Psalm 126; Daniel 3:19–4:18; 1 John 4:16b–5:5

Originally published 11/16/2017. Revised and updated 11/15/2019.

Psalm 126: This is another psalm that appears to have been written during the Babylonian captivity. Its opening verse envisions restoration of the land of Israel and the consequent joy of its people. This act of God will border on the unimaginable, as if it were a dream fulfilled:
When the Lord restores Zion’s fortunes,
we should be like dreamers.
Then will our mouth fill with laughter
and our tongue with glad song. (1, 2a)

Israel’s restoration will be sufficiently unexpected that surrounding nations will not only be amazed, but like the people of Israel itself, will realize this can only be God’s doing:
Then they will say in the nations:
‘Great things has the Lord done with these.’
Great things  has the Lord done with is.
We shall rejoice. (2b, 3)

How often has God done the unexpected for me that causes me to rejoice? Surely the fact that I am still here after dealing with advanced cancer more than ten years ago is cause for rejoicing. I, too, have been restored.

In eager anticipation of that wonderful day of restoration our psalmist turns to supplication with a simile that restoration will come unexpectedly like a dry wash in the desert suddenly overflowing with water:
Restore, O Lord, our fortunes
like freshets in the Negeb. (4)

The water image transforms to tears in a metaphor of a man—obviously representing Israel itself—sowing seed in despair but reaping a crop of joy:
They who sow in tears
in glad song will reap.
He walks along and weeps,
the bearer of the seed-bag.
He will surely come in with glad song
bearing his sheaves. (5,6)

I remember well the sense that my life was over when I was diagnosed with cancer. But through excellent care and above all, the prayers of those around me, I live now in gladness. Truly, I have been able to gather in sheaves of healing and joy out of the misery of disease.

Daniel 3:19–4:18: Although biblical knowledge is fading rapidly in our culture I think it’s still a fairly safe bet that most people (most adults, anyway) have heard the story of the fiery furnace. Narcissistic king Nebuchadnezzar demands that the recalcitrant Jews, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, be bound and tossed into the furnace. [And again, I wonder, where is Daniel in all this? Surely he knew what was going on.] The furnace is so overheated that “the raging flames killed the men who lifted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.” (3:20)

Neb looks into the furnace and sees “four men unbound, walking in the middle of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the fourth has the appearance of a god.” (3:25) The king commands the three men to come out of the furnace. Mercurial as always, Nebuchadnezzar again appears to be impressed by Israel’s God. He decrees, “Any people, nation, or language that utters blasphemy against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego shall be torn limb from limb, and their houses laid in ruins; for there is no other god who is able to deliver in this way.” (3:29) And he promotes S, M, & A to high positions of authority.

This story is all about trusting God, for which S, M, & A are the poster children. But who is the fourth man with them in the furnace? One’s first guess is that it was an angel, but angels are merely messengers. I doubt that a conventional angel could perform this miracle. Which brings us to the second guess—and one I heard in Sunday School—that the fourth man was Jesus Christ himself, appearing in a hint of another miracle to come. Personally, I think it was one of the “watchers” that Nebuchadnezzar refers to in describing his second dream.

In chapter 4, the scene in this most cinematic of OT books shifts back to Nebuchadnezzar’s palace where he continues to worship the Jewish God, even to the point of singing a song of praise:
How great are his signs,
    how mighty his wonders!
His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom,
    and his sovereignty is from generation to generation. (4:3)

[You have to love the author of this book: it has everything! Drama, bizarre dreams, miracles, theology, poetry, predictions of things to come. It is truly the work of an inspired writer.]

But then Nebuchadnezzar has a second dream; this one more ominous than his first: “I saw a dream that frightened me; my fantasies in bed and the visions of my head terrified me.” (4:5). Neb goes directly to Daniel [whom he has named “Belteshazzar after the name of my god, and who is endowed with a spirit of the holy gods.” (4:8)] and relates the dream.

This time it’s a tall tree, which
grew great and strong,
    its top reached to heaven,
    and it was visible to the ends of the whole earth.” (4:11)

But then a “holy watcher, coming down from heaven” (4:13) commanded that the tree be cut down with only the stump remaining. The core of the dream for me is Nebuchadnezzar’s statement,
Let his mind be changed from that of a human,
and let the mind of an animal be given to him.
And let seven times pass over him. (4:16)

Nebuchadnezzar goes on to tell Daniel that this transformation has been the
…rendered by decree of the watchers,
the decision is given by order of the holy ones,
in order that all who live may know
    that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdom of mortals.
 (4:17)

I have a feeling that the king is not going to be happy with Daniel’s interpretation of this dream. I know I have many dreams at night, but I can recall none so fraught with symbolism as these two dreams of Nebuchadnezzar.

1 John 4:16b–5:5: Even more than Paul in his famous I Corinthians 13 passage on love, John develops an entire theology around God’s love. Love is the very atmosphere in which our relationship with God has been established: “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” (4:16b) There may have been love in the world before now, but through Jesus Christ, “Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world.” (4:17)

And then the famous verse that concatenates love and fear: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” (4:18) That is, the love that we express to others is a direct gift from God. And by Johannine logic, God-given love cannot coexist with hypocrisy: “We love because he first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars” (4:19) It all boils down to being commanded to love others: “The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” (4:21)

Which is really, really difficult when it comes to people we don’t particularly like. Yet, here it is: we are commanded to love others, even the unlikable ones. I know that I have failed again and again in this regard. For me, I think it’s virtually impossible to truly love someone we dislike. It certainly is impossible under our own steam. It takes God’s love filtering through us in order to love others. In fact, in God’s eyes we’re all pretty unlikable; yet God expressed his love for us by sending Jesus into the world.

Love is far more than an emotion or romantic feeling. It is a state of being. We are commanded to love and likewise, God’s love for us motivates us to keep his commandments: “For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.” (5:3) And out of that love comes victory over the wiles of the world: “for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith.” (5:4)

Which causes me to reflect on the nature of that victory. It’s pretty clear that God’s “victory” is not some coup d’etat over the culture that many well-meaning evangelicals would like to see. In fact, here in America very little appears to be going God’s way—or at least what we’d like to imagine is God’s way. No, I think the victory John is describing is God’s victory over our own hearts‚ which happens when (as Oswald Chambers would put it) we abandon our egos and our overweening desire to stay in control by truly handing our lives over to Jesus Christ. I think that is what “victorious love” means.

Psalm 125; Daniel 2:34–3:18; 1 John 4:1–16a

Originally published 11/15/2017. Revised and updated 11/14/2019.

