been abandoned by God, but also by his human friends and family as well. He is utterly alone and the simile of drowning starkly conveys this dreadful solitude and silence as he senses he is dying all alone:
[God’s horrors] surround me like water all day long,
they encircle me completely.
You distanced lover and neighbor from me.
My friends—utter darkness. (18, 19)

So when some optimistic Christian tells me that God always answers his or her prayer in a positive manner or that God makes for a happier life, I need only refer them to the final verses of this dark psalm. Sometimes, our relationship with God does not feel that way at all happy or peaceful. The reality is that we can all too often encounter states of being where God, family, and friends seem to have apparently abandoned us to a dark and lonely fate. This psalm gives brilliant testimony to the depth of these overwhelming feelings. But we also need to remember that the psalms reflect every human emotion rather than pure theological principles. We know that God has indeed not abandoned us or is punishing us. But reality is not always reflected in our feelings.

Isaiah 44:24–45:25: In verses reminiscent of God’s final speech in the book of Job, our Isaiah poet reminds us that God is the source of all creation:
Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer,
    who formed you in the womb:
I am the Lord, who made all things,
    who alone stretched out the heavens,
    who by myself spread out the earth; (44:24)

When Paul writes of the folly of human wisdom in I Corinthians 1, I’m quite sure he had the next verse in mind:
[God] who frustrates the omens of liars,
    and makes fools of diviners;
who turns back the wise,
    and makes their knowledge foolish. (24:2)

Evidence of this reality that apparent human wisdom is actually foolishness is particularly on display in Washington DC.

Our poet appears to be writing at a time when Cyrus the Great of Persia was threatening Judah. He attempts to reassure his listeners that Cyrus is actually God’s agent of both destruction and rebuilding:
[It is God] who says of Cyrus, “He is my shepherd,
    and he shall carry out all my purpose”;
and who says of Jerusalem, “It shall be rebuilt,”
    and of the temple, “Your foundation shall be laid.” (44:28)

In fact, Cyrus pretty much gets an entire chapter devoted to him as God’s special agent of conquest:
Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus,
    whose right hand I have grasped
to subdue nations before him
    and strip kings of their robes,
to open doors before him—
    and the gates shall not be closed: (45:1)

Now writing in God’s voice, our poet goes on to promise that every thing that comes to Cyrus, be they small treasures or entire nations, are the work of God, who is the agency that will cause to finally understand that it is Israel’s God—not this human king— who truly rules over creation:
I will give you the treasures of darkness
    and riches hidden in secret places,
so that you may know that it is I, the Lord,
    the God of Israel, who call you by your name. (45:3)

What’s intriguing here is that God makes himself known to those who do not even know who he is. This applies not only to Cyrus, but to every human being:
I call you by your name,
    I surname you, though you do not know me.
I am the Lord, and there is no other;
    besides me there is no god.
    I arm you, though you do not know me, (45:4b, 5)

Others may not know God by name, but they are witness to both his creative handiwork and his actions among the nations:
 I arm you, though you do not know me,
so that they may know, from the rising of the sun
    and from the west, that there is no one besides me;
    I am the Lord, and there is no other.
I form light and create darkness,
    I make weal and create woe;
    I the Lord do all these things. (45:6, 7)

These verses seem awfully relevant to our time where many have rejected the idea of God altogether, much less acknowledging his name. Even in the midst of a rampant materialist philosophy God remains at work—and we can see evidence of this work if we just look hard enough. However, this is no easy task, as our poet observes:
Truly, you are a God who hides himself,
    O God of Israel, the Savior. (45:15)

I’m pretty sure our psalmist above would agree with this verse! Perhaps the greatest evidence of God as creator is the order of the universe itself. As physicists look into the quantum world and astronomers look billions of years into the past in the heavens there is one common reality. Nothing is random; there is magnificent order through all creation form the Higgs boson to the black holes in distant galaxies. Our poet puts this reality into a beautiful (‘beautiful’ being the way physicists describe the order of nature) verse”
I did not speak in secret,
    in a land of darkness;
I did not say to the offspring of Jacob,
    “Seek me in chaos.”
I the Lord speak the truth,
    I declare what is right. (45: 19)

Indeed, God is the God of created order not of chaos, even though chaos (e.g., fractals) is an important element of an ordered universe. Were it not for God’s order we humans never would have come into existence.

