Monday, November 16, 2020: Psalm 83:1-4, 9-10, 17-18; Judges 4:8-24; Romans 2:1-11
Psalm 83 was last read on August 31st and I have here edited the notes from that day. I have left in the notes to verses not included in today’s reading.
The psalm has three main sections: a call to Yahweh (vs 1), a description of the distress being suffered by the community (vss 2-8) and petitions for Yahweh’s protection and intervention, intermixed with imprecations against Israel’s enemies (vss 9-18). This reading today includes the call to Yahweh, the first half of the second section (vss 2-4), the first two verses (vss 9-10) and last two verses (vss 17-18) of the second section.
It is identified as A Song. A Psalm of Asaph (heading). This is one of a collection of 12 Psalms so identified comprising Ps 50 and Pss 73-83. A Song indicates that it was a community prayer song or community lament. The heading A Psalm of Asaph may indicate authorship by Asaph, or it may be a sign that theses Psalms are to be sung by the Asaphites, a group of singers within the Temple. In 1 Chronicles 6.39 Asaph is named as one of the two men David placed in charge of the service of song in the house of the Lord and he is mentioned again in the time Solomon’s temple was dedicated at 2 Chronicles 5.12 where he is the first named of the Levitical singers.
The Psalm opens with a Call on Yahweh (vs 1). Vss 2-4 describe the conspiracy of the enemies which is clearly directed at your people (vs 3) Israel (vs 4)
Vss 5-8 are omitted from today’s reading. They name the various tribal enemies. Most of these enemies are local peoples of Canaan and the surrounding districts but vs 8 includes the regional superpower Assyria.
Vss 9-18 are petitions for God to act in defence of Israel by striking down their enemies. Vss 9-12 are quite strong and name specific peoples. The lectionary has (with some delicacy) removed vss 5-12!
There has been criticism of the ‘piety’ of this psalm because of the ‘wishes of malediction and vengeance’ in verses 9-18. They are the prayers of a people under threat, a ‘model’ for many nations when we are threatened by alien powers. We should not be too judgmental: in times of great war when our nation has been threatened (as in the dark days of WW 2 when Japan marched like a whirlwind through Asia) many pulpits in this country would have echoed these prayers. Particularly powerful and jarring is the prayer that God might deal with them as fire consumes the forest, / as the flame sets the mountains ablaze (vs 14). Vs 15 appears to introduce the metaphor of a firestorm, as the image of the bushfire merges with that of the tempest and hurricane! Those who have lived through the summer of fire in 2019-20 in Australian might be reluctant to pray such terror on anyone, even our enemies!
Vss 16-17 focus on the infliction of shame on the enemies. Vs 18 strikes a less strident and vengeful tone with the prayer that the enemies may come to know the might of the Lord.
Over the years many different ‘contexts’ for this psalm have been attributed by scholars seeking to locate the precise historical circumstances in which such a precise alliance of forces rose against Israel. Can one assume a single context at all? Is this Psalm a plea for Yahweh’s help that embodies all the threats and invasions and wars that Israel had known over her history?
Judges 4.8-24: Last Saturday we read the first twelve verses of the Song of Deborah (Judges 5), a celebration of one of Israel’s mighty women heroes. Chapter 4 gives the narrative of the events that are celebrated in Chapter 5. The link between this reading and the Psalm for the day are the names Jabin (vss 22-23) and his general Sisera, the unfortunate central character of vss 17-22 of Judges 4. Jabin and Sisera are mentioned in Psalm 83 vs 9, hence the choice of this reading to go with the Psalm.
Note that Barak (vs 8) – yes, the same name as the former President of the USA – would not go into battle without Deborah the prophetess (see vss 1-7 of this chapter for background). Deborah agreed to come, but warned Barak that, because he would only go if she went, he would get no glory from the battle, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hands of a woman (vs 9b), which came true in the story of vss 17-22.
Vs 11 is important to the plot. Vs 17 tells us that the clan of Heber the Kenite was at peace with King Jabin, but vs 11 tells us that Heber had separated from his clan. Thinking he was walking into a friendly camp of his king’s allies, Sisera asked for water. When Jael assured him he was safe and gave him milk to drink – not just water – he was lulled into a sense of security and fell asleep. As he slept soundly, she drove a tent peg through his skull into the ground!