Psalm 125: Given that this song of ascents refers to Mount Zion and not to the temple itself, it’s likely this psalm was written after the destruction of the temple by the Babylonians in 589 BCE:
Those who trust in the Lord
are like Mount Zion never shaken,
settled forever. (1)

Even though the temple has been destroyed, the mountains still stand. Likewise, the psalmist is saying, if we trust God through our trials we too shall stand. In the same way that the mountains surrounding Jerusalem form a defensive perimeter, God will protect us through dire times:
Jerusalem, mountains around it,
and the Lord is around His people
now and forevermore. (2)

Now, the psalm takes on a patriotic tone. Even though Israel is under the oppression of Babylon, it will endure. As indeed it has down through the centuries, while Babylon—the “rod of wickedness”—fell millennia ago:
For the rod of wickedness will not rest
on the portion of the righteous,
so that the righteous not set their hands
to wrongdoing. (3)

Those who trust God may suffer under oppression, but those who follow God will stand firm and not be tempted to be consumed by the oppressor’s culture. This is a message of great relevance to Christians today as we live in an increasingly post-Christian culture. As we pray in the Lord’s prayer, if we remain faithful, God will preserve us from temptation:
Do good, O Lord, to the good
and to the upright in their hearts. (4)

As usual, there is a clear bifurcation between those who do good and those who do evil as the psalm prays that evildoers will receive their just desserts:
And those who bend to crookedness,
may the Lord take them off with the wrongdoers. (5a)

This patriotic psalm ends with the exclamation: “Peace upon Israel!” I suspect that this song brought patriotic succor to those Jews being held captive in Babylon. And I assume it brings pride to Jews around the world today.

Daniel 2:34–3:18: Daniel describes Nebuchadnezzar’s dream: The statue with a head of godl and feet of clay that the king saw in his dream is destroyed by “a stone was cut out, not by human hands” (2:34) The stone then transforms itself into a mountain.

Daniel then famously interprets the dream. The king himself is the head of gold. Successively inferior kingdoms will follow him in time on down to a divided kingdom represented by two legs of iron. But as Daniel points out, “As the toes of the feet were part iron and part clay, so the kingdom shall be partly strong and partly brittle.” (2:42)

Since iron does not mix with clay, Daniel continues, “in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall this kingdom be left to another people.” (2:44) He concludes his interpretation that the stone, which represents God, has “crushed the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver, and the gold. The great God has informed the king what shall be hereafter.” (2:45)

This dream, which Daniel makes clear represents the arc of history, has been the subject of numerous reinterpretations down through the centuries. Those fascinated by end times have attempted to identify the earthly powers are represented by the legs of iron and feet of clay. When I was growing up there was speculation that the the legs represented the opposing powers of east and west and that the feet of clay represented the Soviet Union. Today, I’m sure there are more updated prophecies having to do with the Middle East and perhaps China. But as Freud’s famous dictum notes, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And sometimes a dream is just a dream.

Needless to say, Nebuchadnezzar was impressed by his interpretation and appointed Daniel “ruler over the whole province of Babylon and chief prefect over all the wise men of Babylon.” (2:48)

I’m not sure why the Moravians have extended the reading to include both the statue dream and the even more famous fiery furnace story in the same day…

Nebuchadnezzar, full of pride doubtless amplified by Daniel telling him that he is the golden head of the statue, erects a 60 cubit high statute. He then invites the kingdom to come to its dedication. When they hear “the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble” (3:5) they are to bow down and worship. Failure to worship results in being cast into the furnace.

Jealous Babylonians, eager to see Daniel and his friends suffer, point out that the Jews, notably, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, are not participating in this mandatory mass worship. Ever the narcissist, Nebuchadnezzar is enraged and announce that the three men must worship his statue on pain of being tossed into the furnace. Needless to say, they refuse, stating, “be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up.” (3:18) Upon reading this story again I’m puzzled as to Daniel’s absence. Did he receive a special dispensation from the king?

Reading these two stories together shows us the arbitrary fickleness of Nebuchadnezzar. I think he is the prototype for every monomaniacal leader that has followed him down through history from Roman emperors like Caligula and Nero to 20th century despots like Hitler to 21st century Islamist fanatics. Evil seems to always find its way to dictatorship, which then inevitably falls—but not before exacting tremendous suffering by innocent people. And that, I think, is the lesson of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. Every man who aspires to despotic leadership also has feet of clay.

1 John 4:1–16a: John continues his teaching on discernment, which in his time was testing “the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (4)  He then asserts that “every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. And this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming; and now it is already in the world.” (3) Like the psalm above, there’s a clear bifurcation. It’s one or the other. We can’t have it both ways. As I’ve noted in a previous essay I think that John is railing against those in the church who were preaching a gnostic gospel viewed Jesus as the exemplar of the gnostic goal and that excluded Christians who had not attained the apotheosis of “inner knowledge” or self-awareness. Pretty similar to today’s gurus who preach self-actualization and to recognize our “inner godlike qualities.”

The lesson for us is that we need to discern as well as those early Christians. There are numerous false prophets out there, many of them on TV collecting money from naive widows. I also think that John’s warning is equally against the so-called prosperity gospel that promises wealth to followers—when the only ones who get wealthy are the ones preaching this false message.

The reading includes with John’s famous essay on love: Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” (11, 12)  What’s important here is that true love is not self-generated; it does not live within us but comes directly from God.

John concludes with the Good News being the key to Christian love: “God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.”  (15, 16) In short, we cannot have a relationship with God that is not based on love because “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” (18)

But when I look around inside the church I’m afraid that that love is not always on display. Which of course is why John wrote these words. Self-centered human nature will always try to manufacture love, when true love comes only from God because God is love.

Psalm 124; Daniel 2:1–33; 1 John 3:11–24

Originally published 11/14/2017. Revised and updated 11/13/2019.

Psalm 124: The opening verse of this psalm of thanksgiving for what appears to be a military victory has the leader addressing the congregation:
Were it not for the Lord Who was with us
—let Israel now say

And the congregation replies:
were it not for the Lord Who was for us
when people rose against us,
then they would have swallowed us alive
when their wrath flared hot against us. (2, 3)

The metaphor of death by fire is followed by a metaphor of drowning by flood:
Then the waters would have swept us up,
the torrent come up past our necks.
Then it would have come up past our necks—
the raging waters. (4,5)

It is God who has rescued them—expressed in a third metaphor—this one of escaping from an animal trap set by their enemies:
Blessed is the Lord,
Who did not make us prey for their teeth.
Our life is like a bird escaped
from the snare of the fowlers.
The snare was broken
and we escaped. (6,7)

The song ends on the famous expression of the great truth:
Our help is in the name of the Lord,
maker of heaven and earth. (8)

This psalm and its unsurpassed poetic metaphors is a beautiful encouragement for all who find themselves in a perilous situation and then are rescued. The three different metaphors remind us that God will rescue us from all kinds of different situations. In our increasingly hostile post-Christian culture, this psalm applies not just to physical peril but to emotional danger as well. We are reminded that even when all seems lost, God is still there. And not only there, but through Jesus Christ is our great rescuer.

