disappointing glory

Asaph was a man in ancient Israel who saw that some people in this world have smooth, easy lives. Their bodies are capable and free of pain. They live without anxiety about run-ins with the law or paying the bills or managing family trouble. They eat well.

I observed how the wicked are well off:

They suffer no pain;

their bodies are fit and strong.

They are never in trouble;

they aren’t weighed down like other people…

Their eyes bulge out from eating so well. (Ps 73:3b-5, 7a, CEB)

All this surplus and freedom has a numbing effect on these people. Because they don’t have to toil against the grain of the world, they feel invincible. Because they do not share the struggle of other humans, other humans who do struggle become less real to them. Hardship is, for them, far off and fantastical; little wonder these people cannot empathize with others for whom hardship is asphyxiating. They speak harshly of those about whose lives they know nothing. These people are, in a genial, passive way, violent. Not violent like two men in a bar lashing out. The violence of the wealthy is quieter and more pervasive. Asaph describes it with the metaphor of clothing; something worn day in and day out, and so customary as to cause no surprise.

That’s why they wear arrogance like a necklace,

why violence covers them like clothes…

They scoff and talk so cruel;

from their privileged positions

they plan oppression. (Ps 73:6, 8, CEB)

These people do not fear any power greater than their own. They have command of all resources, economic and legal and military and so forth. The thought of an invisible superpower that could topple them is – ridiculous. The luxury of their lives persists unbroken; if there is a God, whatever that God may be is singularly unthreatening. Asaph writes:

And what they say is this: “How could God possibly know!

Does the Most High know anything at all!”

Look at these wicked ones,

always relaxed, piling up the wealth! (Ps 73:11-12, CEB)

Asaph envies these people. In fact, he almost admits to himself that his belief in God is a waste of time. God seems powerless and ineffective. The rich get richer and the poor suffer on and on.

Asaph came close to this edge. But then he had an experience that reined  him in.

when I tried to understand these things,

it just seemed like hard work

until I entered God’s sanctuary

and understood what would happen to the wicked. (Ps 73:16-17, CEB)

Asaph entered God’s sanctuary, and, apparently, saw something there that completely rejuvenated his faith: his faith that God would rise up from God’s profound, age-long inaction; that God would burn through all the numbness and wealth and violence of the wicked and that they would be “utterly destroyed by terrors” (Ps 73:19b).

What was it that Asaph saw, that gave him such a new vision of God’s terrifying, satisfying vengeance on the wicked?

I don’t know. But other psalms also speak about entering God’s sanctuary, the Jerusalem temple, and experiencing something transformative there. They speak of seeing God: Psalm 63 says to God: “I’ve seen you in the sanctuary; I’ve seen your power and your glory” (63:2). The glory of the Lord that would appear in the Jerusalem temple was indeed overwhelming. Think of the temple’s dedication, when the glory filled the temple with such an ominous thick cloud that the priests could not carry out their duties. Or think of the tumult and horror of God’s glory making landfall on Sinai. Perhaps like these times, God encountered Asaph in glory: with a display of raw superhuman power and alien darkness. This would certainly reassure: that God was yet older, more powerful, and more fearsome than the oldest and most entrenched human powers.

I see the same things as Asaph. The smooth lives at the top of the human food chain, and the increasing misery along its descending rungs. And sometimes, like Asaph, I think that God does nothing to interrupt this regime.

But unlike Asaph, I do not have a temple to enter and a lowering glory to behold, to bolster my faith that God will rise up and set things right. Far from it. The New Testament seems to indicate that God didn’t rise up and set things right, but lay down and left them wrong. The New Testament tells me that my temple is a single human body, and one that was mauled and punctured and drained of its life (“the temple Jesus was talking about was his body” John 2:21). The glory of God that I am to behold is “the face of Christ” (2 Cor 4:6): a sad face, a marred face, and then a dead face.

Jesus died at the hands of the world’s powers. The Roman authorities. The Jewish authorities. By killing him, the top of the food chain triumphed once more. If they ever feared losing their power and ease, murdering Jesus proved they had nothing to worry about, at least from him. So far as we know, Pilate and the Sanhedrin lived happily ever after: “always relaxed, piling up the wealth!” And since then, to crib the words of 2 Peter, “nothing has changed” (3:4).

This is very disappointing and disturbing.

