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 endeavor 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 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 a highly developed system of irrigation.
Saturday, May 10
Ephesians 6:1-24: We know from the Acts of the Apostles that the Roman procurator, Felix, kept St. Paul in prison at Caesarea for two years, hoping that Paul would bribe him to be released (14:26-27). Thus, Paul was obliged to stay in prison, never formally charged with a crime, from the summer of the year 57 to the autumn of the year 59. It was during those two years of unjust imprisonment that the Apostle to the Gentiles wrote the epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians.
One day, as he sat in his prison cell, Paul took note of the uniform and equipment of the Roman soldiers that guarded him. He observed that this equipment (panoplia) included a belt, a breastplate, shoes, a shield, a helmet, and a sword. Reflecting on the possible significance of these items, he wrote down this exhortation:
“Therefore take up the whole armor [panoplia] of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having girded your waist with truth, having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace; above all, taking the shield of faith with which you will be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”
Three points suggest themselves in this text. We will illustrate each point with reference to a particular book of Holy Scripture.
First, Paul describes the panoplia of a soldier standing guard. One does not sit guard, or lie down guard. He stands guard. Indeed, Paul especially emphasizes this point: “Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having girded your waist with truth” and so on.
Standing is more than a posture. It is essentially an attitude and a sustained disposition of soul. We chiefly stand in our hearts and minds. This is the proper expression of being “on guard.” Even when we sit or lie down, our minds and hearts must still stand guard.
The obvious context here is the threat of warfare and battle. We stand because there are enemies about, and Paul speaks of these enemies: “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”
Paul identifies these enemies for us. They are the demonic powers dedicated to our downfall and ruin, and these are our real enemies.
For this lesson we go to the Book of Psalms. These demons are the enemies that we find in so many passages of the Psalms. This is why, in the Psalms, you will notice, we never forgive our enemies; we fight them to the death, rather, because the life in Christ is a constant state of combat. The Book of Psalms is a warrior’s manual, and the reason so many lines of the Psalms tend to be left out of some modern prayer books is that modern Christians have forgotten that are at war with the demons. These modern Christians have forgotten how to stand.
Second, there is defensive equipment in the panoply of the Christian soldier. Paul speaks here of the breastplate of righteousness and the helmet of salvation. He had used a variant of these images in his very first epistle, where he spoke of “the breastplate of faith and love, and a helmet, the hope of salvation” (1 Th 5:8).
For these images we go to the Book of Isaiah, the prophet who said of the Lord, “For He put on righteousness as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on His head” (59:17).
This defensive equipment in the Christian’s panoplia is essential to his survival. We may especially observe the importance of what St. Paul calls “the shield of faith.” This is a shield to be carried at all times. There are no instances when the Christian can safely leave his faith aside. He dare not leave the house without it. He must carry it with him wherever he goes, and no matter what he is doing. When he goes to work, or to school, he takes his faith with him. He must never be without his shield, because he is surrounded by spiritual enemies that have his ruin in mind. When the Christian plays or listens to music, it is never without the shield of his faith, to extinguish, as Paul says, the fiery darts of the evil one.
Without faith, a man is entirely vulnerable to those fiery darts. How did David, the inspired author of many psalms, succumb to both adultery and murder? He dropped his shield. How did Achitophel fall into disloyalty and betrayal? He went someplace and left his faith behind. When we regard the terrible example of Judas Iscariot, we see a man who let go of his faith. There is to be no area of our lives where it is safe to go without the shield of faith
Third, the Christian soldier is armed with the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. This is the sword with which he defeats the enemy. It hangs from the Christian’s belt, which St. Paul identified, we remember, as truth: “having girded your waist with truth,” he wrote. Truth is the proper human girdle, and the Word of God is the sword that hangs from it. It is truth that binds us to the Bible. That Word of God hangs from the belt of truth. It is the cultivated love of truth that binds us to the Word of God.
Sunday, May 11
Pentecost Sunday: Each day at the Third Hour, Holy Church remembers and celebrates once again the descent of the Holy Spirit at that hour. Now among the invocations that Holy Church puts on the lips of those who pray at the Third Hour is Psalm 50 (51), which three times refers to the Holy Spirit. I cite these words according to their canonical Greek form:
“Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew the right Spirit within me. Cast me not away from thy face; and take not thy Holy Spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; and strengthen me with thy governing spirit.”
Let me suggest that in these three verses of the psalm we touch on three points appropriate for consideration on Pentecost Sunday:
First, “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew the right Spirit within me.” This verse tells us that renewal in the Holy Spirit is inseparable from purity of heart. In those who are impure of heart there is no guidance of the Holy Spirit, no Spirit of wisdom, no Spirit of discernment, no fear of God.
It is imperative that the Holy Spirit not be confused with just any spirit that happens to speak to us. Indeed, most of us know our hearts well enough to suspect that most spirits that speak to us are not of God at all. And if our own hearts do not warn us of this danger, God’s Word does so. “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God,” wrote St. John (1 John 4:1).
