Psalm 81:7–11; Isaiah 19:18–22:14; Ephesians 2:11–22

Originally published 7/5/2017. Revised and updated 7/4/2019.

Psalm 81:7–11: Our reading yesterday concluded with the psalmist hearing God’s decree in some unknown language. Today we find out what God said as our poet has been suddenly and miraculously bestowed with comprehension of this foreign tongue. God speaks, albeit rather cryptically:
I delivered his shoulder from the burden
his palms were loosed from the hod. (7)

The ‘his’ here is Jacob, representing all Israel. God has freed the brick-building (whence the ‘hod”) slaves from Egyptian oppression. God continues describing how he accompanied Israel on its journey:
From the straits you called and I set you free.
I answered you from thunder’s hiding place.
I tested you at the waters of Meribah. (8)

The ‘straits’ are both metaphorical, speaking to the desperate situation Israel faced when confronting the sea as they escaped Egypt, and physical as in a strait of water to be crossed. ‘Thunder’s hiding place’ would be the thunder and lightning all Israel witnessed as Moses was up on Sinai communicating with God. And the waters at Meribah was where Israel begged for water and Moses was tested by God—and failed.

Even given these miraculous events at the beginning of Israel’s history, our psalmist, still speaking in God’s voice, expresses his frustration at the present wayward generation that refuses to listen to God’s word:
Hear, O my people, that I may adjure you.
Israel, if You would but hear Me. (9)

That’s pretty chilling for our own culture which is busy ignoring God by pretending he doesn’t exist. Our psalmist repeats the solemn commandment that there is no other small-g gods before God—the commandment Israel continues to ignore as it persists in its idol worship. We can almost hear God shouting at this intransigent people:
There shall be among you no foreign god.
I am the Lord  your God
Who brings you up from the land of Egypt.
Open your mouth wide that I may fill it. (10, 11)

The last line here bespeaks God’s incredibly generous love in the form of his promise that if Israel would but turn back to God, its people would experience untold manifest blessings. So, too, for us. We ignore God, preferring to go our own self-centered way and thereby foregoing the incredible blessings that God wishes to bestow upon us. Economists have a term for this: opportunity cost. The opportunity cost of placing our self-interest ahead of God’s blessings available through Jesus Christ and the Holy spirit is incalculable—an incalculable waste.

Isaiah 19:18–22:14: Speaking in prose, Isaiah promises that at (what I take to be) the end of history that “there will be five cities in the land of Egypt that speak the language of Canaan and swear allegiance to the Lord of hosts.” (19:18) Moreover, “when they [the oppressed of Egypt] cry to the Lord because of oppressors, he will send them a savior, and will defend and deliver them.” (19:20) God will reveal himself to the Egyptians and with a combination of “striking and healing” the Egyptians “will return to the Lord, and he will listen to their supplications and heal them.” (19:22)

Given the current terrorism being experienced by the Coptic Christians in Egypt, this day can come none too soon. But I also think we can expand the definition of “Egyptians” to mean all Gentiles. God has already sent a savior to we “Egyptians.” And at the end of history, all humanity will acknowledge our savior.

More good things happen at the Day of the Lord as Egypt, Assyria [recent victors over the Northern Kingdom] and Israel will come together: “On that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the Lord of hosts has blessed, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage.” (19:24, 25) So far, this promise of peace in the Middle East remains unfulfilled. And I would take Isaiah’s prophecy to suggest that human efforts notwithstanding, there will never be peace there until the end of history.

These wonderful promises are put on hold in chapter 20, which seems to be some kind of parenthesis, predicting what will happen in the meantime. Isaiah is commanded by God to strip and walk naked and barefoot. This is one of those examples of the prophet being the avatar for God’s intended actions: “Just as my servant Isaiah has walked naked and barefoot for three years as a sign and a portent against Egypt and Ethiopia.” (20:3)

More specifically, Assyria will conquer Egypt and “the king of Assyria lead away the Egyptians as captives and the Ethiopians[b]as exiles, both the young and the old, naked and barefoot, with buttocks uncovered, to the shame of Egypt.” (20:4) Nakedness is the very definition of shame and the same fate awaits Ethiopia as well.

Chapter 21 returns to poetic form of specific prophecies (oracles) being made about Babylon, Edom, and Arabia. Some sort of treacherous betrayal and invasion will occur to Babylon as it reclines in soft pleasure, ill prepared militarily:
They prepare the table,
    they spread the rugs,
    they eat, they drink.
Rise up, commanders,
    oil the shield! (21:5)

Caught unawares,  the invasion occurs:
Fallen, fallen is Babylon;
and all the images of her gods
    lie shattered on the ground. (21:9)

This is the cost of military unpreparedness. A topic suddenly more relevant for us as North Korea, Iran, and others escalate their threats. A similar fate await the other countries. But these pagan nations are not alone in their destruction as Isaiah predicts the eventual fall of Jerusalem itself:
For the Lord God of hosts has a day
    of tumult and trampling and confusion
    in the valley of vision,
a battering down of walls
    and a cry for help to the mountains. (22:5)

Like Babylon, the leaders and inhabitants of Jerusalem blissfully ignore the threat, reclining instead in pleasure:
In that day the Lord God of hosts
    called to weeping and mourning,
    to baldness and putting on sackcloth;
but instead there was joy and festivity,
    killing oxen and slaughtering sheep,
    eating meat and drinking wine.
“Let us eat and drink,
    for tomorrow we die.”  (22:12, 13)

Again, these verses seem terribly relevant to us today. We collectively are enjoying today’s pleasures at the cost of tomorrow’s defeat—all summed up in the famous couplet at the end of this reading.

Ephesians 2:11–22: Addressing both Jews and Gentiles, Paul asks us to “remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” (12) Only in Christ can unity occur: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” (13, 14)

This hostility is certainly the conflict between Jewish and Gentile Christians that Paul despairs of in Corinth and Galatia.  Peace and reconciliation can occur only in Christ: “He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.” (15, 16)

Paul famously reminds us that as Christians “you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.” (19)

A comprehensive and wonderful definition of the church based on that reconciliation follows. It is “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.” (20) Paul continues optimistically: “In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually  into a dwelling place for God.” (21, 22)

But as we look across today’s landscape littered with splits and divisions within the church we can see that Paul’s words express a great hope that has continues to be betrayed by the reality of human sinfulness. The diagnosis is simple: we have not unified ourselves in Christ. The treatment is more difficult. To counteract this division, unity is our not only a noble Christian goal, as I read this passage, it also must be our solemn duty.

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