Saturday, September 20, 2014

Ezekiel 17-20

As we read through the book of Ezekiel, it is easy to get the wrong idea. It is tempting to think that God wants to punish his people, the Jews, for there is so much talk of judgment and destruction. It seems like there is no way out. But there is.

Ezekiel 18:31-32 reveals both the true heart of the Lord and the way for Israel, and us, out of misery….

Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live.

This statement suggests that God can be defeated by his own creatures. The Lord has given them free will, and if they choose to rebel, they may, even though this is not God’s desire. Nor is it his desire to see his creatures die.

C. S. Lewis comments on this in his chapter on “Hell” in The Problem of Pain….

Finally, it is objected that the ultimate loss of a single soul means the defeat of omnipotence. And so it does. In creating beings with free will, omnipotence from the outset submits to the possibility of such defeat. What you call defeat, I call miracle: for to make things which are not Itself, and thus to become, in a sense, capable of being resisted by its own handiwork, is the most astonishing and unimaginable of all the feats we attribute to the Deity. I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Ezekiel 13-16

We return today to Lawrence Boadt’s commentary on Ezekiel….

The major portion of the Book of Ezekiel is given over to oracles of judgment similar to those of Jeremiah. Since Ezekiel only preached in the last few years before the fall, from 593 to 586, he lacks the great depth of Jeremiah born from years of disappointment, but he makes up for it with the fierce power of his images and words. He also gives us a fuller picture of the conditions in Judah under King Zedekiah. Chapter 8 reveals how pagan cults had even reached the temple grounds and were being supported by the priests themselves; chapter 13 attacks the widespread use of magicians and fortune-tellers and other false voices of authority; chapter 14 shows the number of prophets who went about preaching that all would be well despite widespread evil. Again and again Ezekiel returns to the same theme that had occupied Jeremiah before him: pagan idolatry. Judah is worse than Samaria had been, and even worse than Sodom (chapters 16 and 23). He describes the weak and uncertain nature of the king trying to escape in the middle of the night while the rest of the city perishes (chapter 12). He takes up the theme of the day of the Lord, used by the prophets before him, to predict God’s final and total rejection of his people (chapter 7). Nor does he neglect to condemn the sins against justice so common in other prophets. He often speaks of them in general terms—bloodshed, violence, evil conduct—but on occasion he gets very specific—bribery, usury, stealing from the poor (chapters 5, 6, 7, and 18). At times he mentions concrete violations of religious worship: failing to honor the Sabbath, breaking the law, building idols, eating at high places (chapter 18).

This last group of sins calls attention to the central characteristic of Ezekiel’s thought—it most closely resembles the Priestly source in the Pentateuch, especially the famous Holiness Code in Leviticus 17-26. Many of the same words and phrases found in Leviticus 26, for example, are found sprinkled thoughout the Book of Ezekiel. Ezekiel often repeats certain formulas such as “I the Lord am holy,” or “I am the Lord your God,” both present in Leviticus. Most of all, Ezekiel uses the expression, “so that you (or they) will know that I the Lord am God.” It captures the essence of the thought of Ezekiel, and he ends almost every single oracle with it. Only when the people turn back to God and recognize the divine hand behind events that are happening will they understand these events. This reflects both the Priestly tradition that Israel must always act in an obedient and holy manner because God himself gives us the lesson and model to follow by his holiness toward Israel, and also the prophetic spirit of Hosea, Isaiah and Jeremiah that Israel’s sin come from not-knowing its God. They have forgotten God, that is, given up the love relationship with him.

I want to come back to this theme of “knowing God” later in our study of Ezekiel. For now, let me just say that I am reminded of the words of a modern day prophet, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who said,

Over a half century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of old people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.” Since then I have spent well-nigh 50 years working on the history of our revolution; in the process I have read hundreds of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies, and have already contributed eight volumes of my own toward the effort of clearing away the rubble left by that upheaval. But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous revolution that swallowed up some 60 million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.”

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Ezekiel 9-12

In the midst of visions of destruction and judgment, there is this hopeful word given by the Lord to Ezekiel,

I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them; I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, so that they may follow my statutes and keep my ordinances and obey them. Then they shall be my people, and I will be their God. (Ezekiel 11:19-20)

The Lewis quote linked with these verses in the C. S. Lewis Bible is one of my favorites….

