Monday, January 7, 2013

Daily Bible Reading: Psalms 114-119 and Matthew 24-25

Psalm 114 – “When the Israelites escaped from Egypt—when the family of Jacob left that foreign land—the land of Judah became God’s sanctuary, and Israel became his kingdom. The Red Sea saw them coming and hurried out of their way! The water of the Jordan River turned away. The mountains skipped like rams, the hills like lambs!” (114:1-4).

The liberation of God's people from slavery and their dedication to Him made all of nature change - the sea "ran" from them, the river stopped flowing, the mountains "skipped like goats." Transformative - that is a word that captures what commitment to God's "leadings" in one's soul is like. 

Psalm 115 – “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name goes all the glory for your unfailing love and faithfulness. . . . Our God is in the heavens, and he does as he wishes. Their idols are merely things of silver and gold, shaped by human hands” (115:1-4). They cannot speak or see or hear

“And those who make idols are just like them, as are all who trust in them” (115:8).

Trust in the Lord - trust. Do not be afraid of anything. “He is your helper and your shield” (115:11).

Then, later in the psalm, it says, "The heavens belong to the Lord, but he has given the earth to all humanity” (115:16). So the Lord trusts us too. No wonder He created us to be "like Him." May we be worthy of His trust. 

Psalm 116 – “I love the Lord because he hears my voice and my prayer for mercy. Because he bends down to listen, I will pray as long as I have breath!” (116:1-2).

Beautiful words:
"The Lord saved me from death, he stopped my tears and kept me from defeat. And so I walk in the presence of the Lord in the world of the living. I kept on believing, even when I said, 'I am completely crushed,' even when I was afraid and said, 'No one can be trusted'" (116:8-11). This is the God I have known.

“What can I offer the Lord for all he has done for me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and praise the Lord’s name for saving me. I will keep my promises to the Lord in the presence of all his people” (116:12-14).

Psalm 118 - "Give thanks to the Lord, because he is good, and his love is eternal" (118:1).

"It is better to trust in the Lord than to depend on people. . . on human leaders" (118:8-9).

“They swarmed around me like bees; they blazed against me like a crackling fire. But I destroyed them all with the authority of the Lord” (118:11-12). “The Lord is my strength and my song; he has given me victory” (118:14). The Lord has punished me, “but he did not let me die” (118:18).

The very famous words that Jesus repeats in Matthew are here: "The stone that the builders rejected has now become the cornerstone” (118:22).

I wasn't sure what the psalmist was talking about here, so I googled around and found a very interesting blog at http:// -- In the post I found there, the blogger talks about how the psalm is part of the Hallel, a Jewish song of praise that is recited during Passover.

In brief, what he says is that there was a story in Jewish tradition that explained the words of the psalm as follows: when the Temple was being constructed, builders had to shape the stones that were used at a distance from the Temple so that worshippers would not be disturbed by the noise. The most important stone was the capstone, which had to be put in last, but it was made at the beginning and then "set aside" (or rejected) until they had finished the building. It was always the LAST stone to be put in place. By the time they were ready to put it in place, they had to find it under years of overgrown grass. Ultimately, it would be put in its place of honor. 

“This is the day the Lord has made. We will rejoice and be glad in it” (118:24). “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good! His faithful love endures forever” (118:29).

Psalm 119 – This is an extremely long psalm, separated into segments that follow the Hebrew alphabet. It starts with praise for all those who live their lives according to the law God has given through Moses. It is intended to inspire young people.

“Joyful are people of integrity, who follow the instructions of the Lord. Joyful are those who obey his laws and search for him with all their hearts” (119:1-2). May we learn to be consistent in following your decrees. “Please don’t give up on me!” (119:8).

“How can a young person stay pure? By obeying your word. I have tried hard to find you—don’t let me wander from your commands. I have hidden your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you” (119:9-11).

It is wonderful to learn how to serve God with our whole heart. "Open my eyes, so that I may see the wonderful truths in your law. I am here on earth for just a little while; do not hide your commands from me" (119:18-19). 

“I lie in the dust; revive me by your word . . . Help me understand the meaning of your commandments, and I will meditate on your wonderful deeds. I weep with sorrow; encourage me by your word” (119:25-28).

“Turn my eyes from worthless things, and give me life through your word” (119:37).

When I read psalms like this one that pray so earnestly for God's guidance and presence and favor, I remember how stressful it must have been to be a king in these days - the pressures, the threats, the incredible political, military and personal challenges they must have faced every day; so I am not really bothered by the earnest please for favor and help. "Keep me from paying attention to what is worthless; be good to me, as you have promised" (119:37). He says that the law God gave "means more to [him] than all the money in the world" (119:72). When he suffers defeats or pain, he ascribes it to just punishment imposed by God for his failures to obey the laws. And he sometimes expresses frustration at how long he seems to have to wait for God's help.

There are moments of despair in the psalm: “I am worn out waiting for your rescue, but I have put my hope in your word. My eyes are straining to see your promises come true. When will you comfort me? . . . How long must I wait? When will you punish those who persecute me?” (119:81-84).

“Your word is a lamp to guide my feet and a light for my path” (119:105).

The word of the Lord, His faithfulness, His law - while never experienced without sufferings and doubts - are the most precious things the psalmist - thought by many to have been King David - has in his life. God is our teacher, and "how sweet is the taste" of all He imparts to us. Again, as I said yesterday, this psalm sounds to me as if it were really written by a king or political leader who wants so badly to be faithful, obedient and appreciative of God, but who is also surrounded by temptations - of power, of worldliness and paranoia: "Powerful people attack me unjustly, but I respect your law. How happy I am because of your promises. . ." (119:161-162). 

