Psalm 119:9–16; Ezekiel 20:30–21:17; James 2:1–13

Originally published 10/15/2015. Revised and updated 10/15/2019.

Psalm 119:9–16: Our psalmist slips in an autobiographical note, informing us that he has been seeking God from his youth:
How shall a lad make his path worthy
to observe as befits Your word.
With all my heart I sought You. (9, 10a)

The question is, of course, do I seek God with all my heart? Or do I come to God only half-heartedly, seeking the Word of God only when it’s convenient for me?

In my heart I kept Your utterance
so that I would not offend against You. (11)

This is a theme that will occur many times in this psalm: the necessity to learn and know God’s word as it is set out in Scripture in order to obey it. Under the terms of the Old Covenant, knowing the Law in order to remain obedient to it was absolutely essential. Now that we live in the era of grace under the New Covenant, I think we use grace as an excuse not to delve too deeply into Scripture in order to better understand the cultural and spiritual roots of the gift that we enjoy.  Being ignorant of God’s word is no longer a question of not “offending” God, but of missing so much of the back-story and grasping the theology that as Christ-followers that can enriched our lives.

Once again we encounter the preeminence of speech as the key means of communication as the psalmist tells us,
With my lips I recounted
all the laws You pronounced. (13)

I suspect this ability to recount aloud was more than just quickly rattling off the Decalogue. Rather it would be reciting the contents of Leviticus and Deuteronomy—that at least for me seems a daunting task and significant achievement! It’s important to note, however, that the psalmist does not see this as memory work as drudgery, but a source of pleasure:
In Your statutes I delight,
I shall not forget Your word. (16)

While I have no intention of memorization, there’s no question that beginning my day in God’s word has truly become a delight. Who would have thought?

Ezekiel 20:30–21:17: Even though Israel thinks it can abandon God, God will not abandon them: “What is in your mind shall never happen—the thought, “Let us be like the nations, like the tribes of the countries, and worship wood and stone.” (20:32) Instead, God promises, “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and with wrath poured out, I will be king over you.” (20:33)

And since God will not abandon Israel, allowing it to be like other nations, it must suffer the consequences of its collective sins: “As I entered into judgment with your ancestors in the wilderness of the land of Egypt, so I will enter into judgment with you, says the Lord God.” (21:36).

But that promise to never abandon Israel also includes the promise to one day restore it to its former glory. And when that happens, “There you shall remember your ways and all the deeds by which you have polluted yourselves; and you shall loathe yourselves for all the evils that you have committed.” (21:43)

In the same way that memory is essential to the psalmist in following God, there is national memory as well. Israel will once again collectively recall what great things God has done for it. It will again come to its senses and “you shall know that I am the Lord, when I deal with you for my name’s sake, not according to your evil ways, or corrupt deeds, O house of Israel,” (21:44)  We can grab hold of this promise as well. When we drift away from God and sin we will suffer the consequences of that sin. But through confession we will also recall—and enjoy—God’s gracious forgiveness.

As is so frequently the case, the prophet swings from the promise of restoration back to the threats of punishment: “Thus says the Lord: I am coming against you, and will draw my sword out of its sheath, and will cut off from you both righteous and wicked.” (21:4) And we encounter a dreadful metaphor: the sword of the Lord:
     A sword, a sword is sharpened,
        it is also polished;
     it is sharpened for slaughter,
         honed to flash like lightning! (21:9b, 10)

Worse, the sword is “is against my people;/ it is against all Israel’s princes.” (21:12) And there’s no point in being in denial about the inevitability of punishment: “For consider: What! If you despise the rod, will it not happen?  says the Lord God.” (13) God will swing this punishing rod and strike everyone in its path:
    Attack to the right!
        Engage to the left!
         —wherever your edge is directed.
      I too will strike hand to hand,
         I will satisfy my fury;
      I the Lord have spoken. (21:16, 17)

This is one of those places in the OT where we can only say, “Here ends the reading,” and admit we cannot grasp the idea of such a furious God that would destroy the people to whom he also promises restoration just a few verses earlier. It’s a reminder that thankfully we have been spared the Old Covenant and live under grace because our sins as a culture are easily as great as ancient Israel’s.

James 2:1–13: James continues to eschew the high theology we encounter in the epistles to the Romans or to the Hebrews in order to focus on right practice within the Christian community. Here, he raises an issue that is as ignored just as much today as it was in the early church:

For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?” (2-4)

For us, the question is would we welcome the disheveled homeless man as eagerly as the person who parks his expensive car in the parking lot? Unfortunately, we know the probable answer all too well.

James quite rightly says, “God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom.” (5) Yes, we know that already. The Bible is really clear on this point. But then he goes on to make a point that I think we don’t stop and really appreciate: “Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?”  (6,7) It’s the haughty wealthy who think they are better than we and  are the ones eager to acquire even more wealth—usually at our expense. And always at the expense of the poor.

So why do we kow-tow to the wealthy even to our own detriment? I think there’s a simple answer: envy. We want to be in their position so we can pridefully lord it over others. But as James points out, “if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.” (9) But alas, our thoughtless, self-centered human nature makes that sin all too easy to commit. James is reminding us that we must consciously regard our interactions with other people. Seems so simple, so straightforward. And yet we persist.

Psalm 119:1–8; Ezekiel 20:1–29; James 1:19–27

Originally published 10/14/2015. Revised and updated 10/14/2019.

Psalm 119:1–8: And so we again take our annual trek through the longest Psalm that is also the longest chapter in the Bible—all 176 verses of it. Alter informs us that this psalm is the “Long Acrostic,” with an 8-line stanza attached to each letter of the Hebrew alphabet, beginning with “aleph.” The first line of the stanza begins with a word whose first letter is the corresponding Hebrew letter of that set.

This is a didactic psalm, stressing the importance of knowing God’s word. It is not particularly soaring or beautiful. But I imagine that Hebrew scholars had contests among themselves to see who could recite the entire psalm without error.

The first verse pretty much sets out the overriding theme of the entire psalm:
Happy whose way is blameless,
who walk in the Lord’s teaching.

