Friday, April 27
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.
First Peter 4:1-11: Once gain the Apostle turns to the theme of Christ’s sufferings (cf. 2:21-24; 3:18) in order to draw out the practical implications of the Cross in the life of Christians (verse 1). Considering the Passion of Christ, believers are to arm themselves (hoplisasthe with “the same way thinking” (ennoian). That is to say, they are to take the remembrance of Christ’s sufferings as the guide to their thoughts and sentiments.
Saturday, April 28
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.
First Peter 4:12-19: Outside of the Acts of the Apostles, this section contains the only place in the New Testament where we find the word “Christian”: “Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed” (verse 16).
Two observations may be made in regard to Peter’s use of the term “Christian” here.
Second, it is significant that this name “Christian,” first used by non-Christians to describe the new group at Antioch, tended to be used in the context of persecution, as is clearly the case here in 1 Peter (verses 14-16). This context is identical to that of the only other place where we find the word “Christian,” the trial of Paul before Agrippa (where it is also heard from the lips of a non-Christian: “Then Agrippa said to Paul, ‘You almost persuade me to become a Christian’” (Acts 26:28).
It is useful for Christians to bear in mind, when they call themselves by this name, that original context of enmity and even persecution. Indeed, there is good reason to believe that the name was first used by those who actually hated Christians. Consequently, it should not surprise us if even today the word is used as an epithet of contempt, as is fairly often the case in the secular media and some political discourse.
At the same time, the impending judgment of God, says Peter, begins “at the house of God” (verse 17). This fact is important, because there abides the temptation for Christians to imagine that they will somehow be exempted (either by a rapture or in some other way) from God’s final judgment on history. This is emphatically not the case. The Book of Revelation, which so vividly describes the final judgment of the world, begins with His judgment of the churches (chapters 2-3).
Sunday, April 29
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 vulnerable (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).
First Peter 5:1-14: There are two things that may be noted about Christian humility:
First, the mutual humility that Christians are to cultivate with respect to one another is rooted in each person’s humility before God. That is to say, to be properly humble to one another, it is necessary that each of us be humbled under the mighty hand of God. Our spirit humbled before God is the source of our proper relationship to one another. A person habitually humbled in God’s presence is not a person who will be haughty or proud toward anyone else.
Second, the person who lives in this humble disposition will be without anxieties: “Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time, casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you” (verses 6-7). Pride, after all, is the source of many of our anxieties. We become anxious in large measure because we have some status to maintain or some image of ourselves to be advanced.
Only the truly humble person, therefore, can really cast all his anxieties on the Lord, because the Lord really does look out for the humble. The proud, on the contrary, are the objects of God’s active resistance (verse 5). The proud cannot rely on the care of God, for the simple reason that God does not take care of the proud.
Humility and freedom from anxiety are two sides of the same coin, each necessary to the other. The habit of humbling ourselves under the mighty hand of God is inseparable from casting all our anxieties on Him.
Monday, April 30
Ezekiel 21: The deep, very personal lamentation in this text will remind the reader of Ezekiel’s older contemporary, Jeremiah, who expressed very much the same sentiments during that decade immediately preceding the fall of Jerusalem in 586.
There are four oracles in this chapter (the first oracle actually beginning in 20:45), three of them against Jerusalem, and the fourth against the Ammonite capital of Rabbah (the present city Amman, capital of the modern country of Jordan). Even as Ezekiel speaks, the Babylonian army, with its “well polished sword,” is already on the march toward those two cities.
The imagery alternates between fire (particularly a forest fire, with Jerusalem being the timber) and sword, both images combined in that of the lightning.
The references to the “Negev” in the first oracle (20:45—21:7) should be understood simply as “the south,” which is often the case in Ezekiel. The invading army, marching from Babylon, did not go directly westward toward Jerusalem, a march through the Arabian Desert being quite prohibitive. Instead, it marched up and around the Fertile Crescent, following the course of the Mesopotamian and Syrian rivers, so that now it has turned southward, in the direction of the Negev Desert, tramping toward Jerusalem and Rabbah.
