Psalm 119:105–112; Ezekiel 34:20–36:7; 1 Peter 3:8–22

Psalm 119:105–112: This stanza opens with the most well-known verse among the 176 that comprise this endless psalm:
A lamp to my feet is Your word
and a light to my path.” (105)

Or, as I memorized it in 5th grade Sunday School in the King James version: “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” Amazing how some things just stick in one’s brain.

Other than that, the themes of this section are pretty familiar. The psalmist notes that he follows God’s laws and also that “I have been sorely afflicted.” (107a) followed by the now familiar supplication:
O Lord, give me life, as befits Your word.
Accept my mouth’s free offerings, Lord,
and teach me Your laws.” (107b, 108)

Once again he reminds God that although “My life is at risk at all times,” [presumably his enemies are still after him], nonetheless “Your teaching I do not forget.” (109) And just to make sure God gets the point, he follows the practice of Hebrew poetry by repeating the thought—albeit reworded— it in the next verse:
The wicked set a trap for me,
yet from Your decrees I did not stray.” (110)

We certainly have to admire our psalmist’s tenacity as he continues to state that upholding God’s law is the raison d’etre of his life:
“I inclined my heart to do Your statutes
forever without fail.” (112)

I think the lesson here for me is that it’s worth setting a clear goal and sticking to it through thick and thin. Would that my faith was as tenacious as our poet’s dedication to God’s law.

Ezekiel 34:20–36:7: Stretching the sheep/shepherd metaphor to unprecedented lengths, Ezekiel states that because of the failure of its human leadership, God will be Israel’s shepherd: “I will save my flock, and they will no longer be plundered. I will judge between one sheep and another.” (34:22) God, speaking as always through Ezekiel, is very clear about exactly how he will accomplish that: “I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd.” (34:23) From our Christian perspective there’s no question who this new David is: Jesus.

God continues his promises, telling them that “will make a covenant of peace with them and rid the land of savage beasts so that they may live in the wilderness and sleep in the forests in safety.” (34:25) Since we’re deep into interpreting this metaphor, I’ll suggest that the “savage beasts” are symbolic the various nations arrayed against Israel. Or perhaps they are simply the wild animals that roamed the countryside back then.

Things get even more specific later in this speech as God promises, “They will no longer be plundered by the nations, nor will wild animals devour them. They will live in safety, and no one will make them afraid.” (34:28) The chapter concludes with the famous line that also occurs in Psalm 100: “You are my sheep,the sheep of my pasture, and I am your God, declares the Sovereign Lord.’” (34;31) This verse also provides the crucial context for Jesus when he says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11). Obviously, any Pharisee or religious official that heard Jesus say this would be familiar with this verse. No wonder they bridled at Jesus’ bold assertion that sounds like blasphemy to their ears.

This essay on Israel’s future is interrupted by a curse against Edom in the next chapter, which had rejected Israel’s pleas for help somewhere along the line. So Edom is rewarded with a curse: “I will treat you in accordance with the anger and jealousy you showed in your hatred of them and I will make myself known among them when I judge you.” (35:11) And today we are well aware that Edom is no more, but Israel prospers.

The next chapter has Ezekiel literally prophesying to the mountains around Israel, which have been captured by its enemies: “Therefore prophesy concerning the land of Israel and say to the mountains and hills, to the ravines and valleys: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I speak in my jealous wrath because you have suffered the scorn of the nations. … I swear with uplifted hand that the nations around you will also suffer scorn.” (36:6, 7) What strikes me here is that God’s very creation is bound up in the fate of Israel. Mountains and valleys are simply more characters in God’s great drama about Israel and its fate.

1 Peter 3:8–22: This is one of those sections that remind us that although the New Testament is informed by the Old Testament, Jesus has radically altered the rules of the game. And no more so than in how we are to treat those who hate and/or oppress us. In the OT, many psalms pray for God to wreak vengeance on enemies. Here in 1 Peter, we are told, “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult.On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.” (9) Wow. That’s really hard.

However, Peter makes his case perfectly by quoting from Psalm 34, verses 12 to 15:
For,

“Whoever would love life
    and see good days
must keep their tongue from evil
    and their lips from deceitful speech.
They must turn from evil and do good;
    they must seek peace and pursue it.
For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous
    and his ears are attentive to their prayer,
but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.” (10-12)

There’s little question that Peter’s community was experiencing oppression and he writes encouragingly: “Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.” (13-14) Nevertheless, it’s a difficult ask. Many people today who are hostile to Christianity often interpret someone’s eagerness to be good as hopelessly naive and politically incorrect—or worse.

But there’s much more to Peter’s advice than simply telling us not to be afraid. We must be equipped to respond: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” (15) Peter becomes the psychologist here, suggesting that by being treated well, “those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.” (16) Nice idea,but it doesn’t always work out that way. Nevertheless, that’s no excuse for us not to be gentle in the face of hostility.

Peter then veers off in an unexpected direction, telling us that Jesus preached to the dead during the period he was in the tomb: “He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits.” (18 19)  [I assume this is one of the verses in the NT that led to the statement, “He descended to hell (or descended to the dead)” in the Apostle’s Creed.] Peter even identifies who these dead people were: “those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.” (20a) Huh?

But quickly we see where Peter is heading: it’s all about baptism: “only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God.” (20b, 21)

The reading ends, having traversed the distance from hell to heaven itself. Baptism “saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ,  who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.” (21b, 22) Which is a wonderful metaphor for exactly what Jesus does for us through the waters of baptism. We are transported from the grim fate of a lonely hell separated from God to joining in worship with the angels in heaven.

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