Psalm 119:9–16; Ezekiel 20:30–21:17; James 2:1–13

 Psalm 119:9–16: The psalmist slips in an autobiographical note, informing us that he has been seeking God from his youth: “How shall a lad make his path worthy/ to observe as befits Your word./ With all my heart I sought You.” (9, 10a) The question is, of course, do I seek God with all my heart? Or do I come to God only half-heartedly, seeking the Word of God only when it’s convenient for me?

“In my heart I kept Your utterance/ so that I would not offend against You.” (11) This is a theme that will occur over and over in this psalm: the necessity to know God’s word as it is set out in Scripture in order to obey it. Under the terms of the Old Covenant, knowing the Law was absolutely essential. Now that we live in the era of grace under the New Covenant, I think we use grace as an excuse not to delve deeply into Scripture in order to better understand the roots of the gift that we enjoy.  Not knowing God’s word is no longer a question of not “offending” God, but of missing so much of the back-story and knowing the theology that should command our lives.

Once again we encounter the preeminence of speech as the key means of communication as the psalmist tells us, “With my lips I recounted/ all the laws You pronounced.” (13) I suspect this ability to recount aloud was more than rattling off the Decalogue. Rather it would be reciting the contents of Leviticus and Deuteronomy–a daunting task and significant achievement! It’s important to note, however, that the psalmist does not see this as memory work as drudgery, but a source of pleasure: ” In Your statutes I delight,/ I shall not forget Your word.” (16) While I have no intention of memorization, there’s no question that beginning my day in God’s word has truly become a delight. Who would have thought?

Ezekiel 20:30–21:17: Even though Israel thinks it can abandon God, God will not abandon them: “What is in your mind shall never happen—the thought, “Let us be like the nations, like the tribes of the countries, and worship wood and stone.”” (20:32) Instead, God says, “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and with wrath poured out, I will be king over you.” (20:33) And since God will not abandon Israel, allowing it to be like other nations, it must suffer the consequences of its sins: “As I entered into judgment with your ancestors in the wilderness of the land of Egypt, so I will enter into judgment with you, says the Lord God.” (21:36). In short, Israel, having entered into the Covenant with God must suffer the consequences of its sins.

But that promise to never abandon Israel also includes the promise to restore it: “There you shall remember your ways and all the deeds by which you have polluted yourselves; and you shall loathe yourselves for all the evils that you have committed.” (21:43) In the same way that memory is essential to the psalmist in following God, there is national memory as well. Israel will once again collectively recall what God has done for it. It will again come to its senses and “you shall know that I am the Lord, when I deal with you for my name’s sake, not according to your evil ways, or corrupt deeds, O house of Israel,” (21:44)  We can grab hold of this promise as well. When we drift away from God and sin we will suffer the consequences of that sin. But we will also recall–and enjoy–God’s gracious forgiveness.

As is so frequently the case, the prophet swings form the promise of restoration back to the threats of punishment: “Thus says the Lord: I am coming against you, and will draw my sword out of its sheath, and will cut off from you both righteous and wicked.” (21:4) and we encounter a dreadful metaphor: the sword of the Lord:
     “A sword, a sword is sharpened,
        it is also polished;
     it is sharpened for slaughter,
         honed to flash like lightning!” (21:9b, 10)

Worse, the sword is “is against my people;/ it is against all Israel’s princes.” (21:12) And there’s no point in being in denial about the inevitability of punishment: “ For consider: What! If you despise the rod, will it not happen?  says the Lord God.” (13) God will swing it and strike everyone in its path:
    “Attack to the right!
        Engage to the left!
         —wherever your edge is directed.
      I too will strike hand to hand,
         I will satisfy my fury;
      I the Lord have spoken.” (21:16, 17)

This is one of those places in the OT where we can only say, “Here ends the reading,” and admit we cannot grasp the idea of such a furious God that would destroy the people to whom he also promises restoration just a few verses earlier. It’s a reminder that the Old Covenant is thankfully we have been spared because our sins as a culture are easily as great as ancient Israel’s.

James 2:1–13: James continues to eschew high theology to focus on right practice within the Christian community. Here he raises an issue that is as ignored just as much today as it was in the early church: “For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?” (2-4) For us the question is, would we welcome the disheveled homeless man as eagerly as the person who parks his expensive car in the parking lot? Unfortunately, we know the answer too well.

James quite rightly says, “God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom.” (5) Yes, we know that already. The Bible is really clear on this point. But then he goes on to make a point that I think we don’t stop and really appreciate: “ Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?”  (6,7) It’s the haughty wealthy who think they are better than us and the ones eager to acquire even more wealth–usually at our expense. 

So why do we kow-tow to the wealthy even to our own detriment? I think there’s a simple answer: envy. We want to be in their position so we can pridefully lord it over others. But as James points out, “if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.” (9) But alas, our thoughtless, self-centered human nature makes that sin all too easy to commit. James is reminding us that we must consciously regard our actions with other people. Seems so simple, so straightforward. And yet we persist.

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