Christ says “Give me All. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want to have the whole tree down. I don’t want to drill the tooth, or crown it, or stop it, but to have it out. Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked—the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself: my own will shall become yours.” (Mere Christianity, Book IV, Chapter 8, paragraph 4)

That is the only way that we can become the people God intended for us to be in creation and redemption. The Lord himself must perform heart surgery. He must remove our heart of stone and give us a heart of flesh. We must hand over the whole self to him to perform this surgery. This handing over involves trust. Furthermore, it is not something we do simply one time, in one great act of commitment. This handing over of the whole self to God is something that is required of us every day. Being a Christian means giving as much as you know of yourself to as much as you know of Christ every, every moment. We may not perform this handing over perfectly at first. We may get frustrated with ourselves over how many times we pull ourselves back from the Lord and from his purposes for us. No matter. We must simply give ourselves to him again, and keep on giving ourselves over, until that day we stand before him, and he purges us of all sin, and makes us perfect, whole, complete in his presence.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Ezekiel 5-8

Lawrence Boadt continues his commentary on this unusual and fascinating book….

We cannot be sure that Ezekiel himself had a hand in arranging his oracles in this exact way, but if he did not do it personally, it must have been done very soon after his death. The plan is very carefully modeled on the Book of Joshua which tells of the holy war for possession of the promised land. So, too, Ezekiel first preaches against the people’s sins in order to purify them for the battle; then he denounces the power of the foreign nations and rids the holy land of its enemies; lastly, he portions out the land to the tribes of Israel.

Beyond this basic outline, several oracles have dates connected with them so that we can follow the progress of the prophet’s thought. This is especially true of the oracles in chapters 25-32, almost all of which are dated to the period of greatest crisis just before the final fall of Jerusalem in 586 and 585 B. C. They give such a clear picture of the times that there is no need to doubt that many of these oracles came directly from the prophet’s own hands.

Ezekiel’s style is also unique. It is elaborate and favors long oracles with many repetitions and literary allegories and images. Unlike the shorter and more direct words of an Amos or Hosea or Isaiah, Ezekiel creates very dramatic picture stories, in which he uses other people’s words, or a favorite proverb, or even pagan myths about the gods, to get his point across. Examples of this are the allegory of the two eagles in chapter 17, the great mythical cedar tree in chapter 31, or his description of Egypt as the great sea monster Leviathan in chapters 29 and 32. He describes the city of Tyre as a great ship sinking with all its cargo, and compares the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah to two sisters who choose to live as prostitutes (chapters 16 and 23).

Another striking feature in Ezekiel is his use of symbolic actions and visions. He draws diagrams on a brick to show how the city will be taken (chapter 4), he cuts his beard into three parts and burns one part, chops up another, and throws the rest to the wind to show what will happen to the city (chapter 5), and he puts on a backpack and breaks through the walls of his own house to imitate the attempts people will make to escape during the coming siege by Babylon (chapter 12). He not only has the vision of Yahweh in his chariot in chapters 1-3 but another vision of the divine angels marking off the city of Jerusalem for destruction in chapter 8, a vision of the priests performing pagan worship in the temple itself in the same chapter, and a vision of God’s glory leaving the city in chapter 11 and its return again in chapter 43. He sees a famous vision of dead bones that come to life in chapter 37. Through the symbolic actions and the visions the prophet conveys the seriousness of his message and also shows the continuity of God’s care—he can be seen guiding and controlling both the punishment and the restoration as different stages of his plan.

When all these aspects are considered closely, the Book of Ezekiel has a great deal more unity than most other prophetic books, even those much shorter, and confirms the earlier remark that Ezekiel himself is responsible for a good part of its order. This is just the opposite of the Book of Jeremiah, which was edited and arranged long after his death by others.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Ezekiel 1-4

Lawrence Boadt provides this introduction to the book of Ezekiel in his book, Reading the Old Testament….

The most remarkable individual during Israel’s period of exile was the prophet Ezekiel. The opening lines of his book tell us that he was called in the fifth year of the exile, i.e., 593 B. C., at a Jewish settlement on the Chebar (Kebar) River, one of the great canals that brought water from the Euphrates to irrigate the lands around Babylon. He was, like Jeremiah, both a priest and a prophet, although he shows distinct differences from Jeremiah by making more use of his priestly training in his message. On the other hand, many of his oracles are clearly influenced by, and drawn from the work of, his older contemporary Jeremiah. He spoke with a great deal of freedom and seemed to have been very well informed about what was going on back in Jerusalem, sometimes describing scenes in the temple and city that are just like eyewitness accounts. We know that Jeremiah wrote letters to the exiles, and Ezekiel himself mentions messengers who traveled back and forth (Ez 33), so it is most likely that he received word through travelers and used this plus a first-hand knowledge of the temple from the days before he was exiled. But some scholars are so impressed at how vivid his knowledge of Jerusalem is (in chapter 8, for example) that they doubt he could have been anywhere else than in Jerusalem during the last days of Judah.

