Psalm 115:9–18; Ezekiel 8,9; Hebrews 11:4–16

Originally published 10/3/2015. Revised and updated 10/3/2019.

Psalm 115:9–18: The psalmist shifts his attention to worshipping God, who is  placed high above us in the heavens. We hear what I take to be a liturgical prayer that sounds as if were chanted or sung. The first section is about trusting in God:
O Israel, trust in the Lord,
their help and shield is He.
House of Aaron, O trust in the Lord,
their help and their shield is He.
You who fear the Lord, trust in the Lord,
their help and their shield is He.
You who fear the Lord, trust in the Lord,
their help and shield is He.  (9-11)

The second section of this song reflects on God’s blessings:
The Lord recalls us, may He bless,
may He bless the house of Israel,
may He bless the house of Aaron.
May He bless those who fear the Lord.  (12-13)

This is the essence of Israel’s deuteronomic relationship with God: they place their trust in him and obey him, and God reciprocates with blessing. Even though we are followers of Jesus Christ, and God is now more explicitly a God of love, trust, obedience, and blessing lie at the core of our relationship, as well.

The benedictory conclusion of the psalm–“May the Lord grant you increase,/ both you and your children” (14)–reminds us that we are in close relationship with the Creator of the universe:
Blessed are you by the Lord,
maker of heaven and earth. (15)

But before we get all carried away, the psalmist reminds us that there is a clear boundary between Creator and creatures. God is in heaven; we are here on earth:
The heavens are the heavens for the Lord,
and the earth He has given to humankind. (16)

In keeping with Jewish belief that we are here while we live and then we are gone, he repeats a theme we hear frequently in the Psalms:
The dead do not praise the Lord.
nor all who go down in silence. (17)

The final verse reminds us that for those of us still living, now is the time to trust in God and receive his blessings:
But we will bless the Lord
now and forevermore,
Hallelujah. (18)

Regardless of what may happen to us following our death, the time for trust and enjoying God’s blessing is today, not in the sweet bye and bye.

Ezekiel 8,9: Once again we encounter that OT sign of historical precision as to when significant events occur: “In the sixth year, in the sixth month, on the fifth day of the month,” (8:1) as Ezekiel now writes in the first person. He has a vision and “the spirit lifted me up between earth and heaven, and brought me in visions of God to Jerusalem, to the entrance of the gateway of the inner court that faces north,” (8:2, 3) God has transported Ezekiel to a position above the Temple and asks him, “Mortal, do you see what they are doing, the great abominations that the house of Israel are committing here, to drive me far from my sanctuary?” (8:6) But worse is to come: “I went in and looked; there, portrayed on the wall all around, were all kinds of creeping things, and loathsome animals, and all the idols of the house of Israel.” (8:10). But perhaps most striking is that the erstwhile priests committing these abominations say, “‘The Lord does not see us, the Lord has forsaken the land.’” (8:12)  The temple abominations are merely the sign of the larger issue as God asks rhetorically, “Is it not bad enough that the house of Judah commits the abominations done here? Must they fill the land with violence, and provoke my anger still further?” (8:17)

This is a warning to all of us. We think we can hide and commit sins that God cannot see. In fact, perverted religious practices are a sign of a much greater disease within the larger culture. False religions and false belief too often beget violence. We do not have to stretch our imaginations very far to see this happening today in the Middle East and elsewhere as religious extremism becomes the abomination that begets violence.

Then God calls out, “Draw near, you executioners of the city, each with his destroying weapon in his hand.” (9:1) together with a mysterious “man clothed in linen, with a writing case at his side.” (9:2) In fact it is that man who is commanded to “put a mark on the foreheads of those who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it.” (9:4) i.e., those who object to the abominations and are not idolaters. In this bizarre reenactment of the Passover, each person so marked by the man with the writing case is spared as the six executioners are commanded to “pass through the city after him [the man with the writing case], and kill; your eye shall not spare, and you shall show no pity. Cut down old men, young men and young women, little children and women, but touch no one who has the mark. And begin at my sanctuary.” (9:5,6)

Is the man with the writing case and angel? Ezekiel? Some other prophet? It doesn’t really matter. The point is, as we will come to hear again and again in this book, a faithful remnant remains. And God will, by ways simple or mysterious, protect those who are faithful to him.

Hebrews 11:4–16: This chapter is the great roll call of witnesses who came centuries before the people to whom the author is writing—and to us, another 2000 years later. Abel and Enoch are faithful. Noah, even in the face of derision, remains faithful.  Our author points out that “without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would approach him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” (6)

Abraham, by virtue of setting out from Ur, is faithful to God. And, something I suspect no Jewish ear had heard before this pronouncement, “By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered him faithful who had promised.” (11) Which is to say, “from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.” (12)

Our author then makes a crucial point. All of these heroes of the Jewish history “died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth,” (13) That is, all of these faithful were wanderers, who followed God far away from the comforts of home. By faith in God alone, they were willing to become strangers in a strange land. (Peter takes up this same theme of being aliens in his epistle.)

Exactly as we, who claim to be faithful today, must be willing to do. These are verses that should be read by every person who claims that America is, was, or should be “Christian.” That we feel entitled to live in a comfortable culture that embraces Jesus Christ is the complete the opposite of faith. We must be willing to set out in a hostile climate and culture to carry the Good News to our neighbors. And together with Ezekiel, we must be ever alert to the abominations that surround us.

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