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

Psalm 118:10–14: Our psalmist is writing in the first person, presumably the king or  high-ranking military leader as he describes he won the battle:
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.

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 turns and accuses his enemies 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 depth and trust that is on display here? 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 great can occur.

Ezekiel 16:43–17:10: No prophet can top Ezekiel when it comes to creative ways to describe Judah’s sin against God by perverting itself in worshipping other small-g gods. Besides false worship the other sin is what it always is: the arrogance of power ignoring the needs of the poor. Ezekiel reaches back and describes the core sin of Sodom, which is the metaphorical name here for Judah. And the core sin of sexual perversion is not the only sin God cares about: “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 went over with a big thud in Ezekiel’s Jewish audience.

But 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,” ie. 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 the 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)

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 theological orthodox—unless of course the bishops themselves tend to wander astray and concern themselves with peripheral issues.

Equally important as 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 witness: “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.

There is finally 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 116:1–7; Ezekiel 10:1–11:15; Hebrews 11:17–28

Writing from the Tamaya Resort on the Santa Ana Pueblo near Bernalillo, NM.

Psalm 116:1–7: Unlike many psalms of supplication that express frustration that GOd is nowhere to be found or is not hearing one’s prayers, his psalm of thanksgiving opens with gratitude for a listening God:
I love the Lord, for he has heard
my voice, my supplications.
For He has inclined His ear to me
when in my days I called.” (1,2)

It’s clear that his prayers were made at a time of great physical distress, perhaps from an illness or being wounded on the battlefield. In any event we see that it was a desperate near-death situation:
The cord of death encircled me—
and the straits of Sheol found me—
distress and sorrow did I find.” (3)

In that desperate circumstance, it is the simplest of prayers that God hears:
And in the name of the Lord I called.
‘Lord, pray, save my life.‘” (4)

There’s a lesson here for those of us who embellish our prayers with lengthy details or worse, IMHO, pray stuff like, “If it be your will.” God doesn’t need fancy paragraphs with our request hidden somewhere in the middle. A simple declarative sentence will do.

And when God answers our prayer of thanksgiving can be equally straightforward:
Gracious the Lord and just,
and our God shows mercy.” (5)

Perhaps the most intriguing part of this prayer is not only how God answers prayers, but he calms our emotional and psychological anxieties. Our psalmist describes how when we know God has heard our prayer we find inner peace:
I plunged down, but me He did rescue.
Return, my being, to your calm,
for the Lord has requited you.” (6, 7)

God is not only a rescuing God he is a calming God. And in these fraught times when we see evil on full display all around us, it is in God’s peace that we find our own succor.

Ezekiel 10:1–11:15:  In this extravagant vision, God himself is present: “The cloud filled the temple, and the court was full of the radiance of the glory of the Lord.” (10:4b) There is a mysterious man dressed in linen, who is commanded by God to take fire from the cherubim. I would not be surprised if some Christians interpret this man as being Jesus Christ.

Ezekiel’s vision provides even more imaginative details about those cherubim who move around on interlocking wheels. The wheels move and halt under the Cherubim’s command, who are riding on them. Ezekiel sees no other control and concludes that “the spirit of the living creatures was in them.” (10:17)  We also get a rather ominous sense of being watched by these four-faced creatures, whose “entire bodies, including their backs, their hands and their wings, were completely full of eyes, as were their four wheels.” (10:12)

At the end of chapter 10 we don’t yet know what the man dressed in linen holding fire is going to do with it.

Ezekiel is taken up by what I gather to be the Holy Spirit and deposited at the eastern entrance of the temple where he sees 25 men standing there. God tells Ezekiel ““Son of man, these are the men who are plotting evil and giving wicked advice in this city.” (11:2) Ezekiel, still operating under the power of the Spirit, tells them they are hypocrites who may be talking God talk, but that God knows “what is going through your mind. You have killed many people in this city and filled its streets with the dead.” (11:6)

The prophet then tells them that “This city will not be a pot for you, nor will you be the meat in it;” (11:11) which is a symbolic way of telling them that their plans to exploit the people will fail because God “will execute judgment on you at the borders of Israel…for you have not followed my decrees or kept my laws but have conformed to the standards of the nations around you.” (11:12)

Even as Ezekiel speaks, one of the leaders promptly dies. This is pretty distressing to the prophet, who “fell facedown and cried out in a loud voice, “Alas, Sovereign Lord! Will you completely destroy the remnant of Israel?” (11:13) But God reminds him that these people in Jerusalem are the ones who have been plotting to destroy the remnant and take their land and possessions: “the people of Jerusalem have said of your fellow exiles and all the other Israelites, ‘They are far away from the Lord; this land was given to us as our possession.’” (11:15)

These visions are certainly striking and I’m waiting for the movie depicting this vision and the encounter with the 25 men standing at the temple entrance. But as for theological content, I’m not sure there’s much beyond there are things in heaven that are otherworldly, which we cannot understand or describe—although I give credit to Ezekiel for trying.

Hebrews 11:17–28: In this perhaps the most well-known section of this epistle we encounter our author’s famous catalog of faithful Jewish patriarchs, beginning with Abraham’s own faith that God would rescue his son Isaac whom he was directed to sacrifice. But he puts an interesting twist on it by asserting that “Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.” (19) Which I assume is meant to remind us that God indeed has raised Jesus from the dead. If Abraham had that kind of faith in resurrection, then so should we.

He then goes on to list the faithful acts of the patriarchs: Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and then Moses. Rather than be known as “the son of Pharaoh’s daughter,” he abandons the title and instead “chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin.” (25) Clear message to the community: If Moses chose a harder path, so should you.

Then, in what I think is one of the more remarkable assertions in the book, our author states that Moses “regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward.” (26) He concatenates Moses’ trust in God with the “sake of Christ.” The implication here seems to be that Moses was somehow pre-aware that Christ would come to earth at some future point. oR perhaps it is simply that faith in God is the same as faith in Christ.

But the overall theme of this passage is faith. If the patriarchs had faith that God would lead and provide, then so too should we. Faith brings insight and it also brings courage: “By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible.” (27) And like Moses, we too must have faith in the one “who is invisible.”

 

Psalm 114; Ezekiel 4:6–6:7; Hebrews 10:19–31

Writing from Topeka, KS…

Psalm 114: This unique allegorical, yet historical, psalm opens with a reference to the beginning of the nation “When Israel came out of Egypt.” (1a) As is the case of much poetry in the psalms, the second line repeats the thought of the first but with a further amplifying detail:
the house of Jacob from a barbarous-tongued folk,
Judah became His sanctuary,
Israel His dominion.” (1b,2)

Clearly, our poet had no nostalgic feelings for the Egyptians, and he is certainly writing after the split between the southern kingdom—Judah—and the northern—Israel—but before the time when Israel became totally apostate and abandoned God altogether.

