Archives for October 2015

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

Psalm 119:121–128: Our psalmist celebrates his personal character as a reason for God to protect him from his enemies: “I have done justice and righteousness;/ do not yield me to my oppressors.” (121) But as always characteristic of this psalm, this plea for rescue is always for the single purpose of being able to continue learning God’s precepts: “Do for Your servant as befits Your kindness/ and teach me Your statutes.” (124)

Once rescued, the quest for greater insight, greater learning of how God speaks through the Law continues: “Your servant I am; grant me insight,/ that I may know Your precepts.” Once he has been rescued and is back on the path to learning, he indicates he may move to action against his enemies: “It is time to act for the Lord–/ they have violated Your teaching.” (126) Again, we see this binary world of goodness arising from following the law and badness arising from its violation. There are no gray areas, no ambiguities in this psalm.

Our psalmist once again makes sure that we know–and that God knows–on whose side he stands: “Therefore by all Your ordinances I have walked a straight line./ All paths of lies I have hated.” (128) And once again I realize what a gift I have been given through the grace of Jesus Christ. I do not need to go to God and explain how good I’ve been; how well I’ve hewed to the straight and narrow. Instead, when I sin I am able to go to him and confess my sins in the assurance of forgiveness.

Ezekiel 37:1–38:6: And finally we arrive at the most well knowing location in this book: the valley of dry bones. (And an appropriate passage for today being Halloween!) God commands Ezekiel to prophesy to this collection of deadness: “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.” (37:4) I have to wonder what Ezekiel thought when God told him to say, “I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.” (5). Sinew. Flesh. Skin. Breath. It’s a physiologically correct recreation of what God did in Eden and like Adam, these reconstructed people “shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.” (6)

As always, Ezekiel does what he is commanded “and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.” (10) This is the most dramatic manifestation yet of God’s intention to restore Israel itself from death to life. That which was scattered will again be brought together and given life. And even better than life itself, God promises, “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil;” (14a). But I think the real significance here is what God says about himself: “you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” (14b). God speaks and acts. An incredible contrast to the dead idols Israel once worshipped. And a promise to us as well: God both speaks and he acts.

When God speaks and acts something far better than what was before occurs. Here it is the restoration of the once divided kingdom of Israel. Ezekiel is to take two sticks, write ‘Judah” on one and “Joseph and the House of Israel” on the other and before the people he is to “join them together into one stick, so that they may become one in your hand.” What this means is made crystal clear: “I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel; and one king shall be king over them all. Never again shall they be two nations, and never again shall they be divided into two kingdoms.” (22)  In short, the Israel under David and Solomon is restored. And finally, “Then they shall be my people, and I will be their God.” (23)

Now we come to the messianic prophecy: “ My servant David shall be king over them; and they shall all have one shepherd.” (24). As usual, we can read this prophecy that moves from scattered bones to a restored messianic kingdom at several levels. First, of course, it is indeed a restored and unified Israel. Is that modern Israel? Maybe. Maybe not. Second, it is a vision of a New Israel, which the NT writers saw as the church because of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection which is hinted at here. Finally, I think the restoration of the dry bones speaks directly to us who have been transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit into new creatures. Once we were dead, now we love through Christ.

1 Peter 5: Peter states his bona fides as an apostle, “as an elder myself and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as one who shares in the glory to be revealed” (1) and speaks directly to the “elders among you.” Like his entire epistle, his method of church governance in the church is suffused in trust and love: “tend the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising the oversight, not under compulsion but willingly, as God would have you do it —not for sordid gain but eagerly.” (2)

Nevertheless, there is good order: “In the same way, you who are younger must accept the authority of the elders.” (5) But it is an authority that has been earned by love and experience–that is why they are called elders. When there is mutual respect and trust, the people follow willingly.

And then one of the greatest, if most ignored in practice, words of encouragement in the NT: “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.” (7) Worry gains nothing and now we have one who will bring comfort–but only if we are willing to give up ownership of our worries, which is really very difficult to do because it also means giving up control.

But we cannot just cast off our cares and go skipping gaily through the tulips. Rather, our worry-free life requires self discipline because we are surrounded by temptation: “Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour.” (8) True then and true now. Nor does freedom from worry necessarily mean freedom from suffering: “Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering.” (9) But suffering in the knowledge that we are free in Jesus is infinitely better than suffering alone.

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

Psalm 119:113–120: Our psalmist begins with a polarizing statement: “The perverted I hated/ and Your teaching I loved.” (113) Evil people are in opposition to God and the psalmist wants only to repel them: “Turn away from me, evildoers,/ that I may keep the commands of God.” (115). And not only the psalmist rejects them, but God himself: “You spurned all who stray form Your statutes,/ for their deception is but a lie.” And finally, God simply disposes of them: “Like dross You destroy all the earth’s wicked.” (119a)

To some extent the world of the psalmist is a simpler one than the one Jesus asks us to deal with. The psalmist’s moral code was all very binary: God will destroy the evil and preserve the good. That’s exactly Ezekiel’s message, too. But Jesus asks us to turn the other cheek. That’s not to say Jesus condoned evildoers. After all, the pharisees were “whited sepulchures.”  But he never prayed for their destruction as the psalmist does here. And of course, he endures the ultimate evil of the cross.

So what changed? Well, we can be sure that God didn’t change. By definition, evil cannot approach to God. I think it all hinges around the word as law and precept that the psalmist loves and the Word who came to us in the Incarnation. To be blunt, we have been given a far greater Word than the law that the psalmist loved so much. So, we cannot pray for God to destroy the evildoers; we are to pray for their transformation. But along with the psalmist we must admit that evil and evildoers exist and stalk the world. Evil is far more than a psychological phenomenon. But we cannot pray for their destruction.

