Psalm 118:10–14; Ezekiel 16:43–17:10; Hebrews 13:7–19

Originally published 10/11/2017. Revised and updated 10/10/2019.

Psalm 118:10–14: Our psalmist is writing in the first person, who is presumably the king or high-ranking military leader describing his military victory:
All the nations surrounded me.
With the Lord’s name I cut them down.
They swarmed round me, oh the surrounded me.
With the Lord’s name I cut them down. (10, 11)

What’s fascinating here is that his single weapon is “the Lord’s name.” In other words, uttering the name of God—presumably ‘Yahweh’—is sufficient to crush the enemy. There’s a bit of hyperbole here as one wonders: Did he pray for victory in “the Lord’s name” as we have witnessed in so many psalms preceding this one? Or did he simply utter “Yahweh” on the battlefield and the enemy fell? Personally, I’ll take the former over the latter.

Nevertheless, the lesson for us is profound: whatever we are able to accomplish does not come from some sort of inner strength that we magically call upon in moments of crisis. Rather, whatever power we can muster comes from God; we are merely his channel of action.

Our psalmist continues in this vein with a couple of remarkable similes and again tells us that whatever power he had rested in God’s name alone:
They swarmed around me like bees,
burned out like a fire among thorns.
With the Lord’s name I cut them down. (12)

He reminds his enemies of their perfidies, reminding them of their futile efforts as they were overcome by calling upon God’s name:
You pushed me hard to knock me down,
but the Lord helped me. (13)

The concluding verse is the “takeaway” for all of us:
My strength and my might is Yahweh,
and He has become my rescue. (14)

In reflecting on this verse, the most pertinent question for me is, do I trust in God with the intensity that is on display here to engage in my own battles? We have seen throughout the OT that names are powerful instruments and there is no name more powerful than God’s. But we must trust utterly in God when call upon his power, recognizing that without that trust nothing can occur—much less any great thing.

Ezekiel 16:43–17:10: No prophet can top Ezekiel when it comes to creative ways to describe Judah’s sin against God as it perverted itself in worshipping other small-g gods. Besides false worship the other sin is what it always is: the prideful arrogance of power that not only ignores the needs of the poor but exploits them. Ezekiel reaches back in history and describes the core sin of Sodom, which is the metaphorical name here for Judah. But  the sin of sexual perversion is not the only sin God is angry about. As always pride lies behind every sin: “Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me.” (16:49, 50)

We also know how much the Jews hated the Samaritans, but Ezekiel tells them, “Samaria did not commit half the sins you did. You have done more detestable things than they, and have made your sisters seem righteous by all these things you have done. ” (16:51) I’m pretty sure that prophecy made Ezekiel’s Jewish audience even angrier at this upstart prophet.

Perhaps more than any other prophet, Ezekiel is adamant with his listeners that while God punishes he also rescues because of his unbreakable covenant with his chosen people: “I will deal with you as you deserve, because you have despised my oath by breaking the covenant. Yet I will remember the covenant I made with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish an everlasting covenant with you.” (16:60, 61) 

I don’t think it’s a stretch for us Christians to read this prophecy of restoration as looking forward to the atoning death of Jesus Christ on behalf of this “new Israel,” i.e. the church: “will establish my covenant with you, and you will know that I am the LordThen, when I make atonement for you for all you have done, you will remember and be ashamed and never again open your mouth because of your humiliation, declares the Sovereign Lord.’” (16:62, 63) 

But even with that conclusion, Ezekiel, still speaking in God’s voice, is hardly finished. In yet another vivid metaphor, we read how “A great eagle with powerful wings, long feathers and full plumage of varied colors came to Lebanon. Taking hold of the top of a cedar, he broke off its topmost shoot and carried it away to a land of merchants, where he planted it in a city of traders.” (17:3, 4)

The only way I can interpret this is that the Jews will be dispersed into the land of Gentiles, which of course is exactly what had happened by Jesus’ time. Paul started out by taking the message of salvation through Christ not to Gentiles, but the the Jewish synagogues scattered throughout Asia and southern Europe. Ezekiel goes on to describe a metaphorical vineyard that “sprouted and became a low, spreading vine. Its branches turned toward him, but its roots remained under it.” (17:6)  The vineyard grows as “It had been planted in good soil by abundant water so that it would produce branches, bear fruit and become a splendid vine.’” (17:8) I think we can be pretty confident that this is the vineyard Jesus must have had in mind in his Upper Room Discourse of John 15.

But while the vineyard has grown strong, it can be uprooted and wither: “All its new growth will wither. It will not take a strong arm or many people to pull it up by the roots.” (17:9) The central question here is, “It has been planted, but will it thrive? Will it not wither completely when the east wind strikes it—wither away in the plot where it grew?’” (17:10) Is it stretching interpretation too far to see this prophecy of the withering vine as representing the failure of the Jews to accept Jesus as their Messiah? Perhaps this vine has been uprooted by disbelief and the Jewish church fades away to be replaced by the stronger vine of the Gentile church. It certainly seems to be what Paul had recognized by the end of his ministry.

Hebrews 13:7–19: As seems to be typical in NT epistles, we encounter a summary list of exhortations to the author’s community. These instructions include “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you.” (7); “Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings.” (9a); and “It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, not by eating ceremonial foods, which is of no benefit to those who do so.” (9b)

As he notes, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” (8) so we, too, must remain constant of we are to become imitators of him.

Our author seems especially concerned about the community following its leadership—and one has the feeling he’s referring to himself: “Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account.” (17)

What’s interesting here is the idea that the leadership is in turn responsible to “give an account” to a still higher authority. How many Christian communities have gone astray because its leadership was accountable to no one? As much as we poo-poo denominational authority such as bishops, they serve a useful purpose of helping individual communities remain theologically orthodox—unless of course the bishops themselves tend to wander astray and concern themselves with peripheral issues, especially the latest social trend d’jour.

Equally important as our author’s instructions are the theological verities of this concluding section:
• “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” (8)
• “Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood.” (12)
• “For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.” (14)

At the center of it all is worship—or as the saying goes, ‘It’s all about Jesus:’ “Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name.” (15) And having worshipped, we are to go out into the world and be witness, especially through our actions, not just our words: “And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.” (16)

Many churches write their own mission statements. But these two verses certainly seem sufficient in and of themselves to serve as a mission statement for any congregation.

Finally, here at the very end we encounter a personal note:” Pray for us. We are sure that we have a clear conscience and desire to live honorably in every way. I particularly urge you to pray so that I may be restored to you soon.” (18, 19) Whoever this author is, it’s clear that he is writing from a distance. This is probably one of the reasons why early interpreters viewed Paul as the author. 

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