He then conflates Israel and Judah with allegorical references to two miraculous acts of nature in reference to the two defining moments of Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness: the crossing of the sea under Moses and the entry into Canaan under Joshua:
The sea saw and fled,
Jordan turned back.” (3)

What’s fascinating is that our poet assert human-like actions to elements of nature and the images become even more wildly imaginative as the poet speaks of topography as if it were conscious beings:
The mountains danced like rams,
hills like lambs of the flock.” (4)

This seems like a reference to an earthquake. In the same imaginative vein he repeats these four images of nature—two of water, two of earth— and asks them rhetorically, as if they were sentient beings:
What is wrong with you, sea, that you flee,
Jordan, that you turn back,
mountains, that you dance like rams,
hills like lambs of the flock?” (5, 6)

Just as we think the poet is about to go off the allegorical rails, he conjures yet another remarkable image that nevertheless grounds us that the answer to his question is God himself, who controls all of nature in its never-ending dance:
Before the Master, whirl, O earth,
before the God of Jacob,
Who turns the rock into a pond of water,
flint to a spring of water” (7)

In short, God can accomplish anything he pleases. And that is certainly why he opened the sea and halted the flow of the Jordan for the people he loved. And it is this control over nature that provides sustenance in the wilderness—the reference to rock and water.

Ezekiel 4:6–6:7: Just about everything regarding Ezekiel is bizarre. God commands Ezekiel to “lie down again, this time on your right side, and bear the sin of the people of Judah. I have assigned you 40 days, a day for each year.” (4:6). Even more oddly, God will tie him up with ropes so he can’t turn over, keeping his “bared arm [to] prophesy against [Jerusalem].” (4:7)

Now being written from Colorado Springs… (hotbed of evangelicalism)

God then provides ingredients and a recipe to make bread and to demonstrate the contempt in which God now holds Israel, which is to bake the bread over human shit. But Ezekiel protests against this, telling God, “I have never defiled myself. From my youth until now I have never eaten anything found dead or torn by wild animals. No impure meat has ever entered my mouth.” (4:14) God relents a bit, telling his prophet, “Very well…I will let you bake your bread over cow dung instead of human excrement.” (4:15) God then proposes to starve Jerusalem to the point that the residents of Jerusalem “will be appalled at the sight of each other and will waste away because of their sin.” (4:17)

Things get even more bizarre in the next chapter. Ezekiel is commanded to shave his head and beard, weigh out the hair into three groups and then burn it [except for a few hairs to “tuck them away in the folds of your garment.” (5:3)] All of this weirdness is to demonstrate God’s anger toward Jerusalem. There’s a great deal of angry repetition on God’s part, but the final line of the chapter pretty much says it all: “Plague and bloodshed will sweep through you, and I will bring the sword against you. I the Lord have spoken.” (5:17)

As if destroying Jerusalem was not enough, God tells Ezekiel to announce that even the mountains surrounding Israel are doomed because they are the location of the “high places”— altars of idols: “This is what the Sovereign Lord says to the mountains and hills, to the ravines and valleys: I am about to bring a sword against you, and I will destroy your high places.” (6:3)

All in all, the words that God brings to Ezekiel make Jeremiah’s proclamations sound positively wimpy.

Of course the deeper question here is, what gives with this almost adolescent God so given to tantrums? Yes, all that idol worship is vile and evil, but somehow we’d think God would be more, well, god-like. As it is his pronouncements sound pretty much like Trumpian tweets.

Hebrews 10:19–31: Our author sounds almost Pauline as he encourages his baptised community to “draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.” (22) And with those pure hearts we are to “spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another.” (24,25) That the community seems to have dispensed with meeting is a striking note. Come hell or high water, he seems to be saying, it’s crucial to be together frequently.

He goes on to address the old problem of “hey, there’s grace so I can sin boldly, assured of forgiveness” by taking a hellfire and brimstone approach: “we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.” (26, 27) Drawing on the Jewish knowledge of his community, he reminds them that it only took “the testimony of two or three witnesses” (28) to be put to death for breaking the law of Moses.

He goes on to ask rhetorically, “How much more severely do you think someone deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified them, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace?” (30) Rather, we are never to forget that God said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.” (30) Just to make sure we get his point he adds rather ominously, “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (31) 

I’m not sure I’d want to be a member of this community. But I’m pretty sure it separated the hangers-on from those who were sincere in their faith and how they practiced it.

Psalm 112; Ezekiel 1,2; Hebrews 9:23–10:4

Psalm 112: This “short acrostic” poem has 22 lines, each beginning with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet. While the previous psalm celebrated God’s beneficence, this one celebrates the attributes of the wise man who follows God and the law—and does so with joy:
Happy the man who fears the Lord.
His commands he keenly desires.
A great figure in the land his seed shall be,
the generation of the upright shall be blessed.
Abundance and wealth in his home,
and his righteousness stands forever.” (1-3)

In the quid pro quo world of Jewish law, a man (and it’s always a man) who follows the law will be amply rewarded in terms of progeny (the greatest of all blessings in Israel), wealth, and he will be remembered by subsequent generations for his righteousness (the other greatest blessing).

But this is not to trivialize the ideas in the psalm, even though its sentiments are found elsewhere in less stolid poetry. These are indeed qualities each of us would do well to emulate:
Light dawns in darkness for the upright,
gracious and merciful and just.
Good is the man who shows grace and lends,
he sustains his words with justice.
For he shall never stumble,
and eternal remembrance the just man shall be.” (4-6)

Clearly the most important thought in this stanza is that deeds back up words. There is something solemn about a promise and I know that it is too easy to squander trust by either carelessly-made promises or failure to act on what I have said I committed to do.

All of these wonderful qualities are founded in trusting God—even when others may be attacking the righteous man. His trust in God frees him from fear as he stands tall in adversity:
From evil rumor he shall not fear.
His heart is firm, he trusts in the Lord.
His heart is stanuch, he shall not fear,
till he sees the defeat of his foes.” (7-8)

The wise man also sees difficult tasks through to completion, even in the face of opposition. He is also generous in spirit and resources:
He disperses, he gives to the needy,
his righteousness stands forever.
His horn shall be raised in glory.” (9)

The psalm ends on a note of stark contrast of the reaction of the wicked man when he sees this exemplar of righteousness: because even the wicked have a conscience and deep down they know theirs deeds are evil. But it is only when they see themselves in comparison to the righteous man do their feelings of inadequacy surface. More importantly, as the psalmist observes in the final line, the wicked man’s deeds ultimately come to naught:
The wicked man sees and is vexed,
he gnashes his teeth and he quails.
The desire of the wicked shall perish.” (10)

Ezekiel 1,2: Well, if we thought Jeremiah was a slog, it’s been good preparation for the slog through Ezekiel, which in many ways is a far more puzzling and weirdly dramatic book.

