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“I must go on boasting,” Paul writes (2 Cor. 12:1), though of course he has been doing so only in the most ironic way (see yesterday’s meditation and the one for September 21). But now he faces a new dilemma. Apparently his opponents have been boasting about their spiritual experiences. They may even have been saying something like, “Well, of course, Paul had that Damascus Road experience, but that was a long time ago. What has he known of God since then? Yesterday’s grace grows stale.” In this case, of course, Paul cannot simply deploy irony and boast about the opposite of all that his opponents judge important, as he did in chapter 11. For the opposite of having various spiritual experiences is not having them—and in Paul’s case, to deny that he has enjoyed such experiences would not be true. So reluctantly he goes on “to visions and revelations from the Lord” (2 Cor. 12:1). But he cannot bear to talk about himself in this regard, so he retreats to a literary device: he speaks about himself in the third person: “I know a man in Christ,” he writes (2 Cor. 12:2), though clearly he is talking about himself (2 Cor. 12:5–6).
Even in this case, Paul offers three emphases to turn the focus away from himself and strip any virtue from the habit of boasting.
First, in his case, he says, the spectacular experiences of heaven he enjoyed fourteen years earlier he was “not permitted to tell” (2 Cor. 12:4). The “third heaven” (2 Cor. 12:2) is the abode of God; “paradise” is where God dwells. Some of what he saw was “inexpressible”: people who have not enjoyed such visions do not have the categories to grasp them. More importantly, these visions were meant to strengthen Paul; he was not permitted to talk about them. Hence his silence.
Second, Paul is afraid people will think too much of him (the opposite of our fears), so as a matter of principle he dislikes talking about inaccessible matters. If he must be judged, he wants to be judged by what he does and says (2 Cor. 12:6), not by claims of visions and revelations that are inaccessible to public scrutiny.
Third, Paul recognizes that along with the great advantages he has received, God has imposed, through the agency of Satan, a “thorn in [the] flesh” that is not going to be removed, despite his most fervent intercessory prayer (2 Cor. 12:7–10). It was given to keep him from becoming conceited, to keep him “weak,” so that he would learn that God’s strength is perfected in our weakness, and he would therefore never rely on or be puffed up by the extraordinary grace he had received. In this fallen world, it is a mercy that great grace is accompanied by great weakness, as well as the other way around.
It is appropriate to reflect on Psalm 74 at this stage of our reading of the major prophets. It sounds as if it was written at a time of national disaster, perhaps the devastation of 587 B.C. (compare Pss. 79, 137; Lam. 2:5–9). The worst blow of all is that all the prophets are silent (Ps. 74:9). Then suddenly in the midst of the gloom and havoc is a breath of praise (Ps. 74:12–17), before the darkness descends again (Ps. 74:18–23). The interruption is dramatic, and reinforced by a sudden switch from the first person plural (“we,” “us”) to the first person singular: “But you, O God, are my king from of old” (Ps. 74:12). Noteworthy features include:
(1) The anguish of this chapter emerges out of faith, not skepticism, still less cynicism. These people know God, but cannot see what he is doing. They are not so much protesting his punishment of them as its duration: they act as if they know the punishment is deserved, but is it open-ended? Is there no relief? “Why have you rejected us forever, O God?” (Ps. 74:1). “Turn your steps toward these everlasting ruins” (Ps. 74:3). “How long will the enemy mock you, O God? Will the foe revile your name forever?” (Ps. 74:10).
(2) There is a powerful emphasis on God’s “remembering”—or, more precisely put, on appealing to God to remember. It is not as if the psalmist thinks something may have slipped God’s mind, and that he must be reminded of a few basics which, under the press of ruling the universe, he may have accidentally overlooked. The appeal to God to remember is explicit in Psalm 74:2, 18, 22 and implicit often—e.g., “Have regard for your covenant” (Ps. 74:20). These passages provide some insight into what this “remembering” means: it is an appeal to God to act in the light of his ancient covenantal association with his people, the people he “purchased of old” (Ps. 74:2), the tribe of his inheritance that he himself redeemed (Ps. 74:2). It is a plea that, in the midst of wrath, he would “remember” mercy.