This is not a psalm about walking through the valley of shadow of death or the philosophical outlook of Psalm 90 or the joyful worship arising from God’s rescue of the preceding psalm. It is about the pleasures of learning, and as the next verse informs us, the joys attendant to keeping God’s law:
Happy who keep His precepts,
with a whole heart they seek Him. (2)

Moreover, these people who rejoice in teaching seem to be supremely self-confident in their personal righteousness:
Yes, they did no wrong,
in His ways they have walked. (3)

And God has set out some very high standards:
You ordained Your decrees
to be strictly observed. (4)

Alas, as we read in the Histories and the Prophets, the people did not exactly hew to the next verse:
Would that my ways be firm
to observe Your statutes. (5)

It is only at the last line in this first stanza where we get a brief glimpse of the man behind the poetry, who believes that strict adherence to the law results in God not abandoning him. We can pretty much see how this psalm must have been the “theme psalm” of the Pharisees of Jesus’ time:
Your statutes I shall observe.
Do not utterly forsake me. (8)

Ezekiel 20:1–29: Once again, the elders of Israel come to Ezekiel. We know this is an actual event because the date is recorded: “In the seventh year, in the fifth month, on the tenth day of the month.” (1) We aren’t told why they’re coming to him because, God speaking through his prophet, is beyond being consulted by them. Rather, Ezekiel lambastes the elders with yet another recitation of the collective sins of Israel, beginning with the Exodus: “On that day I swore to them that I would bring them out of the land of … And I said to them, Cast away the detestable things your eyes feast on, every one of you, and do not defile yourselves with the idols of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.” (6,7)

God, via Ezekiel, recounts the various events where he wanted to give up on these stubborn people, reminding them how often he took mercy on them, repeating the line, “Then I thought I would pour out my wrath upon them and spend my anger against them” (v10) in the exodus from Egypt and again in the wilderness. But rather than wrath, God shows mercy beach time: “But I withheld my hand, and acted for the sake of my name, so that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations, in whose sight I had brought them out.” (22)

What’s interesting here is that God seems to grant mercy to Israel so that God would not become a laughingstock in “the sight of the [other] nations.” Was God being insecure here? Or was the concept of an invisible monotheistic God so radical in that era of multiple gods represented in physical idols that if Israel was not rescued, God’s role as Creator and protector would not be realized?

The reading ends on a sour note as God recalls that when Israel came into Canaan, all the people could seem to do was “wherever they saw any high hill or any leafy tree, there they offered their sacrifices and presented the provocation of their offering…” (28) Really? Is that all Israel did? Or are we seeing an unexpectedly irritated, even petulant side of God?

James 1:19–27: The reading opens with the famous advice, “let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger;” (10) which in this email and social media era is more important than ever since this form of communication lacks the mediating influence of actually looking someone in the eye before we open our mouths. Instead, when we get irritated by something we fire off a zingy email or a snarky Facebook post or an asinine Tweet. Beyond making us feel better for a moment these acts do nothing to ameliorate the situation, but only to exacerbate it. Send or post in haste, regret at leisure…

James, eager to dispense advice, seems to employ more ambiguous terminology than Paul or the author of Hebrews, which can lead, I think, to some difficulties in interpretation. For example, he says, “welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.” (21) I presume by “Implanted word” that he means the Gospel message, the Kerygma, the Good News. Or does he mean the Holy Spirit? I guess I’ll go with the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Then we arrive at James’s most famous aphorism: “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” (22) As if that didn’t make his point, James excoriates “hearers” even more, accusing them of pride, being “like those who look at themselves in a mirror.” (23b)

This is of course is extremely sound advice—as long as we don’t exclude the “hearing” part. It seems to me that we cannot be effective “doers” without having heard—and understanding—what the “implanted word” is all about. But James seems to take exactly that exclusionary path when he asserts, “being not hearers who forget but doers who act.” (22) Frankly, I’m beginning to see why Luther would have been perfectly happy to not have this book in the Canon.

Psalm 118:22-29; Ezekiel 18:19–19:14; James 1:9–19

Psalm originally published 10/12/2016. OT & NT passages originally published 10/12/2013. Revised and updated 10/12/2019.

Psalm 118:22–29: We encounter the verse that Jesus quoted in reference to himself (Matt 21:42, also Mark & Luke). It is also referred to in Peter’s sermon in Acts 4, as well as in Ephesians and 1 Peter: “The stone that the builders rejected/ has become the chief cornerstone.” (22)  In the NT, this verse stands for Jesus and the Jews’ rejection of their Messiah.

But the verse following is equally important and it doubtless came to mind among the Jews when Jesus referred to the chief cornerstone:
From the Lord did this come about—
it is wondrous in our eyes.

As the gospel of John makes clear repeatedly, Jesus has indeed come from directly God and this act of incarnation is wondrous for all humankind.

The verse that follows is equally well known, and usually something we casually toss off on Sunday mornings:
This is the day the Lord has wrought.
Let us exult and rejoice in it.

Here in its context, its meaning is far richer. This is the day that God has created and it is the day—every day—when we realize that the Rejected Cornerstone has indeed rescued us. That is the beauty to reflect on each morning when we awake: Not just the beauty of God’s creation but his munificent act in sending Jesus Christ to us: rejected in his time and culture—and also in ours—but then to be exalted—worshipped— down through history for his saving grace.

The psalm concludes with a benediction that is an acknowledgement of how God in his rescue has blessed us:
The Lord is God and He shines upon us.
You are my God, and I acclaim You,
my God, and I exalt You.
Acclaim the Lord, for He is good,
forever is His kindness. (27a, 28, 29)

It would be a good habit to pray those words of gratitude every morning.

Ezekiel 18:19–19:14: As we saw yesterday, the old saying, “the sins of the father are visited upon the sons,” is no longer operative. Subsequent generations do not bear responsibility for the wrongdoings of their forebears, nor are the parents responsible for the sins of their offspring (although I presume we are speaking about adult children here): “A child shall not suffer for the iniquity of a parent, nor a parent suffer for the iniquity of a child. (18:20a)

But God, speaking through Ezekiel, also makes it clear that he takes no pleasure in punishment, sort of God saying (as my father once did) in effect, “this is going to hurt me more than it hurts you” when Ezekiel writes: “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the Lord God, and not rather that they should turn from their ways and live?” (18:23)

In Ezekiel, righteousness is like going to the gym: you can’t store it up, go off and commit sins and then come back to God saying, “This is unfair; I have righteousness points in the bank and I’d like to use them now to offset my iniquity.”  God makes it clear it doesn’t work that way.  We are each responsible for our own actions: “the righteousness of the righteous shall be his own, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be his own.” (18:29b)

In this era where so many people consider themselves part of a victim class rather than accepting the consequences of their misdeeds, this passage on responsibility for our own actions is bracing.  The choice is consummately simple—and it is wholly ours: “For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live.” (18:32) How much of life we miss because we ignore these simple four words: Turn, then, and live.

Ezekiel 19 is a lamentation containing a tragic metaphor followed immediately by a tragic simile. Ezekiel makes it very clear who he’s talking about: the wicked kings of Israel are the lion cubs. Kings are anointed and then become wicked:
She [Israel?] raised up one of her cubs;
   he became a young lion,
and he learned to catch prey;
   he devoured humans. (19:3)

A subsequent king does exactly the same thing:
He prowled among the lions;
    he became a young lion,
and he learned to catch prey;
    he devoured people. (19:6)

Ultimately, after battles and destruction, an evil king ends up a captive in Babylon in a pretty clear metaphor:
With hooks they put him in a cage,
and brought him to the king of Babylon;
they brought him into custody,
so that his voice should be heard no more
on the mountains of Israel. (19:9)

Even more tragic is the simile that follows: Your mother was like a vine in a vineyard” (19:10a) that once achieved greatness. I take this to be the united kingdom under Solomon:
 …transplanted by the water,
fruitful and full of branches
    from abundant water.
 Its strongest stem became

    a ruler’s scepter;
it towered aloft
    among the thick boughs;
it stood out in its height
    with its mass of branches. (19:10, 11)

But through the depredations of those young, devouring lions, the vineyard has been destroyed:
And fire has gone out from its stem,
    has consumed its branches and fruit,
so that there remains in it no strong stem,
    no scepter for ruling. (19:14)

Corrupt leadership at the top begets the destruction of nations.  Which, as any casual reading of history reveals, is hardly unique to Israel. Is our empire the next to fall?.

