Psalm 119:1–8; Ezekiel 20:1–29; James 1:19–27

Originally published 10/14/2015. Revised and updated 10/14/2019.

Psalm 119:1–8: And so we again take our annual trek through the longest Psalm that is also the longest chapter in the Bible—all 176 verses of it. Alter informs us that this psalm is the “Long Acrostic,” with an 8-line stanza attached to each letter of the Hebrew alphabet, beginning with “aleph.” The first line of the stanza begins with a word whose first letter is the corresponding Hebrew letter of that set.

This is a didactic psalm, stressing the importance of knowing God’s word. It is not particularly soaring or beautiful. But I imagine that Hebrew scholars had contests among themselves to see who could recite the entire psalm without error.

The first verse pretty much sets out the overriding theme of the entire psalm:
Happy whose way is blameless,
who walk in the Lord’s teaching.

This is not a psalm about walking through the valley of shadow of death or the philosophical outlook of Psalm 90 or the joyful worship arising from God’s rescue of the preceding psalm. It is about the pleasures of learning, and as the next verse informs us, the joys attendant to keeping God’s law:
Happy who keep His precepts,
with a whole heart they seek Him. (2)

Moreover, these people who rejoice in teaching seem to be supremely self-confident in their personal righteousness:
Yes, they did no wrong,
in His ways they have walked. (3)

And God has set out some very high standards:
You ordained Your decrees
to be strictly observed. (4)

Alas, as we read in the Histories and the Prophets, the people did not exactly hew to the next verse:
Would that my ways be firm
to observe Your statutes. (5)

It is only at the last line in this first stanza where we get a brief glimpse of the man behind the poetry, who believes that strict adherence to the law results in God not abandoning him. We can pretty much see how this psalm must have been the “theme psalm” of the Pharisees of Jesus’ time:
Your statutes I shall observe.
Do not utterly forsake me. (8)

Ezekiel 20:1–29: Once again, the elders of Israel come to Ezekiel. We know this is an actual event because the date is recorded: “In the seventh year, in the fifth month, on the tenth day of the month.” (1) We aren’t told why they’re coming to him because, God speaking through his prophet, is beyond being consulted by them. Rather, Ezekiel lambastes the elders with yet another recitation of the collective sins of Israel, beginning with the Exodus: “On that day I swore to them that I would bring them out of the land of … And I said to them, Cast away the detestable things your eyes feast on, every one of you, and do not defile yourselves with the idols of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.” (6,7)

God, via Ezekiel, recounts the various events where he wanted to give up on these stubborn people, reminding them how often he took mercy on them, repeating the line, “Then I thought I would pour out my wrath upon them and spend my anger against them” (v10) in the exodus from Egypt and again in the wilderness. But rather than wrath, God shows mercy beach time: “But I withheld my hand, and acted for the sake of my name, so that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations, in whose sight I had brought them out.” (22)

What’s interesting here is that God seems to grant mercy to Israel so that God would not become a laughingstock in “the sight of the [other] nations.” Was God being insecure here? Or was the concept of an invisible monotheistic God so radical in that era of multiple gods represented in physical idols that if Israel was not rescued, God’s role as Creator and protector would not be realized?

The reading ends on a sour note as God recalls that when Israel came into Canaan, all the people could seem to do was “wherever they saw any high hill or any leafy tree, there they offered their sacrifices and presented the provocation of their offering…” (28) Really? Is that all Israel did? Or are we seeing an unexpectedly irritated, even petulant side of God?

James 1:19–27: The reading opens with the famous advice, “let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger;” (10) which in this email and social media era is more important than ever since this form of communication lacks the mediating influence of actually looking someone in the eye before we open our mouths. Instead, when we get irritated by something we fire off a zingy email or a snarky Facebook post or an asinine Tweet. Beyond making us feel better for a moment these acts do nothing to ameliorate the situation, but only to exacerbate it. Send or post in haste, regret at leisure…

James, eager to dispense advice, seems to employ more ambiguous terminology than Paul or the author of Hebrews, which can lead, I think, to some difficulties in interpretation. For example, he says, “welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.” (21) I presume by “Implanted word” that he means the Gospel message, the Kerygma, the Good News. Or does he mean the Holy Spirit? I guess I’ll go with the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Then we arrive at James’s most famous aphorism: “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” (22) As if that didn’t make his point, James excoriates “hearers” even more, accusing them of pride, being “like those who look at themselves in a mirror.” (23b)

This is of course is extremely sound advice—as long as we don’t exclude the “hearing” part. It seems to me that we cannot be effective “doers” without having heard—and understanding—what the “implanted word” is all about. But James seems to take exactly that exclusionary path when he asserts, “being not hearers who forget but doers who act.” (22) Frankly, I’m beginning to see why Luther would have been perfectly happy to not have this book in the Canon.

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