I have heard a sermon on this story preached by an Australian Army chaplain during the Korean War. It was delivered to 500 allied troops on an airstrip before they boarded planes for a week’s R&R in Tokyo. The sermon related the tale of Sisera and Jael as told from the King James Bible. It used the phrase from Judges 5.25 (KJV) where Jael’s actions are described in these terms: “He asked water, and she gave him milk; she brought forth butter in a lordly dish.” The sermon to these battle-hardened veterans went on and on about how she ‘brought forth butter in a lordly dish’ and how she showed kindness in order to deceive him. It closed with the simple warning: Boys, you are about to enter the tents of wonderful, beautiful women who will bring forth butter in a lordly dish, and all manner of thing beside. Just remember General Sisera, who woke the next morning with a splitting headache, and was never the same again. Take care. Go with God.
Romans 2.1-10: We studied this passage in the first week after Pentecost. It is the sequel to Paul’s careful analysis of human sinfulness in chapter 1.
After listing three different kinds of sinners in chapter 1, chapter 2 opens with the emphatic Therefore …. All I have written in chapter 1 feeds into this conclusion: you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. ‘Whoever you are’ (rather inclusive), you have no right to judge other people because, as I have just shown you, you are doing the very same things (that is – you fall somewhere in those groups I described). Far from picking out gays, or idolators, or murderers, for particular opprobrium, Paul has swept us all into the same basket and said – you have no basis for judging others.
The first defence of those who love to judge is then trotted out: “We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.” (vs 2) In other words, “You can’t criticise us or stop us from judging others – it’s in the Bible!’
Vss 3-4 are Paul’s answer to this. He argues that they may be right, but if God is going to judge the others, won’t God also judge you? (vs 3) He then asks a question that I find quite devastating: Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience (vs 4a)? Asked slightly differently this question is ‘Are you so in love with judgment that you despise the grace of God?’
For all those who have ‘moral concerns’ about other people and their acceptability before God this is an incisive and unsettling question. Vs 4b takes it further: isn’t God’s kindness meant to lead US to repentance, not give us cause to rail against and condemn other people?
Vss 5 and 6 focus on the consequence of this judgemental attitude – that you are storing up wrath for yourself, and reinforcing the key point For he will repay according to each one’s deeds…
The deeds that form the raw material of God’s judgement are not specific moral judgements or laws, or values but patiently doing good [in order to] seek for glory and honour and immortality (vs 7) for those who are rewarded with eternal life. An adverse judgment awaits those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness (vs 8). Note the rebuke here of those who claim that their judgmental attitude is in accordance with truth (vs 2).
Vss 9 and 10 bring this calculus of divine judgement back into the key framing of Romans 1.16b – the Jew first, and also the Greek. This framing is central to Romans. Judgement belongs to God, not to humankind. God will exercise that judgement not according to the minutiae of moral rules and laws but in view of honour and goodness and glory on the one hand, and self-seeking, ignoring of ‘the truth’, and wickedness on the other. Judgement will be in an even-handed way treating Jew (first) and Greek with complete impartiality for there is no respect of persons with God (vs 11).
Tuesday, November 17, 2020: Psalm 83:1-4, 9-10, 17-18; Exodus 2:1-10; 1 Thessalonians 5:12-18
For the Psalm, see Monday.
Exodus 2.1-10: Why have we suddenly jumped back into the time of Israel in captivity in Egypt? I sense a theme developing this week around the role of women as heroes of faith! We often list the great [male] heroes of God’s people but this week we seem to be celebrating the women, which is wonderful! The heroes here are all women. Note that none of them are named in this narrative: they are simply the woman (not even his mother), his sister, the daughter of Pharaoh, and her maid. It is only in vs 8b the woman is identified as the child’s mother, but the story then immediately reverts to calling her the woman (vs 9b).
So the dramatis personae of this vignette are identified as a series of female roles: woman, sister, daughter, maid. How many nameless women have done heroic, courageous and costly service for the people of God, only to be unrecognised for the great contribution they have made to the people of God?
1 Thessalonians 5.12-18 follows on from the passage we reflected on last Sunday. It encourages a respectful and supportive attitude to the leaders in the community (vss 12-13a) and then a general exhortation to be at peace among yourselves (vs 13b). Vs 14 I find very re-assuring: it is wonderful to be part of a community where idlers, the fainthearted, and the weak find acceptance and patience! Vs 15 about not repaying evil for evil is the basis for a community that makes peace and builds reconciliation. In vss 16, 17 and 18 we see three wonderful exhortations to rejoice always, pray without ceasing and give thanks in all circumstances which together, if we can live up to them, do much to empower and make vital a Christian life.
