Psalm 119:1–8; Ezekiel 20:1–29; James 1:19–27

Psalm 119:1–8: And so we begin our annual trek through the longest Palm that is also the longest book in the Bible—all 176 verses of it. Alter informs us that this psalm is the “Long Acrostic,” with 8 verses attached to each letter of the Hebrew alphabet, beginning with “aleph.” Each line of the eight verses begins with the corresponding Hebrew letter of that set.

This is a didactic psalm, stressing the importance of knowing God’s word. It is not particular soaring or beautiful. But I imagine that Hebrew scholars had contests among themselves to see who could recite the entire psalm without error.

The first verse pretty much sets out the overriding theme of the entire psalm:” “Happy whose way is blameless,/ who walk in the Lord’s teaching. This is not a psalm about walking through the valley of shadow of death or philosophical outlook of Psalm 90 or the joyful praise of personal rescue of the preceding psalm. It is about the joys of learning, and as the next verse informs us, the joys attendant to keeping God’s law: “Happy who keep His precepts,/ with a whole heart they seek Him.” (2)

Plus, these people who rejoice in teaching seem to be supremely self-confident in their righteousness: “Yes, they did no wrong,/ in His ways they have walked.” (3) And God has set out some very high standards: “You ordained Your decrees/ to be strictly observed.” (4) Alas, as we read in the Histories and the Prophets the people did not exactly hew to the next verse: “Would that my ways be frim/ to observe Your statutes.” (5)

It is only in the last line in this first set of verses where we get a glimpse of the man behind the poetry: “Do not utterly forsake me.” (8) The poet lives in fear that if he does not obey God’s statutes, he will be lost. Which for the Hebrews was true.

Ezekiel 20:1–29: Once again, the elders of Israel come to Ezekiel. We know this is an actual event because the date is recorded: “ In the seventh year, in the fifth month, on the tenth day of the month.” (1) We aren’t told why they’re coming because, God speaking through his prophet, is beyond being consulted by them. Rather, he lambastes the elders with yet another recitation of the collective sins of Israel, starting with the Exodus: “On that day I swore to them that I would bring them out of the land of … And I said to them, Cast away the detestable things your eyes feast on, every one of you, and do not defile yourselves with the idols of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.” (6,7)

God, through Ezekiel, recounts the giving of the law and the various rebellions in the wilderness, reminding them how often he took mercy on them: “But I withheld my hand, and acted for the sake of my name, so that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations, in whose sight I had brought them out.” (22)

What’s interesting here is that God seems to grant mercy to Israel so that God would not become a laughingstock in “the sight of the [other] nations.” Was God being insecure here? Or was the concept of an invisible monotheistic God so radical in that era of multiple gods represented in physical idols that if Israel was not rescued, God’s role as Creator and protector would not be realized?

The reading ends on a sour note as God recalls that when Israel came into Canaan, all the people could seem to do was “wherever they saw any high hill or any leafy tree, there they offered their sacrifices and presented the provocation of their offering…” (28) Really? Is that all Israel did? Or are we seeing an unexpectedly irritated, even petulant side of God?

James 1:19–27: The reading opens with the famous advice, “let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger;” (10) which in this email and social media era is more important than ever since this form of communication lacks the mediating influence of actually looking someone in the eye before we open our mouths. Instead, when we get angry, we fire off a zingy email that beyond making us feel better for a moment does nothing to address the situation, but only exacerbates it. Send or post in haste, regret at leisure…

James, eager to dispense advice, seems to employ simpler terminology than Paul or the author of Hebrews, which can lead, I think, to some difficulties in interpretation. For example, he says, “welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.” (21) I presume by “Implanted word” that he means the Gospel message, the Kerygma, the Good News. Or does he mean the Holy Spirit? I guess I’ll go with the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Then we come to James’s most famous aphorism: “ be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” (22) As if that didn’t make his point, James excoriates “hearers” even more, accusing them of pride, being “like those who look at themselves in a mirror.” (23b)

This is of course is extremely sound advice—as long as we don’t exclude the “hearing.” It seems to me that we cannot be effective “doers” without having heard—and understanding—what the “implanted word” is all about. But James seems to take exactly that exclusionary path when he asserts, “being not hearers who forget but doers who act.” (22) Frankly, I’m beginning to see why Luther would have been perfectly happy to not have this book in the Canon.

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