Connections 09.10.2017: Praise…and Vengeance

Psalm 149; Romans 13:8-14

Psalm 149 begins with joy, exuberance, music, praise. It sounds like the best kind of worship service, when everyone’s singing in unison—or glorious harmony—and all are feeling good and right before God. It’s how we want things to be when we go to church with our fellow believers.

And then, in one short verse, the praise gets a bit twisted: “Let the high praises of God be in their throats and two-edged swords in their hands” (v. 6). In a short span, we move from worship worthy of heaven to vengeance and punishment. Why? How can these two ideas—praise and vengeance—go together? How much suffering has occurred over the years due to verses like these, which picture God’s followers as righteous warriors? I could start a list, but it would eat this entire devotional.

Our time here is probably better spent seeing how Paul elaborates on the ideas the psalm brings up. In Romans, Paul too talks about being a warrior. While the psalm urges us to take up our two-edged sword, Paul says to “put on the armor of light” and “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 13:12, 14). The world is frightening: full of tragedy, heartache, hunger, thirst, brokenness, natural disasters, disease, death, racism, inequality, loneliness, poverty…. Like the psalmist and Paul say, we need to wake up! We need to be prepared to face these days. We need to go out protected and defensive and covered. Why would we ever do otherwise?

But how do we do this? I confess that I don’t like the implications in the psalm—that I’m supposed to take up arms against the nations and the peoples and their kings and nobles, to “execute…judgment.” And I’m honestly not sure how we should follow through on Scriptures like this one. My best suggestion is to cover it all with Jesus Christ and see what we come up with. That’s basically what Paul did.

We may not have all the answers when it comes to Scripture. But we do have this answer in which Paul summarizes Jesus’ greatest commandment, and it is good enough for me: “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom 13:10; see Mt 22:36-40). I figure if we put on Christ and cover our actions with love, we’ll at least be on the path that is closest to God’s.

Discussion

1. The Bible has many references to executing God’s judgment, being warriors, and going to battle for God’s causes. Which ones can you think of?
2. How have people interpreted these references over the centuries? What have been the results—both positive and negative?
3. How do you interpret these references?
4. As a Christian, what do you think Psalm 149 calls you to do? How do Paul’s words in Romans 13 affect your reading of the psalm?
5. How can you be prepared to go to war for God and also do “no wrong to a neighbor” (v. 10)? What are some ways that Jesus lived in love, even as he held people accountable for what they said and did?

Reference Shelf

When Paul spoke about loving one another, he usually referred to other believers (1 Thess 5:15 where a distinction is drawn between one another and all). But when he said “owe no one,” he seemed to refer to all. So Paul here was likely addressing believers’ relations with both other believers and nonbelievers. What is owed is love. The content of this love is spelled out. It does not do wrong to a neighbor (v. 10). Wrong is spelled out as well. It involves adultery, murder, stealing, coveting, and any other commandment. Love, then, is not a sentimental feeling for another; it is action that does not harm the other!

Paul made two separate statements about love in relation to the law. First, he said all the commandments are summed up (anakephalaioutai) in Leviticus 19:18’s “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The idea that the law could be summed up in a general principle was widespread in ancient Judaism. For example, (1) b. Makkot 23b-24a—The 613 precepts communicated to Moses were reduced to one principle by Habakkuk: But the righteous shall live by faith; (2) b. Berakot 63a—Bar Kappara expounded: What short text is there upon which all the essential principles of the Torah depend? “In all thy ways acknowledge Him and He will direct thy paths”; (3) b. Sabbat 31a—A heathen came to Hillel. Hillel said: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor”: that is the whole Torah, while the rest is commentary thereon; go and learn it; (4) Philo, Decalogue 18-19, said that the Decalogue is the “head of the laws”; (5) Sifra on Lev 19:18—“Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” R. Akiba said: That is the greatest principle in the Law; (6) Jesus, in Matthew 22:40, says of the two great commandments, love God and love your neighbor: On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. Paul’s claim is that the Decalogue is summed up in Leviticus 19:18: Love your neighbor as yourself (cf. Gal 5:14). In so doing he acts like so many teachers within Middle Judaism. In focusing on love of the neighbor he shares a common perspective with Akiba and Jesus.

The second thing Paul asserted about love and the law is that loving the neighbor fulfills the law. Origen, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, said: “If you love somebody, you will not kill him. Nor will you commit adultery, steal from him or bear false witness against him. It is the same with all the other commands of the law: love ensures that they are kept.” One cannot read this text without recalling Romans 8:4. God acted in Jesus Christ “so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” If Jesus’ disciples love one another, it is only because they are enabled by the Spirit to do what they are here being told to do.

Charles H. Talbert, Romans, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2002) 295-300.

Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor for Smyth & Helwys curriculum and books since 2001. She attends church and leads an adult Sunday school class in Macon, Georgia. She is also the office administrator for Jay’s HOPE, a local charity serving families of children with cancer. Kelley enjoys spending time with her daughters, Samantha (12) and Natalie (10) and her husband John. For fun, she tries to stay caught up on the latest amazing TV series (including Doctor Who, Sherlock, Gilmore Girls, and The Crown).

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