Archives for October 2017

Psalm 118:10–14; Ezekiel 16:43–17:10; Hebrews 13:7–19

Psalm 118:10–14: Our psalmist is writing in the first person, presumably the king or  high-ranking military leader as he describes he won the battle:
All the nations surrounded me.
With the Lord’s name I cut them down.
They swarmed round me, oh the surrounded me.
With the Lord’s name I cut them down.” (10, 11)

What’s fascinating here is that his single weapon is “the Lord’s name.” In other words, uttering the name of God—presumably ‘Yahweh’—is sufficient to crush the enemy. There’s a bit of hyperbole here as one wonders: Did he pray for victory in “the Lord’s name” as we have witnessed in so many psalms preceding this one? Or did he simply utter “Yahweh” on the battlefield and the enemy fell? Personally, I’ll take the former over the latter.

The lesson for us is profound: whatever we are able to accomplish does not come from some sort of inner strength that we magically call upon in moments of crisis. Rather, whatever power we can muster comes from God; we are merely his channel of action.

Our psalmist continues in this vein with a couple of remarkable similes and again tells us that whatever power he had rested in God’s name alone:
They swarmed around me like bees,
burned out like a fire among thorns.
With the Lord’s name I cut them down.” (12)

He turns and accuses his enemies reminding them of their futile efforts as they were overcome by calling upon God’s name:
You pushed me hard to knock me down,
but the Lord helped me.” (13)

The concluding verse is the “takeaway” for all of us:
My strength and my might is Yahweh,
and He has become my rescue.” (14)

In reflecting on this verse, the most pertinent question for me is, do I trust in God with the depth and trust that is on display here? We have seen throughout the OT that names are powerful instruments and there is no name more powerful than God’s. But we must trust utterly in God when call upon his power, recognizing that without that trust nothing great can occur.

Ezekiel 16:43–17:10: No prophet can top Ezekiel when it comes to creative ways to describe Judah’s sin against God by perverting itself in worshipping other small-g gods. Besides false worship the other sin is what it always is: the arrogance of power ignoring the needs of the poor. Ezekiel reaches back and describes the core sin of Sodom, which is the metaphorical name here for Judah. And the core sin of sexual perversion is not the only sin God cares about: “Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me.” (16:49, 50)

We also know how much the Jews hated the Samaritans, but Ezekiel tells them, “Samaria did not commit half the sins you did. You have done more detestable things than they, and have made your sisters seem righteous by all these things you have done. ” (16:51) I’m pretty sure that prophecy went over with a big thud in Ezekiel’s Jewish audience.

But perhaps more than any other prophet Ezekiel is adamant with his listeners that while God punishes he also rescues because of his unbreakable covenant with his chosen people: “I will deal with you as you deserve, because you have despised my oath by breaking the covenant. Yet I will remember the covenant I made with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish an everlasting covenant with you.” (16:60, 61) 

I don’t think it’s a stretch for us Christians to read this prophecy of restoration as looking forward to the atoning death of Jesus Christ on behalf of this “new Israel,” ie. the church: “will establish my covenant with you, and you will know that I am the LordThen, when I make atonement for you for all you have done, you will remember and be ashamed and never again open your mouth because of your humiliation, declares the Sovereign Lord.’” (16:62, 63) 

But even with that conclusion, Ezekiel, still speaking in God’s voice, is hardly finished. In yet another vivid metaphor, we read how “A great eagle with powerful wings, long feathers and full plumage of varied colors came to Lebanon. Taking hold of the top of a cedar, he broke off its topmost shoot and carried it away to a land of merchants, where he planted it in a city of traders.” (17:3, 4)

The only way I can interpret this is that the Jews will be dispersed into the land of Gentiles, which of course is exactly what had happened by Jesus’ time. Paul started out by taking the message of salvation through Christ not to Gentiles, but the the Jewish synagogues scattered throughout Asia and southern Europe. Ezekiel goes on to describe a metaphorical vineyard that “sprouted and became a low, spreading vine. Its branches turned toward him, but its roots remained under it.” (17:6)  The vineyard grows as “It had been planted in good soil by abundant water so that it would produce branches, bear fruit and become a splendid vine.’” (17:8) I think we can be pretty confident that this is the vineyard Jesus must have had in mind in the Upper Room Discourse of John 15.

