Grumble, grumble, grumble

Some people just explode when they’re upset; they take out their anger on everyone around them. You may know someone like that (and I hope it’s not you). Others keep their anger mostly to themselves. Or at least they think they do. They may pride themselves in not being the explosive type, but their displeasure still seeps into their body posture and tone of voice.

Either way, people with at least a shred of common sense (and the ability to act on it!) know not to express anger toward their superiors, toward someone who has power over them. That doesn’t mean, of course, that their resentment magically vanishes. They may ruminate endlessly over perceived offenses; they get stuck in a mental loop rehearsing everything that’s wrong with or unfair about their lives. And even if they don’t speak their resentment aloud, they may mutter complaints and curses under their breath instead.

Sound familiar? Some of the folks in Philippi would probably have identified with such descriptions.

So might we.

And in some ways, so might the people of ancient Israel.

. . .

Recently, we’ve seen how Paul urges the Philippians to live in a way that reflects the truth of and their commitment to the gospel (1:27). In 2:12, he refers to this as “working out their salvation,” that is, to let the truth of their salvation show itself practically and particularly in the way they relate to each other. And the stunning good news is that through the Holy Spirit, God empowers the Philippians (and us!) to do what pleases God, and even to want to do so (2:13).

But how do we demonstrate our salvation, concretely? What does it look like? Remember that Paul’s immediate concern for the church in Philippi is that some of the members (particularly Euodia and Syntyche) are at odds with each other, threatening the unity of the whole congregation. Thus, in Philippi at least, living in a manner worthy of the gospel and their salvation means refraining from grumbling and arguing:

Do all things without murmuring and arguing, so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world, holding forth the word of life so that I can boast on the day of Christ that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. (Phil 2:14-16, NRSVUE)

The noun translated as “murmuring” is only used four times in the New Testament, and only once by Paul. It suggests a discontented grumbling or muttering. But Paul uses the related verb in 1 Corinthians 10:10: “And do not complain, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer.” He is speaking of ancient Israel, who were disobedient to God despite being freed from slavery in Egypt. He holds them up as a negative example: Don’t be like them.

Over and over, on their journey to the land of promise, the people complained to Moses, as if they had forgotten their miraculous rescue. They complained of having no water and God provided. The complained of having no food and God provided.

And still they complained.

Tragically, things reach a head in Numbers 14. The people are on the borders of Canaan, and on God’s command, Moses sends in spies to survey the land and bring back a report. There’s good news and bad news. The good news: The land is everything we could want. The bad news: It’s full of big, scary people in big, scary, fortified cities. Caleb insists they can take the land easily, but the people are afraid. They respond badly:

Then all the congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night. And all the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron; the whole congregation said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us into this land to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become plunder; would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” So they said to one another, “Let us choose a captain and go back to Egypt.” (Num 14:1-4)

Back to Egypt? Angry at their faithlessness, God threatens to send pestilence among them and disinherit them. Moses intercedes, begging forgiveness on behalf of the people. The good news is that God relents. But the bad news is that the people are condemned to die in the wilderness and never set foot in the promised land. To Moses and Aaron, God says, “How long shall this wicked congregation complain against me? I have heard the complaints of the Israelites, which they complain against me” (Num 14:27). Then he instructs them to tell the people:

[Y]our dead bodies shall fall in this very wilderness, and of all your number included in the census from twenty years old and up who have complained against me, not one of you shall come into the land in which I swore to settle you, except Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun. (vss. 29-30)

They try to walk it back, but it’s too late.

In the previous post, I spoke of “intertextuality” and “echo-location.” To the Philippians, Paul could have simply said, “Can you please just get along? Stop your silly arguing.” But there are numerous echoes of the Old Testament in Philippians 2:14-16, and these suggest that Paul is wanting to locate the Philippians’ situation inside the larger story of Israel. The reference to “murmuring,” then, as in 1 Corinthians 10:10, refers not just to the grumbling of some Philippians but to the grumbling of the Israelites. It’s as if to say, Learn from the past. Take a lesson from history. Don’t be like them.

That’s not all he says, of course. In the passage above, Paul also gives positive echoes of the past. He doesn’t just tell them what not to do: as we’ll see, he also gives them something to shoot for.