Daniel 2:1–33: King Nebuchadnezzar [Neb] riven to insomnia by his disturbing dreams. The court officials offer to interpret the dream but only if he tells them what the dream was. Neb replies that if they’re as insightful as they say they are they should be able to tell him both the dream and its interpretation. If they fail, “you shall be torn limb from limb, and your houses shall be laid in ruins.” (5) But great rewards await if they succeed. They are understandably hesitant to take the king up on his offer.

Neb tells them they are stalling for time, but the only way he’ll trust their interpretation is if they can also tell him what he dreamt. The officials state that no one can accomplish the task because “The thing that the king is asking is too difficult, and no one can reveal it to the king except the gods, whose dwelling is not with mortals.” (11) The king is outraged and demands their execution. Just about the time that’s about to happen, “Daniel responded with prudence and discretion to Arioch, the king’s chief executioner” (14) asking why the executioner was in such a rush. Daniel asks for time and that he will both reveal and interpret the king’s dream.

Daniel and his three companions pray fervently in what is essentially a psalm of supplication and then thanksgiving because God has revealed both the dream and interpretation to him:
[God] reveals deep and hidden things;
    he knows what is in the darkness,
    and light dwells with him.
To you, O God of my ancestors,
    I give thanks and praise,
for you have given me wisdom and power” (22, 23a)

Daniel asks the executioner to bring him to the king so he can tell the dream and its interpretation. The key to this entire story is what Daniel first tells the king: No wise men, enchanters, magicians, or diviners can show to the king the mystery that the king is asking,  but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries, and he has disclosed to King Nebuchadnezzar what will happen at the end of days.” (27, 28)

Daniel makes sure that the king understands that “this mystery has not been revealed to me because of any wisdom that I have more than any other living being” (30) but that the insights come from his God.

Daniel then tells the king that he dreamt of looking at a huge statue: “The head of that statue was of fine gold, its chest and arms of silver, its middle and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay.” (32, 33)

[The interpretation of this dream follows tomorrow. Suffice it to say, people cannot leave well enough alone and continue to reinterpret it to fit their own scenarios.]

I take this story as a reminder that it is God who has given us humans the talent and capability not necessarily to interpret dreams but to use the scientific method to explore the world around us and the skills to create ever more impressive technology based on that science. Our gifts of knowledge and insights are truly God-given. It is God “reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what is in the darkness.” Unfortunately, most of us think these insights arise from our own internal smarts, which leads inevitably to hubris and pride.

1 John 3:11–24: At its heart, John’s message is really quite simple: “For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.” (11) This love is the mark of the true Christian and “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another.” (14a) In fact, he continues, “Whoever does not love abides in death.” (14b) There is no ambiguous gray for John. It’s all extremely black and white.

Christ is the great example of true Christian love: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” (16) And if we truly love others as Christ has loved us, we will love “not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” (18) In fact, he asks, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” (17)

Personally, I stand rightly accused as a Christian who has been pretty poor at this love in action thing. If we Christians were truly what we say we are churches would be island of love in an unloving world. Yet, churches are too often bastions of unloving. And I know that all too often I am guilty of failing to love my fellow believers. John is talking right to me when he says, “whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.” (20)

The reading ends with yet another verse that I memorized as a fifth grader back in 1957. I think it is the core definition of what it really means to be a Christian: “And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.” (23) In the end we don’t really need fancy theology. Belief in what Jesus did for us and the resulting love that emerges from that belief is wholly sufficient.

This passage is why I like John so much better than James: our action arises out of love. He delivers the same message as James, but positively, not via the implicit threat of “faith without works is dead.”

Psalm 123; 
Ezekiel 48:23–Daniel 1:21; 1 John 3:1–10

Originally published 11/13/2017. Revised and updated 11/12/2019.

Psalm 123: This short “song of ascents” does exactly that: it moves our vision from earthly things straight upward to heaven by using two remarkable similes of the relationship of slave and master:
To You I lift up my eyes,
O dweller in the heavens.
Look, like the eyes of slaves to their masters,
like the eyes of a slavegirl to her mistress,
so are our eyes to the Lord our God
until He grants us grace. (1, 2)

There’s no mistaking the hierarchy here: we are the lowly slaves looking up in supplication to our master. I’m intrigued by the inclusion of both sexes in the simile: male slaves to their master and female slaves to their mistress. That is to say both men and women are equal in their relationship with God.

What begins as a song ends as a psalm of supplication. The psalmist has apparently been treated with severe contempt (was he a slave?) as he turns to God as his only source of succor:
Grant us grace, Lord, grant us grace,
for we are sorely sated with scorn.
Sorely has our being been sated
with the contempt of the smug,
the scorn of the haughty. (3, 4)

The choice of “sated” as in the feeling of over-fullness dramatically communicates the sense of feeling overwhelmed by the scorn and contempt of oppressors. We certainly see that same scorn and contempt in contemporary attitudes of many elites toward people of faith believing that these benighted souls are stupid and weak requiring the “psychological crutch” of religion.

All these scorners will one day find out that they are not as independently strong as they think they are. How much better it is to turn our eyes upward to God in times of distress than to pretend we are capable of handling every trial on our own. No matter how independent and strong we think we are, we are lost.

Ezekiel 48:23–Daniel 1:21: This over-long book of Ezekiel and its incredibly detailed allocation of territory winds to an almost anticlimactic end by renaming Jerusalem: “the name of the city from that time on shall be, The Lord is There.” (48:35) Which is a fine name, but unless it’s referring to the New Jerusalem that we learn about in Revelation, it’s a name that didn’t stick. Jerusalem is still Jerusalem some 2500 years after this book was written. Happily for us, the Lord is not just “there” but is everywhere.

The book of Daniel opens at the beginning of the Babylonian captivity. King Nebuchadnezzar orders that his palace master Ashpenaz  to identify and bring “young men without physical defect and handsome, versed in every branch of wisdom, endowed with knowledge and insight, and competent to serve in the king’s palace; they were to be taught the literature and language of the Chaldeans.” (4) Subsuming potential leaders into the conqueror’s culture is actually a pretty enlightened way to deal with a conquered land.

