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

Psalm 119:81–88: This stanza starts out as pretty much a standard supplication, albeit with some nice imagery such as eyes that long and speak:
My being longs for Your rescue,
for Your word I hope.
My eyes pine for Your utterance, saying
“When will You console me?” (81-82)

Alter then renders the Hebrew with  a very cool but puzzling simile:
Though I was like a skin-flask in smoke,
Your statutes I did not forget.” (83)

Although I know what a skin flask is, I’m not sure what its behavior in smoke is. I’m guessing that the psalmist is referring back to his recent illness where the smoke represents sickness. In any event he has remained faithful to God’s law through it all.

The most profound verse in this section includes the philosophical questions he poses:
How many are the days of Your servant?
When will You exact justice from my pursuers?” (84)

We have the sense that given his recent illness and renewed awareness of his mortality he realizes he may not have much time left to live. So he asks God why justice is being delayed.  The question of delayed justice rings down the ages. God surely knows that evil-doers are wrecking lives and fomenting injustice. Why is God so silent for so long?

Our faithful psalmist has had a near death experience and he begs for God’s intervention and justice:
All Your commands are trustworthy,
For no reason they pursued me—help me!
They nearly put an end to me on earth,
yet I forsook not Your decrees.” (86, 87)

This is the great conundrum about God, isn’t it? We may be true and faithful yet bad things continue to happen while he remains silent. God’s silence truly tests our faith just as it did the psalmist’s.

Ezekiel 31:1–32:16: Ezekiel, speaking as usual in the voice of God, creates what I think as one of the greatest metaphors in this metaphorical book. Addressing the Pharaoh of Egypt, he compares Assyria to a huge cedar tree:
Consider Assyria, once a cedar in Lebanon,
    with beautiful branches overshadowing the forest;
it towered on high,
    its top above the thick foliage.

So it towered higher
    than all the trees of the field;
its boughs increased
    and its branches grew long,
    spreading because of abundant waters.

It was majestic in beauty,
    with its spreading boughs,
for its roots went down
    to abundant waters.” (31:3, 5, 7)

But like we humans, the metaphorical tree became prideful and God tells the Pharaoh, “because it was proud of its height, …I cast it aside,  and the most ruthless of foreign nations cut it down and left it. Its boughs fell on the mountains and in all the valleys; its branches lay broken in all the ravines of the land.” (31:10, 11, 12)

Not just that tree representing Assyria, but God brings down all the trees representing all the nations: “They too, like the great cedar, had gone down to the realm of the dead, to those killed by the sword, along with the armed men who lived in its shade among the nations.” (31:17) And Ezekiel prophesies that despite the Pharaoh’s current grandeur and power, he “too, will be brought down with the trees of Eden to the earth below; you will lie among the uncircumcised, with those killed by the sword.” (31:18)

The exact nature of Pharaoh’s fall is described in the next chapter. No pleasant metaphors here as we read some pretty gruesome imagery:
I will spread your flesh on the mountains
    and fill the valleys with your remains.
I will drench the land with your flowing blood
    all the way to the mountains,
    and the ravines will be filled with your flesh.” (32:5,6)

Egypt’s downfall will have repercussions across all the other nations:
I will cause many peoples to be appalled at you,
    and their kings will shudder with horror because of you
    when I brandish my sword before them.” (32:10)

Specifically, Egypt will be (or was) conquered by Babylon:
“‘The sword of the king of Babylon
    will come against you.
I will cause your hordes to fall

    by the swords of mighty men—
    the most ruthless of all nations.” (32:11, 12)

The question remains: why these lengthy poems about Egypt? Clearly, there was a military and/ or diplomatic relationship between Egypt and Israel that would come to a tragic end. These long passages about Egypt serve as a warning to Judah regarding its own fate at the hands of the Babylonians.

1 Peter 2:1–12: It is Peter who develops the metaphor of Christ as the rejected cornerstone to its fullest extent. Here the simile opens with Christians being “like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (5) Unlike the author of Hebrews who tells his readers that Jesus is a priest of the order of Melchizedek, here Peter views Christians as a brand new “holy priesthood.” Nor is this priesthood anything to be ashamed about. Christians are to wear the priesthood proudly, as he quotes Isaiah 28 to make it clear that “the one who trusts in him/ will never be put to shame.” (6) 

He then contrasts Christian belief with those who do not believe in what I take as a pretty pointed reference to the Jews who rejected Jesus by quoting verses from Psalm 118:
“The stone the builders rejected
 has become the cornerstone,”
and,
“A stone that causes people to stumble

 and a rock that makes them fall.” (7,8)

I think it’s critical to reflect on the verse about stumbling and falling. Let’s face it: Christianity rubs against the grain of all cultures, which in turn spend a lot of time, energy, and money to reject the claims of Christ. That’s certainly the case today with lawsuits against Christian photographers and bakers because they refuse to to photograph or bake a cake for a gay wedding. There are lots of other examples.

On the other hand, I think Peter is implying that unless the culture is actively rejecting Christianity and the church is not really doing its job.

We arrive at one of the greatest and most eloquent promises in the NT, which is worth quoting in full: “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (9, 10)

I know that for one I do not really reflect on what it truly means to be one of the people of God nor on the enormous gift of mercy that we have received.

So how do we live inside a hostile culture while trying to lead pure lives? Peter has the best answer, I think. We live “as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul.” (11) Even when we are wrongly accused Peter tells us to persevere and refute the claims of the culture by living so purely that in the ned, the wider culture cannot ignore us: “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” (12)

So the question is, am I living for Christ such that my light stands out and is noticed by others?

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