Friday, April 30
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 (Ammonites, Moabites, Edomites) and to the west (Philistines).
Those to the east are criticized in order, proceeding 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.
Psalm 40: The correct “voice” for Psalm 40 (Greek and Latin 39) is not in doubt. We know from Hebrews 10 that these are words springing from the heart of Christ our Lord and have reference to the sacrificial obedience of His Passion and death. This is the reason we pray this psalm on Friday, the day of the Crucifixion.
We may begin, then, by examining that interpretive context in Hebrews, which comes in the section where the author is contrasting the Sacrifice of the Cross with the many cultic oblations prescribed in the Old Testament. These prescriptions of the Mosaic Law, says Hebrews, possessed only “a shadow of the good things to come.” Offered “continually year by year,” they were not able to “make those who approach perfect” (10:1). That is to say, those sacrifices did not really take away sins, and their effectiveness depended entirely on the Sacrifice of the Cross, of which they were only a foreshadowing. Indeed, “it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins” (v. 4).
In support of this thesis, the author of Hebrews quotes our psalm: “Sacrifice and offering You did not desire / . . . In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin / You had no pleasure” (vv. 5, 6). In fact, this theme appears rather often in the Old Testament itself. Isaiah, for example, and other prophets frequently attempted to disillusion those of their countrymen who imagined that the mere offering of cultic worship, with no faith, no obedience, no change of heart, could be acceptable to God.
The author of Hebrews, therefore, is simply drawing the proper theological conclusion when he writes: “And every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins” (v. 11). What God seeks, rather, is the perfect obedience of faith, and such an obedience means the total gift of self, not the mere sacrificial slaughter of some beast.
This obedience of Christ our Lord is a matter of considerable importance in the New Testament. He Himself declared that He came, not to seek His own will, but the will of the Father who sent Him (John 5:30). This doing of the Father’s will had particular reference to His Passion, in which “He . . . became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:8). This was the obedience manifested in our Lord’s prayer at the very beginning of the Passion: “Take this cup away from Me; nevertheless, not what I will, but what You will” (Mark 14:36).
This spirit of obedience to God’s will is likewise the essential atmosphere of Christian prayer. “Your will be done” is the spiritual center and major sentiment of that prayer that the Lord Himself taught us.
Christ’s own obedience to God’s will is also the key to the psalm here under discussion, and Hebrews goes on to quote the pertinent verses, referring them explicitly to the Incarnation and Sacrifice of Jesus the Lord: “Sacrifice and offering You did not desire, / But a body You have prepared for Me. / In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin / You had no pleasure. / Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come— / In the volume of the book it is written of Me— / To do Your will, O God’” (vv. 5–7).
The body “prepared” for Christ in the Incarnation became the instrument of His obedience to that “will” of God by which we are redeemed and rendered holy: “By that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. . . . For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified” (vv. 10, 14).
The various sacrifices of the Old Testament, which are spoken of from time to time throughout the Book of Psalms, have now found their perfection in the one self-offering of Jesus the Lord. Again the author of Hebrews comments: “Previously saying, ‘Sacrifice and offering, burnt offerings, and offerings for sin You did not desire, nor had pleasure in them’ (which are offered according to the law), then He said, ‘Behold, I have come to do Your will, O God’” (vv. 8, 9).
The “He” of this psalm, then, according to the New Testament, is Christ the Lord. We pray it properly when we pray it as His own words to the Father. The “will” of God to which He was obedient was that “will” to which He referred when in the Garden He prayed: “Not my will, but Yours be done.”
This self-oblation of our Lord’s obedience to God is not simply a feature of this particular psalm; it is the interpretive door through which we pray all of the psalms. The “Your will be done” of the Lord’s Prayer is likewise the summation of the entire Book of Psalms, and what ultimately makes Christian sense of the Psalter.
Saturday, May 1
Ephesians 3:14—4:6: This text speaks of the unity of the Church by a sevenfold use of the word “one”:
(1) one body and
(2) one Spirit, just as you were called in
(3) one hope of your calling;
(4) one Lord,
(5) one faith,
(6) one baptism;
(7) one God and Father of all.
