Archives for October 2019

Psalm 119:41–48; Ezekiel 24:9–25:14; James 4:7–17

Originally published 10/20/2017. Revised and updated 10/19/2019.

Psalm 119:41–48: In this lengthy disquisition to God, we see how the cares of the psalmist are very similar to our so many centuries later. In the same way that many Christians find their beliefs under attack by today’s culture, our psalmist beseeches God for wisdom in how to respond to these attacks from those who mock his faith:
“...that I may give answer to those who taunt me,
for I have trusted in Your word.
And do not take the least word of truth from my mouth…

And let me speak of Your precepts
before kings without being shamed.” (42b, 43a, 46)

Yet, speaking about my faith to doubting strangers—or even friends—is the most difficult task of all for me—even though we have even better news than the psalmist who can speak only of  God’s law. We have the good news of Jesus Christ. Yet, I hesitate and prefer to blend in rather than set myself apart from the deteriorating mores of the culture in which we now live.

I have always admired those who speak boldly, unafraid of what others might think. These verses need to become my prayer.

Ezekiel 24:9–25:14: Following the prophetic imprecations against Jerusalem with the metaphor of a corrupt cooking pot that cannot be cleaned, we encounter a sad personal note. God tells Ezekiel that his wife will die, but that he cannot mourn publicly: “The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, with one blow I am about to take away from you the delight of your eyes. Yet do not lament or weep or shed any tears. Groan quietly; do not mourn for the dead. Keep your turban fastened and your sandals on your feet; do not cover your mustache and beard or eat the customary food of mourners.” (24:15-17)

And rather than be at his wife’s bedside as she dies, Ezekiel reports, “So I spoke to the people in the morning, and in the evening my wife died. The next morning I did as I had been commanded.” (24:18) In short, the job of prophet was more important than Ezekiel’s love for his wife. There is an indescribable sadness here.

The people around him understandably question Ezekiel’s lack of respect for his dead wife. But Ezekiel replies that in the same way that he cannot mourn his wife, they will not be able to mourn the upcoming destruction of the temple at Jerusalem: “You will do as I have done. You will not cover your mustache and beard or eat the customary food of mourners. You will keep your turbans on your heads and your sandals on your feet. You will not mourn or weep but will waste away because of  your sins and groan among yourselves.” (24:22)

But I have to ask: would God really require Ezekiel to use the death of his wife as a symbol of the destruction to come? Yes, God was indeed angry with the people of Jerusalem, but one wonders if Ezekiel’s own love for his wife had become so subsumed to his angry rhetoric that this is more an act of the prophet than of God.

What’s not said here is that the people of Jerusalem, having seen Ezekiel fail to mourn his wife, doubtless reject anything else the prophet has to say and he is forced to find new territory to which to prophesy.

As the next chapter opens, we find Ezekiel far away from Jerusalem, preaching the same message of imminent doom against the Ammonites. This prophecy is even harsher than those against the people of Jerusalem: “I will wipe you out from among the nations and exterminate you from the countries. I will destroy you, and you will know that I am the Lord.’” (25:7) Given that the Ammonites have disappeared from history, this prophecy was certainly fulfilled.

Same goes for the hapless inhabitants of Moab, who will be conquered: “I will give Moab along with the Ammonites to the people of the East as a possession, so that the Ammonites will not be remembered among the nations; and I will inflict punishment on Moab. Then they will know that I am the Lord.’” (25:10)  We presume that the “people of the east” are the Babylonians.

Finally, there is Edom which “took revenge on Judah and became very guilty by doing so.” (25:12) God’s vengeance is the reward for Edom’s vengeance: “I will take vengeance on Edom by the hand of my people Israel, and they will deal with Edom in accordance with my anger and my wrath; they will know my vengeance, declares the Sovereign Lord.’” (25:14)

Ezekiel’s God is angry at everyone and will act accordingly. He seems much more an adolescent God given to tantrums than the mature loving God we encounter in the New Testament. This is one of those inexplicable places in the Hebrew scriptures where we can only say, “Noted.”

James 4:7–17: James is speaking prophetically in the “forth telling” sense and in fact, sounding very Ezekiel-like, but without the threat of imminent destruction: “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom.” (7-9)

In other words, being a Christian is a serious business; we cannot treat our faith lightly or as an object of humorous derision. This is one of those sections that reminds me that I really don’t like this epistle. I’ve seen too many humorless Christians justify their dour outlook on life with these verses.