One reason that they believe this stems from the personality of the prophet as it is described for us in his book. Ezekiel shows strong tendencies toward psychic powers and an older style of prophetic behavior which includes dreams, trances, ecstasy and fantastic visions. He speaks of the hand of the Lord lifting him up and transporting him places, or of the spirit of the Lord moving him. He does symbolic actions which seem impossible for an ordinary person, such as lying on his side for three hundred and ninety days (chapter 4) or not speaking for long periods (chapter 24). Because of these kinds of behavior, many commentators have called Ezekiel a psychotic person, or at least highly neurotic. But they miss an important factor by doing popular psychoanalysis on the prophet. All of his actions and visions draw on very old traditional language used by prophets in earlier centuries. Elijah and Elisha stories often refer to the work of the spirit of God or of the hand of the Lord. Visions and ecstasy are recorded for prophets in the days of both Samuel and Elijah. Many of his own words of warning and judgment are borrowed from the old curses attached to treaties, or from covenant ceremonies of one type or another.

In short, Ezekiel was not crazy, he was very skillfully trying to recreate a sense of trust that God still worked as he always had, and that he still spoke with as much authority and power as he always had. This was no easy task for Ezekiel. The people had seen—and were suffering themselves because of it—how empty and false were most of the comforting words of hope that prophets had spoken to them. It was true that Jeremiah had given warning, but what about the others? Hananiah of Jeremiah 28 and countless more spoke only of the coming victory of God—and never of defeat. Ezekiel sought to restore to prophecy some trust and some leadership for the exiles.

Ezekiel was the first prophet to preach to the people without either the temple or the promised land to show God’s presence. For this reason, the story of his call to be a prophet has an even more important place to play in his book than does that of Jeremiah. In one of the greatest scenes in the Old Testament, Ezekiel describes the appearance of God in majesty upon a chariot throne. The vision of God’s holiness and terrible power overwhelms the prophet, and his description is full of color and shape and motion as he tries to capture the experience. The whole vision takes three chapters to complete, and Jewish tradition has considered it so full of mystical meaning that a person is not allowed to study it until he or she is a mature thirty years old. It shares many qualities with the call of Isaiah in Isaiah 6. God is the Holy One, not like us, but Lord of the world before whom we bow down in humble acceptance of his will. As did Isaiah, Ezekiel eagerly accepts what God sends him, and like Isaiah it turns out to be a message written on a scroll that reads “Lamentation and wailing and woe” (Ez 2:10). God sends him to “a nation of rebels, who have rebelled against me to this very day” (Ez 2:3). “Hard of face and stubborn of heart are they to whom I send you” (Ez 2:4). Just as God made Jeremiah a wall of iron and brass against the whole land (Jer 1:18), so God makes Ezekiel’s “face hard against their faces, and your forehead hard against their foreheads; like stone harder than flint I have made your forehead” (Ez 3:8-9).

It was not a commission designed to make Ezekiel any more popular than Jeremiah had been. As the vision ended he went away in “bitterness of spirit, for the hand of the Lord was heavy upon him” (Ez 3:14). Finally, after seven days of shocked meditation, God spoke to him a second time and told him that his role was to be the watchman over Israel. Just as Jeremiah was to have been a “watching tree” (the almond vision of Jeremiah 1:11-12), and Habakkuk had stood in his watchtower (Hb 2:1), so Ezekiel had to sound a warning when he saw what God was about to do. This concept of the prophet’s task stands at the heart of Ezekiel’s thought. He repeats it, not only in chapter 3 when he warns of danger and disaster ahead, but again in chapter 33 when he offers words of hope and future restoration. But he must speak whether anyone listens or not. He has his duty and the people have theirs. If the people fail to hear, that will be their problem, but if he fails to preach, the responsibility will be his.

Boadt also provides this outline of the book….

Chapters 1-24: Oracles against Judah and Jerusalem before 586 B. C.

Chapters 25-32: Oracles against foreign nations

Chapters 33-48: Oracles of hope and restoration for Judah

Monday, September 15, 2014

Lamentations 1-5

Lawrence Boadt provides this introduction to Lamentations in his book, Reading the Old Testament….