This combination of the word “one” with the number “seven” is significant, because in the Bible “seven” is the number of fullness and perfection. This text points, then, to the perfection of unity that must obtain in the Church of Jesus Christ. This is what Paul refers to here as “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
This perfection of unity, “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” is a gift of God, but the full context of the reference shows that considerable human effort is required for its maintenance. Thus St. Paul describes Christians as “endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
That is to say, “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” does not take care of itself. It requires diligent maintenance: spoudazontes terein, “striving to guard.” This is a vigorous expression. The verb spoudazo indicates great effort, zeal, and struggle. The “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” is something that must be worked at. The other verb, tereo, which means “to guard,” indicates that “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” is subject to attack. It can be undone and destroyed. Even as a gift from God, it cannot be simply presupposed and taken for granted. It requires a certain effort at vigilance.
This effort has several aspects, but let us look at three of these, which are indicated in the text we are considering.
The first is humility and gentleness. St. Paul tells us, “walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness.” This humility and gentleness are “worthy” of our vocation as Christians.
This means, of course, that the opposite vices are “unworthy” of Christians. These vices are arrogance and harshness, which are the marks of the man of the world and the flesh. This can be a problem, because in some measure each of us brings the attitude of the world into the Church with us. Indeed, some of us spend much of our week being systematically indoctrinated with the attitudes of the world. We find it in our workplaces and our recreation. It abounds in our schools. Our magazines, televisions, and computers are full of it. Yet, arrogance and harshness can very quickly destroy, “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
How are humility and gentleness put into our behavior as Christians? St. Paul gives an indication of this in the Epistle to the Philippians: “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.”
This is the challenge Paul holds out to believers—a humble and gentle spirit, which alone is worthy of the name “Christian. Humility and gentleness lead to patience, which is the second effort indicated by St. Paul: “with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love.”
Let us note how the Apostle phrases this exhortation to patience. He does not recommend patience for the sake of patience. He does not say, “Patience is a virtue.” He says, “bearing with one another in love.” That is to say, our patience is an expression of love. The foundation of patience is love. What is the first characteristic of love? We know very well the text in 1 Corinthians 13: “Love is patient and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil.”
This is a hard message, but we must hear it, and we must brace our souls to hear it often—There is no Gospel life without patience, and there is no patience without love. We put up with certain things for the sole reason that we love. We do not endure for the sake of endurance. We endure for the sake of love, because love is the foundation of the Christian life. What St. Paul calls “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” is a description of love.
The context here in Ephesians indicates that a loving patience is not passive. This is why it is accompanied by the very active participle “striving.” This is active patience, not simple endurance. It is a patience that is alert and intentional. It is an active patience, in the sense we maintain control of our souls.
So often, when we think of patience, it is in terms of not being in charge. This is not the picture we have here in Ephesians. The patient man is in charge of his state of spirit. He is the most self-determined of men.
Humility, gentleness, and patience are all components of a larger picture, and this larger picture is the third point of these reflections. This larger picture is called “walking.” Indeed, in the expression used by St. Paul, it even means “walking around.” Paul’s verb is peripatesai, the verb from which we derive the expression “peripatetic.” This is the verb that Paul uses when he says, “walk worthy of the calling with which you were called.”
The Christian faith is not something that can simply be attached to a secular lifestyle. The Christian faith requires its own style of life—all of life, not simply the time spent in public worship. The Christian does not live as other people live. He does not regard the world as others regard it. Indeed, the Christian actively strives to put distance between himself and the pagan culture that surrounds him. His commitment to Christ will be manifest by how he speaks, the way he dresses, the conduct of his work, and the manner in which he addresses others.
The Christian does not conform. He stands out. This is why, when pagans begin to persecute Christians (as they do from time to time), they have no trouble identifying the Christians. They stand out. Conformity to the standards of the world is enmity with Christ.
There is an adage that says, “When in Rome, do what the Romans do.” What, however, did Paul tell the Romans? “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (12:2). The moral standards of pagan Rome, as Paul knew very well, were inimical to the Gospel of Christ, and he warned the Roman Christians not to conform. They were to follow a special way of “walking around.”
Sunday, May 2
Ephesians 4:7-16: This text speaks of three things: (1) the gift of Christ, (2) to each, and (3) to all.
First, it speaks of the gift of Christ, concerning which St. Paul says, “But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of the gift of Christ.” We should note that Paul does not speak simply of the generosity of God but of the “gift of Christ.” He is thinking less of the infinite bounty of God than of the redemptive work by which Christ Himself purchased what He gives us.
This is why Paul immediately speaks here of what Christ accomplished by His death and His glorification. He begins by citing the Book of Psalms, “ When He ascended on high, / He led captivity captive, / And gave gifts to men.” Paul goes on to explain the meaning of this psalm verse: “Now this, ‘He ascended’—what does it mean but that He also first descended into the lower parts of the earth?” This text is a reference to our Lord’s death and burial, which is to say that the gift of Christ is an expensive gift. It was purchased at a great price. He died, in fact, that we might have it. The gift of Christ is a gift of incalculable value, a price beyond reckoning.
