Psalm 112; Ezekiel 1,2; Hebrews 9:23–10:4

Originally published 9/29/2017. Revised and updated 9/28/2019.

Psalm 112: This “short acrostic” poem has 22 lines, each beginning with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet. While the previous psalm celebrated God’s beneficence, this one celebrates the attributes of the wise man who follows God and the law—and who does so with joy:
Happy the man who fears the Lord.
His commands he keenly desires.
A great figure in the land his seed shall be,
the generation of the upright shall be blessed.
Abundance and wealth in his home,
and his righteousness stands forever. (1-3)

In the quid pro quo world of Jewish law, a man (and it’s always a man) who follows the law will be amply rewarded in terms of progeny (the greatest of all blessings in Israel), wealth. And he will be remembered by subsequent generations for his righteousness (the other greatest blessing).

But this is not to trivialize the ideas in the psalm, even though its sentiments are found elsewhere in more beautiful poetry that isn’t trying to be an acrostic. These are indeed qualities each of us would do well to emulate:
Light dawns in darkness for the upright,
gracious and merciful and just.
Good is the man who shows grace and lends,
he sustains his words with justice.
For he shall never stumble,
and eternal remembrance the just man shall be.” (4-6)

Clearly the most important thought in this stanza is that deeds must back up words. There is something solemn about a promise or a vow. I know from personal experience that it is easy to squander trust by either carelessly-made promises or failure to act on what I have said I committed to do.

The foundation of all of these wonderful qualities is trust in God—even when others may be attacking the righteous man. That trust frees him from fear as he stands tall and courageous in adversity:
From evil rumor he shall not fear.
His heart is firm, he trusts in the Lord.
His heart is stanuch, he shall not fear,
till he sees the defeat of his foes. (7-8)

Even in the face of opposition the wise man also sees difficult tasks through to completion. He is also generous in spirit and resources to those less fortunate than he:
He disperses, he gives to the needy,
his righteousness stands forever.
His horn shall be raised in glory. (9)

The psalm ends with the stark contrast of the reaction of the wicked man when he sees this exemplar of righteousness. Because even the wicked have a conscience and deep down they know their deeds are evil. But only when they see themselves in comparison to the righteous man do their feelings of inadequacy surface. More importantly, as the psalmist observes in the final line, the wicked man’s deeds ultimately come to naught:
The wicked man sees and is vexed,
he gnashes his teeth and he quails.
The desire of the wicked shall perish. (10)

Ezekiel 1,2: Well, if we thought Jeremiah was a slog, it’s been good preparation for the slog through Ezekiel, which in many ways is a far more puzzling and weirdly dramatic book.

The opening verse is gives us a sense of what is to follow. While Jeremiah was all about hearing and repeating the word of God, Ezekiel is all about vision as the 30-year old prophet, living in in Babylon before the exile, sees prophetic visions: “the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God.” (1:1)

One has to admit this vision was pretty dramatic. It turns out to be “four living creatures. In appearance their form was human,  but each of them had four faces and four wings” (5, 6) appearing in the midst of fire. These were multi-faced creatures (cherubim?): “Each of the four had the face of a human being, and on the right side each had the face of a lion, and on the left the face of an ox; each also had the face of an eagle.” (1:10)

The vision becomes even more dramatic as Ezekiel sees the famous wheels inside wheels, which as a kid back during the 1950’s UFO scares, I remember hearing someone explain the wheels as extraterrestrial spaceships: “I saw a wheel on the ground beside each creature with its four faces. This was the appearance and structure of the wheels: They sparkled like topaz,… Each appeared to be made like a wheel intersecting a wheel…When the living creatures moved, the wheels beside them moved; and when the living creatures rose from the ground, the wheels also rose.” (1: 16, 19) 

It is not only a bizarre scene, it’s also pretty noisy as the creatures flap their wings: “When the creatures moved, I heard the sound of their wings, like the roar of rushing waters, like the voice of the Almighty, like the tumult of an army.” (1:24) This all leads to the apotheosis: a vision of God himself—a theophany—”I saw that from what appeared to be his waist up he looked like glowing metal, as if full of fire, and that from there down he looked like fire; and brilliant light surrounded him. Like the appearance of a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the radiance around him.” (1: 27, 28)

Ezekiel wisely falls on his face as God begins to speak. God commands Ezekiel to stand and tells him, “Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites, to a rebellious nation that has rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have been in revolt against me to this very day.” (2:3)

God assures Ezekiel that whether or not the Israelites listen to him, they will know that he is a prophet. God instructs him to speak without fear (which after this vision I assume he was quaking in his sandals). “Do not be afraid of what they say or be terrified by them, though they are a rebellious people. You must speak my words to them, whether they listen or fail to listen, for they are rebellious.” (2:6,7) Ezekiel’s eyes must have been shut through this speech as God commands, “open your mouth and eat what I give you.” (2:8). Ezekiel opens his eyes, looks down at his hands and sees that God has handed him a scroll and “On both sides of it were written words of lament and mourning and woe.” (2:10) 

We have to admit that ordaining Ezekiel as a prophet by giving him a scroll to eat is certainly an original and unprecedented act on God’s part! What will be the reaction of the people when Ezekiel shows up and relates what has happened to him? Will it give him credibility or will the people just think he’s a wack?. I know how I’d react if some 30-year old guy showed up and described these weird events. And it certainly would not enhance his credibility…

Hebrews 9:23–10:4: Our author continues his exposition as to why Christ’s single sacrifice on the cross was sufficient to replace the annual treks by the high priest into the temple’s Holy of Holies. It’s really quite simple: “For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made with human hands that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence.” (9:24) Therefore, he argues, Christ “has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself.” (9:26)

However, our author is careful to add that even though Christ does not have to repeatedly offer a sacrifice, he will indeed be returning to earth: “so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.” (9:28)

As if he has not made this point several times already, our author is compelled to repeat himself, reminding us, “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves.” (10:1) The sacrifices made under the law are therefore inadequate and “can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship.” (10:2) However, the sacrifices do serve a useful didactic purpose: “those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins.” (10:3) But that said, our author once again(!) reminds us, “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” (10:4)

I think the business about the sacrifices serving as a reminder of sins is something we could use today. We really don’t talk about sin very much either personally, as a church, or certainly as a culture. For the most part we have jettisoned the idea of personal wrongdoing preferring to cast ourselves as victims of forces beyond our control. That’s a nice way to avoid taking personal responsibility, but building a life on a sense of victimhood is ultimately a house of cards. Frankly, we could stand to hear Jonathan Edward’s’ famous sermon, “Sinners in the hand of angry God” from time to time.

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