Psalm 119:145–152; Ezekiel 40:17–49; 2 Peter 2:1–10

Originally published 11/4/2015. Revised and updated 11/4/2019.

Psalm 119:145–152: This stanza returns to supplication mode as the psalmist writes,
I cried out with a whole heart.
Answer me, Lord, Your statutes I would keep. (145)

While, like most prayers of supplication, he is probably praying to escape his enemies—”The pursuers of the loathsome draw near” (150a)—he offers the usual Psalm 119 reason for pleading for rescue:
I called to You–rescue me,
that I may observe Your precepts. (146)

Moreover, this plea for rescue in order to obey the law is a full time job, beginning in the early morning and continues through the entire day:
I greeted the dawn and cried out,
for Your word did I hope.
My eyes greeted the night-watches
to dwell on Your utterance. (147, 148)

So, I have to ask, do we really pray to God for rescue just so that we can have the privilege of obeying God’s law? This almost seems like a prayer that a Pharisee of Jesus’ time might pray. Something like, “I exist in order to follow the Law.” I’m not doubting our psalmist’s almost desperate sincerity here or even the Pharisee’s. But were the terms of the Old Covenant strictly about obedience? In this psalm—and certainly in this particular stanza—we hear nothing about the love for God that rings out in so many other psalms. Instead, it’s all about connecting to God through his laws and precepts and rules.

No question that is one way, but as a mathematician might put it, while following God’s law is necessary; while being obedient is necessary, neither is sufficient for a complete relationship with God. For me, anyway, a true relationship includes the sufficiency of God’s love and my reciprocation of that love.

Ezekiel 40:17–49: Ezekiel is led by the man (angel) with the measuring stick on an extensive architectural tour of the restored temple from the outer court (17) to the inner court (18) to the “gate of the outer court that faced north” (20), including the windows and steps (22) remarking on the palm tree pilasters. The measuring stick is put to extensive use as Ezekiel records the width, depth and height of virtually every feature, including the inner courts by the south, east and north gates. The area of sacrifice includes “four tables of hewn stone for the burnt offering, a cubit and a half long, and one cubit and a half wide, and one cubit high.”  (42) And so on…

One wishes Ezekiel provided architectural drawings instead of this extensive word picture that continues for several more chapters. It turns out of course, that avid readers of Ezekiel have done exactly that and a quick Google serach of “Ezekiel’s vision of the temple” returns a slew of models, plans and even some blueprints based on the prophet’s detailed description:

ezekiels-templeSo, what is this temple? Is it a temple that will be built at the end of history? Personally, I think John’s vision of the New Jerusalem trumps Ezekiel’s temple. Much more likely, I think, is that Herod adopted elements of this temple when he remodeled the second temple. And I suppose there are both Christians and Jews who wish to build this version of the temple–the Third temple– right atop Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Not a good idea, I assert.

The larger question is, why is it here in the Bible? If nothing else, it reveals Ezekiel’s incredible prophetic range. I think it also speaks to Ezekiel’s vision of a restored Israel. And as we read in the previous chapters, not merely restored, but by virtue of its victory over the armies of Gog a nation even greater than it was under Solomon.

2 Peter 2:1–10: We return to the real world with Peter’s warnings about false prophets as he refers back to the false prophets of Ezekiel’s time: “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive opinions.” (1a) He describes their destructive behavior perfectly: “They will even deny the Master who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves.” (1b) They will be charismatic and “many will follow their licentious ways, and because of these teachers the way of truth will be maligned.” (2) And in a phrase that certainly resonates today, “in their greed they will exploit you with deceptive words.” (3a)

So, if we assume Peter wrote this epistle, the church faced corrupt influences in its earliest years—and continues to do so today. When we read of Creflo Dollar’s G5 jet or Benny Hinn’s real estate holdings, we can only reflect on what Peter has written. Unfortunately, with the vastly more numerous channels of communication of our time, these people can corrupt the Gospel message across a far wider population with depressing efficiency.

We can only hold to Peter’s assurance that in the long run these people will receive what they deserve: “Their condemnation, pronounced against them long ago, has not been idle, and their destruction is not asleep.” (3b). He then goes on to make the dramatic point that God cast angels into hell (4); that “he brought a flood on a world of the ungodly;” (5) and “by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction and made them an example of what is coming to the ungodly” (6)

But, Peter assures us, God distinguishes between the evil and those that follow God by citing the examples of God’s rescue of both Noah and Lot and their families. He reminds us that therefore, “the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trial, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment.” (9)

I think the key thing to bear in mind is that it is God who acts against these people, not us. God will see to it that they bring about their own downfall. Were Peter’s readers satisfied with his answer? Are we? Probably not. We’d like to take action ourselves. The lesson is of course that even though it looks like Sodom and Gomorrah all around us, we must be patient and wait for God to act. As he inevitably will.

Psalm 119:137–144; Ezekiel 39:14–40:16; 2 Peter 1:12–21

Originally published 11/3/2015. Revised and updated 11/2/2019.

Psalm 119:137–144: This section is a good reminder for all of us living in a post-Christian society. Those who reject God or even the idea of God are no longer indifferent, many are actively hostile to hearing anything having to do with God’s or God’s word. Especially religious over-enthusiasm, as our psalmist notes;
My zeal devastated me,
for my foes forgot Your words. (139)

This zeal has exacted a substantial social cost: “Puny I am and despised,” (141a). But our psalmist soldiers bravely onward: “yet Your decrees I have not forgotten.” (141b)

Despite his trials he remembers what we all need to remember. God is still present and his righteousness and justice is immutable:
Your righteousness forever is right,
and Your teaching is truth. (142)

For our psalmist, it’s all a question of focus. Whatever oppression he may be enduring, there is just one place to look for comfort:
Straits and distress have found me—
Your commands are my delight. (144)

It is on this solid rock he stands—and we stand. We are in even better circumstances than the psalmist. For us, it is God’s capital ‘w’ Word—Jesus Christ—that is the source of life. As the psalmist has it, “Grant me insight that I may live.” (144) For us, though, it is living in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit that is life, no matter what oppression we may eventually face. But we do not have to arrive finally at this safe place though insight and knowledge; rather, we arrive by grace.