Nevertheless, the epistle also contains pretty useful advice. Here, James warns against judging our neighbors because to do so is to judge the law itself: “Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it.” (11) Indeed, he writes, “who are you to judge your neighbor?” (12) And yet we do it all the time. And social media has only made those judgements easier, more cruel, and more widespread.

Perhaps my favorite section in this book is what many psalms have already observed: our lives are brief and ephemeral. James notes that we are wrong to assume we have assurance about the future: “Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” (13, 14)  And yet this is exactly how most of us live: blissfully unaware that today might be our last day on earth.

James is also frightfully clear on the sin of pride: “As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil.” (16) In other words, it’s a sin to boast of how much money we’ve made in the stock market or in various real estate deals.

And finally, not only  are there sins of commission, there are sins of omission as well: “If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.” (17)

James certainly sets a high bar for Christian behavior.

Psalm 119:33–40; Ezekiel 23:28–24:8; James 3:13–4:6

Originally published 10/19/2015. Revised and updated 10/18/2019.

Psalm 119:33–40: The overriding theme of this long psalm is the desire of the psalmist to be instructed in the law and to be guided by God because he will find God’s grace and because that is where the pleasure in life arises:
Instruct me, Lord, in the way of Your statutes,
that I may keep it without fail.
Give me insight that I may keep Your teaching
and observe it with a whole heart.
Guide me on the track of Your commands,
for in it I delight. (33-35)

So, if we descend a level of abstraction, just what does it mean to be “instructed” or “guided” by God?  Is it a question of being alone in one’s study, reading and gaining new insight into scripture on one’s own? Is being guided by God strictly a one-on-One activity—just God and me? Or are we as individuals guided or instructed through the words and actions of others? Will I gain more instruction  and “insight that I may keep Your teaching” (34a) from God sitting here at my desk reading, or will I benefit from the wisdom of others? Should I read books about the Bible or just the Bible itself? Will I get more out of a Bible study with others or just wait here for the Holy Spirit to descend and give me those “Aha!” moments?

For me—and I think for most others—insight comes in a variety of ways. Certainly solitary study has been enormously productive for me in terms of the discipline of reading and writing about the Bible without aid of commentaries. Which is what this “musing” is about. But there’s no question that listening to sermons or having group Bible study discussions brings insights, as well.

The psalmist says, “Through Your ways give me life.” (37b) And I think the key is to be open and accepting of God’s many “ways,” which certainly includes the wisdom and insights of other people. But there’s also no question that for me, sitting alone most mornings at my desk and reading and reflecting is a rich source of insight and hearing God’s “utterance, which is for those who fear You.” (38)

Ezekiel 23:28–24:8: The prophecy concerning Oholah and Oholibah just keeps getting grimmer as the metaphor of Israel and Judah as whoring sisters grinds to its woeful conclusion. The other countries, who are the metaphorical johns, lead Oholibah—Judah—to its bitter end and they “shall deal with you in hatred, and take away all the fruit of your labor, and leave you naked and bare, and the nakedness of your whorings shall be exposed….because you played the whore with the nations, and polluted yourself with their idols.” (23:29, 30)

It is a great sin is to have played the whore by adopting the idolatrous and sinful practices of the nations around them. That was bad enough, but the greatest sin is to have committed adultery against God, “and blood is on their hands; with their idols they have committed adultery” (23:37a), including the most despicable possible act of idolatry, child sacrifice: “they have even offered up to them for food the children whom they had borne to me.” (23:37b) Worse, they pretended to still be faithful to God: “when they had slaughtered their children for their idols, on the same day they came into my sanctuary to profane it.” (23:39)

God’s judgement against the whores—whether actual or metaphorical—follows Levitical law: “The assembly shall stone them and with their swords they shall cut them down; they shall kill their sons and their daughters, and burn up their houses.” (23:47) and Judah “shall bear the penalty for your sinful idolatry; and you shall know that I am the Lord God.” (23:49)

We often castigate the OT God as harsh and unforgiving, but I think we must consider the enormity of Israel’s and Judah’s sins. This is not casual idolatry, but children are being sacrificed to false gods. In terms of “eye for an eye” Judah and Israel received exactly what they deserved.

