the iniquities of our ancestors;
let your compassion come
speedily to meet us,
for we are brought very low.
(Psalm 79 :8)
Jeremiah asks the Lord the question that occasionally troubles us, "Why do good things happen to bad people?" The Lord responds, "If you are losing a race with foot runners, how do you expect to compete with horses?"
The Lord then points out that the very people who claim to be so good don't really do what the Lord has asked of them. They deserve the troubles they have been in.
Yet, the Lord is going to once again going to show them compassion--but not immediately. Hard times are coming for them.
1 Thessalonians 1:1-2:8
Scholars believe that this letter is the oldest one that we have that was written by Paul. As such, it is the oldest piece of Christian literature that we have. For example, evidence indicates that it is dated at about 50 CE, twenty years before the Gospel of Mark would have been written.
His audience lived a long way away from Jerusalem--not only in miles. They were Greek and they were Gentile. Paul begins his letter, as was the practice of the time, with a greeting. But, he changes the greeting from what they would have been accustomed to.
The Graeco-Roman practice of the time was to begin letters with the Greek word, chairein, which meant "Greetings." Paul instead used the Greek word, charis, which sounds similar but mean "peace." This term would thus echo the term customarily used as greeting by the Jews, shalom, which meant "peace."
Thus, in his greeting, Paul has combined the traditonal Graeco-Roman form of greeting with the religious one. He's speaking to people who have accepted the faith and have been incorporated into God's family.
In verse 3, Paul expresses thanks to God for the way that the Thessalonians are living their lives. They have faith--not just an attitude, but the God-given power to do Christian work. They have love--not just an emotion, but the means by which they carry out this work. They have hope--not just optimism, but a confident expectation that God will triumph.
Hear the echo, in verses 9-10, as Paul describes the Christian experience. Because of your faith, you turned to God. Because of your love, you served God. Because of your hope, you are waiting for his Son, our rescuer.
(Note: my source for this explanation comes from The People's New Testament Commentary, by Boring and Craddock. I hope you have access to a copy yourself.)
We can read this psalm and be able to put ourselves into the thoughts of those ancient people in Judah who suffered when the Babylon army invaded. "Foreigners have come in," they lament. "They have defiled the temple. They have laid Jerusalem in ruins." Both the center of worship and of government have been lost.
And lives were lost, too. So many were killed, that there weren't enough survivors left to bury them.
The lament does not stop with the listing of their losses. It includes what happens after that. Rather than wanting to support them or at least be sympathetic to them, their neighbors mock and deride.
I'm pausing to think about what would be the expected reaction by anyone to somebody else's suffering. How often do we think something like, "Well, what could you expect? After all, they really deserve what they got"?
And I'm thinking about how I feel when I suspect, or know, that onlookers are judging me. Now, since the psalm is a community lament, I should reword that to how I as an America feel when other nations mock my country for getting what they judge that we deserve. Suffering makes us feel bad. Being mocked rather than being sympathized with can make us feel worse.
What are we supposed to do when we have been hurt badly? We don't have to pretend that we like it. This psalm complains to God about what has happened and how long it has taken with no improvement in sight, "How long, O Lord? Will you be angry forever?"
The psalm suggests that it is not up to us to seek vengeance, but, rather, that we are to turn to God to take care of it for us, "Pour out your anger on them. They have laid waste to the land you have given us."
How willing are we moderns to allow God to handle the vengeance that we can so clearly see is really overdue?
In the psalm, after listing the losses of the place of worship, the capital city, much of the population, and even dignity, the lament turns to confession and request.
I passed by the field of one who was lazy,
by the vineyard of a stupid person;
and see, it was all overgrown with thorns;
the ground was covered with nettles,
and its stone wall was broken down.
Then I saw and considered it;
I looked and received instruction.
A little sleep, a little slumber,
a little folding of the hands to rest,
and poverty will come upon you like a robber,
and want like an armed warrior.
Prayer for Today: Form your prayer around these verses of Psalm 49--
Do not remember against us the iniquities of our ancestors;
let your compassion come speedily to meet us, for we are brought very low.
Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of your name;
deliver us, and forgive our sins, for your name's sake.
We pray for help not because we deserve it, but because we need it.