James 1:9-19: In a land where of ever-increasing inequality between the rich and the rest of us, this passage in James seems rather empty: “It is the same with the rich; in the midst of a busy life, they will wither away.” (11b) True in the abstract in the sense that the rich die like the rest of us, but in the meantime, they seem to be doing quite well, thank you.  Nevertheless, James is reminding us that what wealth we amass here on earth is ephemeral–something we all do well to remember.

We must remember that the temptations confronting us are not sourced by God: No one, when tempted, should say, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one. (13) The world, all its fallenness is what creates. And above all, our own self-will is what succumbs to temptation. Along the same line, God does not place obstacles in our path in order to test us and see if we will stumble.  As a guy who has been in close contact with others in the cancer community, there is no greater theological crock than the old canard, “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” Happily, I’ve only heard it once, but that was enough.

Psalm 118:15–21; Ezekiel 17:11–18:18; Hebrews 13:20–James 1:8

Originally published 10/12/2017. Revised and updated 10/11/2019.

Psalm 118:15–21: Having been rescued from certain death by God, our psalmist continues to rejoice in song:
A voice of glad song and rescue
in the tents of the just:
The Lord’s right hand does valiantly.
The Lord’s right hand is raised,
The Lord’s right hand does valiantly. (15, 16)

He then reiterates one of the themes that recurs throughout the psalms: God can expect praise and worship only from those who are alive:
I shall not die but live
and recount the deeds of Yahweh. (17)

But as always, there is the deuteronomic idea that the speaker has been punished by God for some transgression, but happily not punished to the point of death:
Yah harshly chastised me
but to death did not deliver me. (18)

The psalmist now moves on to an overarching metaphor: that justice is the entryway into a full relationship with God—and that one must be righteous before God in order to worship him:
Open for me the gates of justice—
I would enter them, I would acclaim Yahweh.
This is the gate of the Lord—
the just will enter it.
I acclaim You for You have answered me,
and You have become my rescue. (19-21)

As always, our response to being rescued by God from peril and more particularly from disease, is to worship him—and then to tell others about God’s rescuing power.

Ezekiel 17:11–18:18: Referring to an incident we read in Jeremiah, Ezekiel chastises the puppet king Zedekiah of Judah for betraying the promise he made to his Babylonian conquerors by calling upon Egypt for military help: “But the king rebelled against him by sending his envoys to Egypt to get horses and a large army. Will he succeed? ” (17:15) In God’s eyes this is a great sin because “He despised the oath by breaking the covenant.” (17:18) God does not tolerate broken vows—even those made with the conquering king of Babylon. As a result of Zedekiah’s malfeasance, God “will repay him for despising my oath and breaking my covenant.” (17:19) The form of this repayment is harsh indeed: “I will bring him to Babylon and execute judgment on him there because he was unfaithful to me. All his choice troops will fall by the sword, and the survivors will be scattered to the winds.” (17:20, 21)

[We can assume that Ezekiel’s author writes after the fact rather than foretelling the fate of this foolish act and this foolish king. Even so, it is certainly easy to see God’s hand in these events.]

Having dispensed with this betrayal, Ezekiel, speaking as always as the voice of God, changes the subject, turning from punishment to restoration as he and speaks metaphorically of a Messiah who will restore Israel to its former glory: “On the mountain heights of Israel I will plant it; it will produce branches and bear fruit and become a splendid cedar. Birds of every kind will nest in it; they will find shelter in the shade of its branches.” (17:23)

The chapter ends with God’s assertion that he does what he promises to do—whether that be restoration or punishment: “‘I the Lord have spoken, and I will do it.’” (17:24) And as this chapter tells us, God will punish and God will restore.

Chapter 18 performs an important theological duty. Once again speaking in God’s voice, Ezekiel announces that the old proverb that states the children are punished for the sins of their parents is no longer valid: “What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”? As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel.” (18: 2, 3) Rather, God puts it quite clearly. It is the wrongdoer that will endure the consequences of his sin: “The one who sins is the one who will die.” (18:4)

A long poetic disquisition describing the acts of a righteous man follows, concluding that
He [who] follows my decrees
    and faithfully keeps my laws.
That man is righteous;
    he will surely live,
declares the Sovereign Lord.” (18:9)

Then, Ezekiel writes of the sinful acts of the righteous man’s son, asking rhetorically, “Suppose he has a violent son, who sheds blood or does any of these other things  (though the father has done none of them)…Will such a man live?” (18:10, 13a) The prophet states quite clearly that the fate of the sinful person is determined by his own acts. The righteousness of his father does not protect him from punishment as God’s rhetorical question is answered in the strongest possible terms: “He will not! Because he has done all these detestable things, he is to be put to death; his blood will be on his own head.” (18:13b)

But if the son of the wicked man is righteous, and “He keeps my laws and follows my decrees” (18:17a), then, “He will not die for his father’s sin; he will surely live.” (18:17b)

The idea of bearing the consequences of one’s own sins or one’s own righteousness may seem obvious to us who believe in individual responsibility. After all, this concept is at the very foundation of western justice. But as this passage points out there was once a widespread belief that children were punished for the sins of their parents, or that sinful sons were excused by virtue of being the children of righteous parents.

Unfortunately, this concept of personal responsibility, of bearing the consequences of one’s own actions, is being undermined in American jurisprudence with the relentless growth of the idea that sinful acts are the consequence of being a member of a victim class.

Hebrews 13:20–James 1:8: Our Hebrews author concludes his letter with an effusive and really quite lovely benediction: “Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep,  equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.” (13:20, 21)

Like Paul, our author is a great believer in postscripts and he keeps on writing in what I think is a marvelously ironic statement: “Brothers and sisters, I urge you to bear with my word of exhortation, for in fact I have written to you quite briefly.” (13:22) If the preceding 13 chapters are the author’s “brief” thoughts on this new theology, one can only imagine the length of his more comprehensive writings!

We do at least get a couple of personal notes. Whoever our author was—and we’re quite sure it’s not Paul—he also knew Timothy, who has apparently just been released from prison. He also writes that “Those from Italy send you their greetings.” (13:24) so we can surmise that the letter was written from Rome. And thus ends this most theologically dense treatise.

As is sometimes the Moravians’ habit, we move immediately to the next book, James—the epistle that Luther called “a book of straw” because of—as we shall see—its relentless emphasis on good works.

The author of James appears to be writing at a time of trial for the very young Christian church: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.” (1:2, 3)

As far as James is concerned, faith is all about assurance; there is no room for doubt: “But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.” (6). Moreover, the doubter “should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.” (7, 8)

Speaking as a Christian whose faith is given to occasional doubts, I’m pretty sure this is not going to be my favorite epistle in the NT…

Psalm 118:10–14; Ezekiel 16:43–17:10; Hebrews 13:7–19

Originally published 10/11/2017. Revised and updated 10/10/2019.