The opening verse is gives us a feel of what is to follow. While Jeremiah was all about hearing and repeating the word of God, Ezekiel is all about sight as the 30-year old prophet, living in in Babylon before the exile, sees prophetic visions: “the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God.” (1:1)

One has to admit this vision was pretty dramatic. It turns out to be “four living creatures. In appearance their form was human,  but each of them had four faces and four wings” (5, 6) appearing in the midst of fire. These were multi-faced creatures (cherubim?): “Each of the four had the face of a human being, and on the right side each had the face of a lion, and on the left the face of an ox; each also had the face of an eagle.” (1:10)

The vision becomes even more dramatic as Ezekiel sees the famous wheels inside wheels, which as a kid back in the 195o’s UFO scares I remember hearing someone explain as extraterrestrial spaceships: “I saw a wheel on the ground beside each creature with its four faces. This was the appearance and structure of the wheels: They sparkled like topaz,… Each appeared to be made like a wheel intersecting a wheel…When the living creatures moved, the wheels beside them moved; and when the living creatures rose from the ground, the wheels also rose.” (1: 16, 19) 

It is not only a bizarre scene, it’s also pretty noisy as the creatures flap their wings: “When the creatures moved, I heard the sound of their wings, like the roar of rushing waters, like the voice of the Almighty, like the tumult of an army.” (1:24) This all leads to the apotheosis: a vision of God himself—a theophany: “I saw that from what appeared to be his waist up he looked like glowing metal, as if full of fire, and that from there down he looked like fire; and brilliant light surrounded him. Like the appearance of a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the radiance around him.” (1: 27, 28)

Ezekiel wisely falls on his face as God begins to speak. God commands Ezekiel to stand and tells him, “Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites, to a rebellious nation that has rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have been in revolt against me to this very day.” (2:3)

God assures Ezekiel that whether or not the Israelites listen to him, they will know that he is a prophet and that he is to speak to them without fear (which after this vision I assume he was quaking in his sandals). “Do not be afraid of what they say or be terrified by them, though they are a rebellious people. You must speak my words to them, whether they listen or fail to listen, for they are rebellious.” (2:6,7) Ezekiel’s eyes must have been shut through this speech as God commands, “open your mouth and eat what I give you.” (2:8). Ezekiel opens his eyes, looks down at his hands and sees that God has handed him a scroll and “On both sides of it were written words of lament and mourning and woe.” (2:10) 

We have to admit that ordaining Ezekiel as a prophet by giving him a scroll to eat is certainly an original and unprecedented act on God’s part! What will be the reaction of the people when Ezekiel shows up and relates what has happened to him? WIll it give him credibility or will the people just think he’s a wacko. I know how I’d react if some 30-year old guy showed up and told us what happened to him. And it would not enhance his credibility…

Hebrews 9:23–10:4: Our author continues his exposition on why Christ’s single sacrifice on the cross was sufficient rather than the annual treks by the high priest to the temple’s Holy of Holies. It’s really quite simple: “For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made with human hands that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence.” (9:24) Therefore, he argues, Christ “has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself.” (9:26)

However, our author is careful to add that while Christ does not have to repeatedly offer a sacrifice, he will indeed be coming again: “so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.” (9:28)

As if he has not made this point several times already our author is compelled to repeat himself, reminding us, “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves.” (10:1) The sacrifices made under the law are therefore inadequate and “can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship.” (10:2) However, the sacrifices do serve a useful didactic purpose: “those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins.” (10:3) But that said, our author again(!) reminds us, “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” (10:4)

I think the business about the sacrifices serving as a reminder of sins is something we could use today. We really don’t talk about sin very much either personally, as a church, or certainly as a culture. For the most part we have jettisoned the idea of personal wrongdoing preferring to cast ourselves as victims of forces beyond our control. That’s a nice way to avoid taking personal responsibility, but building a life on a sense of victimhood is ultimately a house of cards. Frankly, we could stand to hear Jonathan Edward’s’ famous sermon, “Sinners in the hand of angry God” from time to time.

Psalm 111; Lamentations 4,5; Hebrews 9:11–22

Psalm 111: Adding to our theological and/or linguistic knowledge, Alter informs us this is a “short acrostic” psalm of praise where the the first word of each line begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet in alphabetical order. Since we neither know Hebrew nor are reading this poem in Hebrew I can only say, “Noted. That’s cool, I suppose.”  As a psalm of praise, opening on the word, “Hallelujah!,” it is basically a worship song about God’s timelessness and the beneficence he bestows on those who follow God, Which is not a bad theme!
Hallelujah!
I acclaim the Lord with full heart
in the council of the upright and the assembly.
Great are the deeds of the Lord,
discovered by all who desire them.” (1, 2)

That last line, “discovered by all who desire” to see the deeds of God, is intriguing. I think it means we will see the evidences of God’s power and greatness if we but only look for them. There’s no question that the evidence is all around us. Certainly in nature, but also in simple gifts such as the one we observed a few days ago: the gift of night and day and our ability to consign a bad day to history and begin afresh the next morning.

Our psalmist goes on in a praise chorus vein, covering the many wondrous aspects of God and his mighty power. There are passing references to the Covenant between God and Israel, the time in the wilderness, and the gift of the promised land:
Sustenance He gives to those who fear Him,
He recalls forever His pact.
The power of His deeds He told His people,
to give the the nations’ estate.” (5, 6)

The clear underlying theme is it is God who created that truth and justice which transcend time and are to be carried out by his people. Nice in concept, but like all nations including our own, Israel pretty much failed at putting action behind the high-flown words of the psalm:
His handiwork, truth and justice,
trustworthy all His precepts,
Staunch for all time, forever,
fashioned in truth and right.” (7,8)

God is our savior and as far as this psalmist is concerned, he is the everlasting foundation of human wisdom and knowledge as the psalm concludes in a famous verse:
The beginning of —the fear of the Lord,
good knowledge to all who perform it.
His praise stands for all time.” (10)

We will come back to this theme of wisdom and knowledge big time when we slog through Psalm 119.

Lamentations 4,5: Chapter 4 passage pretty much covers ground we have already worn down quite well: a poem about the punishment of Judah and Jerusalem. But I think the poetry here does a better job at evoking an emotional response than the more stolid lines in the book of Jeremiah. It is chock full of really brilliant images, beginning with the opening verse:
How the gold has grown dim,
    how the pure gold is changed!
The sacred stones lie scattered
    at the head of every street.” (4:1)

There is immense sadness in the verses about the children who have died in the conquest of Jerusalem:
The precious children of Zion,
    worth their weight in fine gold—
how they are reckoned as earthen pots,
    the work of a potter’s hands!” (4:2)

Our poet understandably blames the adults for their failure to care for their children:
The tongue of the infant sticks
    to the roof of its mouth for thirst;
the children beg for food,
    but no one gives them anything.” (4:4)

As well, there is an intriguing poetic focus on color in a series of similies:
Her princes were purer than snow,
    whiter than milk;
their bodies were more ruddy than coral,
    their hair like sapphire.
Now their visage is blacker than soot;
    they are not recognized in the streets.” (4:7, 8)

And then a terribly grim verse about starving mothers eating their own children:
The hands of compassionate women
    have boiled their own children;
they became their food
    in the destruction of my people.” (10)

Which as far our poet is concerned is one of the many causes for God’s anger and subsequent punishment of his chosen people:
The Lord gave full vent to his wrath;
    he poured out his hot anger,
and kindled a fire in Zion
    that consumed its foundations.

