July, 2014 Third Sunday After Trinity
Jeremiah 31:1-14, Psalm 145, 1 St. Peter 5:5b-11, St. Luke 15:1-10
As I was studying Psalm 145 I had a bit of a start when I realized King Nebuchadnezzar shows up in it. Well, after a fashion . . .
I suppose I’m especially receptive to any thought of him because he’s one of my favorite Bible characters. For starters, there’s that name. Nebuchadnezzar. It rolls off your tongue like a sonnet, doesn’t it?
But there’s more to a man than his name, especially one taken from a pagan god. Nebuchadnezzar was king of Babylon, the greatest nation on earth, and so the greatest of all kings. Trouble is, he lived centuries after David wrote this psalm.
And so in fact it is Nebuchadnezzar who borrows from David. In the fourth chapter of Daniel’s prophecy we find the words of Psalm 145:13 on Nebuchadnezzar’s lips: “Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom,” he says to God, “and Your dominion endures throughout all generations.”
When I made this discovery, I had a vision. Or maybe it was indigestion. Either way, something was revealed to me. But let Nebuchadnezzar tell you about it:
“Good morning, 21st-century Christians. I’ve been asked to provide a dose of exegesis of Psalm 145. I’m pleased to oblige, but allow me first to provide a bit of background.
“My story is well-known. When one’s life and times are related in a book that’s still read thousands of years after his death, well – not wishing to sound immodest – one does have something of a following.
“So I’ll assume you know my story and just touch on a few matters relevant to the subject at hand. Psalm 145 is, of course, a hymn of praise to the King of kings, and my kingship bears directly on how I was and am related to God. So does that of the Psalmist David, as we shall see.
“As king of Babylon I was entitled to great glory . . . but not to the glory reserved for God. As you know, it’s a lesson I learned the hard way. The first thing to consider is the question: Who is God?
“I grew up in a polytheistic culture. My melodious name derives from that of one of the gods of Babylon, Nebu. When I conquered Judah and folded it into my vast empire, I did what kings do. I identified the best and the brightest of my new captives and enlisted them in my service.
“That’s how Daniel and the others came to be in the royal court. They brought along their God, whom they call Yahweh, and that was fine by me. As I understood things at the time, there’s always room for one more god.
“I only learned that there is but one supreme God some time after I had the first dream Daniel relates. I knew my magicians, astrologers and sorcerers would lie like a 7-year-old who dipped into the cookie jar so I demanded that they first tell me my dream and then provide its interpretation.
“None could. I was in the process of executing the lot of them when Daniel heard of what was happening and came forward. He provided both the dream and the interpretation – and I had ample evidence that his God, Yahweh, who revealed these things to him, was the greatest of the gods.
“Yet I still erected a huge statue of gold and commanded all of my subjects to bow down and worship it. Daniel’s friends disobeyed and, well, you know the story of the fiery furnace. Daniel interpreted my next dream to mean that Yahweh had judged me and my self-exaltation had cost me dearly.
“Yahweh put me down on all fours and made me eat grass like an ox to survive. In the end, He restored my kingdom to me and I speak to you now from heaven because I finally acknowledged that Yahweh, God of heaven, rules. He is not the greatest god but the only God.
“And so the most basic lesson of Psalm 145 is that everyone who draws breath, human kings most certainly included, must bow before the Most High, who as Creator of all reigns as Lord of all.
“But that’s just scratching the surface. You don’t need me to learn that much; even that simple backwoods preacher of yours could have told you that. Let’s look a little deeper.
“The psalm before you is a hymn of praise. It extols the glory of God as both Creator and Redeemer. But it is pre-eminently a tribute to the Lord for His rule. Yes, He is sovereign over the affairs of men, and His rule is cause for joyous celebration among His people just as are His creation of the world and His redemption of it.
“Just look at David’s vocabulary. He begins by saying, ‘I will extol You, my God, O King.’ He mentions ‘the glorious splendor of Your majesty.’ He refers to ‘the glory of Your kingdom.’ In three verses, he uses the word ‘kingdom’ four times. He praises God for ‘Your dominion.’
“Notice that David opens with his own personal testimony of Yahweh’s regency and then moves on to sing the praises of the entire creation to his Lord and ours. He calls for the whole world to lift up the divine name: ‘All Your works shall praise You, O Lord, and Your saints shall bless You.’
“He calls for God’s people of all times to join the chorus: ‘One generation shall praise Your works to another, and shall declare Your mighty acts.’
“David tosses a pebble into a pond and watches the circles ripple. His subtext creates the same effect as his words. He harkens back to Moses’ meeting with Yahweh on Mount Sinai, citing Exodus 34:6: ‘The Lord is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and great in mercy.’
“And it is not only Moses the Psalmist echoes. Jonah employs the same vocabulary of the Lord’s patience and mercy when he pleads with Yahweh to take his life after his successful witness.
“And where did Jonah proclaim the gospel? In Nineveh, my own capital. Many listened and relented of their paganism and repented of their sins and came to saving faith. Yet did Jonah rejoice? He did not. Instead, he became the prototype recalcitrant missionary, the poster child for a good work hated.
“By the way, that witness had died out by my day. Alas.
“The astute Bible student will observe as well the similarities between David’s situation and mine. We were both kings – he of a little backwater and I of a great empire – but there’s more to our stories than that.
“David was a great strategist and warrior and by his humility and obedience to his Lord he lifted Israel to the most prosperous and secure station she had ever known. Then he took his ease and idled away his time on his roof while his men were off fighting his war for him.
“Well, you know of his adultery with Bathsheba and his murder of Uriah the Hittite. His prideful rebellion against God’s laws would cost him his throne. His spiteful and rebellious son Absalom stole it from him.
