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~ It's Beyond Me ~
Psalm 106 makes two fascinating references to the
partnership, so to speak, between God and people. “So he [God] said he would
destroy them [the Israelites], had not Moses, his chosen one, stood in the
breach before him…” (v. 23a, NIV). The romanized Hebrew word translated as
“breach” is perets, literally meaning “a break.” So what was this break
in which Moses placed himself?
“They exchanged their Glory for an image of a bull, which eats grass. They forgot the God who saved them, who had done great things in Egypt, miracles in the land of Ham and awesome deeds by the Red Sea” (vv. 20-22). Obviously, the people’s relationship with their Glory, their God, suffered a serious break, great enough to lead to their destruction. The destruction of the soul and spirit broken away from the Source and Creator of Life is as natural a consequence as the physical destruction of the body of someone who breaks away from a very tall building by jumping out toward the street.
It is precisely in that break that Moses, a mere man, God’s creation, chose to stand. What an act of courage and faith! But it was not faith in his people that held Moses there. Some of us would stand in the break for people we believe in, for people we think will change their ways for the better.
I’m not sure what Moses believed about his people at that point. But he was certainly creative in making a point: He ground up that gold calf, mixed it with water, and had the people drink their liquidated idol. Of course, the result was the idol they worshipped would be dishonored as human defecation.
This living metaphor has precedents. A few are found in Jeremiah’s book: “Then the bones of the dead kings of Judah and their officials will be dug up, along with the bones of the priests, the prophets and everyone else in Jerusalem who loved and worshipped the sun, moon, and stars. These bones will be scattered and left lying on the ground like trash [literally translated, “manure”], where the sun and moon and stars [they worshipped] can shine on them” (Jeremiah 8:1-2, CEV).
The popular image and notion of the “grim reaper” is derived from Jeremiah 9:22: “The dead bodies of men will lie like refuse [literally translated, “manure”] on the open field, like cut grain behind the reaper, with no one to gather them.” The chapter ends with this solemn declaration: “’The days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will punish all who are circumcised only in the flesh…For all these nations are really uncircumcised, and even the whole house of Israel is uncircumcised in heart” (vv. 25-26). Moses’ heart was circumcised, and he stood his ground in the uncertain place of the break between the uncircumcised in heart and their God. And his faith was in God, not in them. God honored that and spared the people.
Phinehas was another marvel mentioned in Psalm 106. Again, it involved idol worship. “They yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor and ate sacrifices offered to lifeless gods; they provoked the Lord to anger by their wicked deeds, and a plague broke out among them. But Phinehas stood up and intervened and the plague was checked” (vv. 28-30). The original Hebrew uses a different word for this intervention, pelal, meaning to “pray in intercession.” Unlike Moses, Phinehas did not stand in any break, but stood in intercessory prayer. And we can be certain it was not a one or two minute prayer in words. Intercessory prayer is demanding and self-sacrificial. It takes time, perseverance, and faith, not faith in prayer but faith in God’s attentive love.
In his letter, James mentioned Elijah’s prayer: “He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops” (James 5:17-18).
The original language is far more revealing. The literal English of verse 17 would read, “in prayer he prayed,” which is why it is not translated that way. The romanized Hebrew for “in prayer” is prosecuche meaning “in a state of worshipful prayer.” “He prayed” is proseuchomai which means “to pray to God.” Like Jesus was known to do, Elijah first entered into a spiritual state of worship and prayerful attention. He made sure there was no break to stand in between he and God. From out of that, he could pray “earnestly” as some translations render it.
This is so unlike the practice in many churches, and Christian radio and TV programs where people switch from talking to praying and back to talking without even a two second pause. Classical musicians require a “rest” (a musical term for critical pause and silence) between shifts in mood, movements and even stanzas of melody. Our hearts require no less when we sing to God “in spirit and truth.”
James reminds us, “Elijah was a man just like us.” Yet Elijah and Moses conferred with Christ in His transfiguration spectacle and wonder, all three talking over Christ’s salvific mission about to climax in His death and resurrection. Paul writes in exasperation, “Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases [among yourselves]? Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life!” (1 Corinthians 6:2-3, NIV).
Humans, just like us, standing in the break between others and God…Humans, just like us, whose prayers are powerful enough to move God to override natural events…Humans, just like us, who confer personally with the Christ about His mission…Humans, judging the world…Humans, judging angels…A God humble enough to enter into humanity and be one of us, humble enough to make us His friends and partners, let alone His children and heirs to His kingdom.
This is the unique Christian ethos and mystery. I have barely entered it. I barely understand it. I have such a long way to go, a way that stretches into forever. A way that is beyond me, yet in me and guiding my slow, stumbling steps.
The books and letters of the Bible generally end with a memorable, often climactic conclusion. I was always intrigued by how unremarkably John ended his first epistle. Verse 20 of 1 John, chapter 5, would have been a great literary ending. But John adds the final sentence almost as an after thought, like, oh, and don’t forget, “Dear children, keep yourselves from idols” (v. 21).
That was no after thought. We continue to be distracted from the Way by a plethora of idols in our post-modern culture. And so, I end with that too.
John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
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