The Lord himself has scattered them,
    he will regard them no more;
no honor was shown to the priests,
    no favor to the elders.” (4:11, 16)

One is left with the impression that our poet was himself a priest. By the end of the chapter our poet is confident that Judah will be redeemed but that punishment is coming to Edom, which evidently escaped the conquest by the Babylonians:
The punishment of your iniquity, O daughter Zion, is accomplished,
    he will keep you in exile no longer;
but your iniquity, O daughter Edom, he will punish,
    he will uncover your sins.” (4:22)

Chapter 5 turns to a new theme describing the grim trials of those who lived under the siege of Jerusalem by the army of Babylon. The poet mourns all that has been lost:
Remember, O Lord, what has befallen us;
    look, and see our disgrace!
Our inheritance has been turned over to strangers,
    our homes to aliens.
We have become orphans, fatherless;
    our mothers are like widows.” (5:1-3)

He goes on to describe the ugly trials of slave-like life in Jerusalem under siege:
We must pay for the water we drink;
    the wood we get must be bought.
With a yoke on our necks we are hard driven;
we are weary, we are given no rest.
We have made a pact with Egypt and Assyria,
    to get enough bread. (5:4-6)

We can hear the poet’s resentment at God’s apparent unfairness in just two lines:
Our ancestors sinned; they are no more,
    and we bear their iniquities.” (5:7)

Really, just your ancestors sinned? Not you too? We’re just like the poet; We’d much rather blame the wrongdoings of our ancestors for our troubles rather than taking personal responsibility for our own sins.

This complaint is followed by grim verses describing the punishments that were meted out by the Chaldeans:
Our skin is black as an oven
    from the scorching heat of famine.
Women are raped in Zion,
    virgins in the towns of Judah.
Princes are hung up by their hands;
    no respect is shown to the elders.
Young men are compelled to grind,
    and boys stagger under loads of wood.
The old men have left the city gate,
    the young men their music.” (5:10-14)

And perhaps the saddest verse of all:
The joy of our hearts has ceased;
    our dancing has been turned to mourning.” (5:15)

Like psalms of supplication, which this poem closely resembles, there is the cry to heaven:
Why have you forgotten us completely?
    Why have you forsaken us these many days?
Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored;

    renew our days as of old—” (20, 21)

But unlike the psalmists who always leave room for hope, this poem concludes on the bleakest possible thought:
unless you have utterly rejected us,
    and are angry with us beyond measure.” (22)

Hebrews 9:11–22: Our author continues to contrast the ineffectual Old Covenant priesthood with the wonderful new regime under Jesus Christ that focuses on the New Covenant’s permanence: “But when Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come…he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.” (11, 12)

He observes that if the blood of goats and bulls provided some temporary absolution, how much better, then, was Christ’s own sacrifice: “how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!” (14)

Relentlessly pursuing his logic chain but also doubling back a bit, our author continues to cite the parallels and differences between the Old and the New Covenants. First, a death is required for redemption. Under the Old Covenant it was the death of animals “that redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant.” (15)

Turning very lawyer-like, our author notes that wills do not go into effect until someone dies and that “Hence not even the first covenant was inaugurated without blood.” (18) This statement moves him to the subject of blood sacrifices. Beginning with the law given to Moses and down through Israel’s history, then, the priests “took the blood of calves and goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the scroll itself and all the people, saying, “This is the blood of the covenant that God has ordained for you.” (19, 20) The reason is simple: “under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” (22)

The whole business about the necessity of blood as a sacrifice is downplayed in the Lutheran church compared to Baptists and others who sing, “Washed in the blood.” As we’ve observed several times already, the Hebrews author was writing to Jews who practiced sacrifice at the temple at Jerusalem. As thrilling as these arguments are, I’m glad to know that Jesus’ single sacrifice has been sufficient for our salvation, and I’m perfectly happy not focusing on all this blood—the sight of which can make me faint.

 

Psalm 110; Lamentations 3:16–66; Hebrews 9:1–10

Psalm 110: Alter informs us that this is a “royal psalm” probably written by a court poet (nice job!). The opening verse imagines a statement made by God himself to the poet’s king:
Sit at my right hand
till I make your enemies
a stool for your feet.” (1)

The the poet then begins speaking to his master as the king evidently prepares to go to war. Personally, I find the whole thing a bit over the top:
Your  mighty scpeter
may the Lord send forth from Zion.
Hold sway over your enemies.
Your people rally to battle
on the day your force assembles
on the holy mountains, from the womb of dawn,
yours is the dew of your youth.” (2,3)

But I guess that since the king was paying the poet’s salary, this is the sort of obsequious stuff he’d write—and I’m sure the king lapped it up…

Now we arrive at the very verse by which the author of Hebrews justified his assertion that Jesus is our great high priest forever, outranking all the Jewish high priests that preceded him:
The Lord has sworn, He will not change heart.
‘You are priest forever.
By my solemn word, my righteous king.‘” (4)

There’s no denying that as far as the poet is concerned, God himself has ordained the king also as “priest forever.” Obviously, the poet had no inkling about Jesus, who appeared several centuries later. But the odd thing here is that no Jewish king was simultaneously a priest. That roles belonged strictly to the descendants of Aaron. The other strange thing is “forever.” The king was a mortal; why would God pronounce the king a “priest forever?”

I can certainly see why our Hebrews author glommed onto this verse because I have to confess, it seems to fit only Jesus Christ and not any mortal king. Was the poet prescient? Or did the Holy Spirit cause him to write these words that just lay there for hundreds of years before they proved so vitally important to the Hebrews author?

I can also see why the Hebrews author did not bother to quote any of the verses that follow. They are pretty standard stuff about how God will aid the king in his various military depredations:
The Master [i.e., God] is at your right hand.
On the day of His wrath He smashes kings.
He exacts judgement form the nations,
fills the valley with corpses,
smashes the heads across the great earth.” (5,6)

Here we see the usual angry God taking vengeance on those who have attacked Israel. This is certainly a contrast to that mysterious ‘You are a priest forever’ verse. But then there’s the last verse, which just seems to be a giant non-sequitur about God taking a drink from a stream:
From a brook on the way He drinks.
Therefore He lifts up His head.” (7)

I suppose we could argue this represents Jesus’ baptism, but that seems to be over-interpretation. Even our dauntless Hebrews author didn’t try that one out.

Lamentations 3:16–66: Well, this is certainly a striking opening line to the reading. It makes my mouth feel dry just to read it:
He has made my teeth grind on gravel,
    and made me cower in ashes” (16)

The Lamentations poet offers us deep insight into the thoughts of someone in deep emotional distress:
my soul is bereft of peace;
    I have forgotten what happiness is;
so I say, “Gone is my glory,
    and all that I had hoped for from the Lord.”
 The thought of my affliction and my homelessness

     is wormwood and gall!
My soul continually thinks of it
    and is bowed down within me.” (17-20)

[I’ve always wondered where the ‘wormwood and gall’ line came from. Now I know.] But even in the midst of deepest sorrow there is always hope for those who trust in God:

But this I call to mind,
    and therefore I have hope:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,

     his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;

      great is your faithfulness.” (21-23)

Here we can see exactly where the author of the lyrics of the hymn,”Great is Thy Faithfulness” got his inspiration: “Great is Thy faithfulness!”/ Morning by morning new mercies I see.” I’m coming to think that one of God’s greatest gifts is the creation of night and day so that every morning we can see his mercies in our lives once again. Every morning is a fresh start.