On “the ninth year, in the tenth month, on the tenth day of the month, the word of theLord came to me” (24:1). It is “this day, this very day. The king of Babylon has laid siege to Jerusalem this very day.” (24:2) And Ezekiel is commanded to “utter an allegory to the rebellious house ” (24:3).

The allegory is a boiling pot, which once was useful for making lamb stew: Take the choicest one of the flock,
pile the logs under it;
boil its pieces,
seethe also its bones in it. (24:5).  

I take this to be the time that Israel and Judah followed God’s law and the pot represents the kingdom of Israel as it followed God in the days of David and Solomon.  But through the adultery of Judah the pot has become rusty and useless:
Woe to the bloody city,
the pot whose rust is in it,
whose rust has not gone out of it!
For the blood she shed is inside it;” (24:6, 7a).

The blood is emptied out,
to take vengeance,
I [God] have placed the blood she shed
on a bare rock,
so that it may not be covered. (24:8).

The pot would be the very civilization of Israel and Judah itself and the blood poured out is the punishment to come. Judah will lose everything and its blood will be shed on the rock, in the wilderness. The people who heard this prophecy could not have missed its woeful meaning as the army of Babylon stood camped outside the gates of Jerusalem.

James 3:13–4:6: James sets up the dichotomy of two kinds of wisdom. The first is to demonstrate it and “Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.” (3:13). The second “wisdom” is “if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth.” (14). So, it’s clear that for James, wisdom does not come from ourselves or our our own knowledge, but from our acts of selfless love that are inspired by God.

In fact, he defines godly wisdom quite precisely: “the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” (3:17) The phrase that jumps off the page for me is “willing to yield.” I think demanding “our way or the highway” has led to more discord and conflict—especially in the church—than any other cause. For James, by definition, wisdom cannot arise from getting our own way.

I think James could rightly be called the patron saint of the therapeutic community because he gets exactly what is going on inside people: “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?” (4:1) If our desires come from our head and not our heart, it’s suspect.

He also parses what Jesus meant about asking and receiving, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.” (4:3) In other words, asking and receiving is a question of the heart, not the mind. If we are in tune with the Holy Spirit then what we ask for will be received. I’m pretty sure that those who preach the “prosperity gospel” have not read this chapter very carefully.

James make it crystal clear: “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.” (4:4). In other words, God does not bestow mansions, fast cars and planes on TV evangelists because that’s how someone is blessed by God. Instead, God opposes the proud,/ but gives grace to the humble.” (4:6) Would that we would remember that in our relationships with fellow Christians and in our relationship with others as “resident aliens” in the world itself—especially in this increasingly post-Christian era.

Psalm 119:25–32; Ezekiel 22:23–23:27; James 3:1–12

Originally published 10/17/2015. Revised and updated 10/17/2019.

Psalm 119:25–32: Our psalmist believes that his very life depends on his immersion in God’s word:
My being cleaves to the dust.
Give me life as befits Your word. (25)

He is in deep conversation with God and he seeks ever greater understanding of God and his ordinances:
My ways I recounted and You answered me.
The way of Your decrees let me grasp,
that I may dwell on Your wonders. (27)

We could reasonably extend this verse and apply it to how we ourselves acquire knowledge and understanding of the world and universe in which we dwell using the scientific method. I have spent evenings out under the stars, far away from city lights. It is in the majesty of God’s visible universe  far away from the glare of humankind that I can identify with the psalmist, who wishes to dwell on God’s wonders. It stimulates not only our sense of awe, but our desire to learn more, which is what the psalmist is getting at here. The psalmist then pleads,
The way of lies remove from me,
and in Your teaching grant me grace. (29).

We don’t encounter the word “grace” very often in the OT, and here grace is a goal, something to be achieved. This is one of those places where we realize that it is God’s Word, in the person of Jesus Christ, that has brought us grace. We don’t have to strive for it. Our psalmist had only the Law and as such he could only ask God to give him greater insights arising out of the Law that would bring him to a state of grace as he again prays:
The way of trust I have chosen.
Your laws I have set before me.
I have clung to Your precepts.
O Lord, do not shame me. (30, 31)

How much greater for us that we do not have to grasp for grace, but that God in his infinite generosity has granted it to us if we will but grasp it.

