Tag Archives: Divine Judgement

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:9

JamesJames 2:9
But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.

This verse is a second conditional clause answering the first conditional clause given in verse eight. There, James has said that “if you love your neighbour, according to the Scripture, you do well.” Here, he poses the contrary condition, pressing home the point he has been making since verse one: “But if you show partiality, you commit sin…” (Ei de prosōpolēmpteite, hamartian ergazesthe).

The Greek term translated “acts of favouritism” in verse one is the same as that translated “partiality” here, thus uniting the whole section. Just as favouritism is incompatible with faith in Jesus Christ, so it is also incompatible with the royal law of love which is the centre and sum of the whole law, and the most complete expression of the divine will. Whereas the one who loves their neighbour “does well,” the one who shows partiality is “committing sin.” It is worth noting that the verbs in the second conditional statement, like those in the first, are also in the present tense and so also imply enduring action. So Vlachos suggests that prosōpolēmpteite depicts a pattern of prejudicial behaviour (79). James names this bluntly for what it is: sin, a form of behaviour contrary to and in violation of God’s will as it is revealed in the Scripture.

Many commentators note that James need not journey far from the Levitical love command to find a specific prohibition against partiality; the two commands occur in the same passage:

You shall not render an unjust judgement; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbour (Leviticus 19:15).

To love one’s neighbour includes treating them with justice, and specifically, without partiality. To the degree that James’ hearers practice favouritism, they set themselves at variance with God’s expressed command: they “commit” sin. We have previously met ergazesthe in our discussions of 1:3 and 1:20, where it carries the sense of produces. The person is working and productive, but these are not the good works James will go on to commend, but an evil work springing from an evil heart (v. 4).

Not only is the partial person committing sin, they are also “convicted by the law as transgressors” (elegkomenoi hypo tou nomou hōs parabatai). The same law which is expressive of the divine will now acts as judge against those who violate its commandments. James again presses his primary point: in showing partiality, you are convicted; you have become transgressors of the law. Parabatai denotes a direct violation of a known command (Vlachos, 79), and as such constituted serious rebellion for the Jew and the Jewish Christian. Such a person was throwing off the divine yoke, and placing themselves instead under divine judgment (Davids, 116). McKnight (210) concludes, then, that acts of partiality in the congregation have a twofold effect, first releasing the destructive power and agency of sin to work in the midst of the congregation (cf. 1:14-15), and second, conferring the status of transgressors upon those who act in this way.

Scripture on Sunday – James 1:16

Saint_James_the_JustJames 1:16
Do not be deceived, my beloved. 

This brief verse of just five words is not a rhetorical pause, as it were, while James collects his thoughts before going on, having little or no connection with what has preceded it. Most commentators agree that it is a hinge verse reaching back to warn the reader concerning the error just discussed in verses 13-15, and opening the discussion which corrects that error in verses 17-18. As such, the verse holds the two paragraphs of this section together.

“Do not be deceived” (mē planasthe), warns James. This phrase occurs in several places in the New Testament, usually in contexts where the writer is warning his readers concerning serious errors which “strike at the heart of the faith itself” (Davids, 86). For example, Paul uses it in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and Galatians 6:7, in both cases warning the Christian community concerning the reality of divine judgement because of lifestyles which are incompatible with life in the kingdom of God. The phrase has a similar sense here: those who claim they are tempted by God (v. 13) are deceived; make no mistake, says James, sinful life arises from human lust and leads ultimately to death. This is neither God’s will nor God’s work. That James refers to his readers as “my beloved [brothers]” (adelphoi mou agapētoi)—the NRSV correctly omits “brothers” given adelphoi is inclusive of both genders—shows, however, that he does not consider that they have in fact fallen from their faith. They are still in the family, so to speak. But as a concerned and diligent pastor, he admonishes and warns them concerning the seriousness of the error that some, apparently, have fallen into.

Love for the congregation is necessary for effective pastoral ministry, especially when exhortation and admonition are required. That James uses the term for siblings also indicates that he addresses them not in the mode of a parental authority over them, but as one of them and alongside them. He wears his pastoral authority confidently but lightly.

A Psalm for Sunday – Psalm 11

bird-in-handRead Psalm 11

Although only seven short verses, this psalm speaks powerfully to those facing crises or danger, for it was written in response to some kind of threat and danger. “In the Lord I take refuge; How can you say to my soul, ‘Flee as a bird to your mountain’” (v. 1).

