Friday, November 29, 2013

Second highest month of traffic

With another day and half to go in the month of November 2013, The Year D Project has registered the highest traffic figures for any month since its inception. (Now, if only the zombies, vampires, and other stat robots would bug off, the numbers might be more meaningful and worth sharing.) 

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Micah 7:1–20

(vv. 1–7). Jesus quotes Micah's closing lament (7:1–20; see. v. 6) in each of the synoptic gospels (Matthew 10:21; Mark 13:12; Luke 12:53) to warn of a time when the most intimate and trusted family relationships will have broken down. In the context of the gospels, this constitutes a prophecy of division and persecution in apocalyptic times for Jesus' missionary followers. For Micah, it is a result of the total corruption of the people, the disappearance of the faithful (7:2), the refusal to bear the "summer fruit" of repentance (7:1), and the utter predation and perversion of justice by those in authority. The first four verses read like a dystopian nightmare (in the vein of Psalm 12) while the closing phrase of v. 4 — "now their confusion is at hand" — captions the imperatives of v. 5 and the reasons given for them in v. 6. In short, their confusion results from the fact that the corruption is now so pervasive it undermines even those relationships assumed to be most friendly and safe. The corrupt can trust no one, neither friend nor loved one, neither wife nor mistress (v. 5); their very households are full of enemies (v. 6).

In contrast to this thoroughgoing depravity, the prophet sets himself and the LORD apart: "But as for me, I will look to the LORD; I will wait for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me" (v. 7). It is a revolutionary resolution, a song of trust that, though brief, comes as no small relief and offers strong assurance: there is One who is still supremely and uniquely worthy of faith, sure to hear, and mighty to save!

(vv. 8–10). In setting himself apart from the depravity, violence, and injustice of his enemies, however, the prophet does not claim to be without sin. Rather, he confesses, "I must bear the indignation of the LORD, because I have sinned against him" (v. 9a); nevertheless, he qualifies this, for he knows that his suffering will be temporary; that is, "until he takes my side, and executes judgment for me" (v. 9b). For this reason, the prophet cautions his enemy: "Do not rejoice over me" (v. 8a). But his confidence is no triumphant self-confidence; it is a testimony of faith in the LORD: "when I fall, I shall rise; when I sit in darkness, the LORD will be a light to me" (v. 8b); "he will bring me out to the light; I shall see his vindication" (v. 9b). Clearly it is not the prophet's own vindication that is sought, but that of the LORD. The prophet's faith and hope is placed in the one—in the holy One—rather than in himself.

The fact that the LORD's vindication is at stake becomes even clearer in the next verse, where it is revealed that the last minute recognition and the shame of the enemy will come at the very moment of the enemy's downfall, who had taunted Micah: "Where is the LORD your God?" (v. 10) Who is this singular feminine enemy? One possible reading (e.g., NIV) suggests this whole portion is a song of Zion, thus, Micah's repentance vicariously embodies that of the city whose downfall he earlier predicted (3:12). In other words, "my enemy" is a conglomeration of other nations allied against Zion. If so, the singular representation of a plural entity goes unresolved, not only with respect to the enemy or enemies but also with respect to the repentant prophet who waits for the LORD on behalf of an unrepentant and pluralistic society.

On the other hand, it is possible that Micah is testifying, like Jeremiah, against the corruption of the city herself. It is just possible that corrupt Zion is the enemy, while the prophet speaks solely for a righteous remnant within. Neither interpretation conflicts with the rising hoped for here or the expansive restoration forecast in what follows (v. 11ff.). The former would signify more clearly the intercessory grace of Christ on behalf of those lost in darkness (cf. Isaiah 9), while the latter would serve to narrow the focus on the significance of Micah's ministry for Jeremiah and his time (Jeremiah 26:20). Either way, the focus takes on a particular acuity: on vicarious repentance and intercession, or on the singular uniqueness of true faithfulness; by either route, we are soon led to "the light" of the LORD (Micah 7:8, 9), Jesus Christ.

(vv. 11–13). With the defeat of the enemy, the prophet envisions a restoration that begins thus: "A day for the building of your walls!" (v. 11a) The image is not restrictive though, since the new walls will mark a vastly expanded territory that includes former enemies, Egypt and Assyria, and encompasses a busy, vibrant zone in which people travel freely "from sea to sea and from mountain to mountain" (v. 12). People shall be drawn to the large, safe, and prosperous nation from north and south, but the rest of the earth beyond its expanded walls "will be desolate;" and this desperate state will be the direct result, "the fruit," of the conduct of those—it would seem fair and even tautological to say, anti-Zionist—entities that are hostile to Israel.

(vv. 14–17). This section unfolds in two contrasting thoughts: an invocation of Israel's divine shepherd, and a prophecy of the response of the nations put to shame. First, the prophet appeals directly to the LORD, asking him to "shepherd your people with your staff, the flock that belongs to you ..." (v. 14a). The setting for this pastorale is described nostalgically. The flock "lives alone in a forest in the midst of a garden land," suggesting a peaceful, intimate existence with her shepherd, where she may "feed in Bashan and Gilead as in the days of old" (v. 14b). Yet, the prophet's pastoral vision is neither drowsy nor dull: "Show us marvelous things," he asks, such as the mighty things the LORD did when he led Israel "out of the land of Egypt" (v. 15). In other words, such prosperity and security as Israel will enjoy in the garden with her shepherd-king will not be without marvel, miracle, drama, or spectacle. But she will nevertheless be secure.

By contrast, "the nations shall see and be ashamed of all their might." This phrase suggests two things: (1) all their might, the totality of the worldly forces arrayed against Israel will have been imposing indeed, compared to Israel's physical and military means of defense, but this overwhelming force will itself appear shamefully minuscule and ineffectual compared to the incomparable rod and "staff" of the LORD (v. 14a; cf. Psalm 23:4); shamefully minuscule and shamefully cruel and corrupt, for "they shall lay their hands on their mouth; their ears shall be deaf" (v. 16). The roar of war will have cost them their hearing; its terrible toll will render them speechless; yet it is also clear from what has gone before (v. 13) that its deadly results will have been reflexive. The nations shall have unleashed this hell, directed at Israel, upon them themselves—the ultimate backfire. Therefore, when the nations "come trembling out of their fortresses" to "turn in dread to the LORD our God," they shall come groveling on their bellies, licking the "dust like a snake; like the crawling things of the earth" (v. 16).

The final word is directed once again to the LORD: "they shall stand in fear of you" (v. 17). We should notice not only the victorious certainty that the LORD shall be held in awe and reverence by those once hostile to him and his people, but also the change in the posture of these conquered and subdued enemies. They have slithered from their strongholds, senseless, at their defeat; but as they "turn" or "turn in fear" to the LORD—as they repent!—they find themselves no longer slithering, but standing! And in this redemptive situation, the stage is set for the final, climactic song of adoration and assurance, with which this chapter, and the book of Micah itself, closes.

(vv. 18–20). In the final song, the prophet expresses wonder to God at his forgiving nature (v. 18a); assures God's people (with third person reference to God) of God's merciful and compassionate intentions (vv. 18b–19a); and turns to address God (once again in the second person) with the conviction that God will act in faithfulness (in accordance with his sworn promise to the patriarchs) to finally separate the people from their sins (vv. 19a–20).

