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On the face of it, Psalm 79 depicts the outrage bound up with the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C. Before we reflect on a few of its themes, we should pause to ask how both Psalm 78 and Psalm 79 can purport to come from Asaph. Psalm 78 was clearly written at the beginning of the Davidic dynasty; Psalm 79 was apparently written four-and-a-half centuries later, at the destruction of Jerusalem. So how can they both be psalms of Asaph? The Asaph we know was a contemporary of David.
The best guess is that the dozen psalms attributed to Asaph were variously written either by him or by the choir he founded. Just as some psalms are attributed to “the sons of Korah” (presumably another musical foundation), so also in this case.
Here Asaph does not question the justice of God’s burning “jealousy” (Ps. 79:5), but (as in Ps. 74; see meditation for September 23) its duration: “How long, O LORD? Will you be angry forever?” (Ps. 79:5). Note how some of Asaph’s themes mesh with what we find in the prophets.
(1) “Pour out your wrath on the nations that do not acknowledge you, on the kingdoms that do not call on your name” (Ps. 79:6). But the major prophets insist, as we have repeatedly seen, that the pagan nations will also be held accountable by God. They are not given a free pass. Meanwhile believers should always recall God’s words to his people through Amos (Amos 3:2): “You only have I chosen of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your sins” (italics added). In a world under the curse, Christians too must grasp that punishment that steers us back toward repentance can only be a good thing (cf. Heb. 12:4–13).
(2) “Do not hold against us the sins of the fathers” (Ps. 79:8): review Ezekiel 18 (see meditation for September 15).
(3) “[M]ay your mercy come quickly to meet us, for we are in desperate need” (Ps. 79:8). Such a plea simultaneously asks for the only help that can save us, and reflects the attitude of dependence and trust so utterly lacking in the defiant rebellion and self-reliance that brought down the judgment in the first place.
(4) “Help us, O God our Savior, for the glory of your name; deliver us and forgive our sins for your name’s sake” (Ps. 79:9). Once again there is no attempt to whitewash the sins. The appeal is to God’s glory, so that pagan nations will not conclude that God is too weak or fickle to save his people (Ps. 79:10). How much of the driving force behind contemporary evangelical praying is motivated by a passion for the glory of God?
Galatians 4 includes a couple of sections that have long prompted Christians to ponder exactly how Paul understands the history of Israel—especially the so-called “allegory” of 4:21–31. They attract a great deal of attention. Tucked into the middle of the chapter, however, are two short paragraphs that disclose a great deal of the apostle’s heart (Gal. 4:12–20), even though they are easily overlooked.
(1) The first (Gal. 4:12–16) finds the apostle pleading with the Galatians. He insists that his strong language with them has nothing to do with personal hurt: “You have done me no wrong” (Gal. 4:12). Indeed, he reminds them, the earliest stage of their relationship established a link Paul could never break. He first went among them, he says, “because of an illness” (Gal. 4:13). We cannot be sure what it was. Perhaps the best guess (though it is no more than a guess) is that Paul arrived by boat on the southern coast of what is now Turkey, and while ministering there contracted malaria or some other subtropical disease. The best solution in those days was to travel into the highlands—into the regions of the Galatians. There Paul found a people remarkably helpful and welcoming. As he preached the Gospel to them, they treated him as if he were “an angel of God” (Gal. 4:14). How could Paul possibly resent them or write them off? But tragically, their joy has dissipated. They have become so enamored with the alien outlook of the agitators that they view Paul as an enemy because he tells them the truth (Gal. 4:16).
Here, then, is an apostle intimately involved in the lives of the people to whom he preaches, ready and eager to engage with them out of the complex history of their relationships, yet unwilling to compromise the truth in order to smooth out those relationships. In Paul, integrity of doctrine must stand with integrity in relationships; they are not to be pitted against each other.
(2) Paul perceives and gently exposes a deep character flaw in the Galatians: they love zealous people, not the least those who are zealously pursuing them, without carefully evaluating the direction of the zeal (Gal. 4:17–20). Paul warns: “It is fine to be zealous, provided the purpose is good” (Gal. 4:18). Unable to communicate by telephone or e-mail and thus have an instant update, the apostle is uncertain how best to proceed. Should he continue his rebuke? Should he now change his tone and woo them? He feels like a mother who has to go through the agony of labor a second time to bring to birth all over again the child she has already borne.
Should contemporary pastors and leaders care less for those in their charge who stray?
