Psalm 118:15–21; Ezekiel 17:11–18:18; Hebrews 13:20–James 1:8

Originally published 10/12/2017. Revised and updated 10/11/2019.

Psalm 118:15–21: Having been rescued from certain death by God, our psalmist continues to rejoice in song:
A voice of glad song and rescue
in the tents of the just:
The Lord’s right hand does valiantly.
The Lord’s right hand is raised,
The Lord’s right hand does valiantly. (15, 16)

He then reiterates one of the themes that recurs throughout the psalms: God can expect praise and worship only from those who are alive:
I shall not die but live
and recount the deeds of Yahweh. (17)

But as always, there is the deuteronomic idea that the speaker has been punished by God for some transgression, but happily not punished to the point of death:
Yah harshly chastised me
but to death did not deliver me. (18)

The psalmist now moves on to an overarching metaphor: that justice is the entryway into a full relationship with God—and that one must be righteous before God in order to worship him:
Open for me the gates of justice—
I would enter them, I would acclaim Yahweh.
This is the gate of the Lord—
the just will enter it.
I acclaim You for You have answered me,
and You have become my rescue. (19-21)

As always, our response to being rescued by God from peril and more particularly from disease, is to worship him—and then to tell others about God’s rescuing power.

Ezekiel 17:11–18:18: Referring to an incident we read in Jeremiah, Ezekiel chastises the puppet king Zedekiah of Judah for betraying the promise he made to his Babylonian conquerors by calling upon Egypt for military help: “But the king rebelled against him by sending his envoys to Egypt to get horses and a large army. Will he succeed? ” (17:15) In God’s eyes this is a great sin because “He despised the oath by breaking the covenant.” (17:18) God does not tolerate broken vows—even those made with the conquering king of Babylon. As a result of Zedekiah’s malfeasance, God “will repay him for despising my oath and breaking my covenant.” (17:19) The form of this repayment is harsh indeed: “I will bring him to Babylon and execute judgment on him there because he was unfaithful to me. All his choice troops will fall by the sword, and the survivors will be scattered to the winds.” (17:20, 21)

[We can assume that Ezekiel’s author writes after the fact rather than foretelling the fate of this foolish act and this foolish king. Even so, it is certainly easy to see God’s hand in these events.]

Having dispensed with this betrayal, Ezekiel, speaking as always as the voice of God, changes the subject, turning from punishment to restoration as he and speaks metaphorically of a Messiah who will restore Israel to its former glory: “On the mountain heights of Israel I will plant it; it will produce branches and bear fruit and become a splendid cedar. Birds of every kind will nest in it; they will find shelter in the shade of its branches.” (17:23)

The chapter ends with God’s assertion that he does what he promises to do—whether that be restoration or punishment: “‘I the Lord have spoken, and I will do it.’” (17:24) And as this chapter tells us, God will punish and God will restore.

Chapter 18 performs an important theological duty. Once again speaking in God’s voice, Ezekiel announces that the old proverb that states the children are punished for the sins of their parents is no longer valid: “What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”? As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel.” (18: 2, 3) Rather, God puts it quite clearly. It is the wrongdoer that will endure the consequences of his sin: “The one who sins is the one who will die.” (18:4)

A long poetic disquisition describing the acts of a righteous man follows, concluding that
He [who] follows my decrees
    and faithfully keeps my laws.
That man is righteous;
    he will surely live,
declares the Sovereign Lord.” (18:9)

Then, Ezekiel writes of the sinful acts of the righteous man’s son, asking rhetorically, “Suppose he has a violent son, who sheds blood or does any of these other things  (though the father has done none of them)…Will such a man live?” (18:10, 13a) The prophet states quite clearly that the fate of the sinful person is determined by his own acts. The righteousness of his father does not protect him from punishment as God’s rhetorical question is answered in the strongest possible terms: “He will not! Because he has done all these detestable things, he is to be put to death; his blood will be on his own head.” (18:13b)

But if the son of the wicked man is righteous, and “He keeps my laws and follows my decrees” (18:17a), then, “He will not die for his father’s sin; he will surely live.” (18:17b)

The idea of bearing the consequences of one’s own sins or one’s own righteousness may seem obvious to us who believe in individual responsibility. After all, this concept is at the very foundation of western justice. But as this passage points out there was once a widespread belief that children were punished for the sins of their parents, or that sinful sons were excused by virtue of being the children of righteous parents.

Unfortunately, this concept of personal responsibility, of bearing the consequences of one’s own actions, is being undermined in American jurisprudence with the relentless growth of the idea that sinful acts are the consequence of being a member of a victim class.

Hebrews 13:20–James 1:8: Our Hebrews author concludes his letter with an effusive and really quite lovely benediction: “Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep,  equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.” (13:20, 21)

Like Paul, our author is a great believer in postscripts and he keeps on writing in what I think is a marvelously ironic statement: “Brothers and sisters, I urge you to bear with my word of exhortation, for in fact I have written to you quite briefly.” (13:22) If the preceding 13 chapters are the author’s “brief” thoughts on this new theology, one can only imagine the length of his more comprehensive writings!

We do at least get a couple of personal notes. Whoever our author was—and we’re quite sure it’s not Paul—he also knew Timothy, who has apparently just been released from prison. He also writes that “Those from Italy send you their greetings.” (13:24) so we can surmise that the letter was written from Rome. And thus ends this most theologically dense treatise.

As is sometimes the Moravians’ habit, we move immediately to the next book, James—the epistle that Luther called “a book of straw” because of—as we shall see—its relentless emphasis on good works.

The author of James appears to be writing at a time of trial for the very young Christian church: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.” (1:2, 3)

As far as James is concerned, faith is all about assurance; there is no room for doubt: “But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.” (6). Moreover, the doubter “should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.” (7, 8)

Speaking as a Christian whose faith is given to occasional doubts, I’m pretty sure this is not going to be my favorite epistle in the NT…

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