Friday, April 25
Ezekiel 17: This allegorical riddle is concerned with the geopolitical maneuvering dominant in the royal court at Jerusalem during the period between 597 and 586 B.C.
The first eagle in the riddle is the Emperor Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon (604-562); the second is Pharaoh Psammetichus II of Egypt (595-589). Sitting at either end of the Fertile Crescent, both Babylon and Egypt sought to make their military, economic, and political power felt throughout the region, and each of these two great centers had its friends and confederates within the Jerusalem court.
The removed branch in the allegory is King Jehoiakin of Judah, deposed from his throne in 597 and transported to Babylon. The new seed in the allegory is King Zedekiah, who replaced Jehoiakin and served as a vassal of Babylon. Because of the many machinations in his court, Zedekiah’s foreign policy was marked by vacillation and instability. Unable to maintain his covenant with God, he was likewise unable to maintain his vassal covenant with Babylon. The one infidelity led to the other (verses 11-19).
Even though he was thriving under Babylonian suzerainty, the allegory goes on to say, Zedekiah endeavored to forsake his obligations to the political authority at the western end of the Fertile Crescent, and began to cultivate friendship with the eastern end, Egypt. Now he must pay for it. His sin consisted in seeking a purely political solution for a mainly spiritual and moral problem.
This oracle ends, nonetheless, on a note of future hope for the house of David, a hope that the Christian knows is fulfilled in great David’s greater Son.
Saturday, April 26
Ezekiel 18: This is an oracle about personal responsibility, a matter on which the mind of Ezekiel may be contrasted with modern sensibilities. Modern ideas of individual moral responsibility often run along such lines as, “You must not do anything you can’t live with.” According to this perspective, moral norms are established by the limits of a person’s psychological comfort; what is evil or good is determined by whether or not a person can endure having done it.
Ezekiel knows nothing of such nonsense. For him personal moral responsibility means that a man must ultimately be responsible, not to the dubious dispositions of his own conscience, but to the all-righteous God who gave the law.
Each man must respond for himself, however, not for either his ancestors or his progeny. The people at Jerusalem needed to hear such a message, because some of them contended that they were being punished—with doubtful justice!—for the sins of their fathers. Ezekiel was charged to set them straight on this matter.
Although the social and even psychological effects of sin are handed down from one generation to the next, the moral burden of sin is not. Each man will answer for himself and his own moral decisions, not for those of his grandparents. The retributive principle is always: “The soul that sins shall die.”
Meanwhile, the possibility of moral change remains for each of us as long as we are alive. A bad man can become good, and a good man can become bad. Our moral fate depends on what we become, not on what we were before.
The closing part of this oracle stands as a strong witness against any religious theory claiming that God is glorified even by someone’s eternal loss. No, eternal loss is a pure waste of proffered salvation. God is not glorified by anyone’s going to hell.
Sunday, April 27
Ezekiel 19: This passage is a "lamentation" (verses 1,14), descriptive of Jerusalem’s recent history, in a tripartite allegory. The lioness, Judah, gave birth to two kings–the two lions–whose stories are told in the first two parts of this allegory.
The first king (verses 3-4) is Jehoahaz, who took the throne when the great Josiah was killed in 609 at the Battle of Megiddo. His very short reign (only two verses here) came to an end that same year, because he was deposed by Pharaoh Neco and taken in bondage to Egypt (2 Kings 23:31-34).
The second king (verses 5-9) is Jehoiakin, deposed by the Babylonians in 597 after an unsuccessful rebellion on his part, and carried away to exile in Babylon, along with the cream of Judah’s leadership, a group including Ezekiel himself (2 Kings 24:8-16).
At the time of this oracle, both of these deposed "lions" are still alive–one in Egypt, the other in Babylon—but they are impotent to help their mother, Judah. This mother is then portrayed as a vine in the third and final section of the oracle (verses 10-14), which describes the devastation attendant on the inept and irresponsible government of Judah’s last king, Zedekiah.
Monday, April 28
Ezekiel 20: This oracle, delivered on August 14, 591 B.C., was occasioned by an inquiry made to Ezekiel by a group of exiled Jewish elders, apparently undeterred by their earlier failure in 14:1-11.
So Ezekiel answers them: Beginning with Israel’s ancient sojourn in Egypt, prior to the Exodus, idolatry has been an abiding sin of God’s Chosen People. That rebellion against the Lord in Egypt was simply continued during the people’s wandering in the desert of Sinai. During both of those periods God spared His people, so that their enemies (and His) might not take comfort from their destruction.
Indeed, because Israel constantly violated the Lord’s ordinances, these ordinances proved not to be good for them, inasmuch as the very disobedience rendered the people morally (verses 23-26). (This is a motif, of course, that St. Paul will later develop in his Epistles: the futility of the Law to bring about salvation.) Then, even after their settlement in the Promised Land, the people continued their ancient infidelities.
