Monday, May 25, 2020: Psalm 99; Leviticus 9:1-11, 22-24; 1 Peter 4:1-6

Psalm 99 is one of the Psalms that affirm ‘Yahweh is King’ (Ps 96-99) but is slightly different to Ps 96-98. Here Yahweh is not presented as the King of all the nations (Ps 96, 99) or the King of Creation (Ps 97) but as the King of Zion (vs 2), enthroned on the Cherubim (vs 1), which either refer to the figures atop the Ark of the Covenant OR as a metaphorical reference to thunderclouds. The whole Psalm seems to be anchored in the story of Israel, the origins and traditions of the priests and the cult of the Temple.

In determining the structure of the Psalm some commentators ‘cut it up’ into 1-3 / 4 / 5 / 6-9.

Vss 1-3 are a cry of homage and call to praise. Note that the holiness of God forms almost a refrain with its repetition in vss 3b, 5c, 9c. This would fit well with this structure, especially if vss 4 and 5 are linked.

Vs 4 (Mighty King – or a King’s strength) is a reference to military power (‘The Lord of Hosts’) but is immediately links this power with the establishment of justice and equity. Vs 5 takes up the call to praise again but anchors that praise at his footstool – a reference to the Temple?  So the mentions of Zion (vs 2) the cherubim (vs 1) and the footstool (vs 5) seem to locate the focus of this Psalm within the Jerusalem cult.

Vss 6-9 would confirm this with the mention of Moses, Aaron and Samuel all of whom not only held priestly office but ‘talked with God’ (vs 6). The mention of the pillar of cloud in the context of obedience to laws and statutes could be reference to the early Exodus tradition of the Wilderness, or to the Leviticus and Numbers passages in the readings for today and tomorrow.

Vs 9 concludes with the return of the holy is he theme and a final call to extol the Lord and worship at his holy mountain (conflating Sinai with Zion).

The Leviticus 9 readings tells of the inauguration of the Priesthood of Aaron. Vss 1-4 describe the offerings to be brought. Vss 6-7 describe the instructions and rationale for these events given by Moses.

Vss 8-11 describe the process of sacrifice and vss 22-24 describe the consequences of the sacrifice when a spectacular ‘fire come out from the Lord and consumed the burnt offering’, greatly impressing the people (vs 24b).  Note however the tension between vss 24a and 10. Were there 1 or 2 fires described in this passage?

1 Peter 4 – takes up again the recurring theme of suffering, and calls upon the readers to live a holy life that will surprise the Gentiles among whom they live out the particular ethic and lifestyle of the people of God. This will be a form of witness to the citizens among whom they live, who must also be judged by God. Vs 6 presents a reason that the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead (vs 6) – a doctrine associated with the descent of Jesus into Hell between his own death and Resurrection, a doctrine also grounded in 1 Peter 3.19.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020: Psalm 99; Numbers 16:41-50; 1 Peter 4:7-11

For the Psalm, see Monday.

Numbers 16.41-50 follows on from the judgement of the Korahite rebellion (vss 1-40).  Reading that story gives the background to this interchange. The legitimacy of Moses and Aaron was being challenged (again!) and the Lord validated their ministry through the appearance of the cloud and the glory of the Lord on the Tent of Meeting, the plague that spread through the people and Aaron’s power to stop the plague by making atonement for the people. Note the similarities between their situation and ours – both the contested nature of actions to stop plague and the use of death tolls (vs 49) to measure the impact of such an event. 

This text is related to the Psalm through the connection with Moses and Aaron and their role as priests which is referenced in vs 6 of Ps 99.

1 Peter 4.7-11 is very eschatological in tone (the end of all things is near vs 7 ) and calls the readers to a life of discipline, love, hospitality and service. Vs 11 speaks of the presence of God in our words and in our service, to the end that God may be glorified in all things.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020: Psalm 99; 1 Kings 8:54-65; John 3:31-36

For the Psalm, see Monday.

1 Kings 8 tells of the dedication of the Temple following its construction by Solomon. The Psalm (99) is clearly in the tradition of Temple worship and here we have the dedication of the Temple, the affirmation that the Lord is with his people (vss 56-57), the exhortation to obedience (vs 58) and devotion (vs 61) and the great festival of sacrifice (described in vss 62-65).

Why this focus on the Temple? This is the week between Ascension (last Thursday) and Pentecost (next Sunday). During this period Luke tells us they were continually in the temple blessing God (Lk 24.53). In the Acts depiction of the mission of the church and the growing proclamation of the gospel, it all spreads out from Jerusalem with the temple at its centre. That is why, just for a few days, we have been taken back into the heart of the Old Testament Temple.

The gospel of John presents us today with five verses (3.31-36) that are very typical of the themes running right through John: the life (or the birth) that comes from above (vs 31), the contrasts of earth and heaven, the relationship between the Father and the Son and the Spirit (vss 34-35), the concept of testimony (vss 32-33) and eternal life (vs 36).  What is intriguing is that these words are not Jesus speaking, nor John the Baptist (whose voice is quoted in vss 27-30) but commentary (teaching) from John. Again, the one who comes down from heaven is the one who has just ascended into heaven, so this reading is again placed in the short ten-day season between Ascension and Pentecost.