We meet four men: Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, all from the tribe of Judah. (7) Daniel is renamed Belteshazzar. (I’m glad that name didn’t stick!) The latter three are famously renamed Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

Life at the palace is pretty sybaritic to the point of unhealthiness so “Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the royal rations of food and wine.” (1:8) The palace master is afraid that this will lead to a “poorer condition than the other young men of your own age, [and] you would endanger my head with the king.” (1:10) Daniel  says let us try this other diet for ten days and then “You can then compare our appearance with the appearance of the young men who eat the royal rations, and deal with your servants according to what you observe. ” (13)

Unsurprisingly, Daniel’s diet is a success, and “At the end of ten days it was observed that they appeared better and fatter than all the young men who had been eating the royal rations.” (14).

Not only are the four healthier than all the others but they are smarter and more skilled. Our author observes that “To these four young men God gave knowledge and skill in every aspect of literature and wisdom.” (17a). And in a hint of things to come, “Daniel also had insight into all visions and dreams.” (17b)

The four men become the go-to guys as far as the king is concerned: “In every matter of wisdom and understanding concerning which the king inquired of them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom.” (20) But as we will see, their wisdom foments resentment among the others in the king’s court.

The takeaway for me in this story is that a healthy diet is an important element of becoming a leader. But more importantly, whatever gifts of intellect and wisdom we may possess ultimately come from God.

1 John 3:1–10: John really digs into the theme of us Christians being God’s children because of his love for us. This love is beyond the world’s understanding: “The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.” (1) There is an eschatological note here as well in the suggestion that at some point in the future we will be transformed with bodies like Jesus’ resurrected body:”Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” (2)

John then launches into a disquisition about the stark binary contrast between a state of sinfulness and the far superior state righteousness: “Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil; for the devil has been sinning from the beginning.” (7, 8) He makes this point even more dramatically a few verses down: “The children of God and the children of the devil are revealed in this way: all who do not do what is right are not from God, nor are those who do not love their brothers and sisters.” (10)

What’s clear here is that as long as we are in a “state of sin” we are effectively separated from Christ. 

I’m pretty sure that this passage is one of the roots of the practice of weekly confession in the Roman Catholic church, as well as the sacrament of extreme unction performed by the priest for people on their deathbed. John seems to be saying that unless we are in a state of righteousness before God we run the risk of being separated because as he puts it, “Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil.”  Personally, I think there’s too strong a sense that we can lose our salvation if we persist in a state of unrighteousness. I’m not sure Paul would necessarily agree with John on this matter. Yes, we have a responsibility to confess our sins, but where is the grace here?

Psalm 122; Ezekiel 47:13–48:22; 1 John 2:18–29

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

Psalm 122: This “song of ascents” is a hymn probably sung by pilgrims who lived in the surrounding countryside making their annual trek to Jerusalem to give sacrifice and worship at the temple. We have an example of this in Luke when Jesus and his family travel from Nazareth to Jerusalem and Jesus remains dialoguing with the rabbis after the rest of his family leaves town.

The goal of the journey is obvious and it is suffused with joy:
I rejoiced in those who said to me:
‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’
Our feet were standing 
in Your gates, Jerusalem.” (2)

This worshipful pilgrimage is required by the law and is expected of every faithful Jew:
An ordinance it is for Israel
to acclaim the name of the Lord. (4b)

Growing up, my siblings and I were expected to go to church every Sunday because that was my father’s rule. I unwillingly obeyed until I graduated from high school. This ordinance became part of my resentment against the church for the ten years while I was at college and throughout my 20’s. But looking back I see that it was a good discipline to go to worship every Sunday—even though the 45-minute long sermons were dull and boring.

Our psalmist describes what the pilgrims will encounter when they arrive at the great city. Jerusalem is not just the seat of worship, it is the center of judicial and political power:
For there the thrones of judgement stand
the thrones of the house of David. (5)

The psalm concludes with a prayer for Jerusalem and its inhabitants and pilgrims that we would probably do well to update to our own center of judicial and political power in Washington DC:
Pray for Jerusalem’s weal.
My your lovers rest tranquil!
May there be well-being within your ramparts,
tranquility in your palaces. (6, 7)

Finally, the psalm turns inward to our own desired attitude toward God:
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
let me seek your good.” (9)

Would that we all turn even briefly away from our individual desires to pray for and work to seek the good the church and of our own Jerusalem.

Ezekiel 47:13–48:22: This section is about as enjoyable as reading the county records that delineate property borders. Which is to say not at all.

The motivation for this lengthy screed appears to be reestablishement of tribal boundaries when Israel returns from its babylonian exile.  Undergirding the entire project is God’s demand that fairness and equality prevail in the allocation process: “You shall divide it equally; I swore to give it to your ancestors, and this land shall fall to you as your inheritance.” (47:14)

Although the land was Israel’s, God’s command extends the requirement to non-Jews, who received full citizenship rights: “You shall allot it as an inheritance for yourselves and for the aliens who reside among you and have begotten children among you. They shall be to you as citizens of Israel; with you they shall be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel.” (47:22) Perhaps we should look back 2500 years to see how an enlightened immigration policy actually works…

As unbelievable as it may seem, chapter 48 is even more boring than 47. It’s at this point that e see a new dimension of God: land surveyor. This chapter describes the exact plots of locations of the temple and Jerusalem’s city limits and surrounding suburbs devoted to agriculture. The focus is on what land is “holy” and allocated to the temple, what belongs to the king, and what belongs to the agrarian inhabitants of Israel.

Although I’m tempted to scoff at this level of detail occupying Scripture, these descriptions are a potent reminder that God is a God of order and fairness. There is nothing random happening here. And since it is written as prophecy it doubtless served a practical purpose, i.e., to quell any territorial disputes that may have arisen as the process of re-habitation took place after the Babylonian exile. Erstwhile lawyers would have little ground to stand on to argue for their clients who may have wanted a bigger piece of land.

1 John 2:18–29: John becomes downright apocalyptic as he warns his community against being duped by various antichrists appearing on the scene. Doubtless they were preaching an anti-gospel that John condemns in the strongest possible terms: “Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ?  This is the antichrist, the one who denies the Father and the Son.” (22)

John must also have been a philosopher because he uses a classical philosophical argument to make his point that the Christians to whom he is writing are anointed in the truth because they have been baptized: “But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and all of you have knowledge. I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and you know that no lie comes from the truth.” (20, 21) 

My guess is that these antichrists were preaching a gnostic message that implied everyone could ascend in self-knowledge to achieve what Jesus had achieved and themselves become divine. John wants to make sure this entire business is squashed in its crib. As we know, battles to fight off gnostic influences raged on for a couple hundred years until the New testament canon was finally agreed to at Nicaea. And in some circles, they rage on today…

 At its core, John’s solution is really quite simple. Rather than listening to these antichrists, he advises his followers to look inside themselves where the Holy Spirit already dwells: “As for you, the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and so you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, abide in him.” (27)  

If we really accept that as Christians that the Holy Spirit dwells in us and we follow what the HS is telling us in our hearts, all will be OK. Unfortunately, what the Holy Spirit says to us is usually means we need to to give up control and our own efforts to achieve the quasi-spiritual self-fulfillment that so permeates our culture today. As always, we will inevitably go astray when it’s all about what we can do ourselves to achieve “spiritual enlightenment” rather than letting the Holy Spirit work within us.