(3) Verses 4–8 sound as if they arise from an eyewitness view of the temple being destroyed, from a memory indelibly etched with sorrow. This was the place, the psalmist tells God, “where you met with us” (Ps. 74:4). The following verses are nauseous with grief.
(4) Now, perhaps, we are better placed to reflect on the role of verses 12–17 in the psalm. Precisely when there seems little hope, it is most important for individual believers to recall the power of God both in creation (Ps. 74:16–17) and in redemption (Ps. 74:13–15). How should such a stance work out in our lives?
19:1 It was told Joab, “Behold, the king is weeping and mourning for Absalom.” 2 So the victory that day was turned into mourning for all the people, for the people heard that day, “The king is grieving for his son.” 3 And the people stole into the city that day as people steal in who are ashamed when they flee in battle. 4 The king covered his face, and the king cried with a loud voice, “O my son Absalom, O Absalom, my son, my son!” 5 Then Joab came into the house to the king and said, “You have today covered with shame the faces of all your servants, who have this day saved your life and the lives of your sons and your daughters and the lives of your wives and your concubines, 6 because you love those who hate you and hate those who love you. For you have made it clear today that commanders and servants are nothing to you, for today I know that if Absalom were alive and all of us were dead today, then you would be pleased. 7 Now therefore arise, go out and speak kindly to your servants, for I swear by the LORD, if you do not go, not a man will stay with you this night, and this will be worse for you than all the evil that has come upon you from your youth until now.” 8 Then the king arose and took his seat in the gate. And the people were all told, “Behold, the king is sitting in the gate.” And all the people came before the king.
Now Israel had fled every man to his own home. 9 And all the people were arguing throughout all the tribes of Israel, saying, “The king delivered us from the hand of our enemies and saved us from the hand of the Philistines, and now he has fled out of the land from Absalom. 10 But Absalom, whom we anointed over us, is dead in battle. Now therefore why do you say nothing about bringing the king back?”
11 And King David sent this message to Zadok and Abiathar the priests: “Say to the elders of Judah, ‘Why should you be the last to bring the king back to his house, when the word of all Israel has come to the king?1 12 You are my brothers; you are my bone and my flesh. Why then should you be the last to bring back the king?’ 13 And say to Amasa, ‘Are you not my bone and my flesh? God do so to me and more also, if you are not commander of my army from now on in place of Joab.’” 14 And he swayed the heart of all the men of Judah as one man, so that they sent word to the king, “Return, both you and all your servants.” 15 So the king came back to the Jordan, and Judah came to Gilgal to meet the king and to bring the king over the Jordan.
16 And Shimei the son of Gera, the Benjaminite, from Bahurim, hurried to come down with the men of Judah to meet King David. 17 And with him were a thousand men from Benjamin. And Ziba the servant of the house of Saul, with his fifteen sons and his twenty servants, rushed down to the Jordan before the king, 18 and they crossed the ford to bring over the king's household and to do his pleasure. And Shimei the son of Gera fell down before the king, as he was about to cross the Jordan, 19 and said to the king, “Let not my lord hold me guilty or remember how your servant did wrong on the day my lord the king left Jerusalem. Do not let the king take it to heart. 20 For your servant knows that I have sinned. Therefore, behold, I have come this day, the first of all the house of Joseph to come down to meet my lord the king.” 21 Abishai the son of Zeruiah answered, “Shall not Shimei be put to death for this, because he cursed the LORD's anointed?” 22 But David said, “What have I to do with you, you sons of Zeruiah, that you should this day be as an adversary to me? Shall anyone be put to death in Israel this day? For do I not know that I am this day king over Israel?” 23 And the king said to Shimei, “You shall not die.” And the king gave him his oath.
24 And Mephibosheth the son of Saul came down to meet the king. He had neither taken care of his feet nor trimmed his beard nor washed his clothes, from the day the king departed until the day he came back in safety. 25 And when he came to Jerusalem to meet the king, the king said to him, “Why did you not go with me, Mephibosheth?” 26 He answered, “My lord, O king, my servant deceived me, for your servant said to him, ‘I will saddle a donkey for myself,2 that I may ride on it and go with the king.’ For your servant is lame. 27 He has slandered your servant to my lord the king. But my lord the king is like the angel of God; do therefore what seems good to you. 28 For all my father's house were but men doomed to death before my lord the king, but you set your servant among those who eat at your table. What further right have I, then, to cry to the king?” 29 And the king said to him, “Why speak any more of your affairs? I have decided: you and Ziba shall divide the land.” 30 And Mephibosheth said to the king, “Oh, let him take it all, since my lord the king has come safely home.”