Wednesday, November 18, 2020: Psalm 83:1-4, 9-10, 17-18; Esther 7:1-10; Matthew 24:45-51
For the Psalm, see Monday.
Esther 7.1-10 continues the theme of women heroes. The backstory of the book of Esther is wonderfully written. In chapter 1 Queen Vashti refuses to appear at a banquet as commanded by king Ahaseurus, emperor of the vast Persian empire. Ahaseurus deposes Vashti, then at the urging of his officials enforces the subordination of wives to their husbands across all of the 127 provinces of his whole empire! In chapter 2 there is a beauty contest across the empire so that beautiful young virgins could be sought out for the king (Esther 2.2). Upon entering the harem, these girls underwent twelve months of beauty treatments before their turn came for each girl to go into King Ahaseurus (Esther 2.12). Unless the king delighted in her and she was summoned by name (Esther 2.14) the girl then went to a second harem and was no longer needed. (Perhaps the best analogy in our culture is the difference between the glamour of the new car showroom and the used car ‘lot’.) In this charming lottery of love the Jewish girl Esther ‘won’ a place and went on to earn the love of the king and become the Queen of Persia.
Meanwhile, Haman, a wicked councillor of the king, was planning a genocide of the Jews (chapter 3), but Esther’s uncle Mordecai learns of it and reveals it to Esther (chapter 4). Chapters 5 & 6 tell of a subplot about Mordecai’s loyalty to the king, Haman’s plan to hang Mordecai, and the set-up of Esther’s banquet.
Our passage today is the climax of the story in which Esther, from the powerless position of a woman commanded to be subject to, and obey completely, the most powerful man in the world, and the doubly powerless and imperiled position of a Jew destined to destruction with all her people, and the triply dangerous and powerless position of a niece to a condemned prisoner on death row (Mordecai), Esther intervenes to save Mordecai, her people and herself. In her speech (vss 3-4) one can hear deference to, even flattery of, the king. She expresses what is about to happen as this damage to the king (vs 4). It is the clever speech of a woman who has to use her beauty and her submission to navigate the interests and egos of two powerful men. It is not really until vs 8 that it becomes clear that Esther has won and Haman has lost, and even then it is only when Ahaseurus (mistakenly) sees Haman as a sexual rival for Queen Esther that his fate is sealed and they covered Haman’s face (vs 8c).
Esther, like Deborah, is one of the great women heroes of Israel. She is celebrated every year in the Jewish Festival of Purim. The book is a wonderful exploration of sexual and imperial politics, of how the lowly and powerless (women, Jews, the poor) can find freedom and liberation through the wisdom and courage of one or two heroes.
Matthew 24.45-51 is found at the end of a chapter of teaching by Jesus about the end of the age and the difficulties of the future. The parable is about a slave put in charge of the master’s household and the two different paths such a slave might take, wise and dutiful (vss 46-47) or violent and exploitative (vs 48-49). The mention that the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know (vs 50) together with the context of Jesus’ teaching about the future and the coming of the Son of Man (vss 29-31) makes clear that this parable is aimed at the leaders of the church and how they are to behave.
At various places throughout Scripture there are warnings against religious leaders who exploit those placed in their care. Lest we think this is all ancient history, think about those in our day to whom vss 48-49 apply: the televangelists who financially exploit their followers, the hard-line moralisers who whip up their followers to hate, and the outwardly religious who sexually abuse the vulnerable.
For all such persons, and for all those (like me) who have been given stewardship of the master’s household, vs 51 is sobering, and should be ever-remembered! However, the note to vs 51 is worthy of reflection: is the action of the returning master to cut him in pieces (suggesting violence and retribution) or to cut him off (suggesting removal of the offender and protection of the victim)? Often feelings of violence and retribution are a human reaction which is then projected onto God. Is Jesus suggesting the former, or the latter, interpretation?
Thursday, November 19, 2020: Psalm 100; Genesis 48:15-22; Revelation 14:1-11
Psalm 100 was read in the week beginning Monday 4th May. This psalm is well known to worshippers in the English tradition through the hymn ‘All people that on earth do dwell, sing to the Lord with cheerful voice’, often sung to the tune Old Hundredth. This was also a common tune for the Doxology, sung to open Baptist services in a previous generation. It is a Psalm calling forth praise and thanksgiving. The setting can be discerned from vss 2 and 4 which call the worshipping community to enter the gates of the sanctuary in sung praise and worship. It is in every sense a ‘processional hymn’.
