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.
Saturday, May 3
Ezekiel 25: Chapters 25 through 32 of Ezekiel contain oracles directed against the other nations with whom the Lord has reason to be displeased, Israel’s neighbors to the east and west (Chapter 25), the north (Chapters 26 to 28), and the south (Chapters 29 to 32). Chapter 25 is critical of the neighbors to the east (the Ammonites, Moabites, Edomites) and to the west (Philistines).
Those to the east are criticized in order, going from north to south. Since the oracles refer to the unseemly and unconscionable rejoicing of these nations at Jerusalem’s destruction, they should be dated no earlier than the summer of 586. Otherwise, the oracles in this chapter are not dated.
Oracles of this sort, scathing moral criticisms of Israel’s neighbors, go back to the earliest of Israel’s literary prophets, Amos, in the eighth century before Christ. Ezekiel’s references to the "people of the East," who will punish these offending nations, may refer to the Babylonians, but the reference is perhaps more probably to the marauding Bedouin tribes that frequently attacked from the Arabian Desert.
Sunday, May 4
Ezekiel 26: The dating of this first oracle against the Phoenicians is obviously incomplete; it tells us the year (during the reign of Jehoiakin) and the day of the month, but not the month! Clearly the text has suffered in transmission. That is, some copyist made an error on this text when he transcribed it many centuries ago.
In spite of this circumstance, we can fix the date of this oracle fairly closely, at least within a month or two. Since it indicates that Jerusalem has already fallen (verse 2), we do have an earliest possible period, the summer of 586, when Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians. Nonetheless, we should bear in mind that the news of Jerusalem’s fall did not reach the exiles in Babylon until the following December (cf. 33:21). Therefore, we should date this text sometime shortly afterwards, between January and March of 585.
Tyre, an ancient capital of the seafaring merchant Phoenicians, was an island off the coast that we now know as Lebanon. The Phoenicians were of far greater mercantile and geopolitical stature than the little nations condemned in the previous chapter. The merchant ships and protecting navy plied all over the Mediterranean and adjoining seas. She placed her colonies (including Carthage) on every coast. Two thousand years before Vasco da Gama, Phoenician ships had passed through the Strait of Gibraltar, turned south, and explored the entire west coast of Africa, down to and around the cape.
Secure on its island, Tyre was not easily threatened by land attack, nor did the Babylonians have a navy on the Mediterranean. (Indeed, Tyre would not be successfully reduced by siege until 332, when Alexander the Great, having already dismissed his expensive mercenary navy, constructed a causeway to Tyre from the mainland, moving his army to besiege the city. That causeway has gradually accumulated a good deal of silt over the years, so that Tyre now sits on the end of a thin peninsula.)
Ezekiel’s complaint against Tyre is this: When Jerusalem fell in the summer of 586, the citizens of Tyre used the occasion to ask themselves a single question: “How can we make money from this situation?” Their reduction of a moral event to a purely economic concern was the substance of their sin.
Moral questions are always “of what sort”: right or wrong, true or false? Moral questions are qualitative. The Phoenicians, however, had become a “quantitative” people, interested only in “how much?” In due course, said Ezekiel, they will pay for it, and the price — the “how much?” — will be very dear.
Although Tyre did not weep for the fall of Jerusalem, other nations will certainly weep for the fall of Tyre. This is the first of several oracles against the Phoenicians, and St. John will later cite some of this material in the Book of Revelation, where he prophesies against the major military and economic power of his own time, Rome.
Monday, May 5
Ezekiel 27: This chapter continues the theme of Chapter 26. Ezekiel is told to “lament” as though Tyre had already fallen, because it most certainly will fall. Indeed, Ezekiel’s imagery of the fall of Tyre will be taken up in the New Testament to describe the final fall of the “world” itself, that “world” for which Jesus refused to pray (John 17:9), the immense geopolitical and economic empire of man and materialism in intellectual and moral rebellion against God. The final times themselves, then, are prefigured in the fall of Tyre.