The Apostle John perceived, even in his own day, the peril of confusing the Holy Spirit with every manner of deception and mendacity. The Bible insists that there are many sprits in this world that have in mind to deceive the children of God. These spirits will usually tell us exactly what we want to hear, which is why we listen to them readily. We recall the admonition of the prophet Micaiah to King Ahab. He describes the evil spirit who boasts, “I will go forth, and I will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets” (1 Kings 22:22). And this lying spirit tells King Ahab exactly what he wants to hear.
We are properly warned in God’s Word about listening to those spirits who tell us what we want, those evil spirits who encourage us in the impurity of our hearts.
So we pray, “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew the right Spirit within me.” These two things are inseparable: purity of heart and the discernment of the right Spirit.
Second, “Cast me not away from thy face; and take not thy Holy Spirit from me.” Even though we have been sealed by the Holy Spirit in the reception of the sacraments, we must be conscious that this sealing was not an act of magic. The maintenance of this seal is to be jealously and fervently defended. Even when we are sealed by the Spirit in the sacraments, we explicitly pray that God will protect that seal until our life’s end. The Holy Spirit’s guarantee is from God’s side, not from ours. This prayer reminds us each day of the danger of God’s casting us away from His face and taking His Holy Spirit from us.
It is important to think of this truth each day, because if we do lose the Holy Spirit, it will not be suddenly. It will not happen in a moment, nor, as it were inadvertently. Oh no, the loss of the Holy Spirit is gradual and comes from the accumulation of many small infidelities.
We look at Saul, whom Samuel anointed in the Holy Spirit—Saul, on whom the Holy Spirit poured out the gift of prophecy. Saul did not lose that Holy Spirit in a single moment. His downfall came, rather, at the end of a string of infidelities. This brave young man, who heard the messenger of Jabesh Gilead and rushed to their rescue, gradually deteriorated into the craven old man who consulted a witch on the night before the battle of Mount Gilboah. Humble Saul, who confessed himself to be the least in his father’s house, by degrees waxed into the arrogant man scorned by Samuel and rejected by God. If we want to know what happens to a man of impure heart, from whom the Lord withdraws the guidance of the Holy Spirit, there is no need to look further than the sad career of King Saul.
Third, “Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; and strengthen me with thy governing spirit.” If the second prayer fills us with a healthy measure of godly fear, this third one strengthens us with the hope of godly restoration. The Spirit we pray for is the Spirit of our salvation and the joy with which this salvation fills the pure of heart.
The Spirit for whom we pray is what our psalm calls God’s “governing Spirit” (Pnevma hegemonikon). This is the Spirit that leads. But the Spirit leads only the pure in heart. St. Paul makes this doctrine clear in the eighth chapter of Romans (8:5-9,13-14):
“. . . they that are of the flesh mind the things of the flesh; but they that are of the Spirit the things of the Spirit. For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God. But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. . . . For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit put to death the deeds of the body, ye shall live. For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God.”
If we want to be led by the Sprit of God, says the Apostle, there are certain things in us that must die. Our situation in this world really is an either/or. This is why we pray, “Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; and strengthen me with thy governing spirit.”
The Spirit of Pentecost, then, calls each of us as persons, and all of us as the Church, to purity of heart, to resistance against those many spirits that are inimical to the Spirit of God, and to that godly guidance that leads to the transformation of our hearts and lives.
To illustrate this image, we go to the Book of Deuteronomy. We recall that Jesus quoted three passages from the Book of Deuteronomy in order to defeat Satan’s temptations in the wilderness. This is the reason that some Christians refer to the memorization of Holy Scripture as “sword practice.” We want to have the Holy Scriptures constantly in our minds and on our lips; this is our sword to drive away temptation.
Monday, May 12
Ezekiel 34: Ezekiel knows that the recent disaster at Jerusalem and its dire consequences, such as the scattering of God’s people, were in large measure the fault of those appointed to care for them: the royal house and the government, the priesthood, the teachers. All of these were Israel’s shepherds, commissioned by God to tend, govern, and feed the sheep. Not only did they fail to do so, but also they used their relationship to God’s people in order to serve themselves.
Thus, unfed and without guidance, the flock had “been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.” God Himself, however, will come to shepherd them, and He will do so through His Anointed One–the new David–who will inherit the promises made to his ancient forebear (2 Samuel 7; Psalm 89 ). This imagery and its promise will in due course be taken up by that new David who, in John 10, describes Himself as the Good Shepherd.
Ezekiel then (verses 17-22) criticizes some of the sheep themselves, who have exploited and ill-treated one another. God will judge them, not by classes, but as individuals (“sheep by sheep”) responsible for their decisions and their behavior.
The final section of this chapter (verses 25-30) describes the coming care of the Good Shepherd in terms reminiscent of paradise (compare Psalm 72 ).
Tuesday, May 13
Ezekiel 35: In this chapter we find expressed toward the Edomites, symbolized in Mount Seir, that same spirit of bitter condemnation that inspired the entire prophecy of Obadiah and the last several verses of Psalm 137 (136).
