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!


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