Now, after all this, do these elders dare to come and "inquire of the Lord"? They are told that this inquiry amounts to a mockery. They have always known God’s will, yet they have decided to disobey it. Why should the Lord have anything further to say to them? (We should particularly observe here that, among the sins of Israel specifically named, child sacrifice is very prominent. Since the murder of unborn children is one of the most serious offenses of our own society, this oracle seems especially relevant today.)
Even after conveying this oracle, however, Ezekiel goes on in verses 32 to 44 to deliver a prophecy of Israel’s eventual restoration. Although Israel’s kings have brought the nation low, God is still Israel’s true king (20:33).
Tuesday, April 29
The Epistle to the Ephesians: The epistle that we begin today seems to have been written during the two years (probably autumn 58 to autumn 60) that Paul the Apostle spent in prison at Caesarea (cf. Acts 24:27). Likely written within days of the epistles to Philemon and to the Colossians, this letter appears to have been sent originally to the Christian church at Laodicea, another of the churches of Asia Minor. Indeed, this identification was made by Marcion in the 2nd century, and in the earliest manuscript copies of this epistle (a 2nd century papyrus and both of the early 4th century parchments) the reference to Ephesus in Ephesians 1:1 is missing.
From the Book of Revelation (1:11 – 3:22) it is clear that the various churches of Asia Minor were accustomed to sharing letters they received from the apostles, so it should not surprise us to find it in this instance as well. Addressed originally to the church at Laodicea, then, this epistle made its rounds to the other Asian churches, beginning at Colossae (cf. Colossians 4:16). Since the largest of these churches was at Ephesus, the latter would soon possess the largest number of copies. It was natural, then, that our epistle came gradually to be called the Epistle to the Ephesians, the name that first appears in the manuscripts of the 5th century.
In the letters to the Colossians and the Ephesians, written during Paul’s two year imprisonment at Caesarea, there now appears an important theological concept not found his earlier epistles: the truth that Christ is the “head” of his body, the Church. As early as the spring of 55, to be sure, Paul had repeatedly referred to the Church as the body of Christ (I Corinthians 10:16f.;12:12-27), a theme that he took up again a couple of years later in the Epistle to the Romans 12:1-5. He continues this same theme in the letters to the Colossians (3:15) and Ephesians (2:16;4:4,12;5:30).
There is a difference now, however. For the first time, Paul calls Christ the “head” of his body which is the church (Colossians 1:18; Ephesians 1:22f.;5:23). He goes on to spell out what this means, showing that Christ is “the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God gives it to grow” (Colossians 2:19). Then, in a famous passage, he describes this growth as one of mutual love: “Speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow unto him who is the head, that is, Christ. For in him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each member does it work” (Ephesians 4:15f.).
We modern people are thoroughly familiar with the idea that the head is the governing part of the whole body, and it is normal for us to assume that our thinking takes place in our heads. For that reason it may be difficult for us to appreciate how revolutionary that idea must have seemed back when Paul the Apostle wrote it in the letters to the Colossians and Ephesians. It appears that Greek medicine had only recently arrived at such a concept, because we do not find it in the medical literature of earlier periods (Aristotle, for example). Indeed, it seems that the New Testament contains our first literary references to that medical insight.
Just where did Paul find this idea? The New Testament gives us a very big hint on this point. During much of those two years that he spent in prison at Caesarea, Paul was being visited and looked after by a physician, Luke, later the author of a gospel and of the Acts of the Apostles.
Keeping in mind that Luke wrote the latter book, it is not too difficult keeping tabs on his whereabouts, just by noticing where he uses "we" and "us" in the narrative. Having been left by Paul at Philippi several years earlier (compare Acts 16:17 with 17:1), Luke joins him once again at that same city, in the spring of 58, for the last trip to Jerusalem (20:6). He evidently becomes separated from Paul briefly during the strife in Jerusalem recorded in Acts 21-23, but he soon arrives at Caesarea where Paul is under guard (Acts 23:31-35;24:26f.). We are certain on this point, because Luke is mentioned as being present when Paul wrote to Philemon (24) and the Colossians (4:14). In fact, Luke “the beloved physician” will stay with Paul his trip to Rome (Acts 27:1) and through his two more years of house arrest in that city (II Timothy 4:11; cf. Acts 28:30).
It was evidently in prison, during long talks with his friend, physician and fellow-missionary Luke, then, that Paul became familiar with the recently discovered importance of the head as the organ of thought and as the governing organism of the body. It thus became clear to him that, if the church be called the body of Christ, as he had already been teaching for several years, then the true head of this body is Christ the Lord. It is by Christ, gloriously reigning at God’s right hand in heaven, that the Church on earth is directed, governed and coordinated. It is likewise from the “mind of Christ” that all truly Christian thinking proceeds. Because He is Lord, Jesus is head, the source of thought.