I can so identify. Even in my simple day-to-day life, I get the greatest pleasure and feeling of meaningfulness when I feel God's presence, but as hard as I try, as much will power as I bring to the task, I can never be completely without ego, without impatience, without judgment. I can never be wholly what I think God wants me to be. "Give me life, so that I may praise you; may your instructions help me. I wander about like a lost sheep; so come and look for me, your servant because I have not neglected your laws" (119:175-176). 

Matthew 24 – Jesus comes out of the Temple and the disciples are showing him something about the buildings.  He responds, “Do you see all these buildings? I tell you the truth, they will be completely demolished. Not one stone will be left on top of another!” (24:2)

At the Mount of Olives he goes on talking about his next coming and the “end of the world” (24:3). Jesus speaks to warn them of the dangers there will be to be led astray.  This phrase appears many times in the following discourse (5 or 6 times at least). Many will come claiming to be “Messiah” [or in MK and LK “him”]; there will be wars and rumors of wars, famines, earthquakes.

His people will be “arrested, persecuted, and killed. You will be hated all over the world because you are my followers. And many will turn away from me and betray and hate each other. And many false prophets will appear and will deceive many people” (24:9-11). “But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (24:13).

The “desolating sacrilege” spoken of in Daniel [9:27; 11:31; 12:11] will occur and those in Judea will have to flee to the mountains—it will be a time of great suffering. Matthew then repeats lines about false Messiahs in a part that does not appear to be taken from MK [it does not appear in LK either]. They “will rise up and perform great signs and wonders so as to deceive, if possible, even God’s chosen ones” (24:24). “And then at last, the sign that the Son of Man is coming will appear in the heavens, and there will be deep mourning among all the peoples of the earth. And they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (24:30).

Learn to tell the signs in the same way you read signs of the seasons in the fig tree. “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place” (24:34). No one knows the day or hour. As in the days of Noah, people will be living life normally until the moment comes.  “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (24:42).

Who is the faithful and wise servant?  Blessed that servant whom the master finds ready and at work when he comes (24:46).

Jesus’ words gave a reasonable expectation to the first generation of Christians that the end of the “age” or the end of the world would soon come. And this despite the fact that he does say in 24:36 that even the Son does not know the “day and hour,” How are we to view this?  Did we – as T.S.Eliot asks in his great poem Four Quartets – “hear the words but miss the meaning?”  Was he speaking in concrete terms or of spiritual realities only? Or was he limited in his own humanity more than we typically believe? Jesus’ intention seems to be to create a level of heightened expectation and readiness for whatever may come. “Stay awake!”

Eschatological discourses in Other NT Books: Two possible applications of the eschatological language here are 1) the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD and b) the end of world scenario. Here in Matthew [as also in Mark 13 and Luke 21], no clear distinction is drawn between the two. Though separated in time, the first is the inevitable pre-figuration and forerunner of the second. The destruction of Jerusalem is seen as the end of the Old Covenant.

In Mark 13, Jesus tells his disciples that “not a single stone [of the Temple] will be left on another.” He then sees same scenario as Matthew describes – the coming of multiple false messiahs, terrible persecutions and troubles that will precede the Son of Man’s coming. All way too mysterious for me to grasp. It is no wonder that the young Church struggled with this all so much over the next century. 

In Luke 17 and 21, he takes a different approach when the Pharisees ask him about the coming Kingdom of God. Jesus says, “The Kingdom of God does not come in such a way as to be seen. But then he goes on to describe pretty much the same kind of confusion. Again, the coming of the Son of Man follows destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem generally.

Matthew 25 – Jesus tells another parable to describe what the kingdom of heaven is like. Ten bridesmaids take lamps to go looking for the bridegroom. Five are foolish and take no oil along with them for the lamps; five are wise because they take flasks of oil so they can refill their lamps if it takes a long time to find him.  The bridegroom’s arrival is delayed, so the bridesmaids all go to sleep.  When suddenly and unexpectedly the Bridegroom arrives at midnight, the foolish girls have no more oil for their lamps. And the wise ones know there isn’t enough for everyone, so they don’t share.  So, while the “foolish” go to find more oil, the Bridegroom comes and “those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut” (25:10). When the other girls arrive they ask the Lord to open the door but by then he says, “I do not know you” (25:12).

Then Jesus tells them the parable of the “talents” [unit of money in those days]. A man going on a journey calls his slaves to him and entrusts them with his property. To one he gives five talents, to another two, to another one, “to each according to his ability” (25:15). The one with five goes off and trades with them and makes five more. The one with two makes two more; but the one with only one digs a hole and buries it in the ground.  When the master returns they settle accounts. To each of the first two the master says, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many thing; enter into the joy of your master” (25:23).

This message is in Luke too, but the parable has been changed a little.  In that one there is a side plot (of rebellion against the master). The master leaves all his servants ten “pounds” to trade with. Each one tries to makes something from one.  When they do well the Lord gives them cities to rule over. When the fearful one comes forward, he judges him “by [his] own words” but just takes the pound away from him. There is no eternal punishment in Luke, but he does end the parable by going back to the rebellion strand and slaughtering the rebels “in [his] presence.

But to the one who had hidden his talent in the ground, believing his master would punish him if he lost it, he says “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest” (26-27). He orders the one taken away from him and given to the servant with ten. “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (25:28-30).

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, Jesus tells them, he will sit on “the throne of his glory.” All the nations will be assembled and he will “separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats” (25:32). The sheep on his right will be welcomes into his kingdom “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (25:34-36). When have we ever done these things they will ask. Then he will tell them “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (25:40). The goats on his left, on the other hand, he will send “into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. . .” (25:41).

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