But while the vineyard has grown strong, it can be uprooted and wither: “All its new growth will wither. It will not take a strong arm or many people to pull it up by the roots.” (17:9) The central question here is, “It has been planted, but will it thrive? Will it not wither completely when the east wind strikes it—wither away in the plot where it grew?’” (17:10) Is it stretching interpretation too far to see this prophecy of the withering vine as representing the failure of the Jews to accept Jesus as their Messiah? Perhaps this vine has been uprooted by disbelief and the Jewish church fades away to be replaced by the stronger vine of the Gentile church. It certainly seems to be what Paul had recognized by the end of his ministry.

Hebrews 13:7–19: As seems to be typical in NT epistles, we encounter a summary list of exhortations to the author’s community. These instructions include “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you.” (7); “Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings.” (9a); and “It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, not by eating ceremonial foods, which is of no benefit to those who do so.” (9b)

Our author seems especially concerned about the community following its leadership—and one has the feeling he’s referring to himself: “Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account.” (17) What’s interesting here is the idea that the leadership is in turn responsible to “give an account” to a still higher authority. How many Christian communities have gone astray because its leadership was accountable to no one? As much as we poo-poo denominational authority such as bishops, they serve a useful purpose of helping individual communities remain theological orthodox—unless of course the bishops themselves tend to wander astray and concern themselves with peripheral issues.

Equally important as instructions are the theological verities of this concluding section:
• “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” (8)
• “Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood.” (12)
• “For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.” (14)

At the center of it all is worship—or as the saying goes, ‘It’s all about Jesus:’ “ Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name.” (15) And having worshipped, we are to go out into the world and witness: “And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.” (16)

Many churches write their own mission statements. But these two verses certainly seem sufficient in and of themselves to serve as a mission statement for any congregation.

There is finally a personal note: “ Pray for us. We are sure that we have a clear conscience and desire to live honorably in every way. I particularly urge you to pray so that I may be restored to you soon.” (18, 19) Whoever this author is, it’s clear that he is writing from a distance. This is probably one of the reasons why early interpreters viewed Paul as the author. 

 

Psalm 116:1–7; Ezekiel 10:1–11:15; Hebrews 11:17–28

Writing from the Tamaya Resort on the Santa Ana Pueblo near Bernalillo, NM.

Psalm 116:1–7: Unlike many psalms of supplication that express frustration that GOd is nowhere to be found or is not hearing one’s prayers, his psalm of thanksgiving opens with gratitude for a listening God:
I love the Lord, for he has heard
my voice, my supplications.
For He has inclined His ear to me
when in my days I called.” (1,2)

It’s clear that his prayers were made at a time of great physical distress, perhaps from an illness or being wounded on the battlefield. In any event we see that it was a desperate near-death situation:
The cord of death encircled me—
and the straits of Sheol found me—
distress and sorrow did I find.” (3)

In that desperate circumstance, it is the simplest of prayers that God hears:
And in the name of the Lord I called.
‘Lord, pray, save my life.‘” (4)

There’s a lesson here for those of us who embellish our prayers with lengthy details or worse, IMHO, pray stuff like, “If it be your will.” God doesn’t need fancy paragraphs with our request hidden somewhere in the middle. A simple declarative sentence will do.

And when God answers our prayer of thanksgiving can be equally straightforward:
Gracious the Lord and just,
and our God shows mercy.” (5)

Perhaps the most intriguing part of this prayer is not only how God answers prayers, but he calms our emotional and psychological anxieties. Our psalmist describes how when we know God has heard our prayer we find inner peace:
I plunged down, but me He did rescue.
Return, my being, to your calm,
for the Lord has requited you.” (6, 7)

God is not only a rescuing God he is a calming God. And in these fraught times when we see evil on full display all around us, it is in God’s peace that we find our own succor.

Ezekiel 10:1–11:15:  In this extravagant vision, God himself is present: “The cloud filled the temple, and the court was full of the radiance of the glory of the Lord.” (10:4b) There is a mysterious man dressed in linen, who is commanded by God to take fire from the cherubim. I would not be surprised if some Christians interpret this man as being Jesus Christ.