Everything that we have is from the gift of Christ; our lives are full of the gift of Christ, which means that at each point in our existence we come in personal contact with the price by which that gift was purchased. At no point in our lives are we independent operators, left on our own, abandoned to our individual resources. Surrounded at all times by the gift of Christ, we are constantly in touch with motives for thanksgiving and praise
The sustained remembrance of this truth will remove two terrible burdens from our hearts and minds: selfishness and anxiety. Thanksgiving will set me free from selfishness, and confidence in God will liberate my soul from anxiety.
We may see this truth illustrated in the stories of the Gospels. We may think, for instance, of the apostles when their boat was besieged by the storm on the lake. It was that storm of which St. Mark says, “And a great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that it was already filling.” But what was Jesus doing? Mark tells us, “He was in the stern, asleep on a pillow.” Christ, you see, is never anxious, even when we are. He is not anxious, because His gift is sure. More than that, Christ does not regard it as reasonable to be anxious. Self-preoccupation and anxiety are highly unreasonable activities. Thus, Mark goes on, “He arose and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace, be still!’ And the wind ceased and there was a great calm. But He said to them, ‘Why are you so fearful?’”
If we were but attentive to His voice, this is what we would hear Christ saying to us all day long, “Peace, be still. Why are you so fearful?” We are surrounded, you see, by the gift of Christ, even as he sleeps in the stern of the boat. If He is not anxious, why should we be?
Second, St. Paul says, “to each one of us grace was given”—heni de hekasto hemon—“to each one of us.”
Paul describes this gift of Christ in terms of measure or proportion: “But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of the gift of Christ”—kata ton metron tes doreas tou Christou. This is to say that the gift of Christ is intentional and deliberate, not random and indiscriminate. The gift of Christ is consciously picked out and personally chosen.
The providence of Christ is not just a general oversight of the bigger picture of human history; it is the particular oversight of individual human beings, each of whom is uniquely loved. Paul’s use of the word metros here brings to mind a mother serving a meal to a child. She proportions the food on the child’s plate; she measures the amount she places in the child’s bowl. We all recognize what this means. The mother is thinking in terms of the particular needs of the child. It is not that the mother is ungenerous; she is simply being careful and solicitous for the child.
It is thus that St. Paul describes the gift of Christ; it is made according to a personal measure. It respects the unique character of each person. Christ, you see, when He descended into the lower parts of the earth, did not simply die for all of us; He died for each of us.
And this respect for the uniqueness of each of us likewise determines the measure and proportion—the metros—of His gift. Each of us is loved uniquely.
Third, the uniqueness of each of us does not mean that we are considered apart from the others. Even in their uniqueness, Christians are not individualists. The gift of Christ to each of us is directed to the building up of all of us. Paul thus describes that building up, “till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”
This is why the gift of Christ is “according to measure”—kata metron. We are living stones proportioned to fit into the larger structure, which Paul in this passage calls “the body of Christ.”
The true human destiny, the goal of human history, is not an abstraction. Paul describes it as man in His perfection, eis andra teleion, which he identifies as “the fullness of Christ.” Thus Paul uses the expression metros a second time, speaking of the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” The two “measures” are proportioned to one another. The true future of each of us is the destiny of all of us.
Meanwhile we find our proper and assigned place in Christ, according to His gift. We especially praise His goodness that He has not rejected us in our sins nor abandoned us to our darkness. We seek Him in the full assurance of His love and with a cultivated confidence in His ongoing care over our lives. At every point in these lives we welcome His gift with thanksgiving, even as we petition His blessing on the humble service we strive to render to His glory.
Monday, May 3
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).
Psalm 65 (Greek and Latin 64): The holy city of this psalm, called Zion and Jerusalem, is best thought of here as that heavenly city that is both the goal of our pilgrimage and the garnering house of our harvest. Such seems to be the sense of the next lines: “Blessed is he whom You have chosen and taken to abide with You; he shall dwell in Your courts. We shall be filled with the delights of Your house. Holy is Your temple, magnificent in righteousness.” This is that city of which it is said: “There shall be no night there: They need no lamp nor light of the sun, for the Lord God gives them light. And they shall reign forever and ever” (Rev. 22:5).