Ezekiel 22:23–23:27: God’s accusations against the different groups of people of Jerusalem continue unabated.  Israel’s princes “have devoured human lives; they have taken treasure and precious things; they have made many widows within it.” (22:25). Its priests “have done violence to my teaching and have profaned my holy things; they have made no distinction between the holy and the common.” (22:26). Its officials (which I’ll take to be government bureaucrats) “are like wolves tearing the prey, shedding blood, destroying lives to get dishonest gain.” (22:27) And finally, its false prophets “have smeared whitewash on their behalf, seeing false visions and divining lies for them,” (22:28).

Ezekiel then turns his attention to the population at large, the “common folk,” as God declares that they “have practiced extortion and committed robbery; they have oppressed the poor and needy, and have extorted from the alien without redress.” (22:29).  Proof that corruption at the top of the social hierarchy flows downhill. All in all, this is a pretty accurate description of every society that follows Israel on up to our own 21st century American culture. I am always amused by politicians who claim they can change all this; those who promise hope, but deliver straw. The human heart is immutably corrupt and can be changed in only one way.

Ezekiel then recounts one of his more fantastic metaphors: the story of the two sisters, Oholah and Oholibah. In a remarkably explicit passage, “they played the whore in their youth; their breasts were caressed there, and their virgin bosoms were fondled.” (23:3) Ezekiel leaves no mystery about what each woman represents : “Oholah is Samaria, and Oholibah is Jerusalem.” (23:4)

The story of Oholah, the lost northern kingdom of Israel, comes first: “she lusted after her lovers the Assyrians, warriors clothed in blue, governors and commanders, all of them handsome young men, mounted horsemen.” (23:6). But “She did not give up her whorings that she had practiced since Egypt; … Therefore I delivered her into the hands of her lovers, into the hands of the Assyrians, for whom she lusted. (23:6,7). Israel lusted after the men and practices of Assyria and was consumed: “These uncovered her nakedness; they seized her sons and her daughters; and they killed her with the sword. Judgment was executed upon her.” (23:10)

Then, it’s Judah’s turn: “Her sister Oholibah saw this, yet she was more corrupt than she in her lusting and in her whorings, which were worse than those of her sister.” (23:11) It is Jerusalem to whom Ezekiel is prophesying and he makes sure they get his point: “But she carried her whorings further; she saw male figures carved on the wall, images of the Chaldeans portrayed in vermilion, … all of them looking like officers—a picture of Babylonians whose native land was Chaldea.” (23:14, 15)  

As a consequence, God “turned in disgust from her, as I had turned from her sister. Yet she increased her whorings.” (23:18, 19)  And as the Assyrians turned on Israel, Judah’s efforts to suck up to the Babylonians and imitate their ways will result in disaster: “They shall seize your sons and your daughters, and your survivors shall be devoured by fire. They shall also strip you of your clothes and take away your fine jewels.” (23:25, 26)

This story brings out an aspect of Israel and Judah that I hadn’t appreciated before. I always thought the conquerers just showed up and conquered. But it’s clear that their defeat arose from Israel’s and Judah’s failure to maintain their distinctiveness as God’s people. Instead, they adopt the foreign culture, possibly for defensive purposes at first. But the idols, wealth, and colorfully dressed officers of the Assyrians and Babylonians turns out to be lethally attractive. In the end, their paramours turn on Israel and Judah and destroy them. In short, Israel and Judah are corrupted by their own lust; they are not the innocents who are conquered. Kingdoms are weakened by internal rot and then the conquerers need only push them over as one would push over a building comprised of rotting timber.

 James 3:1–12: I would love to know the back story that sets James off on his famous diatribe about the evils wrought by that “small member, the tongue. In that era where speech was the main means of communication, James warns us that “the tongue is a fire…it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell.” (6) And the tongue is untamable as those of us who have said foolish and hurtful things know all too well. James is especially outraged that the same tongue that can commit both good and evil: “With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.” (9, 10a) We can almost hear James’s despairing voice when he writes, “My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.” (10b) Alas, it is so from the time of Adam.