Ezekiel’s vision provides even more imaginative details about those cherubim who move around on interlocking wheels. The wheels move and halt under the Cherubim’s command, who are riding on them. Ezekiel sees no other control and concludes that “the spirit of the living creatures was in them.” (10:17)  We also get a rather ominous sense of being watched by these four-faced creatures, whose “entire bodies, including their backs, their hands and their wings, were completely full of eyes, as were their four wheels.” (10:12)

At the end of chapter 10 we don’t yet know what the man dressed in linen holding fire is going to do with it.

Ezekiel is taken up by what I gather to be the Holy Spirit and deposited at the eastern entrance of the temple where he sees 25 men standing there. God tells Ezekiel ““Son of man, these are the men who are plotting evil and giving wicked advice in this city.” (11:2) Ezekiel, still operating under the power of the Spirit, tells them they are hypocrites who may be talking God talk, but that God knows “what is going through your mind. You have killed many people in this city and filled its streets with the dead.” (11:6)

The prophet then tells them that “This city will not be a pot for you, nor will you be the meat in it;” (11:11) which is a symbolic way of telling them that their plans to exploit the people will fail because God “will execute judgment on you at the borders of Israel…for you have not followed my decrees or kept my laws but have conformed to the standards of the nations around you.” (11:12)

Even as Ezekiel speaks, one of the leaders promptly dies. This is pretty distressing to the prophet, who “fell facedown and cried out in a loud voice, “Alas, Sovereign Lord! Will you completely destroy the remnant of Israel?” (11:13) But God reminds him that these people in Jerusalem are the ones who have been plotting to destroy the remnant and take their land and possessions: “the people of Jerusalem have said of your fellow exiles and all the other Israelites, ‘They are far away from the Lord; this land was given to us as our possession.’” (11:15)

These visions are certainly striking and I’m waiting for the movie depicting this vision and the encounter with the 25 men standing at the temple entrance. But as for theological content, I’m not sure there’s much beyond there are things in heaven that are otherworldly, which we cannot understand or describe—although I give credit to Ezekiel for trying.

Hebrews 11:17–28: In this perhaps the most well-known section of this epistle we encounter our author’s famous catalog of faithful Jewish patriarchs, beginning with Abraham’s own faith that God would rescue his son Isaac whom he was directed to sacrifice. But he puts an interesting twist on it by asserting that “Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.” (19) Which I assume is meant to remind us that God indeed has raised Jesus from the dead. If Abraham had that kind of faith in resurrection, then so should we.

He then goes on to list the faithful acts of the patriarchs: Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and then Moses. Rather than be known as “the son of Pharaoh’s daughter,” he abandons the title and instead “chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin.” (25) Clear message to the community: If Moses chose a harder path, so should you.

Then, in what I think is one of the more remarkable assertions in the book, our author states that Moses “regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward.” (26) He concatenates Moses’ trust in God with the “sake of Christ.” The implication here seems to be that Moses was somehow pre-aware that Christ would come to earth at some future point. oR perhaps it is simply that faith in God is the same as faith in Christ.

But the overall theme of this passage is faith. If the patriarchs had faith that God would lead and provide, then so too should we. Faith brings insight and it also brings courage: “By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible.” (27) And like Moses, we too must have faith in the one “who is invisible.”

 

Psalm 114; Ezekiel 4:6–6:7; Hebrews 10:19–31

Writing from Topeka, KS…

Psalm 114: This unique allegorical, yet historical, psalm opens with a reference to the beginning of the nation “When Israel came out of Egypt.” (1a) As is the case of much poetry in the psalms, the second line repeats the thought of the first but with a further amplifying detail:
the house of Jacob from a barbarous-tongued folk,
Judah became His sanctuary,
Israel His dominion.” (1b,2)

Clearly, our poet had no nostalgic feelings for the Egyptians, and he is certainly writing after the split between the southern kingdom—Judah—and the northern—Israel—but before the time when Israel became totally apostate and abandoned God altogether.

