Psalm 119:97–104; Ezekiel 33:21–34:19; 1 Peter 3:1–7

Psalm 119:97–104: Knowledge and practice intersect in this section. The opening verse–“How I loved Your teaching,/ All day long it was my theme” (97)–is the familiar statement of how wonderful it is to study and learn God’s word. Then a transition from knowledge to wisdom: “Your command makes me wiser than my enemies,/ for it is mine forever.” (98) Nothing really surprising here since one would expect a person steeped in God’s word to be wiser than enemies who ignore God.

But a surprising assertion follows: “I have understood more than all my teachers/ for Your precepts became my theme.” (99) Really? Our psalmist now knows more than his teachers? The difference between arrogance and truth lies in the phrase, “Your precepts became my theme.” The psalmist has put his knowledge into practice as his life’s “theme.”

Really knowing God’s word is far more than head-knowledge, as the next verse emphasizes: “I gained insight more than the elders/ for Your decrees I kept.” (100) Obedience is the key: “From all evil paths I held back my feet,/ so that I might observe Your word.” (101) It is in the keeping of God’s “decrees” during the course of quotidian life that leads to wisdom that becomes greater than teachers, who (here, anyway) appear to only pass along the knowledge without practicing it themselves.

Before we accuse the psalmist of being arrogant in asserting how diligently he has kept God’s word, he tells us his secret: “From Your laws I did not swerve,/ for You Yourself instructed me.” (102) Studying God’s word is more than absorbing dry knowledge, it is being in relationship with God. It is God who taught him and it is God with whom he walks. This relationship becomes the greatest thing in his life: “How sweet to my palate Your utterance,/ more than honey to my mouth.” (103) God indeed speaks to him through the psalmist’s study of the word. As indeed God I believe God speaks to me.

Ezekiel 33:21–34:19: Despite Ezekiel’s warnings and the object lesson, the inhabitants  of Jerusalem do not turn from their wicked ways and the city falls. Once again, we have that historical precision amidst the prophecy: “In the twelfth year of our exile, in the tenth month, on the fifth day of the month, someone who had escaped from Jerusalem came to me and said, “The city has fallen.”” (33:21)

In what is in effect a “I told you so” passage, Ezekiel, speaking as the voice of God, tells the people, “You eat flesh with the blood, and lift up your eyes to your idols, and shed blood; shall you then possess the land?  You depend on your swords, you commit abominations, and each of you defiles his neighbor’s wife; shall you then possess the land?” (33:25, 26). In other words, evil actions and wrong-headed dependence on our own “swords,” is folly. Yet, that is a brilliant description of us here in the 21st century as well: we have many idols we place above God and we depend on both offensive and defensive weapons to protect us. 

But perhaps the worst sin of all is our very hypocrisy: We “say to one another, each to a neighbor, “Come and hear what the word is that comes from the Lord.”” (33:30) But “they hear your words, but they will not obey them.” (33:33) It is exactly as the psalmist implies: neither knowledge nor appearance of worship is reality. It boils down to what is in our hearts and it is out of our hearts that true wisdom and a godly life comes.

A big part of our problem is that we lack the ability to discern between what appears to be truth and what is actually God’s truth. Jerusalem was overrun by false prophets: “you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves!… You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep.” (34:3) Obviously, the people of Jerusalem wanted to listen to and follow those false prophets who said sweet, flattering things. Exactly what the purveyors of the prosperity gospel do today. We would rather take the comfortable path and speak of God’s blessing, but not of the trials. 

The false prophets are false shepherds looking only to their own interests, who have allowed God’s sheep to be “scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them.” (34:6) But God will “rescue my sheep from their mouths, so that they may not be food for them.” (34:9) Because God is the true shepherd: “For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out.” (34:11)

This rescue and return God’s promise to Israel and Judah as we encounter what I think is the most beautiful verses in this book: “ I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy.” (34:15, 16) Which indeed God does at the end of the exile.

But prophecy reaches up and over to us as well. This promise of course is fulfilled in the coming of Jesu Christ, who is our own Good Shepherd.

1 Peter 3:1–7: Ah, we encounter one of those difficult passages that was radical in the Roman empire but which have been sorely abused across the centuries: “Wives, in the same way, accept the authority of your husbands, so that, even if some of them do not obey the word, they may be won over without a word by their wives’ conduct,” (3:1) Too many husbands have taken advantage and failed to recognize what Peter is saying here. It is not a question of authority but of example. The wife, by doing everything she can to establish and practice a loving relationship with her husband, becomes a living example of the relationship that the unbelieving husband can enjoy with Jesus–and thereby wins him to the faith “when they see the purity and reverence of your lives.” (2)

But Peter’s advice was certainly true for his culture, but in ours his advice applies all of us: “let your adornment be the inner self with the lasting beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in God’s sight.” (4) Men do not need to assert their love for their wives through power, but through a gentle and quiet spirit.

In what was surely a wildly radical statement in his culture, Peter brings balance o the relationship–again a passage that too many men have ignored: “Husbands, in the same way, show consideration for your wives in your life together, paying honor to the woman as the weaker sex,” (7)

What these days we would call a “trigger phrase”–“weaker sex”–is still, I believe, God’s ordained reality. Why else are women rather than men raped? Why do men abandon women and leave them to raise their children alone? Because it is a power play on the part of evil, irresponsible males. They do not recognize that in God’s order that we men have a God-given responsibility to protect, not to dominate.

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