Ezekiel 36:8–36: After 35 chapters of unrelenting prophecy of the ugly fruits of Israel’s disobedience, we come out of the darkness into the light of the promise of restoration when Israel returns from exile: “But you, O mountains of Israel, shall shoot out your branches, and yield your fruit to my people Israel; for they shall soon come home.” (8)> Israel will be greater than before: “I will multiply your population, the whole house of Israel, all of it; the towns shall be inhabited and the waste places rebuilt.” (10) Israel will again be respected among the nations: “no longer will I let you hear the insults of the nations, no longer shall you bear the disgrace of the peoples; and no longer shall you cause your nation to stumble, says the Lord God.” (15)

But this promise of renewal does not come because of anything Israel did or some sort of intrinsic goodness of its national soul. Instead, “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) It is for God’s own sake that he comes to Israel and effectively baptizes it: “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.” (25) Not just a cleansing of their hearts, but a transformation: “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.” (26) in summary, Ezekiel, speaking the voice of God says, “On the day that I cleanse you from all your iniquities,” (33)

This description is a remarkable parallel to the transformative power of baptism. Israel is renewed not because of any intrinsic goodness on its own part but because God comes to the nation and gives it a new heart. God renews Israel because he is deeply, hopelessly in love with his people. Just as Jesus Christ renews us because we are so deeply, hopelessly loved ourselves. Lest we think that grace is absent from the Old Testament, we find it right here.

1 Peter 4: There’s little question that the community to whom Peter was writing was suffering terribly because the blessings of endurance permeates this entire epistle: “therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same intention…so as to live for the rest of your earthly life no longer by human desires but by the will of God” (1,2) It’s clear they were quite a raucous bunch in their pre-Christian life: “You have already spent enough time in doing what the Gentiles like to do, living in licentiousness, passions, drunkenness, revels, carousing, and lawless idolatry.” (3) And obviously these new converts have been given a hard time by their former compatriots: “They are surprised that you no longer join them in the same excesses of dissipation, and so they blaspheme.” (4) So it is with me: I have failed so often in refusing to state clearly that I’m a Christian, fearing the laughter and yes, the blasphemy, of others. Never mind actual suffering.

Verse 6 is strange and I suspect theologically contentious: “For this is the reason the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does.” What does Peter mean by the phrase, “the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead?” I suspect many assume there is some sort of bizarre ministry to literally dead people going on. However, I think I’ll go with a simpler interpretation: As Paul has it somewhere, we find true life in Christ and before that we have been “dead to sin.” In short, let’s focus on carrying the gospel message to those who are around us, still very much physically alive, but lost in sin.

Peter constantly returns to his theme of suffering, reminding us that we are not the only ones suffering: “do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” (12) We must always remember that no matter how much we suffer, Christ suffered more and “if any of you suffers as a Christian, do not consider it a disgrace, but glorify God because you bear this name.” (16). Moreover we don’t just sit around and feel sorry for ourselves because we’re suffering, but we continue with our task: “let those suffering in accordance with God’s will entrust themselves to a faithful Creator, while continuing to do good.” (19)

For us American Christians, even though we live in an increasingly hostile post-Christian society, our suffering tends to pretty abstract compared to Christians in the MidEast, who are suffering physically, even to the point of giving up their lives. But while there may be degrees of suffering, the point remains: Christ suffered for us, so whatever slings and arrows are directed our way, we are to respond by “continuing to do good.” And for us Americans there is a clear message: stop playing the victim card!


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

Psalm 119:105–112: When I was in the 5th grade at Lake Avenue Congregational Church, I learned to recite the 39 books of the OT plus the 27 books of the NT. I  also learned a bunch of memory verses, including this one: “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” (105) [Of course we learned the King James version since that was “The Holy Bible.”] What is remarkable on my journey is that God’s word has indeed at these latter years of my life finally become a lamp unto my feet as I trace this Christian journey. As I have remarked elsewhere, it is the primary way in which I believe God speaks to me.

Like many verses, this one stands on its own, but it becomes richer and more meaningful in context. God’s word is not just “out there” as a friendly lamp lighting my life’s path. Instead it is at the center of–and the purpose  of– the psalmist’s life: “I swore and I will fulfill it–/ to observe Your just laws.” (106) As a fifth grader I had no idea about life’s trials to come, and there’s probably a good reason why we 10-year olds didn’t learn verse 107: “I have been sorely afflicted. / O Lord, give me life as befits Your word.” We had no idea of affliction, nor of risk: “My life is at risk at all times, / yet Your teaching I do not forget.” (109). Nor did we have enemies: “The wicked set a trap for me.” (110a)

But we 5th-graders did learn one thing: if we followed God’s word, we would also find that like the psalmist, “they are my heart’s joy.” (111). And that has indeed been the case now late in life. Coming to God’s word almost every morning is where I find true joy. I certainly feel the way the psalmist does: “I [have] inclined my heart to do Your statutes” but unlike him, I know I will not be able to follow God’s word “forever without fail.” (112) But realizing I will fail is why Jesus came to all of us in grace.

Ezekiel 34:20–36:7: The metaphor of God as shepherd and how he judges his sheep continues. What’s significant here is that we learn that God judges each sheep–each person–individually: “I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep.” (34:20) God will “save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged” but it will be done on an individual basis: “and I will judge between sheep and sheep.” (34:21)

Ezekiel then becomes almost Isaiah-like as he describes this wonderful peace to come: “I will send down the showers in their season; they shall be showers of blessing. The trees of the field shall yield their fruit, and the earth shall yield its increase.” (34:26, 27). We arrive at the famous apotheosis of this shepherd/sheep metaphor: God as our Good Shepherd who promises, “You are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture  and I am your God.” (34:31) Once again, this prophecy is at once a promise to Israel, but it also transcends Israel to become a promise to all of us.

Chapter 35 and its judgement against “Mount Seir,” which is apparently at the center of the kingdom of Edom at first glance seems out of place here. It’s a judgement against them because they have sinned against God by  ill by their actions against Israel: “You shall know that I, the Lord, have heard all the abusive speech that you uttered against the mountains of Israel, saying, ‘They are laid desolate, they are given us to devour.’” (35:12) But the reason for its position between the metaphor of the shepherd and sheep and God’s ulyimate blessing on Israel beaocme clear quickly.