There is a heading to the psalm (A Psalm of Thanksgiving (NRSV) or ‘A psalm for the presentation of thanksgiving’) which confirms that it is a ‘call to thanksgiving’. We often glide over the headings of the Psalms and do not read them out in public worship, which is a pity, for they are the ‘production notes’ that open a window on how the psalms may have functioned in the earliest layers of Israel’s worship tradition.
Sometimes the headings are elaborate. Psalm 56, for instance, has this heading: To the leader: according to The Dove on Far-off Terebinths. Of David. A Miktam, when the Philistines seized him in Gath. While we cannot be certain as to the meaning, it appears that this is a direction to the worship leader indicating the tune to which it should be sung (The Dove on Far-off Terebinths), that David wrote it, that the form is a Miktam (an unknown form attributed to Psalms 16 and 56-60) composed after David’s capture in Gath by the Philistines.
Other headings are more cryptic. A recurring heading is simply To the leader: Do not destroy. My view is that a liturgist is here speaking to the Temple musicians and simply saying, ‘Please don’t murder this one, guys!’ Whether he wanted it faster, or slower, or with more feeling, or greater solemnity, we cannot be sure, but anyone who has spent decades in worship in various churches will have identified with these words from time to time – although never, of course, at Box Hill Baptist with our fine team of musicians!!!
Vs 3 brings two themes together, the covenant that stood at the heart of Israel’s identity (I will be your God, and you will be my people) and the motif of being ‘the sheep of his pasture’. This verse affirms that the people are the creation of God, the flock for which he cares and shepherds.
Vs 4 reprises the call to thanksgiving and worship and vs 5 reiterates a common theme of the Psalms, that God’s love and faithfulness endure for all generations.
Genesis 48:15-22 appears to be an aetiology. What is explained by this aetiology is how the ‘tribe’ of Joseph (that is, the two sub-tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, Joseph’s sons) are each apportioned recognition and blessing alongside their ‘brothers’ (literally their ‘uncles’), the other sons of ‘Israel’ (= Jacob). Vs 22 names the giving of the extra ‘portion’. Again, the note to this verse is instructive: the play on the word Shechem (the city) and shekem (a ‘portion’ or a ‘mountain slope’) reflects that Shechem is built between two mountains.
When I was ministering in Canberra I learned how the ancient identities of the ‘Israeli’ tribes persist. One of my friends was the leader of the General Delegation Palestine who was a Palestinian from Nablus (which is the modern name for Shechem). He told of the separate identity and ‘fellow-feeling’ of the citizens of Nablus. Yasser Arafat when he was alive sent a new governor to Nablus who was not a local. The governor arrived to find 20,000 demonstrators blocking the entry to the governor’s house and the authorities had to rescind his appointment and find a local candidate acceptable to the people.
This ancient passage also reflects another theme that runs through the book of Genesis, the privileging of younger brothers over the older (Isaac/Ishmael, Jacob/Esau, Perez/Zerah (chapter 38), Ephraim/Manasseh seen here in vss 18-20).
Revelation 14.1-11 presents the vision of the heavenly host of 144,000 worshipping the lamb. The idea of the 144,000 as an upper limit of the number of the redeemed has been the subject of countless doorstop interviews with Jehovah’s Witnesses and other sects who have taken this passage quite literally and concluded that ONLY 144,000 people will be saved. This has been the source of much confusion and suffering.
On its own terms, it is difficult to interpret the passage in this way. Vs 4 makes clear that the 144,000 have not defiled themselves with women (which suggests they are all men), for they are virgins (which excludes most men!) Further, the passage explicitly identifies them as first fruits for God and the Lamb (vs 4) which implies there is a larger harvest yet to come.
The best way of understanding the mystical number of 144,000 is to see it as a metaphor for both inclusion and abundance. The people of God were twelve tribes of Israel. Here we find the twelve tribes squared (12 x 12) to give 144, and then multiplied by the astonishing figure of a thousand. Where Israel expected the twelve tribes to find salvation, John announces not 12 but 144,000.
Vss 6-11 have a further three angels. The first brings an eternal gospel to proclaim (vs 6) (with gospel in the original sense of a proclamation announced on behalf of a king). The second announces the fall of Babylon (vs 8) which will be described in chapter 18. The third announces the punishment of all those who have ‘sold out’ and worship the Beast and its image (vss 9-11).