Today, we have many other means of communication than just the tongue. Although that certainly does not prevent us from saying or writing hateful things, especially to those whom we love. In the Internet era it is far too easy to email or post hurtful thoughts that can do serious injury, as cases of cyberbullying that led to suicide prove too well.

James wonders rhetorically, “Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water?” (11) Of all the things in nature, it is the tongue—and the human being in which the tongue resides—that can perform the trick of saying both good and evil all too easily. The tongue is the clearest proof of our fallen nature. And I am guilty as charged.

Psalm 119:17–24; Ezekiel 21:18–22:22; James 2:14–26

Originally published 10/16/2015. Revised and updated 10/16/2019.

Psalm 119:17–24: This stanza is a psalm of supplication and its usual memes, but with a twist. Most supplicants ask for their life to be restored. Here, the psalmist asks for life so he can follow God’s ordinances:
Requite Your servant—I shall live,
and let me observe Your word.
Unveil my eyes that I may look
upon the wonders of Your teaching. (17, 18).  

As if to put the metaphorical cherry on top of this request, he intones:
I pine away desiring
You laws in every hour. (20)

Really? Or is there at least a small bit of hyperbole here? But I think he correctly observes that there is some danger in ignoring God’s word as he writes,
You blast away the cursed arrogant
who stray from Your commands. (21)

Of course, the quid pro quo of the Old Covenant was in  keeping God’s law, so there’s no question the psalmist is being theologically correct when he says that: 
Take away from me scorn and disgrace

for Your precepts I have kept.
Even when princes sat to scheme against me,
Your servant dwelled on Your statutes.
(22, 23)

So, we need to accept our psalmist’s sincerity when he concludes,
Yes, Your precepts are my delight,
my constant counselors. (24)

Which is good advice for all of us because God’s Word has been expressed for us in the person of Jesus Christ, who definitely should be at the center of our lives. For us, the Word was made flesh and we are indeed rescued and it is in Jesus and the Holy Spirit, our “constant counselor” in whom we take delight.

Ezekiel 21:18–22:22: God commands Ezekiel to mark out a (metaphorical? actual?) fork in the road to which the King of Babylon will come and stand at “the parting of the way.” (21:21) Will the king of Babylon head toward the Rabbah of the Ammonites or toward Jerusalem? It appears to be a false choice because both are punished. First, Jerusalem:
As for you, vile, wicked prince of Israel,
    you whose day has come,
    the time of final punishment,
thus says the Lord God:

Remove the turban, take off the crown;
    things shall not remain as they are. (21:25, 26)

God goes on to promise,
A ruin, a ruin, a ruin—
 I will make it!
(Such has never occurred.) (21:27a)

But then, as always, amidst the curses and depredations, there is the glimmer of the Promise– a Messiah: “Until he comes whose right it is;/ to him I will give it.” (21:27b)

The Ammonites will receive their comeuppance as well, as the sword metaphor occurs again:
A sword, a sword! Drawn for slaughter,
polished to consume, to flash like lightning. (21:28)

As with Israel, God
will pour out my indignation upon you,
    with the fire of my wrath
    I will blow upon you.
I will deliver you into brutish hands,
    those skillful to destroy. (21:31).

The message here is clear. In the end, God cannot abide evil no matter who commits it.

But the Ammonites are merely a parenthesis as Ezekiel returns to the real issue at hand: the sins of Jerusalem: “You, mortal, will you judge, will you judge the bloody city? Then declare to it all its abominable deeds.” (22:2) We encounter a horrifying catalog of abominations that the leaders and people of Jerusalem have committed: “A city! Shedding blood within itself; its time has come; making its idols, defiling itself.” (22:3) Judgement awaits because “You have become guilty by the blood that you have shed, and defiled by the idols that you have made; you have brought your day near, the appointed time of your years has come.” (22:4)

Beginning with the accusation that “everyone according to his power, have been bent on shedding blood.” (26) we encounter virtually the exact inverse of the Decalogue:

  • Father and mother are treated with contempt in you; (7a)
  • the alien residing within you suffers extortion; (7b)
  • the orphan and the widow are wronged in you. (7c)
  • You have despised my holy things, and profaned my sabbaths. (8)
  • those who slander to shed blood, those in you who eat upon the mountains, (9a)
  • they take bribes to shed blood; (13a)
  • you take both advance interest and accrued interest, and make gain of your neighbors by extortion; (13b)