Psalm 121; Ezekiel 46:1–47:12; 1 John 2:12–17

Originally published 11/10/2015. Revised and updated 11/9/2019.

Psalm 121: This well known psalm opens with the beautiful, almost poignant question,
I lift my eyes to the mountains
from where will my help come? (1)

The answer is the next verse reminds me of the power of reading or chanting psalms responsively. The answer comes immediately in the second verse:
My help is from the Lord,
maker of heaven and earth. (2)

Taking the unusual form of dialog, it’s as if another person—a priest perhaps?—answers the questioning pilgrim:
He does not let your foot stumble.
Your guard does not slumber. (3).

We can be sure of God’s protection, both from physical harm (“foot stumble”) and guarding against harm from enemies.  To make sure we understand the vast scope of God’s protection, the psalm opens out to include all Israel under God’s watchful and protective eye:
Look, He does not slumber nor does He sleep,
Israel’s guard. (4)

Then the psalmist’s camera zooms back into a single person:
The Lord is your guard,
the Lord is your shade at your right hand. (5)

We can imagine that in that dry desert climate, where the sun beats down so fiercely, shade was a welcome companion to the traveler. So it is with God , who shades us from harm. In fact, God protects us constantly:
By day the sun does not strike you,
nor the moon by night. (6)

Being shaded from the moon, especially the full moon, was important in those civilizations that believed the moon could lead too easily to madness (lunacy).

Now comes the boldest assertion of all:
The Lord guards you from all harm,
He guards your life. (7)

This protection is permanent, unceasing:
The Lord guards your going and coming,
now and forevermore. (8)

One might argue that we are indeed harmed during our journey through life and that some harm can be fatal. But I don’t think that’s the real point here. The reality that this Psalm communicates so beautifully is exactly that of Psalm 23: God protects us through the darkest times and darkest valleys. But that does not make us impregnable. But the immutable reality is that God is always at our side.

Ezekiel 46:1–47:12: Chapter 46 goes “pure Leviticus” on us as we read the new rules and regulations around festivals and sacrifices that will occur in and around the new temple, including such minutiae as  “whoever enters by the north gate to worship shall go out by the south gate; and whoever enters by the south gate shall go out by the north gate.” (46:9)

There are legal rules as well: “If the prince makes a gift to any of his sons out of his inheritance, it shall belong to his sons, it is their holding by inheritance.” (46:16) On the other hand, if the prince wills his inheritance to his servant, “it shall be his to the year of liberty; then it shall revert to the prince.” (46:17)

There is a final tour of the temple that goes through, of all places, “the kitchens where those who serve at the temple shall boil the sacrifices of the people.” (46:24). Who knew? But when you think about it, kitchens were a practical necessity to deal with all those animal carcasses.

Ezekiel’s tour guide brings him back outside the temple, where a river has appeared and “the water was flowing down from below the south end of the threshold of the temple, south of the altar.” (47:1) The man leads Ezekiel through the water for one thousand cubits until “it was deep enough to swim in, a river that could not be crossed.” (47:5) Since the river flows from the sanctuary, it becomes a river teeming with life: “Wherever the river goes, every living creature that swarms will live, and there will be very many fish, once these waters reach there.” (47:9) and “it will be a place for the spreading of nets; its fish will be of a great many kinds,” (47:10).

In John 7, where Jesus speaks of “living water,” there is no question in my mind that most of his listeners would recall this river image from Ezekiel 46. And the Pharisees would also understand that Jesus was positioning himself as the replacement of this great temple that Ezekiel described. We’re also reminded of the time the disciples spent and unsuccessful night fishing, only to be told by Jesus to spread their nets on the other side.

And of course, water and rivers lead inexorably to baptism. And that through baptism, we are like the trees by the river, whose “leaves will not wither nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary.” (47:12) I don’t think it’s a metaphorical stretch to assert that for us, Ezekiel is describing how our life comes through Jesus Christ.

1 John 2:12–17: John becomes poet or hymn writer addressing everyone as he singles out “little children,” fathers, “young people,” . If we omit the “I am writing to you…” phrases in this poem we have the Gospel message itself:
because your sins are forgiven on account of his name

because you know him who is from the beginning.

because you have conquered the evil one.

because you know the Father.

because you are strong
       and the word of God abides in you,
         and you have overcome the evil one. (12-14)

Notice that John emphasizes the “evil one.” For John, the evil one is all too easy to encounter in everyday life as he advises us, “Do not love the world or the things in the world.” (15) For this is not where we find “the love of the Father.” Indeed, “all that is in the world—the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches—comes not from the Father but from the world.” (16)

And yet, the world is exactly where we almost always look first. We look to fulfill our desires, and our world is exactly like John’s: full of temptations that seem to speak to our desires, but our true desire–the deepest desire of our being, our very existence, is to be loved by someone greater than us. I think every human being desires transcendence, but we look for it in all the wrong places: sex and increasingly, pornography (desire of the flesh”); objects and beauty (“desire of the yes”); wealth and power (“pride in riches”). But it’s all purely transitory: “the world and its desire are passing away,” (17a) Permanence comes from only one source: “those who do the will of God live forever.” (17b)

But I would submit that until we acknowledge our own mortality, realizing that eternal life is only through Jesus Christ to God the Father, most of us will till seek after what the writer of Ecclesiastes calls “vanity.” But as Qoeleth tells us there, we will ultimately seek in vain.

Psalm 120; Ezekiel 44:28–45:25; 1 John 1:5–2:11

Originally published 11/9/2015. Revised and updated November 8, 2019.

Psalm 120: Alter informs us that this is the first of fifteen “songs of ascents,” which could mean anything from a song sung as a pilgrim ascends to the temple mount in Jerusalem to a musical term referring to an increase in pitch as it is sung.

