Psalm 35:1-10 – Tell It Like It Is

O Lord, oppose those who oppose me.
    Fight those who fight against me.
Put on your armor, and take up your shield.
    Prepare for battle, and come to my aid.
Lift up your spear and javelin
    against those who pursue me.
Let me hear you say,
    “I will give you victory!”
Bring shame and disgrace on those trying to kill me;
    turn them back and humiliate those who want to harm me.
Blow them away like chaff in the wind—
    a wind sent by the angel of the Lord.
Make their path dark and slippery,
    with the angel of the Lord pursuing them.
I did them no wrong, but they laid a trap for me.
    I did them no wrong, but they dug a pit to catch me.
So let sudden ruin come upon them!
    Let them be caught in the trap they set for me!
    Let them be destroyed in the pit they dug for me.

Then I will rejoice in the Lord.
    I will be glad because he rescues me.
With every bone in my body I will praise him:
    “Lord, who can compare with you?
Who else rescues the helpless from the strong?
    Who else protects the helpless and poor from those who rob them?” (NLT)

Sometimes, you must tell it like it is. There is a time to do your best in putting up a good face and dealing with people who gossip, slander, and try to get their way. There is also a time to call such behavior “evil” and cry out to God for help.

Psalm 35 is a classic prayer in the category called “imprecatory psalms.” The term “imprecatory” means to call down a curse on a person or group of people. Maybe this surprises you that there is such language in the Bible.  In fact, there are eighteen such imprecatory psalms which make a clear petition for God to turn the evil back on the people who inflict it (or try to) on others.

The imprecatory Psalms are prayers, calling upon God to remedy those injustices which neither we as individuals, nor the state, are competent to remedy.

J.A. Motyer

I am a believer in making simple observations about the biblical text. So, here are a few things to observe about this psalm, along with all the imprecatory psalms of David:

1. David asked God to deal with the evil behavior of powerful people.

Unlike most of us, David went through a time in life when there were powerful people literally trying to hunt him down and take his life.  As much as we might speculate whether David wanted to take matters into his own hands, the fact remains that he did not do so. Instead, David relied on God to execute judgment.

2. David did not hold his feelings back in describing exactly what he wanted God to do.

There is nothing sanitized about imprecatory psalms. They are as raw and real as it gets. David was understandably upset. He had done nothing wrong, yet he was being chased like an animal. David said it plainly to God: attack the attackers; hunt them like they have hunted; get the angels involved; give them the disaster they try tried to dish out; and let them fall into their own pit. Whatever you might think about how a proper pious person ought to pray, imprecatory curses are likely not your first thought. But here they are, out there for us to read in the Holy Bible.

3. The psalms are the prayer book of the church.

That includes the imprecatory psalms. Yes, they ought to be prayed by us right along with psalms of praise, psalms of thanksgiving, and psalms for public singing. I want you to think a radical thought:

We ought to include imprecatory prayers in our regular rhythms, routines, and rituals of prayer.

Evil will not have the last word. God opposes the proud and the arrogant who step on others to get their way.  But he gives grace to the humble, that is, to those who look for Divine justice and righteousness; are open about their feelings of hurt and upsetedness; and lift-up biblical imprecatory prayers.

Consider also that Christ taught us to pray that we would be delivered from evil:

Don’t let us yield to temptation but rescue us from the evil one. (Matthew 6:13, NLT)

St. Paul informed us that evil will indeed be turned back onto the wicked:

God’s judgment is right, and as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering. God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well… He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed… With this in mind, we constantly pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may bring to fruition your every desire for goodness and your every deed prompted by faith. We pray this so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Thessalonians 1:5-12, NIV)

Ultimately, there are dark spiritual forces behind every evil intent and every wicked machination on this earth:

For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:12, NRSV)

And in the end, along with David and the imprecatory psalms, we leave all judgment to the proper Judge:

Don’t insist on getting even; that’s not for you to do. “I’ll do the judging,” says God. “I’ll take care of it.”  (Romans 12:19, MSG)

Saving God, you protect the helpless from those in power and save the poor and needy who cry out to you.  Mighty God, turn back on those with slanderous tongues, gossiping words, and sinful actions the evil they intend to inflict on others.  Let them fall into a deep black hole for which they cannot get out and harm anyone again, through King Jesus, our Savior, in the assistance of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Malachi 3:16-4:6 – Turning Hearts

Then those revering the Lord,
    each and every one, spoke among themselves.
        The Lord paid attention and listened to them.
Then a scroll of remembrance was written before the Lord
        about those revering the Lord,
            the ones meditating on his name.
On the day that I am preparing,
says the Lord of heavenly forces,
        they will be my special possession.
        I will spare them just as parents spare a child who serves them.
You will again distinguish between the righteous and the wicked,
        between those serving God and those not serving him.