"Who is like you?" Micah asks. But the cause of the prophet's wonder is not, in this instance, the incomparable power of God, but his "pardoning iniquity, and passing over the transgression of the remnant of your possession" (v. 18a). Beneath and behind the very notion of iniquity and transgression is the assumption that such sinful and unholy things, in the presence of the holy God, inevitably invite a volatile confrontation, a clash of qualitative opposites that can only result in a destructive explosion of divine anger. But here it is God's restraint of his power, not his power itself, that the prophet finds astonishing.

Such anger as we might have expected, we are told, is only ever temporary: "he does not retain his anger forever" (v. 18b);) but even more wonderful is the reason given for this reminder of what the psalmists have sung for generations (see, e.g., Psalm 103:9): "because he delights in showing clemency" (v. 18b). God's is no begrudging, teeth-grinding, fist-clenching forgiveness. His compassion and mercy are wholehearted and utterly good-willed, and the prophet assures us we will know them in future when "he will tread our iniquities under foot." Such a trampling action is reserved for the iniquities, not the iniquitous, and while the cynical world often objects to hearing the formulaic claim that "God loves the sinner but hates the sin," here, in this clear dramatization of the truth that persists despite all protestations, we gain the sense that God's hatred of sin, and of the power of sin, derives from what it does to his beloved. His trampling of iniquities, and the promise that he shall "cast all our sins into the depths of the sea" (v. 19b), suggests that God regards them with revulsion, not because they are part of our nature, but because they are contrary to the nature of Christ; they are enemy invaders, spoilers, perversions of our intended nature. We would not say, "God loves you and he loves your cancer, your addiction, your uncontrollable anger, too." If the cancer of sin, the self-destructive addiction, the murderous rage can be removed and life restored, then we can be sure God desires to cast out such enemies. Thus, there is a strong sense here that, as Paul, who identifies death as "the wages of sin" (Romans 6:23), will later say: "the last enemy to be destroyed is death" (1Corinthians 15:26). Of all the enemies that Micah has mentioned in the course of his prophetic service, sin and death are the archenemies and the last to be defeated; but defeated they will be, and most decisively. Such a victory is the sworn promise of God, from the beginning, to the patriarchs (Micah 7:20) who saw it from afar, and to us who know and welcome it in the faith of Jesus Christ, in whom there is no sin whatsoever.

"The Genesis and Purpose of Year D"

My aforementioned article on "The Genesis and Purpose of Year D" is available (in print only) in the new (Winter 2013) issue of The Lutheran Forum

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Ezekiel 33:23–33

This is a bleak text that has nothing in particular to do with Christmas Eve, aside from perhaps its bleak setting. Ezekiel, in the twelfth year of Judah's exile in Babylon, has just had news of the fall of Jerusalem. On July 10, 586 BC, the wall was breached; on August 14, the temple was burned; on January 8, 585 BC, a refugee arrived with the news (33:21–22). Soon thereafter, the word of the LORD speaks to Ezekiel regarding the survivors, "the inhabitants of these waste places in the land of Israel" who "keep saying, 'Abraham was one man, yet he got possession of the land; but we are many; the land is surely given to us to possess" (v. 24). Their reasoning is classic collectivism. The individual as such is inferior and subordinate to the group and the needs thereof; therefore, if an individual associated with, or in this case, at the genealogical head of, the group receives some good, the group must therefore be entitled to at least the same, if not a better good. Such thinking is purely quantitative and numerical; its logic is that of the ruling majority or even the mob.

But the word of the LORD to them through Ezekiel introduces the essential qualitative distinction, i.e., holiness, that is entirely missing from their thinking, and the prophecy declared to them is not only that they shall not possess the land (vv. 25–26), but that their numbers shall be drastically reduced by the sword, wild animals, and pestilence, until the land and its mountains are "desolate" and "its proud might shall come to an end" (vv. 27–28).

This devastation has a purpose: "then they shall know that I am the LORD." And the sign that shall make this knowledge clear is the LORD's laying waste the land, owing to "all their abominations that they have committed" (v. 29). What abominations? Each one is an unholy violation of the covenant, of the people themselves, and of the land: eating (raw) meat with its blood; the exaltation and adoration of idols; bloodshed; violent self-rule; adultery; and other unspecified abominations (vv. 25–26).

It requires no great leap of the imagination to recognize that all of these, even in the popular cult of vampirism, are still with us today, some 2700 years later, each one a qualitative departure, from the holy faithfulness that we associate with the single individual Abraham, into the vileness of popular abandon. But the LORD will show the abominable mob what he thinks of their collective claim of their entitlement to the land he promised to Abraham.

But lest you think I have cast this in terms that are too political for one side of the aisle to bear, there is another word from the LORD for those—may we consider them a certain class of biblicists?—who profess to admire and even adore the words of the prophet—esthetically!— especially as his oracles impress with their form and poetic beauty. These are those who are near to the prophet, and even preoccupied with what he has to say; moreover, they even listen to him with the expectation that they shall hear a word "from the LORD" (v. 30). Churchy people, indeed. Yet their attention to his words is restricted to an appreciation of their artistry: "To them you are like a singer of love songs, one who has a beautiful voice and plays well on an instrument; they hear what you say, but they will not do it" (v. 32). For them, hearing never turns to heeding; listening never leads to action. "For flattery is on their lips, but their heart is set on their gain" (v. 31).

It is not entirely clear how they expect to gain from mere listening, but somehow they regard acting on the word as too costly to themselves. There is an innate selfishness about them, an ungenerous and stingy spirit of pretension and hypocrisy. They are connoisseurs and consumers of the word, rather than doers thereof (Romans 2:13; James 1:22–25).

In contrast to both the collectivist and the consumerist crowds, there remains the solitary figure of faithful Abraham to whom the promise of the land, and the promise of a son and heir,  a "seed," was given (Genesis 17:4–8; Galatians 3:15–18). While many attributes of Abraham and Jesus Christ his "seed" may present themselves for consideration at this point, the contrast, in light of this text, is best drawn in terms of the holy faith and the obedience of this unique individual.

To summarize, the aim of any sermon on this text should not be to preach individualism or the individual per se, but to narrow in on the holy obedience of the true heir of Abraham. Neither should it be an austere attack on beauty, form, or the art appreciation that always seems to emerge at Christmas, but a call to the active imitation of Christ the Word, which poetic "doing" is the very substance of discipleship. And that, after all is said and done, is certainly a fitting word for Christmas. 

Friday, November 15, 2013

Hebrews 5:11—6:20

(5:11–14). At this point in the epistle, the apostle interrupts his homily on Jesus the High Priest with a pedagogical excursus (5:11–14). A glance at Hebrews 5:10 and 7:1 will reveal the points at which the priestly treatise is suspended and resumed. Meanwhile, the apostle pauses to note the difficulty of the expository task before him when his readers and auditors "have become dull in understanding" (v. 11). He insists they need a review of the "basic elements of the oracles of God" (v. 12) and compares them to infants in need of milk who are "unskilled in the word of righteousness" (vv. 12b–13), instead of mature teachers (as they ought to be), able to receive "solid food" or "strong meat" [KJV] and "distinguish good from evil" (vv. 12, 14).

It may be worth recalling that, where Calvin cites Paul's Epistle to the Galatians and various texts from the wisdom tradition to substantiate his characterization of the Jewish nation, the "church" in its infancy, as a "child heir" (Institutes, II, XI), here the apostle writing to the Hebrews—these are not Gentiles to whom he writes—asserts essentially the same thing. To paraphrase Paul writing to the Romans, the Jews have the oracles, thus they are "without excuse," yet they remain (with the Gentiles), under the power of sin (Romans 3:1–9; cf. 1:20; 2:1).