He then conflates Israel and Judah with allegorical references to two miraculous acts of nature in reference to the two defining moments of Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness: the crossing of the sea under Moses and the entry into Canaan under Joshua:
The sea saw and fled,
Jordan turned back.” (3)

What’s fascinating is that our poet assert human-like actions to elements of nature and the images become even more wildly imaginative as the poet speaks of topography as if it were conscious beings:
The mountains danced like rams,
hills like lambs of the flock.” (4)

This seems like a reference to an earthquake. In the same imaginative vein he repeats these four images of nature—two of water, two of earth— and asks them rhetorically, as if they were sentient beings:
What is wrong with you, sea, that you flee,
Jordan, that you turn back,
mountains, that you dance like rams,
hills like lambs of the flock?” (5, 6)

Just as we think the poet is about to go off the allegorical rails, he conjures yet another remarkable image that nevertheless grounds us that the answer to his question is God himself, who controls all of nature in its never-ending dance:
Before the Master, whirl, O earth,
before the God of Jacob,
Who turns the rock into a pond of water,
flint to a spring of water” (7)

In short, God can accomplish anything he pleases. And that is certainly why he opened the sea and halted the flow of the Jordan for the people he loved. And it is this control over nature that provides sustenance in the wilderness—the reference to rock and water.

Ezekiel 4:6–6:7: Just about everything regarding Ezekiel is bizarre. God commands Ezekiel to “lie down again, this time on your right side, and bear the sin of the people of Judah. I have assigned you 40 days, a day for each year.” (4:6). Even more oddly, God will tie him up with ropes so he can’t turn over, keeping his “bared arm [to] prophesy against [Jerusalem].” (4:7)

Now being written from Colorado Springs… (hotbed of evangelicalism)

God then provides ingredients and a recipe to make bread and to demonstrate the contempt in which God now holds Israel, which is to bake the bread over human shit. But Ezekiel protests against this, telling God, “I have never defiled myself. From my youth until now I have never eaten anything found dead or torn by wild animals. No impure meat has ever entered my mouth.” (4:14) God relents a bit, telling his prophet, “Very well…I will let you bake your bread over cow dung instead of human excrement.” (4:15) God then proposes to starve Jerusalem to the point that the residents of Jerusalem “will be appalled at the sight of each other and will waste away because of their sin.” (4:17)

Things get even more bizarre in the next chapter. Ezekiel is commanded to shave his head and beard, weigh out the hair into three groups and then burn it [except for a few hairs to “tuck them away in the folds of your garment.” (5:3)] All of this weirdness is to demonstrate God’s anger toward Jerusalem. There’s a great deal of angry repetition on God’s part, but the final line of the chapter pretty much says it all: “Plague and bloodshed will sweep through you, and I will bring the sword against you. I the Lord have spoken.” (5:17)

As if destroying Jerusalem was not enough, God tells Ezekiel to announce that even the mountains surrounding Israel are doomed because they are the location of the “high places”— altars of idols: “This is what the Sovereign Lord says to the mountains and hills, to the ravines and valleys: I am about to bring a sword against you, and I will destroy your high places.” (6:3)

All in all, the words that God brings to Ezekiel make Jeremiah’s proclamations sound positively wimpy.

Of course the deeper question here is, what gives with this almost adolescent God so given to tantrums? Yes, all that idol worship is vile and evil, but somehow we’d think God would be more, well, god-like. As it is his pronouncements sound pretty much like Trumpian tweets.

Hebrews 10:19–31: Our author sounds almost Pauline as he encourages his baptised community to “draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.” (22) And with those pure hearts we are to “spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another.” (24,25) That the community seems to have dispensed with meeting is a striking note. Come hell or high water, he seems to be saying, it’s crucial to be together frequently.

He goes on to address the old problem of “hey, there’s grace so I can sin boldly, assured of forgiveness” by taking a hellfire and brimstone approach: “we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.” (26, 27) Drawing on the Jewish knowledge of his community, he reminds them that it only took “the testimony of two or three witnesses” (28) to be put to death for breaking the law of Moses.

He goes on to ask rhetorically, “How much more severely do you think someone deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified them, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace?” (30) Rather, we are never to forget that God said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.” (30) Just to make sure we get his point he adds rather ominously, “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (31) 

I’m not sure I’d want to be a member of this community. But I’m pretty sure it separated the hangers-on from those who were sincere in their faith and how they practiced it.