“God restored it to him – after softening his heart by the great pain He inflicted. God was showing David – and all His covenant people – the price of wreaking havoc in His kingdom.
“I, too, was puffed up with my own importance and determined to write my own rules. I was frittering away the time in my opulent palace when God’s judgment descended on me and struck me down onto all fours like a beast of the field.
“Let’s state the matter succinctly. This ain’t rocket science, whatever that is. What is man but an animal who has the capacity to know God?
“I had shunned knowledge, refusing to know God, and so He treated me like an animal. When at last I looked to heaven and offered up praise to the one true King, He restored my kingdom to me.
“Then it was that I, Nebuchadnezzar, quoted David’s psalm:
“’For His dominion is an everlasting dominion, and His kingdom is from generation to generation.’
“I added, ‘All the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing; He does according to His will in the army of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth. No one can restrain His hand or say to Him, ‘What have you done?’
“For this time God was demonstrating that He was sovereign not only over a single people but over all the nations of the earth. His kingdom knows no limits in time or space. He is Lord of all.
“The mortal soul finds no greater delight than in raising up choruses of praise. They ripple throughout the creation and echo down the corridor of history. St. Paul would say, ‘the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God’ (Romans 8:21).
“George Herbert wrote, and you have just now sung, ‘the church with psalms must shout.’
“We are sinners, saved by grace. The Psalmist cannot sing the praises of His God’s glory without referring to God’s hatred for sin: ‘The Lord preserves all who love Him, but the wicked He will destroy.’
“David knows. He knows evil. He knows affliction as recompense for evil. He knows pardon from the penalty for evil. If God did not judge, evil would be acceptable and grace would be empty. So it is that His judgment, too, is cause for praise.
“Even I have tried my hand at a bit of verse:
Peals of praise tumble down the long chute of time,
Searching out the Creator, His mercies so tender;
The Psalmist, a sinner, trembles to conjure
A rhapsody equal to God’s holy splendor.
Hastening to place on the heavenly brow
A diadem so lustrous, too radiant for eyes,
Angels descend to trumpet the story
Of Jehovah enthroned on the songs of the wise.
“Now, I must not leave you without a word about your situation. Keep in mind that I have been on both sides of the fence. I ate grass with the oxen and then I became a sheep of our Lord’s pasture and ate from His hand.
“I have been listening carefully and I hear less and less praise ascending to God’s ear from your corner of the creation. A passage from St. Paul’s second letter to Timothy comes to mind:
“’But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come: 2 For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, 3 unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, 4 traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, 5 having a form of godliness but denying its power.
“’And from such people turn away! 6 For of this sort are those who creep into households and make captives of gullible women loaded down with sins, led away by various lusts, 7 always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth’ (3:1-7).
“The church is losing her heart of worship. She scarcely knows how to offer up an aroma pleasing to the Lord any longer. That part which isn’t apostate robs God of glory to offer comfort to man. It’s well and good to tell the heathen, ‘Come as you are.’ It is by no means acceptable to tell them, whether using words or not, ‘Remain as you are.’
“Many have a form of godliness but deny the power of godliness. Honeyed words pour forth from their pulpits as they invoke the name of the Lord without submitting to Him, as they condone what He condemns.
“Their words carry no authority and their praise does not enthrone the Lord. The apostle called them out as those who go on learning but never come to the knowledge of the truth. They accumulate degrees and multiply letters following their names but refute the gospel truth that Jesus Christ is the one and only way of salvation.
“They are in very great measure the cause of the decline of the church of our Lord in your place and time. And so, you ask, how may you respond?
“Well, Christian, the answer is the same in your day as in many other dark periods in the history of the church: Praise the Lord! Look first to yourself. If you find yourself dismayed with the sad state of the church, praise the Lord!
“If you despair of the decay of the institution of the family and the infection it spreads, praise the Lord! If you see the culture crumbling around you and find hope slipping away, praise the Lord!
“For when you do, you will lift your focus from your insufferable, sin-ridden self and behold the dazzling glory of ultimate purity . . . and you will rejoice.
“Finally, a word specifically for this congregation here present. God has used faithful men to deliver to you a priceless gift. Are you using it? Do you know what it is?
“The Book of Common Prayer provides followers of the Anglican way the means – and God works by means – to bracket each day with prayer. This book affords you in the daily office a means to baptize each day with praise and to bid it adieu with praise.
“I am almost amused by those in your society who fire off emails exhorting their fellow Christians in these dire times to pray for the church, pray for the country, pray for the world. The faithful Anglican prays daily for the church, the country and the world, and a good deal more besides.
“He needs no special regime of prayer to address the concerns and distresses of the moment, whether in bad times or good. He bathes in prayer twice daily. He is sending up volumes of praise each morning when he flips a page of the calendar and each night when he retires to his slumber.
“In the morning he says, “O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness; let the whole earth stand in awe of him.’ In the evening he says, ‘We praise thee, we bless thee, we worship thee, we glorify thee, we give thanks to thee for thy great glory, O Lord God, heavenly King, God the Father Almighty.’
“Yet I know many despise this great gift of God to His church. They grab the prayer book each Sunday on the way out the door and throw it back on the shelf after the service, to lie mute until the next Sabbath.
“Take it from one who has watched the drama of human history unfold: A church, a country, a world that joined voices daily to send up paeans of praise to God would soon find it had little to lament. Is that not the scene the Scriptures describe in the age to come?
“And so, if you would do the best for your church, your nation, your family and – not least – yourself, do this: Praise the Lord!”
So says Nebuchadnezzar, the king who learned to worship the King. Amen.