Ezekiel 39:14–40:16: These chapters read as apocalyptic literature. The great battle is won and the land is cleansed of any trace of the invaders. A great sacrificial feast is proclaimed. It is at once eerie, but with eucharistic overtones: “You shall eat fat until you are filled, and drink blood until you are drunk, at the sacrificial feast that I am preparing for you.” (39:19)

At this point, Israel is fully restored, cleansed of its previous sins. Following this great victory, “The house of Israel shall know that I am the Lord their God, from that day forward.” (39:22) and even better, “I will restore the fortunes of Jacob, and have mercy on the whole house of Israel; and I will be jealous for my holy name.” (39:25) At last, at the very end of history,  the terms of the first covenant will be fulfilled: “I will never again hide my face from them, when I pour out my spirit upon the house of Israel, says the Lord God.” (39:29)

Like the New Jerusalem described in Revelation, Ezekiel has a vision of a new, far greater temple. Once again, Ezekiel’s remarkable vision is tied to a specific point in time to lend his vision historical credence: “In the twenty-fifth year of our exile, at the beginning of the year, on the tenth day of the month, in the fourteenth year after the city was struck down, on that very day, the hand of the Lord was upon me,” (40:1) Ezekiel is carried by God to the site of the new temple, where he encounters a man, “whose appearance shone like bronze, with a linen cord and a measuring reed in his hand; and he was standing in the gateway.” (40:3) Is this man an angel? Jesus? Given that he is bringing a message directly from God, I’ll go with it being an angel as messenger.

The angel holding the measuring stick (about 6 feet long) measures out the dimensions of this incredible new temple in specific dimensions. He measures the walls, the vestibules, the recesses, the pilasters, and tells us, among other things, “the vestibules also had windows on the inside all around; and on the pilasters were palm trees.” (40:16) So, why all this detail of a building that existed at that point only as a vision? I think that the precision underscores the reality that Ezekiel experienced. It also tells us that God is connected to the real world and that the world to come at the end of history will be as tangible and real as the one we are living in now.

John, writing his Revelation, must have been very familiar with this passage as he describes the dimensions and aspects of the New Jerusalem, which will descend form heaven at the end of history. This is a reminder that God is Creator and he engages the world not in some ephemeral spirituality, but in nature and even in bricks and mortar. For me, this description given in such detail underscores the reality of God as creator. God, who is part and parcel of the world we live in—not some remote being up in the clouds.

2 Peter 1:12–21: We hear the urgency of Peter’s message as he tells his listeners, “I intend to keep on reminding you of these things, though you know them already and are established in the truth that has come to you.” (12) Which is also a good reminder to those of us who have been in the church for a long time. Yes, as Peter tells us, we already know the “established truth,” but we come again and again to worship, where we are reminded again and again just what Jesus did for us.

Peter knows the end of his life is approaching:“since I know that my death will come soon, as indeed our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me.” (14) But he is writing these letters “so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things.” (15) Did Peter ever imagine that we’d be reading his letter some 2000 years later? I doubt it! He thought Jesus’ return to earth was imminent. But what a gift he has given all of us. Which is also a good reminder why writing things down is a way to speak even when we are no longer present.

Peter reminds us of his apostolic bona fides: “we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty.” (16) I love his somewhat sarcastic phrase, “cleverly devised myths.” Because of course many accuse Christianity itself as being nothing more than an elaborate myth. But Peter was an eye and ear witness. He heard the actual voice of God: “when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven,” (17, 18a)

We readers may be one step removed from Peter’s eyewitness testimony, but in reading the words, I am convinced once again that Peter was not making this up, and that the truth of who Jesus was and what happened is historical fact.

Finally, Peter warns us of the dangers of over-interpretation of scripture: “no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” (20, 21). I think this is fair warning to those around us who believe the books of Daniel and Revelation—and even Ezekiel— are some sort of secret coded documents that, if interpreted in just the right way, will forecast future events. Peter is reminding us that is not how God operates. Peter’s message is crystalline: Don’t waste your time speculating on the future. Work diligently in the here and now!

Psalm 119:129–136; Ezekiel 38:7–39:13; 2 Peter 1:1–11

Originally published 11/2/2017. Revised and updated 11/1/2019.

Psalm 119:129–136: One begins to admire just how many ways our psalmist can repeat his basic themes with and still come up with some fresh poetry. I have to give him credit for basic creativity. Here, we encounter the intriguing metaphor of God’s word being light coming through an open doorway:
The portal of Your words sends forth light,
makes the simple understand. (130)

Not sure about simple people comprehending the intricacies of God’s Levitical law, but happily, we have a much simpler Gospel message that although radical is beautiful in its simplicity.

This metaphor is followed immediately with one about hunger for God’s word:
I opened my mouth wide and panted,
for Your commands I craved. (131)

Panted?

The remainder of the stanza covers the usual ground, first pleading for something that in my view is a gift from God:
Turn to me, grant me grace,
as is fit for those who love Your name. (132)

Next is the usual prayer to walk in God’s path, avoid sin, and to be freed from the attacks of others so he can give his full attention to obeying God’s law:
Make firm my footsteps through Your utterance,
let no wrongdoing rule over me.
Ransom me from human oppression,
that I may observe Your statutes. (133, 134)

But I have to admit the final verse of the stanza is arresting as we encounter our psalmist’s first real emotion focused on other people besides the ones who have oppressed him:
Streams of water my eyes have shed
because men did not observe Your teaching. (136)

This is the sort of emotional caring that I think we should feel when those around us reject God’s gift of grace through Jesus Christ.

Ezekiel 38:7–39:13: This section wherein Ezekiel prophesies against Gog and “all the hordes gathered about you” strikes me as a pretty dramatic description of a final battle of the nations arrayed against Israel. I have the feeling that the author of Revelation, writing about the battle of Armageddon, was familiar with this passage since there are some parallels to the pretty brutal descriptions of this battle.

Ezekiel, speaking always in the voice of God, describes how Gog will “advance, coming on like a storm; you shall be like a cloud covering the land, you and all your troops, and many peoples with you.” (38:9) Gog will then plan to “fall upon the quiet people who live in safety, all of them living without walls, and having no bars or gates.” (38:11) In summary, Gog “come up against my people Israel, like a cloud covering the earth.” (38:16)

But when Gog and his armies attack Israel, God will have the upper hand: “my wrath shall be aroused. For in my jealousy and in my blazing wrath I declare: On that day there shall be a great shaking in the land of Israel; (38:18b, 19) At this, “all human beings that are on the face of the earth, shall quake at my presence, and the mountains shall be thrown down, and the cliffs shall fall, and every wall shall tumble to the ground.” (38:20b)

At this point God will strike down Gog’s army, described in language we encounter again in Revelation: “With pestilence and bloodshed I will enter into judgment with him; and I will pour down torrential rains and hailstones, fire and sulfur, upon him and his troops and the many peoples that are with him.” (38:22)

Gog and his army will be utterly defeated: “I will strike your bow from your left hand, and will make your arrows drop out of your right hand. You shall fall on the mountains of Israel, you and all your troops and the peoples that are with you; I will give you to birds of prey of every kind and to the wild animals to be devoured.” (39:3, 4) 

Notice that it is God who is general of this battle, not Israel. God’s conquest of this mighty army will be so final that “they will make fires of them for seven years. They will not need to take wood out of the field or cut down any trees in the forests, for they will make their fires of the weapons; they will despoil those who despoiled them, and plunder those who plundered them” (39:9, 10) What a great image! So much destruction that the fires will burn for seven years!