Wednesday, April 30
Ezekiel 22: This chapter contains three oracular prophecies, joined together by a common theme: ritual uncleanness, understood either literally or as a metaphor. Ezekiel, as a priest dedicated entirely to the correct worship of the true God, was particularly sensitive to this matter of cleanness, or purity, in both the sacrifice and the priest.
The first oracle (verses 1-16), directed against Jerusalem, is full of the imagery of blood, any flowing of which rendered a person ritually unclean. Blood is also, however, an image of violence.
The second oracle (verses 17-22) is directed against all unfaithful Israelites, who are described as dross (that is, metallic impurity), which God will clean away in the coming smelting process of His historical judgment. Ezekiel doubts that any true metal will be found once this process is complete.
The third oracle (verses 23-31) is against the Holy Land itself, which suffers uncleanness because of those who live there. These have defiled God’s land with bloodshed and other forms of impurity, rendering the land unholy and no longer fit to contain the Lord’s true worship.
Thursday, May 1
Ascension Thursday: This day, the fortieth since Easter, marks the celebration of the Lord’s ascent into heaven as recorded in the Book of Acts 1:1–11. As a divinely revealed mystery of the Christian faith, this heavenly glorification of Jesus Christ as the Lord of history and the destiny of the nations is beyond all human description. In the New Testament, nonetheless, there are several ways in which it is spoken of. Of these, we may draw particular attention to certain images of posture: the glorified Christ is portrayed in heaven as both sitting and standing, and each of these postures adds certain dimensions to our understanding of this feast.
First, sitting. Jesus is now enthroned at God’s right hand. Psalm 110:1 was a major Old Testament text that the early Christians regarded as both prophetic and interpretive of his glorification: “The Lord said to my Lord: ‘Sit thou at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’” Hardly any other line of the Hebrew Bible was dearer to the early believers in Jesus. He himself had quoted it to his enemies, trying to get them to consider his own identity as God’s true Son (cf. Matthew 22:44; Mark 12:36; Luke 20:42).
This reference of the Psalter to Christ’s enthronement was also quoted in the first sermon of Pentecost (cf. Acts 2:34) and became the foundation of some of the most important pronouncements of the New Testament about Christ and our salvation (cf. Mark 16:19; Romans 8:34; Ephesians 1:20; Colossians 3:1; Hebrews 1:13; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2). Similarly, this psalm’s reference to the subjecting of Jesus’ enemies beneath his feet was to lay the basis for important things that the New Testament would have to say about the end of history (cf. Acts 2:35f; 1 Corinthians 15:25; Ephesians 1:22; Hebrews 10:12f; and perhaps 1 Peter 3:22). When the Bible describes Jesus as “sitting” in heaven, the emphasis is placed on his role as king and judge. His throne is for ever and ever (cf. Hebrews 1:8).
But the Lord is also said to “stand” in heaven. Though this image appears less often, it is found in two texts of great majesty and drama. Both places describe ecstatic visions of individual Christians.
Thus, we read, in Acts 7:55f, that Stephen “looked up steadfastly into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, and said: ‘Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God.’”
The other passage is found in the Book of Revelation, which describes a vision of the Apostle John: “And I looked, and behold, in the midst of the Throne and of the four living creatures, and in the midst of the elders, a Lamb was standing, as though slain” (5:6). In the culture of the Bible, standing is the normal posture for prayer. It would appear, then, that in these texts that describe Jesus as “standing” in heaven that the accent is on his role as our intercessor and mediator at the Throne of the Father.
Friday, May 2
Ezekiel 24: This chapter is constructed of two quite separate parts, the first being the allegorical oracle of a pot cooking on the fire, the second a prophecy and prophetic action connected with the death of Ezekiel’s wife.
The first oracle (verses 1-14) is dated on January 15, 588 B.C., the day that Nebuchadnezzar began the siege of Jerusalem. This siege is compared to the flames surrounding a pot until its contents are cooked. This pot is, of course, Jerusalem, where the long siege has begun. The rust on this metal pot, which is the same color as blood and is likened to blood, carries forward the image of dross from Chapter 22.
The second oracle (verses 15-27) is occasioned by the sudden death of Ezekiel’s wife. He is not the only biblical prophet whose "home life" becomes part of the prophetic message. Thus, Hosea was obliged to marry a prostitute as part of his prophetic vocation, both Hosea and Isaiah were told to give strange and symbolic names to their children, and Jeremiah is commanded to remain celibate as a witness to the imminent passing of the era.
In the case of Ezekiel, he is ordered not to mourn at the death of his wife, no matter how grieved he feels. He must then interpret this strange behavior to his neighbors, giving him the opportunity to explain why, in their concrete historical circumstances, it would be inappropriate for them to mourn, even though their hearts are broken. Thus, in his grief Ezekiel himself becomes a "sign" to the people who are soon to see their beloved city destroyed.