Psalm 119:81–88; Ezekiel 31:1–32:16; 1 Peter 2:1–12

 Psalm 119:81–88: Like many of its predecessor sections, this one begins with how much the psalmist longs for God’s rescue and then for God’s word. We encounter a new verb: “My eyes pine for Your utterance,” suggesting tears as he asks plaintively, “When will You console me?” (82) Absent God’s consolation he describes how even though he is being tested “like a skin-flask in smoke/ Your statutes I did not forget.” (83) I’m struck once again in this psalm about how this relationship with God seems one step removed from, say, David’s, who came to God directly–“The Lord is my shepherd”–while here, he approaches God through the Law. He has not forgotten God’s statutes. But why does he not approach God directly? It seems that the relationship is based on law rather than grace. I suppose this makes sense. After all, in his culture no one could approach God directly. It was only through the intercession of the priest. It could be that for the psalmist, one could come to God more directly through knowledge of God’s law.

Like other psalms of supplication, he reminds God that he is faithful even as his enemies pursue him, asking for God’s vengeance on those who are unfaithful: “When will You exact justice from my pursuers?” (84b).  After all, they have abandoned God as “the arrogant have dug pitfalls for me/ which are not according to Your teaching.” (85)

The psalmist again reminds God that “All Your commands are trustworthy,” but then finally in his desperation he appeals directly to God: “For no reason they pursued me–help me!” But that directness is only temporary, as he again returns to form, saying how obedient he has been, “yet I forsook not Your decrees.” (87b) In fact the entire point of being rescued is “that I may observe Your mouth’s precept.” (88) But don’t we do exactly the same thing? We appeal to God for rescue on the basis that we have been good . Why should bad things happen to us? After all, we’ve followed all those Christian rules. The psalmist really only had the Law, but we have someone far greater: Jesus Christ, who as Paul and the author of Hebrews point out, transcends the law. And we have grace.

Ezekiel 31:1–32:16: Once again we have this jarring juxtaposition of a precise date with the these soaring verses of prophecy that seem removed in space and time from the real world: “In the eleventh year, in the third month, on the first day of the month, the word of the Lord came to me” as God commands, “Mortal, say to Pharaoh king of Egypt and to his hordes:” (31:1,2)

What follows is the beautiful poem and remarkable allegory of the great tree that “towered high/ above all the trees of the field;” (31:5) that is not only tall, but “It was beautiful in its greatness,/ in the length of its branches;” (31:7). In fact, “The cedars in the garden of God could not rival it,” and it was “the envy of all the trees of Eden/ that were in the garden of God.” (31:8, 9) That it would be compared to the trees in Eden itself shows just how great the Egptian empire had become.

But the tree that is Egypt has been overcome with pride: “its heart was proud of its height,” (31:10) and eventually, it is cut down and “its boughs lie broken in all the watercourses of the land;” (31:12) Even the greatest are brought low and “ I made the nations quake at the sound of its fall, when I cast it down to Sheol.” (31:16) And the empire that was Egypt “shall lie among the uncircumcised, with those who are killed by the sword.” And just to make sure we know who Ezekiel is talking about, he adds helpfully, “This is Pharaoh and all his horde, says the Lord God.” (31:18)

A lamentation for Egypt follows that illuminates the cause of its downfall:
  “You consider yourself a lion among the nations,
       but you are like a dragon in the seas;
   you thrash about in your streams,
       trouble the water with your feet,
       and foul your streams.” (32:3)

Egypt’s self-image as a lion is far from its reality as a dragon fouling its streams. Pride always obscures reality. So too, our own sense of being a country that is a “lion,”  but whose reality is corruption. Thus it has always been with nations and empire that believe they will be forever regnant. There is no reason 21st century America should enjoy a different, happier fate. Whether we are using this allegory to speak of nations or of ourselves as individuals, pride always does us in.

1 Peter 2:1–12: As with Ezekiel, this chapter is rich in metaphor. But Peter is not speaking of empires, but of individual Christians and how “Like newborn infants, [you] long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation.” (2) This is a helpful reminder that after we have “tasted that the Lord is good” (3) that being Christian is not only a state of salvation, but is also a process of growth and maturation. There are new young Christians and there are older, wiser Christians. It’s in community where the young learn from the old, but the old also enjoy the presence of the enthusiasm and joy of youth around them.

The central metaphor here is the “living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight.” (4). This stone of course is Jesus Christ, and Peter, quoting form Psalm 118, reminds us that this was“The stone that the builders rejected/ has become the very head of the corner,”  (7) He also reminds us that not everyone will accept the reality of Jesus and quoting from Isaiah 8, Peter reminds us Jesus is also ““A stone that makes them stumble,/ and a rock that makes them fall.” and that “They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.” (8).

But woven into the metaphor of Christ as cornerstone is the metaphor about us, who follow him. First, we are “ like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house.” (5), which tells me that the basis of the church is being together in community. Random stones do not build themselves; stones must come together to become a house.

The greatest metaphor here, of course, is that we are members of “a holy priesthood.” And in one of the most uplifting and encouraging passages in the epistles, Peter reminds us that “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” (9) And then in one of the most radical acts of all for Peter, a Jew who clung as long as he could to Jewish ways, asserts that Christians themselves have become the restored Israel promised so many years ago by the prophet Hosea:
    Once you were not a people,
       but now you are God’s people;
   once you had not received mercy,
       but now you have received mercy. (10)

But as the restored Israel that also brings great responsibility and makes us aliens in the world around us. We must “Conduct [ourselves] honorably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge.” (12).  As any casual scan of cable TV, the newspapers, and Facebook remind us daily, Christians are being maligned. The question is, are we responding honorably? Alas, too often we are not responding in love, but adopting the ways of the world, returning evil for evil.

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