I’m aware of various attempts by various Evangelicals to tie this prophecy about Gog to actual world events ever since Israel’s reestablishment as a nation in 1949. During the Cold War Gog was theoretically the Russian army and/or the European nations that would invade. More recently, Gog has been interpreted as Arab and Muslim nations. The earthquake has been taken to represent nuclear weapons.

We can see how these attempts to link Biblical prophecy to actual historical events can occupy a lot of time and effort. But I think we should just sit back and read these chapters as wonderful storytelling to encourage the Jews in exile.

2 Peter 1:1–11: As with the case of Paul’s letters, I’d love to know the backstory for this second letter from Peter (or someone writing as Peter). In 1 Peter it’s pretty clear he was writning to a community that was being oppressed from the outside and was experiencing dissention within the church. Here things seem to have calmed down a bit and these opening verses are good deal more didactic and theological as, e.g., “Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants of the divine nature.” (4)

There’s even a very Pauline logic chain: “For this very reason, you must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love.” (5-7)

This is a magnificent passage that I think surpasses just about all of Paul’s lists. It begins with faith and ends with love, giving us a recipe of the ingredients of the well-lived Christian life: goodness, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, mutual affection, and love. Peter goes on to make the obvious point that “if these things are yours and are increasing among you, they keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (8)

Churches really don’t need write their own mission statements when there are these verses right here looking at us. 

The list is also a terrific checklist for me as an individual. But this kind of self-inventory only points up my inadequacies as a Christian. But as Peter reminds us, “if you do these things, you will never stumble, ” (10) All I can do is start over each morning and keep on persevering.

Psalm 119:121–128; 
Ezekiel 37:1–38:6; 1 Peter 5

Originally published 11/1/2017. Revised and updated 10/31/2019.

Psalm 119:121–128: Methinks our psalmist doth protest too much as new each stanza piles on the last emphasizing his righteousness before God compared to those who are apparently attempting to do him harm. And he believes this righteousness should earn him action on God’s part.
I have done justice and righteousness;
do not yield me to my oppressors.
Vouch for Your servant for good.
Let not the arrogant oppress me. (121, 122)

There is the usual obsequiousness lurking just below the surface of his supplications:
My eyes pined for Your rescue
and for Your righteous utterance. (123)

Eyes pining for rescue? Really? But as always for this psalmist, it comes back to his focus on learning and obeying God’s law. He truly believes that strict obedience will motivate God to come to his aid:
Do for Your servant as befits Your kindness
and teach me Your statutes.
Your servant I am, grant me insight,
that I may know Your precepts (124, 125)

Having pointed out that he has kept his side of the bargain by asking God to give him greater understanding, he once again asks God to act on his behalf against his enemies. His tone seems almost stentorian:
It is time to act for the Lord—
they have violated Your teaching. (126)

This stanza concludes with yet another statement of how much he loves God’s law and that he religiously(!) follows the rules:
Therefore I love Your commands
more than gold, more than fine gold.
Therefore by all Your ordinances I walked a straight line.
All paths of lies I have hated. (127, 128)

One thing is becoming clear at this point: this long psalm has but one major theme: that the man who loves and follows every jot and tittle of God’s law is entitled to some compensatory response on God’s part against his enemies. I rejoice once more that grace enters the picture through Jesus Christ. Otherwise it would be dry and dusty prayers like this endless psalm.

Ezekiel 37:1–38:6: We arrive at what is probably the best known part of this book: the valley of dry bones. This is perhaps God’s best object lesson as he commands Ezekiel, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” (37:3)

God then commands Ezekiel to preach to the bones, telling the prophet that the bones will come to life. Which is exactly what happens. In the first stage of this revivification as the bones become corpses: “So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. (37:7, 8)

God then commands Ezekiel to prophesy some more and as he does so, “the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.” (37:10)

Ezekiel is doubtless completely puzzled and not a little frightened at this point. So God explains: “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’’ (37:11) The resuscitation of the bones into people is dramatic evidence of God’s promise that Israel will one day be restored: “Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel.” (12)

One has to believe that Ezekiel’s prophecy must have been music to the ears of those faithful Jews stuck in exile. But the more cynical among them would doubtless have scoffed. This is pretty much the reaction to the Gospel message: some will accept and others scoffingly reject the Good News.

God moves onto another object lesson: two sticks. ‘“Mortal, take a stick and write on it, “For Judah, and the Israelites associated with it”; then take another stick and write on it, “For Joseph (the stick of Ephraim) and all the house of Israel associated with it” (37:15, 16) God commands Ezekiel to join them together. When people ask what this all means, Ezekiel is to tell them that God “I will take the people of Israel from the nations among which they have gone, and will gather them from every quarter, and bring them to their own land.” (37:21) Even better, “Then they shall be my people, and I will be their God.” (37:23) With God there is always hope.

The messianic prophecy of the previous chapter continues here: “My servant David shall be king over them; and they shall all have one shepherd.” (37:24a) God will fulfill his promise for all time: “I will make a covenant of peace with them; it shall be an everlasting covenant with them; and I will bless[g] them and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary among them forevermore.” (37:26) As we know, Israel did eventually return from exile to its land. But I think for us Christians, this prophecy also looks forward to the king of the line of David who came to earth as Jesus Christ. Through his saving grace we too can say we are God’s people.

Today’s reading ends with what seems to be a completely random prophecy that a certain Gog of the land of Magog (love those names!) and many allied nations will be defeated in a battle which God wins. Not sure what to do with this one. Perhaps tomorrow’s reading will yield more clues.

1 Peter 5: In the final chapter of this epistle, Peter advises the elders in the church: “as an elder myself and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as one who shares in the glory to be revealed, I exhort the elders among you to tend the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising the oversight, not under compulsion but willingly,” (1, 2a) This statement, “not under compulsion but willingly,” seems to me to be the key to pastoral leadership. Peter continues, asserting that the office of leader is “not for sordid gain but eagerly. Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock.” (2b, 3) Unfortunately, it’s too easy to cite examples of leaders who have pursued dishonest gain rather than shepherd their flock.

Once a pastor or leader sees his or her duties as pointless or becomes indifferent to the people being led, it is time to leave. Too many pastors burn out because they do not heed Peter’s advice here.

Peter advises that those of you “you who are younger must accept the authority of the elders.” (5) Humility among both the leader and those led is key: “And all of you must clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another, for

“God opposes the proud,
    but gives grace to the humble.” (6)

Alas, too often none of us wants to be humble, or we strike notes of false humility. As Peter makes clear, this goes for both leaders and the led.

