October 26 2014, Nineteenth After Trinity
Bow Down Before Him!
Job 24:1-17, Psalm 72, Ephesians 4:17-32, St. Matthew 9:1-8
Some years ago I knew a man named John. He practiced law in a major city in Texas. John was a larger-than-life lawyer in a stereotypical Texan way.
He was a big, beefy man who smiled a lot under his 10-gallon hat, which went well with his boots. Laughter gushed out of him in ripples. He owned a working cattle ranch in the central part of the state, near a hamlet called Groesbeck, where he spent weekends.
John did own some law books, which looked nice on his shelves. Ever present on his desk, standing tall, was a bottle of Scotch.
His generosity was the stuff of legend. Much of his practice was in divorce court, and attractive women seeking his services could avail themselves of a substantial discount.
Every campaign season John made the rounds of the judges before whom he appeared to make his “campaign contributions.” You could hear the quotation marks he put around that term.
All of his “campaign contributions” were in cash, of course . . . with one exception. One judge John truly despised, and so each year he played a game with him. John would drop in on this judge in his chambers, as he did with all the others, but he would hold out a check to this man.
His honor had been put in a less-than-honorable position. Each year, he would be forced to squirm and to say, “Uh, John, could you let me have that in cash instead?”
John would guffaw at his own silly oversight, take back the check and produce the cash, saying something like, “Shucks, your honor, I did the same fool thing last year, didn’t I?” And he would be on his way, grinning broadly at having left his least favorite jurist with egg on his face again.
We would be naïve indeed if we believed our own society was free of corruption, but in that sphere as in many others we have it awfully good. When I worked in overseas missions I visited places peopled by citizens who make John look like a cherub.
In these lands, every time you park your car you emerge from it reaching into your pocket to cross the palm of the boy who appears from the shadows . . . and when you return your tires and windows are intact.
Rolling down the highway, you apply the brakes when you see a swarthy fellow with a machine gun standing in the middle of the road. You pay for the privilege of traveling the next 10 miles and then you stop and pay again.
If you want health care more likely to cure you than to kill you and you have the cash, you pay black-market prices for a doctor who actually visits you in the hospital. And woe betide you if you land in prison and have no one on the outside to pay for food without bugs and protection from the hit men.
This second picture is much closer to the one in our Psalmist’s mind.
“Give the king Your judgments, O God,” he pleads,” and Your righteousness to the king's Son.He will judge Your people with righteousness, and Your poor with justice.”
Unlike John, the poor in these lands cannot buy “justice” – more quotation marks – but must suffer the oppression and corruption of the rich. The Psalmist pictures a scene much like we heard described in our Old Testament lesson from Job:
“(The oppressors) seize flocks violently and feed on them; they drive away the donkey of the fatherless; they take the widow's ox as a pledge. They push the needy off the road; all the poor of the land are forced to hide.”
The needy must forage in the wilderness like wild donkeys if they and their children are to eat.
Who will procure justice for God’s people? The upright know no dread of judgment. Those who have been bullied and swindled out of all they owned will present a case that cannot be refuted. They need only for it to be heard.
Who will hear their case? Their king will, the Psalmist assures them. They may invest their trust in their righteous king.
In this case, their Psalmist is their king; not David but his son Solomon. In fact, scholars differ – because that’s their job – as to whether the inscription “Of Solomon” should be taken to mean that this poem was written by, for or about Solomon.
The simplest and best understanding is that Solomon himself wrote this poem for his people to recite. In praying for him they were praying for themselves.
In Israel’s Old Testament theocracy, the king stood in a special relationship to God; he was both endowed by Him and accountable to Him. His God-given mission, first and foremost, was to impose a climate of righteousness upon the nation.
Righteousness ranked even above compassion, mentioned later in our psalm, as the first virtue of government. Provision of prosperity also has a lower place on the list.
As God’s anointed, the king enjoyed a prophetic role, proclaiming God’s justice and executing His judgments upon the people. In an environment of righteousness, peace – shalom – could descend.
True peace is the fruit of righteousness, without which there is no peace. This shalom was more than an absence of hostilities; it encompassed prosperity and tranquility of mind and spirit as well.
In shalom was life more abundant. As in the Exodus, God has used His anointed to deliver His people:
“For He will deliver the needy when he cries, the poor also, and him who has no helper. He will spare the poor and needy, and will save the souls of the needy.”
Solomon’s Hebrew name, Shlomo, was derived from “shalom.” He was the embodiment of the idea of a godly monarch, even the wisest man on earth. During his reign, Israel’s boundaries billowed out to her greatest limits.
Kings and queens of other nations trekked to Jerusalem to offer gifts to Israel’s king and to absorb his wisdom. When they bowed down to Yahweh’s ruler they bowed down to Yahweh Himself.
Israel piled up prestige and wealth unimaginable even during the time of Solomon’s father David. But not to God. The Psalmist recalls the divine promise of Exodus 23: Israel’s king would “have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River (the Euphrates) to the ends of the earth.”