We cannot know who this person or these people are who counsel flight, although we get some reason as to why they do so in verses two and three: the very foundations of society are being destroyed, and the wicked seem to be in the ascendancy. Although they slink about in darkness, they are armed and ready to shoot at the upright and bring them down. It seems there is nothing the upright can do in these circumstances except flee. Perhaps the counsel to flee comes from those concerned for the welfare of the psalmist. Perhaps it comes as a cynical admonition from those who sneer at his faith and think his defeat is imminent and irreversible. Either way, it is the counsel of despair: “Give up! Flee! Take cover! Save yourself; run for your life; seek safety elsewhere and let the city go to the dogs: there is nothing you can do.”

This is precisely what the psalmist refuses to do: “In the Lord I take refuge.” This bold statement recalls the promise of 2:12 that those who seek refuge in the Lord shall be blessed, even if the nations rage, and the “man of the earth” continues to enact terror (10:18).

What can the psalmist see that his counsellors cannot? “The Lord is in his holy temple; the Lord’s throne is in heaven” (v. 4). The psalmist is convinced that God is still on the throne, that God reigns, and so the events of earth are not beyond divine sovereignty and providence. God is neither absent nor uninvolved, but tests humanity, weighing the deeds both of the righteous and the wicked. Further, the psalmist believes that God exercises judgement, punishing the wicked and rewarding the righteous (vv. 6-7). This judgement is  still future for the psalmist, but it is not necessarily eschatological (a judgement beyond the grave), but may in fact be historical. The wicked will in this life get their “just deserts,” while the righteous will receive God’s favour and be vindicated (cf. Craigie). It is possible, however, that the final phrase of the psalm, “the upright will behold his face,” may be understood in terms of the beatific vision promised to God’s people in the New Testament (see, for example, Revelation 22: 4).Archer

Ultimately, then, the psalmist’s confidence is based upon faith. He trusts God because he trusts that the reality of God is more sure and more certain than the disintegrating chaos that surrounds him. This faith has several crucial aspects, which reflect the theological worldview of the ancient Hebrew people:

  1. First, God is utterly supreme, the transcendent ruler, lord and judge of all humanity;
  2. This God is moral, dwelling in his holy temple; he loves righteousness and so hates the one who loves violence (v. 5). The moral nature of God undergirds his activity as judge;
  3. In contrast to God, humanity is morally corrupt, and remains accountable to God who tests all people (vv. 4-5). Yet the possibility of being found among the righteous remains, and those who trust in God and practise righteousness will find that they are sheltered by God, and will “see” God’s face (v. 7);
  4. Judgement is certain, and there is a firm hope that ultimately, justice will be done, with the righteous being vindicated and blessed;
  5. How did the ancient Israelites know all this? By a conviction that this God had revealed himself to Israel throughout her history, and had called Israel into a covenant relationship with God. This knowledge and hope, assurance, courage, and moral vision are grounded in God’s revelation of himself and his will to his elect people.

The central question of the psalm is that put to the psalmist in verse three: if the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do? The psalmist seems to ignore the question, and instead directs his attention to the Lord who is in his holy temple (v. 4). Craigie (133) notes that this hints at the immanence of God: God is not simply transcendent and sovereignly powerful, but also present to comfort, help and support. There is no dualism here, no division of heaven and earth into separate compartments and spheres of rule. God’s throne is in heaven; God dwells in his temple. The same God is lord over all things, sovereignly powerful and yet close enough to shelter those who trust in him.

But is the psalmist evading the question? Perhaps not. For the psalmist, the Lord himself is the true foundation, the only foundation, an indestructible foundation upon which he can build his life and in whom he can trust. Social and cultural foundations may falter, people fail, institutions fade, and civilisations fall, but God remains steadfast. God himself and God alone is our only foundation—an unseen and intangible foundation, but no less real for all that.

What can the righteous do? They can do what the psalmist did: trust more deeply in God, and refuse to abandon their post. If we assume Davidic authorship of the psalm, we find here a leadership that refuses to capitulate in the face of desperate crisis. We find here a righteousness that refuses to hand over the city  to the wicked. We find here a profound vision of faith in the sovereign goodness, presence and power of God—the true foundation upon which a life, a leader, and a city may be built. David stays because David trusts.

A Psalm for Sunday – Psalm 10

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Read Psalm 10

Last week we noted that this psalm is very possibly a continuation of Psalm 9 and perhaps the two were originally one psalm. Certainly there are a number of common themes between the two psalms. The psalm begins with a complaint that echoes the age-old mystery of God’s absence or hiddenness in the face of ever-present evil. “Why do you stand afar off, O Lord? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (v. 1). Perhaps everyone who has ever trusted in God has had occasion to ask this question. Where is God when things go wrong? Furthermore, the psalm gives no answer to this devastating question, although it does have a response.