Psalm 118:10–14: Our psalmist is writing in the first person, who is presumably the king or high-ranking military leader describing his military victory:
All the nations surrounded me.
With the Lord’s name I cut them down.
They swarmed round me, oh the surrounded me.
With the Lord’s name I cut them down. (10, 11)

What’s fascinating here is that his single weapon is “the Lord’s name.” In other words, uttering the name of God—presumably ‘Yahweh’—is sufficient to crush the enemy. There’s a bit of hyperbole here as one wonders: Did he pray for victory in “the Lord’s name” as we have witnessed in so many psalms preceding this one? Or did he simply utter “Yahweh” on the battlefield and the enemy fell? Personally, I’ll take the former over the latter.

Nevertheless, the lesson for us is profound: whatever we are able to accomplish does not come from some sort of inner strength that we magically call upon in moments of crisis. Rather, whatever power we can muster comes from God; we are merely his channel of action.

Our psalmist continues in this vein with a couple of remarkable similes and again tells us that whatever power he had rested in God’s name alone:
They swarmed around me like bees,
burned out like a fire among thorns.
With the Lord’s name I cut them down. (12)

He reminds his enemies of their perfidies, reminding them of their futile efforts as they were overcome by calling upon God’s name:
You pushed me hard to knock me down,
but the Lord helped me. (13)

The concluding verse is the “takeaway” for all of us:
My strength and my might is Yahweh,
and He has become my rescue. (14)

In reflecting on this verse, the most pertinent question for me is, do I trust in God with the intensity that is on display here to engage in my own battles? We have seen throughout the OT that names are powerful instruments and there is no name more powerful than God’s. But we must trust utterly in God when call upon his power, recognizing that without that trust nothing can occur—much less any great thing.

Ezekiel 16:43–17:10: No prophet can top Ezekiel when it comes to creative ways to describe Judah’s sin against God as it perverted itself in worshipping other small-g gods. Besides false worship the other sin is what it always is: the prideful arrogance of power that not only ignores the needs of the poor but exploits them. Ezekiel reaches back in history and describes the core sin of Sodom, which is the metaphorical name here for Judah. But  the sin of sexual perversion is not the only sin God is angry about. As always pride lies behind every sin: “Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me.” (16:49, 50)

We also know how much the Jews hated the Samaritans, but Ezekiel tells them, “Samaria did not commit half the sins you did. You have done more detestable things than they, and have made your sisters seem righteous by all these things you have done. ” (16:51) I’m pretty sure that prophecy made Ezekiel’s Jewish audience even angrier at this upstart prophet.

Perhaps more than any other prophet, Ezekiel is adamant with his listeners that while God punishes he also rescues because of his unbreakable covenant with his chosen people: “I will deal with you as you deserve, because you have despised my oath by breaking the covenant. Yet I will remember the covenant I made with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish an everlasting covenant with you.” (16:60, 61) 

I don’t think it’s a stretch for us Christians to read this prophecy of restoration as looking forward to the atoning death of Jesus Christ on behalf of this “new Israel,” i.e. the church: “will establish my covenant with you, and you will know that I am the LordThen, when I make atonement for you for all you have done, you will remember and be ashamed and never again open your mouth because of your humiliation, declares the Sovereign Lord.’” (16:62, 63) 

But even with that conclusion, Ezekiel, still speaking in God’s voice, is hardly finished. In yet another vivid metaphor, we read how “A great eagle with powerful wings, long feathers and full plumage of varied colors came to Lebanon. Taking hold of the top of a cedar, he broke off its topmost shoot and carried it away to a land of merchants, where he planted it in a city of traders.” (17:3, 4)

The only way I can interpret this is that the Jews will be dispersed into the land of Gentiles, which of course is exactly what had happened by Jesus’ time. Paul started out by taking the message of salvation through Christ not to Gentiles, but the the Jewish synagogues scattered throughout Asia and southern Europe. Ezekiel goes on to describe a metaphorical vineyard that “sprouted and became a low, spreading vine. Its branches turned toward him, but its roots remained under it.” (17:6)  The vineyard grows as “It had been planted in good soil by abundant water so that it would produce branches, bear fruit and become a splendid vine.’” (17:8) I think we can be pretty confident that this is the vineyard Jesus must have had in mind in his Upper Room Discourse of John 15.

But while the vineyard has grown strong, it can be uprooted and wither: “All its new growth will wither. It will not take a strong arm or many people to pull it up by the roots.” (17:9) The central question here is, “It has been planted, but will it thrive? Will it not wither completely when the east wind strikes it—wither away in the plot where it grew?’” (17:10) Is it stretching interpretation too far to see this prophecy of the withering vine as representing the failure of the Jews to accept Jesus as their Messiah? Perhaps this vine has been uprooted by disbelief and the Jewish church fades away to be replaced by the stronger vine of the Gentile church. It certainly seems to be what Paul had recognized by the end of his ministry.

Hebrews 13:7–19: As seems to be typical in NT epistles, we encounter a summary list of exhortations to the author’s community. These instructions include “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you.” (7); “Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings.” (9a); and “It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, not by eating ceremonial foods, which is of no benefit to those who do so.” (9b)

As he notes, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” (8) so we, too, must remain constant of we are to become imitators of him.

Our author seems especially concerned about the community following its leadership—and one has the feeling he’s referring to himself: “Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account.” (17)

What’s interesting here is the idea that the leadership is in turn responsible to “give an account” to a still higher authority. How many Christian communities have gone astray because its leadership was accountable to no one? As much as we poo-poo denominational authority such as bishops, they serve a useful purpose of helping individual communities remain theologically orthodox—unless of course the bishops themselves tend to wander astray and concern themselves with peripheral issues, especially the latest social trend d’jour.

Equally important as our author’s instructions are the theological verities of this concluding section:
• “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” (8)
• “Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood.” (12)
• “For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.” (14)

At the center of it all is worship—or as the saying goes, ‘It’s all about Jesus:’ “Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name.” (15) And having worshipped, we are to go out into the world and be witness, especially through our actions, not just our words: “And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.” (16)

Many churches write their own mission statements. But these two verses certainly seem sufficient in and of themselves to serve as a mission statement for any congregation.

Finally, here at the very end we encounter a personal note:” Pray for us. We are sure that we have a clear conscience and desire to live honorably in every way. I particularly urge you to pray so that I may be restored to you soon.” (18, 19) Whoever this author is, it’s clear that he is writing from a distance. This is probably one of the reasons why early interpreters viewed Paul as the author. 

Psalm 118:1–9; Ezekiel 16:1–42; Hebrews 12:25–13:6

Originally published 10/9/2015 (Psalm 10/9/2016). Revised and updated 10/9/2019.