In Solomon’s day this God-given vision began to take shape as God’s covenant people held sway throughout that Fertile Crescent that extends from Egypt to Mesopotamia. In righteous soil shalom bursts forth and thrives.
Solomon has reigned as his father David declared with his last breath of life. From 2 Samuel 23:
“The God of Israel said, the Rock of Israel spoke to me: `He who rules over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God. And he shall be like the light of the morning when the sun rises, a morning without clouds, like the tender grass springing out of the earth, by clear shining after rain’” (vv. 3-5).
This is King Solomon of Israel. It is right that his people pray for him, for in him they have life and life more abundant, and because they live they can pray for their king. Prayer mingles with prophecy as God’s people ask what their Lord will do and pray that it will be done.
When God’s people pray according to God’s will the world changes according to God’s design.
The New Testament will pick up this theme. From Matthew’s gospel: “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (6:10). And from Revelation: “He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming quickly.’ Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus!” (22:20).
But alas, we have a disconnect. History produces a picture very much at odds with Solomon’s idealized vision of his kingship. Early on, he did reign in righteousness. Then came his scheming to enlarge his territory not by trust in his Lord but by alliances with foreign nations consummated in marriage.
With foreign wives came foreign gods and ere his reign would end Israel was well down the road to apostasy. At Solomon’s demise his people did not revel in his goodness but spat out these bitter words: “He made our yoke heavy.”
No sooner had his son Rehoboam assumed his throne than the kingdom split. A long, downward spiral began, and ere it ended the 10 northern tribes, carried into captivity in Assyria, had become the 10 lost tribes. Judah went into bondage in Babylon, only to return to the land of promise to resume her sin-soaked ways.
And so we have in Psalm 72 the image of a righteous kingdom living in shalom, an image that was realized in Israel only for a moment. Is there no hope?
For God’s faithful ones there is always hope. As in so many other places in the Scriptures, this royal psalm promises both a near-term and long-term fulfillment. Solomon is David’s immediate successor on the throne but he is not his only royal descendant.
A thousand years after Solomon’s day, David’s Greater Son will appear, and nothing will ever be the same thereafter.
The Psalmist harkens back not only to Moses and the Exodus but to Abraham and the covenant God made with him as well. He writes, “His name shall endure forever; His name shall continue as long as the sun. And men shall be blessed in Him.”
Had not the Lord said to Abraham: “I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing”? (Genesis 12:2)
The early church used Psalm 72 at Epiphany, the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, beginning with the wise men. Hymn-writers have turned it into a paean to Christ. Isaac Watts wrote, “Jesus shall reign where’er the sun does his successive journeys run.”
James Montgomery, a hundred years later, produced our sermon hymn, “Hail to the Lord’s Anointed.” The New Testament makes no direct reference to this poem as messianic but the hymn writers were right to locate Christ within it.
The claims it makes for the king – “They shall fear You as long as the sun and moon endure, throughout all generations” – are too bold for any mortal man. There is good news: King Jesus is coming!
Bp. Grote taught us last week using another idealized picture, that of Isaiah 11, which promises a world drenched in shalom. Such is the kingdom of God. Where do we find it in our time? The kingdom of God, he showed us, moving into the New Testament, is within us.
The faithful among those ancient Israelites could lay hold only of a promise. We can grasp the reality of our Lord’s finished work upon the cross as our hope. The King who descended from heaven will never leave us or forsake us . . . and He will never fail us.
Righteousness? David’s first royal son gained it . . . and lost it. His last Son gained it and retained it. Christ is both our righteousness and our peace. Where Solomon wallowed in self-indulgence Jesus practiced self-sacrifice.
Peace? Solomon traded away the real thing for an illusion of a shalom grounded in unrighteousness. The perfectly righteous One will deliver perfect peace to His people.
Wisdom? Solomon’s appeared when he asked God for it . . . and disappeared as he frittered it away. Jesus came armed with wisdom eternal and unshakeable, the wisdom of His Father.
Compassion? Solomon showed it until he realized he could build his kingdom ever greater on the backs of his people. Jesus places no yoke upon His own but asks to take ours upon Him. At His return the needy and oppressed will get their long-overdue hearing, and they will rejoice.
In sum, the wisest man spent the wisdom God supplied like a sailor on shore leave. The righteousness of God for which his people prayed . . . he squandered. Jesus followed the way of righteousness even unto death upon a cross.
And so, beloved, who is your king? Bp. Grote warned us of the peril of placing our hope in a political messiah, whether of left or right. They are all Solomon. They will allow their appetites to consume them. And if you or I were sovereign we would do the same.
The flesh seeks its own desires, serves its own passions. The spirit looks heavenward for direction, prays without ceasing. The one true King yearns for the best for His subjects.
He bids us pass before His cross on the way to His throne room, where we will reign eternally with Him. But first we must appear at the cross to claim the crown. And as we wait for His return we pray, “Even so, come, Lord Jesus.” Amen.