The psalmist’s question highlights the dilemma of the person who trusts in God’s universal sovereignty yet sees that sovereignty denied in the reality of earthly affairs. Instead of divine sovereignty, justice and peace, the wicked prosper in their pursuits, and it seems there is no one to hinder their oppression of the vulnerable.

In verses 2-11 the pride, greed and violence of the wicked are portrayed. At the base of their wickedness lies godlessness (vv. 3-4), a practical atheism which lives according to the dictum, “there is no God.” The apparent silence and hiddenness of God has caused the wicked to cast off the remembrance of God and to live as though there is no God. God’s judgements are ‘out of sight, out of mind’ as far as the wicked are concerned (v. 5), and so their mouth is full of cursing and oppression, and their activity is violent and oppressive. The psalmist portrays them as a lion lying in wait to catch its prey, who are described as innocent, unfortunate and afflicted (vv. 8-9).

Verse 12 echoes 9:19: “Arise, O Lord!” This verse, together with verse 15, constitute the primary petition of the psalm. The psalmist calls upon God to “lift up your hand…break the arm of the wicked and the evildoer.” He prays that the wicked would have no more power to afflict, and indeed, that God would so act, that the wicked would be uprooted from the world until there are ‘no more.’ The psalmist implores God to act so that the wicked would no longer think that they will not be brought to account. He implores God to act also on account of the afflicted who depend upon God to be their deliverer and helper.

The psalm finds its climax in verses 16-18 where the psalmist proclaims that the Lord is king forever. The Lord has not abdicated his authority, nor is his sovereignty annulled. He has seen the oppression of the wicked and heard the cry of the afflicted. The Lord will act to judge on behalf of the oppressed.

As in Psalm 9, the psalmist’s hope is that God will arise to defend the cause of the needy and judge the oppressor. In both psalms God’s kingdom is eternal, and his eternal reign is set in contrast to the ephemeral existence of humanity. In both psalms, the longing for justice takes the form of eschatological hope.

Of particular interest in this psalm is the final line (cf. 9:19-20): ‘So that man who is of the earth will no longer cause terror.’ This evocative image suggests an orientation which is often celebrated today; that is, the one who is grounded, earthy, ecologically sensitive, natural and strong. In the psalm, however, it designates something rather different, the kind of secularity for which there is no spirit, no God, no life hereafter, but simply the here and now, bodies and desires, and the will to power.

The psalm is a critique of this kind of life-vision. It suggests that without God and without spirit there will be no enduring justice or peace. It suggests that a godless secularity will issue in a brutal world of violence, abuse and uncaring consumption. The man who is of the earth is one who brings terror into the lives of others.

How valid is this claim? For many today, the origin of terror is precisely those who ‘imagine’ a god: religion is seen as a—if not the—major source of terror, violence and injustice in the world. This assertion is not without some substance, though it is often overstated. Religious zeal has not uncommonly become an oppressive and even terrifying power in the world. To the extent that this is so, it is a ‘religion that is of the earth,’ no matter how exalted its claims, or exuberant its worship.

What is needed is ‘man’ who is not of the earth. This, of course, is the message of the gospel: Jesus Christ is the new ‘man,’ the beginning of a new humanity. The virgin birth of Christ signifies a new beginning, a creative act of God which will ultimately issue in a new creation, a new heavens and a new earth. Those who are in Christ are called to be this new humanity, a people who pray and cry out to God in the face of human injustice and oppression, and who dare to live according to a new vision of justice and peace in communities of hope and care. Such a community insists that might is not right, and so stands against the evil that is in the world, and stands with the afflicted, because it stands in hope of God’s eschatological kingdom: Thy Kingdom come!

A Psalm for Sunday – Psalm 9

Processed with VSCOcam with m5 presetRead Psalm 9

The first thing to be said about this psalm is that it is quite possible, even likely, that it should be read with Psalm 10 as a single psalm. The two psalms seem to be an acrostic poem where each line or section begins with the next letter of the alphabet. Psalm 9 starts with the first Hebrew letter, aleph, and concludes with the eleventh letter Kaph – half way through the twenty-two letter alphabet. Psalm 10 then commences with the twelfth letter Lamedh and continues to the end of the alphabet. The pattern is not entire, however; Psalm 9 for instance, omits the fourth letter Daleth, and there are a few difficulties with the pattern in Psalm 10. Nevertheless, Hebrew scholars feel there are good grounds for considering that two psalms should be read together, if not as a single work.