Thursday, May 28, 2020: Psalm 33:12-22; Exodus 19:1-9a; Acts 2:1-11

In the reading from Psalm 33 we again have around half of the Psalm (vss 12-22). The opening 11 verses contain a call to praise (vss 1-3), a declaration of the truth, justice and goodness of the Lord (vss 4-5). Then there is a presentation of the creative word of the Lord and its relation to the whole created order (vss 6-7, 9) and to the fates of nations within history (vss 8, 10). Vs 11 brings this section to a close with an affirmation of the Lord’s counsel standing for ever.

Our reading starts in vs 12 which, after the cosmic and historical scope of the first part of the psalm, particularises the focus on the people of Israel– Happy is the nation whose God is the Lord… Vss 13-15 develop the theme that God is not only the Lord of creation and the Lord of history, but is personally involved in seeing, watching and fashioning the hearts of all human beings. In consequence of all this, human power in political and military forms is ultimately futile (vss 16-17). 

True security is found in trusting the one whose eye is upon us (vs 18) and who can deliver us from death (vs 19). The closing three verses (vss 20-22) express the devotion, patience, hope and joy that comes to those who trust in God.

Exodus 19 nears the climax of the journey of the people of Israel as they arrive at the holy mountain of Sinai. In chapter 20 the Ten Commandments are given. But here the voice of the Lord calls to Moses from the mountain (vss 3-6) telling of their deliverance and calling them to obedience and holiness.

The response of the people follows (vs 7-8) and again, as in so many of the OT readings this week the Lord has appeared in either fire or cloud, his presence is signified in a dense cloud (cf. and a cloud took him out of their sight in the Ascension – Acts 1.9)

Acts 2 anticipates the readings for Sunday, the Day of Pentecost (fifty days after Easter). This passage is so well known, opening with a description of the gathering all together in one place (vs 1), supernatural signs of a great sound like wind (vs 2), divided tongues as of fire resting upon each of them (vs 3) and the miraculous gift of speech in other languages (vs 4).

Note that all those who heard were devout Jews (vs 5), both Jews and proselytes (vs 10) from across the ancient near east, and even the Mediterranean world (the list of nations in vss 9-11). The Pentecost event was still confined to the Jewish world and had not yet crossed into Gentile cultures.

Friday, May 29, 2020: Psalm 33:12-22; Exodus 19:16-25; Romans 8:14-17

For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Exodus 19.16-25 is one of those dramatic OT texts with wonderful special effects! Again the motif of smoke, fire and cloud threads through the OT readings for this week. It is the background to the NT passage of Hebrews 12.18-24. The emphasis is on the holiness of God, the danger that comes from associating with such holiness and the proper fear than holiness evokes in sinful human beings.  The language is interesting in that the people are warned not to break through towards the Lord (vss 21, 24) lest the Lord break out against them (vss 22, 24).

Romans 8.14-17 is a mirror and contrast to the Exodus passage above. Just as the children of Israel trembled before God and shrank back from the smoke and fire of the holy mountain, we are the children of God (vs 14)  but not as slaves who fear – we have been adopted through the spirit (vs 15) which makes us heirs with Christ and partners in both his suffering and his glory (vs 17).

Saturday, May 30, 2020: Psalm 33:12-22; Exodus 20:1-21; Matthew 5:1-12

For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Exodus 20.1-21 now brings us to the giving of the Ten Commandments. The chapter opens with Then God spoke all these words… Looking back to the end of chapter 19 we see that God had called Moses and Aaron to him on the mountain. The next 12 chapters are the giving of laws and rules and commandments by God, with some narrative interruptions (e.g. the fear of the people and dialogue with Moses (20. 18-21); the Lord calling a different group of leaders to ascend the mountain (24.1-11)).

The Ten Commandments are well known. What is not quite so well known is that the first commandment is the proscription of idolatry (you shall have no other gods before me – vs 2). The second commandment, even though it mentions the word idol, is actually the prohibition of the making of images of anything in the sky, on the earth or under the sea. Vss 5-6 can be read as related to both Commandments 1 and 2 and offer a blessing for those who observe them.

This antipathy to images has entered deeply into Jewish (and Islamic) cultures. There are many great Jewish composers, writers and philosophers, but not many great artists and sculptors. Within the Christian worship tradition (apart from some iconoclastic movements) and in Western art there has been a far stronger embrace of image-making and sculpture, probably reflecting the Greek and Roman culture that came in when Gentiles were accepted into the church and were exempted from keeping the law.

The Beatitudes (Matthew 5.1-12) echo for Christians the tables of the law. While there are nine Beatitudes or announcements of blessing (rather than ten), their focus is not moral principles, but promises of good things to various categories of persons. The first three are addressed to the poor, those who mourn and the meek – each with a promised blessing! The next four are addressed to those with positive moral character (those seeking righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers) all of whom are promised blessing or reward. The last two are almost repetitive and promise reward to those persecuted, reviled and falsely accused on my account (vs 11).

The readings here contrast the fundamental frameworks of principle in the teaching of Moses and of Jesus. As we stand on the eve of Pentecost, when the Christian Church burst upon the scene among the great cosmopolitan Jewish crowd in Jerusalem, we read and pray over these two contrasting frameworks to give us the context of why tomorrow’s events are so significant.

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