Look, the day is coming,
        burning like an oven.
All the arrogant ones and all those doing evil will become straw.
    The coming day will burn them,
says the Lord of heavenly forces,
        leaving them neither root nor branch.
But the sun of righteousness will rise on those revering my name;
        healing will be in its wings
            so that you will go forth and jump about like calves in the stall.
You will crush the wicked;
        they will be like dust beneath the soles of your feet
            on the day that I am preparing,
says the Lord of heavenly forces.
Remember the Instruction from Moses, my servant,
        to whom I gave Instruction and rules for all Israel at Horeb.
Look, I am sending Elijah the prophet to you,
        before the great and terrifying day of the Lord arrives.
Turn the hearts of the parents to the children
    and the hearts of the children to their parents.
            Otherwise, I will come and strike the land with a curse. (CEB)

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, twenty-five million children in America — one out of every three — live in biological father-absent homes. The National Fatherhood Initiative reports that nine in ten American parents agree this is a “crisis.”  Consequently, there is a “father factor” in many social issues today. Children with involved fathers do better across every measure of child well-being than their peers in father-absent homes.

From a biblical perspective, the relationship between fathers and children is hugely important not only for the well-being of family and society, but for God’s people.  Fathers in ancient Israel were the primary instructors of God’s covenant to their children.  This responsibility was critical to ensuring success in Israel and obeying their God. 

The fact of the matter in the prophet Malachi’s day was this: The fathers blew it.  The last verse of the Old Testament ends on a note of coming judgment. However, that is not the end of the story because the prophet Elijah will come to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and vice versa.

John the Baptist, Jesus said, was the Elijah to come:

From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. Whoever has ears, let them hear. (Matthew 11:12-15, NIV)

In the Christian tradition, Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s covenant promises to the people. Therefore, fathers who follow Jesus have a sacred responsibility to gently guide their kids to Christ. It is important for Christian dads to take up the mantle of teaching children the ways of God especially as expressed by Jesus.  

God is on a mission of restoration, and a good place to begin is with restoring relationships between fathers and children. In fact, it behooves all fathers to step back and slow down enough to consider what the nature of their family relationships are really like – taking action to instruct kids in both word and deed.

The word catechism derives from the Greek language and means “instruction.” Ever since the start of the Protestant Reformation, learning about God has often taken the form of catechetical teaching. Catechisms vary in length with a pedagogical question and answer format. Typically included are explanations on the Apostle’s Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer.

Question and answer 104 of the Reformed Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, says this:

Q. What is God’s will for you in the fifth commandment?

A. That I honor, love, and be loyal to my father and mother and all those in authority over me; that I submit myself with proper obedience to all their good teaching and discipline; and also that I be patient with their failings – for through them God chooses to rule us.

Here is a simple observation: Children cannot obey what they have not been taught. Underpinning all submission and obedience of both divine and human authority is the basic assumption that parents will instruct their children in the way of sound theology, biblical ethics, and religious piety.

What is more, we are all spiritual fathers and mothers to a host of children in our sphere of influence. This is a foundational way of relating to one another, and so, deliberate intention and effort needs to be placed here. Otherwise, there is religious decline with neither social nor familial cohesion.

So, let us love one another through careful training, effective teaching, and gracious tutoring so that righteousness will shine like a cloudless dawn and rise to warm the world with the love of God.

Gracious God, thank you for the gift of children.  Teach me your ways of grace so that I might pass them on to children in the merciful name of Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Hosea 6:1-6 – “I Desire Mercy!”

By Brazilian street artist Edward Kobra, building in New York City, 2018

Come, let us return to the Lord.
He has torn us to pieces
    but he will heal us;
he has injured us
    but he will bind up our wounds.
After two days he will revive us;
    on the third day he will restore us,
    that we may live in his presence.
Let us acknowledge the Lord;
    let us press on to acknowledge him.
As surely as the sun rises,
    he will appear;
he will come to us like the winter rains,
    like the spring rains that water the earth.

“What can I do with you, Ephraim?
    What can I do with you, Judah?
Your love is like the morning mist,
    like the early dew that disappears.
Therefore I cut you in pieces with my prophets,
    I killed you with the words of my mouth—
    then my judgments go forth like the sun.
For I desire mercy, not sacrifice,
    and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” (NIV)

My favorite word in all Holy Scripture is the Hebrew word chesed.  It is such a rich word that no one English word can capture its depth.  So, chesed is translated in various ways across English translations of the Bible as mercy, grace, steadfast love, covenant loyalty, kindness, compassion and more. It is no wonder, then, that since chesed marks the character and activity of God, the Lord very much desires people to reflect this same stance toward others. 

In today’s Old Testament lesson, God was calling and wooing wayward people to return to a divine life of closeness with the Lord. God demonstrated chesed by not putting the people away, like a spouse outright divorcing an unfaithful partner, but committed to loving the Israelites even when they were unlovely.

At all times, the response God wants is not simply going through the motions of outward worship. Ritual practices mean little if there is no heart behind them. The Lord longs for people to demonstrate both fidelity and fealty through mercy and a steadfast love to God and neighbor. Both our work and our worship are to be infused with divine mercy. 

Chesed by Havi Mandell

God deeply desires a close relationship with humanity and is profoundly pained when people whore after other gods to meet their needs and love them. Hosea’s prophecy is an impassioned plea for all persons to find their true fulfillment and enjoyment in a committed loving divine/human union, like a marriage.