The vision and theme of the psalm is of the Lord as the sovereign ruler and judge of all nations. That is, the Lord is the universal sovereign who exercises judgement both for David in his immediate situation, and eschatologically for the whole world. The psalm contrasts the kingdoms of this world – the nations – with the kingdom of God. In New Testament language we might say that the whole psalm breathes the second petition of the Lord’s Prayer: Thy Kingdom come!

Verses 1-2 commence as a vow of praise to God Most High (cf. 7:17). Then follows a celebration of God’s judgement of David’s enemies, resulting in their complete and utter ruin (vv. 3-6). They are blotted out and destroyed forever, so that even the very memory of them has perished. In terms of modern sensibilities, this is very troubling indeed, for it seems that the psalmist has co-opted God for his own nationalist purposes, and provides religious validation for violence and hatred of enemies. He is, as usually we all are, convinced of the justness of his own cause, and sees his victory as divine justice.

In contrast to the transience of the enemies who have perished, the Lord abides forever. In verses 7-10 David enlarges his vision: not only has God judged in his favour, but he will judge the world in righteousness and with equity. This is an unusual equity, however, for it favours the oppressed and troubled. Verses nine and ten particularly, recall Psalm 2:12, that those who seek refuge in God will not be forgotten or forsaken by God, but rather will be the recipients of his protection and blessing. For many centuries God’s people have found comfort and strength in these verses.

Psalm 9On the basis of this hope, then, the psalmist exhorts his listeners to praise (v. 11) and again reiterates that God does not forget the afflicted, but indeed will require or avenge their blood (v. 12). Here again modern sensibilities are affronted; yet the image serves to emphasise the reality and strictness of the divine judgement. God himself will take the cause of the afflicted and oppressed and will visit upon those who oppress them, the same kind of treatment that they have dealt out to others. Verses 13-14 now petition the Lord for his grace (cf. 4:4; 6:2), and anticipate that he shall indeed be gracious.

Verse 15 returns to the theme of judgement, and begins with an observation that the nations get caught in their own traps and devices. Like Psalm 7:15-16, this verse suggests that there is a natural moral order functioning in the world, a ‘law’ as it were, of sowing and reaping in which evil intended for others returns upon one’s own head. However, verse 16 suggests that even the apparently impersonal consequences of one’s actions are the direct result of Yahweh’s personal exercise of judgement. Verses 17-18 play on the idea of memory and forgetfulness. The wicked who forget God will ‘return’ to Sheol – where there is no memory of God (cf. 6:5). But the poor and afflicted will not be forgotten, for God remembers them and does not forget their cry (v. 12).

The final two verses of the psalm form its climax, and are the key to its meaning as a whole:

Arise, O Lord, do not let man prevail;
Let the nations be judged before you.
Put them in fear, O Lord;
Let the nations know that they are but men.

After the celebration of humanity’s exalted status in Psalm 8, this plaintive cry brings us back to earth, reminding us of our fallen state and its moral consequences. There is a stark contrast between God and humanity, between human activity and divine justice. There is also a very  sharp reminder that we need divine judgement if ultimately, there is to be justice and equity.

It seems that human power will always exert itself against God, bringing injustice and oppression to others. The nations forget God (v. 17) and oppress the needy (v. 18). They rage and imagine vain things (2:1). The nations and their leaders strut about upon the stage of history as though they were God. For the psalmist, then, the only hope for peace and equity lies in the hope that God will ultimately judge the nations and thereby bring true justice to pass.

In all this, of course, a genuine problem arises: it is difficult to perceive God’s sovereign reign over the nations in our present world. Injustice, human pretension and violence abound. Where are you Lord, in the midst of the ever-present tensions within and among the nations? How long, O Lord, will you allow the powerful to oppress the poor and vulnerable? Why do you delay in coming? Arise O Lord!

We, like the psalmist, are called to see what cannot be seen: the universal sovereignty of God. And to believe what is almost impossible to believe: that God will one day put things to rights. In so doing, our hope is wholly placed on God, his faithfulness, his righteousness and his kingdom. And so we pray, Thy Kingdom come!

A Psalm for Sunday – Psalm 7

Read Psalm 7

In this psalm David takes refuge in God from those who pursue him. His pursuers are graphically depicted as a ravenous lion seeking to tear his life to pieces and drag him away (vv. 1-2). This “pursuit,” however, may be understood as metapPsalm 7horical, in light of verses 3-5, and David is actually facing a trial of false accusation. Thus in verse 1 David cries for deliverance, but in verses 3-5 he prays that if he is indeed guilty of “this”—the following clauses appear as a list of things he is accused of—then let the enemy triumph over him and trample his life into the ground. In this way David protests his innocence against the false charges brought against him, and cries out for deliverance on the basis of this innocence.