31 Now Barzillai the Gileadite had come down from Rogelim, and he went on with the king to the Jordan, to escort him over the Jordan. 32 Barzillai was a very aged man, eighty years old. He had provided the king with food while he stayed at Mahanaim, for he was a very wealthy man. 33 And the king said to Barzillai, “Come over with me, and I will provide for you with me in Jerusalem.” 34 But Barzillai said to the king, “How many years have I still to live, that I should go up with the king to Jerusalem? 35 I am this day eighty years old. Can I discern what is pleasant and what is not? Can your servant taste what he eats or what he drinks? Can I still listen to the voice of singing men and singing women? Why then should your servant be an added burden to my lord the king? 36 Your servant will go a little way over the Jordan with the king. Why should the king repay me with such a reward? 37 Please let your servant return, that I may die in my own city near the grave of my father and my mother. But here is your servant Chimham. Let him go over with my lord the king, and do for him whatever seems good to you.” 38 And the king answered, “Chimham shall go over with me, and I will do for him whatever seems good to you, and all that you desire of me I will do for you.” 39 Then all the people went over the Jordan, and the king went over. And the king kissed Barzillai and blessed him, and he returned to his own home. 40 The king went on to Gilgal, and Chimham went on with him. All the people of Judah, and also half the people of Israel, brought the king on his way.
41 Then all the men of Israel came to the king and said to the king, “Why have our brothers the men of Judah stolen you away and brought the king and his household over the Jordan, and all David's men with him?” 42 All the men of Judah answered the men of Israel, “Because the king is our close relative. Why then are you angry over this matter? Have we eaten at all at the king's expense? Or has he given us any gift?” 43 And the men of Israel answered the men of Judah, “We have ten shares in the king, and in David also we have more than you. Why then did you despise us? Were we not the first to speak of bringing back our king?” But the words of the men of Judah were fiercer than the words of the men of Israel.
12:1 I must go on boasting. Though there is nothing to be gained by it, I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. 2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. 3 And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows—4 and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. 5 On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses—6 though if I should wish to boast, I would not be a fool, for I would be speaking the truth; but I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me. 7 So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations,1 a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
11 I have been a fool! You forced me to it, for I ought to have been commended by you. For I was not at all inferior to these super-apostles, even though I am nothing. 12 The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works. 13 For in what were you less favored than the rest of the churches, except that I myself did not burden you? Forgive me this wrong!
14 Here for the third time I am ready to come to you. And I will not be a burden, for I seek not what is yours but you. For children are not obligated to save up for their parents, but parents for their children. 15 I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls. If I love you more, am I to be loved less? 16 But granting that I myself did not burden you, I was crafty, you say, and got the better of you by deceit. 17 Did I take advantage of you through any of those whom I sent to you? 18 I urged Titus to go, and sent the brother with him. Did Titus take advantage of you? Did we not act in the same spirit? Did we not take the same steps?
19 Have you been thinking all along that we have been defending ourselves to you? It is in the sight of God that we have been speaking in Christ, and all for your upbuilding, beloved. 20 For I fear that perhaps when I come I may find you not as I wish, and that you may find me not as you wish—that perhaps there may be quarreling, jealousy, anger, hostility, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder. 21 I fear that when I come again my God may humble me before you, and I may have to mourn over many of those who sinned earlier and have not repented of the impurity, sexual immorality, and sensuality that they have practiced.
26:1 In the eleventh year, on the first day of the month, the word of the LORD came to me: 2 “Son of man, because Tyre said concerning Jerusalem, ‘Aha, the gate of the peoples is broken; it has swung open to me. I shall be replenished, now that she is laid waste,’ 3 therefore thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I am against you, O Tyre, and will bring up many nations against you, as the sea brings up its waves. 4 They shall destroy the walls of Tyre and break down her towers, and I will scrape her soil from her and make her a bare rock. 5 She shall be in the midst of the sea a place for the spreading of nets, for I have spoken, declares the Lord GOD. And she shall become plunder for the nations, 6 and her daughters on the mainland shall be killed by the sword. Then they will know that I am the LORD.