Our Lamentations author also espouses thoughtful meditation:
It is good that one should wait quietly
    for the salvation of the Lord.
It is good for one to bear
    the yoke in youth,
to sit alone in silence

    when the Lord has imposed it.” (26-28)

At this point, the poet asks one of the most hardest questions of all: WHy does God allow evil?
When all the prisoners of the land
    are crushed under foot,
 when human rights are perverted
    in the presence of the Most High,
 when one’s case is subverted
    —does the Lord not see it?” (34-36)

There’s a striking answer to the question:
Is it not from the mouth of the Most High
    that good and bad come?” (38)

As we see so often in the Psalms, I don’t think this is a theological or philosophical insight, but an emotional reaction—which is completely understandable as we witness evil all around us. Why does God allow evil to happen? Is God really the source of evil as well? As well, does an angry God not forgive? Does he not hear our prayers? In the midst of his emotional turmoil, our author seems to think God doesn’t hear us:
We have transgressed and rebelled,
    and you have not forgiven.
You have wrapped yourself with anger and pursued us,

    killing without pity;
you have wrapped yourself with a cloud
    so that no prayer can pass through.
You have made us filth and rubbish
    among the peoples.” (42-45)

There is immense anger here. Accordingly, our author goes on to reflect on God’s anger [once again!] but then he eventually recalls that God did indeed rescue him when he called out to him:
I called on your name, O Lord,
    from the depths of the pit;
you heard my plea, “Do not close your ear

    to my cry for help, but give me relief!”
You came near when I called on you;
    you said, “Do not fear!” (55-57)

But again another shift in tone as the poet calls on God to take out his enemies:
Pay them back for their deeds, O Lord,
    according to the work of their hands!
Give them anguish of heart;
    your curse be on them!
Pursue them in anger and destroy them
    from under the Lord’s heavens.” (64-66)

If the book of Lamentations does nothing else, it certainly takes us on a roller coaster ride through every conceivable emotion, and the reality that like the author, we are fully capable of thinking and saying conflicting things to ourselves and to God when we are distraught. And as we’ve noted elsewhere, God can take it.

Hebrews 9:1–10: Our intrepid author describes the detailed architecture and furnishings  of the of the original tabernacle, careful to point out that “Behind the second curtain was a tent called the Holy of Holies. In it stood the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant overlaid on all sides with gold… above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat.” (3-5a) Following all these details, in a bit of unconscious irony our author notes, “Of these things we cannot speak now in detail.” (5b) which of course is exactly what he’s done.

Apparently the point of his little excursion into detail is to remind us that “only the high priest goes into the [Holy of Holies], and he but once a year, and not without taking the blood that he offers for himself and for the sins committed unintentionally by the people.” (7)

He asserts that all of this is but “a symbol of the present time, during which gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper.” (9) In other words, the Holy of Holies and the high priest’s annual visit is a precursor, a shadow of something better yet to come, that will eliminate the need for a priest to atone for our unintentional sins.

All of this ceremony—”food and drink and various baptisms, regulations for the body” (10a)—is necessary only “until the time comes to set things right.” (10b) But we will have to wait for tomorrow’s reading to find out when that time has come. Although I think we already know where he’s headed…

Psalm 109:21-31; Lamentations 2:11–3:15; Hebrews 8

Psalm 109:21-31: After quoting the curses that have apparently been directed against him, our psalmist turns to God in a fairly typical prayer of supplication:
And You, O Lord, Master,
act on my behalf for the sake of Your name,
for Your kindness is good. 
For poor and needy am I,
and my heart is pierced within me.” (21, 22)

He then catalogs his weakened emotional state before God using some rather creative similes to demonstrate his despair before God
Like a lengthening shadow I go off,
I am shaken like the locust.
My knees falter from fasting
and my flesh is stripped of fat.” (23, 24)

He acknowledges that he can turn to no one else beside God since is now an outcast among his neighbors, who have become his enemies. What’s unique here is that as he prays to be transformed by God he is also asking that his neighbors will see that transformation and come to understand God’s power:
As for me, I become a reproach to them
They see me, they shake their heads.
Help me, O Lord my God
Rescue me as befits Your kindness,
that they may know that Your hand
it is, it is You, O Lord, Who did it.”
Let them curse, and You, You  will bless.
They will rise and be shamed, and Your servant will rejoice.” (25-28)

Of course I think there’s a bit of schadenfreude going on here as it would certainly make our poet very happy to see his enemies experience the kind of shame he feels. I’m pretty sure I’ve prayed the same kind of prayer myself.

The psalm ends by drawing the sharpest possible contrast between his enemies and himself. They should be cursed as he stand prouds and blessed as he worships God:
Let my accusers don disgrace,
and let them wrap round like a robe their shame.
I highly acclaim the Lord with my mouth,
and in the midst of the many I praise Him,
for He stands at the needy’s right hand
to rescue him from his condemners.” (29-31)

I think we need to look at this psalm as a form of psychological baring of the soul rather than a theologically-correct psalm of supplication. There’s little question I’ve had these feelings myself, but I tend to bury them and then those feelings explode at some unpredictable and always inopportune moment. I think our psalmist has it right. It is far better to go to God in total honesty and express our deepest feelings, even our hatreds. God can take it.

Lamentations 2:11–3:15: The poem continues with really striking images of the awful events surrounding the conquest of Jerusalem:
My eyes are spent with weeping;
    my stomach churns;
my bile is poured out on the ground
    because of the destruction of my people,
because infants and babes faint
    in the streets of the city.” (2:11)

Woven into the poem are the same kinds of accusations Jeremiah made against his fellow prophets. They did not heed his warnings and all Jerusalem has now paid the price at the hands of angry God:
Your prophets have seen for you
    false and deceptive visions;
they have not exposed your iniquity
    to restore your fortunes,
but have seen oracles for you
    that are false and misleading.