The actions of Edom are the final straw for God. He reveals his true emotion: “I am speaking in my hot jealousy against the rest of the nations, and against all Edom, who, with wholehearted joy and utter contempt, took my land as their possession, because of its pasture, to plunder it.” (36:5) Then, God promises to take vengeance: “I am speaking in my jealous wrath, because you have suffered the insults of the nations; therefore thus says the Lord God: I swear that the nations that are all around you shall themselves suffer insults.” (36:6,7)

What’s fascinating here is that we get a glimpse into God’s nature through God’s feelings: jealousy and wrath. This reminds us that the popular image of God as an avuncular, harmless old man is far from the truth. Clearly, one of the key aspects that we his creatures, created imago deo, have inherited from God are intense feelings.

1 Peter 3:8–22: One of the joys of reading Peter is to see how deeply he cares about community: “Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind.” (8). Following Jesus’ example of turing the other cheek, Peter reminds us, “Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing.” (9)

If we are truly a loving community looking out for each other, no one can “harm you if you are eager to do what is good.” (13) But we must always remember that we are not immune from suffering, and “even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed.” (14a). But perhaps most important of all is that we are free of fear: “Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated.” (14b) This is another one of those important reminders that while we live in an increasingly hostile cultural environment, and even if our freedom of actions and expression as Christians becomes increasingly restricted–as I believe it will–we have no need to fear what the larger society fears. We are safe even in suffering.

We Christians are not to cower in the corner but we must “be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you.” (15). Moreover, we are to “do it with gentleness and reverence.” (16)  Christ is our great example of suffering done right.

Finally, Peter explains that baptism, which was “prefigured” by Noah and the flood, “now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” (21) Christ comes to us through baptism, but with that act of grace comes great personal responsibility: our good conscience and the courageous yet gentle behavior that arises from the gift our baptism.

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

Psalm 119:97–104: Knowledge and practice intersect in this section. The opening verse–“How I loved Your teaching,/ All day long it was my theme” (97)–is the familiar statement of how wonderful it is to study and learn God’s word. Then a transition from knowledge to wisdom: “Your command makes me wiser than my enemies,/ for it is mine forever.” (98) Nothing really surprising here since one would expect a person steeped in God’s word to be wiser than enemies who ignore God.

But a surprising assertion follows: “I have understood more than all my teachers/ for Your precepts became my theme.” (99) Really? Our psalmist now knows more than his teachers? The difference between arrogance and truth lies in the phrase, “Your precepts became my theme.” The psalmist has put his knowledge into practice as his life’s “theme.”

Really knowing God’s word is far more than head-knowledge, as the next verse emphasizes: “I gained insight more than the elders/ for Your decrees I kept.” (100) Obedience is the key: “From all evil paths I held back my feet,/ so that I might observe Your word.” (101) It is in the keeping of God’s “decrees” during the course of quotidian life that leads to wisdom that becomes greater than teachers, who (here, anyway) appear to only pass along the knowledge without practicing it themselves.

Before we accuse the psalmist of being arrogant in asserting how diligently he has kept God’s word, he tells us his secret: “From Your laws I did not swerve,/ for You Yourself instructed me.” (102) Studying God’s word is more than absorbing dry knowledge, it is being in relationship with God. It is God who taught him and it is God with whom he walks. This relationship becomes the greatest thing in his life: “How sweet to my palate Your utterance,/ more than honey to my mouth.” (103) God indeed speaks to him through the psalmist’s study of the word. As indeed God I believe God speaks to me.

Ezekiel 33:21–34:19: Despite Ezekiel’s warnings and the object lesson, the inhabitants  of Jerusalem do not turn from their wicked ways and the city falls. Once again, we have that historical precision amidst the prophecy: “In the twelfth year of our exile, in the tenth month, on the fifth day of the month, someone who had escaped from Jerusalem came to me and said, “The city has fallen.”” (33:21)

In what is in effect a “I told you so” passage, Ezekiel, speaking as the voice of God, tells the people, “You eat flesh with the blood, and lift up your eyes to your idols, and shed blood; shall you then possess the land?  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). In other words, evil actions and wrong-headed dependence on our own “swords,” is folly. Yet, that is a brilliant description of us here in the 21st century as well: we have many idols we place above God and we depend on both offensive and defensive weapons to protect us. 

But perhaps the worst sin of all is our very hypocrisy: We “say to one another, each to a neighbor, “Come and hear what the word is that comes from the Lord.”” (33:30) But “they hear your words, but they will not obey them.” (33:33) It is exactly as the psalmist implies: neither knowledge nor appearance of worship is reality. It boils down to what is in our hearts and it is out of our hearts that true wisdom and a godly life comes.

A big part of our problem is that we lack the ability to discern between what appears to be truth and what is actually God’s truth. Jerusalem was overrun by false prophets: “you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves!… You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep.” (34:3) Obviously, the people of Jerusalem wanted to listen to and follow those false prophets who said sweet, flattering things. Exactly what the purveyors of the prosperity gospel do today. We would rather take the comfortable path and speak of God’s blessing, but not of the trials. 

The false prophets are false shepherds looking only to their own interests, who have allowed God’s sheep to be “scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them.” (34:6) But God will “rescue my sheep from their mouths, so that they may not be food for them.” (34:9) Because God is the true shepherd: “For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out.” (34:11)

This rescue and return God’s promise to Israel and Judah as we encounter what I think is the most beautiful verses in this book: “ I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. 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.” (34:15, 16) Which indeed God does at the end of the exile.

But prophecy reaches up and over to us as well. This promise of course is fulfilled in the coming of Jesu Christ, who is our own Good Shepherd.

1 Peter 3:1–7: Ah, we encounter one of those difficult passages that was radical in the Roman empire but which have been sorely abused across the centuries: “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,” (3:1) Too many husbands have taken advantage and failed to recognize what Peter is saying here. It is not a question of authority but of example. The wife, by doing everything she can to establish and practice a loving relationship with her husband, becomes a living example of the relationship that the unbelieving husband can enjoy with Jesus–and thereby wins him to the faith “when they see the purity and reverence of your lives.” (2)

But Peter’s advice was certainly true for his culture, but in ours his advice applies all of us: “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.” (4) Men do not need to assert their love for their wives through power, but through a gentle and quiet spirit.