We then come to one of the truly comforting verses in the entire NT: “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.” (7) This promise is so straightforward. So why don’t I do it? I think it’s because in order to cast all my cares on God requires (as Oswald Chambers would put it) abandoning my deep desire to always be in full control of my thoughts and actions.

Finally, a verse I memorized as a 5th grader: “Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour.” (8) We know that there is evil in the world and that unless we are alert and looking always toward Jesus it is far too easy to be sucked into the maw of the many temptations of our corrupt culture.

This epistle ends on a personal note: “Your sister church in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you greetings; and so does my son Mark.” (13)  Peter may have an actual son or perhaps this is the Mark who Peter views affectionately as a son. I think ‘Babylon’ is a clear reference to Rome. 

Psalm 119:113–120; Ezekiel 36:8–36; 1 Peter 4

Originally published 10/31/2017. Revised and updated 10/30/2019.

Psalm 119:113–120: Our psalmist’s world view is binary. There are the followers of God’s law like him and there are the evildoers, whom he despises:
The perverted I hated
and your teaching I loved. (113)

Evildoers are to be avoided at all costs because in addition to their malign deeds, they create a hinderance to one’s ability to follow God’s laws:
Turn away from me, evildoers,
that I may keep the commands of my God. (115)

It’s worth noting that this entire psalm is about loving God’s law, but not necessarily God himself. In fact, God comes across as a pretty unpleasant, saber-rattling character who shows little grace and (in the psalmists’s eyes, anyway) mainly exists to punish miscreants who fail to follow the law:
You spurned all who stray from Your statutes,
for their deception is but a lie.
Like dross You destroy the earth’s wicked.
therefore I love Your precepts. (118, 119)

The final verse of the stanza gives us an insight into the psalmist’s true feelings about God, which are quite a contrast to his feelings about God’s law:
My flesh shudders from the fear of You,
and of Your laws I am in awe. (120)

Of course when we think about God’s true nature, there’s no question that shuddering flesh (great phrase!) is an important aspect of our response. Just think about the theophany scene at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. That’s why I’m grateful for Jesus interceding with God on our behalf. But again, how much better (perhaps even easier?) to have faith in Jesus Christ rather than in God’s law.

Ezekiel 36:8–36: Still speaking as the voice of God to the mountains and other geography of Israel, Ezekiel describes how Israel will one day be restored: “I will multiply your population, the whole house of Israel, all of it; the towns shall be inhabited and the waste places rebuilt; and I will multiply human beings and animals upon you. They shall increase and be fruitful; and I will cause you to be inhabited as in your former times, and will do more good to you than ever before.” (10, 11)

Which must have sounded pretty good to those Jews stuck in exile in Babylon.

The chapter goes on, becoming increasingly explicit, about how Israel will one day be restored. But before there is restoration Ezekiel reminds his listeners of Israel’s vile deeds that led to their present situation: “when the house of Israel lived on their own soil, they defiled it with their ways and their deeds; their conduct in my sight was like the uncleanness of a woman in her menstrual period.” (17) We’ve encountered a lot of metaphors and similes in our readings, but the comparison of israel’s sins to a woman’s menstrual period certainly stands out!

Because of their manifold sins, God “scattered them among the nations, and they were dispersed through the countries; in accordance with their conduct and their deeds I judged them.” (19)

And now there will be restoration, but it’s certainly not because of anything that Israel has done to deserve it. It’s not even clear if there’s any repentance on their part. Rather it’s because God, being God, will just do for them because he wants to—aka grace: “It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came.” (22)

For me, the centerpiece of this chapter is God’s magnificent promise not only to restore the land but to restore the people—and that includes us—through baptism: “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” (25, 26) Think about it: a new heart. Life rightly restored.

Moreover, God will send what I take to be the Holy Spirit to these restored people—and to us: “I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.” (27)

This is one of those points in the OT where it becomes completely clear that there is great continuity between what the prophets foretold and what became reality through Jesus Christ. Jesus’ saving power indeed transforms our stone-cold hearts to flesh, which is feeling, emotion, and caring for others—and for ourselves.

This passage is also the great antecedent for the sacrament of baptism, and gave John the Baptist sound theological ground for his message and baptism in the wilderness. And as Jesus promises in the Upper Room Discourse, God has planned all along to provide the Holy Spirit to us.

As Ezekiel’s voice of God states over and over, God is not doing this because of anything Israel—or we—have done. It is strictly God’s own initiative: “It is not for your sake that I will act, says the Lord God; let that be known to you. Be ashamed and dismayed for your ways, O house of Israel.” (32)

God acts from pure grace—grace that our psalmist above does not seem to know or understand. And neither do we. At the core of Lutheran theology is the fact that it is Jesus who comes to us, not of any good works we have done to make God happy.

Unlike our evangelical brethren who talk about “making a decision for Christ,” Ezekiel makes it clear that God has made a decision for us—even though we don’t deserve it.

1 Peter 4: Because of what Christ has done for us, we “live for the rest of your earthly life no longer by human desires but by the will of God.” (2) In other words, we must abandon our former habits. Our former friends may be surprised and even angered at our change in behavior: “They are surprised that you no longer join them in the same excesses of dissipation, and so they blaspheme.” (4)

This is certainly something to center our own lives around as we live in an increasingly post-Christian world. The Colorado baker who refused to bake a cake to celebrate a gay wedding has certainly felt the impact of Peter’s assertion. The question for me is, would I be courageous enough to stand up to friends who encourage ungodly behavior?

Peter’s remarks are a terrific checklist for how to live an honest Christian life: “therefore be serious and discipline yourselves for the sake of your prayers. Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaining. Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.” (7-10)

In fact, Peter continues, when we are confronted and reviled by others, “if any of you suffers as a Christian, do not consider it a disgrace, but glorify God because you bear this name.” (16)

As always the challenge: do I meet these standards? When measured against these standards I’m afraid the answer is generally ‘no.’

Psalm 119:105–112; Ezekiel 34:20–36:7; 1 Peter 3:8–22

Originally published 10/30/2017. Revised and updated 10/29/2019.

Psalm 119:105–112: This stanza opens with the most well-known verse among the 176 that comprise this endless psalm:
A lamp to my feet is Your word
and a light to my path.” (105)

Or, as I memorized it in 5th grade Sunday School in the King James version: “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” Amazing how some things just stick in one’s brain.

Other than that, the themes of this section are pretty familiar. The psalmist notes that he follows God’s laws and also that “I have been sorely afflicted.” (107a) followed by the now familiar supplication:
O Lord, give me life, as befits Your word.
Accept my mouth’s free offerings, Lord,
and teach me Your laws.” (107b, 108)

Once again he reminds God that although “My life is at risk at all times,” [presumably his enemies are still after him], nonetheless “Your teaching I do not forget.” (109) And just to make sure God gets the point, he follows the practice of Hebrew poetry by repeating the thought—albeit reworded— it in the next verse:
The wicked set a trap for me,
yet from Your decrees I did not stray.” (110)

We certainly have to admire our psalmist’s tenacity as he continues to state that upholding God’s law is the raison d’etre of his life:
“I inclined my heart to do Your statutes
forever without fail.” (112)

I think the lesson here for me is that it’s worth setting a clear goal and sticking to it through thick and thin. Would that my faith was as tenacious as our poet’s dedication to God’s law.

