Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 3, 2017
Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45b Commentary
Psalm 105 is clearly an historical Psalm. It traces the five stages of Israel’s early history, from the promise of the land to Abraham to the possession of the land under Joshua. Indeed, the entire Psalm, like that history, is driven by that covenantal promise made to Abraham and rehearsed here in verses 8-11 (where “covenant” is mentioned 3 times).
Our reading for today is the third episode in that epic story. Like the epic TV shows that attract millions of viewers (from the good old days of “Dallas” and “Thornbirds” to the bad new days of “Empire” and “Game of Thrones”), the biblical story summarized here is full of drama and intrigue, violence and bloodshed, hard things and hard people. People love such sweeping TV dramas because they are full of the stuff of life, as is the Bible. Sadly, some sensitive Christians want to edit the hard stuff out of the Bible, because they think seekers will be offended. The RCL does that with our reading for today, leaving out verses 28-36, which I think robs this episode in the story of a good deal of its power and grace. More on that later.
Unlike the epic dramas on TV, this biblical story does not focus on the nefarious characters who drive the twisted plot. Psalm 105 is all about God. (For another way of telling the same story, see Psalm 106 which focuses on the role of Israel in that story. Like those TV dramas, Psalm 106 zeroes in on the sins of the Israelites, particularly the way they forgot their God.) Psalm 105 shows us how God never forgot his children; indeed, verse 8 says, “He remembers his covenant forever… [it is] an everlasting covenant.” Psalm 105 is all about the “wonderful acts, the wonders, miracles and judgments” of the Lord as he remembered his promises to his children. The Psalm was clearly written to call God’s forgetful people to remember what he has done for them and respond with grateful worship. Thus, the last word is the point of the whole poem. “Praise the Lord.”
Our reading for today focuses on Israel’s time in and deliverance from Egypt, though the RCL cuts off the story before we get to the deliverance. Moses and Aaron are introduced, and then our reading ends before we get to the hard stuff Yahweh did to set his people free from bondage. As I said above, this omission is probably intended to spare seekers and children and other sensitive souls the nasty parts of the story and the difficult questions they raise about the character of our God. In the process, we miss the nitty gritty of redemption. More on that later.
Verses 23-26 summarize 430 years of gnarly history. After a warm reception into Egypt through the mediation of the miraculously elevated Joseph (verses 16-22), Israel fell upon hard times. After being treated with generous hospitality as ancient Near Eastern civilizations required, Israel became the subject of persecution. What had changed? Well, the Pharaohs who knew the Joseph story died off. And Israel succeeded too well, as resident aliens often do. “The Lord made his people very fruitful (note that the Lord is the prime mover in the story); he made them too numerous for their foes.” Egypt was threatened by this horde of Hebrews working away in its bosom. What was God thinking when he made Israel so fruitful? More than we could have imagined if we had been there.
The same thing is true of the next part of the story. In verse 25, we read that the Lord “turned their hearts to hate his people, to conspire against his servants.” Those few words are a summary of a long and complicated subplot in the story, that troublesome business about the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. And they are the tip of a doctrinal iceberg that has sunk many a Titanic theologian. Verse 25 gives an historical instance of the paradox of the relationship between the sovereignty of God and the sinful actions of humans. The Psalmist claims that Yahweh is the one who moved the Egyptians to turn against his own children. Even sin and evil are under the control of our sovereign God. What was God thinking when he made Pharaoh’s heart hard? More than we can imagine from the limited perspective of this Psalm. See the rest of the story later.
The God who made Israel fruitful and Egypt hostile also sent deliverance for Israel in the person of Moses (and his mouthpiece, Aaron). The story of Moses is a miracle story from beginning to end, a story of God doing miracles to and through him. Indeed, that is precisely the point Psalm 105 makes about Moses and Aaron. “They performed his (Yahweh’s) miraculous signs among them (the Egyptians), his wonders in the land of Ham.” Once again, note the sovereignty of God at work here in fulfillment of God’s covenant promise. If it takes miracles to keep that promise and get his people safely to the Promised Land, then there will be miracles. Remember that, O Israel, O Christians. No matter how hopeless you situation might seem, God can do miracles. Even if you have forgotten Yahweh and find yourself in a terrible place, God in his faithfulness is able to deliver you.
When we read about miraculous signs and wonders in verse 26, we might think of the Nile turned to blood or Aaron’s staff become a snake, but those were mere parlor tricks compared to the miracles the Psalmist had in mind. Verses 28-36 talk about other, more serious miracles, miracles as shocking as anything you’ll see on cable TV. As I’ve said several times, the RCL skips over those hard things and resumes the story in a couple of weeks with verses 37-45.
I think we must take account of those Ten Plagues (of which 8 are listed here) if we are to preach redemptively on this Psalm. If we leave them out, we miss a good deal of the drama of the redemptive work of God in Christ. Indeed, we will not properly remember the faithfulness of God and return our thanks to him with appropriate fervor, unless we understand why God was so hard on Egypt and, in another day, on Jesus.
It all has to do with the incredible hardness of evil. We see that hardness demonstrated in Egypt’s treatment of Israel, as summarized in Psalm 105:25. They turned their honored guests into humiliated slaves. Exodus 1:14 says, “They made their lives bitter with hard labor in bricks and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in their hard labor the Egyptians used them ruthlessly.”
Then, when Moses came marching out of the desert to demand Israel’s release, the Egyptians cracked down even harder. In Exodus 5:9 Pharaoh says, “Make the work harder for them,” by taking away the straw that binds the brick together. And that was after Pharaoh ordered the murder of all the baby boys born to Israel. God made them fruitful and Pharaoh killed them. Egypt was hard on God’s people.