Psalm 118:1–9: This thanksgiving psalm—”Acclaim the Lord, for He is good,/ forever is His kindness” (1)— appears to be a liturgical psalm used in collective worship:
Let Israel now say:
forever is His kindness.
Let the house of Aaron now say:
Forever is His kindness.
 (2, 3)

We could take these verses as being a responsive reading: one line spoken by the congregation (Israel) and a response by the priests (house of Aaron). And then spoken together by all:
Let those who fear the Lord now say:
forever is His kindness. (4)

Then, there’s a sudden shift to a first person supplication, which nevertheless could be intoned by the congregation:
From the straits I called toYah.
Yah answered me in a wide-open place.

And in that answer, the psalmist—and we—can take immense comfort, no matter what trials we may face:
The Lord is for me, I shall not fear.
What can humankind do to me?

I am sure that it is in this verse where many Christian martyrs found their peace.

For the psalmist, God is on his—and our—side:
The Lord is among my helpers,
and I shall see defeat of my foes.

It all boils down in whom we place our trust. As our psalmist observes,
Better to shelter in the Lord,
than to trust in humankind
. (8)

Yet, I tend to do the opposite: I almost invariably place my trust in the tangible and the works of mankind rather than in God.

And in a verse particularly appropriate to this fraught political season:
Better to shelter in the Lord
than to trust in princes.

No matter how noble the prince  may be—and God knows there is hardly a scintilla of nobility out there right now—they, too, are mere fallen humans. In the end, only God is worthy of his trust because God never fails us.

Ezekiel 16:1–42: This chapter is perhaps one of the most striking metaphors in the book, if not the OT. God speaks through Ezekiel describing the life of a woman, who represents Israel, from birth to gruesome death. A female baby is born and abandoned to its fate, and “No eye pitied you, to do any of these things for you out of compassion for you; but you were thrown out in the open field, for you were abhorred on the day you were born.” (5) But God takes mercy on this child, Israel, “As you lay in your blood, I said to you, “Live!” (6b) And God raises this metaphorical child: “You grew up and became tall and arrived at full womanhood; …yet you were naked and bare.” (7). Which I take to be people who do not know God. God passes by again and “and covered your nakedness: I pledged myself to you and entered into a covenant with you, says the Lord God, and you became mine.” (8)

As she becomes a young woman, God adorns her with ornaments and riches and “Your fame spread among the nations on account of your beauty.” (14). I don’t think it’s a stretch to think that this verse refers to Israel at its height under Solomon and the building of the first temple.

God has kept his side of the Covenant and “trusted in your beauty,” but Israel “played the whore because of your fame” (15) as it takes the gifts bestowed on it by God. Instead of following God, who rescued and raised Israel, it has “made for yourself colorful shrines, and on them played the whore;” (16).

Israel has taken up the awful rites of its neighbors, and desecrated God’s highest creation by child sacrifice: “You took your sons and your daughters, whom you had borne to me, and these you sacrificed to them to be devoured. As if your whorings were not enough! You slaughtered my children and delivered them up as an offering to them.” (20, 21)

Ezekiel, speaking in the voice of God, proceeds to summarize Israel’s history as one giant whoring party: “You played the whore with the Egyptians, your lustful neighbors, multiplying your whoring, …You played the whore with the Assyrians, because you were insatiable; you played the whore with them, and still you were not satisfied. You multiplied your whoring with Chaldea, the land of merchants; and even with this you were not satisfied.” (27-29).

God demands justice as Ezekiel concludes this woeful metaphor with awful judgement: “I will judge you as women who commit adultery and shed blood are judged, and bring blood upon you in wrath and jealousy. I will deliver you into [your enemies’] hands, and they shall throw down your platform and break down your lofty places; they shall strip you of your clothes and take your beautiful objects and leave you naked and bare.” (39, 40) At this point, the chapter has circled around to where it began: with a naked and bare body.

The question that hangs in the air is of course what of modern nations that are playing the whore? Will they we be judged as harshly as Israel? Or will we simply fall of our own dead weight of sin?

Hebrews 12:25–13:6: Our author’s warnings to not abandon the gift of grace reach their climax as he makes an indirect reference to the fate of Israel warned of in Ezekiel: “…for if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less will we escape if we reject the one who warns from heaven!” (12:25)  In other words, we are subject to an even higher standard than Israel once was. Quoting Haggai 2:6, he reminds us that God “has promised, ‘Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heaven,” (12:26) pointing out that “what cannot be shaken may remain.” (27b). He asks his community—and us—to remember that “since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks.” (12:28a) Our response to this great unshakable kingdom must be to give back to God “an acceptable worship with reverence and awe.” (12:26b) In short, grace is not only a great gift, and the means by which we enter the unshakable kingdom, it brings with it great responsibility. Exactly as Bonhoeffer tells us in The Cost of Discipleship.

The idea of the unshakable kingdom seems especially appropriate as we see Christians running around claiming that the church is doomed because it is now operating in a hostile post-Christian culture. We forget that we are inheritors of an unshakable kingdom. But “unshakable” does not mean the same thing as “unchanging.” Yes, the truths to which we hold fast are unchanging, but the church itself, while part of that unshakable Kingdom, nevertheless must keep evolving to meet the evolving and ever-changing needs of the society in which it lives.

We are privileged to live in an unshakable Kingdom and with that come ethical and behavioral responsibilities to which our author turns in this final chapter, where our author—either knowingly or unknowingly—recapitulates Jesus’ final words at the end of Matthew 25.. We are to love each other “mutually” (13:1), show hospitality to strangers for in the famous phrase, “by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (13:2), and remember those in prison, especially “those who are being tortured.” (13:3). We are to honor the sanctity of marriage “for God will judge fornicators and adulterers.” (13:4) and “Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have.” (13:5) I think in many regards the issue is less the money and more in being content with what we have. I have to say, that following cancer and an enhanced awareness of my mortality, I am now far more content with what I have than I once was.

And finally, in what must be a “Holy Spirit coincidence,” which is to say, not a coincidence at all, our author quotes that famous verse from today’s Psalm (118:6): “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?” Which in the end is what all our author’s instructions boil down to: worship, love and fear God and we will never be afraid. What a wonderful promise!

Psalm 117; Ezekiel 14:12–15:8; Hebrews 12:14–24

Originally published 10/8/2015 (Psalm 10/8/2016). Revised and updated 10/8/2019.

Psalm 117: This is the shortest Psalm and the shortest chapter in the bible. But in its brevity lies profundity. Rather than focusing on the poet or even the entire nation of Israel, it is universal. God is the God of all humankind and the worship of all humankind is our response:
Praise the Lord, all nations;
extol Him, all peoples.

The two qualities of God that the psalmist brings out are his kindness and his truth. God’s kindness is more than adequate; it is overflowing:
For His kindness overwhelms us, (2a)

Reflect for a moment on the implications of this phrase. What would it feel like to be overwhelmed with kindness? Especially God’s kindness. What a sense of connection and peace that would be.

God’s truth is the pillar that stands alongside his kindness:
…and the Lord’s steadfast truth is forever. (2b)

God’s truth is not just comparative. It does not merely stand among other “truths;” it trumps every idea of ‘truth,’ especially in this age of individualism where one person’s ‘truth’ is whatever he or she deems it to be.