Ezekiel 34:20–36:7: Stretching the sheep/shepherd metaphor to unprecedented lengths, Ezekiel states that because of the failure of its human leadership, God will be Israel’s shepherd: “I will save my flock, and they will no longer be plundered. I will judge between one sheep and another.” (34:22) God, speaking as always through Ezekiel, is very clear about exactly how he will accomplish that: “I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd.” (34:23) From our Christian perspective there’s no question who this new David is: Jesus.

God continues his promises, telling them that “will make a covenant of peace with them and rid the land of savage beasts so that they may live in the wilderness and sleep in the forests in safety.” (34:25) Since we’re deep into interpreting this metaphor, I’ll suggest that the “savage beasts” are symbolic the various nations arrayed against Israel. Or perhaps they are simply the wild animals that roamed the countryside back then.

Things get even more specific later in this speech as God promises, “They will no longer be plundered by the nations, nor will wild animals devour them. They will live in safety, and no one will make them afraid.” (34:28) The chapter concludes with the famous line that also occurs in Psalm 100: “You are my sheep,the sheep of my pasture, and I am your God, declares the Sovereign Lord.’” (34;31) This verse also provides the crucial context for Jesus when he says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11). Obviously, any Pharisee or religious official that heard Jesus say this would be familiar with this verse. No wonder they bridled at Jesus’ bold assertion that sounds like blasphemy to their ears.

This essay on Israel’s future is interrupted by a curse against Edom in the next chapter, which had rejected Israel’s pleas for help somewhere along the line. So Edom is rewarded with a curse: “I will treat you in accordance with the anger and jealousy you showed in your hatred of them and I will make myself known among them when I judge you.” (35:11) And today we are well aware that Edom is no more, but Israel prospers.

The next chapter has Ezekiel literally prophesying to the mountains around Israel, which have been captured by its enemies: “Therefore prophesy concerning the land of Israel and say to the mountains and hills, to the ravines and valleys: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I speak in my jealous wrath because you have suffered the scorn of the nations. … I swear with uplifted hand that the nations around you will also suffer scorn.” (36:6, 7) What strikes me here is that God’s very creation is bound up in the fate of Israel. Mountains and valleys are simply more characters in God’s great drama about Israel and its fate.

1 Peter 3:8–22: This is one of those sections that remind us that although the New Testament is informed by the Old Testament, Jesus has radically altered the rules of the game. And no more so than in how we are to treat those who hate and/or oppress us. In the OT, many psalms pray for God to wreak vengeance on enemies. Here in 1 Peter, we are told, “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult.On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.” (9) Wow. That’s really hard.

However, Peter makes his case perfectly by quoting from Psalm 34, verses 12 to 15:
For,
“Those who desire life
    and desire to see good days,
let them keep their tongues from evil
    and their lips from speaking deceit;
let them turn away from evil and do good;
    let them seek peace and pursue it.
For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous,
    and his ears are open to their prayer.
But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.”
 (10-12)

There’s little question that Peter’s community was experiencing oppression and he writes to encourage them: “Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear,[a] and do not be intimidated.” (13-14) Now, as then, that’s a difficult ask. Many people today who are hostile to Christianity often interpret someone’s eagerness to be good as hopelessly naive and politically incorrect—or worse.

But there’s much more to Peter’s advice than simply telling us not to be afraid. We must be equipped to respond: “but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you;.” (15)

Peter becomes the psychologist here, suggesting that by being treated well, “those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame.” (16b) Nice concept, but it doesn’t always work out that way. Nevertheless, that’s no excuse for us not to be gentle in the face of hostility.

Peter then veers off in an unexpected direction, telling us that Jesus preached to the dead during the period he was in the tomb: “He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison,” (18 19)  

I assume this is one of the verses in the NT that led to the statement, “He descended to hell (or descended to the dead)” in the Apostle’s Creed. Peter even identifies who these dead people were: “those who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah,” (20a) That  certainly seems a non sequitur…

But we quickly see where Peter is heading: it’s all about baptism: “only in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body.” (20b, 21)

Having traversed the distance from hell to heaven itself, this passage ends with baptism, which is “an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.” (21b, 22) Which is a wonderful metaphor for exactly what Jesus does for us through the waters of baptism. We are transported from the grim fate of a lonely hell separated from God to joining in worship with the angels in heaven.

Psalm 119:97–104; Ezekiel 33:21–34:19; 1 Peter 3:1–7

Originally published 10/28/2017. Revised and updated 10/28/2019.

Psalm 119:97–104: Our wordy and rather obsequious psalmist adds boastfulness to his repertoire:
How I loved Your teaching,
All day long it was my theme.
Your command makes me wiser than my enemies,
for it is mine forever.
I have understood more than all my teachers
for Your precepts became my theme.
I gained insight more than the leaders
for Your decrees I kept. (97-100)

Really? I’ll buy “wiser than my enemies,” but that his assertions, “I understood more than all my teachers” and “gained insight more than the elders” seem more than a bit over the top.

Our poet gives credit for his superiority to the fact that he’s relentlessly obedient to God’s law.  His statement, “Your decrees I kept,” is what in current parlance we call a ‘humblebrag.”

The stanza continues with this “I’m better than you because I followed God’s law” theme as he ladles on more statements to make sure we understand that he is a better Jew than all his peers because he is more faithful to God’s law than they:
From all evil paths I held back my feet,
so that I might observe Your word.
From Your laws I did not swerve,
for You Yourself instructed me. (101-102)

This braggadocio ends with a tasty metaphor:
How sweet to my palate Your utterance,
more than honey to my mouth. (103)

For me, that’s a appropriate image, although not in the sense the psalmist intended: this stanza is far too cloying—sort of like eating too much honey.

Ezekiel 33:21–34:19: Ezekiel, writing from Babylonian exile, hears from a man who escaped the carnage that Jerusalem has fallen. Ezekiel takes this opportunity to lecture his listeners on why that has happened.