Further, we see the hardness of evil in the flinty stubbornness of Pharaoh’s heart. When Moses asked Pharaoh to release Israel, he was direct, but polite. But, says the story, Pharaoh hardened his heart. God responded with the ten plagues to change Pharaoh’s heart, to soften it, to break it, so that he would let Israel go. But each time Pharaoh hardened his heart even more. Nine times the story says that, and nine times it says that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. When God hammered on Pharaoh’s heart, Pharaoh hardened his heart even more. So God hammered harder and Pharaoh hardened more. Around and around it went, until finally God broke Pharaoh’s heart with the tenth plague. Pharaoh started it; God responded by letting Pharaoh’s sin recoil on him. He reaped what he had sown. The battle with evil was so painful and gruesome because of the hardness of Pharaoh’s evil heart.
There was one more reason God was so hard on the Egyptians. We don’t read anything about it here in Psalm 105, but in the original telling of the story God spells it out in Exodus 12:12. “I will bring judgment on all the gods of the Egyptians. I am the Lord, Yahweh.” That’s really what was going on in the whole struggle between Israel and Egypt. Who is the Lord? Who is God? When Moses approached Pharaoh at the beginning of it all, he said, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel says, ‘Let my people go….’” Here’s how Pharaoh responded. “Who is the Lord (Yahweh) that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know Yahweh and I will not let Israel go.”
So the God of Israel taught Pharaoh (and all his hosts) who he was by going to war with the gods of Egypt. That’s what the 10 plagues were—Yahweh, the God of Israel, defeating the various gods of the Egyptians. They saw the Nile River as the god who gave Egypt life, so God with exquisite irony turned their life to blood. They saw frogs as the god of fertility, the god Heqt, so God filled the land with frogs so that they couldn’t stand it anymore. The death of all the livestock was a direct blow against the bull god, Apis, and other animal gods. The thick darkness was a conquest of Ra, the sun god.
In the tenth plague God attacked the main god of Egypt, the god who had been occupying the throne of human life since that moment in the garden when the serpent said, “You will be like god.” I speak, of course, of the god named me, the god of self, which in Egypt assumed monstrous proportions in the figure of Pharaoh. The great issue in the struggle with Egypt, the great issue of history and of every human life is this: who is God, who is the Lord, who controls human destiny? Is it the creature or the Creator? The one true God says, “I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the Lord.”
To read Psalm 105 and understand properly the story it retells and to trust God’s ways in the world, we must remember those three things about the hardness of evil. Evil is hard on God’s children. Evil hardens itself against God. Evil battles hard to gain control over all that God loves. So God gets hard, really hard, and attacks evil in its heart. The first born son of the god named Pharaoh will die, as will the first born all through the hard nation of Egypt.
Why the death of the first born? Because Egypt was so hard on God’s first born. That’s exactly what God called Israel when he sent Moses in the first place. Listen to Exodus 4:22, 23. “Say to Pharaoh, ‘This is what the Lord says, “Israel is my first born son, and I told you, ‘Let my son go so he may worship me.’ But you refused to let him go; so I will kill your first born son.” It took the death of the first born of Egypt to set God’s first born son free. Only the shedding of blood will finally break the hard grip of evil and set God’s people free. God did what God had to do in the face of the steely stubbornness of evil.
Psalm 105:28-36 reminds us of those infamous “texts of terror” that horrify modern day believers who live every day in a terror filled world. Even if you grant the points I’ve made above, you might still want to skip over such awful stuff. Why preach on this text of terror? The answer must be that God didn’t skip over that awful stuff. God sent Moses into the middle of human misery and by God’s powerful grace Moses was the Mediator who set God’s people free.
Moses is clearly a type of Christ. Throughout his ministry Jesus did miraculous signs and wonders to show that God is Lord over all the powers that ruin human life. Who is in charge of human life? God is, and Jesus came with that very message. “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” That kingdom came in all its power and glory and hardness when the Christ suffered and died at the hands of wicked men.
Redemption required a hard, hard thing. At the beginning of Jesus’ redemptive work, God publicly declared, “This is my Son, whom I love.” At the end of that redemptive work, as the Lamb of God shed his blood on the cross, Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?” “Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins.”
Psalm 105 calls us to remember all the miracles God has done to redeem us, including the ones that cause us horror. Indeed, Jesus repeated this call at his last supper. “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this in remembrance of me.”
What would you do to save the life of someone you love? Channel surfing the other night, I found a very violent movie, titled Taken, starring the looming Liam Neeson. The movie is very sweet at the beginning as Neeson dotes on his only child, a lovely teenage daughter. He is a hard man, a former spy who did dark work for the government, but he is incredibly tender toward his daughter.
But then she is kidnapped in Paris at the very moment she is talking with Neeson on the phone. Once the kidnapper has taken the daughter, he picks up the phone. Neeson hears him breathing and says, “Let her go and I’ll let bygones be bygones.” The kidnapper laughs at him. So Neeson says, “I am a very dangerous man with a special set of skills. Let her go or I will find you and I will kill you. I will get my daughter back.” The kidnapper says, “Good luck.”
Well, Neeson goes to Paris, tracks down the kidnappers, discovers that they are selling his daughter into the sex trade, and he does exactly what he said he would do. In horrifying, graphic, violent ways, he kills evil to set his daughter free. It’s a darker tale than most of our listeners will be comfortable with, but it raises the question God faced. What would you do if evil held your child in its hard grip?
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