However, there’s no ambiguity about the subject matter of this psalm. the psalmist is calling out to God, who indeed answers, because the supplicant has been the victim of slander:
Lord, save my life from lying lips,
form a tongue of deceit. (2)

As usual, it is speech that is the harmful weapon—as it still is. He asks rhetorically, how does slanderous speech, which certainly hurts the hearer, contribute to the well-being of the speakerÚ
What can it give you, what can it add,
a tongue of deceit. (3)

To slander someone may bring a temporary rush of having cut deeply and wounded another. And if it’s a clever, biting remark, it can even make the speaker feel intellectually superior. But that feeling always fades quickly. All that’s been accomplished is to tear someone down to no larger purpose other than to bring dialog to a screeching halt.

We hear slanderous remarks and accusations everywhere around us–especially during the permanent sliders of Washington, where enemies take the tiniest pieces of trivia out of someone’s past and try to blow it up into something meaningful and hurtful. Slander as a political strategy is even more egregious than “mere slander.” But alas, slander by innunedo seems more widely deployed than ever, especially on the ironically-named “social media.”

There is little doubt that slander is deeply injurious, like
A warrior’s honed arrows
with wood broom coals. (4)

And in the end, the entire atmosphere of discourse becomes poisoned. Like the psalmist, “Long has [our] whole being dwelt among those who hate peace.” (6) We see this every day in the Middle East between Palestinian and Jew, and more recently, in so-called political “discourse” between Democrat and Republican as both sides slander each other, saying with the psalmist,
I am for peace, but when I speak,
they are for war. (7)

Tragic words indeed because no nothing can be said that will not be regarded as slanderous by both sides. Reasonable dialog has been murdered by slander.

Ezekiel 44:28–45:25: This portion of Ezekiel could be termed “Leviticus Revised” as new rules and practices are defined for this fantastic temple yet to come. A giant “holy districts” measuring “twenty-five thousand cubits long and twenty thousand cubits wide; [which] shall be holy throughout its entire extent” (45:1) are to be set aside for “for the priests, who minister in the sanctuary and approach the Lord to minister to him.” (45:4) That’s about 40 square miles. Another 25,000 x 5,000 cubit area “shall be for the Levites who minister at the temple, as their holding for cities to live in.” (45:5) Then all of Israel will be restored.

But there is one condition. God will be living among Israel and God says, “Enough, O princes of Israel! Put away violence and oppression, and do what is just and right. Cease your evictions of my people, says the Lord God.” (45:9)

Ezekiel then outlines a new system of weights and measures: “honest balances, an honest ephah, and an honest bath.” (45:10) which is an attempt to remove corruption from the marketplace and restore honest economics. He goes on to describe the nature of “burnt offerings, grain offerings, and drink offerings, at the festivals, the new moons, and the sabbaths,” (45:17). But something remains unaltered: “In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, you shall celebrate the festival of the passover, and for seven days unleavened bread shall be eaten.” (45:21).

So what are we to make of all these practical instructions regarding a restored Israel? Well, it’s not the devil that’s in the details, but God himself. God continues to be involved in his creation. It’s also as if God is starting over with Israel; that the Covenant will be restored. But only if it “puts away violence and oppression and do what is just and right.” In the end, God demands justice. And we humans just can’t seem to deliver that by ourselves. Did this new Temple and this new Israel ever get built in the size and glory Ezekiel has described? Alas, we know the answer. Ezekiel’s blueprints remain just that.

1 John 1:5–2:11: John engages in one of the great extended metaphors in the New Testament: light and darkness. He asserts “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.” (1:5) And it’s clear what he means by darkness: sin in the sense of separation from God. We are fooling ourselves if we are in sin and think we are walking in the light: “we lie and do not do what is true;” (6). Expressed in modern terms, John is dealing with the issue of denial: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” (8). And in that justly famous verse, John tells us there is a very simple way out of this denial:  “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (9) And just to make sure we get the point about denial, John bookends this verse of confession with the ominous point once again that our denial makes Christ himself a liar: “If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” (10) In short, sin separates us. Confession is the only way back into relationship with Jesus.

How do we avoid this separation in sin? The answer is quite simple: obedience. “Now by this we may be sure that we know him, if we obey his commandments.” (2:3) And worse, if we say we know Jesus saying “I have come to know him,” but does not obey his commandments, is a liar, and in such a person the truth does not exist.” (4) When one reflects on this, this pronouncement is quite harsh because it says that pretending—hypocrisy in its pure form—is an enormous and egregious sin. And it is probably the one that we practice the most.

This is especially true in our relationships with others: “Whoever says, “I am in the light,” while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness.” (9) John rephrases Jesus’ command in this new context: “Whoever loves a brother or sister  lives in the light, and in such a person there is no cause for stumbling.” (10). But unlike Jesus, John reminds us again of the consequences of pretending to carry out Jesus command: “But whoever hates another believer is in the darkness, walks in the darkness, and does not know the way to go, because the darkness has brought on blindness.” (11) For John it’s binary: we are either in the light of love of the darkness of hypocrisy. As much as we would like there to be, there is no middle ground, no ambiguous gray zone when it comes to following Jesus.

Psalm 119:169–176; Ezekiel 43:22–44:27; 2 Peter 3:14–1 John 1:4

Originally published 11/8/2017. Revised and updated November 7, 2019.

Psalm 119:169–176: At long last this interminable psalm reaches its conclusion as our psalmist proves he can indeed come up with an 8-verse stanza for each of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

Following an invocation [“Let my song of prayer come before You, Lord.“] each verse is  a two-line summary of what of what has already been stated many times.

First, there is supplication to God to rescue him:
Let my supplication come before You
as befits Your utterance, save me. (170)

Next, gratitude for the teachings he has received from God by studying the law:
Let my lips utter praise,
for You taught me Your statutes. (171)

Then, that he will communicate his insights to others:
Let my tongue speak out Your utterance,
for all Your commands are just. (172)

The remaining verses are pretty much a reprise of supplication, gratitude and a little humble-brag that he is following God’s precepts/statutes/commands/law:
I desired Your rescue, O Lord,
and Your teaching is my delight. (174)

The psalm concludes on a note of worship as he reflects on how God suffuses his entire being:
Let my being live on and praise You,
and may Your laws help me.
I have wandered like a lost sheep.
Seek Your servant, for Your commands I did not forget. (175, 176)

None of my comments are to denigrate our psalmist, (other than to complain about his verbosity and repetitiveness…) I admire him greatly because he seems to be able to be faithful through the law without requiring grace. I know that I could never be as diligent as he at hewing to every jot and tittle of the Torah on my own.

I am deeply grateful for the grace that Jesus Christ has given me. I can certainly follow God’s law but I also know that I will stumble and fall all the time. But though confession (I John 1:9) I am restored and unlike our psalmist, I need never be in doubt as to my salvation.

Ezekiel 43:22–44:27: Ezekiel’s vision continues as God gives highly detailed instructions about making sacrifices at the new temple.

