Saturday, January 12, 2013

Psalms 138-141 and Early Church Writings [Clement of Rome]

Psalm 138 – This is a psalm of thanksgiving for God’s constant love and teaching. “I give you thanks, O Lord, with all my heart; I will sing your praises before the gods” (138:1). This must have been written before Yahweh had become the ONLY god, when He was only the HIGHEST god.

“You answered me when I called to you; with your strength you strengthened me” (138:3).

“Though the Lord is great, he cares for the humble, but he keeps his distance from the proud. Though I am surrounded by troubles, you will protect me from the anger of my enemies” (138:6-7).

The rulers of the world will eventually praise you for your glory.

“The Lord will work out his plans for my life—for your faithful love, O Lord, endures forever. Don’t abandon me, for you made me” (138:8).

Psalm 139 – “Lord, you have examined my heart and know everything about me. You know when I sit down or stand up. You know my thoughts even when I’m far away” (139:1-2).

You know me fully. “Your knowledge of me is too deep; it is beyond my understanding” (139:6).

Where can I go to escape you, get away from your presence? You are everywhere – in heaven, in the world of the dead; you are everywhere and are there to lead me. Even “the darkness is not dark for you, and the night is as bright as the day” (139:11-12).

”You created every part of me; you put me together in my mother’s womb” (139:13).

Toward the end, again, the spirit of the psalm changes to one I am not comfortable with as a Christian – the hatred of all those who hate God. It is serious: “I hate them with a total hatred” (139:22). I don’t think there is anyone on earth who ever lived that I hate with a total hatred. I feel somewhere even in the depths of the most evil person there is a seed that yearns to grow with love. How it is so extinguished or smothered in some I do not understand, and I think I could fairly say I hate that force or that influence in them that brings them to do such hateful and horrible things. But I do pray for them too.

Psalm 140 – “O Lord, rescue me from evil people. Protect me from those who are violent, those who plot evil in their hearts and stir up trouble all day long” (140:1-2).

It is true I think that some taste the evil of evil people in a way I perhaps have not known. I don’t really know how I would feel or respond if terrible evil was done to me or anyone I loved. Maybe I would understand this “hatred of evil” better. I join with the psalmist in praying that the violent may not hurt others.

Psalm 141 – An evening prayer in a time of distress: “O Lord, I am calling to you. Please hurry! Listen when I cry to you for help! Accept my prayer as incense offered to you, and my upraised hands as an evening offering” (141:1-2).

“Don’t let me drift toward evil or take part in acts of wickedness” (141:4).
“Let the godly strike me! Is will be a kindness! If they correct me, it is soothing medicine. Don’t let me refuse it” (141:5).

“When their leaders are thrown down from a cliff, the wicked will listen to my words and find them true. Like rocks brought up by a plow, the bones of the wicked will lie scattered without burial” (141:6-7).

“Keep me from the traps they have set for me, from the snares of those who do wrong. Let the wicked fall into their own nets, but let me escape” (141:9-10).

First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians
The Clement writing this letter is an early bishop of the Church at Rome. There were both bishops and presbyters serving the church in Rome but the clear line of succession following Peter’s death was not yet established so different accounts place him as second, third or fourth in line after Peter. He is sometimes referred to as Clemens Romanus to distinguish him from Clement of Alexandria.

The dating of the letter is somewhat uncertain as well, but his opening remark makes it seem likely that it was written right after the persecution of the church by Emperor Domitian in 96 AD. This persecution was thought to have come about because of Domitian’s zeal for the imperial cult practices first established by Augustus. The Jews were given an exemption from observation of this cult but the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD might have marked the end of this exemption. The terrible persecution of Domitian forms the context for the writing of the Book of Revelation.

Clement of Rome demonstrates a deep knowledge and use of the Old Testament scripture (Septuagint) and also makes reference to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, 1 Peter, Hebrews and some compilation of Jesus’ sayings. His concern is over some deep divisions and conflicts in the church at Corinth.

The translation of Clement’s epistle I use here is by Maxwell Stamforth, published by Penguin Books

Section 1
He is writing to the Corinthians after some delay caused by the persecution initiated by Domitian around 93. His concern is a rather protracted dispute dividing the community of “God’s chosen people.”

He says that there was a time “when nobody could spend even a short while among you without noticing the excellence and constancy of your faith” (23). Their “elders were treated with the honor due to them; your young men were counseled to be soberly and seriously minded; your womenfolk were bidden to o about their duties in irreproachable devotion and purity of conscience” (23).

Section 2
“Humility too and a complete absence of self-assertion were common to you all; you preferred to offer submission rather than extort it, and giving was dearer to your hearts than receiving” (23).

You paid “careful heed to [Christ’s] word, treasured them in your hearts, and kept His sufferings constantly before you eyes” (23). It brought you peace and an ardor for doing good and “a rich outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon you all” (23).

You “harbored no resentments; any kind of faction or schism was an abomination to you” (24). “[W]hatever you did was done in the fear of God, and the statues and judgments of the Lord were engraved on the tables of your hearts” (24)

Section 3
But that was then. Now jealousy and strife have sprung out among you. “Men of the baser sort rose up against their betters: the rabble against the respectable, folly against wisdom, youth against its elders. And now all righteousness and peace among you is at an end” (24).

Each one “walks after the desires of his own wicked heart. All have fallen back into the horrid sin of Envy—the sin that brought death into the world” (24).

Section 4
Clement speaks of the envy of Cain, the jealousy Joseph suffered from his brothers, the jealousy Miriam and Aaron felt towards their brother Moses and other examples from the Old Testament story.

Section 5
And he turns to examples from more recent times too: Peter and Paul suffered from the jealousy of others. Paul especially is praised for his “endurance” (25).

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