Sexual perversion receives particularly detailed attention, including incest:

  • In you they uncover their fathers’ nakedness; in you they violate women in their menstrual periods. (10)
  •  One commits abomination with his neighbor’s wife; (11a)
  • another lewdly defiles his daughter-in-law; (11b)
  • another in you defiles his sister, his father’s daughter. (11c)

Thus, for its sinfulness in every aspect of its communal and family life, “the house of Israel has become dross to me; all of them, silver, bronze, tin, iron, and lead. In the smelter they have become dross.” (18) What once was valuable is now worthless, as the reading ends, “As silver is melted in a smelter, so you shall be melted in it; and you shall know that I the Lord have poured out my wrath upon you.” (22)

What is striking here is just how the nature of human sin has not changed one iota. Our culture stands guilty of each of these items in the list—and doubtless more. Will God withhold his wrath or is judgement inevitable? Looking at history, I think I can guess the eventual outcome.

James 2:14–26: Ah, we come to the centerpiece of James’s thesis: the relationship between faith and works. He asks the rhetorical question that surely got Martin Luther’s attention: “Can faith save you?” (14) Which James answers by asserting that faith–which I take here as intellectual faith–cannot, as he asserts, “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (17).

But I think it’s important to realize that James is getting at faith of the heart. Real faith always generates the desire to put faith into action by what we do. Faith and works are supremely intertwined: “You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works.” (22)

Nevertheless, I’m pretty sure what really got Martin Luther was James’s summary: “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” (24). Do works really justify? This was  the problem Luther saw in the Church: that works had superseded faith as the means of salvation. I’m pretty sure Luther would have been happier if James had written something like “works are the natural consequence of true faith, but we are justified before God by faith alone. Works logically follow.”  . I think it’s too easy to focus solely on works. It becomes all about us and what we do and what we control, which leads to pride, which leads to believing we are justifying ourselves by our own efforts.

Faith and works are certainly a tricky and dynamic balance. It’s like walking on a knife edge.

Psalm 119:9–16; Ezekiel 20:30–21:17; James 2:1–13

Originally published 10/15/2015. Revised and updated 10/15/2019.

Psalm 119:9–16: Our psalmist slips in an autobiographical note, informing us that he has been seeking God from his youth:
How shall a lad make his path worthy
to observe as befits Your word.
With all my heart I sought You. (9, 10a)

The question is, of course, do I seek God with all my heart? Or do I come to God only half-heartedly, seeking the Word of God only when it’s convenient for me?

In my heart I kept Your utterance
so that I would not offend against You. (11)

This is a theme that will occur many times in this psalm: the necessity to learn and know God’s word as it is set out in Scripture in order to obey it. Under the terms of the Old Covenant, knowing the Law in order to remain obedient to it was absolutely essential. Now that we live in the era of grace under the New Covenant, I think we use grace as an excuse not to delve too deeply into Scripture in order to better understand the cultural and spiritual roots of the gift that we enjoy.  Being ignorant of God’s word is no longer a question of not “offending” God, but of missing so much of the back-story and grasping the theology that as Christ-followers that can enriched our lives.

Once again we encounter the preeminence of speech as the key means of communication as the psalmist tells us,
With my lips I recounted
all the laws You pronounced. (13)

I suspect this ability to recount aloud was more than just quickly rattling off the Decalogue. Rather it would be reciting the contents of Leviticus and Deuteronomy—that at least for me seems a daunting task and significant achievement! It’s important to note, however, that the psalmist does not see this as memory work as drudgery, but a source of pleasure:
In Your statutes I delight,
I shall not forget Your word. (16)

While I have no intention of memorization, there’s no question that beginning my day in God’s word has truly become a delight. Who would have thought?

Ezekiel 20:30–21:17: Even though Israel thinks it can abandon God, God will not abandon them: “What is in your mind shall never happen—the thought, “Let us be like the nations, like the tribes of the countries, and worship wood and stone.” (20:32) Instead, God promises, “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and with wrath poured out, I will be king over you.” (20:33)

And since God will not abandon Israel, allowing it to be like other nations, it must suffer the consequences of its collective sins: “As I entered into judgment with your ancestors in the wilderness of the land of Egypt, so I will enter into judgment with you, says the Lord God.” (21:36).