In what was surely a wildly radical statement in his culture, Peter brings balance o the relationship–again a passage that too many men have ignored: “Husbands, in the same way, show consideration for your wives in your life together, paying honor to the woman as the weaker sex,” (7)

What these days we would call a “trigger phrase”–“weaker sex”–is still, I believe, God’s ordained reality. Why else are women rather than men raped? Why do men abandon women and leave them to raise their children alone? Because it is a power play on the part of evil, irresponsible males. They do not recognize that in God’s order that we men have a God-given responsibility to protect, not to dominate.

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

Psalm 119:89–96: Our psalmist integrates God’s law and God’s creation. First, “Your word stands high in the heavens” (89) as it suffuses all creation. Then it effectively becomes not just part of creation but is the very sinew that holds creation together: “You made the earth firm and it stood./ By Your laws they stand this day,/ for all are Your servants,” (90b, 91). Indeed, “all” is not just Israel to whom the law has been given in a specific act, but it applies to all people. This would be, I think, moral law that seems intrinsic in virtually every civilization (although our particular culture seems pretty intent on shredding what remains of God’s moral law). We can stretch it to include all nature, especially physics, where God’s laws seem most visible.  In fact, the deeper we go, such as quantum physics, the more mysterious and unfathomable God’s law seems to be.

As part of creation itself, God’s law provides sustenance. Certainly that is the case of nature. Without God’s law there would be only chaos. The psalmist underscores this when he says, “Never shall I forget Your decrees,/ for through them You gave me life.” (93) And as an intrinsic part of creation, God’s laws are everywhere and in everything. Like the psalmist, we must conclude “For each finite thing I saw an end–/ but Your command is exceedingly broad.” (96). In the end, we cannot escape God’s moral law, nor his physical law. It is everywhere, all around us. We may be creatures with finite limits, but God’s law is unlimited and ubiquitous.

Ezekiel 32:17–33:20: We begin to wonder whatever happened to Israel and Judah as we read (once again!) of Egypt’s destruction: “Egypt has been handed over to the sword; carry away both it and its hordes.” (32:20) But then Ezekiel pulls his camera that has focused on Egypt back to a wide angle shot of war and destruction all around as he catalogs the armies form different kingdoms that have fought each other and have “their graves all around it, all of them killed, fallen by the sword.” (32:22). Assyria. Elam. Meshech. Tubal. Edom. The princes of the north. The Sidonians. All of them “have gone down in shame with the slain, for all the terror that they caused by their might; they lie uncircumcised with those who are killed by the sword, and bear their shame with those who go down to the Pit.” (32:30)

Amidst all this warring and bloodshed God appoints Ezekiel: “So you, mortal, I have made a sentinel for the house of Israel” (33:7).  We have seen these same instructions much earlier in the book. If the prophet fails to warn the wicked and they do not turn from their wicked ways God will require Ezekiel’s own blood. On the other hand, “if you warn the wicked to turn from their ways, and they do not turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but you will have saved your life.” (33:9)

With this rather harsh motivation looming over him, Ezekiel warns both the wicked and righteous of the fate that awaits them if they do not turn back to God. Of particular note, “The righteousness of the righteous shall not save them when they transgress;” (33:12) In other words, one sin by a righteous person and he’s doomed anyway. This may seem manifestly unfair but God’s economy of justice is really quite simple if stark: “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.” (18, 19). They can complain all we want about God’s harsh justice, but God simply brings up the terms of the Old Covenant: “O house of Israel, I will judge all of you according to your ways!” (33:20)

This is one of those places where, like Israel, we despair at God’s harsh justice. And eventually, as we know, God’s terms were simply unachievable by mere humans. We can be grateful that we live under the terms of the New Covenant where grace abounds.

1 Peter 2:13–25: Peter gives the practical if uncomfortable advice that was so essential to the survival of the early church, “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 reminds us that while we are indeed free, we are to use that freedom responsibly and not as “a pretext for evil.” Living the Christian life as resident aliens in the Roman Empire boils down to the simple admonition: “Honor everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the emperor.”

I’m particularly struck by the subtle distinction of the instruction here: we fear God but we merely honor the emperor. Same goes for us. Of course this distinction nevertheless led to trouble in Rome when emperors demanded to be worshipped as gods. But Christians could not fear the emperor; they could only fear God. We see traces of this in our own culture where many are called to worship the mores that go against our true belief in the name of “tolerance.” Increasingly, those do not bow down we are castigated, even by others who consider themselves Christian.

Peter then turns to address slaves–and we grow even more uncomfortable: “Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh.” (18). This is one of those places where we must acknowledge the existence of a very different world than ours.

We know that this verse was used again and again down through history–and particularly in American history–to justify the institution of slavery. It repels us. But we cannot succumb to “presentism,” the act of projecting our cultural mores on a culture so far removed from us. What has happened cannot be undone.

But there’s a larger lesson here as Peter uses Christ’s own example of suffering to remind us that God has not called us to an easy time, but to suffering. Wand when we suffer, we must imitate Christ: “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)

In today’s post-Christian culture, entrusting ourselves to a system of justice and cultural mores that are increasingly hostile will put many of us to a test we have not yet had to endure.

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

 Psalm 119:81–88: Like many of its predecessor sections, this one begins with how much the psalmist longs for God’s rescue and then for God’s word. We encounter a new verb: “My eyes pine for Your utterance,” suggesting tears as he asks plaintively, “When will You console me?” (82) Absent God’s consolation he describes how even though he is being tested “like a skin-flask in smoke/ Your statutes I did not forget.” (83) I’m struck once again in this psalm about how this relationship with God seems one step removed from, say, David’s, who came to God directly–“The Lord is my shepherd”–while here, he approaches God through the Law. He has not forgotten God’s statutes. But why does he not approach God directly? It seems that the relationship is based on law rather than grace. I suppose this makes sense. After all, in his culture no one could approach God directly. It was only through the intercession of the priest. It could be that for the psalmist, one could come to God more directly through knowledge of God’s law.

