Be very careful what you do; you never know who will find out about it…and for how long they will remember.
Whenever a major feast of the Orthodox Church falls on a Sunday, the rubrics that we use at St. Joseph’s call for two special hymns to be chanted during Orthros. These hymns are nothing more than Psalms 135 and 136 set to music, and together they are referred to as the “Polyeleos,” which literally means “many mercies.” This name comes from the repeated refrain of the second psalm-hymn, which is “For his mercy endures forever.” The text of the psalm is a thorough retelling of the history of Israel, or more accurately, of the mighty acts that God has performed for His chosen people. When we read this psalm or hear it chanted, we hear about many familiar incidents in Israel’s history, including the plagues in Egypt and the crossing of the Red Sea. But we also hear about two rather obscure persons who had the interesting names of Sihon and Og. Who were these fellows? In order to find out, we have to go back to the twenty-first chapter of the Old Testament book of Numbers.
Toward the end of their wilderness wanderings, Moses and the Israelites ran into a little trouble:
Then Israel sent messengers to Sihon king of the Amorites, saying, “Let me pass through your land. We will not turn aside into fields or vineyards; we will not drink water from wells. We will go by the King’s Highway until we have passed through your territory.” But Sihon would not allow Israel to pass through his territory. So Sihon gathered all his people together and went out against Israel in the wilderness, and he came to Jahaz and fought against Israel. Then Israel defeated him with the edge of the sword, and took possession of his land from the Arnon to the Jabbok, as far as the people of Ammon…
And they turned and went up by the way to Bashan. So Og king of Bashan went out against them, he and all his people, to battle at Edrei. Then the LORD said to Moses, “Do not fear him, for I have delivered him into your hand, with all his people and his land; and you shall do to him as you did to Sihon king of the Amorites, who dwelt at Heshbon.” So they defeated him, his sons, and all his people, until there was no survivor left him; and they took possession of his land (Numbers 21:21-24, 33-35).
This part of Israel’s history is at best relatively minor. Og and Sihon were were relatively insignificant tribal chieftans; they could not have ruled over more than a few thousand people each. They made very little impact on human history. And yet, they and their opposition to Israel are mentioned again and again in subsequent parts of the Old Testament. Sihon and Og’s names appear no less than twenty-four times after Numbers 21. Not bad press for such minor players on the world’s stage!
And this brings me back to the polyeleos. Not only are Sihon and Og mentioned repeatedly in Scripture, their names are also constantly chanted in Orthodox Orthros services all over the world. If you could build a time machine, travel back to the time of Og and Sihon, visit them in their courts and tell them: 1. That they were about to be defeated and killed by a bunch of runaway slaves and 2. That people would be singing about these events until the end of time, they would probably laugh their heads off (and probably chop yours off, but I digress..). They had no way of knowing that their (mis)deeds would be remembered into eternity. Had they known, they might have treated Israel with just a little more charity…
Near the beginning of the movie Gladiator, the main character General Maximus tells his troops “What we do in this life echoes into eternity.” Poor Sihon and Og do not seem to have understood this. Let us, brothers and sisters, never forget this. When we contemplate the actions we take in this life, let us remember to be very careful what we do, because you never know who will find out about it…and for how long they will remember.