Philippians 3:12–4:1: In one of his most famous and beloved metaphors, Paul describes his life—and he hopes, our lives as well— as an athletic contest with one clear goal: “Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” (13, 14)

I think it’s too easy to forget that within these verses is the all-important admonition to look ahead, not to rehearse the past: “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead.” We can do nothing about the past, and there’s not very much we can do to alter our future. Rather, when we are living in the present, then we can “hold fast to what we have attained.” The well-lived Christian life means always pressing on ahead. Sanctification is a spiritual process, not a static state. It is dynamic and yes, even though I don’t necessarily like it, it is always changing. But it’s important to make sure it—and we—are changing for the better; that we are striving for that goal of living a complete life in Christ.

In the next paragraph Paul switches metaphors from athleticism to citizenship as he draws a stark contrast between those who are citizens of their own egos and we who are citizens of heaven: “For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ…Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things.  But our citizenship  is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” (18-20)

As is always the case for Paul, our spiritual destiny is binary: we are either enemies of the cross or citizens of heaven. I know that I much prefer to live in ambiguous gray, oscillating between following Jesus or following my the dictates of own ego. But Paul is clear. There is really only one choice: “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.” (4:1)

As always, this firm stand, like everything else in the Christian life, arises out of love. In this case, it’s the love of God flowing through Paul and expressing itself as love for the people at the church at Philippi. To paraphrase Paul, without love, it’s all quite pointless.

Psalm 88:6–12; Isaiah 43:22–44:23; Philippians 3:1–11

Originally published 7/22/2015. Revised and updated 7/22/2019

Psalm 88:6–12: These verses are among the most compelling descriptions of personal suffering and feeling abandoned by God that we find in the Psalms. We can almost see the poet standing or kneeling raising his outstretched arm and clenched fist up to God in a mixture of anger and bewilderment.
To the poet, it is God has who condemned him:
You put me in the nethermost Pit,
in darkness, in the depths. (7)

Not only does he feel he’s  been consigned to hell, but God is not quite finished with him—neither personally nor socially—and he sees himself as hopelessly trapped:
Your wrath lay hard upon me.
You distanced my friends from me,
You made me disgusting to them;
imprisoned, I cannot get out. (8, 9)

We can feel his anguish at God’s unfair treatment. After all, he says,
I called on You, Lord, every day.
I stretched out to You my palms. (10)

But as far as he is concerned, God has ignored his pleas and now he hovers near death. So, our poet challenges God directly:
Will You do wonders for the dead?
Will the shades arise and acclaims You?
Will Your kindness be told in the grave,
Your faithfulness in perdition? (11, 12)

This deeply ironic plea reflects the Jewish belief that once we are dead, we are gone, no longer participants in God’s creation, no longer able to worship him. Our psalmist is pleading with God to answer the existential question that in times of depression and feelings of abandonment we ask ourselves, “if You want us to worship you, what’s the point of casting us out of your presence by sending us to the Pit?”

Perhaps more than any other, this psalm tells us we do not need to pussyfoot around God. We can not only freely accuse God of not only abandoning us, but even of intentionally causing us to suffer. None of this makes us less of God’s creature as we cry out in pain and agony to our Creator. And as we know, it is not God who has done the abandoning.

Isaiah 43:22–44:23: Speaking for God, Isaiah proclaims that Israel and Judah have abandoned God: “Yet you did not call upon me, O Jacob;/ but you have been weary of me, O Israel!” (43:22) The prophet points out that it is God alone who has the power to reestablish a right relationship:
I, even I, am he who blots out
your transgressions for my own sake,
   and I will not remember your sins. (43:25)

Having ignored God and continuing to sin against him, God has acted and “delivered Jacob to utter destruction,/ and Israel to reviling.” (43:28)

But as always, God is patient and forgiving and there is always the promise of redemption lurking in Isiah’s words:
Do not fear, O Jacob my servant,…
For I will pour water on the thirsty land,
    and streams on the dry ground; (44:3a)

This is not just literal water, but metaphorical water in the sense that
I will pour my spirit upon your descendants,
    and my blessing on your offspring 

Both Jacob and Israel will rise once again when they have returned to God:
This one will say, “I am the Lord’s,”
another will be called by the name of Jacob,
yet another will write on the hand, “The Lord’s,”
and adopt the name of Israel. (44:5)

Through his prophet’s words, God declares his supremacy:
Is there any god besides me?
There is no other rock; I know not one. (44:8). 