Moreover, God’s truth transcends time; it is forever; never changes and it never wavers. It is the one reference point to which we can find all other truth. Alas, having abandoned God’s truth, we have become a culture that is adrift and sinking fast.

Jesus makes this universality of God’s kindness and truth crystal clear, especially in the gospel of John. We can trace this verse directly to John 3:16: “For God so loved the world…” With the psalmist, we can only conclude with that single, joyful response: “Hallelujah.”

Ezekiel 14:12–15:8: In this unusual (even for Ezekiel!) passage, God names three men from history: “even if Noah, Daniel, and Job, these three, were in it, they would save only their own lives by their righteousness, says the Lord God.” (14:14)  And then again: “…even if Noah, Daniel, and Job were in it, as I live, says the Lord God, they would save neither son nor daughter; they would save only their own lives by their righteousness. (14:20). [There’s probably some dispute as to whether this Daniel is the Daniel described the book of Daniel, but let’s just go with tradition here.]

So, why these three? Why Noah, who is pre-Abrahamic? Or Job, who had nothing whatsoever to do with Israel—and if he’s an actual historical figure, he certainly predates Israel? And then Daniel, who may in fact be a contemporary of Ezekiel? Why not David or Moses or Elijah or some of the usual founding fathers of Israel? The thing these three seem to have in common is that there were righteous without fault. Noah obeyed God even in the face of derision. Job followed God even to the point of despair and total loss of his wealth, his family, and his health. Daniel obeyed God’s precepts even to the point of mortal danger in the lion’s den. They are shining examples of unblemished righteousness.

Speaking to Ezekiel, God is saying that the righteousness of these men does not rub off on the population of Israel. They cannot atone for the grotesque sins of the people of Jerusalem.  Only Jesus will be able to do that, and he’s several centuries off in the future.

So, what does this story mean to us in the here and now? First, I think it’s a simple statement that each of us is individually responsible for our actions before God. Second, even though there may be a few righteous people–and some prophets– in a corrupt society, that alone will not save the larger society. And, frankly, I think that is a warning for us right here in America. That our leaders can say “God bless America” all we want, but it is a hollow phrase without righteousness in the land.

Instead of righteousness we have the striking metaphor of a dead and useless grapevine:
    Is wood taken from it to make anything?
        Does one take a peg from it on which to hang any object?
    It is put in the fire for fuel;
         when the fire has consumed both ends of it
    and the middle of it is charred,
          is it useful for anything? (15:3,4)

One cannot read this poem without instantly thinking of Jesus’ vine metaphor in the Upper Room Discourse. The contrast is stark. Either we can be part of the growing, living vine or we can be useless dead wood fit only for the fire–and even then not very useful. The choice is ours. For Ezekiel, the warning is stark: “And I will make the land desolate, because they have acted faithlessly, says the Lord God.” (15:8) All empires eventually fall. How will ours fall? Into a rubble of dead grape wood? Or will we turn around and repent? I am not optimistic.

Hebrews 12:14–24: One of the great contrasts of my own religious upbringing is the concept of grace. In the Evangelical Free Church, it was a matter of “accepting Jesus into my heart.” It was all about my “decision for Christ” and once you understand and comprehend what Jesus did for you, you are qualified for baptism.  The wonderful gift of the Lutheran Church for me has been the idea that grace arrives from Jesus without our bidding–and we are baptized long before we know what is going on.

But at some point we have to make a decision as conscious beings whether we accept that already present grace or not. That’s what our author is getting at here: “See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble, and through it many become defiled.” (12:15) He uses the example of Esau, “an immoral and godless person” (16) who, having sold his birthright, could not obtain the blessing. I think what our writer is saying, is that having once accepted grace, we had best not subsequently reject it. But does that mean all who have rejected the church have therefore rejected grace? I’d like to think not, and that there is always the possibility of redemption.

The other point is that God’s grace has its dangerous qualities–something CS Lewis captures in loving but dangerous Aslan in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Our writer here says, “You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them.” (18, 19) In other words, our belief is not something to be fooled around with or casually tossed off. But unlike Moses, who said “I tremble with fear,” (21) we have a new way to approach the Throne of God, “Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” (24). So, in the end, God’s grace really is all about Jesus. Why would we ever reject so great a gift?

Psalm 116:14–19; Ezekiel 13:1–14:11; Hebrews 12:1–13

Originally published 10/7/2015. Revised and updated 10/7/2019.

Psalm 116:14–19: These concluding verses are the verbal and physical expression of the psalmist’s gratitude for God’s rescue:
My vows to the Lord I shall pay
in the sight of all his people. (14).

Thanksgiving to God is a formal public act. It consists of more than a quick prayer to God for saving us and then getting on with our lives. Both God and the community will witness a specific act of gratitude. Here, of course, the form of thanksgiving is a sacrifice in the Temple at Jerusalem, which is noted specifically at verse 17:
To You I shall offer a thanksgiving sacrifice
and in the name of the Lord I shall pay.

The question is, how often do I give thanksgiving in public? Or do I consider it just a private “between me and God” thing?

As he stands before the altar, our psalmist recalls his human connections and reminds himself that he is God’s creature:
I beseech you, Lord,
for I am Your servant.
I am Your servant, Your handmaiden’s son. (16a)

His mother, the “handmaiden” was faithful, so he will be as well, recognizing himself as God’s servant. We see his humility as he recognizes that he does not exist in isolation, but is a son. And there are others who came before him whom he will honor as well.

This is quite a contrast with our incessant demand in America—more than any other culture, I think—that our highest calling is to ourselves. We think our priority is that we be fulfilled as individuals; that “I” comes that before other people—and before God. We forget that we are God’s creatures and that we are connected to the generations that have come before us. We are not autonomous beings free to do anything we please and ignore those who came before us or those who surround us today. The psalmist thanks God because not only because he is grateful, but that he remembers both his position before God in Creation  and his human connectedness. Without that awareness, I think true humility would be impossible.

Ezekiel 13:1–14:11: In Ezekiel’s day Jerusalem must have been crowded with professional prophets. (Perhaps today’s political pundits on cable news shows are a their direct descendants.) These false prophets rely only on their own imaginations: “Thus says the Lord God, Alas for the senseless prophets who follow their own spirit, and have seen nothing!” (13:2) It’s one thing to follow one’s imagination, believing one is connected to God. But it’s quite another to mislead others: “Your prophets have been like jackals among ruins, O Israel.” (13:4).  Moreover, these supposed prophets talk a big game but do not act for the greater good of the community: “You have not gone up into the breaches, or repaired a wall for the house of Israel, so that it might stand in battle on the day of the Lord.” (13:5)

False prophets are despised by God because not only have they “have uttered falsehood and envisioned lies,” (13:8) but worse, “they have misled my people, saying, “Peace,” when there is no peace; and because, when the people build a wall, these prophets smear whitewash on it.” (13:10) We are currently surrounded by ostensible prophets who say peace when there is no peace. Both the false prophets and those who listen to them want to believe that everything will be just hunky-dory. Which is why we have ended up with politicians and leaders who tell us only what they think we want to hear. This happened in Jerusalem, too: “the prophets of Israel who prophesied concerning Jerusalem and saw visions of peace for it, when there was no peace.” (13:16)