(6:1–8). Oddly, the milky review of elementary things never materializes. This abrupt admonition, like the whack of a ruler on the teacher's desk, has more of an awakening than a summary or an instructive effect, for the apostle determines, "Therefore" (we might have expected "Nevertheless"), to "go on toward perfection, leaving behind the basic teaching about Christ, and not laying again the foundation" (6:1–2). What is instructive is the apostle's list of topics that would constitute, or at least be included in, such a review of basic Christology were he to offer one: "repentance from dead works and faith toward God" (notably one topic), "instruction about baptisms, laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment." All of these, we should add, impinge upon the aforementioned practical training in the discernment between good and evil (5:10).

The apostle again determines to proceed with his Christological instruction to the mature, as though his readers are mature, and explains this determination with one of the most alarming and seemingly fatalistic passages in the New Testament: a brief, but arresting insertion into this otherwise remarkably hopefully letter. Some, he says, have simply fallen too far to be restored (presumably, by any pedagogical review). Several points merit our "greater attention," however.

First, such a hypothetical restoration would be a restoration "to repentance." As I have argued elsewhere, repentance is faith (Groans of the Spirit, 105–6), as this text bears out; thus, the apostle might just as easily have spoken of a restoration "to faith," since (as we noted above) these are identified (antithetically) with one another as one doctrinal heading, depending on the chosen preposition (from/to) and direct object assigned to it.

Second, when we say that some have "fallen too far," this is with reference not to the depths of their descent, but to the height of their point of their departure. Such an irreversible apostasy, the apostle infers, would only apply to one who has genuinely "been enlightened, ... tasted the heavenly gift, ... shared in the Holy Spirit, ... tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers if the age to come, and then ... fallen away" (vv. 4–5). So, when it comes to the pastoral question regarding those who have "fallen" or gone astray, there is suggested the possibility that, despite all appearances, their enlightenment and their tasting of the word and the heavenly gifts have simply not, or not yet, been true or genuine. On the other hand, when it comes to the irredeemable (i.e., those who have genuinely partaken of heavenly things and fallen away), scripture speaks elsewhere of certain spiritual entities in the created order that have fallen irreversibly (Matthew 25:41; Jude 6; Revelation 20:10; etc.).

Third, pessimistic as this passage reads, there is every implication that what the apostle deems "impossible" here pertains to what he is capable of doing by way of a pedagogical review. In other words, this brief sigh of resignation does not cancel or override such texts as Matthew 19:26; Mark 10:27, or Luke 1:37 and 18:27. On the contrary, when Paul issued similar instructions to hand over a promiscuous member of the Corinthian church "to Satan for the destruction of the flesh," this ultimately served a redemptive purpose: "so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord" (1Corinthians 5:5). (To be clear and to avoid any confusion here, in speaking of a redemptive purpose in such a scenario, Paul clearly refers to Satan as destroyer and to Christ as the Savior and agent of redemption; in no sense is redemption to be attributed to the archenemy; nevertheless, the sovereignty of the Redeemer will ultimately extend even over the enemy's domain.) Moreover, there is good evidence that Paul relented from this hard line approach when, in fact, it appears to have achieved its purpose (2Corinthians 2:5–11).

All of this is to say that (1) the language of repentance should permeate our understanding of faith, while identifying them offers two contrasting ways of discussing the same thing, two edges of the sword of the word (Hebrews 4:12); (2) even such seemingly irreversible lapses to which the apostle refers should not be hastily, hopelessly, or presumptuously applied to those who have fallen away, since the heights from which the verifiably irredeemable have fallen are high indeed, so high as to be unambiguously applied only to fallen angels; and for all this, (3) "what is impossible for mortals" (in this case, restoration to repentance and faith) nevertheless remains "possible for God" (Luke 18:27).

Such a hopeful prospect, however, should not be issued prematurely, since the implications of falling away are not trivial or cheap. The apostle warns that apostates "are crucifying again the Son of God and are holding him up  to contempt" (v. 6); meaning not that that the person of the risen Jesus undergoes a reenactment or a continual reprise of his historical suffering, either on earth or in heaven, but that the "body of Christ," the church militant (so-called) on earth suffers in cross-bearing discipleship as it follows Christ, living out its cruciform, baptismal life, the life of which Paul evidently speaks when he says that he is "completing what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church" (Colossians 1:24). Such suffering is to be expected by the faithful, and while the faithful are commanded by the Lord Jesus to bless, not curse, those who persecute them, those who compound the suffering of the body of Christ are nevertheless ever "on the verge of being cursed" and "burned over," like ground that, though well-watered, "produces thorns and thistles" (v. 8). Again, such things done and words spoken "against the Son of Man will be forgiven" (Matthew 12:31–32), but as with that word of ultimate assurance, so to with this text: there is a limit, a "verge" that must be respected, one that will only be transgressed at the worst possible and irreversible cost.

(6:9–12). All these warnings the apostle now sets to the side, in order to express the collective confidence of his companions that the present assembly of readers and auditors will fare much better: "for we are confident of better things in your case, things that belong to salvation" (v. 9). This word comes with no small relief! But on what is such confidence based? First and foremost, the justice of God, who well knows the love the readers have shown the saints in serving and working with them (v. 10). Second, their ongoing pattern of imitation of the faithful and patient heirs of the promise (vv. 11–12). It is toward "the full assurance of (such) hope" that the apostle urges them, that they might be diligent "to the very end" (v. 11). In other words, he has confidence in God's righteousness and he sees the fruit of faith emerging among this admittedly immature, and even stunted, congregation of Jewish-Christian readers.

Nevertheless, some might say, how can such a general assurance be issued when, on any given occasion on which this epistle is read and proclaimed, anyone may fail its probing examination? Is the apostle offering blind assurance with no specific knowledge of the state of his readers' souls? In a purely objective sense, that is, of course, a possibility. But to read this in a purely objective sense is to miss entirely the participative subjectivity in which the homiletical epistle is written and the worshipful context in which it is intended to be read and proclaimed, i.e., "as long as it is called 'today'" (3:13). In this willing, participative, subjective sense, what is most important is not that we worry about apostasy, but that we arrive at the point of appropriation, specifically, the appropriation of God's "promises" (v. 12).

(6:13–20). At this point, the excursus makes its final turn on its circuitous route homeward, that is, toward resuming the homily on the priesthood of Christ (7:1—10:39). But this final stage is no mere denouement to a detour. It is, rather, a sublime and unrivaled word of assurance, a word regarding the absolutely trustworthiness of God's promissory word. It raises the prospect of promise and endows it with a credibility that God alone can give it. This it does by combining the notion of the immutability of God and his purpose with the gravity of his swearing an oath to make good his promise to Abraham: "because he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself" (v. 13); this does not so much mean that God was "all alone" in swearing it, although that sense of holy uniqueness and incomparability is certainly conveyed, but more to the point, it means that he swore so as to endow the promise "in accordance with his supreme credibility and his capability of fulfilling it." Furthermore, the doubling of these "two unchangeable things"—God's unchangeable and purposeful promise and his sworn oath to fulfill it—"in which it is impossible that God would prove false ...", that doubling (cf. Genesis 41:32) reinforces the assurance by which "we who have taken refuge" (note once again the subjective sense of the expression) "might be strongly encouraged to seize the hope set before us" (vv. 17–18).