In the next chapter God announces that the eastern gate of the sanctuary will be permanently closed because “the Lord, the God of Israel, has entered by it; therefore it shall remain shut.” (44:2) Only a prince may eat at it vestibule and then “shall go out by the same way.” (44:3) This is clearly a messianic prophecy. As I recall, the eastern gate of Jerusalem, the one facing the mount of Olives, remains shut to this day.

Instructions about who can enter the temple follow. God is quite clear that there needs to “be an end to all your abominations in admitting foreigners, uncircumcised in heart and flesh, to be in my sanctuary, profaning my temple when you offer to me my food, the fat and the blood.” (44:6, 7) Further, the majority of Levites—the ones commissioned to conduct temple rites—will be punished because “they ministered to them before their idols and made the house of Israel stumble into iniquity.” (44:12) They are forbidden to offer sacrifices but basically become the administrators (and custodians!) of the temple, “to do all its chores, all that is to be done in it.” (44:14)

Only the priestly clan of Zadok will be allowed to offer sacrifices. (44:15). A detailed inventory of what is to be worn while performing their duties follows. I’m especially intrigued by the command that the priests “shall have linen turbans on their heads, and linen undergarments on their loins; they shall not bind themselves with anything that causes sweat.” (44:18) Which given that a lot of fire and heat is involved in offering burn sacrifices seems like a tall order.

Other priestly duties include religious education: “They shall teach my people the difference between the holy and the common, and show them how to distinguish between the unclean and the clean.” (44:23) as well as judges in cases of controversy and administrators of the religious calendar.

As far as I can figure out, this section of Ezekiel is basically a “mini-Leviticus” for establishing religious order in the temple restored by Nehemiah. It’s also a reminder that the Bible is not just history and theology, but also a religious user’s manual. If we needed proof that not every word of the Bible is theologically relevant to us today we find it  right here.

2 Peter 3:14–1 John 1:4: Once again the Moravians cross the epistle boundary as we leave Peter and arrive at John.

Peter again admonishes his flock to be patient about the Second Coming, setting aside their anxieties: “while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.” (3:14, 15)

What’s particularly interesting here is the cross reference to Paul and a letter he has written. Peter acknowledges that Paul’s letter is full of wisdom but that “There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.” (3:16) Which leads me to conclude that Peter must have been writing to the church at Rome because as far as I’m concerned, Paul’s epistle to the Romans is his most difficult and theologically dense letter. It’s also clear from Peter’s comment that some leaders in the church were greatly misinterpreting it.

Peter’s letter concludes with a justly famous verse, which I think is the mission statement for every Christian: “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” (3:18) It really is that simple, folks. Being a Christian is all about growing and maturing.

John’s first epistle opens with an apostolic testimony that it is about “what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life.” (1:1) John is adamant regarding his eyewitness bona fides as he repeats himself, “we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us.” (1:2)

And then to make sure we get his point, he says it a third time: “we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us.” (1;3)

Methinks he doth make his point about being an eyewitness a little too strongly—even to the point of defensiveness. Given that this letter was written sometime toward the end of the first century, I personally think it’s a stretch to assert that our author  here is the same John who was Jesus’ beloved disciple. Then again perhaps an amanuensis has finally written what was orally transmitted down through the years by the actual John.

Be that as it may, John sets the overall tone of the letter to follow with one of the most beautifully straightforward sentences in the New Testament: “We are writing these things so that our  joy may be complete.” (1:4)

Would that I could write with such joy as well.

Psalm 119:161–168; Ezekiel 42:10–43:21; 2 Peter 3:1–13

Originally published 11/6/2015. Revised and updated 11/6/2019.

Psalm 119:161–168: In this penultimate section of this seemingly endless psalm, our psalmist seems to be wrapping things up by recapitulating its key themes.

  • He’s been/being pursued by his enemies; “Princes pursued me without cause.” (161a).
  • God’s word is his highest calling and his greatest joy: “I rejoice over Your utterance/ as one who finds great spoils.” (162)
  • He rejects the temptation to do evil in the pursuit of the good: “Lies I have hated, despised./ Your teaching I have loved.” (163)
  • He reminds God how diligently (obsessively?) he has worshipped God: “Seven times daily I praised You/ because of Your righteous laws.” (164)
  • Those who follow God’s law lead the best possible life: “Great well-being to the lovers of Your teaching,/ and no stumbling block for them.” (165)
  • He asks God to deliver him from his enemies because he has been relentlessly diligent obeying God’s law: “I yearned for Your rescue, O Lord,/ and Your commands I performed.” (166)
  • In the end it is out of his love for the law—rather than God himself—that he follows the law: “I observed Your precepts/ and loved them very much.” (167)
  • And to emphasize that love, he repeats himself: “I observed Your decrees and Your precepts,/ for all my ways are before You.” (168)

But we dare not mock the psalmist’s sincerity nor his example. If one were to precisely follow the Law, the psalmist laws out a clear path. As I have mentioned before, I’m sure the Pharisees of Jesus’ time knew every aspect of this psalm and attempted to follow it as best they could. And even though we live in the grace of Jesus Christ, this is a pretty good example of what obedience looks like. But in the end, as we well know, a relationship cannot be built on following laws; it must be founded in love.

Ezekiel 42:10–43:21: The temple tour ends up at the “holy chambers, where the priests who approach the Lord shall eat the most holy offerings; there they shall deposit the most holy offerings—the grain offering, the sin offering, and the guilt offering—for the place is holy.” (42:13) Everything about it, including the priest’s vestments is holy.

Ezekiel and the measuring angel then go outside where the perimeter is measured. This visionary temple is truly huge: 500 cubits or about 750 feet (2 1/2 football fields) on each side. Then there’s a 500 cubit open space “to make a separation between the holy and the common.” (42:20).  If we’re ever looking for an example of what “holy” as “separate” means, we have Ezekiel’s enormous temple.

Up to this point, the temple has been vacant. But now that construction is complete, it is ready for God to occupy it. In a new vision, Ezekiel sees God off in the distance “coming from the east; the sound was like the sound of mighty waters; and the earth shone with his glory.” (43:2) And God enters the temple and as “the spirit lifted me up, and brought me into the inner court; and the glory of theLord filled the temple.” (43:5)  In surely what is the apotheosis of the grand restoration of Israel, God takes up residence there: “He said to me: Mortal, this is the place of my throne and the place for the soles of my feet, where I will reside among the people of Israel forever.” (43:7a) But God will remain only on the condition that they keep their side of the great covenant: “The house of Israel shall no more defile my holy name, neither they nor their kings, by their whoring,” (43:7b)

God commands Ezekiel to communicate this grand vision of the Temple and God taking up residence in it to Israel. If Israel will but repent and if this temple is built, God will come reside permanently with them.  The reading ends with a description of a grand altar, 18 feet on a side, whose “steps shall face east.” God then provides a description of “the ordinances for the altar,” specifying that “you shall give to the levitical priests of the family of Zadok, who draw near to me to minister to me, says the Lord God, a bull for a sin offering.” (43:19)

So what are we to make of this amazing vision of a restored temple in which God takes up permanent residence if only Israel will repent? I think it is the logical conclusion of the Old Covenant. Although God is God over all creation, Israel is his home among his chosen people. Ezekiel is telling them that they can once again enjoy the glory of the Solomonic age if only they would repent. This is the apotheosis of the Old Testament God. Who, by living in a temple, seems far more constricted and small than the God of creation. But for Ezekiel, this is the God who really mattered.