Like other psalms of supplication, he reminds God that he is faithful even as his enemies pursue him, asking for God’s vengeance on those who are unfaithful: “When will You exact justice from my pursuers?” (84b).  After all, they have abandoned God as “the arrogant have dug pitfalls for me/ which are not according to Your teaching.” (85)

The psalmist again reminds God that “All Your commands are trustworthy,” but then finally in his desperation he appeals directly to God: “For no reason they pursued me–help me!” But that directness is only temporary, as he again returns to form, saying how obedient he has been, “yet I forsook not Your decrees.” (87b) In fact the entire point of being rescued is “that I may observe Your mouth’s precept.” (88) But don’t we do exactly the same thing? We appeal to God for rescue on the basis that we have been good . Why should bad things happen to us? After all, we’ve followed all those Christian rules. The psalmist really only had the Law, but we have someone far greater: Jesus Christ, who as Paul and the author of Hebrews point out, transcends the law. And we have grace.

Ezekiel 31:1–32:16: Once again we have this jarring juxtaposition of a precise date with the these soaring verses of prophecy that seem removed in space and time from the real world: “In the eleventh year, in the third month, on the first day of the month, the word of the Lord came to me” as God commands, “Mortal, say to Pharaoh king of Egypt and to his hordes:” (31:1,2)

What follows is the beautiful poem and remarkable allegory of the great tree that “towered high/ above all the trees of the field;” (31:5) that is not only tall, but “It was beautiful in its greatness,/ in the length of its branches;” (31:7). In fact, “The cedars in the garden of God could not rival it,” and it was “the envy of all the trees of Eden/ that were in the garden of God.” (31:8, 9) That it would be compared to the trees in Eden itself shows just how great the Egptian empire had become.

But the tree that is Egypt has been overcome with pride: “its heart was proud of its height,” (31:10) and eventually, it is cut down and “its boughs lie broken in all the watercourses of the land;” (31:12) Even the greatest are brought low and “ I made the nations quake at the sound of its fall, when I cast it down to Sheol.” (31:16) And the empire that was Egypt “shall lie among the uncircumcised, with those who are killed by the sword.” And just to make sure we know who Ezekiel is talking about, he adds helpfully, “This is Pharaoh and all his horde, says the Lord God.” (31:18)

A lamentation for Egypt follows that illuminates the cause of its downfall:
  “You consider yourself a lion among the nations,
       but you are like a dragon in the seas;
   you thrash about in your streams,
       trouble the water with your feet,
       and foul your streams.” (32:3)

Egypt’s self-image as a lion is far from its reality as a dragon fouling its streams. Pride always obscures reality. So too, our own sense of being a country that is a “lion,”  but whose reality is corruption. Thus it has always been with nations and empire that believe they will be forever regnant. There is no reason 21st century America should enjoy a different, happier fate. Whether we are using this allegory to speak of nations or of ourselves as individuals, pride always does us in.

1 Peter 2:1–12: As with Ezekiel, this chapter is rich in metaphor. But Peter is not speaking of empires, but of individual Christians and how “Like newborn infants, [you] long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation.” (2) This is a helpful reminder that after we have “tasted that the Lord is good” (3) that being Christian is not only a state of salvation, but is also a process of growth and maturation. There are new young Christians and there are older, wiser Christians. It’s in community where the young learn from the old, but the old also enjoy the presence of the enthusiasm and joy of youth around them.

The central metaphor here is the “living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight.” (4). This stone of course is Jesus Christ, and Peter, quoting form Psalm 118, reminds us that this was“The stone that the builders rejected/ has become the very head of the corner,”  (7) He also reminds us that not everyone will accept the reality of Jesus and quoting from Isaiah 8, Peter reminds us Jesus is also ““A stone that makes them stumble,/ and a rock that makes them fall.” and that “They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.” (8).

But woven into the metaphor of Christ as cornerstone is the metaphor about us, who follow him. First, we are “ like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house.” (5), which tells me that the basis of the church is being together in community. Random stones do not build themselves; stones must come together to become a house.

The greatest metaphor here, of course, is that we are members of “a holy priesthood.” And in one of the most uplifting and encouraging passages in the epistles, Peter reminds us that “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” (9) And then in one of the most radical acts of all for Peter, a Jew who clung as long as he could to Jewish ways, asserts that Christians themselves have become the restored Israel promised so many years ago by the prophet Hosea:
    Once you were not a people,
       but now you are God’s people;
   once you had not received mercy,
       but now you have received mercy. (10)

But as the restored Israel that also brings great responsibility and makes us aliens in the world around us. We must “Conduct [ourselves] honorably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge.” (12).  As any casual scan of cable TV, the newspapers, and Facebook remind us daily, Christians are being maligned. The question is, are we responding honorably? Alas, too often we are not responding in love, but adopting the ways of the world, returning evil for evil.

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

Psalm 119:73–80: The psalmist acknowledges that he is God’s creature: “Your hands made me and set me firm,” (73a).  And as God’s creatures we are entitled to ask God for intellectual capacity: “Give me insight, that I may learn Your commands.” (73b).  I take “insight” to include not just the intelligence to understand what is going on at a deeper level, but also creativity.

In our current God-free society, many believe that intellect leading to insight–especially scientific insights–occur simply because that collection of neurons in our brains somehow coalesce in some semi-random fashion and cleverly deliver us those “Aha” discoveries. But I prefer to think that our ability to discover, to create, and to recognize and solve problems is a direct consequence of us having been created in God’s image. Unfortunately, that very imago deo can too easily lead us to believe that we are ourselves gods.

But our psalmist understands the relationship between Teacher and those who are taught. God is not only the source of our intellect, he is also the source of mercy: “May Your mercies befall me, that I may live,/ for Your teaching is my delight.” (76). I am grateful that God continues to give me a life that is free of cancer, for it is in this same time that I have come to the joy of studying and reflecting on God’s word through these daily readings. I have truly enjoyed God’s mercy so that I may delight in the teaching of his Word.

Ezekiel 29:13–30:26: In his ongoing tour of the kingdoms surrounding Israel and Judah, Ezekiel is commanded by God to prophesy against Egypt. Here, instead of condemning the wealth Tyre, God punishes Egypt for desecrating nature: “Because you said, “The Nile is mine, and I made it,” therefore, I am against you, and against your channels, and I will make the land of Egypt an utter waste and desolation.” (29: 9b, 10) with the warning that “it shall be uninhabited forty years.” (29:11) and “her cities shall be a desolation forty years among cities that are laid waste. I will scatter the Egyptians among the nations.” (29:11, 12) Sounds like it became a radioactive wasteland… But then, as God inevitably does, there is restoration: “At the end of forty years I will gather the Egyptians from the peoples among whom they were scattered.” (29:13) Although Egypt is restored, “It shall be the most lowly of the kingdoms, and never again exalt itself above the nations.” (29:15), which is true even to today.

