Psalm 34:20–23; Ezra 10:7–44; Romans 2:5–16

Originally published 3/10/2017. Revised and updated 3/9/2019.

Psalm 34:20–23: To my mind, these last four verses, which are the coda to this psalm, are the most honest in this psalm, revealing the innermost thoughts of the psalmist.
Many the evils of the righteous man,
yet from all of them the Lord will save him.
He guards all his bones,
not a single one is broken. 
 (20, 21)

At one level, our psalmist is saying that the righteous man will encounter “many evils” from which God will protect him. But I think we can also read this verse as a rare admission in the psalms that even those who are righteous are nevertheless sinners. In short, I think we can read this that while we encounter evil we also commit evil.

The psalmist writes what I believe is one of the great truths of humankind—and God doesn’t even have to intervene:
Evil will kill the wicked,
and the righteous man’s foes will bear guilt. (22)

The continual practice of evil and yes, even an intrinsically evil person, does eventually kill them. While evil may not always kill literally, it invariably kills the soul. And those who commit evil against another, even if they are found innocent in court, will still bear the guilty consequences of their deeds and words—no matter how much they may be officially absolved from their guilt.

In one of those Psalm endings that for us Christians believe looks forward to Jesus Christ, our psalmist  writes:
The Lord ransoms His servants’ lives,
they will bear no guilt, all who shelter in Him. (23)

Jesus’ death on the cross is God’s Great Ransom for all of us. And despite our human predilection to go on sinning, by confessing we are assured that we always stand forgiven before God. But like evildoers, we must bear the consequences of our wrongdoings.

Ezra 10:7–44: Now comes the time to carry out the promise that Ezra made and the agreement he extracted from the people that any Jew who has married a “foreign woman” must divorce her.

Ezra calls a compulsory meeting in Jerusalem. Those who failed to attend would have their property confiscated and “they themselves banned from the congregation of the exiles.” (8)

The people gather and “sat in the open square before the house of God, trembling because of this matter and because of the heavy rain.” (9) [I think this is the first mention of weather in the Bible since Noah…] Ezra tells them they must confess before God and “separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives.” (11)

Someone in the crowd rather logically points out that the people cannot stand in the rain waiting for this large and complex task, which will take days, to be carried out. Rather, they suggest, “Let our officials represent the whole assembly, and let all in our towns who have taken foreign wives come at appointed times, and with them the elders and judges of every town.” (14) With only two objections, this plan is carried out. The entire process takes two months.

Ezra preserves the names of every man who came forward and divorced his foreign wife “and sent them away with their children.” (44) If nothing else, at least they get their names remembered in the Bible. Does that offset what must have been immeasurably painful? Not really, IMHO.

The societal impact of this event must have been enormous. Yet, Ezra believed it was the only way to appease an angry God. One wonders what the course of Jewish history might have been had Ezra’s act been carried out much earlier in Israel’s history. Would a people who worshipped only God and who did not intermarry have prevented the breakup of Israel and its eventual destruction? This of course is what God had demanded when the Israelites entered Canaan but they did not carry out.  It is one of the great “what if’s” of the OT—and of history itself.

Romans 2:5–16: Like Ezra, Paul believes that there will be a day of reckoning when “by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.” (5) Ezra took direct action to appease God’s wrath; Paul is more theological.

Paul, the scholar comes to the fore here when he reiterates the deuteronomic reality that Jesus describes in Matthew when he talks about the sheep and goats. There are only two paths available to us to choose: good or evil: God “will repay according to each one’s deeds.” (6) The righteous who are “patiently doing good” (7) will receive eternal life, “while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury.” (8) It’s a straightforward two-alternative forced choice, guys. There is no ambiguity, no comfortable middle ground.

Then, as we have seen at various points in the OT readings, Paul reminds us that God is not just a Jewish God, but the God of all humankind: “glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.” (10, 11)

It all has to do with our own choices and how we live our own lives. Just because we Greeks are exempt from Jewish law does not make us exempt from God’s judgement. Paul makes this abundantly clear: “All [Greeks] who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law , and all [Jews] who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law.” (12) One way or the other, we stand rightly accused in God’s court.

Paul connects Jews who have the Old Covenant law, and Gentiles, “who do not possess the law, [but] do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves.” (14)  Which I take to be the fact that as CS Lewis argued in Mere Christianity, every human has a conscience and deep down every human eing bknows what is right and what is wrong.

Paul states this truth about us Gentiles very famously: “They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them.” (15) We need no more succinct definition of how our conscience operates and our instinctual moral compass, which we ignore at our peril. And in the end, even if we have not spoken our thoughts aloud, “God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all.” (16)  In short, whether Jew or Greek, there’s no escaping the judgement of Law (Jews) or of conscience (Gentiles).

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