First, he deals with the widespread belief that Jerusalem is rightfully Jewish territory in perpetuity. But Ezekiel, speaking as always as the voice of God, asks rhetorically: “You eat flesh with the blood, and lift up your eyes to your idols, and shed blood; shall you then possess the land? 26 You depend on your swords, you commit abominations, and each of you defiles his neighbor’s wife; shall you then possess the land?” (33:25, 26)

Since they have sinned so mightily, the Jews should have no expectation of retaining possession of Jerusalem and its suburbs. On the contrary, they will meet grim ends: “those who are in the waste places shall fall by the sword; and those who are in the open field I will give to the wild animals to be devoured; and those who are in strongholds and in caves shall die by pestilence.” (33:27) God promises further not just to destroy his wayward people, but their land as well; “I will make the land a desolation and a waste, and its proud might shall come to an end; and the mountains of Israel shall be so desolate that no one will pass through.” (33:28)

Ezekiel is apparently a popular prophet and people come to listen to the next outrageous thing he has to say. And now he says something that’s just as relevant to us today as to the people he spoke to several millennia ago: “For flattery is on their lips, but their heart is set on their gain. To them you are like a singer of love songs, one who has a beautiful voice and plays well on an instrument; they hear what you say, but they will not do it.” (33:31b, 32) If we ever needed a cogent description of hypocrisy in the church, it is right here.

Chapter 34 is an extended metaphor with Israel’s leaders being shepherds and the people they lead being the sheep. The shepherds have failed mightily: “Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. ” (34:2b, 3)

Ezekiel continues, telling his listeners how the leaders “have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.” (34:4)

This failure of leadership has had doleful consequences, specifically the dispersion of the Jews over all the nations: “My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them.”  (34:6)

Nevertheless, God remains faithful; he still loves the Jews and promises that, “As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.” (34:12) Notice how God says he “will seek out his sheep.”

I think this is God’s great promise that he fulfills in a most unexpected way: the incarnation of Jesus Christ: “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.” (34:16)

The reading ends on one more excoriation of the Jewish leadership: “And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have fouled with your feet?” (33:19)

How many church leaders have trampled on the metaphorical grass and muddied the theological waters? We have too many current examples readily at hand. Alas, Ezekiel’s assertion is as true today as back then.

1 Peter 3:1–7:  As Paul did, Peter also takes up the thorny issue of domestic relationships. As always we need to bear the social context of that culture and time in mind: “Wives, in the same way, accept the authority of your husbands, so that, even if some of them do not obey the word, they may be won over without a word by their wives’ conduct, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives.” (1,2)

This is an interesting social twist and really must have been radial in a society where most wives were only slightly better than chattel. This verse suggests that in Peter’s community women more readily became Christians than their husbands. But the important idea here is that deeds, not words, are what matter most. Peter is far more understanding of human psychology than Paul as he frames the desired behavior of wives in a gentle and appealing manner: “Do not adorn yourselves outwardly by braiding your hair, and by wearing gold ornaments or fine clothing; rather, let your adornment be the inner self with the lasting beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in God’s sight. (3,4)

He then points up examples from history, that “It was in this way long ago that the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves by accepting the authority of their husbands.” (5) By suggesting that if these women who were admired “accepted the authority of their husbands,” Peter asks why would any woman want to do otherwise now. All in all, it’s brilliant psychology.

And there is relational balance here. This is not a one-sided exhortation to women. Peter asks husbands to respond with the same considerate gentleness. There is no sense of the overbearing that we feel elsewhere in the the NT, especially those distressing passages in the Pastoral epistles: “Husbands, in the same way, show consideration for your wives in your life together, paying honor to the woman as the weaker sex, since they too are also heirs of the gracious gift of life.” (7) Yes, I know that “weaker partner” is offensive in the context of today’s culture that is obsessed with equality in all respects—even to the point of absurdity in the idea of “gender fluidity.” Yet for me, there is something wonderfully anodyne in how Peter expresses the concept of a loving, mutually respectful marital relationship. We ignore his advice at our cultural peril and the evidence of the corruption of rightly ordered relationships is growing all around us.

 

Psalm 119:89–96; Ezekiel 32:17–33:20; 1 Peter 2:13–25

Originally published 10/27/2017. Revised and updated 10/26/2019.

Psalm 119:89–96: We return to an underlying theme in this psalm: the enormous extent of God’s word being the key element of his original creative act—a theme the first chapter of John picks back up with an even more revolutionary meaning:
Forever, O Lord,
Your word stands high in the heavens.
For all generations Your faithfulness.
You made the earth firm and it stood.
By Your laws they stand to this day,
for all are Your servants. (89-91)

God’s word is the one thing we can rely on. And our psalmist credits God’s word as having rescued him from death:
Had not Your teaching been my delight,
I would have perished in my affliction. (92)

While the psalmist celebrates the power of God’s law, we would do well to reflect for a moment on how we, who live through the grace of Jesus Christ—God’s true Word—possess so much more than just God’s decrees or laws. This is the point Jesus makes when he says he has come to fulfill the law, not to reject it. Paul develops this theme of Jesus being the apotheosis of the law in Romans: Jesus, as God’s word, is God’s ultimate decree. Therefore, we do not have to plead as the psalmist does:
I am Yours, O rescue me,
for Your decrees I have sought. (94)

We do not have to seek out Jesus; he has come to us. Will we accept him, realizing that God’s Word is far greater than our self-centered but ultimately unsuccessful efforts to bring order and meaning to our lives?

Ezekiel 32:17–33:20: Just when you think things can’t get any weirder in this book, Ezekiel ups the ante. The prophet is called by God to pronounce doom on Egypt. [Again we ask, why is the fate of Egypt taking up so much space in this book?]

Apparently Egypt feels it can escape the fate of Assyria. Ezekiel speaks for the empires that have already fallen:
         Whom do you surpass in beauty?
         Go down! Be laid to rest with the uncircumcised!”

They shall fall among those who are killed by the sword. Egypt  has been handed over to the sword; carry away both it and its hordes. (32:19, 20) Then, even more remarkably, it is those who are already dead who speak, assuring Egypt that it too will fall: The mighty chiefs shall speak of them, with their helpers, out of the midst of Sheol: “They have come down, they lie still, the uncircumcised, killed by the sword.” (32:21)

The prophet goes on to list all the countries that have been defeated, presumably by Babylon. “Assyria is there, and all its company, their graves all around it, all of them killed, fallen by the sword.” (32:22) And other nations as well: “Elam is there, with all her hordes around her grave. All of them are slain, fallen by the sword. All who had spread terror in the land of the living went down uncircumcised to the earth below.” (32:24) Not to mention Meshek and Tubal [whoever they were] and Edom.

This is all to underscore the validity of Ezekiel’s pronouncement of doom on Egypt: “So you shall be broken and lie among the uncircumcised, with those who are killed by the sword.” (32:28) Which I believe is exactly what happened.