The material here expands on ideas found in a seminal form in Ezekiel 25:12-14. Edom has assisted and cheered on the Babylonians in their wanton destruction of the temple (cf. 1 Esdras 4:45). Ezekiel is our witness that the Edomites hoped to annex territory left open by the destruction of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah (verse 10), but they will not do so, he tells us, because God has other plans for that land. Those plans of God form the substance of the next chapter.
The Edomites in the Bible comprised what we may call . . . well, a special case. Israel did not like them very much. Indeed, the Lord had to command Israel not to despise the Edomites (Deuteronomy 23:7), a thing they were prompted to do, perhaps, on the excuse that the Lord Himself was said to hate Esau, the father of the Edomites (Malachi 1:2; Romans 9:13). Truth to tell, the Edomites were not easy to love. They had obstructed Israel’s path from Egypt during the days of Moses (Numbers 20:21). They were known to be without pity (Amos 1:11) and engaged in international slave trade (1:6,9). For Ezekiel, as for Obadiah, however, the major sin was their attempt to exploit Babylon’s destruction of Judah.
Wednesday, May 14
Ezekiel 36: As the previous oracle was addressed to Mount Seir in Edom, so this one (verses 1-15) is addressed to the mountains of Israel. It condemns all the nations that have set themselves against God’s people, but special attention is given, once again, to the Edomites (verse 5).
In verse 8 Ezekiel begins a series of several prophecies of the Israelites’ return to their homes. Whereas in Chapter 6 he had infallibly foretold to these same mountains the many sufferings that have since ensued, he now tells them, again infallibly, of the joys that lie ahead.
And why should God perform these mercies, in view of the fact that Israel has deserved all that it has suffered (verses 16-20)? Because of His own gracious election (verses 21-38). God will pour out all these new blessings on His people in order to testify to the gratuity and steadfastness of His choice. God will be faithful, even though Israel has not been faithful.
The most famous lines of this section are in verses 26-28, repetitious of 11:19-20 and reminiscent of Jeremiah 31:31-34. God will restore Israel, not because of the merits of Israel, but to vindicate His covenant fidelity. The gift of cleansing and a new heart is entirely God’s, but it will not be given except in the context of repentance (verse 31).
Thursday, May 15
Ezekiel 37: We come now to Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of the dry bones, unarguably the best known part of this book. It consists of a Spirit-given experience (verses 1-10), followed by an interpretation (verses 11-14). In its immediate historical sense, the valley of the dry bones represents Israel after Jerusalem’s destruction in 586.
As a prophecy to be fulfilled in the fullness of time, it refers to the resurrection of the dead, of which the principle and first-fruit is the Resurrection of Christ. (Hence it is most appropriate for us to be reading this text on the eve of Ascension Thursday, the feast celebrating the heavenly exaltation of Christ’s risen flesh.)
In this vision the dynamic principle in the resurrection of the dead is the same Spirit who brought the prophet to the valley (verse 1).
The reader should bear in mind that, all through this chapter, there is a single Hebrew word (ruah) translated in different ways (“Spirit,” “breath,” “wind”), simply because no one English word expresses the fullness of its meaning (Cf. also Genesis 1:2).
This section is followed by another prophetic pantomime (verses 15-17), accompanied by an interpretation (verses 18-23), according to which all of God’s people will be rejoined, with the new David to shepherd them (verses 24-28).
Friday, May 16
Ezekiel 38: In the composition of the Book of Ezekiel, Chapters 38-39 are especially striking and, at first sight, incongruous. Nonetheless, they form an intentional link between the promises in Chapter 37 and the prophecies of God’s final temple in Chapters 40-48.
Chapters 38-39 describe a terrible invasion from the north, led by a commander of an international army (verses 2-6,15), named Gog. This invasion is not imminent; it will come “in the latter years” (38:8), a reference to the indefinite future (indefinite because only God knows the future) that may be described as the “last times.” Gog represents the final great enemy of God’s people, and his invasion will be the last great attack against God’s kingdom.
The name “Gog” would have surprised none of Ezekiel’s contemporaries, for it was the name of a person from the somewhat recent past and still well known in the sixth century before Christ. The Hebrew name Gog corresponds to the Assyrian Gugu and the Greek Gyges. He was a famous seventh century king of Lydia in Asia Minor, who had died in 648. Accounts of the original Gog are found in Assyrian annals and the History of Herodotus. (If Ezekiel were writing today, he might use, for the same purpose, “Bismarck” or “Garibaldi.”) The name is not especially important for the identification of the invader; like all the other names in this chapter, it is symbolic of evil realities much larger and more menacing than their historical references.
Thus understood, Gog and his forces will reappear in Revelation 20. (“Magog,” by the way, appears to be an abbreviation of the Hebrew min-Gog, “from Gog.” In the Book of Revelation he is a derived ally of Gog.) The most important thing to know about Gog is that God’s people do not need to fear him, for his doom has already been determined.