Egypt is given over to Babylon: “I will give the land of Egypt to King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon; and he shall carry off its wealth and despoil it and plunder it; and it shall be the wages for his army” (29:19) with the interesting information that “ I have given him [Nebuchadrezzar] the land of Egypt as his payment for which he labored, because they worked for me, says the Lord God..” (29:20)

After this narrative description of Egypt’s fate, then a lamentation for Egypt: “A sword shall come upon Egypt,/ and anguish shall be in Ethiopia.” (30:4a) And Egypt will come to the same realization as Israel: “Thus I will execute acts of judgment on Egypt./ Then they shall know that I am the Lord.” (30:19) Ezekiel then gets personal, addressing the prophecy specifically to Pharaoh: “Therefore thus says the Lord God: I am against Pharaoh king of Egypt, and will break his arms, both the strong arm and the one that was broken; and I will make the sword fall from his hand.” (30:22)

So, what gives with these lengthy chapters about nations and kingdoms like Tyre and Egypt, Ammon and Moab, that were neighbors to Israel and Judah? Was Nebuchadrezzar actually aware that his conquering armies were allowed to do so by God? That Babylon became the instrument of God’s punishment? Or that Egypt come to desolation because it had dug irrigation channels? Or that Tyre’s economy was wrecked because God commanded it? My take is that this is actual history told from the point of view if a prophet, who saw God in every act of humans and even nature. From our 21st century perch it’s difficult to put ourselves in the ancient’s shoes who saw every event–especially disasters– as evidence a God-ordained cause. But we know that the connection between God and human actions were deeply intertwined in that world–and even more so in the mind of a prophet. For us, this is a valuable perspective on a God-filled world. The question arises: are we better off having pushed God out of our own world? Yes, we understand cause and effect in rational human and scientific terms. But I think we may have been too quick to dismiss God altogether in the affairs of his creation.

1 Peter 1:13–25: Every epistle in the NT seems to include the theme of the necessity of self-discipline, and Peter is no exception: “Therefore prepare your minds for action; discipline yourselves; set all your hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring you when he is revealed.” (13) As an inveterate intellectualizer, I particularly appreciate the idea of preparing our minds for action–a clear reminder that we must think before we act.

Peter also focuses on our transformed nature–not just the one to come in heaven–but in the hear and now in which we live: :You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish.” (19, 20). And with that transformation comes real world responsibility: “that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart.” (22). Notice that it is love–the greatest commandment– that is the evidence of that spiritual transformation here in the real world.

This is also why I prefer Peter to James. James may be theologically correct, but his commands lack the crucial context of love. For with Peter, the requirements of living the Christian life are suffused completely in love–and it is in love that we act. He reminds us of our new heritage born of that love: “You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed.” (23) And he takes that simple metaphor–imperishable seed–and recasts the passage from Isaiah 40 in a way that makes it even more beautiful than its original prophetic meaning:
   “The grass withers,
       and the flower falls,
    but the word of the Lord endures forever.” (25) 

Peter finishes with the piece d’resistance: “That word is the good news that was announced to you.” We have received God’s love through the Word that is Jesus Christ. How can we do anything other than to respond in love? Alas, we know all too well how to respond to each other in non-loving ways.


Psalm 119:57–64; Ezekiel 27:12–28:10; James 5:13–20

Psalm 119:57–64: In this section, God has answered the supplicant’s prayers: “I entreated You with a whole heart,/ grant me grace as befits Your utterance.” (58) In turn, this leads to repentance, the act of turning back: “I have reckoned my ways,/ and turned back my feet to Your precepts.” (59). Moreover, this repentance is tinged with enthusiasm and eagerness to resume his life following God: “I hastened, I did not linger,/ to observe Your commands.” (60)

But repentance and an eagerness to return to God did not prevent bad things from continuing to happen: “The cords of the wicked ensnared me–” (61a) Nevertheless, despite these obstacles and difficulties, “Your teaching I did not forget.” (61) In fact, his enthusiasm is even stronger: “At midnight I rose to acclaim You/ for your righteous laws. (62)

Repentance is almost always accompanied by a new-found enthusiasm for God. And in our joy we tend to think that “everything will be hunky-dory; my troubles are behind me now. I have found God.” But that’s not the way life operates. The same temptations, the same enemies, the same diseases continue to pursue us. The question is, will we become discouraged, feeling even more intensely than before that God has abandoned me? Or will I be like the psalmist? Will I look adversity in the faith and remember that God has not abandoned me? And in that remembrance will my love and enthusiasm for following Jesus be strengthened through adversity? That is a question I think each of us must ask ourselves daily.

Ezekiel 27:12–28:10: This long–and rather odd–lamentation for Tyre continues as Ezekiel abandons the poetic form and lapses in what can only be described as a review of the economics of Tyre, including slavery. We read a list of its trading partners: “Javan, Tubal, and Meshech traded with you; they exchanged human beings and vessels of bronze for your merchandise. Beth-togarmah exchanged for your wares horses, war horses, and mules. The Rhodians traded with you.” (27:13-15) We learn that “Judah and the land of Israel traded with you; they exchanged for your merchandise wheat from Minnith, millet, honey, oil, and balm.”–confirming Israel’s status as primarily an agrarian nation.

We encounter a catalog of the surprisingly wide range of goods that were available in the ancient world: “wrought iron, cassia, and sweet cane were bartered for your merchandise… saddlecloths for riding…. lambs, rams, and goats…all kinds of spices, and all precious stones, and gold…choice garments, in clothes of blue and embroidered work, and in carpets of colored material.” (27:18-24) And we learn that Tyre contracted out its shipping: “The ships of Tarshish traveled for you in your trade.” (27:25)

But its power and wealth come to naught.
   “Your riches, your wares, your merchandise,
       your mariners and your pilots,
     your caulkers, your dealers in merchandise,
       and all your warriors within you,
    with all the company
       that is with you,
    sink into the heart of the seas
       on the day of your ruin.” (27)

Tyre has fallen. Its “abundant wealth and merchandise/ [with which] you enriched the kings of the earth.” is no more. “You have come to a dreadful end/ and shall be no more forever.” (27:36) But why has Tyre fallen? Why all this detail and lamentation? Because I think these chapters are a warning to everyone who reads them, including those of us in the present day. This is prophecy in its pure state: forth-telling.