Having spent all this time prophesying about the nations surrounding Israel, the scene finally shifts back to Israel in the next chapter. God commissions Ezekiel as Israel’s official prophet or watchman, “So you, mortal, I have made a sentinel for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me.” (33:7) This is a task with life and death responsibilities. If Ezekiel does “not speak to warn the wicked to turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but their blood I will require at your hand.” (33:8)

There’s also some pretty harsh law-giving here. If a formerly righteous person sins, he doesn’t get credit for his past righteousness. Conversely, past wicked deeds are not held against the person who repents and now seeks righteousness: “When the righteous turn from their righteousness, and commit iniquity, they shall die for it.  And when the wicked turn from their wickedness, and do what is lawful and right, they shall live by it.” (33:18,19) 

This is all pretty black and white. But even so, Israel complains that ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ (33:20)  Then again, no matter how just God’s law is, like Israel we will still complain.

The key judicial concept that arises here is that God judges us by our individual acts, not by the standards of the community at large. God says, “I will judge all of you according to your ways!” (33:20b) Which looks to me like a key foundational concept for our own judicial system.

1 Peter 2:13–25: Peter dives into the political implications and responsibilities of being a Christian—a ‘resident alien’— in a secular world: “For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. (13, 14)

He advises us to “As servants  of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil.” (16) and that we are to “Honor everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the emperor.” (17) In other words, we are to live within the lawful bounds of the culture in which we find ourselves.

But within that culture the reality is that Christians are likely to be treated unjustly and even beaten by those with power over them. This was certainly true in the case of slaves: “For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly.” (19)

Peter promises there will be suffering as we live as Christians in a hostile world and “if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval.” (20) We Americans think we are suffering under the weight of a hostile “post-Christian” culture. But our pains are nothing compared to the fate of Christians in the Middle east and many parts of Asia. I have read that Christianity is the most persecuted religion on earth and I believe it. Peter’s advice is just as relevant today as it was in his time. Contrary to our wishes for a smooth an easy time of it, true Christian faith is no walk in the park.

The back story for Peter’s essay here is doubtless that many Christians were beginning to endure substantial suffering at the hands of Rome—suffering that would eventually lead to the deadly games in the Colosseum at Rome. He clearly is writing to people who have been treated and punished unjustly

So how does Peter justify this position of enduring suffering without complaint? By reminding us of Christ’s example: “When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.” (23)

The question is, if I were placed in a position of having to defend my faith by suffering at the hands of the authorities would I follow Peter’s commands—or would I collapse into betrayal of my faith?

Psalm 119:81–88; Ezekiel 31:1–32:16; 1 Peter 2:1–12

Originally published 10/26/2017. Revised and updated 10/25/2019.

Psalm 119:81–88: This stanza starts out as pretty much a standard supplication, albeit with some nice imagery such as eyes that speak:
My being longs for Your rescue,
for Your word I hope.
My eyes pine for Your utterance, saying
“When will You console me? (81-82)

Alter then renders the Hebrew with a very cool but puzzling simile:
Though I was like a skin-flask in smoke,
Your statutes I did not forget. (83)

Although I know what a skin flask is, I’m not sure what its behavior in smoke is. I’m guessing that the psalmist is liking himself to the skin-flask and referring back to his recent illness where the smoke represents sickness. In any event he has remained faithful to God’s law through it all.

The most profound verse in this section includes the philosophical questions he poses:
How many are the days of Your servant?
When will You exact justice from my pursuers” (84)

We have the sense that given his recent illness and renewed awareness of his mortality, he realizes he may not have much time left to live. So he asks God why justice is being delayed.  The question of delayed justice rings down the ages. God surely knows that evil-doers are wrecking lives and fomenting injustice. Why is God so persistently silent?

Our faithful psalmist has had a near-death experience and he begs for God’s intervention and to restore justice:
All Your commands are trustworthy,
For no reason they pursued me—help me!
They nearly put an end to me on earth,
yet I forsook not Your decrees. (86, 87)

This is the great conundrum about God, isn’t it? We may be true and faithful yet bad things continue to happen while he remains silent. God’s silence truly tests our faith just as it did the psalmist’s.

Ezekiel 31:1–32:16: Speaking as usual in the voice of God, Ezekiel creates what I think as one of the greatest metaphors in this book full of metaphors. Addressing the Pharaoh of Egypt, he compares Assyria to a huge cedar tree:
Consider Assyria, once a cedar in Lebanon,
    with beautiful branches overshadowing the forest;
it towered on high,
    its top above the thick foliage.

So it towered higher
    than all the trees of the field;
its boughs increased
    and its branches grew long,
    spreading because of abundant waters.

It was majestic in beauty,
    with its spreading boughs,
for its roots went down
    to abundant waters. (31:3, 5, 7)

But like we humans, the metaphorical tree became prideful and God tells the Pharaoh, “because it was proud of its height, …I cast it aside,  and the most ruthless of foreign nations cut it down and left it. Its boughs fell on the mountains and in all the valleys; its branches lay broken in all the ravines of the land.” (31:10, 11, 12)

Not just that tree representing Assyria, but God brings down all the trees representing all the nations: “They too, like the great cedar, had gone down to the realm of the dead, to those killed by the sword, along with the armed men who lived in its shade among the nations.” (31:17)

Following this metaphorical logic, Ezekiel prophesies that despite the Pharaoh’s current grandeur and power, he “too, will be brought down with the trees of Eden to the earth below; you will lie among the uncircumcised, with those killed by the sword.” (31:18)

The exact nature of Pharaoh’s fall is described in the next chapter. No pleasant metaphors here as we read some pretty gruesome imagery:
I will spread your flesh on the mountains
    and fill the valleys with your remains.
I will drench the land with your flowing blood
    all the way to the mountains,
    and the ravines will be filled with your flesh. (32:5,6)

Egypt’s downfall will have repercussions across all the other nations:
I will cause many peoples to be appalled at you,
    and their kings will shudder with horror because of you
    when I brandish my sword before them. (32:10)

Specifically, Egypt will be (or was) conquered by Babylon:
The sword of the king of Babylon
    will come against you.
I will cause your hordes to fall

    by the swords of mighty men—
    the most ruthless of all nations. (32:11, 12)

The question remains: why these lengthy poems about Egypt? Clearly, there was a military and/ or diplomatic relationship between Egypt and Israel that would come to a tragic end. These long passages about Egypt serve as a warning to Judah regarding its own fate soon to come at the hands of the Babylonians.