In the second oracle (verses 8-17) Ezekiel addresses the Babylonian sword itself, which is the instrument of God’s vindication. The Babylonians, though they are acting as God’s instrument in history, do not know this, no more than a sword recognizes who wields it.
The third oracle (verses 18-27), continuing the image of the Babylonian sword, portrays another of Ezekiel’s symbolic actions, which must be explained to those who witness it. It pantomimes a fork in the road; which city, Jerusalem or Rabbah, will Nebuchadnezzar strike first?
The final oracle (verses 28-32) addresses to Rabbah the same threats that have been spoken to Jerusalem.
Ephesians 1:1-14: Who were these original “saints who are faithful in Christ Jesus”? Most of the extant manuscripts identify them as Ephesian Christians, but this identification appears improbable. Certain considerations indicate the improbability:
First, the designation “in Ephesus” is not supported in the oldest and most reliable manuscripts, such as Papyrus 46 and the original hands in the manuscripts Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, both from the early fourth century.
Second, our earliest witness to this epistle, Marcion (early second century), knew it as the “Epistle to the Laodiceans.”
Third, there is no indication in the body of this work that Paul was addressing a congregation he had ever visited, much less that he was writing to a place at which he had lived for most of three years (cf. Acts 20:31). There are no greetings to particular persons, no mention of problems or circumstances in a specific community, nothing to suggest that Paul was at familiar with those whom he addressed.
The present epistle is virtually unique in this “impersonal” quality. In fact, it is more impersonal than Paul’s letters to the Romans and the Colossians, two churches that he had not visited at the time he wrote to them. In short, of all Paul’s epistles the present work is the least tied to a particular congregation.
Tuesday, May 1
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.
John 4:43-54: The story of the Samaritan woman—a story John surely knew from the lady’s own account—portrays a growth in her faith. As the narrative progresses, we observe a development in her understanding of Jesus, a development indicated in the various ways she addresses him. When she first meets Jesus, he is called simply “a Jew” (John 4:9).
This is important to the story as a whole, because Jesus himself will presently declare, “salvation is of the Jews” (4:22). On this woman’s lips, nevertheless, the designation “Jew” indicates two things: First, it says that she assesses Jesus only within a certain class of people. He is not yet a distinguishable person. And second, the word “Jew” indicates the woman’s sense of separation from Jesus, because “Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.”
Next, she addresses Jesus as “Sir” (John 4:11; presumably the Aramaic Mar). The woman is making a significant step here in terms of personal respect. It indicates a change of attitude of her part. Then, within four verses “Sir” becomes “prophet” (4:19), when Jesus directs the woman’s attention to her own moral failings. The conversation next takes a new bound forward, when Jesus identifies himself as the Messiah. Finally, when the other Samaritans meet him, he is called “the Savior of the world.” This is a considerable doctrinal development within a single story!
The woman from Samaria has now come a long way. Starting out that day, hardly suspecting what lay ahead, she laboriously carried her sins to the well, where she met a Jew, who asked her for a drink of water. The
Jew presently became a “Sir,” and then a “prophet” who reminded her that she was a sinner. No matter, though, for he did not press the point. He was, after all, the Messiah. And because this Messiah was likewise the Savior of the world, he knew exactly what to do with her sins.
Wednesday, May 2
Ezekiel 23: About to see the ruin of Jerusalem, the capital of Judah, Ezekiel thinks back to the year 722 B.C., when the Assyrians had destroyed Samaria, the capital of Israel. As Samaria fell then, Jerusalem will fall now. How closely the two cases resemble one another, the prophet reflects, both cities unfaithful to God, like two loose women who cannot be trusted. This comparison of the two cities is the basis of the long allegory that fills the present chapter.
Once again, Ezekiel traces the problem back to Egypt, where the Israelites first learned the seductions of idolatry (verse 3). Samaria, having handed herself over to Assyrian seductions, was finally destroyed by Assyria (verses 5-10). Jerusalem was worse, falling under the idolatrous sway of both Assyria and Babylon in turn (verses 11-18). In addition, as a final irony, Jerusalem was now turning once again to the gods of Egypt (verses 18-21), Ezekiel’s reference to King Zedekiah’s recent appeal to Egypt against the Babylonian overlord.