Tyre has fallen for the usual reason: human pride and a false belief in its invincibility, as Ezekiel now goes on to explain:
   “Because your heart is proud
       and you have said, “I am a god;
     I sit in the seat of the gods,
       in the heart of the seas,” (28:2)

But, as Ezekiel reminds us, “yet you are but a mortal, and no god,.” Tyre has become intellectually arrogant: “though you compare your mind/ with the mind of a god.” (28:2b)

What Ezekiel writes about Tyre applies precisely to our culture’s present state. It has created tremendous wealth as Ezekiel notes: “by your wisdom and your understanding/ you have amassed wealth for yourself.” (28:4) and has come to believe it no longer requires God and “your heart has become proud in your wealth.” (28:5) Ezekiel taunts the king of Tyre: “Will you still say, “I am a god,”/in the presence of those who kill you?” (28:9) This passage is frightening in its parallels–and in its ultimate judgement–on 21st century western culture. Why should we be exempt when one of the wealthiest kingdoms of the ancient world became filled with pride? A pride that is all too ubiquitous today.

 James 5:13–20: James ends his practical Treatise for Christian Living on the benefits of prayer. First, we should pray ourselves: “Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise.” (13). Then , we should pray for others, especially the ill: “Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.” (14)

James reminds us of the very real benefits of prayer: “The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.” (15) Then he commands us to go out and do it: “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.” (16a) James reminds us that “the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” (16b) as he cites Elijah’s ability to pray for drought and then rain as an example of prayer’s power. Of course we ask, really? Will prayer truly heal the sick 100% of the time? Well, I think that depends on your definition of what being “raised up” means. There’s no question that even those on their death beds can be “raised up” through prayer. I have seen this.

This intense and (for me anyway) occasionally annoying epistle ends with a simple but powerful promise: “you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” (20) The juxtaposition of this promise following James’s essay on prayer is no coincidence. For prayer is exactly where we start in bringing “a sinner’s soul” back from the brink.


Psalm 119:49–56; Ezekiel 25:15–27:11; James 5:1–12

Psalm 119:49–56: These eight verses include all the elements of a psalm of supplication. There is a sense of God’s distance and possibly that God has forgotten the supplicant: “Recall the word to Your servant/ For which You gave me hope.” (49) The psalmist remembers that better time and that is the basis of hope: “This is my consolation in my affliction,/ that Your utterance gave me life.” (50) He has been oppressed by others: “The arrogant mocked me terribly–” (51a) But he has remained faithful: “from Your teaching I did not turn.” (51b) Since this is Psalm 119 and it’s all about God’s law, precepts, teaching and being taught, unlike other psalms of supplication, hope is found not so much in God himself. Rather, consolation lies in God’s statutes: “I recalled Your laws forever,/ O Lord, and I was consoled.” (52)

In fact, as the psalmist remembers God’s teaching and how they are his consolation, he becomes enraged at his enemies: “Rage from the wicked seized me,/ from those who forsake Your teaching.” (53) He does not list the sins of the wicked, only the simple fact that they have forsaken God’s teaching. This is surely the point of view of a scholar who sees the world in stark but simple terms: Know God’s law and you are on God’s side. Ignore God’s law and you are not.

And he makes sure that we know whose side he’s on: “I recalled in the night Your name, O Lord/ and observed Your teaching./ This I did possess,/ for Your decrees I kept.” (55, 56) Obeying the law is how he knows God remains close to him. And so it is for guys like me: to be sure, I see God in other people around me, and occasionally at worship, and in communion, but I find real closeness to God in the Scriptures, which I guess is why I am obsessed with beginning the day by diving into these Daily texts.

Ezekiel 25:15–27:11: The proclamations continue against the well-known ancient kingdoms that surrounded Israel and Judah. Given all the trouble they created over the years, we’re glad to see Philistia go: “Because with unending hostilities the Philistines acted in vengeance, and with malice of heart took revenge in destruction… I will execute great vengeance on them with wrathful punishments. Then they shall know that I am the Lord, when I lay my vengeance on them.” (25:15, 17)

But I confess I’m more puzzled as to why God has to wreak vengeance on Tyre. Unlike Philistia, we don’t really see a reason for God’s wrath, only that “ I will hurl many nations against you,/ as the sea hurls its waves.” (26:3) and  “It shall become plunder for the nations,/ and its daughter-towns in the country/ shall be killed by the sword.” (26:6).  I wonder of this is simply a prophecy that acknowledges the reality of the Assyrian and Babylonian invasions and really has little to do with its sin and the consequent wrath of God that it endures. Is Ezekiel giving God credit for a purely human action in order to assure us that every historical event is instigated and executed by God through human agency?

If I’m not mistaken, the prophetic assertion, “You shall never again be rebuilt,” (26:14) and “ I will bring you to a dreadful end, and you shall be no more; though sought for, you will never be found again,” actually didn’t come to pass, as Tyre exists in Lebanon to the present day

In fact, there’s true regret over the loss of Tyre since Ezekiel gives us a “lamentation over Tyre” that recalls its glories:
   “O Tyre, you have said,
       “I am perfect in beauty.”
   Your borders are in the heart of the seas;
       your builders made perfect your beauty.” (27:4)

The poem recalls how Tyre was the center of trade and skilled artisans as a beautiful ship becomes a metaphor for the city. “fir trees from Senir; cedar from Lebanon; oaks of Bashan; …sails made of embroidered cloth from Egypt; …blue and purple from the coasts of Elishah…” (27 5-7). And Ezekiel remembers by name the towns form which its brave warriors came,”Paras and Lud and Put /were in your army, Men of Arvad and Helechwere on your walls all around;” (27:10,11). In this lamentation we come away with the sense of tremendous loss. But the question hangs in the air: was the loss of Tyre really God’s will for punishment? With this lamentation I come away with the clear sense that Ezekiel truly regretted God’s action–if indeed this was really God’s action.