Verse 6, again recalling the prayer of Numbers 10:35 (cf. 3:7), is an appeal to God to rise up and execute judgement in his favour. He longs for a solemn assembly with the people gathered around God who is exalted above them, and seated as a judge in his court. For the Lord is a judge, says David, and again he asks for vindication on the basis of his innocence, “according to my righteousness and my integrity that is in me” (v. 8). His prayer is that the righteous God would judge righteously, putting an end to the wicked while establishing the righteous (9). Confidence in his own innocence, and confident in the righteousness of God, David confesses his trust that God is his shield and thus his saviour (10-11).

Verses 12-16 portray the judgement that will befall the wicked if they do not repent. The imagery used of God comes from the military: his sword is sharpened, his weapons prepared, his bow ready with flaming arrows (12-13). The text does not actually say he uses the weapons, however, and verses 14-16 suggest a historical form of judgement in which the evil one prepares for others, returns upon one’s own head. The one who digs a pit for another will fall into it; their mischief and violence will come down on their own head.

The final verse of the psalm is a dedication or vow of praise. It is noteworthy that David at this point has not yet been vindicated, and indeed may never be vindicated from the accusations hurled at him. Nonetheless, assured of his own innocence, and trusting in God as his refuge, the anxiety with which the psalm began finds a resolution, not in actual deliverance from the trial, but in assurance of God’s care and vindication.

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There are several points of theological interest in this psalm. The first concerns the identity and person of God. The twin petitions with which the psalm opens are addressed to “O Lord my God.” David’s God is the Lord, a righteous God and a righteous judge who tests the hearts and minds of all, and sits in judgement over the people—including David, vindicating the righteous and holding the wicked accountable for their deeds. God tests the hearts to distinguish the violent and deceitful from those who walk with integrity.

The final words of the psalm are not only the climax of the psalmist’s vow of praise, but a description of the divine identity: Lord Most High. This use of the divine name recalls Melchizedek’s blessing of Abram in Genesis 14:19, in the name of God Most High, possessor of heaven and earth. The psalm asks, therefore, not only what kind of world we live in, but whose world we live in, and so provides an insight into the primary context in which our existence takes place: this is God’s world.

Verses 14-15 seem to suggest that there is a form of natural moral order in the world in which the righteous and the wicked “get what is coming to them.” Care is required here, for it is possible to envisage this as some kind of impersonal moral force which removes God’s direct and personal agency from the picture. Is it simply a matter of tit-for-tat, of what-goes-around-comes-around? Or is God personally engaged with the people he has created and sustains? Unquestionably, the psalm teaches the latter, and God’s judgement is an inevitable aspect of God’s righteousness. According to Craigie (103),

Evil eventually functions like a boomerang, bringing back upon its perpetrators the wickedness planned for others. and there is a sense in which the boomerang of human evil may be identified with the “sword” and “fiery shafts” of divine judgement; God was primed to act against the unrepentant sinner, but the nature of his action was simply to direct the consequences of evil away from the innocent and turn them back upon the perpetrators.

This raises two important questions, however. First, experience suggests that justice is not fully done in this life: some seem to escape the justice their deeds deserve, while others’ apparent innocence or goodness goes without vindication or reward. Judgement within the parameters of history does not always appear. Although this psalm does not raise or address this question, elsewhere in the Bible it is plain to see that God’s role as judge transcends the bounds of history. Numerous passages, especially in the New Testament, depict a final judgement when God’s justice will be fully realised. This subject is deeply unpopular or even frightening in some circles, but this psalm will not allow us to ignore or marginalise the idea of divine judgement. The New Testament certainly deepens our understanding of the subject, and causes us to consider divine judgement through a christological lens. Nevertheless, the spectre of a final judgement remains as an inescapable feature of human existence understood in biblical terms.

Second, is anyone actually righteous? What are we to make of David’s bold claims of righteousness in this psalm? Probably we should understand them not as a claim of perfect sinlessness or absolute righteousness, but as a protestation of innocence in the face of the particular accusations hurled against him by his adversaries. What hope, then, do any of us have if God indeed is a righteous judge, testing the hearts and minds of all people? Who, possibly, could stand unblemished in his presence? Nevertheless there is hope. Judgement is prepared against those who do not repent (v. 12), whereas God saves the upright in heart, and blesses those who take refuge in him (v. 1; cf. 2:12; 5:11). The upright in heart acknowledge the righteousness of God and God’s claim on their lives, and turn to God for mercy and salvation.