The Lord has done what he purposed,
    he has carried out his threat;
as he ordained long ago,
    he has demolished without pity;
he has made the enemy rejoice over you,
    and exalted the might of your foes.” (2:14, 17)

But in the eyes of our poet, God’s punishment has been too severe. There is an accusation against an angry God that has carried punishment too far:
Look, O Lord, and consider!
    To whom have you done this?
Should women eat their offspring,
    the children they have borne?
Should priest and prophet be killed
    in the sanctuary of the Lord?
The young and the old are lying
    on the ground in the streets;
my young women and my young men
    have fallen by the sword;
in the day of your anger you have killed them,
    slaughtering without mercy.” (2:20, 21)

Not only have the people of Jerusalem suffered too much, but our poet is in despair at his own present plight—again caused by God’s merciless wrath:
I am one who has seen affliction
    under the rod of God’s wrath;
he has driven and brought me
    into darkness without any light;
against me alone he turns his hand,
    again and again, all day long.” (3:1-3)

His accusations against God are bitter and deep as the remainder of the reading continues in the same vein of God’s relentless and overbearing punishment. Underlying these verses is the sense that our poet feels the punishment has been disproportionate to the crime:
He has made my flesh and my skin waste away
and broken my bones;
he has besieged and enveloped me
with bitterness and tribulation;
he has made me sit in darkness
 like the dead of long ago.” (3:4-6)

He goes on, but I think we get the drift here. Our poet has not only been abandoned by God, he has been punished severely—too severely. There’s no question this is our go-to book when we are feeling oppressed by God or other people. One thing stands out: we have not experienced any feeling that has not been previously experienced by someone else. Our author perfectly captures and describes those feelings as he expresses both anger at God and despair at his plight. If we take nothing else away from this book [and many psalms as well] it is better to express our anger at God than to bottle it up inside only to have it eat away at us. As we’ve noted already, God can take it.

Hebrews 8: Just in case his readers (and us) didn’t get it in the preceding verses of chapter 7, our verbose author recaps: “Now the main point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a minister in the sanctuary and the true tent[a] that the Lord, and not any mortal, has set up.” (1, 2)

Up to this point, our author boldly asserts, the entire Jewish sacrificial system has been a mere shadow of the glorious reality of our great high priest, Jesus [One is reminded of Plato’s shadows on the wall of the cave]: “They offer worship in a sanctuary that is a sketch and shadow of the heavenly one [while] Jesus has now obtained a more excellent ministry, and to that degree he is the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted through better promises.” (5,6)

Feeling like deja vu all over again, we encounter a lengthy quote from Jeremiah 31 about how God will one day “establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah; not like the covenant that I made with their ancestors.” (8, 9) He quotes Jeremiah at some length, including what I think is the central verse from that book:
This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel
    after those days, says the Lord:
I will put my laws in their minds,
    and write them on their hearts,
and I will be their God,
    and they shall be my people.” (10)

Up to this point, Jews have read that verse as applying to them. But our author takes abold step and asserts that God’ promise applies to every human being.

Our author continues with boldness as he summarizes: “In speaking of “a new covenant,” he has made the first one obsolete. And what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear.” (13)

There’s little question at this point that our author is writing to his fellow Jews, trying to tell them that centuries of tradition, and more importantly of established law in the Torah are now basically obsolete. He’s marshalled powerful arguments for the supremacy of Jesus Christ and for the New Covenant. But as we know from history, his arguments proved largely ineffectual with the Jews. That branch of the Christian church faded away fairly quickly.

But there has been a hugely positive effect of his arguments as well. In the end, all this argumentation provided a firm theological foundation for a Gentile Christianity that is the direct lineal successor of Judaism. Without this book we would have only Paul’s  interpretation of the New Covenant that he outlines in Romans. Even as convoluted as his argument is, what with the Melchizedekian priesthood and all, I think our author has made the all-important point that the New Covenant truly replaces the Old. And even more importantly, that Jesus is our high priest advocate before God.

Psalm 109:8–20; Lamentations 1:16–2:10; Hebrews 7:18–28

Psalm 109:8–20: If one ever needed a catalog of creative but awful curses to hurl at someone else it is right here, starting with wishing for an enemy’s early death:
Let his days be few,
may another man take his post.
May his children become orp[hans
and his wife a widow.” (8, 9)

Not content with heaping coals upon just his enemy himself, our psalmist wishes evil upon his family:
May his children wander and beg,
driven out from ruins of their homes.
May the lender snare all that he has
and may strangers plunder his wealth.” (10, 11)

Not content to bring physical and economic ruin to his family, the psalmist hurls the most severe curse of all: that his enemy be forgotten by history because his progeny dies out and his name has disappeared:
May no one extend to him kindness
and no one pity his orphans.
May his offspring be cut off,
in the next generation his name wiped out.” (12, 13)

Even more intensely, he wishes that God will enter the picture and punish him as well, causing his name to disappear while the sins of his ancestors are remembered:
May the wrong of his fathers be recalled by the Lord
and his mother’s offense not be wiped out.
Let these be be ever before the Lord,
that He cut off from the earth their name.” (14, 15)

We arrive at last to the reason these curses are being heaped on his enemy’s’ heads:
Because he did not remember to do kindness
and pursued the poor and the needy,
the heartsore, to put him to death.” (16)

The psalmist reminds us that wishing evil upon others can become a habit and an intrinsic part of one’s personality:
He loved a curse, may it come upon him,
he desired not blessing—may it stay far from him.
He donned curse as his —
may it enter his innards like water
and like oil in his bones.” (17, 18)

Our psalmist ends his diatribe by wishing permanent evil to come upon this enemy who has done him harm:
May it be like a garment he wraps around him
and like a belt he girds at all times.” (19)

Perhaps what’s most remarkable here is that this entire monologue has been a prayer for God to act against this enemy:
This be the plight of my accusers from the Lord,
and those who speak against my life.” (20)

While it’s impossible to condone this prayer—and Jesus certainly would not condone it—we can take some satisfaction that it was a prayer to God rather than a direct speech against the enemy himself. As we witness in what can barely be construed as dialog in the present political climate, speaking these curses aloud is even more harmful. At least the prayer in private must have brought some amount of psychological relief.

Lamentations 1:16–2:10: The editors of this book certainly named it well:
For these things I weep;
    my eyes flow with tears;
for a comforter is far from me,
    one to revive my courage;
my children are desolate,
    for the enemy has prevailed.” (1:16)

But what is most fascinating here is that these lamentations are are written in the first person. So, who’s the person speaking? I don’t think it’s any one individual. It certainly doesn’t appear to be Jeremiah. Instead, I think it is the entirety of the remorseful Jewish remnant in Babylonian exile speaking in a single voice. It is a dialog between a devestated community and God.

The “I” identifies itself as Zion—how the community in exile refers to itself— in the next verse:
Zion stretches out her hands,
    but there is no one to comfort her;
the Lord has commanded against Jacob
    that his neighbors should become his foes;
Jerusalem has become
    a filthy thing among them.” (1:17)

The price of Judah and Jerusalem’s sins is steep and even though there is confession, there are also consequences:
The Lord is in the right,
    for I have rebelled against his word;
but hear, all you peoples,
    and behold my suffering;
my young women and young men
    have gone into captivity.” (1:18)

What strikes me here is that the writer lays much of the blame for what has happened at the feet of an angry, wrathful God:
The Lord has destroyed without mercy
    all the dwellings of Jacob;
in his wrath he has broken down
    the strongholds of daughter Judah;
he has brought down to the ground in dishonor
    the kingdom and its rulers.