A thousand industries and tens of thousands of farms depended on Tyre for their prosperity. Tyre drew the wood for its shipwright from its native forests of Lebanon and from nearby Cyprus. The textile industry of Egypt and elsewhere supplied its sails. Its mariners were recruited from every coastal city of the Mediterranean, Adriatic, Black, and Aegean seas, and all the waterways from Sudan to India. Direct Phoenician trade held together a vast economic system that extended from the Persian Gulf to as far west as Cadiz (Tarshish) on the distant side of the Strait of Gibraltar. Thanks to Tyre and the Phoenician fleets, the coastal cities of southern Europe received the exports of Arabia and sub-Saharan Africa.
Fittingly, the fall of Tyre is likened to a shipwreck (27:27). When the ship sinks, all of its accumulated wealth is lost. So, when Tyre comes to ruin, it will mean economic disaster for all the many industries that depended on Phoenician shipping. Deeply affected by this catastrophe will be such places as Javan (Ionia, on the Aegean Sea—27:3), Put (Libya, in northern Africa—27:10), Lud (Lydia, in what is now the Turkish peninsula), and distant Persia at the other end of the Fertile Crescent. Because Phoenicia represents the financial unity of three continents, its collapse will have a devastating effect on masses of people who live far from Tyre.
Tuesday, May 6
Ezekiel 28: This chapter contains two oracles: one against Tyre, the other against the Phoenician city of Sidon. In the first, no particular king of Tyre is indicated; the message is directed, rather, at that monarchy itself, as an embodiment of wealth and power in idolatrous rebellion against God. Idolatries of wealth invariably become idolatries of power, and in this respect it is significant that the king of Tyre is also indicted for cruelty.
The king, in addition, represented the nation itself, given over to economic aggrandizement and the love of power. As in individuals, so in nations, economic prosperity tends to breed pride, and Tyre, as we have seen, was very prosperous. Quite self-satisfied, it was no longer subject to the Divine Authority that rightly holds sway over the nations, whose eternal law is written into the structure of the world as binding on all men, and before whose Throne the peoples of the earth will in due course be summoned for judgment.
Tyre, in short, thought of itself as a god, and in this respect it was a political form of man’s initial rebellion in Eden. Satan had tempted Tyre as he had tempted Eve, and Tyre, succumbing to the temptation, now thought itself a god. Fallen like Adam, Tyre must now be expelled from the rock garden of Eden. “Stones of fire” (28:13f)—a most striking image—pictures the gold and precious stones of Genesis 2:11f as still being in their molten stage, still radiant with the heat that formed them. (Those stones will appear again in the final chapters of the Book of Revelation.)
The second oracle in this chapter, directed against the Phoenicians’ alternate capital of Sidon, is supplemented by a prose message of hope, renewal, and restoration for Israel. The editorial juxtaposition of these texts creates a literary irony that opposes Tyre’s expulsion from the garden of Eden with Israel’s restoration to its land to plant and care for its vines (verse 26). No longer will Israel be obliged to contend with the thorns and briars of Adam’s fall (verse 24).
Wednesday, May 7
Ezekiel 29: The prophet’s attention is now turned southward, to Egypt, the land where Israel of old had first learned the ways of idolatry. In Ezekiel’s eyes Egypt is worthy of special blame for enticing Judah into rebellion against Babylon (verse 16).
This first oracle (29:1-16) was delivered on January 7, 587 (verse 1), when the siege against Jerusalem was in progress. Two years earlier, in 589, King Zedekiah of Judah had turned to Egypt for help against Babylon. In response, Pharaoh Hophra (known outside the Bible as Apries, 589-570) sent an army, which had temporarily driven off the Babylonians and made Jerusalem feel safe. But when the Babylonians came back in force, the Egyptian army fled, and the siege was renewed in earnest (cf. Jeremiah 37:5-10). Such were the events that prompted the present condemnation of Egypt, a nation that proved to be a broken reed. (To complete our story of him, Hophra was not fortunate in his attempts to help his allies. The Greeks at Cyrene later defeated him when he tried to come to the aid of his friends the Libyans. In 570 he was deposed by Amasis [’Ahmose-si-neit], who replaced him as pharaoh and reigned from 570-526.)