In Christian readings of Hosea’s prophecy, repentance means accepting God’s chesed through Jesus Christ. The believer is to allow the character of God to rule and reign in their heart so that love and commitment come flowing out in words, actions, thoughts, and dispositions. Mercy finds its highest expression in the person and work of Jesus. Thus, Advent is a season of anticipating the great love and mercy of God through the incarnation of Christ.

It is no wonder, then, that Jesus lifted Hosea’s prophecy as a treasured principle of operation when asked why he deliberately made connections with “questionable” people:

While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:10-12, NIV)

And when confronted about “questionable” activities Jesus appealed to the same source of Hosea’s prophecy:

“Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.” Jesus answered, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. Or haven’t you read in the Law that the priests on Sabbath duty in the temple desecrate the Sabbath and yet are innocent? I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.” (Matthew 12:2-7, NIV)

One can never go wrong with mercy and grace. If in doubt between whether to judge another or show mercy, the Christian’s choice is clear. Grace and love create connections – reconnecting the disconnected. The heart of true Christian spirituality is a deep kinship with the divine. Whenever that relation is broken or severed, it is vital to restore it. The means of doing so is not judgment but mercy.

Chesed is more than a word; it is a way of life. God wants mercy. Grace is the Lord’s divine will. So, let us today receive the forgiveness of Jesus and devote ourselves to prayer and works of love which come from a heart profoundly touched by grace.  May the result be healing of that which has been broken, and reconciled relationships with others.

Merciful and loving God, the One who shows amazing grace, forgive us for our wanderings away from the divine life. Return us, again, to the grace of Jesus Christ our Savior so that our hearts will be renewed and aflame with love for others.  In the Name of the Father, Son, and Spirit, the Great Three in One.  Amen.

Romans 2:1-11 – Against Condemning Others

You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. So, when you, a mere human being, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance, and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?

But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. God “will repay each person according to what they have done.” To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor, and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For God does not show favoritism. (NIV)

The Apostle Paul, writing to the Church at Rome, merely upheld the teaching of his Lord Jesus, who said:

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.” (Matthew 7:1-2, NRSV)

Although most people would affirm that showing favoritism is a bad thing, in practice we have a difficult time avoiding it – especially in an election season, like the one in the United States. Political mudslinging is (unfortunately) a time-honored American tradition. And so is religious judgmentalism.

Some of the most emotionally laden vitriol comes from folks who are so heavily entrenched in their religious convictions that they believe any deviation from their way of belief is worthy of scathing criticism.

People, however, do not change because someone criticizes or judges them. They experience transformation through basic divine and human kindness. As a hospital chaplain in a behavioral health unit, I affirm this to be true. Many patients have been told repeatedly by family or friends to stop doing something, get with it, move on, wake up, etc. – all with the condescending edge of judgment. Yet, when someone takes notice, is curious about them, offers helpful encouragement and a listening ear without trying to fix, souls become open to receiving the healing grace of love and truth.

God shows no partiality, and neither should we. God is right, just, and fair in all dealings with everyone. The Lord judges according to divine standards of righteousness and mercy, no matter one’s race, ethnicity, gender, economic status, or social standing. And it is all laced with the love and compassion of Christ.

Christians are not exempt or given a pass on being judgmental. Our own unhealthy practices, bad habits, and angry outbursts will be treated just like any non-Christian by God. In a time when decrying the moral condition of our world is nearly a spectator sport, the New Testament lesson for today reminds us that we must first be concerned for the condition of our own hearts before we can point the finger at another.

We all equally stand in need of God’s grace in Jesus.  There is a symbiotic relationship between our actions and the state of our hearts.  A soft and tender heart toward God leads to obedience; disobedience hardens the heart and leads to God’s wrath, no matter the individual.

So, it will help if we all faithfully engage in daily spiritual practices which keep our hearts attentive and alert to God’s will and way.  No matter how busy we are, or how we feel, to forego or ignore the Word of God and prayer on a regular basis will slowly calcify our hearts and render them unable to respond rightly to grace.  Instead, we can drink deeply of the gospel throughout every day so that we may experience peace.

Judgmentalism, favoritism, and cronyism all begin to melt away when we pick up the tools of empathy, compassion, understanding, and acceptance – using them to forge connections and supportive encouragement. It takes little to no practice to bludgeon someone with condemning criticism. However, it takes repeated practice to speak and act with grace, mercy, and peace, especially when we are stressed and/or anxious about our surrounding circumstances.

Instead of judgment, observe and be curious. Seek more information. Expand the gap between observation and conclusion. The ability to have an awareness of one’s own emotions, to be mindful of self and surroundings, and to do it all with neither criticism nor judgment is perhaps the highest form of intelligence and spirituality.

It is kindness which leads others to repentance, not condemnation. Grace has the final word, not judgment. So, let us be blessed through a gentle spirit which spreads the goodness of God throughout the world.

O God, thank you for the gift of prayer and the grace of your Word.  May it seep deep down into my heart so that I am compassionate and kind, just like Jesus.  Amen.