But that promise to never abandon Israel also includes the promise to one day restore it to its former glory. And when that happens, “There you shall remember your ways and all the deeds by which you have polluted yourselves; and you shall loathe yourselves for all the evils that you have committed.” (21:43)

In the same way that memory is essential to the psalmist in following God, there is national memory as well. Israel will once again collectively recall what great things God has done for it. It will again come to its senses and “you shall know that I am the Lord, when I deal with you for my name’s sake, not according to your evil ways, or corrupt deeds, O house of Israel,” (21:44)  We can grab hold of this promise as well. When we drift away from God and sin we will suffer the consequences of that sin. But through confession we will also recall—and enjoy—God’s gracious forgiveness.

As is so frequently the case, the prophet swings from the promise of restoration back to the threats of punishment: “Thus says the Lord: I am coming against you, and will draw my sword out of its sheath, and will cut off from you both righteous and wicked.” (21:4) And we encounter a dreadful metaphor: the sword of the Lord:
     A sword, a sword is sharpened,
        it is also polished;
     it is sharpened for slaughter,
         honed to flash like lightning! (21:9b, 10)

Worse, the sword is “is against my people;/ it is against all Israel’s princes.” (21:12) And there’s no point in being in denial about the inevitability of punishment: “For consider: What! If you despise the rod, will it not happen?  says the Lord God.” (13) God will swing this punishing rod and strike everyone in its path:
    Attack to the right!
        Engage to the left!
         —wherever your edge is directed.
      I too will strike hand to hand,
         I will satisfy my fury;
      I the Lord have spoken. (21:16, 17)

This is one of those places in the OT where we can only say, “Here ends the reading,” and admit we cannot grasp the idea of such a furious God that would destroy the people to whom he also promises restoration just a few verses earlier. It’s a reminder that thankfully we have been spared the Old Covenant and live under grace because our sins as a culture are easily as great as ancient Israel’s.

James 2:1–13: James continues to eschew the high theology we encounter in the epistles to the Romans or to the Hebrews in order to focus on right practice within the Christian community. Here, he raises an issue that is as ignored just as much today as it was in the early church:

For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?” (2-4)

For us, the question is would we welcome the disheveled homeless man as eagerly as the person who parks his expensive car in the parking lot? Unfortunately, we know the probable answer all too well.

James quite rightly says, “God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom.” (5) Yes, we know that already. The Bible is really clear on this point. But then he goes on to make a point that I think we don’t stop and really appreciate: “Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?”  (6,7) It’s the haughty wealthy who think they are better than we and  are the ones eager to acquire even more wealth—usually at our expense. And always at the expense of the poor.

So why do we kow-tow to the wealthy even to our own detriment? I think there’s a simple answer: envy. We want to be in their position so we can pridefully lord it over others. But as James points out, “if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.” (9) But alas, our thoughtless, self-centered human nature makes that sin all too easy to commit. James is reminding us that we must consciously regard our interactions with other people. Seems so simple, so straightforward. And yet we persist.

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.

Psalm 118:22-29; Ezekiel 18:19–19:14; James 1:9–19

Psalm originally published 10/12/2016. OT & NT passages originally published 10/12/2013. Revised and updated 10/12/2019.

Psalm 118:22–29: We encounter the verse that Jesus quoted in reference to himself (Matt 21:42, also Mark & Luke). It is also referred to in Peter’s sermon in Acts 4, as well as in Ephesians and 1 Peter: “The stone that the builders rejected/ has become the chief cornerstone.” (22)  In the NT, this verse stands for Jesus and the Jews’ rejection of their Messiah.

But the verse following is equally important and it doubtless came to mind among the Jews when Jesus referred to the chief cornerstone:
From the Lord did this come about—
it is wondrous in our eyes.

As the gospel of John makes clear repeatedly, Jesus has indeed come from directly God and this act of incarnation is wondrous for all humankind.

The verse that follows is equally well known, and usually something we casually toss off on Sunday mornings:
This is the day the Lord has wrought.
Let us exult and rejoice in it.

Here in its context, its meaning is far richer. This is the day that God has created and it is the day—every day—when we realize that the Rejected Cornerstone has indeed rescued us. That is the beauty to reflect on each morning when we awake: Not just the beauty of God’s creation but his munificent act in sending Jesus Christ to us: rejected in his time and culture—and also in ours—but then to be exalted—worshipped— down through history for his saving grace.