Friday, November 20, 2020: Psalm 100; Isaiah 40:1-11; Revelation 22:1-9
For the Psalm, see Thursday.
Isaiah 40.1-11 is the commencement of the so-called Second Isaiah. The prophet Isaiah as an historical figure preached and wrote around the time of the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem 701 BCE. His writings comprise chapters 1-39 of our book of Isaiah. Chapters 40-55 of our book of Isaiah date from the lead up to the return of the Exiles from Babylon to the land of Israel which started around 538-537 BCE. So the activity of the ‘Isaiah’ of chapters 1-39 occurred about 160 years before the work of the Isaiah of chapters 40-55. Yet a later ‘Isaiah’ again, wrote the words we find in our book of Isaiah chapters 56-66.
This should not surprise us. The ministers of the Box Hill Baptist Church have all been from a common ‘school’ of thought for the last 50 years. Ancient writers had very different attitudes to we modern individualists. An ancient writer would often ‘cloak’ their words with the authority of a revered earlier figure in a kind of reverse plagiarism that was understood as respecting and honouring the elders. What bound these authors together was a common theology, similar poetic themes and a common spiritual understanding of who God was and how God acted.
This passage predicts and announces comfort for the destroyed city of Jerusalem (vss 1-2, 9), a highway being built ‘in the wilderness’ (the desert country between Babylon and Israel which the returning exiles would have to cross, vss 3-5) and a powerful poetic contrast between the fragility and vulnerability of humans (vss 6-8a) and the military might (vs 10) and sustaining, shepherding power (vs 11) of the Lord God.
Revelation 22.1-9: Following the announcement by Second Isaiah of the restoration of Jerusalem, our NT passage provides a description of the restored heavenly Jerusalem which has been announced in Revelation 21. These are the penultimate words of the Bible as we have received it.
The vision of the river of the water of life (vss 1-5) is one of cosmic healing and reconciliation, and of the vindication of the servants of God after long suffering (vss 4-5). Vss 6 & 7 are statements by the angel, and by the risen Christ attesting the book that John has written. Vss 8-9 are the testimony of John himself as the author.
Saturday, November 21, 2020: Psalm 100; Ezekiel 34:25-31; Matthew 12:46-50
For the Psalm, see Thursday.
Ezekiel 35.25-31 offers another vision of covenant blessing. Just as Isaiah yesterday has prophesied the restoration of Jerusalem and the bringing home of the people of God, and Revelation yesterday told of the final healing of the world in the new Jerusalem, here Ezekiel, prophesying from Exile, tells of God’s future restoration of order and blessing. This includes the ordering of wild animals away from domestic lands but still having their own realm and security (vs 25), the blessing of the holy hill of Zion and the giving of the blessing rain (vs 26), abundance and security in crops and liberation from foreign oppression and protection from the wild animals (vss 27-29).
All of this will lead to new awareness of God and how they are the sheep of my pasture, and I am your God, says the Lord (vs 31).
The weekly readings end with Matthew 12.46-50. We read other parts of Matthew 12 last week and explored the complex relationships between Matthew 12, Mark 3 and Luke 11. See Saturday of last week (24th Week after Pentecost) for more detail. Here we have the story of how Jesus sees and identifies his family: And pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (vss 49-50).
There has always been a tension within the Christian community between our sense of human family and our sense of kinship with each other. For most of us we are able to manage this well and rejoice in the blessings of both senses of family. Some sects have sought to drive a wedge between physical family and our sense of sister/brotherhood within the church, misinterpreting texts like Matthew 10.37 (Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me).
It can be painful to have family members who are either in tension with our own beliefs or have even been estranged from us because of our belief or other reasons. We can feel powerless when we see problems and issues in our human families that might be addressed by the resources of love, faith and forgiveness that we have found to be effective in our own lives. Such difficulties can be some of the most acute and distressing experiences of family life – and sometimes the most insoluble!
Matthew has not reproduced the clever subplot in Mark chapter 3 which is found in the lead-up to this story about “Who are my mother and my brothers?” Mark tells us “When [Jesus’] family heard it they went out to restrain him, for people were saying “He has gone out of his mind” (Mark 3.21). This is followed by the subtle words of Jesus if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand (Mark 3.25) before posing the question Who are my mother and my brothers? (Mark 3.33) and opting for ‘the family of faith’.
There is comfort to be found in the realisation that even Jesus experienced the kinds of family tensions and difficulties that can affect us today!