1 Peter 2:1–12: Although we encounter the metaphor in other parts of the New Testament, it is Peter who develops the metaphor of Christ as the rejected cornerstone to its fullest extent. Here the simile opens with Christians being “like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (5) Unlike the author of Hebrews, who tells his readers that Jesus is a priest of the order of Melchizedek, Peter views Christians themselves as a brand new “holy priesthood.” Nor is this priesthood anything to be ashamed about. Christians are to wear the priesthood proudly, as he quotes Isaiah 28:
See, I am laying in Zion a stone,
    a cornerstone chosen and precious;
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame. (6) 

He then contrasts Christian belief with those who do not believe in what I take as a pretty pointed reference to the Jews who rejected Jesus by quoting verses from Psalm 118:
     The stone the builders rejected
     has become the cornerstone,”
and,
     A stone that causes people to stumble

    and a rock that makes them fall.” (7,8)

I think it’s critical to reflect on the verse about stumbling and falling. Let’s face it: Christianity rubs against the grain of all cultures, which in turn spend a lot of time, energy, and money to reject the not only the claims of Christ but the entire idea of God himself. That’s certainly the case today with lawsuits against Christian photographers and bakers because they refuse to to photograph or bake a cake for a gay wedding. There are lots of other examples.

The point is: the prevailing culture will always be at war with Christianity. On the other hand, I think Peter is implying that unless the culture is actively rejecting Christianity and the church is not really doing its job.

We arrive at one of the greatest and most eloquent promises in the NT, which is worth quoting in full: “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (9, 10)

I know that I for one do not really reflect on what it truly means to be one of the people of God nor on the enormous gift of mercy that we have received.

So how do we live within a hostile culture while trying to lead pure lives? I think Peter has the best answer. We live “as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul.” (11) Even when we are wrongly accused, Peter tells us to persevere and refute the claims of the culture by living so purely that in the end, the wider culture cannot ignore us: “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” (12)

So the question is, am I living for Christ such that my light stands out to be noticed by others in the larger culture?

Psalm 119:73–80; Ezekiel 29:13–30:26; 1 Peter 1:13–25

Originally published 10/25/2017. Revised and updated 10/24/2019.

Psalm 119:73–80: Our psalmist draws a distinction between the fact of his creation by God and his desire that God provide intellectual and spiritual knowledge of his law. Armed with these insights, he will thus become a shining example to others:
Your hands made me and set me firm.
Give me insight that I may learn Your commands.
Those who fear You see me and rejoice,
for I hope in Your word. (73, 74)

Well, there are certainly worse things to pray for. The intriguing thought here is that upon our birth our intellect is essentially unformed and that what we learn and come to know—and what eventually forms the basis of wisdom— is yet another gift from God. As far as the psalmist is concerned it is our responsibility to pray for knowledge and insight—it does not just naturally arise from our own efforts.

Our psalmist is of the deuteronomic old school as he asserts that a just God was the source of his recent illness:
I know, Lord, that Your laws are just,
and in faithfulness You did afflict me. (75)

Really? Is it because God is faithful to us that he deigns to afflict us? Seems to me that by virtue of living in a fallen world there is plenty of affliction on offer in the world that God had nothing to do with creating.

The remainder of this stanza is basically a standard supplication to God that the psalmist will enjoy God’s blessing, while his adversaries who attacked him also receive their just reward of humiliation:
May the arrogant be shamed, for with lies they distorted my name.
As for me I shall dwell on Your decrees. (78)

Having endured the false accusations of his opponents, our psalmist prays that he be received back into the  community of God-followers:
May those who fear You turn back to me. (79a)

Even though we now live under the terms of grace, it’s worth reflecting that we can be falsely accused and thereby wrongly excluded from the community. Sometimes we can find justice only by asking God to work on the hearts of those who doubt us.

Ezekiel 29:13–30:26: Our prophet is into some serious prophetic forecasts here as he predicts that Egypt will fall from its perch as a mighty nation and become a “lowly kingdom.” (29:14b) Moreover, “Egypt will no longer be a source of confidence for the people of Israel but will be a reminder of their sin in turning to her for help.” (29:16) This is clearly a reference to Judah’s last gasp of seeking a military alliance Egypt for help as the Babylonians commenced their attack on Judah.

But what’s really bizarre here is that Ezekiel, speaking in the voice of God, asserts, “Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon drove his army in a hard campaign against Tyre” (29:18) but that the Babylonian army did not receive its just reward of looting and plundering. Ezekiel announces that God is “going to give Egypt to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, and he will carry off its wealth. He will loot and plunder the land as pay for his army.I have given him Egypt as a reward for his efforts because he and his army did it for me, declares the Sovereign Lord.” (29:19, 20)

Really? Why do I have the feeling that Ezekiel was providing religious cover to justify Babylon’s pillaging of Egypt? Ezekiel sounds as if he’s become the court prophet for Nebuchadnezzar.

Just to make sure we get the point, the prophet now provides a lengthy poetic lament about Egypt’s defeat being strictly the work of God as vengeance for its manifold sins:
Dark will be the day at Tahpanhes
    when I break the yoke of Egypt;
    there her proud strength will come to an end.
She will be covered with clouds,
    and her villages will go into captivity.
So I will inflict punishment on Egypt,
    and they will know that I am the Lord.’ (30:18, 19)

This is one of those Old Testament descriptions of God’s vengeance that makes us uncomfortable if not outright hostile when Ezekiel asserts, “Therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am against Pharaoh king of Egypt. I will break both his arms, the good arm as well as the broken one, and make the sword fall from his hand.” (22)

I’m sorry, but for me this entire reading is an ex post facto justification of Babylon conquering Egypt. And there is certainly a whiff of sycophancy on Ezekiel’s part. If we ever needed an example of the rule that winners write the history it is certainly right here.

1 Peter 1:13–25: Peter asserts that the Christian faith is based on intellect as well as feeling: “Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming.” (13) As my Dad used to say a true religion does not require one “to leave his brains at the door.” Yes, I know that the heart is an essential element of being a Christian, but as Peter notes here, so too is a sober inquiring mind. That’s certainly why more than any other religion, Christianity has such well-developed theology. Sober minds seek to understand what they believe and why they believe.

Also at the heart of Peter’s message here is that we must live differently than the culture that surrounds is. Reminding us that the world ‘holy’ means set apart, Peter advises us, “As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance.” (14)

He goes on to remind us that our redemption has been accomplished via a heavy price that was far greater than mere gold and silver: “For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.” (18, 19)

This statement stands at the center of Lutheran theology: our faith is not about something we did, but about something God did for us through Christ’s sacrifice. But just because we’ve been redeemed doesn’t mean we don’t have significant responsibilities as practicing Christians. Peter tells us that the result of redemption is love (which is one reason why I like Peter so much more than James): “Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply, from the heart.” (22) This is where the heart becomes important: In our love for each other. And it is out of love that our works come.

It appears that Peter is countering some false theology about the nature of being born again when he remind his audience that “you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.” (23) The great truth is that while we are mortal and we will die, the Word of God, (which is clearly the Word in the John 1 sense) is eternal. Peter backs this up with a quote from Isaiah 40 that makes this distinction clear. We’re like grass that withers “but the word of the Lord endures forever.” (25a)

Too bad we tend to think we’re immortal and that God is ephemeral, if not imaginary. As Peter notes, it’s quite the opposite.