Some years ago, I was visiting Canada with my college choir. I stayed for one night with a lovely retired couple, who were eager to hear my view on the American presidential election scheduled for later that year. During the conversation, I mentioned the man who was then governor of my state, complimented his leadership, and said that many people thought he could be president someday. The next morning, I came down for breakfast and my host pointed to the newspaper. He said, “Did you see? Your man’s in there.” I was a bit confused until I looked at the headline. The face of my state’s governor stared back at me from under a headline that read: GOVERNOR INDICTED FOR STEALING CAMPAIGN FUNDS.
The people of Judah must have felt a bit like I felt that morning when Isaiah’s prophecies about Shebna and Eliakim were fulfilled. The Judeans were in the middle of a war for their very existence. A morning headline that read: TREASURY SECRETARY SHEBNA OUT: KING REPLACES MOST TRUSTED ADVISOR WITH ELIAKIM, could not have inspired confidence. Later, though Eliakim seemed like a “secure peg,” on whom the whole kingdom could lean for advice, he would fail as well.
Centuries later, the Christians in Galatia were also looking for someone on whose authority they could hang their hats. The self-supported, renegade missionary who founded their church based on visions and revelations looked silly beside the men from Jerusalem, who could cite chapter and verse from a thousand years of tradition. And they must have felt silly themselves trying to explain Paul’s Gospel—not based on human wisdom or miraculous power granted to the heirs of a religious tradition famed for its wisdom, but built on the miracles of its prophets.
“Who can we trust?” is a question every generation asks. “Who will keep us safe from the enemy?” “Who will show us how we can live a good life?” For the ancient Judeans, Shebna’s confidence must have been infectious. Building a family tomb indicated that Shebna believed he would be so successful that future kings would continue to lean on his heirs for advice and counsel. Eliakim’s success—what he opened no one else could shut—must have been confidence-boosting as well. Yes, the enemy was strong, but Judah had wise, capable men in charge. With Shebna or Eliakim in charge, Judah’s future would be secure.
For Paul’s readers, the answer was clear as well. It would be a lot easier to convince the authorities that their new religious movement was not a threat if they had plenty of old books and teachers with gray hair to show off. Visions and revelations and an absentee teacher just wouldn’t help them avoid suspicion and deflect hostility.
Life is a disorienting experience. Ideas, leaders, and movements come and go. Places we knew change, people we know leave. Just one phone call or headline is enough to convince us that the safety we take for granted is an illusion. A close friend giving up on faith or the church, or a family member adopting a way of life that seems inconceivable to us, is enough to make us doubt that the way we’ve always done things is actually the way to the good life.
Today’s Psalm is the antidote to our frenzied attempts to find safety and certainty when fear and doubt threaten our lives. The Psalmist waits for the Lord. He even neglects the sacrifices and offerings, preferring to passively listen rather than to try to bend God to his own will in religious activity.
You may protest: how is this lack of action an antidote? Waiting and listening for the Lord will not defeat the enemy or convince the doubters. You raise a fair criticism: waiting and listening won’t even end the sin we ourselves struggle with, or answer our own doubts. Yet, this Psalm is not an antidote to fear and confusion, but an antidote to the false safety and pride we build for ourselves. Salvation can only come from God, not from our own efforts. The only truly new song we can sing is God’s. The answer to doubt and fear, ours and others, is God’s work—not our own strivings. The Psalmist sings his song, not because it is a guarantee of safety or a guarantee of converting others, but because it comes from God.
So we wait for the Lord, opening our ears to his voice and closing them to the Shebnas and Eliakims of our day who would urge us to trust in their strength, money and power, or ideas and ways of life. And then we sing: whether in the midst of the congregation or the midst of troubles, we sing God’s song of love for us to death and beyond death.