Prior to its heavenly reference, this coming of all flesh to God pertains likewise to our drawing near to Him in worship, especially in bearing gifts from the harvest. The underlying Hebrew expression here, ’adeka, very often has this meaning in the specifically liturgical literature of Holy Scripture. Just in the Hebrew text of Leviticus and Numbers, for example, the word is used in this sense 138 times. The worship of the Church, which is anticipatory of, and preparatory for, the worship in heaven, is the place where all flesh may draw near unto God, because His house is a house of prayer “for all nations” (Is. 56:7; Mark 11:17).
It is no surprise, then, that our psalm will emphasize this note of geographical catholicity: “Hear us, O God our Savior, the hope of all the far reaches of the
earth, and in the distant sea. . . . The nations shall be in ferment, and those who dwell in the far reaches will be afraid of Your signs.” These “signs” of God include the wonders by which He has endowed the world, “preparing the mountains in His strength, wrapped about with power, stirring the bowl of the sea, mastering its waves.”
Tuesday, May 4
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.
Wednesday, May 5
Ezekiel 30: There are two parts in this chapter, the first of which (verses 1-19) is a series of short oracles directed against the cities of Egypt and Sudan (Kush, which is inaccurately translated as Ethiopia in several modern versions), to regions with close political and economic ties.
The second part (30:20-26) is an oracle delivered on April 29, 587 (verse 20). The “broken arm” of the pharaoh refers to the recent defeat of the Egyptian army near Jerusalem when that army was driven away by the Babylonians who had returned to renew their siege of the city. Egypt, Ezekiel foresees, will share in Judah’s exile in some measure.
It is not surprising that some ancient Christian liturgical texts took inspiration from this chapter, especially verse 13, to speak of Jesus’ flight into Egypt as narrated by St. Matthew.
Psalm 72 (Greek and Latin 71): Two narrative sections of Holy Scripture readily come to mind in connection with this psalm. The first text is 2 Samuel 7, containing Nathan’s great prophecy about the royal house of David, which now became the beneficiary of a special covenant to guarantee that his descendants would reign forever over his kingdom. A number of lines of our psalm, especially those pertaining to the permanence and extension of David’s royal house, reflect that historical text.
The second pertinent passage is 1 Kings 3, which describes Solomon’s prayer for the “wise heart” that would enable him to govern God’s people justly. Repeatedly throughout this psalm mention is made of the justice and wisdom that would characterize God’s true anointed one.
Both aspects of Psalm 72, as well as the two narrative texts that it reflects, proved to be more than slightly problematic in Israel’s subsequent history. For example, Solomon’s vaunted wisdom as a ruler, that for which he had prayed at Gibeah, didn’t last even to the end of his own lifetime, and it was displayed among his posterity with (not to put too fine a point on it) a rather indifferent frequency. Similarly, what is to be said about the permanence of the reign of David’s household over God’s people? More than half of that kingdom broke away shortly after the death of David’s first successor, nor was any Davidic king ever again to reign on his throne after the fall of Jerusalem in 586 bc. What, then, could be said for either the prophecy of Nathan or the prayer of Solomon? How were the promises in this psalm to be understood?
As Christians, of course, we believe that the inner substance of all these prefigurings finds its fulfillment in Jesus the Lord, the goal of biblical history and the defining object of all biblical prophecy.
The Archangel Gabriel announced the fulfillment of these ancient prophecies when he told the Mother of the Messiah that “the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32, 33). Yet other angels announced to the shepherds that “there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ [Messiah] the Lord” (2:11). He was to be at once David’s offspring and His Lord (cf. Mark 12:35–37).
As for Solomon, was he the wise king? Well, in measure, to be sure, but now behold, a greater than Solomon is here. If Solomon’s wish was to rule God’s people wisely and with righteousness (a word that comes repeatedly in our psalm), what shall we say of the One whom the New Testament calls our wisdom and our righteousness (1 Cor. 1:24, 30)?
Thursday, Mary 6
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
Psalm 74 (Greek and Latin 73): This poem testifies to the God who structures the world and divides it from the chaotic and random: “In Your might You hold the sea; You have crushed the heads of the dragons in the waters. Crushing the dragon’s head, You have fed him to the people of Ethiopia. You opened the springs and torrents, and You dried up the waters of Etham. The day is Yours, and Yours is the night; You prepared both the sun and the moon. You have fixed all the boundaries of the earth.”