 James 5:1–12: Now James takes up the class we have come to call the One Percent: “you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten.” (1,2) There is the promise that every poor person longs to hear: the rich will get their reward: “Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire.” (3). And there’s little question that these riches have been ill-gotten: “The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.” (4) because “you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.” (5) 

But this retributive justice seems to lie off in the distant future–just as it does today. So, James advises, “Be patient, therefore, beloved until the coming of the Lord.” (7) That would be that great Day of the Lord when God’s justice would finally rain down on rich and poor alike. We get a sense of how imminent the early church believed that day was: “You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.” (8) And as “an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets [like Ezekiel!] who spoke in the name of the Lord.” (10) Indeed, he even uses the example of Job as to the level of patience these folks must endure. But he also reminds us, “the Lord is compassionate and merciful.” (11)

In the meantime we are to stand firm. And James will not stand for ambiguity: “but let your “Yes” be yes and your “No” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.” Which is tremendously good advice in our relationships with other Christians, other people and especially those we love.

So the questions occur: Would James counsel exactly the same thing to the poor today? Do we just wait patiently? Is the coming of the Lord near?

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

Psalm 119:41–48: In this section the psalmist moves beyond the pleas to God to know and understand his word to the issue of communicating his word. The psalmist asks for knowledge so “that I may give answer to those who taunt me.” (42) God’s word becomes a matter of how the psalmist lives: “And let me observe Your teaching always,/ forevermore.” (44)

The psalmist moves outdoors: “And let me walk about in an open space,/ for Your decrees I have sought.” (45) and then he asks for courage as he speaks to those who rank above him, “And let me speak of Your precepts/ before kings without being shamed.” (46) Finally, he adopts an attitude of worship: “And let me lift up my palms to Your commands/ that I have loved, and dwell on Your statutes.” (48).

So it is for us when we study God’s word. It is not just a question of interior knowledge, but of taking God’s word into an “open space” and having the courage to speak “before kings without being shamed.” In a present circumstance where I feel I must confront a “king” with what I believe is a word from God, I can certainly identify personally with the psalmist.

Ezekiel 24:9–25:14: What we could call the “poem of God’s utter frustration,” concludes with stark images of how God will cleanse the the “rusty pot” of Jerusalem:
   10 Heap up the logs, kindle the fire;
       boil the meat well, mix in the spices,
       let the bones be burned.
   11 Stand it empty upon the coals,
       so that it may become hot, its copper glow,
       its filth melt in it, its rust be consumed.
   12 In vain I have wearied myself;
       its thick rust does not depart.
       To the fire with its rust!

God has set Jerusalem to the burning fire in an attempt to cleanse it, but alas, “Yet, when I cleansed you in your filthy lewdness,/ you did not become clean from your filth;” (24:13) and we can hear God’s frustrated anger at the stubbornness of his chosen people as he cries, “I will act. I will not refrain, I will not spare, I will not relent.” (24:14)

God in effect turns to his prophet Ezekiel and tells him, “Mortal, with one blow I am about to take away from you the delight of your eyes; yet you shall not mourn or weep, nor shall your tears run down.” (24:16) And then in one of the saddest verses of this book, Ezekiel tells us, “So I spoke to the people in the morning, and at evening my wife died. And on the next morning I did as I was commanded.” (24:18) Despite his bereavement, Ezekiel obeys God. he does not mourn and his friends come to him puzzled, asking,“Will you not tell us what these things mean for us, that you are acting this way?” (24:19) He replies that God will “profane his sanctuary, “the pride of your power, the delight of your eyes, and your heart’s desire; and your sons and your daughters whom you left behind shall fall by the sword.” (24:21), but just as Ezekiel cannot mourn his dead wife, they “you shall not mourn or weep, but you shall pine away in your iniquities and groan to one another.” (24:23)

So what is this business about not mourning all about? Perhaps it’s because their sins been so great that mourning their loss would be an act of hypocrisy. They will weep; they will pine away and groan to each as they realize the enormity of their misdeeds. But the act of mourning is to express contrition before God and to recognize our very humanity. In God’s eyes they have not been human because they have rejected their God-given humanity and become mere animals sacrificing their children; they are beyond redemption. There could not be a more tragic realization than that.

Then, as before, we hear similar prophecies of doom for Ammon, Moab and Edom. And as we know, those kingdoms disappeared forever because there was no faithful remnant as there was for Israel.

James 4:7–17: James advises us to do what Jerusalem did not do: “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” (7) (one of those verses I learned back at Lake Avenue Congregational in 5th grade Sunday School.) Then, “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” (8a).  I confess I do not like the idea of a quid pro quo God–that I must come to God in order for him to come to me. Perhaps it is merely poor sentence construction on James’s part and that he did not mean to imply that God will turn to us only if we turn to him. I prefer to believe that God is steadfast, immovable and it is I who turn away and then, hopefully, turn back to God to find him exactly in the same place.


Clearly, James is writing in some anger here as he continues, “Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” (8b) And when he says, “Lament and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into dejection.” (9) I presume he is talking about the artificial laughter and joy of the godless world, which we will reject when we turn away from the “joys” of the world and turn back to God.

Then, more practical advice from this Dear Abby of the epistle writers: “Do not speak evil against one another, brothers and sisters.” (11) and remember always that “There is [only] one lawgiver and judge who is able to save and to destroy. So who, then, are you to judge your neighbor?” (12) As Jesus pointed out, we are to love,not judge, our neighbor. Easy in concept; difficult in practice.

But the part of this passage that stands out to me personally is his assertion about the futility of thinking our plans will unfold exactly as we think they will: “Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.”Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring.” (13, 14) The old cliche is true: “If you want God to laugh, tell him your plans.” As cancer has taught me so well, “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” (14b). As a society we are in total denial of our ephemerality. We delude ourselves in thinking that anything we do, anything we build is somehow permanent. Yes, the rich may set up foundations in the belief that their influence will be felt beyond the grave. But they have no voice, no power. There is only one Permanence. And we are not it.