And, as far as I am concerned, the resurrection of Jesus doesn’t so much cancel out this disappointment as amplify it. By raising Jesus from the dead, God didn’t say, “just kidding! actually, I am still really powerful and terrifying. Don’t let that whole Good Friday thing get you down.” Rather, by the resurrection, God said: “I love Jesus and his way of being human so much that I cannot stand to let him stay in the ground.” God loved Jesus’s obedience more than any other human’s, ever: how Jesus willingly stuck his body in the way of the powerful, and was crushed. God exalted him because he did that.

And that is God’s victory – the foolishness of one human standing out of love wholly against the powers of this world. And that is God’s glory – the annihilation of Jesus.

I am not comforted like Asaph was. Nor should we be, who believe this message.

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2 comments

  1. φ · May 15, 2015

    The analysis is incomplete, “Christianly speaking,” when you say that Asaph has some advantage because he can enter the temple and you cannot. Jesus tells us to depend not on an earthly temple (John 4.21), and Paul points us to the fact that we are “seated” with Christ “in the heavenly places” (Eph. 2.6). We who have access directly to God possess a more excellent opportunity for worship than the ancient Hebrews who had to depend on the often insufficient ministry of Aaronic priests (cf. Heb. 12.18-24). We have a spiritual temple, a spiritual worship, and a spiritual victory.

    The literary analysis is also incomplete. You have stopped your explication of Psalm 73 before verse 18 and have not meditated on what Asaph means by being “continually with” and “near” God by telling of all his works (vv. 18, 28). You lack Asaph’s comfort because you will not do what Asaph does. Though you have said you cannot do it, as demonstrated above, you can enter the holy place and behold God, and can do so more excellently than Asaph.

    All that points to the fact that the resurrection is only “sad” and “disappointing” for the flesh, which does not wish to die and rather wishes to have its glorification in this world and in its own time. The spirit, however, rejoices at the resurrection and believes all earthly suffering, even unjust suffering at the hands of the wicked, is worth the cost of that final victory—”as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen” (2 Cor. 4.18)—as we look at the face of Christ, not sad, marred, and dead (as you say), but alive in the radiant glory of resurrection power.

  2. kabodyhwh · May 16, 2015

    Dear φ, thanks for your careful comments.

    Much that you say is right. I agree that we now have an access to God that is superior to what the author of Hebrews calls “the first covenant.” But the mode of that access varies between the covenants. Asaph did not experience the glory of God by faith, but by sight. Whereas now, even if I “come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering […]” I perceive it all only by faith. Which is to say, I do not (yet) see it. And faith is inferior to sight, or else why would we long for its supercession (e.g., “now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face” 1 Cor 13:12)? So, yes, what Asaph had access to was lesser; but he did have an advantage when it came to the mode of his access, no?

    Similarly, yes, indeed, we have treasures, “every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places,” as the author of Ephesians says. But these are only perceptible now to the “eyes of the heart.” So I do rejoice to have them — in anticipation. In hope. In prayer. But what I have now in reality, by sight, is tribulation and suffering; like the apostle, who boasted of such afflictions. So, too, what is most obvious by the normal regimens of perception (and evaluation) is the dead face of Jesus. God has, thank God, illuminated my heart to perceive in that face the glory of God. But it is a glory not yet manifest to all. It is invisible. For now, to Greeks and Jews alike, the word of the cross is foolish.

    That is sad and disappointing. That God’s victory is so foolish and weak and ineffectual. Perhaps you will say: only to the flesh, to our carnal perception, is it so! And that is right. But let’s not delegitimize such carnal perception; after all, this world and this flesh are our ultimate home; they are not an inferior realm to be swapped out for a better, immaterial one. We are creatures of clay and not seraphim. What our ancestors in faith, the Hebrews had was more normal, more right, because it was embodied, carnal, direct; they had what we hope to have once more, one beautiful day. Like you, I have spiritual sight to recognize God’s victory in the death of Jesus. But I also acknowledge that such “spiritual sight” is preliminary; anomalous, even, a strange and fleeting stopgap before the full downpayment. As such, it hurts. And if it is self-indulgent to voice such pain, then at least I can count the apostle as a fellow complainer, who wrote that “while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed, but to be further clothed.”

    I wrote to express this groaning. And also to place before the eyes of my fellow Christians the scandal of the cross. Because my sense is that for many of us — perhaps because of failing to read the Old Testament much, or seriously — we don’t even see it anymore, because we have tried so heartily to reconcile ourselves to the life of faith and of “spiritual sight.” We try to think ourselves into being seraphim; we try to reckon the thin gruel of faith into a full-bodied meal. We strive to make the road into the final destination. And by doing so, we greatly confuse ourselves! (“A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls the things what it actually is” — Luther).

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