The prophet then describes the pointless creation of wooden idols with the ironic image of an idol-carver cutting down a tree, using half the wood to cook his supper, and the other half to carve an idol. The implication of total absurdity of a wooden idol is clear and when Isaiah writes, “They do not know, nor do they comprehend; for their eyes are shut, so that they cannot see, and their minds as well, so that they cannot understand.” (44:18) He is describing the idol, its maker, and of course, those who worship this inanimate lifeless object. Their minds are completely closed—a cogent comment that’s completely relevant in ur own culture.

We may not carve our idols out of wood these days; we’re more likely to use steel and glass, or even completely ephemeral concepts such as money in a bank account. But we are just as blind and our minds are as closed as the most primitive idol worshipper.

Philippians 3:1–11: As usual, the problem in the early church is those who insist that Gentile Christians become circumcised: “Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh!” (2). For Paul, this too great focus on flesh and insufficient focus on Christ perverts the Gospel message. (I also think there’s the very practical issue that Gentile men would pretty much be unwilling to join a church that insisted on circumcision of adult males–and that would certainly impede church growth!)

Paul points out that “I, too, have reason for confidence in the flesh.” (3) [‘Flesh’ being the code word for circumcision.] He is a Jew’s Jew, perfectly Jewish in every respect: “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” (5,6) Yet, these tokens of belief and culture are nothing: “these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.” (7) In fact, everything—not just his Jewish bona fides—fades into utter meaninglessness in the intense and life-changing light of Christ: “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” (8)

Here we have the great breaking point between Judaism and Christianity. Christ is not some kind of super-Jew, a higher expression of what has already been. Instead, Christ is completely new, completely different. Christ replaces everything that was. It’s why we call this the New Covenant; not the “Improved Covenant.”

Psalm 88:1–6; Isaiah 42:10–43:21; Philippians 2:19–30

Originally published 7/21/2017. Revised and updated 7/20/2019

Psalm 88:1–6: This psalm’s superscription dedicates it to the Korahites, who were a choir based, I presume, at the temple in Jerusalem. A certain Heyman the Ezrahite, perhaps the choir director, is also included in the dedication.

However, I’m not sure I’d want these dark and even terrifying verses dedicated to me in this rather desperate psalm of supplication. The psalm opens in the usual anodyne manner of most psalms of supplication, although we sense an underlying fear as the psalmist “cries out:”
Lord, God of my rescue,
by day I cried out,
by night, in Your presence.
May my prayer come before You.
incline Your ear to my song. (2, 3)

The next verse is much darker as our psalmist describes his perilous state that has brought him close to death as we encounter “evil,” “Sheol,” and “the Pit” in just three lines. These lines are almost like a suicide note.
For I am sated with evils
and my life reached the brink of Sheol.
I was counted among those who go down to the Pit. (4, 5a)

“Sated” suggests that like a stomach stuffed with food, his being overflows  with evil thoughts—perhaps some form of depression. While he does not identify the nature of the evil, it has robbed him physically and spiritually of the strength and even perhaps the will to live:
I became like a man without strength,
among the dead cast away,
like the slain, those who lie in the grave,
whom You no more recall,
and they are cut off by Your hand. (5b, 6)

For me, what is most ominous here is the idea that after we die, God forgets about us and we are “cut off.” Most Jews did not believe in an afterlife, so from that perspective these words are  quite logical. However, I’ll take Jesus’ many promises of life after death and the many mansions God has prepared for us.

Isaiah 42:10–43:21: Now I see why the Moravians ended yesterday’ reading where they did. The first 10 verses today are a hymn to God beginning with the famous line, “Sing to the Lord a new song.” (42:10) Like many other OT hymns, all God’s creation joins in the singing:
Let the sea roar and all that fills it,
    the coastlands and their inhabitants.
Let the desert and its towns lift up their voice,

    let them shout from the tops of the mountains. (42:10b, 11)

This idea of creation singing reminds us that human’s are not God’s only creative act, but also so are all creatures and even nature itself. This should serve as a warning against our arrogant tendency exploit and “subdue” creation at great risk to upsetting God’s good order.