Remarkably, for all the rock solid certitude of our "refuge" and the dependability of this double and divine confirmation of God's promises, another strong tactile metaphor of security is offered at the conclusion of this excursus; yet, with bewildering fluidity, our hope, "the sure and steadfast anchor of the soul," takes on not a static, but a dynamic character; it moves; indeed, it "enters the inner shrine behind the curtain" (v. 19)—the metaphor is suddenly no longer nautical, but cultic and priestly—and it takes on the personal attributes of Jesus himself, since it has entered "where Jesus (our forerunner) has entered," who has "become a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek" (v. 20).

As I often tell preaching students, the prohibitions and warnings against mixing metaphors that we learned in high school English composition frequently require suspension when dealing with biblical literature such as this. For if we follow them too narrowly or slavishly, we shall miss that Christ is at once our hope, our promise, our priest, and our steadfast and sure anchor of the soul; and that is just the beginning of an intermediate course of Christology that would advance on the foundational topics mentioned in 6:1–2. All of this, and so much more, is to be discovered and "seized" in mature Christological reflection as we subject ourselves to his priestly ministry and his double-edged sword (4:12; cf. Revelation 19:15), the word of righteousness with which he himself is unmistakably identified.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Numbers 14:1–25

As mentioned in Year D (p. 69), this text shows strong connections to Hebrews 3:1–19, the epistle reading for the Second Sunday of Advent; so suggesting it for the Fourth Sunday of Advent may seem a missed opportunity. Furthermore, reading it after Joshua 23, which is assigned to the Third Sunday of Advent, not only disrupts the continuity of chronological progression, it hearkens back some two generations to the rebellion of Israel that delayed the conquest by forty years. Nevertheless, the incident is essential for explaining the "forty years in the wilderness," a monolithic literary theme in and of itself, and it towers behind so many other of our Advent texts that its inclusion seems obligatory, and perhaps even urgent. For the statistics alone are astonishing: only two faithful ones, out of a nation of over six hundred thousand, are allowed to enter the land. Not that we should read anything paradigmatic or normative into those odds, but they certainly serve to set those who trust in God apart from the unfaithful complaining rabble.

(vv. 1–4). The text begins with the "loud cry" of the congregation at the negative and cowardly report of the twelve spies, or rather, of the ten of the twelve who carried the day. Their dismay is such that they suspect and accuse the LORD, who has provided for them all along, of "bringing us into this land to fall by the sword" (v. 3). They not only refuse to go forward, but they say they would rather return to Egypt (vv. 3–4). Their optative outburst will have terrible prophetic consequences: "Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in the wilderness!" (v. 2) The eventual fulfillment of that second option exemplifies what Old Testament scholars identify as the reality-forming power of speech.

(vv. 5–10). The response of Moses and Aaron is to fall on their faces before all the assembly," but we can be sure this posture was not intended as submission to the people; on the contrary, it is a desperate plea for the LORD to guide, direct, and intervene. In the face of Korah's rebellion, Moses will shortly do the same thing, and will arise with a clear word from the LORD (16:4–11). Here, however, before the glory of the LORD appears "to all the Israelites" (v. 10b) and speaks to Moses (vv. 11–12), the two loyal spies tear their garments as a sign of dismay, frustration, grief, and (perhaps vicarious) repentance (i.e., it is the people, rather than these two, who should repent), and they state the case for seizing the moment to seize the land: it is "an exceedingly good land ... that flows with milk and honey" (vv. 7–8); its inhabitants, they say, "are no more than bread for us" (v. 9)—an admittedly strange expression, not suggesting cannibalism, but simply reversing the giants–to–grasshoppers comparison made by the cowardly spies (13:31–33) in which the Israelites came up short compared to the Nephilim and the Anakim. All such comparisons aside, Joshua and Caleb insist that, "their protection is removed from them, and the LORD is with us; do not fear them." God with us: such is the all important and determining distinction. Yet they also make it clear that this guarantee is not absolute, but relative and conditional, and the Israelites are at risk of squandering this (literally, once-in-a-lifetime) opportunity, for they frame it in these terms: "If the LORD is pleased with us, he will bring us into the land and give it to us ... Only, do not rebel against the LORD, and do not fear the people of the land ..." (v. 8–9a).

We should not overlook the strong connection here between fear of human enemies and rebellion against the LORD, or conversely, between trust in the LORD and courage in the face of one's enemies. Yet, sadly, what boldness the Israelities have was entirely misdirected on this occasion; they "threatened to stone" Joshua and Caleb, until "the glory of the LORD appeared at the tent of meeting" (v. 10).

(vv. 11–12). When the LORD speaks, it is by no means the word of an unmoved mover that we read. On the contrary, he seems to have taken the rebellion very personally: "How long will this people despise me? And how long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them?" In our comments on Joshua 23, we noted how the LORD is not above earning (and claiming to have earned) human love and loyalty, and here it is clear that he has done more than enough to earn Israel's trust as well.

To refuse to trust or believe may seem a far cry from despising, but here the two verbs are drawn together synonymously, while the LORD's reminder of his miraculous signs suggests forgetfulness, senselessness, and ingratitude on the part of Israel. Whether the LORD is really ready to wash his hands of them, or whether he is simply testing Moses is not clear, but his first reaction is to start all over with Moses alone: "I will strike them with pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they" (v. 12). It is hard to escape the "tempting" ring of this proposal, which is not something we normally associate with God (by contrast, see Luke 4:1–13). The LORD certainly does perform tests in the Torah from time to time in order to see what is in the human heart (Genesis 22:1; Deuteronomy 8:2; et al.); yet one thing we have learned from recent Old Testament scholarship is not to take it upon ourselves to protect the immutability of God, which only serves to short-circuit the revelatory and dramatic potential of the text. The LORD is a fully-orbed character here, his "glory" is very human (so to speak), that is, expressing human emotion, and though he doubtless has the power to obliterate Israel in his scorned fury, he is nevertheless resolved to maintain some continuity in his plan, work through Moses, and even consult with him.

(vv. 13–19). To the extent this is a test, Moses passes it with flying colors. There is no long, considered silence reported, no dream sequence to reveal any delusion of grandeur or any ambition whatsoever. Moses simply reasons with the LORD, supplying the consequential "then" to match the LORD's proposal, which does not even bear the tentative ring of a hypothetical "if." Moses, in fact, restrains the LORD, if we may put it that way, by recasting the LORD's resolute "I will" in terms of little more than a suggestion.

Even more notable is the leverage he uses for his reasoning: The LORD's reputation (or glory) among the other nations. These nations, from Egypt to the nations that occupy the land he has sworn to give to Israel, already know of the LORD's power and might through his deeds in delivering Israel from slavery; they already know he is present with and leading Israel (vv. 13–14). If Yahweh were to "kill this people all at one time"—the phrase will become important for what will shortly unfold—"then the nations ... will say" that the mighty LORD "was not able to bring this people into the land he swore to give" to Israel (vv. 15–16).

At this juncture, what is at stake is the LORD's glorious reputation among the nations as a mighty and powerful God. But Moses himself reminds the LORD of what the LORD had earlier revealed of his particular and peculiar power. Whatever the LORD finally determines to do, he must not simply protect and vindicate his reputation for power, as though power were a matter of sheer brute force; rather, LORD's power is the power to redeem. Moses says, "let the power of the LORD be great in the way that you promised when you spoke, saying,
'The LORD is slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love,
forgiving iniquity and transgression,
but by no means clearing the guilty,
visiting the iniquity of the parents
upon the children
to the third and the fourth generation'" (v. 18).
In other words, Moses pleads with the LORD to reveal his power, not in scorned retribution, but in forgiveness and steadfast love, in granting pardon in a way that continues his consistently merciful dealings with Israel (v.19).