In Ezekiel’s present oracle, the pharaoh embodies the nation, just as the king of Tyre represented the Phoenicians in the previous chapter and, like the king of Tyre, the pharaoh, too, is condemned for his arrogance. The dragon of the Nile, the crocodile, is the pharaoh’s mythic symbol, which also represents the ancient serpent of Eden (cf. Revelation 12). As the kingdom of Judah was beginning to sink, it had unwisely reached out and grabbed this reed to keep from drowning, but the reed broke at once.
For Egypt’s sin Ezekiel prophesies forty years of suffering, including refugee status for many of its citizens. Never again, says Ezekiel, will Egypt be a great political power.
This chapter’s second oracle, much shorter (verses 17-21), was delivered much later, on April 26, 571. Indeed, this is the latest of all the oracles for which Ezekiel provides a specific date. According to the historian Josephus, the Babylonians had maintained a siege of thirteen years against Tyre, and by 571 the siege had ended without Ezekiel’s predicted fall of Tyre (verse 18). We may imagine what this circumstance did to Ezekiel’s reputation as a prophet. Had not Deuteronomy commanded that a prophet be stoned to death if his prophecy did not come to pass?
Ezekiel addresses these concerns in the present oracle, arguing that the Lord would give Egypt to the Babylonians in recompense for their failure to take Tyre (verses 19-20). In short, the Lord is free to change His mind. In this instance the evils prophesied against Tyre have been transferred to Egypt. Prophecy, which is, after all, a great deal more than factual prediction, is often founded on an hypothesis–an “if”–even though that “if” may be only implicit. We recall that Jonah learned this lesson in his dealings with the Ninevites.
Thursday, May 8
Ephesians 5:1-14: The life in Christ, according to this passage, is fruitful: it yields results. Jesus said, “a tree is known by its fruit.” It is of extreme importance that we stress this point, because many Christians seem not to know about it. Jesus tells us to look for the fruit.
This is important, I say, because some Christians imagine that they will be judged by their roots, not by their fruits. They pride and preen themselves that they belong to the true Church. They fancy that this is enough to be pleasing in God’s sight—simply because they have the proper spiritual ancestry. They look down on, and pass judgment on, other Christians who cannot boast that same spiritual ancestry.
To Christians such as these we say, with John the Baptist, “bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham” (Mt 2:9). We must not be deceived on this matter: No one has entered into everlasting life because he belonged to the true Church. That is to say, no one is in heaven because of his roots. Those who have entered into everlasting life have done so because of their fruits.
What shall we say to those who imagine that God will judge them by their roots? We will say, again with John the Baptist, “even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Mt 3:10).
These are the fruits that come from union with Christ. This is the union of which Jesus says, “By this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; so you will be My disciples” (John 15:8).
The present text partially describes this fruit: “for the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness, righteousness, and truth.” A more ample list is available in Galatians 5: “the fruit of the Spirit is charity, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.”
Friday, May 9
Ezekiel 31: The oracle in this chapter is dated June 21, 587 B.C. (verse 1). It is constructed of a lengthy and highly detailed poem describing Egypt as a large, imperial tree, dominating the landscape and offering shelter to all the nations (31:1-9). In his portrayal of this tree, Ezekiel once again resorts to the imagery of paradise (verses 8-9).
This poem is followed by a commentary in prose (verses 10-18), prophesying the downfall of Egypt. The great height of the tree, reaching up into the clouds, symbolizes man’s political and economic endeavors to attain heaven on earth by his own resources. To Ezekiel it is a symbol of arrogance, which he describes in terms reminiscent of the Tower of Babel. The cedar, which in olden times was symbolic of great longevity, represents man’s quest for a utopian permanence, a quest common to political idolatry.
Throughout the entire chapter the reader will observe in particular the image of water, bearing in mind Egypt’s long-time reliance on the Nile River and its highly developed system of irrigation.