This song is not all sweetness and light. There is God’s promise to destroy enemies and lay waste to nature itself.
I will lay waste mountains and hills,
    and dry up all their herbage;
I will turn the rivers into islands,
    and dry up the pools. (42:15)

Perhaps these lines were written following some kind of natural disaster. But as usual, people—particularly those in leadership—aren’t listening to Isaiah’s warning:
He sees many things, but does  not observe them;
    his ears are open, but he does not hear. (42:20)

The song becomes even darker as it describes Israel’s plight:
But this is a people robbed and plundered,
    all of them are trapped in holes
    and hidden in prisons;
they have become a prey with no one to rescue,
    a spoil with no one to say, “Restore!” (42:22)

Not surprisingly, their current situation has doubtless been brought about by Israel’s intransigent disobedience:
Was it not the Lord, against whom we have sinned,
    in whose ways they would not walk,
    and whose law they would not obey? (24)

Despite their—and our—sins, God is a rescuing God and the next chapter brims with the hope of redemption:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
    I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;

    and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
    and the flame shall not consume you. (43:1b, 2)

But as always, God loves them—and us—not because of anything they (we) have done:
Because you are precious in my sight,
    and honored, and I love you, (43:4a)

For Israel, there is one of God’s great promises that one day the nation will be restored:
Do not fear, for I am with you;
    I will bring your offspring from the east,
    and from the west I will gather you;
I will say to the north, “Give them up,”
    and to the south, “Do not withhold;
bring my sons from far away
    and my daughters from the end of the earth— (43:5,6)

As we’ve noted before, many Evangelicals and a few Zionists believe that the modern state of Israel is the fulfillment of this promise. I am less confident about that. What’s important here, I think, is that God’s mercy extends to every person, not just to the inhabitants of Israel as our poet writes in God’s voice:
everyone who is called by my name,
    whom I created for my glory,
    whom I formed and made. (43:7)

Later, we read how God is indeed the source of all salvation:
I, I am the Lord,
    and besides me there is no savior.

I am God, and also henceforth I am He;
    there is no one who can deliver from my hand;
    I work and who can hinder it?” (43:11, 13)

Of course we Christians see the fulfillment of this promise in the Incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In addition to our salvation I think the other great promise is that God, through the Holy Spirit, is active in our lives, continually recreating and restoring:
I am about to do a new thing;
    now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
    and rivers in the desert. (43:19)

The question is, am I allowing God to do new things in my life or am I resisting change with my own will preferring to be stuck in the status quo?

Philippians 2:19–30: Right in the middle of his essay on Christology, Paul interjects a couple of personal notes. He is sending Timothy to them, whom he obviously holds in the highest regard: “I have no one like him who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare.” (20) He makes it clear that most of the others around him “are seeking their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ.” (21) Wow. This certainly does not speak well of the majority of Paul’s retinue of hangers-on.

As he has done before, Paul promises to come to Philippi, although we have no evidence that he did: “I trust in the Lord that I will also come soon.” (24)

Paul also “think[s] it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus—my brother and co-worker and fellow soldier, your messenger and minister to my need.“(25) Epaphroditus is obviously well known in the church at Philippi and probably came originally from there. He has recovered from a serious illness and “he has been longing for all of you.” (26) It sounds like he is due some serious R&R back home. By sending Epaphroditus back to Philippi, Paul accomplishes two goals: “I am the more eager to send him, therefore, in order that you may rejoice at seeing him again, and that I may be less anxious.” (28) Paul doesn’t reveal the source of his anxiety. But inasmuch as Paul is sending Epaphroditus along with Timothy is it because despite his endorsement, he doesn’t fully trust him?

We finally discover that Epaphroditus’ illness apparently arose from some duty Paul had him perform—and it sounds as if Paul is feeling a little guilty and feels obligated to send his servant back home: “because he came close to death for the work of Christ,  risking his life to make up for those services that you could not give me.” (30) Again, it would be fantastic to know what duties Epaphroditus undertook that brought him so close to death. But as usual when it comes to personal matters, we are left only with Paul’s tantalizing but cryptic statements.

I have to say that I like personal intermezzos like these that give us a respite from Paul’s relentless—and lengthy—theological discourses.