The greatest sin, I think, is whitewashing the wall, which I take as a metaphor for saying things are or will be better than they actually are. And when the crisis comes, as it surely will, when “the wall falls, will it not be said to you, “Where is the whitewash you smeared on it?”” (13:12) True prophets are those who tell the people what they need to hear, not what they want to hear.  True prophets do not engage in the curse of our political age: magical thinking, which is not only saying things that are not true but it is making promises that cannot possibly be fulfilled. God recognizes their falsehoods that have been used to bad ends. In order to spare the people from their lies, he strips them of their prophetic powers: “you have encouraged the wicked not to turn from their wicked way and save their lives; therefore you shall no longer see false visions or practice divination; I will save my people from your hand. Then you will know that I am the Lord.” (13:22b, 23) 

On the other hand, Ezekiel must have had some street cred in Jerusalem because, “Certain elders of Israel came to me and sat down before me.” (14:1) God gives Ezekiel insight and he knows “these men have taken their idols into their hearts, and placed their iniquity as a stumbling block before them.” (14:3) God’s admonition, which he speaks through Ezekiel, never varies: “Repent and turn away from your idols; and turn away your faces from all your abominations.” (14:6). But we know from its history that Israel did not repent; it did not turn away from idols, and it suffered the consequences. Which is also why I am not terribly optimistic about our present situation. It seems we are turning ever more enthusiastically to our idols: the cult of ourselves. Will we keep listening to and believe our own false prophets? Will things eventually get so bad that we will repent and turn back toward God?

Hebrews 12:1–13: Having listed his extensive “catalog of faith” in the previous chapter, our writer summarizes in the most famous verses of his epistle: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,” (1) This is the same sense of connectedness that our psalmist above feels when he thanks his mother and implicitly, all who came before him. Our writer is reminding us that we are linked to those great heroes of the faith when we repent and persevere “the race set before us.” But we have something far greater than the even the psalmist had. We are “looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” (2a)

And now our author comes to the greatest example of faith of all he has named: Jesus, “who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” (2b) The writer asks us to “Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.” (3) Even though we may be suffering, we will not suffer as greatly as Jesus did: “In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.” (4)

There can be only one conclusion as we reflect on the faithful cloud of witnesses: Jesus is our touchstone and the one whom we are to imitate in our daily lives. Which is exactly what our author says, “Endure trials for the sake of discipline.” (7a) After all, our parents disciplined us, he goes on to say, and short term pain “yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” (11) A life that attempts to avoid pain is a failed life. Discipline, as we look toward Jesus, is what gives us strength. Our author provides one final exhortation to stop cowering and get out into the battle that is the true Christian life: “Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees,  and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.” (12, 13).

The question is: will I do that? Will I willingly face adversity? Or will I prefer the prophets who whitewash reality?

Psalm 116:7–13; Ezekiel 11:16–12:28; Hebrews 11:29–40

Originally published 10/6/2015. Revised and updated 10/5/2019.

Psalm 116:7–13: Our psalmist realizes he has been rescued by God and tells himself,
Return, my being, to your calm,
for the LORD has requited you. (7)

Notice how he describes something akin to what people who’ve had a near-death experience as he seems to rise up outside his body by using the second person pronoun, “you” referring to himself. This is an existential freedom:
For You freed me from death,
my eyes from tears,
my foot from slipping. (8)

In a verse reminiscent of Psalm 23, he expresses his gratitude by being able to walk alongside God “in the lands of the living.” (9) As he walks he realizes that as he suffered he was too cynical:
Oh, I was sorely afflicted—
I in my rashness said,
‘All humankind is false.’ (10b, 11)

Which is to basically accuse God of making a mistake in having created humankind in the first place. This suggests that whatever bad thing that had happened to him was caused by others, leading to deep cynicism about the people around him and then to all humanity.

I think we tend to do exactly the same thing because it is awfully easy to become deeply cynical about the motives and behaviors of those around us—especially those with whom we disagree. This verse forces us to realize that human beings are indeed God’s creation and to categorize them for what they believe or who they are goes against God’s will. Nevertheless, that’s hard to do when, like the psalmist, we have been the injured party.

I have to think that this psalm is one place where Jesus picked up his ‘turn the other cheek’ theme.

Realizing his mistake, our psalmist asks,
What can I give back to the Lord
for all He requited to me? (12)

What God has given back to him in his restored state is,
The cup of rescue [that] I lift
and in the name of the Lord I call. (13)

This is what God does: He is our Great Rescuer. And we worship him.

Ezekiel 11:16–12:28: Ezekiel has cried to God, “Ah Lord God! will you make a full end of the remnant of Israel?” (11:13), wondering if God will destroy the entire Jewish race. But God responds, “Though I removed them far away among the nations, and though I scattered them among the countries, yet I have been a sanctuary to them for a little while in the countries where they have gone.” (11:16) There will be restoration as God “will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them; I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh.” (11:19) God is very clear what this changed heart accomplishes: “so that they may follow my statutes and keep my ordinances and obey them.” (11:20a) as we come to the wonderful promise, “Then they shall be my people, and I will be their God.” (11:20b)

But that will happen only if they give up their evil practices and “as for those whose heart goes after their detestable things and their abominations, I will bring their deeds upon their own heads, says the Lord God.” (11:21). Israel—and we—must be willing to exchange our hearts of stone for a heart of flesh.

This interlude of promise fades as the theme turns what exactly Ezekiel must do “in the midst of a rebellious house, who have eyes to see but do not see, who have ears to hear but do not hear.” (12:1). This verse provides context for when Jesus utters his own eyes/ears statements. Any Jew familiar with the prophet Ezekiel would know exactly what Jesus was saying. Surely the Pharisees who heard him knew these verses and realized that Jesus was accusing them of being “a rebellious house,” on a par with the idol worshippers of old Israel. Since they saw themselves as the exact opposite, it’s little wonder even Jesus’ statements that appear anodyne inflamed the religious leaders around him.

God turns Ezekiel into an object lesson, commanding him to “bring out your baggage by day in their sight, as baggage for exile; and you shall go out yourself at evening in their sight, as those do who go into exile.” (12:4) Since Ezekiel was a well-known inhabitant of Jerusalem, God observes that people will ask questions. In response, Ezekiel is to say, ““I am a sign for you: as I have done, so shall it be done to them; they shall go into exile, into captivity.” (12:11), which of course is exactly what eventually happens.

Then God commands Ezekiel, “Mortal, eat your bread with quaking, and drink your water with trembling and with fearfulness,” (12:17) which is an object lesson to Jerusalem and Israel that “They shall eat their bread with fearfulness, and drink their water in dismay, because their land shall be stripped of all it contains, on account of the violence of all those who live in it.” (12:19). What’s fascinating here is that God seems to have given up on Jeremiah-like verbal pronouncements of doom, instead using Ezekiel as an object lesson of what is to come. It’s almost as if God has to use the more powerful visual rather than aural medium to make his point obvious through Ezekiel’s actions. Had movies been at God’s disposal in that era, I’m sure he would have made Ezekiel become a film maker.

