Psalm 118:1–9; Ezekiel 16:1–42; Hebrews 12:25–13:6

 Psalm 118:1–9: The first four verses of this psalm were doubtless chanted together at worship. All the worshippers open by saying, “Acclaim the Lord, for He is good,/ forever is His kindness.” (1) Then three groups: Israel, the house of Aaron [which I take to be the priests] and “those who fear the Lord” are named, each repeating the line “forever is His kindness.” This formulation tells us bluntly that worshipping God was not reserved exclusively to priests or to the citizens of Israel, but that anyone–Jewish or not–can praise God.

Christians who have not read the OT tend to think it’s exclusively about the Jews and for the Jews, but they are wrong. It’s clear in the psalm and in many others–not to mention entire chunks of the OT– that God is God of all creation and therefore the God of all people. There is only one requirement for any person to enjoy God’s love and kindness and that is to fear the Lord.

The centerpiece of this part of the psalm is that when we are hemmed in by worry or imminent danger we can call upon God: “From the straits I called to Yah” (5a).  And God will hear us: “Yah answered me in a wide-open space.” (5b) Notice how God frees us from constriction and feeling hemmed in–our ‘straits’–bringing us out to the freedom of “a wide-open place.” There is breathing room with God.

And when we revere–or ‘fear’– the Lord and call on him, we derive an enormous benefit as the famous verse tells us: “The Lord is for me, I shall not fear./ What can humankind do to me.” For us as God-fearing men and women, God is existentially on our side. And God’s presence is what drives away our fear.

Ezekiel 16:1–42: This chapter is perhaps one of the most striking metaphors in the book, if not the OT, as God speaks through Ezekiel describing the life of a woman, who represents Israel, from birth to gruesome death. A female baby is born and abandoned to its fate, and “No eye pitied you, to do any of these things for you out of compassion for you; but you were thrown out in the open field, for you were abhorred on the day you were born.” (5) But God takes mercy on this child, Israel, “As you lay in your blood, I said to you, “Live!” (6b) and “You grew up and became tall and arrived at full womanhood; …yet you were naked and bare.” (7). Which I take to be people who do not know God. God passes by again and “and covered your nakedness: I pledged myself to you and entered into a covenant with you, says the Lord God, and you became mine.” (8) God adorns her with ornaments and riches and “Your fame spread among the nations on account of your beauty.” (14).

God keeps his side of the Covenant and  “trusted in your beauty,” but Israel “played the whore because of your fame” (15) as it takes the gifts bestowed on it by God and “made for yourself colorful shrines, and on them played the whore;” (16). Ezekiel, in the voice of God proceeds to summarize Israel’s history as one giant whoring party: “You played the whore with the Egyptians, your lustful neighbors, multiplying your whoring, …You played the whore with the Assyrians, because you were insatiable; you played the whore with them, and still you were not satisfied. You multiplied your whoring with Chaldea, the land of merchants; and even with this you were not satisfied. (27-29).

God will have justice as Ezekiel concludes this woeful metaphor with awful judgement: “ I will judge you as women who commit adultery and shed blood are judged, and bring blood upon you in wrath and jealousy. I will deliver you into [your enemies’] hands, and they shall throw down your platform and break down your lofty places; they shall strip you of your clothes and take your beautiful objects and leave you naked and bare.” As the chapter circles around to where it began: with a naked and bare body.

The question that hangs in the air is of course what of modern nations that are playing the whore? Will they we be judged as harshly as Israel? Or will we simply fall of our own dead weight?

Hebrews 12:25–13:6: Our author’s warnings to not abandon the gift of grace reach their climax as he makes an indirect reference to the fate of Israel warned of in Ezekiel: “…for if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less will we escape if we reject the one who warns from heaven!”  In other words, we are subject to an even higher standard than Israel was. Quoting Haggai 2:6, he reminds us that God “has promised, ‘Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heaven.'” (26) pointing out that “what cannot be shaken may remain.” (27b). And then noting that “since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks.” And that our response to this great unshakable kingdom must be to give back to God “an acceptable worship with reverence and awe.” In short, grace is not only a great gift, and the means by which we enter the unshakable kingdom, it brings great responsibility. Exactly as Bonhoeffer tells us in The Cost of Discipleship.

The idea of the unshakable kingdom seems especially appropriate as we see Christians running around claiming that the church is doomed because it is now operating in a hostile culture. We forget that we are inheritors of an unshakable kingdom. But “unshakable” does not mean the same thing as “unchanging.” Yes, the truths to which we hold fast are unchanging, but the church itself, while part of that unshakable Kingdom, nevertheless must keep evolving to meet the evolving and ever-changing needs of the society in which it lives.

We are privileged to live in an unshakable Kingdom and with that come ethical and behavioral responsibilities to which our author turns in this final chapter. We are to love each other “mutually” (13:1), show hospitality to strangers for in the famous phrase, “by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (13:2), and remember those in prison, especially “those who are being tortured.” (13:3). Honor the sanctity of marriage “for God will judge fornicators and adulterers.” (13:4) and “Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have.” (13:5) I think in many regards the issue is less the money and more in being content with what we have. I have to say, that following cancer and an enhanced awareness of my mortality, I am far more content with what I have.

And finally, in what must be a”Holy Spirit coincidence,” which is to say, not a coincidence at all, our author quotes that famous verse from today’s Psalm (118:6): “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?” Which in the end is what all his instructions boil down to: worship, love and fear God and we will never be afraid. What a wonderful promise!


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