2 Peter 3:1–13: Peter now focuses on the great promise of the Lord’s return.  [And in one of those interesting OT/NT coincidences created inadvertently by the Moravians (at least I think it’s inadvertent) with Ezekiel’s description of God’s return to Israel.] Peter reminds his community that the world has been destroyed once by flood, but this time it will be by fire brought on by God’s judgement on the wicked: “But by the same word the present heavens and earth have been reserved for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the godless.” (7)

Obviously, people around Peter have been growing impatient. They are done with suffering and just want Christ to return and rescue them. Now, if you please. Peter makes the famous observation that the church has been holding on to ever since as it awaits the end of history: “do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.” (8)

The reason for this seeming delay is a good one: “The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” (10) And, oh by the way, unlike those expecting the “Rapture” with Jesus descending down from heaven for all the world to see, “the day of the Lord will come like a thief,” (10). So, stop predicting the public end of the world, people!

Even though the world will end in fire—a blaze of glory, if you will— something far better will replace it: “we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.” (13) And that is the promise we cling to today in a culture that is going down the drain.

Psalm 119:153–160; Ezekiel 41:1–42:9; 2 Peter 2:11–22

Originally published 11/5/2015. Revised and updated 11/5/2019.

Psalm 119:153–160: Once again, a supplication opens the stanza:
See my affliction and free me,
for Your teaching I have forgotten. (153)

And again, the conviction that God will save him because the psalmist relies on his personal knowledge of God’s teaching.  This time, though, we are in a metaphorical courtroom and God is his attorney:
Argue my cause and redeem me,
through Your utterance  give me life. (154).

Which raises the question: if God is his attorney, who is the judge? I think the only candidate is God, who is at once defender and judge.

By drawing this distinction between advocate and judge, we get a hint of what is to come for us under the terms of the New  Covenant, where it is Jesus Christ who argues our case before God. Which when we think about the Trinity is at once as clear and as confusing as God the attorney arguing before God the judge…

Even though our psalmist has asked God to argue his case, the poet soon returns to arguing his own case:
Many are my pursuers and foes,
yet from Your decrees I have not swerved. (157)

Then, in almost a role reversal between defendant and advocate, he argues that he has defended God’s law before those who have become God’s enemies:
I have seen traitors and quarreled with them,
who did not observe Your utterance. (158)

Thus the implication that “I’ve defended You, God, so now please defend me.” We have assurance of Jesus’ defense, and therefore I think we have an obligation to argue God’s case before those who reject him. Not just with words, but with our actions, as well.  The question of course is, do I have the courage of the psalmist to do that?

Ezekiel 41:1–42:9: Ezekiel’s vision of the new temple is at once almost dream-like yet so incredibly tangible as he records dimension after dimension made by the man/ angel with the measuring stick: “He measured the length of the nave, forty cubits, and its width, twenty cubits. Then he went into the inner room and measured the pilasters of the entrance, two cubits; and the width of the entrance, six cubits; and the sidewalls  of the entrance, seven cubits.” (41:2,3)

There is the remarkable pattern that decorates the walls of the temple: “It was formed of cherubim and palm trees, a palm tree between cherub and cherub. Each cherub had two faces: a human face turned toward the palm tree on the one side, and the face of a young lion turned toward the palm tree on the other side.”  (18, 19) My urge for finding symbolic meaning here suggests that the palms represent nature and the two-faced cherubs represent both the animal kingdom—the lion is after all king of beasts—and humankind. In other words, the temple is in some ways a “recreation of Creation,”—the apotheosis and symbol of God’s participation in his creation.  And that in the end, our greatest response to God is to worship him.

The final impression I receive is the sheer enormity and creativity of this building.  I have to believe that this structure reminds us—or at least the architects among us—that God’s creation trumps any and all human creation.

2 Peter 2:11–22: Peter’s diatribe against those who corrupt the gospel continues unabated: “These people, however, are like irrational animals, mere creatures of instinct, born to be caught and killed. They slander what they do not understand.” (12) Once again, it is speech that corrupts. Not just the speaker, but tragically, his listeners. Which seems even more true today in this era of social media and assertions not based on fact but on a desire to denigrate.

I would love to know the backstory that led to these remarkably angry verses: “They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their dissipation while they feast with you. They have eyes full of adultery, insatiable for sin. They entice unsteady souls. They have hearts trained in greed. Accursed children!” (13b, 14)

Peter cites the famous story of Balaam in Numbers 22, the false prophet hired by the Moabite king to curse Israel, reminding us,that Balaam “loved the wages of doing wrong, but was rebuked for his own transgression; a speechless donkey spoke with a human voice and restrained the prophet’s madness.” (15b, 16) It would appear that Peter is playing the role of the donkey here, reminding the corrupt people—particularly those within the church—of their hypocrisy and their sins.

Once again, Peter reminds us of their dangerous speech: “For they speak bombastic nonsense, and with licentious desires of the flesh they entice people who have just[f] escaped from those who live in error.” (18) I can think of any number of preachers—not to mention politicians—who speak bombastic nonsense. Today, these people are all over the various Christian cable channels and on Twitter.

But without question, the greatest tragedy is that the people who follow these corrupters, those who once knew the freedom in Jesus Christ, have been influenced to return to their former ways. But this time they are entangled in even greater corruption: “For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overpowered, the last state has become worse for them than the first.” (20) And in what is almost a curse, we can almost hear Peter shouting, “For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than, after knowing it, to turn back from the holy commandment that was passed on to them.” (21)

I’m forced to ask, so what of children raised in the faith, who have rejected it as adults? I’d like to think that they never had their own faith to begin with, but out of obedience or perhaps even self-preservation mimicked that of their parents. And therefore they are not cursed as these adults who once professed but now actively reject. Which, alas, seems to be a growing percentage of the population as the “nones” increases. Are they “nones” because of behavior within the church that Peter excoriates here?