The psalm concludes with a benediction that is an acknowledgement of how God in his rescue has blessed us:
The Lord is God and He shines upon us.
You are my God, and I acclaim You,
my God, and I exalt You.
Acclaim the Lord, for He is good,
forever is His kindness. (27a, 28, 29)

It would be a good habit to pray those words of gratitude every morning.

Ezekiel 18:19–19:14: As we saw yesterday, the old saying, “the sins of the father are visited upon the sons,” is no longer operative. Subsequent generations do not bear responsibility for the wrongdoings of their forebears, nor are the parents responsible for the sins of their offspring (although I presume we are speaking about adult children here): “A child shall not suffer for the iniquity of a parent, nor a parent suffer for the iniquity of a child. (18:20a)

But God, speaking through Ezekiel, also makes it clear that he takes no pleasure in punishment, sort of God saying (as my father once did) in effect, “this is going to hurt me more than it hurts you” when Ezekiel writes: “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the Lord God, and not rather that they should turn from their ways and live?” (18:23)

In Ezekiel, righteousness is like going to the gym: you can’t store it up, go off and commit sins and then come back to God saying, “This is unfair; I have righteousness points in the bank and I’d like to use them now to offset my iniquity.”  God makes it clear it doesn’t work that way.  We are each responsible for our own actions: “the righteousness of the righteous shall be his own, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be his own.” (18:29b)

In this era where so many people consider themselves part of a victim class rather than accepting the consequences of their misdeeds, this passage on responsibility for our own actions is bracing.  The choice is consummately simple—and it is wholly ours: “For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live.” (18:32) How much of life we miss because we ignore these simple four words: Turn, then, and live.

Ezekiel 19 is a lamentation containing a tragic metaphor followed immediately by a tragic simile. Ezekiel makes it very clear who he’s talking about: the wicked kings of Israel are the lion cubs. Kings are anointed and then become wicked:
She [Israel?] raised up one of her cubs;
   he became a young lion,
and he learned to catch prey;
   he devoured humans. (19:3)

A subsequent king does exactly the same thing:
He prowled among the lions;
    he became a young lion,
and he learned to catch prey;
    he devoured people. (19:6)

Ultimately, after battles and destruction, an evil king ends up a captive in Babylon in a pretty clear metaphor:
With hooks they put him in a cage,
and brought him to the king of Babylon;
they brought him into custody,
so that his voice should be heard no more
on the mountains of Israel. (19:9)

Even more tragic is the simile that follows: Your mother was like a vine in a vineyard” (19:10a) that once achieved greatness. I take this to be the united kingdom under Solomon:
 …transplanted by the water,
fruitful and full of branches
    from abundant water.
 Its strongest stem became

    a ruler’s scepter;
it towered aloft
    among the thick boughs;
it stood out in its height
    with its mass of branches. (19:10, 11)

But through the depredations of those young, devouring lions, the vineyard has been destroyed:
And fire has gone out from its stem,
    has consumed its branches and fruit,
so that there remains in it no strong stem,
    no scepter for ruling. (19:14)

Corrupt leadership at the top begets the destruction of nations.  Which, as any casual reading of history reveals, is hardly unique to Israel. Is our empire the next to fall?.

James 1:9-19: In a land where of ever-increasing inequality between the rich and the rest of us, this passage in James seems rather empty: “It is the same with the rich; in the midst of a busy life, they will wither away.” (11b) True in the abstract in the sense that the rich die like the rest of us, but in the meantime, they seem to be doing quite well, thank you.  Nevertheless, James is reminding us that what wealth we amass here on earth is ephemeral–something we all do well to remember.

We must remember that the temptations confronting us are not sourced by God: No one, when tempted, should say, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one. (13) The world, all its fallenness is what creates. And above all, our own self-will is what succumbs to temptation. Along the same line, God does not place obstacles in our path in order to test us and see if we will stumble.  As a guy who has been in close contact with others in the cancer community, there is no greater theological crock than the old canard, “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” Happily, I’ve only heard it once, but that was enough.

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…

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. 

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.

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?

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.

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.

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!