Psalm 119:17–24; Ezekiel 21:18–22:22; James 2:14–26

Psalm 119:17–24: This section is a psalm of supplication and its usual memes, but with a twist. Most supplicants ask for their life to be restored. Here, the psalmist asks, “Requite You servant–I shall live,/ and let me observe Your word.” (17) and then, “Unveil my eyes that I may look/ upon the wonders of Your teaching.” (18).  One feels just a bit skeptical when he asserts, “I pine away desiring/ You laws in every hour.” (20) Really? Or is there some hyperbole here?

But there is some danger, too, in neglecting God’s words when he writes, “You blast away the cursed arrogant/ who stray from Your commands.” (21) Of course, the deal of the Old Covenant was in keeping God’s law, so there’s no question the psalmist is being theologically correct when he says, “Take away from me scorn and disgrace/ for Your precepts I have kept.” (22) So, we have to accept his sincerity when he ends with “Yes, Your precepts are my delight,/ my constant counselors.” (24)

Which is good advice for all of us because God’s Word is expressed in the person of Jesus Christ, who should definitely be at the center of our lives. For us, the Word was made flesh and we are indeed rescued and it is in Jesus and the Holy Spirit, our “constant counselor” in whom we take delight.

Ezekiel 21:18–22:22: Ezekiel is to mark out a (metaphorical? actual?) fork in the road to which the King of Babylon will come and stand at “the parting of the way?” Will he head toward the Rabbah of the Ammonites or toward Jerusalem? It appears to be a false choice because both are punished. First, Jerusalem: “As for you, vile, wicked prince of Israel,/ you whose day has come,/ the time of final punishment,…things shall not remain as they are.” (21:25, 26) God promises: “A ruin, a ruin, a ruin—/ I will make it!/ (Such has never occurred.)” (21:27a) But then, as always, amidst the curses and depredations, there is the glimmer of the Promise– a Messiah: “Until he comes whose right it is;/ to him I will give it.” (21:27b)

The Ammonites will receive their comeuppance as well, as the sword metaphor reappears: “A sword, a sword! Drawn for slaughter,/ polished to consume, to flash like lightning.” (21:28) As with Israel, God will “pour out my indignation upon you,/ with the fire of my wrath/ I will blow upon you./ I will deliver you into brutish hands,” (21:31). The message here is clear. In the end, God cannot abide evil no matter who commits it.

But the Ammonites are merely a parenthesis as Ezekiel returns to the real issue at hand: the sins of Jerusalem: “You, mortal, will you judge, will you judge the bloody city? Then declare to it all its abominable deeds.” (22:2) We encounter a horrifying catalog of abominations that the leaders and people of Jerusalem have committed: “A city! Shedding blood within itself; its time has come; making its idols, defiling itself.” (22:3) Judgement awaits because “You have become guilty by the blood that you have shed, and defiled by the idols that you have made; you have brought your day near, the appointed time of your years has come.” (22:4)

Beginning with the accusation that “everyone according to his power, have been bent on shedding blood.” (26) we encounter virtually the exact inverse of the Decalogue:

  • Father and mother are treated with contempt in you; (7a)
  • the alien residing within you suffers extortion; (7b)
  • the orphan and the widow are wronged in you. (7c)
  • You have despised my holy things, and profaned my sabbaths. (8)
  • those who slander to shed blood, those in you who eat upon the mountains, (9a)
  • they take bribes to shed blood; (13a)
  • you take both advance interest and accrued interest, and make gain of your neighbors by extortion; (13b)

Sexual perversion receives detailed attention:

  • In you they uncover their fathers’ nakedness; in you they violate women in their menstrual periods. (10)
  •  One commits abomination with his neighbor’s wife; (11a)
  • another lewdly defiles his daughter-in-law; (11b)
  • another in you defiles his sister, his father’s daughter. (11c)

Thus, for its sinfulness in every aspect of its communal and family life, “the house of Israel has become dross to me; all of them, silver, bronze, tin, iron, and lead. In the smelter they have become dross.” (18) What once was valuable is now worthless, as the reading ends, “As silver is melted in a smelter, so you shall be melted in it; and you shall know that I the Lord have poured out my wrath upon you.” (22)

What is striking here is just how the nature of human sin has not changed one iota. Our culture stands guilty of each of these items in the list. Will God withhold his wrath or is judgement inevitable? Looking at history, I think I can guess the eventual outcome.

James 2:14–26: Ah, we come to the centerpiece of James’s thesis: the relationship between faith and works. He asks the rhetorical question that surely got Martin Luther’s attention: “Can faith save you?” (14) Which James answers by asserting that faith–which I take here as intellectual faith–cannot, as he asserts, “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (17).

But I think it’s important to realize that James is getting at faith of the heart. Real faith generates the desire to put faith into action by what we do. Faith and works are supremely intertwined: “You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works.” (22)

Nevertheless, I’m pretty sure what really got Martin was James’s summary: “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” (24). Do works really justify? This was  the problem Luther saw in the Church: that works had superseded faith as the means of salvation. I’m pretty sure Luther would have been happier if James had written something like “works are the natural consequence of true faith, but we are justified before God by faith alone. Works logically follow.”  As would I have been. I think it’s too easy to focus solely on works, which leads to pride, which leads to believing we are justifying ourselves by our own efforts.

Faith and works are certainly a tricky and dynamic balance like walking on a knife edge.

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