The various nations of the Fertile Crescent (verse 23), all now part of the Babylonian Empire, will attack Jerusalem from the north (verse 24). History, Ezekiel saw, was about to be repeated. Thus, in this chapter the prophet extends the metaphor of marital fidelity that was the theme of Chapter 16.
John 5:1-16: We come now to the Third Sign in John’s Gospel, the healing of the paralytic. John, having called our attention to the first two Signs, no longer feels the need to do so. He permits the reader to count them for himself.
John does not identify the feast in verse 1 (probably to be read without the definite article). One suspects that this mention of a Jewish feast day is inserted simply to explain why Jesus was in Jerusalem (after being in Galilee in the previous chapter).
The name of the pool was Bethzatha, or Bethdaida, or Bethesda. The pool may have had each of these names at one time or another. Even to this day, one can visit the pool (which, alas, is now completely stagnant and fetid) and see five sides originally covered by porticoes. It is a trapezoid transected into two parts; these are the “five” sides. The pool is near the lovely church of St. Anne.
It is also near the site of the ancient Sheep Gate, on the northern side of the city. John’s text has been expanded by an addition to verse 3 and the insertion of verse 4. Missing in the better textual witnesses, these later additions were intended to explain the conversation in verse 7.
The important point is that “Jesus saw him lying there.” This is a very important word in John’s Gospel:
“Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward Him, and said of him, ‘Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no deceit!’ Nathanael said to Him, ‘How do You know me?’ Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you’” (1:47-48).
“Now as [Jesus] passed by, he saw a man who was blind from birth” (9:1).
“Therefore, when Jesus saw [Mary] weeping, and the Jews who came with her weeping, He groaned in the spirit and was troubled” (11:33).
“When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing by, He said to His mother, ‘Woman, behold your son!’” (11:33).
This “seeing” by Jesus is an expression of prevenient grace. It is the first step toward salvation and blessing, and Jesus is the one who makes it. The important thing is to be seen by Jesus.
Jesus heals the man with simply a word of command (verse 8). The observer does not actually witness the healing; he witnesses the results of it.
Thursday, May 3
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 being 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.
Ephesians 2:11-22: The great theme of the Epistle to the Ephesians is the reconciliation of all things in Christ. Paul introduces this theme early in the epistle, speaking of “the mystery of [God’s] will . . . that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times that He might gather together in one all things in Christ” (1:9-10). For Paul this universal reconciliation is not a theory about history. He sees it being visibly worked out already in the actual events of history. The first fruits of this universal reconciliation can already be observed in the founding of the Church, because the Church herself is founded on a specific act of divine reconciliation—namely, the reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles in one community. This unexpected and improbable reconciliation, which was already being enacted in Paul’s own lifetime, was the beginning of a more universal, even cosmic reconciliation of all things in Christ.
Therefore, correctly to understand God’s final purpose in history, the key is to grasp this reconciliation of Jew and Gentile in the one body of the Church. We may remark on three aspects of this reconciliation:
First, the source of this reconciliation is the Cross, where the death of God’s Son neutralized the difference between Gentile and Jew. Christ Himself, after all, “is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation, having abolished in His flesh the enmity, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace, and that He might reconcile them both to God in one body through the Cross, thereby putting to death the enmity.”
This Law, given on Mount Sinai, was what separated Jew and Gentile, but in his death on the Cross Christ “abolished” that wall of separation. By reconciling all men equally to God on the Cross, Christ reconciled them to one another. So, says, Paul, “through Him we both have access by one Spirit to the Father.”
Second, God effected this reconciliation, not by taking away the special place of the Jews in the history of salvation, but by raising the Gentiles to share in the dignity and honor of the Jews. Thus, Paul says to the Gentiles, “Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.”
In writing these lines of great comfort, Paul is extending an image he had used just a couple of years earlier in his Epistle to the Romans. In that letter he had described the Gentile believers as branches grafted onto the ancient stock of Israel, so that they became participants in the promises and blessings of Israel.
Friday, May 4
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.
Psalms 40 (Greek & Latin 39): The correct “voice” for Psalm 39 (Hebrew 40) 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.
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.