The Lord has become like an enemy;
    he has destroyed Israel.
He has destroyed all its palaces,
    laid in ruins its strongholds,
and multiplied in daughter Judah
    mourning and lamentation.” (2:2, 5)

And so on… God is even held responsible for destroying the temple itself:
He has broken down his booth like a garden,
    he has destroyed his tabernacle;
the Lord has abolished in Zion
    festival and sabbath,
and in his fierce indignation has spurned
    king and priest.” (2:6)

Finally, God has sucked the life out of Judah and Jerusalem itself:
The elders of daughter Zion
    sit on the ground in silence;
they have thrown dust on their heads
    and put on sackcloth;
the young girls of Jerusalem
    have bowed their heads to the ground.” (2:10)

But it’s natural, isn’t it? We may briefly admit our own sins but then we tend to blame an angry God for all the other bad things that happen to us. This may be good psychological activity in terms of expressing our woes. But I think blaming God for the consequences that we must endure as a result of our own sinfulness is a fool’s errand.

Hebrews 7:18–28: Our author finally arrives at his main point—the same point Paul makes in Romans in a far less convoluted manner. It’s really quite simple, actually: the law given to Israel is inadequate, or more specifically, “it was weak and ineffectual (for the law made nothing perfect)” (18b, 19a). But fear not, God has something better for us: “there is, on the other hand, the introduction of a better hope, through which we approach God.” (19b)

Rather than the ineffectual priests sacrificing on behalf of an ineffectual law, we now have something far better—this New Covenant is secured by Jesus Christ and God’s oath (which our author again quotes from Psalm 110): “this one became a priest with an oath, because of the one who said to him,

“The Lord has sworn
    and will not change his mind,
‘You are a priest forever’”— (21)

And finally the grand conclusion: “accordingly Jesus has also become the guarantee of a better covenant.” (22)

Not only is the New Covenant superior to the old, but it is permanent, since Jesus “holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever.” (24) And now the best part of all: “Consequently he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” (25)

Unlike those priests of the Old Covenant, who held office by dint of their ancestry rather than an oath, and who kept dying off and needed to be replaced, we now have an oath-backed New Covenant in Jesus Christ that will last forever.

But wait! There’s more! “Unlike the other high priests, [Jesus] has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; this he did once for all when he offered himself.” (27) In other words, the old sacrificial system has been superseded by the single sacrifice made by Jesus himself. And it is “the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever.” (28)

Well, it took seven chapters of fairly impenetrable prose to get to this wonderfully simple conclusion: Jesus Christ is our Great High Priest and the New Covenant—based on God’s oath—has replaced the old. It is both permanent and it applies to every person alive when our author wrote and for all time and all people yet to come—and that includes us and our children and grandchildren.

Psalm 109:1–7; Lamentations 1:1–15; Hebrews 7:4–17

Psalm 109:1–7: The central theme of this psalm of supplication is around the effects of hateful speech—and terribly relevant in today’s hostile environment of polarizing accusations made so casually against each other via “social media” from the highest ecehons of political leadership on down

Our psalmist accuses wicked people of conspiring against him, but I think these opening verses apply to all of us at some point:
For the wicked’s mouth, the mouth of deceit,
has opened against me,
they spoke to me with lying tongue.
And words of hatred swarmed round me—
they battle for no cause.” (2, 3)

Our psalmist believes he is unjustly accused and that he has done nothing to deserve these accusations. By contrast, he sees himself as having reached out in honesty and love only to be rebuffed by hatred:
In return for my love they accuse me,
though my prayer is for them.
And they offer me evil in return for good
and hatred in return for my love.” (4,5)

How often we feel that having had only the best intentions our words are misinterpreted at best or create hostility at worst (from our POV, of course).

At this point the psalmist begins quoting the imprecations and accusations that have been hurled against him—or at least how he assumes what his accusers are saying about him as they prejudge his every word and deed with no evidence:
Appoint a wicked man over him,
let an accuser stand at his right.
When he is judged, let him come out guilty,
and his prayer be an offense.” (6,7)

Of course what’s striking about this psalm is that we all have felt wrongly accused, and like the psalmist, we imagine what awful things they are saying behind our back. This is just one more instance of the immutability of human nature in both accused and accuser. Of course this psalm is another reminder of the immense and often destructive power of words. One wishes a certain president would take these cautionary words to heart.

Lamentations 1:1–15: If Jeremiah was the prophetic and narrative history of the fall of Judah and Jerusalem, this book is the poetic reflection, doubtless written in exile, on the enormity of the loss. And while our author (Jeremiah?) focuses his poetry on this historical event, the underlying theme of despair is equally applicable to our time.

The fall of Judah and Jerusalem is a cautionary tale for every society that thinks it’s invulnerable to internal corruption and outside enemies. But realization of its intrinsic sinfulness always comes too late:
[Jerusalem’s] uncleanness was in her skirts;
    she took no thought of her future;
her downfall was appalling,
    with none to comfort her.
“O Lord, look at my affliction,
    for the enemy has triumphed!” (9)

As far as the poet is concerned what has happened to Jerusalem is the result of failing to heed God’s commands and God punishing them accordingly:
Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?
    Look and see
if there is any sorrow like my sorrow,
    which was brought upon me,
which the Lord inflicted
    on the day of his fierce anger.” (12)

Our poet certainly blames God for what has happened:
The Lord has rejected
    all my warriors in the midst of me;
he proclaimed a time against me
    to crush my young men;
the Lord has trodden as in a wine press
    the virgin daughter Judah.” (15)

We do not need to confine these words of sorrow to that long-ago time. Like so many psalms, these verses perfectly describe the despairing feelings of anyone today, who believes they are being punished—whether by God or simply by circumstance. And in these verses of lamentation we can take some comfort that we are not the first ones to walk this dark path.

Hebrews 7:4–17: Our author continues to sing the praises of Melchizedek and the fact that Abraham gave a tithe to him in recognition of Melchizedek’s priestly greatness. This tithing policy has been carried down through the line of Abraham [the Jews] ever since. But the really remarkable thing, our author asserts, is that “this man [Melchizedek], who does not belong to their [i.e., the Jews] ancestry, [but he] collected tithes from Abraham and blessed him who had received the promises.” (6)

Since “it is beyond dispute that the inferior is blessed by the superior” (7), our author’s logic chain concludes that Melchizedek is the higher-ranking priest to every other Jewish priest that descended down through the line of Abraham, i.e., the Melchizedekian priesthood outranks the Aaronic priesthood.

We finally arrive at the reason he has been obsessing about Melchizedek. The Aaronic priesthood has proved insufficiently powerful: “if perfection had been attainable through the levitical priesthood—for the people received the law under this priesthood—what further need would there have been to speak of another priest arising according to the order of Melchizedek, rather than one according to the order of Aaron?” (11) So, our author has set up the need for a superior priesthood to the Aaronic one. Not just a priesthood, but “there is necessarily a change in the law as well. ” (12) I think we can see what’s coming.