(vv. 20–25). The LORD's dilemma, of course, is that rebellion must not be without consequence; he must not allow the people to enter the land with the impression that their disobedience and even their despising of the LORD will be met with impunity, for that would only encourage such disdain for the LORD and his covenant, and would only hasten the people's forgetfulness of his gracious, loving, and merciful deliverance. Therefore, he must find a way to fulfill his promise, show the nations his ability to do so, and do so mercifully, thereby revealing his continued patience and forgiveness: "I do forgive ... ; nevertheless, ..." there shall be consequences for the rebellious generation.

Before the consequences are uttered, however, the LORD's mission is declared, even sworn anew as an oath to himself that surpasses even his sworn oath to bring Israel into the land: "as I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the LORD ..." (v. 21). This absolute teleological aim is taken as the indubitatum presuppositione on which the LORD swears that "none of the people who have seen my glory and the signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness ... shall see the land that I swore to give to their ancestors; none of those who despised me shall see it" (vv. 22–23).

Caleb alone is singled out for his "different spirit" and for following the LORD "wholeheartedly," as a result of which "his (Caleb's) descendants shall possess the land" (v. 24). While the broader narrative makes clear that Joshua is also exceptional, here Caleb's wholehearted obedience is contrasted with those who, the LORD says, "tested me these ten times and have not obeyed my voice" (v. 22). Caleb's name, which means "loyal" or "loyal dog," on one level conveys his part-Gentile heritage as the "son of Jephunneh the Kennizite" (32:12), hence, the canine designation, while at the root level Ca-leb means literally "all heart." Such is the quality, the "different spirit," that the LORD will command (Deuteronomy 6:4–5) of the new generation that will arise and cross over into the promised land; such is the character of loyal love that will constitute the substance of the Shema, which in turn will shape the very nature of Jewish identity and consciousness, and be proclaimed anew by Jesus as that to which his disciples must aspire.

It is difficult to overstate the exceptional character of Caleb's wholehearted, singleminded faith, but since our Advent texts warn of creating false comparisons with the coming Son of God, perhaps we will do best to recall and associate him with the Roman (Gentile) centurion whose faith surpassed that of anyone in Israel and astounded even Jesus himself (Luke 7:1-10). There are such persons "whom Christ commended" (to borrow the title of a book by Ralph W. Sockman). They are not Christ, but they are examples—in him— who glorify the LORD, and who—even more astounding—by doing so, share his glory.

UPDATED FOR CORRECTIONS: 11/14/13

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Joshua 23:1–16

Joshua's farewell discourse is an exhortation to Israel, prior to the renewal of the covenant at Shechem (24:1–28) and the report of Joshua's death (24:29–30). The timing is: "A long time afterward," that is, after the conquest of Canaan, "when the LORD had given rest to Israel from all their enemies all around, and Joshua was old and well advanced in years" (23:1). This episode is paired with the epistle reading (Hebrews 4:1–11) owing to the sense in which the latter assumes any "rest" give to Israel through Joshua was no permanent status that would close the book on the hope of rest (4:8). Rather, the apostle makes clear that the Spirit speaking much later in Psalm 95 would not have continued to urge Israel in the imperative to enter God's rest if that possibility had long since been sealed off.

Here then in the summation of Joshua's ministry, we have a reminder of what has been accomplished (23:2b–4, 14), as is typical of such farewell soliloquies, as well as a double (covenantal) forecast consisting of promises of what will happen in future (23:5–9, 15a) if Israel will but "hold fast to the LORD your God" (v. 8), and a warning of what will happen if Israel turns from following the LORD (23:12–13, 15b–16). Although several conditional and cautionary clauses (vv. 7, 12, 16) strike antithetical notes of warning throughout the text, the primary hinge or turning point of this chapter is surely Joshua's brief statement of how things stand at the present moment: "One of you puts to flight a thousand, since it is the LORD your God who fights for you, as he promised you" (v. 10). Moreover, this blessed advantage and divine favor Joshua unabashedly leverages as the very reason why Israel should, "Be very careful, therefore, to love the LORD your God" (v. 11).

Three things are noteworthy here. First, despite so many operative, but shallow stereotypes of the Old Testament or the Old Promise (as I propose we call it), we find once again that the fear of the LORD is not the ultimate aim—no, it is but the beginning of wisdom (Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 9:10)—but rather, love is the primary aim here, in keeping with the Shema (Deut 6:4–6). Adherence to the covenant is adherence to the LORD; loyalty is to be Israel's primary expression of love. Like any loving parent, God wants his children nearby, so as to bless and enjoy them. In many ways, it is really that simple.

Second, setting aside whatever attitudes we might have toward so-called "prosperity theology," whether we find it attractive or repellant, we should consider carefully what is being suggested here. For, despite the common and correct Christian assertion that (in the light of grace) we can do nothing to earn God's love, here we see that the holy One of Israel is not so aloof or standoffish as to be above winning human loyalty or making the case (through Joshua) that he has earned human love by what he has done and continues to do for us. What a remarkable (and positive) condescension on the part of the holy God! We who have no hope of righteousness through our works see that the God of saving grace reveals his righteousness in his works, and though he merits our love unconditionally for who he is, nevertheless, he is willing to prove his love and so "earn" ours by fighting our battles for us.

Finally, as politically problematic as such texts may seem at first blush which speak positively of the conquest of the promised land, the preacher and indeed the church need to make clear that the distinguishing of Israel from other nations, especially as it is expressed in the prohibition against intermarriage (v. 12) here and elsewhere (e.g., Nehemiah 13:23–27), is not at root a nationalistic or a racial concern. If that were the case, Ruth and Rahab, to say nothing of loyal Caleb the Kenite, would never have been assimilated. On the contrary, the imperative distinction is absolutely theological. Israel belongs to Yahweh, the other nations (at this juncture in salvation history) have chosen other gods. As it goes with the other nations, so it goes with their gods in the great cosmic drama in which it is yet to be decided: Whose god will be Lord of all? (We, of course, know how it ends.)

It is for this reason that Israel is not to even "make mention of their (i.e., the nations') gods, or swear by them, or serve them, or bow ... down to them" (v. 7). The covenant is a land of freedom in which the blessings of the LORD are to be enjoyed, but to "go and serve other gods and bow down to them" is to transgress the covenant, at which "the anger of the LORD will be kindled, and you shall perish quickly from the good land that he has given you" (v. 16). [It is not without some pretty solid scriptural basis that many people are seeing these terms at work analogously in interpreting the swift decline of the U.S.] In brief, inter-racial marriage within the Christian—and I would even say, Judeo-Christian—community is not a theological problem, and we should not erect barriers to it needlessly; doing so really does boil down to bigotry and racism. What is a problem—and an explicitly theological problem—is the increasing institutionalization (in marriage and in many other social spheres) of interfaithism, the relativistic equivocation among, and the ultimate validation of all world religions as equally true, redemptive, or salvific. For the church to sponsor or support such a philosophy on political grounds is, at best, nothing more than a flimsy attempt to forge a peace where there is no peace; it is quite beyond the biblical, covenantal, and theological pale. Neither is it "conservative" to say so, since the gospel we proclaim proceeds from the self-revelation of the eternal God. It is simply to restate the terms of God's covenant with, his promise (with all the attendant warnings) to his people as it has been revealed in scripture and proclaimed for millennia. It is to adhere to the wisdom of the younger Solomon, and to elect not to decline with him into his politically expedient folly and his theological dotage (1Kings 11), which precipitated the rupture of the nation, the gradual loss of the land, and the long slide into exile.