Hebrews 11:29–40:Our author’s extensive catalog of “heroes of faith” and “historical actions of faith” continues apace drawing on well-known Old Testament stories.
— “By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land.” (29)
— “By faith the walls of Jericho fell…” (30)
— “By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient” (31)

Our writer is passionate on this issue of faith: “And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets—” (33) and then catalogs the amazing deeds that faith has accomplished: “who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.” (33, 34).

‘OK,’ his listeners might say, ‘We get your point but this is ancient history. We are suffering right here and now for our faith. What about us?’ Our writer then proceeds to list the gruesome trials that the community’s contemporaries have suffered: torture, mocking, flogging, chains, imprisonment, stoning, sawn in two, killed by sword, destitute, persecuted, tormented.” He’s saying, in effect, ‘you think you have it hard? Come on, people!’ 

Which is a frame of reference we Christians in 21st century America should consider when we think all of society is against us and that we have it so hard. If the author of Hebrews were writing today, I think we would say, ‘Quit whining! Think about the Christians in the Middle East that are fleeing their homelands and others being beheaded for their faith. They are faithful, why aren’t you?’ Putting this chapter into our modern context is a sobering exercise. Maybe my faith isn’t so strong after all.

Psalm 116:1–7; Ezekiel 10:1–11:15; Hebrews 11:17–28

Originally published 10/5/2017. Revised and updated 10/4/2019.

Psalm 116:1–7: Unlike many psalms of supplication that express frustration that God is nowhere to be found or is not hearing one’s prayers, this psalm of thanksgiving opens with gratitude for a listening God:
I love the Lord, for he has heard
my voice, my supplications.
For He has inclined His ear to me
when in my days I called. (1,2)

It’s clear that the psalmist’s prayers occurred at a time of great physical distress, perhaps from an illness or being wounded on the battlefield. In any event we see that it was a desperate near-death situation:
The cord of death encircled me—
and the straits of Sheol found me—
distress and sorrow did I find. (3)

In that desperate circumstance, it is often the simplest and shortest of prayers that God hears:
And in the name of the Lord I called.
‘Lord, pray, save my life.‘ (4)

There’s a lesson here for those of us who embellish our prayers with lengthy details or worse, IMHO, pray stuff like, “If it be your will.” God doesn’t need fancy paragraphs with our request hidden somewhere in the middle. A simple declarative sentence will do.

And when God answers, our prayer of thanksgiving can be equally straightforward:
Gracious the Lord and just,
and our God shows mercy. (5)

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this prayer is not how God answers prayers, but how he calms our emotional and psychological anxieties. Our psalmist describes how, when we know God has heard our prayer, we experience inner peace:
I plunged down, but me He did rescue.
Return, my being, to your calm,
for the Lord has requited you. (6, 7)

God is not only a rescuing God he is a calming God. And in these fraught times when we see evil on full display all around us, it is in God’s peace that we find our own succor.

Ezekiel 10:1–11:15:  Ezekiel has returned to the temple in Jerusalem. In this extravagant vision, God himself is present: “The cloud filled the temple, and the court was full of the radiance of the glory of the Lord.” (10:4b) There is a mysterious man clothed in linen, who is commanded by God to take fire from the cherubim. I would not be surprised if some Christians interpret this man as being Jesus Christ.

Ezekiel’s vision provides even more imaginative details about those cherubim who move around on interlocking wheels. The cherubim, who are riding them, control how the wheels move and halt. Ezekiel sees no other control and concludes that “the spirit of the living creatures was in them.” (10:17)

The centerpiece of this vision is that God abandons the temple, presumably because of the idolatrous abominations being performed within its walls: “Then the glory of the Lord went out from the threshold of the house and stopped above the cherubim.” (10:18) It appears that the cherubim accompany God back to heaven: “The cherubim lifted up their wings and rose up from the earth in my sight as they went out with the wheels beside them.

We also get a rather ominous sense of being watched by these four-faced creatures, whose “entire bodies, including their backs, their hands and their wings, were completely full of eyes, as were their four wheels.” (10:21)

At the end of chapter 10 we don’t yet know what the man dressed in linen holding fire is going to do with it.

As chapter 11 opens, Ezekiel is taken up by what I gather to be the Holy Spirit and deposited at the eastern entrance of the temple where he sees 25 men, whom I presume to be religious leaders, standing there. God tells Ezekiel “Son of man, these are the men who are plotting evil and giving wicked advice in this city.” (11:2) Ezekiel, still operating under the power of the Spirit, tells them they are hypocrites who may be talking God talk, but that God knows “what is going through your mind. You have killed many people in this city and filled its streets with the dead.” (11:6)

The prophet then tells them that “This city will not be a pot for you, nor will you be the meat in it;” (11:11) which is a symbolic way of telling them that their plans to exploit the people will fail because God “will execute judgment on you at the borders of Israel…for you have not followed my decrees or kept my laws but have conformed to the standards of the nations around you.” (11:12)

Even as Ezekiel speaks, one of the leaders promptly dies. This is pretty distressing to the prophet, who “fell facedown and cried out in a loud voice, “Alas, Sovereign Lord! Will you completely destroy the remnant of Israel?” (11:13) But God reminds him that these people in Jerusalem are the ones who have been plotting to destroy the remnant and take their land and possessions: “the people of Jerusalem have said of your fellow exiles and all the other Israelites, ‘They are far away from the Lord; this land was given to us as our possession.’” (11:15)

These visions are certainly striking and I’m waiting for the movie depicting this vision and the encounter with the 25 men standing at the temple entrance. But as for theological content beyond God leaving the temple, I’m not sure there’s much beyond there are things in heaven that are otherworldly, which we cannot understand or describe—although I give credit to Ezekiel for trying.

Hebrews 11:17–28: In this perhaps the most well-known section of this epistle we encounter our author’s famous catalog of faithful Jewish patriarchs, beginning with Abraham’s own faith that God would rescue his son Isaac whom he was directed to sacrifice. But he puts an interesting twist on it by asserting that “Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.” (19) Which I assume is meant to remind us that God has indeed raised Jesus from the dead. If Abraham had that kind of faith in resurrection, then so should we.

He then goes on to list the faithful acts of the patriarchs: Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and then Moses. Rather than be known as “the son of Pharaoh’s daughter,” Moses abandons the title and instead “chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin.” (25) This is a clear message to the community: If Moses chose a harder path, so should you.

Then, in what I think is one of the more remarkable assertions in the book, our author states that Moses “regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward.” (26) He concatenates Moses’ trust in God with the “sake of Christ.” The implication here seems to be that Moses was somehow pre-aware that Christ would come to earth at some future point. Or perhaps it is simply that faith in God is the same as faith in Christ.

In any event, the overall theme of this passage is faith. If the patriarchs had faith that God would lead and provide, then so too should we. Faith brings insight and it also brings courage: “By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible.” (27) And like Moses, we too must have faith in the one “who is invisible.”