The God of Psalm 74 is the world’s Creator, and His act of creation implies the imposition of limits: “You have fixed all the boundaries of the earth.” To create a knowable world is to pattern it according to intelligible forms, and limit is essential to the very notion of form (limit being “this” and not “that”). To say that God has “fixed all the boundaries, the determined limits, of the earth” is to say that God has already attached meaning to the structure of the world. Truth is already in the world, awaiting man’s discovery. The world already speaks the mind of God; man’s task is to listen to what it says.
Psalm 74 also testifies, nonetheless, that the sinful human mind is disposed to rebel against the formal, noetic structure that God has given to the world. Indeed, this intellectual rebellion seems often to prevail on the earth: “Why do You utterly abandon us, O God? . . . Raise Your hands against all that the enemy has done in Your holy place, against their undying pride. . . . How long, O God, will the enemy taunt us? Will the adversary defy Your name forever? . . . Remember that the enemy blasphemes the Lord, and a foolish people defies Your name.”
We modern men live late in an age of intellectual rebellion, when darkened, unrepentant hearts stand defiant before the plain speech that the Creator has placed in the very structure of the world.
Friday, May 7
First Samuel 1:1-28: It would be a comfort to think that all those who go up to the house of the Lord are led there by the Holy Spirit. It would also be an illusion. Even if experience did not testify that people sometimes attend worship with the most deplorable attitudes and for the worst possible reasons, Holy Scripture itself would caution us to realism on the point.
An early example, I suppose, is Peninnah, Elkanah’s “other wife,” who used the annual pilgrimage to Shiloh as an opportunity to render life miserable for barren Hannah. This latter she provoked severely, says the Sacred Text, “to make her miserable.” The provocation was not unintentional, we are assured, nor did it happen only once: “So it was, year by year, when she went up to the house of the Lord, that she provoked her; therefore she wept and did not eat” (1 Samuel 1:6-7). It is easy to picture Peninnah looking forward to that annual pilgrimage with the family; it was perhaps her favorite time of the year, providing her the forum for feeling superior and spreading discouragement.
Now, as it happened, the God who brings good out of evil caused everything to work out well for Hannah, and the story soon turns into an account of grace and divine visitation. Still, there was a serious pastoral problem at Shiloh, and I suspect more than one worshipper at the time wished the priest Eli, pointing to Peninnah, would suggest to Elkanah, “When your family comes next year, brother, why not leave Miss Picklepuss at home?” Perhaps his failure to do so should be counted among Eli’s several pastoral shortcomings.
Oh that Peninnah was history’s last recorded example of a surly, mean spirited individual using the time of divine worship as the occasion to make someone else feel wretched and forlorn.
Not so, however. Another is the Gospel story of “the ruler of the synagogue,” a singularly unattractive, grumpy person who objected to Jesus’ healing of a crippled woman on the Sabbath. In the midst of the spontaneous praise of God that ensued upon that gracious deed, this particular bellyacher felt it his duty to sound a warning to the congregation about liturgical proprieties: “There are six days on which men ought to work,” he declared, “therefore come and be healed on them, and not on the Sabbath day” (Luke 13:14). Quick to pass judgment on others and blinded by his own vicious, miserly spirit, this religious leader was unable to recognize the divine presence and the outpouring of grace.
Devoid of mercy, we notice, he was also without courage. Consequently, instead of confronting Jesus directly, this coward had recourse to what had always worked for him in the past—he harangued the congregation about the woman herself!
It is often said—and it is said, I think, more often than is true—that churches are full of hypocrites. Here was one occasion, however, when the Lord really did use that noun to describe someone in the place of worship. Unlike Eli, who failed to give a proper pastoral admonition to Elkanah, Jesus turned His not amused attention to this so-called ruler of the synagogue: “Hypocrite! Does not each one of you on the Sabbath loose his ox or donkey from the stall, and lead it away to water it?”
The Lord’s indignation in this setting, which was scarcely untypical of Him (cf. Mark 3:5), suggests that a pastor’s patience in these circumstances should not be unlimited. Peninnah and the ruler of the synagogue behaved like wolves, not like sheep. They needed to be treated like wolves. The Lord gives here an example of the proper pastoral response to situations in which an individual apparently comes to church for the purpose of making other people in church miserable. Such folk need either to repent or stay home.
I began these comments by mentioning that not all churchgoing seems to be prompted by the Holy Spirit, an impression that opens the possibility of other spirits at work. One hates to consider this possibility, but there is evidence that some individuals are led to congregations for the demonic purpose of doing harm. Very early both the Didache and The Travels of Egeria mention the testing needed to settle that question. When a pastor admits someone into the congregation, we presume he is able to distinguish a sheep from a wolf. Indeed, we very much depend on it.