What is the upshot of all this for sermonic application and mission? It is nothing novel. Those who hold to other religions and worship other gods are to be loved and prayerfully, persistently, and graciously evangelized. The church is missionary, or it is not the church. We need to be clear that our message and our methods are not the same as other missionary religions, and in the contrast, in the gracious invitation to the gracious and sinless Son of God who has died that we may live, the world shall come to know and recognize the difference; shall come to realize that the God of Israel has earned their love and loyalty, too.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Numbers 12:1–16

The quotation of Numbers 12:7 in the epistle reading for the Second Sunday of Advent (specifically, in Hebrews 3:5) is what inspired this Old Testament selection. There, in the epistle, Numbers is cited to affirm Moses' faithfulness as a servant in God's house, even as the Sonship of Jesus Christ is declared to be superior to Moses' nearly ideal servanthood.

Here in the original text we have other divine affirmations of Moses' character as well, particularly the affirmation of his unsurpassed humility (Numbers 12:3) and the fact that the LORD's communication with Moses is "face–to–face—clearly not in riddles; and he beholds the form of the LORD" (12:8). While the sense in which Moses was able to see Yahweh's face is ambiguous (cf. Exodus 33:11 and 20), his ability to see God's form in some fashion is beyond doubt. Either way, the LORD's self-revelation to Moses goes beyond the dreams, visions, and riddles on which others prophets must rely (12:6, 8). Thus, the LORD angrily defends Moses, and his election of Moses, when his siblings Aaron and Miriam criticize their brother's choice of a wife.

We will not defend Aaron or Miriam's gossip and rebellious backbiting here, with its evidently racist overtones. But there is some ambiguity in this reference to Moses' "Cushite" (Ethiopian) wife that may indicate the criticism was not solely a racial matter; in other words, it may have been compounded by other factors as well.

Was Zipporah, the daughter of Jethro priest of Midian, the woman described here as a Cushite? Is the confusion or conflation of a Cushite with a Midianite an expression of Aaron's and Miriam's ignorance? Very possibly. Or does the reference to a Cushite wife mean another wife altogether is intended? In other words, did Moses take a second wife? Perhaps not. Perhaps the best reading is to attribute this ignorance to the siblings. But the possibility of a second wife, with all the tensions that such a union might introduce to the family system, would hardly be unprecedented in the biblical narrative and perhaps should not be completely discounted.

Unearthing a complete list of the motivations behind (or the excuses feeding) the criticisms will neither yield any verifiable psychological reconstruction or justify the critics' conduct. What is clear is that the main root of the criticism is fed by a spirit of jealousy (12:2), and in this respect, their complaint rings with a terrible foreboding when one looks ahead to the tragic and far more broad based rebellion of Korah (Numbers 16). There, we are told, Korah and his fellow conspirators, "assembled against Moses and against Aaron, and said to them, ‘You have gone too far! All the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them. So why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?’" (16:3) In other words, what begins here in a spirit of jealousy among leaders within the same family will be subsequently expressed in almost the same words when Korah and his rebellious company give vent to a spirit of hyper-egalitarianism. When one considers the scale of that rebellion, one can easily discern why the LORD sees fit here to take Moses, Aaron, and Miriam off by themselves (12:4). Despite this precaution, however, the contagion of complaint still manages to spread.

The reason this is worth mentioning is that what we have termed this tendency toward hyper-egalitarianism is widely voiced in both the political world and the church today, and it often gains a toehold where leaders simply (and rightly) wish to identify and affirm the gifts of the laity. Such a focus on empowering the laity and affirm the whole people of God as a holy nation is a proper thing, with deep roots in both Old and New Testaments; but taken to the extreme point at which supposedly pure egalitarian structures (and, as Orwell has observed in the socio-political sphere, no order is ever purely egalitarian) overrule God's calling of particular leaders or setting people are apart for particular tasks, such a so-called "pure" democracy can lead to the chaos of mob rule, without due protection of the minority.

Thus, the episode of Miriam's temporary leprosy—she would not have been allowed back in the camp if her flesh had not been restored (12:14–15)—and Korah's rebellion (16:1–50) stand in a long line of texts that warn against criticism and disobedience of those whom God has appointed as leaders (cf. Romans 14:4; Hebrews 13:17; et al), the inference being that criticism of such leaders amounts to finding fault with God's decision to appoint them. There will arise, of course, a torrent of texts in the prophetic tradition and the Gospels that will testify to God's displeasure with corrupt leaders, including false prophets. At this point, however, it is Aaron and Miriam who invite and incur the LORD's displeasure, but Moses is a leader whom God is determined to defend.

If Miriam's punishment and Aaron's relative impunity seem unfair, we should realize and respect the fact that: (1) God's freedom to meet out fitting penalties—apart from our judgement!—is a substantial part of the point here, and (2) from the attitude of a critic, Aaron is immediately restored, at the sight of Miriam, to his role as priestly intercessor, whose entire ministry would likely have been scuttled if he himself had suffered even a temporary bout of leprosy. In one sense, Miriam seems to have incurred the heavier penalty. But as priest, part of Aaron's role was to distinguish clean from unclean conditions (Leviticus 13—14); he was set apart for this task, as well as for holy service in the tabernacle, a service that included bearing all the sins of all the people into the presence of the LORD on the day of atonement (Leviticus 16), which he would not have been able to perform if he himself had been stricken.

To summarize, Moses is defended by the LORD himself here, as is his own election of Moses as a humble and faithful servant in God's house; Moses enjoyed unparalleled intimate fellowship with God, superior to that of prophets, and such a vocation is not to be subject to capricious jealousy among leaders or trampled by hyper-egalitarianism (which in the case of Korah's rebellion amounts to ambitious arrogance masquerading as magnanimity, typical of what we see today among certain elite on the left). It is even possible that this mini-rebellion on the part of Aaron and Miriam (mini-, that is, compared to the rebellion of Korah) opens the door to the rebellious rabble that would mount a major and disastrous uprising only four chapters later. For our purposes, we should acknowledge the racist expression of the prejudice corrected here as well as its primary motivation in jealousy, and the corrective measure as an expression of God's love for people beyond the borders of Israel, a point that demands particular emphasis whenever those borders are too conservatively construed; but to such a moral reading we should also add the clear sense in which the LORD defends his freedom to choose, equip, and even favor certain leaders in a way that may indeed appear more hierarchical than we might wish from the God who, we read elsewhere, shows no partiality. When he does so, however, his election must also be placed in perspective and understood in terms of the responsibility and accountability to which such servants are called; for in the end, even they must bow, as the epistle (Hebrews 3) reminds us, to Jesus Christ the Son of God.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Psalm 18

Introduction (vv. 1–3). Neither 2Samuel 22 (David's Song of Thanksgiving), nor Psalm 18, with which it is virtually identical, are included in the RCL, but here we will lean on the psalm in keeping with our aim of a comprehensive and more inclusive reading, as well as the goal of giving representation to all the psalms. As stated elsewhere, this sprawling psalm—one of the longest in the Psalter—is a good example of one that may well require a local decision to narrow the selection to the most important verses.

The primary verse that is unique to the psalm—the verse that is most conspicuously absent from 2Samuel 22—is the first verse, one that is virtually unique in the broader canon as well, and thus strongly merits inclusion, not only for its singularity, but for its sweetness, for the simple, direct, devotional prayer to God: "I love you ..." (18:1).