One of our most important sources of information about the terrible conditions in Jerusalem and Judah after the Babylonian attack comes from the Book of Lamentations. It is a short book of five chapters, each of which is a poem built upon the letters of the alphabet, and which expresses the deep pain and grief of those who survived in the land. The alphabet form, called “acrostic” in books of Hebrew poetry, starts each line or stanza with the next letter in order. This gives a very strong sense of controlled emotion in which anger, anguish and agony all struggle to burst out but cannot find a way. To intensify the grief the author or authors of these poems have chosen the forms of funeral laments as well. This adds to the power they have on the reader. It is truly grief for what is dead—Jerusalem, the temple, the king, the way of life.

But instead of picturing the city of Jerusalem as the dead body, Lamentations describes it as the widow. Personified as “daughter Zion,” she weeps bitterly. Alone and afflicted by her total loss of everything and everybody, she finds no one who can comfort her….

The poets give us a stark and terrifying picture of the conditions in the land after Jerusalem has fallen….

But even in the midst of disaster, Lamentations holds out hope that God will turn from his anger and wrath and restore his people. There is no hiding from the truth that God punished them justly…. Nor do they try to deny that God can be very hard…. And yet in the same breath they can express their trust that God will not leave them forever….

Because such expressions are so vivid and real, no one has ever doubted seriously that the authors were eyewitnesses of the fall of Jerusalem. The pems date from a time shortly after 586 and were written down in Judah itself, but we cannot be sure who exactly was the author. A very ancient tradition associates the book with Jeremiah, and so our modern Bibles, following the Greek Septuagint and other ancient authorities, usually place Lamentations right next to the Book of Jeremiah. One biblical passage actually remarks that Jeremiah had written several laments (2 Chr 35:25)—but these were over Josiah and not over Jerusalem. Still many of the phrases in Lamentations do resemble the style of Jeremiah….

However, it is diddicult to believe that Jeremiah would have trusted in Egypt or Babylon as a hope (Lam 4:17) or had much sympathy with the fate of the king (Lam 4:20) or mourned greatly over the fates of the prophets and priests who had led the people astray (Lam 2:20). But whether Jeremiah actually had any role in writing Lamentations or not, the language and thought of both books are close together and reveal much the same picture. To understand what Jeremiah was seeing in his visions of God’s judgments, one needs to read Lamentations.

In the midst of despair, Lamentations 3:21-26 stands out all the more strikingly as one of the most encouraging passages in Scripture. Many years ago, friends of mine lost their seventeen-year-old son in an automobile accident. At the memorial service, after the casket was closed, the congregation was led in singing these words from Lamentations 3. It was one of the most moving experiences I have ever had in attending a funeral, and certainly one of the greatest testimonies of faith in the midst of darkness, issued from the heart of a grieving parent.

It is easy to sing about God’s faithfulness when all is well. The real test is whether we still can sing this song from Lamentations 3 in the midst of great trial and difficulty. Only the Lord himself can help us to do it.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Jeremiah 49-52

These final chapters of Jeremiah contain the last of the prophet’s warnings of judgment against the nations as well as a record of the Jewish deportation into exile in Babylon. It is a somber ending indeed.

What would it have felt like to be one of those 4600 people taken into exile? How would you or I have felt toward the Babylonians in that situation? No doubt we would have at least been tempted to see our enemy as the embodiment of evil.

C. S. Lewis suggests, in one of his letters written to a friend during World War II, that this is just the sort of temptation we should be careful not to give into….

I don’t know what to think about the present state of the world. The sins on the side of the democracies are very great. I suppose they differ from those on the other side by being less deliberately blasphemous, fulfilling less the condition of a perfectly mortal sin. Anyway, the question “Who is in the right?” (in a given quarrel) is quite distinct from the question “Who is righteous?”—for the worse of two disputants may always be in the right on one particular issue. It is therefore not self righteous to claim that we are in the right now. But I am chary of doing what my emotions prompt me to do every hour; i.e. identifying the enemy with the forces of evil. Surely one of the things we learn from history is that God never allows a human conflict to become unambiguously one between simple good and simple evil? (From a letter to Dom Bede Griffiths OSB, April 16, 1940, Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Volume II)

How do we feel towards some of our enemies now, both those on the worldwide stage as well as those who may be our personal enemies closer to home? What would it take, or what would it look like, for us to begin to love our enemies as Jesus calls us to do? (Matthew 5:44)