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

Psalm 119:97–104: Our wordy and rather obsequious psalmist gets a little boastful here:
How I loved Your teaching,
All day long it was my theme.
Your command makes me wiser than my enemies,
for it is mine forever.
I have understood more than all my teachers
for Your precepts became my theme.
I gained insight more than the leaders
for Your decrees I kept.” (97-100)

Really? I’ll buy “wiser than my enemies,” but “I understood more than all my teachers”  and “gained insight more than the elders” seem more than a bit over the top.

Our poet gives credit for this superiority to the fact that he’s good: the Law is his “theme” and that “Your decrees I kept.” In current parlance that’s what we call a ‘humblebrag.”

The stanza continues in this “I’m better than you because I followed God’s law” tone as he ladles on more statements to make sure we understand that he is a better Jew than all his peers because he is more faithful to God’s law than they:
From all evil paths I held back my feet,
so that I might observe Your word.
From Your laws I did not swerve,
for You Yourself instructed me.” (101-102)

This braggadocio ends with a tasty metaphor:
How sweet to my palate Your utterance,
more than honey to my mouth.” (103)

For me, that’s a appropriate image, although not in the sense the psalmist intended: this stanza is far too cloying—sort of like eating too much honey.

Ezekiel 33:21–34:19: Ezekiel, writing from Babylonian exile, hears from a man who escaped the carnage that Jerusalem has fallen. Ezekiel takes this opportunity to lecture his listeners on why that has happened.

First, he deals with the widespread belief that Jerusalem is rightfully Jewish territory in perpetuity. But Ezekiel, speaking as always as the voice of God, asks rhetorically: “Since you eat meat with the blood still in it and look to your idols and shed blood, should you then possess the land? You rely on your sword, you do detestable things, and each of you defiles his neighbor’s wife. Should you then possess the land?’” (32:25, 26)

Since they have sinned so mightily, the Jews should have no expectation of retaining possession of Jerusalem and its suburbs. On the contrary, they will meet grim ends: “those who are left in the ruins will fall by the sword, those out in the country I will give to the wild animals to be devoured, and those in strongholds and caves will die of a plague.” (32:27) God promises further, “ I will make the land a desolate waste, and her proud strength will come to an end.” (32:28)

Ezekiel is apparently a popular prophet and people come to listen to what he has to say. And now he says something that’s just as relevant to us today as to the people he spoke to several millennia ago: “Their mouths speak of love, but their hearts are greedy for unjust gain.  Indeed, to them you are nothing more than one who sings love songs with a beautiful voice and plays an instrument well, for they hear your words but do not put them into practice.” (32:31b, 32) If we ever needed a cogent description of hypocrisy in the church it is right here.

Chapter 33 is an extended metaphor with Israel’s leaders being shepherds and the people they lead being sheep. The shepherds have failed mightily: “Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock.” (33:2, 3) Ezekiel continues, telling them how the leaders “have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally.” (33:4)

This failure of leadership has had doleful consequences, specifically the dispersion of the Jews over all the nations: “My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them.”  (33:6)

But God is still faithful and he still loves the Jews and promises that “As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness.” (33:12) Notice how God says he “is with them.”

I think this is God’s great promise that he fulfills in a most unexpected way: the incarnation of Jesus Christ: “I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice.” (33:16)

The reading ends on one more excoriation of the Jewish leadership: “Must my flock feed on what you have trampled and drink what you have muddied with your feet?” (33:19)

How many Christian leaders have trampled on the metaphorical grass and muddied the theological waters? Alas, Ezekiel’s assertion is as true today as back then.

1 Peter 3:1–7:  As Paul did, Peter takes up the thorny issue of domestic relationships. As always we need to bear the social context of that culture and time in mind: “Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives.” (1,2)

This is an interesting twist and suggests that in Peter’s community women more readily became Christians than their husbands. But the important idea here is that deeds, not words, are what matter most. Peter is far more marketing-oriented than Paul as he frames the desired behavior of wives in a gentle and appealing manner: “Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.” (3,4)

He then points up examples from history, that “the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to adorn themselves” (5) to suggest that if these fine women “submitted themselves to their own husbands,” why would any woman want to do otherwise today? All in all, it’s brilliant psychology.

Peter asks husbands to respond with the same considerate gentleness. There is no sense of the overbearing that we feel elsewhere in the the NT, especially those distressing passages in the Pastoral epistles: “Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life.” (7) Yes, I know that “weaker partner” is offensive in the context of today’s culture that is obsessed with equality in all things. Yet for me, there is something wonderfully anodyne in how Peter expresses the idea.

 

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