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

Originally published 10/3/2017. Revised and updated 10/1/2019.

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 river crossings as the two defining bookends 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 asserts animal actions to elements of nature:
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 rhetorical questions, 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 assures 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 to the fleeing Israelites and halted the flow of the Jordan for the people he loved as they entered the promised land. And it is God’s control over nature that provides sustenance in the wilderness—the reference to rock and water. Just as nature provides sustenance to us—and why we must respect God’s marvelous creation.

Ezekiel 4:6–6:7: Just about everything regarding Ezekiel the prophet and his eponymous book 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)

God then provides ingredients and a recipe to make bread. In order to demonstrate the contempt in which God now holds Israel, Ezekiel 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 anodyne, even 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.

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. This is another one of those places where it’s clear that we cannot be Christians in solitary isolation. There must be connection.

Our author 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, almost Ezekiel-like, our author reminds us that 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 dedicated to how they practiced it.

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