24:1 Again the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go, number Israel and Judah.” 2 So the king said to Joab, the commander of the army,1 who was with him, “Go through all the tribes of Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, and number the people, that I may know the number of the people.” 3 But Joab said to the king, “May the LORD your God add to the people a hundred times as many as they are, while the eyes of my lord the king still see it, but why does my lord the king delight in this thing?” 4 But the king's word prevailed against Joab and the commanders of the army. So Joab and the commanders of the army went out from the presence of the king to number the people of Israel. 5 They crossed the Jordan and began from Aroer,2 and from the city that is in the middle of the valley, toward Gad and on to Jazer. 6 Then they came to Gilead, and to Kadesh in the land of the Hittites;3 and they came to Dan, and from Dan4 they went around to Sidon, 7 and came to the fortress of Tyre and to all the cities of the Hivites and Canaanites; and they went out to the Negeb of Judah at Beersheba. 8 So when they had gone through all the land, they came to Jerusalem at the end of nine months and twenty days. 9 And Joab gave the sum of the numbering of the people to the king: in Israel there were 800,000 valiant men who drew the sword, and the men of Judah were 500,000.
10 But David's heart struck him after he had numbered the people. And David said to the LORD, “I have sinned greatly in what I have done. But now, O LORD, please take away the iniquity of your servant, for I have done very foolishly.” 11 And when David arose in the morning, the word of the LORD came to the prophet Gad, David's seer, saying, 12 “Go and say to David, ‘Thus says the LORD, Three things I offer5 you. Choose one of them, that I may do it to you.’” 13 So Gad came to David and told him, and said to him, “Shall three6 years of famine come to you in your land? Or will you flee three months before your foes while they pursue you? Or shall there be three days' pestilence in your land? Now consider, and decide what answer I shall return to him who sent me.” 14 Then David said to Gad, “I am in great distress. Let us fall into the hand of the LORD, for his mercy is great; but let me not fall into the hand of man.”
15 So the LORD sent a pestilence on Israel from the morning until the appointed time. And there died of the people from Dan to Beersheba 70,000 men. 16 And when the angel stretched out his hand toward Jerusalem to destroy it, the LORD relented from the calamity and said to the angel who was working destruction among the people, “It is enough; now stay your hand.” And the angel of the LORD was by the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite. 17 Then David spoke to the LORD when he saw the angel who was striking the people, and said, “Behold, I have sinned, and I have done wickedly. But these sheep, what have they done? Please let your hand be against me and against my father's house.”
18 And Gad came that day to David and said to him, “Go up, raise an altar to the LORD on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite.” 19 So David went up at Gad's word, as the LORD commanded. 20 And when Araunah looked down, he saw the king and his servants coming on toward him. And Araunah went out and paid homage to the king with his face to the ground. 21 And Araunah said, “Why has my lord the king come to his servant?” David said, “To buy the threshing floor from you, in order to build an altar to the LORD, that the plague may be averted from the people.” 22 Then Araunah said to David, “Let my lord the king take and offer up what seems good to him. Here are the oxen for the burnt offering and the threshing sledges and the yokes of the oxen for the wood. 23 All this, O king, Araunah gives to the king.” And Araunah said to the king, “May the LORD your God accept you.” 24 But the king said to Araunah, “No, but I will buy it from you for a price. I will not offer burnt offerings to the LORD my God that cost me nothing.” So David bought the threshing floor and the oxen for fifty shekels7 of silver. 25 And David built there an altar to the LORD and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings. So the LORD responded to the plea for the land, and the plague was averted from Israel.
4:1 I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave,1 though he is the owner of everything, 2 but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father. 3 In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles2 of the world. 4 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, 5 to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. 6 And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” 7 So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.
8 Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. 9 But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? 10 You observe days and months and seasons and years! 11 I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.
12 Brothers,3 I entreat you, become as I am, for I also have become as you are. You did me no wrong. 13 You know it was because of a bodily ailment that I preached the gospel to you at first, 14 and though my condition was a trial to you, you did not scorn or despise me, but received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus. 15 What then has become of your blessedness? For I testify to you that, if possible, you would have gouged out your eyes and given them to me. 16 Have I then become your enemy by telling you the truth?4 17 They make much of you, but for no good purpose. They want to shut you out, that you may make much of them. 18 It is always good to be made much of for a good purpose, and not only when I am present with you, 19 my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you! 20 I wish I could be present with you now and change my tone, for I am perplexed about you.