After this earnest testimony of adoration, which reads more fully, "I love you, O God, my strength," the psalmist shifts into speaking of God in the third person to the reader, the auditor, or the worshipping assembly, in order to tell of the LORD's deed of strength on behalf of the psalmist: "The LORD is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer, my God, my rock in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold." Thus is the theme of the LORD's strength established, whom the psalmist invokes: "I call upon the LORD, who is worthy to be praised" (18:3). But an important final phrase is attached to the introduction, one that should not be overlooked. It is a statement of purpose that we might be inclined to dismiss as self-serving or an ulterior motive, but it is neither of these things; on the contrary, when the psalmist (let us reserve the latitude of calling him David in keeping with the superscription) says he calls upon the praiseworthy LORD, "so I shall be saved from my enemies," he is evidently indicating something that has already verifiably occurred (see again the superscription) and that he takes as something of a spiritual law or a covenantal principle that describes his relationship with the LORD. The LORD is invested in David and in his worshiping people; the LORD's glory and praise, his honor and reputation is at stake when his servant is under threat. Therefore, when one directs one's pleas to him for help, when one worships him, one will surely find refuge and deliverance from one's enemies, who would not dare assail such a stronghold as the LORD.

Act I (vv. 4–19). The royal thanksgiving unfolds in three acts. Act I tells of David's plight, his plea to the LORD, and the LORD's deliverance of his favored one. Here the psalm is a first person narrative that speaks of the LORD in the third person, with but a single "upward" direct address to the LORD in the second person: "the foundations of the world were laid bare at your rebuke, O LORD" (v. 15). Otherwise, this act is a poetic narrative directed to the audience of this cosmic drama. David is near death, ensnared in its "cords" and "the torrents of perdition" (vv. 4–5); he cries to the LORD out of his distress and his cry "reached his ears" in his temple (v. 6). A certain distance is presumed, which adds to the dramatic urgency, especially when we think of the time it takes for sound to travel a great distance. Yet the LORD's response ripples and rumbles throughout the created order: earthquake and smoke convey his anger; wind and angels convey him; heaven itself is "bowed" or bent down before him; rain and clouds, darkness and thunder, hail and lightning attend him. At the voice of the Most High, the heavens resound in thunder, and lightning flashes forth like arrows (or arrows like lightning) and rout the psalmists' enemies. It is notable that v. 3 provides the antecedent to go with the definite articles "them" in v. 14. So insignificant and forgettable are they, that one must search forensically through a dozen verses to find the barest identifying trace of them!

After the brief direct address to God the royal audience (so as to remind us that the LORD is still within earshot and listening to this thanksgiving song), the rescue of the psalmist is described again, but with an even clearer sense of the verticality of God's divine intervention. "He reached down from on high, ... he drew me out of mighty waters" (v. 16). The psalmist now makes mention of his enemies in more detail who "confronted (him) in the day of (his) calamity." A "strong enemy" is mentioned in the singular, along with "those who hated me" (v. 17).

What happens to the psalmist's enemies is not mentioned here, apart from a previous reference to their being "routed" (v. 14). Whether they are simply frustrated or destroyed, we are not told. The focus is on what the LORD does for the psalmist. "But the LORD was my support" suggests the psalmist is not entirely passive (v. 18), though it is clear that the LORD conveys the psalmist to safety, "into a broad place," the breadth of which clearly contrasts with the confining, constraining grip of death from which he uttered his cry in the first place. Most notable at the conclusion of Act I is a causal phrase that serves as a transition to Act II. The reason for the LORD's deliverance of David, we are told, is "because he delighted in me" (v. 19). While the following section will elaborate on the favor in which the psalmist is held by God, here we may well ask the reason for this divine delight in the psalmist. The meritorious tones of Act II should not perhaps drown out all memory of the aforementioned torrents of perdition. Whence these torrents? Who is responsible for said perdition? We have little to go on. But we do have the evidence from elsewhere of the LORD's delight in wisdom, who "rejoices before him always" (Proverbs 8:30). Wisdom, with the royal Davidic (and other) psalms, will in time accrue and reveal their Christological associations. Here I would simply suggest that the introduction to this dramatic psalm may again be instructive: "I call upon the (praiseworthy) LORD, ... so I shall be saved" (v. 3). Praise of, and pleas to, this praiseworthy LORD (we have every reason to conclude) are heard by the LORD with favor and (now we may add) delight (v. 19).

Act II (vv. 20–30). The psalmist now sings of his righteousness and of the LORD's reward for the same; while this self-confidence is surprising, and even runs counter to the larger biblical presupposition of original sin, a presupposition often voiced in the psalms themselves: "there is no one who does good" (Psalm 14:1, 3; 53:1, 3; cf. Romans 3:10, 12), we should note the fact that the psalmist does not declare himself perfect. No, that is an adjective he reserves for God (v. 30). Rather, the psalmist's righteousness, the cleanness of his hands, his loyal adherence to the ways of the LORD, his blamelessness and innocence—these are attributes of the obedient, the one who is mindful of the covenant and who lives accordingly, the one whom the LORD will reward.

The psalmist follows this explanation of his own righteous relationship with the LORD by addressing the LORD directly, but now in more general terms that apply to anyone who would look to the LORD for such merciful and blessed favor. He lauds, in fourfold form, the like-for-like treatment that one may expect from the LORD:

"With the loyal (blameless, pure), you show your self loyal (blameless, pure)" (18:25–26a). The fourth line of this revealing stanza, however, is a major contribution to scriptural theodicy, a rare and singular light shining on and revealing much of the darkness encountered in the world: "and with the crooked you show yourself perverse" (v. 26b). The emphasis is clearly on God's goodness, with this single warning attached that just as clearly lays the responsibility for crooked perversion at the feet of those whose conduct is unrighteous and outside the bounds of what the LORD regards with grace and favor.

A fifth general attribute is mentioned, namely, the LORD's way of delivering humble people, and of lowering the proud countenance of those with "haughty eyes" (v. 27).

Thereafter, those doxological strains addressed to the LORD take on a personal focus once again, with each of two second person assertions matched by third person statements:
"It is you who light my lamp;
the LORD, my God, light up my darkness.
By you I can crush a troop,
and by my God I can leap over a wall" (vv. 28–29).
Finally, the perfection of God is declared, as is the certainty and truth of his promise, along with the protection he offers to those who seek refuge in him (v. 30). Such are the attributes of God: perfection, truth, and refuge, of which the reader and the assembly are assured.

The LORD is mentioned again in the third person, but the intermingling of doxological outbursts with public declarations ensures that the assembly is aware of the presence of the LORD, ever within earshot of all that is being said to and about him, even that which would account for the way in which his appearance seems perverse to the unrighteous.

Act III (vv. 31-45). The final act before the conclusion of this psalm testifies to the LORD's provisions for the psalmist, all of which are, in a sense, cited as evidence to support the psalmist's answer to the rhetorical question: Who is God except the LORD?" (v. 31) Clearly, the intended answer is "no one," for it is the LORD who has strengthened (v. 32), trained (v. 34), and guided the psalmist (vv. 32b-33). Such are the deeds recounted for the reader and the assembly.

But once again the psalmist turns to address the LORD directly: "You have given me the shield of your salvation" (v. 35). "You gave me a wide place for my steps under me" (v. 36); "you girded me with strength for the battle; you made my assailants sink under me" (v. 39). "You made my enemies turn their backs to me" (v. 40). "You delivered me from strife with the peoples; you made me head of the nations" (v. 43).