And who should be that priest of the non-Aaronic line? Why Jesus Christ of course, who is not descended from the line of Aaron, but “it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, and in connection with that tribe Moses said nothing about priests.” (14)

Since the Aaronic priesthood has failed, “It is even more obvious when another priest arises, resembling Melchizedek.” (15) Moreover, the physical descent through Aaron has been superseded by “one who has become a priest, not through a legal requirement concerning physical descent, but through the power of an indestructible life.” (16)

That priest can be no one other than Jesus Christ. And our author wraps up his case by quoting Psalm 110:4: You are a priest forever,/ according to the order of Melchizedek.” In other words, Jesus Christ is our Great High Priest.

 

Psalm 108:6–14; Jeremiah 52; Hebrews 6:13–7:3

Psalm 108:6–14: Following his enthusiastic opening praising God, our psalmist gets down to the serious business of supplication:
Loom over the heavens, O God,
Over all earth with Your glory,
that Your beloved ones be saved,
rescue with Your right hand, answer me.” (6,7)

God does indeed answer equally enthusiastically, reminding the psalmist of the  fact that he has given Israel its promised land and his people are his as he provides a truncated list of Israel’s tribes:
God spoke in His holiness:
‘Let Me exult and share out Shechem,
and the valley of Sukkoth I shall measure.
Mine is Gilead, Mine Manasseh,
and Ephraim My foremost stronghold,
Judah My scepter.” (8, 9)

Well, at least he provides only a sampling of tribes rather than the whole list. One feels that the psalmist himself hails from “Ephraim My foremost stronghold.”

It’s not sufficient for the poet’s God to celebrate Israel; there must also be insults hurled at Israel’s traditional enemies:
“‘Moab is My washbasin,
upon Edom I fling My sandal,
over Philistia I shout exultant.’” (10)

But alas, this catalog lists only the glories of God’s intervention from the past. As far as the present is concerned, God seems to have disappeared, hence this strongly-worded supplication for God to once again come to Israel’s military aid:
Who will lead me to the fortified town,
who will guide me to Edom?
Have You not, O God, abandoned us?
You do not sally forth, God, with our armies.
Give us help against the 
foe when rescue by man is in vain.” (11-13)

But as always, this psalm of supplication is a thematic sandwich, with praise of God on both sides and the meat of supplication in the middle. As always, the psalm ends on a hopeful note that
Through God we shall gather strength,
and he will stamp out our foes.” (14)

Even though I’m not praying to God for military victory, the structure of this psalm is eminently worth following. For with supplication there needs to be praise and as the last verse suggests, the assurance that God will indeed answer us.

Jeremiah 52: At last we come to the final chapter of this interesting but ultimately frustrating book that too often repeats itself and confuses the historical timeline. The authors, obviously writing from exile in Babylon, recap the events that led to the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon.

First there is wicked king Zedekiah, who “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, just as [his father] Jehoiakim had done.” (2) Persistent corruption at the top had spread throughout the nation of Judah: “Indeed, Jerusalem and Judah so angered the Lord that he expelled them from his presence.” (3)

Rather than being an obedient vassal king, “Zedekiah rebelled against the king of Babylon.” (4) The armies of Babylon arrive at the gates of Jerusalem and try to starve out the inhabitants. The king is captured, forced to watch the execution of his children and then blinded and brought to Babylon. As Jeremiah had promised, he survived but in abject humiliation.

Babylon’s egregious crime and why we’ve spent the past several chapters reading about its imminent destruction is that its armies destroyed the temple: “Nebuzaradan the captain of the bodyguard who served the king of Babylon, entered Jerusalem. He burned the house of the Lord, the king’s house, and all the houses of Jerusalem; every great house he burned down.” (12, 13)

The surviving inhabitants of Jerusalem are carried off into exile. But this same captain of the guard “left some of the poorest people of the land to be vinedressers and tillers of the soil.” (16)

Our authors provide a depressing catalog of the sacred objects in the now destroyed temple that the Chaldeans carry off.  It is basically an inventory in reverse that we read in I Kings describing the interior treasures and decoration of the temple. Clearly, our authors are writing in sorrow as they remember and detail what was no more.

The religious and administrative leaders of Judah and Jerusalem are carried off by the Babylonian army. Our authors provide a very specific list, which I will not replicate here. But once they arrive at Babylon “the king of Babylon struck them down, and put them to death at Riblah in the land of Hamath.” (27a) And then the saddest sentence of all: “So Judah went into exile out of its land.” (27b)

The fall of Jerusalem is wrapped up with a census of the 4600 people was carried off to Babylon across four separate actions spanning some several years. I confess surprise at this rather small number and that the exile occurred over a period of years. I had always thought there were tens of thousands of Jews in exile and that they were all sent to exile simultaneously.

The book ends on the hopeful story of King Jehoiachin of Judah. A new king of Babylon, the aptly-named Evil-merodach, ascends the throne of Babylon and shows mercy to Jehoiachin “and brought him out of prison; he spoke kindly to him, and gave him a seat above the seats of the other kings who were with him in Babylon.” (31, 32) Not just release from prison, but honor as well: “Jehoiachin put aside his prison clothes, and every day of his life he dined regularly at the king’s table.” (33) The last verse of this book suggests that exile in Babylon may not be so awful after all—at least for King Jehoiachin: “For his allowance, a regular daily allowance was given him by the king of Babylon, as long as he lived, up to the day of his death.” (34)

The cynical side of me wonders if this rather anodyne note at the end was a means of flattering the king of Babylon. I’m reminded of TS Eliot’s famous line, “This is the way the world ends;/ not with a bang but a whimper.” Jeremiah has been quite a ride!

Hebrews 6:13–7:3: In his brilliant but awfully dense essay to demonstrate how Christians are equal heirs with the Jews of Abraham and God’s promise, our author decides he needs to explain further.

First, oaths and promises are critically important: “Human beings, of course, swear by someone greater than themselves, and an oath given as confirmation puts an end to all dispute.” (16)[Although that certitude seems more casual in our own culture.]

Second, the same seriousness applies to God’s promises: “In the same way, when God desired to show even more clearly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it by an oath” (17) And God, who by definition obeys his oaths, would never lie to us: “it is impossible that God would prove false, we who have taken refuge might be strongly encouraged to seize the hope set before us.” (18)

This hope is the foundation on which we build our lives in faith: “We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters the inner shrine behind the curtain.” (20) Notice the radical shift here. It is no longer the Aaronic high priest that goes behind the drape of the Holy of Holies, but our hope lies in a new high priest.

And who is that hope? No surprise here: “Jesus, a forerunner on our behalf, has entered, having become a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” (20)

There are several crucial points our author makes about Melchizedek. First, he is the one who blesses Abraham, and by implication, all of Abraham’s descendants.

Second, “His name, in the first place, means “king of righteousness”; next he is also king of Salem, that is, “king of peace.” (7:2) So any priest in the order of Melchizedek would be the apotheosis of righteousness and peace.

Third, our author takes advantage of the fact that we know nothing about Melchizedek other than that he is a king and priest: “Without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God, he remains a priest forever.” (7:3).  I think I see where this is going. Melchizedek outranks the Aaronic order and is the forerunner of our new great high priest: Jesus Christ. A new priestly order is being put into place. The minds of new Jewish Christians must have been exploding at this point.