21 Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law? 22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. 23 But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise. 24 Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. 25 Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia;5 she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. 26 But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. 27 For it is written,
“Rejoice, O barren one who does not bear;
break forth and cry aloud, you who are not in labor!
For the children of the desolate one will be more
than those of the one who has a husband.”
28 Now you,6 brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. 29 But just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now. 30 But what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.” 31 So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.
31:1 In the eleventh year, in the third month, on the first day of the month, the word of the LORD came to me: 2 “Son of man, say to Pharaoh king of Egypt and to his multitude:
“Whom are you like in your greatness?
3 Behold, Assyria was a cedar in Lebanon,
with beautiful branches and forest shade,
and of towering height,
its top among the clouds.1
4 The waters nourished it;
the deep made it grow tall,
making its rivers flow
around the place of its planting,
sending forth its streams
to all the trees of the field.
5 So it towered high
above all the trees of the field;
its boughs grew large
and its branches long
from abundant water in its shoots.
6 All the birds of the heavens
made their nests in its boughs;
under its branches all the beasts of the field
gave birth to their young,
and under its shadow
lived all great nations.
7 It was beautiful in its greatness,
in the length of its branches;
for its roots went down
to abundant waters.
8 The cedars in the garden of God could not rival it,
nor the fir trees equal its boughs;
neither were the plane trees
like its branches;
no tree in the garden of God
was its equal in beauty.
9 I made it beautiful
in the mass of its branches,
and all the trees of Eden envied it,
that were in the garden of God.
10 “Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: Because it2 towered high and set its top among the clouds,3 and its heart was proud of its height, 11 I will give it into the hand of a mighty one of the nations. He shall surely deal with it as its wickedness deserves. I have cast it out. 12 Foreigners, the most ruthless of nations, have cut it down and left it. On the mountains and in all the valleys its branches have fallen, and its boughs have been broken in all the ravines of the land, and all the peoples of the earth have gone away from its shadow and left it. 13 On its fallen trunk dwell all the birds of the heavens, and on its branches are all the beasts of the field. 14 All this is in order that no trees by the waters may grow to towering height or set their tops among the clouds,4 and that no trees that drink water may reach up to them in height. For they are all given over to death, to the world below, among the children of man,5 with those who go down to the pit.
15 “Thus says the Lord GOD: On the day the cedar6 went down to Sheol I caused mourning; I closed the deep over it, and restrained its rivers, and many waters were stopped. I clothed Lebanon in gloom for it, and all the trees of the field fainted because of it. 16 I made the nations quake at the sound of its fall, when I cast it down to Sheol with those who go down to the pit. And all the trees of Eden, the choice and best of Lebanon, all that drink water, were comforted in the world below. 17 They also went down to Sheol with it, to those who are slain by the sword; yes, those who were its arm, who lived under its shadow among the nations.
18 “Whom are you thus like in glory and in greatness among the trees of Eden? You shall be brought down with the trees of Eden to the world below. You shall lie among the uncircumcised, with those who are slain by the sword.
“This is Pharaoh and all his multitude, declares the Lord GOD.”
79:1 O God, the nations have come into your inheritance;
they have defiled your holy temple;
they have laid Jerusalem in ruins.
2 They have given the bodies of your servants
to the birds of the heavens for food,
the flesh of your faithful to the beasts of the earth.
3 They have poured out their blood like water
all around Jerusalem,
and there was no one to bury them.
4 We have become a taunt to our neighbors,
mocked and derided by those around us.
5 How long, O LORD? Will you be angry forever?
Will your jealousy burn like fire?
6 Pour out your anger on the nations
that do not know you,
and on the kingdoms
that do not call upon your name!
7 For they have devoured Jacob
and laid waste his habitation.
8 Do not remember against us our former iniquities;1
let your compassion come speedily to meet us,
for we are brought very low.
9 Help us, O God of our salvation,
for the glory of your name;
deliver us, and atone for our sins,
for your name's sake!
10 Why should the nations say,
“Where is their God?”
Let the avenging of the outpoured blood of your servants
be known among the nations before our eyes!
11 Let the groans of the prisoners come before you;
according to your great power, preserve those doomed to die!
12 Return sevenfold into the lap of our neighbors
the taunts with which they have taunted you, O Lord!
13 But we your people, the sheep of your pasture,
will give thanks to you forever;
from generation to generation we will recount your praise.