Psalm 118:1–9; Ezekiel 16:1–42; Hebrews 12:25–13:6

Originally published 10/9/2015 (Psalm 10/9/2016). Revised and updated 10/9/2019.

Psalm 118:1–9: This thanksgiving psalm—”Acclaim the Lord, for He is good,/ forever is His kindness” (1)— appears to be a liturgical psalm used in collective worship:
Let Israel now say:
forever is His kindness.
Let the house of Aaron now say:
Forever is His kindness.
 (2, 3)

We could take these verses as being a responsive reading: one line spoken by the congregation (Israel) and a response by the priests (house of Aaron). And then spoken together by all:
Let those who fear the Lord now say:
forever is His kindness. (4)

Then, there’s a sudden shift to a first person supplication, which nevertheless could be intoned by the congregation:
From the straits I called toYah.
Yah answered me in a wide-open place.
 (5)

And in that answer, the psalmist—and we—can take immense comfort, no matter what trials we may face:
The Lord is for me, I shall not fear.
What can humankind do to me?
 (6)

I am sure that it is in this verse where many Christian martyrs found their peace.

For the psalmist, God is on his—and our—side:
The Lord is among my helpers,
and I shall see defeat of my foes.
 (7)

It all boils down in whom we place our trust. As our psalmist observes,
Better to shelter in the Lord,
than to trust in humankind
. (8)

Yet, I tend to do the opposite: I almost invariably place my trust in the tangible and the works of mankind rather than in God.

And in a verse particularly appropriate to this fraught political season:
Better to shelter in the Lord
than to trust in princes.
 (9)

No matter how noble the prince  may be—and God knows there is hardly a scintilla of nobility out there right now—they, too, are mere fallen humans. In the end, only God is worthy of his trust because God never fails us.

Ezekiel 16:1–42: This chapter is perhaps one of the most striking metaphors in the book, if not the OT. God speaks through Ezekiel describing the life of a woman, who represents Israel, from birth to gruesome death. A female baby is born and abandoned to its fate, and “No eye pitied you, to do any of these things for you out of compassion for you; but you were thrown out in the open field, for you were abhorred on the day you were born.” (5) But God takes mercy on this child, Israel, “As you lay in your blood, I said to you, “Live!” (6b) And God raises this metaphorical child: “You grew up and became tall and arrived at full womanhood; …yet you were naked and bare.” (7). Which I take to be people who do not know God. God passes by again and “and covered your nakedness: I pledged myself to you and entered into a covenant with you, says the Lord God, and you became mine.” (8)

As she becomes a young woman, God adorns her with ornaments and riches and “Your fame spread among the nations on account of your beauty.” (14). I don’t think it’s a stretch to think that this verse refers to Israel at its height under Solomon and the building of the first temple.

God has kept his side of the Covenant and “trusted in your beauty,” but Israel “played the whore because of your fame” (15) as it takes the gifts bestowed on it by God. Instead of following God, who rescued and raised Israel, it has “made for yourself colorful shrines, and on them played the whore;” (16).

Israel has taken up the awful rites of its neighbors, and desecrated God’s highest creation by child sacrifice: “You took your sons and your daughters, whom you had borne to me, and these you sacrificed to them to be devoured. As if your whorings were not enough! You slaughtered my children and delivered them up as an offering to them.” (20, 21)

Ezekiel, speaking in the voice of God, proceeds to summarize Israel’s history as one giant whoring party: “You played the whore with the Egyptians, your lustful neighbors, multiplying your whoring, …You played the whore with the Assyrians, because you were insatiable; you played the whore with them, and still you were not satisfied. You multiplied your whoring with Chaldea, the land of merchants; and even with this you were not satisfied.” (27-29).

God demands justice as Ezekiel concludes this woeful metaphor with awful judgement: “I will judge you as women who commit adultery and shed blood are judged, and bring blood upon you in wrath and jealousy. I will deliver you into [your enemies’] hands, and they shall throw down your platform and break down your lofty places; they shall strip you of your clothes and take your beautiful objects and leave you naked and bare.” (39, 40) At this point, the chapter has circled around to where it began: with a naked and bare body.

The question that hangs in the air is of course what of modern nations that are playing the whore? Will they we be judged as harshly as Israel? Or will we simply fall of our own dead weight of sin?

Hebrews 12:25–13:6: Our author’s warnings to not abandon the gift of grace reach their climax as he makes an indirect reference to the fate of Israel warned of in Ezekiel: “…for if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less will we escape if we reject the one who warns from heaven!” (12:25)  In other words, we are subject to an even higher standard than Israel once was. Quoting Haggai 2:6, he reminds us that God “has promised, ‘Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heaven,” (12:26) pointing out that “what cannot be shaken may remain.” (27b). He asks his community—and us—to remember that “since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks.” (12:28a) Our response to this great unshakable kingdom must be to give back to God “an acceptable worship with reverence and awe.” (12:26b) In short, grace is not only a great gift, and the means by which we enter the unshakable kingdom, it brings with it great responsibility. Exactly as Bonhoeffer tells us in The Cost of Discipleship.

The idea of the unshakable kingdom seems especially appropriate as we see Christians running around claiming that the church is doomed because it is now operating in a hostile post-Christian culture. We forget that we are inheritors of an unshakable kingdom. But “unshakable” does not mean the same thing as “unchanging.” Yes, the truths to which we hold fast are unchanging, but the church itself, while part of that unshakable Kingdom, nevertheless must keep evolving to meet the evolving and ever-changing needs of the society in which it lives.

We are privileged to live in an unshakable Kingdom and with that come ethical and behavioral responsibilities to which our author turns in this final chapter, where our author—either knowingly or unknowingly—recapitulates Jesus’ final words at the end of Matthew 25.. We are to love each other “mutually” (13:1), show hospitality to strangers for in the famous phrase, “by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (13:2), and remember those in prison, especially “those who are being tortured.” (13:3). We are to honor the sanctity of marriage “for God will judge fornicators and adulterers.” (13:4) and “Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have.” (13:5) I think in many regards the issue is less the money and more in being content with what we have. I have to say, that following cancer and an enhanced awareness of my mortality, I am now far more content with what I have than I once was.

And finally, in what must be a “Holy Spirit coincidence,” which is to say, not a coincidence at all, our author quotes that famous verse from today’s Psalm (118:6): “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?” Which in the end is what all our author’s instructions boil down to: worship, love and fear God and we will never be afraid. What a wonderful promise!

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