This crediting of the LORD—"your right hand has supported me; your help has made me great" (v. 35)—as the decisive, determining agent behind the psalmist's victory, vindication, and ascent to power is interrupted several times with descriptions of David's actions, but only once by a third person reference to the LORD. This reference may be the most difficult to reconcile, since here we are told that, under David's relentless onslaught, his enemies "cried for help, but there was no one to save them; they cried to the LORD, but he did not answer them" (v. 41).

This report is unsettling, for it deprives us of the ground on which we might be inclined to characterize the cry to the LORD as having automatic and universal power to save, regardless of the supplicant's spiritual disposition. Such a generalization, however, can find no support here, for such an interpretation attempts to sidestep any sense of covenantal favor, freedom, or election on the part of God, and indeed ignores altogether the passive, but real agency of God when we are told, "he did not answer them." What are we to gather from this bleak end to which the enemies come? Perhaps we can see a trace of grace in that, while their cries for help were unanswered, their final cry was at last, and at least, directed to the LORD. If their lives were lived in vain and entirely unrighteously, perhaps the final moment saw them properly oriented as they entered eternity. This may be fanciful and an overly rosy spin on the darkest note of this psalm, but we should not ignore even the slightest sign of hope, as long as we can see it in the text, and here, the sequence and the final direction of their cries as recounted by the psalmist should not be ignored any more than the outcome of the cry to the LORD should be thoughtlessly assumed to bear magical saving power to dispense happy outcomes to God's enemies on the near side of death. If and when such cries are answered with mercy, there is surely no other explanation that the sheer grace of God, but grace, by definition, is never something to be presumed.

Conclusion (vv. 46–50). David's concluding outburst reveals once again an alternating pattern of testimony and doxology. The simple statement: "The LORD lives!" testifies to the reality and responsiveness of the intervening God. And this God's interventions on behalf of David, the vengeance, the victory over, and the deliverance from, his enemies—these actions appear to be listed in reverse order of their occurrence—constitute the ground on which David blesses and exalts the LORD (v. 46) and (in direct address) resolves to "extol you among the nations and sing praises to your name" (v. 49).

Perhaps most interesting and instructive here is the turn to doxology, and the use of the term "exalted" to describe what the LORD has done for the psalmist (v. 48). Again we see the covenantal pattern of like-for-like. David cries, "exalted be the God of my salvation!" (v. 46), for "indeed, you exalted me above my adversaries" (v. 48).

A single summary verse addressed to the assembly testifies to the great victories and the steadfast love the LORD gives and shows to his king (v. 50). The ongoing verbal sense is surely deliberate, as is the enduring and eternal claim for the future, namely, that this like-for-like relationship is the way it shall be between the living, saving God and the anointed line of his worshipping people.

Psalm 144

If the laudate psalms (145–50) may be considered a concluding "hallelujah" chorus, Psalm 144 will be better appreciated because of, rather than despite, its composite nature, that is, its habit of borrowing most of its material from other psalms.

The first two verses come directly from Psalm 18:2, 34 and 39. The psalmist blesses the LORD for the security he enjoys under divine protection. The particular selection of verses represents an interesting weave of the LORD's active and passive intervention. Actively, the LORD "trains" the psalmist's hands and fingers for combat (v. 1); he "subdues" people (v. 2); he is also described by the psalmist as "my deliverer" (v. 2a). By contrast, as the psalmist's rock, fortress, stronghold, and shield, the LORD provides strength, but if these nouns were to be restated verbally they would take the passive mood, for they connote something immoveable, able to absorb without flinching, ward off, and render ineffectual any hostile actions by the psalmist's enemies.

Despite that assurance, however, the psalm takes a philosophical turn and reiterates the doxological wonder of Psalm 8: "O LORD, what are human beings that you regard them, or mortals that you think of them?" (Psalm 144:3; cf. 8:4) Another quotation marks the fleeting vulnerability of human life: "They are like a breath; their days are like a passing shadow" (39:11). These reflections would seem to be those of one engrossed in battle, but in a brief moment of respite, in a foxhole (so to speak), surrounded by danger and death.

As if to confirm this is no mere theological exercise, but a situation of great need, the following lines, which draw heavily from Psalm 18:9 and 14 (as well as 104:32), convert the verbs from indicative to imperative. Where David has previously lauded the LORD because, "He bowed the heavens and came down; ... sent out his arrows" and "routed" his enemies (18:9, 14), here he implores the LORD to "bow the heavens and come down," "send ... and rout" (144:5–6). Likewise, "Stretch out your hand from on high; set me free and rescue me from the mighty waters" (144:7), amounts to a retooling of the indicative memory of Psalm 18:16–17 into an imperative petition for the immediate intervention of the LORD. Thus, the strains of reprise would seem to transport the reader into the thick of the battle in which the psalmist first uttered his plea. They are like summary flashbacks leading up to the Psalter's climax. And yet, as liturgical material, this pliable updating of verb tenses invites and even urges continual reiteration.

At this point, the psalm begins to rely less on borrowed material and ventures its own fresh strains. A plea for rescue from a flood (of enemies) sets up a new refrain: "rescue me from the mighty waters" (v. 7), and later, "from the cruel sword" (v. 11), "from the hands of aliens, whose mouths speak lies and whose right hands are false" (vv. 7–8, 11).

The closing section of this psalm is also largely new material; it would seem the battle (or the psalmist's recollection thereof) is over and the prospect of peace, prosperity, and even repopulation lie before the people of the LORD. Blessings are invoked (v. 12) over sons and daughters alike (cf. Psalm 128:3); for the filling of barns "with produce of every kind," and for the multiplication of flocks and herds by the "tends of thousands" (144:13-14a). Further blessing is invoked for the security and integrity of the nation, with neither "breach," nor "exile" (i.e., no one taken captive), nor "cry of distress in our streets" (v. 14).

A final beatitude concludes the psalm, a double blessing on the people that recalls that of Psalm 33:12; more importantly, it announces the blessedness of the people under the covenant that frames the entire Old Testament as heritage and promise, even from Yahweh's election of the tiny nation that set them apart from the other nations and their gods. "Happy are the people to whom such blessings fall; happy are the people whose God is the LORD" (144:15).

To summarize, the selection of this psalm for the Fourth Sunday of Advent serves as a reprise of Psalm 18, with which the season of Advent begins, and a recapitulation of many of its royal (Davidic) overtones. It is particularly remarkable for the fact that, though almost certainly a later composition than Psalm 18 and the other psalms on which it draws, it takes past indicative memories of Yahweh's saving acts and reiterates them as imperative petitions, thereby exemplifying—whether as flashbacks to an historical present tense or as forward-looking hope—precisely the sort of ongoing expectation of the LORD's coming down that should characterize Christian worship in anticipation of the second Advent of the Messiah.

What makes this psalm even more fitting and delightful at this liturgical and historical juncture (on the cusp of Christmas and at the outset of the twenty-first century) is its unique material: the blessing of children, barns, and animals, and the declaration that the people who worship this God are uniquely happy. It is a vision of safe streets, secure homes, peaceful cities, abundant harvest, plenteous storehouses, a people in harmony with God and with one another. Many years later, Zechariah would likewise articulate just such a vision of the Messianic age: "Old men and old women shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of their great age. And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets" (Zechariah 8:4-6). Perhaps with the reading, praying, singing, and preaching of this psalm, with particular focus on its vocative "Come down!" and its visionary benediction, we may see the prophet's vision begin to materialize in our time.