7 “For thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I will bring against Tyre from the north Nebuchadnezzar1 king of Babylon, king of kings, with horses and chariots, and with horsemen and a host of many soldiers. 8 He will kill with the sword your daughters on the mainland. He will set up a siege wall against you and throw up a mound against you, and raise a roof of shields against you. 9 He will direct the shock of his battering rams against your walls, and with his axes he will break down your towers. 10 His horses will be so many that their dust will cover you. Your walls will shake at the noise of the horsemen and wagons and chariots, when he enters your gates as men enter a city that has been breached. 11 With the hoofs of his horses he will trample all your streets. He will kill your people with the sword, and your mighty pillars will fall to the ground. 12 They will plunder your riches and loot your merchandise. They will break down your walls and destroy your pleasant houses. Your stones and timber and soil they will cast into the midst of the waters. 13 And I will stop the music of your songs, and the sound of your lyres shall be heard no more. 14 I will make you a bare rock. You shall be a place for the spreading of nets. You shall never be rebuilt, for I am the LORD; I have spoken, declares the Lord GOD.
15 “Thus says the Lord GOD to Tyre: Will not the coastlands shake at the sound of your fall, when the wounded groan, when slaughter is made in your midst? 16 Then all the princes of the sea will step down from their thrones and remove their robes and strip off their embroidered garments. They will clothe themselves with trembling; they will sit on the ground and tremble every moment and be appalled at you. 17 And they will raise a lamentation over you and say to you,
“‘How you have perished,
you who were inhabited from the seas,
O city renowned,
who was mighty on the sea;
she and her inhabitants imposed their terror
on all her inhabitants!
18 Now the coastlands tremble
on the day of your fall,
and the coastlands that are on the sea
are dismayed at your passing.’
19 “For thus says the Lord GOD: When I make you a city laid waste, like the cities that are not inhabited, when I bring up the deep over you, and the great waters cover you, 20 then I will make you go down with those who go down to the pit, to the people of old, and I will make you to dwell in the world below, among ruins from of old, with those who go down to the pit, so that you will not be inhabited; but I will set beauty in the land of the living. 21 I will bring you to a dreadful end, and you shall be no more. Though you be sought for, you will never be found again, declares the Lord GOD.”
74:1 O God, why do you cast us off forever?
Why does your anger smoke against the sheep of your pasture?
2 Remember your congregation, which you have purchased of old,
which you have redeemed to be the tribe of your heritage!
Remember Mount Zion, where you have dwelt.
3 Direct your steps to the perpetual ruins;
the enemy has destroyed everything in the sanctuary!
4 Your foes have roared in the midst of your meeting place;
they set up their own signs for signs.
5 They were like those who swing axes
in a forest of trees.2
6 And all its carved wood
they broke down with hatchets and hammers.
7 They set your sanctuary on fire;
they profaned the dwelling place of your name,
bringing it down to the ground.
8 They said to themselves, “We will utterly subdue them”;
they burned all the meeting places of God in the land.
9 We do not see our signs;
there is no longer any prophet,
and there is none among us who knows how long.
10 How long, O God, is the foe to scoff?
Is the enemy to revile your name forever?
11 Why do you hold back your hand, your right hand?
Take it from the fold of your garment3 and destroy them!
12 Yet God my King is from of old,
working salvation in the midst of the earth.
13 You divided the sea by your might;
you broke the heads of the sea monsters4 on the waters.
14 You crushed the heads of Leviathan;
you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness.
15 You split open springs and brooks;
you dried up ever-flowing streams.
16 Yours is the day, yours also the night;
you have established the heavenly lights and the sun.
17 You have fixed all the boundaries of the earth;
you have made summer and winter.
18 Remember this, O LORD, how the enemy scoffs,
and a foolish people reviles your name.
19 Do not deliver the soul of your dove to the wild beasts;
do not forget the life of your poor forever.
20 Have regard for the covenant,
for the dark places of the land are full of the habitations of violence.
21 Let not the downtrodden turn back in shame;
let the poor and needy praise your name.
22 Arise, O God, defend your cause;
remember how the foolish scoff at you all the day!
23 Do not forget the clamor of your foes,
the uproar of those who rise against you, which goes up continually!